The New Hampshire Film Festival was full of great movies – in retrospect, we didn’t see a single bad one, and that’s not supposed to be possible when you’re ingesting just as much film as possible in a single weekend. There has to be a dud in there somewhere – that’s science, isn’t it? Or mathematics? Law of averages? Just my luck? But no, not a bad one in the bunch. There were, however, some super duper standouts.
You’ve already heard Sean crow over his favourite, Robert Eggers’ The Witch, but you haven’t yet heard me swoon over Chicken, the absurdly titled (and I should know) movie that will break your damn heart. There is no way to summarize this movie and do it justice. It’s about a 15-year-old kid named Richard (Scott Chambers) who suffers from some unspecified developmental delay. He lives in a trailer with his brother Polly, who is neglectful at best and I’ll let you use your imagination for his worst. Richard’s only true friend is a chicken who gets included on his many adventures about the property he and his brother (Morgan Watkins, Kingsmen: The Secret Service) are illegally squatting upon. But then one day he meets the daughter of the new owners, Annabel (Yasmin Paige, Submarine), whose abrasive tongue might lose its barbs for such a gentle creature and his faithful chicken. Now take that inadequate synopsis and sprinkle it with magic.
Director Joe Stephenson absorbs us into Richard’s world immediately, and we can’t help but fall in love. There isn’t much plot wasted on this character-rich drama, but you’ll never be bored. Richard is not quite like any character you’ve seen before, aptly and considerately brought to life by the excellent Scott Chambers who wisely chooses empathy over pity. Stephenson knows that Richard is the key to the audience’s heart, but he’s not after some melodramatic tear-jerker, he’s looking for honesty, and he finds it in unlikely places. You’ll be startled to find such compassion from such a young filmmaker but he’s brave enough to give his actors lots of room – literally and metaphorically. You’ll see this translate on the screen as he often takes full advantage of his scenic location rather than closing his characters into too-close shots. He injects a strong cinematic element into what was once a play and has room to spare. Though there’s some unevenness to the script, I easily forgave all not because I cared for Richard, which was easy enough to do, but because I came to care for the brute Polly. And once you have seen Polly in action you will appreciate the enormity of Stephenson’s accomplishment of making you care about both brothers.
You don’t always feel it, but the movie is lathering up to something bigger than the sum of its parts, and once you get there, you won’t want to watch but nor will you be able to look away. At the climax, just as through the whole movie, the characters are complex, sympathetic, and real, and that’s what sets this movie apart and elevates it to a whole new level. These wonderful characters make this movie one you have to watch and one that will stick with you long after you leave the theatre.
Both Chambers and Stephenson were in attendance for this, its North American premiere, and the audience was all too glad to be able to reward their effort with a heartfelt standing ovation. And yet, as I’ve found myself thinking back on this movie even as I’m attending other film festivals, and in fact have watched more than a dozen movies in the week since, I realize that it’s not enough. It’s not every day that a movie gets under my skin, and I’m probably more cynical than most.
This film took home the Narrative Grand Jury prize, and jury member John Michael Higgins presented the award to Stephenson noting “It was a very special experience for me to watch. This film had an incredibly delicate tone, sustained over each event, which is very hard to do.” I’m glad these guys have a trophy to lug home, because this movie’s not going to win an Oscar but it does deserve something that will sit on a mantle and proclaim: I made something moving, and people saw it, and they fucking loved it. Because all of us who were lucky enough to see this film loved it and I have no doubt that you will love it too.