Confetti (2020)


For a mother trying to raise a special needs child in a strange land, even colors don’t bring joy.

(2020) Drama (Dada) Zhu Zhu, Amy Irving, Yanan Li, Harmonie He, George Christopher, Helen Slater, Robyn Payne, Meryl Jones Williams, Yi Liu, Nikolai Tsankov, DL Sams, Joe Holt, Ian Unterman, Kira Visser, Marissa McGowan, Tracy Ifeachor, Teresa Meza, Vivian Chiu, Tom Galantich, Amanda Chen, Zhuo Shunguo, Ruiyu Yang, Jia Chuanxi. Directed by Ann Hu

 

As parents, we want to see our children find the excellence in themselves. Sometimes, it’s more about finding the happiness within themselves. For a lot of kids, that means fitting in with the pack and not standing out too much (although so many teens complain that nobody understands the uniqueness in them). But some are most certainly NOT a part of the pack, and that can lead to difficulties.

Meimei (He) is a nine-year-old girl living with her two lower class parents Chen (Li) and Lan (Zhu), in a small Chinese city in 1989. Her mom, Lan, is the custodian at her school. Meimei is a sweet, adorable girl who is ostensibly happy and good-natured, although she is finding it difficult at school. The other children tease her mercilessly and the adult teachers have lost all patience with her. The reason? She can neither read nor write.

The American-born English teacher, Thomas (Christopher) figures out that the culprit is dyslexia Meimei sees letters as “confetti” but could retrain her brain to learn differently, if only she could get the right kind of education. Unfortunately, there isn’t that kind of education available in China at that time, with the emphasis on group achievement.

With Thomas’ help, Lan takes her daughter to New York City where they move in with a friend (maybe his mom?) of Thomas, wheelchair-bound writer Helen (Irving). She’s at first taken aback when she discovers that Lan speaks not a word of English and Meimei speaks it only somewhat. Helen is busy working on a book, has deadlines to meet and doesn’t have the time to hold the hands of two Chinese immigrants. Lan doesn’t even have a green card or work permit, so she gets a job at a garment factory being paid under the table.

But the school that they place Meimei in, which is supposedly inclusive of kids with learning disabilities, isn’t helping. If anything, Meimei is getting worse. She needs a private special needs school, an expensive one where Dr. Wurmer (Slater) is president. It seems to be an impossible dream, but with the feisty Helen championing them, maybe there’s a chance.

There is an air of improbability to the film that is sometimes hard to get past. Both Chen and Lan are unskilled laborers, definitely part of the poor class in China. How can she afford to move to New York? Problems that seem insurmountable are routinely overcome, or sometimes, just plain ignored.

The Chinese cast is strong; Zhu (whom some might remember from Cloud Atlas) shows fierce determination as the tiger mom who absolutely refuses to give up on her daughter, for good reason as is revealed later on in the film. Her chemistry with Li is natural and completely believable. And He? She’s absolutely charming, refreshingly so for an actor of her tender years. It is also nice to see actresses Amy Irving and Helen Slater, who had good runs in the Eighties and Nineties, onscreen again. Both respond with memorable performances.

While the movie does point out the obstacles that parents of children with severe dyslexia (and other learning disabilities) face not just in China but here, It also portrays a mother’s fierce determination to make the best life possible for her daughter in a world which is completely indifferent to her daughter’s present situation, let alone any future she might have. And while the plot might be something of a fantasy fulfillment, there is enough warmth here to overcome the raised eyebrows in all but the most jaded, crusty, curmudgeonly viewers. Which lets out most critics.

REASONS TO SEE: Harmonie He is about as adorable as it gets. Good to see Slater and Irving in a movie again.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stretches believability in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult issues.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on Hu’s own experiences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beautifully Broken
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Malignant

Won’t Back Down


There's no cause so great that matching t-shirts won't solve.

There’s no cause so great that matching t-shirts won’t solve.

(2012) True Life Drama (20th Century Fox) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Emily Alyn Lind, Dante Brown, Lance Reddick, Ving Rhames, Bill Nunn, Ned Eisenberg, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Lisa Colon-Zayas, Nancy Bach, Keith Flippen, Robert Haley, Lucia Forte, Sarab Kamoo, Teri Clark Linden, Joe Coyle, Jennifer Massey. Directed by Daniel Barnz

When it comes to our kids, we are all agreed on one thing; a good education is important. Sadly, not all kids receive one. Areas which are economically under-advantaged tend to receive shoddy educations in crumbling facilities from disinterested teachers.

But some parents won’t take that situation lying down. Jamie Fitzpatrick (Gyllenhaal) works at a car dealership and tends bar at night to make ends meet. Her daughter Malia (Lind) is dyslexic and gets bullied at her Pittsburgh school, all under the eyes of teachers who don’t care and a principal (Nunn) hamstrung by union regulations and a venal school board. Fed up, Jamie tries to get her daughter into a charter school, but her number isn’t picked in the lottery.

There’s another parent there that Jamie is surprised to see – Nona Alberts (Davis), a teacher at Jamie’s school. Why doesn’t Nona try to make things better at her own school for her own daughter? Of course she’s tried to, but has hit stone wall after stone wall from the Union and the Board and she’s tired of fighting.

&But there’s a ray of hope; there’s a law on the books that will allow parents to take over a school that is underachieving (as Malia’s school is) but parents so inclined have to jump through an awful lot of hoops in order to do it. That doesn’t dissuade Nona and Jamie as they take on the Union, who try to intimidate the teachers with potential job loss (which is a very real possibility) and the School Board, who don’t want to cede control of one of their schools to parents lest it spark a district-wide revolt.

In the midst of this, single Jamie finds a boyfriend in math teacher Michael Perry (Isaac) who gets a bit miffed whenever Jamie expresses her frustration with the Union but he ends up being a staunch ally and Jamie and Nona slowly begin to win the parents to their side, giving them all matching T-shirts for a rally (was there ever a cause that didn’t benefit from matching t-shirts?) that will take on those who stand against their kids having a fighting chance at a future.

If this sounds a bit strident and political, it’s because it is. I won’t say that the film is outright anti-Union, but it does paint the Union as villainous, more concerned about protecting bad teachers than about educating the children of their communities. The School Board doesn’t come off much better, painted as a group that plays politics when it comes to funding and personnel. I suppose your reaction to the film is going to depend on your point of view; those who are very much pro-Union are going to have issues with it, those who think that privatizing education is the way to go will love it.

That set aside let’s look at the filmmaking itself. Technically, the film is decent – nothing to write home about on the one hand but on the other competently done. It’s hard to make the less prosperous end of Pittsburgh look glamorous but Barnz at least makes it look like a nice community to live in for the most part.

The cast is terrific, with five Oscar nominees (past and future) and/or winners (Hunter, who plays the smug Union head here, won for The Piano in 1987). Gyllenhaal is marvelous and for Davis who was just beginning to cement her reputation as a talented actress when this was made also is memorable as the teacher who goes from zombie to ace during the course of the movie. Isaac, essentially an unknown when he made this, also is fine as the love interest.

While I don’t necessary agree with the filmmakers’ point of view – the Teachers Union isn’t the sole reason for problems with American education; one has to also look at the decline of parental involvement, poverty, the rise of distractions like videogames and the Internet and also the high cost of higher education for the reason why education has fallen so drastically. Adding new charter schools, vouchers and other solutions advanced from the right aren’t necessarily the only things needed but don’t address other conditions that are obstacles to every child receiving a proper education.

This is a complicated issue and while I think that the hearts of the cast and crew are in the right place, the execution takes a kind of Hollywood “happy ending in 90 minutes guaranteed” point of view. Nevertheless I don’t necessarily think that it’s a bad thing to call attention to issues that affect all of us – and the education of our children certainly does. Innovation has to come from somewhere and if our population is lagging behind the rest of the world in know-how and let’s face it, desire to innovate, we could find ourselves a third world nation sooner than we think.

WHY RENT THIS: Attempts to tackle real issues facing modern education. Fine performances by Gyllenhaal and Davis.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little smug and simplistic. Pro-union viewers will be outraged.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based (very loosely based) on actual events in Sunland-Tujunga, California in 2010.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a couple of featurettes here, The Importance of Education and the somewhat disingenuous Tribute to Teachers considering how much teacher-bashing the film does.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.3M on a $19M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting for “Superman”
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Time That Remains