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: ‘Enola Holmes,’ starring Millie Bobby Brown, Sam Claflin, Henry Cavill and Helena Bonham Carter

January 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Henry Cavill, Millie Bobby Brown and Sam Claflin in “Enola Holmes” (Photo by Robert Viglaski/Legendary/Netflix)

“Enola Holmes”

Directed by Harry Bradbeer

Culture Representation: Taking place in England in 1884, the dramatic mystery thriller “Enola Holmes” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Sherlock Holmes’ teenage sister Enola Holmes, who is determined to outsmart Sherlock and solve the mystery of their missing mother, ends up getting entangled in another mystery of a teenage lord who is the target of an assassination plot.

Culture Audience: “Enola Holmes” will appeal primarily to fans of Sherlock Holmes and the stars of this movie, as well as to people who are interested in a feminist-leaning perspective on mystery stories.

Millie Bobby Brown and Helena Bonham Carter in “Enola Holmes” (Photo by Alex Bailey/Legendary/Netflix)

“Enola Holmes” vibrantly does justice to the mystery book series for which it is named, thanks to a splendid cast and a twist-filled, engaging adventure that will leave viewers wanting more “Enola Holmes” movies. There’s a lot to like about this cinematic adaption of the book “The Case of the Missing Marquess: An Enola Holmes Mystery,” written by Nancy Springer as part of the “Enola Holmes” mystery book series. The “Enola Holmes” movie (directed by Harry Bradbeer and written by Jack Thorne) offers a dashing and often socially conscious interpretation of what it would be like to be a female teenage sleuth in 1880s England while navigating a patriarchal society that constantly underestimates her or tries to undermine her.

In the movie, Enola Holmes (played Millie Bobby Brown, who is one of the producers of “Enola Holmes”) is trying to establish her identity as a detective, apart from her older brother Sherlock Holmes, who’s a famous detective. Enola has been raised by her eccentric, non-conformist widowed mother named Eudoria (played by Helena Bonham Carter, mostly in flashbacks), who has taught Enola not to let her gender prevent her from learning things that have been traditionally male-dominated, such as math, science and martial arts. Eudoria has been enthusiastically training and homeschooling Enola in these male-dominated fields.

The words “feminist” and “free-thinking” are never said in the movie, but it’s a life outlook that Eudoria is teaching Enola to have. The movie takes place in 1884 England, and by this particular society’s standards, Enola is considered a bit of a “wild child” because she’s not very interested in traditionally feminine things or looking prim and proper. For example, Enola often wears her long hair in a way that was considered very un-ladylike at the time: by letting her hair loose and without pinning it up or wearing a hat.

Throughout the movie, Enola talks directly to the audience, as if she’s letting viewers into her own private thoughts. It’s a creative decision that works well in the movie, for the most part, especially when it comes to showing Enola’s comedic sarcasm. However, there are times when this “breaking the fourth wall” technique gets a tad grating because it disrupts the flow of a scene and takes viewers, however briefly, out of the scene’s intended tone.

On Enola’s 16th birthday, Eudoria mysteriously disappears with no indication of where she has gone. Enola, who has a very close relationship with Eudoria, suspects that Eudoria has not been kidnapped. Eudoria was very private and liked to keep secrets. Enola is determined to find her mother and get to the truth.

But before she can start investigating, Enola (who is the youngest of three children) is horrified when she’s told that because of Eudoria’s disappearance, Enola now has to be in the custody of one of her older bachelor brothers: middle child Sherlock Holmes or eldest child Mycroft Holmes, who are both about twice the age of Enola. Sherlock and Mycroft left home when Enola was very young and never really visited. Therefore, she barely knows them.

In fact, Sherlock and Mycroft haven’t seen Enola since she was a prepubescent child. When she goes to meet Mycroft and Sherlock at the train station, they don’t even recognize Enola at first. In a private meeting that Mycroft and Sherlock had before reuniting with Enola, Mycroft (who is greedy, bossy and very snobbish) agreed to take custody of Enola because he has an ulterior motive: He wants possession of the house where Enola grew up, in case their mother has permanently vanished.

Sherlock (who is even-tempered, analytical and usually compassionate) is somewhat relieved that he won’t have the responsibility of taking care of Enola. His true love is his detective work, and taking care of a rebellious teenage sister doesn’t fit into his lifestyle. Mycroft doesn’t really want to have Enola live with him either, so he immediately makes plans to send her to a boarding school. The school is headed by an uptight middle-aged spinster named Miss Harrison (played by Fiona Shaw), who is infatuated with Mycroft and will do anything he asks her to do.

Mycroft makes it clear to Enola that he doesn’t respect Enola or the way that their mother raised Enola. It’s revealed later in the movie that Mycroft was cruel to their mother, which is one of the reasons why Eudoria didn’t seem to mind that she hadn’t seen him for years. Mycroft mentions the difficulty of finding a boarding school that won’t consider Enola a “complete failure.” Mycroft adds, “With Miss Harrison’s help, we’ll make [Enola] acceptable to society.”

Enola’s first meeting with Miss Harrison doesn’t go well at all. Enola defiantly tells her, “I don’t need to go to your ridiculous school!” In return, Miss Harrison slaps Enola in the face. Enola pleads with Sherlock to live with him, but he tells Enola that the matter is out of his hands because Mycroft is now the legal guardian of Enola.

Sherlock is Enola’s idol (she keeps newspaper clippings of all his cases), but she also feels competitive with Sherlock to solve the mystery of their mother’s disappearance before he does. Just like Sherlock, Enola is smarter than the average person, but she has more obstacles than Sherlock at being taken seriously because she has three strikes against her in this society: She’s female, she’s underage, and she’s a non-conformist.

In a flashback memory, Eudoria tells Enola: “There are two paths you can take, Enola: yours or the path others choose for you.” It’s a philosophy that Enola takes to heart. And more often than not, Enola trusts her own instincts, even if things don’t always work out the way that she planned. Luckily, Enola is a quick thinker who can come up with alternative solutions when she finds herself in a jam.

In a candid conversation, Sherlock tells Enola what she already suspected: There must be a very important reason for their mother’s disappearance, which seems to have been staged by Eudoria. Enola can’t solve the mystery while confined at a boarding school, so she runs away from home before she can be taken to the boarding school. Before she leaves, Enola finds some clues left by her mother that lead to a large stash of cash that Enola takes with her because it will come in handy during her investigation.

Enola disguises herself as a boy and sneaks onto a train. While in her private passenger car, Enola is surprised to find another runaway, who’s been hiding in a travel bag stowed in the car. He’s a boy around her age named Viscount Tewkesbury, the Marquis of Basilwhether (played by Louis Partridge), who has left home because he says his relatives are too controlling.

Enola immediately wants nothing to do with Tewkesbury, which means that later on in the movie he’ll become her love interest, in that “I like you but I’m going to pretend that I don’t” kind of way. She doesn’t have much time to kick him out of her train quarters because a sinister-looking man, whose name is later revealed to be Linthorn (played by Burn Gorman), has followed and ambushed Tewkesbury and tries to throw him out of the moving train. (And like a true villain in stories like this, Linthorn wears a derby/bowler hat.) Enola comes to the rescue of Linthorn and saves his life. The two teens jump off the train and immediately run away together, even though they don’t really know where they are.

During their time on the run, Enola and Tewkesbury get to know each other, and they find out that they have some things in common, besides not wanting to be under the control of bossy relatives. Enola and Tewkesbury both have fathers who have died. They both are resisting being “sent away” by relatives in restrictive environments. Enola doesn’t want to go to boarding school, while Tewkesbury doesn’t want to give in to his relatives’ demands that he enroll in the army. The two teens have also been following the news of about the Representation of the People Act 1884 (also known as the Third Reform Act), which proposes the expansion of voting rights to more citizens and which Parliament will decide on in an upcoming vote.

The beginning of a romantic spark between Enola and Tewkesbury is evident when Enola decides that Tewkesbury’s hair needs to be cut, so she cuts it for him. She acts as if she’s too independent to think about dating boys, but it’s easy to see that she’s growing fond of Tewkesbury and doesn’t want to admit it to him or to herself. Enola wants to solve the mystery of what happened to her mother, and she thinks dating someone would be too much of a distraction.

Tewkesbury and Enola eventually go their separate ways when Tewkesbury changes his mind about being a runaway and decides to go back home. He lives on a lavish estate with his widowed mother Lady Tewkesbury (played by Hattie Morahan); his paternal uncle Sir Whimbrel Tewkesbury (played by David Bamber); and his paternal grandmother called the Dowager (played by Frances de la Tour). Enola decides to move on and go to London. Even though Enola and Tewkesbury amicably part ways, it won’t be the last time they see each other in the story.

Enola has been declared a runaway, so she has to dodge the authorities. Mycroft has enlisted the help of a Scotland Yard inspector named Lestrade (played by Adeel Akhtar) to track down Enola. Mycroft feels angry, humiliated and insulted that his teenage sister was able to slip out of his custody. During her time on the run, Enola also comes across a female jiu jitsu class led by an instructor named Edith (who Susan Wokoma), who knows Eudoria and provides Enola with some valuable information, as well as a crash course in jiu jitsu.

Most of the charm of “Enola Holmes” can be credited to Brown and her spirited and charismatic performance of this intrepid sleuth. Enola is no shrinking violet, as she can get down and dirty in some fight scenes. However, the violence is tame enough that “Enola Holmes” can be considered a family-friendly film that adults and kids over the age of 7 can enjoy. The movie’s production design and costume design are on point, as are other technical elements such as cinematography, musical score and the stunt/action scenes.

“Enola Holmes” at times gets a little too heavy-handed with its feminist messages by making feminism look like it’s anti-men, based on some snide male-bashing comments that Enola makes in the movie. True feminism isn’t about being demeaning to men; it’s about believing in gender equality. Let’s hope that in future “Enola Holmes” movies (and you know there will be sequels), the filmmakers have Enola espouse more of the true gender equality spirit of feminism, because Enola doesn’t need to have a negative attitude toward men to be a good feminist.

There are enough twists and turns in the movie to please fans of mystery detective stories. Cavill’s Sherlock Holmes isn’t as intense as the character has been portrayed in other movies, but that’s because this Sherlock Holmes is at the beginning of his illustrious career. Claflin’s portrayal of Mycroft Holmes is fairly standard as a selfish villain, and it’s pretty obvious that Mycroft is a symbol for oppressive patriarchy. The supporting actors all do good jobs in rounding out this well-cast ensemble.

Overall, director Bradbeer keeps a brisk pace and infuses some modern-ish elements to the story (such as the female jiu jitsu class) to lighten up some of the stuffiness that would have dragged down this 123-minute movie if it strictly adhered to replicating everything about the real 1884 England. Purists can watch documentaries for that type of historical realism. “Enola Holmes” is what it is: good, fun escapism.

Netflix premiered “Enola Holmes” on September 23, 2020.

Review: ‘Farewell Amor,’ starring Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah and Jayme Lawson

January 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah and Jayme Lawson in “Farewell Amor” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Farewell Amor”

Directed by Ekwa Msangi

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Farewell Amor” features a predominantly black cast of characters (with some white people and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An Angolan immigrant in New York City is reunited with his wife and teenage daughter after spending 17 years apart from them.

Culture Audience: “Farewell Amor” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in immigrant stories that are rarely told about how family members who haven’t lived together other in several years suddenly have to adjust to living together again.

Jayme Lawson, Zainab Jah and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine in “Farewell Amor” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Can a family be put back together successfully after 17 years apart? That’s the question at the center of the multifaceted and emotional drama “Farewell Amor,” which tells the story from the perspectives of the three main characters: a husband, a wife and their teenage daughter. Written and directed by Ekwa Msangi in a spare but effective style, “Farewell Amor” shows the complications that can ensue when a family’s long-awaited reunion doesn’t necessarily equal instant happiness. It’s an aspect of the immigrant experience that’s rarely depicted in movies that are made in America.

“Farewell Amor” takes place in New York City’s Brooklyn borough, where Angolan immigrant Walter Santos (played by Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) lives. Walter has been living in the United States for the past 17 years, after fleeing from war-torn Angola. He had to leave behind his wife Esther and baby daughter Sylvia, who both eventually relocated to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Although Walter has kept in touch over the years, he has not been in the same room as his wife and daughter for all those years. He never gave up on trying to bring them to the United States as legal immigrants. The movie has no flashbacks to this part of the family’s life, but the information is revealed in conversations.

The movie begins with Walter, Esther (played by Zainab Jah) and a now 17-year-old Sylvia (played by Jayme Lawson) reuniting at the airport and greeting each other with joyful hugs. But how long will that joy last? The movie creatively shows the perspective of each character in segments, with each segment beginning with the airport reunion.

Walter’s segment is shown first, followed by Sylvia’s and then Esther’s. Some scenes are repeated, but from the point of view of the person whose perspective is depicted. Other scenes are unique to a segment and help fill in some of the blanks. What the viewers get is a richly layered portrait about a family trying to live together again, but not being able to avoid the awkward realities and emotionally fraught impact of how this long separation has changed them individually.

Walter works as a taxi driver, and he lives in a one-bedroom apartment. He’s a mild-mannered man who’s happily made room for his wife and daughter, even though the living space will be cramped with three people living there. When Esther and Sylvia arrive at the apartment for the first time, Walter has thoughtfully prepared dinner for them. Esther is impressed and asks Walter who taught him to cook. Walter makes a vague reply that people can learn to cook with the will to learn and the right resources.

Walter has a secret that he doesn’t tell his wife and daughter when they settle into the apartment: He had a live-in girlfriend named Linda (played by Nana Mensah), a hospital nurse who moved out and broke up with Walter when she found out that Esther and Sylvia were coming back into Walter’s life. It’s later revealed that Linda knew all along about Esther and Sylvia. But because it took so long for their immigration to be approved, Walter moved on with his life, he met Linda, they fell in love, and started a life together.

Linda was living in the apartment long enough to have her mail delivered there. And when Esther sees an envelope of mail with Linda’s name on it, she asks Walter about it. He quickly makes an excuse that it’s mail that’s been delivered to the wrong address. Meanwhile, Walter notices during that first reunion meal with Esther and Sylvia that a strong-willed and outspoken Esther insists on giving a fervent prayer before eating.

Walter asks Esther when she became so religious, and she replies that it was after she and Sylvia moved to Tanzinia and they received refugee help from church members there. Esther isn’t just religious. She’s fanatically religious, to the point where she thinks dancing is sinful and she is against the idea of Sylvia dating, even though Sylvia is old enough to date.

And that’s a problem for Sylvia, who loves to dance. Sylvia can be quiet and introverted, but dancing is her creative outlet where she lets her personality shine the most. At her school in New York City, Sylvia is treated like an immigrant misfit, but she catches the eye of an attractive fellow student named Devin “DJ” Jamison (played by Marcus Scribner), who strikes up a conversation with a shy Sylvia when they’re waiting together at the same bus stop. DJ notices Sylvia practicing some dance moves, and he tells her about a local hip-hop dance contest where the grand prize is $1,000.

Sylvia eagerly enters the contest, even though she knows that her mother will greatly disapprove. By contrast, Walter has no problem with Sylvia being interested in dancing because he likes dancing too. Walter encourages Sylvia to pursue her dance dreams and doesn’t try to stop her when she tells him about the dance contest. Walter is so supportive of Sylvia that he wants to watch Sylvia and cheer her on when she’s in the contest. Sylvia and DJ gradually spend more time together, and their mutual attraction to each other grows.

Esther is very religious, but she’s not a complete prude, since she’s eager to resume her sex life with Walter, and she wants it to be passionate. She tells him during their first night together after being reunited that she hasn’t been with any other man since their separation. Walter doesn’t reply with a similar comment about remaining faithful. The expression on Esther’s face shows that she’s noticed this omitted statement of fidelity from Walter, but she wants to put any thoughts out of her mind that Walter might have been unfaithful, because she wants to get back to being a “normal” husband and wife.

However, their sexual intimacy is awkward, and Walter seems preoccupied with other thoughts. Esther can’t help but notice, and her suspicions deepen about Walter having another woman in his life. Walter sees Linda a few more times during the story, in situations that won’t be described in this review. But it’s enough to say that Sylvia has a chance encounter with Linda, and something happens that makes Sylvia also suspect that Linda was her father’s mistress.

The movie also shows that the breakup with Linda has deeply affected Walter. At a time when he should be happy to be reunited with his family, he’s secretly pining over Linda. He makes an attempt to see if he can still continue his relationship with Linda on the side. There’s a pivotal scene where Linda tells him what her decision is.

Walter is not religious and he’s uncomfortable with how religion has seemed to take over Esther’s life. Esther is so devoted to her church back in Tanzania that she still wants to tithe and send the money back to the church. And that’s a problem, because in New York, Esther hasn’t found a job yet and the family is on a very tight budget. Guess whose money Esther thinks should be tithed now that she and Walter back together?

Meanwhile, Esther meets a friendly neighbor named Nzingha (played by Joie Lee), who lives on the same floor. Nzingha invites Esther to go grocery shopping with her. They begin talking about the neighborhood, and Nzingha seems open to showing Esther around and helping her adjust to life in America. However, when Esther asks Nzingha if she knows if a woman named Linda used to live in the apartment where Walter and the family now live, Nzingha casually avoids answering the question.

Although “Farewell Amor” could have turned into a soap opera, the movie doesn’t fall into the trap of being an overly melodramatic film. The movie is at its strongest in authentically showing little things that depict the gradual and sometimes painful realization that this family reunion in America isn’t quite the harmonious fantasy that all three of these family members thought it would be. As disappointment sets in, viewers can see the emotional toll it takes on each family member.

There’s a scene of Sylvia texting with her best friend Neema in Africa, and Neema thinks that Sylvia is living a glamorous life in New York. In reality, Sylvia’s life is anything but glamorous but she’s too embarrassed to admit it. And that’s probably because Sylvia had those same illusions of having an exciting life in America before she moved to America and found out it isn’t always what’s depicted on TV and in movies.

Meanwhile, it’s revealed at one point in the story that Walter and Esther met in college, where he was studying journalism and she was studying social sciences. But in America, Walter is a taxi driver and Esther is unemployed. It’s a depiction of the harsh reality that many immigrants experience in America, where they can’t benefit from the education that they earned in their native countries, usually because of language barriers and/or immigrant discrimination. Walter, Esther and Sylvia all speak very good English, but it’s implied that they’ll have uphill battles in the workforce from employers who might consider an education in Africa as “inferior.”

And even though the family is back together and living in the same household, each perspective of Walter, Sylvia and Esther shows that they are isolated in their own ways from each other. Walter had a secret life that he’s terrified of his wife and daughter discovering. Sylvia, who wants more independence as a teenager, is torn between the strict parent (Esther) who raised her and the more lenient parent Walter) whom she doesn’t really know. Esther’s religious fanaticism has caused a certain level of alienation from her husband and child.

“Farewell Amor” is an impressive feature-film debut from Masangi, who weaves the perspectives of these three different family members together in a very cohesive and compelling way. The movie resolves certain issues a little too quickly, but there’s enough emotional authenticity portrayed by the three main actors to carry the film. The family members in this story are African, but their immigrant experience of fleeing a war-torn country and trying to build a life together after years apart can speak to an untold number of people who’ve been through the same difficulties or feel empathy for those who have.

IFC Films released “Farewell Amor” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on December 11, 2020.

Review: ‘Miss Juneteenth,’ starring Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson and Alexis Chikaeze

January 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Nicole Beharie in “Miss Juneteenth” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Miss Juneteenth”

Directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples

Culture Representation: Taking place in Fort Worth, Texas, the drama “Miss Juneteenth” features a predominantly African American cast (with a few white people and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A former Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant winner, who has dead-end jobs and is struggling financially, pressures her reluctant teenage daughter to enter the same contest so that the daughter can have a chance to win college scholarship money.

Culture Audience: “Miss Juneteenth” will appeal to people who are interested in well-acted and realistic dramas about how people deal with regrets over some of their life choices.

Nicole Beharie and Alexis Chikaeze in “Miss Juneteenth” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Several reality TV shows about beauty pageants with underage girls as contestants have exposed what is common knowledge in the pageant world: These kiddie pageants really aren’t about the children. These pageants are about the adults who want to show off their children and get bragging rights and prize money if their kids win these contests.

The dramatic film “Miss Juneteenth” has a beauty pageant for teenage girls as the driving force behind much of the characters’ actions. But the movie goes deeper than just the superficial aspects of preparing for this contest. “Miss Juneteenth,” anchored by a standout performance by Nicole Beharie, is a story about a mother with broken dreams who’s living vicariously through her daughter to try to recapture those dreams and “do over” certain parts of her life.

In “Miss Juneteenth” (the feature-film debut of writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples), Beharie portrays Turquoise Jones, who is floundering in all aspects of her life in her hometown of Forth Worth, Texas. Turquoise’s main job is working as a bartender at a dive bar called Wayman’s, named after its no-nonsense owner Wayman (played by Marcus M. Mauldin), who considers Turquoise to be his most reliable and trusteed employee. In the beginning of the film, it’s shown that Turquoise’s job at the bar also entails janitor duties and being the bar’s unofficial manager who keeps track of the business revenue.

As Turquoise cleans a toilet in one of the bar’s bathrooms, one of her co-workers named Betty Ray (played by Liz Mikel) watches her and comments: “I’ll never get over seeing Miss Juneteenth cleaning toilets … You practically running this bar.” Turquoise is good enough at her job as a bartender that it’s shown early on in the movie that she can make $800 in tips in one night.

Turquoise also occasionally works part-time as a mortuary assistant at Baker Funeral Home, where she prepares bodies for funerals by doing their makeup. Her mortuary boss, Bacon Baker (played by Akron Watson), whose family owns the business, is a bachelor who makes it clear that he’s attracted to Turquoise and is interested in dating her. Bacon doesn’t cross the line into blatant sexual harassment, and he’s respectful of Turquoise’s wishes to keep their relationship strictly platonic. In an early scene in the movie, Bacon tells Turquoise the bad news that business has been slow at the funeral home, so he’s going to have to reduce her work hours.

The timing couldn’t be worse for Turquoise, because she’s been preoccupied with having her teenage daughter Kai (played by Alexis Chikaeze) enter the upcoming Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant. The costs for the Miss Juneteenth pageant require a certain amount of money that Turquoise knows will break her household budget. Kai, who is 14 and turns 15 years old during the course of the story, is vivacious, intuitive and slightly rebellious.

Kai isn’t completely enthusiastic about the pageant, which is a contest that means more to Turquoise than it means to Kai. However, Kai goes along with what her mother wants because she wants to make her mother happy. As time goes on, Kai sees how much her mother is willing to sacrifice in order to get Kai in the pageant.

Turquoise wants Kai to win the contest because of the pageant’s grand prize: scholarship money to attend a historically black college or university. But Turquoise also has ulterior motives, which have more to do with herself than with Kai. Turquoise is a former Miss Juneteenth winner who didn’t live up to her expected potential. And although Turquoise never says it out loud, it becomes obvious that Turquoise wants to redeem herself, through her daughter Kai, in the Miss Juneteenth pageant.

It’s briefly explained in the movie what Juneteenth is, for people who don’t know the historical significance to African Americans. Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865: the date that African Americans in Texas found out that they were freed slaves—two years after the Emancipation Proclamation made slavery illegal in the United States. Juneteenth is a reminder of the importance of people not only having civil rights but also knowing about civil rights and living it.

Turquoise was a Miss Juneteenth winner in 2004. What happened to her since then isn’t revealed all at once in the movie, but it’s spoken about in bits and pieces, in the way that people speak about things that they’re slightly ashamed of in their past. Turquoise was headed to college and was going to use the Miss Juneteenth scholarship money for her university tuition. But at some point, Turquoise got pregnant with Kai. Turquoise abandoned her college plans, and she married Kai’s father Ronnie (played by Kendrick Sampson), who ended up having a lot of personal struggles with menial jobs and an arrest record.

The marriage fell apart. Ronnie and Turquoise separated, but haven’t gone through with a divorce. It isn’t really made clear when Ronnie and Turquoise split up, but at some point, he became a deadbeat dad. Out of financial desperation, Turquoise became a stripper—something she’s not proud of, but she doesn’t deny it when other people remind her or when Kai finds out in a humiliating way.

Turquoise’s on-again/off-again relationship with Ronnie is complicated, because she and Ronnie have recently begun sleeping together again, but they are still living in separate homes. Kai notices that her father has been sleeping over in Turquoise’s bedroom, and eventually Turquoise and Ronnie let it be known that they might be getting back together permanently. Turquoise wants to take things slow, because it’s implied that Ronnie did a lot of things in the past to emotionally hurt her, and she’s gradually giving him a chance to earn back her trust.

Ronnie currently works as a mechanic and seems to be trying to get his life back on track. In in an early scene in the movie, he promises Turquoise that he’s going to “do right” by her and Kai this time. When Ronnie finds out that Turquoise wants Kai to be in the Miss Juneteenth pageant, he doesn’t hesitate to give Turquoise some cash to help out with the expenses.

Turquoise appreciates Ronnie’s generosity, but the money that she gets from Ronnie isn’t enough to cover all the pageant costs. Turquoise’s level of obsession with the Miss Juneteenth pageant becomes very apparent when she has a choice of paying her house’s electricity bill (which is already overdue) or paying the pageant entry fee. Turquoise is also adamant that Kai should have a “fancy” new dress from one of the top boutiques in the area, not a previously owned dress or a dress from a discount store.

Turquoise chooses not to pay the electricity bill, in order to pay the pageant entry fee. And the house’s electricity is turned off on (of all days) Kai’s 15th birthday. Kai is upset, but Turquoise tries to put a positive spin on this turn of events and assures Kai that their lack of electricity is only temporary. Later in the movie, Turquoise runs into other financial problems that affect her ability to pay for certain things.

Why is Turquoise so fixated on this pageant? What is she trying to prove? As the story goes on, it becomes apparent that she’s having an early mid-life crisis. Turquoise is regretting a lot of decisions that she made her teens and 20s, and she feeling that she’s disappointed herself and others who had high hopes for Turquoise. The Miss Juneteenth pageant and the scholarship money that she won represented Turquoise’s ticket to a better life. And now, she feels like she really blew it.

And to make it worse for Turquoise, she’s still stuck in her hometown, where she feels like too many people know how much of a “failure” she turned out to be. She’s reminded of it in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For example, when Turquoise and Kai go to a sign-up table to enter the Miss Juneteenth Pageant, Turquoise encounters a snooty woman named Clarissa (played by Lisha Hackney), who is on the pageant committee but who isn’t a judge.

Clarissa makes a snide comment that if Kai wins, hopefully Kai will actually be able to use the scholarship prize. There’s obvious tension between Turquoise and Clarissa. And so, it comes as no surprise when Turquoise tells Kai that Clarissa was in the same 2004 Miss Juneteenth Pageant that Turquoise won. It seems that Clarissa still holds a grudge over losing, but Clarissa is getting gloating satisfaction over seeing Turquoise not living up to her expected potential.

The current pageant contestants and some of their parents are given a tour of the Miss Juneteenth headquarters, which has a room with photos of past Miss Juneteenth winners. Turquoise’s picture is on the wall, but she doesn’t get mentioned during the tour. The tour guide points out some notable former Miss Juneteenth winners whom the organization seems to be the most proud of: a civil rights activist, a surgeon and a congressman’s wife. By saying that being a congressman’s wife is an example of being an accomplished former Miss Juneteenth, it shows an old-fashioned mindset that a woman is considered “accomplished” based on who she marries, not her own individual achievements.

It’s this underlying conservatism in the pageant that Turquoise is acutely aware of when she pressures Kai to make a certain choice in the talent segment of the pageant. Kai wants to do a hip-hop dance routine. Turquoise says that it’s a bad idea because she thinks that hip-hop isn’t dignified enough for Kai or the pageant. Instead, Turquoise insists that Kai recite the Maya Angelou poem “Phenomenal Woman.”

The arguments that Turquoise and Kai have over what Kai wants to do to express her talent have less to do with a generation gap and more to do with the image that Turquoise wants Kai to project. Almost all of Turquoise’s decisions for Kai in the pageant are about making Kai look like she’s in a higher social class than she really is. Turquoise knows putting on these false airs is a charade, since there are too many people involved in the pageant who know that Kai comes from a working-class household. However, Turquoise still forges ahead with the hope that Kai will be judged as a “classier” person than the type of person Turquoise has been judged to be.

The intergenerational conflicts in the Jones family isn’t just about Turquoise and Kai. Turquoise has major issues with her own mother Charlotte (played by Lori Hayes), who is a devout, churchgoing Christian but who has a past as an alcoholic and neglectful mother. Turquoise and Charlotte have a very strained relationship, and they’re not in contact with each other very much.

Charlotte disapproves of how Turquoise’s life has turned out, and Charlotte thinks that Turquoise’s life would improve if Turquoise went to church on a regular basis. Charlotte also disapproves of Turquoise working in a bar. Turquoise is not religious and wants no part of Charlotte’s Bible-thumping lifestyle.

Turquoise also feels lingering resentment toward Charlotte because Turquoise had a dysfunctional and unhappy childhood due to Charlotte’s alcoholism. There are hints that Charlotte was emotionally and verbally abusive to Turquoise. It’s shown in the story that because Turquoise and Charlotte both haven’t completely conquered certain demons from their past, it’s caused them to distrust each other and made it hard for them to respect each other.

And it’s why Charlotte is skeptical about Turquoise’s goal to have Kai win the Miss Juneteenth pageant, which Charlotte calls “pipe dreams.” Charlotte believes that Turquoise has set a bad example for Kai because Turquoise squandered the opportunities that Turquoise got from winning the Miss Juneteenth pageant. This disappointment has created an oppressive circle of shame where Charlotte makes Turquoise feel bad about these wasted opportunities, while Turquoise feels enough remorse about herself and tries to prevent Charlotte from making her feel worse.

The greatest strength of “Miss Juneteenth” is how authentically the movie portrays a specific part of African American culture, without being pandering or exploitative. The movie also goes beyond race to show how Americans’ self-esteem is often wrapped up in the idea that someone is a “failure” if that person hasn’t achieved the American Dream, whatever the definition of the American Dream is. The world of child/teen beauty pageants in the U.S. represents a small slice of wanting to achieve the American Dream. And it’s why many working-class families (usually mothers), just like Turquoise, spend a lot of money they can’t afford to have their daughters in these pageants.

“Miss Juneteenth” is also a poignant story about the sometimes-uncomfortable process of reconciling a young person’s dreams with the reality of how that person’s life turned out when that person isn’t so young anymore. Turquoise wants to be more than the stereotype of a financially struggling African American mother who’s the only head of her household, but she’s also feeling shame that her life in many ways has become that stereotype. Turquoise doesn’t want Kai to make the same mistakes, but Turquoise also wants to use Kai (and the hope that Kai will win the Miss Juneteenth pageant) as “proof” that Turquoise did something right with her life after all.

With the skilled and naturalistic direction and writing of Godfrey Peoples, “Miss Juneteenth” is a convincing depiction of complicated people who don’t seem like characters only created for a movie but more like characters who accurately represent a lot of people in America today. Beharie gives a captivating performance as the flawed but industrious Turquoise, who knows she’s not perfect, but is doing her best to improve her life. This determined mother sees her daughter winning the Miss Juneteenth pageant as the answer to her own immediate problems without necessarily understanding that the pageant can’t really fix her life in the way it needs to be fixed. Above all, the movie is a worthwhile inspiration for showing that chasing after what you don’t have shouldn’t come at the expense of appreciating what you do have.

Vertical Entertainment released “Miss Juneteenth” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 19, 2020.

Review: ‘One Night in Miami…,’ starring Leslie Odom Jr., Aldis Hodge, Kingsley Ben-Adir and Eli Goree

January 15, 2021

by Carla Hay

Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge and Leslie Odom Jr. in “One Night in Miami” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“One Night in Miami…”

Directed by Regina King

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Miami on February 25, 1964, the dramatic film “One Night in Miami…” has a predominantly African American cast (with some white people) portraying celebrities, the middle-class and the working class.

Culture Clash: A social gathering of Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, Malcolm X and Jim Brown leads to ego conflicts and differing opinions on race relations.

Culture Audience: “One Night in Miami…” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a dramatic interpretation of what it would be like for four of the biggest African American heroes of the 1960s to spend time together as friends and sometimes adversaries.

Kingsley Ben-Adir (with camera), Aldis Hodge (in brown tie), Eli Goree (in tuxedo) and Leslie Odom Jr. (raising glass) in “One Night in Miami” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

It’s always tricky to do an entire story about hypothetical conversations between famous people who are well-respected and admired. If handled incorrectly, this portrayal could be considered very insincere or offensive. Imagine doing an entire story about four African American celebrities who, in their own different ways, weren’t just famous but were also inspirations to millions of people. And then you put all of four of them together (Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, Malcolm X and Jim Brown) and have them hang out as if they’re old friends.

It happened in real life one night in Miami in 1964, but this story imagines what these four famous men talked about when they spent time together that night. The actors portraying these four friends are Eli Goree as Ali (then known as Cassius Clay), Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke, Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X (whose real name was Malcolm Little) and Aldis Hodge as Brown. “One Night in Miami…,” the feature-film directorial debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King, mostly succeeds in depicting this compelling story, but it takes a while to get there, since the second half of the movie is much better than the first half.

The movie is based on the play “One Night in Miami…,” which was written by Kemp Powers, who also wrote the movie’s screenplay. In many ways, the movie still looks like a play, since the second (and more intense) half of the film is mostly set in a hotel. However, the cinematic version of this story does a very good job of bringing a broader scope of locations that can’t be done in a stage play.

The audience is briefly taken into the lives of each of the four central characters to get a glimpse of what they’re like in public before their private selves are revealed later in ways that leave an impact on the characters as well as the audience. It’s a movie where the social cancer of racism is never far from the story, and it’s felt, seen and heard in various ways throughout the movie. “One Night in Miami…” skillfully shows the uncomfortable reality that how to deal with racism can divide African Americans and other people who are targets of racism, because the reality is that not everyone agrees with what it means to have “black power” and how to use it.

The beginning of the movie is essentially a montage of scenes showing why each man is famous and how their race impacts their life’s work. The boastful and charismatic boxing champ known as Cassius Clay (who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali after he became a Muslim) is shown in 1963 at a boxing match at London’s Wembley Stadium, where he soundly defeats his opponent Henry “The Hammer” Cooper. However triumphant this victory is for Cassius, it’s still shown in the movie that white people are the ones who control boxing and make the most money from it, while the boxers are just pawns in the game.

R&B singer Sam Cooke is shown on stage at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City, where he’s getting a chilly reception from an all-white audience who don’t seem to want a black person to be entertaining them. Some of the audience members leave in disgust while Sam is on stage. Sam performs the Debbie Reynolds song “Tammy” to try to appeal to the crowd, but deep down, he’s fuming at being booked at a place filled with racists.

Backstage in the dressing room after the show, Sam’s white manager tells him, “Boy, you really did bomb tonight, Sam.” Sam explodes in anger and yells, “Have you ever made a million dollars singing? Well, I have! So, until you do, keep your fucking mouth shut!” One of Sam’s backup musicians witnessing this tantrum then says somewhat jokingly about the manager’s comment: “He ain’t wrong though.” Later in the movie, there are cameos from singer Jackie Wilson (played by Jeremy Pope), “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson (played by Christopher Gorham) and “Tonight Show” sidekick Ed McMahon (played by Alan Wells) in the depiction of Sam’s life.

Cleveland Browns star Jim Brown is shown visiting a wealthy football benefactor named Mr. Carlton (played by Beau Bridges) at Carlton’s mansion on St. Simon’s Island in Georgia. The two men chat amiably on the mansion’s front porch, while Mr. Carlton’s star-struck daughter Emily (played by Emily Bridges) gushes over Jim, as if she can’t believe her luck that this major NFL star is at her home. Mr. Carlton tells Jim that if he never needs anything, don’t hesitate to ask. As Jim starts to follow Mr. Carlton into the house, Mr. Carlton turns to him with a smile and says to Jim that he can’t come in because black people (he uses the “n” word) aren’t allowed in his house.

Malcolm X’s fiery brand of racial ideology made him controversial in the U.S. civil rights movement because of his belief that all white people are the “enemy.” In the beginning of the movie, he’s shown coming home late and telling his wife Betty (played by Joaquina Kalukango) some news that he’s not happy about at all: Louis Farrakhan, a prominent influencer in the Nation of Islam who was likely to become the group’s leader, did not approve Malcolm’s request to leave the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad (played by Jerome Wilson), who was the Nation of Islam’s leader at the time, was like a mentor to Malcolm, who felt some trepidation of being perceived as a traitor.

It’s shown throughout the movie that this story takes place during a time when Malcolm wanted to start his own civil rights group and was grappling with insecurity and anger over how he was being treated by the Nation of Islam. He was feeling doubts about how much loyalty he owed to the Nation of Islam and also concerned about leaving the group because some of his allies could turn into enemies. The movie shows that Malcolm was worried enough that he traveled with security personnel, not just for protection against white supremacists but also for protection against anyone in the Nation of Islam who might come after him for wanting to leave the group.

The rest of the movie is then primarily set in Miami on February 25, 1964. Cassius, who was just 22 years old and soon to be known as Muhammad Ali, wins the world heavyweight boxing champ title against Sonny Liston (played by Aaron D. Alexander), who’s knocked out and gives up in the fight. Sam, Malcolm and Jim (who are in the audience) meet up with Cassius later, and they all go to the Hampton House Motel in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood. It’s a motel that allowed African Americans because Miami was still segregated.

The four friends are all in a jovial mood and ready to party. Malcolm has brought a Rolleiflex 3.5 German twin lens reflex (TLR) camera, and he enjoys taking pictures with it. They horse around, almost like fraternity guys, and take turns using the camera. But the mood eventually turns more serious, as insecurities and differences of opinion rise to the surface.

At first, the disagreements are fairly superficial. Sam is disappointed that they can’t stay at a more upscale establishment, and he complains to the others about it. Jim and Cassius, who are bachelors, want to go looking for women to party with, while the married men in the group (Sam and Malcolm) are more hesitant. And as the night wears on, it becomes apparent that each man is at a crossroads in his life.

Jim has plans to retire from football and wants to become a movie star. He already has a Western film lined up, but Cassius scolds Jim for wanting to quit football. Cassius tells Jim that portraying a “sacrificial Negro” in a Western isn’t the same as being paid by the NFL. Sam is more encouraging of Jim’s showbiz ambitions and tells Jim that Los Angeles is like the Promised Land. Malcolm, who lives in New York City, vehemently disagrees with that belief.

Cassius has become close to Malcolm, who has influenced Cassius to convert to Islam and to be more outspoken about civil rights for African Americans. However, Cassius’ manager Angelo Dundee (played by Michael Imperioli) has been pressuring Cassius to distance himself from Malcolm, who is considered to be too radical for mainstream society. Angelo tells Cassius that white investors and sponsors are very nervous about Cassius’ association with Malcolm. It should come as no surprise what decision Cassius makes, because it started a new chapter in his life as Muhammad Ali.

While Cassius looks up to Malcolm as a pillar of strength, Malcolm isn’t feeling very secure about his life because he suspects that he could be in real danger. Malcolm is paranoid that he’s being followed. He frequently looks out the window, and his suspicions are confirmed when he sees strange men lurking about who could be government spies. Malcolm has a trusted bodyguard with him named Brother Kareem also known as Kareem X (played by Lance Reddick), a stoic employee who is accompanied by a younger assistant bodyguard named Cliff White (played by Kipori Woods), who is in awe of Malcolm.

Sam is a successful music entrepreneur (he owns his own music publishing and record label) in addition to being a famous singer. However, Sam is grappling with what it means to “cross over” to a mainstream (mostly white) audience. Will he be perceived as “selling out” and leaving behind his African American fan base? Or is he just making a good business decision to reach as wide of an audience as possible?

It’s this issue of racial integration that sparks a heated and extended argument between Sam and Malcolm. This arguing leads to the movie’s most memorable scenes and impressive performances from Odom and Ben-Adir, while Hodge and Goree sort of fade into the background. Jim and Cassius mostly just stand by and watch Sam and Malcolm verbally rip each other apart, but Cassius and Jim occasionally interject and try to make the peace when things get too problematic.

Malcolm’s choice words for Sam include: “You bourgeois Negroes are too happy with your scraps to really understand what’s at stake here … You will never be loved by the people you’re trying so hard to win over … You’re a monkey dancing for an organ grinder to them!”

Sam then criticizes Malcolm for kowtowing too much to Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. The R&B crooner also makes a verbal jab at Malcolm by telling him that Malcolm is the only one of the four friends who isn’t as financially successful as the others, thereby implying that Malcolm doesn’t have a real career. It’s a criticism that stings Malcolm because he knows that by leaving the Nation of Islam, he will be leaving behind much of his livelihood for an uncertain future.

Sam also points out that, unlike many black artists, he owns his own work, he invested in buying other artist’s music publishing, and he has the power to hire black people for jobs. “Everybody always talks about how they want a piece of the pie,” Sam declares defiantly. “Well, I don’t. I want the goddamn recipe!”

Jim is more inclined to side with Sam, who believes there’s nothing wrong with racial integration and working with white people. Jim comments on Malcolm’s views that black people need to think like militants: “We’re not anyone’s weapons, Malcolm.” Malcolm replies to Jim, “You need to be, for us to win.”

The issue of colorism is also brought up, as Jim confronts Malcolm about being light-skinned and using his lighter skin tone to his advantage. Jim essentially says that it’s easy for Malcolm to be so militant when his light skin gives him more privileges than darker-skinned black people. Malcolm responds by reiterating that black people’s authenticity should be judged by how black people help other black people, not by skin tone.

Because the characters of Sam and Malcolm have the most emotionally charged dialogue in the movie, Odom and Ben-Adir stand out the most in the film. Odom has the additional talent of doing his own singing in the movie, and his portrayal of Cooke is that of a man with a strong sense of self who’s unapologetic for how he wants to live his life. Ben-Adir’s portrayal of Malcolm X is of a more tortured soul, and the performance comes closer to showing a more human side to the real person. Both performances are outstanding in their own ways, but most people watching this movie, just like in real life, will probably feel more comfortable watching a smooth entertainer like Cooke instead of a restless firebrand like Malcolm X.

The character of Jim Brown is written as a fairly bland and passive person, so Hodge can’t really do much but react to what’s going on around him. However, since Jim is the one who’s the mostly like to be the “peacemaker” in the group, his character is crucial in the moments where the four friends find common ground and have positive interactions with each other. Jim is the “nice guy” of the group, but unfortunately his character also seems two-dimensional. There’s very little indication of what Jim is passionate about, since he wants to leave football behind to become an actor, not for the love of the craft but just so he can become a movie star.

People who know Muhammad Ali as a larger-than-life personality will be surprised to see that he’s not really written as the character who outshines everyone in this movie. Malcolm and Sam definitely upstage everyone else. And that’s because it’s made pretty clear that this boxing champ wasn’t known yet as outspoken activist Muhammad Ali. He was Cassius Clay, a guy in his early 20s who was still finding his identity. Goree’s portrayal of Cassius sometimes veers into a try-hard impersonation that could have devolved into a terrible parody, but he shows enough restraint not to turn the character into an embarrassing caricature.

King’s direction of the movie is solid and gives viewers a clear sense of each location’s atmosphere in each scene. The production design and costume design are well-done, while the cinematography makes the scenes feel observational yet intimate. Although adapting this stage play into a movie results in some extra thrills for the singing and boxing scenes, the movie’s most powerful moments are inside a simple hotel room with just the four main characters. Everything else just seems like frosting on the cake. “One Night in Miami…” is by no means a completely insightful portrait of the four men at the center of the story, but the movie serves as an effective snapshot of what their interpersonal dynamics might have been like in their leisure time together.

Amazon Studios released “One Night in Miami…” in Miami on December 25, 2020, and expanded the release to more U.S. cinemas on January 8, 2021. Amazon Prime Video premiered the movie on January 15, 2021.

Review: ‘Lost Girls,’ starring Amy Ryan, Thomasin McKenzie, Lola Kirke and Gabriel Byrne

January 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Oona Laurence, Amy Ryan, Thomasin McKenzie and Miriam Shor in “Lost Girls” (Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Netflix)

“Lost Girls”

Directed by Liz Garbus

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in New York state and partially in New Jersey, the dramatic film “Lost Girls” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class in depicting the real-life people involved in the Long Island Serial Killer (LISK) murder mystery.

Culture Clash: Mari Gilbert, whose murdered daughter Shannan is believed to be a LISK victim, fights for justice with her daughters and family members of other LISK murder victims, who believe that law enforcement isn’t properly investigating these crimes.

Culture Audience: “Lost Girls” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in dramatic portrayals of true crime stories and don’t mind if some scenes in the movie are unrealistic.

Thomasin McKenzie, Amy Ryan and Oona Laurence in “Lost Girls” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

The ongoing investigations into the unsolved murders of at least 16 people who are believed to have been victims of the Long Island Serial Killer (also known as LISK, the Gilgo Beach Killer or the Craigslist Ripper) are too complex to condense into a scripted movie. Almost all of the murder victims were women who worked as prostitutes, they advertised themselves on Craigslist, and their bodies were found on New York state’s Long Island from the 1990s to the 2010s. Instead of telling all of these murder victims’ stories, the Netflix dramatic feature film “Lost Girls” focuses on the perspective of one real-life mother whose eldest daughter is believed to be one of the LISK murder victims. As of this writing, no suspects have been arrested in the murders.

Directed by Liz Garbus, “Lost Girls” is a well-acted but ultimately a by-the-numbers and often-melodramatic depiction of Mari Gilbert’s struggle to get justice for her murdered 23-year-old daughter Shannan Gilbert, who disappeared on May 1, 2010, in Oak Beach, New York, shortly after Shannan visited a prostitution client. Shannan’s body was found on December 13, 2011, about half of a mile from where she was last seen in public. Investigators have concluded that she died of strangulation sometime in the after-midnight hours when she disappeared. 

Michael Werwie wrote the “Lost Girls” screenplay as an adaptation of Robert Kolker’s 2013 non-fiction book of the same title. It’s fairly obvious that much of the movie was fabricated for dramatic purposes, particularly in depicting the police investigation and by showing Mari suddenly turning into a supersleuth. People who like the type of “crusading mother” clichés that are often seen in Lifetime movies won’t have as much of a problem with the unrealistic aspects of the “Lost Girls” movie as much as people who might be looking for a grittier and more authentic depiction of what really happens in murder investigations. (And there’s a Lifetime movie about Mari Gilbert called “The Long Island Serial Killer: A Mother’s Hunt for Justice,” starring Kim Delaney as Mari Gilbert. The movie is set to premiere on Lifetime on February 13, 2021.)

Garbus gives “Lost Girls” solid direction, and the talented cast led by Amy Ryan (who portrays Mari Gilbert) elevates the movie slightly above the type of forgettable crime thrillers that are usually made for basic cable networks. Because “Lost Girls” is based on a true crime story that got a lot of publicity, many people watching this movie already know how it’s going to end. By making Mari the central character of the movie, “Lost Girls” sticks to the same “angry mother looking for justice” formula that’s been seen in many other movies just like it.

However, the real Mari Gilbert was much more controversial in real life than this movie makes her out to be. Airing all of her dirty laundry in this movie wouldn’t make her look as sympathetic as the filmmakers want her to look. For example, there were long-standing allegations that she brought up her daughters in an abusive home, where Mari’s boyfriend at the time was accused of sexually abusing her two middle daughters Sherre and Sarra.

The “Lost Girls” movie leaves out a lot of information about the real-life Mari Gilbert and her family. Mari was a single mother with four daughters, but only three of her daughters are mentioned in the movie: eldest daughter Shannan, second-eldest daughter Sherre and third-eldest daughter Sarra. Mari’s youngest daughter Stevie Smith is not seen nor mentioned in the movie. In real life, Sarra was a teen mother to a son named Hayden at the time of Shannan’s disappearance, but the movie makes it look like Sarra was never a mother. 

Mari’s daughters Sherre and Sarra were teenagers at the time that Shannan disappeared, so they weren’t as involved as Mari was in hounding the police to properly investigate Shannan’s disappearance. Sherre (played by Thomasin McKenzie) is portrayed as stoic and introverted during this family ordeal. Sarra (played by Oona Laurence) is portrayed as a troubled and rebellious child who’s been suspended from school for lighting paper towels on fire in the school’s bathroom. Sarra is also on various medications for her mental health.

At the time of Shannan’s disappearance, the movie shows that Mari was living in Ellenville, New York, and holding down two jobs—a forklift operator and a waitress—making her too busy to have a love life. The father(s) of her children are not seen in the movie, and it’s implied that these biological fathers have no contact with Mari and her children. “Lost Girls” shows that Mari being a working-class single mother and Shannan being a prostitute had a lot to do with how the police investigated the case. Mari thinks she’s being treated like a second-class citizen and she’s very angry about it.

The movie’s depiction of Shannan only comes in snippets. There’s a home video shown a few times portraying Shannan at 8 or 9 years old (played by Austyn Johnson), singing “Beautiful Dreamer” in a talent contest. There are also brief flashbacks of an adult Shannan (played by Sarah Wisser), with her face obscured, depicting the last-known moments before she disappeared.

According to several eyewitness accounts, the last time Shannan was seen alive in public, she was frantically running alone on a neighborhood street after midnight and incoherently begging for help. There was a 23-minute phone call to 911 from Shannan’s phone, but what was heard on the caller’s end was hard to decipher. Concerned citizens called 911 too, but by the time police arrived more than an hour later, Shannan had disappeared. Because the movie doesn’t have any flashback scenes of what the adult Shannan was like except for this moment of trauma, she’s like a mysterious ghost in the story.

The “Lost Girls” filmmakers don’t reveal anything significant about Shannan’s personality. Viewers will just have to speculate or just go by the tiny hints that are shown in the movie. It’s implied from the way that Mari talks about what Shannan used to be like as a child that Shannan was thought of as a “golden child” and the “star” of the family. Shannan had a lot of potential, but she didn’t live up to those expectations. How and why Shannan became a prostitute is never explained, although the movie does mention that Shannan had a much more troubled home life than Mari was willing to talk about publicly.

For years, Mari had a rocky relationship with Shannan. The movie mentions that Shannan hadn’t lived with her mother since Shannan was 12 years old, because Shannan was put in foster care by Mari, who considered Shannan to be an unruly child. Mari giving up custody of Shannan to put Shannan in the foster care system led to Shannan having abandonment issues and a lot of resentment toward her mother.

The movie doesn’t gloss over this information, but puts more emphasis on this narrative: Shannan (who lived in New Jersey) and Mari were still fairly estranged at the time of her disappearance, but mother and daughter were taking steps to mend their relationship. The movie depicts that Shannan was supposed to have dinner with Mari, Sherre and Sarra in Mari’s home on the day that Shannan disappeared. And when Shannan didn’t show up, they didn’t think much of it at first because it wasn’t that unusual for Shannan to skip appointments and not show up when she was expected.

But something odd happened that turned out to be a crucial part of the investigation. On the day that Shannan disappeared, Mari gets a phone call from a stranger who identifies himself as a doctor who runs a home for wayward women. Mari doesn’t know at the time that Shannan was missing and was last seen running frantically and begging for help. In his phone call to Mari, the doctor says that he is looking for Shannan, because Shannan is one of the women he’s been helping, but Mari tells this stranger over the phone that she doesn’t know where Shannan is either. Mari is so distracted that she can’t fully remember the doctor’s name when she’s asked about it later.

As the hours pass and the Gilberts get more concerned about where Shannan is, they find out that Shannan’s live-in boyfriend Alex Diaz (played by Brian Adam DeJesus) hadn’t heard from her either. (Alex had an alibi at the time Shannan disappeared and was never a suspect.) The family began to suspect that Shannan had run into foul play, but they couldn’t file a missing person report until Shannan had been missing for 48 hours. The movie makes it look like Mari and her daughters didn’t find out that Shannan was working as a prostitute until she disappeared and Alex (who was also Shannan’s pimp) told them that Shannan was a prostitute. 

However, Alex expresses skepticism that Mari didn’t at least suspect that Shannan was involved in illegal activities because Mari allegedly demanded that Shannan give her money to help pay Mari’s bills, even though Shannan was supposedly unemployed. When the Gilberts go to where Alex and Shannan lived to question Alex about her disappearance, it’s clear that they blame him for Shannan’s problems. Sherre also makes an angry comment to Alex that indicates that he was physically abusive to Shannan and the family knew it.

Shannan’s prostitution driver Michael Pak (played by James Hiroyuki Liao), who witnessed Shannan frantically running away when she disappeared, also hints that Mari already knew that Shannan was a prostitute before Shannan disappeared and that Mari didn’t care about Shannan being a sex worker, as long as Shannan was giving money to Mari. He comes right out and says that Shannan despised her mother, whom Michael describes in the movie as money-hungry and demanding. Michael (who was also cleared as a suspect) claims that Shannan refused to get in the car and she ran away when he tried to help her during her fateful after-midnight ordeal. He says that he drove around looking for her but eventually gave up and drove away.

“Lost Girls” doesn’t try to make Mari Gilbert look like Mother of the Year, but there’s a definite sense in watching the movie that more could’ve been told about Mari, but this information about her was deliberately left out because the filmmakers didn’t want the audience to feel alienated from the story’s main character. There are predictable scenes of tough-talking Mari storming into police stations and yelling at detectives because she thinks they’re incompetent or not acting fast enough. 

Joe Brewer (played by Matthew F. O’Connor), the prostitution client whom Shannan met with before she disappeared, was quickly cleared as a suspect after he passed a polygraph test. Shannan was last seen far from his house. The eyewitnesses who saw Shannan running down the street and desperately going to people’s houses to beg for their help say that she was too incoherent to describe what was wrong. She gave the impression that someone was after her, although the eyewitnesses say they saw no one chasing after Shannan.

Just like in real life, the movie depicts that the investigation into Shannan’s disappearance led to the discovery of more murder victims who were dumped in the same marshy areas near Long Island’s Ocean Parkway. However, Mari was convinced that Shannan was still alive until Shannan’s remains were found more than a year after she disappeared. Many of the people who saw last Shannan, when she was in a hysterical state of mind, assumed that Shannan was on drugs at the time, but an autopsy later revealed that she had no drugs in her system. 

Much of “Lost Girls” shows either one of two things: (1) Mari feuding with the investigating police (including holding press conferences that are meant to shame them) and (2) Mari doing her own investigations. It’s the movie’s latter depictions that come across as less authentic. Mari goes snooping around people’s front yards, she looks in windows of places where she’s trespassing, and she interviews neighbors and local business owners, as if she’s a middle-aged Nancy Drew.

“Lost Girls” also has a “good cop/bad cop” cliché that’s frequently used in crime dramas. In this case, the “good cop” is Richard Dormer (played by Gabriel Byrne), who’s leading the investigation into Shannan’s disappearance and murder. The “bad cop” is Dean Bostick (played by Dean Winters), one of Richard’s underlings who’s tasked with doing a lot of the legwork. Richard is portrayed as flawed but willing to help Mari, even when she berates and insults him. Dean is portrayed as a mean-spirited and crude sexist who’s not afraid to show it when he’s rudely dismissive of Mari. At one point, Dean says to a co-worker: “Honestly, who spends this much time looking for a hooker?”

During the investigation, Sherre goes on social media to connect with family members of other suspected LISK murder victims. Eventually, some of these family members travel to New York state to pressure the police to do more in the investigation. The family members also hold vigils and participate in press conferences so that the cases can continue to get media attention. Sherre thinks it’s a good idea for the Gilbert family to meet these other family members who are victims’ advocates, but Mari initially refuses because she thinks that Shannan is still missing and isn’t murdered like the other victims.

Mari doesn’t want to be lumped in with the other victims’ families, and she feels somewhat superior to them. “Lost Girls” author Kolker, who interviewed Mari for the book and followed the case closely, says that Mari was like this in real life too. And just like in real life, the movie shows that Mari aligned herself with the other victims’ families only after she decided that it would be an advantage to show strength in numbers, rather than Mari trying to get media attention all by herself. At one point in the story, Mari exclaims: “It’s our job … to make sure these girls are not forgotten!”

“Lost Girls” portrays Mari as being standoffish yet domineering when she first meets some of the murder victims’ family members (who are all women), who have gathered in a diner. They are:

  • Missy (played by Molly Brown), a woman from Connecticut whose sister Maureen was a murder victim.
  • Lorraine (played by Miriam Shor), whose daughter Megan was a murder victim.
  • Lynn (played by Anna Reeder), a woman from Buffalo, New York, whose daughter Melissa was a murder victim.
  • Amanda (played by Grace Capeless), who is Lynn’s daughter and Melissa’s sister.
  • Kim (played by Lola Kirke), an on-again/off-again prostitute from North Carolina whose sister Amber was a murder victim.

It doesn’t take long for Mari to make herself the leader of the group. Gradually, she becomes less aloof and more open to making friends with them. Mari bonds the most with easygoing Lorraine and clashes the most with feisty Kim. Sherre often acts as a peacemaker when Mari gets irritated with other members of the group. At times, Mari acts like she wants to distance herself from the group, but Sherre is usually the one to smooth things over and convince Mari that these other women can be allies. 

The movie depicts Mari as being the chief organizer of the group’s press conferences and the mastermind of staging events, such as having this group of women march through neighborhoods where the murder victims were last seen. It’s a bit of credibility stretch to believe that Mari singlehandedly did all the things in real life that she’s depicted as doing singlehandedly in the movie. However, one of the most authentic aspects of “Lost Girls” is Mari’s emotional ambivalence over who to trust in her quest for justice. It’s not an easy issue for anyone to deal with, especially if it’s compounded by the trauma of looking for a missing child and feeling let down by authorities who are supposed to help.

“Lost Girls” also has a character named Joe Scalise (played by Kevin Corrigan), an Oak Beach neighbor of cleared suspect Joe Brewer. Joe Scalise is portrayed as being the first to tip off Mari that a physician named Dr. Peter Hackett (played by Reed Birney), another Oak Beach resident, should be looked at as a prime suspect. Dr. Hackett is a prominent member of this gated community, but Joe Scalise says that the doctor has a weird fascination with helping prostitutes, whom Dr. Hackett treats as his patients in the doctor’s home office.

Dr. Hackett’s backyard also leads to the marsh where many of the bodies were found. Mari puts two and two together and figures that this is the same mystery doctor who called her on the day that Shannan disappeared. Dr. Hackett denied it, but phone records later proved it.

Through her investigation, Mari also finds out that the doctor’s home office has a surveillance camera outside that would have recorded Shannan on the street the night she disappeared. But when Mari shows up at the office unannounced to interrogate Dr. Hackett, his wife/office manager tells Mari that any video recording from that camera on that night was automatically recorded over. Mari personally confronts Dr. Hackett, who is creepy, smug and evasive. Mari is also infuriated when she finds out the police never even asked for the video surveillance footage.

“Lost Girls” repeatedly portrays Mari as someone who uncovers evidence or tips that the police then express skepticism about or completely ignore. The movie implies in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that one of the main reasons why Shannan’s case remains unsolved is because the police have been unwilling to thoroughly investigate the privileged and influential people of Oak Beach. It’s an age-old issue of criminal justice being different for people who can afford great lawyers and those who can’t.

Mari continues to get tips from Joe Scalise (who seems to be a composite of real-life people), and the more she finds out, the more she’s convinced that Dr. Hackett knows more than he’s telling. When Mari pleads with the police to further investigate Dr. Hackett, she’s told that Joe Scalise is a questionable source since Scalise has been feuding for years with Dr. Hackett and appears to have a personal vendetta against the doctor.

Joe Scalise warns Mari: “The good people of Oak Beach live by one thing: Be wary of those who could ruin a good thing. You are the wayfarer they’ve been dreading.” The movie certainly gives the impression that Mari and the victims’ families are fighting an uphill battle against people who are actively protecting the murderer or murderers.

Because it’s a well-known fact that these murders remained unsolved and no suspects were arrested at the time that “Lost Girls” was made, there’s a feeling of doom while watching the movie that Mari and all of the victims’ loved ones won’t get the justice that they’re seeking by the end of the film. People who watch this movie who never heard of these murders before might be surprised that there’s really no cathartic ending for “Lost Girls.” The Gilbert family also suffered another tragedy that’s not shown in the movie but is mentioned in the movie’s epilogue, which includes details on what people can do if they have information that they think can help solve this real-life mystery of the Long Island murders.

Ryan is a very talented actress who excels in every role that she does, so her performance carries this movie to transcend some of its flaws. McKenzie and Kirke also have some standout moments, with McKenzie’s adept portrayal of Sherre’s quiet heartbreak and Kirke’s memorable portrayal of Kim’s fiery cynicism. Byrne and Winters give adequate portrayals of the two cops who have the most contact with Mari. These types of cops have been seen before in many crime dramas, although Byrne’s Richard Dormer character is written to have more compassion than his police colleagues in this investigation.

“Lost Girls” can get faulty when the movie presents an unrealistic depiction of Mari’s sleuthing and how much access she had in the police investigation. A fairly ludicrous scene in the movie is when police allow her to enter a crime scene while they’re investigating, as if she’s law enforcement too. In real life, that access wouldn’t be given to someone like Mari, and it never happened in real life with Mari, who was very antagonistic to the police.

The movie also doesn’t give any room to consider other possible suspects, since the filmmakers make it look like Peter Hackett was the one whom Mari thought was the most likely to be guilty of the crimes. The real Peter Hackett, who has denied any connection to the murders and was never named by police as a suspect, moved out of Oak Beach in 2016, and reportedly lives in Florida. There’s a scene in the movie where Mari confronts him again when she finds out he’s moving out of Oak Beach—and it’s a scene that looks “only in a  movie” fake.

“Lost Girls” tends to oversimply many aspects of these complicated Long Island murder cases, but the movie admirably doesn’t lose sight of its intent of trying to get justice for these murders. It’s not a typical murder mystery where the killer or killers get caught and punished in the end. And in that sense, it’s the most harrowing type of true crime story that can be told.

Netflix premiered “Lost Girls” and released the movie in select U.S. cinemas on March 13, 2020.

Review: ‘Black Bear,’ starring Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon

January 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott in “Black Bear” (Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures)

“Black Bear”

Directed by Lawrence Michael Levine

Culture Representation: Taking place in upstate New York, the dramatic film “Black Bear” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman with apparent emotional problems is at the center of chaos during a potential love triangle.

Culture Audience: “Black Bear” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted independent films that make people question what is real in the story and what might be the imagination of a character in the story.

Sarah Gadon in “Black Bear” (Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures)

People who prefer movies with a straightforward narrative probably won’t like “Black Bear” very much, because the movie is divided into two very distinct stories, with one abruptly transitioning into the other without any explanation until the last few minutes of the movie. The three main actors in the movie portray different characters with the same names in each story. And this switch in characters might confuse viewers. Written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine, “Black Bear” is nonetheless worth watching for anyone who wants to see some good acting with compelling dialogue, even if the movie is somewhat erratic.

That uneven tone is because the movie’s first story, titled “Part One: The Bear in the Road,” is much better than the second story, titled “Part Two: The Bear by the Boat House.” Each story takes place at a lake house in the same wooded area in an unnamed part of upstate New York. (“Black Bear” was actually filmed in Long Lake, New York.) In each story, someone hears bear noises nearby. And then, a black bear shows up at a pivotal moment.

Each story begins with a scene of a woman (played by Aubrey Plaza) wearing a red one-piece swimsuit, looking contemplative and sitting cross-legged on a pier, with mist swirling around her. She then goes into a nearby house, sits down at a table, and opens what looks like a journal. Is this real or is it a dream?

In “The Bear in the Road” story, viewers find out that the woman is named Allison, an independent filmmaker who has rented the cabin-styled house as a retreat space to get over her writer’s block. Or so she says. Allison, who is also an actress, became a film director somewhat out of necessity because, as she says a little later in the story, she didn’t quit acting; she just stopped getting hired as an actress.

Allison is renting the house from an unmarried couple named Gabe (played by Christopher Abbott) and Blair (played by Sarah Gadon), who used to live in Brooklyn but the couple moved to upstate New York because they could no longer afford to live in Brooklyn. Gabe owns the house, which has been in his family for years. Blair is pregnant with her and Gabe’s first child together, and Blair is in her third trimester. There’s simmering tension between Blair and Gabe that eventually boils over to the surface.

Gabe is the one who greets Allison when she arrives at the house. It’s their first time meeting each other. And from the get-go, it’s obvious that Gabe and Allison are attracted to each other. Allison and Gabe have a mutual friend named Mike (who is not seen in the movie), who has told Gabe that Allison is married. When Gabe asks Allison why her husband isn’t with her, Allison tells Gabe that she doesn’t have a husband.

Blair notices the way that Gabe has been looking at Allison. And so, when Gabe introduces Allison to Blair, one of the first things that Allison says to Blair is that Blair is pretty, while Blair returns the compliment. Astute viewers will notice that this is Allison’s way of trying to dispel any insecurities that Blair might be feeling about Allison being an attractive stranger who has caught Gabe’s attention. Ironically, Allison later tells Gabe that she doesn’t like getting compliments about herself.

Gabe, Blair and Allison have dinner together during Allison’s first night at the house. What starts out as a polite “let’s get to know each other” gathering turns into a highly emotional standoff with Gabe and Blair arguing and Allison being somewhat caught in the middle. During this tension-filled situation, viewers find out that Blair has issues with Gabe’s chosen profession as a musician. Because he makes very little money as a musician, Blair doesn’t think Gabe should call himself a “professional” musician. He’s very defensive about it in a way that he thinks any criticism that Blair makes about his career is a direct attack on his masculinity.

Blair also announces to Allison that Gabe believes in traditional gender roles, which Gabe denies. Blair frequently accuses Gabe of being sexist, which he also denies. However, Gabe admits that he has this belief: “The erosion of traditional communities is part of why things are so chaotic right now. I’m not saying feminism is bad.”

During this escalating agitation between Gabe and Blair, there are hints that Allison wants to take Gabe’s side. When Blair berates Gabe for supposedly being against feminism, Allison chimes in by saying that feminism is “fucked up.” Allison and Gabe also seem to have the same sense of humor, because she laughs at Gabe’s jokes that Blair thinks are silly.

While Gabe and Blair are working out their relationship issues in this very hostile way, they also try to get a read on Allison, who comes across as someone who is mysterious and might not always be telling the truth about herself. At one point in the conversation, when Allison mentions that she never learned how to cook, Blair asks her in a surprised tone of voice why Allison’s mother never taught her how to cook. This is the same Blair who insults Dave for believing in traditional gender roles, even though Blair obviously assumes all women should know how to cook. Can you say “hypocrisy”?

Allison’s reply is to tell Blair that Allison’s mother died when she was a child. Instead of expressing remorse at her thoughtless comment, Blair continues to pick apart Gabe and then turns some of her vitriol on Allison too. When Allison says that she doesn’t think about her films after she makes them, Blair accuses Allison of being “selfish.” When Gabe accuses Blair of not letting him have his own thoughts, Blair responds by saying: “It’s not that I can’t stand that you have thoughts about the world. It’s that I can’t stand the thoughts about the world that you have.”

Meanwhile, Gabe chastises Blair for drinking wine during the dinner. He believes that Blair shouldn’t be drinking any alcohol during her pregnancy, while Blair thinks he’s being unreasonable and that a little wine won’t hurt the baby. Of course, their arguing isn’t really about the wine but about their conflicting outlooks on life. And their impending parenthood has forced Blair and Gabe to think about how they are going to raise their child when they can’t even agree on how they should live as a couple.

It’s later revealed that Blair is probably feeling very insecure because the pregnancy was unplanned and she might be thinking that Gabe is only staying in the relationship because of the child. And now, Allison has come into the picture, and a very pregnant Blair can’t help but notice that there’s a mutual spark between Gabe and Allison. It comes as no surprise that Blair begins to have doubts over whether or not Gabe still loves her. Before this story is over, some secrets are revealed, and there’s some more messy drama that leads to a big confrontation.

“The Bear by the Boat House” story has more characters but it’s not as interesting as “The Bear in the Road” story. In “The Bear by the Boat House,” Allison is now a character who is an actress who’s been married for six years to a director named Gabe. The story takes place on the last day of a film shoot of a movie that they are doing together. The name of the movie is “Black Bear.” It’s being filmed at the same pier and house that were in “The Bear in the Road” story.

In “The Bear by the Boat House” story, Allison (not Blair) is the character who is very emotionally fragile with jealousy tendencies, while Blair is a self-assured co-star in the film who might or might not be the third person in a love triangle. There’s sexual tension between Gabe and Blair. Gabe wants Allison to think that he’s having an affair with Blair so that he can get the necessary emotions out of Allison in their last day of making the movie.

Blair is in cahoots with Gabe over this emotional manipulation. There are scenes of Gabe and Blair having secret meet-ups in hushed voices to plot how they can trick Allison and possibly other people on the film set into thinking that Gabe might be cheating on Allison with Blair. Gabe and Blair plan it in such detail that they decide in advance how to look at each other and when to exit and leave the room, to make it look like they’re trying to cover up an affair.

Blair seems to feel a little bit guilty over these mind games, but in the end, she gleefully goes along with this scheme because she wants Gabe’s approval. Gabe has already been showing obvious favoritism to Blair on the film set, in order to plant the seeds of jealousy in Allison’s mind. Gabe also belittles Allison on the film set, in order to make her feel even more insecure.

The emotional distress is too much for Allison, and it leads to a long, drawn-out sequence where she gets stoned on an unnamed drug and has a hard time completing the last scene that they have to film. Gabe didn’t expect this damper on his carefully laid plan. Viewers will then have to wonder if Allison can finish the movie in the way Gabe wanted and if Gabe will tell Allison the truth about how he manipulated her.

Some of the members of the film crew who are caught up in this drama include a script supervisor named Nora (played by Jennifer Kim), a production assistant named Cahya (played by Paola Lázaro) and a cinematographer named Baako (played by Grantham Coleman). Plaza has some over-the-top melodramatics in this story, but she handles it with a certain authenticity so that it doesn’t go off the rails into becoming a campy performance. There are indications that the Allison character in this story has some underlying issues with mental health that can’t be blamed on Allison’s drug use.

“Black Bear” the movie (not the movie within the movie) is essentially a showcase for Plaza’s dramatic range as an actress. Plaza, who is one of the producers of “Black Bear,” is mostly known for her roles in comedies, but she is a clear standout in expressing the wide gamut of emotions that she does in “Black Bear.” Each “Allison” is at the center of the chaos in each story, but these two Allison characters are very different from each other. The Allison in the first story is a manipulator who likes to be in control, while the Allison in the second story is the one who’s being manipulated and is out of control.

Gadon also gives an impressive performance in her role as the shrewish Blair in “The Bear in the Road” story, but the Blair character in “The Bear by the Boat House” is unfortunately quite bland. Abbott’s Gabe character is also more nuanced and more interesting in “The Bear in the Road” story, whereas the Gabe character in “The Bear by the Boat House” doesn’t have much character development beyond being a conniving and selfish person.

“Black Bear” should be given a lot of credit for attempting not to be a typical “mumblecore” independent film, which is what it first appears to be if people judged the movie by its trailer. “The Bear in the Road” story crackles with energy because the characters and dialogue are written so well. However, “Black Bear” falls a little flat in the second half in “The Bear by the Boat House” story, because Allison’s meltdown becomes a little too repetitive and predictable.

Plaza’s acting talent shines throughout the movie, but the way that “The Bear by the Boat House” is written could have been improved by giving more depth to the characters of Gabe and Blair, who come across as very shallow in that story. People who have the patience to sit through this movie to find out what it all means will at least get answers to some questions in the last five minutes of the film. However, “Black Bear” still has enough “fill in the blank” moments that give viewers the freedom to interpret the movie in a variety of ways.

Momentum Pictures released “Black Bear” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on December 4, 2020.

Review: ‘Herself,’ starring Clare Dunne, Harriet Walter, Conleth Hill, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann

January 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Clare Dunne, Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann in “Herself” (Photo by Pat Redmond/Amazon Studios)

“Herself”

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Culture Representation: Taking place in Dublin, the drama “Herself” features a predominantly white cast (with a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A single mother, who has broken up with her abusive ex, decides to build her own house, but she has to hide these activities from the government’s social services department that is handling her case.

Culture Audience: “Herself” will appeal primarily to people interested in emotionally realistic dramas about women who rebuild their lives after a traumatic breakup.

Clare Dunne, Molly McCann and Ian Lloyd Anderson in “Herself” (Photo by Pat Redmond/Amazon Studios)

The concept of a woman who tries to move on from a toxic relationship has been the plot of too many movies to count. However, the compelling drama “Herself” (directed by Phyllida Lloyd) truly has something unique to offer: It’s a story of a single mother who metaphorically and literally rebuilds her life by deciding she’s going to build a house where she and her two underage daughters will live. The movie (which was filmed on location in Dublin) has some moments that are a bit predictable, but there are other parts of the story that admirably avoid clichés. Thanks to skillful direction and impressive performances from the cast members, “Herself” is a cut above the typical “single mother trying to make it on her own” movie that’s become a subgenre of a lot of female-oriented entertainment.

Clare Dunn, who co-wrote the “Herself” screenplay with Malcolm Campbell, stars in the movie as Sandra Kelly, a loving and devoted single mother to two daughters: sassy and inquisitive Emma (played by Ruby Rose O’Hara), who’s about 6 or 7 years old, and sweet-natured and friendly Molly (played by Molly McCann), who’s about 4 or 5 years old.

The movie opens with a scene of all three of them seemingly in domestic bliss in their house’s kitchen, where Emma and Molly are applying makeup to their mother’s face. Sandra explains to her daughters that the birthmark below her left eye (the birthmark looks like a bruise) is God’s way of marking her uniqueness. And then, Sandra and her daughters dance and sing in the kitchen while Sia’s “Chandelier” is playing in the background.

Suddenly, Emma’s and Molly’s father Gary Mullen (played by Ian Lloyd Anderson) comes home. Molly and Emma run to him and eagerly greet him. Gary seems happy to see them too, but he’s not happy to see Sandra, who is his live-in girlfriend. Gary tells Emma and Molly to step outside for a moment because he wants to talk to their mother. And that’s when things get ugly.

Sandra senses that all hell is about to break loose when Gary waves some paperwork and cash and angrily tells Sandra that he found out she’s going to leave him. Before Emma leaves the room to go outside, Sandra frantically whispers to Emma to do something that was a pre-arranged emergency plan. Emma runs to a playhouse in the backyard (where Molly is hiding), grabs a lunchbox, and runs to a nearby convenience store.

When Emma arrives at the store, she opens the lunchbox to show it to the store clerk. Inside the lunchbox is a written message that says: “Call 999. My life is in danger. Sandra Kelly. 14 Hazelwood Road.”

Back at the house, Gary has begun viciously assaulting Sandra. He throws her to the ground and starts punching her and grabbing her hair. And then, he stomps hard on her left hand while she cries out in agony.

The next scene shows Sandra, Emma and Molly temporarily moving into a motel. Sandra has left Gary for good, and it’s later revealed that she had him arrested for domestic violence. Sandra has been granted full custody of the children, but Gary (who works in construction) has visitation rights. Gary is currently living at home with his parents Michael (played by Lorcan Cranitch) and Tina (played by Tina Kellegher) because he doesn’t get enough steady work in construction to be able to afford his own place.

Because this case involves family court and because Sandra doesn’t have enough money to rent her own place, Sandra has to apply for council housing. She’s assigned to a sympathetic social worker named Jo (played by Cathy Belton), who is very willing to help her. Sandra has two jobs (she works as a restaurant/pub waitress and as a housecleaner), but she doesn’t make enough money at both jobs to be able to pay her bills without government assistance.

Sandra’s messy breakup from Gary, as well as her housing issues, aren’t the only problems that Sandra is dealing with right now. When Gary stomped on her left hand, it left nerve damage that might be permanent. And considering that Sandra works in jobs where she needs the use of both hands, she’s concerned about how her injury might affect her livelihood. Emotionally, Sandra is also having a rough time because she’s grieving over her beloved widowed mother, who died six months ago.

Sandra’s mother was the housecleaner for a retired medical doctor named Peggy (played by Harriet Walter), a frequently stern and moody widow who lives alone. When Sandra’s mother died, Sandra inherited the housecleaner job. In the movie’s early scenes with Peggy and Sandra, it’s shown that Peggy is a demanding and very cranky boss, whose bad temper seems to be exacerbated because she’s recovering from hip surgery. When Sandra tries to help Peggy (who uses a walker) physically move about the house, Peggy snaps at her and says she doesn’t like to be treated as if she’s old.

One day, while reading a storybook to her kids about someone who builds a house, Sandra gets curious about what it would take to get a low-cost home built. When she’s at Peggy’s house, Sandra secretly uses Peggy’s laptop computer to look up the information. Sandra finds online videos of a do-it-yourself home building expert, who describes how to build a low-cost house. The videos inspire Sandra, but without owning any land to build a home, she thinks it’s an unattainable dream for her.

However, Peggy finds out about Sandra’s online searches and surprises Sandra by telling her that Sandra can use Peggy’s spacious backyard as the place to build her home. Sandra, who is the type of person who is too proud to look for pity or accept “handouts” from people she knows, initially refuses the offer because she doesn’t want to be thought of as a charity case. She’s also hesitant because Sandra already applied for council housing. Building her own house would forfeit that application.

Sandra asks Peggy why she is suddenly being so generous to her. Peggy confides in Sandra that Sandra’s mother was more than an employee; she was also a very good friend who got Peggy through some tough times. This revelation is why Sandra changes her mind to accept Peggy’s offer, because Sandra now knows that in order to honor her deceased mother, she should start thinking of Peggy as a friend too. This housing agreement gradually thaws Peggy’s cold attitude toward Sandra, and they eventually grow to like and respect each other.

Peggy’s adult daughter Grainne (played by Rebecca O’Mara) is very skeptical of this housing arrangement, because she doesn’t think the land should be given so freely to someone whom Peggy barely knows. But Peggy impatiently brushes away those concerns and says she has a right to do what she wants with the land that she owns. Peggy makes it clear that she’s determined to help Sandra fulfill her dream of building her own home, which Peggy offers to fund as a loan.

With donated land and enough money to buy building materials, Sandra’s next step is to research what she can do on her budget. She goes to a hardware store to get price estimates and ask questions. Sandra doesn’t get much help from the store clerk, but she meets someone at the store named Aidan “Aido” Deveney, a no-nonsense, middle-aged man who owns his own construction and civil engineering company. It’s not a big company, but Aido has the experience that Sandra needs for this project.

Sandra asks for Aido’s help to build the house, but he declines for three reasons: (1) He says that he rarely does contract work; (2) Sandra wouldn’t be able to afford him if he did; and (3) He’s been having recent heart problems. Sandra doesn’t have the budget to afford a team of construction workers, and Aido warns her that it will be difficult for her to find people who will build the house for little or no payment. Sandra plans to do a lot of the hands-on construction work, but obviously she can’t do it alone.

Despite getting rejected by Aido when she initially asks for his help, Sandra is persistent and won’t take no for an answer. She has a hunch that Aido might know Gary and might know what an awful person Gary is. When she tells Aido that Gary Mullen is her ex and that she’s in desperate need of a home for her and her daughters, Aido seems to understand why Sandra might need the help that she’s requesting.

And so, Aido eventually agrees to do the contract job for less than his usual salary. Aido’s young adult son Francis (played by Daniel Ryan), who happens to have Down syndrome, works with Aido and gives Sandra an old pair of construction work shoes that she ends up wearing during the build. The close-ups of Sandra putting on the shoes are a little heavy-handed in showing how the shoes are a metaphor for her stepping outside her comfort zone and trying something that she’s never done before.

Some of “Herself” is a little corny, but the movie is so earnest in its intentions that it’s easy to forgive these minor flaws. For example, on the day that Aido and Sandra break ground on the construction site, Aido hands Sandra a shovel and says, “We’ll let herself do the honors.” (It’s at this point that viewers know this line is the inspiration for the movie’s title.)

Later in the movie, during another teamwork construction scene that’s supposed to be inspirational, the dance-pop hit “Titanium” (by David Guetta featuring Sia) is turned up to full volume on the movie’s soundtrack. The song’s chorus is “You shoot me down, but I won’t fall. I am titanium.” It’s an obvious anthem reflecting Sandra’s gradual self-empowerment.

It should come as no surprise that the construction of the house doesn’t always go smoothly. Sandra only has time to work on the house on weekends, which makes the process slower. Aido gets frustrated and threatens to quit unless Sandra can find more people to work on the house.

As luck would have it, Sandra has a waitress co-worker named Amy (played by Ericka Roe), who lives in a self-described “squat” with several people. Amy recruits three of her squat mates to help with the construction: Dariusz (played by Dmitry Vinokurov), a tall and muscular guy who has experience as a construction worker; Yewande (played by Mabel Chah), an outgoing and friendly woman; and Tomo (played by Aaron Lockhart), a jokester who sometimes likes to goof off on the job, much to the annoyance of construction boss Aido.

Sandra also asks for help from a single mother named Rosa (played by Anita Petry), whose daughter Miriam is a friend of Emma and Molly. Rosa politely declines because she’s intimidated by the thought of doing construction work. But what do you know, Sandra finds out that Rosa changed her mind when Rosa just happens to show up on the same day as Amy’s friends. Stranger things have happened in real life, so viewers will have to suspend disbelief at this lucky coincidence that Sandra gets an instantly expanded construction crew on the same day.

Before construction begins, Sandra tells her daughters Emma and Molly that building the house has to be a secret until the house is finished. Sandra knows she could get in trouble for housing fraud because she applied for council housing and claimed she had no other housing options. Sandra also doesn’t want Gary to know about the house’s construction for the same reasons.

While all of this is going on, Gary tries to get back together with Sandra. He tells her that he’s in counseling and that he’ll never abuse her again. He also tries to make her feel guilty by reminding her of happier times and telling her that she’s making a mistake by breaking up their family. These are typical tactics used by abusers, and it’s why many abused people in toxic relationships find it difficult to leave.

A big problem occurs in the visitation arrangement with Gary. Molly becomes increasingly upset at being told that she has to visit with her father. In one incident, Molly locks herself in a closet in an attempt to get out of the visitation. And eventually, Molly refuses to get out of the car when Sandra takes Molly and Emmy to visit Gary. Molly cries and seems afraid of Gary, but she won’t tell Sandra why. Meanwhile, Emma still has a loving relationship with her father and doesn’t seem afraid of him.

Sandra hates to see Molly get so emotionally distressed. And so, over a period of time, Sandra lies to Gary and uses an excuse that Molly is sick, in order to get Molly out of visiting with Gary. But after Molly misses seven or eight visitations, Gary gets suspicious, and a series of events leads him to file a breach of access petition and ask for full custody of Molly and Emma. (This custody battle isn’t spoiler information, since it’s in the movie’s trailer.) It’s eventually revealed why Molly is afraid of her father.

“Herself” accurately shows the gray areas of abusive relationships that explain why abused partners often go back to their abusers. While Gary tries to win back Sandra, she has doubts about whether or not she made the right decision to leave him. He has a charming side, and she knows that her financial situation would be less difficult if she moved back in with Gary. And she still has feelings for him, but she is unsure if he’s really changed his abusive ways.

Like many abused love partners, Sandra has to decide if the person she fell in love with is redeemable and will really stop being abusive, or if the person she fell in love with is gone forever and will eventually become abusive again if they get back together. She admits this confusion when she confides in Peggy over her mixed feelings about giving Gary another chance: “I miss the person he was.”

“Herself” is anchored by Dunne’s above-average performance, because she is able to convey vulnerability and grit with equal aplomb. Sandra is not a saintly mother. She makes mistakes and is sometimes impatient with her children. But there’s no doubt that her motherly love is deep and fierce. It’s what guides almost all of Sandra’s decisions, because she’s thinking of what’s best for her children more than what she thinks is best for herself.

Something happens in the last third of “Herself” that sets the movie apart from how viewers might think the story is going to end. It’s why “Herself,” despite a few hokey moments, ends up being grounded in the realism of life throwing some unexpected curveballs. It speaks to the movie’s larger message of how dealing with setbacks or challenges is much more important than the type of dwelling where someone lives.

Amazon Studios released “Herself” in select U.S. cinemas on December 30, 2020. Amazon Prime Video will premiere the movie on January 8, 2020.

Review: ‘Run’ (2020), starring Sarah Paulson and Kiera Allen

January 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kiera Allen and Sarah Paulson in “Run” (Photo by Allen Fraser/Hulu)

“Run” (2020)

Directed by Aneesh Chaganty 

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Pasco, Washington, the dramatic thriller “Run” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A wheelchair-bound teenager finds out that her overprotective mother might not have her best interests at heart.

Culture Audience: “Run” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories about mother-daughter relationships that have serious conflicts.

Sarah Paulson and Kiera Allen in “Run” (Photo by Allen Fraser/Hulu)

The well-acted and taut thriller “Run” explores a very well-worn concept—a mother and a teenage daughter have a power struggle and become increasingly alienated from each other—and still manages to make it a captivating and enthralling story. Some of the movie’s plot twists and reveals are more predictable than others. However, the filmmakers seem very aware of the specific target audience for this type of movie and deliver the suspenseful moments that this audience expects.

“Run” is the second feature film directed by Aneesh Changaty, who made his feature-film directorial debut with the critically acclaimed 2018 thriller “Searching,” another intriguing movie about a relationship between a single parent and the parent’s only child, who is a teenage daughter. In “Searching,” a widowed father is on a desperate hunt to find his missing teenage daughter. In “Run,” the source of the tension is because the parent of the teenage daughter is clinging too much to her child.

The beginning of “Run” (which was written by Changaty and Sev Ohanian) shows a distraught mother in a hospital. She has just given birth to a premature baby, who is unhealthy enough that doctors are seen trying to resuscitate the child on an operating table. The mother is taken by wheelchair to see her newborn daughter in an incubator, where the baby is breathing through an oxygen tube.

A list of ailments is then listed on screen: arrhythmia (a heart problem); hemochromatosis (a bloodstream problem); asthma (a breathing problem); and paralysis (a muscle problem). And then, the story fast-forwards 17 years later to Pasco, Washington (a city about 226 miles east of Seattle), where single mother Diane Sherman (played by Sarah Paulson) and her 17-year-old daughter Chloe (played by Kiera Allen) live. Diane is the mother who was shown fretting over her sick baby in the movie’s opening scene.

Diane now belongs to a support group for parents of special-needs children. During a group meeting, she expresses some trepidation but also excitement about Chloe going to college and doing things that Diane hasn’t been able to do since Diane became a mother—partying and having fun. Diane mentions that Chloe (who is home-schooled) has applied to several colleges, and they’re waiting to find out which schools have accepted her.

At home in Diane and Chloe’s two-story house, it’s revealed that Chloe’s is a paraplegic in a wheelchair who is on numerous medications for her health problems. Chloe also has a very claustrophobic existence, because her mother controls every aspect of Chloe’s life. Chloe has no friends, and the only person she’s in contact with on a regular basis is her mother, who won’t allow Chloe to have a phone.

There’s no television or radio in the Sherman household. When Diane isn’t home, Chloe is locked inside the house. When Chloe goes outside, her mother always accompanies her. Diane never talks about Chloe’s father.

Diane doesn’t have a job other than taking care of Chloe, and so viewers can presume that Diane lives off of government assistance that’s provided for parents of kids with special needs. One day, Chloe discovers something very strange when she looks in a bag of groceries that her mother left in the kitchen. In the bag is a prescription bottle of pills that Chloe has been taking, but the bottle actually has Diane’s name on the bottle label.

When Chloe mentions this discrepancy to her mother, Diane gives the excuse that what Chloe saw was a receipt with Diane’s name, and the receipt was taped to the bottle. Observant viewers will immediately know that Diane is lying because what Chloe saw was clearly a label on the prescription bottle, not a taped receipt. The green and white pills in the bottle are supposed to be Trigoxin. It’s a fictional drug fabricated for this movie, but Trigoxin and its effects are very similar to the real-life drug Digoxin, which is heart medicine.

About 70% of “Run” has spoiler information that won’t be revealed in this review. But it’s enough to say that when Chloe tries to go on the Internet to get more details on Trigoxin, she finds out that the house computer has no Internet service. This sets off a chain of events where Chloe begins to suspect Diane of having secrets and ulterior motives. Meanwhile, Diane becomes increasingly controlling of Chloe.

People who are fans of Paulson’s work in the anthology TV series “American Horror Story” already know how well she can portray characters who seem harmless on the outside but might have very dark and disturbing secrets on the inside. It’s pretty obvious from the trailer for “Run” that Diane is going to end up being the villain of the story. The big mystery is: “What is Diane hiding and what’s going to happen to Chloe?”

Allen makes an impressive feature-film debut as the innocent and sheltered Chloe, who is book smart but definitely naïve compared to other typical 17-year-olds. However, Chloe has to grow up fast when reality starts to sink in that she might not be safe in her own home with her mother. The role of Chloe is physically and emotionally challenging, but Allen is able to convey acting range in all the right places to make a very believable and sympathetic heroine.

“Run” has plenty of mystery and suspense, but there are a few minor inconsistencies in the movie’s plot and characterizations. Chloe is obviously a smart and inquisitive child, so it seems a little strange that it took her so long to find out some of the secrets that she finds out in the movie. Chloe might be someone who spent almost all of her life passively following her mother’s orders, but it’s a little hard to believe that Chloe never thought about snooping around the house while her mother was away, until Chloe began to have suspicions about Diane because of the prescription discrepancy.

For example, even though the movie doesn’t reveal what Diane told Chloe about Chloe’s father, it’s hard to imagine that Chloe wouldn’t be curious enough to find out details about her father that Diane wouldn’t tell her. This curiosity would lead to Chloe looking for information around the house a lot sooner than she does in this story. There’s also another scene in a hospital that’s a tad far-fetched in how hospitals operate, in terms of hospital security.

These flaws don’t take away from the overall plot of “Run.” It’s definitely a movie for fans of “women in peril” stories. However, “Run” doesn’t come across as a generic TV-movie of the week, because the film has some artsy cinematography (by Hillary Spera) and better-than-average performances by the stars of the movie. (Lionsgate was going to release “Run” in cinemas, but then sold the movie to Hulu.) “Run” isn’t a masterpiece, and the movie has some ideas that are recycled from other films, but it’s a satisfying thriller for anyone intrigued by stories about one family member pitted against another.

Hulu premiered “Run” on November 20, 2020.

Review: ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’ starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman

January 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

Chadwick Boseman, Dusan Brown, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Viola Davis  and Glynn Turman in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Directed by George C. Wolfe

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1927, in Chicago and briefly in Barnesville, Georgia, the dramatic film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A tough-talking blues diva and her rebellious cornet player have conflicts and power struggles with each other, while they both have constant battles with white racism and the emotional scars that this bigotry has left on them.

Culture Audience: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” will appeal primarily to August Wilson fans and people interested in well-acted movies about African American experiences.

Glynn Turman, Chadwick Boseman, Michael Potts, and Colman Domingo as Cutler in “May Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” triumphs as one of the rare movies adapted from a celebrated play that can actually claim to be better than the play, thanks to powerhouse performances by Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. The movie version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which is based on August Wilson’s play that debuted on Broadway in 1984, takes place mostly in a small recording studio, but the deep emotional impact and the breadth of social issues experienced and conveyed by the characters go beyond the confines of that studio. The story is set in 1927, but the story’s themes are universal and timeless.

Directed by George C. Wolfe with a screenplay written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” begins in Barnesville, Georgia, where blues singer Ma Rainey (played by Davis) is giving a foot-stomping, rousing performance to an enthralled audience in a tent. She’s sweating profusely, as she does in every scene in the movie, and caught up in the rapture of giving a raw and passionate performance for the adoring crowd.

When she’s off stage, Ma isn’t the fun-loving, “good time gal” that she might appear to be when she’s on stage. Ma is a middle-aged diva who’s feeling the pressure of being considered a “has-been” as her former protégée Bessie Smith is almost certain to surpass Ma in popularity. It’s an ageism problem faced by many entertainers, especially women, who are at the mercy of fickle audiences and industry people who might end up moving on to someone who’s considered younger, more contemporary and more attractive.

Ma has earned the nickname the Mother of the Blues, and she’s not about to give up her reign at the top that easily. She uses her clout and her unique talent as reasons to do and say what she wants, including showing up late, berating her employees, and making people kowtow to her sometimes-unreasonable demands. It’s clear that Ma’s way of asserting her power is to counterbalance the humiliation and pain of racism that she experiences as a black woman in America, where white supremacy was legal in the form of racial segregation and other Jim Crow laws.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” references the Great Migration, a period of time (1916 to 1970) in U.S. history where millions of black people relocated from the states in the South to states in other parts of America. These areas outside of the South were often viewed as presenting better opportunities for people of color, but these areas certainly were not immune to racism. When Ma travels to Chicago for the one-day recording session that’s the majority of this story, it represents her own personal parallel to the Great Migration.

Where Ma goes, drama usually isn’t far behind. Upon arriving in Chicago during a sweltering summer, she gets into a dispute on the street when she’s accused of pushing down a white man. A cop (played by Joshua Harto) who’s called to the scene is inclined to arrest her, but Ma uses her clout, loud voice and her “take no crap” attitude to get the cop to back off.

Ma, who lives openly as a lesbian (as did the real-life Ma Rainey), is traveling by car to the recording studio. Accompanying her are her much-younger lover Dussie Mae (played by Taylour Paige) and Ma’s teenage nephew Sylvester (played by Dussan Brown). As gruff as Ma is to most people in her life, she shows tremendous loyalty to the few people who are closest to her, especially Sylvester.

Dussie Mae is an attractive young woman whose relationship with Ma is fairly new and is more like a “trophy girlfriend” than a soul mate to Ma. Throughout the movie, it’s implied that Dussie Mae is somewhat of a gold digger. Dussie Mae goes through life using her looks and sex appeal to get people to financially support her—not because she’s mean-spirited but because she’s too unsophisticated to doing anything else with her life.

Ma, as usual, is running late on her way to the studio, where she is scheduled to record the song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” When Ma and her two-person entourage (Dussie Mae and Sylvester) finally get there, Ma takes charge and sometimes gets into subtle and not-so-subtle power struggles with the men who’ve been waiting for her at the studio. These power struggles have many different layers that exemplify issues of gender roles and racial discrimination.

The six men in the recording studio who experience Ma’s mercurial range of emotions during this challenging day are:

  • Levee (played by Boseman), the charismatic, foul-mouthed cornet player who’s the newest and most arrogant member of Ma’s band.
  • Cutler (played by Colman Domingo), the band’s trombone player who is very loyal to Ma and considers himself to be the most experienced and skilled in dealing with her mood swings.
  • Toledo (played by Glynn Turman), the band’s pianist who is the most likely to be the jokester in the group.
  • Slow Drag (played by Michael Potts), the band’s bass player who is the quietest and most laid-back member of the group.
  • Irvin (played by Jeremy Shamos), Ma’s longtime manager who often has to be a peacemaker when she decides on a whim to throw situations into chaos.
  • Sturdyvant (played by Jonny Coyne), the manager of the recording studio who grows increasingly impatient with Ma’s diva antics.

In the scenes in the recording studio, Irvin and Sturdyvant (who are white) are often together in a booth that overlooks the recording room where they can watch through a glass window what’s happening down below with the Ma and the rest of her African American colleagues. Irvin and Sturdyvant usually leave the booth to go into the recording studio when there’s a problem that affects their time and money invested in this recording session. And there are several interruptions to the recording session for this reason.

The higher location of the booth and its separation from the main recording studio room are obvious metaphors of the spoken and unspoken racial barriers that exist between the people in this recording session, where racism is a festering wound that has impacted the characters on a personal and societal level. Ma and her colleagues are all too aware that even though Ma is the star in this room, she still has a subservient role to the white men who control the music industry. It’s a role that she expresses with a lot of emotional pain, bitterness and defiance throughout the story.

At one point in the story Ma says with heavy resentment: “They don’t care care nothin’ about me. All they care about is my voice.” She adds, “If you colored and you can make them some money, then you all right with them. Otherwise, you just a dog in the alley.” And later in the story, Ma reveals that even though Irvin has been her manager for the past six years, the only time he invited her to his home was so she could perform for his “white friends.”

There are also issues over gender roles that permeate the story. When Ma arrives at the recording studio, she finds out that all the men who’ve been waiting for her have already decided that she will record a new, more upbeat version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” with the arrangement written by Levee. Ma refuses and declares that she is going to record the original version of the song. She also insists that her nephew Sylvester is going to do a short spoken intro to the song, even though he’s a stutterer.

Ma literally and figurately throws her weight around as she has diva tantrum after diva tantrum. At one point, she shouts: “I make more money for this outfit than anyone put together!” And when she finds out that the Coca-Cola that she requested in advance isn’t in the studio, she refuses to start recording until she gets her Coca-Cola.

All of the members of her band are very compliant except for Levee, who constantly challenges Ma’s decisions and tries to assert himself as a visionary musician whom Ma needs if she wants to get more respect for her music. Early on in the story, Tyree tells Cutler: “I ain’t like you, Cutler. I’ve got talent. I know how to play real music, not none of this jug band shit.”

Levee shows flashes of vanity (he brags about his shiny yellow shoes and is aware of how good-looking he is) and hubris (he thinks all of his ideas should be immediately accepted), but underneath that cockiness is someone who’s got deep-seated emotional pain and trauma. During the long stretches of time that the musicians in the band are waiting for Ma, Levee slowly opens up about his past and reveals secrets that explain why he acts the way that he does.

At one point, Levee is teased by the other members of the band when they see Levee acting in a very deferential way to Irvin and Sturdyvant. The band mates try to make Levee feel like he’s an “Uncle Tom,” which triggers Levee into losing his temper and then revealing a defining incident from his past that permanently changed his outlook on life. He tells this story in a harrowing monologue that’s one of the best scenes in the film.

Ma and Levee’s clashes with each other aren’t just about music. An observant Ma notices that Levee has been looking at Dussie Mae in a way that makes it obvious that he’s attracted to her. Dussie Mae flirts back when Ma isn’t around. And it doesn’t take long for Levee to ramp up his sexual advances toward Dussie Mae, even though the other band members warn Levee that Dussie Mae is “Ma’s girl.”

Levee’s disagreements with Ma over her musical direction, as well as Levee not even trying to hide that he’s interested in making moves on Ma’s lover, put him in a precarious situation where he might or might not be fired from the band. As time goes on during the day and Ma goes back and forth about whether or not she’ll complete the recording, Levee is going through his own insecurities and turmoil. At times, he also clashes with Cutler, especially when it’s revealed how Levee feels about God and religious beliefs.

Under the assured direction of Wolfe, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” not only has a top-notch cast but the movie also excels in costume design, production design and music. The stage/play version of the story takes place in the winter, but the filmmakers made the astute decision to change the season to summer during an oppressive heat wave. It gives the movie more of a “pressure cooker” look and tone that’s an accurate reflection of the simmering tensions that permeate throughout the entire story.

Davis and Boseman give award-worthy performances in this movie that goes beyond personality conflicts and ego posturing. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (which was Boseman’s last movie; he died of colon cancer in August 2020) is also a story of the shared trauma of racism and how even the strongest of souls are tested by this insidious societal cancer. Viewers who are sensitive about hearing racially derogatory names should be warned that the “n” word is said many times in this movie, usually when uttered by Levee.

Even though the movie is called “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the character of Ma has a lot less screen time than Levee does. If Ma is the heart of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” then Levee is the soul. Levee and Boseman’s heartbreaking performance represent anyone who has survived trauma inflicted by other people but struggles with the damage that can be inflicted by self-destruction.

Netflix released “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in select U.S. cinemas on November 25, 2020. The movie premiered on Netflix on December 18, 2020.