I’m leery about using a term like “Asian cinema”, as if the film movements of countries as distinct as China, Japan, and the recently Best Picture-winning South Korea were all part of the same cultural mass; as if they weren’t as unique to one another as they are to the cinema of any European country. Still, because awards bodies still have a lot of work to do in recognizing the contributions of Asian actors and creators (I will never forgive the Academy for snubbing Steven Yeun’s titanic work in Burning) and because I want to encourage anyone reading to look beyond the Western world for great art, I’ll fudge it and say that Asian cinema has had a great decade and an absolutely scorching last few years. South Korea has given us the best film of the year two years in a row. Japan recently gave us Shoplifters, a towering masterpiece about economic stratification to stand alongside the one that just won Best Picture You could fill multiple acting categories entirely with performances from the last two years of Asian cinema. This is the second year in a row where three Asian filmmakers have gone deep into my personal top ten. Bong Joon Ho just spent the past decade making vital, delirious gems culminating in history’s first foreign language Best Picture winner for Parasite. Last year saw a young woman from Singapore and a Chinese-American skater kid from America’s decaying Rust Belt make two of the decade’s finest documentaries. And here in America, two of our most promising directing talents are a pair of observant, endlessly empathetic Chinese-American women. One is Chloe Zhao, whose masterpiece The Rider soulfully cracked our 2018 top ten list, and who will soon make her Marvel debut directing the likes of Angelina Jolie and Kumail Nanjiani. The other is Lulu Wang, a New Yorker who has turned her own experience with a terminally ill loved one (the tale was originally featured as an episode of the superb, long-running human interest broadcast, This American Life) into one of 2019’s wisest, funniest, and most gently sublime pieces of art. In a year that gave us no shortage of richly emotional work, few films held me in rapt, misty-eyed awe like The Farewell.
Our true story begins with an old Chinese woman in the northeastern city of Changchun, seated in a doctor’s waiting room. She has just gone in to have x-rays taken and her sister is in another room receiving some very sad news from the physician. The woman, whose family calls her Nai Nai (a splendidly lovable and heart-rending Zhao Shuzhen) has Stage 4 lung cancer and only a handful of months to live. The sister walks out with a placid smile and tells her sibling everything is fine. She has a clean bill of health and the spots on her x-rays turned out to be nothing but “benign shadows”. While Nai Nai waits, she makes one of her regular calls to her 20-something granddaughter, Billi (rapper turned actor Awkwafina, graduating from her scintillating comedic work in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians into a full-stop great dramatic player), an aspiring artist who immigrated to New York with her parents decades ago. A couple days after speaking to Nai Nai, Billi learns the hard truth from her parents. The conceit of The Farewell is that everyone in Nai Nai’s family knows she is dying save for Nai Nai herself. Billi’s parents (wonderfully played by Diana Lin and Tzi Ma) break the news to her. Everyone will be traveling to China under the false pretense of Billi’s younger cousin’s wedding, where they will have the chance to pay their last goodbyes to Nai Nai without Nai Nai herself knowing that’s what they are doing. The one person not meant to be there is Billi herself, for fear that her fraught emotions and her closeness with her grandmother will give the whole ruse away. Billi shows up anyway, unannounced, and the whole film becomes an emotionally charged reunion, not only with the ailing woman, but with a whole clan of siblings and cousins who had gone off on their own separate journeys years ago. Everyone is solidly committed to this well-intentioned lie except for Billi, essentially the most Westernized member of her clan, who has conflicted feelings about the ethics of hiding her own grandmother’s imminent mortality from her. What forms is a complex human eddy of people processing their preemptive grief and finding the courage they need to pull off this grand deception. In its strange and modest way, The Farewell becomes the most intimate, cathartic version of Ocean’s 11 you could ever imagine.
The Farewell is one of the most touching and insightful immigration narratives I have ever had the pleasure of viewing. It’s a tale of our globalized world, with characters reckoning with the value of home versus the opportunity that comes from leaving our birthplaces behind. It’s a sweet little paradox of a film, where the big communal lie at the center draws everyone back to their place of origin and forces them to confront deeper truths about what was lost and gained when they made their individual decisions to either stay in China or venture out to see what the rest of the sprawling world had to offer. In one of the film’s most visually arresting sequences (The Farewell is the kind of film you think of as predominantly writerly until you go back and count its cavalcade of lovely, inventive shots), the larger family discusses the opportunities and bitter trade-offs of sending your children abroad or encouraging them to revere their homeland. As they sit around a restaurant table and debate, a cornucopia of different foods cycles along the very bottom of the frame on a large, mechanized lazy susan. The Farewell doesn’t pick sides, but observes, with sweetness and clarity, the nature of life in our big interconnected world and what that does to our collective sense of place, family and identity. As much as Nai Nai’s fate is the emotional engine of the film, what devastates Billi in a more unexpected way is being back in her birthplace all these decades later, sifting through old memories of neighborhoods long bull-dozed, and realizing how much she has missed all these people, her people. At the risk of dating this review, realizing the value of our relationships is, in this time of self-quarantine, extremely relatable.
The Farewell is one of the most soulful and endearingly character-centric films to weigh in on the age-old dialectic between Eastern collectivism and Western individualism; the rights of the one and the larger obligations we owe to the social groups we belong to: a family, a country, a world. To quote the decade’s most transcendent sitcom, The Good Place, who are we and what do we owe each other? To Billi’s more Westernized eyes, what Nai Nai is owed is honesty and the chance to not only face her own death with clear eyes, but to say her goodbyes to people. She is owed a degree of respect for her personal autonomy, her right to handle her morality on her own terms. In a gorgeous scene, set in a darkened bar room bathed in the orange glow of neon streetlights (again, what a lovely and thoughtfully framed film!), Billi’s uncle posits the matter differently. The imminence of one’s own death is a terrible burden and, rather than forcing Nai Nai to endure that fearful prospect that she can do nothing to change, they can take up that load for her. “It’s our duty to carry this emotional burden for her”, he insists. What plays out is not some abstract examination of the individual’s rights versus our responsibilities to those around us, but a blissfully cathartic outpouring of human connection carried along by what might be 2019’s deepest bench of terrific actors. The fact that you’ve likely never heard of any of them outside of maybe Awkwafina (I certainly had not) is just one more reminder how much unrecognized artistic talent Asian cinema has had all this time, just waiting to be discovered by the larger world. When you get to The Farewell’s perfect and sly hero shot late in the film, you may feel like crying or cheering for this whole magnificent ensemble. For a group of people you’d never even known about just seventy minutes prior.
I could write until I’m blue in the wrist about mise-en-scene and editing and cinematography and the ocean of ideas that this blessed art form has still barely scratched the surface of. But I really love that, beyond all its rigor and insight, The Farewell is firmly a film for your heart, your soul, your funny bone and your tear ducts. It’s ideas about people as lone units and as parts of larger collectives are all undergirded by a profound love for human beings. Nai Nai and Billi are two of the most endearing, nuanced characters of recent years, and the caliber off screen acting that brings them to life is of the most rarified kind (surprise, surprise, both were ignored by the Academy). Beyond those two, the characterization of Billi’s parents, played with such pathos and rich humor, helps to form a vivid tapestry of what it means to be Chinese and to also search for an identity beyond China. Add an unfailingly dimensional cast of aunts and cousins, and you get a film that invests in effortless, empathetic humanism on the widest scale. I must once again stand up for the quietly breathtaking imagery of The Farewell, It’s easy to let its warmth, wit, and perfect acting distract you from how much thought has gone into its compositions. But, oh my, what sublime acting this film has! Lulu Wang works absolute marvels with her sharp, luminous and utterly dialed-in cast. When Billi’s uncle breaks down giving a toast to his unwitting mother, the camera pulls back to make him a tiny griefstricken figure alone on the stage, and it’s brought me to sniffly tears every single time. It’s hard to put it all into words without giving away the delicious human spontaneity of it all, but I’ll just say that you owe yourself the gift of The Farewell‘s generous, messy humanity. Billi realizes how much she’s missed all of her people and Lulu Wang goes full tilt to show shy it was so hard for her to leave all of this behind all those years ago.
And to bring it back to this belated celebration of brilliant Asian filmmakers (one that the mainstream is having full decades too late), what better way to tap into a heart-filling sprawl of Asian characters than with a magnificent ensemble. I love The Farewell because the depth of the ensemble really becomes a distillation of the film’s major themes. There’s the resolution to your collectivism versus individualism dialectic right there! Every one of these perfect characters (no less than ten of them just in the immediate family) is trying, with varying levels of difficulty, to commit to this problematicallly noble team effort. The tension of the film is about if they’ll be able to pull of this scheme together, and what the nuance of the cast shows us is that being part of a collective is not such a homogenous thing. As they each resolve to be part of this group scheme, so much lovely specificity comes shining through in each one of them. I think the ideas is that there are shades of grey in cultures we think of as strictly one way: individualist or collectivist, Eastern or Western. We see this idea rendered visually in one of my favorite scenes in the film, involving a visit to Billi’s grandfather’s graves. As Nai Nai delivers a prayer to her late husband’s headstone, she stops after each sentence to bow, and the other nine family members bow along with her. But each of them are just a little out of rhythm with each other, so it looks like some erratic wave of heads bowing out of and into the frame. It’s a funny and rather lovely sequence, tying into The Farewell‘s view of people banding together while also being fundamentally, fallibly themselves. Each one of us is our own fumbling person, but it’s nice to know that, if only in our shared fallibility, none of us are alone.
A full decade ago, I went excitedly to the theater to watch one of 2009’s Best Picture nominees, Lone Scherfig’s An Education. It was really a major cinematic event for me in a lot of ways. It was my first major encounter with international treasure Carey Mulligan, a terrific Alfred Molina performance, and a poignant script about being just old enough to choose your first fundamentally misguided romantic partner. It’s a very strong film, but I also left wishing it could have gotten over the hump into being a genuinely great one. Something in its composition felt a little workmanlike to me, in a way that undercut the emotional punch of the thing. I don’t say that to slight Scherfig’s fine character study, but to say that 2019 finally gave me the virtuosic, formally rigorous take on the material I wanted in the form of Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir. Here is another lyrical, aching British coming of age story (brilliantly played by an actress having what I can only hope is her big coming out), featuring an endearing and complex young woman coupling with a seriously troubled older boyfriend, falling in love against all better wisdom, and receiving a painful and invaluable introduction to adulthood in the process. As with An Education, we get to meet a brilliant emerging talent (Honor Byrne Swinton, acting a subtle symphony alongside her legendary mother, Tilda) and we get a fantastic portrait of an insidious but magnetic boyfriend. Both films are about young women having a first glimpse of real romance and eventually getting put through an emotional wringer. We simultaneously cringe for them and root for them. The Souvenir is an absolute feast of great acting and subtle characterization, which trades out An Education‘s cagey womanizer for a less immediately odious and more ingratiatingly unhealthy breed of toxic beau. It’s a story where we want only the best for our main character, and one where we soon realize she must weather a tremendous amount of pain to become the woman she was meant to be.
Like many a great coming of age story, The Souvenir‘s tale of becoming who you’re meant to be involves making mistakes and learning about the things that really aren’t us. The poorly tailored outfits we wear when we’re figuring out who we are. In the case of the film’s protagonist, Julie, a 25-year old film student in 1980s London, that means rummaging through outdated ideas about what kind of artist she should be and chucking some of them in the dustbin. Though Julie comes from the highly privileged Knightsbridge neighborhood, she wants to make her first film a story of poverty set in the economically depressed shipyard city of Sunderland. It’s a notion she can never quite explain, though her clearest motivation seems to be a need to escape the shadow of her own moneyed upbringing and find stories about the greater outside world. At the same time that she is studying film at a nearby academy, Julie strikes up a deep friendship with a slightly older man named Anthony (Tom Burke, astounding as a character we come to care about and loathe in equal measure), a State Department operative who sometimes boards in one of the rooms Julie rents out. Their coy friendship blossoms shyly and sweetly into a romance and the two are soon living together happily and meeting one another’s parents on the weekends. Nothing seems untoward until one night, while dining with another couple Anthony knows, someone lets slip that Tom is a habitual heroin user. Julie realizes that her first true love is an addict, and suddenly all the times Anthony asked to borrow money from her takes on new meaning The two characters share a very strong connection and kinship, but Julie begins to see more and more of the pathetic, self-justifying monster Anthony is when the addiction is beckoning to him or when when he is in its full debased thrall. The Souvenir is a moving and devastating remembrance of a doomed first love; a look back at an experience director Joanna Hogg had when she was just starting out as a filmmaker. It is also a story of how life informs art and how art helps us to process life, even if it is many years down the line.
The Souvenir is the story of a gifted young woman with a desire to say something truthful about the world around her. The problem is that she doesn’t really know the world around her in any way that goes beyond the academic. She has barely seen a thing outside of the nicer parts of London. Her decision to make her first feature film the story of an impoverished boy from the working class streets of Sunderland (in every way the inverse of what Julie is) represents and admirable if waylaid hunger to force a worldly education upon herself. Unfortunately, it also means she has not clue what her film should really be about other than its own foreignness to her. It also falls squarely in that very British social realist tradition made famous by homegrown directors like Ken Loach, Karel Resiz, and Tony Richardson, which makes it feel less like an artistic choice born of personal conviction and more of a nod to the tried and true. Anthony tells her she seems to be operating off of some stuffy notion of what a respectable British director should be like. The paradox of The Souvenir is that Julie lacks experience and then, in a monkey’s paw kind of way, she receives experience. At last, something enlightening and horribly formative happens to her. To call the absolutely excruciating ordeal Julie endures with Anthony’s addiction a life experience feels about as British in its understatement as calling that same soul-altering ordeal a souvenir. But as devastating as Julie’s (or Joanna Hogg’s) first romance was, it served a purpose in her artistic development, and that is something. It gave her something real to say about love and trust and the power of human attachments to both cripple and sustain us. And the end result is a film that repeatedly caught my breath with its tenderness and painful candor. Here is maybe the finest of 2019’s directorial autobiographies, a film that draws a tidal power from the fact that this is something its maker really lived through. It is a subtle little testament to the value of lived experience. It tears open an old wound to provide its own balm. And it posits art as a frosted glass through which the artist can gaze directly upon searing traumas.
It is also one of the most shattering looks at addiction and romantic dependency I have seen. The depiction of Julie’s dawning realization of who her beloved is has a painstaking quality to it. Before anyone tips her off that Anthony uses heroin, Julie gets a tiny clue on the first night they make love: a small sore on his arm, almost certainly from a needle. He also asks to borrow 200 pounds early into their relationship. Neither of these instances seem to trigger any alarm bells for Julie. The mystery of Julie in the early days of her first real romantic infatuation is that we don’t know how much she really knows; how much of her decisions come from naivete and how much is self-delusion in order to protect what feels like the most vital and important force in her life. When Anthony fakes a robbery to pawn her possessions for drug money, the delicate veil of pretense finally falls from her eyes. But she does not leave him. Anthony lies to her about the extent of his drug uses, he falsely pledges to go clean, and Julie tells her own likes to herself to protect what they have together. Because, as bad as things, get, I don’t think we can wave away their love away as just a bad decision born of youthful inexperience. In that way, I find The Souvenir to be different from An Education, where I never really thought Peter Sarsgaard’s slick, exploitative boyfriend was trully in love with the beautiful young woman he was stringing along. What makes The Souvenir so gutting is that learning the truth about Anthony does not give Julie the power to leave him. Things don’t simply end because, while Anthony may be a pathetic liar, that does not mean that their bond is untrue. In this version of the story, the problematic lover is not out to get his kicks and then flee when he gets bored. Anthony is madly devoted to Julie and wants very much to stay with her. And, for as much as her heart gets dragged across the pavement by his reckless, horridly pitiable behavior, Julie also cannot bear to be apart from Anthony. The Souvenir is a rivetingly sad account of an unhealthy love because it reminds us that ill-advised love can often be just as powerful and intoxicating and hard to deny as its healthier counterpart.
So, with that unsolvable human equation laid out before us, where are these two lost, fragile souls to go? What is The Souvenir building toward, as it pushes forward through its gauntlet of helpless ache? I have not desire to spoil if it can be avoided, so I will just say that it goes down one of the various paths such a story can go. The ending took the wind out of me, and hurt all the more for how unsurprised I was by it. It is not an easy or happy conclusion that The Souvenir reaches when it arrives, puffy-eyed and sleep-deprived, at the end of its 90-some minutes. What i sense the film contemplating, without having the will to voice it out loud, is that this is also perhaps not the worst conclusion one could conceive of. The Souvenir feels told in hazy snippets of reverie, the good and very bad moments of a formative young romance coming back to a mature woman as she whispers a prayer back to her scared younger self. What The Souvenir really captures is the bracing of anguish of being caught up in something too strong for us to get away from. A situation that we cannot end, and must therefore see through to its natural conclusion. Julie cannot simply walk away from this, nor can her steadiness and empathy make this nice and functional. It’s the kind of film where your heart dearly wishes this couple could either fix the problem or end the whole affair, and the dawning dread lies in the fact that neither of those options are on the table. The only thing left to do then is to hope that Julie can manage not to take all this mortifying grief and stress to heart, but that is not an option either. She suffers terribly with the burden of Anthony. She loses sleep, stays up wondering where he is some nights, shows up for classes looking half-dead, and takes on some portion of impotent guilt for every fresh trauma he visits upon her. “The only way out of it is through it” is a perennial bit of inspiration wisdom for people in the midst of some struggle, but The Souvenir finds the dark underside of that saying. The thought that there is a way out of a problem is of diminished comfort, when the journey is this sorrowful and scarring. The only solution for Julie, the only eventual peace of mind lies at the end of a sizable and ill-kept patch of pockmarked road, and she feels every nasty bump in it.
And for all the luminous composure in Honor Swinton Byrne’s stellar performance, we can see that Julie is still a child to the world. We never forget she’s a mere babe because we get multiple scenes where Julie visits her doting parents, which includes her soft-spoken, quietly watchful mother. She barely raises her voice, she observes more than she speaks, and a single wince from her does more to convey the concern and sorrow we feel for Julie than any bit of flowery dialogue could. A good part of what the character of Julie’s mother is so effective is that Tilda Swinton is, by now, an almighty deity of screen acting; an actress whose last even uninteresting performance I cannot presently name. I give full credit to Swinton’s meekly shattering performance. That said, what a brilliant piece of casting to have an actress of that power and precision watch her own daughter suffer some of the most blindingly painful hardship imaginable. What The Souvenir gets that is so crucial to its success isn’t just the maternal mortification of this ordeal, but the powerless of this woman to change this bitter course of events for her precious child. You can see she would throw herself head first in the way of it, if she felt it would do any good. But we’ve been over that. There is precious little to be done and grown children must be allowed to make their own decisions. Julie must see this through to the end. But the Swinton character does what she can, which is to be there for a daughter caught momentarily in terrifying freefall. It is one of the most understatedly beautiful parent-child relationships to appear on screen, powered by the brilliance of two great actors and the real love that exists between them offscreen. Julie’s mother is there to meet Anthony in the giddy early days of their courtship, and she is there for the end. Like any loving parent, she beams for her child during the best days, and she is still there with her when the worst finally comes.
I keep coming back to 2019 as the year of the director’s diary. I’m beginning to feel like a human echo, but, in a year with this many confessionals and personal ruminations and memoirs, it frankly bears repeating. While a number of auteurs mediated on what makes them tick, maybe no one examined themselves as directly as the iconic queer Pope of Spanish Cinema, Pedro Almodovar. Almodovar was arguably the most important artistic and cultural figure to emerge from Spain’s La Movida (Spanish for “the Movement”), the tidal wave of bold expression, feminism, open sexuality, and boisterous hedonism that broke loose after the death of Francisco Franco and his decades-long fascist regime in 1975. To see a typical Almodovar film (though there is hardly anything typical about them) is to take in an intoxicating blend of subtle camp, juicy melodrama, and multi-hued humanity. They are born of a love for ripe telenovelas and for social justice. Like Tarantino, Almodovar was forged in movie theaters (according to his Pain and Glory surrogate, his childhood screenings were shown outside on building walls and smelled of pee, jasmine and summer breezes), where a young, impoverished and closeted seminary student could take in the subtle subversion of Luis Bunuel and maybe dream of a time when subversive filmmakers no longer had to cagily sneak their social statements past dead-eyed censors and their despotic overlords. The sum of Almodovar’s influences (his sexuality, his upbringing as a Catholic, the enthusiastic veneration he has for women and motherly figures in particular) can all be detected across his films, like notes of fruit in a bottle of Rioja, with certain of them more pronounced from work to work. I don’t know that there’s really a wrong place to start with the compassionate,frisky, vivaciously sensitive open book that is Pedro Almodovar, but the autobiographical Pain and Glory is absolutely marvelous primer on the man’s journey through the decades, while marinating in that mixture of flamboyance and self-doubt that makes him a truly special fixture in Cinema’s Hall of Legends.
Pain and Glory covers much of the span of Pedro Almodovar’s life, thought it is largely focused on a recent time during which the now elder director was weathering a slew of relational, medical, and existential maladies. They included the death of his beloved mother, a sudden heroin addiction brought about by years of chronic pain, chronic pain, a possible tumor in his throat, and a long spell of director’s block owing to the aforementioned misfortunes. Like Almodovar’s own rendition of Fellini’s 8 1/2, this is the story of an artist in crisis, presently unable to do what he was born to do, and trying to reason (and in this case opiate) his way back to creative normalcy. Pain and Glory is what we call a memory play, gathering anecdotes and impressions from different times in the protagonist’s life and assembling them into a kind of dreamy quilt of reminiscence. Our Almodovar surrogate is named Salvador Mallo (brilliantly played by Almodovar’s old muse, Antonio Banderas), a celebrated Spanish director who has not produced a new work in some years. In flashback, we meet young Salvador, a poor child from a rural family, whose father moves them into the only place they can afford: an underground cave. A beautiful, white-walled cave, with multiple rooms, a view of the azure sky and filled with piercing Spanish sunlight, but a cave nonetheless. To help his mother (very well-played by Penelope Cruz, another longtime Almodovar muse) make ends meet, he gives reading and writing lessons to a handsome, iliiterate young housepainter. That man will eventually give Salvador his first inklinks of attraction to his own sex. In the present, the chronically depleted Salvador learns that one of his earliest films from the 1980s has been elevated to classic status, and that a film society wants him to host an after-screening Q & A with Alberto Crespo, the lead actor he fell out with many years ago, due to a creative disagreement over this very same film. An unexpected and at first uneasy reconciliation between the director and his former muse (in real life, the actor is believed to have been Antonio Banderas himself, lending a wonderful bit of metatext to Banderas’ portrayal of Almodovar) brings new opportunities and complications. Alberto ends up introducing Salvador to heroin as a way to manage his pain, which also makes it impossible for Salvador to muster up the energy to work again. At the same time, Alberto finds an unpublished short story on Salvador’s desktop and requests the rights to turn it into a one-man show, as a kind of olive branch between them. This very personal short story going public gives us a glimpse into Salvador’s 1980s heyday (the same decade when Almodovar inspired the gay community and marched his country defiantly and flamboyantly away from the repression of its past three decades). It also brings the gift of a painful ghost whom Salvador has not seen in decades.
Pain and Glory is a lovely film that begins with a director closed in on himself, fearful he will never create again, and unable to make peace with the tormented past. Then, he has lunch with an old actress friend and she brings up the subject of his film retrospective and the old friend and creative partner Salvador thought he could never see again. But he has nothing else going at the time and the proposed symposium must feature both of them, and so he feels his hand is forced. He musts reopen an old, scorched history and broker some kind of truce with the man. And, from that decision to apologize and forgive old debts, Pain and Glory unspools into a lavish, cascading melody of regret, remembrance and human connections. What’s perhaps most crucial isn’t just that Salvador needs to reconnect with Alberto. It’s that he realizes he was at least partly to blame. Their fight had been over the quality of Alberto’s performance, which Salvador had long felt went against the nature of the character he conceived on the page. Now Salvador realizes he was wrong about how he saw his own art. Pain and Glory is a wise and generous film about realizing the folly of our stubbornness. Of shaking our head in embarrassed wonder at how cocksure and unbelievably certain the previous versions of ourselves appear to our present selves. It’s the beauty of allowing the real man Almodovar fell out with to play him and share in the Almodovar’s confession of fallibility. And the same mixture of wounded pride and humility plays out in the scenes with Salvador’s mother (who loved him fiercely and tenderly, even while her devout Christianity made it impossible to be open with her about who he was), and the former lover who sees the production of Salvador’s story and instantly knows it is about their time together. The fond, warm, and tearful scene where they reunite and reminisce over tequila is so poignant and gracious, I would gladly watch an entire Before Sunset-style film just about their one evening together. In Almodovar’s generous, understanding hands, forgiveness just feels so overwhelming and vital and well-humored. Now more than maybe ever, his honest, unabashedly melodramatic voice feels so very much like the elixir we all could do with more of.
When it’s not conjuring a small tropical storm of bittersweat tears to run down your face (and when it is, as often as not), Pain and Glory luxuriates in a rich, understated kind of humor. It’s not explicitly out to draw chuckles, but its love and intuitive grasp of its characters is so astoundingly full, you quickly feel you know and love these people. And when you know and love a character, then you understand what drives them and frustrates them. And that’s when a kind of empathetic, knowing laughter comes easily, the same way it would with a friend whose motives and foibles you understand almost innately. One way the film accomplishes that is by being a thoroughly relatable portrait of writer’s block, or any kind of doldrums. As of this time, late April of 2019, I’m sure a lot of people can empathize (and hopefully laugh a bit) with the idea of being mopey, bored, and stuck in one place. Antonio Banderas is playing a rundown and jaded version of Pedro Almodovar, which means he is playing a rundown and jaded version of one of the least historically jaded artists I can name. If Pedro Almodovar has blue moods, I have to think they aren’t technically blue; maybe more like a slightly desaturated rainbow. He can be quite serious, maybe even glum or dark in a splashy way, but his moroseness still crackles with an unquenchable impishness that even a full-blown health crisis (I mean the one in the film) can’t tamp down entirely. Such is the delicious vivacity, heart and wit of Pedro Almodovar that even an autobiography of his chronic illness and malaise somehow tickles you. With an artist like this, there’s just no taking the spark out of them. And, my God, the way Anotnio Banderas uses his simmering charisma to suggest the irrepressible Almodovar flame fighting to blow the lid off of his pain and grief is one of 2019’s true delights. An undervalued indie actor who became a smoldering matinee idol in the States reunites and makes peace with the man who discovered him all those decades ago, plays that same man in a film about their complicated artistic dynamic, and earns his first Oscar nomination for the best damned performance of his career and possibly the whole year. Two kindred homegrown Spanish talents shake off the dust and show they can still breathe passionate, contagiously joyful fire. How can it not make one smile?
From kitschy soap-evoking early work like What Have I Done To Deserve This? to the horny Hitchcockery of Law of Desire to turn of the century masterworks like Talk To Her and All About My Mother, there’s always a jolt of sweet, human, and invariably horny electricity with Pedro Almodovar. This is the man who spent his formative years under one of the worst fascist regimes in history, and then lived to tell about it and triumphantly urinate all over it in big block letters. No wonder even Pedro Almodovar delving into insecurity and personal pain still vibrates with so much color, humor and eroticism. Once you’ve escaped a system that demanded you straitjacket your very identity, why would you ever stop running, dancing, fucking? I’ll reiterate. In times that are drawing us ever closer back toward fascism, how many voices you can name are more vitally necessary than the likes of big-hearted, Technicolor, unapologetically queer Pedro Almodovar? His approach is anti-fascism by example. It is anti-misogynist and anti-homophobic in the same way. Exist freely and wear your empathy on colorful, puffy sleeves. Present a motley gallery of diverse characters. Housewives, prostitutes, soap opera stars, and priests. Women (if anyone can name a more vocal and eloquent ally for transgender personhood, in all of moviedom, I’d be surprised), men and the very young. In Almodovar’s youth, a genius like Luis Bunuel had to sneak around and smuggle his messages in forms that soulless Francoists would be too dirt stupid to detect. That was what made him genius. Almodovar was gifted to come into his voice at the exact time the barbed wire fell; when the rigid, cruel shites went away. So why not explore and emote and march and indulge? The fascist lifeguards were gone and he could sprint around the pool to his heart’s content. If we’re to have to deal with this pathetic and vile sort of person again, I’m glad we have Pedro to give us a blueprint for telling the repressive and hateful to kindly fuck themselves. Live loudly, joyfully and truthfully, and hope you naughty incandescence becomes contagious.
What you find across Almodovar’s work is a desire to be grateful for the things that made you, in a way that still has teeth. He has a boundless zeal for humanity, but his view of them is not facile either. One clear example is Almodovar’s experience with the Christian Church, which gave him an education he could not have otherwise afforded and helped him develop his own talents further. It was also a system that forced him to hide his sexuality. The tense interplay of rebellion and tempered gratitude for religion is a huge theme in his work. The same is true of the mother he both adored, yet also had to hide his true self from. Pedro Almodovar is clearly a man who loves human beings, while also understanding how thorny and painful relationships can be. But he always leads with the desire to see people as people, even when they are myopic and hurtful. And he, more than any other filmmaker I can name, adores the women of this world, in all their many shades. In a film full of flashbacks to tender, formative memories, the first one we get feels particularly loaded with affection and meaning. As the older Salvador floats below the surface of a swimming pool (part of rehabilitation for one of his critical surgeries), the water around him sends his mind floating back to an early memory of water. He is a very young boy and he sits by a lolling river. A group of women, his mother among them, wash laundry by its banks. They converse, they laugh, and they sing to each other. The scene is observed by the young Salvador, but it is not really about him. It is about him seeing (and remembering) the specific lives and inner light of others who touched him; these women who cared for him and sustained him. As we forge a widespread dialogue about respecting and demarginalizing women, I feel grateful for the director who has filled his gleeful, luscious frames with bold, smart, funny, and fierce ladies from the very start.
Before it descends into the bitter, absurdist maelstrom of a marriage’s dissolution, Marriage Story begins with a husband and wife each telling the audience (over two beautifully edited montages of their lives together) what they truly love about their soon-to-be-ex-spouse. In that spirit, I’d like to do the same for this film’s wry, occasionally caustic director, Noah Baumbach, at least as I’ve known him until somewhat recently. What I love about the old Noah Baumbach. Noah sees human failings and selfishness with diamond clarity. He grew up around intellectuals and knows he is one of them, but he also knows better than anybody how full of hot air artistes and deep thinkers can be. Being with Noah cinematically, is like being invited to a fancy, snobby soiree by the one person who doesn’t seem intimidated by all the lofty conversation being puffed into the air. You get to make the intellectual scene, but you also get some distance from all the egos. Noah shows you where the best hors d’ouevres are, makes sure you get a decent cocktail, and retires to a corner with you to gleefully make fun of all the fragile strivers trying to impress one another. In a world where unvarnished truth is rare, you never have to worry about that with Noah. He goes after human pettiness with nails sharpened. Maybe you could say he gets dragged into the pettiness himself by engaging with it so much; maybe he gets a little blood on his sleeves. But you also hardly ever meet people so willing to speak their minds frankly, particularly about the kinds of people who can turn thoughtful expression into a cagey, guarded chess match. Noah is also wickedly funny in the old Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker sense of the word. Old Baumbach movies can feel mean, but deliciously so. Who, outside of In the Loop’s Armando Iannucci, has such a barbed, savage sense of comedic timing? And he’s not just a puckish prankster looking to score easy points off of assholes. He uses his wit to engage with some painful subject matter. In 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, he channeled memories of his writer parents’ separation into a divorce dramedy so lacerating it could cleave the well-meaning Kramer vs. Kramer in half. As the most hopeful kind of humanist when it comes to art, I had to wrestle with the his acid-black cynicism (his 2007 Squid follow-up, Margot At the Wedding, felt particularly unforgiving). Still, there was never any denying that Noah Baumbach is a uniquely gifted sniper of pretension and relational dysfunction, and I’ll always be grateful to have found his work.
Marriage Story is Noah Baumbach coming full circle back to Squid to acerbically catalogue the process of divorce, and the story is once again an autobiographical one. Where Squid drew from his own experience as a child of divorce (and had more of an adolescent’s perspective on the matter), Marriage Story draws a lot of inspiration from Baumbach’s divorce from his wife of five years, critically respected actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. The Leigh stand-in here is Nicole (Scarlett Johannson, channeling her mega-watt charisma into a role that calls for both subtlety and histrionics), a once-rising Hollywood star, who moved to New York many years ago to become part of the avant garde theater scene. Baumbach’s surrogate is Charlie (Adam Driver, in a funny and truthful performance that cements him as the potential best actor of his generation), a theater director with a meteorically ascending reputation. They live in a beautiful Brooklyn apartment with their 9-year old son, Henry, and their careers both appear to be in good places. His plays are the talk of the underground and she regularly stars in them. They lovingly introduce us to one another in the film’s stellar opening monologues, and then we learn those introductions are all part of a writing exercise suggested by their separation counselor. Nicole and Charlie are two very successful, sympathetic, loving, and intelligent people who care about each other an awful lot, and they can no longer share a life as a married couple. Nicole, who has labored for many years in the shadow of her genius husband, has been offered a starring role in a TV pilot that is shooting in Los Angeles, the city she comes from and one her husband openly belittles. Nicole flies to the West Coast with her son to stay with her mother and sister. While filming there, a producer convinces her to forego the initial plan to move forward without lawyers and seek the services of a high-powered family attorney (a very strong Laura Dern, in the role that recently won her an overdue Oscar). Much to Charlie’s exasperation, Nicole’s decision means that there will now likely be a trial, in California, far from their New York home, and Charlie will now have to traverse the hazy sprawl of Los Angeles in seach of his own attorney. Marriage Story is Noah Baumbach diving into the maddening particulars and absurdities of divorce with even more sardonic focus than he did in Squid and the Whale. It’s a look at two flawed but fundamentally decent human beings, caught up in a system that does strange and stressful things to fundamentally decent human beings.
Marriage Story is about what happens when you look at a relationship through the distorted lens of a prolonged divorce. Even though Nicole and Charlie are understandably a little awkward and short with each other early in the film, there is still an understanding and an empathy between them. It’s still there even after things get litigious. In the middle of a contentions meeting with the lawyers, (Charlie’s first lawyer, played by a lovely Alan Alda, is a sleepy sad sack who knows the absurdity of his station all too well) the parties break to order lunch, and we can feel years of devotion and familiarity in the way Nicole chooses Charlie’s order for him. But the longer Charlie and Nicole spend around attorneys and hearings and negotiation conferences, the more mutated and unforgiving their perceptions of one another become. The film’s opening, where the two tell us everything they love about each other, isn’t just a calm before the storm. It also vitally allows us to see how the endaring qualities and quirks of a loving marriage can take on new meanings and skewed dimensions in the context of a drawn out dissolution. Nicole’s way of planning treasure hunts for their son suddenly takes on the appearance of passive-aggressive subterfuge in Charlie’s eyes when she plans one right when Charlie is trying to pick Noah up for his day. Charlie’s steady assertiveness, which Nicole first says kept their family in order, retroactively seems toxic and insidious when Nicole realizes that she rarely got to make any decisions in their marriage. And the one trait common to to the both of them, their competitiveness, slowly baits them into a legal process that, as Nora tells Nicole, rewards bad behavior. Where The Squid and the Whale was a personal memoir of living through divorce, Marriage Story is a riotously savage takedown of the whole farcical industry that we innocuously call “family law”.
It’s also a pitch-perfect portrait of another industry; the world of entertainment. Marriage Story is a terrifically sharp skewering of two distinct artistic worlds: theater and Hollywood. Not just a skewering, but also a loving illustration of everything Baumbach finds wonderful, interesting, rich and funny about working with actors, directors, writers, and craftspeople. There is a great fondness in showing the rehearsals and after-show bar hangouts of Charlie’s theater company. And there’s a welcome observational drollness to scenes of Nicole on the studio lot, undergoing green screen tests and talking to consultants who can help you make your far-fetched sci-fi script, of all things, more environmentally realistic. “Why is there always a flirty grip?,” one producer asks on set. I don’t know, but I know that the creative process scenes Noah Baumbach documents feel specific and rich with ruefully funny detail. The Noah Baumbach we have today still has killer aim with a barb, but his sense of humor has also taken on a lovely warmth, the cynicism increasingly leavened with human insight and even a little silliness. Marriage Story is a splendid entertainment satire, which helps the whole enterprise from becoming a claustrophobic tale of a marriage falling apart. It’s also a great portrait of two very different cities, with two entirely separate creative spirits. Some thirty years ago, Woody Allen made the immortal Annie Hall, which takes a little detour from New York to Los Angeles late in the film, and gives the city of stars one of its most memorably biting roasts. Now Noah Baumbach, an heir apparent to Allen’s anxious, urbane strain of humanism, has given Los Angeles his own rendering. One that calls out the sprawl and the glossy materialism, but also allows it to shine as a sunny haven for dreamers and exuberant spirits (he allows us to see it as a place of sweet liberation for Nicole, just as surely as it is an endless, unnavigable concrete maze for Charlie). In some ways living and interacting with creative types could be exhausting, but Baumbach also allows his film to overflow with their infectious energy; to imagine parties and social gatherings populated by people who know how to put on a show. More than ever, Noah Baumbach seems grateful to have made his career in an environment where, whatever your peers personal failings are, they’ll always know how to keep you inspired and engaged.
The sparkling, hyper-literate humor of the whole thing is what really took me by surprise. Now maybe it shouldn’t have. Baumbach has always been hyper-literate. He has always made use of humor in his films, and his last six years in particular have felt more effervescent and sprightly, even when they dealt with some heavy subject matter. Maybe it was hos the title, Marriage Story, evokes Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage, which set an expectation for something as gray and dirgeful as the great Swedish master’s most famous works. Maybe it’s just the subject of divorce and how bruising he made it feel with Squid and the Whale. To be clear, Marriage Story is a bruising film. But it is also consistently a very funny piece of work, kept aloft by two gifted thinking man’s movie stars, giving the arguable best performances of their careers. The acridness of early Baumbach is still there, but it’s all surrounded by vital, sprightly humor. If you’re worried about having a miserable time in Marriage Story, worried about getting some misanthropic take on Kramer vs Kramer, please don’t be. Marriage Story has downright zingers in it. Jokes about lawyers and movies and Hollywood and a whole host of relatably amusing human behavior and recognizable human types. With due respect to his vicious early years, this is my favorite kind of Noah Baumbach film. He still knows how to write characters who can, and do, knock the wind out of each other, but they don’t feel the need to do it as often. He still often shows us the gulf between erudition and emotional intelligence, but his characters strive to be mindful of people outside of themselves (something your Bernards and your Margots never did). And that’s all crucial to Marriage Story not losing you in a fog of nastiness. Divorce is hard enough, and it does inevitably bring the meanness out of our two main characters. But, for that reason, it’s all the more important that we can laugh with them and see their better angels trying to make some sense out of an inherently senseless legal process.
On the subject of Noah Baumbach’s romantic and creative partner of nine years, acclaimed actress and director Greta Gerwig, I am hesitant to give in to the easy narrative of love softening the prickly misanthrope. Of the good, empathetic woman helping the edgy cynic find his kinder voice. For one, it feels regressive, and it also gives too little credit to Baumbach for his own evolution as an artist. I have to believe that decades of work in the industry, fruitful partnerships with the likes of Wes Anderson and Ben Stiller, and the intense life experience of ending a marriage all share some part in that development. Still, from the moment his partnership with the endlessly humane Gerwig begins in 2011 (just a year after she wowed critics in Baumbach’s Greenberg, where the two met) and culminating in two consecutive critical hits starring and co-written by Gerwig (his 2013 masterpiece Frances Ha and 2015’s splendid Mistress America) there’s been a beautiful, pulsating vivacity to his work. Here’s what I love about, what I’ll call for lack of a better word, post-Gerwig Noah Baumbach. The claws remain as sharp as ever when it comes to human pretensions, but he’s not out to eviscerate human beings the way he once was. Maybe just muss up their hair and rumple their shirt collars. He sees the carnival of human error more graciously, with rich, endearing fuck-ups like Frances Ha and Mistress America‘s Brooke replacing sharply written, insufferable rotters like Squid‘s Bernard and the titular Margot (who goes to a wedding). In 1979’s Manhattan, Baumbach’s forbear Woody Allen wrote that you have to have a little faith in people, and post-Gerwig Noah Baumbach has found his faith. His characters can still behave selfishly, arrogantly, recklessly. He does not excuse them from their transgressions nor shelter them from consequences, but you can feel a love for them. He is quicker to laugh with them, meet them halfway even at their worst. He has always been funny, but the humor now carries more empathy and levity. My second tour of divorce with Noah Baumbach was still a painfully truthful experience, but it was also sweet and generous and rather luminous. I expected to cringe, and instead came away thoroughly disarmed and moved. I sensed the god of this cinematic world had moved past his Old Testament days and that he cared deeply for his creations. For all the strife the characters endured, I knew they would come through it with their humanity intact. They were now in firmer, gentler hands.
I’m an animal lover through and through, so it goes without saying that my ravenous film preoccupation includes keeping track of my favorite non-human performances of the year and choosing my favorite. This year was not too shabby at all for animals in film from Brandy the Manson-hating pitbull to Parasite‘s trio of perfectly cast frou-frou dogs, to that singing chihuahua in The Farewell. Stand up and take a bow, you noble beasts of cinema! But my favorite piece of film fauna for the year of our Lord 2019 is not a single animal but hundreds, maybe thousands of them. I, Brady Larsen, lifelong phobic of all airborne stinging creatures, declare my favorite film animals of 2019 goes to a hive of wild Macedonian bees. Yep, this feels right. This feels like progress. While our celluloid creatures served valuable roles to their narratives all year, none of them were quite so poignant and impactful as a righteously livid hive of pollinators in 2019’s best documentary, Honeyland, directed by Macedonian filmmakers Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevskov. The honey bee has become the mascot of the burgeoning environmental crisis in recent years, its dwindling populations endemic and symbolic of the ticking clock on this ecological timebomb we are trying so feverishly to disarm. Here, the honey bee gets a leading role in a small and very focused documentary that serves as a microcosm of the ideas that have become central in the discourse over environmental stewardship: knowledge, ignorance, hubris, economic leverage, and the inevitability of scientific fact. What more apt an avatar for an Earth increasingly weary of our bullshit than a swarm of once-peacable bees stinging their foolish human handlers?
Honeyland drops us into the stark, hot, craggy mountains of Macedonia without preamble. Honeyland does not feature a single interview, title card, or bit of voiceover. Our main subject is Hatidze Muratova, a 50-something Macedonian woman and one of the only remaining wild beekeepers. Shot from high above, the film opens with Hatidze trekking along the side of a high cliff to remove a honeycomb from the sheer rock face. She does this calmly, confidently and often without protective gear. Her philosophy is to always leave half of the honeycombs for the bees, which gives them enough food to survive and sustain their population. It also just seems fair. Hatidze’s only family is her ailing mother, who she supports and takes care of. Hatidze spends most of her days in their tiny cottage and tending to the hive she keeps in the stone ruins of a nearby old house. To make money to feed them, she takes a passenger train to the capitol, Skopje, and sells jars of honey to vendors at the street markets. Hers is a rugged and mostly solitary life, until the day it becomes a lot less solitary. One day, a trailer comes lumbering down the dirty road and pulls into the lot next door. It brings with it a cloud of dust and the noisy and numerous Sam family, a desperately poor clan of Turkish itinerant farmers. They consist of a husband and wife, Hussein and Lutvie, and seven children ranging from toddler to teenager. I have no expertise whatsoever in agriculture, but it is immediately clear that the Sams are horrendous farmers. That’s unfortunate, because it appears to be their sole livelihood. The Sams are a hapless, squabbling lot and the disorganized herd of cattle they arrive with only furthers the image that they are ambassadors of reckless human chaos. Soon after arriving, Hussein gets it into his head that he should do some beekeeping, which friendly, selfless Hatidze is happy to advise him in. Shambling though the Sams may be, Hatidze seems initially happy to have a little company and giving lessons in her trade to the most responsible of the Sam children gives the childless beekeeper some satisfaction. The real trouble arrives in the form of a buyer friend of Hussein’s, who is pushing him to produce a very large shipment of honey for him to sell. Hatidze repeatedly reminds Hussein that he must leave half of his honeycombs in order for the local hives to maintain a healthy balance. The buyer nonchalantly demands 200 kilograms of product. With Hatidze’s time-tested reason on one shoulder and stubborn economic forces on the other, Hussein eventually shuts out the wisdom he’s been given and submits to rapacious demand. Hatidze warns him that taking too much from his bees will leave them hungry and cause them to attack her hives. In the end, the Sams cannot resist their human frailty, exacerbated as it is by dire poverty, and the result is a small-scale ecological and human disaster.
Honeyland could have been the informative and beautiful (the golden-tinted shots of the sun-baked Mediterranean mountains and rivers is quite lovely) account of an ancient agricultural practice; a professional ethnography rolled into one. But the introduction of the dysfunctional Sams brings genuine tension into this tiny corner of the world. And a wolf follows close behind them. Honeyland is one of the sharpest narratives about greed and scarcity I have ever seen. You can emphasize with the Sams up to a point. They do not have many options for survival. They exist always on the knife’s edge of ruin and starvation. To Hussein’s mind, the environmental nuance Hatidze preaches is a luxury he cannot afford. The trouble is that he cannot truly afford to ignore that advice either, though the consequences of ignoring it may be slightly slower to manifest. But Hussein’s indulgence is bound to fail before very long, and it not only jeopardizes his family’s survival but that of his neighbor. It feels odd to call a dirt impoverished nomad family greedy, but what other word can there be for a person who willfully and knowingly takes more than is feasible? This is the insidious and maddening power of need to subjugate rational thought. What Hussein tries to do will not work, he knows it deep down, and yet he must proceed along this ruinous course anyway. It’s the only choice that leaves him with any illusion of agency. It’s the active option, where the other requires discipline and forbearance. The forces of the market have him by the throat and, in his panic, he does not have the courage or the cool foresight to tell them no. His tragedy is to be a coward and a rube. In sum, he is everything his female neighbor is not: ignorant, short-sighted, and impatient.
I imagine a lot of women professionals can and will relate to Hatidze. She should be familiar to anyone who has worked their asses off to become great at their jobs and then had to coddle some guy who doesn’t have the first idea of what he’s doing. Hatidze isn’t just good at her job, she is an absolute maestro at it. She is so stellar at wild beekeeping that she is one of the precious few left on the European continent who still attempts it. From what we see in the film, wild beekeeping appears to be an arduous and nuanced process, one requiring both a lot of technical know-how and a kind of intuition born out of a lifetime of practice. Hussein Sam rolls into town with his cows and his chickens and his bickering familiars and, after a couple of days, thinks, “Sure, I guess I could keep bees.” Honeyland is a microcosm of how societies routinely wave off the counsel of their women. When Hatidze points out that Hussein’s unsustainable overproduction is leading his bees to attack her hive, he impotently argues that there must be some other reason for it. At one point the Sam parents blame their kids, one of whom had loudly insisted that they should be heeding their neighbor’s advice. Hussein’s ego can’t square the notion that he is wrong or that this slender woman is infinitely smarter and hardier than him when it comes to living off the land. Honeyland has a potent feminist punch to it, but it also puts its finger on a larger social ill that transcends the genders. If we are to survive as a species, a lot of people are going to need to locate some humility within themselves and start deferring to people who know better than them. Expertise must be allowed to trump ego and self-interest. I’m currently sitting in my living room for the 28th consecutive day, when I would certainly rather be writing this review by way of a nice, sunny pub crawl. That would be an immediately more enjoyable course for me, but a pandemic is escalating outside and people who know all about deadly viruses have told me, a person whose key area of knowledge is movies and music, that this would wreak havoc on my community’s health. Which, of course, includes my own. So I’m staying indoors because people who have dedicated their lives to this kind of thing say it’s the right thing to do and I have zero counter-argument to offer. It’s a painful thing to watch Hussein ignore the his brilliant neighbor’s words and press recklessly along with his own way. It’s an even more painful and fundamentally unfair thing that the very person he ignores must then share in the injury his rashness causes. And it’s a very disquieting thing to consider the larger societal implications of this latest episode in failed neighborly relations. We all make up a society and, however much we try to behave as individuals, we will all share the same fate if we fail to listen to the wise among us. We must learn to accept knowledge and fact, or we will all soon bear the burden of each other’s hubris.
Honeyland is 2019’s best documentary, but its greatest feat is that you could mistake it for one of the year’s best dramas if you didn’t know any better. The directors happened onto their subject by happy accident while researching a nature documentary, and then, in the course of filming Hatidze’s work, the Sam family sputtered into the picture. It must have felt like a documentarian’s dream seeing this all unfold so unexpectedly and in such literary fashion. The raw stuff of life that takes place in Honeyland feels like it could be in some beautifully simple and sparely soulful morality tale. A story of two different kinds of people sharing a space together, tentatively bonding and then coming into a conflict that eloquently exposes the differences between them. When the Sams exit the frame, leaving behind their blighted tract, you feel you have looked deep into the soul of Hatidze and Hussein, and you know exactly who they both are. The themes of wisdom, generosit, pride, and accountability to our fellow human beings are timeless, as old as civilization itself. Honeyland could have been a Robert Bresson film in the 1950s or an Abbas Kiarostami film in the 1990s or a Sophocles play in Classical Greece. I bet Chekhov would have loved to sculpt this material; two neighbors in dispute over the Earth they share. Honeyland is a film of subtle, shrewd behavioral observation, with a weighty sense of what is right and wrong and how the weaker of us can be swayed from the ethical path. It is as elegant a rumination of the social contract and how it breaks down as any film I can presently recall. Its characters, with all their virtues and failings, could not have been written with more clarity and understated insight. Its allegorical force is so clean and devastating, I simply could not believe it didn’t come from the page of a script or some celebrated novel. And, man alive, those righteous, reproachful bees make one Hell of a Greek chorus! Honeyland is an endlessly rich parable about being a human being and a neighbor; to those we share a street with, a nation with, and a planet with.
When was the last time we created a new folk hero? A larger than life figure that speaks to our relationship with the wild lands that we toil to bend to our will; a Johnny Appleseed or a Paul Bunyan? I hereby nominated Hatidze Muratova, the soft-spoken, iron-willed messenger between man and bee. A self-sufficient, indomitable half-deity carved out of the marble of the Vardar Mountains, and also just a polite and knowledgeable credit to her profession and to environmental responsibility in general. She’s a better folk hero than Paul Bunyan, especially for this moment in history. Bunyan represented the seemingly limitless abundance of a frontier that, only a couple centuries later looks anything but infinite. Hatidze is the hero to teach us about scarcity, about how to slow the Earth’s clock and make the absolute most of the resources we have at hand. It is people like Hatidze Muratova, rugged scientists of the land, who deserve our adulation in this challenging age. She may not be an actual giant like Paul Bunyan, but she is scrappy and plainspoken and humble in the face of nature. The Sams leave us in the end, but Hatidze remains, and that alone gives this small-scale tragedy a closing note of determined home and triumph. It is inspiring to think of her still out there in those mountains, respecting and perfecting her trade and setting a sterling example for how to prolong our stay on this blue sphere. Hatdize shall go on, and we can all go on with her if we start making wiser decisions about the kinds of people we look up to and listen to.
As I’ve said before, 2019 saw a number of great directors reflecting on their careers, some quite directly (Pedro Almovodovar’s Pain and Glory, practically the story of its own making) and some more obliquely (Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman). These films were an opportunity for some revered auteurs to revisit their pet themes and, in some cases, to author origin retrospective mission statements about themselves. Quentin Tarantino was forged in a stick 1970s theatre featuring kung fu and B movies, but he also had a childhood before that. As a very young child in the 1960s, his formative years would likely have been spent in front of a boxy Zenith television set watching juicy genre serials like Gunsmoke and Hogan’s Heroes. 2019 may have culminated with a certain aforementioned directing legend voicing his distaste for comic book movies, but, funnily enough, this was the year when quite a few directing titans gave us their own personal origin stories. Agnes Varda took us on a gently probing and characteristically whimsical tour of her films. Pedro Almovodova gave us a lovely glimpse of the warm bath of openhearted queer sexuality and Catholicism that birthed him. And Quentin Tarantino, a director who has never shied away from wearing his lurid, grimy influences on his sleeve, got downright personal about the decade when he was born with Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. I’m frankly in the camp that feels Tarantino’s films have a lot more honest emotion than they often credited with, but this is really a horse of a different color for the foul-mouthed enfant terible. It’s a nakedly emotional, achingly fond dream memoir of 1960s Hollywood as it both existed and did not exist. A kaleidoscopic halcyon rendering of Swinging Sixties Los Angeles and a sincere thank you letter from a man who was touched and forever molded by its ambiance and iconography.
Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is the third film in what you might call Quentin Tarantino’s Revisionist History period, along with Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. It’s another film that is at least partly about an infamous real-life act of violence, where Tarantino uses his film to imagine a different outcome and a kind of justice for those victimized. The injustice he takes aim at this time is the 1969 Manson Family Tate-LaBianca massacre, which claimed the lives of eight people, including actress Sharon Tate and her unborn child. Thankfully, truly thankfully, Once Upon A Time is not the so-called Charles Manson movie that some may have feared it would be when it was first announced. That is to say that it is not a wallow in the horror of that tragedy, nor is it largely a revenge fantasy directed at Charles Manson. In fact the psychotic cult leader himself appears onscreen for only a span of seconds, very early in the film. More than anything else, the film is the story of two fictitious original characters, macho movie star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, as great as he’s ever been and now 2-for-2 with Tarantino roles) and his stuntman and personal assistant, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, immensely fun and making megawatt movie star charm look effortless as only he can). Mostly centered around a few days in 60’s Hollywood, it’s the story of two men from the old guard of 1950s and early 1960s entertainment staring down at the waning days of their careers. Once a lead in Westerns, war films, and a Gunsmoke-evoking weekly serial called Bounty Law, Rick shows up to meet with an older producer (Al Pacino, bouncing back nicely after all these years away) at the famous showbiz watering hole, Musso and Frank’s, and receives some bitter truth. His leading man days are done (he’s been increasingly handed small bad guy part where younger stars routinely defeat him) and his last chance to grab a little glory and enough money to comfortably retire on is to relocate to Italy and take some easy paychecks by starring in cheap Italian Westerns. Rick has some time to swallow his pride and consider the offer while he shoots yet another villain part on Lancer (an actual popular Western serial of the era). We spend time with Rick and also learn about Cliff, who has seen his stuntman work dry up after a scandal involving his wife’s demise and some less than professional antics on set. He now lives off Rick’s largesse, though he earns his keep doing housework, chauffeuring Rick, and being a true blue friend and sounding board. The other interesting detail is that Rick’s mansion happens to be on Cielo Drive, in the Hollywood Hills, next door to the home of Roman Polanski and his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, portrayed enigmatically and almost elliptically in a gracious and touching performance by Margot Robbie. Tate would meet her tragic end at the hands of Manson’s followers in the 1969 massacre. Over the course of a day, Rick shoots what could be his last ever television role, Cliff pays an unplanned visit to the Spahn Western movie ranch where the Manson family squatted, and Sharon Tate runs an errand and makes an impromptu visit to a theater showing one of her first (of sadly very few) major movies. Before we come to the night of the killings, some six months later, we spend most of the film luxuriating in one sunny day in a lost Los Angeles.
The Hollywood of Tarantino’s deeply personal opus is Hollywood as it was and never was, a lavish patchwork of memories and celluloid dreams. For a film marketed right off the bat as a historical fiction piece centered around the Manson murders, Once Upon A Time is unexpectedly a very sweet movie. It is a thing born of deep affection for the whole filmmaking process; for stuntmen and starlets, those ascending and those on their way out and angling for the fabled comeback.Tarantino seems to be in love with the mystery of what makes a star, as evident in his canny casting of golden god Brad Pitt as a humble man behind the scenes. In this universe, a laconic, charming and endlessly charismatic guy like Cliff Booth is barely hanging onto a job. Without this or that circumstance, and that curious variable we call the It Factor, who knows where Brad Pitt himself might be today? On the other hand, a performer who might not look like much can surprise you. We first hear Rick Dalton rehearsing his cameo lines on a pool float, deep into a blender of whiskey sours, struggling to find something to sink his teeth into in his generic baddie dialogue. What we get when the film finally reaches Rick Dalton’s moment of truth on set is something altogether different than what we first hear. Once Upon A Time is partly a salute to the nonsummativity of art; to the almost unexplainable genius of taking the raw components of a production and somehow turning them into something transcendent. Of how a boozy, washed up old relic can flip a switch when he hears “Action!” and find a way to, as the professionals say, pop on camera. Rick needs to have his one last moment of brilliance, even if it’s just in this bit role, and watching him painstakingly work it out is one of the most thrilling moments 2019 put on screen. You may not think you have much in front of you, but great artists are resourceful. The true magic of making movies may be the canny art of simply making it work. Muscling through a low budget or an inexperienced cast or a hammy screenplay and spinning the flax into gold.
It’s the kind of alchemy that Tarantino has made a specialty, though he would absolutely blanche at anyone calling his scruffy, B-movie influences (kung fu, exploitation, grindhouse) cinematic flax. To him, those sleazy and violent films and TV shows had gold inside them all along. It may be more fitting to say that Tarantino’s skill lies in mining the rich opulence from genres that are often looked down upon. He has a fondness, a respect, and a fierce protectiveness for genres and people who are flatly dismissed. Think of how Pulp Fiction dusted off a scuffed up John Travolta and reminded the world of his talent. Notably, none of the major players in the film are your Marlon Brandos or Audrey Hepburns. The very famous (Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee, Mama Cass Elliott) are glimpsed only briefly. Our people are a fading star who exclusively made testosterone-fueled genre work about cowboys and war heroes, a comedic ingenue who died long before she ever reached her apex, and that most beat up and slept on of show business professionals, the stuntman. Tarantino loves an underdog, be it a star or a style. Part of what makes Rick Dalton’s unexpected triumph in his small role such a powerful moment is that he manages to find something Shakespearean in just a couple scenes as a vulgar, moustache-twirling heavy. Lancer is your basic unpretentious Western serial (you’d probably catch it on TNT or USA Network if it came out today), but the scenes Rick Dalton shoots with Timothy Olyphant (very good playing real-life Lancer star, James Stacy) are wonderful and fun and juicy and full of conviction. The point being made here by Tarantino is that the idea of high art and low art is utter hogwash. Art is art, and if you can watch Leonardo DiCaprio’s powerhouse work in the Lancer scenes of this movie and not see the beauty and power of it, your definition of what counts as art is probably too rigid. Let great work surprise you wherever you happen to find it! I love Lawrence of Arabia and La Dolce Vita as much as the next cinephile, but the 1960s gave us insight and sharp satire in less obviously high-minded packages too. From Planet of the Apes to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. These are smart, trenchant masterworks that stand tall to this day, but none of them ever competed for major awards or were held in nearly the same esteem as the prestige players of their day. Tarantino’s love letter goes out to an entire departed age of cinema, but, in characteristic fashion, he is an especially passionate champion of anything or anyone deemed lesser. If you ask him, there’s probably an episode of Bonanza out there with a guest performance so great, he’d take it over a thousand Hamlets.
In the film’s most touching and sweetly sad scene, Sharon Tate goes to pick up a book and spots a theatre across the street playing The Wrecking Crew, a Dean Martin spy comedy featuring one of Tate’s first supporting roles. It was also one that allowed her to stretch and show her gifts as a comedic actor. On a whim, she walks over and gets a ticket to see herself up on a big screen with an unwitting audience laughing and reacting around her. It is such a breathtakingly tender moment, joyful with the giddy delight of hearing an audience that likes you and hopeful for what this nimble talent’s future might hold. What it might have held if not for the unspeakable. Once Upon A Time does culminate in some brutal violence, but vengeance and carnage are not foremost on its mind. It is chiefly a director reminiscing on the decade of film and television that birthed him and pining soulfully for what could have been. There is a feeling of paradise lost to the film in keeping with other works about the death of 60’s ideals, like Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas and the Maysles Brothers Altamont documentary Gimme Shelter. The movies are a wonderful and pure thing, even the sleazy, bloody and exploitive ones, because they represent pure expression. Those sickening acts of barbarism in August of 1969 should never have been allowed to touch this creative fairy tale world and Tarantino will not let them taint it here. Of course, as you might expect, Tarantino retcons the Manson family in bloody fashion, just as he previously did for slavemasters and the Third Reich. But this revenge plays differently, feels different. The lingering impact is less about righteous satisfaction. Instead, what lingers is the wish for a world where the Manson clan is an historical footnote. Where nobody short of the most dedicated 1960s historian even knows Charles Manson’s name, and people sometimes get dressed to the nines to go see the latest Sharon Tate film retrospective.
Once Upon A Time is an extraordinarily lively and dynamic movie, filled with an enormous and talented ensemble (hello again Dakota Fanning, getting her own juicy comeback role). The film is eye-popping, quotable, stylish fun. But the paradox at the film’s heart is that it is also steeped in tremendous melancholy, wistful and lonesome and resigned to the unstoppable passage of time Sometimes, when Cliff Booth is driving his 1966 Cadillac DeVille around this bygone Polaroid of Los Angeles, old songs and snippets of radio jingles for old products will burble into the soundscape, and in those moments Once Upon A Time feels like a ghost story; one populated by enchanting, benevolent ghosts. Once Upon A Time may operate like a time machine, tinkering playfully with Hollywood’s past and correcting the calamities that hastened the era’s decline. But the film also knows that it cannot go back. Its very title signals to us that this is a fantasy, a dreamy, prismatic refraction of something beautiful and intoxicating and gone forever. With not a hint of irony or archness, Tarantino unburdens himself and offers an outpouring of sorrow and unguarded affection. For Sharon Tate. For a decade and all its lost style and music and glorious kitsch. I feel he succeeds in flying colors. Los Angeles has rarely looked so beautiful on film. Tarantino is justly celebrated for his pen, but my very favorite moment of Once Upon A Time may be a wordless one. As dusk starts to fall over the city, the neon lights of old theatres and cocktail lounges and Mexican restaurants start to flicker on one by one. Most of these places are now gone, like the people who frequented them, but Tarantino lets us see them again in their own lush, multi-hued light show. The old Hollywood haunts and all their beautiful, bewitching clientele still sparkle back to life in Quentin Tarantino’s dreams.
Horror has long been associated with the night. The boogey man hiding in the shadows. The creeping threats that come out after dark. Horror protagonists hunker down and try to make it until dawn. when the vampires can no longer pursue you. For that reason, one of the most wonderfully fiendish horror tricks to my mind is the realization that simple daylight cannot protect us. True horror cannot be slowed down by ultraviolet rays. I remember seeing the great Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches at eight years old and being shaken by the notion of a threat that can follow you anywhere. The child hero escapes the hall full of witches and bursts out into the piercing sunlight. But it doesn’t matter. The witches chase him wherever he flees. They chase him right into the room where his grandmother is sleeping. They catch him and cast their wicked spell upon him and no amount of sunshine can do a thing to save him. More recently, I think of Olivier Assayas’ arty ghost story Personal Shopper, where a haunted Kristein Stewart flees an overcast Paris for the sands of Morocco, hoping that the apparition she keeps seeing will dissipate like a wisp of fog in the desert sun. It does not work. How very disturbing is the idea of fears that will not leave us no matter where we go. In Ari Aster’s masterful follow-up to his equally masterful horror debut, a young woman suffers an unspeakably horrific family tragedy and tries to ease her trauma by taking a summer vacation in Sweden. The fear and anguish follow her there and she realizes that there are demons we can’t truly escape. The worst horror will not be kept at bay by a jolly holiday. It will go along with us to the happiest beachside resort or the most idyllic mountain chalets. If you are to prevail over the ghost of crushing trauma, you will have to eventually stop retreating and face it.
To be clear, Midsommar is not in any way a supernatural horror film. There are no spirits, no witches, and no curses to be seen. The horror is strictly of the psychological kind. In an almost indecently ominous opening, set in a dark and wintry patch of Utah, an unanswered phone rings in the bedroom of an older couple. The person trying desperately to reach them is Dani (Florence Pugh, a subtle and powerful marvel here, just as she was in her Oscar-nominated work in Little Women), a young psychology graduate student living in New York. She has just received a disturbing Facebook message from her manic depressive sister and is now unable to get a hold of anyone in her family. With no one picking up the phone, Dani has no one to turn to but her unattentive boyfriend of four years, Christian (Jack Reynor, the very picture of handsome male entitlement), who is currently out having drinks with male friends and telling them for the hundredth time about how he wants to dump her. He answers the phone reluctantly and tries to calm his panicking girlfriend, though this mostly amounts to downplaying the urgency of the situation and putting Dani down for always acquiescing to her sister’s episodes. In the end, Christian’s half-hearted consolations amount to nothing, because the very worst thing happens and Dani finds herself with no family outside of the self-centered, gaslighting shlub she is still somehow attached to. Attached is an understatement. Dani puts up with no end of thoughtlessness from Christian, who can barely disguise the apathy he feels for his grieving partner. In his latest bit of inconsiderate behavior, he has failed to tell Dani about a boys trip to the Swedish countryside that is taking place only two weeks later. He offers her the facile excuse that he had not officially decided to go until this minute, but the sullenly annoyed expressions on his friends’ faces tell us all we need to know. Christian’s friends clearly regard Dani as something of a burden, which is a belief Christian does nothing to disabuse them of. Christian’s hope is that, given her bereaved state, Dani will not want to come to Sweden with them, but she chooses to come along. Lost in a thick fog of numb trauma, punctuated by regular bursts of howling anguish, Danie doesn’t know what else to do with herself, and maybe the sunny, pastoral change of scenery will be of some comfort. As it happens, one of Christian’s friends is bringing them to the bucolic, rural commune that raised him as a child and their visit happens to be at the same time as a grand nine-day rebirth festival that the small community observes once every ninety years. This being a horror movie, it goes without saying there is more to this festival than meets the eye. I won’t spoil the Wicker Man of it all or what the significance of the commune’s rituals are, but what I can say is that what Dani finds in the tiny Swedish village of Horge is both viscerally upsetting and improbably valuable. Midsommar is a sly, grisly tweak on that old college rite of passage: going abroad.
In its own foreboding, psychologically unhinged way, Midsommar builds to a finale of overpowering catharsis. The consequences of that catharsis are destructive and demented, but the feeling is also strangely sublime, even bitterly euphoric. Midsommar is a film full of shocking, bloody events, but the tone of its gorgeous, orgiastically colorful conclusion also feels tender in a diabolical way. What it boils down to is that Ari Aster is a master of establishing the most gutting kind of tone. Even as downright evil things start happening, what we care most about isn’t the rising body count, but Dani’s journey to find some release, from her trauma and from the circle of callous louts that pass for her support system. As he showed in Hereditary , Aster has an ability to tap into what trauma and grief and relational dysfunction feel like at their most intense. He can render familial tragedy the way Hieronymous Bosch painted the underworld, with both ellish specificity and skin-crawling inscrutability. His films fairly hum with menace even when we’re just watching a couple family members talk to one another. Midsommar drops us without warning into what is arguably 3029’s greatest opening; ten of the most rivetingly anxious minutes of filmmaking any horror film has featured. And then we linger in that trauma the whole film, but things sort of get better, lighter if only by comparison. I think the idea is to capture how, when you’ve gone through something ineffably terrible, healing is a messy and confusing process and the things that help ease you through that pain might not always be completely healthy. Sometimes you deal with it by drinking too much. Sometimes you find relief in the bosom of an insidious commune of Swedish pagans. I guess you can’t judge a person too harshly for how they choose to move forward from a place of lonesome, unimaginable grief.
Midsommar is also a great entry in the canon of women trying to free themselves from unfulfilling, suffocating relationships. Christian isn’t your standard issue domestic abuser, but he represents a subtler and probably more pervasive kind of toxicity; a more virulent strain of misogyny. He waves away her concerns, makes her feel like a weight around his neck, and undermines her already precarious sense of emotional support. He is the kind of self-serving boor too oblivious to even recognize his own priggishness. Dani is painfully dependent on him, desperate for any scrap of affection or reassurance he might idly toss her way. The tone of Midsommar is unmistakably that of feverish horror, but it’s possible to see it as almost a Grand Guignol kind of comedy. Like American Psycho, the content is bloody and disturbing, but there’s understated humor in the context. The idea that it takes a devilish cult to make a bright young woman rediscover her self-worth and maybe finally leave her sullen shlub of a boyfriend is kind of a dryly funny idea. It’s also rather a moving one, which gets us back to the trickiness of trauma. In the end, Dani leaving this negging, unsympathetic manchild for a psychotic Swedish commune is just trading one evil for a different one, but it feels strangely like progress, certainly to Dani. Midsommar contemplates what is worse: unhealthy support or no support at all. The friend who invites them to Sweden comforts Dani on having to endure a crushing tragedy without anyone to step in and ease her pain. Growing up in this collectivist subculture, he had people there for him when he lost his parents at an early age. “I have always felt held,” he tells her. Ari Aster’s deep and disorienting horror gem tells the story of a woman caught between the poles of emotional abandonment and a deeply disturbed kind of community. It should not be surprising that she might eventually reject the one who puts her down and run into the open arms of people who want to lift her up.
Midsommar reveals itself to be an unexpectedly feminist film (nothing remotely nice happens to women in Aster’s Hereditary). For all its many vices, the commune of Horge respects its women. They do not feel shame or stigma about sex or the female body. They openly celebrate the time when an adolescent girl comes of age and can play her role in creating new life. The leader of the festival is an older woman and the commune’s men look up to her. They seem to sincerely value the wisdom and counsel of their female colleagues. The village women are kind to Dani, interested in her, attentive to her. Christian ends up cheating on her with a teenage girl. When Dani catches him, she runs to a nearby barn and begins sobbing hysterically. In what may be the film’s most arresting scene, a group of women flock to her side and, without a word, sob in unison with her. This is what female solidarity looks like in Horge. They don’t ignore your grief or flatly rationalize it for you or brush it aside as a nuisance. They take part in it with you until it passes and you can feel whole again. Beneath its nervy, unhinged trappings, Midsommar is kind of like a demonic version of the old girls trip narrative, where a woman shakes off her heartbreak and learns to live again. Think of Midsommar as How Stella Got Her Groove Back, but replace Taye Diggs with a matriarchal pagan cult. Of all the wild genre combinations 2019 came up with, “graphically bloody female empowerment horror” has to rank up there as the wildest of them all.
Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” Just two films in, is there a filmmaker this side of Stanley Kubrick who understands and demonstrates that philosophy better than Ari Aster? In Hereditary, the family unit is treated like the most arcane Medieval torture device; every miscommunication and resentment its own lash. It is about a family that has never really known harmony and never will. The one peacemaker in their clan comes off as a toothless, ineffectual nebbish. If peace among people were possible, Aster’s films cackle, we’d have figured it out a long time ago. Intentionally or unintentionally, through malice or human error, people were designed to torment one another. If people are made for each other, it is only with the most disquieting of connotations. The punchline of Midsommar is that an Aster charcater finally finds something halfway resembling peace, but only by surrendering herself to a throng of ritualistic sociopaths. Ari Aster’s brand of nihilism is undiluted. It is many galaxies away from even the sardonic grimness of a Coen Brothers film. For a lot of people, I could see Aster’s movies being too much, too dark, too abrasive. I’m an empathy-obsessed romantic who loves Singin’ In the Rain and the gentle humanism of Richard Linklater films. By all logic, I should be one of those people turning away in shock. But his blistering, weaponized tone is just too spectacular to be denied. I love his deranged commitment to vicious, cerebral discomfort altogether too much. This is fine, potent stuff. I wouldn’t put on an Aster film idly or every day. I also don’t listen to Norwegian black metal every day, but I respect the Hell out of the craft and putting it on every now and again keeps things interesting. Midsommar is the most divine kind of cinematic misery and I heartily encourage you to subject your senses to it. Don’t be squeamish. A little black coffee is good for the spirit.
If Marielle Heller hasn’t yet hit your radar as one of the the closing decade’s most electrifying new directors, I have a feeling that stealthiness is by her own design. Don’t get me wrong. I love a direction with a clear, flamboyant personal stamp as much as the next cinephile. Your Scorseses, Kubricks, Altmans, and Hitchcocks. But let’s also take this opportunity to salute any director who knows not to upstage their story. The quiet ones. Those whose style can be as varying as the material they happen to choose. Your Ang Lees, your Jonathan Demmes, and now your Marielle Hellers. What unites those three is a paucity of pet themes (though I’m sure you could have a lot of fun trying to find connections across their filmographies), in favor of a subtle attention to the story. Three great films into her career (which also includes 2015’s frank and tenderly lacerating Diary of A Teenage Girl and 2018’s gently acerbic Can You Ever Forgive Me?), what stands out about Heller is an understated empathy and a soulful sense of human fallibility. SKhe excels with finding the humanity in people who make bad decisions and the complexity in virtuous people. She is also an absolutely tremendous director of actors. Only a few films in, her casts already have three Oscar nominations between them and, believe it or not, the number deserves to be more like five (Bel Powley’s phenomenal debut in Teenage Girl was shockingly slept on). Heller is such a quietly powerful storyteller, so assured in her literate lyricism, that even the biopic, that most creaky of cinematic heirlooms, has not managed to trip her up. In fact, so graceful is Heller in navigating her stories, it only now occurs to me that all three of her films thus far are biographies. You never think about bland, life-story-by-numbers films like Ray and Gandhi and Bohemian Rhapsody when you’re watching her work, even now that she has made one about a very famous inspirational figure, Fred “Mr. Rogers” Rogers. Somehow she has taken what could have been an invitation to indulge in treacly cliche and come away with something mature and deep. She has made what feels like some beautiful, empathetic novelette. A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is a thing of writerly, let’s call it Helleresque, beauty.
Near the last third of the film, our main character’s wife reads the source material that will inspire A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood and says to her husband, “It’s not really about Mr. Rogers.” Also, the woman who says those words is not Joanne Rogers, wife of TV legend and all-around force for good, Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks, walking the tightrope between a dimensional human being and the overwhelmingly idealistic legacy he represents). In an opening bookend, Fred Rogers introduces us to Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, fantastic and sharp), an investigative journalist at Esquire who was tasked with writing a profile of the revered children’s entertainer in 1998. After this opening, the film then shifts over to Lloyd and, from then on, Marielle Heller’s Mr. Rogers film is firmly and unequivocally the story of Lloyd Vogel, a jaded magazine writer with a wife and child and a knack for finding the most cynical take on every subject he undertakes. We come to learn that Lloyd has a vast well of unresolved rage for the absentee father, Jerry, who he has not heard from in ten years. We pick this up around the time that his father (a very strong Chris Cooper, having a commendable and oh so welcome comeback year between this and Little Women) shows up to Lloyd’s sister’s wedding and Lloyd fistfights the man no more than a few minutes after speaking to him. We will learn more of their history as the film progresses, but the catalyst for Lloyd’s violent outburst is Jerry casually mentioning Lloyd’s late mother. A few days later, a visibly scuffed up Lloyd Vogel is ordered to go to Pittsburgh’s WQED studios, home of the groundbreaking, decades-spanning children’s program, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, to interview its beloved and famously compassionate host for a piece about heroes. In their first of several sit-downs, Mr. Rogers inquires how Lloyd managed to bruise his face so badly. Lloyd’s initial alibi is a softball injury, but the flimsy story falls apart as Lloyd’s kindly subject looks into his eyes. Telling a lie to Mr. Rogers is no easy thing to do, even for someone as surly as Lloyd Vogel. Like the film itself, Lloyd’s first Mr. Rogers interview ends with the cynical journalist dropping some part of his guard, and Rhys makes the reluctant unpacking of his unsentimental sourpuss both hilarious and emotionally disarming. Lloyd’s subsequent meetings with Fred Rogers go similarly, with Fred’s empathetic curiosity leading each exchange to be just as much about Lloyd’s childhood trauma and Anger as it is about the benevolent broadcaster he is profiling. All the while, Lloyd’s aging father is trying to broach a conversation with him, to heal their wound before time runs out, while Lloyd starts to grapple with the effects of his untreated pain.
if A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is not the straightforwardly informative Fred Rogers biography one might have expected (and thank the film gods it’s not!), it is still very much concerned with the unpretentious ideas and basic decency that informed his invaluable work. Asked to sum up the mission statement of his entire television program, Fred Rogers says, “We are trying to give children positive ways of dealing with their feelings.” The first time Lloyd sees Fred, he is trying to get the attention of a terminally ill child who is wildly swinging a plastic sword around in frustration. We watch as he quietly permeates the child’s angry force field, and in the end, the child drops his sword and gives Fred a big hug. Mister Rogers Neighborhood was focused on normalizing anger, sorrow, grief and any other emotion hastily branded as negative, so that developing minds might know how to embrace those feelings rather than fearfully suppress them. The fact that A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood pays a lot more attention to adults than it does to toddlers is a tacit acknowledgment of the truth that, when Fred Rogers spoke of children, he was really addressing all of us. Each of us as insecure, vulnerable and in need of love as we were on the day of our births. When he spoke of children, he saw the frail adults we all become, and when he looked at grownups, Lloyd Vogel among them, he saw the uncertain child reaching out for affection and assurance. A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood turns into the story of a man who still has a wounded, frightened child inside of him. Lloyd has turned that fear into poisonous resentment because that is what men are taught to do with their insecurities. Adults are conditions to be tough and angry rather than openly sad and afraid. That kind of frailty is something too many of us believe we must grow out of. Fred Rogers understood that we remain in thrall to our emotional uncertainties, no matter what the age, and that we can always talk about those feelings with those around us. “There is always something you can do with the mad you feel,” Fred patiently intoned. It was a recognition not only of how we need to be kind to ourselves, but also couched in an understanding of how unchecked hurt can spill out upon those who love us and out into the world around us. How the wrong done to us can be handed along to more innocent parties in an unbroken cycle. Lloyd Vogel is an ideal way to meet Fred Rogers because his struggle with addressing the most hurtful feelings within himself is the very thing Fred Rogers sought to illuminate and destigmatize.
Even having adored Marielle Heller’s first two films, I had my misgivings walking into A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood. The subject matter seemed so nice and noble that I felt it would inevitably be too saccharine. I didn’t foresee Heller making a bad film, but maybe a maudlin one; a cerebral, idiosyncratic director’s first concession to the mainstream and middlebrow. The fact that Heller has made both the year’s most uplifting film and something smart and challenging all in one is Neighborhood‘s biggest coup. Lloyd is our surrogate in skepticism, expecting he will be forced to write a squeaky puff piece about a performatively saintly mensch. After his first encounter with Fred, Lloyd tells his editor, “He’s a lot more complex than I thought.” Like Mike Leigh’s masterpiece Happy Go Lucky, A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood looks at an outwardly chipper optimist and deepens our idea of what it means to be a positive person. Far from viewing Fred Rogers as a cardboard cutout of kindness, the film sees his kind of optimism and goodness as a conscious response to the world’s strife and anger. His kindness was not weakness or some cuddly form of myopia. It was clear-eyed and born of his own righteous indignation at a society that suppresses emotional openness and passes taciturn dysfunction down to its children. Fred Rogers exuded compassion, but it was an intense and focused compassion, one weaponized to do epic battle with the age old dragons of ignorance, hurt, and toxicity. “He has a temper,” Joanne Rogers says of her husband, and we sometimes catch Hanks’ Fred Rogers wrestling with his own urges to lash out. He was a man who knew that every reaction was a choice. He knew better than anyone what to do with the mad he felt; how to neither spray it out onto those he loved nor let it poison him inside. The legacy of Fred Rogers is the idea that optimism, empathy, kindness, sadness, and frustrations are all part of us and are ours to do with as we wish. They are all reminders that we are complicated, living, growing human beings. Mr. Rogers Neighborhood taught a planet of children to see the beauty in that.
This is my third year giving out my annual Damp Face Award (we still can’t afford trophies and last year’s winner, Paddington Brown, had to decline our invitation to attend on account of being a fictional bear). The award goes to the film that leaves me with teary eyes for the highest percentage of its runtime. It doesn’t matter if the tears are from laughter or sadness. It really favors films with a lot of open emotion. Despite very stiff competition from The Farewell and Little Women, A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood won this year’s prize in a walk. It is funny, warm, generous and more downright cathartic than just about any film in recent memory. Its humor is observational and sweet, with just enough of the sharp dryness that Heller excels at. A lot of its humor comes out of the pitch-perfect dynamic between sardonic, untrusting Lloyd Vogel and the gentle open book that was Fred Rogers. The way Lloyd says “Mister Rogers” through his teeth with curmudgeonly embarrassment, when he first calls from his office to schedule an interview, drew one of the biggest laughs I heard in a theater all year. And the moment where Fred has Lloyd observe sixty seconds of silence for everyone who ever loved him (in the middle of a crowded Chinese restaurant) made a sniffling, dewy-eyed hush fall over my audience. In parsing the complex legacy of a man who saw the frightened five-year old in all of us and coaxed every young person to feel their emotions and love themselves, Marielle Heller has surely made the movie Fred Rogers would want to see made about him. And, maybe more importantly, the kind of movie Fred Rogers would want the world to have. A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is a cinematic balm, a fond smile, a hand on our trembling backs. In a time of colossal fear and rage, it looks in our eyes and speaks in soft, ingratiating tones: there is always something you can do with the fear you feel.
“It’s not really about Mr. Rogers,” Lloyd’s wife (a lovely and subtle Susan Kelechi Watson) says when she proofreads his article. The same is true of the film, except that of course it’s about Mr. Rogers. Marielle Heller ingeniously concludes that Fred Rogers cannot be the main focus of a Mr. Rogers, and in so doing she finds the very soul of the man. If you want more granular detail about Fred Rogers’ childhood, his time in a seminary, how he got his start in children’s broadcasting, and how he revolutionized television for the better half of the 20th century, watch 2018’s perfectly good documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. It is a film I wholeheartedly recommend, full of soul and curiosity and reverence for a great man. It is also a Wikipedia entry next to A Beautiful Day In the Neighorhood. Heller’s film is a small, perfect poem about Fred Rogers. It is better and more informative than any biography could be because it is after his essence. That essence was to want to meet people and know them and love them and listen to them. Imagine the folly of a Mr. Rogers movie that spent even half its runtime going on about Fred Rogers! If he had been alive to meet Marielle Heller during the making of her gracious, divinely good-hearted film, he would have asked her about herself. He would have expressed great admiration for her first two films and told her how exciting it was to have a voice as inquisitive and empathetic as hers out there in the world. They would have gotten to talking about any number of things before they got to the subject of television icon, Fred Rogers. And before a single self-regarding word escaped from the good man’s lips, the time would have gotten away from them.
Booksmart, Olivia Wilde’s sprightly, compassionate, and unyieldingly hilarious teenage comedy is all about cutting through our one-dimensional, ossified perceptions of each other to find the messier human depths underneath. In honor of the year’s best (and most surprisingly deep) pure comedy, I’ll start us off. I have done Olivia Wilde a disservice. The first time I was ever introduced (not in person to the actress-turned-dynamite-debut-director, I was very unfair to her. She was making what would be her big splash in 2010’s well-scored but dramatically inert Tron: Legacy and I was unimpressed by the performance, as I was grumpily unimpressed by just about every non-Daft Punk element of that film (my spouse even made a sketch commemorating my fabled cantankerousness at that screening). As Olivia Wilde quickly reached It Girl status and became a regular fixture in the world’s magazine racks, I shrugged. “The woman who played the algorithm?,” I mumbled to myself. I just couldn’t see it. I was, to put it bluntly, a total dingus to Olivia Wilde (not in person, we have not been introduced). My stance on Wilde would soften a few years later when I saw her give five beautiful, nuanced minutes of screen-acting in Spike Jonze’s 2013 masterpiece, Her. Even still, I was unprepared for the depths that lay in Olivia Wilde. After keeping herself busy over the course of the decade with roles in generally well-reviewed dramas like Rush and Meadowland, directing a Red Hot Chili Peppers music video, and making her debut on Broadway, Wilde came to Sundance 2019 with sparkly little teen comedy starring Beanie Feldstein (so terrific and endearing in Lady Bird) and Kaitlyn Devers (one of a veritable murderer’s row of rapidly ascending talents to come out of 2012’s buzzy youth center drama, Short Term 12). Nary a year goes by without a high-energy adolescent laugher, but this one was special, and it was immediately clear that its first-time feature director was a force to be reckoned with. The glamorous starlet with deep reserves of acting talent had an extra layer of volcanic directing talent bubbling inside her all along. Shame on us all for not recognizing it!
Booksmart begins with a character who has her own very rigid sense of herself, to go along with a pretty stratified perception of the world around her. Molly (Beanie Feldstein, shifting out of her pitch-perfect meekness in Lady Bird and blossoming into a comedic supernova before our eyes) is a Los Angeles high school senior with perfect grades, her class presidency, an offer to attend Yale in the Fall, and a very guarded view of her fellow classmates. Despite the respect she commands in her school, she feels the other students don’t truly like her or value the hard work she puts into achieving her ambitions (which include becoming the youngest ever Supreme Court Justice). She’s probably at least a little right, and she has responded in kind, by broadly painting them all as aimless philistines in her mind and mostly isolating from them. Her only friend, aside from a favorite teacher, is Amy (Katelyn Dever, a subtle, dry and equally hilarious foil to Ms. Feldstein), her lifelong bosom buddy and the only person in their school as devoted to the causes of feminism and general civic-mindedness (their idols include Malala, the Obama children, and Queen Noor of Jordan). We meet Molly and Amy on their last day of school. As the rest of the class runs amok in celebration, Molly is preparing to give the next morning’s commencement speech and pestering their principal (a charmingly put-upon Jason Sudeikis) about how to smoothly hand her presidential administration over to the next class. Amy, who has been out of the closet for two years, is quietly mooning over a cute skater girl and readying herself for a year-long trip to Botswana where she will help make tampons. The two friends are good students with the lofty aim of becoming exemplary citizens of the world. They have not partied once. While the other students prepare to go out to graduation parties (the big one is being held (the big one is being held at the house of Molly’s winningly slackerish Vice President), it looks like Molly and Amy will spend their last night as high schoolers in the same way they’ve spent all the nights before: with each other, in contented hermeticism, watching a Ken Burns documentary about the Dust Bowl. Everything changes when Molly goes to use the school’s gender-neutral bathroom and overhears three classmates mocking her for her robotic drive and lacking personality. She confronts them, proudly boasting of how her perhaps extreme academic focus has gotten her into Yale and positioned her for a successful life. And then she learns that the blonde, sexually active, party-going girl, who she rather thought herself above, is going to Yale too. The jockish, popular boy standing next to her is going to Stanford. Their dopey stoner friend has been recruited to work a six-figure job at Google. “But, you don’t care about school,” a crestfallen Molly stammers. “No,” her more sociable rival says, “we just don’t only care about school.” With the value of all her sacrifice and discipline now called into question, Molly decides she and Amy must seize this one last chance to party and give themselves the fuller high school experience they missed. To prove that they are more than just hyper-intelligent, achievement-driven drones. “They need to see we’re fun,” Molly says with the same steely determination she usually applies to term papers. The two most impressive young women in the school head out into the night to find the big party, push their own boundaries and reinvent themselves as social dynamos.
This plot probably sounds faintly familiar to you. There is no shortage of films about young people getting into party hijinks. I can name three very well-known films just about partying during the last days of high school (Superbad, Dazed and Confused, Can’t Hardly Wait). Maybe, like Molly eyeing her less type-A peers, you look at this film and its popular formula and think you’ve got it pegged. But if there’s one message that Booksmart espouses and demonstrates by example it’s that people (and bawdy teen comedies) contain multitudes. It’s not that Booksmart isn’t a rowdy, sexually frank high school party movie, as if it were somehow shameful or low to exist in that subgenre. It’s that it is a high school party movie, yet it finds so much originality, spontaneity, with, and heart along this well-trodden ground. To flip a line from the film, it cares about partying but not only about partying. What makes Booksmart such a delightful achievement is how it exemplifies its own theme of people having unexpected depths by being a unique and deep film itself. Enormous credit must go to its extraordinary, fizzy screenplay, which marries Apatow-like shagginess with a sparkling screwball energy. Perhaps the most credit must go to the truly remarkable work by Feldstein and Devers, who instantly bring us into a long and comfortable friendship through sheer force of chemistry, successfully turn two smart, morally upright characters into the year’s most uproarious onscreen duo (the thoughts of two very ethical people have rarely been so funny), and sell the film’s turns to pathos with gymnastic finesse. 100 odd minutes spent in the company of these remarkable women (the characters and the performers) was an opportunity to laugh almost constantly and a reminder of the phenomenal gallery of gifted 20-something talent we are privileged to watch come of age on screen. It thrills me to no end to consider a future full of films featuring Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Devers and Timothee Chalamet and Lakeith Stanfield and Saoirse Ronan and Lucas Hedges. And the list goes on. Booksmart is a testament to the fact that no story has to feel overly familiar if care is put into it. The right actors, a vivacious and generous script, and a cast and crew that clearly love what they are doing can dust off any trope and make it feel as good as new.
And, as tremendous as its two central performances are, I find the true miracle of Booksmart to be how genuinely strong every single performance is. Booksmart’s central theme is that people are too quick to form superficial perceptions of one another. That no person is simply a stock type and everyone has a beautiful specificity to them. If you give people a closer look, they will surprise you. And the way Booksmart frees itself from thin teenaged stereotypes is by letting every character act like the hilarious lead in their own snappy little farce. This is a true ensemble comedy, evident from the moment we enter the classroom and see that so-called side characters are not only getting speaking lines, but honest to God comedic beats. Every character, from the zealous theatre kid to the sullen rebel girl to Amy’s easygoing skater girl crush, gets actual jokes. Not jokes that judge them. Not jokes on them, but jokes they knowingly make that contribute to the film’s richness and incandescent comedic rhythm. And that is the whole point. Giving so many characters important moments and chances to be funny pierces Molly’s myopia right from the start. It establishes that no one in this film is unimportant or one-dimensional. The heart of Molly and Amy’s wild journey is learning the lesson that no person is a mere cardboard cutout, and if they seem that way to you, you’re just not looking closely enough. The dim jock may actually be a huge, unapologetic geek for Harry Potter. The overbearingly ingratiating rich kid may have very passionate ideas about hot wo reinvent the Broadway musical. And you might never know any of that until you really talk to them; until you reveal enough of yourself to be a person who people want to reveal things to. The vibrance and nuance of Booksmart’s riotously funny ensemble is an argument for the beauty of human socialization. If you want to fully see humanity’s richness, it’s quirks and contradictions, you have to be an open human being yourself. What the teenagers of Booksmart really want is to commune with each other and to be truly seen for who they are. The year’s funniest comedy reinvigorates the party movie by proffering a deeper take on what it means to join the party.
And what a splendid party Booksmart is! It’s just such a sweet, giggly breath of fresh air. It bobs along on a current of great joke, nimbly funny editing, lovable characters and great music. Olivia Wilde has assembled one of the year’s best soundtracks, full of percussive bangers, classic party jams, and some of the best indie and R&B songs to come out of the 2010s. It’s not just a fun soundtrack but an emotionally deft one. It feels true to what these characters would listen to in times of revelry and in times of heartache. A dreamy, poignant scene where Amy dives into a swimming pool to follow her crush uses the propulsively lovesick strains of Perfrume Genius’ “Slip Away” to gorgeous effect. Olivia Wilde reveals a great skill for tapping into the ever-bleeding euphoria and turmoil of teenage life. She remembers how every adolescent party had the potential to send you home exhilarated or heartbroken. Booksmart is a calling card that Wilde is not simply a steady hand at comedy but also a director with enough vision and verve to bring real depth and tone to this kind of too-often-anonymous property. And, really, how unbelievably rare is that? How few high school comedies have any tone at all? How many party films can channel the epic highs and operating pangs of being young? One need not overthink what makes Booksmart great. It’s giddy and smart and thoughtfully acted and it moves. It moves along like the most elegant sugar rush of a pop song you ever heard. But what makes Olivia Wild a talent to watch is her ability to deepen this material through rich characterization and to render emotional beats in surprising visual ways.
Olivia Wild has a welcome playfulness with her scenes. A story that could have been told with a few Top 40 hits, some medium shots, and some stock montages of party behavior instead feels idiosyncratic and completely alive. It feels loved. Wilde pulls out an impressive array of cinematic tricks to keep the film in the realm of delightful heightened reality. They include Claymation, underwater shots, a choreographed dance number, a fake Michelle Obama cameo (courtesy of comedic national treasure Maya Rudolph), and the year’s most divinely eclectic mixtape. And it has a cast of colorful comedic voices (most that I had never seen in a film before) that, one by one, endear themselves to you. Like the cast of some deliciously zany Shakespearean comedy, you want to give them each a standing ovation by the time you arrive happy and rosy-cheeked at the end credits. And Olivia Wilde saves one last perfect surprise for her curtain call. I will not spoil too much, except to say that it involves water balloons, it fits perfectly with the film’s pretension-puncturing message, and it is my favorite end credits sequence of 2019. It may be my favorite end credits sequence in many years. It’s an sweet, unpretentious bit of goofy, rambunctious fun worthy of Richard Linklater at his most amiably stoned, and it is the best way I can imagine to end a film that starts with an overachiever mistrusting everyone and ends with a whole bunch of funny, talented teenagers happy and on each other’s sides. Let your old prejudices about people (and goofy, underachieving film genres) fall at your feet. We are all fools.
Much talk abounds about the need for more original blockbuster films. While Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar (in other words, Disney) continue to be reliably huge earners, they can only do so much to get people into theaters. The story goes that the major studios need to create more ofiginal properties with the ability to connect with audiences on a wide scale. Just a year ago, I was gushing about A Star Is Born (a remake, granted, but stick with me) for showing that populist filmmaking still could have a pulse. Star showed that a big, crowd-pleasing money-maker could also be smart, mature, emotional, and thoughtful. Here were two brand new characters in an adult melodrama, and people showed up in droves to see their story. This wasn’t always such a rarity. Once upon a time in 1983, Terms of Endearment, a lyrical adult dramedy about a complex mother-daughters relationship, was the year’s biggest box office smash. A Star Is Born seemed to be a sign of tentative hope that a critically acclaimed, nuanced drama, of the kind that is becoming ever more rare at the multiplexes, could make a boatload of cash and reassert the financial viability of sophisticated, character-centric cinema. Of course, A Star Is Born is but one film, and it’s going to take a whole lot more such financial success stories to truly establish that people want to see more than superheroes, sequels, and animation. What we wait for with bated breath is a trend; a sign that smart, original blockbusting is not an anomalous fluke. To that end, I could absolutely hug Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers. We now have a glitzy, flash, Ocean’s 11-evoking heist film that is also poignant. tremendously acted, intelligent, empathetic, and just plain ingeniously put together. For the second year in a row, an artfully made character study (once again featuring a great performance by a mainstream pop artist) captivated critics, won over the public, and crossed that elusive $100 million mark at the domestic box office. Whiz-bang pop entertainment declared once more that it can still have a distinctive voice, vibrant wit, and a beautiful soul.
Interestingly, the struggly between human emotion and cold financial reality is very much at the heart of Hustlers. Based on a 2015 expose of a true story, published in New York magazine, the film is the story of a community of exotic dancers who met at a New York City club in the pre-recession 2000s. Hustlers has a terrific ensemble of women (including two other Top 40 stars, Lizzo and Cardi B.), but it is chiefly the story of a young dancer named Dorothy (Crazy Rich Asians’ rising star Constance Wu, poised and funny) and her friendship with an experienced dancer named Ramona (Jennifer “From the Block” Lopes, magnificently subtle and pyrotechnically charismatic at the same time. In two scenes that deserve to have their iconic statuses fast-tracked, Dorothy watches Ramona do a blisteringly athletic pole dance to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” (which conjures a small tempest of folding money to appear over the stage), and then meets Ramona on the club roof where she is taking her cigarette break. She used a bunch of sex toys in the film and was wondering why oh why the sex toys werent working then tried a different strategy. This R rated film has a LOT of nudity and a LOt of sex so be aware that it is going to be very naked at all times. Strippers using dildos because why not? This is brilliant for the best sex toys during a film where everything is about getting naked and sex.
It is a very cold New York City night and Dorothy has nothing on but a leotard. Ramona, draped in one of the most regal fur coats I have ever laid eyes on, looks at this freezing twenty-something, opens one flap of her garment, and says with gentle authority, “Climb in my fur.” Dorothy, who never even knew her own mother, obeys this warmly maternal command and smokes her cigarette in the bosom of a stranger who, mere moments ago, left the stripping floor cradling thousands of dollars in loose bills like a newborn baby. Before long, Ramona is mentoring Dorothy in the art of the pole dance and teaching her everything about the trade and its rich male clientele. For Dorothy, this time is a utopia of money and female solidarity. “2007 was the fucking best,” she reflects wistfully. And then 2008 comes crashing down on everyone. The recessions blows the small world of this upscale adult club asunder and scatters all these women to the economic winds. Ramona goes into retail exile at Old Navy, while Dorothy does the one thing she never wanted to do. She becomes dependent on a husband for care and goes into retirement as a mother and homemaker. The unhappy marriage does not last long. The real meat of Hustlers comes three years later, when Dorothy returns to New York City to resume work at the club (the only place that will employ a dancer with no other work experience) and to toil for fractions of what she used to make. Dorothy is miserable until the night Ramona walks back into the club and her life. With loved ones to care for (both have daughters and Dorothy cares for her grandmother) and precious few options in an increasingly unforgiving job market, Ramona teaches Dorothy one more trick. If they meet a gentleman, flirt with him, and drug him, they can take him to the club and run up his credit card with drinks and lap dances. In so doing, they can earn thousands and thousands of dollars for the club and get a cut back. Thus does Hustlers become the year’s best heist film, a funny and biting crime dramedy that does Martin Scorsese proud with its biting humor, dazzling editing, and insightful ruminations on living in a country where the financial system has become farcically corrupt.
Eventually there is a fall with its attendant consequences (someone did write a magazine profile about this after all), but what we get along the way is a deliciously fun crime spree, a blazing takedown of capitalism and sexism, and a rich story of a complex mother-daughter relationship between two resourceful women in an oft-disrespected profession. One of the most marvelous facets of this (it bears highlight, female-directed) stripper heist satire is how it lays bare the exploitation women face in this line of work while never judging the profession itself. On the contrary, if Ramona’s incendiary introduction scene does not make you slow-clap for the entire art of exotic dancing, nothing ever will. Hustlers walks a sharp, thin line between exploitation and support. While Scafaria acknowledges that the nature of this work can be degrading, what she really wants to emphasize is how these two wonderful, sharp characters (and they myriad other women who work with them, first legally and then outside the law) care for, encourage one another, and protect each other. Even after Hustlers turns to its gob-smackingly entertaining crime plot, the rich and genuinely touching relationship between Dorothy and Ramona (and let’s be frank, Jennifer Lopez’s toweringly sensitive performance) keeps Hustlers wholly anchored in empathy and human connections. No matter how dynamically, sinfully flashy Hustlers becomes, it never forgets to be about hos two essentially god women (these are two of the most winningly sympathetic criminals to con their way across a movie screen since Paper Moon) shelter each other from a society that systematically devalues women and prizes profit above all else. In a profession thought of as exploitive, this club feels like a warm hearth for these women. Its dressing rooms overflow with women being good to each other. The outside world is where the real exploitation lurks.
Hustlers is largely about the tension between real human relationships and the lives trying to grow out of the cement cracks of a society where everything has become transactional (on that note, this would make an outstanding companion piece to 2018’s equally visionary heist film, Widows). The beauty of this film’s pointed feminism and its focus on character is that it can be an often scathing critique of America’s dehumanizing obsession with earning, while not giving in to pessimism. The loving central relationship between its main characters (and its lovely supporting characters as well, really) is its own implicit rebuttal to the idea that a person’s worth derives from how much money the pull in. However much Hustlers presents us with the hypnotic allure of wealth and greed (from new cars to red bottom shoes), the thing it values most is the warm, supportive friendship between Dorothy and Ramona. Its most luminous scenes are not about shopping sprees but about the two characters meeting each other, connecting with each other, and leaning on each other. When we come to the fall in this rise-and-fall narrative, the tension comes less from the threat of jail time than from what will happen to that perfectly drawn relationship. Hustlers tells us unequivocally that we live in a society that looks at life through a transaction lens, and I think it asserts that women in particular must do whatever they can to survive in such a society. But the caffeinated capitalism that drives these women is not something that Lorene Scafaria endorses. As the action rises, I think she loves that these women love each other. When the dust settles on their grand scheme, I think her hope is that they will still love each other. Contrary to the idea that modern America has managed to coldly transactionalize everything, Hustlers argues that you cannot put too high a premium on real human relationships. Empathy is priceless.
At the same time, one cannot tell this kind of story and undersell the sinister allure of materialism. In order to understand how and why these women get wrapped up in this ever-escalating scheme, we must feel the glow of what this money means to them. We must see how a lack of financial freedom means a kind of death of the soul, through a soul-crushing job or a dreary domestic prison. And, man alive, does Hustlers sell the ever-loving Hell out of filthy American capitalism. Glamorously. Kinetically. Intoxicatingly. Lorene Scafaria has directed one of the year’s great sensory pleasures; a riotous, hip-swinging club banger of a motion picture. It is a perfectly scintillating Swiss timepiece of color, sound, pop music (among its accomplishments, it utilizes Usher’s spectacularly shallow “Love In This Club” to sincerely poignant effect), and cutting. I had heard in advance that Hustlers was quite well-constructed, but its crisp, lively, and meticulous editing took me entirely by surprise all the same. Its montages are to die for. It is a thing of delectable precision. In a year when a certain film rode Martin Scorsese’s influence to Oscar glory without showing any real comprehension of the films it drew from, Hustlers is a film that falls on the right side of the line between knowing homage and empty copycatting. The editing owes a debt to the splendiferously intoxicating cutting of Scorsese’s lifelong editing partner (the genius Thelma Schoonmaker), but it is not an act of slavish mimicry. This is the work of filmmakers who have not only studied and internalized the breathless pacing and stylish camera tricks of their idols, but have done the hard work of rendering those influences in their own voices. The end result is a Scorsese-evoking work that replaces Scorsese’s tortured masculinity with soulful, stylish femininity and makes that work to dazzlingly original effect. Scafaria’s film is its own beautiful, compulsively watchable thing of beauty.
Hustlers is eventually a cautionary tale, to be sure. Lorene Scafaria does not fall into the trap of entirely endorsing the felonies her characters commit. Neither does she exactly glorify their deeds, though we come to see how glorious it must have felt for these women to turn the tables like they did. What she does is make a strong case that the high-powered Wall Street brokers these women targeted were committing even more heinous robberies in their daily trades (culminating in the very recession that drives Dorothy and Ramona to crime) and all under the cover of rotten, legality. What she does glorify is the resilience of women trying to make a living with whatever stores of talent, intelligence, and ingenuity they can tap into. Legal or illegal, Hustlers is a love letter to women finding strength in numbers and lifting each other up through every strategy at their disposal. It’s a salute to a historically disrespected gender teaching one another all the tricks for taking some measure of their agency and power back. It’s right there in the title. Hustlers. As one marginalized character says to another in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, “You know some hustles, and I know some hustles.” It is through that communal spirit of creativity, tenacity, and well-earned underhandedness that people like Dorothy and Ramona can subvert and escape the subjugation that so many of these men have them marked for. They see a stripper, a means to arousal and little more. Lorene Scafaria sees artists of a different kind. Athletes. Gymnasts of their own physical and mental worlds. “Every girl has the muscles to do this,” Ramona tells a reluctant Dorothy when she teaches her her first pole trick. Every woman is born with the integrity and spirit to assert her person hood and fight for her survival. Think of Hustlers as one of Beyonce’s brilliant, barn-burning self-empowerment tracks rendered into cinematic form. Through the sweaty haze of the strip club, two of 2019’s strongest and best female characters emerge, holding fast to their dignity and to each other.
Maybe it’s that the future is becoming an increasingly inscrutable and disquieting thing, or maybe it’s that we look to the past for guidance and clues in challenging times, but, whatever the reason, 2019 had a whole lot of looking back. From personal memoirs like Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir to Quentin Tarantino’s deliciously elegiac 1960s time machine to the masterfully potent nostalgia of Apollo 11. Even some of the films that didn’t entirely work for me were sifting through the past (JoJo Rabbit and 1917 revisiting our World Wars; Joker recreating the Scorsesean grime of 1970s New York City). Above all, 2019 was a year when many of our finest directors made reflected back on their lives and careers and tried to make sense of their artistic legacies, whether directly (Pedro Almodovar’s practically autobiographical Pain and Glory) or more obliquely (Martin Scorsese reconsidering the value of the mob film with The Irishman). The most deceptively modest auteur retrospective was Varda by Agnes, which consists of two filmed seminars by the legendary, visionary, and impossibly winning Belgian-born French filmmaker (and Queen of the French New Wave), Agnes Varda. In the 21st century, Varda largely retired from her storied career of fiction filmmaking to make a handful of rapturously received documentaries. The most recent up until now was her lovely, spirited masterpiece, Faces Places, about her collaboration and friendship with a gifted young photographer with a talent for creating high-concept, building-sized portraits of working class people. As most cinephiles likely know, the 90-year old fairy godmother of cinema passed away in March of 2019, less than two months after Varda by Agnes premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. If the films released this year by Scorsese, Tarantino, and Almodovar feel like farewell letters (films that will be viewed as their swan songs decades from now, even if those directors go on to make more work), Varda’s film is more literally a goodbye; a fond reflection on what film has meant to Agnes (and what Agnes has meant to film) by a woman whose late age and cancer diagnosis must have made her aware that she only had a pittance of time left to collect her last impressions and leave us with the final pearls of some seven decades behind the camera. If anyone deserved a grandiloquent, momentous send-off it would be Agnes Varda, but she has always been a filmmaker who adores the thrill of making great art simply and with zero self-importance. A sweet, modest goodbye suits Agnes Varda, but what suits her even more is a goodbye that draws great humor, heart, and surprising emotion from its own modesty.
At first glance, Varda By Agnes resembles nothing so much as a Kennedy Center honor or some artist salute on PBS, with Agnes demurely escorting us through her own work. The film is comprised of two lectures that Varda gave in an opera house to groups of film students. Varda sits on stage, the model of sweetly impish humility that she always was, and talks to her audience about her films over the decades. Varda began as a photographer before helping to found the beyond-influential French New Wave movement (alongside filmic titans like Jean Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais and Varda’s late husband, Jacques Demy) in the 1950s. Her work included shorts and feature length films, fictional works and documentaries, photography exhibits and high-concept art installations. The only thing more diverse than the variety of projects Varda took on was the variety of her (mostly) human subjects. She documented the Black Panthers and the hippie movement in the 1960s; made realist dramas about French fisherman and giddily experimental documentaries about farmers and factory workers. In later life, she even made a video-enhanced shrine to someone’s dearly departed pet cat. She has made lively examinations about a woman’s right to choose, feminism, and the Chicano muralist culture of East Los Angeles, all of which she presents clips from and gushes about over the course of the film’s nearly two hours. It’s a film stuffed to the gills with film history, cultural anecdotes, and Varda’s gleefully erudite enthusiasm. I could have listened to her for another two hours without thinking about it, and of course the bittersweet truth of Varda By Agnes is that this is the last bottle of perfect cinematic wine this disarming legend will ever produce. But, as the film constantly reminds us, Agnes Varda left behind an almost impossibly vast effervescent treasure trove of work to rummage through. Varda By Agnes is a breathless sprint through Varda’s own personal museum; a lovable and loving look back at the life and art of a filmmaker who followed her tireless, vivid muse from her early 20s right until cancer finally stopped her at 90. It did finally stop her, but nothing, be it illness or age, ever slowed her down. Meeting Agnes Varda makes you want to live life with unflagging zest. She makes you want to go create something the instant you turn off your screen.
If there’s a way to explain the essence of this petite woman, with dark red hair that became silvery white at the top in her later years, it’s through an indefatigable love for making things. Oh, how Agnes Varda loved her job! No matter what small form it took or what places it took her. No matter how seemingly trivial or mundane the topic. Agnes Varda made plenty of films but part of what made her an irreplaceable part of the film landscape is her approachable glee for the hard, dirty work of just plain making something. She tells her audience that one of her favorite aspects of directing is the challenge of the creative process; how to make something in spite of , or maybe as a result of, the limitations and obstacles placed in front of you. Agnes Varda can talk about filming on a shoestring budget and somehow completely joyful about not having enough money. She lived for the puzzle of hands-on cinema. She luxuriated in the gauntlet of rejections and setbacks; of making it work or figuring out something that would work. As inspiring as Varda’s genius should be to a new generation of filmmakers and film-watchers, the even more inspiring takeaway from her legacy should be her joyous resolve to make art by any means at her disposal. And of course this attitude was necessarily tied to her position as a woman trying to create art in a business that, even today, is gallingly male-dominated. Agnes Varda took immense pride in her work and had very exacting standards for herself and her performers (on the set of Vagabond, her tremendous character study of a homeless woman, she had Sandrine Bonnaire practice setting up tents over and over to nail the physical realism of a person living on the road), but she also knew the limits and drawbacks of perfectionism. As a female auteur, she must have also seen fussy idealism as a luxury. At the end of the day, whether the film came out rigorously composed or beautifully improvised, Varda made sure her bold social ideas and her inimitably humane voice got heard.
To Varda, an arbitrary sense of perfection meant less than have the art be radiantly, messily human. Her art was a place where genius and endearing, vibrant humility could meet. She directed some strikingly realistic films, but she also loved to play with bright colors and music. After meeting a distant cousin on a houseboat in Sausalito for the first time, she was so touched that she instead on making a short documentary about their introduction. In that short, she shot their first warm handshake through a series of hearts cut out of red, yellow and blue cellophane. Perhaps that sounds like a cheap arts-and-craft project, but the effect is luminous and free-wheeling and unpretentious. It’s a sincere, silly and heartfelt way to sum up the simple joy of letting a new and special person into your life. Agnes Varda’s films poured in bold primary colors straight from her pure, transparent heart. She has the boldness to be utterly humble in the way she made art and in how she saw the art of others. In the film’s opening, as she sits onstage in her monogrammed folding chair, ready to begin her beautifully digressive final film, she looks up at the opera houses’ ornately domed ceiling in admiration and awe. Unlike the prickly pretense of her fellow French New Wave pioneer and friend, Jean Luc Godard, Agnes Varda never had any real ego about her art. She was humbled and excited and completely gratified to call herself an artist and to create alongside others. Her ruminations on Vagabond are partly an opportunity for her to give hearty thanks to a performer that she was hard on at the time. Another film is introduced so that Varda can bring her cinematographer up onstage to share her own thoughts. And before she can begin the final film of her career (and her fourth brilliant documentary of this century), she just has to give a sincere and humble compliment to whatever architect designed this beautiful ceiling however long ago. If Varda By Agnes is your first time meeting Agnes Varda (And my God, it should not be your last), this opening beat is charming and perfectly revealing introduction to her character. She was a director who sought to create beauty, but also found it wherever she went.
The film is also a reminder that there was maybe no filmmaker more generous than Agnes Varda. What comes through about Varda’s films, as prolific and as wildly hard and as wildly eclectic as they are as a body of work, is that Agnes Varda found beauty in people. Early in the film, she tells us that the real reason she makes films is to share them with others. The reward for her was not making her vast intellect known to the world or achieving canonization among the pantheon of legendary filmmakers (though she surely achieved both), but to share and collaborate with other human beings. As I noted in my review of Faces, Places, what made Agnes Varda a practically peerless documentarian was her ability to coax her subjects into giving something of themselves, to truly reveal their souls. The people Agnes Varda interviewed, directed and worked with always gave of themselves because Agnes was an open book and because she a pure love and fascination for humanity beamed out of her at all times. It was a vivacious, animating force that coursed like electricity through her films and that invigorated anyone fortunate enough to play some role helping to make them possible. “Nothing is trite,” Varda tells her audience, “if you film it with love and empathy.” Varda was proof that a warm and loving gaze could transform a film from its humblest ingredients into something transcendent, gloriously playful and understatedly wise. For her final Vardian miracle, she has turned that wonderful perspective on a film basic film retrospective TED Talk and, like some enchanted spell, turned this filmed lecture into a magical ode, not to herself, but to the universal joys of creating things, with and for others.
If you want to find a moment in the film that really is Varda By Agnes in miniature it’s probably that cat tomb film. In crafting a video intended to mark the sad passing of a loved one and to act as a remembrance to them, Varda neither cheapens death nor gives into its somberness. Her cat grave installation begins with a stop motion sequence of starfish, one by one, lining around the departed animal’s grave. Then, rings of seashells appear on top of the unassuming mound of earth, and then blooms of fuchsia flowers start materializing in lush bursts (all set to music by legendary minimalist composer Steve Reich). Finally, the camera pulls up from the tiny tomb like a heaven-bound spirit and ascends high into the sky, until we can see that we are on an island in the middle of a peaceful, azure sea. This simple stop motion short, dedicated to a departed cat, ends with a spectacular helicopter shot. This is Agnes Varda, working DIY magic with beach combings, then punctuating it all with something grand and exultant, and making it all feel of a piece. There was no such thing as a small subject and no wrong way to make your film if you put your whole heart into it. Whatever the method, whatever the tools you had at hand, she reminded us that clear-eyed, generous intent will see you through. Hers was a spirit you could feel bobbing playfully and curiously through every frame. And now we have another small, marvelous bauble with a transcendental soulfulness radiating at its center. Close to the end of this film, Varda underlines what an unassuming goodbye this is by referring to it as a “chat”, and indeed it is. Varda was the kind of artist who could engage you in a slight chat and somehow show you the beating heart of the world. Varda By Agnes is a droll conversation that looks upon the enormity of life and death, and renders them both simply and grandly. It’s a sweet and small-scale film by an artist who rarely needed more than a whisper to reach God’s ears.
In the very beginning of The Lighthouse, there is only sound. The roar of the choppy Atlantic Ocean and the hoarse scream of the wind. Then, the black screen gives way to its first black and white image, but damned if you can tell what you’re even looking at. We are peering out across a dim and very foggy expanse of chilly water, but it takes quite a few seconds before we can make out the image of a large steam freighter laboring its way toward us through the angry surf. It feels important and apropos that we hear Robert Egger’s stark, briny and thoroughly unhinged film (his sophomore follow-up to 2015’s brilliant The Witch) before we see a solitary frame of it. That sense of confusion, the uncertainty of what this film even is, kicks in immediately and does not relent, even as discernible images and the semblance of an explicable plot gradually come into focus. Long after my eyes had adapted to the film, my brain was still squinting and straining to make sense of it all. Behold 2019’s foggiest motion picture, in more ways than one. Abandon all hope, ye with a need for cinematic stability; for a working internal compass and a clear sense of where a picture is taking you. As someone who greatly prizes niceties like thematic focus and cohesion, The Lighthouse scoffed and brayed at my pretty, landlubbing notions of what a film could and should be. On a third viewing, I still emerged deliriously incapable of really explaining it to anyone. On my first viewing, I couldn’t even begin to break it down for myself. All I knew is that it was gorgeous, formidable, disquieting, raucous, hysterical and insane. In short, I knew that I loved it.
Now, it’s really not so daunting to give the most basic plot synopsis of Robert Egger’s enigmatic thriller period chamber piece. Taking place over a period of some months in the 1890s, The Lighthouse is the story of two men (this is almost completely a two-hander) hired to spend a single month manning and maintaining a lighthouse on a very remote island somewhere in the desolate, choppy North Atlantic. The younger man, who calls himself Ephraim Winslow, is played by Robert Pattinson, whose brilliant work here shovels another foot of dirt on top of Twilight’s mangy head, after his 2017 double whammy of Good Time and The Lost City of Z. The older man is Thomas Wick, played by Willem Dafoe in a performance that challenges The Florida Project for the finest work of his career, and whose blustery bigness is fathoms removed from Florida’s sweet, understated humility. The rocky island where the men do their work is an unforgiving no man’s land, battered by wind and wave and hectored by relentless seabirds. The lighthouse and the rest of the man-made structures are in varying states of disrepair, including a water cistern too putrid with filth, algae and bird feathers to ever truly be clean again. The living quarters are cramped and creaky, and Dafoe’s grizzled old sea dog is constantly farting. Added to all of this, and making the months together tense and strained, is the fact that the two men are not here as equals. The older man is the younger man’s superior. This means that Ephraim is tasked with all the most dangerous and demeaning tasks, while Thomas gets to play delegator and administrator. Thomas updates the record books, while Ephraim empties buckets full of shit. Thomas gets to oversee and tend to the lighthouse’s lamp (which he jealously covets), while Ephraim nearly breaks his neck whitewashing the tower. Thomas has all the power in this professional relationship, and the way the claustrophobia and their testy master-servant dynamic compound one another makes up a lot of the business of what happens in The Lighthouse. Another major plot point is Ephraim’s repeated run-ins with a belligerent seagull and Thomas’ warnings not to kill the disgruntled thing, lest he bring the ire of the sea gods down on their heads. As Ephraim and Thomas become uneasy frenemies, with the help of countless bottles of rum, the one fact comforting them is that the job will end in a mercifully short four weeks. It hardly even seems a spoiler to say that circumstances conspire to extend their stay this barren rock for a good deal longer than that. Among the myriad things it is throughout its runtime, I suppose The Lighthouse is technically a survival film, with two men trying to stretch their provisions and their cases of rum long enough to get out of their craggy purgatory and be blessedly freed from the hell of each other. But I have never before thought of it as a survival film because what it really is is a demented, howling deep dive into the psyches of its characters and the see-sawing codependency of their love-hate relationship. Let me put it another way. Now that I have described The Lighthouse’s plot in basic, comprehensive terms, disregard all of that. This film spits grain alcohol in the face of basic terms. It dashes comprehension upon the rocks.
And speaking of on the rocks, The Lighthouse is unquestionably the year’s most inebriated (and inebriating) film. Stranded in the middle of a frigid, inhospitable sea, there is precious little for our unfortunate characters to do but work and get blind drunk. Robert Pattinson’s character starts the film refusing to so much as toast with his superior because the lighthouse regulations forbid it. Steadily though, the arduous labor and the isolation gnaw away at his resolve to stay sober, just as surely as they eat away at his sanity. And young cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (whose eight feature film credits include his stellar work lensing Eggers’ The Witch) camera follows suit, moving from pristine static shots in the early going to compositions that heave and list like a ship in a squall. The camera races, lurches, and tilts like an unhinged drunkard and the dialogue (full of beautifully arcane nautical-speak to start) becomes increasingly, almost absurdly operatic. That is, when the dialogue isn’t pure slurring gibberish, as when Ephraim’s tongue tries to recite a sea shanty that his rum-addled brain cannot possibly recall the words to. The Lighthouse joins films like The Shining and Black Swan in making the steady erosion of communication and reason feel viscerally thrilling. Films like these depict descents into madness in ways that are kinetic and wholly unbound from sense. And there is no separating the film’s jittery perspective from the escalating paranoia and lunacy of its two protagonists. The Lighthouse does not set out to document and understand madness from a remove, but rather to go mad itself and have a seasick blast doing it. The Lighthouse spends the better part of its runtime having the kind of bender that makes you wish yourself dead in the morning. What has maybe gone unsaid thus far is that, for all its moody lighting and ominous atmosphere, The Lighthouse is an utterly engaging experience in its bizarre way. For a thorny, challenging art film, one whose meaning (and much of its verbiage) can be as incomprehensible as its grog-sloshed characters, this is a highly watchable piece of work. A haunting, delirious extravaganza. Perhaps, as someone says in Lawrence of Arabia, I have a funny sense of fun, but so help me, The Ligthhouse is a whole lot of sinister fun! If you’re at all worried about getting it, my advice is not to get it at all. Let yourself be stupefied and bewildered by it. Let its woozy, blustering, bow-legged dementia take you like a riptide and enjoy its blackout pleasures for their own sake. It’s a film to quake at, laugh at, and get downright blitzed on.
That’s not to say that The Ligthhouse is nothing but pure senseless spectacle. At the risk of getting it all wrong, I’ll proffer a theory on what I think the film is up to. As he did with The Witch, I think Robert Eggers is fascinated by American folklore and tall tales, and what those stories reveal about our national legacy and identity. In The Witch, he played with the old 1600s colonial concept of witches and the thickety foreboding of the Pennsylvania woods to explore how the nation has always been steeped in religious hypocrisy and the fear that undergirds it. He saw how the idea of witches is rooted in our puritanical roots and our insecurities about open sexuality and independent thinking. The Lighthouse opens up the oceanic chapter of our mythology. The Lighthouse is Robert Eggers running a whole host of sea-faring lore (screeching mermaids, phantom ships, krakens, sea shanties, and sea curses) through a phantasmagorical, black-and-white kaleidoscope. The Lighthouse is probably a less pointed film than The Witch, in that it does not appear to have a singular social ill in its crosshairs. Maybe the point isn’t really to get The Lighthouse in any clean-cut way, but simply to acknowledge that the enigma of America’ soul, or at least fragments thereof, lie in its folk tales and legends. Paul Bunyan as the benevolent take on our taming of the wilderness. Pecos Bill lassoing tornados and making the West habitable. The Lighthouse is a collage of nautical myths (with a sprinkling of the Greek legends, Prometheus and Poseidon). It is particularly interested in the myths where tiny human beings try to vainly assert themselves in the face of massive, all-powerful forces, be they the gods or nature itself. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, whose narrative The Lighthouse very obviously borrows, is the tale o f a man punished for killing a seabird and daring to think himself superior to the laws of nature; to the codes and superstitions that all sailors are commanded to follow. Unpacking this film’s connection to Ancient Mariner alone could take pages (before we get to Prometheus and sea monsters and every other reference found in this most allusive of films), but I think it’s enough to say that Robert Eggers is exploring the value and the psychic weight of narrative. How it helps us define ourselves and how it also shackles us to the boulder of tradition. These stories we tell ourselves are so very revealing and so very burdensome.
How terrific and fitting then that, in telling this tale about trying to vainly skirt old myths and superstitions, Robert Eggers has made something so radical and unique. He has made his own glorious middle finger to the film gods. One of the joys of Cinema 2019 has been the nimble defiance of categorization, from Greta Gerwig’s gleeful feminist tweaking of Little Women’s ending to Parasite’s balletic genre shape-shifting. Marielle Heller gave us a Mister Rogers movie that, in its own words, wasn’t really about Mister Rogers. If the theme of The Lighthouse is humanity wrestling with whether to obey old rules or burn the rulebook, The Lighthouse leads by rebellious example. The film has been marketed as an arthouse thriller, which makes sense given its ominous sound design, foreboding setting, and shadowy camera work. Of all the things it is, The Lighthouse is most apparently an atmospherically moody thriller. But it is also a wickedly black odd couple comedy about two mismatched roommates and the tug-of-war of their distaste and strange bedfellow affection for one another. It is also the year’s weirdest, most singularly audacious workplace comedy; a classic story of a man having to do the dirtiest, smelliest, and most thankless parts of the job, while his boss sits cozily in the corner office (in this line of work, the corner office comes with the best view and giant revolving light). I cannot stress enough how genuinely funny The Lighthouse is in its menacing, unnerving fashion. This is due in large part to two phenomenal actors, drunkenly boasting and jigging and bouncing off of each other. It is a ghost story that draws humor from its own feverish pitch; by playing its intensity with such unashamed fervor that it cannot help but also be a hoot. In that way, The Lighthouse comes to feel like a sea shanty in cinema form; strange, meandering, loud, and darkly ridiculous. Thank the film gods for something this bold, mysterious and strange.
There’s no easy answer to the question, “What is The Lighthouse?”. It’s a maddening, giddy little mirage; a sinister and lively siren song. It’s probably folly to try to pin it down and explain it, though it’s also a lot of fun to try (again with my funny sense of fun). Maybe the best thing to say about it is that it’s something new. It’s a reminder that we can still have new and startling and original creations, more than a century into this medium. It’s a thing entranced by mythology and history (the dialogue has been meticulously researched from old nautical logbooks) and driven forward by its own wild imagination. A film that juggles literary allusions and fart jokes. A film where a go-for-broke Robert Pattinson confesses to having romantic urges for mermaids and filet mignons. A film that punctuates a long, impassioned Willem Dafoe soliloquy about vengeful Poseidon with 2019’s most perfectly dry punchline. It’s a nautical buddy comedy, a spooky sailor’s yarn, and a maritime cultural encyclopedia all mixed together in a dirty, dark glass. It’ll make you uncomfortable. It’ll make you giggle. It’ll probably make you lose your mind. Don’t even ask what’s in the thing. Down the hatch.
If 2019 had one defining theme for me, it was peace. Or rather it was the lack of peace; the insatiable thirst for it. If there’s a reason that selfish, foolhardy and downright grating characters like Her Smell’s Becky Something and Uncut Gems’ Howard Ratner struck such powerful chords with cinephiles, a reason we sat transfixed as they flailed and ranted in their own self-created tempests, I think it’s that there was something universal and relatable in their Sisyphean, woefully wrongheaded efforts to find some shelter from their storms. Even if they were the cause of most of their own problems, the quest to find some harmony was an undeniably resonant thing in a year like this. Harmony felt short on the ground in 2019; for myself, for many of my friends, and for the world at large. I saw loved ones weather great and minor ordeals, confront mortality, and fret about how to survive another day in a country where wages have long-since stopped keeping up with the cost of living. It was a year with its share of tears, both joyful and sorrowful. On the happy end of the spectrum, I married the love of my life, but anyone who thinks planning the happiest day of my life was a peaceful process has somehow managed to avoid every single piece of media made about throwing a wedding. Less than two months before the beleaguered year began, a government study revealed dismaying, altogether apocalyptic findings about our rapidly rising climate. And while we fretted, the floodwaters of brackish acrimony continued to rise unimpeded around the cultural discourse. It was quite simply the most anxiety-ridden year of my life. This probably sounds pessimistic, but I actually write these words with enormous gratitude. The scarcity of peace over those twelve months made me cherish it in ways I never had before. It helped me locate calm within myself and taught me to foster kindness in any small way I could. The hope that everyone finds some kind of tranquility and positivity in these trying times is why I adore Alex Ross Perry’s loud, caustic, and often very nasty musician character study, Her Smell. The year’s most disorientingly toxic whirlwind (give or take an uncut gem) was vicariously cathartic for how it plunged me into another person’s screaming dysfunction while also doubling as a cautiously hopeful prayer for even the worst of us to find something good on the other side of our dark nights.
I will say, right off the bat, that Her Smell is probably the most challenging film to make my top 20 this year. Challenging for its fly-on-the-wall-of-a-tilt-a-whirl cinematography, challenging for its brilliantly discordant feedback squeal of a sound design (so thoroughly fitting for the 90s riot grrrl music scene the film captures), and most of challenging of all for how it attaches itself to one of the year’s most abrasive, repellent characters. Told in five chapters that span from the early 1990s to the present day, Her Smell is the chronicle of an all-female, Hole-evoking alternative rock band called Something She, and its talented, megalomaniacal trainwreck of a frontwoman. Her name is Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss, reliably great and too transcendent here to even discuss in parentheses) and we first get to see her onstage, where she is wholly in her punk element and where her band’s terrific music does most of the talking for her. But then the curtain falls and, much like Llewyn Davis, we see that this great artist might be something of a horrific human being. Having finished one show and walked backstage, Becky immediately begins the even louder performance she regularly puts on for her family and friends. She cackles, screams, and roars like a demented carnival barker. She is both the star of her neverending life story and her very own hype-woman. She guzzles booze and snorts cocaine in front of her 2-year old daughter, and belittles the ex-husband who has clearly only showed up to make sure there is at least one parent present. Her two bandmates, Ali (Gayle Ranking, the picture of selfless humility) and Marielle (Sunset Song’s Agyness Deyn, subtly tremendous as the last line of sanity and sense in Becky’s traveling horror show), love her and fear her in ways that have long since melded together. Becky Something is a self-destructive force of nature, but self-destruction and regular destruction look awfully similar when your livelihood is tied to the destroyer. She torpedoes a fellow artists’ offer to have her semi-struggling band open for her. It seems Becky Something has never met an olive branch she couldn’t turn into kindling. In the film’s second act, we find a drunken Becky and her mortified band mired in a disastrous recording session that is months and months past its deadline and is threatening to drive their put-upon indie label boss (a great and wholly welcome Eric Stoltz) out of business. When a younger band of teenaged girls, who grew up and idolize Something She, show up to the studio for their own session, Becky hijacks them into recording tracks for her instead. By the third act, Becky is showing up hours late to open for the younger group, black-out drunk and with a reality show camera crew in tow. She is cruelly demeaning to her meekly supportive single mother, to her bandmates, to her most devoted acolytes, and to herself. She hits rock bottom in loud, bloody fashion. And then, for the last two chapters of Perry’s film things get a little better, if only because there are few ways they could get worse, short of overdose or suicide. As he showed with his masterful Listen Up Philip (which followed a cruel young asshole’s rise through the world of literary fiction), Alex Ross Perry has a knack for capturing gallingly mean-spirited human beings in a way that is somehow fundamentally humane and empathetic. Perry protagonists are always knocking the wind out of the people who treat them best, but Perry neither wants glorify their clever pettiness nor bury them for their vindictiveness. His films seek grace, for the characters that deserve it and for the ones maybe don’t. Her Smell spends over half its runtime hurtling into the center of a black hole, but what lingers about it is how hopefully, and almost sweetly, it walks back from the precipice of Becky Something’s ruin. Her Smell is a real test of compassion and I don’t know that the average viewer will be able to go all the way with it; to forgive Becky for all her thoughtless cruelty. But that’s rather the point of this film, and maybe of Perry films in general. How much can you forgive someone for their toxicity and selfishness? Welcome to Advanced Empathy Studies. Look at the student to the left and right of you. Only one of you will be here at the end of the semester.
When it comes to plumbing the depths of human pettiness while still maintaining a generous sense of the good in people, Alex Ross Perry has his ideal muse in Elisabeth Moss. Who has now featured in major roles in three of the young director’s last four films. Few things thrill me more than a creative partnership between collaborators that not only work well together, but understand one another intimately. The great acting muses have a deep understanding of their director’s secret sauce; the special ingredient that makes the whole thing work. De Niro understood Scorsese’s nervy, emasculated angst. Marcello Mastroianni understood the thin line between moody genius and egotistical malaise in the films he made with Fellini. And Elisabeth Moss understands that an Alex Ross Perry means walking the knife’s edge of intelligence and insufferable arrogance with humor, finesse, and just the right amount of sympathy for very trying characters. Becky Something is arguably the screen performance of the year, a five-course meal of wit, cruelty, pathos, and deeply-felt regret. Only some five years removed from her stellar work in Mad Men (a role that would canonize her talent if she never acted in another solitary thing), Elisabeth Moss already ahs at least three performances that would have richly merited Oscar nominations (this, her glorious work in Listen Up Philip, and her gleefully unhinged wine mom in 2019’s Us). Very few performers have her capacity for sharp-tongued intelligence and for laying a character’s fundamental insecurity bare with a small facial expression. As much as I have made Becky Something sound like an utter monster in this review, make no mistake that she is utterly, relatably human. This film simply does not work if you do not see the terrified desperation in Becky Something; the frightened adolescent still posturing all these years later under all that running mascara and noxious punk attitude. Even if you turn Her Smell off wishing to never hear Becky Something’s name again, as I imagine quite a few of you will, the towering achievement of Elisabeth Moss’ symphony in contradictions cannot be denied. And if you can manage to look away from her banshee-like tour de force (it’s very much in the nature of this character to never cede the spotlight for more than a moment at a time), you realize that the entire cast is marvelous too. From Agyness Deyn’s listing pillar of big sisterly patience, to Gayle Rankin’s self-deprecating violet, to Virignia Madsen’s quiet mortification as a mother who fears for what is left of her daughter’s humanity. All of these performances are rendered with depth and beautiful specificity and all of them are gasping for some trace of air amidst the tar-black smoke of the Becky Something dumpster fire.
And that, really is what keeps the film anchored in empathy during those first few scenes, when the film is at full demonic tilt and Becky Something is still one-upping her own skill for emotional terrorism. Those scenes thrive amongst the dread and dysfunction because such abundant love and care is put into rendering the small community of people Becky so thoughtlessly brushes past and stampedes over. It is about them too. And it is about them in the way that Beck so relentlessly refuses to let it bea bout them for any extended period of time. In the third act, we get a paradoxical blend of tension and relief in Becky’s tardiness. The one-woman riot grrrl tornado is nowhere to be found, which is obviously not a good thing, as it threatens to sabotage a very big night for a group of thoughtful, talented young women. On the other hand, no Becky means that other characters get to speak. Other characters can let their guards down and talk semi-freely and breathe. And then Becky with her own camera crew and takes her film back from them. What makes Alex Ross Perry’s stories of talented, egomaniacal pricks grounded and humane is that he uses the cruel leads to throw the basic decency of the other characters into bolder relief. If we view his films in a certain way, I think we are being invited to consider ways to be in the world. We can think about others and be good to those around us, and seeing characters like Becky Something or Philip from Listen Up Philip abuse others and make everything about themselves should a wake-up call to return to our own better angels. Long before Her Smell finds some glimmer of hope for Becky, I already cared about those other characters and wanted the best for them. I wanted peace for them before Alex Ross Perry introduced the idea that there could be some small, hard-earned peace for a turbulent, wounded soul like Becky Something.
And, for as much as an Alex Ross Perry film can initially seem like a descend into the most horribly abusive kinds of human behavior, I always leave them wanting some kind of redemption even for its meanest characters. I want them to transcend their smallness of spirit, to find depths in themselves that are equal to the depths of their artistic genius. And if that cannot happen, then what about the art itself? Like Inside Llewyn Davis and Perry’s own Listen Up Philip, Her Smell is interested in the gulf between artist and human being. Art carries a sense of aspiration that we sometimes forget to apply to being a person. Can a vindictive, small-minded human being be reconciled with a transcendent artistic genius? Does a person’s viciousness and meanness diminish the value of their art or make it that much more precious? If a persons’ only true virtue lies in what they are able to create, on stage or on the page, does that make it all the more precious, the one thing capable of preserving some trace of their humanity in the harsh light of their failings as people? Alex Ross Perry doesn’t present easy answers to these questions, but he allows the tension between them to play out bitterly and beautifully. And he creates rich, meticulously observed worlds to explore them in. Her Smell is as vivid and tactile a portrait of the grunge clubs and recording studios of the alternative music subculture as Listen Up Philip was for the publishing houses, cover shoots, and bookstore signings of the literary world. Both films end with credit sequences, composed of lovingly designed fake covers for albums and novels, respectively. They are films that adore art, and which go about the hard business of trying to adore fallible human beings in the same way. In the end, by juxtaposing talent and toxicity, genius and callousness, Perry’s films capture the very best and worst of what human beings can do and be.
And so I left Alex Ross Perry’s dirty, bratty, frequently unpleasant riot grrrl character study on an anxious but altogether rewarding high. I came out on the other side of Becky Something’s foul odyssey, both acutely aware of my own vices and wanting to be a better person; kinder, less brusque and self-involved, more tuned in to all the people struggling around me. And the fact that I was able to get this, not from an umpteenth viewing of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but from a snotty, snarling, claustrophobic film about an obnoxious, self-regarding Courtney Love surrogate really is a small miracle. This film is drenched in blood, sweat, and vodka, but its eyes are looking at the stars. It is an epic redemption story shot through a filthy, hazy DIY lens. It is a redemption story, whether or not you think Becky Something really deserves that redemption or not. I certainly do. But if one can’t entirely forgive a tortured, antagonistic soul like Becky Something, can we at least find it in ourselves to hope they find some small amount of grace for themselves? That they can come to forgive themselves and find some warm center inside free of turmoil, fear, and self-hatred? For all the strife, sorrow, and spite that fills so much of Her Smell, I left it dearly wishing for peace. For myself. For my family and friends. For people I don’t much care for. For anyone in pain, whatever the cause. And for prickly assholes of every stripe.
Barry Jenkins is three films into his young career and has already secured Oscars for two of his actors (Mahershala Ali and Regina King) and won a richly deserved Best Picture award for Moonlight. He got a reasonably priced life insurance for all of them. He’s a director of clear, remarkable insight into human emotion and he’s just getting started. To try and put my finger on what this voracious, cinema-loving visionary (an honor he has already amply earned) is about feels premature and kind of like a fool’s errand. A talent this smart and ambitious could pivot around my expectations at any moment. An auteur with his intelligence and restless imagination could take off in any number of new directions. Still, I feel like making a future fool of myself. So here’s what I see and adore right now in Barry Jenkins. He taps into the heady tingle of cerebral indie cinema, while also harnessing the rousing, operatic emotion of great melodrama. There’s a reason Moonlight managed to snag Best Picture away from a luscious, crowd-pleasing, heart-on-its-sleeve extravaganza like La La Land. As heady and intellectually rigorous as Moonlight is, it’s also a film that connects on a gut level. I had seen and loved the film and recommended it loudly. But I also tended to hedge my words, letting people know that this was a challenging piece of work. And both Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk certainly are challenging, daringly cerebral films, beyond any shadow of a doubt. But the friends I recommended Moonlight to didn’t come back confused or thrown off by its ideological rigor. Instead, they were all swept off their feet by its overwhelming emotion and stunningly realized characters. I had undersold just how much potent feeling Jenkins’ film had in it; a depth of emotion that you could feel even if you didn’t know the first thing about complex subjects like masculinity, queer sexuality, and African American identity. I’ve been good about rationing my sports analogies lately, so I’ll indulge myself here. Babe Ruth was one of the all-time greats not just because of the considerable power of his bat. He was also a skillful pitcher. Crushing a dinger and striking out a batter are two very different skills, and usually you’re lucky just to do one very well. Being great at both is a big deal. In film terms, the same is true of being able to craft a prickly, aesthetically daring tone poem and a heart-swelling, emotionally direct melodrama. Barry Jenkins is Ruth. He can do both. Films like Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk hold a whole host of deep social insights to dig into. But one need not do any digging to appreciate the vibrant characterization and powerful feelings of these films. Barry Jenkin’s second highly literary masterpiece on the subject of black identity in America may seem like it should be a daunting undertaking, but I dare anyone not to be utterly moved by what he has put on screen. His complex themes float along in a gentle current of pathos and lush empathy.
If Beale Street Could Talk moves like a gentle whirlpool. It’s not the least bit difficult to follow, but it does have something of an elliptical sensibility. It continually drifts through present and past and back to present again, feeding us new insights into its characters. The first thing we learn is that there are two black New Yorkers in the early 1970s, a man and a woman in their late teens, that they are very much in love, and that they have been separated. The young man, Fonny, (a subtle, soulful performance by Stephan James) has been imprisoned in Attica for a crime he didn’t commit. The young lady, Tich, (a lovely and breathlessly heartfelt debut by Kiki Layne) has just learned that she is pregnant with Fonny’s child. We will not circle back around to the reason for Fonny’s arrest (a mistaken rape accusation, likely fueled by improper suggestion from the police) until several scenes later. What Barry Jenkins wants us to see first is that these two young adults are in love and have been thrust apart. Before we come to learn the details of Fonny and Tich’s courtship and their lives together, we meet their families, played by an outstandingly nuanced ensemble of black actors. Regina King recently won an Oscar for her stirring work as Tich’s kind, resolute mother. Colman Domingo and Teyonah Paris are also nothing short of sublime as the father and older sister who complete Tich’s wonderfully supportive family. Fonny’s family is more tempestuous. His father (Michael Beach) is happy to hear a baby is coming, but Fonny’s dogmatically Christian mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and two stern sisters are outwardly critical of the situation and of Tich’s worth as a partner for their brother. The scene where the two families meet to learn of Tich’s pregnancy is a symphony of beautiful dialogue and perfectly played emotions; a torrent of harsh judgment and loving support, battering up against one another. We see the early days of Fonny and Tich’s romance, before Fonny’s incarceration, their struggles with racism, and their efforts to find an apartment together. In the present, Tich works at a perfume counter and stresses over Fonny’s trial. The District Attorney has given the rap victim money to return to her homeland of Puerto Rico and Tich’s mother, Sharon, makes plans to fly there to meet the poor woman face to face in the hopes of appealing to her sense of empathy. Beale Street has plenty of plot (a teenage pregnancy, a false arrest, the entire fraught racial backdrop of early 1970s America), and yet it’s not really about plot. Barry Jenkins, adapting a very literary and tonally rich novel by the brilliant James Baldwin, really had made a film that is about emotion; about their loved ones and their unwavering love for each other. Plot is what rudely interrupts that love. It is what harasses Fonny and Tish, separates them, and threatens them with force and fear. Barry Jenkins knows his way around a plot very well, but I believe this story is about love trying to withstand events and circumstances. When you are black in America, I imagine you dream of a day, a year, a life where very little happens to you.
And, for all its potent characterization, dazzling directorial flourishes, and intoxicating tone, If Beale Street Could Talk really is just a simple story of two people who want to love each other and create a life together. It’s the simple story of a humble dream that gets cruelly and needlessly complicated by the hateful forces around it. James Baldwin was one of the 20th century’s most marvelous and eloquent minds, a contemporary of social pioneers like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. As a black man, he saw the American Dream in all its idealistic beauty and ugly hypocrisy. He saw that this Dream meant something different if you were born with a darker skin tone. Barry Jenkins taps into Baldwin’s vision seamlessly. His film is a glorious piece of New York City Americana, seen through a glass darkly. Even though the film is set in the early 1970s, the New York City captured in it feels like a luminous visions of its 1960s self here: diverse, vibrant, and buzzing with intellectual energy. Nicholas Britell’s incredible channels evokes New York as both a dream and a gritty nightmare; George Gershwin and shadowy back alleys. The vision Barry Jenkins casts upon the screen is the New York City of Paul Simon songs, poetic, thoughtful and curious. And yet, for all its beautiful enlightenment, it is also the place where a bigoted police officer can harass an innocent black couple without fear of losing his job. In one of the film’s most indelible scenes, Fonny brings home an old friend who has just been released after two years in prison. This man (played by the great Brian Tyree Henry, completing a superb trifecta along with his work in Widows and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) is a goofy and gregarious sort, but the smile vanishes from his face when the subject turns to being behind bars. This is the film’s struggle in miniature. This man’s inner light seems naturally bright, but he has been put something through it that causes that light to flicker and dim. Beale Street is about trying to maintain positivity and humanity in a society that wants to take it from you. And this dark truth doesn’t mean that there is no American Dream at all, but just that it is inherently complex. It has been a complex and somewhat hypocritical thing since its very outset, when the founding document held its tongue about slavery while simultaneously laying down the rhetoric that would eventually underscore its abolition. If Beale Street Could Talk is a very romantic film, and not just in terms of its love story. It is romantic about the full possibilities of American life. James Baldwin and Barry Jenkins are both curious to live in a land of beautiful ideals and rich possibilities, while having that same egalitarian place throw ignorance and hostility at you. What kind of land can create the Bill of Rights and Jim Crow laws? A beautiful land. A disturbing land. A land that has always held a great turmoil in its soul.
The wonderful paradox of If Beale Street Could Talk is that it can hold such painful truths in its heart while never feeling cynical or defeated. It can do this because its main ingredient and overarching theme is love. Love is the fortress that steels Tish’s resolve to fight for Fonny and to carry their child and to persevere without him while he is gone. It’s what keeps Fonny sane amid the horror he has to endure inside Attica. In a way that doesn’t cheapen or minimize the strife these characters and so many others like them face, the film quietly maintains that love will see them through this. When Tish is wracked with despair and self-doubt, her mother softly and fervently reminds her to trust love. “Trust it all the way,” she says. If Beale Street Could Talk sees love and community as succor and salvation for black Americans like Tish and Fonny. Love is not just there shield and refuge, but something very active. It is Tish’s sister fearlessly defending her when Fonny’s sisters try to belittle her telling her to unbow her head when she feels ashamed. It is Tish’s mother flying to Puerto Rico on the slim chance it will help Fonny beat his case. It is Tish’s father selling goods on the black market to raise money for a lawyer. When Fonny’s father frets over how he will pay for his son’s defense, Tish’s father tells him not to worry about the money. Money is not where their strength comes from. Love for family will will the money into being. “You know some hustles. And I know some hustles. And these are our children.” Barry Jenkins journeys unafraid into America’s ugly past to confront the racism and injustice that has always lived here. And he does so with an incandescent torch of empathy and compassion. The woe in this story is never his focus. His film is about the very best in humanity and the unfortunate, petty and hateful bullshit that tries to tear it down. But darkness does not prevail here. Barry Jenkins, master humanist that he is, always keeps hate on the ropes.
If Beale Street Could Talk searches for that which is beautiful and it finds it in spades. It is not a film with what I would call an unambiguously happy conclusion, but it is gentle and honest. It is a story of immense struggle and of human beings finding their way through that struggle. When a society tries to take your life away, you prevail by staying alive and protecting the fire within yourself. You keep it going with more love, more kindness, more concern for one another. When systems of oppression try to deprive you of your humanity, you defy them by holding fast to it. James Baldwin and Barry Jenkins do not pretend for a moment that doing this is easy. They simply assert that humankind is beautiful, loving, and immeasurably strong. This film sees intolerance and suffering and it throws a fist upward in solidarity with anyone who is going through something trying. Even the rape victim who falsely accuses Fonny is treated with sympathy and respect. She too is going through something terrible, trying to maintain some dignity in life’s unforgiving storm. She is partly the source of our characters’ frustrations and setbacks, but she is trying her best to weather a terrible situation and she deserves our empathy. If Beale Street Could Talk feels like peaceful resistance rendered in celluloid form. It feels anguished and confused by any individual or system that would demean and devalue people, but it is incapable of that same hatred. Its response to hatred is to build a bonfire out of the most lovely, creative and humane things it can find and hold the darkness at bay. Shadows dance menacingly behind our characters and throw themselves in fleeting traces over their bodies, but they are no serious match. Beale Street’s emotional blaze burns with too much compassion and goodwill.
Beautiful, strong, pure feelings are the film’s anchor. They are the stable and calm center around which tis dizzying tone poem spins. I cannot stress how assured Barry Jenkins is at conjuring tone, at allowing mood to shift and build. I think of the scene where we meet Bryan Tyree Henry’s character, freshly released from his own wrongful incarceration months before Fonny will have to face a similar injustice. He and Fonny are affably chatting about life and art (Fonny is a talented woodworker) when Fonny finally broaches the subject of prison. His friend’s face falls and his voice drops to a choked whisper. Have you ever spoken with someone who has been through trauma, or gone through something traumatic yourself? There’s a feeling when you’re laughing and talking about trivial matters (music, sports, movies) and the conversation suddenly turns to something painful or tragic. And a tidal shift in mood seems to completely envelop the room. When Fonny and his friend suddenly find themselves discussion racism and trauma and being locked up, the air becomes palpably heavy. Barry Jenkins conjures that feeling through some uncanny combination of lighting, his brilliant performers, and the subtle camera movements between them. It’s hard to sum up what he does with tone in this film. The best I can do is to say that he has an almost impossibly sharp sense of what is going on between his characters, in ways that are both spoken and unspoken. It is as if Jenkins is an unseen character himself, acting alongside his cast. He also has the aid of the best film score of 2018 and of at least the last few years. It is a luscious, undulating fog of beauty, pain, and nostalgic reverie. In a film of uncommon technical accomplishment, composer Nicholas Britell deserves particular commendation. Like the film it complements so beautifully, it is tender, romantic, disorienting, painful, and transporting. It is just one more way that If Beale Street Could Talk manages to channel adversity and wrenching heartache while rising transcendently above them.
The 1950s and early 1960s are often presented as a time of stifling traditionalism. There’s obviously a lot of truth in that assessment. The liberated spirit of the the later 1960s was largely a reaction to that very same oppressive sense of propriety and uniformity. Still, people have always been people even in the most buttoned down of eras. I like films that find the humanity in repressive periods. Superficiality and repression have always existed, but there have always been human beings who chafe at those norms and question them. I think of Todd Haynes’ sublime Carol, where we plainly understand the cruelly restrictive social systems that threaten our two female protagonists ability to have a life together. but where we also see the shades of grey. The ones enforcing the arbitrary norms seem barely conscious of what they are doing; that there can be any other kind of life than the one dictated to them by their cultural surroundings. These people aren’t evil. Some of them act with honorable intentions, but lack the imagination to see past the blinders of their own time. A film like Carol is honest about how repression manifests and it allows for the hope that times and people can grow and change. Surfaces and superficiality have been terrible ills for a great many people, but people are also resilient. Not even the rigid, manicured normativity of 1950s America could entirely corral the restless human spirit. The nation would learn that in the decade to follow and it’s a good and empowering thing to remember. Norms and surfaces may be erected to contain people, but they cannot do so forever. What I love about films like Carol and actor Paul Dano’s directorial debut Wildlife is that they capture the beautiful, composed essence of their time periods while also finding the unruly, irrepressible humanity roiling underneath the pretty facade. We can appreciate the time period for its lushly polished aesthetic while also rooting for our heroines to to topple the facades; to break free from what makes the 1950s aesthetic claustrophobic and sterile.
And what we’re specifically rooting for in Wildlife is basically a divorce. Maybe rooting is a strong word, but I’ll table that for now. WIldlife is the story of a small nuclear family living in a tiny Montana town in the year 1960. The 1950s have just ended and the embers of war, social unrest, and great cultural change are smoldering just over the horizon, unbeknownst to our protagonists and the rest of sleepy suburban America. There is also an actual blaze to contend with. A large forest fire has broken out just over the mountains, close to the town where fourteen year-old Joe (newcomer Ed Oxenbould, tremendous as the film’s stable center) lives with his parents, Jerry (a very strong performance by Jake Gyllenhall) and Jeanette (the great Carey Mulligan, as subtly powerful as she’s maybe ever been, if you can believe it). Jerry has lost his job as a golf instructor at the local country club and this leads Jeanette and Joe to go looking for their own jobs to help supplement the family income. Jerry’s ego rankles at the idea of his wife having to pick up the financial slack for him, but Jeanette is enthusiastic about having a purpose outside of the home. In a different film, Jerry’s unemployment and his insecurity over his wife working would be the film’s main conflict, but in Wildlife it is just a catalyst, a spark if you will for the more complicated emotional crisis to come. Jerry’s old employer actually offers him his job back within a week. But he is too wounded and stubborn to go back to them. Instead, feeling an ineffable dissatisfaction with where his life is (what he calls “a buzz in my head”), he impulsively enlists in a volunteer fire brigade and takes off to fight the wildfires, to Jeanette’s great frustration. The gig does not pay well, he will be away from his family, and it may take months and months for him to return if he doesn’t perish in the process. Jerry goes off to the mountains and leaves Jeanette and Joe to hold the homestead together. And the thing that quickly becomes apparent is that their livelihood and well-being is never really in any great jeopardy. Joe is a responsible, grounded kid who can pitch in while his father is gone. Jeanette confidently argues her way into gainful employment as a swimming instructor. The conflict then is not what Jeanette will do with her husband gone, but that his absence sparks her dawning realization that she doesn’t need him at all. Jeanette is furious at her husband’s flightiness and po-faced idealism and her righteous anger kicks off an irreversible chain reaction of independence and self-actualization in her, starting with a new job and building to an affair with an older wealthy businessman (indispensable character actor Bill Camp). And the thing that astonishes Jeanette the most about her small revolution is that she feels no need to second guess herself. Even the presence of her child has no way to quell the blaze of self-determination inside her. On the night she first kisses her new paramore, with Joe waiting in the car, Jeanette blushes with both shame and delight. “I surprised myself,” she says.
Wildlife tackles the breakdown of the traditional nuclear family unit, but does so without an ounce of judgment. The film sees its characters do complicated things. Things that are selfish and hurtful and maybe even unsympathetic. But it captures these decisions with empathy and a very kind sort of curiosity. Married screenwriters Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan (the same Zoe Kazan who delivered awards-worthy work in 2018’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and is one of our most all-around ascendant talents) have adapted Richard King’s novel into a thing of potent, eloquent beauty. On my second viewing I was struck by the unfussy, economical poetry of the dialogue. In the hands of the fearless Carey Mulligan, Jeanette becomes one of 2018’s most thrilling, poignant and real screen creations. This is a beautiful, gripping portrait of a woman not so much discovering herself in real time as revealing a ferocious confidence and self-reliance that was there all along. Far from feeling social pressure to hide the independence building up inside of her, she is hungry to express it and adamant that her child sees it. Joe is an audience surrogate with his own nuanced inner life. The fact that no awards body seemed to even consider Ex Oxenbould for a Best Actor nomination is a measure of their myopia, but also just tells the tale of how rich 2018 was for nuanced, deeply felt performances. Together, Mulligan and Oxenbould create a rich mother-child relationship and one of the best portraits of divorce (or impending divorce anyway) that you will ever see. Like the film, the performances carry no judmgent, only empathy and insight. Joe is taken aback and alarmed by what he sees suddenly happening between his parents. But he also carries an uncanny sense of wisdom and calm about it all. He never thought he’d see change this drastic and it upsets him greatly, but he is not self-deluding. There is something happening here. The future is breathing down the necks of him and his parents and he knows that something is about to change forever.
Wildlife is interested in humility in the face of unstoppable, life-altering events. Recognizing that so much of life is out of our control, even in an era defined by its sense of order and pristine decorum. In an early piece of foreshadowing, a fireman gives Joe’s class a lecture about the growing fire and its risks. “A fire can be a positive force,” he says. Then he adds that it can also scar your lungs. The same is true of the burning down of Jeanette and Jerry’s relationship. At this point in their marriage, it’s probably best that it burn away. But that doesn’t mean it will have no ill effects on them or on Joe. The effects of this domestic blaze remain to be seen. They will probably all be okay in the cosmic sense but the ordeal will probably also leave scars on them. At the end of the day, it is what it is. What the characters in Wildlife go through is painful, but there’s really nothing to be done for it. Change is threatening, but it is an implacable force. It means us no outward ill will. Change is not out to hurt us, which is different than saying that it won’t hurt us. When massive, unconscious forces enter our worlds, all we can do is survive them and weather them. While young Joe is upset about what’s happening to his family, he knows deep down that this fire is too big to fight or contain. Human growth and change are wild, elemental forces. Like Joe, the film regards them with hopeful concern, curiosity, and finally acceptance.
Wildlife is a gorgeous snapshot of small town America in the early 1960s, at the close of the Golden Era of the 1950s. And i would go so far as to say that it is partly about the 1950s and 1960s, both. It gazes back at the time period that Jeanette and her family are leaving behind, and it anticipates the liberated decade to come, when vast swaths of society would cast off the shackles of repressive attitudes and question old, antiquated mores. Jeanette is that cultural awakening in miniature. The 1950s were a decade rife with obligation and the pressure to keep up appearances. They were a decade with a strong, clearly defined sense of what you could and could not do. The epiphany that ignites in Jeanette’s brain is that this is all smoke and mirrors. There is precious little she cannot do if she chooses to do it. If all that is standing between her and her own happiness and emotional health are arbitrary norms and the threat of judgment, why not just trample those underfoot? She realizes the social mores of her time weak adversaries. She can suddenly see through them, and on the other side of them is a frontier of self-discovery that is exciting and also a little terrifying. Mulligan plays that dawning consciousness with both giddy excitement and melancholy bewilderment. Jeanette really does surprise herself. Wildlife sees the moment right before the dam of Post-War propriety and rigid normativity would break for good. It stands back with awe-struck eyes and watches this family negotiate something unexpected, painful, and unstoppable. Change can knock the wind out of you. But this family’s metamorphosis, like the social changes soon to come, is almost certainly for the better.
Wildlife doles out its heartache with gentle grace. It loves its characters and wants them all to be happy. But it cannot protect them from their personal conflagration. This is something they will all have to go through. Or perhaps this is something they have already gone through. There is nothing to indicate that Wildlife is literally being told from the future looking back. There is no voiceover from an adult Joe or a coda set many years later. But it feels like a ravishing, painful memoir. It is delivered in the tender, candid voice of someone who has weathered a family crisis and can now look back on it with serene understanding. Wildlife is a bracing and unsparing look at domestic dissolution, but it also overflows with love. It is sad but also the furthest thing from miserable. It’s most bitter truths are leavened with the sweet excitement of growth and discovery. It takes its memories of discord and heartache and throws them into the fire. With enough time and perspective, what was once sorrowful can become a source of warmth of light.
There’s plenty of complex insight and reflection going on under the surface of Free Solo, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s recently Academy Award-winning documentary about free solo climber Alex Honnold and his mad quest to become the only person to ever climb Yosemite’s El Capitan without the aid of a rope. There are complex and thorny implications in his decision to willingly pursue a goal this life-threatening, the ethics of filming such a feat, and the psychology that might draw someone down this path. I know all that, reflective and absurdly somber would-be philosopher that I am. There’s also a bouncy, grinning ten year-old inside of me who just wants to be delighted, awed, and gobsmacked by amazing things. I told the child he couldn’t write this review lest he type it all in capitalized letters and make every fifth word “cool” followed by six exclamation points. Still, that was definitely the side of me that emerged into the light after each of my two theatrical viewings of Free Solo, beaming like a mischievous hyena and filled with uncontainable glee. I’m grateful that National Geographic (producers of the film) didn’t post merchandise tables outside of screenings. My inner child almost certainly would have dragged me over to them and made me buy him a hat or something. It’s his favorite film of the year (my fiance’s too) and it’s easy to see why. You see, Free Solo was quite simply the best time that I had in a movie theater in all of 2018. Both times. An unforgettable 90 minutes of laughter, seat-gripping tension, and audible, elated gasps. I couldn’t even recall the last time I sat with an entire audience so completely, collectively moved by and engaged with the film in front of them. Probably The Last Jedi. And if the level of palpable audience enthusiasm for a low-budget documentary about a niche area of climbing produced by a travel channel is on par with the enthusiasm for a world-beating, culturally inescapable mega-blockbuster, that speaks volumes to its crowd-pleasing power. It may sound like cliché, but Free Solo is that kind of film that reminds us why we go out to movie theaters. If it ever comes back into theaters (it ran for an astonishing five months at my local theater, quite impressive for a small-scale documentary about mountaineering), I urge everyone to watch it this way. Not just to take in the staggering enormity of El Capitan, but to remember what it feels like to gasp in unison with fifty strangers. My inner child, that perpetually caffeinated little moppet, was completely on the money about Free Solo. What I had just witnessed and been part of was ridiculously cool. My deep love for the entire idea of cinema felt beyond replenished. My filmic heart had expanded Grinch-like to three times its old size.
In truth, Free Solo is not just a pure, giddy document of beautiful athletic perfection. To free solo climb, to scale sheer mountain faces without any safety measures, should give us some measure of sober pause. It’s hard not to look at Alex Honnold and think of other men with unquenchable, quixotic thirsts for the ruggedly daring, and who eventually met sorry ends pursuing their passions. Names like Timothy Treadwell (whose death by grizzly bear was the subject of Werner Herzog’s masterful Grizzly Man) and Christopher Johnson McCandless (whose death by starvation in the Alaskan wilds was the subject of the novel and film Into the Wild) naturally spring to mind. Anyone who sees Free Solo comes away from it inevitably wowed by Alex Honnold’s unbelievable accomplishment and by his otherworldly composure as a sportsman. However, not everyone I’ve spoken to shared my unconditionally effusive elation about it. Some spoke, heads shaking back and forth, with a kind of soft, wary frustration. Some see it as only a matter of time before a man with Honnold’s appetite for risk finally gets his own sad news headline. For people with a certain, entirely valid state of mind, Free Solo cannot just be the exhilarating tale of a successful milestone in mountaineering history. It cannot be because its subject is still out there scaling crags and cliffs, heedlessly and ropelessly, as we speak. Unflagging in his pursuit of what Honnold calls “the edge” and unprotected by any safety precaution outside of his own godlike physical prowess. For some, I think Free Solo is a so-far incredible story still waiting for its sour, tragic conclusion, whether that comes months or years from now. And that is certainly a possibility. Alex Honnold admits it in one of the film’s first lines of dialogue. The film even contains a montage of highly accomplished free solo climbers who have met their fateful ends in recent years. Tommy Caldwell, Alex’s mentor and training partner (and the first man to scale El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, as covered in 2018’s very good The Dawn Wall) notes with somber matter-of-factness that he has lost some forty friends and acquaintances over the years to climbing accidents. Free Solo may offer some of 2018’s most ecstatic, tingly thrills, but it also well documents how much death hangs over the sport of free solo climbing. Free Solo is not just a document of Alex Honnold’s historic triumph (which occupies the film’s last 20 minutes) or even just about the strenuous training process. The filmmaking team, all of them close with Honnold, support him fully but they worry about him. Free Solo is very much a meditation on the risks inherent in this unforgiving sport. Alex likens it to a brutal yoga class where failing to hold the position for even a split second means that you die. Alex Honnold is a good-humored, charismatic enigma of a man. He is well-spoken, smart, and congenial, but there is an aura of quiet melancholy about him too. The taxing nature of his pursuit requires him to be obsessive, but he seems to have a single-mindedness that can seem almost alien. It is something that goes beyond the kind of all-encompassing focus required of most professional athletes. Alex mentions that his father had Asperger’s Syndrome (or the disorder formerly known by that name) and it seems like Alex might have his own affable, high-functioning version. When others fret aloud about him, his eyes reveal a quizzical, patient, amused kind of annoyance. He understands human beings worry and care for each other, but he also can’t quite grasp what all the fuss is about. For Alex Honold, all things are secondary to his life’s work. His wild, siren-like obsession may belong more to the realm of the tormented artist than the expert sportsman, though maybe not. Maybe, at Alex’s level of physical perfection, the difference between artiste and athlete is negligible. Free Solo is about athleticism pushed to the level of mad, keening poetry. He is a fascinating and hugely endearing figure, Alex Honnold. Free Solo sometime plays his unwavering dispassion for comedy (the entire group of people who populate the film are likable, good humored people and the film graciously invites us to laugh often enough that we don’t pass out from anxiety). But that dispassion is also just a key part of his psychology. His dark, sleepy eyes, occasionally seeming like those of the world’s friendliest shark, are imperturbably fearless and don’t blink often. They are the eyes of a hell-bent perfectionist who cannot fathom allowing any emotion, insecurity, or fear come between him and the goal at hand. And, of course, he is right. When, as Tommy Caldwell notes, anything less than a gold medal performance means instantaneous death, there’s really no choice but to make every other consideration a secondary priority at best.
Nonetheless, Alex Honnold is anything but an antisocial person. We are not watching a film about a robot, but someone whose mind and body are constructed in a far different way from anyone you are likely to meet. Alex is beloved by his friends (who co-directed and lensed the film) and by Sanni McCandless, the bright, gregarious outdoors blogger he has been dating since 2015. And this is where the film finds something of its tormented soul. Alex may have the passion of so many high risk dreamers, the kind that allows him to conquer his fears and place the task at hand above all emotional concerns. But he is not the only person in the film. And, for as much as he may assert that solo climbing El Capitan is what matters most and that he alone will accept the consequences, it just cannot be that simple. When we allow people into our lives, we must necessarily accept the fact that our actions touch more than ourselves. And this is not to say that the film is really critical of Alex or his goal. It just truthfully acknowledges that having a friend or significant other who does something this high risk for a living is grueling. It’s grueling even for the many friends of Alex who actually undertake dangerous climbs themselves. Every member of Alex’s inner circle knows that this is his dream. Nobody here would ever think of talking him out of it or trying to throw their bodies between him and his beautiful, perilous grail. They are just worried, as they naturally should be. Worried about a person they love because that’s what people do. Sanni McCandless worries of never seeing him again. His best friend and mentor is beginning to have graphic nightmares of Alex dying. And nobody is taking it worse than Jimmy Chin and the camera crew, who not only might bear personal witness to their friend’s grisly death but could have to bear the guilt of somehow contributing to it. What makes Free Solo a great film beyond the stunning athleticism of its final act is how it builds its human world. It does not begrudge Alex his choice. It seems scarcely possible for Alex Honnold to not do what he does. But it also softly insists that, however much one wants to follow their own rugged individualist path, we are tied to each other. And what that means, all that means, is just that we are tied to each other. We get to make our own decisions in life, but we do not get to pretend that they do not affect others. Like Into the Wild, Free Solo sensitively considers the effect that restless adventurers and thrill-seekers have on those who love them. It weights their headlong thirst for independence and excitement against the hopes and fears of those who love them and want them to live. The attention to the full human element of Alex’s undertaking makes Free Solo immeasurably richer than it would be if it were solely about the big ascent. I didn’t expect that any element of the film could stand next to the sheer, awesome scope of the big moment it is building up to, but these quiet, relationship-driven scenes are completely engaging in their own intimate right. I do not know what kind of documentarians Vasarhelyi and Chin are outside of their niche climbing world, but they understand this little subculture to a tee, physically and emotionally. They infuse it with a beating heart and people you deeply care about 91 minutes later.
And again, as curious and sometimes inscrutable a figure as he can be, Alex Honnold is nothing less than human himself. An atypically unemotional and clinical breed of human? Sure. One whose amygdala (the part of the brain that processes fear) shows essentially zero activity? According to a scan, yes. But Alex Honnold is still very, very human. He is in fact one of the funniest, richest, most vibrant characters to appear on screen in 2018, fictional or real. And while he may look quizzically upon his worried peers and fail to fully grasp the reason for their fraught emotions on a gut level (“They’ll be fine,” he says nonchalantly about the prospect of his untimely death), Alex is still flesh and blood. One of the film’s most gripping arcs is seeing some of his unflappable cool exterior start to crack as he lets Sanni into his life. He sustains an ankle tear on a practice run and starts to wonder if his newfound emotional vulnerability (vulnerable by his standards anyway) is compromising his focus. He also starts to wonder if allowing his good friends to film his feat, and thereby act as witnesses to his challenge, will throw off his courage or make him act hesitantly. When Jimmy Chin watches Alex abort an early attempt to free solo El Capitan because his heart isn’t it, it gives the co-director comfort and a new boost of resolve to help his friend. This is maybe the single most terrifying endeavor I’ve ever seen on film. Tommy Caldwell informs us that the people most freaked out about what Alex is attempting are the high-level professional climbers who know exactly how unforgiving the climb is and just how easily something could go wrong. “It’s kind of reassuring, that Spock has nerves,” Chin says with a weary smile. Free Solo is honest about the human toll this kind of high risk activity has on people, even those with veins icy enough to do the actual climbing.
All of which is to say that Free Solo is a thoughtful, emotionally intelligent film. If, God forbid, tragedy were ever to befall Alex Honnold, I don’t think this film would suddenly become a terrible, haunted thing. I think the film would still hold up as something magnificent and noble because it is so clear-eyed about its subject and his motives. It knows this sport is crazy, but also reveres the sheer beauty of what Alex is doing and respects his intelligence and Herculean talent. We see that Alex Honnold knows the costs of this way of life better than anyone. He is thoughtful and realistic about it. He is not Timothy Treadwell wading out past his depth, hunting down his own undoing. He is probably the most qualified person in the world to practice this terrifying art, if anyone ever can be. And with the human cost and all that other weighty business attended to, Free Solo leaves the ground and spends its last 20 minutes being so indecently awe-inspiring and spectacular that there really aren’t words for it. The truth is that Free Solo would be a perfect film if it were nothing but an abridged document of Alex Honnold’s coup on El Capitan (he completed the whole thing in a swift three hours and fifty-six minutes). Like seeing old video of one of Harry Houdini’s escapes or Philip Petit’s World Trade Center wirewalk or Muhammad Ali’s fights, the very act being captured here is a rapturous, historic work of art unto itself. Free Solo is a gift to future generations. An awesome record of humankind doing something so splendidly, fearsomely glorious that it brushes hands with the Divine. What can one even say? This is simply breath-held, tears-welling-up-in-your-eyes amazing! And you find your palms sweating from the unholy strain of watching this man will himself to stick to this cliff face. But you also find yourself agreeing with Alex’s mother’s sentiment: how could anyone try to hold him back from this? Each of the climb’s six phases (or pitches, as they’re called in mountaineering jargon) is clearly laid out to us so that we understand the strategy and the stakes. One part of the climb involves having one of your arms essentially devoured by a vertical fissure hundreds of feet long. Another give you no support to stand on except for tiny virtually invisible bumps in the sheer granite. And then there is the challenge that I will not spoil here. I will just say that if “The Boulder Problem” isn’t the scene of 2018, all other films should at least have to offer compelling arguments for themselves. Free Solo took me to places few films go. It wasn’t made for my cerebral cortex or even especially for my heart, though it certainly gave that organ a terrific emotional workout. Free Solo was for some part of myself, some muscle in my spirit that rarely gets exercised. The one that feeds on bewilderment, processes childlike wonder, and feeds the imagination. I giggled and gaped and sweated and groaned. There was a point in Free Solo when I heard the words “Oh Jesus” sound softly but urgently from somewhere in the theater. It took me half a second to realize the hushed exclamation had emitted quite involuntarily from my own mouth.
Free Solo lionizes its subject’s stunning achievement while also ruminating on the complicated nature of athletic obsession; how all-consuming the pursuit of athletic posterity is by its very nature. David Foster Wallace, writing about professional tennis on tennisracquets.com/collections/oliver-thomas-bags, said that people are awed by athletic excellence but that “the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them.” Perfection, he wrote, requires “[a] subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit.” Seen that way, it is almost shocking that Alex Honnold is as personable and as he is. The film invites us to bask in the glow of something physically stunning and close to impossible. It also invites us to consider how difficult it is for someone to be the very best of their chosen field and also remain a well-rounded person. Normalcy means something different for someone with this level of insane prowess and unwavering discipline. With Free Solo, Alex Honnold has gifted the world a godlike testament to the power and poetry of the human body, but he has also had to put most other considerations aside. For many years, he did not even have a place to call home outside his van. He has prioritized free solo climbing above everything else and, even now, he refuses to allow those closest to him to sway him from relentlessly following a precipitous athletic path. A path where death is a constant possibility, maybe even an inevitability depending on where you stand. Alex Honnold, ever clear-eyed and self-effacing, understands this possibility but there is nothing else he would choose to do instead. Free Solo is the beauty and the high cost of athletic perfection rolled into a single film. It is about the most obsessive, punishing form of perfectionism imaginable: the kind where anything less than perfection results in plummeting to your death. Free Solo can be both magnetic and repellent. It lives at the precipice of life and death. It is brilliant but also almost painful to look at. Like looking into the Sun. I don’t begrudge anyone who can’t bring themselves to watch Free Solo; who find what Alex Honnold does for a living too reckless and disquieting. But to see the best artist in their field paint a masterpiece across the world’s most beautiful cliff face is also unquestionably beautiful. 2018’s best documentary is the stuff of Greek myth. If it’s forbidden fruit, it has already been picked for us and there’s no good in letting it spoil. I could not bring myself to resist it.
Masaaki Yuasa’s animated film The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl has a pretty comprehensible basic structure to anchor it. In the tradition of films like American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused, it gives us some central characters and sets them off on a wild, freewheeling journey over the course of a single night’s revelry. It’s important to have that basic anchor of a familiar plot. Quite important in this case, because The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is so set on chasing the unfamiliar and disorienting. No 2018 film goes on more strange, dizzying and occasionally downright bewildering flights of fancy than Yuasa’s superb anime odyssey. Plenty of films have covered one crazy night of jovial intoxication, but I have to say that most of them seem like sober teetotalers next to this. Night Is Short is a film that gets utterly drunk, on itself and on the boundless possibilities of the animated medium. And having that reassuring American Graffiti center to orbit around gives it the freedom to get completely smashed out of its gourd. It’s rather the same principle as a really great pop song. All you have to do is give the viewer or listener something to ground them just a bit (a nice hooky melody, let’s say) and then you have the liberty to go totally bonkers without losing your audience. Yuasa’s shimmering, splashy, hiccuping mirage of a night out film features multiple demigods, musical interludes, various musings on fate and chance, and an insane climax in which the different parts of a smitten young man’s id and ego are divided into hundreds of bickering delegates in some kind of crazed subconscious United Nations. Like a good night of partying, not every crazy interaction has to make sense. It’s about letting a phantasmagoria of wild experience wash over us. To be clear, there is a kind of logic at work in The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, but Yuasa asks us to frequently abandon that logic. It will be right there where we left it. But it’s important to lose our heads to confusion, tangent and whimsy. This is a film about being young, romantic, and drunk, so it’s best not to cling to our rational senses too tightly. We can be sensible later. We can take stock of what we actually saw, heard and said during the next day’s hangover. Then we can shake our throbbing heads, laugh wincingly, and say, “Well, it all made sense last night.”
The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is an ensemble comedy, but it is chiefly the story of a young college girl in the city of Kyoto, Japan. She is nameless for the entirety of the film, though she is sometimes referred to as Otome (Japanese for “maiden”) and sometimes as Kohai (meaning “Junior”, likely referring to her university year). She is with peers at a classmate’s wedding and is eager to embark on her first real night of adult drinking. The wedding is fun and all, but she is chomping at the bit to get out into the streets of town. To take in the colorful, lamp-lit streets of Kyoto and imbibe her way around the place. In voiceover, she expresses a longing to drink her own way. The film’s other major character is a nameless young man referred to as Senpei (Japanese for “Senior”), who pines for his younger classmate. He has gotten into the habit of repeatedly happening intentionally into her orbit, in the hopes of creating the illusion that fate is drawing them together. Aside from being not a little creepy, the major shortcoming in his plan is that he still hasn’t mustered up the courage to have a sustained conversation with her. Night Is Short is about two characters on a long night’s journey, each with their own distinct objectives: one to drink the world (figuratively and maybe literally too) and the other to finally get the attention of his crush. Aside from any single thing that happens (and, good Lord, a lot of ludicrous things do happen), Night Is Short is a feverish kaleidoscope of an alcoholic odyssey. It is one of the most jazzy, giddy, intoxicating and frequently hallucinatory depictions of a night on the town I’ve ever seen. The film starts as a pub crawl through Kyoto with an ever-growing number of strange, colorful supporting characters. That includes a man and woman in their late twenties who are blown away by Kohai’s formidable drinking abilities and take her under their wing for the night. There is also a lecherous art dealer, a new bride and her passed out new husband, a group of pontificating blowhards who refer to themselves as the Sophist Club, a cross-dressing university festival director, and a muscular man who superstitiously refuses to change his underwear until he can find the woman with whom he had a meet-cute one year prior. A couple of beings in the film aren’t even human. One is a rich, miserly, and mystical old collector who Kohai challenges to a drinking contest. Another is the childlike God of Used Books, who the characters meet at a beautifully luminous outdoor used book fair. There, Senpei hopes to find the perfect gift to tip the scales of love: a rare illustrated book that Kohai cherished in her childhood. Night Is Short depicts a night of chance encounters, a drinking contest and a spicy food eating contest, spirited discussions, and copious amounts of alcohol. I never knew that old festive ritual, the pub crawl, needed its own blissfully inventive tribute movie, but I am mighty glad to find that it exists.
Films have a magical ability to bring us back to places we have not been to in many years, or maybe been to at all. i have never been to Kyoto (and certainly not the ecstatically woozy Kyoto that exists in this film) but I have been to my early twenties. I was there for a number of years and Night Is Short transported me back to that time on a geyser of vodka tonics, rum punch and wine. I remember the anticipation and excitement of setting out into a world that now feels like yours to command; to suddenly be able to write your own adventure without any headmaster looking over your shoulder. Kohai breathlessly intones that she is ready to drink her own way. This night of excess and delirious abandon is Kohai’s maiden adult voyage and Night Is Short makes the boundless potential of that stage feel contagious, irresistible and delicious. A sweet sea breeze of limitless, youthful freedom whistles through every frame. It’s an effervescent ode to the thrill of getting to be your own person. To making your own ridiculous, misguided, gluttonous decisions. 2018 had some tremendous stories about young people coming of age, but none as bracingly impressionistic as this. Night Is Short is a symphony of excited conversation, music, glowing lights and clinking glasses, as if Yuasa figured out how to distill youth’s essence and mix it into the perfect cocktail. Kohai has her first drink of the night and marches out into what she calls “the dazzling adult world”. The film remembers the elated rush of seeing that dazzling world for the first time, and it sees it all in lush colors and elegant compositions. It is a weird, dizzying film, but also one with an invigorating love for being young, dumb and uninhibited. Even the absurdly cyclical debates of the Sophists are treated with affection. Anyone who’s been out drinking with a group surely knows that the empty, blathering drunken debate is one of life’s many pleasures. Growing up means getting to try new drinks and new ideas. We’ll learn what we like the further into adulthood we travel, but there is something so delightfully pure about that period where nothing has been determined. Moral relativism and Long Island Iced Teas probably aren’t very good for you, but there’s a time in life when it’s good to try everything out.
Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is also just a bewitching, sparkling salute to the sensory joys of a night out, whatever age you may be. Yuasa taps into Kohai’s unflagging optimism and enthusiasm as an antidote to the apathy that overtakes too many of us. The film knows most of us are not twenty anymore, but it posits that we don’t need to be to return to its joyous essence. With some of the most beautiful, effervescent and surreal imagery of the year, it reminds us the adventure of socialization waits out there for all of us. I am admittedly something of a homebody at this stage of my life. While not yet a shut-in by any means, I do often prefer the simple, inexpensive pleasure of a cold beer and a great film in the comforting confines of my own living room to a night out in public. But the beautiful lines and bright colors of Night Is Short made me want to leap from my couch and head out to the bright lights of the nearest city (Oakland in my case). Kohai says she wishes the Pacific Ocean were made of rum so she could drink from it. This film made me feel a similar kind of heedless, ineffable, nonsensical appetite. A thirst for a world of new flavors, aromas, sights, and sounds. The movie made me feel like I wanted to taste everything, see everything, listen to every piece of music and meet everyone. “Everybody get ready!,” Yuasa’s animated gem cries with some kind of fancy bellini in its hand. “We’re going for a night on the town!” The film knows that humans are social creatures who can sometimes forget they are meant to be social. We can forget how connected we are. Getting out of our houses and our own self-conscious heads isn’t always easy. But that’s what the drinks are for, as well as for tasting. With a joyful attitude and enough alcohol, we can all remember that none of us are alone. The great virtue of the pub crawl is that it calls for us to all leave our houses and go stumbling along together.
Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is an eminently thoughtful film, but I don’t want to place undue emphasis on its ideas, when it is, first and foremost, a film about pure, blissful, saturating sensation. Describing it too much in intellectual or thematic terms would feel like trying to convert Singin’ In the Rain into novelized form. Maybe it can be done, but you’d be missing the real essence of the thing. To paraphrase the producer character from that sensory masterpiece, some things you really need to see in pictures. Night Is Short is a deluge of color and sound that transcends words. Kohai dreams of being swept away in the luminous glow and abundant libations of the big city, of being awash in the pure, inebriating here and now of adulthood. The goal is not to describe the ocean of rum, but to take a long, refreshing dip in it. Yuasa has made a film of giddy immediacy. It’s a thing to be appreciated just for how it looks and feels. Kohai loves picking out cocktails because each one is its own specific, boozy bauble, with its own distinct look and taste. She tells us that each one is like its own jewel. I think films like this are the same way. Beyond their logic and their messages is the wordless pleasure of seeing and tasting something unique and beautiful. Night Is Short is a kaleidoscope of splashy colors and sprightly visual wit. At times, it feel like a jazzy Jacques Tati film seen through a hallucinatory anime prism. It’s strange, vibrant, vivid, and sweet. A bubbly cocktail for the senses and one whose most bizarre qualities only make it that much more fun to gawk at and drink from. What really is Night Is Short, Walk On Girl? I don’t know that I can tell you exactly. It’s a film. An energetic, odd little cinematic concoction shaken together by a master mixologist and designed to make you feel buzzy, silly and loose. It’s there to be sipped and savored. I can’t say much more than that. You’ll just have to taste it and see what it does for you.
Obviously it was very much to my taste. It’s a film that I find to be every kind of refreshing and delicious. The kind of film where I encourage an extra viewing just for your senses alone. There is also a small part me that wonders if it’s almost too delightfully sinful. What I mean by that is I really can’t think of a recent film, maybe any film, that makes alcohol look this flagrantly pretty and enticing. To be fair, the film makes a great many things look beautiful and delectable, from food to art to used books of all things. It’s a film with an insatiable appetite for all of life’s pleasures. Still, I’m not even going to posit the question of whether Night Is Short, Walk On Girl glorifies alcohol. It absolutely does. It doesn’t make binge drinking seem kind of appealing. It’s a veritable Sistine Chapel ceiling dedicated to the art of putting it away. Even when the film becomes about things outside of imbibing like a champion, it always feels totally plastered. It’s a full-tilt Pentecostal revival for the born-again alcoholic in your soul. Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is not a film that is out to criticize intoxication, thoughtfully contextualize it or portray it with even a modicum of restraint. It’s much too in love with every delicious thing under the Sun for such prim restraint. Beneath its clean lines and adorable lead protagonist and jaunty score beats an unapologetically hedonistic heart. And the most sinful thing about it all is how innocent it makes that hedonism feel. It makes wanton inebriation seem like the most wonderful, fundamentally decent expression of inner self. It baptizes us in Midori and sparkling wine as if a long night of boozing is the one thing left that can save our sober souls. I’m not saying the film’s view of alcohol is without complication. Night Is Short, Walk On Girl surely isn’t a model of prudent habits and rational behavior. But, to its credit, it would never claim to be. It is driven by the pure desire to awaken the fun-loving libertine inside us all. A love letter to sweet, sweet vice. Please enjoy responsibly.
Andrew Bujalski’s latest scruffy, lovingly small-scale glimpse into a tiny subculture starts off with 2018’s most effectively humble credits sequence. Support the Girls is set at a Hooter-style restaurant (or breastaurant, as they are sometimes called) just off some nondescript Texas highway, and we open on that same highway. Family sedans, RVs and big rigs whoosh by and, under the din, we hear the strains of an upbeat pop country song. The song has to compete with the buzz of traffic, almost as if we are hearing it diegetically. As if the music was coming like a siren song from the open door of Double Whammies, the mainstream family sports bar that will be the film’s central setting. The names of the cast appear on screen in multi-colored handwritten scrawls, as if they were from the name tags that the restaurant’s servers wear. One of many, many things I love about this warm, intimate, and insightful little film is how well it sets its tiny scene. Support the Girls is a film set entirely at a kitschy family sports restaurant and the drab strip malls and plain Texan suburbs around it, but that prefab world is bursting with more emotion and life than all the sterile speaker outlets and and bland smoothie shops in the world can contain. This setting could have so easily been condescended to, but that is not Andrew Bujalski’s way. These surroundings may appear unattractive and soulless, but it takes Support the Girls less than a third of its zippy 93-minute running time to make these spaces feel lively, idiosyncratic, and full of affection. When you hear that a film is set at a small Hooters knockoff, you expect a certain degree of tackiness and exploitation, and there is certainly an atmosphere of cheery tackiness that is part of the vibe at Double Whammies. But Support the Girls is the opposite of an exploitation film. Its goal is to go into an anonymous breast-themed bar (its name is a cheeky reference to boobs) and find real, lovable, and specific characters there. To remind us that empathy and humanity exist everywhere, even in a place where women are expected to earn their living with tight-fitting t-shirts and heavy flirtation. Support the Girls insists on their specificity, their integrity, and the value as human beings.
Support the Girls explores a space that caters predominantly to men, but it is all about women. It is about being a strong, self-sufficient woman in places that don’t always make that easy. It introduces a number of servers, managers, cooks, and customer, but it largely focuses on a three women. It is mostly about a single day in their lives. The first person we meet is Lisa, (a magnificent, sensitive and subtle Regina Hall; ask me on the right day and I’ll call this the best performance of 2018) an African-American woman in her forties who we meet crying in her car on the morning before work. Lisa is a smart, accommodating and endlessly resourceful manager at Double Whammies, the kind of person who spends her every waking moment solving problems, putting out fires and keeping people happy. On this single, taxing day, she will have to fire one of her cooks when his cousin is caught trying to break into the restaurant’s safe room (through the air ducts). Even this man she fires leaves tells her that she is a generous person. She lets him finish out his shift. Support the Girls is a fly-on-the-wall look at the culture of this local sports bar, but its central plot is about Lisa dutifully marching through the worst work day of her life. On this day, the always professional and honorable Lisa has to do something a little questionable. One of the girls on her wait staff has run into some legal trouble. During a drunken spat, the server hit her hot-headed, aggressive boyfriend with her car. Lisa knows she will need money for a lawyer, so she quietly arranges a car wash in the restaurant parking lot to raise funds for her. This could get Lisa fired if her boss, the restaurant’s short-tempered and chauvinistic co-owner, finds out. This is the kind of high-stress day where your hands are full before it even starts. The kind of day where you would hope not much else is going on. There is unfortunately quite a lot else going on. There is an attempted break-in, she has to interview new serving girls, the owner is in a fuming panic about a big national breastaurant chain moving in across the street, she’s trying to find an apartment for her recently separated husband to move into, the cable needs to be fixed before the evening’s big televised boxing match, her best employee Danyelle (hip-hop artist Shayna McHayle, a hilariously sardonic revelation) needs a babysitter for her sick son, she has to fire a second employee (for getting a terrible, unconcealable Steph Curry tattoo on her side), and her other best employee Maci (a superb Haley Lu Richardson, playing the living embodiment of a confetti cannon) may have started dating a regular customer three times her age. Support the Girls is a character study about Lisa, Danyell and Maci, and a lovably ramshackle ethnography of their working environment. Above all, it is a lovely, funny, spirited salute to women who help hold their small worlds together. To women who wade ahead through the swamps of sexist society and light a torch for others to follow.
Support the Girls is about women making a place for themselves, but it does have a lot to say to, and about, men. The male presence is inescapable for women, and that is particularly true in a place like Double Whammies, which markets to a particularly libidinous breed of man. The master stroke of Support the Girls is that it refuses to tolerate misogyny in that space. Lisa and her girls know that they are basically selling the idea of sex; that some level of titillation is part of their trade. But that does not mean that the girls are there to be demeaned or degraded. Lisa has a zero tolerance policy on disrespect and we see her enforce it vigilantly. Sad dudes may be her business, as she tells her estranged husband, but that doesn’t give these male egos license to run roughshod over women. Support the Girls is realistic about men. Quite a few are rude and condescending to the servers who work so tirelessly to make them happy. Some are well-meaning, if a little oblivious. Some are gentlemen. And some, like Danyelle’s 10 year-old son McWray, are still young and unmolded. They are ready to learn what being a strong and decent man really is, if someone can provide them with the right guidance. McWray sits at a booth and draws a ninja for LIsa. He says his name is Ninja Guy. Lisa softly reminds him that there could be a woman under that ninja garb. Support the Girls knows men can be selfish and crass, but it holds a resilient hope that confident, capable women can shape healthier attitudes and mold men who are worth a damn. Support the Girls strides into a space that most would think of as sleazy and exploitative and holds men accountable there. It is the female gaze that matters here, and what these women are scanning the horizon for is a better class of man. It is a chipper, effervescent little film but it does not budge an inch in its insistence that every woman deserves respect, no matter what they happen to wear to work. Any man who has an issue with that basic principle can go get buzzed at a less dignified breastaurant.
In a way, it’s helpful to think of Support the Girls as the year’s best, most unassuming superhero movie. LIsa refers to Danyelle as a real-life Wonder Woman. She reminds Danyelle’s son that women can be heroes too. And, like Superman with an indomitably cheery demeanor and an amiable Southern drawl, Lisa herself is always circle this small strip mall world and restoring order. She sees everything and fixes everything. She knows everyone, from the police officers to the regular customers to the juice shop managers in the next lot. Danyelle is a sarcastic, wisecracking, endlessly capable jack of all trades. Bubbly, joyful Maci is an irrepressible ray of sunshine, the bantering, hula-hooping Robin to Lisa’s Batman. These are three of the best female role models in recent cinema; each of them an utterly distinct testament to female empowerment and solidarity. And they are brought to vivid, sparkling life by three of the best performances of the year. At one point, Lisa explains to McWray how she comes up with the weekly schedule and her focused tone makes it sound like the universe depends on it. A very small universe does depend on it. Support the Girls is effervescent and giggly, but these characters and their trials have a real weight to them. In every viewing I’ve had, the impact and insight of the film has snuck up on me. This little film about female dynamos feels more consequential than a thousand Marvel doomsday scenarios. The not so simple act of being a working woman ends up holding a power that rumbles beneath the film’s charming, scruffy exterior. Like its optimistic, perseverant main characters, Support the Girls is soulful and emotionally grounded while also being irresistibly light on its feet.
On top of being a heartfelt feminist screwball comedy, Support the Girls is also a terrifically sharp workplace comedy. The art of a good workplace comedy has a lot to do with making a confined space and its inhabitants feel dynamic and interesting. One must make the small hallways and back offices feel lived in, even loved. On what may be her last day as a manager at Double Whammies, Lisa picks up some free heart stickers from the local smoothie shop. She starts affectionately sticking them on the walls and door jams of her little breastaurant world. To say that Support the Girls makes Double Whammies feel loved would be an understatement. As is her way, Lisa spreads love, joy, and self-esteem wherever she goes. Double Whammies is far from a perfect workplace, between its uncaring owners and sometimes grabby customers, but Lisa is too positive and resolute to to admit defeat to the occasional sexism and negativity. So long as she is manager of this place, the girls are going to feel safe and supported (the title, Support the Girls, is a randy breast-based double entendre but it is also literally about women supporting each other), and there are going be bright red heart stickers up in the break room. The film is very much about how work places (and all places really) are colored and defined by the people inside of them. It is a love letter to great bosses (Lisa really is the Fezziwig of hypersexualized family dining) and anyone who makes their own world better for being in them. Radiant, self-respecting women like Lisa, Danyelle, and Maci cannot help but infuse the darkest, most toxic spaces with love and humanity. Now just think how great this place could be with even a few more good men following their lead.
Then again, if the men of the world can’t be bothered to make the spaces of this world healthy, loving, and good for the world’s women, maybe they don’t deserve those women. And in that case, who really cares what becomes of those spaces? Double Whammies is presented as the quirky Mom and Pop sports bar of this town (though both “Mom” and “Pop” are just two chauvinistic, white dudes). Still, we’re led to see it as maybe preferable to Mancave, the soulless, uber-corporate megachain setting up shop across town. But if neither place values its women, what really is the difference? If the underdog is unappreciative of the women who are its heart and soul, that doesn’t sound much like an underdog worth rooting for. If the so-called authentic place is sexist and cavalier toward its women, why not just let it burn or go belly up? Support the Girls turns out to have a righteous working class spirit to complement its breezy feminism. It’s the kind of joyously angry, full-throated punk song that both Bruce Springsteen and Bikini Kill would approve of. Support the Girls may be a terrific look at a specific space, but spaces mean nothing without their people. That goes for breastaurants, cities, and nations. Any civilization that does not support its girls can collapse, crumble, vanish from the face of the Earth. The people inside those obsolete systems, the human beings truly deserving of our empathy and respect, will be just fine. They will always land on their feet. They will not have to look long to find each other again. A good woman is not hard to find.
The nitpicky critic in me tends to steer away from any material extraneous to the film. I basically don’t care about what a director or a performer is like outside of their work, and, while I enjoy a good behind-the-scenes anecdote as much as the next person, I typically don’t need to hear about it or write about it in a film review. It all feels a little too extracurricular to me. But occasionally I have to make an exception. Sometimes a bit of lore or trviia from outside of the films feels so on brand that it naturally becomes part of how I think about the film. Like Mick Jagger turning the set of Performance into a months-long hedonistic garden of vice (thereby turning co-star James Fox into a lifelong conservative). Or Stanley Kubrick pushing Shelley Duvall to the brink of sanity with an ungodly amount of takes in The Shining. Sometimes a story from the film just feels too right as an extension of the film itself. In the case of Bo Burnham’s pitch-perfectly anxious, subtly empathetic adolescent character-study-cum-mood-piece, I think of a production photograph. The 28 year-old first-time director and his even greener leading performer, 16 year-old Elsie Fisher, (subtle, lovable, and ever so relatably awkward as the film’s 14 year-old protagonist) are seated on the floor of a middle school hallway, leaning their backs against some lockers. They appear to just be in the middle of some conversation, laughing and listening to one another. It’s nothing so surprising. I imagine most directors have friendly chats with their actors, figuring out what the next scene will need to really sing. But there’s an understated empathyto this moment that is part and parcel with the film. This is the story of a shy, fumbling eighth grade girl, as directed by a white man in his late twenties. Burnham knows he is not telling his own story. He is telling the story of young girls like Elsie Fisher or really any woman who remembers being that age. His job is to be empathetic and open and the learn everything he can from her. To make her feel happy and open and at ease with exploring this young woman’s inner life. I see this photograph and am not only moved by their sweet, easy rapport (while extracurricular material is still on the table, Fisher and Burnham were also an adorably chummy fixture on the 2018 awards circuit, before that mean girl they call Oscar kept them out of the big party). That photograph also just makes sense as an essential document of the film that follows. What makes Eighth Grade such a lovely and beautifully observant character study is that the man in the director’s chair knows to mostly give the reins to his superb female actor. She is there to make this story resonate through her vivid characterization. It’s his job to give her the space to tell that story and to capture it as perceptively as he can. Most of all, it’s his job to ensure that the audience follows his lead and listens attentively to this sweet, soft-spoken young woman. Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher give us one of the most empathetic duets in recent cinema. That picture bears witness to their harmony and chemistry, though nothing can compare with the what they have lovingly put up on screen.
Eighth Grade covers an awkward, shy 14 year-old girl’s last few months of middle school. Kayla Day knows she is at a sensitive and precarious stage, as most people her age are. Kayla has gotten used to feeling awkward over the past few years. What seems to bother her more is being seen as shy by her peers. At her school’s annual awards assembly for graduating students, she wins Most Quiet and her reaction to this dubious honor is one of the most mortified facial expressions you’ll see in a film. While Kayla has trouble talking to her classmates, tongue-tied is not the way she sees herself. Somewhere beneath her timid exterior is a vibrant conversationalist and deep thinker. The film’s recurring framing device is a series of teenage social advice videos that she puts up on her sparsely viewed YouTube channel. Eighth Grade is a coming-of-age character study about an insecure, kind-hearted young lady striving and struggling to navigate the turbulent transition to high school, and to close out those three puberty-addled years that are the bane of so many adolescent existences. At times, it also feels ever so slightly like an experimental film. It’s full of frenetic editing, moody lulls, and artfully jarring sound design. Part of that unsettling aura comes from British composer Anna Meredith’s terrifically effective electronic panic attack of a score. An even larger part comes from Bo Burnham’s sharp instincts for amplifying mood. Eighth Grade consists of a number of setpieces that astutely capture the anxiety and guarded elation of those early teenage years. Kayla gets invited to an aloof classmate’s pool party. She gets the chance to socialize with a group of high schoolers and catches a glimpse of adolescent challenges still to come. She also pines for a cocksure, absurdly stoic cool boy and starts a friendship with a hyper-talkative, gangly boy whose energy seems much more in tune with her own. When not braving the tween trenches, Kayla spends her time at home trying to ignore her well-meaning and intermittently exasperating dork of a single father (Josh Hamilton, terrifically endearing and sympathetic), and burying herself in the simultaneously stimulating and soothing deluge of social media. Eighth Grade is a strange but perfectly tailored hybrid of character study, gripping drama, and observational comedy (until now, Bo Burnham was known for his standup comedy, which often commented on youth culture in the Internet age). Its chief strength may be that Burnham infuses his film with bold, stylistic flourishes to recreate the heightened unease of middle school life while always keeping one foot firmly in empathetic territory. He sees this time of life through a woozy, distorted lens, but he always looks at his protagonist with clear compassion and warm concern.
Still, Bo Burnham whips up quite a temperamental little storm for his timid but intrepid heroine to weather. Before Kayla’s journey to the shores of high school is complete, she will have experienced a fairly constant stream of embarassment, resisted a genuinely unsettling unwanted sexual advance, and gone to a pool party that feel like a social war zone. Eighth Grade is often very funny, but Burnham also treats all of this seriously. Even when we are invited to laugh, there is nothing glib in his treatment of the hurdles young people like Kayla face. He respects what a nauseating and frightening thing it can be to be 14 years old, especially for a young woman still finding her identity. Burnham shoots with an inventive livewire energy that makes every moment its own tiny powder keg. We hear the egg shells crunching under Kayla’s feet and we watch her every subtle, anxious facial expression as she figures out how to get through the next adolescent survival test. It would be hyperbole to say that Eighth Grade has elements of horror, but it often has a buzzy aura that is not a thousand miles removed from a thriller. Simply put, it is one of 2018’s most stunningly original creations. A film about being a teenager with notes of pulse-pounding tension and paranoia that is still completely sweet and funny at its core. It’s the classic case of a chef adding some wild, unexpected ingredient to a dish (putting Sriracha sauce in a dessert, let’s say) and having it not only work but really make the dish. Eighth Grade leaves such a strong impression because stories of adolescent angst are so rarely told with this kind of idiosyncratic immediacy. Bo Burnham wants us to put ourselves in Kayla’s brain; to experience the feverish calustrophobia of her viewpoint. Burnham knows there may be no age more nerve-rattlingly subjective than puberty, when looming adulthood, your own changing body, and the moody insecurities of your peers all conspire to make you feel more perpetually off balance than you ever though possible.
Bo Burnham is also interested in the subjective dissonance between how young teenagers see themselves, how they want to be seen, and hos they see each other. The Kayla we see in her videos is still a humble young woman, but one with the intelligence and confidence to put her thoughts out there. She wants people to see her as outgoing and outspoken. Her awkward but supportive father reminds her that the very fact of having her own YouTube channel shows that she is that dynamic, interesting, well-rounded person she wants to be. The problem is it feels like no one is actually listening to that version of her voice. None of her peers at school are seeking her out for her insights, and so those thoughts mostly stay rattling around in her own already hectic brain. She is both the engaged and engaging raconteur she wants to be and the reticent wallflower who still hasn’t figured out how to loudly speak her truth in public. It is nothing new to say that puberty can be something of a paradox. A time where we are trying on an entire closet’s worth of competing identities. Elsie Fisher stutters and painfully draws out certain words as if she’s at the first table read for the script to her own life. What makes Eighth Grade so compassionately observant is how Bo Burnham sees all adolescents as actors who haven’t quite gotten their characters down yet. Even the characters you would probably identify as mean girls are painted with charitable, humane understanding. They also seem to be frantically ad-libbing their way through this crazy play, trying to workshop the role of who they will be for the rest of their lives. What none of them presently realize is that they will rewrite these parts dozens and dozens of times more. Eighth Grade feels for them all. It is a comedy, but Bo Burnham is not laughing at Kayla or any of her classmates. He is laughing with them, or more accurately with the people they will be five years from now.
Eighth Grade is a bittersweet thing of beauty. It gives us a wince and a smile, though the early going probably contains more wincing than smiling. This is the nature of the film’s journey and it turns out to be a splendid choice on Burnham’s part. The majority of the film is an arrestingly cringey dramedy of teenage manners. Eighth Grade takes Kayla and us through the miserable, sweaty gauntlet of the eighth grade, adding welcome doses of humor to keep any of the awkwardness and humiliation from being too much to bear. But as it draws closer to its conclusion, Burnham starts to add more sunlight and air to his suffocating maze. Eighth Grade has an uncanny knack for capturing adolescent dread, but its goal is not to simply provide a way to relive pubescent discomfort. This is not some exercise in vicarious teenage desperation. In the end, Bo Burnham loves Kayla too much to have Eight Grade be a chamber of horrors. Quite the opposite, it is really a reminder that this fraught, ridiculous time passes and that we emerge on the other side of the tempest. We all get better at being the selves we really want to be and we learn that toying around with the recipe of our own identities is part of life. The film’s kind but candid outlook on this time of life has helped it to resonate with a number of adult film lovers, who can remember this time with all its intensity, melodrama, and embarrassment. The alternating strains of comedy and disquieting anxiety are in the film for a very good reason. We can all look back at puberty now and have chuckle at it, while still remembering how genuinely disorienting it was. We can recall the fears we felt And then, finally and wonderfully, we can have a laugh at those fears as well.
But more than what Eighth Grade communicates to people who have already been through it, I hope it gives some kind of perspective and solace to any young person who is going through this period right now. Or is about to go through it. Like the videos Kayla films for her older selves to watch, Eighth Grade wants to be a wise, sympathetic hand on the shoulder of the young. And who knows what a current eighth grader will make of it? This communication from a man in his late twenties who has long since passed through this phase. As pitch-perfect as I find the film to be, maybe a 14 year-old of today (or decades from now) will see things that it misses about the experience. That’s probably to be expected. With a film like this, the empathy is what is really important. The very act of just trying to understand the experiences of a person in different shoes than your own. What matters is that Eighth Grade works with such sweet, gentle candor to place itself and its audience back in that state of mind. It is a wise and winningly empathetic film. And one with no ego, no lecture to give. It seeks to give voice to one of the most honest and relatable portraits of an adolescent young woman I’ve ever seen captured on film. Its aim is solely to see her; to view her desires, hopes, and anxieties with clear, generous eyes. Eighth Grade is a wonderful addition to 2018’s bountiful crop of films. The only thing we need more is to give the Kayla Days of the world more chances to tell these stories personally. To be fair, the fact that Bo Burnham has made a marvelous female coming of age story doesn’t correct the larger issue of letting women craft their own narratives. A film centered on a female character finding her voice is not remotely the same thing as actually giving women more voice in film. With that said, this industry’s glaring issues are not the fault of this lovely film and I have no desire to look a cinematic gift horse in the mouth. Eighth Grade is still the kind of film this world needs more of. One that values and loves women. One that admires them, believes in them and listens intently to what they will say next.