Love, Simon (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
The first major studio-supported teen coming out story “Love, Simon,” based on the novel “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” by Becky Albertalli, starts off on the wrong foot and stumbles. Considering the quality cast, I couldn’t help but wonder why nearly every attempt at humor comes across forced and cringe-worthy. A silly attempt at flirting before driving off for school. The overly enthusiastic vice-principal (Tony Hale) collecting cell phones in the hall. An uneasy interaction with the class clown (Logan Miller) by the lockers. These are elements that belong in a television show. Easy to execute, low rewards. But something interesting happens about a third of the way through. The film stops playing everything so safe. I was jolted into paying attention as the title character goes through desperate lengths to keep his “huge-ass secret” hidden. Simon is likable, but some of his decisions are not.
Simon is played by Nick Robinson and it is smart casting not only because the actor has an effortless sad look about him (which served him well in the drama “Being Charlie,” about a drug-addicted teen who decides to terminate his treatment prematurely), required during the more dramatic turns of the plot. It is critical, especially for a commercial coming out story, that the protagonist be convincing as an American boy next door who goes to school in the suburbs in either coast—including the Midwest, perhaps even the South. Because the look of the subject is accessible, relatable, and approachable, gay teenagers still in the closet might look at him and immediately recognize a part of themselves. And for those who may not look or act like him, the screenplay by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger is already a step ahead.
It is true that the main character dreads to reveal his sexual identity. He recognizes that his liberal parents will likely accept him (Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel). And he is almost certain his best friends (Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) will have no problem with it. Looking closely, it isn’t really the coming out that terrifies him most; the core of his fear is those he loves seeing him differently after the fact. And that’s what this picture gets exactly right that so many LGBTQ pictures, many of them comedies, that tackle the same subject get exactly wrong. I admired that the material has the sense to explore what it means to come out of the closet, not just the act of it. Because of this insight and willingness to dive deeper an extra level, despite its shortcomings, it is already a tier above its contemporaries.
About three quarters of the way through, the picture has reached full power. There is a wonderful exchange—moving, delicate, and powerful all rolled into one—between mother and son that highlights what it means to come to terms with one’s sexuality, to decide to live that private sphere more publicly; its effects on one’s state of mind and overall sense of being further down the line even though every day is a long, painful struggle at the moment. Garner reminds us how underutilized she is as a dramatic performer. It reminded me of the disarming exchange between father and son at end of Luca Guadagnino’s sublime “Call Me by Your Name.” Both interactions underscore optimism and hope for the future. It is something that every LGBTQ person, especially youths, ought to hear and take with them.
“Love, Simon,” directed by Greg Berlanti, is not without genuinely amusing moments. Particularly creative are instances when we get a peek inside Simon’s imagination. Cue the striking changes in lighting and pop songs playing in the background. Following an anonymous post at the school website, Simon begins a correspondence with “Blue,” a student who claims he is gay. Part of the fun is following Simon’s journey in trying to guess or deduce the identity of Blue. We are provided a few candidates. Some lead to inevitable heartbreak even though it appears that certain candidates fit the puzzle based on the contents of the e-mails. Admittedly, I had my money on the incorrect candidate, but I appreciated that the material went ahead with the braver choice.
Lincoln Lawyer, The (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) is known for defending scums of Los Angeles and has made many connections and resources that one way or another help him to win cases. When thirty-two-year-old Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) is taken to jail for allegedly assaulting a woman in her own home, Haller jumps at the opportunity to represent him because the family is rich and therefore profitable. However, the case is not as smooth sailing as Haller expected it to be when he learns that his client may have committed a similar crime prior.
“The Lincoln Lawyer,” based on the novel of the same name by Michael Connelly, reminded me of movies in the ’70s where men of certain professions who think they have it good, sometimes at the expense of others, are suddenly thrown into an emotional and psychological blender. And since the pressure is too much, they begin to wonder the value of their services and seriously consider if it is worth it to keep walking on the same path.
The film will appeal to those with interest in character studies. Right from the opening scene we are shown that Haller is slick, a smooth talker, and is highly intelligent—someone who you would want to be represented by if you got into serious trouble. He may not be the most sensitive guy in room but he knows how to get the job done and make it look effortless. McConaughey is so believable as an ace defense lawyer, I forgot that I was watching him until the inevitable bedroom scene in which he is required to take his shirt off.
The courtroom scenes command a silent intensity. There is no score that is meant to highlight game-changing revelations. Meaningful silences are kept at a minimum. The sense of humor is subtle and graceful. We wonder which direction the case is going to go.
A weakness of the picture is the push-and-pull between the former spouses. While Marisa Tomei can carry the clothes and the attitude of a lawyer, Maggie McPherson is not written as a whole person, someone who is formidable or daring enough to have married Haller in the first place. There is this phony conflict about McPherson feeling frustrated that her ex-husband works to keep bad guys from jail and she wanting to put them inside. It is ludicrous because she should have known that that comes with Haller’s job prior to marrying him in the first place. If she did not have a problem with in the past, why make a fuss about it now? The conflict feels superficial and contrived.
Nonetheless, “The Lincoln Lawyer,” based on the screenplay by John Romano and directed by Brad Furman, is well-acted and engaging. The supporting actors, particularly William H. Macy and Josh Lucas, fit their roles so well. Best of all, though it is a drama in its core with surrounding thriller elements, it entertains because it urges one to think about some of the rules behind attorney-client confidentiality and how it can be perverted to one’s advantage.
Brad’s Status (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Some reviews will claim that in order to have a complete appreciation for the whip-smart comedy “Brad’s Status,” written and directed by Mike White, one would have to be middle-aged because the topics it tackles requires considerable life experience. But I say anybody who constantly checks in with themselves will be able to connect with and enjoy the film for its searing honesty and ability to remain in touch with both the humor and the drama of a situation depending on one’s mood, personality, or general perspective when it comes to how life works. This film is clearly made for observant viewers.
The titular character, played by Ben Stiller, is most unhappy as of late because he constantly finds himself dreaming forward and regretting the past, rarely choosing to be present in the now, appreciating the great things in his life, and relishing what he has accomplished thus far. Although I do not relate to Brad’s suffering, despite his neuroses, I recognized this character right away: he is a colleague at work, a stranger walking down the street, a family member who puts on a fake smile during reunions. I empathized with him, but I did not feel sorry for him. The material is interested in dissecting differences between seemingly similar emotions.
Stiller fits the role like a glove. Observe how he expertly navigates a series of thoughts and feelings, often in one sitting and in quick successions, that run across Brad’s face. Couple the performer’s craft with an energetic screenplay that courageously combines daydreams, flashbacks, and scalding reality in a blender, what results is a highly watchable, entertaining, and surprisingly insightful look at a privileged man who has everything he needs yet still finds himself wanting for more. He doesn’t exactly know why he craves more, it’s just that he does.
He claims he is envious of his former college friends (Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson, Mike White) because they possess power, ludicrous amount money, women, and fame, but notice how Brad, someone so detail-oriented when it comes to his yearnings, fails to describe what he would actually do if he acquired such things. Why is this man creating the pandemonium in his mind? Does he find pleasure in putting himself through mental agony? Does he have a mood or mental disorder? Is it his way of coping with the fact that his son (Austin Abrams), a gifted musician, is soon moving away for university? I enjoyed that the writer-director is not afraid to introduce possibilities thereby making the work layered, consistently worthy of exploration from different angles.
Perhaps the best moments in this sharp and humane film involve the father looking at his son and weighing whether the boy in front of him would become competition, whether the boy would eventually make him feel small, insignificant, like a loser—just like the way his former friends “made” him feel throughout the years. It is during moments like these that “Brad’s Status” is at its bravest and most uncomfortable—which makes it so worthy of our time because it forces us to look inwards, recognize, and perhaps even come to terms with some of our own monsters.
Babysitter, The (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Babysitter,” directed by McG and based on the screenplay by Brian Duffield, is particularly difficult for me to review because I acknowledge that it offers a few laughs, the two leading performances are highly watchable, and the premise involving a preteen’s discovery that his babysitter is actually a part of a Satanic cult is so wild, I was excited how the story is going to take shape. But without a shadow of doubt, the film belongs under the category of children-in-danger movies, and it is most unfortunate that it keeps the protagonist under constant torment—so constant that right from the opening scene this boy is already being terrorized at school.
Children-in-peril pictures can work given a sharp, intelligent writing that functions as commentary. For example, it can tackle the subject of young people being so sheltered that modern parenting is essentially training future adults to constantly demand being in a safe space. In my opinion, children-in-peril movies rarely work as a straightforward horror-thriller, or even as a horror-comedy, because there is a tendency toward fetishizing not only the violence or gore but also our expectation that a child must not be harmed or mutilated in any way. In other words, films that generate thrills solely through the guise of the audience not wanting to a child being hurt can be considered as lowest hanging fruit.
And so throughout the film, I constantly had to ask myself what the material is saying behind the superficial entertainment. I found none. I suppose one can claim that the story is about a twelve-year-old, who is pretty much afraid of everything, being forced to to find courage in himself to stand up against bullies. But that is a stretch because the villains in the film, members of the Satanic cult (Robbie Amell, Hana Mae Lee, Bella Thorne, Andrew Bachelor), are purposefully written as walking stereotypes.
In real life, bullies are more than archetypes and in order for the film to have meaning beyond the images on screen, the writing must command depth and subtlety. Those who dare to compare this film, for example, to Joss Whedon’s writing (“The Cabin in the Woods,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel”) clearly have little to no understanding about why Whedon’s works possess cultural relevance. They aren’t just post-modern, have quirky premises, or tapping into zeitgeist. They are genuinely saying something beyond what we see and experience on screen. These works care about teenagers and young adults.
It is too bad because I really enjoyed the central performances here. Samara Weaving as Bee the babysitter reminded me at times of Margot Robbie’s ability to go from warmly intrigued to sexually electric, while Judah Lewis as Cole the fearful adolescent brought back flashes of Corey Haim in the underrated 1986 coming-of-age picture “Lucas.” A standout scene in the picture is a dramatic moment when Cole reveals to Bee that he feels such a weirdo at times that, essentially, he feels helpless in his own skin. This is such a moving scene that I wished the movie had been about the bond between the sitter and the preteen, completely throwing out the wacky chases, over-the-top gore, and absurd resolution.
The horror-comedy will certainly entertain some, but those looking for a more substantial story and character development with smart decisions throughout are best advised to stay away. And because of the title, it must be stated outright that “The Babysitter” is not at all a successful throwback to late-‘70s and ’80s slashers. There is no suspense to be had here.
★★ / ★★★★
Cory Finley’s first feature film “Thoroughbreds” is a black comedy so bleak and straight-faced that it is likely to be mistaken for a thriller. After all, it involves a plotting of a murder by two former friends, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke), recently reunited at the end of their final year of high school to study for college entrance exams. The latter is notorious as the girl who killed her family’s horse and she is now awaiting sentencing for animal cruelty. It is a daring project, which may work for some due to its occasional bouts of originality, but looking at it as a whole leaves a lot to be desired. Certainly its tale is not as fully realized as it should have been.
Nothing more can be asked of Taylor-Joy and Cooke because they play the characters with moment-to-moment intriguing vivacity. They manage to sell every line even though a handful of them sound like dialogue in a play. They are in command of how their characters express themselves, how they take up space, how they approach challenges or what they perceive to be challenges. The problem is, I think, the screenplay, the manner by which these characters lack a requisite arc in order for the story to come across genuine and for the audience to feel some sort of satisfaction when all is said and done. I felt no emotional connection to it, let alone emotional investment.
We are provided a template that Amanda is the unfeeling half, completely foreign to a range of feelings like happiness, sorrow, regret—some might say the very elements that separate humans from animals. Lily, on the other hand, is the complete opposite: too feeling, sensitive, consistently apologetic even during her moments of honesty. We are excited for how might the two will clash and complement one another during their conspiracy. I enjoyed that it tackles the question of how two people who lack empathy might relate with one another. Keeping their natures in mind, we dissect which emotions are real and which are convincing fabrications.
The heavy-handed dichotomy shoves the viewer in a state where one notices immediately things that do not quite belong. Despite the solid portrayals of Amanda and Lily, it doesn’t appear that they exist within a convincing environment. For instance, during intense exchanges between the girls, we hear a line or two that sounds like it should have been uttered in a play rather than a movie. It knocks us off-guard.
Although the scene recovers, the distraction is consequential enough for us to look away from the focal images and toward, for example, the presentation of a kitchen—not just how it is spotless, but also in how it appears to never have been used. Untouched utensils begin to look like props. Is the faucet even connected to a water line? The set looks like a set and we are reminded of it repeatedly. This is bothersome because the story unfolds indoors most of the time. There is an overall fragility and artificiality here that is alarming when one thing looks or sounds out of place—enough to take one out of a would-be intense experience.
I have always stated that dark comedy requires surgical precision. While an above average effort as a whole and some elements do work, “Thoroughbreds” is perhaps a kind of story that a filmmaker ought to make after he or she has made three or four strong films. Still, I admired writer-director Cory Finley for attempting to bring a challenging piece to life and so I look forward to his next project. I am convinced there is at least one great movie in him.
Mississippi Masala (1991)
★★★ / ★★★★
Although Jay (Roshan Seth) was born and raised in Uganda, he and his family were forced to pack up their lives and emigrate when Idi Amin, the president in 1972, gave Asians ninety days to leave the country. The ethnic cleansing in Uganda was an event that Jay never chose to move on from, consistently sending letters, despite having established a life in Greenwood, Mississippi, to the Ugandan government. He wishes to sue for the property he had left behind.
Directed by Mira Nair, “Mississippi Masala” is a movie actually about something—and although it was released more than twenty years ago, it remains all the more resonant today. The picture is about race, yes, but it is also more than that. It is about identity and the film explores this subject on three fronts: Jay who considers himself Ugandan first and Indian second; Meena (Sarita Choudhury), Jay’s daughter, who gets romantically involved with a black man, Demetrius (Denzel Washington), despite knowing that her Indian community will disapprove of the relationship; and Demetrius, a carpet cleaner who has his own business, who must deal with the aftermath once everybody in town learns of his private life. Because the lives of the characters have so much depth, it is wise to end the film with some closure but not with a neat little bow.
The romantic and love scenes between Demetrius and Meena stand out. In the movies, seeing two people of color from different ethnic background remains uncommon in the first place, but treating their thoughts and feelings with complexity is rare. They are not reduced to stereotypes. I relished the scenes where the two characters are just talking and getting to know each other. There is always build-up. We learn about their key similarities and differences. We come up with good reasons why they should be together. Yet we acknowledge some of the challenges they might face. Will they hold hands? Kiss? Go to bed? Whatever happens, the chemistry between Washington and Choudhury is undeniable.
Perceptive is a good word to describe the film. A lower level of writing would have made the father a one-dimensional racist who does not want his daughter dating a black man. Deep down, we know Jay is not a racist even though some of his actions suggest he might be. Seth is a performer who fascinates the longer his face remains on a shot. He has a way of always wearing and thereby communicating his character’s painful final experiences in Uganda. Trauma becomes a part of his later choices.
Nair executes the scenes with confidence and flavor. I admired how she takes the time to show little things like how a specific family celebrates a birthday party, how a person sizes up the competition when it comes to winning over a man, how the central couple make love for the first time. Because almost each scene offers something special, combined with a story arc that is not a facsimile of Screenplay 101, what results is a work with a defined perspective, one that challenges, engages, and satiates the viewer.
Some might argue that perhaps it is too ambitious in scope. A valid criticism is that because it must spend time painting a complex picture of Jay’s trauma, Demetrius is not given a more definite or dramatic arc. At times I felt as though he comes across as too much of a nice guy. There is evidence that he grew up in poverty—or at least close to it. We expect to feel a bit of roughness from the character but we never do. Perhaps the writer and director considered that to be a predictable route and simply decided to go against it.
Strangers: Prey at Night, The (2018)
★ / ★★★★
Cobble together a bunch of violent and gruesome scenarios from generic slasher pictures released in the past twenty years and sprinkle in popular ‘80s songs in order to create a sense of ironic throwback—this is the lazy and idiotic strategy of writers Bryan Bertino and Ben Ketai in “The Strangers: Prey at Night,” a mean-spirited horror film devoid of any solid suspense, thrill, or payoff that lasts longer than five seconds. It is made, I think, for audiences with short attention spans, but even they are likely to be disappointed because there is a lack of craft, let alone originality, behind every buildup and delivery.
There comes a point when I began to question the filmmakers’ vision. As viewers who sign up to be entertained or to undergo catharsis, are we supposed to root for the family being tormented by masked figures eventually getting the upper hand and surviving their ordeal? Or are we supposed to relish the violence inflicted by the silent serial murderers, the victims’ tortured screaming, and cries of misery? On the surface, it is the former. But as one examines the execution, evidence points to the latter. I found the film sadistic without earning the right to be sadistic.
Most egregious is the scene that takes place in a minivan that has crashed into a trailer. The person on the driver’s seat is impaled by a sizable piece of wood in the stomach, rendering him unable to move. He is made aware that his death approaches when he sees the man in the mask standing a couple of feet to his left. The masked man walks over to the minivan, opens the door, and sits on the passenger seat. He basks in the victim’s misery. The camera admires the masked man’s power as the tortured protagonist screams and begs for his life. We watch the scene feeling helpless, deflated. It feels like an eternity.
Had this scenario been written differently, for example, the victim accepting his fate in silence, with pride, or the camera being placed from another angle thereby changing the sequence’s perspective and focus, the underlying message would have been different entirely. But it is a conscious choice, you see, to place the camera at a specific spot so that we, and the assailant, relish the horrific moment from the viewpoint of the villain instead of identifying with the victim. I felt sick about it and at that point I signed out. There is nothing entertaining about it; it just comes across as depraved for sake of being depraved.
Putting aside my personal objections, the family members being terrorized (Martin Henderson, Christina Hendricks, Bailee Madison, Lewis Pullman) are not written smart. During the first half, they do not possess any sort of survival instinct: they casually open doors to strangers who knock in the middle of the night, they (still) investigate bizarre noises even when they already know they are in a life or death situation, and they lack the common sense to use the vehicle’s horn at full power (there’s no neighbor around) instead of screaming out the window in order to get in contact with a family member. Do not get me started on their inability to use weapons.
And yet during the latter half, those who have survived thus far have suddenly developed such useful intuitions in other to outsmart or overpower their attackers. It’s preposterous. And laughable. It inspires the viewer to scream at the screen due to the unfolding idiocy.
“The Strangers: Prey at Night,” directed by Johannes Roberts, is an exercise in futility. Even the ending fails to deliver a powerful punch in order for the material to be memorable. A bad but memorable movie is better than a bad forgettable movie. It is so incompetent, it might as well have ended with a title card declaring “It’s all a dream!” Audiences are certain to walk away with furrowed brows.
Florida Project, The (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
When I stay in motels, the last thing I think about are the people who actually live there. In a way, for us tourists, the motel inhabitants are invisible in their own neighborhood. “The Florida Project,” written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, forces our eyes wide open to the realities of forgotten or ignored motel residents. It is not afraid to show their destitution, how community members interact with one another and those in power, how parents treat their children. Although a work of fiction, it creates a tone closer to a documentary.
The story is told through the eyes of children. It is summer vacation and so Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), Scooty (Christopher Rivera), and Dicky (Aiden Malik) go unsupervised most of the day, free to roam in and around the Magic Castle motel which is within walking distance of Walt Disney World. We observe them play, beg for change, buy ice cream, explore abandoned buildings, watch adults scream at one another, and tell one another their hopes and dreams. It is a deeply engaging picture without an expected story arc and therefore the usual trappings involving a look at poverty.
Emphasis is placed is on the children’s resilience. For instance, when faced with a problem, like not having money to buy ice cream, Moonee tells her new friend (Valeria Cotto) that they can actually get ice cream for free. They must ask strangers for change. But the screenplay is brilliant, you see, exactly because the emphasis of the dialogue is on the silver lining—getting the cold dessert for free. But the action emphasizes having to put in the time to actually acquire the snack.
Having had experience working with children, some of them from poor families, I found this observation to be disarmingly honest. Based on my own observations, kids, especially those who come from low-income families, learn to put a positive spin on the challenges that face them. The ice cream example is only one of many sharp details. Moonee’s mother (Bria Vinaite), consistently behind on rent, cannot send her daughter to the theme park and so Moonee must pretend that the abandoned motel several yards away is a giant haunted mansion. She has no access to safari tours in the world renowned park and so she must pretend that the animals behind the motel are creatures that she imagines to be living in the actual park. The world becomes her playground.
Much like the ostentatious color of the motel, we see through the children’s eyes in similar flashy colors. Look deeper and you will see the effects of long-term neglect of some of the children: how dirty their clothes look; how they speak to their elders; how, when indoors, they are always watching television or playing on the iPad and never reading books; the unhealthy food and drinks they put in their mouths. Not once does the film hammer the viewers into paying attention to these images. They are there to be noticed if one so chooses to look.
Director Sean Baker should be proud of this most humanistic project for it nudges audiences to look at a group of people we choose to ignore because looking at them makes many of us feel uncomfortable. The picture is also admirable for its craft. Adapting an observational, naturalistic approach, the meaning of the story will likely differ between you and me.
Sacrament, The (2013)
★ / ★★★★
Inspired by what is now known as the Jonestown Massacre, “The Sacrament,” written and directed by Ti West, is well-shot, beautifully photographed at times, but there is not enough payoff—despite the many deaths during the final twenty minutes. What results is an ungainly found footage feature that offers no real scare—not the kind that jumps out at the screen and we are shocked for a split-second, but the more difficult kind: images that will stay in our guts minutes or even hours after it is over.
Patrick (Kentucker Audley) gets a letter from his sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), saying that he is welcome to visit the parish that she had joined—a community that helped her to overcome drug addiction. Patrick’s friends, Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg), who cover provocative stories untouched by the mainstream, decide to tag along. The trio expect to encounter a hippie commune, but minutes after getting off the helicopter, they are greeted with guns and unfriendly faces.
West is a type of filmmaker who is fond of build-up—a quality that I like. I enjoy a screenplay that actively works to give us the creeps which reaches a peak either about or well past halfway through when the veil is quickly taken away and we learn that our suspicion is true—a refreshing step away from so-called twists that are—upon closer examination—nonsensical, illogical, a brazen attempt to get away with cheating, or all of the above. But all this movie has to offer is an adequate rising action.
I can pinpoint the exact moment when it has started to go wrong. The parish is led by a man only referred to as Father (Gene Jones, who gives a convincing performance). Though Sam and Jake are unexpected guests, Father agrees to be interviewed on-camera. Sam plans to go for the jugular by asking questions designed to expose the flaw in the small community, but he finds himself overpowered by a man who not only knows his way around words, he knows how to twist them in such a way that it takes a person by complete surprise and suddenly all defenses are down.
While it is understandable the Sam character feels shaken for a bit during the interview, from the moment he is thrown off his game, the script commits a critical miscalculation of never allowing to get him back up. This is problematic because he is the eye from which we perceive the bizarre story. He is supposed to be a sharp journalist who knows when and how to get what he wants from his subjects. West should have made Sam a more formidable protagonist, someone who can really challenge the villain of the piece. Otherwise, what makes the story interesting?
The final act of the picture is supposed to be horrifying, I guess, but I felt close to nothing. Though suffering is clearly being portrayed on screen, all I saw were people acting, trying their best to emote what they think dying is like or attempting—and failing—to look like dead people. In other words, it comes off as a charade because there is minimal substance that propels what should have been a convincing tragedy.
If the screenplay had been smarter, it would have focused more on the mind that is single-handedly controlling an entire community. Instead, it comes off not knowing a thing about human psychology—let alone fully understanding a mirror-filled, labyrinthine mind of a master manipulator. Perhaps the scariest thing about it is that it is supposed to be a horror film when, really, it is quite flat across the board—inspired by a true story or otherwise.
★★★ / ★★★★
There is something universally relatable about stories involving high school students making their way toward graduation, but it takes a certain willingness to be as specific as possible so audiences are able to connect with the subjects in a special way. Director Amanda Lipitz’ inspiring documentary “Step” focuses on three seniors attending the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a charter school that strives for every student to graduate high school and get accepted into college. Although Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, and Tayla Solomon are so different from one another, they are members of the step dance team led by Gari “Coach G” McIntyre, who, unbeknownst to the students, is a high school dropout.
The film is appropriately titled not just because the subjects are on the same dance team. It is because a common theme is the girls taking numerous steps toward a potentially brighter future, whether it be improving their grade point averages so they could be considered by colleges or applying for financial aid because none of their families could afford tuition. The material is not afraid to sit down with their subjects to ask the difficult questions such as what they think or feel when electricity has been shut off at home and there is no food in the refrigerator until food stamps arrive.
The every day realities of what the trio go through are presented with honesty and complexity without losing track of the students’ resilience. I related most with Cori, the introvert and valedictorian with great aspirations. She may not be on camera as often as she should have been, given her magnetic presence and strong perception about where she comes from, but nearly every time she speaks one can sense a quiet power about her. Her goal is to get accepted to Johns Hopkins University; she may have the grades, letters of recommendation, and competitive SAT scores, but her family is in an extreme financial bind especially since her step-father has been laid off. Waiting for her computer screen to load as she and her family check on her acceptance status is first-rate thriller.
But the heroes of the film come in the form of parents, coaches, and counselors. Perhaps the most gripping moments involve students having a one-on-one meeting or discussion with these adult figures. Grades are talked about. Behavior toward others and way of thinking about oneself are corrected. There are small victories toward one’s goals. Setbacks are disheartening and frustrating because we know they can do better but sometimes they choose not to. Meetings can turn emotional at any moment considering the pressures the students experience from every direction. The material understands how it is like to be a senior and not being in a good place before high school ends, but it is willing show reality for what it is. Great documentaries are daring, unashamed, unblinking.
“Step” should be shown in high schools because of its honesty, sincerity, and great messages when it comes to perseverance. I loved the lesson about having to take a detour sometimes in order to get to one’s goals. Furthermore, I believe it has the power to inspire others to realize how lucky they are for having what they have, simple privileges they take for granted like never having to worry about not having food on the table. Because if African-American girls living in poverty can rise above it, what’s your excuse?
Io sono l’amore (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Luca Guadagnino’s “I Am Love” has a way of daring the audience to look past its beautiful facade and consider the quiet pains and longings of each character, even if one appears to be secondary to the plot, which likens that of looking at a painting and making our own interpretations—most appropriate because the Recchi family is drenched in a lavish Italian lifestyle, from the extravagant clothing to the rare art pieces hung on palatial walls. Like such luxurious items, these characters are to be regarded, perhaps even studied. And yet it is not an intellectual film; it is romantic, focused on providing an addictive sensory experience.
The work amplifies one of Tilda Swinton’s greatest strengths as a consummate performer: the ability to stand out from the environment while at the same time thoroughly belonging in it. Put her in the middle of busy-buzzing streets, inside mausoleum-like homes, or walking around bucolic terrain, she changes, with seeming ease, not only her face or body language but her entire sense of being. She demands that we pay attention—not necessarily to what her character is doing; rather, what she is feeling, thinking, or daydreaming. Emma Recchi, Russian by birth who chooses to “become Italian” but will never belong in her aristocratic Italian family, is a great curiosity, an enigma to be admired, like the Mona Lisa. I could not stop looking at her.
The director, who wrote the screenplay with Barbara Alberti, Ivan Cotroneo, and Walter Fasano, allows freedom in his work: the freedom to allow the viewers to breathe between the clan’s crucial life events, the freedom to feel a scope of emotions from simply catching a certain look or a meaningful glance, the freedom to look beyond the confines of what a film should be like. I refer to instances when Guadagnino decides to include details, in-between moments, that do not typically make it through the cutting room floor.
He is willing to show us people simply walking from one place to another without any punchline in the course of action. How servants move with urgency while preparing dinner. The rhythm of vehicles and pedestrians as the character in focal point undergoes great personal turmoil. How Emma derives pleasure from the food sitting in front of her; how she tastes it, savors it; how she fantasizes about how it might be like to be physically involved with the chef (Edoardo Gabbriellino) who created the orgasm that is exploding in her mouth and making its way through her senses. It is so beautiful, so refreshing, when filmmakers are free of constraints. What results is an original piece of work even though Guadagnino is clearly influenced by Italian films from the 1960s and 1970s when sudden zooms, handheld cameras, and intense close-ups were generously utilized.
While some may choose to detail the melodramatic plot, I decide to go the opposite direction because, in my eyes, this film is not about plot but about feeling. “Io sono l’amore,” like Guadagnino’s masterpiece “Call Me By Your Name,” places the viewer from the perspective of looking into a specific person’s intense personal memories and coming to understand how and why such life events shaped our protagonist, why he or she must surrender to his or her needs and have a shot at attaining happiness, contentment.