Far From the Tree


Love knows no boundaries.

(2017) Thriller (Sundance Selects) Andrew Solomon, Jason Kingsley, Emily Kingsley, Charles Kingsley, Tyler Reece, Trevor Reece, Derek Reece, Rebecca Reece, Jack, Joe, Leah, Lonni. Directed by Rachel Dretzin

 

When we set out to have kids, it’s only human to have a picture of them in our heads; how they’ll grow up to be athletes, difference makers or famous. We see them as we see the us we wanted to be growing up ourselves; now our kids will get it right. Unfortunately for us, kids rarely turn out exactly the way we picture they will. They have their own ideas of who they want to be not to mention they don’t always turn out physically the way we wanted. Some our born with dwarfism, or with Down’s syndrome.

Andrew Solomon grew up being interested in tragic opera and the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Realizing that he was gay, at first he went into denial, even using sexual surrogacy to try and jump start his heterosexuality. When this didn’t work, he came out to his parents who reacted with disappointment and a notable lack of support  As time went by he began to wonder about kids who turned out very different than their parents or their parents expectations. He wrote a book about it and it turned out to be a New York Times bestseller.

This documentary is based on the book or to be more accurate, inspired by. Solomon himself turns up in interviews to discuss how the book came to be and to put some of the onscreen stories in perspective. The stories themselves are varied and are about different sets of challenges – Solomon’s is the only one about straight parents raising gay children.

Jason Kingsley was born with Down’s syndrome at a time when the condition was little understood and something of a stigma – which it still is, but to a lesser extent. His parents, including his mother Emily who was a writer for Sesame Street refused to warehouse Jason as his doctor suggested. In fact, Emily arranged to have Jason appear on the show which forever changed the way that kids with Down’s syndrome are viewed. Jason continues to be an activist and although his obsession with the Disney film Frozen may cause some eye-rolling (couldn’t he have picked a better film?) he is articulate enough to quote Shakespeare and is a whole lot smarter than he appears.

So too is Jack, whose severe autism makes him unable to communicate conventionally. His parents however refused to give up on him and eventually found a way to allow Jack to communicate using a facilitator and a computer device.

Lonni, like most people, wants to be loved and to love someone. Born with dwarfism has made that a lot more challenging for her. Unspeakably lonely, her mother encourages to attended a convention for the Little People of America and her horizons are instantly opened up. Her mothers and sisters are amazed and pleased that Lonni has perked up discovering that she is far from alone – that there are lots of people just like her in the same boat she is rowing.

Fellow little people Joe and Leah are in a different situation. The two are blissfully, deliriously in love. They go through the challenges of planning a wedding – and then Leah gets pregnant. Joe, who is wheelchair-bound, is about to be a daddy and although the pregnancy has its own degrees of difficulty, both look forward to the experience.

The most heartbreaking story is that of Trevor Reece, a seemingly normal teenage kid who one day woke up and decided to slit the throat of an eight-year-old boy. Arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison, his family struggles to pick up the pieces. Having moved from the urban New Orleans neighborhood they grew up in to a suburban Texas home, they communicate with Trevor regularly. His brothers Tyler and Derek have a hard time reconciling their big brother’s actions with the kid they grew up with.

The stories are all compelling ones and do push all the right emotional buttons. The problem is that we end up spending less than 20 minutes apiece on each story; what we end up with is a summary rather than an in-depth look at how these families coped. That’s a real drawback, particularly in that it makes the film less useful for parents who might be dealing with similar situations. Also Solomon’s segments, rather than giving the context we’re looking for, tend to be a bit more self-referential than I think the film needed.

Still, the movie’s heart is in the right place. The stories are inspiring and even if we don’t get the depth and context we’re looking for we still get a viewpoint not often shown in documentaries other than in passing. Jason’s story, the first one shown, is in many ways the most grounded and when Jason talks at the conclusion of his segment about his future is to my mind one of the best moments I’ve seen in a documentary this year. Those who are fans of the book will likely enjoy the movie but come away a bit disappointed. The overall message of both the book and the movie shouldn’t be discounted though – that those we see as different may have more challenges than we do but are not so different than us than they might appear.

REASONS TO GO: The stories range from inspiring to heartbreaking. The focus is more on the parents than on the kids which is a viewpoint we don’t often see. Jason’s final monologue is goosebumps-inducing.
REASONS TO STAY: The interludes with Solomon seem a bit self-aggrandizing. Having too many subjects keeps any of the stories from resonating as much as they might.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is suitable for family viewing and should even be encouraged for the same particularly for parents who want to teach their children tolerance, empathy and loving without conditions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Of the stories told here only Jason Kingsley’s appears in the book; all the rest are new.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews: Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life, Animated
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Sid and Aya (not a love story)

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Little Accidents


Boyd Holbrook contemplates a future that is much brighter than this photo suggests.

Boyd Holbrook contemplates a future that is much brighter than this photo suggests.

(2014) Drama (Archer Gray) Elizabeth Banks, Boyd Holbrook, Josh Lucas, Jacob Lofland, Chloe Sevigny, Beau Wright, Randy Springer, Louie Lawless, Joseph Longo, Travis Tope, Alexia Rasmussen, Kate DeLuca, Tim Gooch, Mike Bizzarri, Peter Herrick, Steven St. Gelais, James DeForest Parker, Mike Seely, Kimberly Shrewsbury. Directed by Sara Colangelo

There are those who say that things happen for a reason, even if we can’t discern what those reasons are. However, there are those who think that life is a series of accidents great and small, that things happen entirely through random chance. I guess your point of view depends on whether or not you believe in luck or that you make your own luck.

Amos (Holbrook) is a quiet, single young man living in the small town of Beckley, West Virginia. He doesn’t seem particularly extraordinary except for one thing; he was the sole survivor of a mining accident that took the lives of ten of his fellow miners. After having been out of town recuperating and undergoing physical therapy, he has finally returned home, still unable to use all of his limbs fully. The town waits with baited breath to see how he testifies about the accident. Should he say it was company negligence, the families of the dead (and Amos himself) would get an enormous payday. However the rest of the miners know that if that happens, the company will close its doors and they’ll all be out of a job. Both sides are putting a great deal of pressure on Amos.

Bill Doyle (Lucas) is the manager of the mine that collapsed. The company is already putting distance between him and them, telling him to get his own legal representation and putting him on suspension. But he has far more on his mind – his son JT (Tope) has disappeared and there has been no trace of him for days. His wife Diane (Banks) is beginning to suspect her husband had something to do with the disaster – certainly the town thinks so. Despite her grief, the town is turning their backs on her and her husband, shunning them.

Owen (Lofland) is going through a difficult time. His father was one of the miners killed in the accident. His mother (Sevigny) is showering him and his Downs-afflicted brother James (Wright) with gifts of video games and iPods. Owen, a high school freshman, wants desperately to fit in among the older kids, even bribing them with beer but they tend to make fun of him and think of him as beneath them. He carries a terrible secret – he alone knows what happened to JT.

The power of the secrets carried within begins to tell upon all of the main characters who start to unravel. Diane begins an ill-advised affair while Amos dithers between telling the truth about the accident and lying about it. Owen, wracked with guilt and pain, strikes up friendships with both Amos and Diane, one representing the father he lost and the other representing the friend he might have had.

First-time director Colangelo chose to film in a small West Virginia coal mining town and that gives the film the right atmosphere of authenticity but the real authenticity comes from the emotional reactions of the players involved. Owen, in particular, acts like a child unequipped to deal with a terrible situation, acting out and behaving out of panic.

The one exception to this is the relationship between Diane and Amos, which doesn’t ring quite so true and doesn’t have the feel of a relationship motivated out of sex nor one out of emotional need. It’s like they’re together because they don’t have anything else better to do and I felt zero sparks between the two of them.

That said, I think Holbrook has huge potential. The former model and poet is electric here, showing the quiet dignity of a Gary Cooper mixed in with the warm humanity of a Tom Hanks. While he has gotten some buzz in previous appearances, here he shows not only that he can carry a film emotionally but he has the screen presence to hold our attention every moment he’s on the screen.

Lofland, who was impressive in Mud, is just as good here. He carries the look of a boy haunted by demons larger than he can bear and still he has time to be protective of his younger brother. He does lash out at his mom who attributes it to missing his dad, and then he sort of adopts Diane as a surrogate mom, the mom he wished he had perhaps. It’s a terrific performance and when you consider Lofland’s age, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he may turn out to have the kind of talent that we’ve seen from Abigail Breslin, Haley Joel Osment, Saoirse Ronan, Josh Hutcherson and Dakota Fanning.  He may end up being better than any of them.

All in all, this is a wrenching movie about the choices we make, the consequences of those choices and the secrets we choose to keep and how they affect us. It’s a slice of life movie sure, but there is something almost epic about this particular slice even though the film itself is very intimate and low-key. It is the subjects of this movie that are greater than the sum of its parts. This may end up like Winter’s Bone in the sense that it brings a huge star to public notice – world, meet Boyd Holbrook. You’ll be glad you did.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Fine performances by Holbrook, Lofland and Lucas. Excellent emotional realism.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable in places. Relationship between Amos and Diana is unconvincing.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly rough language, some sexuality and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers were torn between two locations, one in Northern Kentucky before settling on Beckley, West Virginia only a week before pre-production began.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/1/14: Since the movie is not yet in general or limited release, there are no scores as yet on either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: October Skies

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Yonkers Joe


Yonkers Joe

A new kind of Rat Pack.

(Magnolia) Chazz Palminteri, Christine Lahti, Tom Guiry, Michael Lerner, Linus Roache, Michael Rispoli, Roma Maffia, Frank John Hughes. Directed by Robert Celestino

Cheating at games of chance is almost as old as games of chance are themselves. If there’s a way to beat the system, someone will look for it and quite likely find it.

In a digital age of computer software and round-the-clock camera surveillance in casinos, Yonkers Joe (Palminteri) is a bit of a dinosaur. He hustles small-time card games and dice games, hiding cards in his clothes and switching out regular dice for loaded ones. His fast hands have made him a living over the years, but the truth is that he’s a small-time hustler who dreams of the big score but that score is so out of his reach that it might as well be at the top of Mt. Everest.

He and his pals Stanley (Lerner) and Teddy (Roache) hang out together, talking about what small level cons they can pull and reminiscing about the good old days. Joe’s girl Janice (Lahti) is also around, part of the life but moving away from it. She has come to realize that she’ll never be more than a small time cheat, and wants more out of her life, pressed-on nails and gaudy costume jewelry aside.

Into the mix comes Joe’s son Joe Jr. (Guiry), who has Down’s Syndrome and has been institutionalized most of his life. Now word comes that his unruly behavior and the fact he is approaching his 21st birthday means that he will have to leave the facility he’s in before he can be transferred to the adult facility that he’s scheduled to move into. His options are extremely limited, and the one that is least palatable to either him or his father but the only one that is realistically open to them is that Joe Jr. must move in with his dad, who views his progeny as some kind of divine retribution for all the petty acts of criminal behavior he’s engaged in over his lifetime.

When Joe figures out a way to fool the “eye in the sky” surveillance cameras at a Vegas casino to slip loaded dice into a game, he knows he has to try, but with his son’s difficult behavior causing friction between him and Janice, can he pull off the score he was meant to make?

I really wanted to like this movie a lot more than I did, but did not mainly because it’s a bit schizophrenic. On the one hand you have the con movie, which is a somewhat more realistic version of con movies like The Sting and works very nicely. Palminteri is brilliant in a role that is right in his comfort zone; a tough guy whose facade has some hard-to-ignore cracks in it. These are the kind of roles that make you appreciate how good an actor he is.

Unfortunately, you also have the whole subplot of the relationship between him and his son. I’m not trying to knock Guiry, who does as well as can be expected with a role that is basically underwritten, but the scenes involving his character bring the movie to a screeching halt. The two stories seem at odds with each other. While director Celestino has said (at the Q&A session at the Tribeca Film Festival where this premiered) that the movie is about the character taking responsibility and letting people into his life, the strange thing is that those are the elements that were the least successful.

The scenes where Joe and his gang are working their magic are the best in the movie, and the most fascinating. These “mechanics” as Joe refers to himself as, are a dying breed and being given a glimpse into their world is like seeing something that may soon be gone forever, and you feel a sense of gratitude that at least we got a chance to witness a dying art form.

Kudos have to go to Lahti, an actress who mostly works in television but is amazing no matter what medium she’s in. She plays Janice as worldweary, a woman who has been betrayed by her own dreams but still hopes for better things. A different actress might have highlighted the brassier elements of the character, but Lahti, while embracing that side of Janice, doesn’t dwell on it, making the character seem far more accessible.

Celestino did extensive research into mechanics and casino security, making the movie feel much more authentic. Unfortunately, the Joe Jr. sequences seem forced and manipulative, adding a kind of second rate Rain Man into the mix. I think it would have been a much better movie if they had jettisoned that aspect of the movie and instead focused in on the adult characters; that’s a movie I would have been shouting from the rooftops for all to go see. As it is, this is a flawed but ultimately watchable movie that those who like movies about cons and cheats are going to want to check out.

WHY RENT THIS: Palminteri and Lahti are two of America’s most underrated actors, and they fill their roles with style. The con job material is fascinating.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The relationship between Joe and his son just reeks of forced melodrama; the movie would have been much better without it.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is, as you might expect, pretty colorful. There are also some sexual references as well as an attempted rape which might be unsettling to some.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Palminteri actually learned the moves performed in the film and became adept at it; all of the dice and card moves shown in the film were performed by Palminteri and not a stunt double.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a feature on the technical advisor John “Fast Jack” Farrell, who dubs himself the “Last of the Mohicans,” and another where Celestino demonstrates the dice and card moves used in the film.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Salt