Review: ‘Our Friend,’ starring Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson and Jason Segel

January 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Dakota Johnson and Casey Affleck in “Our Friend” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions/Gravitas Ventures)

“Our Friend”

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2000 to 2014 in Fairhope, Alabama; New Orleans; and briefly in Pakistan, the dramatic film “Our Friend” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A married couple and their male best friend go through ups and downs in their relationship, especially after the wife gets ovarian cancer and the best friend temporarily moves in the family home to help the spouses take care of their two young daughters.

Culture Audience: “Our Friend” will appeal primarily to people interested in emotionally authentic, dramatic movies about loyal friendships and how cancer affects relationships.

Isabella Kai, Jason Segel and Violet McGraw in “Our Friend” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions/Gravitas Ventures)

The tearjerker drama “Our Friend,” which is inspired by a true story, departs from the usual formula of a family coping with cancer. When someone in a family has this disease, cancer dramas usually focus on how a spouse, parent or child is dealing with it. Those aspects are definitely in “Our Friend,” but there’s also the unusual component of a male best friend moving into the family household to be a nurturing supporter. Thanks to heartfelt performances from the main cast members, “Our Friend” is a genuine and relatable film, despite being the type of drama where it’s easy to predict exactly how it’s going to end.

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and written by Brad Ingelsby, “Our Friend” is based on a 2015 Esquire magazine essay titled “The Friend,” written by journalist Matt Teague. (“The Friend” was the original title for this movie.) In this deeply personal article, he described the generosity of Dane Faucheux, the longtime best friend of Matt and his wife Nicole Teague. After Nicole was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Dane (who was a bachelor at the time) put his life on hold in New Orleans to temporarily move in with the couple in Fairhope, Alabama, to help them take care of their household and the couple’s two young daughters Molly and Evangeline, nicknamed Evie.

The movie “Our Friend” expands on that essay by jumping back and forth in time to show how the friendship between Matt, Nicole and Dane evolved over 14 years, including the highs, lows and everything in between. The movie’s story spans from the year 2000 (when the three of them met) to the year 2014, when Nicole’s cancer was at its worst. The cinematic version of the story avoids a lot of nauseating details that are in the Esquire essay about bodily functions of a cancer patient. Instead, the movie focuses on showing this intense friendship from the individual perspectives of Matt, Nicole and Dane.

Nicole and Dane met each other while living in New Orleans in their early 20s, when she was one of the stars of a local musical theater production and he was a lighting operator in the crew. Nicole is open-hearted, compassionate and the type of person whom a lot of people feel like could be their best friend. Dane is socially awkward and somewhat introverted but an overall good guy who has some immaturity issues.

In the movie, Nicole was already married to Matt when she met Dane, who didn’t know that Nicole was married when he asked Nicole out on a date. Dane’s courtship mistake is never shown in the movie, but it’s mentioned in conversations. Once Nicole told Dane about her marital status, they were able to overcome this minor embarrassment and became good friends. Dane and Nicole are comfortable enough with each other that talk about their love lives with each other.

Dane is thoughtful and generous (he gives homemade mix CDs to Nicole), and he and Nicole love to talk about music, even when they agree to disagree. She thinks Led Zeppelin is “the greatest band ever,” while he doesn’t really care for Led Zeppelin. The Led Zeppelin reference in the movie is significant because two of Led Zeppelin’s original songs—”Ramble On” and “Going to California”—are used in emotional montage scenes in “Our Friend.”

By making Nicole an actress who loves musical theater, “Our Friend” gives Johnson a chance to showcase her singing skills, which are very good but not outstanding. Johnson sings two songs in the movie: “Hands All Hands Around” (from the musical “Quilters”) and a cover version of the Grateful Dead’s “If I Had the World to Give.” Johnson also did some singing in her 2020 movie “The High Note,” so maybe this is her way of demonstrating that she wants to be a professional singer too.

One day, Dane asks for Nicole’s advice about how to approach a theater co-worker named Charlotte (played by Denée Benton) whom he wants to ask out on a date. Unbeknownst to him, Charlotte isn’t attracted to Dane and has already been dating the theater’s stage manager named Aaron (played by Jake Owen). Minutes after Dane confides in Nicole that he’s going to ask Charlotte on a date, Charlotte tells Nicole in a private conversation that she suspects that Dane has a crush on her but Charlotte isn’t interested in dating Dane. It’s one of many examples in the movie that show how Nicole is a trusted confidante to many people in her life and she knows how to make people feel special.

Of course, Dane eventually finds out that Charlotte and Aaron are dating. Dane mopes about it for a little bit when he sees Charlotte and Aaron showing some heavy public displays of affection at a bar on the night that Nicole introduces Matt to Dane. The first time Matt and Dane meet, it’s at this bar, and Dane makes an apology to Matt for asking Nicole out on a date. Matt tells Dane not to worry about it and says that he has no hard feelings.

While Dane watches Charlotte and Aaron from a distance at the bar, Dane seem to takes their coupling way more personally than he should. He grumbles to Nicole and Matt that Charlotte seems to be rubbing her feelings for Aaron in Dane’s face. It’s a sign (one of many) that one of Dane’s flaws is that he can be emotionally insecure and overly needy.

As the movie skips back and forth in time, it’s eventually shown that Charlotte and Aaron have gotten married and have two children together. Charlotte and Nicole remain very close friends, even after Matt and Nicole move to Fairhope. Matt and Nicole relocated to Fairhope so that Nicole could be close to her parents. The parents of Matt and Nicole parents are never seen in the movie. After Nicole finds out that she has cancer in 2012, Matt tells Dane that Nicole has been afraid to tell her parents about the cancer diagnosis.

By the time that Nicole and Matt are living in Fairhope during her cancer ordeal, it’s shown in the movie that their daughter Molly (played by Isabella Kai) is about 11 or 12 years old, while their daughter Evie played by Violet McGraw) is about 5 or 6 years old. Molly is sometimes moody and quick-tempered, while Evie is generally a happy-go-lucky kid. Molly’s personality is more like Matt’s, while Evie is more like Nicole.

Over the years, it’s apparent that Aaron likes to make snide, condescending comments about Dane to other people whenever Dane isn’t around to defend himself. Aaron always makes digs about Dane working in dead-end jobs (such as a sales clerk at an athletic clothing store) and Dane not seeming to have an career goals or any real direction in life. Dane (who has a goofy sense of humor) has tried to be a stand-up comedian, but these dreams never really go anywhere, mainly because he just isn’t that talented. However, when Dane practices his stand-up routine for Nicole, she politely laughs at his corny jokes, and it makes him feel good.

Dave has financial problems, to the point where he’s sometimes temporarily homeless and has to stay at friends’ places or has to move back home with his parents, and he seems unsure of his purpose in life. B y contrast, Matt’s career as a journalist is flourishing. One of Matt’s first jobs was as a reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, where he felt stifled and bored with covering fluffy local news. Matt’s real goal is to be a globetrotting journalist, where he gets to cover what he calls “important” news, such as wars and politics, that can make a big difference in people’s lives.

Matt gets his wish and his career is thriving as a freelancer covering war news for publications such as The New York Times and The Atlantic. But all that traveling has taken a toll on his marriage to Nicole. In 2008, while Matt is on assignment in Pakistan, he and Nicole have an argument on the phone because he took an assignment to go to Libya without discussing it with Nicole first.

Matt doesn’t think that he did anything wrong, because he says that the family needs the money. Nicole, who’s now a homemaker, tells Matt that she feels like she’s a “single parent” and complains to him: “I feel like I married a war correspondent, not a journalist.”

Matt goes home for a few days before he has to go to Libya. And he gets unsolicited advice from Dane to not take the assignment in Libya and stay with the family. This leads to an argument between Matt and Dane where Dane points out Matt’s personality flaws, while Matt insults Dane for having a directionless life with no real career.

Because the movie’s timeline is not in chronological order, viewers have to piece together the ebbs and flows of the friendship between Matt, Nicole and Dane. There are hints that Dane struggles with his mental health, especially in an extended scene taking place in 2010 that shows Dane abruptly packing up and leaving his parents’ house so he can go camping by himself in remote Southwest canyons. Before he leaves, Dane’s older brother Davey (played by Richard Speight Jr.) asks Dane if Dane is having one of his “episodes.”

During this solitary excursion, Dane meets a friendly German camper named Teresa (played by Gwendoline Christie), who’s also traveling by herself. Teresa asks Dane to join her on her hikes. Dane is standoffish at first, but Teresa insists on hanging out with Dane, and he eventually warms up to her a little bit. Teresa senses that Dane is deeply troubled and unhappy with his life, so she shares with him a very personal experience that changes his perspective. It’s one of the better scenes in the movie, proving that not all of the emotional gravitas in “Our Friend” has to do with Nicole’s cancer diagnosis.

However, “Our Friend” is still very much a cancer movie. There’s the heart-wrenching scene showing Matt and Nicole deciding how they are going to break the news to their children that Nicole is going to die from cancer. There’s the predictable scene where Nicole makes a “bucket list” of things she wants to do before she dies, with Matt and Dane frantically trying to make some of the more difficult things on the list (such as being grand marshal of the next Mardi Gras parade) come true for Nicole. And then there are the expected scenes of Nicole having medication-related meltdowns.

The Teague family members also have the misfortune of their beloved pet pug Gracie being diagnosed with cancer around the same time that Nicole gets sick with cancer. While Matt spends time with Nicole in the hospital, Dane has the task of taking Gracie to the veterinarian, who tells Dane that it’s best if the terminally ill dog undergoes euthanasia. Dane, who is not the owner of the dog, is put in the awkward position of having to represent the Teague family when the dog is permanently put to sleep. Dane also has to tell Molly and Evie the bad news about Gracie’s death, because Matt and Nicole are too preoccupied in the hospital.

During all of this cancer drama, Dane gets some pushback and criticism for deciding to move in with Matt and Nicole. At the time of Nicole’s cancer diagnosis, Dane was living in New Orleans and had been dating a baker named Kat (played by Marielle Scott) for about a year. Dane and Kat’s relationship has progressed to the point where Kat has given him spare keys to her home.

At first, Kat was fine with Dane going to visit the Teagues in Fairhope (which is about 160 miles away from New Orleans), as a show of support for the family. But the visits became longer and longer, until Dane eventually moved in with the Teagues. And Kat wasn’t so okay with that decision. Aaron also makes snarky comments to the Teagues’ circle of friends about Dane being a freeloader, until Matt eventually puts Aaron in his place for being such an unrelenting jerk about Dane.

The movie also shows that Matt and Nicole have other challenges in their lives besides her cancer. Before she was diagnosed with cancer, their marriage hit a rough patch due to issues over jealousy and infidelity. And before and during Nicole’s cancer crisis, Molly was feeling resentment toward Matt because of his long absences from home. Molly sometimes lashes out at Matt and makes it clear that she thinks Nicole is a much better parent than Matt is.

The biggest noticeable flaw about “Our Friend” is there seems to be a gender double standard in how the three main characters physically age in the movie. Nicole looks like she’s barely aged throughout the entire movie, even though the story takes place over the course of 14 years. It’s a contrast to how Matt and Dane age over the years, particularly with their hair. In the early years of the friendship, Segel wears a wig to make Dane look younger, while in the later years, he sports his natural receding hairline. Likewise, Affleck’s natural gray hair is seen in the later years of the friendship.

This discrepancy has a lot to do with the fact that in real life, Johnson is 14 years younger than Affleck, and she’s nine years younger than Segel. The real Nicole, Matt and Dane were much closer to each other in age. This movie’s unwillingness to show a woman aging over 14 years and casting a much-younger female co-star as the love interest of the leading male actor are part of bigger age discrimination issues that make it harder for actresses over the age of 35 to be cast as a love interest to someone who’s close to their age.

And when Nicole has cancer, the physical damages from cancer are barely shown. There’s the typical “dark circles under the eyes” look with makeup, as well as mentions of Nicole’s hair falling out because of chemotherapy. (At various times, she wears a headband or a wig.)

But the movie could have used a little more realism in showing the devastating physical toll that cancer can take. More often than not in the cancer scenes, the movie makes Nicole just look like she’s hung over from a wild night of partying, instead of looking like a real cancer patient who’s deep in chemotherapy. It’s not as if Johnson had to lose a scary amount of weight to look like a convincing cancer patient, but more could have been done with makeup and/or visual effects to make it look more realistic that her character was dying of cancer.

However, the filmmakers (including film editor Colin Patton) should get a lot of credit for taking the non-chronological scenes and making everything into a cohesive story that’s easy to understand. “Our Friend” is not the type of movie that can be watched while distracted by something else, because the year that a sequence takes place is shown on the screen to guide viewers. People watching this movie have to pay attention to these milestone year indicators to get the full scope of the story.

“Our Friend” is a well-cast movie where all the actors do convincing portrayals of the emotions expressed in the movie. (Cherry Jones has a small but important role as a hospice nurse named Faith Pruett.) As much as the movie is about Matt and Nicole’s marriage, it’s also very much about the friendship between Matt, Nicole and Dane.

Even though Nicole and Dane were friends before Dane and Matt knew each other, Nicole and Dane’s friendship starts to wane a little bit, the more debilitated with cancer she becomes. There’s a noticeable brotherly bond that develops between Matt and Dane, especially when they have to face the reality of life without Nicole. It doesn’t diminish Nicole’s role in the film, but it realistically shows how relationships can change when people have to prepare for the end of a loved one’s life. “Our Friend” is not an easy film to watch for anyone who hates to think about dying from cancer, but the sadness in the movie is balanced out by the joy of having true love from family and friends.

Roadside Attractions and Gravitas Ventures released “Our Friend” in U.S. cinemas, on January 22, 2021, the same date that Universal Pictures Home Entertainment released the movie on digital and VOD.

Review: ‘Starting at Zero,’ starring Tracey Strichik, Steve Bullock, Ralph Northam, Cynthia Jackson, Tara Skiles, James Ernest and Sunny McPhillips

August 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Starting at Zero” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

“Starting at Zero”

Directed by Willa Kammerer

Culture Representation: The documentary “Starting at Zero,” about the U.S. education system for children younger than 6 years old, interviews white and black people (and one person of Asian descent), mostly from U.S. states in the South and Midwest, who are educators, politicians, academics and parents representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: Because access to a good education is usually determined by socioeconomic factors, most of the people interviewed say that more U.S. states need to do a better job at making it a more level playing field for people to have access.

Culture Audience: “Starting at Zero” will appeal primarily to people who are concerned about education for children under the age of 6, but the documentary puts so much emphasis on states in the South (especially Alabama) and the Midwest that people who live in other regions of the U.S. might be turned off by this bias.

A scene from “Starting at Zero” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

The child-education documentary “Starting at Zero” (directed by Willa Kammerer), for all of its noble intentions, is a very flawed and extremely dull film that was in serious need of good editing before this movie was released to the public. “Starting at Zero” is supposed to be about pre-kindergarten (pre-K) education in the United States, but more than half of the movie looks like a public-relations promotional video to glorify the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education (ADECE), as if it’s the only government-funded pre-school department that works well in America. It’s best not to play an alcohol drinking game to take a drink every time Alabama is mentioned in this documentary, because that will definitely result in alcohol poisoning. The movie is only 63 minutes long, but it feels like it’s a lot longer.

In the production notes for “Starting at Zero,” Kammerer says that the movie (which is her first feature-length documentary) started out as exploration of why ADECE’s First Class Pre-K program has been consistently ranked #1 for more than a decade by the National Institute for Early Education Research. (There’s no mention in the documentary that Alabama is consistently ranked one of the worst states in the U.S. for education. More on that in a moment.) But as Kammerer and the other filmmakers got deeper into making the documentary, Kammerer says that they “realized there was so much more to the story—that it had roots in North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi, and other threads in Oklahoma and Montana, Chicago and Omaha and beyond.”

The problem is that the movie pretty much ignores the “beyond” part, by sticking to interviewing people who are connected to the pre-school education system in the South or Midwest. It’s a huge misstep for a documentary that’s supposed to be about the overall pre-school education system in the U.S., even though the documentary is actually a narrow look at only certain regions of the country. “Starting at Zero” gives the impression that the filmmakers didn’t want to spend the time, money or resources to include other regions of the U.S. outside of the South and Midwest. And that myopic view is just going to alienate a lot of viewers when they see that this is a documentary focused primarily on pre-school education in Southern and Midwestern states.

The fact-finding in this documentary is amateurish and, at times, atrocious. “Starting at Zero” cites statistics but does not list any sources for those statistics, which will make viewers wonder how credible those statistics are. It’s very disappointing that a movie about education seems like it was made by people who have no education in research, such as this basic standard: Always cite your sources.

And in being too eager/biased in promoting Alabama as an ideal state for pre-school education, the filmmakers of “Starting at Zero” completely ignored something that’s common knowledge to many people who are in and outside of the U.S. education system: Alabama is consistently ranked at or near the bottom of all U.S. states in education. According to U.S. News and World Report, Alabama is ranked dead last out of all 50 states in overall education and ranked at #49 out of 50 in education for pre-K to 12th grade.

The lack of diversity in “Starting at Zero” isn’t just with the U.S. regions covered in the film. Although there are several black people interviewed in “Starting at Zero,” Latinos are completely shut out of the documentary, and the only Asian who’s interviewed in the movie (Harvard University professor of public economics Raj Chetty) gets less than a minute of screen time toward the end. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Asians and Latinos are the fastest-growing racial groups in the United States. It’s really appalling that a documentary about the education of future generations in the U.S. leaves out significant representation of these racial groups in the documentary.

Only one person in the documentary realistically discusses the issue of how racial diversity impacts U.S. public schools. Cynthia Jackson, executive director of Educare, comments: “There are groups of children—immigrant children, children of color, children from under-served and under-represented communities—that are being left behind because of unconscious bias, because of equity issues.”

And speaking of unconscious bias, “Starting at Zero” has some racist editing too, because every time someone mentions “poor” or “under-performing” students in a voiceover, the film shows children who aren’t white, usually African American children. It reinforces a racist stereotype that non-white students are the only kids in school who could possibly be bad students or poor. The reality is that there are poor people and bad students of all races in America, but the filmmakers of this substandard documentary don’t seem to have a grasp on that reality.

Another major blind spot in “Starting at Zero” is how it barely mentions that being able to afford pre-school child care is a huge issue for many families. Not everyone can afford the “best” pre-schools in their communities. “Starting at Zero” has absolutely no one in the movie who says they’re struggling with being able to afford pre-school childcare, but it isn’t surprising that this perspective is shut out of “Starting at Zero,” since the movie fails on so many levels. Of the long list of people interviewed for this movie (see below), only two are parents who talk about having kids in a pre-school program, and they don’t talk about how it affects their finances.

The movie preaches that every state should eventually have the type of great pre-school child care that will be free to all, in order to “level the playing field” in U.S. education. Several people in the movie declare that since government-funded U.S. education is on the state level, not national level, it will be up to each state to make these improvements. Easier said than done.

Virginia governor Ralph Northam comments, “When one family has the means to send their children to early childhood education programs and another family doesn’t, it’s really what starts the gap. And we can either invest in it responsibly at an early age or can try to catch up later. The math is very simple.”

But the movie never answers this question: “Who’s going to pay for it?” Too many people are already angry at their state governments for raising taxes, and they don’t want higher taxes for the government to pay for these pre-school education programs. And although some people in “Starting at Zero” say that education is a non-partisan issue, the reality is that education funding is a partisan issue when one party can be more resistant than another to raise taxes to improve funding for severely under-funded public schools for children.

And speaking of funding, there’s no real discussion in “Starting at Zero” about the fact that school teachers for children are underpaid and how these severely low salaries are a major problem in attracting “quality” educators in public schools for children. A lot of people in the documentary spout vague platitudes about “high-quality education,” yet it’s irresponsible for the documentary to ignore that it’s harder to attract “high-quality” educators on the pre-school level if the educators aren’t even being paid a living wage.

Some of the ADECE people in the documentary brag that in Alabama, pre-school teachers and kindergarten teachers who work for government-funded schools are paid the same salary. But the documentary doesn’t mention is that teachers on this level all across the U.S. are usually part-time employees (they don’t get health insurance or other full-time benefits from their job) who get such low salaries that it’s not enough to be considered a living wage. ADECE has a program that brings pre-school teachers to people’s homes, but the documentary omits specific information about how much money it costs for Alabama to provide these home services and how many households actually get these services.

“Starting at Zero” spends a lot of time repeating things that are common knowledge, such as the fact that kids start learning before they go to school and that the type of pre-school education a child has will make a difference in how well the child does in school. The more educated a society is, the more likely the society’s economy will prosper. Therefore, it makes sense to invest in and care about a child’s education even before the child enrolls in school.

You don’t have to be an educator or a parent to know all of that, but there are several people who repeat these things throughout the film. Because this constant repetition is put in the movie, the filmmakers seem to think viewers are too stupid to understand the first time someone said it in the documentary. “Starting at Zero” makes the same mistake that a lot of documentaries make: It overstuffs the movie with talking heads who say the same things over and over.

The filmmakers of “Starting at Zero” don’t seem to understand that a documentary isn’t automatically good if you put as many interviews as possible in the documentary. In fact, interviews with too many people can make a documentary look cluttered and absolutely boring, especially if many of the people being interviewed don’t have a lot of charisma. It should be commended that the filmmakers made an effort to have numerous sources to interview, but this documentary needed better directing and editing, by putting into practice the concept of “quality over quantity” in the final cut of the movie.

Here’s the list of interviewees in “Starting at Zero,” keeping in mind that this movie is only a little more than an hour long, not a docuseries:

  • Joe Adams, research coordinator of Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama
  • Susan Adams, assistant commissioner for Pre-K, Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning
  • Rhian Evans Allvin, CEO of National Association for the Education of Young Children
  • Laura Baker, regional director coordinator of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Pam Baker, Alabama First Class Pre-K teacher
  • Erin Barton, Vanderbilt Peabody College associate professor 
  • Camilla Benbow, dean of Vanderbilt Peabody College
  • Rebecca Berlin, senior vice-president of Ounce of Prevention Fund
  • Misty Blackmon, regional director of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Edwin Bridges, retired director of Alabama Department of Archives and History  
  • Steve Bullock, governor of Montana
  • Phil Bryant, former governor of Mississippi
  • Greg Canfield, Alabama secretary of commerce
  • Raj Chetty, Harvard University professor of economics
  • Lucy Cohen, HIPPY state lead of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Jeff Coleman, CEO of Coleman Worldwide Moving
  • Shernila Cook, graduate and Alabama First Class Pre-K
  • Tom Dodd, regional vice-president, Kaplan Early Learning Company
  • Steven Dow, executive director of CAP Tulsa
  • Amy Dunn, coach, Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • James Ernest, University of Alabama, Birmingham professor
  • Alice Evans, monitor of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Jean Feldman, teacher/author
  • Stacy Ferguson, retired regional director of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Dorothy Flowers, Alabama First Class Pre-K teacher
  • Delliiah Hasberry, Alabama First Class Pre-K parent/Help Me Grow Alabama community liaison
  • Jana Hoggle, Satsuma City Schools director of Pre-K
  • Jan Hume, grants and budgets of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • James B. Hunt Jr., former governor of North Carolina
  • Cynthia Jackson, executive director of Educare Learning Network
  • Laura Jana, pediatrician/author
  • Lee Johnson III, director of First 5 Alabama, Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Archie Jones, Harvard Business School director/senior lecturer
  • Todd Klunk, W.K. Kellogg Foundation program officer
  • Ken Levit, executive director of George Kaiser Family Foundation
  • Sunny McPhillips, lead teacher of Alabama First Class Pre-K
  • Allison Muhlendorf, executive director of Alabama School Readiness Alliance
  • Ralph and Pamela Northam, governor and first lady of Virginia
  • Diana Mendley Rauner, president of Ounce of Prevention Fund
  • Bentley Ponder, senior director of research and policy, Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning
  • Dallas Rabig, Alabama State Coordinator for Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health
  • Jeana Ross, secretary of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Aaliyah Samuel, formerly of National Governor’s Association
  • Diane Schanzenbach, Northwestern University director of Institute for Policy Research
  • Javaid E. Siddiqi, president/CEO of the Hunt Institute
  • Tara Skiles, professional development manager of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Trellis Smith, Head Start state collaboration director of Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Jim Squires, retired employee of National Institute for Early Education Research   
  • Katharine B. Stevens, American Enterprise Institute education policy scholar
  • Jera Stribling, director of Alabama Giving
  • Trayce Strichik, senior director, Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education
  • Rachel Wagner, Devereux Center for Resilient Children
  • Emily Warren-Bailey, Alabama First Class Pre-K teacher
  • Eria White, Alabama First Class Pre-K parent
  • Kash White, Alabama First Class Pre-K student

NOTE: Alabama governor Kay Ivey is not interviewed for the documentary, but the movie has footage of her giving a speech that mentions pre-school education.

Stylistically, “Starting at Zero” is structured like a tedious PowerPoint presentation, including having outlines on the screen that lists each of the documentary’s five chapters, with headings and subheadings. Footage of real-life pre-school classes is mostly used as anonymous background to the voiceover commentaries from the interviews. However, these visual features of the documentary aren’t the film’s biggest problem.

“Starting at Zero” might be only 63 minutes long, but it’s bloated with too many people, mainly from the South or Midwest, who repeat the same things about how “high-quality” pre-school education should be available to everyone in the U.S., without discussing the practicalities of how to pay for it. If you thought that the list of interviewees was long, imagine how it must feel to watch most of them repeating similar generic comments about education. Excruciating.

Most of the people interviewed are in privileged positions where they don’t have to think about how pre-school education will break their household budgets if they have children who need this type of education. A lot of people in America aren’t that lucky; pre-school education is out of their reach because they can’t afford it. Meanwhile, most pre-school educators’ salaries in the U.S. aren’t enough for a basic standard of living in the U.S.

The way that “Starting at Zero” ignores these problems and many other issues makes this documentary short-sighted at best, irresponsible at worst. If people want to see a much better documentary about pre-school education in the U.S., then watch “No Small Matter,” which takes a more comprehensive and more informative look at this important subject.

Abramorama released “Starting at Zero” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on August 14, 2020.

Review: ‘2 Minutes of Fame,’ starring Jay Pharoah and Katt Williams

June 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

RonReaco Lee and Jay Pharoah in “2 Minutes of Fame” (Photo by Claudette Barius/Codeblack Films/Lionsgate Films)

“2 Minutes of Fame”

Directed by Leslie Small

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and Birmingham, Alabama, the comedy film “2 Minutes of Fame” has a predominantly African American cast (with a few white people and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An aspiring stand-up comedian has to decide between chasing his dreams or getting a “real job” to help support his family, and he gets entangled in a feud with a superstar comedian.

Culture Audience: “2 Minutes of Fame” will appeal primarily to people who like simple, predictable and often-raunchy comedies.

Keke Palmer, Jonny Berryman, Jay Pharoah and RonReaco Lee in “2 Minutes of Fame” (Photo by Claudette Barius/Codeblack Films/Lionsgate Films)

A lowbrow, low-budget comedy film like “2 Minutes of Fame” is usually so terrible that there’s hardly anything funny about it. But “2 Minutes of Fame,” despite being very predictable, has an endearing sweetness at the core of its raunchy humor. The movie (directed by Leslie Small) works best when it focuses on the competitive world of stand-up comedy rather than the relationship/family problems of the protagonist.

In “2 Minutes of Fame,” Jay Pharoah portrays Deandre McDonald, an aspiring stand-up comedian who’s been struggling to make a living in Birmingham, Alabama. Even though Deandre has 1 million followers on social media (he has his own YouTube comedy channel), his live-in girlfriend Sky (played by Keke Palmer) is carrying the financial weight of being the main income earner for their household. In addition to working full-time at a hospital, Sky is a nursing student. Deandre and Sky have a son named Jaylin (played by Jonny Berryman), who’s about 9 or 10 years old.

The movie begins with Deandre making a YouTube video ridiculing a superstar comedian named Marques (played by Katt Williams) who used to be respected and edgy but Marques has currently been making horrible movies that have unflattering stereotypes of African Americans. How big of a star is Marques? He can command $20 million a movie, but he’s the very definition of a “sellout,” since his movies make him look like a complete buffoon.

On his YouTube channel, Deandre makes fun of the movie trailer for Marques’ latest garbage movie, which is called “Secret Service Man.” In the trailer, Marques plays a bumbling Secret Service agent who takes a non-fatal bullet for a U.S. president who’s an obvious parody of Donald Trump. (Darrell Hammond plays the president in a very brief cameo.) Deandre has this reaction to the trailer by commenting on Marques’ role in the film: “How can I make the most money while selling out our people while still being terrible?”

Deandre’s video goes viral (116,000 views in one day), and Marques finds out about it. When a lackey asks Marques if they should get revenge on Deandre, Marques says Deandre isn’t worth the trouble because Deandre only has 1 million followers on social media, while Marques has 30 million. But will Deandre and Marques cross paths in real life? Of course they will.

Before that happens, Deandre is miserable and bored in his day job working as a clerk at a supermarket that resembles Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. He’d rather tell stand-up comedy jokes to customers than stock the shelves. When his manager Zena (played by Jess Hilarious) tries to get Deandre to go back to work, he and Zena get in a food fight where they throw fruit and vegetables at each other. Needless to say, Deandre gets fired.

The timing couldn’t be worse for Deandre to lose his job because he and Sky are running out of money. Their son Jaylin is taunted by his peers in his piano class for not having a piano at home. Deandre has been behind on a lot of payments, but he’s too proud to admit to anyone outside of his family that he’s nearly broke.

When Deandre picks Jaylin up from a piano class session, Jaylin’s piano teacher Ms. Ellyn (played by Valery Ortiz) tries to tactfully tell Deandre that Jaylin has fallen behind the rest of the students because Jaylin doesn’t have a piano at home to use for practice. Ms. Ellyn (whose hair is styled with huge bouffant bangs) could have been trying to be helpful, but she comes across as condescending, and Deandre is insulted.

“You need help with those bangs in front of your face,” he angrily tells Ms. Ellyn. While he storms out he also calls her a “broke-ass Rosie Perez” and a “Puerto Rican version of Janelle Monáe.” But getting Jaylin a piano is not going to happen at the moment because Deandre and Sky have bigger bills to pay. Not surprisingly, Sky is furious when she finds out that Deandre lost his job at the supermarket.

However, there’s a sliver of hope for Deandre to make money doing what he loves. His wisecracking best friend Eddie (played by RonReaco Lee) has surprised Deandre by telling him that he entered Deandre into a talent contest for aspiring stand-up comedians called Laugh Out Loud Comedy Showcase. The winner of the grand prize will get to go on a Laugh Out Loud world comedy tour with established comedians. The contest takes place in Los Angeles at the Laugh Out Loud nightclub, which will pay the travel/hotel expenses of the contestants from outside the Los Angeles area.

When Deandre finds out he’s been selected as one of the contestants, Sky is skeptical that Deandre can win the contest. She wants him to stay home and find another job instead. Deandre wants to go to Los Angeles and pursue his dream. Sky and Deandre get into a big argument about it. She gives Deandrea an ultimatum by saying that if he goes to Los Angeles, their relationship will probably be over when he gets back.

Deandre and Eddie go to L.A., but of course they face some major obstacles. Eddie (who’s been acting as Deandre’s manager) is horrified and embarrassed to find out that Deandre sold their first-class hotel accommodations, so they end up having to sleep in the vehicle that was provided for them on the trip. Next, they find out that Deandre’s got really stiff competition.

Luckily, he’s met someone who can help. Her name is Taylor (played by Andy Allo), who works as a hostess at the Laugh Out Loud comedy club where the contest is taking place. Taylor scores Deandre a last-minute late-night spot at another comedy club called the Comedy Basement, where he can try out his material before the contest.

Taylor and Deandre are immediately attracted to each other. He doesn’t tell her that he has a live-in girlfriend and son at home. All he’ll say about his relationship status is that “it’s complicated.” Will this cause problems later in the story? Of course it will.

The best parts of “2 Minutes of Fame” are the scenes involving the contest. The stand-up comedy scenes are realistic and the comedians are very funny. It’s obvious that the movie got real stand-up comedians (including Pharoah) instead of actors portraying stand-up comedians. That authenticity goes a long way.

Aside from jokes told on stage, “2 Minutes of Fame” also realistically addresses the generation gap between comedians who started their careers before social media existed and comedians who started their careers after social media existed. There’s a hilarious L.A. nightclub table conversation with Sinbad, Lunell and George Wallace (all playing themselves) talking with Marques about how many young comedians today think they can make it big just by being on YouTube instead of paying their dues in front of live audiences.

Sinbad comments on the days when he was a young comedian: “You know what a ‘follow’ used to be? Someone was going to kill you or [it meant] a sexual predator.” And in another scene, Taylor (who’s close to Deandre’s age) also agrees that the “old school” way is the better way to become a famous comedian, when she tells Deandre: “Y’all YouTubers don’t understand what an art stand-up is.”

The movie also does a good and sometimes hilarious job of addressing the racial and cultural issues that African American stand-up comedians face when they have to represent for their communities but not compromise their credibility by doing anything that would be considered “sell-out” or “race traitor” material. The movie also touches a little bit (but not enough) on the sexism that women experience in the male-dominated world of stand-up comedy. However, since the screenplay (written by Devon Shepard and Yamara Taylor) has a male protagonist and most of the cast members are men, it’s a pretty accurate reflection of today’s typical demographics for stand-up comedy.

All of the cast members do a good job with their roles. Pharoah’s Deandre character is kind of an irresponsible screw-up, but Pharoah makes him likable enough that his immaturity doesn’t become too grating. Williams is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially since some people find his speaking voice to be very annoying, but he’s believable as a jaded celebrity. Palmer does just fine in a somewhat typical role as an exasperated love partner.

“2 Minutes of Fame” is definitely not for very young children or people who are easily offended by cursing and vulgar humor. But for people who are mature enough and don’t mind this type of raunchiness, the movie gives a better-than-expected look at stand-up comedy on the nightclub level and has some genuine laugh-out-loud moments that will keep viewers reasonably entertained.

Lionsgate released “2 Minutes of Fame” on DVD, digital and VOD on June 16, 2020.

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