Review: ‘The Nest’ (2020), starring Jude Law and Carrie Coon

November 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Carrie Coon and Jude Law (center) in “The Nest” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Nest” (2020)

Directed by Sean Durkin

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1986 in the United Kingdom and briefly in New York state, the dramatic film “The Nest” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with a few Indians) representing the middle-class, working-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A British businessman and his American wife experience upheavals in their marriage when they move from New York to England so that he can pursue his dream of starting his own consulting firm for commodities brokering.

Culture Audience: “The Nest” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted arthouse dramas that explore issues about marital relationships, social classes and how wealth is perceived as a status symbol.

Carrie Coon and Jude Law in “The Nest” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

On the surface, “The Nest” is a drama about an upwardly mobile married couple whose lives are frequently upended by the businessman husband’s restlessness to relocate when he finds new opportunities to make more money. Underneath the surface—and what becomes more apparent as the glossy sheen of their seemingly idyllic existence starts to wear off—”The Nest” is really about a power struggle within this marriage. Written and directed by Sean Durkin, “The Nest” features stellar performances from Jude Law and Carrie Coon as the couple at the center of this simmering turmoil and how these two spouses are forced to reckon with some messy and uncomfortable truths.

At the beginning of “The Nest,” which takes place in 1986, married couple Rory O’Hara (played by Law) and Allison O’Hara (played by Coon) seem to have a “perfect” life in New York state. Rory, who’s originally from England, works for a commodities brokerage firm. Allison, who’s a New York native, works for a place that does horse training. They both seem to be happily married and they live in a comfortably upper-middle-class suburban home with their two children: 10-year-old son Benjamin, nicknamed Ben (played by Charlie Shotwell) and daughter Samantha, nicknamed Sam (played by Oona Roche), who is about 16 or 17 years old.

Sam is Allison’s daughter from a previous relationship, so Rory is Sam’s stepfather. Sam calls Rory by his first name, instead of calling him her father. Sam’s biological father is not seen or mentioned in this story. Ben and Sam were both born in the United States and have never lived in another country before.

There are signs that perhaps because Sam is not Rory’s biological child, Rory doesn’t feel as close to Sam as he does to Ben. Rory is a very attentive father to Ben and will spend time doing things like playing soccer with Ben and his friends. That doesn’t mean that Sam is close to her mother either. Unlike the very obedient Ben, Sam is showing signs of teenage rebellion that will come out in a big way later in the story.

Rory is a very doting and loving husband and father overall, but there are some obvious indications that Rory wants to be a very dominant patriarch in this family. One day, Rory tells Allison that he thinks they should move back to his native England because he’s found an opportunity to make more money. Rory’s former boss/mentor Arthur Davis, who owns his own London-based commodities firm named Davis Trading, has offered Rory an opportunity to start his own consulting firm, with Arthur as the primary investor.

But first, Arthur wants Rory to come back to working for Davis Trading so that Arthur (who is nearing retirement age) can be reassured that he will be making the right investment when Rory is ready to strike out on his own. Allison is very reluctant to move because the family has relocated four times in past 10 years, and where they are currently living in New York state is close to where Allison’s parents live. However, Rory tells Allison: “Things have dried up here … This is a chance to make some real money again.”

Throughout the movie, viewers will see a pattern to Rory’s overly confident sales skills: He manipulates people into thinking that they’re less-than-smart if they don’t go along with his ideas. He plays into people’s “fear of missing out” on a great opportunity, even if deep down he isn’t sure himself if what he’s selling is worthwhile. Rory likes to take risks, which can be an asset in his line of work. But he doesn’t always investigate all the pros and cons of taking that risk. And that short-sightedness can be a detriment to his line of work.

Allison eventually agrees to Rory’s plan because he makes her think that she’s not “visionary” enough if she can’t see that he should seize this opportunity that he wants to give their family more wealth. He also sells her on the idea to move because he tells her that he will be making enough money for her to eventually have her own horse-training business. The children have no choice but to accept their parents’ decision to move to England. They’re not thrilled about it but they’re not upset to the point where anyone is throwing tantrums or having crying fits.

Before they move to England, there’s a very telling scene where Allison spends time at her parents’ home. Allison and her mother (played by Wendy Crewson) have a prickly relationship where they don’t really get along with each other, but they still love each other. Allison is almost sad to be leaving behind her parents to move to England, but she doesn’t really want to admit it too much.

Allison confides in her mother (who doesn’t have a name in the movie) about how she feels about this sudden move to England: “Something doesn’t feel right, Mom.” Allison’s mother replies, “It’s not your job to worry. You leave that to your husband.” Allison responds, “It scares me that you actually think that … I’m not the difficult one here.”

Although the “husband always knows best” mentality is not one that Allison is willing to always believe in theory, it becomes clear that in reality, her marriage has become a manifestation of that belief, whether she likes it or not. Rory has always been the one to decide their financial destiny and when and where they are going to move. He’s the type of husband who insists that he will take care of paying the bills and the wife doesn’t need to know all the details.

In essence, Allison has given Rory a lot of power and trust in their financial future. But this move to England will open her eyes in more ways than one. At first, the move to England goes smoothly. The children seem to quickly get over their fear and sadness about leaving their previous life behind and starting over in a new country when they see the stately (yet slightly shabby) centuries-old mansion that Rory has rented for the family. Rory signed a one-year lease with the option to own.

The mansion is in Surrey, about 30 miles from London: close enough to commute but far enough from the crime and noise of a big city. Allison thinks the mansion is too big for their family, but Rory reassures her that they can afford it. It’s another sign that Allison lets Rory make big decisions without her, since it’s obvious that he signed the lease on the home without even discussing it with Allison first.

The mansion needs some remodeling, but Rory assures Allison that they can afford whatever needs to be done. And best of all for Allison, the mansion has a farm that’s large enough for her beloved horse Richmond. Rory has thoughtfully paid to have the horse shipped from the United States to the family’s new home in England. Rory has also enrolled the children in the best private schools he could find in the area, and he doesn’t make them forget it.

At work, Arthur (played by Michael Culkin) treats Rory like a wayward son who has come back to the fold. Rory and Arthur have some discussions about how working in America has changed Rory to think of bigger and better possibilities. Since Rory achieved the American Dream when he lived in the United States, he tells Arthur that what he learned from that experience can only be an asset to Davis Trading, which Rory believes might be stuck in an old and stodgy British way of thinking.

Rory is eager to impress everyone around him by giving off airs of being a wealthy and successful businessman. Rory has a tendency to boast about his accomplishments and how wealthy he supposedly is. Rory tells Arthur and some business colleagues that he and Allison are keeping a penthouse in New York, and they might get a pied-à-terre in London’s Mayfair district, in addition to the mansion they have in Surrey. Rory also tends to name-drop a lot and very much wants to be considered one of England’s elite businessman.

There are signs that Allison isn’t completely comfortable with the snooty social circles that Rory wants to be a part of, now that he’s working with Arthur again. At a formal dinner party at a grand estate, Arthur’s social wife Patricia (played by Annabel Leventon) introduces Rory and Allison as “Mr. and Mrs. Rory O’Hara.” Allison makes a point of telling her that she would like to be introduced as Allison, not as “Mrs. Rory O’Hara.” Later, when Rory and Allison are at their home, Allison tells Roy that things were much easier in America because they could be more relaxed in social settings, compared to their new lifestyle in Great Britain.

Rory didn’t come back to work for Davis Trading to do boring, small-time deals. He tells Arthur that he’s found a Chicago-based firm that wants to merge with a London-based firm. Rory insists that this firm is a great match for Davis Trading and that it’s time for Arthur to sell the company. It would mean that most of Davis Trading employees will be laid off when the American firm takes over, but Rory doesn’t care because he’s already figured out that his commission for brokering this deal will make him very rich.

Arthur agrees to look over the details of this deal. And later, he tells Rory that he’ll probably do the merger as Rory suggested. Plans are set in motion, and Rory is eager to celebrate. He tells a reliable co-worker named Steve (played by Adeel Akhtar), who is his closest confidant at the firm, about this great news.

But at home, things aren’t so great. The cracks in Rory’s façade begin to show when Allison finds out that the contract workers hired to do remodeling on the family’s new home are refusing to do any more work unless they are paid for the work that they already did. Through a phone conversation with the workers’ supervisor, Allison discovers that Rory paid by a check that bounced, and Rory didn’t follow through on his promise to make things right by paying the workers with a legitimate check. Allison gets even more of a shock when she contacts the bank and finds out that she and Rory only have £600 in their joint account.

When Allison confronts Rory, she’s understandably furious. He reassures her that their financial problems will go away because he’s expecting a huge payday. He doesn’t tell her the details, but he insists that she shouldn’t worry. For a while, Allison is part of this denial state of mind too. Her children hear Allison and Rory arguing, but Allison keeps denying that anything is wrong when the kids (especially sensitive and intuitive Ben) ask her to tell her what’s wrong.

As the weeks stretch on and Rory’s big payday keeps getting delayed, the tensions mount in Allison and Rory’s marriage. It reaches a point where he has to ask her to loan him some money from a secret stash of cash that Allison has for emergencies. Allison has lost so much trust in Rory that when she goes to retrieve the cash, she makes him wait in the hallway so he won’t be able to see where she’s hidden it.

One of the best scenes in the movie is shortly after Rory has told Allison that she has nothing to worry about after she discovers they only have £600 in their joint bank account. They go out to a fancy restaurant and she tests him by saying that if they have nothing to worry about, then she can order whatever she wants on the menu. She proceeds to order some high-priced items before Rory stops her. The looks on their faces say it all: Allison is disgusted, Rory is exposed for being a liar, and Allison has now decided she wants more control in this marriage.

The remainder of “The Nest” shows exactly what happens when this marriage becomes a power struggle between someone who wants to continue to live in a fantasy world and someone who wants to deal with reality. Rory’s family background is also revealed, and it explains why he acts the way that he does and why his self-esteem is so wrapped up in becoming rich. And caught in the crossfire are the children Sam and Ben and even Allison’s horse Richmond.

Through it all, Law and Coon give absolutely impressive and realistic performances as people who have to deal with the false public image they put forth to the world versus the harsh reality of who they truly are. Durkin’s solid direction and engaging screenplay are the spark match to this slow-burn movie, but Law’s and Coon’s performances are what give this movie its real fire. The moody cinematography by Mátyás Erdély is also used to great emotional effect, particularly with the darkly lit Surrey mansion, which is a reflection of the shadowy secrets that this family wants to keep. Even though “The Nest” is set in the 1980s, it’s a cautionary tale that is timeless and relevant as long as people commit desperate acts of deception.

IFC Films released “The Nest” in select U.S. cinemas on September 18, 2020, and on digital and VOD on November 17, 2020.

Review: ‘Troop Zero,’ starring Viola Davis, Mckenna Grace, Jim Gaffigan, Mike Epps and Allison Janney

January 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Troop Zero
Allison Janney and Viola Davis in “Troop Zero” (Photo by Curtis Bonds Baker)

“Troop Zero”

Directed by Bert & Bertie

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1977, the family-friendly comedy “Troop Zero” has predominantly white American characters (with some representation of African Americans and Latinos) from the middle and lower classes of a rural, conservative community in the U.S. state of Georgia.

Culture Clash: The movie’s plot revolves around a talent competition for middle-school Birdie Scouts, with one rival troop comprised of “popular girls” and another rival troop comprised of “social outcasts.”

Culture Audience: “Troop Zero” will appeal primarily to people who like adorable, slightly kooky comedies about student angst and self-identity.

Mckenna Grace in “Troop Zero” (Photo by Curtis Bonds Baker)

In a comedy film, a cranky adult reluctantly takes on a group of pre-teen misfits to coach them in a high-stakes competition where the team will be ridiculed underdogs. Is it 1977’s “The Bad News Bears” or 1992’s “The Mighty Ducks”? No, in this case, it’s 2020’s “Troop Zero,” a decidedly different take on a familiar plot outline.

“Troop Zero,” which is set in 1977 rural Georgia, is certainly a throwback to those films from a bygone era when smartphones and social media didn’t dominate kids’ lives. The main differences between most films of this kind and “Troop Zero” is that for “Troop Zero,” the story is told from the perspective of a girl; the adult leader of the misfit group is a woman; and the movie was written and directed by women.

Directed by female duo Bert & Bertie and written by Oscar-nominated “Beasts of the Southern Wild” co-writer Lucy Alibar, “Troop Zero” has a cute and quirky charm that comes primarily from Christmas Flint (played by Mckenna Grace), an adolescent girl who’s obsessed with outer space and who’s still grieving over the death of her mother from the previous year. The opening scene of the movie shows Christmas trying to contact outer-space aliens with flashlight signals.

Christmas lives with her father, Ramsey Flint (played by Jim Gaffigan), a defense attorney who’s constantly having financial problems because he has many clients who can’t or won’t pay him, and he has a hard time saying no to people he thinks need his help. Ramsey’s assistant/office manager is Miss Raylene (played by Viola Davis), who’s the closest to a maternal figure that Christmas has in her life, even if Miss Raylene says she doesn’t particularly like being around children. “Little girls give me the creeps,” Miss Raylene says in one scene. “You can’t him them no more. They changed the laws.”

Ramsey’s best friend Dwayne (played by Mike Epps) is a fellow Vietnam War veteran who’s suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Back in 1977, there wasn’t a name for PTSD, so they usually called it being “shell-shocked.” Dwayne is the love interest of Miss Raylene, who’s had her heart broken in her past. She reveals the details in the movie, and it explains why she has such a hard exterior.

Viewers see early on in the film that Christmas is an outcast at her school not only because a lot of students think she’s weird, but also because her father’s financially precarious situation has branded the Flints as “poor trash” by the snobs in the community. Her best friend is Joseph (played by Charlie Shotwell), an androgynous, flamboyant child who might be gay, but the movie hints that Joseph is either gender-fluid or non-binary, because various characters in the movie keep saying that they don’t know if Joseph is a boy or a girl. And since this movie takes place in 1977, there weren’t specific terms for people who might not have a cisgender identity.

Some of the social rejection that Christmas experiences stings her a little bit, but she’s mostly content to do her own thing and hang out with Joseph. She’s not really concerned about being well-liked and joining groups until she finds out that there’s a national talent competition for Birdie Scouts where the winning scout troop will get to have their voices recorded on NASA’s Golden Record, thereby becoming part of space history.

With no way of being accepted by the established Birdie Scout troops in the area, Christmas decides to start her own Birdie Scout troop. The style-minded Joseph (who likes to wear dresses and loves David Bowie) is immediately up for the challenge and is the first recruit to this new troop. Christmas also ends up convincing these other kids to join the troop: Ann-Claire (played by Bella Higginbotham), an eyepatch-wearing nervous and shy girl who’s devoted to Christianity; Hell-No (played by Milan Ray), the school’s loudmouth bully; and Smash (played Johanna Colón), who’s practically mute and likes to destroy things when she gets angry—a lot like the Incredible Hulk. The Birdie Scout troops have numbers for their names, so Christmas chooses “zero” as the name for her troop, since “zero” can also mean infinity.

The Birdie Scouts of the school are under the supervision of Crystal Massey (played by Allison Janney), the school principal whom the students have nicknamed Nasty Massey. She’s the type of uptight and stern principal we’ve seen many times before in movies, but Janney brings a touch of humanity to the role to convey that Principal Massey must be a pathetic and lonely person for her to take so much pleasure in making life miserable for other people. (On a side note, fans of “The Help” movie should delight in seeing “The Help” co-stars Davis and Janney reunited on screen.)

Principal Massey is already counting on her favorite Birdie Scout troop, Troop Five, to win the competition. Troop Five is the group of popular girls in the school—the types who are cheerleaders, “A”-grade students, and from the communities’ socially prominent families. (The Troop Five members are also stuck-up mean girls.) But to Principal Massey’s horror, Troop Zero qualifies to become a real troop to enter the competition, as long as Troop Zero gets an adult leader. Miss Raylene completely resists the idea at first, but she eventually gives in to Christmas’ relentless pleas for Miss Raylene to become Troop Zero’s adult leader.

Another big challenge that Troop Zero faces is to raise enough money for the competition’s entry fees. They do so by selling cookies from door to door and by offering pop-up beauty salon services to local women. (Joseph is thrilled to be the troop’s best hair stylist.) One of the baking sessions ends up in a predictable food fight when members of Troop Five crash the session.

The hairstyles and clothes aren’t the only indications that this movie takes place in the 1970s. In one scene in the movie, as one of the required Birdie Scout challenges, Miss Raylene leaves the members of Troop Zero alone to camp out overnight in the woods. That’s not the kind of thing that adults could get away with nowadays. (We have to assume that the parents thought that the kids would be safe with Miss Raylene, but she ends up ditching the children to fend for themselves.)

Her reason for the abandonment is to build character and courage for the troop. It’s the kind of scene that’s cringeworthy to watch for anyone who would never do that to defenseless kids, but since this movie is supposed to be a comedy, you can almost hear the filmmakers make this excuse: “Hey, it was the ’70s!”

Speaking of the ’70s, there’s something very old-school about this kind of film with the basic plot about student angst and “misfits versus the popular ones,” but “Troop Zero” has a modern sensibility by including child characters who wouldn’t be in movies that were made back in the 1970s. (Joseph is a perfect example.)

The precocious and determined Christmas is also ahead of her time, since she has no hesitation about her goals to join NASA and go into outer space. It’s a dream that people around her discourage her from having, because the naysayers tell her that being an astronaut is a “man’s job.” And what happens during Troop Zero’s talent routine during the competition is something that wouldn’t have been in a children’s movie that was made back in the 1970s.

“Troop Zero,” which had its world premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, is not just a movie that will appeal to girls or women. It has a message of self-acceptance and how to overcome obstacles that can resonate with a wide variety of people, if you don’t mind sitting through the retro vibe and familiarity of it all.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “Troop Zero” on January 17, 2020.