Better Days (Shaonian de ni)


Bullying is, sadly, universal.

(2021) Drama (Well Go USA) Dongyu Zhao, Jackson Yee, Fang Yin, Ye Zhou, Yue Wu, Jue Huang, Yifan Zhang, Yao Zhang, Xinyi Zhang, Allen Zhao, Xuanming Gao, Xintong Xie, Ran, Luyun Heliao, Bozhan Ju, Yingming Wang, Wellong Li, Zhongyu Guo, Dian Liu, Hu Pang, Xueping Liu, Meehz Chen, Mingyang Zhang, Meixi Wang, Yong Liu, Rumeng Liao. Directed by Derek Tsang

 

I think that it’s a given that people of a certain age – including my own – do not understand just how much pressure is on teens these days, how much they are expected to perform, particularly in certain cultures, from an academic and social standpoint. It is a wonder that everyone below the age of 18 hasn’t had at least one nervous breakdown by now.

In China, there is additional pressure if you can believe it. Getting into a good college is dependent on the student’s performance on a two-day long entrance exam known as the Gaokao exams; they are like the SATs on steroids. High school seniors are drilled endlessly on these exams which determine the placement of students in good universities, or less so. A student’s entire future rides on these exams, as well as the honor of their family and their school. Failure is unthinkable, and kids have been known to crack under the pressure.

One such hurls herself from a third story balcony into the rocky courtyard below, leaving a bloody mess for her fellow students to gawp at and take cell phone pictures of. That is, until her only friend Chen Nian (D. Zhao) lays her jacket over the corpse. It is a tender and decent gesture, but it puts Chen directly in the crosshairs of resident mean girl Wei Lei (Y. Zhao) and her posse of acolytes. Now Chen is being bullied.

It isn’t as if Chen isn’t under extraordinary pressure to begin with. Her mother (Wu) ekes out a living on the edge by selling illegal contraband. One step ahead of the law and about half a step ahead of creditors, she is often absent, leaving Chen to fend for herself and study on her own. “Graduate from a good college and we can escape this hellhole,” mommy tells her on a rare visit. I’m sure that helps Chen study harder, right?

But Chen knows what the right thing to do is, and she puts her nose to the grindstone, but when she sees a young teen boy being beaten savagely, she calls the police. Xiao Bei (Yee) is nothing if not grateful. Even though he never graduated high school and lives as a low-level thug on the streets, he determines to be Chen’s protector. Despite themselves, the two begin to develop strong feelings for each other. Meanwhile, the bullying of Chen intensifies, leading to an assault. The school, focused on the upcoming exams, is ineffectual particularly since Wei Lei’s parents are well-connected. The cops are well-meaning but also ineffectual. So as things escalate, something is bound to go wrong. Can Chen survive in the pressure cooker?

This amazing film almost didn’t make it to these shores. At it’s debut at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, it was suddenly and without explanation, pulled as Chinese censors seemed to take a dim view of the portrait of the way young people are treated (one girl, suspended from school, is smacked around by her father in front of the entire school). There is an unspoken indictment of the Chinese method that promotes excellence at any cost. It also depicts students being crushed by the pressure. It is at the least an unflattering portrayal of the Chinese education system.

But just as inexplicably, the Chinese allowed it to be released and it did marvelous box office just as the pandemic was starting to hit. It’s based on a popular online novel, The film is beautifully shot by cinematographers Saba Mazloum and Jing Pin Yu. What you’re going to remember, however, is the startling performance by Dongyu Zhao, whose sad face is often expressionless, but her eyes and body language tell us everything we need to know. When her friend commits suicide, she is the only one to exhibit any sadness or remorse. It’s stunning work.

But the movie really drags, particularly in the final third where the story jumps around a bit. Much of the movie is told in flashback but we’re not really told by whom – I assume it’s an adult version of Chen as a teacher, but that’s never explicitly said. An opening title card also explains that the problem with bullying is a global one (which it is) and not explicitly a Chinese issue, although given the pressures placed on students I’m sure that contributes to the problem. A closing title card explains that since the movie was set the Chinese government has taken steps to address the problem, including punishing schools and bullies. I wonder if that isn’t treating the symptoms rather than curing the underlying cause of them.

REASONS TO SEE: Raw and intense. Dongyu Zhao gives a wonderful performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly long and occasionally tedious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and mild sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the nominees for the upcoming Oscars for Best International Film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mean Girls
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Tiny Tim: King For a Day

Collisions


Nobody knows how to tuck you in as well as your mom.

(2018) Drama (Widdershins) Jesse Garcia, Izabella Alvarez, Ana de la Reguera, Jason Garcia Jr., Erika Yanin Perez, Clanya Cortes, Suilma Rodriguez, Molly Noble, Rodrigo Duarte Clark, Molly Brady, Joey Hoeber, Duane Lawrence, John Flanagan, Thomas Cokenias, Christopher Gonzales, Tina Marie Murray, Mike Schaeffer, Sarah Kramer, Veronica Valencia. Directed by Richard Levien

Over the last year or so, America’s immigration policy has come under fire, particularly in how families are treated at the border – children separated from their parents at the border and sent into cages to live. As horrific as that is, the media hasn’t really commented on the fact that immigrant parents have been deported for decades, often leaving their children at the tender mercies of the foster care system.

12-year-old science prodigy Ital (Alvarez) who has a very real chance of getting accepted to the California Science Academy and her younger brother Neto (Garcia Jr.) arrive home from school one day to find that their apartment has been apparently ransacked. However, it is much worse than that; ICE had broken into the home and arrested their mother Yoana (de la Reguera) and taken her to a detention center with the eventual plan to deport her.

They are placed with their uncle Evencio (Garcia), a carefree trucker who has been estranged from his more down-to-earth sister. The difference between Evencio and Yoana is that Evencio has a green card and Yoana does not. Evencio helps them find an immigration lawyer but Ital has little faith that the lawyer is competent enough to reunite the small family and insists that Evencio take them to see their mother who has since been transferred from the Bay Area where they live to a detention center outside of Phoenix. Reluctantly, Evencio takes the kids he doesn’t want on the road with him in his truck to see the sister with whom he doesn’t have much of a relationship.

Given the recent headlines, the movie is about as timely as it gets. With the Director of Homeland Security (under whose jurisdiction ICE falls) having recently been fired for not being hardline enough on illegal immigration, the movie undertakes to show the human side of the immigration question from the viewpoint of immigrants who are already in this country. Yoana works several jobs to support her kids and to provide them with a better life than she ever could have given them in Mexico. She’s a widow trying to do her best in a world that isn’t kind to people of her skin tone.

The movie is constructed as a character drama within a road movie within an issue film and while that’s not unique, it’s rare that a road movie revolves around any sort of issue and Levien is to be congratulated for making that kind of leap. He doesn’t sacrifice any of the elements that make the drama work to make it more of a road movie yet that’s what this demonstrably is. Everything works in harmony even though on paper you might think it wouldn’t.

While the adult performers (mainly Garcia but also de la Reguera in an abbreviated role) are all fine, the film is carried by Alvarez and Garcia Jr. Ital is a firecracker of a young girl who has had to grow up a little more quickly with her dad deceased; in some ways she’s the man of the house. Alvarez gives her the right amount of spine and vitriol – she doesn’t have a lot of respect for her ne’er-do-well uncle – and she is absolutely a mama bear when it comes to her younger brother. The character is written to be a little bit too precocious in my eyes and this becomes really apparent in the last reel when Ital decides to take matters into her own hands. I think any child would be absolutely terrified of having their mother taken away and we see Ital be angry about it but we never see the fear or hurt. Perhaps that is part of her nature but it doesn’t seem realistic to me. We don’t see the child side of Ital hardly at all.

Garcia also has a lot of screen time and Evencio is a kind of guy who likes to party and doesn’t take life too seriously. He drives a truck and makes a good living at it but it’s part of the lifestyle he wants which is of maximum freedom. So at truck stops he is happy to get wasted, party with truck stop hookers and generally hang out with his buddies. Of course, Evencio is a young guy and that is the nature of young guys so at least that part of his character makes logical sense.

The cinematography is solid which you would expect from a road movie, but not spectacular but then again it really doesn’t need to be. Vistas of desolate California would tend to distract from the human equation of the drama and that’s where the focus properly lies. Levien, a first-time feature filmmaker based in San Francisco, is trying to point out the inherent cruelty in this country’s policies regarding illegal immigration and in that he’s mostly successful. I get it that Ital needed to be a strong 12-year-old girl for the purposes of this movie but I think it would have benefited strongly if she had been allowed to be a little girl a little bit more.

REASONS TO SEE: A very timely subject well-acted by the cast.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film goes off the rails near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief drug use, a bit of profanity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at last year’s Mill Valley Film Festival near San Francisco.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Infiltrators
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Teen Spirit