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Catherine Called Birdy (2022)/ Sharp Stick (2022)

Lena Dunham is a controversial creator, even more so since the conclusion of her hit HBO comedy Girls back in 2017. I’ve been a fan of her creative voice from the very first episode of Girls, and I appreciated how well she could write self-involved, self-destructive, myopic characters and her directing instincts as well, all at the age of 25. From her zeitgeist-tapping TV success came Lena Dunham the brand, the industry, and with that her feminist newsletter, book deals, personal appearances, and a perennial case of foot-in-mouth syndrome. It makes it more difficult to carry that fandom when the figure says cringey things like she wished she had had an abortion to better understand the plight of those who have. Some of the early criticisms against Dunham were simply mean-spirited, like gross insults regarding her body and her penchant for nudity on her own TV series, as if women don’t exist who resemble Dunham’s shape. However, with each new public example of bourgeois entitlement, I began to wonder whether Dunham’s satirical skills at sizing up self-involved characters was maybe a little less satirical. I’ve been curious what creative projects Dunham would gravitate to next. Her first was Camping, a short-lived 2018 remake of a British comedy that was cancelled after one season. But aside from producing some more HBO shows, and occasional acting appearances like in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Dunham has been relatively silent. And then in 2022, she had two new movies as writer and director. I thought it would be telling to review them both together, as they share many similarities, and as further insight into Dunham as an artist still exploring her voice.

Sharp Stick was released first, though only a couple months before Catherine Called Birdy. Both movies are coming-of-age comedies about young women finding their place in a world that is all too ready to package them into tidy offerings for male desire. Both movies are about their plucky heroines pushing social boundaries and being exploited by lustful men, but one of these films is far better developed, more charming, and with clear ideas and consistent commentary. In short, watch the delightful Catherine Called Birdy and skip the rather dulled Sharp Stick.

Catherine Called Birdy is based on the 1994 children’s book by Karen Cushman and modeled as a young girl’s diary from thirteenth century England. Catherine (Bella Ramsey) is the only child of the lord of a small village. Her mother (Billie Piper) has suffered five miscarriages or stillborn births, and her spendthrift father (Andrew Scott) is bewildered at what to do with his headstrong daughter. She’s 14 and rejecting her father’s assembly of suitors, as he tries to marry her off and recoup some money to stabilize the family’s looming debt. Catherine narrates her very important year where she starts her period, hides it, and learns about love and life and finding her place.

Right away, I was taken with the sprightly energy and strong personality of our narrator, who would prefer to go by Birdy, thank you very much. We open with her literally slinging mud with the neighborhood kids and laughing and wilding out, enjoying the thrills of being young. The contrast of the movie will hinge upon the distinction of what is childish and what is mature, as these youngin’s are thrust into adult roles because society says that as soon as they can menstruate, they are ready to be married off and become baby factories. Birdy is angry with her mother for continuing to try and have children, especially after the painful recuperation of burying sibling after sibling. She resents the idea of being a mother, and especially so early into a life that still feels bound by the stirrings of being a child. Girls should be allowed to be girls, she demands, and by that she means running around, talking with her friends, and absent the pressures and limitations of adulthood. She’s defiant against the larger Medieval system of valuing women for their fertility. Dunham is smart enough to frame the movie in credible terms. It’s not like Birdy, through her tenacity, is going to overthrow an entire centuries-old system of gender norms, but the story is positioned in more personal terms, in breaking through to her father to see her on her own terms rather than as a convenient investment portfolio. That’s more achievable and will be more gratifying for us because of what winning him over will mean.

The movie is also fast-paced and funny, with Birdy’s casual and catty observations delivered in quick succession. In some ways this reminded me of a Medieval version of 2011’s Submarine, another charming indie coming-of-age movie with an eccentric pop-culture obsessed teenage weirdo. There’s Medieval covers of contemporary pop songs strewn throughout for a youthful energy, and lots of onscreen titles and graphics that have their own jokes. The disconnect between Birdy’s viewpoints of the world and the common ways of thinking provide snarky commentary and plenty of progressive attitude. It’s a constant entertainment to watch this precocious little lady tweak the gender and social norms, riling up buffoonish and fragile male psyches. She’s an upstart, and there’s joy in watching her upset those in power and privilege, though she too is reminded of her own privilege considering she is the daughter of the lord and not merely some dirt-poor peasant. If it wasn’t for the sharp character-focused writing, Ramsey’s performance wouldn’t achieve the same comic and emotional heights.

Ramsey was a supreme scene-stealer on Game of Thrones, so much so that producers turned a one-scene part into a multi-season role, even giving her a badass death scene. Ramsey is the anchor of Catherine Called Birdy and perfectly in tune with her character’s feisty yet limited worldview. She’s such a winning character and represents our more modern worldview chaffing up against the very real reality of Medieval life. In some ways, she’s a case study in having to grow up too soon, and surely not the only woman to have done so. Ramsey is heartfelt and hilarious and headed for stardom (she’ll be co-headlining the HBO Last of Us series along with Pedro Pascal).

Attaching the audience to this character is a rewarding experience, and Dunham as screenwriter has balanced the adaptation of going from a first-person diary-based narrator into a film world where we can get outside viewpoints that complicate and challenge our perceptions. I appreciated the widened scope of the narrative. It’s not just the women who are expected to perform their social duties. Birdy’s beloved older uncle, George (Joe Alwyn), is definitely in love with Birdy’s best friend, but that marriage will not do. He’s expected to marry from an established pecking order to better protect his family. There’s a village boy who is also clearly gay but will never be allowed to marry whom he loves, again emblematic of plenty of people who would be left behind in this system. Sophie Ookonedo (Hotel Rwanda) appears as a widowed noble lady who speaks about the freedoms she enjoys having “played the game” and waiting her turn, speaking to a possibility for Birdy working within a broken system. She’s savvy but graceful, with the hint of sadness just on the outer edges of her words. Birdy’s mother, Lady Aislinn (Piper), is similar, hoping to make the best of limited options, and trying to ready her daughter for a life she knows she will be ill-prepared for. It’s what any parent feels, trying to ease your child for the reality to come while still holding onto their innocence as long as possible. She has some heart-rending moments especially during a difficult childbirth scene, and it’s that moment that really showcases Birdy’s father, Lord Rollo (Scott). Until this point, her father has been frustrated by his impetuous daughter, but it’s this moment where she, and by extension us, see the depth of his caring for his family. It’s wonderfully played by Scott, and it reminds us that even the stooges and fools of this world have their own hidden depth.

Catherine Called Birdy is also something of a Game of Thrones reunion, pairing Ramsey with David Bradley, Dean-Charles Chapman, Paul Kaye, and Ralph Ineson. It’s like Dunham used the HBO series as a quick casting cheat sheet since she’s already seen them in a Medieval setting. Special mention to Russell Brand (Death on the Nile) who also just kills it in one scene as a confused and easily swayed suitor. I would have loved more appearances from this man but having him continually foiled by Birdy and never learning from his gullibility.

Moving onto Sharp Stick, an original story from Dunham, you can see points of similarity immediately, framing the narrative around the self-discovery of Sarah Jo (Kristine Forseth). She’s 26 years old and still a virgin, a point she feels more uncomfortable about because of how open her half-sister Treina (Zola’s Taylour Paige) and mother (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) are about their own sexuality and their many paramours. Sarah Jo has her sights set on Josh (Jon Bernthal), a seemingly kind stay-at-home dad taking care of his special needs son that Sarah Jo babysits. If she’s going to lose her virginity to someone, she wants it to be him, but with this comes consequences as well as a steep learning curve for Sarah Jo on the realities of intimacy.

My issue with Sharp Stick is that it feels far more dawdling and confused about what it wants to say and explore with its brief 86-minute running time. This feels more like a handful of ideas or short story beginnings that Dunham inartly smashed together, and the proceeding movie has moments of levity and insight but is overall too messy and shambling and underdeveloped. Let’s start off with the main character who I would have assumed was a teenager by the way that she was acting. When the script tells me she is 26 years old, I was flabbergasted. She was behaving like a much less mature adult, not to say 26 is the height of maturity or that everyone matures at the same speed. Still, Sarah Jo comes across as very naïve and infantilized about adult relationships and human sexuality, which is confusing considering how open her family is about sex and pleasure. It’s not like she’s growing up in a conservative or repressive environment. She’s literally helping her sister record twerking videos for her social media account. The chief reason I think Dunham made an explicit reason for aging our protagonist 26 was to remove some of the ickier consent issues from coming-of-age stories about inappropriate relationships between underage teens and adults (American Beauty, Towelhead, The Diary of a Teenage Girl). She wanted to preemptively remove those criticisms, and so she made Sarah Jo 26, and she also had her uterus removed, something meant to make her seem more adult, at least on paper. Except this is the most childish 26-year-old I may have ever seen. The problem is that Sarah Jo’s naivete has shackled her character, so her sexual awakening feels more akin to a teenager’s than a mid-twenties adult.

Update: I did some research and discovered that Sarah Jo was originally written to be autistic, which would explain more of her social awkwardness. Dunham reached out to an expert on compassionate representations of autism and physical intimacy but then reportedly cancelled on her. I guess she just decided to make Sarah Jo neurotypical but didn’t change anything else. Needless to say, this was not the best decision and its impact is all over the oblivious sense of naivete that pervades the character and her choices.

I found it hard to take Sarah Jo that seriously as a character, as her education seemed to be obvious and a little too arch and twee in delivery for the rest of the movie. Once she has her sights set on Josh, Sarah Jo looks to Internet pornography to learn about what she may do to better please her partner. She is titillated by watching porn but less from the simple carnal activity and more from her fixation on one very commanding actor, played with nonchalant exuberance by Scott Speedman. Sarah Jo studies the annals of porn and creates a colorful construction-paper-heavy checklist of sexual acts she would like to experiment with, and she even alphabetizes it. It’s stuff like this that paints Sarah Jo as being infantilized. It’s not like we were shown her penchant for arts and crafts or taking larger tasks and breaking them down into cutesy checklists before. She even starts soliciting men online to better help her check things off her list, although this doesn’t come to any danger beyond a few lackluster men not living up to her expectations. And that’s the big takeaway here, that what porn promotes is more fantasy than reality, that actual intimacy between consenting adults is its own very different thing. This is too simple a revelation to rest the entire movie upon wuthout a more in-depth character, which Sarah Jo is not. Again, it’s confusing because this character will seem like she is ignorant to the world of sexuality and yet her family is so direct. The Sarah Jo character feels like she’s been ported from another story about a sheltered wallflower learning about her body and her pleasure versus how she’s been told to act to better turn on men.

I don’t fully understand what the entire storyline with Josh was meant to add up to. He’s her first sexual experience, and while he’s awkward and hesitant, he eventually gives in to this young woman’s ego-stroking infatuation, and then they embark on an affair behind the back of his pregnant wife (played by Dunham). I’m going to go into spoilers to better assess this storyline, so be warned dear reader. He eventually confesses to his wife about the affair and breaks down into tears, apologizing and saying he couldn’t help himself, and the moment is squarely to make us see Josh as a pathetic loser. His tears are performative, and he’s throwing around shifty excuses like that he did it for them. He admonishes himself but it’s not contrition we see but manipulation, meant to provoke forgiveness or at least mitigation of his actions by his wife. That’s when she shakes her head and talks about the many, many other women that Josh had had affairs with, proving that this tryst was not out of character. In fact, this seemingly “good guy” dad is actually a creep. Okay, but then Dunham’s character stays with him and they continue living their lives, obviously with the absence of Sarah Jo now. She even returns to them to yell to Josh that she’s getting much better at sex, like she will win him back as a lover. I suppose Dunham was setting up Sarah Jo’s object of desire being less than her expectations and instead as another scuzzy and coddled man-child. That’s fine. But then why does Sarah Jo still seem so determined to win him back? It’s like she hasn’t learned from this.

There are moments that work in Sharp Stick, little pieces that click together with insight or well-honed character writing. I enjoyed Sarah Jo’s mom going into full monologue mode to describe how she met and fell in love with Treina’s father. When Sarah Jo asks about her own father and her story about meeting him, her mom just shrugs and says her dad was just some guy. The disappointment is palpably felt. I also appreciated that children with special needs are presented in a straightforward and un-stigmatized fashion as just being kids. I thought the conclusion with life advice from Speedman was a great scene-stealing deluge of wisdom from the most unexpected place. I just wish it felt more earned for Sarah Jo and her awkward personal odyssey.

Dunham hasn’t directed a movie since her indie breakout in 2010, Tiny Furniture, and now she has two movies within weeks of one another. Catherine Called Birdy is the much stronger outing, allowing Dunham to adapt her voice and talents into a PG-13-firendly universe while still keeping her sharp wit and attention to character detail. Sharp Stick, in contrast, feels like several ideas that never fully coalesce, and the messy decisions with the main character makes the entire enterprise feel strange and lacking better-earned wisdom from her journey. After six seasons of Girls, I’ll always be intrigued about a new Dunham creative project, but they are not all equal. Catherine Called Birdy is Dunham flying far above the routine criticisms about her writing and her perspective, as well as showing her adaptability in an unfamiliar setting. Sharp Stick, sadly, is a reconfirmation of those criticisms and the sloppy execution of bigger ideas.

Nate’s Grades:

Catherine Called Birdy: B+

Sharp Stick: C

Licorice Pizza (2021)

It took me many months but I’ve finally watched the last of the 2021 Best Picture nominees, and now I can safely say, I just don’t understand all the love for Licorice Pizza. It’s writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s (Phantom Thread, Boogie Nights) nostalgic L.A. hangout movie, but the axiom of hangout movies is that they only really work if you actually want to hang out with the participants. I’m not certain I needed or wanted to watch either of our lead characters navigate the curious bounds of their possible romantic entanglement. Alana Haim plays Alana, an under-achieving 25-year-old looking to better define herself, and Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who appeared in five prior PTA movies, plays an over-achieving 15-year-old that is in a hurry to grow up and conquer the adult world. He’s crushing on her, she’s flattered but says it’s not appropriate, and over two hours we watch a series of meandering episodic adventures that test their will-they-won’t-they determination. I found Haim’s character to be generally unlikable and, worse, uninteresting. She’s petulant, needling, prone to jealousy but also clearly likes the attention but doesn’t know how far to test it. Hoffman’s character, based in part on Tom Hanks’ childhood friend and producing partner Gary Goetzman, is like a human puppy dog, so overwhelming and sunny and anxious to be liked, but I can’t see any more depth to him or her. They’re just kind of annoying and maybe that’s the point about looking back. I don’t see the larger thesis or theme in many of Anderson’s small and unfunny asides. He’s trying so delicately to recreate a feeling of time and place of early 1970s Los Angeles, but the movie doesn’t succeed in answering why anyone else should really care about this personal PTA slice of nostalgia. The best part of the movie, by far, is the segment where Bradley Cooper plays the lascivious and self-absorbed hairdresser-turned-producer John Peters. Too many of the other misadventures feel like table anecdotes brought to overextended life with technical pizazz and minimal emotional accessibility. Licorice Pizza left me cold and unfulfilled.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Turning Red (2022)

It’s fair to start to wonder whether Disney has some kind of grudge against Pixar at this time. The last three Pixar movies have been pulled from theatrical release and made exclusively available as part of their streaming war chest with Disney Plus. You can blame COVID for Soul being pulled, and the theatrical market was still recovering by the time Luca was scheduled to be released during the middle of summer 2021, but this didn’t stop Disney from releasing both of its own in-house animated efforts to theaters. Both Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto played in theaters in 2021 and both under-performed at the box-office, which is clearly not close to where it was pre-pandemic. No animated movie has earned over $100 million at the U.S. box-office since COVID, and maybe that’s the reason that Turning Red has become the third Pixar movie to go directly to streaming. There are rumors that this trend has been demoralizing for Pixar employees, and explanations by Disney brass that these movies move valuable subscribers to their service, but I guess we’ll see when the Buzz Lightyear movie comes out summer 2022. Regardless, Turning Red is a high quality movie that made me feel warm and fuzzy all over.

Meilin Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) is a 12-year-old student trying to live her best life in Toronto circa 2002. That means she’s one way with her friends and one way with her domineering mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). Mei is an overachieving student, devoted daughter to her family’s business caring for a Chinese temple honoring their ancestors and red pandas, and a fangirl in the extreme for the popular boy band, 4-Town (even though there are five members). Mei’s mother does not approve of her devotion to this band, or the influence of her friends, and doesn’t understand the new person her daughter is turning into. However, Mei also happens to turn into a giant red panda whenever she feels any strong emotion. She has to keep herself in check, which is hard to do with mean students, an embarrassing mother, and the prospect of scrounging up enough money so she and her three besties can see their favorite boy band live.

I had to consider what about Turning Red worked for me and what about Luca did not. They’re both relatively smaller scale movies about characters who transform into fantastical creatures, who have to hide their secret, deal with parental disapproval, and come of age while pushing their personal boundaries and re-examining who they are and what they felt was important. There are several points of comparison but I found Luca to be broadly lackluster and low in stakes. With Turning Red, I found the movie to be much more engaging and poignant. So what’s the difference where one feels shallow and the other feels personal and resonant? I think the difference is that Turning Red’s relationships feel more realized and complex. The mother-daughter dynamic is fraught with tension, as trying to live up to the standards of the prior generation is often a surefire way to disappointment. That stuff is relatable, and the drama is potent, but the movie doesn’t lose sight of the generational love underneath all the headaches. Both movies are in essence about growing up and finding your identity, relishing different parts of you that stand out as unique, and coming to terms with differences in perception, but I felt with Turning Red that the film embraced these themes, integrated them better, and also built a sturdier foundation of enriched character relationships.

The animation is irrepressibly gorgeous but I really enjoyed the added style of Turning Red. It had a more tactile physical presence that reminded me of the Aardman models (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run). The color balance also emphasized bright colors that popped with subdued hues as a background. I especially enjoyed playful little touches from anime that emphasized the overly dramatic nature of the personal stakes, like when Mei is sweating over whether her mom will find her notebook filled with pictures of a crush that she felt compelled to draw. There’s a definite energy to this movie that’s missing from plenty of other Pixar movies. It follows the perspective of its heroine, so it’s joyfully excitable and goofy at points and definitely over-the-top, like when she’s calling out her besties and we flash to a rotating mountain they’re all triumphantly scaling. It’s adopted her perspective in a way that makes the movie feel more personable, and I appreciated Mei’s character even more. Special credit should go to whoever was in charge of designing the fur textures for the red panda. When she fully panda’s out, Mei resembles a wonderfully realized version of a Totoro-styled demigod.

It was the third act where Turning Red went from amusing to surprisingly poignant for me. The central conflict is between Mei trying to be herself and the version her mother thinks she should be, which is naturally more deferential and devoted to the family at the expense of independence. This isn’t the first story to explore the difference between traditional families and their children becoming more influenced by Western pop-culture. It’s also not the first story about finding your voice and making a stand, or about parents coming to terms with the realization that their little kid isn’t so little any more. That’s fine. The supernatural elements are also pretty straightforward to follow and in service of the central relationships and metaphors. It’s the personal details that make this movie feel specific to its voice while still being accessible and relatable. It’s easy to cringe when Mei’s mother shares Mei’s private drawings with her fleeting crush. While many of us might not have been diehard fans of a boy band, we all had some phase where we felt more mature, more grown up, and dramatically different because of what this interest meant for us. I found myself battling genuine tears by the end. The end comes down to a conflict between mother and daughter, itself an echo of past conflicts, of overbearing generations being less flexible. It’s also ultimately about acceptance, but the idea that the aspects about yourself that you feel embarrassed or insecure about do not need to be expunged from your identity I think is a worthwhile message about growing up. It’s not about shedding parts of yourself, killing off things you dislike. It’s more about transformation and acceptance of self.

Turning Red is a briskly paced comedy with a precise, charismatic lead character letting us in on the pressures of her world and of being a teenage girl in the early twentieth century. It’s colorful and frenetic at points but feels completely in keeping with the personality of our plucky protagonist. The combination of puberty and monster transformation has been a ripe area for films especially in the realm of horror. This also might be the horniest Pixar movie to date, and a climactic confrontation involves shaking one’s butt, as they kids are wont to do in leisure. It’s got the substance I felt was missing with Luca and the simplified and streamlined world building that I felt could have improved Soul. In short, Turning Red isn’t top-tier Pixar but it’s an irresistible urban fantasy that has plenty of heart and whimsy to enchant audiences no matter the age.

Nate’s Grade: B+

CODA (2021)

Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) falls under the category of CODA, a Child Of a Deaf Adult. Her mother (Marlee Matlin) and father (Tony Kotsur) and her older brother (Daniel Durant) are all deaf, and she is the only member of her household with the ability to hear. She’s balancing working for her family on their fishing trawler, maintaining good grades in school, and possibly pursuing scholarships to enroll at a music and fine arts college for singing. Ruby’s music teacher agrees to train her because he believes in her potential, but Ruby has to worry that her dream is something that cannot be shared with the people she loves most, and how would they all get on without her?

The framework of CODA is familiar to anyone who has watched a coming-of-age story or family drama, but it’s the conviction and strength of character and sheer force of empathy that makes this movie a standout film for 2021. It’s based upon a 2014 French film, The Family Beller, and follows many of the same beats from other sentimental family dramas about sticking out in your family and society, chasing your dream, often in conflict with your family’s expectations, gaining that sense of inner strength and resolve, and mending differences in perspective with hard-fought and well-earned wisdom. It’s familiar, but that doesn’t mean under the right set of hands that it cannot still be resonant and emotionally gratifying. I do not hold the familiar formula against CODA, even as the family’s goal and her personal goal come into direct conflict in sometimes forced manners. That’s because the movie does an excellent job of establishing these people as characters, establishing the family dynamic as fraught but loving, and establishing a conflict that is direct and clear as far a major point of separation.

Ruby isn’t just the only member of her family who can hear, she’s also their vital lifeline to the outside world. She’s looked upon as the family interpreter, a position they cannot afford to pay for someone else’s services so the duties and responsibilities fall upon her. That’s so much pressure to bear for one teenage girl, knowing that she’s the link between her family’s poverty-treading existence and possibly breaking free into a larger hearing community. She feels ostracized and awkward within her own family and outside of her own family. To the rest of the school, she’s that “deaf family girl,” and it’s remarked that when she began high school she had an accent reminiscent of what deaf people can sound like, a point that her peers cruelly imitate. She worries she will forever be defined by her family’s disability even if she doesn’t share it. However, within her family, she feels ostracized because she’s different. She wonders if her mother wishes that she too were deaf, and during a heartfelt late-night talk, mom actually admits that upon her daughter’s birth she did feel disappointment when Ruby had hearing. While she knows sign language and has grown up with these loving figures, she’ll still always be the one who’s different, the one who hears the insults her family cannot.

The film does a remarkable effort about contextualizing Ruby’s fears and frustrations of being held captive in two different worlds, neither feeling fully accepted or whole, and that’s why her embarking on a personal dream that her family can never fully appreciate feels so significant. Part of Ruby might feel that singing is selfish, especially if it means limiting her family’s upward mobility by eliminating their unpaid interpreter, but it’s the thing that makes her most happy, a special gift that her family will be excluded from. There’s a wonderful moment toward the end of the movie where Ruby’s father asks her to sing to him, and he puts his hands along her shoulders and neck to feel the vibrations, and his awed and tear-stricken face is so moving, as he so desperately wants to indulge too in the beauty of his daughter’s voice. While occasionally the film goes overboard pounding these two conflicting paths into forced collision (family vs. self), the movie is personal with its big problems and personal with its big triumphs, making it transcend the trappings of formula.

Writer/director Sian Heder got her start on Orange is the New Black, and that TV series’ hallmark has been its enormous sense of empathy for its diverse characters. This is evident in Heder’s screenplay and her observational, detail-rich simple storytelling that immerses you in this world, so even while you recognize more familiar made-for-TV plot turns, the genuine authenticity makes the movie feel like its own unique story. Heder’s direction is delicate and places the attention squarely on her performers. There is one stylistic move late in the film when Ruby’s family comes to her choir recital in support. They look around for cues when to applaud, and their minds wander as they sign about other menial topics like grocery lists, and you understand why once Heder drops you into their perspective. For a minute, the sound disappears, and you’re left studying facial expressions for cues like them. While we can imagine being deaf, it’s another matter to experience it and try and understand.

The acting is another laudable merit for CODA. I personally want three Oscar nominations for this clan, Jones (Locke & Key) for Best Actress, Matlin (Children of a Lesser God) for Best Supporting Actress, and Kotsur (Wild Prairie Rose) for Best Supporting Actor. Over the course of nine months, Jones learned American Sign Language and how to sing, which is surprising because I would have said she has a natural talent with singing. Her performance, as well as Matlin and Kotsur, feel so real, so nuanced, and so natural, like we’ve plucked these people from real life and given them this platform. It’s the best credit you can give an actor, when they seemingly disappear into the character, and the character feels like a fully breathing, flesh-and-blood person. Even the small supporting roles are well cast, well acted, and contribute to the overall authenticity of the movie. Unlike the 2014 French original movie, all of the deaf members of the family are portrayed by actual deaf actors as well.

CODA was a sensation at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, with Apple Films buying the rights for $25 million dollars, and it’s easy to see why because it’s such a satisfying, enriching crowd-pleaser and legit tear-jerker. There were several points that had me tearing up, and then fully crying, because I was so emotionally engaged with the family, their struggles, and their triumphs and outpouring of love. You might be able to see where the movie is headed because its template is familiar and formulaic, but it’s the execution, the attention to detail, and the level of observational attention that elevates CODA and makes it so winning and so heartwarming.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Hand of God (2021)

For writer/director Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning 2013 film The Great Beauty, of which I was a great fan, I wrote: “It’s a bawdy, beautiful, and entertaining film but one that also takes its time, luxuriates in atmosphere… The film is far more free-floating and meditative … I felt like I could celebrate the absurdities and joys of life along with the people onscreen. It’s existential without being laboriously pretentious, and the comedy and stylish flourishes help anchor the entertainment.” Most of those words still apply to 2021’s autobiographical coming-of-age drama, The Hand of God, so why does it feel less appealing this time? We follow a young man in 1980s Naples and his large, boisterous, very Italian family. It’s a movie of moments, several extended vignettes, and it sadly doesn’t add up to much for me. I think that’s because the young protagonist is too blank to care about. He’s a surrogate for the filmmaker, but you never get a sense of his passions or interests or even personality. It’s a movie of people talking to and at him, so it’s hard to work up much emotion for his triumphs and perseverence. There are some memorable parts, like his awkward deflowering to an older woman, and a tragic turn halfway through that sneaks up on you. The life lessons are familiar for the well-trod territory, and the personal details of the era, the community, the 1982 World Cup (where we get the title from) feel richly realized as Sorrentino’s gauzy nostalgia. It’s just that Sorrentino’s ratio of interesting to ponderous moments has tilted into the negative this time. The Hand of God is overlong, free-floating, occasionally beautiful and frustratingly inaccessible.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Petite Maman (2021)

There are two things to know about the deeply heartfelt new French movie, Petite Maman. The first is that it’s the follow-up by Celine Sciamma, the writer and director of one of 2019’s absolute best movies, the sumptuously romantic, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. That was reason enough to watch this relatively short movie. The next is a twist that I’ll save for the body of this review but that makes this childhood examination on loss, grief, and the future far more compelling and emotionally striking. It’s further proof to me that Sciamma is one of the best filmmakers out there and that her devotion to story and human emotion is paramount; just as I was enveloped in the romantic swell of Portrait, I was charmed and enchanted by this wholesome movie that’s so winsome that you could watch with the whole family, that is, if you can convince children to watch a 75-minute French drama with you, and if so, congrats.

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is mourning the recent loss of her grandmother. She and her mother and father have camped to grandma’s old home to pack it up. Everyone is sad and one day Nelly’s mother leaves without warning. She doesn’t know when mom is coming back. In the meantime, Nelly makes a friend with a neighbor girl, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz). She’s living with her mother and nervous about an upcoming operation to fix a genetic malady. However, in the meantime, these two little girls find solace in playing with one another, building a fort in the woods, and creating role play scenarios that allow each to hone their acting skills. Over the course of a few days, Nelly learns to understand her family more while learning to say goodbye on her own terms.

I’ll save the spoilers for the next paragraph because I feel like they are unavoidable to truly get at what makes this movie special. One non-spoiler merit of this movie is how persuasively it is told from the perspective of childhood. Our little eight-year-old heroine is the protagonist, and we see the world from her understanding. That doesn’t mean the movie ever leans on narration or a reality-bending imaginative framework; it’s simply told with the understanding of what it’s like to be a child with questions and emotions that you don’t quite know how to handle. There’s a beguiling innocence with the movie that makes it so wholesome and sweet. As an adult, it’s not too difficult to remember your understanding of the world as a child, let alone family relationships, especially in the aftermath of bereavement. Nelly is forlorn because she didn’t know her last exchange with her grandmother would be their final interaction, and that ache is relatable no matter the age. Nobody knows when their last interaction with a loved one could be, so it’s easy to feel that same lament that more wasn’t made to achieve a better sense of closure. There’s a sweet moment between Nelly and her mother where they role play what that final exchange could have been, and all Nelly wishes is to say goodbye one more time but with more forceful feelings behind the words, and it was a moment so pure and innocent. The entire movie is like this moment, a lingering earnest sensation that is universal and expertly delicate.

Here comes the spoilers, so dear reader be aware if you still want to remain as pure as this movie, although I would argue knowing this spoiler ahead of time will improve your movie-going experience by giving you a necessary part of the puzzle. Petite Maman translates to “Little Mother” and it’s more than simply little kids pretending to be adults. It turns out that Marion is actually the eight-year-old version of Nelly’s mother, and her house they retreat to after playing in the woods is an older version of Nelly’s grandmother’s home. There are clues early, like the same distinct wallpaper and interior design of the house, but you might be able to dismiss that as maybe there are just similar houses being built in this neighborhood. After a while, though, you start to realize there’s more going on here, and the movie doesn’t treat you like an idiot. Nelly flat out tells Marion that she is her child from a future. From there, the movie becomes a fully felt inter-generational bonding experience, where daughter gets to talk to her mother on her own level, answer questions for her curious young mother, and they talk about dealing with sadness as they know it. When Marion asks if Nelly was planned, she says yes, and Marion says, “That makes sense. I can’t stop thinking about you already,” and tears come to my eyes even typing the words. This twist brings so much more meaning to everyday activities; instead of Nelly staying one last night to make pancakes with her new friend, now it’s Nelly having only one more opportunity to bond with her mother when they’re both at the same age, saying goodbye while telling her how much she loves her, not knowing if when they part that she may even see her adult mother again. Wow, that is so much going on. Nelly even gets another shot to find that closure with her grandmother.

The two young actresses are twin sisters, and both are terrific. Given the gentle nature of the movie, neither is given any great moment where they tearfully break down, shout their feelings, or chew the scenery in general. These feel like real kids dealing with real emotions under some unique circumstances. Each of the Sanz sisters is a delight and realistically subdued and not just poor actors incapable of effectively showing emotion. When Nelly and Marion are play acting a scene, with one pretending to be an investigator interrogating the other as a suspect, they both have a twinkle to them as they admire each other’s acting ability, saying they should become an actress. It’s a nice moment for each of the Sanz sisters because they’re living their own dreams in the scene.

Petite Maman is a special movie and one that doesn’t feel like a frame is wasted. Even at only 75 minutes in length, its compassion and sweetness are eminently felt and appreciated. My only regret is that we could have had more time together with these two and to develop even more, but it almost seems like its own commentary on life and our relationships itself. We always are left wanting more, never knowing when one last hug or joke will be the last, and so savor the human experiences we have, the cherished memories earned, the gamut of emotions shared, and enjoy what we have.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Belfast (2021)

Kenneth Branagh returns to his boyhood home with Belfast, a coming of age story set during the Troubles in 1969 where Protestant mobs were targeting Irish Catholics. The movie is partly autobiographical as we follow young Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) and his parents (Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe) and grandparents (Cirian Hinds, Judi Dench) dealing with life as their neighborhood block more resembles a war zone. There are dangerous influences and dark intentions on the peripheral, but we’re mostly at kid level, where his days are preoccupied with sitting closer to his crush in school and wanting to impress his older cousin and be accepted. The parental perspective is kept to offhand whsipers and weighty conversations about moving away or staying behind. The black and white photography is gorgeous and exquisitely composed, looking like old family photos come to rich life. The actors are charming and heartfelt, and when called upon deliver emotional fury. The problem with Belfast, and it feels mean to even cite it as such, is that everything is just a little too nice, a little too clean, a little too safe. The childhood perspective doesn’t quite jibe with the political instability at hand. It’s not a Jojo Rabbit where that disconnect is the point for reflection. It’s clearly Branagh’s love letter to his family and native land. It feels like entire scenes have been plucked directly from Branagh’s nostalgic memories. It also feels like the characters are more sweet-smiling composites than real people. It’s all been romanticized with Branagh’s personal nostalgia, reshaping the odd angles and dangling conflicts into something more sentimentally safe, easy, and inoffensively digestible. Belfast is a perfectly enjoyable movie but it feels like a simple TV movie-of-the-week, crowd-pleasing version of a complex story worthy of greater nuance and scrutiny.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Tender Bar (2021)

When adapting a memoir into a movie, it’s important to ask whether the subject has lived an interesting life that people would want to see. With The Tender Bar, based on the 2006 memoir by journalist JR Moehringer, I think the filmmakers lost sight of this. Young JR has elements of an interesting personal experience; his father, a famous radio DJ, has been absent for his whole life yet JR still pines for him while listening to the radio (the father is simply referred to as “The Voice”); his mother goes through chemotherapy for cancer; his grandfather, whom he and his mother have been forced to move back home to live with, is suffering from dementia; his uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck) runs the local bar and pushes JR to read mountains of classic literature in order to become a better writer. Any of those elements could be further explored and mined for relatable human drama and bittersweet coming-of-age lessons. That’s not what The Tender Bar does. Strangely, it cavalierly jumps around these plot points, never really settling on one for long, only braiding them together in a way that feels fleeting and stalled for building momentum. The choice of mixing in non-linear flash forwards and flashbacks (as well as a narrator) complicates matters and feels like the adaptation was struggling to relay the info it needed. Too much of this movie dwells on the least interesting part of this story, namely JR falling in love with a girl in college who repeatedly dumps him. It’s so frustrating to watch especially when we have more interesting scenarios passed up just to watch this dumb kid get his heart broken by this same girl for the umpteenth time. I wish JR had just remained a youngster and we could have focused on his real father figure shaping him, his uncle, and their time spent running the local watering hole. Mysteriously, this movie is directed by George Clooney, who shows no real affinity for the story or its characters. The movie is generally warm and gauzy but bereft of significant personal details to make the drama more resonant. It’s like you took a coming-of-age story and melted it down to its most recognizable base components. The Tender Bar is assuredly a case where the appeal of the novel must have been from the voice of its author. The story, at least presented onscreen, is a wistful shrug of a movie with an above-average Affleck performance. It’s a nice but dull experience, which is likely an apt description of most ordinary people’s lives.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Luca (2021)

Pixar’s second straight direct-to-Disney-plus outing, Luca, is a decidedly lesser movie from the creative powerhouse. It’s more in keeping with the low stakes and minimal characterization of something like the Cars franchise or Monster’s University. It has its gentle charms and important themes about acceptance, accessibility, and identity, but Luca feels a bit too shallow and lacking in magic. Two sea monster boys want to feel the thrill and freedom of living on land, and it just so happens they transform into looking like humans as long as they don’t get wet. They must learn the ways of blending in, keep their secret, and win the local triathlon to achieve their dream of owning a Vespa scooter. Yes, ostensibly it’s about two kids, and a third once they become friends with a rambunctious redheaded girl in town, wanting to win a race to get a scooter, and you can see the larger theme about friendship and self-acceptance in the name of intolerance, but the movie feels like Ponyo meets The Little Mermaid with the setting of Call Me By Your Name (with maybe some of its coming-of-age queer coding?). The movie barely gets to 84 minutes long, pre-credits, and even that feels very lackadaisical and padded, stretching a thin storyline with minimal development. The animation is expectantly gorgeous and colorful, the lovely daubs of light are so soothing to watch, though I didn’t care for the Gravity Falls-style character designs. The stakes are low and personal but I didn’t really care about the broad characters. There are some fun farcical hijinks trying to hide their monster selves from being seen, and the conclusion has a sweet message without being overtly sentimental, but Luca is little more than a fitfully amusing yet slight seaside vacation for your hungry eyes.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Cuties (2020)

A new Netflix movie is tearing through the Internet, igniting accusations of glorifying child porn, accusing Netflix employees of pedophilia, and triggering some to even cancel their subscriptions. Even if you’ve never watched Cuties you have probably heard something about it through the controversy that has inflamed innumerable conversations and condemnation. Cuties is a French drama that follows a young 11-year-old Amy (Falthia Toussouf) as she embarks on a new school. Her religious Muslim family has set her up for one way of life, but the popular girls at her school look so much more free, fun, and wild. The “Cuties” dance team dreams of stardom, envies the older teen dance team, and emulates salacious dance moves from videos. It’s easy to see why the movie has generated its controversy and it’s understandable why many people would ever refuse to watch it based on subject matter alone. No matter the artistic merit, watching kids behaving this way, and the natural discomfort it produces, can be too much to endure. However, for those willing to give Cuties a chance, I do think it has some artistic merit as it tells, what is essentially, a familiar story of a youth going down a wayward path of temptation and rebellion.

There are three standout moments to me in Cuties that exemplify what writer/director Maïmouna Doucouré was going for as well as the commentary attached to the controversy. I’ll be going into spoilers to discuss these scenes and why I think it adds up to a whole that has more thoughtful intentions than exploiting children for cheap buzz and leering perversion.

1) Early on, like around the ten-minute mark, Amy is dancing and hides under her mother’s bed to not get in trouble. Her mother walks around with the Great Aunt and she overhears their conversation and learns some upsetting news. Her father, who is away and yet to move back with the family, will be marrying a second wife and bringing her home. The mother is trying to put on a brave face and play her part, calling relatives to dutifully inform them about the development, but she is clearly devastated and wracked with emotion. She feels replaced and inadequate and harmed by the man she loves, and Amy registers the pain and degradation her mother is going through on a deeply personal level, and this is what serves as motivation for her later actions. When she’s making new friends and wearing crop tops and pushing her boundaries, it’s not just a young Muslim girl who wants to escape the conservative trappings of her culture; it’s a young girl who is looking to rebel and stick it to her father. Her sense of a woman’s place in this family is to be subservient to the man and his authority, and she’s angry with him, angry at causing her mother pain, angry at viewing her as a collectible, and angry at what she views is a culture that restricts her to a life she does not want for herself but worries may not have a choice. Again, this isn’t a judgment on all Muslim families but merely the relationships within this one. This overheard phone call is such an immediately powerful scene with such an emotional wallop that I was tearing up. Amy’s motivation is more complex than simply wanting to dress provocatively. She’s rejecting a fate that could as easily befall her, and in doing so, a viewpoint on women.

2) There is a moment where the girl gang is just hanging out in the woods and laughing. One girl, Coumba (Esther Gohourou), finds a deflated condom on the ground. Not thinking anything of it, she blows it up like a balloon and the other girls freak out. They declare that their friend is now tainted, gross, and possibly exposed to AIDS. Coumba, who was the loudest and most outspoken joker among the group, is frozen in embarrassment. She didn’t know what it really was because she’s simply a child. She had no real conception, and now that reminder and the embarrassment and the hysteria from her friends is making her feel so small and humiliated. She’s desperate for her friends to excuse this misstep, to be accepted by her peer circle once again, and she meekly defends her ignorance. A single tear rolls down her cheek and this scene was a fitting reminder for me that the filmmakers have never forgotten that these girls, no matter how they dress and how they act, are still very much children. They talk about sex and porn but through an uninformed understanding of the larger meaning and context let alone sense of anatomical accuracy. It’s because they’re still children! This moment was further confirmation for me that the filmmakers had not forgotten that their subjects were to be presented thoughtfully. These 11-year-olds aren’t to be sexualized, just like teenagers shouldn’t be either, no matter how eager these young people are to jump ahead in maturity and be seen as desirous and incendiary.

3) The last scene of the movie involves the father’s wedding, a moment that mother and daughter have been dreading. Amy has run away from her dance team’s big show and made her choice, choosing to return to her family and as a support for her mother. She reminds Amy that she does not have to attend the wedding but Amy is determined to be there, knowing fully what it means for her mother and the larger implications for her family. Amy must decide what to wear for the festivity and stares down the traditional dress her Great Aunt had brought. Amy looks at her skimpy dance outfit, a guaranteed attention-seeking statement if she were to wear it to her father’s wedding ceremony. Instead, she chooses a middle path and simply wears a comfortable sweatshirt and some blue jeans. She rejects the restrictions of her family’s conservative culture, she rejects the extremes of the dance troupe, and she starts to form her own sense of self. She sidles into a game of jump rope and the camera pans up, and as the camera moves so too does Amy, locked into the camera shot, rising above the world, and she’s smiling so broad that her face seems to glow with happiness, a relief and joy she hasn’t felt in some time. By the end of this tale, our heroine has rebelled, overstepped, learned something about herself, and now seems a little surer of who she wants to be as a young woman charting her life in France. For me, this conclusion reaffirms the intentions of the filmmakers and commentary that those feelings of discomfort were on purpose.

With that being said, there were of course scenes that made me feel deeply uncomfortable, and I would question anyone who didn’t feel the same. The Cuties’ final dance is shockingly adult. Children should not be behaving in this manner but, and I again I stress this, that is the point of the movie. The audience at the dance competition does not approve of the tween twerking; they boo, they make disgusted faces, and one mother attempts to cover her baby’s eyes. “THIS IS TOTALLY NOT A GOOD THING,” Doucouré’s film is vociferously pronouncing. When the girls are simply dancing, her camera favors wide angles or framing that doesn’t ogle their bodies. Often dances will be seen as a whole or with shoulders-and-up framing. Whenever the girls film their dances, the camera adopts the intended lascivious emulation they seek, lingering more on butts in shorts and their attempt at sensual gazes they’ve adopted from Instagram influencers and aspiring models. It’s icky but it’s only a sampling compared to the in-your-face final dance performance. What I’m trying to articulate is that the portrayal of these young girls letting loose is more tasteful than the detractors have given Cuties credit for. I’ve seen scuzzy teen-centric movies (notably by Larry Clark) where the camera was continuously fetishizing its teenage subjects as a default setting. Cuties isn’t that until it really wants to grind its cautionary message into your horrified face as you try to shield your eyes.

I had a student ask why did it have to be 11-year-olds, why couldn’t the same message have been told through slightly older figures, maybe 15 or 16-year-olds, and I didn’t have an answer. Maybe because we’ve already seen “teens go bad” movies with 16 years-olds (Kids), or even presumably 13-year-olds (Thirteen), and maybe Doucouré felt she needed to go younger to be different, or push the envelope, or to grab attention from an increasingly blasé public. Maybe the filmmaker felt we needed to go to an age before puberty so it’s less a “becoming a woman” transition and more a constant of being acknowledged as a child. I cannot say. At its core, Cuties doesn’t have to be a story that is told from a particular age because it’s a formula that we’re familiar with and it embodies universal themes of acceptance, isolation, rebellion, and belonging. It’s a better movie than the alarmist defenders of childhood virtue claim (funny how these same defenders seem so quiet in supporting a president who literally bragged about spying on tween girls while they changed clothes, but that’s another discussion). I would also advise these same critics to look up how many season Toddlers and Tiaras ran for on TV. This is not the best movie. If you’ve seen enough teen movies you’ve likely seen this story already, but Cuties is a perfectly fine movie with enough artistic merit and social commentary to potentially make it worth sitting through the obvious discomfort. I can completely understand if any person would choose to pass on this movie but it would be better if more people actually gave it a chance before sharpening those pitchforks.

Nate’s Grade: B

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