Postal (2019)


Another reason to hate clowns.

(2019) Dark Comedy (Self-released) Michael Shenefelt, Nick Madrick, Eric Vega, Elyse Dufour, Forest Scott Peyton, Chase Wainscott, Kennedy Brice, Sarah Alexandria, Mia Jackson, Tony Dermil, Jonathan Pawlowski, Steve Coulter, Dean Phillippi Sr., George Spielvogel III, Reid Meadows, Justin Miles, Keary McCutchen, William Blaylock, Elizabeth Saydah. Directed by Tyler Falbo

A lot of movies you can see coming. They hit all the right film festivals, have all the right stars, the right director, the right writers, get all the right buzz from all the right critics. The point is, you’re aware that the movie is something special, either a major blockbuster in the making or an important indie movie that is going to be making a lot of end of the year ten best lists.

Postal isn’t like that. Some might bring to mind the 2007 Uwe Boll film based on a videogame that essentially only has the title in common with this movie. For one thing, the 2019 version is based on a true story (and if you doubt it, stick around to the very end) which of course could only have happened in Florida.

Phillip (Shenefelt) is waiting on a package and not just any package, nor is this just any day. The package is an engagement ring that he plans to present to his girlfriend Brittany (Dufour) in Hawaii; in fact, his flight to Honolulu is leaving that very afternoon. He’s entrusted the package to Bronco Delivery, America’s most trusted package delivery service (think FedEx).

But something goes wrong. The package doesn’t arrive at its scheduled time, the time Phil paid extra to receive by. So, like any normal person, he gets on the phone to Bronco’s Customer Service department and that’s where normal gets left behind in the dust. It starts with an all-too-familiar annoyance; the phone tree to nowhere. Finally Phil gets to talk to an actual human being; Kevin (Vega). Although Kevin seems nice enough and willing to help, things start to slide down the chute in a hurry as little things begin to go wrong and an already stressed-out Phil begins to lose it.

More than this I will not tell you; this is the kind of movie that is at its most effective when you don’t know that much about it. Half the fun is being surprised by what turns up around the next bend. There are a lot of twists and turns here, some devastating and some simply unforeseen. Da Queen and I were fortunate enough to see this at its world premiere at the Florida Film Festival; when Da Queen loves a movie, she makes no bones about it and I have rarely heard her laugh as hard as I heard her laughing at this one; the only reason I missed some of her laughter was because I was bellowing with laughter myself.

The script is insanely clever and witty; it doesn’t give you much of an opportunity to consider anything as it careens from one situation to the next and just when you think it can’t top itself, it does. The acting here is stronger than the average local production, with Shenefelt delivering a star turn as a poor schlub in the throes of a kind of customer service nightmare that becomes…well, see for yourself.

The movie is on the Festival circuit for now but once people start seeing this thing, I suspect some indie distributors are certain to take notice. This is a definite crowd-pleaser and was far and away my favorite film at the Festival, which is saying something this year considering how strong the line-up was from top to bottom. This may require some patience to find (at least for now) but trust me, it is the kind of movie you owe it to yourself to see. No matter how bad a day is that you’re having, it’s nothing as bad as this guy’s.

REASONS TO SEE: May be the funniest film I’ve seen in years. Most people will be able to relate to having a really bad day. Strong performances, particularly Vega, Shenefelt and Madrick. Dufour makes an ideal fantasy figure.
REASONS TO AVOID: This might not be your kind of humor.
FAMILY VALUES: Here there be plenty of violence and profanity as well as some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won the Audience Award for Narrative Feature at the 2019 Florida Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jawbreaker
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Ask Dr. Ruth

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Satan & Adam


The ultimate odd couple.

(2018) Music Documentary (Cargo) Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee, Adam Gussow, Harry Shearer, The Edge, Al Sharpton, Kevin Moore, Phil Joanou, Bobby Robinson, Joan Gussow, Frank Migliorelli, TC Carr, Quentin Davis, Miss Maicy, Jeremy Jemott, Peter Noel, Margo Lewis, Rachel Faro. Directed by V. Scott Balcerek

 

The blues can be a beautiful thing. I think (and many agree) that no music touches every aspect of the human spirit the way the blues does. The blues can be sad yes but it can be cathartic, make you feel good when you feel down, bind us together (who hasn’t had the blues at one time or another?) and give us guidance. The blues is wisdom, man.

Adam Gussow had the blues one afternoon in 1986. He had just broken up with his girlfriend and the Princeton grad (and Columbia grad student) was walking around, finding himself in Harlem near the Apollo theater. I imagine if he’d been thinking about it clearly, he might not have ambled into that part of town so easily; New York City in 1986 was rife with racial tensions and people as lily white as Gussow were regarded with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility there.

About a block north of the legendary Apollo Theater he heard music and saw a crowd gathering. Being a harmonica player himself, he was curious and listened to the man identifying himself as Mr. Satan’s One-Man Band. The man who called himself Mr. Satan played hi-hat and tambourine using pedals and played the kind of guitar that rubs the soul raw. Totally in the right space for this Mississippi Delta blues, the white Gussow asked Mr. Satan if he could sit in on a couple of tunes. The older African-American man said sure. And lo and behold, the white boy could play. Afterwards, the young Ivy League grad asked if he could come back. Satan said sure. So Adam came back. And soon he was a regular partner. Mr. Satan noticed that the crowds were bigger when Adam played; it was a novelty that a white man could play the blues like that. While there was some grumbling that Adam was just another white man out to appropriate the music of black musicians, the partnership between Satan and Adam continued to grow and blossom.

The story of this duo is not your usual music industry tale. The duo would go on to record an album for the prestigious Flying Fish label, tour Europe and play such events as the New Orleans Heritage Jazz Festival. They were on the cusp of being a big act in the blues market…and then Mr. Satan just disappeared.

The movie takes place over a 20-year span. Balcerek first ran into the pair playing on the streets of New York City and became absolutely entranced with their story. He’s been filming them off and on over that time, sometimes in black and white (particularly the early years) but also in color. He buttresses the performance footage with interviews not only with the musicians themselves but by those in their orbit; friends, fellow musicians, celebrities. I was surprised to learn that the two were spotted by director Phil Joanou when he was filming the U2 concert documentary Rattle and Hum and U2’s guitarist The Edge was so taken with them that he put a snippet of their performance of the song “Freedom for My People” on the soundtrack.

I don’t want to spoil too much about their story; I’m deliberately leaving a lot of things out which will have greater impact if you experience them without any foreknowledge. The tone is pretty low-key and even some of the emotional highlights don’t hit you like a sucker punch but still there is a melancholic tone that reflects the music nicely.

And that music! Mr. Satan, whose birth name was Sterling Magee, is one of those raw, natural talents who come along every so often and simply rewrite the book. Think of him as up there with Sun Ra (jazz), George Clinton (funk) and Jimi Hendrix (rock). Yeah, he’s that good. Gussow compliments his sound nicely, not quite in the same league as a musician but wise enough to know that his main job is to support Mr. Satan.

Needless to say, a guy who calls himself Mr. Satan is kind of an interesting cat and you’ll be captivated by him. Magee can be charming although he has a temperamental streak as well and Adam learned when to tread carefully around him when he was in a bad mood. But once onstage, Magee was as joyful a human being as there ever was – it radiates from his face and from his smile. He reminds us that while the blues may be rooted in a particular set of emotions, there is joy in playing the blues at the absolute best of your abilities.

The story is unusual enough to make this a different kind of music documentary. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel but even those who aren’t blues fans will be captivated – and who knows, it might win over a few converts. While as a documentary this isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, it is compact enough that it doesn’t require an exorbitant investment of time nor does it overstay its welcome. At the same time, you get to hear some raw street blues, some of the best you’ll ever hear. That alone has got to be worth the price of admission.

REASONS TO SEE: The story is a fascinating one. The music is incendiary.
REASONS TO AVOID: There’s a little bit of a lull in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: The is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Magee played in the bands of James Brown, Etta James and Marvin Gaye (among others) and had a solo career on Ray Charles’ label before walking out on the music industry in disgust.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching for Sugar Man
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Hail, Satan?

Pahokee


There is nothing that says optimism so much as high school football.

(2019) Documentary (Topic) Jocabed Martinez, Na’Kerria Nelson, Junior Walker, BJ Crawford. Directed by Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas

High school is a time in our lives that we endure while we’re living it and, often, treasure more when we’re older than when we’re actually there. The rituals and ambitions of high school are pretty much universal but there are places that they take on a more urgent quality.

Pahokee is a small agricultural town in South Florida on the shores of Lake Okeechobee. Most of the residents are either African-American or Hispanic. Much of the work in the town revolves around working in the fields or in the processing plants. There is little more than that for the young people to look forward to; most who have ambitions beyond that know that they will have to leave Pahokee to get a college education

This documentary follows four students in Pahokee High School’s senior class of 2017 in a particularly turbulent year at the school. Jocabed Martinez is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who managed to save enough from working in the fields to open their own roadside taqueria where she helps out after school working the cash register. She has been doing tremendously well academically and has a realistic chance at an academic scholarship to a four-year college. Na’Kerria Nelson is an outgoing and personable cheerleader who is running for the equivalent of homecoming queen. She has ambitions of getting into a nursing program but with fair to middling academics, she needs every edge she can get and will likely have to pay for her own education. Junior Walker is a drum major in the school band who is also father to a cute-as-a-button toddler, a daughter whom he dotes on. With few employment options and a baby to support, college isn’t likely as he seeks employment in the town. Finally, BJ Crawford is the bruising center and co-captain of the football team that is challenging for the state championship. Both of his college-educated parents are fully in support of him getting an athletic scholarship but his dad cautions him to have a plan B just in case football doesn’t work out for him.

The camera follows them through most of the high school high points, from homecoming, the football state playoffs, prom and graduation. In between there will be moments of triumph, disappointment and even tragedy as on Easter Sunday there was a shooting in the local park. The camera crew happened to be there and captured the chaos and terror of the moment.

There are plenty of compelling moments throughout including the shooting sequence. The problem is that the movie really leaves the audience hanging; the football team suffers a devastating blow and it is essentially left without any sort of context or follow-up. We are often flies on the wall but the teens are rarely questioned directly. There are some video diaries recorded on cell phones and those are weaved in skillfully but I would have liked to have seen the teens talk about some of the things that happen onscreen beyond the platitudes you would expect.

As a glimpse of rural life particularly for those of the ethnic groups previously mentioned this is a pretty decent diary. It could have used some more context and more discipline rather than stream of consciousness. There are a lot of shots of fields being tended, distant factories, trucks roaring down small-town roads used as linking devices. There are also some lovely sunset shots. More grating is that there are some wonderful moments all throughout the movie but they are essentially lacking any sort of cohesion. With a bit of a firmer hand in the editing bay this might have been an extraordinary documentary.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some truly extraordinary moments throughout the movie.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story lacks cohesion; the film could have benefited from more disciplined editing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bresnan and Lucas lived and worked in Pahokee making short films prior to tackling this feature documentary.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoop Dreams
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Ash is Purest White

Song of Parkland


A chorus line of inspiration.

(2019) Documentary (HBO) Melody Herzfeld, Ally Richard, Alex Wind, Ashley Paseltine, Alex Athanasiou, Jared Block, Sawyer Garrity, Emma Gonzalez, Dylan Redshaw, David Hogg, Heather Hart, Emma Summers, Cameron Casky, Molly Reichard, Kelly Mathesie, Ariel Braunstein. Directed by Amy Schatz

 

I’ll be honest with you; I don’t normally review short films. In fact, this is the first one I’ve ever published on this site. Then again, the tragedy at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2008 – less than a week from the one-year anniversary of the event as I write this – resonates with me in a way that few events can. For one thing, it happened in Florida where I live. For another, this was in many ways the straw that broke the camel’s back as teens who were tired of this same old story being repeated over and over and over again with “thoughts and prayers” being the only political response that came of any of these massacres.

On that terrible day drama teacher Melody Herzfeld sheltered her 65 drama students in a store room for two hours until police came to escort them out. Only then did the students – and their teacher – discover that 17 of their peers had died in the tragedy and another 17 were injured. And the survivors needed to find a way to cope with that. How can a 14-17 year old find the strength to deal when most adults can’t?

For Herzfeld, the answer was to finish what the kids had started. They had been working on the children’s musical Yo, Vikings and were in rehearsal the day of the shootings. The drama department puts on an annual kid’s play and it is one of the highlights of their season. The show must go on and so it does and we get to watch it unfold but it isn’t without cost. The kids are hurting deep inside and it comes out, sometimes in unexpected ways. Two of the young people write songs about their feelings, helping them to process what they are going through (we get to hear both songs during the course of the film). And yes, the students go under a media microscope as several of them (including some in the drama class) choose to become advocates of gun control and become the faces of change for a generation. Admired by some, demonized by others, these young people say what you will about them at least made an effort to make change for the better although of course that will depend on your definition of “better.”

Schatz relies heavily on talking head interviews with the kids, interspersed with news reports and occasional cell phone footage. This isn’t about the shootings themselves – we don’t see that aspect of it – but about how the kids adjusted to unthinkable trauma. When the students are interacting with each other, goofing around, being themselves – those are the best moments in the film. Even the real heart-tugging moments – the Tony Awards performance of “Seasons of Love” from Rent, for example – is less compelling.

I would have actually liked to have seen a full-length feature made here and spend more time with say, the parents of the drama students, other teachers besides Herzfeld, that sort of thing. We definitely get a very limited perspective and while it is most valid to concentrate on the students themselves, ranging a bit further opinion for perspective would have brought a little more clarity.

I got the sense that this was an act of catharsis, not only for the filmmakers but for the students themselves. I’m sure that in the days that followed the tragedy they became used to describing their feelings and the events as they saw them must have gotten to be old hat but there feels like there was a lot of genuine emotional healing going on here. It’s gratifying to see but also heartbreaking that it was necessary. This is by no means the perfect documentary but it is, in it’s brief 28-minute run time unforgettable.

REASONS TO GO: The students express themselves well through song. The film is powerful, timely and heartbreaking. One gets the sense that it was cathartic for all involved just making this documentary.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is overly reliant on talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: While none of the violence is depicted, the themes of grieving and feeling of insecurity at school may be difficult for impressionable children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Schatz won an Emmy for her work on the documentary Through a Child’s Eyes: September 11, 2001.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Parkland: Inside Building 12
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel

A Greater Society


This is what difference makers look like.

(2018) Documentary (Deranged Squirrel) Ruth G. Weber, Fred Genetti, Tamara Gussman Stine, Howard Finkelstein, Jack Mendelson, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Charlie Crist, Nan Rich, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Mitch Caesar, Bruce Bandler, Ronny Sydney, Minerva Nazario, Karen Hoffman, Jack Shifrel, Tony Fransetta, Jeff Johnson, Ted Deutch, Ashley Walker. Directed by Stacy Goldate and Craig A. Colton

Down in Broward County in South Florida, just north of Miami is Wynmoor, one of many retirement communities in the area. California developers opened the facility back in 1973, marketing it mainly to residents of New York City and the Northeast in general, wooing residents with sunshine, modern amenities and sea breezes. Their advertising campaign worked; more than 4,000 residents live there now, many of them of the Jewish faith.

The Jewish community in New York City tends to be progressive; many lived through the depression and the New Deal of FDR. All of them lived through the 60s and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” which tried to address poverty, racism and rising medical costs. While the New Deal established Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and the Voter Rights Act came out of the Great Society. In fact, the title of the movie is a play on LBJ’s ambitious program.

When Wynmoor opened, Broward County was largely a Conservative bastion although at the time it was mostly Dixiecrats that made up the voter rolls. Since then, Southern conservatives have moved to the Republican party as the Democrats became champions of civil rights and other things that the Old South was less than fond of. The arrival of large numbers of progressive elderly from the Northeast swayed the county from red to blue.

This fascinating documentary, which premiered at the Florida Film Festival earlier this year and is now making its way onto the Vimeo streaming service, looks at the residents of Wynmoor during the 2014 midterm elections when Rick Scott was running for re-election as governor. It starts with the primaries when former Republican governor Charlie Crist was running against Nan Rich, leader of the Democratic party in the Florida House of Representatives and a grandmother herself, which appealed to many of the voters at Wynmoor who saw in her someone who understood the needs of their age group but also their desire to provide the services they rely on for their children and grandchildren in the years to come.

Much of the emphasis focuses on the Wynmoor Democrat Club which true to its name supports Democratic candidates and makes sure that residents of that party get out and vote. The stereotype of the elderly is that they tend to be conservative and suspicious of change; nothing could be further from the truth and it is refreshing to see the liberal activism that goes on in a group of people who could easily just take a dip in the pool, play some shuffleboard and in general just enjoy their golden years. It means something when someone who has earner their retirement nevertheless gets out and appeals for people to vote.

There is a Republican club as well, led by the knowledgeable Jack Mendelson who has a sunny sense of humor and a propensity towards driving his wife crazy. Despite being such an engaging subject, he gets a whole lot less screen time than his liberal counterparts who are, to be sure, equally fascinating, particularly Fred Genetti, a handsome man pushing 70 at the time of filming who only reluctantly gets active in the election but proves to be very good at it, and Ruth Weber, a 98-year-old woman born during the Woodrow Wilson administration who is still sharp as a tack and as passionate about politics as anyone a quarter her age. Conservative viewers may well find the disparity insulting, but the truth is that the Democrats appear to be much more active at Wynmoor than the Republicans.

In fact, Wynmoor is so important to the Democrats that often luminaries of that party stop by the complex to campaign, including Joe Biden, Debbie Wasserman Schultz (then-chairperson of the Democratic National Committee) and both candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial primary. The documentary labels the activist seniors as kingmakers and they aren’t far wrong.

The pace of the film is a little bit slow, but it seems to mirror the lifestyle of the residents and is perhaps a nod at the target audience. The filmmakers certainly display the power of organization and that coming together as a community matters. The filmmakers engage in a lot of talking head interviews but not as much as you might think. They use political cartoons to set up the political history nicely and the footage of the seniors going about their day is genuinely interesting.

This is a different kind of political documentary. Although it leans a bit left, it is by no means out there to extol one side over the other. Red or blue, there is a lesson in what these seniors accomplish and in their genuine love for their country and its future. Every vote matters and these citizens are well aware of that fact. Particularly in a midterm election year where so much is riding on the outcome, it seems a particularly timely film that anyone who thinks their vote doesn’t make a difference should check out.

REASONS TO GO: Weber and Genetti are both engaging personalities. The filmmakers turn stereotypes of the elderly on their ear. The filmmakers give time (although far from equal) to both sides of the aisle.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace may be a little bit slow for some
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Goldate and Colton primarily work in the editing bay for other projects; this is their first project as co-directors.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Final Year
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Bel Canto

Geostorm


Gerard Butler saves the day but not his career.

(2017) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Gerard Butler, Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Abbie Cornish, Alexandra Maria Lara, Daniel Wu, Eugenio Derbez, Amr Waked, Adepero Oduye, Andy Garcia, Robert Sheehan, Richard Schiff, Mare Winningham, Zazie Beetz, Talitha Bateman, Daniella Garcia, Ritchie Montgomery, David S. Lee, Billy Slaughter, Catherine Ashton. Directed by Dean Devlin

 

It was inevitable that the climate change crisis that we are currently facing would eventually lead to some big budget disaster movies. After all, climate scientists have been predicting super storms, increased wildfire activity and rising oceans for years. Hollywood was bound to make a special effects extravaganza about such events.

Geostorm is part cautionary tale in which the technology that has been used to control global warming has been turned around and utilized as a weapon against us. The only ones who can save us all are a hard-drinking, big mouthed astronaut-engineer (Butler) with perpetual six o’clock shadow, his younger brother (Sturgess) who’s a Washington bureaucrat, his brother’s Secret Service girlfriend (Cornish), a brilliant Asian computer expert (Wu), a by-the-book Eastern European International Space Station commander (Lara), a precocious daughter (Bateman), a tough-minded President (A. Garcia) and an even tougher Chief of Staff (Harris). It’s pretty much a parade of cliché characters from start to finish.

I’d go into further detail about the plot but it’s so preposterous that the less you know in advance the better off you’ll be. For one thing, reading the story details on paper might just scare you off – not in the fearful sense but in the “Why would I want to waste my time with that crap” sense. It’s generally not a good sign when a movie opening is delayed several times until it comes out almost 18 months after the original release date – and has changed distributors in the interim as well.

Granted, there are a few things that the film has to recommend it. The special effects for the most part are decent with some even a cut above, but the effects are basically done by a mish-mash of effects houses with varying degrees of success. 80s icon Mare Winningham also makes a brief appearance but is limited to a single scene. She was smart enough to keep her participation to just that.

Butler is generally reliably likable but here it feels like he could care less about the movie, even though he’s one of the producers. Sturgess fares only a little bit better but most of the other actors take their paychecks and move on. So should you.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the special effects are pretty nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is riddled with clichés and ends up being entirely predictable. The usually reliable Butler phones this one in.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence, massive destruction and sci-fi action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Devlin has been a producer for more than 30 years primarily with Roland Emmerich, this is his directing debut.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% Positive Reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 2012
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Warning: This Drug May Kill You

The Florida Project


Get ready for your close-up, Orlando.

(2017) Drama (A24) Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Bria Vinaite, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair, Karren Karagulian, Sandy Kane, Jim R. Coleman, Carl Bradfield, Mela Murder, Josie Olivo, Shalil Kamini Ramcharan, Kit Sullivan, Andrew Romano, Kelly Fitzgerald, Betty Jeune, Aiden Malik, Krystal Gordon, Cecilia Quinan. Directed by Sean Baker

 

It’s no secret that life isn’t easy. Making ends meet, particularly for young single mothers, is a constant struggle. Sometimes that struggle can take place in sight of the happiest places on earth, lending a particular poignancy to things.

6-year-old Moonie (Prince) and her mom Haley (Vinaite) live in the Magic Castle Motel, a budget motel on the 192 corridor near Disney World in a suburb of Orlando. The motel is managed by Bobby (Dafoe) whose rough edges sometimes mask the good heart he has underneath it all. Haley is unemployed, a former stripper who barely is able to make ends meet and the weekly rent for the hotel room is nearly always late. Mooney has a coterie of friends, most notably Jancey (Cotto) from the neighboring Tomorrowland Motel and Scooty (Rivera) whose mom Gloria (Kane) works at the nearby Waffle House, supplying Moonie and Haley with free food and also happens to be Haley’s best friend.

Moonie pretty much has free rein to do whatever she likes, be it throw water balloons at tourists, venture out to the nearby farmland for a “safari,” and hurl profane epithets at sunbathing elderly women. Sometimes, she and Scooty pick up extra cash by carrying the luggage of tourists to their rooms. The reality of her situation is probably lost on Moonie; for all she knows this is how everybody lives. Still, she has an active imagination and if she is a bit on the wild side, it can be forgiven.

That wild behavior can be explained by Haley who is herself amoral, crude and immature. Haley spends her days reselling perfume and expensive resorts (illegally) and when that scheme goes sideways, selling her body while Moonie takes a bath in the adjoining bathroom. She also robs some of her clients from time to time reselling their Magic Bands at discount ticket places.

Haley always seems to be just barely keeping their heads above water but the tide is definitely coming in and it is only a matter of time before disaster strikes. What will happen to Moonie if it does?

Those of my acquaintance who have seen the movie are sharply divided regarding their opinions of it. Nearly everyone agrees – including the critics who seem to be pretty much in unison with their praise for the film – that the first 45 minutes and the last 20 minutes are some of the best moments in filmmaking you’ll see this year. The final scene however is where that divide comes in. Some say that it comes out of left field and completely ruins the movie. Others say that it is tonally perfect and makes a great film into a potential classic.

Count me in the latter camp. That’s pretty much all I’ll say about the ending, other than that it is consistent with the tone of the movie and if you understand that this movie isn’t about Haley as much as it is about Moonie you might be able to make peace with that final scene.. I know that for a few minutes I had many of the same complaints about that ending until I thought about it for a few minutes and then realized that it fits perfectly with the movie’s theme which has a lot to do with deliberately shielding yourself from the harsh realities of life.

The performances here are simply amazing. Prince is a revelation; this is simply put one of the best juvenile performances caught on film ever. Some of the language that comes out of her mouth is salty but it feels natural considering how the adults around her speak and how the circumstances around her warrant it. Be that as it may, Moonie is full of herself, more than a little wild and absolutely fearless – until very near the end when she reveals that under all the bravado she is still a little girl and that comes through during a poignant scene as things start to fall apart. Although I suspect Prince will have her choice of little girl roles if she wants them, she might be better advised to retire now. It’s hard to imagine her ever equaling this performance.

Dafoe is a veteran who has some memorable performances of his own to his credit and this is one of the most sympathetic portrayals of his career. He often plays characters with fairly hard edges; here those edges are still there but we see a lot more of the soft interior than we normally do with Dafoe. He watches the train wreck that is Haley and Moonie with appropriately sad eyes.

The performance that not as many critics are talking about belongs to Vinaite. She is flat-out brilliant. Whenever Haley takes her daughter off motel property, you instinctively wonder what fresh nightmare is about to unfold. It is cinema of the rubberneck variety, the phenomenon of drivers craning their necks to get a better look at an accident as they drive past. One has to remember that Haley is little more than a child herself, the tattoos and drugs and men a testament to the bad choices she’s made over the years. Critically, one doesn’t see or hear referred to any immediate family for Haley; other than Moonie, she’s on her own. It’s no shock then that her values are the values of the street, of survival.

It’s early in the awards season and there are plenty of highly regarded projects that still have yet to make it into the theaters but this has to be strongly in the running for at least a Best Picture nomination and maybe more. This is definitely a must-see if it is playing in an art house near you and if not, make every effort to see it when it comes out on VOD or home video. This is certainly one of the best pictures of the year.

REASONS TO GO: The performances here are wonderful, particularly by Prince, Dafoe and Vinaite. The cinematography is colorful and magical. This is the story of people literally living on the ragged edge.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is sharply divisive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual content, adult themes and drug material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although most of the film was shot on 35mm, the final scene was shot on an iPhone without the knowledge or consent of those in charge of the location where it takes place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 91//100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Motel Life
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Novitiate