Saturday 27 March 2021

Cowboys (Anna Kerrigan, 2020)

Screening as part of BFI Flare until tomorrow, Cowboys stands as one of the very best films playing at this year's festival.  Which is quite the compliment, given that the 2021 edition of Flare has boasted an especially strong lineup; having now seen every one of the 26 feature films on offer, I can honestly say that there isn't one title in there that isn't worthy of your time and money.  Given that most film festivals usually serve up their fair share of duds, the quality of this year's Flare programme is testament to the terrific work of the team responsible for the event; the standard of this year's edition is all the more remarkable when you consider that the festival was assembled under the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 (last year's Flare was cancelled on account of the pandemic).  If you are unable to access the excellent Cowboys on the festival platform, it is also available to view on Apple TV.

The film centres on Troy (Steve Zahn), a father struggling with both bipolar disorder and a fractious relationship with his estranged wife Sally (Jillian Bell).  Troy and Sally have an 11-year-old named Joe (Sasha Knight), whose gender dysphoria is a bone of contention between the two adults; Troy is very supportive of Joe, while Sally is generally unwilling to accept that her child identifies as a boy.  Troy has moved out of the family home and, as is so often the case with such arrangements, the matter of parental visits is another cause of conflict; it's fair to say that no-one in the family is having a particularly great time.  Following one especially fraught episode, Troy and Joe hastily plan to run away together, and the two head off on a horseback odyssey through the wilds of Montana, with the goal being to cross the border into Canada where, according to Steve, a more accepting society awaits.  Meanwhile, Sally has alerted the authorities, and a determined—yet not completely unsympathetic—detective (Ann Dowd) sets off to track down the missing child.

Throughout Troy and Joe's journey, we're treated to flashbacks which fill in more details regarding both of them, and through these we witness a family disintegrating as various pressures are piled on.  The film isn't keen on apportioning blame, however, and it's refreshing to see that Sally isn't cast as the villain of the piece; while we're shown that Sally has been difficult, we also witness occasions when Troy does little to help his own (or anyone else's) cause, and it's clear that both of the parents have contributed to the decline of their marriage.  Meanwhile, in the present, Joe and Troy (and their quite magnificent horse) edge their way through the wild, with their transient life in the rural Northwest recalling 2018's similarly-themed Leave No Trace.  One night, Joe wanders away from the campsite and promptly falls into a nearby river; although Troy comes to the rescue, he loses his medication in the process, and in the days that follow his behaviour grows increasingly erratic, which is especially troubling given that he's carrying a gun.  As the trek grows ever harder, the two trudge on towards Canada, but at the same time the police are gaining ground on the runaways.

Cowboys features some great performances—Zahn, Bell, Knight and Dowd all turn in terrific work here, and the film makes for a taut, tense affair, one in which you feel as if you're never far away from disaster, which is probably a fairly accurate representation of a life spent both on the run and in the wild.  While the film certainly doesn't shy away from the issue of gender dysphoria, it really isn't the driving force behind Cowboys—rather, the story of a father doing whatever he can to help his child is the beating heart of the film.  Troy may be misguided—most would agree that his plan to whisk his child away is not a very clever one—but there's no doubting his sincerity, and he clearly believes that his actions are going to benefit Joe.  There's plenty of nuance here and, just as with the film's reluctance to demonise Sally, there's no attempt to sell Troy's actions as the correct ones.  Troy is simply a desperate man doing what he thinks is best; while we're required to sympathise with (and even root for) him, we're at no point asked to buy into what he's doing, and we get so caught up in caring for Troy and Joe's wellbeing that we largely forget about the hare-brained nature of their quest.  Cowboys is a gripping, affecting tale, sensitively told.

Darren Arnold

Thursday 25 March 2021

Sublet (Eytan Fox, 2020)

Ten years ago, Matthew Haigh's Weekend was released to great acclaim; while I found the film to be perfectly watchable, I was (and remain) puzzled by the ecstatic response that greeted what, to my eyes, was a fairly minor diversion involving a brief encounter between two men.  Eytan Fox's Sublet, which screens as part of BFI Flare until Sunday, may well be doomed to unfavourable comparisons to Weekend, but for my money Fox's film is the far stronger work.  Much of Sublet's appeal lies in the presence of John Benjamin Hickey, who delivers a terrifically moving turn as a fiftysomething travel writer on assignment in Israel.  Hickey's Michael is an affable, gentle type, yet there's a melancholy aspect to him that can't be ignored.  In what is effectively a two-hander, Hickey is joined by newcomer Niv Nissim, a young Israeli actor who makes an impressive screen debut as he rises to meet the high bar set by his experienced co-star.

When Michael arrives in Tel Aviv to write an article on the city's lesser-known attractions, he finds that his rental accommodation hasn't been vacated; instead, young film student Tomer (Nissim), who is the one subletting the flat to Michael, thinks the rental period isn't due to start until the following day.  Once the mix-up has been sorted, Tomer hastily gathers up some of his things and leaves Michael in the cluttered, messy apartment.  Michael settles in and checks in with his husband David (Nomadland producer Peter Spears) who, it transpires, has been clandestinely working on finding a surrogate mother for the couple; Michael is irked to discover this, and it seems that the ambition of becoming a parent is one he's lost his enthusiasm for.  It isn't long before Tomer returns to the flat to collect some more of his belongings, and it turns out that the student doesn't have too many options for other places to stay while he rents out his apartment for some much-needed cash; Michael is basically fine with the idea of his landlord sleeping on the couch, so Tomer winds up in the position of receiving a rental income for an apartment he's still staying in.  Michael would like something in return, however, and proposes that Tomer be his guide around the "real" Tel Aviv as he researches his article.  As Tomer isn't short on time, he happily agrees.

As in all good two-handers, it is the gap between the pair that provides the main source of interest, but as Michael and Tomer spend more time together, we see how their many differences (for example, attitudes to AIDS) give way to some common ground; as well as being gay men, the two share a faith (many years previously, Michael actually visited Tel Aviv for his bar mitzvah).  When prompted for some insight into the Israeli mentality, Tomer memorably opines, "We're in the Middle East, but want to be treated like we’re in the West", and with this statement it becomes fairly clear that, in cultural terms, Michael can probably learn more from Tomer than vice versa.  Yet the older man's views on relationships and family life are there for Tomer to absorb; to the script's great credit, Michael doesn't dive headlong into the habits of the rather hedonistic Tomer, but instead stands his ground when his guide tries to introduce him to the joys of, say, MDMA or the Israeli version of Grindr.  Neither man concedes too much to the other, and this makes their lively, thoughtful (and largely non-confrontational) conversations all the more remarkable.

Sublet is both well-written and well-acted, and it has much in common with another Flare 2021 title, Daniel Sánchez López's Boy Meets Boy (pictured above), a slightly lesser work which also sees a local guiding a tourist around a major city while the clock ticks down; furthermore, both of these men, just like Sublet's Michael and Tomer, have radically different views regarding relationships.  In López's film, the city in question is Berlin, somewhere that two of Sublet's satellite characters are planning on moving to, much to Michael's bewilderment; the writer questions why they would want to live in a country that symbolises so much in the way of Jewish tragedy, and the response highlights a generational divide, one which thankfully doesn't get in the way of Tomer and Michael's ongoing dialogue.  It's only in the final reel that Sublet takes an unfortunate misstep into predictability, but for the bulk of its running time this is a thoughtful, moving piece of cinema, one that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

Darren Arnold

Images: Daniel Miller / BFI

Tuesday 23 March 2021

Dramarama (Jonathan Wysocki, 2020)

Jonathan Wysocki's first feature takes us back to the title period of another directorial debut, Jonah Hill's Mid90s; besides taking place in the same era as Hill's film, Dramarama has a couple of other shared features with Mid90s: both movies are coming-of-age tales set in California.  However, Dramarama diverges from the rather sombre Mid90s in that Wysocki's film, for the most part, is a breezy, cheerful work, albeit one in which the plentiful quips and one-liners often serve to paper over some psychological cracks.  It's to Dramarama's credit that, as a 90s-set film, it doesn't overdo it on the nostalgia front—beyond the sight of some cassette tapes and the prominent use of They Might Be Giants on the soundtrack, there's not too much here to anchor the film to its time.  While each of Dramarama's main characters is more than capable of being infuriating, Wysocki stealthily builds up the story's emotional core to the point that the movie ends on a genuinely moving note.

Dramarama, which plays at BFI Flare until Sunday, sees five high school drama friends meet for one last farewell before they head off to college.  This end-of-an-era gathering takes the form of a fancy dress/murder mystery party held at the home of Rose (Anna Grace Barlow), who has opted to dress up as Dickens' Amelia Havisham.  It's not long before the other guests arrive: Claire (Megan Suri), Oscar (Nico Greetham), Ally (Danielle Kay) and Gene (Nick Pugliese).  Although the evening is intended to be a fun, light-hearted affair for the gang before they go their separate ways, Gene has been thinking long and hard about the occasion, as he plans to use it to come out to his friends.  To say he's nervous at the thought of this is something of an understatement; as it happens, tensions flare among the various members of the group, and the many resentments that have been bubbling away for some time suddenly rise to the surface.  If Gene is to come out as planned, it probably won't be the showstopping moment he feared it would be, given the increasingly fraught nature of the soirée.  

If the group dynamic wasn't sufficiently complicated to begin with, enter JD (Zak Henri), a high school dropout who just happens to be delivering pizzas to Rose's house.  The conceited JD, who is clearly well-read, appears to have the measure of each of the group members, and they all appear to be slightly uneasy in his presence; what's more, JD supplies another potential source of resentment by inviting Gene to another party that is due to take place later on the same evening.  Having helped himself to some alcohol while dismissing Rose's gathering as a kids' party, JD eventually heads back to work with the promise that he'll be back to collect Gene once his shift ends.  JD serves as a formidable agent provocateur, and his fleeting, aggravating presence is seemingly all that the members of the group need in order to start airing their grievances to one another. 

Given Jonathan Wysocki's background in theatre and the fact that his film centres on a drama group, it isn't too surprising to find that Dramarama feels very much like a filmed play, a sense reinforced by the fact that the action unfolds almost exclusively within the four walls of Rose's home.  While set in Wysocki's hometown of Escondido, we see almost nothing of the city, which most of the group appear quite happy to be leaving for pastures new; of the five at the party, only Gene is planning to stick around, which is especially interesting, given that one would assume that his intention to come out would line up with a move away and the start of a new chapter.  It's quite refreshing to see Gene opting to stay at a time when most of his peers are flying the coop, and it demonstrates how he doesn't need a different background in order to be himself.  Of the actors, it's Barlow and Suri who deliver the best performances, with the latter in particular injecting some warmth into her straitlaced, underwritten character, one that the rather snide JD refers to as "puritanical".  Dramarama is a fun if admittedly slight confection, yet its farewell scenes provide moments of real pathos.         

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI

Sunday 21 March 2021

Tove (Zaida Bergroth, 2020)

For most of us, the name Tove Jansson will always be synonymous with the Moomins, those lovable Hippo-like trolls who have captured the imagination of so many children (and adults) via their adventures spanning nine books and countless comic strips.  In addition to their appearances in print, the Moomins are no stranger to the screen, and back in  2014 the excellent Moomins on the Riviera treated us to several rather unexpected sights, including Moominpappa nursing a raging hangover and Snorkmaiden in a bikini.  Moomins on the Riviera was a work that fully tapped into the slightly anarchic sense of mischief that was often lurking around the edges of the pages of the Moomins' escapades and, as this excellent new biopic proves, an impish sense of adventure was a key component in Jansson's life away from the page.  Tove Jansson was a bestselling author whom the general public knew very little about, and it is probably fair to say that many readers in the Anglophone world didn't even know if Jansson was male or female, much less what she looked like or how she lived.

Although not exactly a writer who shunned all publicity à la J. D. Salinger, it is fair to say that the Moomins were always the public face of Jansson, but as Tove—which screens at BFI Flare until March 28—proves, she led an interesting, full life, one that was by no means lacking in drama.  The film begins as WW2 is drawing to a close; once the conflict ends, Tove, now in her early thirties, is swept up in the new sense of optimism and freedom that is swirling through society, and she sets up in her own place where she spends her days honing her skills as a painter.  Tove's stern sculptor father is critical of his daughter, not so much because of the paintings she produces, but rather because of her unconventional approach to both life and work; her mother, on the other hand, is far more sympathetic.  Tove mixes with a bohemian circle, and open relationships are quite common among those she socialises with; it's not long before she enters into such an arrangement with Atos, a prominent member of parliament.  While both Tove and Atos seem quite content with this setup, a complication soon arrives in the form of the aristocratic Vivica, a theatre director who quickly captures Tove's heart.

While Tove is soon completely besotted by her new love, such devotion isn't reciprocated; the flighty Vivica thinks little of jetting off to Paris, and when Tove eagerly heads to the airport to meet the returning director, she's more than a little surprised to find that Vivica is accompanied by another woman.  Shaken but not completely undeterred, Tove puts on a brave face and persists with her relationship with Vivica, but there's a sense that the author is simply being toyed with and is just one of many women in Vivica's life.  A surprise (and not entirely unwelcome) marriage proposal from Atos ultimately brings its own complications, and it's clear that Tove still has some way to go if she is to achieve personal happiness.  Meanwhile, in career terms, things really start to pick up for both Tove and the Moomins, and the author signs a lengthy, lucrative contract to provide Moomin comic strips to London newspaper The Evening News.

Tove is a stylish and engaging work, one which features a superb turn from Alma Pöysti as the title character.  Pösyti, in her first starring role, delivers a well-judged performance as she deftly wraps the clearly sensitive (and occasionally troubled) Jansson in a puckish exterior.  It is hard not to feel the jolt of pain Tove experiences as she unexpectedly catches a glimpse of Vivica across a crowded Parisian café, especially when we can clearly see that she has far better options than chasing after the fickle theatre director.  Yet it is from her personal relationships—with friends, family, lovers—that we discover the inspiration for the various Moomin characters; like so many authors, Jansson used real-life encounters as part of the basis for her fiction.  With Tove, it feels as if numerous blanks have been filled in regarding the author—assuming we've ever given much thought to the Moomins' creator; for so many of us, this engrossing, intelligent film tells a story we didn't know we were waiting to hear.  

Darren Arnold

Images: kallerna [CC BY-SA 3.0] / BFI

Friday 19 March 2021

My First Summer (Katie Found, 2020)

Australian director Katie Found's debut feature is a warm, hugely likeable coming-of-age tale, one that features strong, appealing performances from its two young leads.  In terms of capturing the essence of a hazy summer in which two teens come to find themselves—and each other—Found succeeds admirably; what's even more impressive is that this languorous atmosphere is created, and maintained, despite there being no shortage of dramatic events in the film's crisp running time.  That My First Summer neatly avoids the pitfalls that blight so many inaugural efforts is testament to the sterling work of its cast and crew, and at no point is there the sense that this is a debut; the film exudes a quiet confidence as it steadily weaves its spell, all the while avoiding the sort of needless flashiness that so many first films succumb to. 

16-year-old Claudia (Markella Kavenagh) is suddenly orphaned when her mother Veronica (Edwina Wren) drowns in a reservoir close to their home.  Claudia has led what is, quite literally, a very sheltered life, as reclusive author Veronica opted to completely shield her daughter from the ills of the world; as such, Claudia has spent her whole life in the remote home she shared with her mum and the outrageously cute Tilly, the family dog.  While it seems that Claudia received an education, she knows very little of the world and its ways; so successful was her mother's cocooning, it appears that no-one is even aware that Veronica had a child.  Therefore, when the writer's body is found, nothing is done in the way of checking up on the stranded teen.  But Claudia and Tilly aren't on their own for long, as another local 16-year-old, Grace (Maiah Stewardson), stumbles into their lives.  It transpires that Grace witnessed Veronica's death and spotted Claudia nearby; although Grace reports these details to two local police officers (Steve Mouzakis, Harvey Zielinski), she later recants.  The streetwise Grace, who favours cheerful dayglo clothing and shocking pink accessories, brings some much-needed colour into Claudia's rather beige existence, and as Grace befriends the jumpy, cautious Claudia, she is able to get some welcome relief from her own unhappy home life.  

As Grace and Claudia grow closer, there is a cumulative sense that their sun-basked idyll can't last, and the dreaded day comes when the same two detectives come to poke around Claudia's house; although Claudia manages to hide from the police, the officers discover the friendly Tilly and take her to be rehomed, much to Claudia's distress.  Thankfully, Grace is able to intervene and ensures that Tilly returns to Claudia; much like when she persuaded the police that she hadn't seen a girl at the scene of the drowning, Grace manages to convince the officers that Tilly is her own dog.  Luckily for Grace (and Claudia), these bumbling cops are neither very bright nor competent: shouldn't they have investigated Veronica's home immediately after her death, and/or carried out a simple records search that would have revealed Claudia's existence?  In any case, the threat to Grace and Claudia's magical world has been alleviated—at least for now.

While both of the leads are very good, on balance it's Stewardson who just edges it as Grace, a young woman who, despite having a home life that forces her to leave her guard up, hasn't lost her ability to let someone into her life—as her relationship with Claudia proves.  Grace is both well-played and well-written, and it would have been all too easy, not to say predictable, to portray her as a truculent, defensive character who slowly regains trust in others through the naïve Claudia.  Likewise, Claudia is no grunting, feral caricature, but merely has the limited knowledge and experience one would expect to find in someone who has spent the first 16 years of their life with just one other human being.  It is the nuance in both Found's script and the central performances that makes My First Summer such a refreshing, beguiling work; this fine film screens as part of BFI Flare until March 28.

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI

Wednesday 17 March 2021

Enfant Terrible (Oskar Roehler, 2020)

In the second sequel to Despicable Me—a title which, had it not already been taken, would have proved an apt choice for Oskar Roehler's latest film—Trey Parker's villainous Balthazar Bratt frequently wheels out his catchphrase: "I've been a bad boy".  Were the subject of Enfant Terrible—infamous Bavarian filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder—to borrow Bratt's catchphrase, it would stand as a monumental understatement, much like the title of Roehler's biopic, which doesn't come remotely close to crystallising the wide-ranging cruelty meted out by the unhinged director.  While Roehler's film allows us to marvel at Fassbinder's prolific career—by the time of his death, at age 37, he'd completed more than 40 films—it is by no means a hagiography, and the consequences of Fass' destructive behaviour are laid bare for all to see.  That said, there are times when Fassbinder comes across as an almost sympathetic character, one who appears pathologically incapable of accepting the love and attention he continually craves.

Much of Enfant Terrible's appeal lies in its towering central performance; as Fassbinder, Oliver Masucci is little short of sensational, and the actor deftly avoids lapsing into caricature.  For the majority of the hefty running time, Masucci's Fassbinder is rarely seen without a cigarette in his mouth and/or a drink in his hand, and as the film progresses we see the director's drug habit escalate to the extent where it eventually, predictably causes his premature death; the copious substance abuse depicted here goes a long way towards explaining both Fassbinder's productivity and his frequently appalling treatment of those close to him.  As Enfant Terrible goes about the business of detailing the production of several of its subject's films, it soon becomes apparent that Fassbinder saw no meaningful line of demarcation between his life and work, and whoever was in favour at any given time was likely to be playing the lead both on and off screen.  Mind you, there was really only one lead in Fassbinder's life; just in case we've failed to identify who this is, one particularly loyal subject—who's been pushed far beyond his limits—finally sends a home truth in Fass' direction, yelling, "only your feelings count".  If only Fassbinder cared what others thought.  

Enfant Terrible is populated by many recognisable characters. including Andy Warhol, Jack Palance, Ulli Lommel, and of course the core group who became famous on the basis of their work with Fassbinder; some of these have retained their actual names, while others—such as Hanna Schygulla—are represented by thinly-veiled proxies.  Few, if any, of Fassbinder's entourage are safe from his vindictive, bullying nature, and we witness the director masterminding numerous cruel incidents: a vegetarian is coerced into eating meat; an actor is forced to do a stuntman's job as he's dragged along the ground by a motorcycle; and a pair of young children are deliberately locked out of an apartment as the rain lashes down.  Fassbinder's unpleasantness, much like the devotion of his numerous hangers-on, knows few bounds, and it seems that the bulk of his circle are prepared to overlook the tyrannical behaviour of someone who seems indifferent to the damage he inflicts on others; indeed, more than one of those close to Fassbinder winds up dead before he does.

While Enfant Terrible is perhaps ten minutes too long, it is an absorbing, hugely entertaining film that's anchored by a terrific leading performance.  While Masucci—an actor previously best known for Netflix series Dark—is around fifteen years older than Fassbinder was when he died, he's so compelling and convincing in the part that this proves to be no obstacle; this is all the more remarkable when you consider that he plays Fassbinder from the age of 22 until his death (admittedly, it probably helps that the drug-ravaged Fass could have passed for someone much older as his life neared its conclusion).   The film is stylised to the extent that it's often hard to know whether we're looking at a set of a Fassbinder film or just a scene of the director at home with his friends, which again highlights the lack of a boundary between the subject's life and work.  At times, Enfant Terrible's look and feel recall those of another biopic, Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent, and Roehler's film is a similarly handsome piece of work, one that will hopefully prompt those new to Fassbinder to dive into his extensive filmography.  Enfant Terrible screens as part of BFI Flare from today until March 28; should geo-restrictions prevent you from viewing the film at the festival, there is another option available in the form of the German Blu-ray, which was released just a few days ago. 

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI