It’s not that I don’t go see documentaries; I do, but usually I tend not to review them being I find that the medium, while visual, is more presentational and discursive rather than a strict narrative. Of course, for the past decade or so the medium has been morphing and delving into meta-narration, docu-fiction, and docs-dramas or a hybridization of visuals and exposition to create something completely new and challenging to the viewer. Eric Baudelaire’s Un Film Dramatique — Americanized as A Dramatic Film for its 2020 release — is one example. A movie I missed at the New York Film Festival, I managed to see it at The Contenders at the MoMA with barely a notion that it was a filming of the lives of a group of children at the new Dora Maar School in the outer limits of Paris, and that it played at Locarno to great acclaim. As a matter of fact, Festival Scope had it for a solid month in September in its Locarno section and I, occasional documentary watcher that I am, kept pushing it farther and farther back until it became unavailable until it made its second appearance at The Contenders. So, lucky me to have seen it and share it with you.
[For those of you who don’t know what The Contenders at the MoMA is, it is a screening of films that either premiered in the current year or were screened at film festivals around the world that bring a heavy quota of artistic value to cinema. It runs annually from November to January at the MoMA and I strongly urge movie lovers who aren’t aware of it go at least once and experience a new film or revisit one that somehow stuck in the memory for its bold visuals.]
Baudelaire began filming at the Dora Maar school what would have been a more traditional documentary (it seems), but eventually morphed into the movie that took on a life of its own. Twenty-one children for a period of about four years documented aspects of their own lives, sometimes in playful manners, other times in rather precocious discussions of class, race, politics (it becomes clear none of them care much for Marine Le Pen or our current sitting president), and the plight of immigrants in Paris where, much like here, if you do not have a reason to be in France you will be unceremoniously asked to leave. For such a large cast — we get introduced to them sometimes in groups, but sometimes in solo vignettes — Baudelaire assembles a rather colorful collage of living in the Seine-Saint Denis area of Paris, a jurisdiction often referred to by its administrative number 93, a number associated with ghetto, poverty, and low-income families. Some of the children — including friends Guy and David — are extremely outspoken, while one of the girls, Fatima, has no idea what to say to the camera and instead quietly films herself going about the day at home. Another group of girls wonder the fate of their friend who moved to a “place with palm trees” and debate to whether she may be still in France or perhaps the Caribbean. [It turns out, she moved to Reunion.]
This is a wonderful experimental film in which children express themselves in simple interactions with the camera and amongst themselves, and in a way, due to its time-lapse, could even have elements of a coming of age film. Often incisive as well as laugh out loud funny solely based on these incredibly bright, observant children, A Dramatic Film emerges as a commentary on what the future will be like once these kids grow into their adult selves. hoper Baudelaire will do something in the likes of Michael Apted’s ongoing, similar experimental Up series (now in its ninth iteration, 63 Up, which I will be reviewing once it makes its debut In theaters).
THE GOLDFINCH. Country: USA. Director: John Crowley. Screenwriter: Peter Straughan. Based on the Pulitzer Prize novel by Donna Tartt. Cast: Oakes Fegley, Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Luke Wilson, Sarah Paulson, Finn Wolfhard, Aneurin Barnard, Willa Fitzgerald, Ashleigh Cummings, Dennis O’Hare. Language: English, Ukrainian, Danish, French. Released: September 13, 2019. Runtime, 150 minutes.
Mostly Indies rating: C+
Right on the heels of having watched It, Chapter Two, comes the adaptation of yet another massive novel, Donna Tartt’s polarizing novel The Goldfinch, a piece of work that has been labeled as both the best and the worst thing that has happened to the English language as of late. So its not a shock that a book that would engender such sentiment in the literary world would also stir some equally difficult feelings once its conversion to cinema was made a reality. Of course, that is exactly what happened, with the first reviews arriving right on cue with not much good to say about the movie, noting its richness of visuals, but lack of a central heart, its length, its shallow depiction of grief, uneven acting on behalf of some of its cast, and the choppy time jumps in which we begin at the end and go back only to do so over and over again. I for one did not see anything wrong with the time-jumps; somehow, I felt at ease with the technique. What probably helped me ease into the “Dickensian” story (yes, that too has littered one too many reviews of this movie; I won’t give it that comparison, sorry) was that I knew next to nothing about it. I haven’t read the book and since have begun it. Like 2018s The Wife, I leapt to cinemas solely on the basis of a) the trailer and b) Glenn Close and boy, was I stunned to see not only a performance with a capital P, but a lean story that opened itself up, revealing layers and layers of hurt, betrayals, sacrifice, and selfless love that would have been better off in a more deserving man. [The book, while good, is actually less compelling.] Anyway, so I went to see The Goldfinch and I have to say, it is a handsome, well-told story of a boy facing unimaginable loss and having to come through using only his wits and the one element glueing himself to the ground: the 1654 Fabritius painting of a goldfinch, captive in time and space on canvas. To see his eventual growth and incursion into the underbelly of society while haunted for the entirety of it, almost like an outsider looking into a car crash in slow motion, is sad enough as it is, and both actors — Oakes Fegley and the baby-faced Ansel Elgort carry the story more or less successfully. However, let me say, despite that I enjoyed The Goldfinch, I never felt that the story itself was, however, too compelling: perhaps there was a true lack of mystery to it nd not much angst, or emotional highs and lows, and holding the audience rapt for two and a half hours only to reveal its cards at the very end, while it is fitting, comes off as a bit underwhelming when much of the events are somewhat muted and not too interesting. If at all, seeing solid actors try their best (although Sarah Paulson does a massive faux pas in a scene when she gets so emotional over a tragic loss that it takes her into another movie entirely, considering how bitchy her character has been, but I’m still okay with that) is all that one can ask of a movie adaptation of a book. It could have been worse, and no, this is not even close to the triumphant disaster that was The Bonfire of the Vanities — that was just gross negligence to bring any coherence to a satire. The Goldfinch is a well told yarn that should he a self-contained miniseries. It is, not, by any means, Dickensian. Let’s just say, it’s Dickens-lite for the novice. There are many of these novels around with stock characters you’ve seen in many other movies and plot developments that you can predict in your sleep. Does it deliver? Yes, Is it solid? Yes? Now, will you remember this tomorrow?
IT: CHAPTER TWO. Country: USA / Canada. Director: Andy Muschietti. Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman. Based on the novel by Stephen King. Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Bill Skarsgard, Jasden Martell, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Teach Grant, Nicholas Hamilton, Javier Botet, Xavier Dolan, Taylor Frey, Molly Atkinson, Joan Gregson, Stephen Bogaert. Language: English. Release date: September 6, 2019. Runtime: 170 minutes.
Mostly Indies rating: A–
Well, it’s here, it stormed into the box office and the story is told. Stephen King can rest knowing that even when the movie version of his much-beloved (and massive) 1986 novel “It” may never see a sufficiently dark and terrifying version without some significant alteration of the source of the horror, it goes without saying that at least the film version comes out swinging.
Truth be told, it is never an easy task to adapt a Stephen King novel. Much of the final story in It, for example, takes place in the astral plane and has ties to his Dark Tower macroverse, that to depict that one lengthy sequence would be next to impossible. Also, to its detriment, how scary can a clown truly be to kids raised on social media, YouTube, and a million other apps that can be conduits for the real horror: child predators? I’m going to have to say that in a way, It the movie is less scary this time, geared to hardcore Stephen King fans who have been reading him since Carrie, Salem’s Lot, and The Shining (the latter two who have yet to receive a truly gripping adaptation), but still, a compulsive watch.
So here we are, not quite back where we left off (although the first sequence, with the young Beverly (Sophia Lillis) apparently underwater, in a scene that recalls the moment she went into the deadlights — which thankfully get much more screen time here. Flash forward to today, 27 years later, when Adrian Mellon (Xavier Dolan) gets the extremely savage end of homophobia and meets an indescribable end at the hands of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), who’s come out from the dark and is, let’s say, “hangry” with a chip on his shoulder. Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), who’s since been devoted to tracking Pennywise’s every move before and after their apparent first defeat (and who seems certifiably bonkers; trauma has a way of clinging onto you well after the horror is over), now has to deliver the stomach-churning phone call to his six other childhood friends, not knowing if they will even respond or take his call. They do, in an excellent montage, the adult Losers are introduced with the barest of backstories presented. Bill (James McAvoy) is a successful horror novel writer who’s books end badly. Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is an abused housewife. Ben. (Jay Ryan) is a successful executive. Richie (Bill Hader, in a standout performance, mind you), is a stand-up comic going through a hard time. Eddie (James Ransone) is a limo driver. And finally, Stan (Andy Bean), who takes the call the hardest.
With the knowledge that It, the creature they once defeated, has returned, the remaining members of the Losers Club reunite in Derry. As it tends to happen, memories, long since repressed and buried, start to resurface, and with that, the ancient traumas, Of course, the question arises, why bother? They’re grown adults, what could they possibly be doing back in the town where they escaped from? Isn’t that what everyone does? Beverly, however, seen in the first frame of the movie, delivers the news: while under the deadlights, she saw them all dead. They have to go back, destroy the past, to be rid of it once and for all, and for them, that means performing the fated Ritual of Chud.
A huge chunk of the movie, from now on, becomes the six of them (well, really five; Mike has been here all along) walking through town, trying to pick up elements from their haunted past, in order to reunite later on. Of all of the solo scenes, Beverly’s was the one that stood out the most simply because her horror — which Pennywise in the novel manipulated) — is too real to ignore. When Pennywise appears to her in the body and shape of her father (Stephen Bogaert), without a dime of prosthetics, it’s more frightening than any of his disguises, which the movie curiously doesn’t use to its advantage. Another scene, this time not involving any one of the main cast members but a little girl who has a mole on her face, is truly terrifying because of its sparseness of special effects and Pennywise’s distorted maw of anticipation.
Overall, It is a solid piece of work that seen as a whole alongside the first movie will reveal a director who understands childhood fears and the genre, but also, reveal flaws in King’s own narrative. It is no secret that King nowadays, free of any editing constraints, has made a habit of producing extremely long works of fiction that go on and on for pages, chapters, even entire sections, without advancing the plot, The motive is to bring forward not just backstory, but a credible universe for people to see where his characters, good, bad, major, and even minor, are coming from. That in the literary world is okay — eventually you realize you will get to where the “meat” of the story is. However when translating into cinema, it just does not work. A lengthy scene where Bill rediscovers his old bike serves one self-indulgent pat-in-the-back moment. It is for fans only. Towards the end we are given a double dose of a similar scene from the first when Bill first encountered Pennywise in the flooded basement and near the end when the Losers go into the sewers. A little editing could have worked.
Also, and I’m just realizing it now: absent from both movies is Derry itself. Derry is supposed to be a haunted small town. Pennywise, a creature who defies explanation and whose presence alone could drive a person insane within seconds, feeds on the town’s residents equally, magnifying their adult prejudices and petty motives until they reach criminal levels (hence, the murder of Adrian Mellon) while still feeding on children. Derry as a character is corruption itself, a tainted place that offers no solace, no comfort, and the nagging feeling that some invisible, omnipresent evil is over them, literally playing them against each other like a puppet master. [It is a theme King started in Salem’s Lot and would revisit again in The Stand and Needful Things.] It’s a crying shame that this wasn’t woven into the fabric of the narrative except for the very first portion of the 2017 movie. It would have made the entire setting even more disturbing for the adults who come back, making their return to trauma even more horrible to stomach.
And lastly, presenting Pennywise continually as a clown eventually wears itself thin. In the book, he (it) was anything: a constant shapeshifter who was out for revenge against the “others” who had maimed it. At least, the battle of wills is done in a striking, clever, and even poignant way, something I would not have seen coming. So, for all its missteps, which even involve the use of CGI to make some of the kids look younger than they do and some awful use of Javier Botet as a bouncing horror that threatens Jessica Chastain, It delivers, does not include room for a potential sequel, and is now, over.
BOOKSMART.Director: Olivia Wilde. Cast: Kailtyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Billie Lourd, Mason Gooding, Victoria Ruesga, Molly Gordon, Eduardo Franco, Diana Silvers. Screenwriters: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susana Fogel, Katie Silberman. Language: English. Runtime 105 minutes. US Release date: May 24, 2019. Venue: Regal Battery Park, NYC, NY. Rating A.
The other day I was reading a news item after seeing Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart that the film was apparently, set to fail. I’m not sure how a movie that has grossed three times its budget to make, as of this writing, just about 20 million dollars can be called a failure, but perhaps part of the reason has to do with the fact that this is a movie made by women. And the aftertaste of having digested this information with the movie’s creative spark had me thinking, would critics and everyone else who believes this say the same thing if Booksmart had been directed by, let’s say, Paul Dano? [Nothing against Dano; he’s one of those directors I think we should pay attention to and an even better actor who can equally make me laugh while also feeling creeped out as he did in Swiss Army Man in 2016.]
I’m going to reply to myself with a resounding no. You see, old habits die hard and Hollywood, who in its infancy was teeming with women screenwriters and directors and some actresses even got into producing, still doesn’t seem to get it that women are perfectly capable of delivering entertaining material and still make a killing in the box office.
Olivia Wilde clearly knows her medium and blasts it out of the ballpark with this her debut film, no easy feat considering how many first time directors there are. Her story is close to home to anyone who goes see this movie who had a less than memorable high school. Amy (Kailtyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) have been best friends forever, but their friendship, which also carries a heavy dose of dependency, have branded them as pretentious by their classmates. Added to the equation is that Amy has been out for two years now and has a schoolgirl crush on another girl, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), while Molly also harbors a crush on popular guy Nick (Mason Gooding).
On the day before graduation, Molly overhears some of her classmates deriding her and decides to confront them, using the fact that she’s scored next to perfect grades that will ensure her future in a prestigious college and they won’t have amounted to anything other than this moment. To her surprise, all of the students also have made it into prestigious colleges, which comes as a blow to her ego. Realizing that all this time she and Amy have been seen as boring (because all they’ve done is study and eschew social gatherings), they come to the realization that they’ve got only one last send off to crash, and it’s the one Nick is throwing. Everyone will be there. However, that turns out to be easier said than done; when you’ve been the outsider for so long and the only reason classmates call or text you is to find out class assignments, chances of you knowing where the party to be will take place are slim to none.
So the girls use all their investigative abilities to find out where the party’s at. Wilde keeps her story going from one disastrous scenario to the next as Amy and Molly edge closer to Nick’s party. The laughs come fast and furious all throughout, from an over the top yacht party they crash, to a murder mystery whodunit, to sitting in s cab driven by their principal who also has an iPad full with porn, to sitting in what may be a serial killer’s car (which bothers them not a bit, since he moonlights as a pizza delivery man and delivered to Nick’s address), to finally, Nick’s party itself, which turns to hold some surprises of its own as practically everyone converges there for a night of debauchery and self-discovery.
If you want to see a smart and sharp comedy that despite its moments of complete WTF insanity loves its leading ladies and wants them to fit in, Olivia Wilde’s comedy is it. Amy and Molly’ friendship seems so lived in it would have been impossible for me to distinguish what was fictitious for what was real. It’s also because of this that the movie’s core — female friendship — remains strong. Booksmart, despite its high school is hell mantra, is rather harmless, good, riotous fun.
THE SOUVENIR, UK / USA. Director: Joanna Hogg. Cast: Honor Swinton-Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton. Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg. Language: English. Runtime 120 minutes. US Release date: May 17, 2019 (limited). Venue: Angelika Film Center, NYC, NY. Rating A +.
Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is what I call an anti-romance, and an anti-mystery that in its own way propels its lead character into a discovery of herself, even if it comes at a hefty emotional price. This is not your run-of-the-mill romance even though it is dressed to perfection to look that way. Hogg also keeps a certain distance, reducing scenes to their bare essentials, to inflict a sense of observation of events at a near-documentary level without actually being one. That she is able to convey the sheer imbalance of the onscreen relationship and make the heroine, based in her own experience, come through, scars and all, is a true feat of a cinematographer who is able to perform a perfect marriage of knowing the material at hand and being able to convey the essence in a clear, tone-perfect voice.
The story at its basest level is one we have seen many times. Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne in her film debut, who happens to be the daughter of Tilda Swinton, also in the movie as her mother) is a naive young girl who aspires to be a cinematographer in 1980s London. She crosses paths with Anthony (Tom Burke), a dashing young intellectual who has the appearance of a romantic bad boy straight out of Lord Byron’s narratives. Julie can’t help but be taken in by the man, who is seductive, knows the power of words and manipulation, and reels her into a relationship that from the get-go shows all its cracks and warning signs. However, Julie, for reasons only she can recall, instead of saying no and walking out, inches in and receives Anthony with almost abject passivity, as if he was someone she was expecting.
What I found at first somewhat off-putting, then increasingly meaningful, was the way Hogg positioned her scenes, staged from a somewhat distant point of view, as if she herself was an observer through a time capsule and was trying to analyze what was transpiring through the increasingly dysfunctional relationship that is Julie’s and Anthony’s. How else would you look back to your own life and see the mistakes you made? Hogg never questions it, but simply, recreates it and lets Julie and Anthony clash. There is a distinctly lived-in quality to how they interact with one another. One can’t help but notice how close to life it evolves, and that makes for a visceral, uncomfortable viewing. How many of us have seen people who didn’t even look like they truly liked each other but somehow relied on the other for some form of gratification and whispered, “Why are these even together?” How many times have we met that person who was completely off, but we tossed logic out the window in lieu of ‘experience’? Julie does try to eliminate Anthony out of her life after he all but wrecks it and leaves her a mess, but inexplicably, he creeps back in for one last act of damage; when he’s gone, which is not a spoiler by the way — you know there is no other way for this to end but in a ripping of noxious ties — it comes off as a relief. The final shot, where Julie faces us, the audience, is priceless, and shows how much the character, who held a tenuous relation to herself, has finally come home.
Now, at a technical standpoint, Hogg could have trimmed some scenes from the finished product. At two hours and fractured narrative, The Souvenir does run its course and will test the patience of movie lovers. Compounding the lived in, almost lifted by the eyes of French director Eric Rohmer feel, there is a sensation one is watching a story set in the distant past. At no moment did I get a feel of the 1980s when the film transpires. My safe guess is that Hogg’s approach was to establish a timelessness to the entire package and thus cement it in a ground of repetition, where dysfunction happens, and when it does occur, it is almost casual — no flourish, no over the top drama, it just exists, and accrues little by little until the abuse of trust has become normalized. That, perhaps, led me to at first dislike the movie. It’s no wonder it bites, and does so with teeth a bit too sharp for its own good.
In terms of performances, Honor Swinton-Byrne is the early revelation of the year, and while her character often frustrates, she brings forth the evolution of Julie’s arc to its completion. Tom Burke is infuriating as the psychopathic Anthony — there were times I wanted to scream into the camera and drive him away from Julie. That speaks quite a bit of a performance. Tilda… well, shes Tilda. As for the film? It’s striking, confounding, unnerving, unsatisfying, frustrating, cold, observational, but also, a triumph of a diarist’s description of a problematic relationship with only one solution.
When you think of Swedish cinema you don’t think once about how it reflects the Saami culture because truth is, it doesn’t. It took a young female director of Saami ethnicity to bring her own culture to cinematic life as she does in Sameblod (Sami Blood). Sameblod is a coming of age story loosely based on Kernell’s grandmother and stems from a short Kernell presented at Sundance in 2015. That film touched the Saami experience from the point of a view of an old woman who attends her sister’s funeral. For reasons left unknown (and therefore, unresolved), she distanced herself from her sister, and thus, from her own culture, adopting Swedish mannerisms and its language.
What we get in the full-length feature film is a more descriptive narration of the woman as a teenage girl living in what was then known as Lapland. In Sweden, Saami’s have little choice (even now) for advancement; in the 1930s, when the story is based, they were even considered a medical anomaly, presenting smaller than normal brains (according to then-scientists) and due to that, unqualified to live among the Swedes as “normal”. They could, however, go to boarding schools (as Elle-Marja and her sister Njenna do, but the chances of educational advancement is basically nil.
While at the boarding school, Elle-Marja’s identity gets stripped to its bare essentials from the get-go — an early scene of a man taking pictures of her naked body has the cruelty of the sound of lashes, something here in America we’re too acquainted with if we look into our relation to slavery. As her time at the boarding school grows longer, Elle-Marja is forced at one point to adopt a Swedish look in order not to appear out of place in a gathering. There she meets a handsome boy to whom she takes a liking to; however, her escapade results in a terrible backlash that forces her to make a decision and changer her life forever.
Even when she does find herself in a somewhat better place, Elle-Marja’s identity is never out of the question: students at another school passive-aggressively view her as an object, a clown, and Elle-Marja comes to the realization that in a world where being part of the elite is the norm, it also makes it impossible for people like her, born to a different culture, to fit in. Sameblod is a story that will resonate with many cultures — it indeed has a universal appeal — because of how we treat those we see and deem as marginalized. Kernell clearly has enormous empathy for her own lead character who, even when she gets put through the wringer, comes through as a survivor all her own in a poignant but utterly desolate final sequence. A striking debut.
Without sounding like a snob I want to confess something. Reader, I’ve seen a lot of movies. I don’t mean several hundred — that’s barely a calendar year from new releases, film festivals, and home releases. I’m talking about movies in the thousands, enough to pack a video store if they were in style.
When you can lay this claim about yourself you reach a point where you start looking for alternative forms of narration on camera, movies that are a little different from the mainstream. This is not to say mainstream cinema is bad — but when you see the same tired archetypes over and over again and now with the market saturated with colossal blockbusters retelling the same superhero story that always winds up with more reboots . . . well, to the art-theater you go.
The Fits came out as an official selection at New Directors, New Films back in March and I missed it by a fraction, so when it got its own release at Metrograph — a new movie theater for art-house lovers all the way on the LES — I rushed to see it. Reader, go see this marvelous film while it’s held over until the weekend of July 4th. This right here, is pure cinema, a story told with little dialogue, with characters that express through dance and feeling, meta-narration at its best.
Before we see her, we hear her: Toni, doing sit ups and pull ups at a boxing gym where her brother practices. Her face is a mask of pure determination, her body already lean and tomboyish, her hair in tight braids. She doesn’t say a word, even on the way home. At school we see her carrying some huge bag as though it were a cross over her shoulder; walking slowly in sharp contrast to the dance troupe she discovers and that ignites her interest. Friendships materialize out of thin air, and while Toni’s dance movements are heavy with boxing references, she starts “getting it” and even pierces her ears in order to feel more a part of the group of older women she clearly admires.
The Fits takes a takes a slow left turn, however, when one of the dance troupe instructors comes down with uncontrollable shaking and barely able to breathe. No one knows why it happened, and Toni’s friend Beezy suggests it may be epilepsy. Other girls also come down with what gets called “the fits” and the media alludes that the water may be unsafe to drink. But what does this have to do with Toni, proper, or her new found friends? Is every female under 18 at school going to fall under the spell of the fits?
Anna Rose Holmer leaves her debut film in a shroud of ambiguity that clearly went over well with the audience at the screening I saw: there was a collective mind-set of “getting it”, even when we kept seeing a sense of nascent horror creep into the fabric of the story. The Fits, with its casual sense of humor and visual incursions into poetry and surrealism (especially at the moving end sequence, a wonderful immersion into Toni’s mind that elevates the entire story out of its semi-darkness as the entire cast of girls dance, clothed in blue and gold) is closer to performance art itself than an traditional picture. So much of it relies on the non-verbal movements of Royalty Hightower who is on camera practically all throughout its run. This is a girl who can convey so much emotion into her oval face, she would be, I think, ill-serviced by rote dialogue that would verbally express what her character is going through in the awkwardness of childhood. The Fits might not be to everyone’s liking but if you discover it, you will have in your hands a wonderful piece of work.
Nothing brings a family dysfunction to the surface like the departure of the glue that holds them together, and in Joachim Trier’s and Eskil Vogt’s new film Louder than Bombs it all rings too true. However, this is not a melodramatic film — it would have been easy to give actors scene after scene of loud arguing, emoting, and a finale of almost grandiose proportions. Trier instead has created a rather tender and quiet portrait of a father and his two sons coming to terms with the premature death of their mother who was a noted photo journalist and had a couple of secrets of her own.
The mother, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), hovers over the picture like a ghost who won’t rest in peace. When we first see her she’s getting some award for her body of work. Soon later we realize how it was she really died — in a car crash, possibly caused by her, which would make it suicide. However, no one ever truly speaks out that word and it starts a chain of avoidance between the surviving characters who now have to contend with this shattered new reality. Gene (Gabriel Byrne), Isabelle’s widow, has no idea how to reach his teenage son Conrad (David Druid) who has become withdrawn and aggressive, so he takes to either following him after school or playing World of Warcraft in order to connect. Gene has also been carrying on with Hannah (Amy Ryan), David’s teacher, in a movie that seems more out of loneliness than anything.
In the meantime, in for a retrospective of his mother’s work, older son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) shows up. He’s recently become a father and on the night that his wife borne him a son he ran into and reconnected with a former flame who’s mother was also dying in the hospital.
As I said before, this isn’t a movie with big revelations complete with an abundance of self-important dialog or all too camera-ready scene chewing. If at all the only moment that any performance feels completely naked even when it doesn’t reveal anything other than inner torment is a flashback sequence showing Huppert in a hotel, her face pinched and sad. It’s no wonder she’s this force that will not give away: Huppert has imbued her character with a world of inner pain that perhaps had no other solution than the way out. Everyone else is left to gravitate around her and try to fill in the void she has left.
Because of this, Louder than Bombs may disappoint viewers looking for that “a-ha!” moment when everyone comes into the foreground and sounds off. I actually preferred this somewhat elliptical turn, since let’s face it, this is closer how we tend to react to traumas such as these. It’s probably despite of this, where the film films incomplete, that one will appreciate its content more.
The 80s will be forever marked in my psyche as the decade that defined me, my taste in music, art, and what introduced me to the very adult feelings of love, hate, fear, courage, self-assertion, hate, all in incipient form waiting to be germinated. How curious for me to walk into the Angelika last week and see this movie which I knew nothing about and see that its main character, a young Irish boy living in Dublin, formed a rock band to impress a slightly older girl who lives across the street where he goes to school?
It could have almost been my autobiography, in a way. Seeing Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a kid who at the start of the movie we learn was placed in a cheaper — what we could call “public” school in the Caribbean — school where truants and skinheads ran amok and teachers (in this case, Irish Catholic priests) paid homage to bullying the student into submission, I could see myself at about the same age when the story starts, trying to survive in lieu of fitting in. Fitting in is not Conor’s thing: he’s too educated, to different in every step of the way, so by default he’s set to be the fall guy for every bully looking for a quick brawl.
Enter Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a girl who lives across the street from the school and could often be seen standing there in trendy outfits, almost posing if you will. Conor musters up the courage to go talk to her. He’s totally impressed by her and he barely even knows who she is, and as luck and teenage lust would have it he farts a band out of his own ass and tells Raphina he’ll be sending her a demo for his new song. The catch: he neither has a song, much less a band.
While Conor’s parents bicker constantly, his brother witnesses his first clumsy attempts at music and feeds Conor LPs of pop artists of the moment. It’s through here that Conor and a gaggle of classmates and neighbors form a band called Sing St., a band that could have very well existed in the New Romantic / Brit Invasion of the early to mid 80s (the story takes place approximately around 1985-86). They start playing cheap covers, but soon enough a synergy forms between Conor and band leader Eamon (Mark McKenna) and they start jamming on their own, coming up with some pretty sharp tunes that sound of the period. Raphina becomes their go-to model, but she has other ambitions — to get the fuck out of dodge and start anew in London as a model. She also has other problems, one of them, having an off-screen dysfunctional relationship with an older guy.
Despite the predictability of the story, I’m going to recommend it mainly because it’s every kid’s true coming of age via the catharsis of pop music not just of the 80s but of any period and time. Conor, and also his troubled older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor, whom I recently saw in Glassland) have a wonderful symbiotic relationship that bolsters each other’s existence. Brendan seems to see in Conor the person he could have been and of course, pushes him to do his best and be authentic. While later events conspire to tear the brotherly fabric apart, this to me is the most solid relationship in the movie, because even when Conor and Raphina somehow become a rather unsteady item, I have serious doubts that it would last past their teen years.
Even so, much of the action is kept on a positive, upbeat note and this keeps Sing St. from becoming cloying and unbearably sad. It is a treasure trove of 80s pop tunes and the homages are all over the place, from Duran Duran to Spandau Ballet to The Cure, The Jam, Depeche Mode, but ultimately the film belongs to the kids who create and perform some remarkable tunes. It’s not exactly perfection, but I will say, I cheered when the credits rolled and even felt a dab of emotion when I saw how far these characters had come in such a compressed period of time. For the nostalgics, for anyone who lived and loved the 80s, this is the right picture to watch and play on repeat like a long MTV video.