Best and Most Beautiful Things


Michelle Smith takes a dip into deep waters.

Michelle Smith takes a dip into deep waters.

(2016) Documentary (First Run) Michelle Smith, Julie Smith, Mike Smith, Jeff Migliozzi, Michael Roche, Jaimi Lard, Carolyn Assa, Lois Spencer, Marilyn Rea Beyer, Noell Dorsey, Bill Appel, Carmen Harris, Michael Smith, Rachel Wetschensky, Christina Alexandra Varos, Kori Feener, Seth Horowitz, Keiran Watson Bonnice, Marina Bedny, Jan Seymour-Ford, Cara Pelletier, Pamela Ryan. Directed by Garrett Zevgetis

Florida Film Festival 2016

What is normal? We all think we have kind of a take on it but the truth is normal is whatever you decide it is. “Normal” is a word that has a nearly infinite range and hides a variety of sins – unless, of course, you think that sinning is normal. And who said that it’s a sin anyway?

Michelle Smith lives in Bangor, Maine and she was given a pretty stacked deck against her. She is legally blind; she can see but only essentially when she’s nose-to-nose with the subject, and she also has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning variety of autism. Her mind can lock on a subject and fixate on it to almost the exclusion of all else. It can also make her a bit of a handful from time to time, over and above most teens.

Although she’s presently in her 20s, the documentary covers a period from her senior year at the Perkins School for the Blind, a high school in Watertown, MA until shortly after graduation. Michelle is a bright and outgoing sort who has like most Asperger’s sufferers difficulties with social interactions. She also knows that unemployment amongst the blind is right around 75%. With school and its structured environment coming to a close, she yearns to be independent, free to develop as an individual and as a woman. That’s hard to do when you live with your mom.

Her mom, Julie, is divorced from Michelle’s dad, Mike. The two seem cordial enough to one another but on-camera there’s a fair amount of bitterness and the divorce is described as “contentious.” There is also a tragedy in the family’s past that no doubt put additional strain on the marriage. Julie and Mike are both supportive – Julie also has a boyfriend who is a bit stricter than Mike was – but both are worried about their daughter who sometimes can’t see the big picture.

An offer for an internship with someone who worked on the Rugrats show in Los Angeles sends Michelle spinning to the moon; it would be perfect if it worked out. Maybe she could become a famous voice actress! The expectations are dialed up to eleven which happens to all of us in such situations, particularly when we lack the life experiences to take a narrow-eyed view of such things. We tend to take for granted that we can make things work no matter what the opportunity; that’s not always the case for the disabled. It’s heartbreaking to watch her dream fall apart, even though she handles it strikingly well on-camera.

Michelle is a bit of a nerd; she’s into anime and Darla and collects dolls. She flies her flag proudly as she displays her dolls in her room in a certain order. It almost seems like a logical progression when she gets into the BDSM scene (which stands for Bondage/Discipline/Sadism/Masochism for those unfamiliar with the term) and finds a boyfriend who is also part of that kink. They adopt a dominant/submissive relationship as well as a Daddy/Little Girl relationship may come off a bit odd since they are both so young but it is a thing. Like most young dominants the boyfriend comes off as a bit self-aggrandizing but they seem genuinely fond of each other and Michelle is delighted when she receives a flogger as a Christmas gift. However, her new sexual activities lead to some awkward moments for her parents as well as the audience.

Zevgetis makes an effort to give us an idea of what Michelle sees by focusing the camera in an almost super near-sighted setting from time to time; he does it a little too often for my taste as I was actually nauseous after the third time he went to that setting. However, the snowflakes falling down from the sky at the camera were admittedly a pretty cool shot.

One question that should confront the viewer of any documentary is “Why was this documentary necessary?” It’s a very good question; documentaries are flourishing these days and while there are many that are informative and/or provocative, sometimes the answer is “It isn’t.” I’m not 100% certain that Michelle Smith has a life that is required viewing, but she’s compelling a subject enough that you may be captivated (as when she proclaims at her graduation “The world will be my burrito!”) and perhaps even find some insight into your own life.  Good documentaries will do that. I’m just not sure that every life will benefit from a glimpse at Michelle Smith’s life to help define their own normal. Yours might; results will vary, but whatever the outcome, it surely isn’t a bad thing to see life through another person’s eyes.

REASONS TO GO: Michelle Smith is a fascinating personality. This isn’t just a look at one girl but a look at what surrounds her.
REASONS TO STAY: The audience becomes more voyeurs than observers. Some of the camera work, intending to show how Michelle sees the world, is unwelcome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Perkins School of the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts which Michelle attended also counts Helen Keller among their alumni.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aspie Seeks Love
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Inferno (2016)

Advertisements

Amour (2012)


Love can be a scary, terrifying thing.

Love can be a scary, terrifying thing.

(2012) Drama (Sony Classics) Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud, William Shimell, Ramon Agirre, Rita Blanco, Carole Franck, Dinara Drukarova, Laurent Capelluto, Jean-Michel Monroc, Suzanne Schmidt, Damien Jouillerot, Walid Akfir. Directed by Michael Haneke

For most of us, our fondest wish is to find someone to grow old with. We look at growing old as a pleasant thing, our hair turning white and our skin wrinkled, holding hands with our loved one as we are surrounded with children and grandchildren, living lives in retirement of quiet pride in a life well-lived.

Growing old though is no golden-hued trip down an autumnal lane. It’s not for the faint of heart and even though we may have the company of someone we love, it isn’t necessarily a Hallmark card.

Police break down the doors in a Paris apartment and are immediately are met by an unpleasant stench. They search the room and find a decomposing corpse. There had been a nurse but she hadn’t been seen around lately. Mail had been piling up.

We flash back and see a piano concert. More to the point, we see the audience, rapt and moved by the impassioned playing of Alexandre (Tharaud), who is a former pupil of Anne (Riva). She and her husband Georges (Trintignant), both Parisian music teachers now retired and in their 80s, attend the recital and go backstage to greet Alexandre but he is surrounded by well-wishers and so they leave gracefully and return home.

At breakfast though, Anne suddenly stops reacting. Her mind seems to go away and when it comes back she has no memory of having gone despite several long minutes having passed. Georges is concerned but Anne has a pathological fear of hospitals…but when she has a major stroke, she is forced to stay at one for awhile. When she returns home, her right side is paralyzed.

At first it’s a bloody inconvenience. Anne is still much the same forceful, strong woman she’s always been but now she must rely on Georges for more and more. Soon it becomes necessary to hire a nurse (Franck). Georges and Anne’s daughter Eva (Huppert) who is a touring musician herself, visits from New York with her obsequious English husband Geoff (Shimell) and is aghast but seems more concerned with the physical deterioration than with the emotional burden that both George and Anne are bearing. They both know where this is going and how it inevitably is going to end.

This is the Austrian submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year although it was filmed in Paris and French is predominantly spoken (some dialogue is in English). Haneke is an Austrian and the film was produced by French, German and Austrian sources. It also is the rare movie that also netted a Best Picture nomination – every movie that previously got that double nomination has won the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. Riva also has a Best Actress nomination while Haneke got Best Director and Best Screenwriter nominations as well.

The story is a very personal one for Haneke who watched it happen in his own family. Nearly all the action (other than the scenes in the recital hall early in the film) takes place in the apartment and in that circumstance the movie could easily feel stage-y or claustrophobic but it never does. This has become their entire world. It gives us a good sense of how their world begins to shrink down to just the two of them.

Riva is amazing here. It’s a gutsy performance because there is no glamour whatsoever to it other than initially. The indignities of becoming infirm are well on display and Riva, best known here for her sexy turn in Hiroshima Mon Amour shows them with an unblinking eye, allowing you to share in her despair and frustration. She’s been one of France’s top actresses for half a century and here you see why.

Trintignant came out of semi-retirement to act in this movie. Also one of France’s leading thespians (with astonishing performances in A Man and a Woman, Z and Red) his performance here is central to the film. It is harder to watch the deterioration of a loved one than to be the one deteriorating in many ways, and you can see his pain and frustration in his eyes. His work here has largely been overshadowed by Riva’s and in all honesty deservedly so but that doesn’t make his performance any less important or less commendable.

The scene in the concert hall is masterful and I think a fairly defining shot for Haneke. We don’t see the performance but merely the reactions to it. We are voyeurs as it were, watching the watchers Georges and Anne among them, their faces drawing you to them even though at that point in the movie you don’t know who they are. While the scene may appear to be innocuous and non-germane to the overall story, it’s a moment that stays with you and then long after the credits role you realize that Haneke was telling you what your own role in the movie is about to be. It’s brilliant and reminds me once again why he’s perhaps the best filmmaker in the world that you’ve never heard of.

This is one of last year’s most acclaimed movies and justifiably so. There are some shocks and some moments that may be uncomfortable for you – it can be argued that we are given too much access. There are those who will find Anne’s deterioration depressing but to be truthful it is a part of life. Old age as I said earlier isn’t necessarily a Hallmark card. It’s indignity and infirmity, aches and pains, organs breaking down and senses not working right. It is a natural progression in our lives but it isn’t an easy one.

The title is well-considered. Love is easily described as never having to say you’re sorry but that’s just the Hollywood version. In truth love is not those easy moments where you have make-up sex, or a snuggly Sunday morning. Love is caring for your partner when they are incapable of caring for themselves. Love is changing the diaper on the woman you used to make love to. Love is hearing them berate you and understanding it’s the situation and the pain talking and refusing to respond in kind. Love is being there until the bitter end and sometimes, doing something so painful that your soul shrivels and dies inside you but if it takes away the pain of the one you love, it’s worth it.

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking. Deals with real world issues in a relationship and in aging.

REASONS TO STAY: Some may find it a bit depressing although they will be missing the point if they do.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes are very adult. There is one scene that is graphic and disturbing. There are a few bad words and a brief scene of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Riva is the oldest woman to be nominated for an Oscar at 83; she received her nomination the same day that Quvenzhane Wallis became the youngest nominee at age 9 for Beasts of the Southern Wild.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100; the reviews are excellent.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Away From Her

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Myth of the American Sleepover