I often have some difficulty with Breakthrough Performance awards, since they often fog up the line between breakthrough and debut. In any case, who is MTV to say Ezra Miller makes more of a breakout with The Perks of Being a Wallflower than We Need to Talk About Kevin? The mainstream has a way of disregarding smaller independent films, and I worry for the moment Julia Garner gets that major breakthrough. She’s eased her way slowly into the public consciousness, mostly through roles as girls living in socially backwards communities. Electrick Children may be fairly more predictable than Martha Marcy May Marlene or forthcoming familial cannibalism drama We Are What We Are, but it affords Garner a more front-and-center vehicle for her talents.
Following commune-raised Rachel who believes she’s had an immaculate conception from simply listing to “Hanging on the Telephone” by The Nerves, the film dodges the judgment of those in Rachel’s community by turning into a fish-out-of-water narrative. Rory Culkin comes into play with a savvier sense of naivety than Rachel as Clyde, and their awkward like story turns the film into something more conventional than it probably should have been. While the story may lose its enticing sense of danger, it makes up for that through Garner’s endearingly sweet performance and the director Rebecca Thomas’ kinetic restlessness behind the camera. I can see this as tepid first step toward a greater career, both for Garner and Thomas. It won’t be the breakthrough either of them are in the market for, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be.
Studios need to either rethink how they discuss racial issues in films or not discuss them at all. That is assuming said film isn’t director by Quentin Tarantino, who rightly places revolutionary power in the hands of the black oppressed with Django Unchained. The mistake that films like The Help and, to a more severe extent, 42 make is placing that revolution in the hands of privileged white people. 42 begins with Harrison Ford speaking prophetically in his office with light showering down on him as he reveals his plan to put a black player on the Brooklyn Dodgers. “I don’t know who he is. I don’t know where he is. But he’s coming.” Instantly this film sets up the coming of Jackie Robinson as equal to the second coming of Jesus Christ.
That pious attitude makes Ford’s Branch Rickey a borderline intolerable presence, knowing all the nice things he’s doing for black people and masking any personal financial benefits behind a God-favored confidence. Even worst, he doesn’t choose Robinson on account of seeing Jackie’s amazing skills first hand. He reads about Robinson on paper and says “Robinson’s a methodist. I’m a methodist. God’s a methodist. Can’t go wrong.”
42 is racially-charged sports cinema made quite literally by-the-numbers. The cinematography showers its characters in aspirational gold hues that trick naive viewers into thinking they’re watching a well-shot film, though none of the visuals mean anything other than to make the characters look iconic. Perhaps the worst crime is making Jackie Robinson such a painfully humble character, like a poor black child who’s finally given a shot at the big leagues. It never feels like the characters earn anything, so it never feels like these events genuinely mean anything. The Jackie Robinson story is supposed to a major inspirational event in American civil rights history. Brian Helgeland turns it into awards pandering icon-pornography.
I was at Independent Film Festival of Boston in Somerville a few weeks back, so you’ll be getting my reviews of A Hijacking, This is Martin Bonner, and Blood Brother when they arrive in due time. Of the few films I saw, though, the one that unexpectedly cut deep was this B&W New York curio. Noah Baumbach’s films have frequently touched me with how they address honest human insecurities through unsympathetic characters, but Frances Ha effectively massaged its way to my heart before slowly pulling it out for display purposes. Aptly described by Baumbach as “a road movie where no one goes anywhere” (Read Alex’s interview with Noah Baumbach), Greta Gerwig’s titular character Frances vignettes her way through several living situations in the film’s brief 85 minutes, but as she procrastinates responsibility in favor of the dreams she has at the start of the film, the rest of the world is in fast motion around her.
Many are raising the obvious comparisons to Woody Allen’s Manhattan, but my mind went to a much different B&W film of the 70s, Chantal Akerman’s Je, tu, il, elle. Also about a young woman who finds herself traveling somewhat aimlessly, Akerman’s film is much more of an endurance test than Baumbach’s, but both films assess their gender politics in subtle ways. At its heart, Frances Ha is a love story between two heterosexual girls, with all the natural tragedy inherent in that situation (Read Jenni Miller’s excellent essay on female friendship at Film.com). “We are like the two lesbians who don’t fuck anymore,” Frances jokingly notes early on, but their friendship is so intimate that when reality and adulthood crash into the two, Frances is thrown for a loop. We’re left as utterly confused that Sophie’s life is becoming so quickly responsible and socially perfect as Frances is.
As strong a hook as the film’s trailer is, many of the moments sound way too precious out of context. “Sometimes it’s good to do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it.” It sounds like a patronizing moral-of-the-story serving line out of context, but, like many of the film’s jokes, serves well to illustrate how ironic Frances’ beliefs are in comparison to her self-destructive actions. An inopportune trip to Paris becomes just as foolish as a scene where she exuberantly cops to natural gender roles by making breakfast for her male roommates. The film has as much to say about sexual and gender roles as it does about the destructive attitudes of post-college young adults, and it conveys those themes without shoveling them down our throats. I’m not certain yet if Frances Ha is Baumbach’s best film, but it’s certainly his least male film, and it’s astonishing to see him mask his gender so effectively behind the camera.
Sarah Polley certainly isn’t the first narrative director to take an aside in documentary film, as Martin Scorsese and Abbas Kiarostami have both dipped their toes into the format, the former with musical docs like Shine a Light. While Scorsese’s such works have acted more as diversions, Stories We Tell is very much a Sarah Polley film in the same regards as Take This Waltz, yet also does double duty as a deeply personal origin story of the director. Polley removes her own opinion from the start by having her family members tell “the whole story” about her mother, building an storytelling environment early on that’s more comfortable in confession than the usual talking-head documentary. What at first seems like just an investigation of her mother’s love life takes a few unexpected turns along the way.
Even before Polley’s true investigatory intentions become clear, though, Stories We Tell is still equally enchanting and astonishing as a window into the personal life of another deeply-knit family tapestry. If we haven’t been through quite the same situation as Sarah, we all still have family secrets and stories we’d rather keep to ourselves. That Polley is so open not only in personal confession, but also in shoehorning her family members into confessing their many contrasting opinions, really goes some distance to showing how uncompromising a director she is. She brings us through the ringer of this family drama that only works because it is so unique in comparison to our own respective family issues.
It’s a tough film to get under the skin of without getting into spoilers, which I usually don’t have a problem with. Who cares about the Ben’edict Kinsleybatch as the MandarKhan? It’s all the same old inauthentic tune, but Polley’s story is so sweetly, intimately told that it feels presumptive to assume I have any more right to reveal it. It’s an experience that’s best lived before investigating. I will give one *SPOILER WARNING*, since it’s worth noting how much Polley had me fooled and utterly mesmerized by the gorgeous Super 8 footage I assumed were genuine home videos. *END SPOILERS* Even in the documentary format, she finds a way to stretch her visual creativity. If there’s one trend I’d most like to see continued on in her filmmaking, it’s the prolonged embittering denouement. Just as Take This Waltz refused to cop to a happy ending over the right ending, Stories We Tell stretches things out just enough to have us pondering what we saw with even deeper philosophical questions.