Review: ‘Promising Young Woman,’ starring Carey Mulligan

December 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Carey Mulligan in “Promising Young Woman” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Promising Young Woman”

Directed by Emerald Fennell

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramedy film “Promising Young Woman” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman who dropped out of medical school because of a past trauma takes out her anger on unsuspecting people who are directly or indirectly related to this trauma.

Culture Audience: “Promising Young Woman” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a dark comedic twist on revenge stories.

Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham in “Promising Young Woman” (Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features)

It would be easy to assume that “Promising You Woman” is an angry feminist film where a woman pretends to be very drunk at different nightclubs, entices predatory men into trying to take advantage of her sexually, and then humiliates them when she reveals that she’s not drunk and that she just wanted to expose how these supposedly “nice” guys aren’t so nice after all. That’s what happens for a great deal of the movie and what’s shown in the movie’s trailer. But “Promising Young Woman” is not what it first appears to be, just like the movie’s central character Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (played by Carey Mulligan), the smart but deeply troubled woman who’s hell-bent on a personal agenda for these potentially dangerous sexual games.

“Promising Young Woman” is the first feature film written and directed by Emerald Fennell, a multitalented entertainer who is also an actress. (Fennell portrays Camilla Parker Bowles in Netflix’s “The Crown” series and has an uncredited cameo in “Promising Young Woman” as a makeup tutorial YouTuber.) The story of “Promising Young Woman” takes place in an unnamed U.S. city that could represent any middle-class American suburb. As the story unfolds, viewers find out that Cassie was a talented student in medical school at the fictional Forrest Union University, when she abruptly dropped out because of something traumatic that still haunts her.

When this story takes place, it’s been seven years since Cassie has dropped out of medical school. She turns 30 years old during the course of this story, but it seems as if she doesn’t want to celebrate this milestone birthday or even be reminded of it. That’s because her life is stuck in a rut. It’s implied that Cassie has issues affecting her mental health.

By day, she works in a small coffee shop that’s owned by her sassy boss Gail (played by Laverne Cox), who doesn’t judge Cassie (who’s a sarcastic loner), except in believing that Cassie should be more optimistic about love and dating. Cassie is an only child who still lives with her parents Susan (played by Jennifer Coolidge) and Stanley (played by Clancy Brown), who are worried about Cassie’s life being at a standstill.

Susan is more vocally upset over it than Stanley is, because on Cassie’s 30th birthday (which Cassie claims to have forgotten, but her parents haven’t), Susan yells at Cassie in a moment of anger: “You don’t have any boyfriends! You don’t have any friends!” Cassie’s favorite color is pink, and the way her bedroom is decorated indicates that a big part of herself doesn’t want to grow up.

Stanley is more compassionate and accepting than Susan is about their daughter. He refuses to say any harsh words to Cassie and tries to encourage her to be the best person she can be. However, for Cassie’s 30th birthday, her parents give her a pink suitcase, as a not-so-subtle way of telling her that they really would like her to move out and get her own place.

At night, Cassie has a secret life of going to nightclubs and pretending to be so drunk that she can barely stand or remember her name. A man at the nightclub usually approaches her, with the pretense of being a “gentleman” who will “take care of her,” and escorts her back to his place. He inevitably tries to have sex with Cassie, who will protest and say no, but he will persist and maybe start to remove some of her clothing. Cassie will then shock him by revealing that she’s not drunk at all and that he can’t have sex with her.

Depending on the situation, Cassie will usually humiliate the guy by letting him know that he almost raped her. He usually reacts with surprise over being caught, denial over being labeled as a sexual abuser, and almost always anger by accusing Cassie of “tricking” or “trapping” him. Cassie then goes home and records each incident in a journal, by checking off each encounter with hangman numerical symbols. (These numerical symbols are shown in pink coloring at pivotal points in the story.)

In the beginning of the movie, Cassie is seen playing this game in two separate incidents: First, it’s with a guy named Jerry (played by Adam Brody), who is egged on by the pals he’s with at the nightclub to take advantage of her. Cassie also plays this game with a cocaine-snorting nerdy creep named Neil (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who tries to blame his predatory actions on the cocaine.

Why is Cassie putting herself in these situations? She’s not an undercover cop trying to bust potential rapists. She’s acting out her own type of justice for something involving a sexual assault that happened when she was in medical school. It’s eventually revealed in the movie who was assaulted, what happened and who was responsible.

While Cassie is leading this double life, a customer comes into the coffee shop one day, and he changes Cassie’s outlook on possibly opening up her heart to romance. A former medical school classmate named Ryan (played by Bo Burnham), who is now a pediatric surgeon, is very surprised to see Cassie working in a coffee shop because he thought she would be doing something more prestigious with her life. Ryan immediately stammers and makes a profuse apology to Cassie when he realizes that he had a very condescending reaction to her job.

When Cassie asks him if he wants milk in his coffee, Ryan says, “You can spit in it. I deserve it.” Cassie obliges and spits in his coffee, which Ryan then drinks. It sets the tone for the rest of the relationship, where Ryan is awkward and eager to impress Cassie, while she is coolly sarcastic and hard to read about what she might be really feeling. Ryan tells Cassie that he’s had a crush on her since medical school. He asks her out on a date. She ignores his attempts to court her, until she says yes.

Cassie and Ryan’s budding romance has a dark cloud over it though. Cassie has become secretly consumed with the news that a former medical school classmate named Al Monroe is getting married. She finds out about the upcoming wedding on social media. Al Monroe’s name seems to trigger Cassie on a path that leads to her reliving the trauma she experienced in medical school.

Cassie had a best friend at the time named Nina Fisher, whom she knew since childhood, and they were like sisters to each other. Nina’s name is often brought up in the story in relation to Cassie’s experiences in medical school. Nina and Cassie had the type of friendship where people described Cassie and Nina as “inseparable.”

Some other people from Cassie’s past are in the story, including Madison McPhee (played by Alison Brie), who was a close friend of Cassie and Nina. All three of them were in medical school at the same university. Cassie also visits Nina’s mother Mrs. Fisher (played by Molly Shannon), Forrest Union University’s Dean Elizabeth Walker (played by Connie Britton) and an attorney named Jordan (played by Alfred Molina).

“Promising Young Woman” has moments of being a dramatic thriller (when it comes to Cassie’s nocturnal activities) and a romantic comedy (when it comes to Cassie and Ryan’s relationship), but it becomes clear as the story goes on that the overall tone of the story is a dark satire of how society often handles the complicated issues of sexual assault. The movie shows in realistic ways that women can be just as cruel as men when it comes to blaming and shaming victims of sexual assault.

It’s important to point that out because “Promising Young Woman” is not a man-bashing movie. Rather, the movie accurately shows how people can often blur the lines of what constitutes a sexual assault when intoxication from drugs or alcohol is involved in the incident. Was there consent given because inhibitions were lowered due to intoxication, or was consent taken away because someone wasn’t thinking clearly due to intoxication?

There’s also a culture of complicity and denial when someone accused of sexual assault has a certain “respectable” public image and is considered to be “too nice” to ever be the type of person who would commit this crime. At the same time, in most countries, the law is to consider someone innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. At what point should an accused person be judged by public opinion when that person hasn’t been arrested or convicted of the crime? There are no easy answers in many cases.

And what about people who witness a crime but do nothing about it? How guilty are they and how harshly should they be judged? Those are questions that will make this movie’s viewers think about all the past and present actions of certain characters, as “Promising Young Woman” reveals more of Cassie’s background and how it’s linked to certain people in the story.

“Promising Young Woman” has some interesting soundtrack music choices that successfully demonstrate the dichotomous lifestyle and mindset of Cassie. Two dance-pop songs in particular are put to great use in separate scenes. Britney Spears’ 2003 hit “Toxic” is heard when Cassie goes on the prowl in a pivotal part of the movie. Paris Hilton’s 2006 hit “Stars Are Blind” is heard when Cassie and Ryan playfully stroll through a drugstore and act like teenagers as they sing along to the song when it’s playing over the drugstore loudspeakers.

“Toxic” and “Stars Are Blind” are clever song choices, because of the pop culture context and how it relates to Cassie’s character. Spears and Hilton, who used to be close friends, had “party girl” images when these songs were released. (Spears had her notorious meltdown a few years after “Toxic” was a hit.) Both songs were released during Cassie’s teenage years, when Spears and Hilton probably would’ve made big impressions on Cassie and Nina, who was Cassie’s best friend from childhood.

“Stars Are Blind” and “Toxic” at first seem to be lightweight pop songs, but the lyrics have deeper meaning in the context of this story. As the public now knows, the fun-loving party image presented by Hilton and Spears during their tabloid heyday masked deep-seated emotional problems. It would be easy to speculate that these songs also represent the turbulent emotional journey that Cassie has been on too. She might have imagined as a teenager when these songs were hits that she would also be a fun-loving party girl in her 20s, but her carefree spirit was shattered and she’s been left with disillusionment and broken dreams.

Mulligan gives a memorable and effective performance as Cassie, who doesn’t see herself as a heroine as much as an emotionally damaged crusader. Burnham also shows a certain nuance in his role as the “nice guy” who’s able to thaw Cassie’s cynical heart. The story unfolds in layers, and there are some unexpected twists that upend the usual expectations that viewers might have for movies that cover issues related to sexual assault.

The fact that “Promising Young Woman” is bold enough to approach the subject matter in a satirical tone without making it an offensive mockery of sexual assault is an unusual and tricky feat. Is it an empowering feminist film? Is it too dark to be enjoyable, or is it too comical to be taken seriously? The best thing about the movie is that regardless of how it’s interpreted, it will make an unforgettable impact on people who watch it.

Focus Features released “Promising Young Woman” in U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2020. The movie is set for release on VOD on January 15, 2021; on digital on March 2, 2021; and on Blu-ray and DVD on March 16, 2021.

Review: ‘Happiest Season,’ starring Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Daniel Levy, Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen

December 22, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis in “Happiest Season” (Photo by Jojo Whilden/Hulu)

“Happiest Season”

Directed by Clea DuVall

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Pittsburg area, the romantic comedy “Happiest Season” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: A closeted lesbian invites her live-in girlfriend to a family Christmas gathering, and the girlfriends agree to keep their romance a secret from the family during this visit.

Culture Audience: “Happiest Season” will appeal primarily to people interested in seeing a Christmas-themed comedy about families where the central couple happens to be members of the LGBTQ community.

Pictured from left to right (in front) Asiyih N’Dobe and Anis N’Dobe and (in back) Burl Moseley, Alison Brie, Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Mary Holland, Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen in “Happiest Season” (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

There’s a certain formula that romantic comedy films have when they take place during the Christmas holidays and much of the plot revolves around a family get-together: Siblings have rivalries, couples have relationship problems, and at least one person in the family has a big secret that they’re desperately trying to hide. “Happiest Season” (directed by Clea DuVall) follows a lot of the same formula, except that it’s a rare Christmas-themed movie that has lesbians as the central couple in the story. Sony Pictures Entertainment’s TriStar Pictures was going to release “Happiest Season” in theaters until the company sold the movie to Hulu.

In “Happiest Season,” which takes place in the Pittsburgh area, the big secret is that one of the women in the lesbian couple still hasn’t told her family that she’s a lesbian and in a live-in relationship with a woman whom her family thinks is a platonic, heterosexual roommate. Harper Caldwell (played by Mackenzie Davis) is a journalist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and she’s been living with her girlfriend Abigail “Abby” Holland (played by Kristen Stewart), who is working on getting her Ph. D. in art history at Carnegie-Mellon University. Abby and Harper have been dating each other for a little more than a year and have been living together for the past six months.

Harper and Abby are both in their late 20s, smart and very friendly, but Abby is a little more introverted than Harper is. They have a very loving and respectful relationship, but they come from different family backgrounds. Abby is an only child. Her parents, who died when she was 19, were completely accepting of her sexuality when Abby told them that she’s gay. Harper is the youngest of three sisters, and her parents are very traditional and image-conscious. Harper has been afraid to tell her family that she’s a lesbian because she thinks that her parents will disapprove and reject her.

Harper’s parents Ted Caldwell (played by Victor Garber) and Tipper Caldwell (played by Mary Steenburgen), who live in a suburb of Pittsburgh, raised their children to be over-achievers. And now, Ted (a city councilman) is running for mayor, so Harper becomes even more conscious of the scrutiny that her family will receive because of this political campaign. It’s one of the reasons why Harper wants to delay telling her family about being a lesbian and the true nature of her relationship with Abby.

One evening, Abby and Harper take a romantic stroll during a guided Christmas tour of the neighborhood. Harper impulsively steers Abby on a detour to hop up on a stranger’s rooftop so they can get a romantic view of the city and make out with each other. But the occupants of the house hear people on the roof and almost catch Abby and Harper.

Abby barely escapes when she slips on the rooftop and finds herself hanging from the eaves of the roof. Harper tries to rescue Abby, but Abby falls into an inflatable Santa Claus in the front yard. The two women are able to run off just as the occupants of the house go outside and see the two intruders. This slapstick moment is a foreshadowing of some of the wacky-but-predictable physical comedy that happens in other scenes in the movie.

After this rooftop misadventure, Harper invites Abby to meet Harper’s family for the first time during the Christmas holidays. They plan to stay at Ted and Tipper’s family home for five days. Even though Abby says that she’s “not much of a Christmas person,” she agrees to the visit because she wants to meet Harper’s family.

Abby had committed to pet sitting for some friends during this period of time, so she has to find someone who can substitute for her on short notice. She enlists the help of her openly gay best friend John (played by Dan Levy), who is a literary agent. He agrees to take on the responsibility of pet sitting while Abby goes on this family visit that will be a turning point in her relationship with Harper.

John is somewhat stereotypical of a sassy and flamboyant gay man who usually has the role of a “tell it like it is” sidekick. However, John is also a confidant who has a lot of compassion and knows the true meaning of loyalty in a friend. Abby is going to need it, considering what she goes through in this story.

Abby tells John a secret: She plans to propose to Harper during this family holiday visit. John is skeptical of marriage, which he calls an “archaic institution,” but he’s happy for Abby and he wants the best for her. Abby explains to John why she wants to marry Harper: “It’s not about owning [her]. It’s about building a life with her.”

During Harper and Abby’s car trip to Ted and Tipper Caldwell’s home, Harper finally confesses to Abby that she’s been lying to her about what Harper’s family knows about Harper’s sexuality. Harper tells a shocked Abby that not only is her family unaware that Harper is a lesbian who’s been dating Abby, the family also doesn’t know that Abby is a lesbian too. As far as Harper’s family knows, Harper and Abby are two heterosexual women who are platonic roommates.

At first, Abby wants to back out of the trip, but Harper convinces her not to because she promises Abby that she will tell her family the whole truth after the holiday season and after the mayoral election. Harper says that she couldn’t live with the guilt if she thought her father would lose the election simply because some people wouldn’t vote for a mayor who has a child from the LGBTQ community. It’s fairly obvious that the city where Ted wants to become mayor has a lot of politically conservative voters.

At the Caldwell family home, Abby meets Ted and Tipper (who is obsessed with getting perfect photos for her Instagram account), who are somewhat condescending to Abby. They repeatedly call her “the orphan” and show gushing sympathy to her, as if she’s a little lost child. And because Tipper doesn’t know that Abby and Harper are sleeping together, Tipper tells Abby that she will be staying in a separate bedroom, which predictably leads to a few scenes of Abby and Harper sneaking into each other’s bedroom and trying not to get caught.

Ted is consumed with his mayoral campaign. One of his goals is to get the endorsement of a high-powered and influential donor named Harry Levin (played by Ana Gasteyer), who gives the impression of being a rich snob. One of the people who works with Ted in his campaign is Carolyn McCoy (played by Sarayu Blue), who is described as super-efficient and someone who is very concerned about the image projected by Ted and his family.

Because Ted and Tipper have had high expectations for their children, it’s created a fierce rivalry between Harper and her oldest sister Sloane (played by Alison Brie), who has inherited her parents’ fixation on presenting an image of having a perfect life. Sloane and her husband Eric (played by Burl Moseley) have twins who are about 7 or 8 years old: son Magnus (played by Anis N’Dobe) and daughter Matilda (played by Asiyih N’Dobe), who live such a regimented life, they come across almost like little robots.

Sloane and Eric used to be high-powered attorneys, but they gave up their jobs in the legal profession to make gift baskets for a living. However, pretentious Sloane refuses to call them gift baskets. Instead she uses this description when talking about her and Eric’s job to Abby: “We create curated gift experiences inside handmade, reclaimed wood vessels.” She also brags that Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle website Goop “picked us up and sales have been through the roof ever since.”

Harper’s other sister is Jane (played by Mary Holland, who co-wrote the “Happiest Season” screenplay with director DuVall), who has a bubbly personality but is somewhat nerdy and socially awkward. Jane, who is single with no children, has been working on a sci-fi fantasy novel for the past 10 years. Although it’s not said out loud, Ted and Tipper think of Jane as the “disappointing” child because she’s not as accomplished as her two sisters are and she has a tendency to be clumsy. Her parents think that Jane is handy when it comes to figuring out computer problems and Internet access in the house, but that’s about it.

Of course, a romantic comedy about a couple with honesty issues usually has additional complications, such the presence of ex-lovers who might or might not want to rekindle a past romance. In “Happiest Season,” Harper has not one but two people from her dating past who cause discomfort in different ways for her. The appearances of these two exes will have an effect on Abby too.

First is Harper’s ex-boyfriend Connor (played by Jake McDorman), whom Harper dated when she was in college. Connor doesn’t know that Harper broke up with him because she’s a lesbian, and he still has lingering feelings for her. Harper’s other ex who comes into the picture is a doctor named Riley (played by Aubrey Plaza), who was Harper’s first girlfriend when they were in high school together. Harper and Riley’s breakup, which is described in the movie, was very painful and it set the pattern of Harper being dishonest about her true sexuality to most of the people in her life.

And what do you know, both of these exes just happen to be at the same restaurant at the same time when the Caldwells and Abby are there for a family dinner. Connor was secretly invited by Tipper, who wishes that Harper and Connor would get back together. Riley is at the restaurant by sheer coincidence. Riley and Connor end up in other social situations with Harper and Abby, together and separately. And, as expected, Abby is jealous of Connor, while Harper gets uncomfortable when she sees Abby and Riley becoming friendly with each other.

Except for the lesbian aspects of the movie, “Happiest Season” doesn’t do much that’s different from a lot of predictable romantic comedies. There’s some over-the-top slapstick in the movie that might or might nor be amusing to viewers. This type of cheesy physical comedy somewhat lowers the quality of the movie, but it’s nothing that’s too detrimental to the story.

The romance between Harper and Abby is convincing, with Davis and Stewart handling their roles with great aplomb. Abby’s character is written with more realism and grace than Harper’s character, who is very selfish and immature during some pivotal moments in the story. Some of the best scenes in the film are those between Abby and John, as well as Abby and Riley.

“Happiest Season” works best when it touches on issues about the true meaning of family and the cost of living a lie. The movie doesn’t have any heavy-handed preaching though, and there are plenty of comical scenarios to balance out the more emotionally dramatic moments. “Happiest Season” isn’t an exceptionally well-made romantic comedy, but it has enough charm and entertaining performances to please viewers who like sentimentality with some slapstick.

Hulu premiered “Happiest Season” on November 25, 2020.

Review: ‘The Rental’ (2020), starring Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand and Jeremy Allen White

July 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dan Stevens, Sheila Vand and Jeremy Allen White in “The Rental” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Rental”  (2020)

Directed by Dave Franco

Culture Representation: Taking place in Oregon and in California, the horror flick “The Rental” features a predominantly white cast (with one character of Middle Eastern heritage) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash:  Two couples rent a cliffside vacation home for a weekend and find themselves spied on and stalked by a mysterious stranger.

Culture Audience: “The Rental” will appeal primarily to people who like suspenseful yet formulaic slasher flicks that have better-than-average acting.

Alison Brie in “The Rental” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

It might not be a widely known fact, but the 2020 horror film “The Rental” (directed by Dave Franco) has a coincidentally similar plot to the 2019 horror film “The Rental,” directed by Tim Connolly. Both movies are about two men and two women who rent a house for a weekend, only to become targets of a deranged killer. (In Connolly’s “The Rental,” the house is in the mountains, while in Franco’s “The Rental,” the house is perched on a treacherous oceanside cliff.)

Franco’s “The Rental” has gotten more attention than Connolly’s “The Rental” because it’s Franco’s feature-film directorial debut, after he’s spent years as an actor best known for co-starring in movies such as “Neighbors,” “21 Jump Street” and “The Disaster Artist.” Franco isn’t an actor in “The Rental,” but he’s one of the producers, and he co-wrote the screenplay with independent film veteran Joe Swanberg.

“The Rental” doesn’t have an original concept—there have been numerous horror movies about a killer who goes after people in an isolated house—but the movie does have above-average acting talent in its very sparsely populated cast. The actors make the best out of their roles in a movie that starts out as a psychological drama and then ends up being a formulaic horror film.

In Franco’s “The Rental,” a sleek but isolated cliffside home in an unnamed Oregon city has been rented for a weekend so that two couples can celebrate a recent milestone. Ambitious alpha male Charlie (played by Dan Stevens) and his intelligent business partner Mina Mohamnadi (played by Sheila Vand) have just received a great deal of investor money (the movie doesn’t say how much) to fund their start-up company in northern California. (The movie also doesn’t say what is the company’s industry.)

Mina is dating Charlie’s troubled younger brother Josh (played by Jeremy Allen White), while Charlie is married to loving and supportive Michelle (played by Alison Brie, who is married to Franco in real life). They all live far-enough away in California from the rental house in Oregon, that their road trip takes several hours to get there.

The dynamics between these two couples are established early on in the story, so viewers know about the underlying tensions in the relationships. Before they go on their road trip, Charlie and Michelle discuss Mina and Josh’s fairly new romance. It’s not stated in the movie exactly how long Charlie and Michelle have been married, but they’ve been together for about five to eight years, based on conversations that happen later in the film.

In a private conversation in their bedroom, Michelle remarks to Charlie that she can’t believe she’s going on a vacation with Josh. Charlie makes a cynical remark that the relationship between Mina and Josh probably won’t last because Charlie thinks Josh and Mina are a mismatched couple. Michelle is more optimistic and says that Josh seems “motivated” now that he’s been dating Mina, whom she calls “the total package.”

Why is there all of this negativity about Josh? It’s because he’s been struggling to get his life together after being an aimless troublemaker. He got expelled from college for nearly beating a guy to death in front of a frat house, and Josh spent time in prison for this assault. Josh is currently working as a part-time Lyft driver while taking some night classes.

Michelle comments on how Josh’s romance with Mina seems to have changed him for the better: “I’ve never seen him like this. He really loves her. I think it’s sweet.” Charlie replies, “Of course he loves her. He hit the fucking jackpot.” And why does Charlie think Mina is such a great catch?

The opening scene of the film shows Charlie and Mina (who is the CEO of her and Charlie’s start-up company) in their office, looking at house rentals on the same computer. They are on a website that is not named, but it’s clearly a website that is like Airbnb, the popular online company that allows home owners to be their own real-estate agents in deciding which of the website’s registered members will get to rent out their homes. The cliffside house, which is Charlie and Mina’s first choice, is a little of out their price range, but Charlie and Mina decide to reward themselves by splurging on the rental.

Based on their comfortable body language with each other (they’re leaning in to look at the computer closely together) and based on how they’re talking, it would be easy to assume that Charlie and Mina are a couple. Does this mean there’s some sexual tension between Charlie and Mina? Of course there is. And maybe that’s why Charlie thinks Mina is too good for his younger brother Josh, who has a history of being an ill-tempered screw-up.

It seems that Josh is still a bit of a rebel who likes to break rules. When Charlie and Michelle go to pick up Mina and Josh for their road trip, they see that Josh has brought his French bulldog Reggie along for the trip, even though Josh knows that the house’s rental policy clearly states that pets aren’t allowed in the house. Charlie (who’s doing the driving, of course) immediately objects to the dog going on the trip.

However, Josh insists that the dog go with them, and he says that they can hide the dog until after the person handing them the house keys will leave. Because Charlie doesn’t want to waste time arguing about it, he lets Josh have his way, and the dog goes with them on the trip.

During the drive to the rental house, Mina comments that her application to rent the house was rejected, even though she has practically the same qualifications as Charlie, whose application was accepted immediately. She thinks that her Middle Eastern name had something to do with the rejection, but Charlie dismisses the idea.

“The Rental” has some obvious messages about racism, sexism and “white privilege” by showing viewers how Mina and Charlie have very two different perspectives on how they navigate through life, based on how people treat them. Mina is very aware that being a woman of Middle Eastern descent means that bigots will exclude her from opportunities and make negative assumptions about her, while Charlie is more likely to be given opportunities and a positive benefit of the doubt because he’s a white man.

The movie makes it clear that Charlie is someone who doesn’t like to acknowledge that “white privilege” exists, because that would mean admitting that he has an unfair advantage over people of color in many situations where he benefits from people who believe in white supremacy. Someone like Charlie gets uncomfortable thinking that opportunities and accomplishments might have come his way a lot easier than for people of color who are equally or more qualified than he is.

Therefore, when Mina brings up the likelihood that she was discriminated against, Charlie doesn’t really want to hear it. Mina tells everyone in the car that she was rejected for other rental applications too, whereas Charlie was not rejected. Charlie says to Mina that there were probably other reasons why she was rejected.

Mina’s suspicions about the discrimination grow even more when the two couples arrive at the house and meet the caretaker who will hand them the house keys. The caretaker’s name is Taylor (played by Toby Huss), a scruffy, middle-aged guy who mentions that his brother is the house owner who never lives there, but Taylor is the one who looks after the house and oversees the rentals.

When Charlie introduces everyone to Taylor and mentions that Mina is his business partner and is Josh’s girlfriend, the caretaker rudely comments to Mina, “How’d you get mixed up in this family?” When Mina asks Taylor what he means by that, he denies that he meant anything by it.

Mina is bothered by the subtle racism that she seems to have gotten from Taylor, so she tells Josh in a private conversation outside that she doesn’t feel comfortable giving their money to a racist. Josh convinces her that they might as well stay to enjoy their vacation as much as possible, since the rental was paid for already and they already made a long road trip to get there.

Later, Mina confronts Taylor in front of everyone, by asking him why her application was rejected and Charlie’s application was immediately accepted. Taylor looks uncomfortable and says he doesn’t remember her application. Mina then reminds Taylor of her full name, while he looks increasingly uncomfortable. Charlie is starting to look embarrassed, and he tries to diffuse the tension by indicating that he wants Mina to stop this line of questioning.

Mina then tells Taylor that she and Charlie have nearly identical qualifications, but the application from a white man (Charlie) was accepted, and her application was rejected. Taylor still won’t answer the question. Instead, he turns the conversation around and tells Mina that if she has a problem, she can cancel the rental. 

Taylor’s deflection is shady and manipulative, because Taylor knows that the rental is in Charlie’s name, and it’s pretty obvious that Charlie doesn’t want to cancel the rental agreement or cause any arguments with Taylor. Mina also knows that the other people in the group don’t want to cancel the rental agreement, so she has no choice but to let the matter go.

This heated conversation between Mina and Taylor is meant to exemplify how people who try to confront issues of discrimination are often “shut down” and labeled as “difficult” by people trying to divert attention away from the real issues. Meanwhile, people who aren’t directly affected by discrimination, but know about it, often won’t speak up and will act like they want the issue to just go away—as exemplified by how Charlie, Josh and Michelle do nothing to come to Mina’s defense.

Before he leaves the two couples to have the house to themselves, Taylor shows that he’s not only a racist but he’s also a creep when he mentions that there’s a telescope they can use in the house, in case anyone wants to be a Peeping Tom. Taylor says it in a joking manner, but his tone of voice indicates that he’s only half-joking.

After getting settled in, the two couples go for an evening walk on the beach. When they come back to the house that night, they see that someone (presumably Taylor) set up the telescope in the living room while the two couples were away.

Mina immediately expresses discomfort that Taylor can come and goes as he pleases while they’re staying at the house. But the other people in the group act as if she’s being a little too paranoid and “difficult,” so Mina is made to feel once again that she’s in the minority.

“The Rental” is written in such a way that the entire movie can be viewed as a social commentary about peer pressure and how failing to speak up and report problems—for the sake of pretending that everything is okay and going along with a group mentality—can ultimately be dangerous to someone’s well-being. There’s also social commentary about power dynamics and rivalries between men, women and siblings and why people keep certain secrets.

In one scene, Michelle and Josh are having a private conversation while they’re hiking in the woods. It’s revealed in this conversation that Michelle is a lot more insecure about Charlie and Mina’s relationship than she would like to publicly admit. Charlie clearly admires Mina’s intellect and ambition, but Michelle doesn’t have those same qualities, so Michelle feels that Mina is giving Charlie a type of emotional fulfilment that Michelle, as his wife, can’t give.

It’s never stated in the movie if Michelle works outside of her home or not, but it is made clear that she has nothing to do with Charlie’s start-up business and doesn’t help him make any decisions about the company. Michelle’s insecurities are fueled when Josh divulges some information about two of Charlie’s former girlfriends whom Charlie dated before Charlie met Michelle.

The movie also has a not-so-subtle message about invasion of privacy and the type of trust that people willingly hand over to strangers in a house-rental situation that was arranged online. The trust issues go both ways for the renters and the house owners. And when these transactions are done online, where people can write relatively anonymous reviews about their rental experience, there might be a false sense of security that things will be completely safe.

Not long after getting settled in at the rental house, Mina and Josh find a guest house, which has a locked door on a lower-deck level. The door has a key-code lock. What’s behind the door? It’s revealed in the movie whether or not what’s behind the door is relevant to the story.

Meanwhile, some Ecstasy-fueled partying in the house and some hidden surveillance result in a chain of events that bring on the horror. It’s enough to say that the couples in the house are being stalked and spied on, and there is some bloody mayhem that ensues.

“The Rental,” which has a lot of scenes that take place at night, certainly brings the right atmosphere to the movie, as things get more sinister as the story unfolds. The abundance of fog can be explained by the fact that this story takes place mostly in a cliffside house near a treacherous ocean. And the film’s musical score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans is a definite asset in the movie’s most effective thrilling scenes.

However, a lot of horror fans might not like that it takes so long (about two-thirds of the movie) for “The Rental” to get to any suspenseful action. Most of the film is really a character study of the increasingly tense relationships between Charlie, Michelle, Mina and Josh. Because the dialogue is realistic, the actors are well-cast, and the acting is better than what’s in an average horror movie, it’s worth the wait to get to the scenes in the movie where the characters are in real danger.

“The Rental” director Franco shows promising talent for telling a good story, but in the end, not much of it is very original. In fact, the least original part of “The Rental” is the murder spree, which has been seen and done in many other horror movies. Although “The Rental’s” characters are engaging and believable (Vand and Brie give the best performances), the action scenes are very formulaic.

People who expect a slasher flick to have the first killing happen within the first 15 minutes of the movie will probably be bored or disappointed by “The Rental.” Anyone who sees this movie has to be willing to sit through a lot of realistic relationship drama before getting to the over-the-top and predictable horror violence.

IFC Films released “The Rental” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on July 24, 2020.

Review: ‘Horse Girl,’ starring Alison Brie

February 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

Alison Brie in "Horse Girl"
Alison Brie in “Horse Girl” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Horse Girl”

Directed by Jeff Baena

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the sci-fi drama “Horse Girl” (which has almost nothing to do with horses) has a predominantly white cast of characters representing the middle class.

Culture Clash: When a seemingly normal woman tells people about why strange things are happening to her, they think she’s crazy. 

Culture Audience: “Horse Girl” will appeal primarily who audiences who prefer arthouse sci-fi films, but this movie can’t quite rise above its mediocrity and ultimately disappointing conclusion.

John Reynolds and Alison Brie in “Horse Girl” (Photo by Katrina Marcinowski)

Don’t be fooled by the title of the movie drama “Horse Girl,” because this isn’t a “National Velvet” type of story about a girl and her “best friend” horse who overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to win a race. Nor is this a non-sports horse movie about someone with a special talent to communicate with horses, such as “The Horse Whisperer.” In fact, after seeing “Horse Girl,” you might wonder what the word “horse” was doing in the title in the first place. There’s a horse in this movie, but it’s not central to the plot, and the horse is in this 104-minute film for no more than 15 minutes.

So, what is “Horse Girl” about anyway? It’s about a shy, neurotic woman named Sarah (played by Alison Brie, who co-wrote the “Horse Girl” screenplay with director Jeff Baena) who believes she’s discovered something horrible about her life, but everyone around her thinks she’s crazy. When viewers first see Sarah, she’s living a routine and boring life that consists of her working as a sales associate at a local arts-and-crafts store and then coming home at night to watch TV. Her favorite show is a paranormal drama series called “Purgatory,” which features detectives investigating strange crimes that might or might not have to do with vampires and the occult.

She also spends time at a ranch where the people there don’t look too happy to see her. There’s a horse at the ranch named Willow that Sarah is overly attached to, for reasons that are explained later in the story. From the way that Sarah acts around the horse and the teenage girl who gets to ride Willow, it would be easy to assume Sarah is either the owner of the horse or a horse trainer. But things aren’t always what they seem to be with Sarah.

In the film’s opening scene—which almost looks like a parody of the  prissy characters that the Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo in “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar”—Sarah and her co-worker Joan (played by Molly Shannon) commiserate over finding out what their heritage is through DNA test kits. Joan raves about getting her DNA test results, as if it’s the most exciting thing to happen to her all year. She urges Sarah to do a DNA test too, and Sarah says that she’ll think about it. Later in the movie, Joan surprises Sarah by giving her a DNA test kit for Sarah’s birthday, and Sarah does the test.

Meanwhile, Sarah’s home life is fairly lonely, even though she has a roommate. Sarah’s pretty and confident roommate Nikki (played by Debby Ryan) is the kind of woman who gives off the aura of someone who was probably a queen-bee cheerleader in high school. Nikki and her boyfriend Brian (played by Jake Picking) spend a lot of time at each other’s place. When they’re over at Nikki and Sarah’s apartment, they rarely spend time with Sarah.

You can tell that Nikki feels sorry for Sarah when Nikki suggests that Brian’s roommate Darren Colt (played by John Reynolds) come over sometime so they could double date. Sarah is reluctant and doesn’t show further enthusiasm about the “double date” idea, until Darren actually comes over with Nikki and Brian. Sarah and Darren feel an instant attraction to each other. And the fact that Darren is the name of the male lead chatacter in “Purgatory” makes it even better for Sarah, who blurts out this information to Darren.

It’s the first clue that something is really “off” with Sarah, but Darren brushes it off and thinks that Sarah is just nervous and awkward. During this house-party get-together, all four loosen up with alcohol, while the guys smoke some marijuana too. Everyone gets very intoxicated, which leads to Darren and Sarah dancing with no inhibitions with each other. After Darren leaves, Sarah vomits in the toilet.

The next day, Darren shows up at the apartment unexpectedly because he forgot to ask Sarah for her phone number. She gives him her number, and they start dating. Sarah gets an occasional nosebleed, but she doesn’t think much about it.

Meanwhile, Sarah goes to a home of a young female friend around her age to visit with her. The woman has difficulty walking, and her speaking skills also sound physically challenged. Who is this mysterious friend?

In a flashback, we see that she used to be a horse-riding pal of Sarah’s until a horrible accident left her impaired. Sarah was riding Willow at the time of the accident. Although it’s never shown or fully explained in the movie, that traumatic incident had something to do with why Sarah no longer owns Willow, but she keeps showing up at the ranch of Willow’s new owners, who can barely tolerate Sarah, since she acts like she’s still responsible for taking care of Willow.

What does that horse have to do with some of the twists and turns in the rest of the story? It’s enough to say that Sarah’s nosebleeds and her habit of sleepwalking have more to do with the story than the horse. Sarah’s sleepwalking starts to become very unsettling when things start happening, such as her stepfather’s car, which he’s let her borrow, ends up being towed because it was found in the middle of a street with a door open and the keys still in the ignition. (Paul Reiser plays Sarah’s stepfather Gary in what is essentially a cameo role.)

Sarah has no memory of driving the car there, and before she found out where the car was, she reported the car stolen. Viewers find out that Sarah’s mother had a history of depression and committed suicide years earlier. Sarah’s maternal grandmother (who looks just like Sarah in photos that are shown) also had a history of mental illness. Did Sarah inherit any of their mental problems? She seems terrified of that possibility.

One thing’s for sure: Sarah has a recurring dream that she’s lying face up in a completely white, clinical-looking room. She’s in the middle of two other people, who are also lying face up, but they appear to be asleep. One is a middle-aged man and the other is a woman who’s around Sarah’s age. Before anything happens next in the dream, Sarah wakes up.

One day, Sarah is shocked to see the man from her dream show up randomly in real life, when she sees him from a distance while she’s at her job. She follows him outside, and sees from the van that he’s driving that he works for a company called Santiguez Plumbing. She goes to his place of work and finds out that his name is Ron (played by John Ortiz), but he doesn’t know who Sarah is when Sarah asks if they’ve ever met before.  He also says he has no memory of having a dream similar to hers.

More strange things keep happening to Sarah. There are long, horizontal scrape marks on her apartment wall that have appeared with no explanation. Sarah also wakes up with mysterious bruises on her body. By this point in the movie, Sarah has gone from a passive, soft-spoken person to almost manic and hysterical when she starts to put together a theory of what’s happening to her. It’s a theory that won’t be revealed in this review (even though it’s revealed in the movie’s trailer), but it takes the story in a direction that’s completely different from how the movie began.

It’s enough to say that Sarah has a very public meltdown, and she ends up getting psychiatric help. She’s assigned to a counselor named Ethan (played by Jay Duplass) who remains sympathetic but highly skeptical, as Sarah explains to him what she thinks is happening to her. (Hint: It involves a conspiracy.) The problem with “Horse Girl” is that even with the sci-fi elements that come into play with this story, where people have to suspend a certain amount of disbelief, there are so many plot holes for Sarah’s conspiracy theory that even if the theory were true, it would be almost impossible for Sarah not to find out about certain actions a lot sooner than she does.

“Horse Girl” director Baena and Brie previously worked together when she co-starred in the 2017 offbeat comedy “The Little Hours,” which was about horny Catholic nuns who act on their lusty desires. That movie gave viewers the anticipation of wondering what’s going to happen next. “Horse Girl” doesn’t have quite the same ability to keep viewers compelled, because of its nonsensical storyline. The first half of “Horse Girl starts off fairly intriguing, but the last half is a lot like a slogging through mud.

Horse fans, you’ve been given fair warning. This movie is definitely not about horses. If you want to watch a conspiracy-theory movie with sci-fi gimmicks that have been done much better in other films, then feel free to waste about 104 minutes of your time to watch “Horse Girl.”

Netflix premiered “Horse Girl” on February 7, 2020.

Review: ‘Weathering With You,’ an animated romance from Japan

January 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

"Weathering With You"
“Weathering With You” (Photo courtesy of GKIDS)

“Weathering With You”

Directed by Makoto Shinkai

Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: This Japanese animated fantasy film takes place primarily in Tokyo, with teenagers as the lead characters and adults as supporting characters.

Culture Clash: In this alternate and supernatural world, underage teenagers who live on their own try to find their identities and independence, while sometimes clashing with adults who might try to control or exploit them.

Culture Audience: “Weathering With You” is a family-friendly film that will appeal mostly to fans of Japanese anime and romantic animated films.

“Weathering With You” (Photo courtesy of GKIDS)

“Weathering With You” is an old-fashioned love story wrapped up in a modern setting with futuristic and sci-fi/supernatural elements. This charming animated movie (written and directed by Makoto Shinkai) was Japan’s official 2019 entry for the Best International Feature Film category for the Academy Awards—and it’s almost the polar opposite from Japan’s 2018 entry: the bleak drama “Shoplifters,” which was about a group of thieves from different generations who live together. Interestingly, both movies do have something in common. The central characters are financially unstable people who are living outside the margins of regular society and who find themselves with a surrogate family.

In “Weathering With You,” viewers first see 16-year-old runaway Hokada Morishima on a ship going to Tokyo, where he wants to escape from his remote island home. While on the ship, and after hearing that a major rainstorm is headed that way, Hokada foolishly goes outside during the storm and almost gets swept overboard. He’s saved by a young man, and as a thank you, Hokada buys dinner for the stranger when they arrive in Tokyo. It’s clear from this scene that Hokada is an impulsive risk-taker, but he also has a kind heart.

Because Hokada is underage and doesn’t have any proper ID, it’s difficult for him to find a job. While figuring out where he’s going to get his next meal, a teenage girl who works at a local café takes pity on him and gives him a free hamburger. Hokada eventually runs out of money, and he ends up homeless and living on the street, where he finds a gun in a paper bag and keeps the weapon. That gun will get him into trouble later in the story. Meanwhile, Tokyo and other parts of Japan are experiencing torrential rainstorms.

As luck would have it, Hokada lands a job interview, based on going to an address of a business card he’s found. It’s a small magazine company run by a mysterious widower in his 30s named Keisuke “Kei” Suga, who works out of his cluttered home with his young female assistant named Natsumi. Keisuke and Natsumi report supernatural news stories, and the latest trends they’re chasing have to do with unusual weather-related events. Hokada is hired on the spot to be an assistant/housekeeper. His salary is very low, but he gets a free place to live and free meals as part of his employment.

Shortly after getting the job, Hokada sees the girl from the café being manhandled on the street by a sleazy local club owner, who’s pressuring her to work for him. (It’s implied in the movie but not said out loud that he owns a strip club.) As the club owner and a henchman try to force the girl into the club, and she resists, Hokada intervenes and is punched in the face by the club owner. Hokada then pulls out the gun and shoots it in the air, giving him and the girl a way to escape.

The girl’s name is Hina Amano, and she says she’s 17 and soon about to turn 18. As a thank you for rescuing her, Hina invites Hokada over to her place and makes him lunch. It’s during their lunch date that they both find out that they have something in common: They are living on their own without parental supervision. Hokada confesses that he ran away from home because he thinks living with his parents is too stifling. Hina lives with her younger brother Nagisa (nicknamed Nagi), and she says that the mother who raised them died about a year ago. (Somehow, Hina and Nagisa, who don’t seem to have any other living relatives, have avoided going into foster care.)

Hina also has another big secret that she reveals to Hokada: She’s a “sunshine girl”—a rare “weather maiden” who has the ability to make it stop raining and bring the sun out, simply by praying. Because Hina has recently quit her job, and Hokada wants to supplement his measly income, they both decide to go into business together by offering her weather-control services to the public. They start a website together, and almost immediately, their business becomes a successes, with Nagisa often tagging along when they go to different locations to fulfill weather-changing requests.

But their success comes at a price: According to folklore, the more a sunshine girl uses her weather-changing abilities, the more her body begins to transform from flesh into spirit, until she is supposed to disappear forever into the spirit world. It couldn’t come at a worse time, since Hokada and Hina are starting to fall in love.

Complicating matters, the police (led by the stern Detective Takei) are on the hunt for Hokada, since his parents have reported him missing, and he was caught on surveillance video using the loaded gun in the street fight where he rescued Hina. Meanwhile, Keisuke (who’s depressed and has a drinking problem) has secrets of his own about his family that end up affecting his relationship with Hokada.

If you’ve seen Studio Ghibli films, then you’ll probably know what to expect for this movie’s animation (from production companies CoMix Wave Films and Story Inc.), which has an unfussy but expressive animation style that’s very similar to Studio Ghibli films. The voices of the “Weathering With You” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on which version of “Weathering With You” that you see. The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Kotaro Daigo as Hokada, Nani Mori as Hina, Shun Oguri as Keisuke, Tsubasa Honda as Natsumi, Sakura Kiryu as Nagisa and Yûki Kaji as Detective Takei. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Brandon Engman as Hokada, Ashley Boettcher as Hina, Lee Pace as Keisuke, Alison Brie as Natsumi, Emeka Guindo as Nagisa, Riz Ahmed as Detective Takei.

“Weathering With You” won’t be considered a major Oscar-winning Japanese animation classic, such as director Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away,” but “Weathering With You” is still a better-than-average modern animated film. Although “Weathering With You” includes serious social issues about homelessness and the hazards of messing with the environment, ultimately this is a sweetly sentimental film where the biggest messages are about taking life-changing risks for true love.

GKIDS released “Weathering With You” for special sneak-preview screenings in select U.S. cinemas on January 15 and January 16, 2020. “Weathering With You” arrived in wider release in U.S. cinemas on January 17, 2020. The movie was originally released in Japan in 2019.