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Holler (2021)

In the time I have spent making a concerted effort at reviewing Ohio-made indie movies, I have yet to watch one that amazed me and earned an A-grade. There are several that are enjoyable, others admirable for their technical professionalism, and many that have glaring factors beyond limited budgets that hold back whatever the intended artistic intent was. I was excited with genuine hope for Holler, a small movie shot entirely in Jackson, Ohio and following the lives of a struggling band of small-town metal scrappers looking to survive. It’s the debut feature from writer/director Nicole Riegel (based upon her 2016 short film of the same name) and has recognizable TV actors involved like Jessica Barden (End of the F***ing World), Pamela Adlon (Better Things), Austen Amelio (Dwight from The Walking Dead) and Becky Ann Baker (Girls, Freaks and Geeks). It’s even getting a wide release nationwide through IFC Films, who graciously provided me a screener link. If any movie felt like it was going to breakthrough and become the first truly outstanding Ohio indie, this seemed like a major possibility. Unfortunately, Holler doesn’t merit hollering.

Ruth (Barden) is a high school senior in a small southern Ohio town wracked by poverty, factory closures, and the aftereffects of the opioid epidemic. Her mother (Adlon) is serving time in prison for her drug offenses when she should be in a treatment center. Her older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) is resigned that he’ll work himself to nothing, but he wants a better life for his bright sister and submitted her college application. Ruth and her brother join Hank (Amelio), a local scrapper who offers extra work for side projects stripping the parts from closed buildings.

While watching Holler, I noticed my heart was sinking because, even with all this professionalism and authenticity on board, I kept waiting for the actual movie to kick in, and then I noticed an hour had passed and I realized, “Oh, this is the movie.” I have seen this artistic calculation with indie movies before and articulated it succinctly with 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild: “sacrificing story to the altar of realism.” This feels like a very authentic movie as far as its hardscrabble details about how impoverished people in small towns eke out a life on the peripheral of society. I know people have been pushed to the brink because of desperation, whether economic or psychotropic or beyond, and that scrapping can be a dangerous and competitive landscape to make a few bucks. When you’re struggling to get by, it’s all about what can lighten that struggle. If stripping the copper wire out of an abandoned building is more profitable, and less time-consuming, than bagging aluminum cans all over town, then it seems like a natural attraction to those with limited options. However, Holler feels less like a movie with a story needing to be told than a stark setting with an impression to leave.

The characters are too interchangeable and one-dimensional here to really invest in beyond general well-wishing. These small-town Ohioans have been hit hard by circumstances and as I was watching I wanted them to find some degree of happiness or improvement by the end, but that was because they were simply people in need and I am an empathetic creature and not because of their personal stories or characterization. It would be the same as if I had watched 90 minutes of a lost puppy trying to find shelter and then, at long last, that puppy got to sleep inside a coffee shop. I’m happy, and relieved on a general level, but am I personally invested in this specific animal and this specific story? Could it have been any living being at all?

The characters of Holler are far too generalized where they keep repeating that same nub of characterization they’ve been given. The entire dynamic seems to be a universe of characters who exist to try and convince Ruth that she is better than everyone and deserves to leave. In an early scene, we watch Ruth sit down and write an essay for a friend to use as her own homework. It’s an early indication that Ruth is smart and not fulfilling her potential. It’s not her homework she’s completing but a friend’s and for money, money she initially refuses from pride. Unfortunately, the movie forgets to continue moments like this to provide further insights. Ruth is too often a walking cipher, taking in her dilapidated surroundings with alternating pensive and glum stares. She is more a symbol than a character, meant to serve as a face of those held back by economic anxieties and limited opportunities. Her mother is a symbol of the wreckage of the opioid crisis and how it has decimated rural communities. Her brother is a symbol of generational sacrifice. These characters don’t have complicated internal drama or intriguing contradictions or anything beyond the surface description because they’re designed to be specific voices meant to convey a Greek chorus of opinion. They’re sides of conversations made flesh rather than interesting or complex people. I wanted to become attached to Ruth’s plight especially as she embarks on performing more dangerous tasks for money with her scrap crew, but you never feel any real added danger or for that matter any real change. When Ruth is out scrapping in the middle of the night, the movie treats it no differently. When Ruth finally makes her decision about her life, it doesn’t feel like the culmination of her emotional journey and more so the character finally accepting the pleas of others over the course of 85 minutes.

The obvious artistic comparison point for Holler is 2010’s Winter’s Bone, another movie that explored in unflinching detail the degenerative disease of systemic poverty. Once again, we follow a young woman trying to provide for her broken family in the wake of a parental drug addiction and trying to stay one step ahead of debt collectors and eviction. Another artistic influence seems to be 1970’s Wanda, an indie featuring a housewife walking away from the malaise of her life in small-town coal country Pennsylvania. The difference with both chief artistic influences is that they had, quite simply, movies to tell with their big screen canvas. With Winter’s Bone, there’s an urgency where the protagonist has to find her absent father in short order to save her family home but also because he has made some very scary meth dealers very angry, so the way to save her family is literally to turn over the man who abandoned them to ruin. There’s a strong sense of personal stakes, there’s a ticking clock, and the themes tie into the emotional journey of our main character. With Wanda, the main character is the one abandoning her husband and children and she takes refuge with a bank robber on the run. With each of those descriptions, you can see the movie there, the reason why this story deserves your time.

With Holler, I kept waiting for some turn or escalation or something to draw out the movie. The movie feels stuck in an expository gear I would associate with Act One territory and then it ends. I really thought more would be made of the illegal scrapping-for-money angle and whether this would present our lead character with increasingly fraught choices over her well-being. I thought maybe her descent into the criminal side of desperation would force more confrontations or consequences. Maybe there would be another crew that didn’t take too kindly to an entrepreneur muscling in on their hard-won turf. Maybe she would have to hide her injuries as she got more reckless. Maybe she’d even risk getting caught by the law and serving time in prison. Anything to offer insight into this less known world of scrapping. I regret to say that the angle that gives this low-budget indie its very hook could have been replaced with any other arbitrary plot element. Ruth could have been finding lost dogs or stealing cars or selling her bath water to perverts on the Internet. The circumstances of her personal choices are so generalized and don’t produce enough direct cause-effect relationships. The events fail to feel meaningful. The solution to Ruth’s dilemma also seems as generalized – go to college. What is she going to study? Does she have a career in mind? Does she even have personal interests? She rejects one teacher’s recommendation to avoid a crushing load of student debt and to learn a skill and work up, so then what is she going to do with tens of thousands of dollars in debt attached to her name? I understand that education is aspirational and one of the few things in life that, once gained, cannot be taken away, and I champion education as a person working within that sphere. However, “get out of economic desperation by just going to college” seems naively simplistic.

Holler is admirable for its grit and empathetic with the struggles of its people. It’s professionally made with a strong score by Gene Beck (Cowboys), all mournful strings applied to lived-in details that feel authentic to the region and these inhabitants. Even the angle of scrapping-for-money seems ripe for exploration to separate this little movie from the pack of poverty pictures. It’s the storytelling that cannot live up to the good intentions of those involved. The characters are too one-note, symbolic, and disposable, and the story elements are likewise too interchangeable and lacking in meaningful connections. It’s a small-town girl who must decide to leave home to take on massive student debt (happy ending?). Anything that happens in the prior 85 minutes feels like variations on the same point being made repeatedly and without nuance or complication or contrast. It feels less like a movie and more like an expanded short absent the substance to justify its expansion. I think Riegel has promise as a filmmaker and I hope more attention goes to her characters and plot for future projects. I must continue to wait once again for that elusive Ohio-made amazing indie.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Hillbilly Elegy (2020)/ Feels Good Man (2020)

Hillbilly Elegy is based upon the memoir by JD Vance and in 2016 it became a hot commodity in the wake of Trump’s surprising electoral ascent, with liberals seeing it as a Rosetta Stone to understanding just how so many working-class white people could vote for a billionaire with a gold toilet. The movie, directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13) and currently available on Netflix, follows an adult JD (Gabriel Basso). He’s a Yale law candidate forced to go back home to Middletown, Ohio after his mother Bev (Amy Adams) lands in the hospital for a heroin overdose. It’s 2011, and Bev has been fighting a losing battle with opioids for over a decade, costing her a string of boyfriends and jobs. JD’s homecoming isn’t quite so rosy. While he can take comfort in fried bologna sandwiches and his sister (Haley Bennett), the town is not what it once was. The factory has closed, poverty is generational, and his mother is one of many struggling to stay clean. In flashback, we watch MeeMaw (Glenn Close) take in the young JD (Owen Asztalos) and raise him on the right path. JD must decide how far the bonds of family go and how much he may be willing to forgive his mother even if she can never ask for help.

The subtitle of Vance’s novel was “A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis,” and it’s that latter part that got the most attention for the book and critical examination. Many a think piece was born from Vance’s best-selling expose on the hardscrabble beginnings of his personal story along the hills of Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley and his recipe for success. Given his libertarian political leanings, it’s not a surprise that his solutions don’t involve a more interventionist government and social safety nets. According to Vance’s book, he saw poverty as self-perpetuating and conquerable. It was the “learned helplessness” of his fellow Rust Belt inhabitants that Vance saw as their downfall. For me, this seems quite lacking in basic empathy. You see these people aren’t poor because they’ve been betrayed by greedy corporations, indifferent politicians, a gutted infrastructure and educational system in rural America, pill mills flooding Appalachia with cheap opioids, and a prison system that incentivizes incarceration over rehabilitation. For Vance and his like-minded fellows, upward mobility is a matter of mind over matter, and these working-class folks have just given up or won’t work as hard as before.

Now, as should be evident, I strongly disagree with this cultural diagnosis, but at least Vance is trying to use his own story as a launching point to address larger points about a portion of America that feels forgotten. The movie strips all of this away. Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) juggles multiple timelines and flashbacks within flashbacks as Vance follows the formula of prodigal son returning back to his home. The entire draw of the book, its purported insights into a culture too removed from the coastal elites, is replaced with a standard formula about a boy rediscovering his roots and assessing his dysfunctional family. At this rate, I’m surprised they didn’t even time it so that Vance was returning home for Thanksgiving.

Removed of relevant social commentary, Hillbilly Elegy becomes little more than a gauzy, awards-bait entry meant to uplift but instead can’t help itself from being overwrought poverty porn. If we’re not looking at the bigger picture of how Appalachia got to be this way, then Vance becomes less our entry point into a world and more just an escaped prisoner. Except the movie doesn’t raise Vance up as exceptional and instead just a regular guy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps through will and family support. I’m not saying he is exceptional, I don’t know the man, but this approach then ignores the reality of why so many others just aren’t following his footsteps of simply trying harder. Without granting a more empathetic and careful understanding of the circumstances of poverty, Howard has made his movie the equivalent of a higher-caliber Running with Scissors, a memoir about a young man persevering through his “quirky, messed up family” to make something of himself on the outside. This reductive approach is meant to avoid the trappings of social commentary, and yet in trying to make his film studiously apolitical to be safer and more appealing, Howard has stumbled into making Hillbilly Elegy more insulting to its Appalachia roots. Systemic poverty is seen as a choice, as people that just aren’t trying as hard, that have given up and accepted their diminished fates. Never mind mitigating economic, psychotropic, and educational circumstances. I imagine Howard wanted to deliver something along the lines of Winter’s Bone, unsparing but deeply aware of its culture, but instead the movie is far more akin to a sloppy compilation of Hallmark movies and catchy self-deprecating bumper sticker slogans. Seriously, about every other line of dialogue feels like it was meant to be on a T-shirt, from “Where we come from is who we are, but we choose every day who we become,” to, “There are three types of people in this world: good Terminators, bad Terminators, and neutral.” Well, maybe not that last one. The insights are fleeting and surface-level, with vague patronizing along the fringes.

The personal story of J.D. Vance takes the center stage and yet he’s the biggest blank of characters, and what we do get isn’t exactly that encouraging. I think we’re meant to engage with his triumph over adversity, but he has such disdain for his background while clinging to it as an identity, and this intriguing dichotomy is never explored. Vance as a character is merely there. His awkward experiences relating to the rich elites are just silly. He calls his girlfriend (Freida Pinto) in a panic over what fork to use at a fancy dinner table, as if this perceived social faux pau would be the difference between getting a law firm gig. He’s supposed to feel like an outsider, both at home and away, unable to escape his past that defines him, but the movie doesn’t even make Vance feel alive in the present. Most of the movie he is just there while big acting takes place around him. He listens to the life lessons bestowed upon him, good and bad, and it makes him the kind of man that when he grows up will join Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm, so hooray? I sighed when the movie established the stakes as he needs to get back in time for his big lawyer job interview, a literal family vs. future crossroads. The movie treats its frustrating main character as a witness to history rather than an active participant, and his personal growth is what? Coming to terms with the limitations of his mother? Accepting himself? Leaving them all behind to survive? I don’t know. There is literally a montage where he gets his life back on track, starts getting better grades, ditches his no-good friends, and heads out into the world. This could have been a better articulated character study but instead Vance comes across as much a tourist to this downtrodden world and eager to return to safer confines as any morbidly curious viewer at home.

I simply felt bad for the actors. This is the kind of movie where subtlety isn’t exactly on the agenda, so I expected big showcases of big acting with all capitals and exclamation marks, and even that didn’t prepare me. I watched as Amy Adams (Vice) worked her mouth around an accent that always seemed elusive, with a character that veered wildly depending upon the timing of a scene. Almost every moment with Bev ends in some alarming escalation or outburst, like when a new puppy ends with Bev declaring she will “kill that dog in front of you,” or a ride back home descends into a high-speed promise of killing herself and child out of spite. This woman is troubled, to say the least, and her addictions and mental illness are what defines the character. With that guiding her, Adams is left unrestrained and usually screaming. There’s just so much screaming and wailing and crying and shouting. It’s an off-the-mark performance that reminded me of Julianne Moore in 2006’s Freedomland, where a usually bulletproof actress is left on her own in the deep end, and the resulting struggle leans upon histrionics. Was I supposed to feel sympathy for Bev at some point? Does the movie ever feel sympathy for this woman who terrorizes and beats her child? The broad portrayal lacks humanizing nuance, so Bev feels less like a symbolic victim of a larger rot of a society abandoned and betrayed and more a TV movie villain.

Close (The Wife) disappears into the heavy prosthetics and baggy T-shirts of MeeMaw, but you could have convinced me the character was a pile of coats come to life. Truthfully, MeeMaw is, by far, the most interesting character and the story would have greatly benefited from being re-calibrated from her painful perspective. She’s the one who bears witness to just how far Middletown has fallen since her and PawPaw ventured as young adults with the promise of a secure new life thanks to the thriving factory. She’s the one symbolizing the past and its grip as the present withers. She’s the one who has a history of abuse only to watch her daughter fall into similar patterns. Think of the guilt and torment and desire to rescue her grandson for a better life and save her family. That’s an inherently interesting perspective, but with JD Vance as our mundane lead, MeeMaw is more a slow-walking curmudgeon taken to doling out profane one-liners and grumpy life lessons. Close is easily the best part of Hillbilly Elegy and deserved more attention and consideration. A moment where she clings to JD’s high-scoring math test like a life raft is heartfelt and earned, more so than anything with JD.

Another slice of America that feels forgotten and angry is on display with the documentary Feels Good Man, a.k.a. the Pepe the Frog documentary. Who is Pepe? He’s a cartoon frog created by Matt Furie as part of a comic series of post-college ennui between four friends. The character was adopted by the commenters on the message board 4Chan as their own symbol, and as their memes spread and became more popular with mainstream suers, and that’s when the 4Chan warriors had to do something drastic to save their favorite frog. They began transforming Pepe into a symbol of hate in order to make him toxic for outside use, and then the irony of their attempts at reclamation faded away and Pepe became a real symbol for Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. The character is currently listed on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of symbols of hate. The movie explores this evolution and de-evolution of Matt Furie’s creation and serves as a cautionary tale about the scary shadows of Internet culture and the nature of reclaiming meaning and intent with art.

Firstly, is there enough material here for a full-fledged documentary? We’re talking about a cartoon frog filling up the memes of Internet trolls. Is that enough? I think so, though I wish the movie shed even more critical scrutiny upon the 4Chan fringes of the Internet that have become a toxic cesspool of alienation and recrimination. These are people that self-identify and celebrate their social isolationism. The acronym N.E.E.T. stands for NOT Employed, Educated, or Trained and is adopted by many as an odd badge of honor. We even see home video footage of people sharing their personal lives in cluttered, trash-strewn basements. These are people electing not to engage with a larger functioning society and yet also feeling hostile to those that choose otherwise. Maybe it’s all a big joke to them, so why even bother; maybe it’s a defeatist mentality that plays upon social anxiety and learned helplessness. Maybe it’s just a noisy, nihilistic club that doesn’t want anything for themselves other than to disrupt others. The interview subjects from the 4Chan community are few but offer chilling peeks into this subculture. They see the world in terms of a very high school-level of social hierarchy, and the people who are pretty, successful, and having sexual relationships are the “popular kids” keeping them down. I think in terms of a Venn diagram, that incels and these NEET freaks are a flat circle. It almost feels like Vance’s cultural critiques of his poor Appalachia roots syncs up with the disenchanted 4Chan kids. This self-imposed isolation and self-persecution stews into a hateful mess of resentment. It’s not a surprise that several mass shooters have partaken in 4Chan and 8Chan communities.

This scary subsection of Internet culture has been left to fester and it went next level for the 2016 presidential election. The trolls recognized their own sensibilities in Donald Trump, a candidate whose entire presidency seemed on the precipice of being a bad joke. The alt-right celebrated the man and used Pepe as a symbol for Trump’s trolling of norms and decorum, and the 4Chan message boards became an army of meme makers to steer Internet chatter. It’s hard to say what exactly the cumulative effect of these memes and trolling efforts achieved, in addition to the successful efforts of Russian hackers and a media environment that gave Trump billions of dollars in free airtime, but the 4Chan crowd celebrated their victory. “We memed him to the White House,” they declared. From there, Pepe became a synonymous symbol of a newly emboldened white supremacist coalition and any pretenses of ironic detachment dissolved away.

The rise and mutation of Pepe makes up most of the movie, and it’s certainly the most fascinating and scary part of Feels Good Man. However, there is a larger question about the ownership of art and interpretation that the movie presents without conclusive answers. Symbols are a tricky thing. They’re not permanent. The swastika wasn’t always associated with Hitler and Nazis. A pentagram has significantly different meanings depending upon a Wiccan and conservative Christian audience. Feels Good Man examines Furie as a humble albeit slightly naïve creator. He’s a nice guy who just can’t get his head around what has happened to his creation. How far does the artist’s intent go when it comes to credible meaning? At one point, Furie tried stemming the negativity by killing off Pepe in a limited comic, but it didn’t matter. The 4Chan followers simply remade him as they desired because at that point Pepe was their own. He has been built and rebuilt over and over again, that no one person can claim interpretative supremacy. Furie’s version of Pepe might be gone but there are millions of others alive and well. This gets into the nature of art and how every creator in some regard must make amends with letting go of their creation. Once it enters the larger world for consumption, they can steer conversations but art can take on its own life. The last third of the movie follows Furie taking action to enforce his copyright law to push back against the more outlandish uses of Pepe the frog, including from InfoWars’ Alex Jones, the same man who told us the government was making frogs gay for some unexplained conspiracy. Jones makes for a pretty easy villain to enjoy seeing defeated, and the conclusion of the movie involves dueling taped depositions between Furie and Jones over intellectual trademarks and free speech. It makes for an easy to navigate victory for Furie to end the movie upon, but is this larger war winnable? I have my doubts and I don’t think the trolls of the darker reaches of the Internet are going away.

I also want to single out the beautiful animation that appears throughout Feels Good Man, giving a visual representation to Pepe in a manner that’s like trying to give him a say in his own intent.

So, dear reader, why did I pair both of these movies for a joint review? I found both of them as investigations into a sliver of America that feels forgotten, left behind, stuck in ruts outside their control, and resentful of a changing culture they see as exclusive to their hard-hit communities. I thought both Hillbilly Elegy and Feels Good Man could provide me, and others, greater insight into these subcultures and perhaps solutions that can make them feel more seen and heard. The problem is that Elegy doesn’t provide solutions other than “pull up your bootstraps” and Feels Good Man involves a destructive coalition that I don’t want better seen and heard. Both movies in their own ways deal with the nature of how very human it can be to retreat to their safe confines of people who too feel ostracized, hurt, and overwhelmed. I have pity for the people of the Rust Belt, the hillbillies experiencing generational poverty and hardships, though “economic anxiety” is not simply a regional or whites-only worry. I have less pity for the basement trolls of 4Chan trying to celebrate school shooters because it’s somehow funny. I’m amazed that so many talented people were part of Hillbilly Elegy and had such high hopes. For all of its full-tilt screaming, the movie is thoroughly boring and formulaic. Given the nature of an elegy, I was expecting Howard’s movie would be more considerate of its people, but their humanity is lost in this pared-down characterization, and the tragedy of society failing its own becomes an inauthentic Horatio Alger story of the plucky kid who went to Yale and became a real somebody. Feels Good Man might not be the best documentary but it feels more authentic and owns up to its inability to answer larger questions about human behavior, art, and interpretation. Both of these movies will prove horrifying to watch but only one is intentionally so.

Nate’s Grades:

Hillbilly Elegy: C-

Feels Good Man: B

The Street Where We Live (2019)

I was fortunate enough to actually hear co-writer/director John Whitney and co-writer/star Dino Tripodis discuss their hardscrabble indie drama, The Street Where We Live. It’s an Ohio indie that was filmed over the course of several weekends from the fall of 2015 to the summer of 2016, had its festival run throughout 2017-2018, and became available for the general public to watch via Amazon Prime in 2019. I was lucky to hear both men talk about their experiences making this movie on a small budget under a constrained time frame, as well as their hopes for it, paying homage in particular to the hard-working mothers that both men credit for their upbringing.

We follow Mary (Kristina Kopf), a recently unemployed factory worker, struggling to stop her family’s descent into greater financial ruin. Her children, Jamie (Katie Stottlemire) and Thomas (Dylan Koski), are trying to hide the shame of their living conditions, though it’s getting harder. Things go from bad to worse as this family tries to regain their stability.

The film does a very good job of communicating the vulnerability and struggle of poverty as well as how susceptible a majority of people living on the fringes are. As has been said, many Americans are simply two paychecks away from disaster; in a survey, a majority of Americans would be unable to pay for a sudden expense of $400, meaning most Americans lack even that amount when it comes to personal savings. That day-to-day anxiety of simply getting by, of persevering and not prospering, is best expressed by the layers of sad, quiet resignation that hang on lead actress Kopf’s face. Hers is a performance steeped in quiet suffering (more on that later) and her fight for dignity and opportunity. This isn’t a very dialogue-driven movie and instead is more like one long sigh slowly eliminating all breath. One calamity leads to another in a succession of setbacks, and it’s clear to understand just how difficult it is to reset your life when that chasm seems more insurmountable by the day. You don’t have enough money to pay electricity leads to not enough money to pay for rent, leads to living in your car and washing in the bathrooms of gas stations, leads to having your car towed, leads to an impound that expects even more money if it cannot be immediately paid, and all the while that deficit grows and grows. The Street Where We Live is at its best when it’s opening up about the slippery slope of poverty and how it’s not some choice, not the result of trenchant laziness, but just bad timing, bad luck, and limited opportunities. In that way, the film works extremely well as an empathy project to convey the toll of poverty on the human condition and one’s hope.

Much like the mumblecore sub-genre of indie dramas, the observational little details and natural give-and-take are what help give the movie its sense of authenticity. This feels like a world where Whitney and his crew are well versed and can supply exacting insights. There are a few devastating moments in the movie, one of them being how out-of-touch a person can feel in a quickly changing marketplace. Mary has held her factory job for years and is applying for, what she has been told, is a simple secretarial position in an office, something she feels she can at least keep up with even if her typing skills are mediocre. Instead, she’s pummeled with questions of technical insurance jargon, and each one further shatter the idea that a “simple secretarial” job is within reach for Mary. Her sinking realization that this job is closed to her is such a hard moment to watch and Kopf, once again, plays it tragically and beautifully. It’s a small sucker punch of a moment, and from here she’s fighting even to get underpaid dish washing gigs. There are some aspects that are stretched a bit in order to maintain the family’s tragic desperation (one would think Mary wouldn’t have to venture all the way out of the state to contend for a paying job). It’s excusable because we’re meant to feel the crushing uncertainty of a character struggling with what is the best of her limited bad options. The only aspect of The Street Where We Live that didn’t feel realistic was the seconds before the factory workforce was about to find out their jobs were all gone, because I have to think everyone was suspecting the worst and wouldn’t be so amped for noisy chit-chat prior to the news.

The acting is another component that helps compliment the movie’s valued sense of reality. The Street Where We Live and its success hinges on two fulcrums: 1) its everyday realism, and 2) Kopf. The characters feel very recognizable and the performances rely on subtlety more than histrionics. More is gained by watching the pained expressions of ordinary people than listening to a character explode in a well-polished monologue about the hardships of living in poverty. There are a few emotional outbursts but they’re saved for the end, and even these moments are crafted to better maintain that well-earned sense of cinema verité.

Much of the film’s impact is reliant upon Kopf (Constraint, Axe Giant) and the micro-expressions that cross her face. Hers is a role about suffering in silence, her weathered gaze its own shattering scream, and you study her to see how she’s coping with each new added indignity. A terrific moment is when Mary is trying to square a very personal, moral-crossing decision she made for the greater good of her family only to have a cruel man use his small amount of power to further wound. You feel how powerless this woman is and while you want her to punch the creep, there will be no release. You want the “movie moment” where she can upstage her tormentor but it won’t happen. Kopf has long been a staple of Ohio indies and there’s a very good reason why. Tripodis (Bottom Feeders) has an immediate well-worn charm that’s heartwarming. One of the best scenes in the movie is his character Ben and Mary sharing a small moment of compassion after hours of hunting for recyclables to turn in for meager money. This moment is so naturally written, with their interplay feeling relaxed, natural, and organic, that I instantly wanted more. Stottlemire (Tragedy Girls, My Friend Dahmer) has begun to branch out into bigger movies and her burgeoning talent is clear to witness. She follows Kopf’s lead and works in underplayed tones to great effect. Koski gets the least to do as Thomas, like him strumming his father’s guitar is all that is needed to communicate his longing to connect to his past. There are also small roles and cameos from other central Ohio indie faces like Ralph Scott (After), Daniel Alan Kiely (Bong of the Living Dead), Heather Caldwell (After), and Richard Napoli (After), and several others.

If there is one thing holding back the film from achieving a greater level of success and viewer engagement, it’s that the characters are defined entirely by their ongoing suffering. I call it the Lars von Trier School of Storytelling (not that it’s only associated to the Danish sadist) where you establish a character that takes the slings and arrows of their society, but this props up a protagonist as more of a symbol/metaphor/martyr than a human being. This approach can still work when given a major theme that is complex enough to take on the extra brunt of attention. However, this approach can also make the protagonist feel less active, more reactionary, and also less complex. If you were deconstructing Mary as a character, I know very little about her as a person. I know she had a job for many years. I know she lost her husband. I know she doesn’t feel comfortable asking others for help. I know she’s willing to make sacrifices for her children. Internally, I don’t know much about her, nor do I know much about her personality, interests, flaws, quirks, the things that make people more fleshed out, nuanced, and appealing. Mary certainly serves a purpose and she voices this in the film’s very last scene as Whitney unleashes his thesis statement about how our society should be better with its inherent social promises. For some, this will be a minor quibble and for others it will be, in essence, a cap for their empathy levels.

The Street Where We Live is an affecting and honest little movie about the everyday hardships many people face when their lives are suddenly in free fall. It’s a potent drama packed with small, telling details that better create a world that feels lived-in, compassionate, and authentic. The acting is mostly sharp and anchored by a standout performance from Kristina Kopf. The technical details are pretty solid overall for a movie made for less than $13,000 and under the start-stop circumstances that the filmmakers had available. The cinematography and editing can feel like there wasn’t much in the way of additional options, but the look of the movie, muted greys and rusty browns, adds to the overall dreary tone. It’s a sparse film in execution but that’s because it doesn’t need bells and whistles and fancy camera setups to make its story felt. It’s a deeply empathetic movie that could open some hearts about the struggles of others. It’s so easy to fall down and much harder to get back up without a support system. The movie might be hitting repeated points without enhanced characterization but it still hits its marks. The Street Where We Live is the kind of movie where its small budget can actually be a plus, not just in forcing creative ingenuity from the filmmakers but also in lending a blue-collar validity. It’s a story that resonates because of its universal themes and lessons in empathy, and it’s worth watching to see what a group of well-meaning artists can do when inspired to do good.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Florida Project (2017)

Director Sean Baker has become one of indie cinema’s most probing, humanist voices for the outliers of our society. His previous films looked at aspiring adult film industry performers, transsexual prostitutes, and now with The Florida Project, an assortment of low-income and homeless families. The film has been buzzed about by critics for months and has started to pick up some serious awards traction. The film does an admirable job of illuminating a childhood on the fringes of society. I just wish it had done more.

Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) is a young child living in a rundown motel miles from Disney World. Her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), relies chiefly upon hustling Disney tourists to make money. Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is the manager of the motel. He’s sympathetic to the families turning their stays into homeless residency, but he also needs rules to be abided and rent money paid. He’s concerned about Halley’s choices and how they are impacting, and will impact, the life of her daughter. Over the course of a few weeks during the hot summer, Moonee’s life will never be the same.

The Florida Project is a slice-of-life drama from the perspective of a young child, and to that end it’s quite immersive and empathetic. Little Moonee and her group of friends feel extensively real, so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if director/co-writer Baker just turned on his camera and simply said, “Go,” and sat back. Much of the movie, and perhaps even half, is watching Moonee and friends play, explore, and interact with a larger world that they don’t fully understand. There are heavier realities kept at the peripheral. Moonee doesn’t know that she and her friends are living in poverty. She doesn’t know that her fun mom is actually an irresponsible parent. She doesn’t know that the weird guy watching them play that Bobby forcefully removes is very likely a pedophile. She doesn’t know the illegal activities of her mother to make ends meet. This limited perspective is also the same given to the audience. A mother/daughter photo session that seems innocuous and a little sweet is later revealed to have seedier ulterior motives. We follow Moonee on her jaunts to investigate the rundown neighborhood, and somehow in that missing time Halley has gained money for rent. It’s not quite a whimsical, romanticized version of life in poverty like the misguided yet critically beloved Beasts of the Southern Wild. Instead, it’s more a selective perspective that focuses on the innocence and imagination of children but without romanticizing the reality of poverty. It’s like a different coming-of-age film where future versions of characters would look back and think about all the things they didn’t know when they were just kids.

Baker and his production do an excellent job of making you feel the day-to-day reality of modern poverty and the struggles of people to simply exist and without condemnation. Halley would be charitably described as a bad mom, and yet she finds ways to provide for her child even if they jeopardize her custody. Halley is far too immature to be responsible for another human being, but not all of the other women are that way. Other women in the purple motel find legal means to provide and they take a concerted interest in the well being of their children. Halley’s adult friend is able to hold down a stable waitress job. Halley is too unruly, immature, and careless to do the same. Halley’s last job was working as a stripper, though she never tries getting a job at what I have to assume are a plethora of competing strip clubs adjacent to the commercial Disney tourist empire. This is very much a visual document of systemic poverty that illuminates the hardscrabble lives of people on the fringes of society trying to stay afloat. It’s rich in details like the knowing swapping of residents between local motels for one day a month to skip past residency declaration laws. It’s an interesting hidden world that feels rarely given this kind of caring close-up.

Baker has a great talent at finding non-actors who have great acting potential to essentially play versions of themselves. From Starlet, Tangerine, and now Florida Project, Baker has a tremendous gift for discovering people. There is an absence of mannered performance tics; the characters feel real because the actors are acting very naturally. These unsupervised kids are behaving like bratty kids. Brooklyn Prince is phenomenal as Moonee and a born performer. She has an innate charm that left me laughing often. Her improvisation is terrific although some of her lines definitely out themselves as being the written ones (“I can always tell when adults are about to cry”). Vinaite (Harmony Korine’s upcoming Beach Bum) is aggravating and yet you still wish that at some point she would turn it around or come to some latent epiphany. Halley feels, infuriatingly, very authentic in every one of her moments. She is dooming her child to a comparable trapped life of limited appeal and escape, but she can’t help herself and only focuses on the immediacy of life when life is so transitory and pessimistic. Dafoe (Murder on the Orient Express) is the moral center of the film and you feel his genuine unease in every pained glance. He has to hold his authority but he’s still very sympathetic for the motel’s collection of people that modern society has easily forgotten about.

With that being said, I understood what Baker and The Florida Project was going for and I found it to be underwhelming because there wasn’t much more than an established world. This is a movie with a very loose definition of plotting. After a while, without a better sense of plot momentum, it all starts to blend together into redundancy. It doesn’t help when many of the scenes can be less than ten seconds long. Here’s Moonee and her pal eating ice cream. Here’s Moonee and her friend running in the rain. Here’s Moonee and her friend hugging. Here’s Moonee in the bathtub. It becomes a lower class triptych of establishing its world and mood, but a little goes a long way. All of that could have been established and sustained in the first act, and then the story could have launched into a greater sense of change. I may lose some hipster critic cred points but as it continued I was partly wishing that the movie had been more conventional. Perhaps Bobby becomes more involved in the life of Moonee, taking custody of her while her mother was missing or going through social services review. He’s already a quasi-surrogate father figure so why not better explore that dynamic? The characters lack a depth to them, partially because we’re following children just being children, partially because we have characters drifting through life. It’s still lacking.

This was another example of an indie film sacrificing character and story to the altar of realism. I wrote a similar complaint in my 2012 pan of Beasts: “But all of these setting details do not take the place of an involving story and characters we should care about. I felt sorry for the various residents and their lot in life, but I never felt attached to any of them. That’s because they’re bland and simplistically drawn, but also because Beasts doesn’t bother to do anything else other than create its rich, tragic, harsh world. It’s authentic all right, but what does all that authenticity have to add to genuine character work? Artistic authenticity is not always synonymous with telling a good story.”

Immersive and genuine, The Florida Project is awash in details for a way of life rarely given this much attention and empathy. The acting is very natural and the young children especially behave recognizably like young children. Keeping the perspective of the film attached to the child is an interesting gamut as it keeps some of the harsher aspects of this world and the people from the same kind of direct exposure. It allows the film to have a degree of innocence without romanticizing poverty as some kind of fairy tale. It was a perfectly fine movie that I just happened to want more from, in particular a non-redundant story with more significant plot events and characters that felt multi-dimensional and developed over the engagement. I kept waiting for more and was simply left waiting. Even the symbolism of being on the outskirts of Disney World, the materialistic “happiest place on Earth,” felt barely toyed with. The Florida Project is a good start to a good movie but it needed continued refinement and attention to be something more than an inquisitive magazine article brought to careful cinematic life.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Wind River (2017)

With just two finished movies attached to his resume as screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan has enjoyed immediate success. Sicario and Hell or High Water were both some of the finest films of their respective years. Sheridan has a classical sense of structure but he also pumps his big, bold Hollywood dramas with meaningful commentary and substance to communicate a systemic rot from within, whether it is the spiraling war on drugs, the rapacious banking industry, or an entire enclave of people that are ignored as an act of historical penance. When you come to a Taylor Sheridan movie, you leave feeling full on a banquet of superior screenwriting. Wind River is his next feast.

A young Native American woman, Natalie (Kelsey Asbillie), is found barefoot and dead in the snow on a Wyoming reservation the size of Rhode Island. A confluence of law enforcement officers investigate while questioning who has rightful jurisdiction, the state police, the Native police, or FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). She’s frustrated that, while the coroner will confirm she was raped the night of her death, Natalie is not being dubbed a homicide because of the cause of her death. Jane seeks out the assistance of Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a wildlife hunter for the Fish and Game Department who watches out for predators. He knows the land, he knows the people, he personally knows Natalie’s family, and he knows the loss of a daughter. Cory agrees to help Jane discover who is responsible for the murder and seek justice and, possibly, vengeance.

This is a deeply felt character-driven mystery that examines the lingering damage and defenses of a group of people often left on their own and often forgotten. Sheridan is quickly establishing himself as cinema’s finest voice when it comes to a twenty-first century cowboy ideal, the taciturn, wounded man soldiering onward in an unfair world. Sheridan has a commanding sense of place and character, but his perspective rarely connotes judgment. He’s more an observer, a therapeutic device for his characters to finally express themselves and their brokenness and how the world made them this way. He can be downright poetic but his instincts are for a large canvas with Hollywood thespians. He writes meaty, distinguished, and humane characters all around, not just for the leads. One of the hallmarks of Sheridan’s writing is how precise and generous he can be with his stable of supporting actors. As the story develops, we see just how the death affects the small community, a community struggling to hold itself together anyway through poverty, drug abuse, and limited work opportunities (according to a 2012 New York Times feature, life expectancy on the reservation was 49 years). There is a pervading sense of hopelessness that carries over the land. The people in this movie feel real, lived in, and haunted, and the location feels exactly the same. The ending text leaves a stark reminder of this feeling like a world on our peripheral: no statistics are kept for missing Native American women. Nobody has any sense how high that figure could be.

The leading man of Wind River is Renner (Arrival) but the real star is his character, a gritty and experienced wildlife hunter with an abiding reserve of unresolved issues pertaining to his own teenage daughter’s murder. He has some beautiful monologues in this movie, exquisitely written by Sheridan to showcase characterization and back-story. The first is when he helps his grieving friend by sharing the routine he went through with his own personal loss, specifically how forgetting the person, and the pain of their loss, is the worst thing one can do to honor them. “Take the pain. It’s the only way to keep her with you,” he says. Renner delivers his best performance since 2010’s The Town and it’s one that asks him to slow things down. This isn’t a flashy role, and even though there are some stunning monologues, it’s a role that asks for more understatement. Sheridan has a clear favorite archetype but he finds ways to make each person distinct.

Elisabeth Olsen’s (Ingrid Goes West) character is intended as the audience entry point into the land and history, so as such she will suffer as the rookie who always seems to be out of her depth. This is exemplified by just about every assailant getting the drop on her, even after a meth head answered the door by spraying her with pepper spray. To her character’s credit, other characters befell these same missteps but they aren’t the next most significant character. She’s an outsider trying to find her footing in delicate territory. Olsen is the one asking questions often, pushing others to explain, which usually means much of her performance is reactive, with characters uncorking those fantastic monologues. However, her best moment is during the end, when Cory is talking her through a traumatic recovery. It’s so obvious that he’s saying the words he always wish he could have said to his daughter, and so the psychological projection becomes too much for Jane who breaks down sobbing, serving as therapeutic vessel for empathy. It’s a powerful scene and the closest thing to catharsis the movie has to offer.

As such, the story is more a reflection and outlet for the characters, but it’s also an intriguing mystery until Sheridan decides to just throw up his hands and explain everything. Until the third act, the central mystery of who killed Natalie is filled with curious and dangling questions that are made all the more interesting from the unique setting and circumstances. Her lungs exploded from the cold after she ran, barefoot in the snow, for six miles for help before collapsing. That’s an interesting aspect I’ve never considered before when it comes to environmental dangers. Tracing back the events of her last night, Sheridan opens up an analysis on the precipitous lives of small-town America, except it’s a Native American reservation that’s sovereign from America. It’s an engrossing look into a culture and way of life few ever see. It’s a very unique setting that unfurls gradually over time, allowing the viewer to engage with the people, their fraying community, and the pain endured. And then the film hastily introduces its obvious culprits, shifts into an extended flashback sequence that explains everything, and zooms right into its tense climax. It all still works, don’t get me wrong. You’ll feel the mounting dread gnaw away at you during that flashback, and you’ll feel the rush of adrenaline during the shootout, and the sense of vindication by its conclusion. However, Sheridan was doing such a fine job at parceling out his elegiac story before that it almost feels like he quickly looked at the time and decided to rush into the finish.

This is also Sheridan’s first time behind the camera as director and he acquits himself well enough. A distinct sense of style doesn’t emerge but his directorial instincts follow his screenwriting strengths; the man knows when to get out of the way. The conclusion has a nasty snap of tension to it and the action hits its marks with power, having given quite the windup. Sheridan is best at directing his actors, who as stated above, give strong, emotive performances that linger with you. Wind River doesn’t prove that Sheridan has more to offer from a directing chair, but it does provide a baseline for a start to grow. I imagine from here on, having built up a reputation for writing critically acclaimed adult thrillers that big name actors flock to, that Sheridan will be directing the majority of his favorite scripts. He might not have the visual acuity or sense of vision that a Denis Villeneuve has, but he’ll reliably deliver strong performances from capable actors. He’ll also be the best steward for his stories, and I need so, so many of them.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Moonlight (2016)

moonlight-posterWhat Moonlight achieves is both something different and familiar and amounts to nothing less than watching the birth of human identity on screen. The film chronicles three formative experiences at three different times of a man’s life, each serving as its own one-act play examining our protagonist and his tortured sense of self. The results are breathtaking and deeply immersive, allowing the formation of a human being to take place before your eyes in such magnificent artistic strokes. This is a sensitive, sincere, beautiful movie that serves as an indie coming-of-age tale sliced into three significant parts. I was completely under its sway within ten minutes, finding its perceptive perspective and nuances to be convincingly naturalistic. I felt like I was watching a documentary of a young black man’s life told with ferocious realism, or at least a loosely fictionalized version of a life informed by fully authentic personal experiences. It’s a somewhat ineffable quality for slice-of-life movies but they live or die on whether the film carries an unforced sense of realism, telling larger truths with small details, each piece coming together to make the world and the character feel fully formed. Moonlight pulls you immediately into its orbit thanks to its authentic drama and observations.

The three segments compliment one another as they build toward a young black man’s understanding of his homosexuality. We’ve seen movies before where characters undergo sexual awakenings and from gay perspectives; it’s practically a cottage industry unto itself in independent film. However, rarely have we seen this story from people of color. The expectations of accepted masculinity are entrenched at a young age, where “Little” (Alex Hibbert) is chided by, among others, his own mother Paula (Naomie Harris) for the “swishy” way he walks. It goes without saying that being gay is not exactly widely accepted in the Miami projects of the 1980s. This conflict of what makes a man is wonderfully symbolized with Juan (Mahershala Ali), an unexpected father figure that takes “Little” under his wing along with his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae). The kid wants to know how he can know if he’s gay because it’s certainly something he doesn’t want. Juan doesn’t pressure the boy or make big speeches about what it means to be a young black man in America. Instead, he tries teaching him to accept himself and provides an alternative home that serves as a refuge during his mother’s long absences and crack-withdrawal tirades. There’s a lovely moment where Juan teaches “Little” how to swim, and it’s touching in how recognizably father/son the activity is, how much trust is involved and vulnerability, and how the film doesn’t need to oversell the subtext. Juan definitely becomes the father figure that Chiron lives up to for the rest of his life. This first segment is dominated by their relationship but also Juan’s sense of responsibility. He’s making a living through selling drugs, including to “Little”’s own mother. In a very memorable and heated moment, Paula angrily calls out Juan for thinking he would make a better parent given the moral culpability of his own actions to her habit.

moonlight1The second segment zooms ahead to when Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is a teenager in high school and subjected to hostile bullying. The schoolyard taunts from his youth have morphed into something more ferocious and toxic, as a collection of bullies torments Chiron and looks to rob him of his personal connections to others. The central focus on the middle segment is about the growing relationship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), the childhood friend who Chrion crushes on. Their closeness takes a leap one fateful night that Chrion will always remember. It’s an awakening and a confirmation of self, and it’s only after having this fulfilling outlet cruelly taken from him that Chiron finally lashes out, with lifelong repercussions. It’s an explosion we can see coming and one that feels fully set up. The second segment feels more familiar because of the age range and it’s the one with the dawning of sexual realization, a story situation we’ve seen before. What elevates it is that it’s a fairly direct carryover from the beginning segment, which means the personal issues have magnified for Chiron. His relationship with his mother has become even more frayed as he’s grown, and what once was name-calling and questions over his maturation has become confirmed. Her addiction has become even stronger and she’s harassing her own son for whatever meager money he’s given from Teresa, his surrogate mother figure. Chiron is struggling to make sense of his feelings in an upbringing lacking support and clarity. You could examine the conclusion of this segment as an empathetic cautionary tale, as we see the years of abuse and measured choices that lead to that confrontation.

The final segment is where Moonlight transforms into a late blooming unrequited romance that should steal your heart if it’s still functioning. “Black” (Trevanta Rhodes) is a fully-grown adult that has seemingly followed in the footsteps of Juan in a life of low-level crime. He’s hardened both emotionally and physically. The muscles will provide an intimidation factor missing during his youth if anyone questions his sexual leanings. He’s burrowed into himself and the role he feels he must accept, but all of that changes the instant he gets an apologetic and searching phone call from Kevin (Andre Holland). Now working as a chef at a diner, Kevin reaches out to his old friend though even he can’t fully explain why. This reawakens “Black”’s longing and he works up the courage to travel back to Miami to surprise the friend who meant so much to him. Their reunion is treated like the culmination of a romance that you may not have realized had you completely. After two segments of setup and years apart, you may find yourself projecting your thoughts to the screen, trying to compel these two men together. It’s an extended sequence that moves at a gradual pace, a fitting tempo for a character racked by insecurities and suppression. By going forward he’s taking a big risk, putting himself out there, and we desperately hope “Black” finds a sense of support. It’s the segment where “Black” finds resolution with the major conflicts that have defined his life, and the climax of the movie is a deeply tender moment where an emotionally reserved man reaches out to another and lets his firmly fixed guard down in the process.

moonlightI don’t usually go into such a detailed plot synopsis with my reviews because I like to hit the basics and let the readers experience the story for themselves, but the pleasures and artistic triumphs of Moonlight are in how fully immersed and felt the movie becomes. By telling the story in three noteworthy sections, Moonlight provides an impressionistic statement about the formation of personal identity, specifically a young man growing up black and gay in a hostile environment to both. The movie also blows apart the argument made for 2014’s Boyhood about how truly necessary it was to watch one young actor play the same part for 14 years. Here we have six different actors playing two different characters at three different points in time and the impact is no less great. Here is a movie that doesn’t need a gimmick to have a larger emotional impact on its audience.

Director/co-writer Barry Jenkins has a marvelously fluid and natural feel for his camera, swinging around the parameters of a scene to make the world feel more charged with energy. Jenkins is a born filmmaker and knows how to squeeze the most out of his scenes with gorgeous cinematography and an eclectic musical score that feels traditional with classical orchestration like churning strings layered and rearranged into something arrestingly new and yet still personal. There aren’t many overly stylized choices, rather Jenkins tells his story with uncommon poise and treats one man’s life like an opera, like the greatest story never told on film, like a life of complexity worth the deep dive. There’s a classical lyricism to the presentation that reminded me of the works of Todd Haynes (Carol). There’s one scene where Paula is strung out on crack and finds her son in the middle of a joyous high. Her face fills the frame, absorbing all of Chiron’s world, and her euphoria is inter-spliced with jarring speed ramps in editing, meant to convey the mania and peace that pumps through her veins in this fleeting moment. It’s a stylistic device that isn’t overplayed and has genuine purpose. Jenkins is restrained from self-indulgences and keeps every aspect focused on reflecting the inner life of his lead.

The very talented company of performers makes the movie even more powerful. Ali (Hidden Figures, Luke Cage) is creating serious awards buzz and it’s deserving, though every actor in this movie is deserving of notoriety. Ali plays a man trying to do right by his own sense and he lets you see the troubles that wash over him. Should he insert himself into this young boy’s life? Is he in a position to set an example? Ali has such paternal strength and tenderness while still displaying doubts and regret, hardly deifying this found father figure. Harris (Spectre) is wonderfully horrifying and heartbreaking in her role and has some big moments that convey her given completely into desperation. She’s offended that others would deign replace her but does little to reclaim her title of mother and provider. Holland (Selma) has a world-weary smooth sense of wisdom to him, and his unassuming charisma helps unlock his friend’s true feelings. The three actors who portray “Little”/Chiron/”Black” are each exceptional, giving different performances and interpretations, further supporting Jenkins’ artistic thesis.

MoonlightMoonlight is a beautiful film told with such delicate care and a resounding sense of authenticity and personal detail. It swallows you whole and leaves you with the impression of a human life observed with tenderness, intimacy, empathy, and grace. It’s about the people and experiences that help guide us onto the paths we take, and while there’s a sense of heartache as we think of what might have been, there’s also the serenity of accepting what has been and what can still be. Jenkins proves himself a superb talent who doesn’t lose sight of his artistic goals with extraneous artifice. There’s a lilting, lovely lyricism to the movie that elevates Chiron’s life into feeling like poetry. This is a life we so rarely get to see given such an artistic and honest examination without condemnation or judgment. It’s the story of a man embracing his identity and overcoming isolation and suppression. This disadvantaged young man is worth your emotions, your sympathies, and your attention. Moonlight is an alluring and heartrending film that manages to be deeply personal and universal at the same time. It’s sublime.

Nate’s Grade: A

Don’t Breathe (2016)

dont-breathe-2016-posterAlex (Dylan Minnette), Rocky (Jane Levy), and “Money” (Daniel Zovatto) are a team of burglars that use security codes to break into homes. They steal materials under $10,000 to keep them below larger charges. The trio hear about a visually impaired Gulf War vet (Stephen Lang) and his thousands of dollars he keeps inside his home. The naive burglars break into his home and sneakily search for his stashed cash, but the Blind Man (that’s how he’s credited) is a far more formidable victim than they ever could have imagined, and he’s keeping his own secrets that may be worth killing for.

The suspense in Don’t Breathe is deliciously developed and tautly executed, taking a premise that sounds silly on paper and wringing every juicy suspenseful morsel out of it. The crux of this movie is dramatic irony wherein the audience knows more than the characters, and once the Blind Man is activated, so to speak, it becomes an intense game of hide and seek with the audience in on the game. Director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) and company have established the layout and geography of the game space, the various rooms and hallways and hiding places, and we spend significant time in every location. A haven one minute might be endangered the next, and the way out or at least a momentary escape from immediate danger might be upstairs or downstairs, or in the walls. An essential part of effective suspense is fearing what happens to your characters, and Don’t Breathe achieves this often with clever setups. There’s one scene where a character falls out a window and lands unconscious on a skylight. The glass begins to crack underneath his weight, and then we see the Blind Man in the room below, anxiously looking for his target. Then there’s also the Blind Man’s attack dog, which you forget about and then pops back up, providing a new threat that changes the dynamics of the moment. The suspense sequences change up so frequently that there’s always something new going on every few minutes. The movie’s attention even seems to alternate between Rocky and Alex and their personal obstacles when separated. The technical merits are present without being overly flashy and self-indulgent. An opening tracking shot inside the house nicely establishes the general layout of the space. Alvarez doesn’t rush his suspense set pieces either, showcasing a wonderfully natural feel for teasing out the tension to make his audience squirm in their seats. With the variety of the suspense set pieces, their clever development, the clear understanding of the geography and stakes, and a swift pacing that doesn’t allow the audience to catch its own breath, Don’t Breathe is a small-scale case study in exactly how to maximize your premise for the most entertainment.

Stephen Lang;Dylan MinnetteDon’t Breathe packs a punch and this is aided by how streamlined and clean the narrative proves to be, whittling down all unnecessary plot strands. I hated the Money character. He brought nothing to the burglary team besides perhaps some muscle (and a firearm), but I was worried that the movie was going to drag out his inevitable demise. Clearly Rocky and Alex were going to be the main participants and that meant that Money was the most expendable, and given the small number of characters, I worried he wouldn’t be given his merciful end until long into the movie. Well Alvarez must have heard my worry because Money is killed very early on, sparing the audience from dragging out the inevitable. I was appreciative but it also raised the stakes with the two remaining characters because now nobody was obviously next in line for death. A dead Money actually proves more useful than a living Money for the characters. I also appreciated that the movie didn’t dawdle when it came to setting up its trio of burglars and their goals. They’re breaking into the Blind Man’s house at about the 15-minute mark. There’s also no concerted effort at layering in larger social commentary. The economically depressed Detroit setting works to communicate the desperation of the characters, their desire to escape their trappings, and it also provides a tidy explanation for why the Blind Man can drag an unconscious girl by her hair down the middle of the road without alarm (it’s the opening image, so chill spoiler-phobes). This is not a movie that has larger things to say about The Way We Live Now, and to pretend otherwise would be a waste of valuable time. Also, having three white characters serve as the social commentary for Detroit’s ailments would seem rather tone deaf and ill advised.

Jane Levy;Dylan Minnette;Daniel ZovattoI think if the Blind Man had been a complete innocent that the movie would have been even more interesting as it forces the audience to test its loyalties and choose sides. As my friend Ben Bailey said upon leaving the theater, once they introduce a third act twist involving the Blind Man’s true goal, he ceased having any sympathy and “just needed to die.” I’ll concur mostly, but man I fell out of favor with our trio of young burglars and the best way I can explain is by making an analogy to the Howie Mandel prime time game show, Deal or No Deal. Contestants would randomly choose briefcases hoping that they contained low amounts of money, furthering the odds that their briefcase would contain a larger and joyous amount. It’s really just a game of odds and averages. It’s mildly fun but with every contestant there was a breaking point for me, a point where they really should have cashed out but instead chose to go forward against unfavorable odds. Once a contestant crossed this imagery point of no return in my mind I was rooting for their downfall (probably to just confirm that I was right all along). Horror movies are the same, and once the main characters make too many stupid decisions, then my sympathies generally gravitate elsewhere. With Don’t Breathe, the young characters have multiple opportunities to escape the house but make too many bad choices. They want to keep the stolen money above their own lives, and after the third missed chance I felt my loyalties wavering. Their first mistake was when they were casing the man’s house in broad daylight and see him walking his dog. Hello, here’s a golden opportunity to break into the home where you know he and his pooch will be absent. Why wait when they’re both back at home and needing to be dealt with? If the Blind Man had been an innocent, or even if they had simply omitted the insidious third act twist, I would have been rooting for this visually impaired war veteran to smite these punk-nosed kids but good.

Earlier this year Netflix debuted Hush, a home invasion thriller featuring a deaf protagonist. Now we have Don’t Breathe with a blind man trying to thwart home invaders. Let’s continue this trend: Don’t Taste, about a man that has to flick his tongue out to sense his hiding home invaders, or Don’t Smell, a pulse-pounding race-the-clock thriller where a scent-disabled man must match wits with attackers while his home, unbeknownst to him, fills up with carbon monoxide. It’s an easy punch line but credit Don’t Breathe for taking its potentially silly premise and treating it with deadly seriousness while still knowing how to have fun with its audience. There are several moments designed to get an audience to jolt or groan, and it all contributes to a skillful, above average experience at the movies that wears down your nerves. The film is terrifically tense, well developed, well paced, and not too stupid, veering in new directions and upping the ante with new twists to amplify the stakes. If you’re looking for a solid way to close out was has been an otherwise mediocre summer movie season, give Don’t Breathe a chance, sit back, and try to keep up with the fun.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

After months of rapturous praise from Sundance and Cannes, allow me to be the wet blanket of the critical community, because Beasts of the Southern Wild is one big helping of “meh.” I didn’t enjoy this movie at all and its mixture of strange fantasy elements and a hellish childhood reminded me of another misfire, 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are.

Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) lives on a spit of land off New Orleans and below the levy. This tucked-away land is nicknamed by its colorful, besotted residents as the Bathtub. Hushpuppy lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in large shacks elevated high off the ground. This comes in handy because after a disastrous flood, Hushpuppy and her father have to navigate the waters to find others and scramble for some return to their life and culture. The residents must also make sure to be cautious because the U.S. government, which is evacuating all flood-devastated areas, is looking for survivors to forcibly remove. Wink is sick and has to impart the ways of his family and culture to young Hushpuppy, who sees herself as one piece in a big puzzle.

This movie is awash in all sorts of tones and storylines, failing to cohesively gel together or form some kind of meaningful message. I could have sworn that the fantasy elements, namely the giant thundering pack of large boars, were just going to be a visual metaphor for Hushpuppy’s journey. And then they actually show up and every person can see them. So, now what? The boars are one of many ideas that the movie just sort of toys around with before losing interest. This is not a film of magic realism. This is not a film about the escapes from a hard reality. In a way, this movie plays out like if Terrence Malick had made Gummo, and if you know me, you know I loathe both Gummo and Terrence Malick movies. Beasts constantly flirts with pseudo-intellectual pabulum, trying to reach something profound but instead settling for confounding. Hushpuppy’s curlicue unnatural narration talks about being a little piece in a big universe and the interconnectedness of all things, but by film’s end you get no dynamic sense of this. What I got was a little kid’s poor life getting worse, and that’s about it. If the film has anything larger to say about the world, Katrina, human connection, then I’m at a loss as to explain what that may be. Beasts offers half-formed ideas, strange, conflicting imagery, and characters that are rather thinly written and barely register. I never found Hushpuppy an engaging protagonist and felt like her very age and the heavy burdens she is forced to carry were manipulative substitutes for actual characterization. I cannot understand the love here.

The movie is something of a wild stew of Southern folklore and coming-of-age tropes and plenty of indie trappings, like weak political allegory, roaming handheld camerawork, and sacrificing story to the altar of realism. So much of this movie feels like it was made to give a sense of how an overlooked life in poverty is lived. From that standpoint the film does a commendable job of showing everyday life and the struggle to feed and survive. There’s a certain sense of ingenuity at work. But all of these setting details do not take the place of an involving story and characters we should care about. I felt sorry for the various residents of the Bathtub and their lot in life, but I never felt attached to any of them. That’s because, as mentioned before, they’re bland and simplistically drawn, but also because Beasts doesn’t bother to do anything else other than create its rich, tragic, harsh world. It’s authentic all right, but what does all that authenticity have to add to genuine character work? Artistic authenticity is not always synonymous with telling a good story. The Bathtub feels real, got it. So now what?

Hushpuppy lives in squalor and the movie has a disquieting romanticism of abject poverty. To the residents of the Bathtub, they are living in some forgotten paradise away from the concerns of the mainland. They refuse to leave their homes and their lives, even though there isn’t much of a home to call one’s own. We wade in this horrible existence and are meant to pretend like it’s an idyllic lifestyle, you know, with all the creature comforts of child abuse thrown in for extra measure. While Beasts looks entirely authentic with its impoverished, junkyard-esque production design, the overall mood and atmosphere hardly seems worth celebrating. Now, I’m not saying that characters can’t make the most of whatever life has given them and meet the implacable with fearless optimism. These characters would likely shun our pity; they reject any government assistance after the great flood and just want to sneak back to their simpler lives. This is not an enviable life, and the fact that the movie tries to romanticize it feels deeply irresponsible. At least with a film like Winter’s Bone, where you felt the crushing existence of systemic poverty, the filmmakers didn’t try and put a smile on all the drudgery. In that movie, you felt the trappings of poverty and how it can sink into your soul. On some level perseverance in the face of adversity is noble, but so would escaping poverty. Regardless, this is not worthy of romanticizing or fetishizing.

Little Wallis is certainly getting her fair share of attention for anchoring the film. She’s six years old so it’s hard to assess her full acting potential, but the kid looks to have some fire in her. However, it is not a performance that leaves a lasting impression. I realized that much of her performance was long reaction shots and that ponderous voiceover narration. True, she does get some dramatic sequences and lets loose a few tears, but it feels like the movie didn’t want to push her too far and settled on a barrage of shots of Hushpuppy being stoic. I was more impressed with Henry, he too an acting novice making his debut. His character is more complex than an innocent naïf we have as our protagonist. He’s clearly dying and trying to quickly get his daughter prepared for a life of independence. He’s also quick to anger and you can feel the heavy weight of his life and his fledgling mission. In fact, I think Beasts would have been better if it had been told from the father’s perspective rather than our child trying to understand the great big scary world. There’s certainly a lot more drama and an easier route for sympathy, even if he could be accused of being cruel and neglectful.

I’ll admit that Beasts of the Southern Wild is different, daring, and fitfully imaginative, as well as benefiting from strong production design and special effects work. But “different” and “daring” doesn’t always mean good. I cannot in good faith say I enjoyed this movie, especially with its freeform plot, messages, tones, and occasional garish imagery. The plot seems desperate for some form of greater meaning, defaulting to ponderous poetry rather than supply a workable narrative and characters that are developed. Then there’s the whole romanticizing of systemic poverty that I find off-putting and wrongheaded. This is just a swampy mess of a movie, one that sinks under the weight of its own pretensions. It’s admirable from a technical standpoint but as a movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an exercise in eclectic navel-gazing.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

If there is one independent movie that seems to be picking up momentum this awards season, it’s Slumdog Millionaire. The film seems destined to break out into the mainstream, especially in a time where audiences could use a happy story given the ongoing news of economic downturns. Slumdog Millionaire is a highly spirited rags-to-riches tale that marries Hollywood and Bollywood into one fantastic product.

Jamal (Dev Patel) is an 18-year-old kid who grew up impoverished in India’s favellas. He’s also on the verge of winning 20 million rupees on the Indian version of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Game show. The TV host reminds Jamal that lawyers and doctors have never gotten as far as he, a lowly “slumdog” from such humble origins. As each question emerges we discover more about Jamal’s life, from escaping a riot, touring India as a stowaway on a train, conning American tourists at the Taj Mahal, to his assistant work at a call center. Throughout Jamal’s life are two constants: Salim (Madhur Mittal) and Latika (Frieda Pinto). Salim is Jamal’s scheming older brother who has a loose sense of morals. He finds a life of crime as a suitable escape from poverty. Latika is a young orphan girl that Jamal befriended as a child. He declared that she was the “third Musketeer” in their group and has always sworn to love her. This is complicated because Salim’s crime boss wants Latika for a prize, and Salim keeps his younger brother away from Latika. Ultimately, as an entire nation watches with baited breath, Jamal explains that he is appearing on TV because he knew that Latika, his love, would be watching somewhere.

It’s like City of God and Forrest Gump had a baby that was raised by Oliver Twist. The film is given a dynamic energy thanks to director Danny Boyle’s exuberant camerawork and skillful style. Boyle is a director that knows how to make images jump and Slumdog feels like it is coursing with life. The feel-good fantasy nature of the rags-to-riches plot is offset by some pretty harrowing violence, and Boyle makes great pains to show the realities of living in squalor. At one point a very Fagin-esque local crime lord collects young orphans to be beggars and he has a foolproof scenario to make these kids sympathetic and thus big earners — he blinds them with hot liquid. Despite the fantastical elements, Slumdog is rated R for a reason and that’s because it does show the cruel reality of a life in the slums, granted it’s nowhere near as bleak and formidable as something like City of God. After all, the kid gets to win on a game show, though the movie does open with Jamal being tortured by the police. Boyle has a tremendously natural eye for crafting visuals that delight the senses; he can make his shot compositions feel interesting without ever truly calling attention to being flashy. The views of India are beautiful and fascinating. Plus, having a majority of the movie in a foreign dialect was appreciated (Boyle provides different color background for different character’s subtitles, a nice touch). There’s a magic feeling to the film that definitely takes hold of the audience, an uplift that channels smiles and gasps of joy. While I’ll still credit Millions as Boyle’s best film since Trainspotting, his work on Slumdog is deserving of praise. I don’t know if another director could have made a film with so many contradictory elements (feel-good flick with child prostitutes?) run so smoothly.

The movie is also given a brilliant story structure by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty). The movie is built around a steady stream of flashbacks linked to the questions Jamal tackles on the game show. So the host will pose a question and then we’ll be treated to a 10-15-minute flashback to Jamal’s life to discover how he knows the answer. The approach is fresh and it reinforces the magical notion that Jamal’s life has all been leading up to this moment of glory. Beaufoy’s script smartly weaves many storylines together to give us an emerging sense of who Jamal truly is. He manages to write an uplifting and hopeful tale that stays clear from easy sentiment. Indeed, Slumdog is an accomplished feat of writing as well as direction. Working from the Indian novel Q&A, Beaufoy has written a modern-day fairy tale in the same fashion as the Brothers Grimm, which means he didn’t skimp on the unpleasantness and hardship. Yet Slumdog is able to find great human spirit amidst the squalor. I doubt I’ll see a climax more rousing and crowd-pleasing all year. Seriously, you’d have to have a pretty hard heart not to feel some excitement and jubilation in the closing moments.

This unlikely fantasy is aided by sharp performances by a collection of actors. Jamal is an unassuming yet plucky underdog, and Patel nicely handles these elements. He’s a stringy kid but he carries himself with charm and fortitude. As he grows confident he spars with the combative TV host, and it’s fun to watch. Pinto is a swell looking beauty with a great smile but I wish the story had given her more to do as an actress. The young actors who play Jamal, Salim, and Latika as young children actually give the best performances.

And now after all my effusive talk comes the time where I must voice my minor reservations. First off, the structure is ingenious but having Jamal interrogated by the police after the fact seems unnecessary, plus it also tips off the audience from the beginning that this kid has already won it all, which sucks some of the tension out of the game show format. I really think the movie would have been better served just playing out the game show in real time instead. Also, it’s a bit too convenient that every one of the quiz questions triggers a memory in a linear fashion. Jamal can tell his life’s story from beginning to end, but the movie would have been more challenging and interesting if the quiz questions forced Jamal to bounce around in his own memory. That way the script would provide more mysteries that could lead to even more satisfying answers. The Millionaire game show also goes on a commercial break and Jamal is astoundingly allowed to leave and go to the bathroom after he knows one of the high-money questions. In the age of wireless Internet, no game show would ever allow the contestant to leave its sight. Finally, the movie is presented like a Dickensian fable told in chunks, which means I found it hard to fully embrace the central romance that drives Jamal. I will readily follow the romantic notion of locating your true love, however, I will feel more involved in that search if the combined time Jamal and Latika spent together was longer then like a week. Seriously, they see each other every few years for a moment and then are broken apart, only to find each other again for a few moments to be broken apart. She’s more a symbol than a fully translated character, though this did not stop me from rooting for a happy ending.

Slumdog Millionaire is a thrilling, funny, and triumphant story that courses with lively electricity, thanks to the deft direction of Danny Boyle. This movie is enormously entertaining while still baring a social conscious about the plight of those impoverished, though I hope people don’t get the mistaken idea that all that character-building impoverished life styles will lead to future fortunes like Jamal. The movie is hopeful and uplifting while also balancing tense violence and improbable circumstances. While I’m not on board with the critics calling this the best film of 2008, it has some minor flaws in approach to storytelling and character, Slumdog Millionaire has all the right markings to be a crowd-pleasing sensation. After all, it is destiny. And that’s my final answer.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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