Firstborn (Pirmdzimtais)


Even in Latvia, a stroll in the dark could end up costing you dearly.

(2017) Thriller (ArtsploitationKaspars Znotins, Maija Dovelka, Dainis Grube, Kaspars Zale. Directed by Aik Karapetian

What does it mean to be a man? In this era of #MeToo and renewed focus on rape culture and patriarchy, the book is being rewritten on the subject. Once upon a time, men were required to be providers and protectors, to rid the house of any creepy crawly spotted by the wife and to repair anything that requires it in the house. These days, on top of all of that, they are also required to not know where anything is in the house, to never ever ask for directions no matter what the cost and be able to anticipate whatever mood our mate is happening to experience at that particular moment.

All kidding aside, the nature of masculinity is changing and while that is on the surface a very good thing, what does that do to expectations? Francis (Znotins) is not, by any measure, a very masculine man. An architect, he is the very definition of a man who wouldn’t hurt a fly – possibly because he’s terrified the fly might turn around and beat the crap out of him.

As introverted as Francis is, his wife Katrina (Dovelka) is the polar opposite. Pretty much feminine by every standard, she is outgoing – the life of the party – and a beauty in any beholder’s eyes whereas Francis is a skinny and slight man who has a face that can only be described as ordinary. It is hard to figure out what she sees in him and by appearances she’s beginning to wonder too.

The two have been trying to get pregnant for some time without success. They go to a small party with friends who have a pretty amazing kid and Katrina is beginning to feel like her opportunity to have one of her own is rapidly passing her by. She has a little too much to drink and as the couple walk home, a passing motorcyclist (Zale) reaches out and tries to grab her purse unsuccessfully. She yells at him, prompting him to come back. He assaults both Francis (taking him out with a single punch) and Katrina, violating her with a tire iron. Humiliated and traumatized, she gives her assailant the purse.

Her relationship with Francis goes from barely cordial to much worse. It is clear she feels like he didn’t protect her when he was required to and to be honest, he doesn’t disagree. When he sees her getting chummy with the police detective assigned to the case (who happens to be an old flame of Katrina’s) he decides to find the mugger himself, and force him to return the bag and apologize to his girl. You can imagine that this is going to go all sorts of bad and it does but not in the way you’d think.

There is really not a lot of subtlety here; Karapetian makes no bones about what his interest is here. Francis undergoes something of a transformation from a meek, mousy sort to one full of toxic masculinity who begins to take out his insecurities on Katrina, even after he finds out she’s finally pregnant. There follow a lot of twists and turns, some of which any regular viewer of thrillers will be able to suss out in advance.

Karapetian is actually quite brilliant behind the camera particularly in terms of his shot composition and his framing. Whether filming in dimly lit apartments (one has to wonder if Francis and Katrina are paying their electric bill) or in remote snowy landscapes, the look of the film is distinctive. It doesn’t hurt that both Dovelka and Znotins deliver strong, believable performances. During the initial encounter with the motorcycle-riding thug, the danger is palpable and the scene is terrifying in a realistic way that directors of Hollywood thrillers often get wrong. This one feels like it could have happened exactly as depicted.

The film does take its time in getting to its denouement and maybe some American viewers will find this a bit too long for their tastes. There are some scenes in the middle the movie didn’t need to be honest. Still, as thrillers go this one is top notch and it is likely to get thinking audiences doing just that; it certainly will make for some interesting discussion. I’m not sure I agree with Karapetian’s point of view completely but I give him props for having one.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot and framed.
REASONS TO AVOID: Runs a little too long and moves a little too slow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence (some of it brutal), sexual situations, profanity, nudity and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Karapetian was born in Armenia but raised in Latvia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Straw Dogs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Captain Black

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Bird Box


Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.

(2018) Horror (Netflix) Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson, Jacki Weaver, Trevante Rhodes, Rosa Salazar, Danielle Macdonald, Lil Rel Howery, Tom Hollander, Colson Baker, BD Wong, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Vivien Lyra Blair, Julian Edwards, Parminder Nagra, Rebecca Pidgeon, Amy Gumenick, Taylor Handley, Happy Anderson, Kyle Beatty, Ashley A. Alvarado. Directed by Susanne Bier

 

The secret to a great horror movie is to never reveal the monster too early. What we can’t see is often the scariest creature of them all.

Civilization has collapsed but it’s not a plague of zombies that has done it; rather, an unseen monster that when it establishes eye contact causes the viewer to commit suicide. Essentially, nobody can go out of their house because once you see the monster, you’re toast within moments. In the early scenes of the movie we see precisely how quickly things devolve into chaos as people ram their cars into immovable objects, stab themselves to death and calmly open the door of a burning car and sitting down in the passenger scene, immolating themselves.

Malorie (Bullock) is a take-charge kind of woman who finds herself in this environment. Pregnant, she is on her way from a routine doctor appointment when things go to Hell in a handbasket. She takes refuge in the home of a curmudgeonly novelist who watches his wife kill herself after she beckons Malorie and other stranded motorists into her fortress-like home. Her husband Douglas (Malkovich) is none too pleased about the new guests but admits grudgingly that they bring special skills to the table, including ex-military construction crew chief (Rhodes) who develops a relationship with Malorie, grandmotherly Sheryl (Weaver), conspiracy theorist and grocery clerk Charlie (Howery) and a few others who come and go, some with less-than-noble intentions.

This culminates in a harrowing journey Malorie takes with her children (identified only as Boy (Edwards) and Girl (Blair) five years after the fact in which she rows a canoe down a river while blindfolded, hoping to make it to a rumored sanctuary in Northern California which is mostly shown in flash-forwards.

Bullock is brilliant here in a rare appearance in a horror film for the actress (she doesn’t like horror movies and generally doesn’t take roles in them – her last horror movie was more than 20 years previously). Malkovich chews the scenery here in typical fashion while Weaver is competent as is Paulson. Sadly, the two juveniles playing Boy and Girl are as bland as their names would suggest; they spend most of the film trying to act rather than trying to project themselves into their characters. This is a problem for many juvenile actors and actresses which tend to lead to stiff performances which we get here.

We never see the creatures responsible although we see the carnage they cause. It is a good thing that we don’t; they are far more terrifying that way. Bier is a respected director having done most of her work in her native Denmark; this is her first genre film and she attacks it as she would any drama, allowing the emotions of the characters set the tone, making the movie more interesting than the average creature feature.

This was one of the most popular films released by Netflix last year; it even inspired another stupid dangerous internet phenomenon known as “the bird box challenge” in which people try to navigate a distance (indoors and/or outside) while blindfolding leading to a raft of injuries, some of which required visits to the Emergency Room. While the tension Bier builds is unbelievable, the story is just the opposite. While this isn’t the kind of horror film that uses creature effects to set it’s gory tone, although there is some gore. This is the kind of horror movies that even those who aren’t fond of the genre can see.

REASONS TO SEE: The tension is unrelenting. Another great concept, even if it is a little bit derivative. Some very smart decisions made by the director.
REASONS TO AVOID: The juvenile actors are a liability.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and gore, profanity, adult themes and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bullock is actually blindfolded during the scenes in which her character is (which makes up about half the film) and refused to allow eye holes to be cut, causing her to bump into the camera more than once during shooting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Quiet Place
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Spy Behind Home Plate

ROMA


Cleo enjoys the view from the rooftops of suburban Mexico City.

(2018) Drama (Netflix) Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf, Daniela Damesa, Nancy Garcia Garcia, Verónica Garcia, Andy Cortės, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Josė Manuel Guerrero Mendoza, Latin Lover, Zarela Lizbeth Chinolla Arellano, Jose Luis López Gómez, Edwin Mendoza Ramirez, Clementina Guadarrama. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

 

Some movies assault our senses frontally; others wash over us like a wave. Roma, the Oscar-nominated Netflix opus from acclaimed Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, is one of the latter types of films.

Set in the upscale Roma neighborhood during the turbulent 1970s and loosely based on the director’s own childhood. Cleo (Aparicio) is the maid and nanny for an upper middle class family, including Sra. Sofia (de Tavira) and the father (Grediaga), a medical doctor. On the surface, life is good for the family; they have a lovely home and enjoy evenings of watching TV together as a family with the maid and the other servant Adela (N. G. Garcia) taking care of the family’s every need.

But when the doctor leaves for a conference in Canada which turns out to be a euphemism for leaving his family for his mistress, things turn upside down for the family. Sofia becomes withdrawn, angry; she relies on Cleo more than ever to run the house. The children begin to act out. In the meantime, Cleo gets pregnant courtesy of her jerk of a boyfriend Fermin (Guerrero) and she goes into labor just as the notorious Corpus Christi massacre of 1971 is underway. The family begins to disintegrate from within.

In many ways the movie feels more Italian than Mexican; the slice of life aspect that sees the dual deterioration of Sofia and Cleo has the fatalistic yet dreamlike – albeit strangely realistic – quality that marks the films of some of the great Italian directors of the 70s through the 80s. Cuarón shoots the film essentially in medium shots nearly exclusively, making u feel like flies on the wall but oddly detached. We are not so much part of the family but spies within. All that’s needed to complete the effect is a gigantic tape recorder.

Shooting in black and white usually produces either a retro or documentary feel but again there is that feeling that we are voyeurs in the household. In fact, I would venture to say that this is reality television in the sense that movies once fulfilled that role. It is at once mundane and beautiful.

While Cuarón is specifically examining his own background in a specific time and place, this movie is equally applicable to virtually any time and place. Not all of us grow up with servants but nearly all of us grow up with challenges in our family, whether it be the sudden loss of a parent, alcohol or drug abuse or simply that the times they are a’changin’, we all know heartache in our lives.

This may be too slow-moving for some. The story unfolds like a rose even though there is more rot than rose to it. Parts of the movie are difficult to follow although Cuarón does tie everything nicely by movie’s end, I suspect that there aren’t a lot of Americans who will be patient enough for the two hours plus running time. Also, most of us are going to see this on television or computer screens at home or in some other distraction-heavy environment. If ever there was a movie that was meant to be experienced in a movie theater, it’s this one. Here in Central Florida, the movie was only available in The Villages which is a real shame. That’s partly due to the onerous rental terms that Netflix set for the film, making it nearly impossible for a theater to turn any sort of profit for running the movie. Maybe at some point kinder heads will prevail at Netflix and they will make the film available for a more reasonable theatrical release. I think the goodwill that such an action would generate among their subscribers (and potential subscribers) would be worth far more what they are profiting from the film currently.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the most beautifully composed shots you’ll see this year. Aparicio is a major find. The cinematography is compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie is slow moving and occasionally disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, graphic nudity and adult themes throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie from a streaming service to be nominated for both Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 96/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinema Paradiso
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Point Man

Choosing Signs


An American tree-hugger teaches an Irish lad the joys of natural energy.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Random) Jessica Lancaster, Owen Dara, Betsy Douds, Jeremy Ocanas, Stephen Wyley, Cora Fenton, Alan Riordan, Claire Bermingham. Directed by Owen Dara

 

The universe is a great big place. Some folks believe that our lives are guided by it if you just notice the signs that the universe is sending you. Personally I think the universe has way too much to do to bother with individuals but that’s just me and I’m a heathen.

Jennifer (Lancaster) believes it though. When she has tried to make decisions on her own, they’ve been utter catastrophe. She figures that allowing the universe through flipped coins, throwing dice – i.e. random chance – probably couldn’t end up worse. This has brought Jennifer from the shores of the United States to Cork, Ireland along with her mentally ill brother Matty (Ocanas) whose institutionalization has been paid for by Marc (Wyley), with whom Jennifer is living. Matty is obsessed with cars and building one out of found items. Marc has an obsession of his own – building low cost housing for immigrants during an Irish economic boom known as the Irish Tiger – and Jennifer is kind of drifting through the world that has been laid out for her through the signs.

Eamon is the nurse for Matty at the institution. Matty likes him; the easy-going Eamon treats him like he’s not crazy. Matty is also fully aware that Eamon has it bad for his sister and seems to be okay with the idea. Jennifer is a bit of a new age nut – she’s a big believer in things like shakras, auras and the like – so at first the match with the down-to-earth Eamon looks doomed. The charming Irishman is persistent though and not even the knowledge that she’s living with another fella dampens his spirits much but when the inevitable happens, Jennifer finds herself left with a decision that she simply can’t leave to chance.

This is a movie with a ton of heart which can excuse a lot of sins. It is also an ultra-low budget affair (Dara made the movie for about $25K) which can excuse a lot of other sins. However, there are some issues here that one should bear in mind when choosing to watch this or not. The soundtrack, composed by Dara as well as all his other duties, is mainly made up of acoustic folk songs written by Dara and sung by Dara and Virginia Williams. Dara has a pleasant voice as does Williams but the songs are noticeably too similar and after awhile it really gets on one’s nerves. It should be said that getting the rights to songs to be included on a soundtrack can be prohibitively expensive even for performers who aren’t well-known so unless you happen to have friends in the local music community who are willing to contribute songs for nothing which is actually a loss if you count recording costs, then chances are the music will have to be DIY.

Dara is an engaging performer, using his Irish charm to full advantage. He seems to be a very strange mix for the flighty Jennifer but then, Lancaster and Dara are a couple in real life so assuming this isn’t autobiographical (which I’m told it isn’t) there’s probably much more in common between the two in real life than there is in reel life.

One thing you can say about the movie – it isn’t a typical rom-com. All four of the main characters have some sort of burden or mental issue and Marc’s Ukrainian housekeeper Svetlana (Douds) whose blunt tell-it-like-it-is style forces all of them sooner or later to take a good hard look at themselves. Even Matty gets a dose of Svetlana’s forthright tongue. In many ways, Svetlana is the most compelling character and despite being a supporting character who gets little screen time eventually becomes the one you’d want to spend time with in real life.

Not everyone will latch onto this. It is by-the-seat-of-the-pants filmmaking and at times the low budget is very evident. What remains with me after having seen this yesterday is that charm, heart and conviction can go a long way in indie filmmaking and Choosing Signs has plenty of all three. If you’re willing to overlook the fact that there are no stars, no Hollywood glitz and the fact that all of the characters are damaged in some way – even Eamon as we discover late in the film – then you might just fall under the sway of this charming Irish production.

REASONS TO GO: Dara gives the film a great deal of charm.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack has too many similar-sounding folk songs and needs way more variety.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to producing, writing, directing and starring in the movie, Dara also composed all the songs for the soundtrack and edited the film as well. He may also have swept the floor of the theater after the show.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Roosevelt
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Public Image is Rotten

Minding the Gap


Skating can be more than just a passion.

(2018) Documentary (Hulu/Magnolia) Zach Milligan, Keire Johnson, Nina Bowgren, Kent Abernathy, Bing Liu, Mingyue Bolen, Roberta Johnson, Rory Mulligan, Kyle, Eric, Vickie. Directed by Bing Liu

 

Sometimes a film presents itself in such a way that you expect one thing (and those expectations are might low) but are delivered another which is so much more than you thought it might be. Those are the moments of discovery when you realize that you have seen a movie that isn’t just entertaining or enlightening but life-changing.

The movie begins as a suburban skateboarding documentary and to be honest, I’ve seen enough of those. The main protagonists are shredding around Rockford, Illinois and during interviews talk about how they just want to skate, they’re not interested in being a traditional part of society and that they don’t want to be put into any sort of box. These are all things about skate culture that I found repelling, a kind of entitlement that is unearned. As it turned out I was wrong.

We see the last three years of the lives of these skaters, essentially, as Zach – the leader of this group of friends, wrestles with fatherhood as his girlfriend Nina gives birth. Keire, the lone African-American member of the group, feels a sense of belonging with his friends that he doesn’t have with his family and Asian-American Liu – who initially was planning to only be behind the camera – begins to realize that documenting his friends’ lives is opening up some of the rougher parts of his own.

All three of these boys (and Nina as well) are on the cusp of adulthood and they are being dragged into it kicking and screaming. They don’t always act responsibly and they don’t always say or do the right thing. In other words, they are just like all of us at that age. Some of the things they do are destructive, some of the things they do are sweet but in every instance there is a sense of being unsure that they are doing the right thing. Like all of us as we move from childhood to adulthood, they are flailing around in the dark and hoping that they’ll find something to hold onto.

The relationship between Zach and Nina begins to deteriorate. They fight all the time, leading to a screaming match in which Nina threatens to kill Zach. We sympathize with Zach as he seems to be doing his best – working long hours as a roofer – but then we hear Nina’s side of things. Zach, as it turns out, is not the guy we thought he was.

All three of the boys have issues with fatherhood – in the cases of Keire and Bing dealing with abusive fathers. As Keire wryly says early on, “Back then it was called discipline but what it’s called now is child abuse.” Their moms are interviewed as we see the toll that abusive fathers took on them as well and as the movie goes on, how the dysfunctional relationship between Zach and Nina takes a toll on her as well. Everyone in this movie undergoes big changes in maturity as the movie goes on; some for the better, others not so much.

There are a lot of scenes of the guys skateboarding, maybe a few too many but one thing you begin to realize is that skateboarding is not a hobby or even a passion; it’s a release for them. It’s a way for them to deal with their pain and it’s as necessary to their well-being as eating and breathing. The issues I had with skater culture suddenly evaporated as I watched this. Their need for non-conformity made sense now to me. I can’t always condone someone who believes that their way of living is superior to anyone else’s, but I can see why the lifestyle is chosen. In a lot of ways, surfer culture is similar.

This is a movie you should see. You might think “oh, another skateboarding film” but it’s not that. It’s a coming of age film, not in the traditional Hollywood state of mind but as it really happens to all of us. Nobody looks forward to responsibility and stress but nevertheless we want the opportunity to make our own decisions and live life on our own terms. That’s not always possible; circumstances often dictate what our actions must be, but that need for autonomy and to be ourselves remains with us even when you’re as old as I am.

REASONS TO GO: The film goes from being a skate kid doc to an unexpected treasure. I ended up getting a better understanding of skate culture. It’s very powerful in places.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit on the raw side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some brief drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liu has been filming his friends since they were all teenagers (and in Keire Johnson’s case, 11 years old) and has incorporated some of that home footage into the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 91/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Street Kids
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Mute

A Quiet Place


Splish splash I was taking a bath.

(2018) Horror (Paramount) John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Cade Woodward, Leon Russom, Rhonda Pell. Directed by John Krasinski

 

Who doesn’t love a little peace and quiet from time to time? Here is a movie that gives you plenty of the latter but not a whole lot of the former.

The premise is fiendishly simple; the Earth has been invaded by insect-like alien creatures who, blind, hunt exclusively by hearing. The slightest noise will bring the down on you and your end will not be pleasant. The Abbott family – papa Lee (Krasinski), mama Evelyn (Blunt), daughter and eldest child Regan (Simmonds) – who in a bit of intentional irony is deaf – middle son Marcus (Jupe) and youngest son beau (Woodward) try to survive in a world where noise is death, a point driven home in the opening scene in a visceral and shocking manner.

Evelyn, to make things worse, is pregnant and her due date rapidly approaches. As any woman will tell you there is nothing quiet about childbirth and certainly nothing quiet about babies. Papa Lee however isn’t willing to say die and has things pretty much figured out – except that almost nothing goes the way he plans it.

The creatures in this movie are terrific; they make logical sense and in fact this is a horror movie that creates its own universe and the rules therein and sticks to them. This is essentially a silent movie although there is ambient noise but it isn’t always quiet. In this space, nobody had better hear you scream.

The performances here are really, really good from Krasinski as the embattled father butting heads with his headstrong daughter and his wife who thinks he’s being too hard on her and Simmonds – so good in Wonderstruck – proves that performance wasn’t a fluke. It is Blunt however who is the most memorable here. Blunt is so emotionally expressive; she acts mainly with body language and facial expression without dialogue to aid her, she communicates directly with her audience without needing subtitles. While I’m not sure Oscar will take notice, she should at least be considered for a Best Actress nod.

Krasinski as a director is promising enough; while he hasn’t broken through to the A-List quite yet as an actor, he once again shows he has the talent to get there eventually. It may turn out that his future lies in directing, which isn’t an easy path to take. Krasinski shows he is more than capable enough to follow that path. Still, it’s hard to dismiss his acting skills, particularly in light of a poignant scene near the end of the movie in which a father’s love shines brightest in the darkness.

This is an outstanding horror movie that is going to end up as one of the year’s best chillers. It’s a shame if you didn’t already catch it on the big screen which is where this would be much more effective; however if you didn’t you at least have the opportunity to see it on your own home video setup. Don’t make the same mistake twice; even if you’re not fond of genre movies you should see this one. Even film buffs are raving about it.

REASONS TO GO: Krasinski the director keeps the tension high throughout and Krasinski the actor once again shows star quality. The monster in this film is outstanding.
REASONS TO STAY: The opening scene may be too shocking and disturbing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence and bloody images, alongside some children in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the entire film not a single door is opened or closd.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Paramount Movies, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews: Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: See No Evil
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Across the River

My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette)


A snow day is a great day!

(2016) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Will Forte, Erick Abbate, Romy Beckman, Ness Krell, Nick Offerman, Ellen Page, Amy Sedaris, Susanne Blakeslee, Barry Mitchell, Olivia Bucknor, Clara Young, Finn Robbins, JD Blanc, Michael Sinterniklaas, Stephanie Sheh. Directed by Claude Barras

 

What makes a movie a kid’s movie? Is it because the protagonist is a child? Or is it because it’s animated? Maybe the subject matter is less complicated than a film aimed at older audiences? These are all fair questions and while it is generally fairly easy to tell what is a movie meant for the elementary school set and what is not, some films are a little bit harder to gauge.

Icare (Abbate) is a sad, lonely child. He lives with his alcoholic mom in a flat which is littered with empty beer cans that his mom has consumed. His father is long gone. His only joy is flying a kite with a superhero drawn on it – one that perhaps is his notion of who his dad is. On a stormy day, his mother will no longer be able to abuse him any longer .

A kindly cop named Raymond (Offerman) takes Icare to a local orphanage where he declares that his name is Zucchini which is apparently what his mom called him for reasons never explained. As he has so little of her left to remember her by (poignantly he brings an empty beer can with him and his kite – his only two possessions) he insists on being referred to by that sobriquet even though it doesn’t really suit him, as Simon (Beckman), the resident bully, points out while spitefully calling him “Potato” which while cruel is entirely apt.

Most of the kids have a horror story to tell; Ahmed (Mitchell) waits for his deported mom to return, while Alice (Young) was removed from an abusive household and bangs her fork on her plate when she is stressed. Simon himself is the son of criminals who are jailed, leaving him in the orphanage to hope for adoption – although as Simon cynically informs Zucchini whom he eventually learns to respect, the kids are too old to have a chance at adoption.

Into this wacky family of kids comes Camille (Krell) whose father murdered her mother in front of her and then turned the gun on himself. She lives with an aunt (Sedaris) who only keeps her for the stipend the state pays her and is cruel and abusive towards her niece. Zucchini takes a shine to Camille and the two rapidly become inseparable. A field trip to the mountains with married teachers Paul (Forte) and Rosy (Page) only cements that bond. As for Zucchini, he has developed a close relationship with Raymond who is thinking of adopting him and maybe Camille as well. But the Aunt wants to bring back Camille to her house so she can get the government payments again. Will this new family be quashed before it can even be started?

The film is based on a children’s book which is apparently much darker than what is onscreen here; the look of the film is much different than the illustrations that are part of the book as well. This stop motion animated feature has a very European look to it; the big heads but expressive faces, the eerily long bendy arms and the backgrounds that speak of the Alps. It certainly doesn’t look like an American film and maybe that will put off some.

And, like European films that are aimed at children, it refuses to talk down to them. The movie looks at tragedy and doesn’t turn away or sugarcoat it. It allows the children to grieve, to be sad. It allows them to overcome and that is the important message; not that Zucchini had a tough time of it but that he came through it and in doing so was able to trust and love again.

The movie does have some flaws; from time to time I felt myself wondering how much was going to be piled onto Zucchini and let’s face it, there’s a lot. While the kids are a little bit too good to be true for the most part – Simon is the clear exception and even he is basically a decent kid – the adults are damn near Saints other than Zucchini’s mom and Camille’s aunt.

The movie does have the virtue of brevity; the film is only 70 minutes long so even those with the most acute cases of ADHD should be able to sit through the entire length of it. It also has a lot of bright colors that will keep the really little ones engaged. Never underestimate the value of bright colors and simple shapes in keeping the toddlers out of trouble.

The movie is full of moments of genuine emotion without leaving you feeling manipulated; it comes by those moments honestly. You can’t help but feel for these orphans who have been through so much yet are so resilient. Despite his mother’s shortcomings, Zucchini misses her. He feels her absence keenly. Perhaps that is the most human thing about Zucchini after all.

REASONS TO GO: The movie certainly tugs at the heartstrings. For once, the film doesn’t talk down to children. The subject of parental loss is tackled with some sensitivity.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is overly dramatic in places.
FAMILY VALUES: The loss of parents might be a bit more difficult for the young and impressionable.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Switzerland’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language film for the 2017 Oscars; while it didn’t make the final short list, it did pick up a nomination for Best Animated Feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pippi Longstocking
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Raw