Tag Archives: family drama

Broken Diamonds

The Premise: Scott (Ben Platt) is finally following his dreams all the way to Paris to become a writer. But the universe is a bitch, and by way of obstacles, Ben’s got a newly dead dad, a mother lost to dementia, and a sister, Cindy (Lola Kirke), who is normally hospitalized with schizophrenia is about to become unhospitalized, unmedicated, and very much Scott’s problem. Is he his sister’s keeper?

The Verdict: Movies about mental illness often flirt with exploitation, and while Cindy’s character, and her plight, do serve her brother’s growth and character arc, Broken Diamonds tries to paint a full picture of an illness that is disruptive and damaging and sometimes just part of the package. Platt and Kirke are both very good, very watchable, and the story benefits from its small scope. Schizophrenia is a family disease. Their family has suffered together, and apart. It has left its members battered. It has demanded sacrifice. Platt is of course very good at showing us the inner turmoil of deciding when enough is enough, but it is Kirke who has the heavy load, allowing Cindy to be a woman who is more than just sick. Emotional but undemonstrative, Broken Diamonds is character-driven and intimate, an interesting exploration of the complicated equation between siblings.

Directed by: Peter Sattler, starring Ben Platt, Lola Kirk, Yvette Nicole Brown; find it July 23rd in theatres and on demand.

Berlinale 2021: North By Current

Filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax returns to his rural Michigan home town after the mysterious death of his two-year-old niece, Kalla. His sister Jesse, the girl’s mother, is a suspect, his brother-in-law David is arrested, Kalla’s cause of death inconclusive, and the family tragedy as a whole is just a lot to process when there are so many eggshells to tiptoe around.

Minax is himself a trans man with a fraught relationship with his Mormon family. As he intercuts present day footage with old home movies of his childhood, it’s easy to see how his sister might have struggled with such an unstable upbringing and addiction issues. Motherhood seemed to have grounded her for a time, but the death of her daughter and her own possible responsibility and/or culpability seems to have both unraveled her but also encouraged her reproduction, replacing one baby with the next before the last one’s out of diapers. Grappling with trauma and depression, Jesse all but refuses to discuss the matter, but slowly their mother starts to open up, but she’s not exactly a great source of comfort to either. In fact, Minax’s mother is quick to point out that she’s lost two girls – Kalla, and the little girl that Minax himself used to be. While Minax’s mother may be entitled to her grief, it’s clear his transition and queer identity are still the family’s biggest challenge – even the murder of one family member at the hands of another is more easily overlooked.

North By Current is a testament of grief, tinted by faith, family, history, and isolation. Spanning topics including depression, domestic violence, motherhood and transgender masculinity, I’m not sure to what extent any true healing or catharsis occurred, but I know Minax, at least, is headed in the right direction.

Sundance 2021: Human Factors

It starts with a home invasion. Jan (Mark Waschke) and Nina (Sabine Timoteo) have taken their family to their vacation home in a coastal town where the trouble awaits. Jan is outside on the phone when he hears a scream. When no second scream is forthcoming, he resumes his call, unaware that his wife has just encountered people in the house, who flee before anyone else spots them. Rattled, Jan and Nina share their bed with their two children that night, a young son named Max (Wanja Valentin Kube) and teenage daughter Emma (Jule Hermann), their restful weekend getaway already shattered.

Forging on with the weekend in an attempt to put the incident behind them, it would seem their shaky nerves aren’t the only thing troubling this suburban family. Everything is off-balance. Jan hates that Nina has called her brother, who swoops in to the rescue. Nina hates that Jan has made a huge decision at their mutually owned and run business by himself. Jan suspects the break-in is a product of Nina’s nervous imagination, since she’s the only witness. And son Max accuses his father of “hiding” during the incident. Seeds of doubt and mistrust have been sown this weekend, and soon these weeds are growing out of control through the cracks of their family’s core. This has been a triggering event that challenges our notion of truth and of perspective. There is no one narrative, only shifting lenses that reveal the fragility of familial bonds.

Though I admire writer-director Ronny Trocker’s film thematically, I found the viewing experience to be less than ideal. Not because it’s brutally tense, though it is. And not because the characters aren’t particularly likeable, though that’s true too. The incident in question, whether or not it happened, was fairly trivial, and of no real consequences. Yet this relatively small stone thrown into the family puddle creates unexpected ripples whose effects are long-lasting. It’s really just a trigger point to expose already-existing fault lines, and then we sit back and watch this family quake. My problem with the film is that it was simply a boring watch. I wasn’t compelled by this characters, and didn’t much care about the aftershocks or the outcome for this family. Human Factors means well but asks for too much patience in exchange for too little pay out.

Uncle Frank

Growing up in Creekville, South Carolina in the 1970s, Beth (Sophia Lillis) has always felt like an outsider, even especially in her own family. The only relative to whom she relates is Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), who seldom attends the various family functions meant to bring them all together. She feels surrounded by small minds and limited experience, and she’s not wrong. Which is why she eagerly follows in Uncle Frank’s foot steps to Manhattan as soon as she graduates.

Between college and the big city, Beth is growing up and expanding her world view, but nothing hits home like finding out that Uncle Frank is gay and that his roommate Wally (Peter Macdissi) is his lover and partner of many years. She’s never known anyone gay before. No; she never knew she knew anyone gay before. As if this wasn’t milestone enough, Frank’s father (and Beth’s grandfather) Daddy Mac (Stephen Root) has died, leaving uncle and niece to get reacquainted in the context of this new information during their road trip home for the funeral. On the one hand, it’s kind of a nice opportunity to meet each other’s authentic selves, but on other hand, they’re driving toward utter disaster and they don’t even know it.

South Carolina wasn’t the happiest place to be a gay kid growing up, and if Frank isn’t exactly choked up by his father’s death, going home does stir up quite a few traumatic memories, threatening his sobriety, his relationship, and even his life. Uncle Frank is both a coming out story of sorts for Frank, and a coming of age for Beth, two misfits from the same people and place finding out whether you can go home again or if you should have stayed in NYC where you belong. Writer-director Alan Ball seasons the script with achingly realistic family dysfunction, layers of hatred as well as opportunities for healing. Young Sophia Lillis has really hit the ground running in her career, starting out already on top with several leading lady roles in a row. She’s fantastic in this, but this movie belongs to Uncle Frank, and it’s Paul Bethany’s stoic and grounded performances that really see us through. Frank has navigated his life with careful precision but his father’s death is the one iceberg he couldn’t avoid. It feels like we’d tread uncomfortably close to melodrama, but Bettany’s performance is quiet, calm, and convincing, with not one shred of over-acting in a career-defining turn.

Uncle Frank has something to say about how things were in the past, but it also implies a lot about us now, 50 years in the future, and yet somehow still living in a world full of prejudice, where in some places and for some people, Frank’s experience is still the norm. For an unspoken statement, it’s pretty profound.

TIFF20 Penguin Bloom

The Blooms are a happy Australian family on vacation in Thailand when life changes forever. A broken rail on a rooftop lookout is nearly deadly, leaving Mom Sam (Naomi Watts) paralyzed and when eventually back home, terribly depressed. Both ailments keeping her confined to bed, husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln) is basically a single father, barely handling life with 3 rambunctious boys, at least one of whom blames himself for his mother’s life-altering injury. Sam’s mother Jan’s (Jacki Weaver) support is of questionable value and Sam sinks deeper and deeper into an identity crisis told deftly between flashbacks to her active part in life and motherhood, and disturbing dream sequences that illustrate the yawning gulf between Sam Now and Sam Then.

Would you believe me if I told you that a magpie named Penguin is what healed her? Well, a wounded bird named Penguin AND a human woman named Gaye (Rachel House) who got Sam out of her chair and into a kayak. The kayak gave her freedom of movement and some independence; Penguin gave her hope.

It sounds like Oscar bait because it IS Oscar bait. Do I say that like it’s a bad thing? Maybe just a little. I hope Penguin won’t take this the wrong way, but you know that old saying, birds of a feather flock together? Well, so do movies about people overcoming catastrophic injury. There are a LOT of them.

This isn’t a bad one, and surprisingly, not an overly sappy one (note: I said overly). Sam is privately bitter and sometimes selfish. Son Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston) is harbouring secret guilt and putting way too many eggs into one penguin’s basket. But the emotional trajectory is trending upward since that little magpie first chirps with only a few unconvincing, by-the-book pauses along the way. Watts is terrific. The magpie is terrific, if just a little too cute to be entirely believed. Director Glendyn Ivin isn’t doing a darn thing wrong, he’s just another guy telling an inspiring, heart-warming story about churning anger into triumph through the redeeming values, of hope, faith, and family.

Maybe you’re in the market for an uplifting movie with lots of heart and some solid performances. Maybe you’ve got a surplus of tissues and are looking for any excuse to cry. Maybe you just always thought it would be cool to see a bird wear underwear on its head. For me this was too pat and predictable. I always hope for something a little meatier from a world-renown film festival (no offense, Penguin, poultry is fine too), but a bird with a broken wing is just about as ham-fisted (or should I saw chicken-winged) a metaphor as you can get.

Check out Penguin Bloom on Youtube – now with 100% more bird poop!

Marriage Story

Eight minutes in and this movie’s already breaking my heart. Nicole and Charlie have just spent 8 minutes sharing the things they love most about each other, and their lists are touchingly precise. But it turns out they’re in mediation, and the exercise is meant to kick off their divorce proceedings. Nicole welches – she doesn’t want to read hers, and I sort of can’t blame her. It’s so vulnerable to admit that you once loved the person you no longer love. Fuck.

Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is a talented actor and the star of a play directed by Charlie (Adam Driver). They share a son, Henry, and a New York City apartment but now that they’ve split, Nicole plans to return to L.A. to work in television. Charlie intends and expects to stay in New York. Though they originally swore off lawyers, agreeing to do things “amicably,” they have one asset that’s precious to them both: Henry. Fighting for custody and for coasts is important to both, so they lawyer up and get down to fighting dirty.

Interviewing lawyers, one dirtbag (Ray Liotta) asks Charlie “Does your wife do drugs or anything? Coke?” he asks, hopefully. Fuck. It’s gross. It’s gross that two people who loved each other and each care deeply for their young son can’t be civil. Civil? They are so hopelessly and desperately past civil that the word looks meaningless here on the page. And the lawyers? They’re fucking hyenas looking to devour their prey.

A Marriage Story is actually a Divorce Story. As both a child of divorce and a divorcee myself, I feel both sides of this thing so acutely that I feel as though I’ve been impaled by my own hopes and dreams. My parents’ divorce was the best thing that ever happened to us; we hated my awful father as a unit and breathed a sigh of relief when he finally left our house for the last time. My mother raised four daughters by herself. Money was tight but there was never any doubt that we were better off without him. But is there a small part of me that wondered why he never fought for custody – never even asked for visitation? A small(ish) part of me that will always wonder if there’s something fundamentally unlovable about me? Leavable about me? My first marriage ended badly, traumatically, like a death. As they do sometimes. We had no child to fight over so one day I just never saw him again and now I have no idea whether the man I once promised to love and cherish forever is dead or alive. And now I’m married to Sean and it’s wonderful and stable and safe and sexy and I hardly ever stay awake all night wondering why it’s so easy to stop loving me and if it could happen again.

Sean saw this one at TIFF (without me – I was off reviewing Jojo or Joker or somesuch) and told you he liked it nearly 3 months ago, but to me he said: it will make you cry. And of course he was right. Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, you don’t really stand a chance of remaining unmoved. Marriage Story is an insightful and well-aimed gut punch. It hit me right in the feels. But even Sean, who comes from a cozy nuclear family and is married to the most amazing woman on earth, even Sean was stirred up. Love is easy. Marriage is hard. Divorce is a goddamned hole in the heart.

TIFF19: Hope Gap

Grace (Annette Bening) and Edward (Bill Nighy) are a many-years married couple. She bickers and snipes at him, he slumps his shoulders and takes it. Over 30 years together, they’ve found lots of things to agree and disagree on, but they’re definitely united on one front: son Jamie (Josh O’Connor) doesn’t visit nearly enough.

When he does visit on this particular weekend, his mother does her usual thing, wasting half the visit dressing him down for not visiting her enough, thus making him less inclined to visit next time. But that’s her way. She speaks her mind. He’s used to it. He also fends off her religious overtures, and ultimately she goes off to church alone, which is when his father surprises him.

After some hemming and hawing he just says it: “I’m leaving your mother.”

Now hopefully we’re all groaning on the same page here: he’s told his son before he’s told his wife. And of course his wife feels blindsided, hurt, and not a little angry. Mostly that there was no warning. She never saw it coming. Now, Edward has some excuses for this: that she’s domineering, that she’d only try to stop him and his mind is fully made up. But to her, this is a 30 year relationship we’re talking about, and it’s worth a little effort, worth an attempt or two to save it. Not that this has stopped her from any of her heated squabbles.

Edward is not a complete idiot. He’s timed this so that he could abandon his wife quite quickly, leaving his son to pick up the pieces. Grace is understandably bitter and Jamie feels trapped. His mother isn’t just sad, she’s depressed, perhaps suicidal. It’s a lot to ask of a son.

This film is based on writer-director William Nicholson’s own experience of his parents’ divorce. It’s a little light on plot or direction, driven mainly by some great performances. Neither Grace nor Edward come off as particularly admirable people but Bening and Nighy give them a little more sympathy than is truly deserved. The collapse of a marriage is always an aching thing. The grown son being pulled between two grieving parents acts as a proxy for the audience, but because neither character comes off as entirely blameless or even likable, we actually feel pulled in neither direction. Instead, we remain unmoved somewhere in the middle, which doesn’t make for a very bracing or rewarding trip to the movies.

TIFF19: Honey Boy

Oh man. It’s already been more than a week and in many ways I’m still digesting this.

Honey Boy is an autobiographical movie that Shia LaBeouf wrote. Deep breaths.

Now we know a couple of things about Shia LaBeouf: he has suffered a pretty lengthy and public meltdown, and he has continued to put out some pretty worthy performances, albeit in smaller vehicles (American Honey and The Peanut Butter Falcon recently). In a review for Charlie Countryman, I attempted to parse the nature of his problems and his pain, but of course from the outside, you can only guess, and wish him well (or not). But Shia is at that point in his healing where he is letting us in. He is performing an exorcism here. The ghosts in his closet have been let loose – but will they haunt him less?

“Selfishly,” he told us, “I made this movie for 2 people: me, and my dad.” Let’s unpack that a bit.

First, you need to know that in this movie he wrote, Shia plays his father. His own father. Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges play young Shia and older Shia, though the character goes by Otis in the film. What does it mean that he’s written this painfully intimate autobiographical film, but called his character by another name?

Shia’s father James was (is) an addict, an ex-con, abusive to both Shia and his mother. And yet when we meet young Otis, who is hard at work on the set of a show not unlike Even Stevens, he is living in a dingy motel with his dad. His dad is not just acting as a parental guardian, but as a paid one. James doesn’t work. He takes money from his kid. Which doesn’t stop him from neglecting the son he’s being paid handsomely to watch, or from hitting the child who is technically his boss.

This makes for a complicated relationship and a complicated childhood. And though Otis’s mother is seldom heard from , you do have to wonder – if it’s dad who has custody, just how bad is mom?

So you start to realize that this little kid has no parents. Or, actually, that he’d be better off without the ones he does have. But what he does have is a full-time job and more money than most adults. But he’s also got family obligations and staff who are also relatives but virtually no one telling him how to navigate these complex situations. So by the time Noah Jupe magically transforms into Lucas Hedges, Otis has PTSD and his own struggles with addiction and no idea how to take time out from his busy career and the pressures of Hollywood to deal with them. Until a court gives him very explicit directions to do so (and thank goodness).

But maybe his best therapy has been writing this screenplay. Clearly troubled after the TIFF premiere of Honey Boy, Shia is quick to reassure us that he’s happy to be here with us, but he’s quiet, introspective, quick to deflect to his costars and the director he so admires, Alma Har’el. As his struggles have become increasingly public and undeniable, he is coping with the tools he has available: creatively. But will his creation be his catharsis? And is any of this interesting or entertaining to those of us who have to personal stake in his recovery?

Resoundingly: yes. The absolute best bits are between young Otis (Jupe) and his father (LaBeouf). Mostly stuck in a crappy motel room, the anger between them is never at less than an aggressive simmer, and it’s ALWAYS on the verge of boiling over. Even the quiet is not to be trusted. The tension is awful and soon we too are responding like an abused kid, ready to flinch at the least provocation. If you come from a conflict-filled background yourself, you won’t fail to identify the triggers. Be gentle with yourself.

Honey Boy is a moving, emotional movie-going experience. I also hope it brought a certain amount of closure to a young man still wrestling with his demons.

TIFF18: American Woman

At first glance, Deb (Sienna Miller) is all-too-easily dismissed. She’s a former teen mom turned grandmother at 31. She’s a mistress whose hot date turns out to be a trip to a sleazy motel room, where she is handed a plastic bag containing either dollar store lingerie or a slutty devil halloween costume (same difference, really). The next morning, we see that she is waking up alone in her own bed, suggesting the motel room was paid by the hour.

At that point, we’re about five minutes into American Woman, and you’re ready to write Deb off.

But don’t. Don’t you dare.

AmericanWoman_02Because Deb is worth more than she even knows, which she stars to discover after her daughter fails to come home one night after a date with her basement-dwelling baby daddy.  A loved one’s disappearance must be life-shattering. Miller lets us see the dissapearance’s drastic effects on Deb in such a restrained and measured way that Deb’s resulting character growth is organic, believable, and most impressively, almost invisible at first. Deb’s evolution is captivating, and the Deb we know by the end of the movie is at once the same core character and a woman whose outlook and attitude have evolved beyond anything I could have ever expected.

I cannot overstate the magnificence of Sienna Miller’s performance in American Woman. She is magnetic and conveys a mix of strength and vulnerability that is as authentic a performance as I can remember. And while Miller is the standout, he excellence is almost always matched by the rest of the cast, including Christina Hendricks as Deb’s sister, Amy Madigan as Deb’s mom, and Mad TV’s Will Sasso as Deb’s brother-in-law. Deb is rightly the focal point but it’s great that the strong supporting characters each get the chance to shine.

The gauntlet thrown down by the cast’s fantastic performances is picked up by those behind the camera, and they are up to the task. Brad Ingelsby’s script is smarter than it has any right to be, discarding obvious answers on a regular basis, and showing off by giving effortless depth to secondary and tertiary characters (including turning an obvious villain into an earnest guy deserving of our sympathy). Director Jake Scott uses care and moderation rather than flash and sensationalism, particularly in a crucial scene at the film’s climax, proving beyond any doubt that less is more. Scott consistently makes brilliant choices even in small details, such as by using visuals and settings to indicate the passage of time, rather than title cards.

The result of all of this individual brilliance, naturally, is a standout character study that can hold its own against anything that TIFF18 has to offer (which I can say with certainty since I saw If Beale Street Could Talk and Roma on either side of it). American Woman is as smart, rewarding and satisfying a cinematic experience as anyone could ask for, making for a film that you absolutely do not want to miss.

TIFF18: White Boy Rick

The trailers for White Boy Rick deceived me. I expected a frenetic, over-the-top throwback full of 80s excess, rollerskating, and outlandish behaviour as fifteen year old Ricky (Richie Merritt) breaks into the Detroit crime scene in 1984, assisted by his gunrunning dad (played by the madcap Matthew McConaughey). I expected a dark comedy. I hoped for Scarface, the teenage years, with lots of action and quotable dialogue. I would have settled for half-assed ripoff of Boogie Nights, with a naive rising star breaking into a criminal enterprise.

But instead, I got a melancholy family drama about a group of deadbeats with whom I had no interest in spending any time at all. Not as friends, not as neighbours, and certainly not as the subjects of a two hour feature. Ricky’s story is not a story that deserves to be told on screen, and that’s fatal. I never could bring myself to care about him or his family, not even a little bit. That is in no way the fault of Merritt or McConaughey. It is also not an issue arising from the screenplay or the direction. It’s more basic than that: there was no saving these characters. They were simply irredeemable.whiteboyrick_01

It’s unfortunate because there is a story underlying White Boy Rick that does deserve our attention: the fact that the 80s “War on Drugs” was primarily a scheme to keep America’s prisons stocked with young black men. And, as a bonus in many states, strip them of their right to vote once convicted of a felony, which many might even plead to if they were locked up and mistreated for long enough prior to trial.

That is a story that has been much better told by Ava DuVernay’s 13th (which is definitely worth your time). That is also a story that should probably not be told from a white family’s perspective, as doing so suggests that mandatorylife sentences without the possibility of parole for crack dealers are only a problem when white people start getting locked away too.

Yet, here we are. Ricky’s life is onscreen for you to shake your head at, if you so choose. But you have much better options available to you in the coming weeks (such as The Predator and Life Itself, to name two I saw this past weekend at TIFF). Then again, if you are about bad choices, like choosing White Boy Rick over either of those, then maybe you will find the movie more enjoyable due to having something in common with little Ricky and his family, who never met a bad choice they didn’t like. Yes, I just went there, but it’s for your own good.