My Uncle Antoine (1971)
★★ / ★★★★
Uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe) and Aunt Cecile (Olivette Thibault), an elderly couple without kids of their own, raised orphans Benoit (Jacques Gagnon) and Carmen (Lyne Champagne) in a snowy small town in Quebec. Uncle Antoine and Aunt Cecile made a living with their undertaking business and a general store which proved to be a popular place to hang out around Christmastime. “Mon oncle Antoine,” directed by Claude Jutra, celebrated life and mourned death but the movement from one side of the spectrum to another was only somewhat successful. The comedy sprouted from the ordinariness of daily life. We saw the story through Benoit’s eyes. We followed him as he spied on a beautiful woman (Monique Mercure) as she tried on a new corset, took up new responsibilities around the store, threw snowballs at a horse whose owner (Georges Alexander) felt obligated to give gifts to the poor, and his coming to terms with the growing attraction he had toward Carmen. The laughs weren’t especially big but what mattered was the aforementioned events held importance from Benoit’s childhood. Through Benoit’s experiences, we learned about the close-knit community and the unhappiness simmering just above the surface. However, I found it strange that the relationship between Benoit and his uncle wasn’t at the focus of the picture up until the last thirty minutes. They mostly spent time apart and when they did occupy the same room, they shared no meaningful conversation. When the uncle finally opened up to Benoit while in a drunken state, it felt forced. I wasn’t moved. I was more concerned about the beautiful chilly cinematography and the way the shadows were brilliantly placed on the characters’ faces. That detachment I felt was a signal that the relationship remained between uncle and nephew. There was no transition that highlighted the idea that the story may have very well had been about father and son. What the director did best was placing us in Benoit’s shoes as he experienced intense emotions. When Uncle Antoine took him along to pick up a boy’s dead body, we felt his anxiety in the way he looked at a door that was slightly ajar. It was an ordinary door but the way Benoit looked at it with fear made the door seem like a division between the land of the living, the kitchen where the family members gathered, and the land of the dead, the bedroom where the body waited under the covers. “Mon oncle Antoine” requires great patience. There were, without a doubt, rewarding scenes but the lack of key transitions between relationships left me off-guard in a negative way.
Naked Childhood (1968)
★★★★ / ★★★★
François (Michel Terrazon) was a ten-year-old boy whose foster family did not want him anymore. The mother (Linda Gutemberg) was concerned about François always getting into fights, having trouble in school, stealing, and not responding to any sort of discipline she and her husband (Raoul Billerey) had attempted. François also hurt and killed animals yet it seemed like he did not feel bad about his actions. The Social Services had to intervene and placed the child with a kind elderly couple (Marie-Louise Thierry and René Thierry) and with another foster child (Henri Puff) now in his teens. Directed by Maurice Pialat, “L’enfance nue” was an unflinching look at a troubled childhood and the system designed to handle children that were abandoned in the streets or given up for adoption. What I loved about the film most was it never offered easy answers. It was easy to judge our protagonist’s first foster family because we didn’t have a chance to observe their parenting skills for an extended amount of time. We were given information about the way they reacted to the child’s behavior, but we all know–or should know–there’s always a difference between secondhand description and firsthand observation. When the mother described their parenting to the director of Social Services, I was bothered by the fact that not once did she cite one instance where she could have done something differently with François. It wasn’t obvious but it sounded like François was a canister of blame. It gave me the impression that they didn’t want the child because it wasn’t the kind of child they dreamed of. Furthermore, it was obvious that the parents weren’t always on the same page. The father had a soft spot toward François when the mother performed a spice of tough love. The turning point was when François was transferred to his second foster family. We observed his different temperaments, wild tantrums, and the way he seemed to relish watching the people who loved him turn red with fury. With Pialat’s sensitive and astute direction, he showed us that François wasn’t an evil child. He was desperate for attention and his cruel actions were his cry for help. His new family was actually perfect for him because they seemed to have endless amount of patience. During François’ calm moments, he was able to make real connection with them. He enjoyed listening to his grandmother’s story about her huge family, the grandfather’s magical ability to fix just about anything in the house, his foster brother’s collection of weapons, and especially the great grandmother (Marie Marc) who read the morning paper with him. When he regressed to his unkind behavior, like a real family, they welcomed him back. I was moved with their ability to forgive and it made me wish that all families were like them. Written by Arlette Langmann and Maurice Pialat, “Naked Childhood” was a difficult look at the reality of abandoned children. It’s a must-see for those who, including myself, plan to adopt and raise their child as if they were our own flesh and blood. We should love them unconditionally and we just hope that they feel the same way toward us.
The Tree of Life (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) received a phone call informing them that one of their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan), had died. We knew it wasn’t Jack because we came to meet him as an adult (Sean Penn), still struggling with the death of his brothers, the other passed away at the age of nineteen. The writer-director, Terrence Malick, spent the rest of the film painting us a picture of the boys’ childhood, torn between nature and grace which their father and mother embodied, respectively. To criticize this movie as having a weak plot is tantamount to saying that an abstract painting is bad because one does not approve of the artist’s use of color since it makes the painting look unrealistic. In a few instances, such as the case here, plot is negligible. Personally, it was about the images and how they were utilized to remind myself of my childhood. It was set in 1950s American suburbia; I was raised in the 1990s Philippine urban-suburban neighborhood. The two are separated by place and time but I saw myself in these kids. It reminded me of times when I ran around with my cousins playing kickball, egos bruised for every lost point; the joy of collecting caterpillars, grasshoppers, spiders, lizards, stray cats at a nearby ice plant, which children of the neighborhood likened to believe was abandoned so we could call it our own turf; the way mother would yell for me and brother, beckoning us to come in for dinner, chastising us when we were too grimy as we approached the table, and making us clean up a bit before experiencing the comfort of a warm home-cooked meal. It also reminded me of the things I didn’t have. Father was in America making a living for his family, so no one taught me how to put up my fist properly and fight. First fight at school gets bloody awful quick when you don’t know how to defend yourself. But sooner or later you learn to get tougher. You find ways as Jack did with his brother, not because he was bully or meaning to be unkind, but because he needed to find a sparring partner, someone who he believed was his equal. The most moving scene for me was when Jack, after shooting a rubber bullet at R.L.’s index finger, summoned the courage within himself to apologize to his brother without anyone telling him to do so. It was such a tender moment because apologizing and, more importantly, actually meaning it can be very difficult to do. I admired Malick’s use of contrast. He featured an extended sequence starting from The Big Bang up until the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction. In one of the scenes, a carnivorous dinosaur spotted a fatally wounded dinosaur resting on the rocks. The healthy one approached the dying carefully, making sure that there was no immediate threat in the vicinity. Just when I thought it was going to go for the kill, I saw a human aspect in something so beastly: the healthy one covered the wounded’s face with its foot, hesitated against its nature, and walked away. The scene was loyal to the film’s theme: nature versus grace. “The Tree of Life” is a torrent of epic memories, bound to move those in touch with their wonderful, tragic, magical childhood. It’s one of those movies I won’t forget because, in a way, I’ve lived it.
Nowhere Boy (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
“Nowhere Boy,” directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, chronicled John Lennon’s difficult childhood. John (Aaron Johnson) was raised by his aunt (Kristin Scott Thomas) and uncle (David Threlfall). Even though he was never close to his aunt because she had a very cold personality, he had a good relationship with his uncle because they shared the same interests. But when his uncle died, John was forced to live with a woman who expected him to abide by her rules without question. After seeing his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) at his uncle’s burial, John began to question where her mother lived, which happened to be within walking distance, and the two got to know each other to make up for the years she’d been absent from his life. This caused great tension between John’s biological mother and the mother who raised him. The film had an interesting second half but a heavy, repetitive first half. The first forty minutes felt like pulling teeth because it shifted from the feelings of frustration and resentment John felt while staying in his aunt’s house to the joy and freedom he felt while spending time with her mother and making music. He saw his aunt as a thorn on his side because she wanted him to stay and school and do well. They barely said a word to each other unless they had no choice but to confront a serious issue. On the other hand, he saw his mother as a gift because she couldn’t care less about his education as long as she spent time with her son. She nurtured his passion for music. The difference between the two households felt so obvious. I had some serious doubts about how much of it was based on actuality. The picture only started to take off when John finally met Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster) and both began to hone their talents while being in a band called The Quarrymen. Even though their friendship wasn’t as deeply explored as much as I expected, their relationship didn’t feel strained. When the focus was on them, the tone felt more dynamic because the actors fed off each other’s energy. The scenes I found most effective were when the band played their rock ‘n’ roll and their audiences couldn’t help but get on their feet and when John and Paul were just in a room together. But since the film was more about John’s troubled childhood, it had to switch back to the tired family drama. In the end, some big questions I had, such as John’s relationship with his biological father when he was a child, were left unanswered. Why did the five-year-old John choose to stay with his father over his mother? Was John’s biological mother’s illness some sort of a mood disorder and was she a danger to herself? As for John’s aunt and uncle, why did they seem to distant from one another? Those were important questions that should have been answered because John’s relationship with his family fueled his angst and it was what made him an artist with a distinct voice and perspective.
Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (1970)
★ / ★★★★
A well-to-do British family without a father figure immersed themselves in childhood games. They picked men off the streets–men who would not be missed such as hippies and homeless folks–and if the men tried to escape the mansion or expressed that they no longer wanted to play games, they were killed in a ritualistic manner. Mumsy (Ursula Howells), Nanny (Pat Heywood), Sonny (Howard Trevor), and Girly (Vanessa Howard) were the demented predators and their most recent prey was named New Friend (Michael Bryant) who took an intense liking for Girly even though she was at least twenty years younger than him. I thought the premise of the picture was fascinating but I’m afraid the screenplay was stuck in one concept and it grew more stale as it went on. I understood the psychoanalytical message. The film was all about commenting on the suffocation of constantly having the need to remain loyal with traditions. Since the father was not there to lead the family, the movie made an argument that the family would most likely rot from the inside. Since the father was believed to have a key role in the maturity of children, the teenagers became fixated in acting like six-year-olds. Since there was no father to take care of the mother, the mother and the nanny developed an unusually close bond. They even slept in the same room. Anyone with a basic understanding of psychology would be able to pinpoint such obvious messages, so I was hoping that the director, Freddie Francis, allowed the picture to evolve. While the acting was tolerable most of the time, at times I felt like the actors were rehearsing a play. Since the subject was already so bold, the actors’ decision to portray their roles as caricatures was like hammering the audiences over the head with mallet. Its cartoonish tone was very distracting so the horror did not work. As a dark comedy, it was arguably effective but I was not convinced that the filmmakers wanted it to be more amusing than horrific. In a nutshell, its arguable success was accidental. It should have paid more attention in generating tension because there were far too few rewards in between the sinister kills. At the time of its release, the film’s subject matter was very controversial. While I do enjoy movies that are different, the anti-formula to the formula has to have intelligence and an energy that does not leave me so frustrated after the experience. Unfortunately, “Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly” wasted its potential to be something great.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Thomas Balmes took Alain Chabat’s idea of filming babies from four different corners of the world and documenting their journey from inside the womb up until they learned how to walk: Ponijao from Namibia, Bayar from Mongolia, Mari from Japan and Hattie from the United States. What I first noticed about this impressive documentary was its lack of narration. Balmes’ decision to not explain why parents were doing or not doing certain things for their children made us active participants because we had to come up with our own conclusions. The picture having no subtitles to translate the foreign languages was quite bold because then we feel like the child in its very early years–unable to discern what the parents were saying exactly so we rely on the tones of their voices to guess what kind of expression they wanted to portray toward their child. While the movie was undoubtedly cute (I love the scenes when the children would interact with animals, especially when Bayar was petting his cat), it went far beyond, “Aww, how cute!” Since I had a bit of experience studying child development and psychology, it was so much fun applying what I learned toward something I’m actually seeing. We literally see these children grow before our eyes as they change from being entertained solely by toys (or random things in the dirt if they didn’t have any toys) that made strange noises, to learning via simple imitation, to having a sense of self when they realized that their bodies can have a direct effect onto the world. We even had a chance to observe how the children attempted to talk via babbling and say their first word. Furthermore, the film wasn’t just about the babies. Secondary to the subjects were the parents’ child-rearing practices. Since I live in America, I’m used to seeing parents coddling their babies as often as they could. So, initially, I found it surprising that parents in Africa and Mongolia allow, if not highly encourage, to let their child roam in the dirt and explore his and her surroundings. They even let animals like goats, dogs and chickens get near their babies without worry. I guess what the director wanted to tell us was the fact that babies have high resilience physically and psychologically. They have the need to explore the world and experience a spectrum of emotions which includes pain, frustration and anger. What Balmes managed to capture on film was magic. I admired the way it was able to condense over a year of life into a breezy eighty minutes yet successfully highlight the most important elements.
My Life as a Dog (1985)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Since their father was overseas, Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius) and his older brother (Manfred Serner) were separated to live with their relatives for the summer so that their sick mother (Anki Lidén) could rest. Ingemar’s dog, who he claimed to love as much as his mother, was sent to the kennel during his time away from home. It was easy to like Ingemar because he was unlike most children. Whenever things turned for the worse, Ingemar would often compare himself to others who were worse off than him. For instance, he often mentioned Laika, the dog who was sent to outer space and never had the chance to return. “Mitt liv som hund,” or “My Life as a Dog,” had some formulaic coming-of-age elements but the execution was pulled off in an imaginative and often touching way. We followed the story through Ingemar’s eyes and we felt the abandonment he felt when he was passed from one home after another. Even though he was a kid, he was perceptive enough to realize that he was essentially like his dog and what the dog must have felt when Ingemar had no choice but to leave it at the kennel. I found myself on the verge of tears at times because he knew that he was slowly losing his mother so he tried so hard to hold onto something easier but something that he loved just as equally (or so he claimed): his pet. I found the flashback scenes very touching because we had tiny peeks to a time when Ingemar was at his happiest. His brother certainly didn’t make things easier because he also had his own way in dealing with negative emotions. I liked the way Lasse Hallström, the director, highlighted the kindness of eccentric people in a tight-knit community to distract the kid from breaking down. Ingemar made a special relationship with a girl named Saga (Melinda Kinnaman) who dressed and acted like a boy. She liked him but he didn’t like her back so there certainly was tension there. They were able to work through their many frustrations by boxing it out in the ring. One of my favorite scenes was when another girl took Ingemar to her room and Saga came busting in like her usual tomboy self and fought for what she felt like belonged to her. I loved the way that particular scene was framed and I felt a certain energy to it that reminded me of those classic romantic love triangle pictures in the golden days of Hollywood. Instead of using the quirkiness just for the sake of being funny or underlining the weirdness of small communities, Hallström successfully focused on the heart of the film. “Mitt liv som hund” was based on Reidar Jönsson’s autobiographical novel and it felt every bit as personal. Every crucial element in the story felt connected and it had a silent power that I will remember for a long time.