Beautiful Boy (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
It is not often that I encounter a dramatic film in which I find myself—multiple times—having to pull my eyes away from the screen because what’s going on is so realistic, looking at the images feels like a breach of privacy. “Beautiful Boy” is based on the memoirs “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction” and “Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines” by David and Nic Sheff, respectively, and the works are adapted to the screen by searing honesty by Luke Davies and Felix Van Goreningen. It is not interested in using large brushes to paint a portrait of drug addiction. Instead, it is specific to Nic’s story and his family’s numerous attempts to help him.
It shows how so many movies about drug addiction tend to utilize clichés to amplify the drama. In order to avoid common trappings, observe how it employs time. For instance, within a span of twenty minutes, several weeks or months can pass. Flashbacks are introduced in a non-linear fashion. An unexpected dramatic parabola is created and so our expectations are shuffled like a deck of cards. Sometimes these expectations do not materialize at all. And yet, intriguingly, we still have a full appreciation of the subjects’ struggles.
This can be attributed partly to the film’s strong central performances. Steve Carrell plays the father and Timothée Chalamet plays the son. Their interactions command great tension, particularly during moments when David feels he must confront Nic about his disease. Each confrontation is different. At times it is approached from the perspective of anger. Sometimes confusion. Other times of great frustration. The father wishes to understand his son’s affliction, but he fails to see that his son doesn’t understand it either. Yet despite the whirlwind of rehab centers, sleepless nights, Nic going missing for days, and receiving calls from various professionals, there is always love there. Sometimes love isn’t always in the form of being there or giving. Sometimes love comes in the form of restraint.
Carrell and Chalamet appears to feed off one another’s energy. And so when the father looks at his son and asks whether he is on drugs, the question is not really a question. A parent always knows deep down. And so I wished Maura Tierney, who plays Nic’s stepmother, were given more to do. Tierney is wonderful when she must act in the background. Great performers can say a lot without saying a word. Standing from a few feet away with a concerned body posture tells us plenty. While it is appropriate that the camera focuses on father and son, I found my curiosity inching toward her character sometimes. David has two young children with Karen. It is apparent that Nic’s sudden disappearances impacts them, too. They ask about him. They miss him. They know he is on drugs.
I loved that the material manages to set aside some time to present facts not normally shown in movies involving drug addiction. For example, we see brain scans and hear what methamphetamines does to the brain, particularly in the amygdala. There is talk about receptors being destroyed following consistent meth usage. Given enough time, these receptors might recover. These are seemingly small but important details—mundane to some. They are often found, for instance, in science books or niche documentaries, not dramatic films. I enjoyed that it assumes viewers will be interested in details rather than repelled by scientific or medical jargon. It treats viewers as curious and intelligent. It may even inspire them to do more research about the topic. To further understand drug addiction, one must have an appreciation of biological events.
Hot Summer Nights (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
Those looking for plot in “Hot Summer Nights,” written and directed by Elijah Bynum, are certain to find it—and, much to their dismay, it is as generic as tap water: a teenager is sent to Cape Cod for the summer and learns to sell drugs—first to fit in, then for the money, and, finally, just because he realizes he is good at it. Drugs becomes a part of who he is—at least for the time being. When the picture gets it right, it is an amusing and alluring visual experience. I admired that it is able to transport us into the early ‘90s when nearly everything—from fashion, local lingo, to family values—is in a state of transition. At the same time, however, when the material gets it wrong, it is nearly unbearable—its third act particularly painful, contrived, in its heavy-handedness of fate and self-fulfilling prophecies.
Bynum’s use of the camera is eye-catching because he knows his subjects are physically beautiful and so he is not afraid to admire them. Notice how the camera is fond of close-ups, the manner in which it lingers on the hooded eyes of Timothée Chalamet and Maika Monroe as their characters, Daniel and McKayla, attempt to figure out the depth of their seemingly effortless magnetism. The performers’ chemistry is strong despite the fact that their characters are not particularly well-written. For instance, Daniel is initially interesting because he is still mourning his father’s death but his mother decides to send him away anyway in order to push him to get over his depression. His sadness and feelings of uselessness are then rerouted when drugs enter the equation. Suddenly, he is high and feels useful for being of service.
The picture captures what summer is about when one is young and the future feels like thousands of years away. I enjoyed the little details like socially inept boys admiring popular girls from afar, rumors entertained while being in a bubble, lovebirds sharing a lollipop, the type of cars older boys with certain reputations tend to drive, milkshakes, the subdued excitement of visiting a carnival that has been in town for a while, fireworks on the Fourth of July. It is also a nice touch to include a boy’s enthusiastic narration—a figure whom we come to meet only toward the very end of the story. These beautiful and extraneous details need not be shown or highlighted and yet somehow, collectively, they elevate the experience.
But coming-of-age stories are almost always required to paint rich interior lives of its subjects. While Daniel and McKayla get plenty of screen time, it can be argued that the more interesting relationship is not a romantic one. McKayla and Hunter (Alex Roe) are estranged siblings whose connection is destroyed by drugs. The material touches upon how selling drugs can be an addiction in itself but this fascinating angle is never explored—unfortunate because it is directly tied to our protagonist, Daniel, gambling his future for immediate gratification. He gets into a business partnership with none other than Hunter, the highly protective brother who is capable of sending someone to the hospital with his bare hands.
“Hot Summer Nights” does not end strong. It is so cliché to set the climax during a Category 4 hurricane. During my boredom, I imagined an alternate timeline where Daniel’s story ends in a quiet but still melancholy way. The thing about summers—as wonderful or as horrible as they are—is that we know all of it has to come to an end eventually. And so why not choose to tell a fresher avenue to reach the final destination? Must a storm to be employed to underline the tragedy of the story? Must it end on a tragic note at all just because the story involves dealing drugs? The melodrama is unnecessary.
★★★ / ★★★★
The western genre is often romanticized to such an extent that it has gotten tedious and so it is a cold splash of water on the face when a work a comes along without the expected ornamentations. Instead, writer-director Scott Cooper focuses on the harsh trials of a journey and the people with harrowing histories who harbor deep and sharp prejudices. We wonder if, in the face of great adversities, external and internal, they would be able to put aside their differences in order to make it to where they need to be. More importantly, might a temporary armistice bring about a more permanent shift in one’s perspective?
As far as plot goes, it is typical in that a white man of rigid countenance must escort a person, or persons, of lesser power to a specific location, often across several states on horseback. Specifically, Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) is ordered by his superior (Stephen Lang) to take former war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family to Valley of the Bear, Montana so the old man, imprisoned for seven years and now dying of cancer, can live his final days with his tribe as a free human being. Despite Blocker’s insistence that he is not at all the right person for the task because many of his friends were murdered by Yellow Hawk, the president’s wish is not a request. Tension builds as Blocker’s company dwindles due to ambushes and severe miscalculations.
This is a story about loss and the profound psychic gashes it leaves for time to heal over but not mend completely. I admired that the screenplay commands subtlety in reminding us that every character is hurting in some way, that there is no villain other than what we create for ourselves sometimes and how, compared to an external force, this ideation that we peel into and pick apart can be more devastating shall we allow it. It is surprisingly thoughtful in parts, particularly when a lieutenant (Jesse Plemons) opens up to a superior (Rory Cochrane) after a life-defining experience. Notice how this standout scene is drenched in shadows, right after the sun had just set. This smart eye for visuals coupled with its nearly glacial but purposeful pacing provide the viewer time to ponder and consider the film’s thesis.
Bale delivers yet another strong performance. I loved how he is able to tap into a rather stoic character and finds gradation within the quiet, reserved man who is a soldier through and through—even when he talks of retirement. When those eyes refuse to blink in order to get a point across, the camera remains still, staring back, daring us to wonder what Blocker might be thinking or which course of action he is about to take for the group. As characters enter and exit the story, Bale’s solid performance is rooted in the middle of it all and so we never feel lost despite the changing faces.
Another standout is Rosamund Pike who plays a woman whose entire family is murdered by a Comanche war party. While she has the showier performance, the power behind her presence and complex emotions complement Bale’s interpretation of Blocker.
“Hostiles” is not for everyone, even for the fans of standard westerns. But such atypicality is what’s exciting about it. The harsh wilderness is only one of the many elements that can kill a person. It also shows that time and life experience can render one so weak that there comes a point when a person is long dead even before he takes his last breath.
Call Me by Your Name (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★
To tell a love story without the expected words, phrases, and gestures meant to communicate specific thoughts, feelings, and private longings is particularly challenging to pull off, awkward and off-putting when executed even with the slightest hint of self-consciousness, but Luca Guadagnino’s surprisingly disarming “Call Me by Your Name,” based on the novel by André Aciman, makes it look like most graceful dance, so natural, delicate, and free of chains that prevent so many coming-of-age pictures from reaching their maximum potential. Here is a film that gets it right every step of the way, a rarity under any standard, clearly a modern classic.
Its postcard-like countryside images of Northern Italy makes us wish to jump into the screen and inhale the scents of verdant fruit trees, swim in the blue-green ocean, and allow the hot summer winds to caress every centimeter of our skin. Since the screenplay by James Ivory does not concern itself with delivering the usual beats and rhythms of the sub-genre, the picture takes its time to explore places, like a secluded area where water from the mountains accumulate, a plaza with a statue paying tribute to a lesser-known World War I battle, a welcoming neighborhood where one can stop by and ask for water after a long bicycle ride. It gives a feeling that, like the characters, we, too, are on vacation and so the feelings they have toward the place and one another are all the more resonant to us.
Notice how the material is not plagued with drama typical of LGBTQ romance films or romance films in general. The protagonist is never put in a situation where he must choose between two potential mates with opposite interests and personalities, no motormouth friend with her own subplot designed solely for comic relief, not even a typical event when one is forced out of the closet, often a bully’s doing, or by accident, likely to have done by a friend, ally, or possible romantic interest. No one dies from a disease, a freak accident, or suicide. Nearly every choice is fresh so it feels like anything is possible.
Because there is no distraction, the audience gets a chance to understand seventeen-year-old Jewish-American Elio (Timothée Chalamet) as an individual and as well as a person who just so happens to be attracted to another man, Oliver (Armie Hammer), a Ph.D. student from America who was invited by Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an archeologist professor, to assist with academic work. But because Elio, clearly gifted musically and a voracious reader, is a quiet and secretive person, we learn about him mostly through his actions and the objects he surrounds himself.
Notice how nearly every room is filled with books, many of which are worn with pages nearly falling out, how he is often writing or daydreaming, observing other people from a distance. Introspective viewers will almost immediately relate to this character and Chalamet ensures that Elio is on a constant state of change. We must catch up to the protagonist rather than simply waiting for him to change eventually.
The chemistry between Chalamet and Hammer is peerless. There is never a disingenuous or forced moment. Coupled with Guadagnino’s string of smart decisions to abstain from showing every intimate scene that Elio and Oliver share, a highly sensual, rather than crudely sexual, examination of young love is created. So many romantic pictures attempt to capture sensuality but often ending up false or, worse, sleazy. Here, the relaxed environment matches the effortless budding intimacy.
“Call Me by Your Name” resonates with me because it is filled with people, scenery, and experiences that I had or currently have in my own life. Particularly realistic and moving is the way Elio’s parents (Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar) are written and portrayed. They love and know their son through and through. They may not say it but they never fail to show it. They remind me of my own parents in how certain things may go unsaid not out of fear or worry but because it is not necessary, simply superfluous. Here is a film that leaves a great lasting impression.
Lady Bird (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Those who’ve grown up poor will likely find more than a handful of truths in “Lady Bird,” a strong directorial debut from Greta Gerwig who is known for starring as quirky but highly relatable characters in independent comedies. Here, our heroine named Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who calls herself Lady Bird in order to assert her independence, is an extension of the type of characters Gerwig has played, but she is also an original creation because the screenplay defines her needs and yearnings through her numerous contradictions, inconsistencies, and hypocrisies. She may not be likable all the time but she is endlessly fascinating.
A mother-daughter relationship holds the center of the film. It is appropriate that each time Lady Bird and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), share a scene, there is a fiery energy flickering underneath their interactions. Although they tend to point out one another’s differences—sometimes differences so superficial we wonder why one bothers to bring them up at all other than to incite something—they are more alike than they realize or care to admit. Notice that even when they agree about a particular topic in general, Lady Bird and Marion find one perspective from which they disagree which leads to either ferocious arguments or deafening silences.
Despite these clashes, however, the screenplay manages to underline the love shared between parent and child without coming across syrupy or soap-like. Relationships that Lady Bird forges throughout the picture may change but we are certain right from the opening scene that the title character’s bond with her mother, as dysfunctional as it is, will remain unchanged, for better or worse.
A stark difference can be noted in how Lady Bird chooses to interact with her peers in Catholic school. She is readily able to try on new skin, is occasionally vulnerable to what they might say or think about her, and so badly wishes to be accepted in some way. This is where Ronan’s intelligent performance comes in. Less experienced performers might have painted the character in extreme brushstrokes depending on whether she is at home versus school. Instead, as the picture goes on, Lady Bird’s contradictions begin to bleed into one another in a way that makes sense and specific to a character who thinks she knows it all but one who is actually just trying to figure it out as life unfolds before her. This is a story about a teenager about to learn how it is like to put on the mask of being a young adult.
Moving at a breezy pace with numerous snappy dialogue, the picture has a certain glow about it that makes one think of coming-of-age movies from the ‘70s. Strip away references to September 11 terrorist attacks, Alanis Morissette playing on the radio, and bulky cell phones, the story could have been set in any decade post-‘60s. The writer-director’s goal might have been to create images that would pass as if one were looking inside an important memory, events that have great influenced a person’s perspective or lifestyle. Or it might be the filmmaker’s attempt to capture a dreamy, sunny, suburban area of Sacramento. It works either way.
“Lady Bird” understands the hardships of being an ordinary teenager who yearns for more—more love, more acceptance, more money, more freedom. Captured beautifully is the every day of being reminded consistently, sometimes not so subtly, that she will likely fail to do anything spectacular or noteworthy. Yet despite an ordinary protagonist who thinks she can do better than those who have become merely byproducts of Sacramento living (“the Midwest of California,” as she claims), the writer-director treats her with love and respect anyway. Clearly, the picture has affection for young people.
Miss Stevens (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
Lily Rabe has a face of an intriguing portrait, one that we can analyze for hours and extract a lot of meaning. In “Miss Stevens,” written by Julia Hart and Jordan Horowitz, she portrays a high school teacher with a deep sadness to her character. Right from the opening scene, viewers looking for a character worth studying are likely to be drawn to the performance. There is gloom in those eyes and yet there is a strength, too. Immediately we cannot help but ask ourselves whether Miss Stevens’ melancholy is due to a recent breakup, a death of a loved one, a bitter unhappiness in her chosen career path, or perhaps she is simply touched by the play she had just seen. The film unfolds in a most assured manner.
There is insight in the way all characters are written. Particularly impressive is in how Billy (Timothée Chalamet), Margot (Lili Reinhart), and Sam (Anthony Quintal) are realized as flesh and bone teenagers with real thoughts, complex feelings, and at times refreshing reactions to the challenges that face them. Although Miss Stevens is clearly the main protagonist, there are insight, intelligence, and intrigue to the people that surround her. The plot involves the teacher taking her students to an acting competition over one weekend. But a whole lot more is going on underneath despite a nondescript surface.
Especially brave—and refreshing—is the manner in which an underaged teenage crush toward an adult is handled. Certainly there is tinge of humor to it, but the material never lets go of the pain and longing when it comes unreciprocated feelings. Billy is attracted to Miss Stevens and the film dares to walk that fine line with elegance and grace rather than shying away from the topic completely or—worse—brushing it under the rug when it becomes too uncomfortable.
There is beauty in the way the student-teacher relationship is explored; we actually wonder how it would have been like for the both of them had Billy been ten years older or if Miss Stevens were a decade younger. Would they have connected so powerfully then or would they have missed that spark entirely? A fascinating case can be made that it would likely have been the latter. Chalamet commands a magnetic presence and he more than holds his own especially when Rabe is required to deliver during the more emotional scenes that depict her character’s inner turmoil.
“Miss Stevens,” directed by Julia Hart, is about juggling private and public spheres. The fact that our heroine is an educator is no accident. In a way, it is the perfect profession for this particular story. There is a scene in the film where two teachers discuss the complexity and simplicity of the job. That duality, whether it really is as complex or as simple as it seems, depends largely on two factors: perspective and approach. But that’s not all. Are we truly and entirely capable of separating our private and public lives when every day the two worlds mesh so thoroughly, especially in this day and age where it can be argued that classic definitions of public and private lives no longer apply?