Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)


Love in flames.

(2019) Romance (NEON) Noémie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luána Bajrami, Valeria Golino, Christel Baras, Armande Boulanger, Guy Delamarche, Clément Bouyssou, Cécile Morel, Michéle Clément. Directed by Céline Sciamma

 

The Darkwave band Black Tape for a Blue Girl did a song “A Love That Dare Not Be” which is heartbreaking in nearly every respect; the music itself creates a melancholic mood and there’s the realization that few people have ever heard the song and it so deserves to be heard.

In fact, their Ashes in the Brittle Air album dovetails nicely with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the latest from French writer-director Sciamma and her most exciting work to date. It is a period piece, set in the mid-to-late 18th century in an isolated chateau on the seacoast of Brittany.

Marianne (Merlant) has been commissioned to paint a portrait of Hélöise (Haenel), the daughter of the countess (Golino) who lives there. Hélöise has just been yanked out of the convent to take the place of her sister in a marriage to a Milanese nobleman; the portrait is to be used to pique interest in the girl as potential marriage material. However, Hélöise is wise to the game and refused to sit for a portrait with the previous painter, who grew frustrated at her obstinance and quit.

Marianne is there in the guise of a companion to accompany Hélöise on walks around the chateau. The countess is concerned that Hélöise might suffer the same fate as her sister, who fell from the cliffs. The house’s sole servant, Sophie (Bajrami) believes it was suicide because the girl didn’t utter a sound on the way to her death.

Marianne is meant to paint surreptitiously in the evening hours. Her canvas and painting supplies are hidden behind privacy partitions. During the day the two women hang out and soon develop a friendship. Marianne is forced by circumstances to notice the details of Hélöise; the curve of her neck, the cartilage of her ears, the elegance of her fingers. Before long, the friendship develops into something deeper – the proverbial love that dare not speak its name.

This is one of the most beautifully shot movies I’ve seen in a while and I’ve seen some good ones. The composition is exquisite, done with a painter’s eye. Whether it is Hélöise standing alone in front of crashing waves on the shore, or Hélöise, Marianne and Sophia cresting a hill at dusk in the wild light of sunset, or Marianne alone before the fire, naked and puffing on a pipe contemplatively, each shot has purpose, each shot conveys emotion.

The emotions are at the center of the performances of Haenel and Merlant. Both are up for Best Actress awards at the César awards that are being presented this coming Friday – the French Oscars. Either performance is award-worthy, although I don’t know how you would choose between the two. Haenel is more reserved, somewhat more melancholy. Merlant has the advantage of being the narrator and setting the tone in that sense. The chemistry between them is natural and believable.

\Throughout the film there are references to the legend of Orpheus – he’s the bard whose love Eurydice died young, so he made the perilous journey into the underworld to beg Lord Hades for him to release her back to the world. Hades, moved by Orpheus’ artistry, grants the request with the caveat that Orpheus must lead the way and not turn back until both of them have left the Underworld; if he obeys, they will live whatever time they have left. If not, Eurydice goes right back into the afterlife, not passing go nor collecting $200. Human nature being what it is, Orpheus looks back as the end is in sight and loses his girl forever.

Hélöise, Marianne and Sophie discuss the meanings of the myth but there are also some other references; appearances of paintings based on the myth and near the end of the movie, as Marianne is leaving the chateau with her Hélöise promised to another, she hears the admonition to turn around and beholds Hélöise in a white wedding-like dress behind her. As Marianne shuts the door, Hélöise disappears from view.

There is a lot of depth here, too much to get into in one article but enough that you’ll be talking about it with your film buff friends for a long time to come. The two-hour movie takes a bit of time to get going, but once it hits its stride it holds your attention firmly. This had a one-day theatrical preview event back in December but is just now hitting a general release. Their distributor, which is still in a celebratory mood after one of their films won the Best Picture Oscar, can start celebrating again; this is another amazing film for their library and one which could very well be part of next year’s Oscar conversation.

REASONS TO SEE: A master class on camera composition. A haunting choral piece really heightens the mood. Wonderful use of the Orpheus myth.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too long; it drags a bit in the beginning.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and sexuality including one brief scene of graphic sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the festival scene, the women sing a choral version of Non Possunt Fugere which is Latin for “They Cannot Escape.” The song is repeated during the closing credits.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes:98% positive reviews: Metacritic: 95/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Breathe In
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations

Monsters and Men


Not everything is black and white.

(2018) Drama (NEONJohn David Washington, Anthony Ramos, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chanté Adams, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Nicole Beharie, Rob Morgan, Cara Buono, Grant Jaeger, Josiah Gabriel, Emilie Allen, Brian Pollock, Joe Tippett, J.W. Cortes, Giuseppe Ardizzone, Steve Cirbus, Samel Edwards, CJ Wallace, Joshua Rivera, Lana Young. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

 

Timing can be everything in the movie business. Monsters and Men tackles a subject that is near and dear to Hollywood’s heart; police brutality in African-American neighborhoods (in this case, Bed-Stuy in New York City). Family man Manny (Ramos) hears an altercation at a local bodega and chances upon a heated confrontation between white cops and Big D (Edwards), a local neighborhood figure who sells loose cigarettes outside the bodega. When the confrontation turns violent, Manny captures it on his cellphone.

He is torn as to whether to make the video public; he’s just started a new job working security while his wife (Jones) is finishing up her degree. He is arrested on trumped up charges. Dennis (Washington), a cop of African-American heritage, is not to thrilled with the overall situation but is under enormous pressure to keep his opinions to himself. He has a unique viewpoint which surfaces at a dinner party. Then again, there is Zyrick (Harrison), a high school baseball player who has unlimited potential whose father (Morgan) is proudly inviting major league teams to check his kid out. He has a career to think about and every reason to keep quiet but there’s this activist (Adams) who gives him food for thought. Meanwhile, a vigilante incident is fanning the flame, turning Bed-Stuy into a powderkeg ready to explode.

The movie is divided into three chapters and has a curiously unfinished feeling about it; even though there is a climactic moment that essentially brings the narrative to a close, the broken-up narrative doesn’t serve the film well. Although Washington stands out talent-wise and the young, largely unknown cast delivers surprisingly strong performances.

I think the movie also suffered from a timing issue; there had been a number of similarly themed movies released over the past two years and I think that there was a kind of audience fatigue going on for the subject so Monsters and Men fell off the radar a little bit which it may not have deserved, flawed or not.

Green definitely has a good eye and I think his only problem here was in his choice of narrative structure. A more linear means, while less bold, would have served the narrative better. I can’t say that this stands up well with some of the other films of similar subject matter, but I can say that especially for those who haven’t yet burned out on the subject, it is worth checking out just to get an early preview of Denzel’s kid, who will be headlining a Christopher Nolan blockbuster this summer and will likely be a huge star after that.

REASONS TO SEE: Washington has legitimate potential to step out of his dad’s shadow.
REASONS TO AVOID: Dividing the film into three separate chapters gives it a feeling that the story is not being fully told.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third time Washington played a cop in 2018; the other two occasions were BlacKKKlansman and The Old Man and the Gun.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hate U Give
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Times of Bill Cunningham

Knives and Skin


High school can be scary.

(2019) Thriller (IFC MidnightKate Arrington, Tim Hopper, Marika Engelhardt, James Vincent Meredith, Tony Fitzpatrick, Audrey Francis, Claire VanDerLinden, Alex Moss, Grace Smith, Ty Olwin, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Raven Whitley, Robert T. Cunningham, Kayla Carter, Jalen Gilbert, Genevieve Venjohnson, Aurora Real de Asua, Ireon Roach, Emma Ladji, Grace Etzkorn, Haley Bolithon. Directed by Jennifer Reeder

 

Small towns are microcosms. The people who live there have roles – some chosen, some assigned. Not everyone fits into or likes the role they have, but it’s part of an overall system that keeps things going. It doesn’t take much to throw the status quo completely out of whack. Add a new element – or remove an established one – and the whole dang thing can come tumbling down like a house of cards.

Young Carolyn Harper (Whitley) – a band nerd – snuck out of her house one night to meet a horny jock on the edge of town for clandestine sex. When she changes her mind at the last minute, a tussle ensues leaving her with a nasty gash on her forehead and her brand-new glasses still in the jock’s car as he drives away, leaving her in the middle of nowhere screaming for help.

She never makes it home that night and her disappearance ripples through the midwestern town of Big River like an electromagnetic pulse. Carolyn’s mother (Engelhardt) understandably begins to unravel. Her friends Joanna (Smith), Charlotte (Roach) and Laurel (Carter) – all from disparate cliques in school – grow closer together and discover in their grief that they have strength in consent. The word “no” – often given in the form of an apology. They soon discover how empowering “no” can be.

It is the teens of the town who show maturity, resiliency and strength as the adults soon begin to revert back to the secrets and failings that characterized their lives before the disappearance, only acting out more vigorously. It is up to the teens to remind the adults that there is still someone missing – but it is also the teens who seem more likely to move on.

Reeder takes a bundle of trendy influences, from David Lynch to Harmony Korine to Chantal Akerman and crafts a kind of pastiche, a movie that’s equal parts Riverdale and Twin Peaks with a dash of Neon Demon thrown in. This is a town full of quirky people and the young people are no more and no less quirky than the rest.

There is a very definite post #MeToo feminist tone here as the young girls explore their sexuality and soon begin rejecting the roles that have been assigned them, developing into powerful, strong young women. In many ways it’s heartening to watch but in other ways it’s a depressing reminder of how young high school-age girls are caught in a terrible bind when it comes to their roles in life.

Cinematographer Christopher Rejano bathes the screen in neon blues, greens and pinks which give the film a modern feel, but be warned that this kind of palate is nothing new and while it’s eye-catching, it isn’t particularly inventive. However, Rejano (and Reeder) also do a masterful job of framing their shots, using foregrounds and backgrounds effectively. There is also a propulsive electronic score that brings to mind 80s films but the music you will doubtlessly remember is the dirge-like choral renderings of pop songs by the Go-Go’s, Cyndi Lauper and others.

This may come off as a high school version of Twin Peaks and while that isn’t necessarily inaccurate, it is also over-simplifying it. I suspect that this is being aimed at girls the age of those being played in the film, or slightly older but the pacing here is surprisingly slow and methodical which doesn’t bode well for post-Millennial attention spans. In any case, this is something that’s a little different than the holiday films out there; while it is also getting a brief limited theatrical release, you can also catch it on VOD if you’re of a mind to.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot and scored.
REASONS TO AVOID: Paced a little too slowly for its target audience.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s profanity, violence and sexual situations, mostly involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Seagal and DMX previously appeared together in the 2001 film Exit Wounds.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews: Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twin Peaks
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Grand Isle

Parasite (Gisaengchung)


Who is the exploited and who is the exploiter?

(2019) Dramedy (NEON) Kang-ho Song, Yeo-jeong Jo, So-dam Park, Woo-sik Choi, Sun-kyun Lee, Seo-joon Park, Jung Ziso, Jeong-eun Lee, Andreas Fronk, Hyae Jin Chang, Myeong-hoon Park, Hyun-jun Jung, Ji-hye Lee, Keun-rok Park, Joo-hyung Lee, Ik-han Jung, Jeong Esuz, Dong-yong Lee, Seong-Bong Ahn, Hyo-shin Pak, Kang Echae. Directed by Bong Joon Ho

 

As the gap between the rich and the poor grows wider worldwide, the desperation of those on the lower end of the economic spectrum also grows. As capitalism turns into a modern-day Wild West, it doesn’t stretch the imagination much to figure out that some will do whatever is necessary to survive.

The Kim family is the kind of family that often takes the brunt of those pointing the finger at the poor and blaming them for their own poverty. Patriarch Ki-woo (Choi) is chronically unemployed and a bit of an idiot. His shrill wife Chung-sook (Chang) has the family bringing in income by folding pizza boxes but they can’t even get that right. They live in a basement flat with a toilet on a ledge looking out onto the street where drunks often urinate. Ki-woo, despite the haranguing of his wife, can’t be bothered to shoo the offenders away. Their phone service has long been switched off and they steal Wi-Fi from a neighbor who has inconveniently put password protection on his router.

Clever son Ki-taek (Song) gets a tip from his buddy Min (S-j Park) who is about to depart to study abroad that a rich high school girl he is tutoring in English will need a new tutor while he is gone. Min offers to recommend Ki-taek for the job but Ki-taek, who was unable to afford college, doesn’t have the credentials for the job. Not to worry: his sister Ki-jung (S-d Park) has no problem forging the documents he needs.

When Ki-taek goes to the beautiful modernist house the family lives in for an interview, he realizes the materialistic mom Yeon-kyo Park (Jo) is somewhat simple and easily swayed. He realizes that there could be a bonanza here for his family. He finagles his sister an interview as a teacher for the ADHD younger son Da-song (H-j Jung) specializing in “art therapy.” In the meantime his own student daughter Da-hye (Ziso) has taken a shine to him.

Cold-blooded Ki-jung realizes there’s room for the whole family, but it will take some finagling to get the established servants out, including their beloved housekeeper Moon-gwang (J-e Lee). Through clever manipulation, brazen gall and a thorough lack of mercy, Dad is moved into the driver’s position and Mom into the housekeeper’s job. Now the Kim family is living the high life and can think about maybe moving on up, as George Jefferson might say. However, the Park home holds an unexpected secret that throws all of their machinations into disarray.

Bong Joon Ho is already one of South Korea’s most masterful directors, with films like The Host, Snowpiercer and Okja to his credit. Here, he comes into his own with the kind of movie that is going to elevate him into an elite class of directors, guys like Del Toro, Cuarón and Wong Kar-Wei. This is one of the best-written movies I’ve seen this year, with clever dialogue and a plot that while it has some zany elements to it never falls out of believability.

The cast performs solidly, particularly Ho’s go-to guy Choi who takes a character who could have easily have become a caricature and gave him depth and even a bit of gravitas. Jo is also memorable as the somewhat dense mom of the Park family.

The movie changes tone in the second half and there’s some fairly intense violence that occurs, some of it quite disturbing. It isn’t a movie for the weak of heart but neither is it a movie for the weak of mind; there is an awful lot of subtext going on about class distinctions, and exploitation. Just who is exploiting who in this movie may not be terribly clear by the end of the credits. However, I must say that the only thing that is keeping this from a perfect score is a somewhat convoluted ending involving a coded message that overstays its welcome a bit.

Frankly, this is one of the best movies of the year and it certainly should be on the radar of anyone who really likes movies. There’s a scene on how a bad thunderstorm affects the wealthy Parks and the not-so-wealthy Kims that is a gut-punch that comes almost out of nowhere but Ho is such a deft director that it doesn’t feel out of place. Do yourself a favor and catch this one because it’s sure to get some love come awards season.

REASONS TO SEE: Very cleverly written. Well-acted. Some very dark humor but funny throughout. An intriguing look at class warfare from a different angle.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a little bit convoluted.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some bloody violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was the winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival; it is also South Korea’s official submission for the Best International Film award at the 2020 Oscars and is an early favorite to make the short list.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews: Metacritic: 95/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shoplifters
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Day 3 of Six Days of Darkness

Little Monsters (2019)


Think of her as a poor man’s Michonne.

(2019) Horror Comedy (NEON/HuluLupita Nyong’o, Josh Gad, Alexander England, Nadia Townsend, Kat Stewart, Stephen Peacocke, Diesel La Torraca, Henry Nixon, Marshall Napier, Saskia Burmeister, Rachel Romahn, Talayna Moana Nikora, Felix Williamson, Lucia Pang, Ava Caryofyllis, Jason Chong, Adele Vuko, M.J. Kokolis, Carlos Sanson, Kristy Brooks. Directed by Abe Forsythe

 

Comedies in the horror genre have to strike a most delicate balance. On the one hand, the scares have to deliver but on the other hand so do the jokes – all without dragging the movie down to the level of a spoof. It’s hellishly hard to pull off.

This Australian zombie apocalypse effort does give it the old college try. Slacker Dave (England), a washed-up metal musician has broken up with his girlfriend Sara (Townsend) – we spend most of the credit sequence watching a montage of the uncomfortable arguments between the two – and has taken up on his sister Tess’s (Stewart) couch.

He’s a self-centered twit who has taken no ownership of his own part in his relationship’s demise. He bonds with her son Felix (La Torraca) over violent videogames and inappropriate behavior, but the kid is five years old and seems much more mature than Felix who has already frayed the nerves of his sister to the point that she’s ready to kick him out of her flat. Maybe that would have done him some good.

Instead, he develops a crush on Miss Caroline (Nyong’o), the perky kindergarten teacher of Felix. He ends up volunteering to chaperone on a field trip to a petting zoo/farm where kid TV superstar Teddy McGiggle (Gad) happens to be shooting his TV show on location. Also coincidentally. but pf a much less desirable sort, an experiment on a nearby U.S. military base has gone terribly out of control and a horde of zombies are descending on the unsuspecting attraction, putting the kids and celebrities alike at risk.

The gore sequences are done pretty decently, although there’s nothing particularly cutting edge here and nothing you haven’t already seen on The Walking Dead. Where the movie really falls down is as a comedy; much of the humor is extremely broad, perhaps in an effort to appeal to a younger audience but the gore is at times intense so that would seem to indicate that the filmmakers were looking for a mature audience. Or maybe, that they figure that the younger sense is desensitized to the violence through their embrace of videogames. They might have a point.

There is also a point that is a tribute to teachers and much of that goes to Nyong’o whose Miss Caroline reminds us of the teachers who shielded their charges from flying bullets at Newtown and other equally infamous school shooting situations. It’s also easy to understand why anyone would develop a crush on her; Nyong’o absolutely shines here and dang it if you won’t develop a bit of an attraction to her as well. As for the other lead characters, Dave is far too self-centered a creature to root for much and despite his turn to the light midway through the film, his change of heart doesn’t seem quite believable. Gad is generally a compelling performer but the alcoholic and cowardly McGiggle is simply too repulsive and one-note to be memorable – so much so that I had to go back to this paragraph and add him in just before publishing this review.

The pacing is a bit leaden and the film’s inability to decide what it wants to be costs it. In a season when we’ll be flooded with horror films, there are others that are undoubtedly more worthy of your attention than this one (hopefully the Zombieland sequel will be one of them). Other than Nyong’o, there really isn’t much to recommend this film but she’s almost enough. Almost.

REASONS TO SEE: Nyong’o is absolutely lustrous.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor falls flat in places. Ridiculously slow-paced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, bloody zombie violence, brief drug use and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Taylor Swift’s hit song “Shake It Off” is a pivotal song in the screenplay but initially the producers couldn’t secure the rights. It took a personal appeal from Nyong’o directly to Swift I order to get the rights to the song.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warm Bodies
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Serendipity

Wild Rose


A star is born.

(2018) Musical Drama (NEON) Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okonedo, Adam Mitchell, Daisy Littlefield, James Harkness, Ryan Kerr, Nicole Kerr, Louise McCarthy, Janey Godley, Craig Parkinson, Jamie Sives, Doreen McGillvray, Ken Falconer, Benny Young, Bob Harris, Ashley McBryde, Mark Hagen, Gemma McElhinney, Sondra Morton, Ashley Shelton.  Directed by Tom Harper

 

It’s not a story we haven’t heard before. Hard luck underdog with extraordinary talent dreams big but those closest to them belittle those dreams and urge them to be “more normal.” Once someone believes in them though, the sky is the limit.

Rose-Lynn (Buckley) hasn’t had things easy but then again, she hasn’t exactly made things easy on herself. She is just getting released from prison when we first meet her. She is returning to her Glasgow home where her mom Marion (Walters) waits with her two children, eight-year-old Wynonna (Littlefield) and five-year-old Lyle (Mitchell). The two are less than pleased to see her; to them, she is a figure who is rarely there for her. They are much more closely bonded to Marion.

You see, Rose-Lynn has a big dream – she wants to be a huge country music star. She knows that if she stays in Glasgow, that will never happen. She has to go to where the action is – Nashville. Getting there will take more money than she has and likely more than she can save up in any kind of reasonable time, particularly as a housecleaner for a rich family, including the sympathetic Susannah (Okonedo). It is Susannah’s kids who discover Rose-Lynn’s talent as she belts out a tune while vacuuming the floor. Susannah, once she hears Rose-Lynn sing, is eager to help her achieve her dreams; Marion is less supportive, arguing that her first responsibility is to Lyle and Wynonna. Which will Rose-Lynn choose, her family or her dream? Is it possible that she can have both?

We’ve seen this kind of rags to riches story before, and many times in the country idiom. In fact, country music seems to lend itself to this kind of story more keenly for some reason; rock and roll stardom tends to be less desirable in Hollywood, I suppose. Still, it feels pretty old hat watching the plot progress. At the same time it could have used a bit of trimming during the middle third when the film lags a little bit.

The saving grace here is Buckley. Putting it simply, she reeks of stardom, both from a musical standpoint (she not only sings but co-wrote most of the original songs) and from an acting standpoint. It is rare to see a performer leave it all out there onscreen emotionally but Buckley does just that. You feel every bit of frustration, every hope, every triumph and every disappointment. There is an honesty to Buckley’s performance here that is endearing. Despite Rose-Lynn being her own worst enemy and often doing things that make you want to give her a good talking to, you end up falling for her a little. Don’t be surprised if you see Buckley getting plum roles with Oscar ramifications in the very near future – it’s not out of the realm of possibility that she might get a good look from Oscar for this role.

Buckley gets some ace support from both Okonedo and the always-reliable Walters, who seems to be channeling Judi Dench here. The kid actors are basically okay and most of the other supporting roles are fair to middling but the leads more than make up for that. Some Americans may find the thick Glaswegian accent a trifle hard to translate often during the film; others may have no trouble with it but it does require a careful ear throughout.

Not so the music which is a mix of country standards and original tunes. Buckley seems very comfortable as a honky-tonk singer and her stage performances in the show are electrifying. I don’t know if there’s a soundtrack album available but I imagine that there will be a demand for one, if not for a tour starring Buckley although that may or may not be possible. Her acting career is likely to be a bit more time-consuming from here on out.

REASONS TO SEE: Jessie Buckley is a major talent.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pedestrian story lacks any surprise.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole bunch o’ F-bombs, some sexuality and a bit of drug material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buckley was a runner-up in a British singing competition which brought her notice to producers. Among other things, she was previously cast in the HBO mini-series Chernobyl.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Coal Miner’s Daughter
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Firstborn

Little Woods


When you’re knocked to the floor it can be a savage affair getting back to your feet.

(2018) Drama (NEON) Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Lance Reddick, Luke Kirby, James Badge Dale, Elizabeth Maxwell, Luci Christian, Rochelle Robinson, Morgana Shaw, Joe Stevens, Brandon Potter, Alexis West, Lydia Tracy, Gary Teague, Jeremy St. James, Carolyn Hoffman, Lawrence Varnado, Jason Newman, Stan Taylor, Charlie Ray Reid, Max Hartman, Allison Moseley. Directed by Nia DaCosta

Sometimes, I wonder how on earth we ever ended up with our current President. One need look no further than this film which addresses issues that hit close to home for far too many working Americans, particularly those in rural areas – issues that the other party failed to address in 2016 and if they don’t get their act together and start talking to these same working Americans about these issues, will end up in a very similar result in 2020.

Ollie (Thompson) lives in a bleak town in North Dakota near the Canadian border. The town is booming thanks to the fracking industry and filled with plenty of rough and tumble men who work the pipeline. However, it’s a rough existence in which muscles are constantly in pain and the nagging work injuries aren’t well-served by the town clinic where the waits exceed the amount of time these men have to visit a medical facility so they rely on drug smugglers bringing Oxy from Canada at prices they can afford. This isn’t their story.

Ollie was one such smuggler who got caught. Out on probation, she is mourning her mother for whom she was caretaker during an extensive and eventually terminal illness. She remains in her mom’s house, sleeping on the floor of her mom’s room, trying to eke out a living selling coffee and sandwiches in lieu of painkillers. The house is in foreclosure and the bank isn’t particularly compassionate. Making money legitimately for a woman in this town is almost impossible; the career choices that pay enough to survive for women are essentially what Ollie got busted for and dancing on a pole (the world’s oldest profession goes unremarked upon but is likely a choice as well).

Ollie’s estranged sister Deb (James) returns at an inopportune time. Pregnant by her abusive alcoholic boyfriend (Dale) and trying to support a little boy on her own, Deb lives in a trailer illegally parked on a diner waitress paycheck that doesn’t begin to cover the cost of her pregnancy. The nearest abortion clinic (and the only one in the state) is 200 miles away and is still expensive enough that Deb can’t afford it. As Ollie puts it, your choices are only as good as your options.

The two manage to reconcile but it becomes obvious to Ollie that the only way out is to resume her previous life. She will need to make a run to Canada and get a Manitoba health care card for her sister to do it; the drug dealer (Evans) she worked for previously who is as dangerous as they come. As things spiral down from bad to worse to untenable, the two women must find an inner reservoir of strength that may not even be enough to get them through.

Although the movie addresses a lot of topics that have some serious political ramifications here in 2019, this isn’t the kind of movie that hits you in the face with its politics. DaCosta sets up a situation that is not uncommon among women in rural areas and lets the characters tell their own stories. When considering the assault on reproductive rights and Roe v. Wade that is occurring in certain states at the moment, one can appreciate the frustration and concern among women who are stuck in similar situations where money isn’t plentiful and neither are good options.

Okay, I need to stop getting political here but it can’t be denied that the issues are exceedingly timely. It also can’t be denied that Thompson, as Ollie, shows a range that puts her in very elite company and marks her as a potential Oscar contender down the road – maybe not necessarily for this film but for others that follow. She has that kind of capability. DaCosta, who has been tapped by Jordan Peele to helm the upcoming Candyman reboot, has a similar capability.

My issue is that the movie is taking too many clues from films like Frozen River and Winter’s Bone, both with powerful female leads placed in an environment of despair, drugs and bleak prospects. It gives the overall film a sense of familiarity that isn’t a good thing. The movie’s ending is also a bit disappointing and derivative. DaCosta didn’t have to reinvent the wheel but I thought her choice was a bit too safe. I also thought the score was a bit intrusive.

There is much to like about the film and despite its relatively low score I do urge most cinephiles to check it out. There is some real talent here in front of and behind the camera. There is a raw tone to the movie that might turn off some but nonetheless as mentioned before these are the people who are suffering in 21st century America and whose needs are far from being met. There is enough power here that despite the film’s flaws it is worthwhile to consider it for a look.

REASONS TO SEE: Thompson cements her reputation as an actress with big things ahead of her.
REASONS TO AVOID: Been there, seen that.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of drug references and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story was conceived as a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/25/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frozen River
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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If the Dancer Dances