Tag Archives: family drama

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.

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.

SXSW: Boundaries

Laura is making her therapist proud by making and enforcing some strong, much-needed boundaries with her father. She’s also lying to her therapist about plenty of things, including the actual number of rescue animals currently residing in her home, and in her purse on the floor of the therapist’s office. But Laura’s father Jack is very good at testing boundaries, and right now, he’s a man in need. His retirement residence is kicking him out, and if Laura is unprepared to house him in the home she shares with her teenage son Henry, the least she can do is drive him cross-country to her sister’s home in L.A.. Right?

MV5BMTY5NzMzNTcwM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDg0MTc3NDM@._V1_Laura (Vera Farmiga) loves her son, and her pets, and against all odds, her father. Her son is a sensitive, gym-hating, naked-picture-drawing type (Lewis MacDougall) who’s just been permanently expelled from school. Her rescued pets are a rag-tag, flea-ridden circus of mange, as pathetic as they are cute. Her dad (Christopher Plummer) is a drug dealer and a rapscallion through and through, and terminally charming.

The cast works together as a dysfunctional unit. Director Shana Feste puts together a trio that doesn’t seem like a natural fit but somehow it works – perhaps because they’re all sort of loners in their way, much like the abandoned animals they pick up along the way, and they find a reluctant companionship that turns into some genuine, heartening chemistry onscreen. Toss in a dash of Bobby Cannavale, a splash of Christopher Lloyd (and Christopher Lloyd’s balls, as Farmiga was quick to recall, and not without a blush), and sprinkling of Peter Fonda…my goodness, it’s a bowl of mixed nuts,  more salty than sweet, but it went down mighty well.

I saw this at SXSW when I’d also just seen You Can Choose Your Family, and made me think: good lord, these directors have daddy issues. But I guess all art comes out of some frustration, some need to prove something to someone. But since father issues are nearly universal, I suppose these films feel at once familiar but also just removed enough that we can laugh at them, enjoy a moment of catharsis because someone else has it just a little tougher than you. Collectively the audience will laugh, and will emit a sigh of relief for having survived this awkward family trip.

 

 

 

Thanks for keeping up with our frantic SXSW coverage. We’re posting so frequently you may have missed Sean’s great review of The Director and The Jedi, or my review of the truly astonishing Blindspotting, or Matt’s review of the documentary From All Corners.

Wonder

Auggie is a very special little boy. Born with a genetic condition called Treacher Collins syndrome, Auggie’s facial deformities are the least threatening of the complications but they’re what make him look so different. He’s most comfortable when he’s wearing an astronaut helmet that keep prying eyes and hurtful comments at bay. For the first ten years of his life he’s had countless surgeries and has been schooled at home, but he’s about to start middle school for real, and a classroom of students is more daunting to him (and his mom) than any operating room.

Wonder is based on the wonderful YA novel by R.J. Palacio, which you should, should, should definitely, definitely read. But happily, this is a rare case where the movie does MV5BMTIwOTUwNTEtYzMwNS00N2YxLTg0ZWYtNzM0YzVjOWYwZWM5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjg5NDY3Mw@@._V1_SY1000_SX1500_AL_the book justice. And even happilier, the movie doesn’t suck, period, which was a major concern of mine. It seemed far too easy to just let it coast on its sentimentality. But while director Stephen Chbosky doesn’t have a lengthy track record to ease my worrisome nature, he does have one credit under his belt that’s all I really needed to hear: he adapted and directed The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which he’d also penned.

Wonder is a much different beast, however. First, it necessarily involves casting the perfect but very young star. A bad child actor in a lead role will ruin the whole thing, and in this case you have to find someone who can convey a whole range of complicated emotions from underneath a mask of scars. Chbosky went with Jacob Tremblay who’s already proven his chops with the most trying and powerful of roles in Room; Chbosky calls him “a once-in-a-generation talent” and I think he may be right. But we can’t discount the fact that Chbosky surrounds Tremblay with talent.

The secret to Wonder’s success, both in novel and in film, is that yes, it tells the story from the perspective of a sweet and brave 10 year old boy who’s been through hell and is still going through it. BUT it also shares the stories of the people around him. His mother Isabel (Julia Roberts) has had to pause life itself in order to become his warrior. His father Nate (Owen Wilson) copes with humour and cries by himself. His big sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) feels like a mere planet revolving around Auggie, the sun. A disease like Auggie’s is a family affair, energy-stealing, all-encompassing, leaving no one unaffected. And no one likes to complain about that because it seems petty in the face of something life-threatening, but it’s true and Palacio’s book as well as Chbosky’s film really add legitimacy to a family suffering as a unit. Even Auggie’s only friend isn’t untouched – being his friend is a social sacrifice most 10 year olds won’t be strong enough to make. Another formidable young actor, Suburbicon‘s Noah Jupe, lands and aces this role.

Wonder is not about the suffering though; that would be too easy. It’s about overcoming that suffering, in ways that are clunky and ungraceful and sometimes accidental. That’s why Auggie’s family seems so real, and why so many real families with sick kids can relate to the material. It’s emotionally raw stuff and you may find that it touches a nerve. But it’s got a takeaway message of positivity that’s irresistible, and will help justify the numerous soggy kleenexes in your lap.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

The Meyerowitz family is fractured. Danny (Adam Sandler) is a self-described ‘extremely good parker’ with little else on the horizon. A loving dad and devoted house husband, his life is in transition now that he and his wife are separating and his only daughter is off to college. Moving in with his estranged father Harold (Dustin Hoffman) seems like an opportunity to get to know him, except it turns out that feeling’s not mutual.

Harold abandoned Danny and daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) in favour of a new family when they were quite young. He’s never acted as a real father to them and even now he’s mostly only interested in what they can do for him. Not to mention the complicating factor of his alcoholic wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) who MV5BN2M5YzA2ODAtOTNmMi00MGYyLWIxYWYtY2M2NmE4ZGE1ODQ1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjAwODA4Mw@@._V1_inserts herself into cramped dynamics like she’s determined to put the Wicked back into Step Mother. Both throw out the red carpet when favoured son Matthew (Ben Stiller) makes a reluctant appearance. Harold has fostered a competitive streak between his children by different mothers but they otherwise aren’t close. So when their father’s life and career necessitate them pulling together, it’s a little awkward. Actually, it’s extremely awkward and kind of heart breaking. Because they aren’t bad people, they’ve just been starved of their father’s love and have no idea how to act like a family now that there’s no real chance that things will ever be different.

This being a Noah Baumbach work, the comedy isn’t broad, but it is damn funny. When I finished it (a Netflix original) I immediately wanted to restart it, just to catch all the amazing little asides and offhand jokes that are so casually but expertly tossed out.

Although Harold is a self-absorbed contrarian, he’s not quite despicable in the hands of Dustin Hoffman and his grizzled white beard. Adam Sandler gives a nuanced performance that’ll make you believe in him as an actor once again – and it’s been a good long while since that’s been true. Actually, there are loads of big names, some in pretty small roles, but everyone is kind of spectacular in this. Having recently had no patience for Golden Exits at the New Hampshire Film Festival, I wondered if the our film lexicon was finally full to bursting with movies about privileged white people whining about their lives. But the family dysfunction in The Meyerowitz Stories feels relatable and authentic and the characters are trying too hard to be decent people in the face of it all: I kind of loved it. It’s amazing how many years later childhood resentments and jealousies can bubble to the surface, but this is the kind of movie that makes us all feel “Same” in one way or another, and it just feels good and cathartic that we aren’t alone.

 

 

Golden Exits

A beautiful young Australian woman named Naomi (OF COURSE she’s named Naomi) movies to New York City to fuck with the marriages of two different couples. Okay, officially Naomi (Emily Browning) is there to work and learn from a boring archivist named Nick (Adam Horovitz – yes, THAT Adam Horovitz, a real live Beastie Boy!) but she’s 25 and yielding her sexuality like a weapon.

They say this is a man’s world, but if that man has an assistant in a tight sweater, who really has the upper hand? Naomi knows she has power and she’s not afraid to cause a little havoc. A good marriage doesn’t have cracks for 25-year-olds to wiggle into but golden_exits_adam_horovitz_stillNick’s marriage isn’t quite so solid. He and Alyssa (Chloe Sevigny) have been together a decade and there have been cracks before, so we learn from Alyssa’s sister Gwendolyn (Mary-Louise Parker). Plus, Nick’s life is so, so boring (SO boring he can’t help but repeatedly describe it as ‘thrilling’, without a trace of irony, and it never fails to break your heart).

Meanwhile, Naomi is also “reconnecting” with Buddy (Jason Schwartzman), who married the ripe young assistant he hired not so long ago (Analeigh Tipton) and is now finding it a little constricting to work and live with the same woman – which I suppose is why he sneaks out with Naomi behind her back.

You can probably tell this movie is about the precarious balance of relationships, and how a tiny (Aussie) nudge can upset the whole thing. But not just the balance of relationships I suppose, but of life. These Brooklynites are so privileged they’ve lost sight of it, and so stagnant that the arrival of a single student can send shockwaves through their families that will reverberate long after Naomi has gone back home.

Director Alex Ross Perry has a knack for unlovable characters but though I think we’re supposed to find a way to love them anyway, I truly did not. Their ennui is contagious.

Browning as the temptress transcends the cliche and Horovitz is pretty great as a guy who isn’t quite sure whether he’s okay with his life or not. The camera fixates on each character as we eavesdrop on their overly articulate verbal ejaculations but ultimately this is a movie about boring, every day people that doesn’t do much despite saying tonnes. What happens to a marriage after passion fades? And what happens to a movie if I never felt passion for it in the first place? Irreconcilable differences, let’s say.