★★★★ / ★★★★
It is most appropriate that the final image of the picture is seen through the eyes of a neighbor. After all, the material tasks the viewer to watch closely and intensely as gradations of violence are shown on screen—most of them quiet but heavy and unrelenting. Tension can be broken with a dull knife. We are helpless, we want to scream, we wish to call for help. It becomes increasingly apparent—alarmingly apparent—that something is terribly wrong. Writer-director Xavier Legrand takes a look at a family and crisis and shoves us into a headspace of a victim, particularly that of a minor (Thomas Gioria) who must spend every other weekend with his father (Denis Ménochet).
An artillery of words is just as loud as silence that sits like a heavy fog. Observe the opening sequence involving the warring spouses, the lawyers that represent them, and the judge who must make a decision by the end of the week. We are presented with facts, opinions, recollections, and letters of recommendation within a span of fifteen minutes. There is a lot to digest. Words are rich in implications. Questions pummel the mind. It makes it all the more difficult to believe one side over another since there are numerous conflicting elements in each party’s testimony. Are we meant to be impartial? The script allows us freedom.
It is established that Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine’s (Besson) marriage is beyond repair. But they have children. No matter what the judge decides, we get the feeling that neither side would be completely happy. Because happiness is freedom. Due to the former couple having children, they can never really be free of one another. This is not the kind of drama where spouses end up finding that spark again only by spending more time together, perhaps even forgiving each other’s grave mistakes. There is no forgiveness nor is there a need for it. I admired that the sharp and efficient writing is not interested in such a thing. Walking down that avenue would have been the easier route to provide the audience warm feelings. No, its laser-like focus is more interested in what must happen to this family and why it is worth following them for the time being.
Silence is violent because we anticipate it must be broken eventually. Still, the film offers rich details when it appears nothing is happening or being expressed. When there is a pause in the dialogue, we wonder what the characters are thinking. Note the awkward interactions between the father and his son while sitting in a van. When there is silence, read the body language. Particularly uncomfortable is watching the boy’s tension-filled comportment: his torso is almost always angled slightly away from the figure he fears, eye contact is kept at a minimum, and there is no excitement in his voice. When the boy does react—anger, frustration, helplessness—a shade of sadness hovers over him. Gioria does an excellent job in making these small but critical choices. He makes it look like the role is not just for any young performer. At one point, I was so convinced by his portrayal that I wondered if he knew how it was like to get caught up in a toxic parental separation.
“Jusqu’à la garde” is an impressive debut feature. It is told without impactful subplots or supporting characters that function as decorations. It attempts to lock the viewers into a heavy mood by ensuring that just about every element is realistic. Because of this, we get the feeling that anything can happen—even unhappy endings. Here is a film that does not care if the viewer feels good so long as the viewer remains interested every step of the way.
Set It Off (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
This film was about four ladies (Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, Kimberly Elise) who decided to pull off several bank robberies to untangle themselves from each of their respective binds. Smith wanted to put her brother through college, Latifah wanted to customize her car, Elise needed the money to get her son out of the city’s protective custody because they suspected that she was a negligent parent, and Fox was fired from her bank teller job because she “didn’t follow procedure” when another group of criminals robbed the bank she was working in. I’m glad that this film did not fall into an all too common trap of featuring criminals who do “bad things” just because they were African-American. F. Gary Gray, the director, actually took the time to establish each of the four leads so the audiences could truly understand their motivations. I actually rooted for the leading ladies even though, indeed, they decided to rob banks and harmed people along the way. I felt the desperation of each character. I completely understood that their actions were not who they were on the inside. In fact, they really were good people who were pushed into a wall without any means of escape other than to attack the aggressor (in this case, the cops and the law). I also liked the fact that Latifah’s character being a lesbian was not a big deal. It was simply who she was and there was no need to comment on it. Still, this picture is far from perfect. The four characters have street-smarts so I expected them to get better at what they did (robbing banks) as the film went on. Instead, eventually all of them became too sloppy and risk-taking. Not one would them suggested that they slowed down or planned things more thoroughly especially when the banks that they decided to rob became increasingly more difficult to get through. Despite its shortcomings, I’m giving this movie a recommendation because it was nice to see Black actresses carry an entire film. Most pictures I’ve seen of this kind usually go to white men so “Set It Off” offers a nice change.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie left me emotionally drained because I was able to feel a whirlwind of emotions as it unfolded. At first it was about Andrew Bagby’s murder in the hands of the psychotic ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner but then it changes gears twenty minutes later. It then begins to document the struggles that David Bagby and Kathleen Bagby went through in order to take care (and gain custody) of Zachary Bagby, Andrew and Shirley’s son, while at the same time trusting the law to do its job by putting Shirley away for the overwhelming evidence of pre-meditated murder. As the film went on, the rug was pulled from my feet once again and the documentary-family portrait becomes something so much more profound and heartbreaking. I can see how some people could point out and claim that the film is a bit amateurish and shouldn’t be trusted fully because it comes from a close friend of the Bagbys. But considering the many years of custody battles and emotional rollercoasters, I thought the way Kurt Kuenne, the director, told the story was very personal (and sometimes too personal; there were some interviews that made me feel like I shouldn’t be watching or hearing what they’ve got to say) and the amateurish production reflected that. It’s also effecient because I noticed that every twenty minutes or so, the audiences get to learn something new and reevaluate the things that were explored prior to that point. As for the criticism regarding its lack of objectivity, being fair is not the film’s purpose at all. Its purpose is to show how much the Bagbys are loved and Canadian government’s inaction regarding a woman who they claim to be “not a danger to society.” Although I haven’t experienced the pain of losing a friend in the hands of another, I found it easy to relate to the people in this documentary via imagining myself in their situation. Those scenes when David and Kathleen were willing face the murderer of their son just so that they could spend time with their grandson really got to me. I honestly don’t know how they got through it or if I could ever go through it if something similar happens to me. I thought this film was impressive in many respects and it reminded me of the revelatory “Capturing the Friedmans.”