Butter (2020)


The intensity of a teen boy confronting his own end.

(2020) Dramedy (Blue Fox) Alex Kersting, Mira Sorvino, Mykelti Williamson, McKaley Miller, Annabeth Gish, Brian Van Holt, Jack Griffo, Monte Markham, Ravi Patel, John Kassir, Jake Austin Walker, Rachel Wotherspoon, Adain Bradley, Natalie Valerin, Matthew Gold, Nikki Tuazon, Jessie Rabideau, Danielle Langlois, Walker Barnes, Shannon Kiely, Taj Speights, Olivia Baptista. Directed by Paul A. Kaufman

 

We are a society that demands conformity and regards those who fail to conform with suspicion and, just as often, with derision. Nowhere is that more apparent than in high schools, where those who don’t “fit in” often become the targets of bullying. Sometimes, just getting out of bed and going to school can be an at of heroism.

Butter (Kersting) is a morbidly obese high school junior in a suburban high school in Phoenix, where his parents lead more-than-comfortable lives. His mom (Sorvino) adores him and is his rock; she is also his enabler, often soothing his depression with his favorite food. To his dad (Van Holt), Butter is a disappointment, when he bothers to notice him at all. Oh, and the name? It’s an unwelcome nickname foisted on him after a group of bullies forced him to eat a whole stick of butter. Like most things, Butter just accepts it and lives with it.

He yearns for friendships, particularly from Anna (Miller), the prettiest girl in school whom he has a major crush on. He is a talented musician, a soulful sax player which his music teacher (Williamson) has noticed; he tries to get Butter to join the jazz band but Butter isn’t interested in standing in front of people and giving them another opportunity to make him a target. He is content to stay at home on the Internet, where he can create his own persona as a sensitive jock from another school, which enables him to chat with Anna, whom he believes wouldn’t give him the time of day if she knew who he really was.

After one lunch room humiliation too many, Butter reaches a breaking point (or, perhaps more aptly, a melting point). He creates a website where he announces his intention to eat himself to death on live stream on New Year’s Eve at midnight. He figures nobody will care anyway.

A curious thing happens, though; when he arrives at school the next day, people are treating him differently, like a hero rather than a target. A couple of popular boys take him under their wing and introduce him to others in their circle. For the first time in his life, he feels accepted and it changes his outlook on things. He even begins to lose weight, quite unintentionally.

But nobody is trying to convince him to change his mind. Nobody seems to think he’ll actually go through with it, and nobody reports his intentions to an adult – in fact, they advise him to password-protect the site so that adults can’t access it. In fact, his friends somewhat ghoulishly help him plan the menu for his final meal. But will Butter go through with it, now that he has something to live for? And if he doesn’t go through with it, will things end up being worse than before?

The issue of teen bullying has been tackled in documentaries and films for quite a while now; Erin Jade Lange, who wrote the book that this is based on, has written several that include teen bullying as a central theme. In that sense, there isn’t a lot of subject matter that’s particularly new here. That said, though, the movie packed a lot of resonance in it, especially for those who have endured the kind of hazing both physical and psychological that Butter endures (his real name, by the way, isn’t revealed until near the end of the film, and I won’t tell you what it is here). I have to admit, for the sake of transparency, that I was bullied during that time in my life, although not as severely as depicted here. I often felt the same way Butter did, and can relate to him eating to relieve the pain. To this day, I use food as a means of self-medication.

And to be honest, this isn’t to point fingers at anyone; I’ve forgiven those who were mean to me back then and moved on long ago. This just is to explain why I do feel an empathy for Butter – not just the character, but the film – that others might not. And quite frankly, there are some moments in the movie that brought tears to my eyes, including one in which Butter’s mother realizes the depth of his pain and how she has failed to see it. It’s a credit to Kersting and Sorvino that the scene works so well; it could have been a moment that came off as maudlin (and, to be fair, others do come off that way) but it winds up being absolutely heartbreaking and cathartic. Kersting, in his first lead role, gives Butter a great deal of personality. He feels like a real kid with real suffering. Miller also does a good job with Anna, who turns out to have more depth to her than even Butter gave her credit for.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch, and at some times it tries to use a light touch when a heavier hand would have done, and vice versa, but it does hit the mark more often than it misses, and becomes, overall, a really moving film. Not everyone will be as affected by it as I have, but those who can look back at (or are right in the middle of) their high school years with bittersweet, conflicting feelings may well find this movie just what they need to get by.

REASONS TO SEE: Really speaks to the outsider in all of us, particularly those who have been teased for their weight. Kersting is very personable. The cast is strong throughout, particularly Sorvino who has a wonderful relationship with Kersting. Some very wrenching moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit maudlin in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some serious adult themes involving teen suicide, profanity, violence and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on a 2012 young adult novel by Erin Jade Lange.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/28/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews; Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Virgin Suicides
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Creation Stories

Mother, I Love You (Mammu, es Tevi milu)


A kid running from his troubles.

(2013) Drama (108 Media) Kristofers Konovalovs, Vita Varpina, Matiss Livcans, Indra Brike, Haralds Barzdins. Directed by Janis Nords

 

I’ve said it before and I’m not the first to say it: it’s not easy being a single mom. We’ve seen plenty of movies that back up that very thing. However, it is not often we see the story from the child of a single mom’s viewpoint. What must that be like?

Raimonds (Konovalovs) – whose name is pronounced “Raymond” – lives in the Latvian capital city of Riga. He’s a bright boy who goes to school, plays saxophone in the school orchestra, plays Wii at night when his mother allows and rides his push scooter around town getting from the apartment he shares with his mom to school mostly with occasional side trips to visit his best friend Peteris (Livcans).

Raimonds’ mom (Varpina) is an obstetrician who works brutal hours; often she has late night shifts at the clinic she works at and is from time to time called in for an emergency. Some of these late night shifts though are less work and more play; she has been developing a romantic relationship with a colleague. Raimonds is no fool; he is aware his mother is lying to him.

Peteris’ mom (Brike) is a housecleaner and often the two boys accompany her to one home or another. One that catches the boy’s eye is one that the owner is rarely home at. The man has a motor scooter parked in one of the rooms of his apartment which of course to young 12-year-old boys is absolutely irresistible. Raimonds manages to snatch the key to the apartment so the boys can come back and rev up the scooter.

Raimonds has, like most 12-year-old boys a streak of devilish behavior. When tall girls are mean to him, he is not above fighting back and when he uses a bra that one of his mates has stuffed down his shirt to plug up the horn of a particularly snooty girl, he gets written up. This is a disaster; he is required to tell his mother and get her signature on a form which would undoubtedly get a beating for him. His mother believes in corporal punishment which seems a bit alien to American audiences these days. In any event, he endeavors to conceal his malfeasance from his mom which leads to a spiraling series of events that grow progressively more serious. Extricating himself from the web he has woven for himself may be more than he can handle.

An awful lot of this is going to resonate with those who have grown up with a single parent and those who have been single parents. The very real issues of balancing work and quality time with one’s child as well as keeping control over children when they grow unruly are addressed here without sentimentality. The mom is no saint but she’s no worse than most mothers either. She’s doing the best she can and often she is operating in the dark as to what her child is truly up to. This is the part that parents will nod in sympathy with.

Konovalovs is a very natural actor who never over-emotes; his fear of his mother is very real and very natural. Like most kids, he operates on the philosophy that what his mother doesn’t know won’t hurt her (and won’t get him hurt) and while there is no doubt that Raimonds loves his mother very much and wants her respect and love back, he often plays her for a fool simply because he can.

I think it is more reasonable to say that Raimonds isn’t so much a bad child as he is a bored child. He has so much unsupervised time on his hands that it seems fairly natural that he would find ways to get into trouble. Each bad decision Raimonds makes from his own point of view makes sense and Nords who also wrote the film makes sure the audience is seeing that point of view clearly. At times audiences who may have less experience with child-raising may shake their heads at some of the things Raimonds does but at every turn it feels exactly what an unsupervised 12-year-old boy whose whole philosophy of life is avoiding punishment would do or decide.

Raimonds spends much of his time wandering the streets of Riga at night and it doesn’t feel as if he is unsafe at any time although he sometimes ventures into what appear to be rough neighborhoods. By day Riga looks grey and drab as if in a perpetual overcast; I have never been to Riga although I’m told it is a beautiful city but this film isn’t going to inspire anyone to visit it anytime soon.

Although it is essentially a film about kids this isn’t a kids film. The deeper Raimonds gets into his lies the grimmer things get. There are real-world repercussions for Raimonds and it isn’t pretty. While the ending of the film is a bit ambiguous it is more hopeful than the rest of the movie is so it isn’t completely a downer but it does take a while to get there. I haven’t seen a lot of Latvian films but if this movie is any indication there is some real quality filmmaking going on there.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematographer uses a fairly grim and grey palate. The movie is an accurate portrayal of a troubled boy.
REASONS TO STAY: This is not what you would call the most uplifting of films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sensuality but mostly the themes here are adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won a major prize at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival and was the official submission of Latvia for the 2014 Foreign Language category for the Academy Awards.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bicycle Thief
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Agnelli

Ida


I say a little prayer for you.

I say a little prayer for you.

(2014) Drama (Music Box) Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik, Jerzy Trela, Adam Szyszkowski, Halina Skoczynska, Joanna Kulig, Dorota Kuduk, Natalia Lagiewczyk, Afrodyta Weselek, Mariusz Jakus, Izabela Dabrowska, Artur Janusiak, Anna Grzeszczak, Jan Wociech Poradowski, Konstanty Szwemberg, Pawel Burczyk. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Offshoring

Most of us have a handle on who we are mainly because we know with confidence who we were and where we come from. Not everyone has that luxury however.

Anna (Trzebuchowska) is a teenage novitiate getting ready to take her vows as a Roman Catholic nun in communist Poland in 1962. She knew no other life but the nunnery; she had been orphaned as a baby during World War II and brought there to be raised. Shortly before the ceremony is to take place, the mother superior of her order (Skoczynska) summons her to her office and informs Anna that a relative of hers has been located. She strongly suggests that Anna go and spend some time with her aunt before the ceremony. Anna is reluctant but does so obediently.

Her Aunt Wanda (Kulesza) is different than any other woman Anna has known; a chain smoker and borderline alcoholic, Wanda lives hard and plays hard with a succession of men. However, the most startling revelation is about Anna herself.

Wanda informs her that her birth name wasn’t Anna at all but Ida – Ida Lebenstern. Her parents and siblings were all killed during the Nazi occupation. Anna, or Ida as she’s now known, decides to go with Wanda to the village where she was born and where her family died. She wants to know what happened, so Wanda and her set out in their broken down little Wartburg (an Eastern European vehicle) to the hinterlands of Poland. On the way they meet Lis (Ogrodnik), a saxophone player heading to a gig in the hotel they’ll be staying at.

It is not just her family that Ida will discover the truth about, but as she allows her sexual side to open up, she finds Lis to be very interesting indeed. And her Aunt, once a Stalinist prosecutor for the state whose many death sentences merited the nickname Red Wanda, is not nearly as strong as she seems. How can Ida go back to being Anna the nun when she’s discovered so much?

Pawlikowski, who was born in Poland and emigrated to Western Europe when he was 14, has based his entire career in England. This is his first film in his native Poland and he chose to film it in black and white which turns out to be a brilliant decision and not just because it captures the era so perfectly, but also it sets a mood that is often bleak and colorless.

Trzebuchowska is a real find. She’s not an actress nor does she intend from all reports to pursue that as a career, but she is perfect for this role. Wide, gamine eyes and a pretty triangular face, she is both innocent and worldly. There is almost a saintly quality to her in some ways, the way she clings to her faith in a world which has grown cynical and cold. She has largely been untouched by it but as the movie progresses and she becomes exposed to the world that innocence wavers but something new and extraordinary emerges.

Kulesza is one of Poland’s most decorated actresses and she turns in a fine performance here. On the surface Wanda is strong and self-confident, a pillar of strength and secure in her knowledge that she has been a good servant of the state. Now, she’s not so sure and the more she finds out about the fate of Anna’s family, the more she realizes that she is no different than those who so cruelly orphaned her niece. It’s a subtle but powerful realization that leads to one of the movie’s most shocking scenes.

The movie is gorgeously shot from the wintery countryside, the dingy interior of the farmhouse where Anna was born, the hotel lounge where the band is playing, the convent and Wanda’s elegant apartment. While some might discriminate against the film due to its lack of color, those folks are missing out – it’s beautiful in its spare atmosphere.

This is a haunting film and not just because the nuns look like ghosts from another time, well before when this film is set. You will be caught in Ida’s story and as her journey continues, you won’t be able to help wanting to see where it leads. It doesn’t always go where you might expect it to go, but then again, whose journey does?

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by Kulesza and Trzebuchowska. Gorgeous black and white cinematography. Compelling story.

REASONS TO STAY: Overwhelmingly bleak and austere.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes are very adult and there is some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original cinematographer had to withdraw from the film after ten days of shooting due to illness. He was replaced by Lukasz Zal who completed the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aftermath

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Bears