(2019) Drama (Utopia) Camila Morrone, James Badge Dale, Calvin Demba, Ben Rosenfield, Rebecca Henderson, Rob Grabow, Gabriel Vega, Katee Ferguson. Directed by Annabelle Attanasio
Recently, director Martin Scorsese stirred up an Internet hornet’s nest when he disparaged Marvel films (and their like). He spoke about the films he grew up watching and quite frankly, this one from first-time director Attanasio would be the sort of film that he would dig.
Mickey (Morrone) lives in the small Big Sky town of Anaconda, Montana. Her mother has recently passed away due to cancer; the toxic waste from mining operations there have decimated the population of the town. Mickey’s dad Hank (Dale) is an ex-Marine who came home with a drinking problem, a severe case of PTSD and wild mood swings that his medication isn’t really regulating anymore. Mickey is his sole caregiver and support; she works after school in a taxidermy shop and supplements his veterans benefits with the little income she can make. Hank is chronically unemployed, and an object of pity in the town; he is not only a vet but a widower. He is essentially given a pass for his bad behavior, which is growing steadily worse.
Mickey has a boyfriend, Aron (Rosenfield) who professes undying love for Mickey, but steals her father’s Oxycontin and seems most interested in her female parts than in any other part of her. Mickey is trapped in the small town, unable to leave because her father couldn’t survive without her, but sees any sort of hope for a life of her own slipping away from her.
But there are some bright spots. New kid at school, Wyatt (Demba) – a transfer from the UK – sees potential in her and encourages her to go out and seek it. VA psychiatrist Leslee Watkins (Henderson) takes an interest in her and sees that the situation she’s in is not likely to improve…ever. Mickey is beginning to take tentative steps out of her situation but then her father drags her right back into the nest.
Attanasio is one of the new breed of female directors who not only has something to say but knows how to say it in a compelling manner. It’s hard to believe this is her first feature; it’s even harder to believe that she was only 25 years old when she made this. It’s directed with such assurance that you would think that the person behind the camera had decades of experience in the director’s chair. I’m excited for the future of this young woman.
It doesn’t hurt that she has a pair of actors giving career-defining performances. Dale, a veteran character actor, has never been better. He walks a tightrope between portraying Hank as an utter bastard and an object of pity. Hank is neither; he is prideful and his mood swings can lead to violence. At the same time, there’s just enough charm to allow us to see what he must have been like before he went off to war. This isn’t a textbook PTSD performance; it’s more true to life.
The revelation, however, is Morrone. With a limited resume behind her, there was no reason to believe she had this kind of performance inside her but quite frankly, it’s Oscar-worthy. Mickey is strong and vulnerable; making a terrible decision one moment and standing up for herself the next. She is, in short, a young woman who has seen far too much of life for a girl her age; it has caused her to grow up way too fast, but she is still at the end of the day only 18 years old.
Most of the other performances are strong as well, although Demba looks way too old to be a high school student. The Montana landscape is shown off nicely while the town is basically the working-class kind of place that has been hit particularly hard by the economic hardships that have caused them to embrace outsiders in politics. There’s a quiet desperation in the town that is heartbreaking; elitist liberals would do well to take notice.
Attanasio keeps the mood tense; one never knows when Hank is going to erupt. It’s a slow burn rather than an explosive conclusion. At the end of the day, the only flaw here is that the ending feels a bit more cliché than the rest of the film. Even though the final image of Mickey is hopeful and inspiring, it doesn’t really jive with the tone of the film.
The movie is currently playing in New York and opening in Los Angeles later this week; at the end of the month, it will start playing nationwide. Keep an eye out for it; this is a very strong movie that cinephiles should want to experience for themselves.
REASONS TO SEE: While Badge does a good job, Morrone is incredible. Gritty Americana at its finest.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a little too pat, too predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of profanity, scenes of drug abuse, some sexual situations and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Attanasio is best known as an actress on the CBS drama Bull; she left the show following the third season in order to shoot this movie, her directorial debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Princess of the Row
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond