The Sleepwalkers (Los sonambulos)


Country living isn’t all its cracked up to be.

(2019) Drama (MeikinCineErica Rivas, Ornella D’Elia, Luis Ziembrowski, Rafael Federman, Daniel Hendler, Marilu Marini, Valeria Lois, Gloria Demassi. Directed by Paula Hernández

Family dynamics are often a fragile thing. They may appear solid and strong on the surface, but cracks may run just beneath the surface, ready to make themselves known at a moment’s notice.

Luisa (Rivas) isn’t looking forward to spending the New Year’s break at her mother-in-law’s country home. While Meme (Marini) is congenial, she is definitely in charge of the purse strings and lets everyone know it. Luisa’s husband Emilio (Ziembrowski) insists and like a dutiful Argentine wife, she acquiesces. Her daughter Ana (D’Elia) is too busy being 14 years old to care, although not too busy to display angst and attitude at every available opportunity.

Also staying at the house is Sergio (Hendler), Emilio’s brother; and Ines (Lois), Emilio’s sister who is nursing a newborn. There is definite tension within the family; Meme is thinking of selling the house which Sergio is all for and Emilio is not. Into the mix comes Alejo (Federman), Sergio’s son and the obvious black sheep of the family. Young, manipulative, seductive, and brutally handsome, his arrival makes a tense situation even worse. Ana becomes interested in the confident, flirtatious Alejo, bringing further discord between mother and daughter. Neither one of them, however, are prepared for what comes next.

Hernandez/ fifth feature might well be her best. This is all about family dynamics and how people within families fall into familiar roles and not always healthy ones. On the surface it appears like a fun get-together where everyone is glad to see each other, but there is much tension hidden from view and it all comes out eventually. Even the stoutest pressure cooker must eventually let off steam.

The ensemble does some pretty good work here, with Rivas showing some real fire as Luisa who is extremely stressed with her relationships with both her husband and her daughter in very precarious positions and her job being threatened. D’Elia manages to perform on the same level; she’s got the petulant teenage daughter thing down to a science. She’s also amazingly beautiful; she is like a Raphael painting of cherubim come to life. Ziembrowski is also solid as the husband trying to understand his wife’s misery and failing spectacularly at it because…well, that’s what husbands do for the most part.

The pace is as slow as a summer afternoon on a particularly hot day; languid, in other words. At times it feels like not much of the story line is getting advanced but when the climax comes it’s pretty explosive and it is definitely worth all the buildup. The title refers to a condition that runs in the family, particularly with Ana who opens the movie by sleepwalking. It can also describe the pace as well.

This is not for those who look at Marvel movies as the height of cinematic achievement (although to be fair there are plenty of people who love Marvel movies that will get into movies like this one) but more for the cinephile, particularly those who are eager to sample movies from other countries and cultures. As much as I complained about the pacing, I kind of liked the way it moved slowly; it allowed me to savor the performances and the relationships that much more.

REASONS TO SEE: The family dynamics here are fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very slow-moving and lethargic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, nudity, sexuality and a scene of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at the Toronto Film Festival last year and has been shown at prestigious film festivals ever since.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Christmas Tale
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bacurau

M.O.M. (Mothers of Monsters)


Being a mom means knowing how to D.I.Y.

(2020) Suspense (Indie Rights) Melinda Page Hamilton, Bailey Edwards, Edward Asner, Janet Ulrich Brooks, Julian de la Celle. Directed by Tucia Lyman

 

Every mom thinks her child is an absolute angel, right? There’s that unbreakable bond between mother and son that is maybe one of the most beautiful relationships there are. But what happens when a mom begins to suspect that her little angel is in fact potentially a homicidal monster?

That’s the situation that Abbey (Hamilton) finds herself in. Throughout his childhood, young Jacob (Edwards) has had anger management issues and has acted out in troubling ways. Now that he’s a teen, Jacob’s rages have grown in scope and he has begun to take an unhealthy interest in guns and Nazi symbology. His acting out is getting increasingly violent. Abbey is calling out in the wilderness, to school officials who see a different side of Jacob, and a psychiatrist (Asner) who believes that Abbey is the one who’s losing it. And maybe he’s right; living in a constant state of terror is taking its toll.

This found footage film, mostly video confessionals, security cam footage, cell phone footage, laptop cam footage and home movies, is woven together by veteran TV showrunner and first-time feature director Lyman, perhaps not seamlessly but close enough.

She does a masterful job of building up the tension in the film, giving the viewer a feeling that they can’t look away even for a moment. It’s not exactly like a train wreck; it’s more like hearing noises outside your window and staring out to see if there’s something out there. You know there is and you’re just waiting for it to make its move.

The movie does move into a psychological horror mode in the last half which is a bit weaker than the first; the movie would have benefitted by exploring Abbey’s mental state a little bit more as well, because part of the movie’s strength is that you’re never quite certain whether Jacob is the monster his mommy thinks he is, or whether Abbey – herself traumatized by a childhood incident which is only revealed near the end of the film – is the one who is losing her mind. That question is sorta kinda settled in the shocking ending, but not really. You are left wondering which one of the two needed professional help. Maybe both of them.

The film benefits from strong lead performances by both Hamilton and Edwards. Edwards projects menace, occasionally staring at the camera with an utterly blank expression that screams “psychopath,” whereas Abbey seems to be growing more and more brittle as the film goes along, a tribute to Hamilton who manages to be both sympathetic and yet leaving room for the audience to question her own sanity. In that sense, the film is well-written.

The movie has a lot of resonance in an era where kids shoot up schools for no apparent reason other than that they can. I think a case could be made that we’re all suffering from PTSD given the national obsession with guns and how often we have a mass shooting dominating the headlines. Many parents of teens (or parents who survived their children’s teen years) will find some empathy for Abbey, while younger viewers may actually identify with Jacob, whose issues have him taking all sorts of meds and whose dad is not really in the picture, not to mention Abbey can be a bit on the controlling side at times.

Still, this is a powerful movie that flew under the radar but definitely has the chops to be worth your while. It’s not on a whole lot of streaming services at the moment, but that may change once people are clued in to how good this movie is. However, if you’re practicing social distancing with a teen in the house, you might want to think twice before watching this. You could end up with all sorts of paranoid nightmares.

REASONS TO SEE: Genuinely chilling. Leaves you feeling like you can’t look away for even a moment. Strong performances by Hamilton and Edwards.
REASONS TO AVOID: The middle third drags a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film for Lyman, whose background is in television..
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We Need to Talk About Kevin
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Pacified

Sorry We Missed You


It’s a grim prognosis for the working class.

(2019) Drama (Zeitgeist/Kino-LorberKris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Stone, Katie Proctor, Ross Brewster, Charlie Richmond, Julian Irons, Sheila Dunkerley, Maxie Peters, Christopher John Slater, Heather Wood, Alberto Dumba, Natalia Stonebanks, Jordan Collard, Dave Turner, Stephen Clegg, Darren Jones, Nikki Marshall. Directed by Ken Loach

 

It has likely never been harder to be a working man now than since the Middle Ages. Making ends meet is nearly impossible; wages have dropped sharply while the cost of living continues to rise. Jobs are not plentiful, certainly not of the kind that pay well enough to live decently. Cutting corners has become a way of life as people traverse the gig economy with tentative steps, knowing that they are much like people walking in a minefield with steel-toed boots.

Ricky Turner (Hitchen) has just lost his job in the construction industry and frankly, he’s sick and tired of working jobs that can be taken away from him at a moment’s notice. He wants to be his own boss and make a wage that will allow his family to have the things they need. However, jobs are particularly scarce in Newcastle, where he and his sweet wife Abbie (Honeywood) live with their teenage son Sebastian, or “Seb” as they call him (Stone) and their brilliant tween daughter Liza Jae (Proctor).

One of Ricky’s mates links him up with PBF, a parcel delivery service who is run by the bullet-headed bulldog-like Maloney (Brewster) who runs his business like a drill sergeant. In the parlance of PBF, they don’t hire employees, they onboard independent drivers. Drivers must supply their own vans, or rent one from the company at an exorbitant rate. However, if Ricky works hard and delivers his parcels on time, he will be making more than he ever did in construction, maybe enough so after two years they can save enough to put a down payment on a house, the dream of many renters.

isn’t quite so enthusiastic. In order to buy a van, they’ll have to sell the car that she uses to get to her job which is as an in-home caregiver to the elderly. She goes to their homes, cooks their meals, bathes them and tucks them into bed. She’s ideally suited for the job, but her clients are all over the map and getting to her appointments on time required a car. Taking the bus will cause her to be late more often. However, in the interest of family harmony, she gives in.

At first, things are sunshine and roses. Ricky does well on his route and becomes Maloney’s fair-haired boy, but there are some troubling signs. For one thing, the constant murderous pace of delivering parcels means drivers never get breaks and must learn to pee in a bottle rather than stopping anywhere for a bathroom break. For another, missing delivery windows and deadlines can lead to a system of demerits, which cost the drivers fines which put them in debt to PBF, forcing them to work more.

To make matters worse, Seb is indulging in some hooligan-ish behavior, skipping school, spray-painting graffiti along the roadsides and eventually getting into more serious trouble, forcing his parents to miss work in order to attend meetings with school headmasters and eventually police officers. Ricky is often so exhausted that he can barely see straight when he drives his van and taking the bus has forced Abbie to work longer hours as well. And despite the promise of better pay, the family is barely holding their heads above water as it is – it will take only the slightest of bumps to drown the lot of them.

Loach is one of the finest English directors of the past four decades and when I say that this is one of his best ever, keep in mind that he has films such as The Wind That Shakes the Barley and I, Daniel Blake on his filmography. Like many of his films, this is a taut, no-frills productions – there’s no score, and few special effects. The brisk pace keeps the story moving and whereas lesser directors might get bogged down in subplots, Loach and his longtime collaborator writer Paul Laverty keep their focus throughout.

It doesn’t hurt that he gets fantastic performances from the entire cast, some of whom are non-professionals and Hitchen and Honeywood exhibit some marvelous chemistry and screen presence. The dynamic for the entire Turner family feels organic and realistic; this could be the family living in the flat (or apartment) three doors down from yours, Ricky the guy down at the pub (or bar) rooting for his favorite team (in Ricky’s case, Manchester United).

The accents are very thick here, as they are in that part of England and so subtitles are necessary; some of the phrases may not be familiar to American audiences, so it might be frustrating to those who aren’t familiar with English idioms. Still, this is a marvelous film that is a triumph for the 83-year-old director who shows no signs of slowing down. This is an accurate portrayal of the problems facing the working class, so much so that it may cut a little too close to home for some. Even so, it should be required viewing for economics and business students who should see what the human toll of the current profits-at-any-cost mindset of business worldwide really is.

REASONS TO SEE: A grim portrayal of the working class circa 2019. The family dynamic feels very realistic. Hitchen and Honeywood do bang-up jobs.
REASONS TO AVOID: The heavily-accented English requires subtitles and some of the idioms used may be difficult to follow for the layman.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity, some violence and brief sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The license plate number for Ricky’s van is AK65 JFX.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 82/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: DriverX
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Anthem of a Teenage Prohet


In a world where appearance is everything, posing is a natural extension of life.

(2018) Drama (SP Releasing) Cameron Monaghan, Grayson Gabriel, Peyton List, Juliette Lewis, Aaron Pearl, Richard de Klerk, Alex MacNicoll, Alex McKenna, Patti Allan, Beau Daniels, Sebastian Greaves, Joshua Close, Jasmine Sky Sarin, Danny Woodburn, Alex Lennarson, Malcolm Craig, Jaden Rain, Spencer List, Robert W. Perkins, Raj Lal. Directed by Robin Hays

 

Being a teenager is nothing resembling easy. Coping with a world whose rules shift almost daily and are confusing even on a good day coupled with raging hormones that make rational thought nearly impossible make it no wonder that teens are synonymous with angst. When you throw in some supernatural abilities, things get even more complicated.

Luke Hunter (Monaghan) is a fairly typical teen in a small Michigan town in the mid-90s. He gets from place to place via skateboard, hangs out with a group of friends who listen to rap but dress like grunge, smokes way too much, drinks when he can, gets stoned when he can and generally tries to figure out who he is and what he wants to do with his life.

One afternoon while hanging out with his friends including his boyhood friend Fang (Grayson) who likes to climb things and golden boy Stan (MacNicoll) who is the boyfriend of Faith (P.List) whom he has a fairly serious crush on, he has a vision. Stoned out of his mind, Luke blurts out that one of them is going to die the next day, hit by a truck with out of state plates. “Blood on the sidewalk,” he murmurs while everyone looks at him in amusement. Luke’s really baked isn’t he ha ha ha.

But nobody is laughing the next day when Luke’s prediction comes horribly true down to the smallest detail. The looks change from amusement to suspicion and downright fear. When a reporter overhears one of the incredulous teens blurt out that Luke had predicted the tragedy and later broadcasts it on the air, Luke’s life becomes something of a media circus.

Luke withdraws further into himself despite his supportive ex-hippie mom (Lewis) and somewhat clueless dad (Pearl). Faith, suffering through the loss of someone she cared about, is drawn to Luke who is going through the same thing. However, it’s not quite the same thing; Faith is not in the media’s eye as Luke is, nor is she an object of fascination in the same way Luke is. He doesn’t know what to do and ends up lashing out. Not to mention that he gets another vision about someone who is going to die.

Some may be drawn to this movie, which is based on a novel by Joanne Proulx, by the supernatural element but those folks are bound to be disappointed as that element is definitely played down. This is much more about surviving the teenage years than about dying during them. We are witnessing Luke’s emotional growth which isn’t always pretty. Luke is a complex character, one who is a talented artist, who adores his mother (as much as any teen boy would be willing to admit to) and pretty much just wants to be left alone to find his own way, also pretty much like all teen boys.

Monaghan is best known for playing a Joker-like character in the Fox Batman show Gotham but this is an entirely different performance here. Far from being manic, Luke is a bit of an introvert and Monaghan captures that personality well, from the distrust of others to the banter he has with those he does let inside. Given the diversity of performances in the two I’ve seen of him so far, I think that it isn’t being premature to say that this actor has enormous potential. Time will tell whether he can acquire the roles that will allow him to realize it. My one problem with him is that he tends to pose a little too much; it doesn’t look natural.

The writers and actors do a great job of capturing the swagger of boys on the cusp of becoming men. They think of themselves as invincible and their lack of life experiences don’t bother them – they revel in their inexperience in many ways. They are young and un-bloodied by life until the death of one of them catches them all up short.

While the swagger is perfectly depicted, the dialogue is less successful. It’s not that the dialogue isn’t intelligent and snappy – it is both those things – but it is not the way teen boys in the mid-1990s talked. It is more like the way boys in 2018 talk, from the rhythms of their speech to the expressions they use. Kids tend to use a lot of slang and jargon, which is a way of setting their own generation apart. You get none of that here.

While the film borrows its tone from a few disparate sources (one that I noticed was Final Destination minus the macabre deaths) other critics have name-checked the work of John Hughes and Gus van Sant. While the movie is a little bit on the long side, it is a very different teen movies. It doesn’t talk down to its intended audience and it tackles some fairly serious concepts. I don’t know how many teen boys will want to see this movie – this isn’t the kind of movie they typically choose to see – but this is a movie about them and one they would no doubt recognize. That may work against the film as its niche audience may somewhat ironically be disinclined to see it. Still, it is a worthwhile watch for those who want to understand teens a little better.

REASONS TO GO: The film nicely captures teenage boy swagger.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue sounds more like 21st century than mid-90s.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, teen drinking, smoking and drug use, some violence and dangerous behavior.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the time of filming, Monaghan and List were dating.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Project Almanac
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
An Acceptable Loss

Heaven Without People (Ghada’a El Eid)


Cheers!

(2017) Drama (MC Distributors) Samira Sarkis, Farah Shaer, Nadim Abou Samra, Laeticia Semaan, Hussein Hijazi, Ghassan Chemali, Wissam Boutros, Toni Habib, Jenny Gebara, Jean Paul Hage,  Mohamed Abbass, Etafar Aweke, Nancy Karam, Ivy Helou, Ziad Majdara, Maria Ziad Jabra. Directed by Lucien Bourjeily

Everyone loves a family gathering – in theory. What could be better than seeing all your loved ones in one place at the same time? Plenty, as it turns out.

Josephine (Sarkis) is the matriarch of a Lebanese Orthodox Christian family. Getting her family together is like pulling teeth; they haven’t been in the same room for a meal for more than two years. It’s Easter Sunday and she has prepared a feast for her children and their spouses (and two grandchildren, one too young to do anything but sleep). The children are in various stages of functional; Serge (Samra) seems to be the most level-headed but he has been dating his girlfriend Rita (Shaer) for three years without any sign of commitment; she is concerned that she might be pregnant which Serge is very much against.

Leila (Semaan) is a strident political firebrand who is very critical about the government for which her father (Boutros) was once employed with. Christine (Karam) is closest to Josephine but is having big problems with her teenage son Sami (Habib). Elias (Hage) is married to Noha (Gebara) and is more than a little bit of a bully; the family treats him with contempt most of the time. Josephine’s maid (Helou) tries to be in the background but she is treated with love by the family.

The conversation turns from politics to religion and tension soon begins to make things a little bit frayed at the table. Josephine then discovers that a large sum of money is missing, money that she and her husband – who despite his apparent vigor is actually in a fragile state of health – desperately need. There’s no way to know who took it other than that it is someone at the dining table. By the end of the meal all of the skeletons will come out of the closet and the things bubbling under the surface will grow into a full-on boil

I liked this movie very much. I believe the great Gene Siskel would have too; movies that are a slice of life, particularly in other cultures, were essentially his favorite kind of films. I love learning about different cultures – the foods they eat, the traditions they hold to, the rituals that a meal brings with it I also enjoy the dynamics of a family (which generally speaking are pretty much the same everywhere) particularly when there is discord. Few families love each other universally all the time. There are always squabbles.

The performances are pretty natural. I don’t know whether the performers are professional actors or amateurs; either way the dynamics in this family are very believable and none of the performers seem to be wooden or stiff; they’re all comfortable in front of the camera which can be a big deal in movies like this one.

The one thing that I had real problems with was the camera movement. Cinematographer Ahmad Al Trabolsi utilizes a hand-held camera and circles the table constantly; while it does add an air of tension to the story it also serves to be distracting and downright annoying. Some fixed camera angles would have benefitted the film and relieved the constant camera movement. I will say that both cinematographer and director did a good job despite the confined and somewhat claustrophobic set (nearly all the movie takes place inside the small apartment of Josephine and her husband). Sometimes directors and cinematographers will make a film look more like a stage play in these kinds of conditions but that didn’t happen here.

The film moves at  slow but steady pace, the tension increasing as the meal progresses and eventually the situation of the missing money is revealed to the rest of the family. The climax is handled very nicely and left me wondering how the family would survive what happened; a great film will leave you concerned for the welfare of its characters and that’s precisely what happened here.

The build-up may be a little too long for attention-challenged viewers but those with the patience to stick with the film will be richly rewarded – the final few scenes are truly amazing. Bourjeily is certainly someone to keep an eye on. If you’re heading down to Miami to catch this festival, this is one you should put on your list. Tickets can be ordered here.

REASONS TO GO: It’s a slow build to a fast boil. A lovely slice of life with a little bit of rot below the surface.
REASONS TO STAY: The handheld camera becomes quite annoying after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bourjeily, who got his MFA in film from Loyola Marymount University (my alma mater), is making his feature film debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Call Me By Your Name

Lady Bird


There’s always a little love/hate in every mother-daughter relationship.

(2017) Dramedy (A24) Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, Timothée Chalamet, Lucas Hedges, Odeya Rush, Kathryn Newton, Tracy Letts, Lois Smith, Laura Marano, Andy Buckley, Danielle Macdonald, Jordan Rodrigues, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Kristen Cloke, Daniel Zovatto, John Karna, Bayne Gibby, Bob Stephenson, Marielle Scott, Chris Witaske, Suzanne LaChasse.  Directed by Greta Gerwig

 

Adolescence is a difficult period. We all undergo it; we don’t all survive it. We muddle through as best we can as we learn to find out who we are and hopefully, who we want to become. It’s a wonder that any of us live to be 21.

Christine McPherson (Ronan) insists that people call her “Lady Bird.” That isn’t her name; she just likes the sound of it. A high school senior at an all-girls Catholic school in suburban Sacramento, California, she is chafing at the bit to get free of the Great Central Valley and move somewhere sophisticated and cultured i.e. New York. Her mother Marion (Metcalf) would prefer that Lady Bird stay somewhere local, mainly because that’s about all the family can afford. At least Marion can take comfort in that her daughter, who is surprisingly smart, doesn’t really have the grades to get into any schools she really wants to go to.

Lady Bird has a fairly small circle; in addition to her mother with whom she has a contentious relationship, there’s her brother Miguel (Rodrigues) who graduated college but has only been able to find a job bagging groceries and her father Larry (Letts) who is as loving and kind as her mother is critical and demanding. Lady Bird’s bestie Julie Steffans (Feldstein) is, like herself, from the wrong side of the tracks. Julie is, like Lady Bird, on the outside looking in on the popularity scale.

Like most girls her age, Lady Bird is very interested in boys but they mystify her. She doesn’t really know how to act around them or to let them know she likes them. She’s also interested in sex but she wants it on her terms. I think it’s pretty much safe to say that Lady Bird wants to live life in all its aspects on her own terms which at 17 isn’t necessarily an unusual thing. She will explore different aspects of high school life, experience all sorts of different things both good and bad and continue to work towards her goal of going to college in New York, as hopeless a goal as it may seem.

The term “coming of age film” can cover a whole lot of sins but in this case, it is truly apt. We actually see real growth (as opposed to Hollywood growth which is generally unearned) in Lady Bird. Greta Gerwig, riding the director’s chair solo for the first time in her career, does a bang-up job. Although only semi-autobiographical (Gerwig has gone on record that this is more emotionally autobiographical than factually so) there is an air of authenticity to it. If Lady Bird isn’t Gerwig she’s certainly a cousin and that’s not a bad thing.

Ronan and Metcalf both turn in performances that have legitimate shots at Oscar nominations. When mother and daughter are going at it the screen just about crackles with electricity. Marion loves her daughter passionately but doesn’t always express that love in healthy ways. She’s outspoken (like her daughter) and hyper-critical which is definitely not appreciated. Larry does his best to mitigate things but he’s a little intimidated by Marion as well and when he loses his job he clearly begins to doubt himself although that’s an aspect of the story that isn’t explored thoroughly. Then again, it’s not Larry’s story – it’s Lady Bird’s.

In a sense this is also a love letter to Sacramento (where Gerwig grew up and where this is set). Although Lady Bird complains about the provincialness of the city, it’s clear that Gerwig has a great deal of affection for the place. Residents and regular visitors will recognize a lot of different landmarks and local hangouts shown at various times in the film. One can’t complain about a movie with this much love for the capitol of California.

There is a pretty frank portrayal of Lady Bird’s sexuality; she becomes attracted to two different guys during the course of the film and contemplates losing her virginity. The frank discussion of the event is going to feel familiar to most women, although those who find such things distasteful are going to have a difficult time with that particular scene. I suppose it is going to depend on how comfortable you are with sexual discussions.

Gerwig doesn’t get everything right. The ending feels a bit rushed and a little bit of a nonsequitir. Her move from one BFF to another one who is more shallow just so Lady Bird can get closer to a guy she’s interested in comes off as a little bit cliché and maybe a little bit out of character. However, those are relatively minor things and she does for the most part nail the film.

I commented on Facebook that everyone who has ever been an adolescent girl should see this and I stand by that. It is going to resonate deeply with most women who will recognize the situations and the character dynamics. Men are also going to enjoy this because they will also get a chance to laugh at some of the foibles of adolescent girls – and maybe get to understand the women in their lives just a teensy bit better. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

REASONS TO GO: The writing is smart and the characters realistic. You have to love a film that gives Sacto this much love.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending feels a little bit rushed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a lot of teen sexuality, some brief nudity and lots of teen partying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lady Bird recently set a Rotten Tomatoes record for the most positive reviews without a single negative review – 164 consecutive positives and counting.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Flu
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Gangster Land

20th Century Women


Annette Bening examines Lucas Jade Zumann.

Annette Bening examines Lucas Jade Zumann.

(2016) Drama (A24) Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann, Alia Shawkat, Alison Elliott, Thea Gill, Vitaly A. Lebeau, Olivia Hone, Waleed Zuaiter, Curran Walters, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Nathalie Love, Cameron Protzman, Victoria Bruno, John Billingsley, Finnegan Bell, Zoe Nanos, Laura Foley, Finn Roberts, Laura Wiggins. Directed by Mike Mills

 

Sometimes we take for granted the women in our lives; our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our wives, our friends. We are shaped inexorably by them, our development as people strengthened by them, sometimes in ways we don’t even know. That’s doubly true to those of us who have had single moms.

Dorothea (Bening) is a daughter of the Depression who got a late start on motherhood; she was 40 when she had her son Jamie (Zumann). She’s 55 now, and living in Santa Barbara (and now is 1979). Jamie’s dad is out of the picture and Dorothea helps make ends meet by hosting boarders in her fixer upper of a house – William (Crudup) who is doing most of the fixer upping and Abbie (Gerwig), a Bohemian photographer with maroon hair who is recovering from cervical cancer. Into this mix add Julie (Fanning), a childhood friend of Jamie’s whose home life has become so tense that she regularly spends the night in Jamie’s bed although she refuses to allow anything sexual to happen, much to Jamie’s chagrin. In fact, Julie is fairly promiscuous and has no compunction telling Jamie about her sexual experiences which makes Jamie feel even worse.

Jamie is at an age where he is growing more distant from his mother whose every action seems to piss Jamie off (if he realized how much freedom she gave him compared to what the rest of us were getting in 1979 he might not have been quite so prickly) and he’s beginning to push back in an effort to leave the nest at least spiritually, leaving without permission to join friends at punk rock concerts in L.A. or to go skateboarding with friends.

Realizing that she’s no longer able to get through to Jamie, Dorothea enlists the help of Abbie and Julie to help instruct her son in how to be a man. Abbie engages Jamie in discussions about female orgasms and gives him hardcore feminist manifestos to read. Julie’s assistance is a little more subtle but she seems to be warming up to the idea of a more romantic stand with Jamie.

But as most things do, things fall apart as Jamie, incensed that his mother seems to be giving up on him, grows more and more irritable – getting into fights with friends and with his mom. Something’s got to give.

Director Mike Mills based Dorothea on his own mother albeit with Bening’s own stamp put on the character. Much of what transpires in the film also transpired in Mills’ own life. Dorothea is a bit eccentric to be sure but no more than most moms of the day, or any other day for that matter. Mills realizes that quirky doesn’t have to be done in the indie film sense where people do outrageous things just for the sake of being outrageous; here the quirkiness is part of their DNA, an expression of who they are and they make sense; Dorothea chain smokes and invites people she barely knows to her home for dinner. William talks about energies and karma and is a 70s hippie with a mechanical bent. Julie  reads Judy Bloom and has lots of sex and wants to keep Jamie at arms length so they can remain friends seemingly without seeing what it is doing to him. Abbie dances like a fiend to the Talking Heads, takes pictures of everything (presaging the millennial obsession with taking pictures of even the most mundane elements of their lives) and generally being the 21st century avatar in this little family.

Jamie appears to be the most normal of the lot but ostensibly he’s the stand-in for Mills himself so it’s understandable if Mills gives Jamie a bit less of an edge, although he isn’t lacking in teen angst. Zumann actually does a pretty great job here; he’s never annoyingly precocious but seems pretty much like most teens I know – wears their hearts on their sleeves but much smarter and much worldlier than we adults tend to give them credit for. Zumann is a name to remember.

Bening delivers a performance that is strong without being flashy. Her character smokes incessantly and frets as mothers do but she’s generally calm even when there’s chaos around her. She can be a little quirky but at the core of the character are the things most of us have in common; love for our children and an overwhelming desire for them to be happy and safe. Bening portrays the character’s inherent dignity ably and allows her individuality to shine through. She missed out on a Best Actress nomination this year but she certainly was in the running for it.

This is the Southern California from the late 70s that I remember. Mills does a great job of recreating it, not just in fashion, cars and set design but in atmosphere as well. There are times when it feels like the characters are pontificating a bit much more than normal humans do, but other than that there’s not really a lot to quibble about here. It’s a good, solid slice of life movie that illustrates the difficulty of growing up into manhood and what a treacherous path it can be. It also shows that the gulf between men and women doesn’t have to be as necessarily wide as we think it is so long as we’re willing to listen to each other. It’s a lesson that was valid in 1979 and it’s a lesson that’s valid now.

REASONS TO GO: Annette Bening just kills it. The era is captured beautifully.
REASONS TO STAY: It gets a little pretentious at times.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s quite a bit of sexual material and some nudity, a fair amount of profanity some mild violence and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Crudup and Gerwig also appeared in the film Jackie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain Fantastic
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House