Review: ‘The Novice’ (2021), starring Isabelle Fuhrman

June 27, 2021

by Carla Hay

Isabelle Fuhrman in “The Novice” (Photo by Todd Martin)

“The Novice” (2021)

Directed by Lauren Hadaway

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic film “The Novice” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class and who are connected in some way to a well-known university.

Culture Clash: A newcomer to a prestigious university’s women’s rowing team pushes herself to her physical, emotional and mental limits.

Culture Audience: “The Novice” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in movies about blind ambition, self-esteem and how women interact in traditionally male-dominated sports.

Isabelle Fuhrman in “The Novice” (Photo by Todd Martin)

“The Novice” takes a harrowing and effective look at the dark side of being an overachiever. Isabelle Fuhrman gives a noteworthy performance as a college student who finds out the hard way that winning isn’t worth it if you lose yourself in the process. At times, “The Novice” (which takes place over the course of one academic year) can be a bit too repetitive in hammering this point into the movie’s plot. But through some striking cinematography and sound design, “The Novice” succeeds in building a very specific world, told from the protagonist’s point of view, where the protagonist’s raw emotions and single-minded ambition can be felt by viewers on a visceral level.

Written and directed by Lauren Hadaway, “The Novice” is Hadaway’s feature-film directorial debut, after several years of experience working in film sound. Her extensive background in sound can be experienced all over “The Novice,” which often uses a technique that depicts how someone often tunes out sound around them because they are focused on something else. “The Novice” had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. The movie won three prizes at the festival: Best U.S. Narrative Feature Film; Best Actress in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film (for Fuhrman); and Best Cinematography in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film (for Todd Martin).

If there’s a lot of “tune out” sound techniques in “The Novice,” that’s because Furhman’s Alex Dall character in “The Novice” does a lot of tuning out in her life, so that she can have a single-minded focus on whatever goal is her current obsession. Alex is in her second or third year of an unnamed East Coast university in the U.S. (the movie was actually filmed in Peterborough, New Hampshire), where she is a physics major. When she joins the university’s Ravens rowing team for women as a novice, it sets her down a self-destructive path where she becomes consumed with the goal to be the best rower on the team, no matter what happens.

Just to give you an idea of what type of person Alex is, at one point in the movie, a physics teaching assistant named Dani (played by Dilone) points out to Alex that physics is Alex’s worst subject in school. However, Alex has chosen physics as her major. Why? Because Alex is the type of person who likes being an underdog and who can prove skeptics and naysayers wrong when they underestimate her.

Alex also believes that the people who deserve the greatest rewards in life are the ones who work the hardest, not necessarily those who are the most naturally gifted, the smartest, or those with the best personalities. It’s why she continues to push herself in her physics classes and won’t switch majors, even though she’s struggling with mediocre grades in physics.

Whereas most university students would choose a major in a subject that they truly enjoy, that’s not Alex’s way of doing things. After a while, observant viewers will notice that Alex doesn’t have a passion for physics. However, she won’t change her major because she’s the type of person who thinks that once she chooses to do something, she has to be the best at it. If she changed her major, she would consider it a “failure” in judgment and “failure” in persistence.

Alex has the same mentality when she joins the novice crew of the university’s women’s rowing team. The novices train with the knowledge that only a select few will be chosen for the university’s varsity rowing team, which is the team that competes in the official rowing matches. It’s mentioned early on in the movie that this unnamed university is an elite institution, where most of the students were top achievers in high school and probably for most of their lives.

Even though Alex has no previous experience in rowing as a sport, she approaches her training with the same “I have to be the best no matter what” attitude. For someone like Alex, she doesn’t just want to win and be the best. She wants to break records.

The trainer of the novices is an easygoing and friendly leader named Coach Pete (played by Jonathan Cherry), while the trainer of the varsity team members is Coach Edwards (played by Kate Drummond), who is more aloof and rigid than Coach Pete. A woman named Erin (played by Charlotte Ubben) is an assistant coach who works directly with Coach Edwards. Erin has a similar no-nonsense attitude as Coach Edwards, but Erin is more approachable to the students on the team than Coach Edwards is.

Alex’s best friend at school is fun-loving Winona (played by Jeni Ross), who seems as content with her life as Alex is restless with her own life. There are a few scenes where Alex and Winona hang out together, but their friendship eventually fades into the background as Alex becomes more obsessed with being the best on the rowing team. Alex does take time to have a social life, but nothing is more important to Alex than being considered a success at whatever she does.

There’s a scene early on in the film where Alex and Winona go to a party, Alex meets a guy there, and they have sex that ends too quickly because of his “performance issues.” Alex cringes and half-jokes about it when she and Winona talk about it the next day. Dating is not a major priority for Alex, and she doesn’t put a label on her sexuality.

Later on in the movie, Alex and Dani, who’ve been having a mild flirtation with each other, become lovers around the same time that Dani has moved on from being Alex’s teaching assistant because Dani got accepted into another graduate program. Dani is very sarcastic with Alex in the beginning of their relationship. But as they grow closer, Dani shows a more sensitive and caring side, and she becomes the closest thing that Alex has to a therapist.

Dani also moonlights as a singer. She and her band perform moody, somewhat experimental pop/rock music. The only reason why this aspect of Dani’s life is shown in the movie is because Dani invited Alex to see her perform at a nightclub. It’s during this date that Dani and Alex acknowledge their sexual attraction to each other, and they sleep together for the first time as as a result of that date.

Alex stands out from the other novices because she’s the one who works the hardest. And so by October, which viewers can assume is just a month or two after Alex joined the team of novice rowers, Alex is selected to be on the varsity team. The varsity team will be doing a regatta in the following week. It’s not a lot of time to prepare, but Alex is up for the challenge.

In every sports team, there’s rivalry among the team members. And for Alex, her biggest team rival is Jamie Brill (played by Amy Forsyth), another novice who was selected to be on the varsity team. Jamie has an athletic scholarship to attend the university, and her participation and achievements in the row crew are a condition of keeping her scholarship. Therefore, the stakes are very high for Jamie on how well she does in these rowing competitions.

Early on in the movie, Jamie confidently accepts Alex’s praise that Jamie is the best novice on the team. Jamie is also so self-assured that she defiantly ignores the attempts of the varsity team members to haze and belittle the novices. For example, during a bus ride, she refuses some varsity team members’ orders that novices have to sit at the back of the bus. When Jamie notices that Alex wants to outshine everyone, their relationship becomes a lot less cordial.

Jamie openly expresses her resentment of the rowing team’s most privileged students, whom she calls “silver spoon bitches,” because they don’t have to worry about how they’re going to pay for the school’s tuition. Because of the way that Alex guns so hard to be the top person on the team, Jamie assumes that Alex is driven by the same motivation that Jamie has: to keep an athletic scholarship. When Jamie finds out how Alex’s tuition is being paid, it leads to an explosive confrontation between Jamie and Alex that’s one of the best scenes in the movie.

“The Novice” shows plenty of ways that Alex pushes herself to be the best on this rowing team. During the first meeting of the novices, she’s the only one to take notes. She continues to take notes throughout her entire training. And she repeats mantras to herself, sometimes out loud. Her obsessiveness eventually alienates her from the other team members, a few of whom openly call Alex a “psycho.”

Her über-competitiveness takes a toll on her physically. Like any intense sports movie, there’s plenty of blood, sweat and tears. And whether queasy viewers like it or not, there’s urine. Alex pushes herself so hard during a training session, that when she collapses out of physical exhaustion, she’s so tired that she can’t get up, and she urinates on herself. In this scene, the camera pans up so that viewers can see Alex sprawled on her back, on a locker room floor, as some her teammates watch uncomfortably when Alex’s urine starts to form in a puddle around her.

The movie makes the point over and over that no one is harder on Alex than Alex herself. She doesn’t have a sadistic or overly demanding coach. She doesn’t have parents who are pressuring her to be number one in everything she does. (Alex’s parents aren’t even seen or mentioned in the movie.) And she doesn’t have a bullying rival (who’s usually the chief villain in a lot of sports movies) on another team or on her own team.

“The Novice” depicts Alex’s single-mindedness in many of the scenes where the loudest sounds are of her heavy breathing, even when she’s surrounded by other people. In the rowing competition scenes, the cinematography and Alex Weston’s musical score often have a frantic and jagged intensity, similar to a horror movie, in order to take viewers inside Alex’s increasingly disturbed mind.

Alex’s training scenes often evoke a sense of grimness and gloom. And yes, there are predictable scenes of Alex screaming at the top of her lungs when she’s by herself, just to make sure that viewers see the anguish that she’s feeling inside of herself. A pivotal scene toward the end of the movie is an example of the deep fear of failing that drives Alex to put her own safety at risk.

The movie also has several scenes of her running to get to certain places on time, as if her schedule is so packed that she barely has time to go where she needs to go. Meanwhile, there are other scenes where people such as Coach Pete or Dani gently and tactfully tell Alex that she shouldn’t be so hard on herself. She ignores any and all advice to “lighten up” and have some fun with her rowing activities. This repetition all makes it very obvious that Alex is headed for some kind of meltdown.

“The Novice” will be best appreciated if viewers know before seeing the movie that it’s more of a psychological drama than a sports drama. Whether or not Alex and her team become champions is not the point. It’s a story about what can happen to someone who thinks failure is not an option because that person wants to shut out the harsh reality that failure is a part of life.

UPDATE: IFC Films will release “The Novice” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on December 17, 2021.

Review: ‘Mark, Mary & Some Other People,’ starring Hayley Law and Ben Rosenfield

June 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Hayley Law and Ben Rosenfield in “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” (Photo by Casey Stolberg)

“Mark, Mary & Some Other People”

Directed by Hannah Marks

Culture Representation: Taking place mainly in the Los Angeles area, the sex comedy “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A newlywed interracial couple decide to have an open marriage and have to deal with the jealousy and complications that ensue.

Culture Audience: “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” will appeal mainly to people who like watching self-conscious hipster comedies with characters who are foul-mouthed, shallow, and have an annoying tendency to act as if their lifestyles are better than anyone else’s.

Ben Rosenfield and Hayley Law in “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” (Photo by Casey Stolberg)

“Mark, Mary & Some Other People” is an occasionally funny but very flawed swinger sex comedy made by and for people who want a movie where interracial spouses don’t talk about race, and Hispanics in Los Angeles are underrepresented and don’t speak. The movie is a clumsy mismatch of being very woke and very tone-deaf. The cast members who portray the swinger married couple in the film’s title are talented in their performances, and the movie does have some genuine charm here and there. (The final scene is a highlight.) But ultimately, it’s a movie that comes across as a little too smug for its own good. When it comes right down to it, this is a story about immature people who are so obsessed with appearing to be “open-minded” that they don’t see how self-absorbed they really are.

The word “woke” is often used as an insulting way for conservatives to describe people they think are too politically correct. But in “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” (which is set mainly in the Los Angeles area and takes place over a two-year period), even the “woke” characters call themselves “woke,” and they love to announce how politically progressive they are, every chance they get. But it’s the type of “wokeness” where people, who identify as progressive liberals and live in a racially diverse city, can’t be bothered to have any close friends who are black or Hispanic. To fill their “diverse friendship” quota, they might have one or two Asians in their social circle. That’s exactly what’s going on in “Mark, Mary & Some Other People,” which was written and directed by Hannah Marks. The movie had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

In this movie, no one is guiltier of this self-congratulatory virtue signaling than Mary Lewis (played by Hayley Law), a motormouth in her mid-20s, who has to spew something politically correct every five minutes to prove how “enlightened” she is. She’s more about platitude posturing than being a well-rounded person. Mary also happens to be African American/bi-racial. One of her parents is white, and one is black, although the movie never reveals which parent is which race. Mary’s mother is dead, and her father is not mentioned at all.

Mary plays bass guitar in an all-female rock trio that keeps changing its name to things that Mary thinks will make the band sound like edgy feminists. It’s a running joke in the movie. One of the band’s names is Butter Cunt, which tells you right there what this movie thinks is funny. Because the band has no talent and can’t get any paying gigs, Mary works at various part-time menial jobs during the course of the movie. She does some speaking-voice work for places that need recordings for outgoing phone messages and PA system announcements. She also works as a housecleaner and a food server.

Mary’s husband is Mark Kenneth Sampson (played by Ben Rosenfield), also in his mid-20s, who is a “beta male” man-child that has become the stereotypical male lead character in mumblecore movies where everyone tries to outdo each other in looking like trendy, progressive hipsters. Mark is the type of person who identifies as a male feminist, which is basically a mumblecore movie way of depicting a man who is whiny, insecure, and so afraid of appearing sexist that he lets his domineering female partner treat him like crap. Mark works with his father in a vague “plastics manufacturing” job, but Mark’s father is never shown in the movie. Mark is never actually shown working at his “plastics manufacturing” job, but he is shown doing his other job as a dog walker. The movie doesn’t give any mention of Mark’s mother.

Mark is white, but the movie unrealistically shuts out any conversations that interracial couples would have about being in an interracial relationship. It’s one of the many flaws about “Mark, Mary & Some Other People,” which goes out of its way to be frank and detailed (often to the point of monotonous vulgarity) about many other aspects of sexual attraction, dating and marriage, except for race. It’s almost as if writer/director Marks and the other filmmakers thought that having an interracial couple as the main characters would be enough to fulfill their racial diversity checklist, and they want to pretend that racism and discussions about race simply don’t exist in a world that they decided to center on an interracial couple.

Mary will lecture people all day long about sexuality and gender politics, but her refusal to talk about race actually makes her look very phony and willfully ignorant. What kind of progressive liberal who’s supposed to care about social justice doesn’t want to talk about race? A hypocrite like Mary, who wants to live in a delusional bubble where she floats through life and doesn’t want to deal with a messy topic such as racism, even though she’s someone who has inevitably experienced racism. It should come as no surprise that Mary doesn’t have any black friends. (Sex partners who are treated like disposable sex toys don’t count as real friends.)

Women of color who are written this way in movies and TV shows are usually written by people who have no idea what it’s like to be a woman of color. And so, in this movie where one of the two main characters is black, “black culture” is avoided, ignored or sidelined. That’s probably why “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” is the type of movie where the only African American people who have speaking roles in the movie (two women) are light-skinned, bi-racial people. There are less than a handful of Hispanic/Latino and dark-complexioned African Americans who get listed actor credits in the movie, and they’re really just extras: They don’t speak, they’re nameless characters in the movie’s many hookup scenes, and they’re on screen for less than 30 seconds each.

And it’s why this movie that tries so hard to look progressive and “woke”—as these swingers accumulate sexual conquests throughout Los Angeles County—is shamefully out-of-touch and backwards when it comes to representing what the population of Los Angeles County actually looks like. This movie is set in Los Angeles County, where 48.6% of the population identify as Hispanic/Latino, according the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 statistics. That number is expected to be higher when the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 statistics are announced.

But the filmmakers of “Mark, Mary & Some Other People”—who probably want the world to think they’re open-minded and progressive, based on how the movie’s characters talk—couldn’t be bothered to give any Hispanic/Latino actors any speaking lines in this movie that takes place in a county where nearly half the population is Hispanic/Latino. When people say that Hispanics/Latinos are underrepresented in American-made movies, “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” is an example of this problem. Filmmakers who act like they’re progressive liberals need to do better in practicing what they preach.

It isn’t nitpicking to bring up the races/ethnicities of this movie’s cast members, because this entire movie is relentlessly “in your face” about the characters (especially the main characters) being progressive liberals. Therefore, it would be foolish and (quite frankly) irresponsible not to point out this movie’s hypocrisy, flaws and blind spots when it comes to the very same issues. People who live in certain “bubbles” probably won’t notice these flaws, because they’ll be too enamored with the self-approving hipster dialogue and titillation of seeing a swinger lifestyle depicted in a movie.

But “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” has a lot of flaws, such as showing how obvious it is that Mark and Mary are very mismatched from the start. For a movie like this to succeed in resonating with adults (this movie’s intended audience), audiences should be rooting for the couple to be happy and supportive of each other—not spending most of the movie cringing and hoping that the couple will break up, so the couple won’t keep wallowing in the misery of jealousy, power struggles and incompatibility that are all over this relationship.

Every movie about a couple with an “open relationship” ends up being about how they handle jealousy over other sex partners. The trick is in keeping people guessing on whether or not the couple will stay together. Unfortunately, “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” telegraphs very early on how immature and messy Mark and Mary are in relationships, because Mark and Mary don’t even seem to like themselves very much. People with enough life experience will notice this low self-esteem right away, while people with less life experience might have more of a fairy-tale perspective of love and sex.

“Mark, Mary & Some Other People” doesn’t waste time with Mark and Mary’s “meet cute” moment because it’s the very first scene in the movie. Actually, it’s more like a “re-meet cute” moment, because it’s not the first time that they’ve met, although only one of them immediately remembers where they previously met. Mark and Mary, who both live in the city of Los Angeles, see each other at a convenience store. Mark shows an instant interest in her, while it takes Mary a little longer to show she’s attracted to him.

Mark and Mary met before when they attended the same college (which is unnamed in the movie), but Mary doesn’t remember Mark at first because he was a lot heavier in college than he is now. The movie doesn’t have flashbacks. Anything that happened before this story takes place is described in conversations.

At the convenience store, Mark notices that Mary is buying a pregnancy test, but she hastily tells him that the pregnancy test isn’t for her. (It’s an obvious lie.) After Mark checks out Mary’s rear end, he immediately asks her to go to a smoothie place with him on a date.

She says yes, and during their conversation at the smoothie place, Mary admits that the pregnancy test is for her. Mark expresses disappointment that Mary might already be in a committed relationship, but she assures him that she’s very single and available. She also tells him up front that she’s sexually interested in men and women, because she mentions a woman whom she describes as a former lover of hers.

“Mark, Mary & Some Other People” then takes an “only in a movie” turn when Mark tells Mary that it just so happens that he’s working with his father on an invention where pregnancy test results can come from saliva, not urine. It’s a very far-fetched part of the movie that will have viewers rolling their eyes in disbelief if they know anything about human biology. The movie wants us to believe that human salivary glands are somehow connected to the urethra, but it’s just an example of how dumb the filmmakers expect this movie’s audience to be.

Unfortunately, this salivary pregnancy test isn’t a random joke. It’s depicted as very real in this movie, and it becomes a big part of one of the movie’s pivotal scenes. A salivary pregnancy test is actually an unnecessary medical invention for this story, and it’s a bizarre twist to Mark’s “plastics manufacturing” job. Maybe the filmmakers were inspired by Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, because there’s a concerted and almost laughable effort to make this salivary pregnancy test look convincing.

Mark is very nerdy and eager to impress. Mary is very manipulative and notices these personality traits in Mark, so immediately she figures she can have the upper hand in the relationship. When Mark asks her if he can have her phone number, she plays hard to get. Then, she tests Marks boundaries by telling him that he can have her phone number if he goes in the smoothie place’s public restroom with her while she takes the pregnancy test. He hesitates at first, but then obliges. Yes, that it’s that kind of movie.

It should be noted that there’s no nudity in “Mark, Mary & Some Other People,” which might be director Marks’ way of avoiding criticism of being exploitative in a movie filled with sex. However, no filmmaker should get extra praise for not having nudity in a sex-oriented movie. The movie should be judged on other things, such as the quality of directing, writing and acting.

When Mark and Mary go into the public restroom, he shows that he’s a gentleman by not looking at her while she urinates. It should come as no surprise to the audience when Mary finds out that she’s not pregnant, because having a pregnancy would get in the way of the swinger antics that this movie is using as a hook to get an audience. And it’s also not surprising that Mary—who manipulates a guy on a first date to go in a public restroom with her while she urinates for a pregnancy test, just so he can get her phone number—is someone who’s kind of nasty and very insecure.

It sets the tone for the relationship though: Mary is the one who comes up with the ideas that make Mark uncomfortable, and she makes him think he’s too uptight if doesn’t say yes to the ideas. She’s not bossy about it, but she’s very skilled at knowing people’s weaknesses and pushing those buttons. And she’s one of these people who gives off a conceited attitude of “I’m better than you because I’m so woke and trendy.”

It will ultimately turn a lot of viewers off from Mary, who is not a genuine free spirit who will let people be who they are. She won’t back off when Mark expresses discomfort with what she wants to do. She acts like she really won’t approve of someone and that person will make her unhappy unless they conform to what she wants at all times. And for someone like Mark, who’s obviously less experienced at dating than Mary is and desperate for someone to love him, he’s an easy target.

Case in point: When the movie fast-forwards about a year after Mark and Mary’s first date, Mark and Mary are getting married, and Mary has to be the “woke police,” even during their elopement wedding. Mark and Mary are at a cheap-looking wedding chapel in an unnamed city, where they are getting married. In another example of how this movie stumbles on realistic details, the only people at this wedding ceremony are Mark, Mary and the guy who’s marrying them. There are no other witnesses, even though witnesses other than the married couple and wedding officiator would be required to make the ceremony legal.

After Mark and Mary say their wedding vows, the wedding officiator says, “You may now kiss the bride.” Mary starts complaining and asks why that statement is male-centric because it gives the man the power to initiate the kiss. Mary begins ranting that no one ever says, “You many now kiss the groom” at wedding ceremonies where a man and woman get married. The wedding officiator says he doesn’t know the answers, but “You may now kiss the bride” is in his wedding script, and he’s just doing his job. But that answer doesn’t make Mary happy. (Almost nothing seems to make her happy, which is why Mary is so insufferable.)

Mary nags at the wedding officiator to change the wording to “You may now kiss the groom,” or else she won’t kiss Mark. Just to get this miserable shrew off of his back, the wedding officiator obliges, and probably feels relieved when these newlyweds leave so he doesn’t have to deal with her again. Mary and Mark spend their honeymoon at the Madonna Inn (a famously kitschy lodging in San Luis Obispo, California), where they take psychedelic mushrooms, with a typical mumblecore movie montage of them having drug-induced hallucinations during their honeymoon bliss.

If it was the filmmakers’ intention to make feminism look cool, the end result is just the opposite in this movie. Mary is supposed to embody modern feminism in this movie, but she’s just a pretentious brat who makes real feminists (and women in general) look bad. The only genuinely feminist thing about this movie is that it shows how women can be just as sexually active as men and shouldn’t have to make any apologies for it.

Mark isn’t going to win any Personality of the Year awards either. And he comes across as less-than-smart. After knowing that Mary is the type of person who thinks it’s unrealistic to be monogamous, and he married her anyway, he’s shocked and angry when she brings up the idea that they should have an open marriage. Did he honestly think she would suddenly want to be monogamous, just because they got married? A lot of people make this mistake of thinking a spouse will change fundamental things about their character, just because of a marriage certificate.

Mary pretentiously describes having an open relationship, or swinging, as “ethical non-monogamy.” Perhaps Mark and Mary can contact Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow (who famously called their divorce a “conscious uncoupling”) to come up with some more self-important and pompous-sounding names for relationship situations that can turn messy. And it does get messy, as it always does when couples bring other lovers into their lives.

This is the type of conversation that Mary and Mark have when Mark gets angry at Mary for suggesting that they try an open marriage. As Mark sulks, Mary says, “You’re being immature.” Mark replies, “Well, you’re being a whore.” 

Mary wonders out loud if it was the wrong time to bring up the subject of open marriage. Mark tells Mary why he’s so offended that Mary wants to have sex with other people during their marriage: “It’s not about you bringing it up. It’s that you’re thinking about it at all.” Apparently, Mark was under the delusion that Mary would change her “monogamy doesn’t work for me” mindset after they got married.

Mary has, in fact, chosen the wrong time to ask Mark to be swingers, because it’s shortly before they go to a costume party, where a furious Mark decides to show Mary that he’s going to immediately find a new lover. He gets drunk, picks up a pretty blonde named Bunny (played by Kelly Berglund), and goes back to her place. The sexual encounter is awkward because Mark starts crying out of guilt and has some “performance issues.”

At the same party, a jealous Mary sees that Mark is trying to seduce Bunny, so she picks up a willing man, and spends the night with him. That encounter is never seen in the movie, but Mary is shown waking up the next morning in a messy van and getting dressed by herself. She’s crying, with a look of regret and misery on her face.

When Mark and Mary see each other again, they burst into tears and tell each other how sorry they are for what happened. (There will be more tears later in the story.) And they decide to set the rules of this new arrangement in their marriage.

After some hemming and hawing during rules negotiations, Mark and Mary agree on some fundamental rules: (1) No sex with an ex-lover; (2) No oral sex with anyone outside the marriage; (3) Always practice safe sex; and (4) If anyone in the marriage wants to stop having an open marriage, they will stop.

Mark tells Mary that this last rule is the most important one to him. He says of this “open marriage” arrangement: “This is a trial run. This is not forever thing. This is a ‘see if we like it’ thing. And if one of us doesn’t like it, we can go back to being us.”

Easier said than done. There are a few other rule negotiations that aren’t as firmly resolved. Mark and Mary make a tentative agreement to limit their sexual ecounters with other people to four sexual encounters per person, although Mary seems to want to leave it up to negotiation in the future to increase it to five.

Mark and Mary don’t agree on how much they should tell each other about their sexual encounters outside the marriage. Mark doesn’t want to hear details (such as the names of the lovers and what kind of sex they had), while Mary says she wouldn’t mind hearing details. They agree to disagree on that subject.

When the subject of threesomes comes up, Mary refuses to consider having a threesome with Mark, unless there’s gender equality with the third partner. Mary insists that if she and Mark have a threesome with another woman, then at another time, Mark and Mary need to have a threesome with another man. Mark is very reluctant to agree to a threesome involving another man, because he says he’s not comfortable with having any type of sex with a man.

However, Mary shames Mark into thinking that he’s homophobic if he doesn’t agree to these terms. He gives in to her demands and promises her that if they have a threesome, it will be with a man and a woman on separate occasions. In this particular negotiation, Mary isn’t thinking about what will make her and Mark happy. She’s only thinking about herself and getting her way.

This type of sexual manipulation is an example of how annoying and aggressive Mary can be with her “wokeness.” She doesn’t understand that just because someone doesn’t feel like ever having sexual relations with someone of the same gender, it doesn’t automatically make that person homophobic. Mary’s view on this matter is very narrow-minded and ignorant.

It’s simple courtesy and respect among sex partners: Don’t pressure people into doing something they don’t feel comfortable doing. Mary doesn’t have a grasp of that concept when she tries to make her husband feel “old-fashioned” and “uptight” if he doesn’t agree to what she wants.

Viewers won’t feel too sorry for Mary when her plan to show “old-fashioned” and “uptight” Mark how an open relationship works ends up backfiring on her when he starts to like polyamory a little too much for her comfort level. There are some very predictable things that happen regarding pregnancy and STD concerns. And there’s the inevitable jealousy and partner mistrust that a lot of swingers think they’ll be immune to, but it’s a lifestyle hazard of being a swinger that some people are more honest about than others.

One of the ways that the movie shows that Mark and Mary aren’t entirely comfortable with this open marriage arrangement is that they almost always get drunk and/or high to have sexual encounters with other people. Mary brought up the idea of open marriage to Mark only after her band’s lead singer/guitarist Lana (played by Odessa A’zion), who is by far the most obnoxious character in the movie, called Mary a “crusty married person.” Lana made this comment during a conversation where Mary confessed to a fear of being perceived as old and boring, now that she’s married.

The implication is that Mary is so caught up in projecting an image of being a progressive hipster that she lets a stupid comment like being called “a crusty married person” affect her self-esteem. Observant viewers will see that Mary doesn’t genuinely know if she’s ready for a swinger lifestyle. And this is where the movie does have some authenticity: A lot of people don’t have their lives figured out yet in their mid-20s, and this movie isn’t trying to pass judgment. Most of the characters in this movie are in their early-to-mid-20s, which goes a long way in explaining why many of them are so emotionally immature. 

The open marriage arrangement has its ups and downs in Mark and Mary’s relationship. As time goes on, it’s pretty clear that this couple’s biggest problem is how ineffectively they communicate. They argue about things that they obviously didn’t talk about before getting married. It’s one of many examples that this couple is a train wreck.

And in one of the screenplay’s big flaws, it never gives any indication that Mary was ever interested in meeting Mark’s father or anyone else in his family, even though Mark works with his father, who presumably lives nearby. Viewers will have to assume that Mary is just too self-absorbed to bother with meeting any of Mark’s loved ones. And based on her actions throughout this entire story, that assessment is accurate.

By contrast, Mark has met the two relatives of Mary who are shown in the movie: Mary’s younger sister Tori (played by Sofia Bryant), who is the drummer in Mary’s band, and Mary’s aunt Carol (played by Lea Thompson, in a cameo), who is depicted as a cynical, eccentric, queer woman with years of experiences as a swinger. Unlike Mary, Tori is down-to-earth and isn’t caught up in trying to look like she’s the queen of the progessive hipsters. Mark admits that Carol intimidates him, but he gets along with Tori just fine.

Tori and Mary briefly discuss their mother in one scene that gives no insight into how long their mother has been dead or her cause of death. It’s hinted that their mother was also a progressive liberal, but Tori and Mary believe that their mother probably would have hated Mark and his unflattering moustache. Maybe this conversation is this movie’s way of saying that even Mary and Tori’s dead mother would know what a mistake it was for Mark and Mary to get married.

Tori and Mary are such a part of each other’s small social circle that Tori ends up dating one of Mark’s two best friends who are shown in the movie. Tori’s boyfriend is AJ (played by Matt Shively), who’s kind of a stereotypical meathead. AJ identifies as straight. Mark’s other best friend is Kyle (played by Nik Dodani), who’s kind of a stereotypical sassy queer guy. Kyle identifies as bisexual. And apparently, Mary’s social circle consists of her husband, her band and her husband’s two best friends.

And that’s why Mark and Mary use a dating app called Crush’d to meet potential new sex partners. They even take photos of each other for their online profile pics, in a photo session montage that’s supposed to make Mark and Mary look adorable. It comes across as trying too hard.

Mark suggests this photo session after he’s alarmed to see the original profile pic that Mary wanted for herself: Mary licking a large knife that appears to have blood on it. Mary thinks she looks hot and unique in that pose. Lindsay Lohan did that whole “look at me, I’m licking a large knife” gimmick back in 2007. Get over yourself.

For a comedy film about a married couple navigating a swinger lifestyle, it’s somewhat ironic that the funniest scenes in the movie aren’t even about Mark and Mary as a couple. Some of the best comedic scenes in the movie are with AJ and Kyle, as they have bickering banter when they’re by themselves. Sometimes AJ and Kyle act more like a married couple than Mark and Mary do.

Fair warning to anyone who hates hearing the derogatory slur that’s used the most against gay/queer men: There’s a scene where Kyle says that “f” word several times, and he says he’s allowed because he’s part of the LGBTQ community. It’s not the best scene between AJ and Kyle. And frankly, hearing that word used so gratiutously is not funny. There are other scenes with AJ and Kyle that are much better-written and should get big laughs. 

Someone who’s a lot less endearing is Lana, who identifies as queer and has the maturity of a 12-year-old. There’s a scene that’s a comedic dud where Lana gets into an argument with a next-door neighbor named Chris (played by Joe Lo Truglio), who’s upset because the band is rehearsing too loudly. It’s a valid complaint, especially since this band is terrible. Instead of being reasonable about it, Lana just shouts, “Fuck you!” It turns into a shouting match where Chris and Lana yell “Fuck you” back and forth for way too long. It’s tedious and lazy screenwriting.

The movie is divided into chapters introduced by cutesy and colorful graphics that look like something from a 1990s mumblecore movie that was influenced by the 1970s. It’s all so self-consciously twee. But it’s overly staged when so much of this movie is just gutter-mouthed and raunchy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be romantic and vulgar, but not many films can successfully achieve a balance of being both.

Gillian Jacobs has a cameo, as Mary’s gynecologist Dr. Jacobs, that’s also amusing, but a little one-note in the gag. The sex partners/dates whom Mark and Mary meet on the dating app aren’t given enough screen time to show any real personalities, except for the movie’s final scene that involves two people named Alexandra (played by Haley Ramm) and Aaron (played by Pete Williams). Most of the movie is about the neurotic reactions of Mark and Mary when they find out that having a swinger lifestyle creates more chaos in their marriage than they thought it would.

The movie also falls into the same predictable tropes of swinger sex comedies about a man and a woman who decide to have an open relationship: Any queerness almost always has to be from the woman, so the man can get his girl-on-girl sexual needs fulfilled. But when it comes to the man possibly being queer or willing to have a sexual experience with a man, there’s a lot of cringing and hesitation from the man about having sexual relations with another man.

“Mark, Mary & Some Other People” follows this trope too, although one mid-credits scene is a half-hearted and very tame attempt to distance the movie from that trope. Let’s put it this way: The movie spends a lot more screen time making it clear that Mary has sex with other women, while making it very ambiguous if Mark actually goes through with his promise to have sex with a man during a threesome.

People who’ve watched enough of these types of movies can see that the filmmakers seem afraid of alienating the privileged, cisgender, heterosexual male audience that they want to attract to give this movie “indie cred” praise. And that’s why there’s no actual sex between men that’s depicted in the movie. However, the movie’s “woke” characters, such as Mary, sure love to vilify cisgender, heterosexual men as society’s biggest “oppressors.”

Rosenfield and Law show some very good comedic timing in their roles as Mark and Mary. It’s too bad that their characters are such a horrendous mismatch of personalities, it’s kind of repugnant to watch Mark and Mary’s imcompatibility. It also gets tedious to watch two people in a marriage when their relationship becomes a competition to see who can outdo each other in being the more sexually adventurous partner. 

Except for sexual attraction, there’s not much that Mark and Mary see in each other, because they sure don’t talk about anything substantial that shows they’re in this marriage for the long haul. Mary is hard to take with her politically correct preaching over the most trivial of things. Mark is just a hypocritical whiner who lacks common sense. Anyone who thinks that Mark and Mary are a great couple probably has a distorted view of what a healthy relationship is.

Here’s an example of how Mark and Mary are terrible at communicating: There’s a scene where, after Mark and Mary have agreed to have an open marriage, Mark notices that the bedsheet on their bed has been stained with sexual activity from Mary and an unknown lover. He rips the sheet off in disgust, as if he’s shocked that Mary could possibly have sex with someone else in their bed. 

It turns out that in their first time doing “ethical non-monogamy” rule negotiations, Mark and Mary never discussed where they would be allowed to have sex with other people. And this is after Mark said he didn’t want to know the details of Mary’s sexual encounters outside the marriage. If he had any common sense, it should have led to him to say that they couldn’t bring any lovers to their home, because of the very real likelihood that he’d see things he doesn’t want to see.

Mark finding the stained bedsheet was really just a means to create another cutesy titled chapter about Part 2 of Mark and Mary’s rules negotiations. Yes, Mark and Mary are young, but they’re not children. However, watching “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” feels like you’re watching people who are stuck in a selfish teenage mentality and who are pretending to be emotionally mature adults. No thank you.

Vertical Entertainment will release “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on November 5, 2021.

Review: ‘Our Ladies,’ starring Tallulah Greive, Abigail Lawrie, Sally Messham, Rona Morison and Marli Siu

June 20, 2021

by Carla Hay

Marli Siu, Sally Messham, Rona Morison, Tallulah Greive and Abigail Lawrie in “Our Ladies” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing International)

“Our Ladies”

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1996 in Scotland (primarily in Edinburgh), the comedy/drama “Our Ladies” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Five rebellious teenage girls, who’ve gone to Edinburgh with their Catholic school choir for a singing competition, decide to have a wild day and night out in search of partying and sex. 

Culture Audience: “Our Ladies” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in female-centric coming-of-age films with good acting, despite some elements of the movie that are annoying or not very genuine.

Marli Siu, Tallulah Greive, Sally Messham, Abigail Lawrie, Rona Morison and Eve Austin in “Our Ladies” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing International)

“Our Ladies” comes across as a movie version of what men think naughty Catholic school girls should be like. The talented performances by the movie’s principal cast members elevate a story that ignores key elements of what it’s like to be a female teenager who’s coming of age. “Our Ladies” is the type of dramedy that men will probably enjoy more than women, because women are more likely to notice what’s missing in this movie about five rebellious teenage girlfriends who are part of a Catholic school choir. “Our Ladies” is entertaining overall, but it doesn’t ring true when it blatantly omits certain details and nuances of female friendships.

Written and directed by Michael Caton-Jones (who adapted the screenplay from Alan Warner’s 1998 novel “The Sopranos”), the “Our Ladies” movie takes place over less than a week in 1996. In this movie, the five pals are in their last year at the all-girls Our Lady of Perpetual Succour High School, which is in an unnamed suburban city in Scotland, but the school is in West Highland Council. The five teens are restless and only see their choir trip to Edinburgh as a way to sneak off and indulge in non-stop partying on the day and night before a major choir competition.

The movie has the added element of a main character speaking as a hindsight voiceover narrator, years after this story takes place. That narrator is Orla (played Tallulah Greive), one of the five female friends who are the center of the story. Viewers know that Orla is looking back on this particular time in her life, because she wistfully says in the movie’s opening narration that 1996 was “a different time then, before social media and mobile phones changed everything forever.”

The movie then shows Orla with her four other pals in 1996. All five of them are dressed in identical, long white dresses that look like nightgowns, as they stand together, looking out at a dreamy Scottish landscape. It’s an obvious fantasy image to make them look “pure” that’s meant to contrast with the not-so-pure shenanigans they get up to later in the movie.

Unfortunately, this movie’s filmmakers seem to have a very selective memory of what teenage life was like in the 1990s. The Internet existed in 1996, but it wasn’t as widely used as it is today. However, computers were common in many households. Email and instant messaging chat rooms were definitely big parts of modern culture in 1996 and were popular with teenagers. But in the “Our Ladies” movie, that type of communication technology isn’t even discussed. It’s as if this movie takes place in 1986, not 1996.

Orla’s “voice from the future” narration is unnecessary and a bit pretentious because, except for the lack of cell phones and lack of Internet use, there’s absolutely nothing in this movie that looks like it could only be experienced by teenagers in the 1990s. The concerns that this movie’s teen characters have are universal concerns that seem to be timeless among many teens: having fun with friends, partying and having sex. We’ve already seen these types of teen movies from many different eras and cultures.

Who are the five pals who are the focus of this movie?

  • Orla, the voiceover narrator, is recovering from leukemia. Orla is self-conscious about her close-cropped hair from cancer treatments, so she wears a red do-rag on her head for most of the movie. She also feels insecure about having to wear a mouth retainer (which she takes off when she wants to feel sexy) and she’s embarrassed about being the only virgin in her circle of friends.
  • Finnoula (played by Abigail Lawrie) is the tallest and bossiest member of the group. When Finnoula doesn’t like someone, she can be a bully. She’s also got an independent streak where she doesn’t want to have a predictable life that many of her peers have of getting married and becoming parents soon after high school.
  • Manda (played by Sally Messham) is a foul-mouthed and blunt jokester who is Finnoula’s closest friend because they’ve known each other the longest. Manda’s personality can best be described as a teenage Scottish version of comedian Amy Schumer: Some people adore her, while others think she’s very annoying.
  • Chell (played by Rona Morison) is the most sexually experienced of the group. She’s the one who’s most likely to give sex advice to her friends.
  • Kyla (played by Marli Siu) is the most talented singer on the school choir. She has dreams of being a rock star and is getting experience as the lead vocalist for a local teenage band.

All five of these friends come from working-class backgrounds, which is something that Finnoula seems to resent the most. She wants to make a life for herself that’s usually accessed by more privileged people with connections and resources that people from elite social classes often take for granted. Finnoula openly expresses envy of people she thinks have more advantages that were handed to them, just because they were born into certain families.

It’s a big contrast to Manda, who’s perfectly content with staying working-class. Her biggest goal in life is to find a man with a job, get married young, and start having children as soon as possible. That doesn’t mean she’ll lose her hellraiser ways, because she mentions at one point in the movie that being married doesn’t mean that she has to be monogamous.

Orla is the nicest and most bashful out of the five friends, but she can succumb to peer pressure so that she’ll fit in when the other friends want to be rude and selfish. Because of her experience with cancer, Orla wants to experience life as much as she can because she doesn’t know how much longer she might have to live. Her immediate goal is to lose her virginity. There’s an early scene in the movie where Orla looks into a mirror and says mournfully that she doesn’t want to be a virgin for the rest of her life.

Chell is very mischievous and fun-loving, but she has a tragedy from her past that probably explains why she’s promiscuous. As Orla says in a voiceover, after Chell’s father drowned at sea, Chell “went daft for a while.” The movie then cuts to a scene of Chell grabbing a guy on a school bus and kissing him, which implies that she’s using casual sex as a way to cope with her grief.

Kyla has a very specific vision for the type of entertainer she wants to be. She is growing increasingly impatient with the other members of her band because she thinks they might be too amateurish for her. By the end of this movie, Kyla will have made a decision on whether to stick with her band or quit.

Although “Our Ladies” is about how close these five female friends are, what doesn’t ring true is how they never talk about their family members during the entire movie. Not once is it mentioned if these teens have siblings or parents, except for the mention about Chell’s father dying. In an early part of the movie, narrator Orla says about herself and her gal pals: “We had one thing on our minds: boys.”

It’s the part of the movie that’s very fake, because of course there’s more to teenage girls than being boy-crazy. Making teenage girls into aspiring nymphomaniacs just seems like a very narrow-minded stereotype that a male writer/director would put a lot of emphasis on in a movie, compared to a female writer/director, who would be more likely to have realistic and well-rounded aspects of these female teenage friendships.

In “Our Ladies,” the main characters are female, but they depend on male approval to boost their self-esteem, because almost everything they do to “rebel” is to get the sexual attention of men. Almost. There’s a bi-curious subplot that’s filmed exactly how a man would film scenes of two horny Catholic school girls who are sexually attracted to each other.

There’s a concerted effort in the movie to not have authority figures as a prominent part of the story, which is understandable, considering the hijinks these teens get up to during the course of the movie. But it does a disservice to the five main characters to make it look like they live in an unrealistic bubble where they don’t even care to talk about their families. Even teenage girls with the worst families talk about their families with their closest friends.

And although these teenagers are rebellious and have no plans to go to a university, it also seems very unrealistic that Kyla is the only one who is shown to have talent or a passion for something (singing) that she wants to turn into a career. Don’t any of these four other friends have any hobbies besides getting drunk, looking for sex partners, and being on the school choir? Apparently not.

Kyla is also the only one in the clique who has a real paying job. She currently works at a dead-end cashier job at a place called Fort William’s Music Store, so that she can get employee discounts on CDs and other items in the store. And how she got that job is one of the more bizarre aspects of this story, which has a semi-obsession with teenage pregnancy.

As Orla explains in a voiceover and as it’s shown in a flashback, Kyla knew another teenage girl who worked as a cashier at the store, and Kyla wanted that job. And so, instead of applying to work there like a sensible person would, Kyla concocted a very convoluted and manipulative plan to get that job. Kyla befriended the girl, who was a naïve virgin, and started telling her about the joys of sex, but never talking about birth control.

Kyla did this with the assumption that this girl would start having unprotected sex, have an unplanned pregnancy, and would have to quit her job at Fort William’s Music Store due to the pregnancy. And sure enough, that’s what happened, and Kyla got the job to replace her. There’s a scene of the girl sobbing to Kyla about her unplanned pregnancy, and Kyla asking, with a smirk on her face, what’s going to happen to this girl’s job when she’s on maternity leave. No one said that all five of these friends are likable.

There are so many things wrong with this part of the movie, not the least of which is that it’s the closest thing to a “backstory” that the movie is willing to give Kyla. Really? The only thing you’re going to show about Kyla’s past is some dirty backstabbing that she did for a menial job?

And her scheme was not very smart, because there were different variables that could have led to different outcomes. What if the girl who got pregnant decided to have an abortion and didn’t need to quit her job? What if she never got pregnant? And what kind of person thinks that waiting for someone to get pregnant, with the hope that the pregnant person will quit a job, is the best and fastest way to get that job? Despicable.

It’s one of several references to teen pregnancy that the movie makes, with each reference never mentioning birth control. These teens have easy access to birth control. They just don’t seem to care to use it. This lack of concern about birth control is a reflection of two different cultures depicted in the movie: a working-class culture where teen pregnancies are not unusual and a strict Catholic-school culture where it’s taught that unwed sex is sinful and use of birth control is not endorsed by the Vatican.

Although the five main characters go to a Catholic school, most of “Our Ladies” takes place when the school’s choir travels to the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, to compete in a national competition. The choir leader is a stereotypical strict, uptight middle-aged nun named Sister Condron (played by Kate Dickie), whom the five pals secretly call Sister Condom because the nun is very much against pre-marital sex. She warns the students about being around men who will “use and discard girls like you.”

Before the five friends go on the school bus trip to Edinburgh, there are multiple scenes where they talk about their sex lives and sex fantasies. Kyla has been sleeping with Dickie Dickerson (played by Alex Hope), a guitarist in her band. Finnoula has had sex with him too. Manda just wants to get drunk and get laid, preferably by a good-looking guy with a job.

Chell starts giving details about what sex with bondage is like. And that leads Orla to confess that she has a fantasy about having sex while tied to a tree and being lightly whipped with rosary beads. You know where all of this is headed, of course. Orla wouldn’t be the narrator of this sex-oriented movie if she didn’t lose her virginity and didn’t have her fantasy fulfilled.

In case it isn’t made clear enough how much sex is on the minds of these five teens, they pull some harmless juvenile pranks on the bus trip to Edinburgh. They have hand-made paper signs that they display through the bus windows, to get the attention of men driving in cars next to the bus. The signs say things like “Shag Me,” “Snog Me,” “Shag Her” and “She Loves the Bondage,” which is a sign that they put above the head of a sleeping Sister Condron.

It isn’t all lighthearted joking around on the bus though. Clique leader Finnoula shows her “mean girl” side when a fellow choir member named Kay (played by Eve Austin) tries to sit near the five friends and join in on their conversation. Finnoula refuses to let Kay sit near them and insults her because she thinks that Kay (who is the daughter of wealthy doctor) is a spoiled rich girl. Feeling humiliated and rejected, Kay sheepishly walks away and sits next to another choir member, who notices that Kay looks sad, and has the decency to treat Kay with respect. It’s later revealed in the movie that Finnoula’s seeming animosity toward Kay is a façade to hide Finnoula’s attraction to Kay.

“Our Ladies” is built on the faulty concept that a strict Catholic high school choir in a national competition wouldn’t have the choir members on a very regimented schedule where it would be nearly impossible to sneak off unnoticed the day and night before the event. Anyone who knows what national choir events/competitions are like knows that the choirs have to spend a lot of time rehearsing the day and/or night before the event. And so, it’s a huge stretch of credibility that the teens of “Our Ladies” gallivant around Edinburgh as if they’re on some sort of holiday.

Most of what happens in the movie happens during the day and night before the big choir competition. The teens’ plans for debauchery get set into motion during the day, when they go shopping for clothes that they think will make them look sexy. These are the clothes that they will wear when they go partying at pubs and nightclubs. They choose outfits that, to put it kindly, would give many people the wrong impression that these are borderline/barely legal teens who might charge money for dates.

That’s not to say that these five pals (who are about 17 or 18, based on conversations in the movie) should not choose whatever they want to wear. But the movie’s costume design choices (which are ultimately the director’s choices) are indicative of this leering “male gaze” tone that permeates throughout the film. The impression viewers will get is that the director didn’t just want to make these Catholic school girls look like sexually adventurous free spirits. He wanted them to dress like hookers for most of the movie.

And these teens have no shortage of arrogance. At a restaurant/pub, they promptly order a round of drinks at their table and set some of the drinks on fire. A waiter politely approaches them and says that the manager has asked them not to light fires at the table, for their own safety. They all take turns taunting this unlucky employee to his face, by making sexually derogatory comments, speculating about his sexual prowess, and saying things like, “He’d be lucky to shag us.” Finnoula then coldly and haughtily tells the waiter that they paid for the drinks and they can do whatever the hell they want.

This is not “female empowerment.” This is inexcusable sexual harassment and causing a fire hazard, but the movie makes it look like some girls just wanting to have some fun. Imagine the outrage if the genders were reversed and the same things were said under the same circumstances. Bad customers who act this way deserve to be thrown out, but the movie wants people to think that because teenage girls are saying and doing these awful things, it’s supposed to be cute and hilarious. It’s one of the irritating things about this movie, because it’s so enamored with the “naughty Catholic school girl” theme that it tries to make people think that a boorish scene like that is funny, when it’s actually cringeworthy.

It’s very misguided when filmmakers try to make an entire movie look like it’s feminist-friendly, when it’s really just a movie about females behaving badly and getting away with it. It’s as if the filmmakers are saying that being a feminist means that you have to be unnecessarily disrespectful to people who’ve done nothing wrong to you. With the exception of Orla, all of the teen friends in “Our Ladies” don’t have much charm. They’re mostly selfish and bratty.

That’s not to say that other comedic and dramatic elements of the movie don’t work well, but that’s largely due to the talent of the movie’s cast members whose performances are the main reasons why this movie watchable. No one is saying that teens have to be portrayed as perfect, because personality perfection is unrealistic. But the way that “Our Ladies” was made, it just portrays these teenage female friends as so fixated on their pursuit of intoxication and sex that it almost renders them as two-dimensional characters.

Viewers will get the impression that “Our Ladies” director Caton-Jones exploited the “naughty Catholic school girls” theme for this movie, without giving much thought to the fact that teenage girls have other aspirations and dreams besides sex. Female teenage friendships aren’t just talking about partying and getting laid. Teenagers don’t need to be interested in a university education to have thoughts or ideas on what they want to do with their lives after high school. Except for Kyla’s dreams of becoming a rock star and Manda’s goal to marry a man with job, it’s not even mentioned what the other friends have in mind on how they want to spend their time after high school.

Some of the scenes aren’t very well-written. For example, in the last third of the film, it’s revealed whether or not Sister Condron finds out that the five friends have sneaked off to party in Edinburgh. The five pals know they could be expelled if they’re found out, but they don’t seem to care. The movie never explains why they would risk being expelled when they’re so close to graduating—all for some cheap thrills in Edinburgh. Why should audiences root for people this shallow?

A less problematic scene but one that still raises questions is where Kyla, Manda, Orla and Chell go pub crawling, they arrive at a pub, but Orla and Chell are refused entry because they look underage. (The minimum legal age to drink alcohol in the United Kingdom is 18.) Orla and Chell act irritated and insulted, but they show no proof of their age, and neither do Kyla and Manda, who go in the pub without Orla and Chell. Why don’t any of them have IDs, either real or fake, if they intended to go to various pubs and nightclubs? It’s never explained in the movie.

Finnoula has decided to go off and do her own exploring of Edinburgh, which is why she’s apart from her friends for most of the partying scenes. While she’s at a pub by herself, guess who just happens to be there too? Kay, the choir member whom Finnoula insulted on the bus.

Finnoula and Kay start talking, make a tentative truce, have some drinks together, and find out they have something in common: They both had sex with Dickie, the guitarist in Kyla’s band. (He sure gets around.)

Not only did Kay sleep with Dickie, the encounter was also a threesome with a local young woman named Catriona (played by Megan Shandley), who appears to be in her late teens or early 20s. Finnoula admits to Kay that she’s jealous that Kay got to experience a threesome because, as Finnoula says, “I’ve always wanted to try it with a girl.”

In Kay and Finnoula’s conversation, it’s hinted that because of the large percentage of women in the pub, it’s probably a lesbian/queer-friendly pub. It’s easy to speculate that might have been the reason why bi-curious Finnoula wanted to check out this pub without her friends being there too. Kay seems to be more comfortable with admitting that she’s somewhere on the queer spectrum, while Finnoula is a lot more hesitant or insecure about saying out loud what she thinks her sexual identity might be.

As Kay and Finnoula drink some more, Finnoula predictably begins to look at Kay longingly. And then (as what usually happens in a movie about teenagers who get drunk), there’s the inevitable vomit scene. Kay throws up, and it’s not just because she’s drunk. Kay makes another confession that comes as no surprise, considering that people in this movie seem to have total disregard for birth control.

A realistic part of the movie is how easily these teens are picked up by older men. During their pub crawling, Orla, Chell, Manda and Kyla meet three male friends who are about 10 to 15 years older than the teens. Their leader (played by Stuart Martin) is cocky and aggressive in his approach. His best friend Bobby (played by Jack Grenlees) is a recent divorcé who’s still trying to get over the end of his marriage. Quiet and shy Danny (played by Chris Fulton) just seems to be tagging along with no real interest in hooking up with anyone. Danny ends up doing something that becomes a major turning point in the story.

At first, the teens act like they won’t give these men the time of day. Manda is particularly rude with her rejection. But the drunker the teens get and with the lure of free alcohol at a house party, it’s not surprising that Chell, Manda, Kyla and the men end up at Bobby’s apartment at one point in the movie. Orla isn’t there because she’s spending time with a potential boyfriend named Stephen (played by Martin Quinn), while Finnoula is spending time with Kay.

The “party” at Bobby’s place is one of the movie’s more comedic scenes, because the teens find out that going home with these older men is not quite the fun experience that the teens were expecting. Bobby begins watching his wedding video and sobs like a heartbroken child, which dampens the festive mood considerably but cracks the image that he wanted to project of being a smooth ladies’ man. Bobby locks himself in the apartment’s only bathroom to have a crying fit. Chell desperately needs to urinate, but Bobby ignores her pleas to let her use the toilet.

And so, Chell decides to urinate in Bobby’s kitchen sink that’s filled with dirty dishes. She says out loud that the dishes were going to be cleaned later anyway. As she’s urinating, Manda teases Chell by calling out to Bobby and telling him that he needs to come into the kitchen to see something, with the hope that Bobby will catch Chell in the act. Later, the alpha male of this trio tries to impress the girls by doing a naked headstand (yes, there’s full-frontal male nudity here), which ends up being a painful but amusing misfire.

Amid all of the raunchy scenes in “Our Ladies,” the move takes a clumsy tonal shift by having Kyla break into song during a scene montage, as if this movie is suddenly a musical. It seems weird and out-of-place, as if something out of “Glee” was dropped into this movie. There’s also a cheerful musical montage scene toward the end where the characters sing along to Big Country’s 1983 hit “In a Big Country.” If anything, that song will stick in your head long after seeing this movie.

“Our Ladies” might also make people laugh at what these teens think is “edgy” partying—going to some dingy karaoke bars populated by a lot of dorky people who can’t dance well. It’s at one of these karaoke places that Orla sees a guy, who’s maybe a year or two older than she is, doing karaoke on stage. It’s an “attraction at first sight” scene, complete with Orla walking in slow-motion while she stares at him with googly eyes. It’s at this point that you know she’s going to want this guy to be the one to take her virginity. And when he finishes his karaoke performance, Orla claps and cheers so loudly that her friends notice that she’s got her sights set on him.

The guy who caught Orla’s eye is Stephen, who eventually meets Orla on the dance floor. He’s sweet and nerdy, which seems to be exactly what Orla wants. In their “meet cute” moment, Stephen says that he has eyeglasses that’s he’s self-conscious about wearing. Orla says she has a mouth retainer that she’s self-conscious about wearing. They both agree to put on these items of respective embarrassment at the same time, right there on the dance floor. When they do, they look at each other like, “Oh, now I see the real you.” Yes, it’s that kind of scene.

Orla, Kyla, Chell and Manda also get up on stage to have their karaoke moment. They sing “Tainted Love” together, with Kyla predictably having a solo turn in the song. It’s another moment that seems like it was thrown in the movie to give the movie a cutesy sheen to soften some of the harshness all of these teens’ raw talk about bondage and about treating guys like sex toys.

“Our Ladies” often has an awkward mismatch of crassness and corniness. As vulgar as the crassness is, it’s a lot more realistic than the corniness. Nowhere is this mismatch more evident than a sequence where three members of the clique are having sex at the same time in three different places. The other two members of the clique set off fireworks as a prank, not knowing at that exact moment that one of their friends sees the fireworks while having an orgasm. Later, this friend finds out it was two of her friends who were behind the reason why she saw fireworks during sex. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

And there are random things in the movie that are hit or miss, depending on what someone thinks is funny. One example is an off-the-wall cameo from David Hasselhoff as himself, during the movie’s end credits. It has to do with one of the teen friends meeting Hasselhoff in 1996, but the Hasselhoff in this movie looks like Hasselhoff in 2018 (which was when this movie was filmed), with no de-aging visual effects for Hasselhoff. Make of that what you will about this filmmaker choice to put Hasselhoff in the movie in such an out-of-left-field way.

So what does this movie get right? There are several less-dramatic moments that ring very true and are great representations of authentic female friendships: The shopping scenes look very genuine and relatable. In one of these scenes, a few snobby young women stare at Orla and make catty remarks to her, to try to make her feel uncomfortable because of her do-rag, but Orla’s friends react with a fiery and commendable verbal defense. The scenes where the teen friends do their hair and makeup together are joyful and authentic, even if we’ve seen these type of “let’s get ready for a girls’ night out” scenes many times before in other movies.

There are also scenes where the teens check out potential dates/sex partners and make comments that women definitely say amongst themselves in similar scenarios. And there are scenes where even these rebels sometimes show some boundaries, such as a scene where a very drunk Manda tries to coax Chell or Kyla into doing a threesome with her and one of the older men who picked them up at a nightclub. However, Chell and Kyla decline because they don’t want to be pressured into something that they don’t want to do.

And most of all, the five actresses who portray these five friends have believable chemistry together, even if some of the scenarios and dialogue written for them miss the mark. Greive and Lawrie stand out the most for two different reasons: Grieve’s Orla is the most transparent, while Lawrie’s Finnoula is the most complicated. Messham’s Manda is a “love her or hate her” loudmouth, while Siu’s Kayla is a talented singer but very difficult to like.

Morison’s Chell is perhaps the most underdeveloped character. The movie should have had more exploration of how her father’s death impacted Chell and her family. And unfortunately, Orla’s leukemia is used as a superficial plot device. In fact, the movie needed more context for why these five teens are so rebellious. Viewers with enough life experience know that Sister Condron—who’s in the movie for less than 15 minutes, but is still portrayed as the story’s chief antagonist—isn’t the real reason why these teens are acting out in this way.

There’s a lot of anger and mean-spiritedness behind the worst things that these teens do in the movie, but viewers will get no meaningful answers on the reasons for this anger. Chell’s grief over her father’s death is the only thing that the movie offers as very brief speculation for Chell’s rebellion. Everyone else’s family background is a blank void in this movie. And there’s no real sense of how long these five friends have been this rebellious.

These five friends are not evil people, but the movie often presents them as quite hollow. And as far as teen rebel movies go, “Our Ladies” can be an entertaining and sometimes amusing diversion, but it’s not substantial enough to be a classic. The classic teen rebel movies that resonate with people the most are the ones where people see that the teen rebels have a lot more going on in their lives than whatever acts of rebellion that they’re committing.

Sony Pictures Releasing International released “Our Ladies” in select U.S. cinemas on June 18, 2021. The movie’s release in the United Kingdom and Ireland is on August 27, 2021.

Nordstrom provides grant to the Trans Lifeline x FOLX Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) Care Fund

May 17, 2021

The following is a press release from Nordstrom:

As part of Pride month, Nordstrom announced today it will be providing a grant to the Trans Lifeline x FOLX Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) Care Fund, to support transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming individuals. For anyone struggling to access hormone care, this fund will underwrite their choice of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) care through FOLX, with 75% of funds reserved for Black and Indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC)

Additionally, Trans Lifeline is the giveback partner for our BP. Be Proud brand with 10% of net sales being donated towards the peer support and crisis hotline, and microgrants providing financial resources directly to transgender people across the U.S. and Canada. Between these efforts, Nordstrom hopes to give $350,000 in support of the Transgender community.

“We’ve long believed that we’re all made better by the diversity that exists both within our communities and our workforce. Our values are centered on the notion of creating a place where every customer and employee is welcome, respected, appreciated and able to be their authentic selves,” said Farrell Redwine, senior vice president of human resources, Nordstrom, Inc. “This year, we are honored to partner with Trans Lifeline to extend those values and support the transgender community in accessing resources that make their lives easier.” 

“Trans Lifeline is thrilled to be partnering with Nordstrom to invest in the transformational power of peer support and redistribute resources to trans people,” said Bri Barnett, director of advancement, Trans Lifeline. “This historic gift will be instrumental in helping us answer over 25,000 calls this year and it will also provide 100 people with a year of life saving medical care.”

Nordstrom will also be highlighting brands founded or designed by the LGBTQ+ community. It is Nordstrom’s priority to support the community year-round by offering a dynamic assortment of products and experiences, including:

The BP. Be Proud collection features a range of silhouettes for people of all gender expressions. The lead designer for this collection is queer and we engaged different members from the LGBTQ+ community to provide insight on what they see as missing from the current apparel landscape. Sizes range from XXS – 4X and prices range from $25 – $59.

MANTL, co-founded by Karamo Brown – the best-selling author, producer and Emmy-nominated host on Netflix’s Emmy-winning series Queer Eye – will be available at Nordstrom. Karamo created the skincare line for both the face and scalp after going through his own balding journey, with the mission to empower the bald and balding to live their fullest lives comfortably and confidently.

Packaged in pink and conceived beyond the gender binary, Boy Smells makes loving your identity a daily ritual. Co-founders and real-life partners Matthew Herman and David Kien created Boy Smells as items they’d want to use on a daily basis and products that were fluid and essential.

Leeway Home launched in March 2021 and is launching on in May. Leeway Home celebrates everyone at every stage of life and offers products to fit them. Founded by partners Sam Dumas and Lyle Maltz, they’ve leaned into the way real people live and offer everything you need to set your table your way. 

Leeway Home (Photo courtesy of Nordstrom)

Nordstrom is kicking off an ongoing partnership with The Phluid Project with an exclusive Pride capsule featuring gender-free accessories including hats, bags and socks starting at $12, launching at the end of May. The Phluid Project launched in March 2018 in NYC and online as a gender free fashion brand and is known for breaking the binary. The Phluid Project joined a movement of humans committed to challenging the ethos of traditions of the past that inhibit freedom and self-expression.

Year-round, Nordstrom provides grants and funding to LGBTQIA+ organizations like the Hetrick-Martin InstitutePride Foundation God’s Love We DeliverHuman Rights Campaign and more.

Nordstrom’s celebration of Pride Month and support of the LGBTQIA+ community are a part of the company’s broader efforts and commitments to diversity, inclusion and belonging (DIB). The company recently set goals to guide its DIB efforts and reports annually on its progress. To learn more about the company’s DIB strategy, goals and programs visit


Nordstrom, Inc. is a leading fashion retailer based in the U.S. Founded in 1901 as a shoe store in Seattle, today Nordstrom operates 357 stores in the U.S. and Canada, including 100 Nordstrom stores; 248 Nordstrom Rack stores; two clearances stores; and seven Nordstrom Local service hubs. Additionally, customers are served online through and Nordstrom, Inc.’s common stock is publicly traded on the NYSE under the symbol JWN.


Trans Lifeline connects trans people to the community, resources, and support they need to survive and thrive–building a resilient trans community through trans-led direct services. Trans Lifeline’s Hotline provides peer support and crisis support, and their Microgrants program provides low-barrier grants to trans people in need of legal name changes and updated IDs, HRT, and funds for incarcerated trans people.


Launched in December 2020, FOLX Health is an LGBTQIA+ healthcare service provider built to serve the community’s specific needs. The company delivers a new standard of healthcare that’s built to serve LGBTQIA+ people, rather than treat them as problems to be solved. For more information, visit

Review: ‘Moffie,’ starring Kai Luke Brummer, Ryan de Villiers, Matthew Vey, Stefan Vermaak and Hilton Pelser

April 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kai Luke Brummer and Ryan de Villiers in “Moffie” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)


Directed by Oliver Hermanus

English, Dutch and Afrikaans with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1981 to 1983 in South Africa, the dramatic film “Moffie” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) who are mostly in or connected to South African’s military.

Culture Clash: A closeted gay teenager in the South African army hides is sexuality from everyone except for a fellow soldier who forms an emotional connection with him.

Culture Audience: “Moffie” will appeal primarily to people interested in raw and sometimes hard-to-watch stories about apartheid-era South African culture and stories about closeted LGBTQ people.

Kai Luke Brummer in “Moffie” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Moffie” unflinchingly but sometimes unevenly tells a story that’s rarely been told in a movie: What it was like to be a closeted gay white male teenage soldier in 1980s South Africa, where homosexuality was illegal at the time. The movie is an often-brutal portrayal of hatred, fear and violent bullying.

Therefore, people should know before watching “Moffie” that it’s a very triggering film for anyone who’s likely to have negative mental-health reactions to seeing these issues portrayed on screen. For people who can handle the harsh realities presented in the movie, “Moffie” might still be a hard film to watch, but its intention is to not gloss over the damage caused by homophobia and other bigotry.

Directed by South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus, “Moffie” is based on André-Carl van der Merwe’s 2006 novel of the same title. The novel was inspired by van der Merwe’s own experiences as a closeted gay member of the South African military in the 1980s. “Moffie” director Hermanus and Jack Sidey co-wrote the adapted screenplay.

The word “moffie” is a derogatory Afrikaans term for a gay male. In the production notes for “Moffie,” Hermanus (who is openly gay) explains why he chose to keep this title for the movie: “Any gay man living in South Africa knows this word and has a relationship with it. It’s a weapon that has been used against us for so long. I felt a strong pull to exploring my own history with this word which ended up being a scene in the film and I think it was the want to denuclearize, reform this word that was at the heart of my decision to make this film.”

The story’s main character is Nicholas van der Swart (played by Kai Luke Brummer), a sensitive and kind 18-year-old who comes from a loving home in an unnamed South African city. Nicholas lives with his parents Peet van der Swart (played by Remano De Beer) and Suzie van der Swart (played by Barbara-Marié Immelman), who are very proud of their only child. However, Nicholas has a big secret that he hasn’t told anyone out of fear: He’s gay.

The story takes place from 1981 to 1983, during South Africa’s apartheid years, when the white citizens who were in the minority were in government power and made it legal to discriminate against anyone in South Africa was wasn’t white. Racial segregation was legal in South Africa in this apartheid era. During this time in the early 1980s, the South African military began operations to fight against Angola at the Angolan/South African border.

Angola was backed by the Soviet Union, and South Africa’s military attacks were ostensibly to fight against Communism. However, South Africa’s military operations in these Angolan conflicts were also used as excuses to slaughter innocent black people. In South Africa during this time, any white male over the age of 16 was required to serve in the military for at least two years.

The beginning of the film shows Nicholas and his family having a send-off party for him. During the party, Nicholas’ father Peet takes him aside and gives Nicholas a nudie magazine. Peet smirks as he tells his son that the magazine will help Nicholas get through the long stretches of time in the military when Nicholas won’t be in contact with any women. Nicholas takes the magazine and pretends to be pleased with this gift, even though he knows deep down he’s not going to use it in the way his father intended.

“Moffie” doesn’t get into specifics about how Nicholas personally felt about apartheid. He tends to be quiet and doesn’t express any political views during the story. When he sees racism firsthand, Nicholas does nothing to stop it.

For example, there’s a scene where some fellow army recruits harass and humiliate an elderly black man (played by Israel Ngqawuza), who’s waiting at a train station. The bigots use the “n” word and throw food that splatters all over the man. Nicholas watches this hate crime as if it’s something he’s used to seeing because this blatant racism is allowed in apartheid South Africa.

The expression on Nicholas’ face seems to suggest that he has empathy for the black man who’s the target of this hate, but Nicholas is outnumbered by his racist peers, and he feels powerless to say and do anything. It won’t be long before Nicholas will experience his own bullying, for a different reason. This movie’s scenes are often a barrage of toxic masculinity. But the point is to show that even with “white male privilege” in South Africa, some white men faced their own types of persecution if they were perceived to be effeminate or not heterosexual in any way.

The new recruits take a train together to boot camp. Nicholas shares a cabin with a young man who’s around the same age. His name is Michael Sachs (played by Matthew Vey), and he’s a lot more confident and outgoing than Nicholas. Nicholas and Michael become fast friends. Their friendship endures even through some of the most brutal hazing that these new soldiers have to endure as part of their military training.

On their first day of boot camp, the recruits are forced to strip to their underwear and are bullied into submission by the commanding officers. The commanding officers don’t hesitate to punch the recruits, shove their faces in dirt, and call them all sorts of vicious and derogatory names if the recruits don’t pass some real or imagined test of their compliance. A commanding officer named Sergeant Brand (played by Hilton Pelser) is the most sadistic and hate-filled of all the military officers at this boot camp.

In case it wasn’t clear how Sergeant Brand feels about certain subjects, he shouts to the new recruits that this army won’t tolerate Communism, laziness, homosexuality and anyone who shows sympathy to black people. (He uses derogatory terms for black people and gay people in this tirade.) Sergeant Brand also expresses his share of misogyny, as he frequently uses the “c” word (a gender slur against women that rhymes with stunt) to insult any recruit who does something to anger him.

The physical and verbal abuse doesn’t just come from the commanding officers. There’s plenty of it among the recruits. Anyone who is perceived as not fitting into macho heterosexual white Christian male standards becomes a target for the abuse. Nicholas, who comes from a sheltered environment, experiences culture shock and has to adapt quickly.

A recruit named Snyman (played by Wynand Ferreira) is the biggest bully among these new soldiers. When Snyman sees that Nicholas has brought a photo of his father with him, Snyman takes it as a sign that Nicholas has gay or “sissy” tendencies. Snyman steals the photo from Nicholas and taunts him.

Michael sticks up for Nicholas and calls Snyman a name. A brawl breaks out, but it’s eventually smoothed over when Nicholas offers his nudie magazine to Snyman in exchange for Snyman returning the photo of Nicholas’ father to Nicholas. However, Nicholas is now fully aware that he can’t show any signs of being gay to these homophobic bullies or else he could be in physical danger.

Nicholas also sees what happens when anyone in the South African military is suspected of being gay. One day, two recruits named Baxter (played by Cody Mountain) and Hilton (played by Luke Tyler) are forced to stand in front of everyone else, while the commanding officer hurls homophobic insults at them. Nicholas overhears from the other recruits that Baxter and Hilton were rumored to be caught kissing each other in a bathroom stall.

It’s also the first time that Nicholas hears about Ward 22, which is a psychiatric ward that military people are sent to if they are suspected of being gay. Based on how Ward 22 is talked about in this group of people, it’s worse than a prison. Baxter and Hilton soon disappear from the recruits’ living quarters. Everyone assumes that Baxter and Hilton have been sent to Ward 22 as punishment.

One very cold evening, when the recruits are training how to make and sleep in foxholes, Nicholas finds himself alone with a fellow recruit named Dylan Stassen (played by Ryan de Villiers), who is handsome and confident among his peers. Dylan notices that Nicholas is shivering, so he tells Nicholas that he can warm up next to him. At first Nicholas is hesitant, but when he sees that no one else is looking, he takes Dylan up on his offer.

Dylan and Nicholas lie next to each other in the foxhole in a platonic manner. But when they make steady eye contact, they know they’re attracted to each other. And so, when Dylan makes the first move and starts to caress Nicholas’ arm, Nicholas doesn’t pull away or tell him to stop. It’s too risky for Dylan and Nicholas to spend the night sleeping next to each other, but now they both know that there’s a sexual attraction between them.

Over time, Dylan and Nicholas keep their budding romance a secret. They go to such extremes that Dylan and Nicholas end up brawling with each other in a macho display to fit in with their peers. This knock-down, drag-out fight happens at the barracks when the recruits play a “spin the bottle” game that’s based on brawling, not kissing. If the bottle points to a person, that person has to fight someone.

When it’s unlucky Dylan’s turn to fight and pick a sparring partner, he’s reluctant and makes a half-hearted attempt with one of the recruits. Dylan is then taunted by some of the bullies in the group. But then, Nicholas then steps and challenges Dylan to the fight. Why would Nicholas do that?

The psychology behind this thinking is because the recruits are aware that Dylan and Nicholas have become closer, Nicholas is paranoid that people will suspect him and Dylan of being gay. And when Nicholas sees that Dylan is reluctant to fight someone and is possibly going to be labeled a “sissy” or “gay,” Nicholas over-compensates by being overly aggressive in his fight with Dylan. Dylan fights back just as hard, in self-defense and also because he’s angry over this attack from a friend.

Nicholas and Dylan’s fight is a turning point in their relationship, because it sends a clear message to Dylan that Nicholas is going to do whatever it takes to stay closeted in this environment. In private, Nicholas attempts to smooth things over with Dylan by asking him not to take the fight too personally. Dylan seems to understand, but something happens that will test Nicholas and Dylan’s relationship even more.

“Moffie” shows some combat scenes at the Angolan border, but most of the turmoil in the movie is about Nicholas coming to terms with his sexuality and the self-loathing that he has because he knows he’s living a lie. Nicholas is a stoic person who doesn’t open up to people easily. He’s the type of person who would rather blend in rather than stand out.

Not all of “Moffie” is depressing gloom and doom. The most light-hearted moments come when Nicholas spends time with Michael, who seems to have no idea that Nicholas is gay. (Nicholas hides his sexuality very well.) They like to joke around and sometimes trade mild insults with each other.

For example, one day, while they have some free time to hang out by themselves, Nicholas and Michael see some soldiers nearby walking robot-like in military line. Michael tells Nicholas, “Do me a favor. If I look that, shoot me in the head.” Nicholas replies, “Why should I? You know how to shoot!” Michael exclaims in response: “Bastard!”

Moffie also becomes friends with another recruit named Oscar Fourie (played by Stefan Vermaak), who’s even more outgoing and gregarious than Michael. But just like Michael, Oscar doesn’t suspect that Nicholas is gay. There’s a scene where all three pals hang out at a bar, where Michael and Oscar think that they all have the goal of finding women to flirt with or more. This scene is also a pivotal moment in the movie because of something that Moffie finds out in a conversation with Oscar.

“Moffie” doesn’t tell Nicholas’ story in a consistent manner. There are some parts of the movie that are a monotonous drag, while other parts of the movie have almost sensory overload with all the violent abuse. If the movie were a painting, it would be more like a mural instead of a portrait, with some parts more scattershot than others.

The one part of the movie that significantly shows Nicholas’ life before he enlisted in the military is a flashback scene where Nicholas, who’s about 15 or 16 years old, is spending some time with his parents at a public recreation area with a swimming pool. When Nicholas goes into the shower area, he stares at another naked teenager in a shower.

A man (played by Jaco van Niekerk) walks into the shower area, sees Nicholas staring at the naked teen, and immediately gets angry at Nicholas. He accuses Nicholas of being a sexual predator and drags him to the manager’s office to report Nicholas. The man lies and says that he also saw Nicholas masturbating while staring at another boy. Nicholas denies this accusation, while the man rants about how Nicholas should be thrown out and banned because his own sons and other boys are in the area. The angry father also says that he and his family regularly go to this recreational area and he threatens to boycott it if something isn’t done about Nicholas.

Nicholas’ parents find out what’s happening, which leads to the angry man getting into an argument with them. Nicholas’ father denies that Nicholas is gay or did anything as perverted as being a masturbating voyeur in a public shower area. The confrontation is bad enough that the man and Nicholas’ father get into a fist fight before his parents quickly decide to leave with Nicholas.

As humiliating as this experience must have been for Nicholas, the movie could have used more insight into other formative experiences that he had when coming to terms with his sexuality as a teenager. For example, what happened when Nicholas and his parents got home after the confrontation with the homophobic man? Most viewers could assume that they never talked about this incident again, but what if they did? What was said? And how did what his parent say to him in private affect how he viewed himself as a person?

There are huge, missing gaps in Nicholas’ personal history that needed more explanation. Did he ever date any girls out of peer pressure and to hide his sexuality? What are his interests outside of the military? Throughout much of the movie, Nicholas is really a blank slate of repressed emotions and a vague background.

Based on the way he interacts with Dylan, Nicholas has never been in love with a man before and is possibly a gay virgin. At one point in the story, Dylan gives Nicholas a light romantic kiss on the lips. It’s very likely that Dylan was the first man Nicholas ever kissed in a romantic way, but viewers will never find out.

On the plus side, Brummer gives a very good performance of a man who is going through silent agony and has to pretend to the world that he’s happy and well-adjusted. Because Nicholas isn’t much of a talker, his facial expressions and body language are the best ways that viewers who pay attention can figure out how he must be feeling inside. And because Brummer skillfully shows of these non-verbal cues, “Moffie” is often a heart-wrenching film to watch.

Writer/director Hermanus made very good casting choices in the movie, because all the cast members (who are a mix of professional actors and non-professional actors) are believable in their roles. Some people might gripe that “Moffie” doesn’t address issues of racism enough. However, the movie is told from the perspective a young white man in apartheid South Africa. When people aren’t the targets of racism, they tend not to think about it very much. In that regard, it’s absolutely realistic that Nicholas, considering who he is, would be more concerned about homophobia than racism.

If there is any throughline to this narrative, it’s that the people who tend to be homophobic also tend to be bigoted in other ways too, including when it comes to race and/or religion. Bullying and bigoted attacks can cause damage that’s not always visible. And that’s why even though some viewers of “Moffie” might not like how the movie ends, the ending is realistic of how people who’ve been wounded by bigotry have different ways of trying to heal.

IFC Films released “Moffie” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 9, 2021.

Review: ‘Wojnarowicz,’ starring David Wojnarowicz

April 8, 2021

by Carla Hay

David Wojnarowicz in “Wojnarowicz” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber/Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W.) 


Directed by Chris McKim

Culture Representation: The documentary “Wojnarowicz” features a nearly all-white group of people (and one African American), mostly from the U.S. avant-garde/experimental art community, discussing the life and legacy of New York City-based artist/activist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992, at the age of 37.

Culture Clash: Wojnarowicz battled against homophobia, HIV/AIDS bigotry and right-wing conservatives who thought that his art was too obscene to be displayed in mainstream galleries

Culture Audience: “Wojnarowicz” will appeal primarily to people interested in the history of the New York City art scene from the 1980s to early 1990s, as well as stories about influential AIDS activists.

1984 artwork from David Wojnarowicz in “Wojnarowicz” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber/Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W.)

Some artists want to keep politics out of their work. But the late artist/activist David Wojnarowicz believed that every work of art is some kind of political statement. The illuminating documentary “Wojnarowicz” tells his life story in a way that would have gotten Wojnarowicz’s approval: by crafting the movie like a cinematic version of an art installation retrospective. Directed by Chris McKim, much of the foundation of the “Wojnarowicz” documentary comes from Wojnarowicz’s diary-like audio recordings, journals, photos and Super 8 films that he made from his early 20s until his tragic death from AIDS in 1992, at the age on 37. Many of Wojnarowicz’s loved ones, friends and associates provide commentary, but their interviews (with a few exceptions) are voiceovers only in the movie.

If people put together a list of 20th century visual artists from New York City’s avant-garde art scene who were controversial and unapologetically presented gay/queer erotica in their art, then Robert Mapplethorpe and Wojnarowicz would definitely be on the list. Wojnarowicz wasn’t as famous as Mapplethorpe, who preceded Wojnarowicz and broke barriers for LGBTQ-themed art in the 1970s. However, Wojnarowicz was more versatile (Mapplethorpe’s main art form was photography, while Wojnarowicz created art in many forms), and Wojnarowicz was a lot more outspoken about his political views than many of his contemporaries.

Because much of the “Wojnarowicz” documentary is told in Wojnarowicz’s voice from his personal recordings, it gives viewers an insightful look into his personality and his innermost thoughts. He had a lot of anger and cynicism, but he could also be very sensitive and empathetic. The documentary includes some audio from media interviews that he did, but they aren’t as interesting as the private recordings that he made to document his life.

The movie also reveals a treasure trove of mementos and previously unreleased footage that undoubtedly make this documentary the definitive visual biography of Wojnarowicz. It’s an impressive historical perspective of the New York avant-garde art scene in the mid-1980s to early 1990s. Based on who’s interviewed in “Wojnarowicz,” director McKim wanted to include, with few exceptions, people who knew Wojnarowicz personally to give their comments for the movie. You won’t find Wojnarowicz’s critics or talking heads who never met Wojnarowicz taking up too much of the documentary’s time with any of their opinions.

Those interviewed in the documentary include retired social worker Tom Rauffenbart (who was Wojnarowicz’s boyfriend from the late 1980s until Wojnarowicz’s death) and Wojnarowicz older brother Steven. Also interviewed are Cynthia Carr, author of “Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz” and art critic Carlo McCormick. Other commentators include David Kiehl, curator emeritus of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Stephen Koch, author/director of the Peter Hujar Archive; gallery owner/curator Barry Blinderman; Anita Vitale, formerly of the New York City AIDS Case Management Unit; and Dr. Bob Friedman, who was Wojnarowicz’s physician when Wojnarowicz was living with AIDS.

But the people who have the most to say in the documentary are those who were Wojnarowicz’s contemporaries in New York City’s avant-garde and bohemian artists scene. They include writer Fran Lebowitz; filmmaker Richard Kern; Civilian Warfare gallery co-founder Alan Barrows; artist/collaborator Kiki Smith; filmmaker/photographer Marion Scemama; photographer Dirk Rowntree; curator Nan Goldin; artist Judy Glantzman; Gracie Mansion Gallery founder Gracie Mansion; former Gracie Mansion employee Sur Rodney Sur; P.P.O.W. Gallery co-founders Wendy Olsoff and Penny Pilkington; and former 3 Teens Kill 4 bandmates Jesse Hutberg, Doug Bressler, Julie Hair and Brian Butterick.

Wojnarowicz’s critics are not interviewed in the documentary, but their perspectives are shown through archival news footage. Wojnarowicz’s controversies are not glossed over in the movie, and he exposed a lot of unflattering information about himself. For example, Wojnarowicz spent much of his teens and early 20s as a sex worker. He also freely admitted that he was psychologically damaged from growing up with a physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic father.

Perhaps the most conventional thing about “Wojnarowicz” is that it’s told in chronological order, which helps give the movie a coherent narrative. In his own words, through his personal audio diaries and media interviews, Wojnarowicz talks about his unhappy childhood, which led him to be a frequent runaway, beginning at the age of 11. Born on September 14, 1954, Red Bank, New Jersey, Wojnarowicz grew up with two older siblings: brother Steven (who was two years older) and their sister Pat. Wojnarowicz’s New York Times obituary lists two other siblings named Linda and Peter, but they’re not mentioned in the documentary.

When he was 11, Wojnarowicz’s mother Dolores separated from her violent, alcoholic husband and moved with her children to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Moving to New York City would have a profound effect on David as an artist, since much of his identity would come from being a New York artist, specifically from Manhattan’s Lower East Side/East Village. However, at one point in his childhood, perhaps because he was a frequent runaway, he ended up as a ward of the court in an orphanage, where he says his father temporarily kidnapped him.

David’s brother Steven says that David didn’t show any real interest in art when they were children: “We were too consumed with trying to survive.” However, Wojnarowicz biographer Carr says that Wojnarowicz developed his artistic tendencies as a teenager, when he discovered the work of French writers Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet. Carr explains why Wojnarowicz felt a kinship with Rimbaud and Genet: “They are outlaws and rebels. And he always identified with outsiders his whole life, and these were the outsider writers.”

Wojnarowicz was no child prodigy, because it took a while for him to find his identity as an artist. By his own admission, he spent most of his teen years and early 20s living on the streets and being a hustler. It’s made pretty clear that Wojnarowicz knew from an early age that he was gay. What isn’t detailed in the documentary is Wojnarowicz’s coming out story or how his parents reacted when he began living openly as a gay person. Based on what’s said about Wojnarowicz’s abusive father, one can assume that the father’s reaction wasn’t a good one.

At the age of 21, Wojnarowicz took a hitchhiking road trip across several U.S. states with his friend John Hall. This 1976 road trip inspired the first-known audio diaries that Wojnarowicz kept. The documentary includes a clip from one of his audio diary entries, where he describes in vivid detail a visit they made in Jamestown, North Dakota.

In September 1978, at age 23, Wojnarowicz and his sister Pat moved to Paris. He submitted a written collection of monologues called “Sounds of Distance,” but it was rejected by all the publishers he sent it to in Paris. According to Wojnarowicz, one publisher told him “the people in the monologues were wasted lives and a waste of time to write about them.” He took this criticism as a badge of honor for this collection: “Everything she said just reinforced my belief that it’s important.”

In June 1979, Wojnarowicz moved back to New York City because he says he missed the city’s unique energy. He describes Paris as a city that gives people a sense of security, and he preferred the edginess of New York City. Upon his return to New York, Wojnarowicz really began to find his identity as an artist. And ironically, it somewhat started with him paying tribute to one of his idols.

He made a face mask of Rimbaud and would wear it around the city. The documentary includes photos of him wearing the Rimbaud mask while on the street, in a diner or on the subway. This mask would later become one of Wojnarowicz’s most famous art pieces. But in a city with a lot of eccentric artists, Wojnarowicz needed more than just a Rimbaud mask to stand out.

Wojnarowicz began experimenting with different art forms, such as painting, stenciling, silk screening, sculpting and photography. He was also lead vocalist of an alternative rock band that wasn’t so much punk as it was spoken word anarchy set to music. That band was 3 Teens Kill 4, which got some recognition in the local music scene, but Wojnarowicz quit the band in 1982 over creative differences.

It was while he was a struggling artist that Wojnarowicz met the most influential person in his life: photographer Peter Hujar, who was well-known in the New York artist scene but always remained on the fringes of the upper echelon of portrait photographers in New York. Wojnarowicz and Hujar (who was 20 years older than Wojnarowicz) started out as lovers and then eventually settled into being best friends, with Hujar also being a mentor to Wojnarowicz.

Lebowitz said that even though she knew that Wojnarowicz and Hujar were once romantically involved with each other, they always gave her the impression of having a father/son relationship. Koch of the Peter Hujar Archive describes the Wojnarowicz/Hujar relationship as “more interesting than Van Gogh and Gaugin—very special and unique.” Wojnarowicz’s boyfriend Rauffenbart says when his own romance with Wojnarowicz began to get serious, he had to find a way to adjust to the close friendship that Wojnarowicz had with Lujar, because Wojnarowicz made it clear to everyone that Lujar would always be his best friend.

Wojnarowicz met some influential people in the art scene through Lujar. And when he was in 3 Teens Kill 4, Wojnarowicz also started to get some recognition, but not all of it was for the music. In the early 1980s, the band would often hang out at a nightclub called Danceteria (also hangout for artist Keith Haring and Madonna), which got raided for violation of a liquor license.

A small riot broke out and Wojnarowicz threw a molotov cocktail at a police car. He and some other band members were arrested, and they later threw a benefit show to raise funds for their legal defense. Butterick says that they didn’t really need to do the benefit concert because “the mob paid for the lawyers to get our cases dismissed.”

It was during this time of youthful rebellion that Wojnarowicz decided he wanted to stand out as not just unusual but also controversial, with art that some people might find disgusting. In an audio clip, he describes going to the city’s meatpacking district, finding discarded cow parts, and using those parts to create sculptures. He says that he also poured cow blood on stairs as part of his art.

At this particular time in the 1980s, there was no “hip” art gallery scene on the Lower East Side. As Sur describes it: “There were no resources like now, where you can go to the Lower East Side, where there are a dozen galleries you’ve never heard of showing stuff. There was nothing! There was SoHo, there was uptown and there were these established galleries. We didn’t feel we had entree into there, so we created space so we could show our work and have fun!”

This burgeoning alternative art scene was different from the type of scene that Andy Warhol led in the 1960s. Warhol and like-minded artists always maintained a level of glamour and more than a bit of fascination with celebrities. The art scene that Wojnarowicz came from wanted to shun the establishment for as long as they could, with art that was intentionally designed to be rudely provocative.

A lot of their work was literally created from garbage and other filthy throwaway items. The erotica in their art was unapologetically raw and could easily be described as pornographic. And because Wojnarowicz was known for putting a lot of male homosexuality in his art, it was automatically deemed not acceptable for certain galleries and other venues that showcase art.

Civilian Warfare, Gracie Mansion Gallery and P.P.W.O. Gallery were some of the places that launched to showcase art that other galleries would reject. Wojnarowicz found a home for a lot of his art at these galleries, before and after his art became accepted by more mainstream New York City art venues, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art. Civilian Warfare co-founder Barrows says: “We were really drawn to David’s militaristic imagery.”

The year 1982 was a pivotal one for Wojnarowicz. He left 3 Teens Kill 4 that year. His monologue collection “Sounds of Distance,” which had been rejected by publishers in Paris, was published. And 1982 was the year that Wojnarowicz and artist Mike Bidlo began making art in abandoned piers along the Manhattan side of the Hudson River.

Wojnarowicz’s frequent collaborator Smith (who took a well-known photo of Wojnarowicz posed as a bloodied assault victim) says in the documentary that the abandoned piers, which were the sizes of warehouses, had piles of discarded files from Bellevue Hospital. Bellevue had thrown away a lot of illustrations made by the patients in the hospital’s psychiatric facilities. Wojnarowicz used a lot of those illustrations in his art that he created at the piers. The piers were eventually demolished after city officials found out that the property was being illegally used by artists as creative spaces.

In 1983, Wojnarowicz’s first solo exhibition at Civilian Warfare led to another turning point in Wojnarowicz’s career. New York Times arts journalist Grace Glueck did a feature article about East Village artists, and the article prominently featured Wojnarowicz. After that New York Times article was published, Wojnarowicz became a darling of trendy art collectors. As described in the documentary, people began showing up in limousines to buy Wojnarowicz’s art.

Blinderman, who was the owner of New York City’s Semaphore Gallery at the time, remembers paying $3,000 for what would turn out to be one of Wojnarowicz’s most famous and controversial art pieces. The art piece’s title includes a homophobic slur that won’t be repeated in this review. But Wojnarowicz chose the title and the content of the art (which has homoerotic images) as an “in your face” response to homophobia.

In 1985, Wojnarowicz reached another milestone: He was chosen to be part of the Whitney Biennial. And he was commissioned to do an installation for the Mnunchin Gallery. (The gallery was founded Robert Mnuchin, the father of future Donald Trump political ally Steve Mnuchin, who served in the Trump administration as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.)

In an audio clip Wojnarowicz says that because he “despises rich people,” he purposely made the installation as disgusting as possible, with a lot of insect-infested garbage. Robert Mnuchin’s wife Adriana was reportedly repulsed by the bugs crawling around in the pristine gallery. However, Wojnarowicz was a hot brand name at the time, so he got away with doing what he wanted for the installation.

Wojnarowicz also dabbled in filmmaking, including collaborating with Kern on a short independent film called “You Killed Me First.” Wojnarowicz’s role in the film was as an abusive father. In a disturbing re-enactment of what his father did when Wojnarowicz was a child, there’s a scene in the movie of him sadistically killing a rabbit in front of his children, who are portrayed in the movie by adult actors. The rabbit wasn’t killed for food but out of pure cruelty.

Considering Wojnarowicz’s abusive childhood, his history of being a sex worker, and being a part of an art scene awash with illegal drugs, it’s not surprising that Wojnarowicz was a drug abuser. In the documentary, it’s mentioned that Wojnarowicz became addicted to heroin (he used needles), but Hujar got Wojnarowicz to quit heroin by issuing an ultimatum: If Wojnarowicz didn’t stop using heroin, then Hujar would cut Wojnarowicz out of his life. The documentary doesn’t mention if Wojnarowicz ever received any therapy for his problems with drugs or mental health. You get the feeling that he never did.

Rauffenbart, who says in the documentary that he met Wojnarowicz at a gay porn theater called the Bijou Theater, describes himself as someone whose life was transformed by Wojnarowicz. Before he met Wojnarowicz, he was used to hanging around very conventional people. Rauffenbart gives credit to Wojnarowicz for opening up his world to more variety and more fascinating people.

However, Wojnarowicz’s world was about to be rocked by a tragedy: At the age of 53, Hujar died of AIDS in 1987, just 11 months after he was diagnosed. It was also the year that Wojnarowicz and Rauffenbart found out that they were also HIV-positive. These diagnoses and the discrimination experienced by AIDS patients motivated Wojnarowicz to become an AIDS activist.

As for his career, Wojnarowicz learned the hard way how fickle the art world could be when his “Four Elements” show, which was dedicated to Hujar, flopped with audiences. The show had art with the themes of Earth, Water, Fire and Wind and included photos of Huhar on his deathbed. Toward the end of the documentary, there’s a poignant scene of Rauffenbart, accompanied by friend Vitale and P.P.O.W. Gallery co-founders Olsoff and Pilkington, attending a preview of the Whitney Museum’s 2018 Wojnarowicz retrospective.

It’s mentioned in the documentary that although Wojnarowicz and his sister Pat remained fairly close, his relationship with brother Steven was a lot more strained. They were estranged from the mid-1970s until they reunited in 1985. However, after Wojnarowicz was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, he and Steven had a major falling out over what Wojnarowicz perceived to be Steve’s homophobia, and they never saw or spoke to each other again. Wojnarowicz audio recorded their final argument, part of which is included in the documentary.

As an AIDS activist, Wojnarowicz participated in many protests about how the U.S. government and the health industry were mishandling the AIDS crisis. At a protest outside of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) headquarters, Wojnarowicz wore a hand-made jacket that read on the back “If I Die of AIDS—Forget Burial—Just Drop My Body on the Steps of the FDA.” That jacket became a symbol for AIDS activism.

Wojnarowicz’s “Tongues of Flame” exhibit would turn out to be his most controversial. Blinderman was now the director of University Galleries of Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, and he got a $15,000 government grant from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) to commission the exhibit. It would lead to a lawsuit and divisive opinions on both sides. Around this time, Wojnarowicz had angered political and religious conservatives with an AIDS activist essay titled “Postcards From America: X-Rays From Hell,” which was published in the 1988 “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing” catalogue for Artists Space.

In the essay, Wojnarowicz used insulting language about U.S. Congressmen Jesse Helms and William Dannemeyer and Cardinal John O’Connor (New York’s Archbishop at the time) who were all openly opposed to LGBTQ rights. The essay was accompanied by a photo of a Wojnarowicz art piece with an illustration of Jesus Christ injecting a needle in his lower arm, with a tube tied around his upper arm, like a junkie. Wojnarowicz said the art depicted Jesus taking on the burdens of society, including drug addiction.

It wasn’t long before Donald Wildmon of the conservative American Family Association and other anti-Wojnarowicz people got involved in a campaign to get Wojnarowicz banned from major art venues. These Wojnarowicz critics distributed photos of Wojnarowicz’s most controversial art and called Wojnarowicz a threat to decency. Under political pressure, the NEA then withdrew its grant money from the “Tongues of Flame” exhibit.

Wojnarowicz filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Wildmon and the American Family Association for distributing photos of his art without permission and for trying to damage his reputation. Wojnarowicz won the lawsuit, but was granted an award of just $1. University Galleries of Illinois State University ended up launching the “Tongues in Flame” exhibit in 1990 to enthusiastic crowds. In an audio clip, Wojnarowicz says he was expecting picketing and protestors outside the gallery, but no such pushback happened.

Toward the end of his life, Wojnarowicz began experiencing AIDS-related dementia, which is described in heartbreaking detail by Scemama. She remembers taking a road trip with Wojnarowicz to California’s Death Valley in May 1991. During the trip, it was the first time that she saw Wojnarowicz seem to forget who he was in a brief moment of memory loss. Seeing him in that condition stuck with her because it was then she knew how much he had deteriorated.

During this trip, Scemama took some visually striking photos of Wojnarowicz buried in the dirt, with his face partially peeking out from the ground. It was eerily symbolic of knowing that he would end up in an early grave by dying so young. It was also Wojnarowicz’s last photo shoot. Scemama says that every time she collaborated with Wojnarowicz, he came up with the ideas.

You don’t have to be a fan of Wojnarowicz’s work to appreciate his impact on the art world or on AIDS activism. You don’t have to agree with his political beliefs. What the “Wojnarowicz” documentary does so effectively is show that he overcame a lot of personal struggles in his life to express his truth, even if that truth made a lot of people uncomfortable. And that raw and open honesty is a legacy worth noting.

Kino Lorber released “Wojnarowicz” in U.S. virtual cinemas on March 19, 2021.

Review: ‘Falling’ (2021), starring Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henriksen and Laura Linney

April 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Lance Henriksen and Viggo Mortensen in “Falling” (Photo courtesy of Perceval Pictures and Quiver Distribution)


Directed by Viggo Mortensen

Culture Representation: Taking place in Southern California and an unnamed state on the East Coast of the U.S., the dramatic film “Falling” features a predominantly white cast (with a few Asians, Latinos and African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An openly gay, middle-aged man has conflicts with his bigoted father, who has early signs of dementia. 

Culture Audience: “Falling” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies about dysfunctional families and dealing with dementia, but the movie’s constant vitriol from one of the characters might be a turnoff to some viewers.

Terry Chen, Gabby Velis and Lance Henriksen in “Falling” (Photo courtesy of Perceval Pictures and Quiver Distribution)

If not for the commendable acting from the stars of the movie, “Falling” would be a very unpleasant chore to watch. This dramatic movie is the feature-film directorial debut of Viggo Mortensen, who also wrote the film’s screenplay and musical score. Mortensen is also one of the stars and producers of the “Falling,” which tells the story of how a hate-filled old man and his middle-aged children (especially his son) deal with the old man’s dementia and his search for a place to retire.

The direction of the movie veers between fluid and uneven. There are parts of the story that become too repetitive with bigotry and other bad behavior. However, there’s enough authenticity in the cast members’ performances in “Falling” that makes the movie worth watching to see how this emotionally damaged family is going to cope with family problems. In interviews, Mortensen has said that “Falling” is not biographical, but some parts of the film were inspired by what he’s experienced in real life.

There’s no other way to describe Willis Peterson (played by Lance Henriksen), the family’s patriarch: He’s a racist, homophobic, sexist, self-centered, foul-mouthed bully. Willis tests the patience of his family members (and people watching this movie) with his increasingly erratic and unhinged actions. Willis, who is in his 70s, is looking for a place to retire, possibly in California, and he’s being helped by his openly gay son John (played by Mortensen), who lives in Southern California.

Willis has another child named Sarah (played by Laura Linney), John’s younger sister, who isn’t in the movie for very long. But her presence in “Falling” brings a valuable perspective on how this family became such a mess of emotional terrorism by Willis. There’s a lot of unspoken resentment from the family members who put up with his disgusting nonsense. Sarah’s involvement is brief but impactful. “Falling” is really a father/son story, told from the perspective of Willis and John and their memories.

There are several non-chronological flashbacks in the movie that viewers have to put together like pieces in a puzzle to explain how and why this family ended up this way. The flashbacks go as far back as the early 1960s, when a young Willis (played by Sverrir Gudnason) and his wife Gwen (played by Hannah Gross) are parents to John when he was a baby. Willis says half-jokingly to baby John (played by twins Liam and Luca Cresctielli): “I’m sorry I brought you into this world so that you can die.” The family lives on an isolated farm in an unnamed state on the East Coast.

The movie’s flashbacks never show Sarah as a baby, but she’s about five years younger than John. The movie’s flashbacks show Sarah at approximately 4 to 6 years old (played by Carina Battrick) and at 11 years old (played by Ava Kozelj), while John is shown at 4 years old (played by Grady McKenzie), approximately 9 to 11 years old (played by (Etienne Kelliciand), and at age 16 (played by William Healy). It becomes apparent that Willis was a selfish person as a husband and a father. He’s the main cause for the family’s unhappiness.

Narcissistic people who become parents often have resentment when their children don’t pay as much attention to the narcissist as the kids did when they were younger. Based on what’s shown in the flashbacks, that’s exactly what happened with Willis. Gwen and Willis’ marriage began to crumble as their kids grew up and started to develop their own personalities and opinions. It’s a lot easier to boss around a 4-year-old than it is to boss around a 16-year-old.

There’s a flashback scene in the movie of Willis teaching 4-year-old John how to duck hunt. It’s one of the few scenes in the movie that show Willis and John seeming to be happy spending time together. After shooting a duck, John takes the dead duck home with him and refuses to give it to his mother to cook. Instead, John insists on treating the duck like a toy, even to the point of bringing the duck with him to bed. (Mortensen says that this happened to him in real life when he was a child.) Gwen eventually convinces John to give her the duck so that she can cook it.

But as John and Sarah got older, Willis’ nasty side came out even more. There’s a scene of John, at approximately 9 to 11 years old, having a birthday party in the family home. Gwen, Sarah, several children and their mothers are also at the party, which is a happy celebration until Willis tries to ruin it. Willis lurks nearby with a jealous look on his face, as if he can’t stand that he’s not the center of attention in his home. And sure enough, Willis blurts out something demeaning to humiliate John, while an embarrassed Gwen tries to ignore what happened and pretend that everything is okay.

But everything is not okay. In flashbacks, it’s shown that Willis cheated on Gwen with a younger woman named Jill (played by Bracken Burns), who was either a friend of Gwen’s or someone whom Gwen trusted enough to let Jill be a babysitter before the adultery betrayal. Willis and Jill moved in together around the time that John was 9 to 11 years old. Gwen and Willis got divorced. Gwen got full custody of the kids, with Willis getting visitation rights.

But when Gwen started dating another man, jealous Willis decided to not return John and Sarah from one of his visitations. The details are sketchy in the flashbacks, but it seems as if Willis and Jill took John and Sarah on an extended road trip without permission, which was a violation of the custody agreement. Willis freely admits to Jill that he didn’t want to return the kids to their mother, just to spite Gwen. It’s unclear if Willis went to jail over it, but he and Jill had the kids long enough where there’s a scene of Willis and Jill with the kids in a diner, the children look miserable, and the kids ask when they can go home.

By the time John became a teenager, John and Willis’ relationship had deteriorated to the point of them getting into physical fights. There’s a scene of Willis and a 16-year-old John getting into an argument and brawling while they were horseback riding together. Willis is the aggressor, and viewers can easily speculate that it’s not the first time that Willis has been physically abusive to John. It’s shown throughout the story that horses are a big deal to Willis, who seems to like horses more than he likes people.

Gwen eventually got remarried to someone named Danny, an artist whom Willis despised. Jill never married Willis but lived with him for a few years, and she eventually left Willis for a man she married named Michael White. Willis hated Michael too. Jill and Gwen are now both deceased. Willis never got remarried, which is no surprise because no one in their right mind would think that Willis would be a good husband.

Willis’ dementia causes him to sometimes confuse Gwen and Jill when he’s talking about them. And sometimes, he thinks Gwen and Jill are still alive. At one point, he calls Gwen a “whore” in one of his rants. In another scene, he calls Jill a “fucking saint.”

All of these details are not revealed in a smooth and straightforward manner in the movie. There’s a lot of timeline jumps that don’t always flow well with the story. People watching this movie also have to pay attention to conversations to pick up details about the Peterson family.

The main actors in “Falling” also communicate non-verbally (with facial expressions and body language) to express how their characters are feeling inside. Linney, who is always terrific in her performances, excels in this actor technique. In other words, “Falling” is a movie that is best appreciated if viewers are not distracted by anything else while watching it.

In a present-day scene, John (who used to be in the U.S. Air Force) mentions during one point in the movie that he didn’t accept that he was gay until he was in the military and he came out as gay around the same time. It’s unclear how long John was in the military, but there’s mention of him working as a pilot after he got out of the Air Force. John and Sarah, who live in Southern California, are now both happily married with children.

John’s husband Eric (played by Terry Chen) is a nurse who works the night shift at a local hospital. John and Eric have an adorable adopted daughter named Mónica (played by Gabby Velis), who’s about 9 or 10 years old. Sarah and her husband (who is never seen in the movie) live in Ventura and have two teenagers: Paula (played by Ella Jonas Farlinger), who’s about 18 years old, and Will (played by Piers Bijvoet), who’s about 15 or 16. Willis shows some grandfatherly affection for Mónica, probably because she’s at an age where she’s easier to control than a teenager, and she might be too naïve to see what an awful person Willis is.

In one of the early scenes of “Falling,” John and Willis are on a plane because Willis is traveling from wherever he lives to visit John and Sarah in California. The other purpose of the trip is so that Willis can look for a possible retirement place in California, but it soon becomes clear that California is not exactly his first choice. Willis’ dementia has reached a point where it’s not safe for him to travel alone. He often gets confused about where he is and what year it is.

This confusion becomes immediately apparent, when Willis causes a ruckus on the plane during mid-flight because he thinks he’s at home with Gwen instead of on a plane with John. John tries to calm Willis down, but Willis gets even more belligerent, as he gets up and yells for Gwen. John ends up having to physically restrain Willis. And when they disembark from the plane, Willis wanders away from the baggage claim area when John steps away for a few minutes.

It’s too bad that Wills’ vile temper can’t be restrained. The movie is filled with Willis’ unbridled rants where he makes it clear to anyone who listens that he’s a politically conservative bigot. Willis expresses disgust that John voted for Barack Obama, whom Willis calls a “Negro,” which might have been an acceptable term for black people before the 1970s, but not these days.

Willis also uses a homophobic slur for gay men several times through the movie. At one point, Willis asks John if John is sure that he’s gay. Willis’ tone of voice makes it clear that he wishes that John were straight. As for Willis’ thoughts on possibly moving to California, he shouts: “California is for cocksuckers and flag burners!”

Willis barely tolerates John’s husband Eric, whom Willis keeps misidentifying as Japanese, when Eric is actually Chinese and Hawaiian. Based on Eric’s reaction (he politely corrects Willis), this racial insensitivity is something that Eric has gotten used to from Willis, and it can’t be blamed on dementia. It’s made pretty clear from the flashbacks that Willis has been a jerk for a very long time.

And so, this obnoxiousness goes on and on for the entire movie. During a meal at John and Eric’s house, Willis lights up a cigarette, but John politely reminds him that they don’t allow smoking inside the house. What does Willis do? He puts out his cigarette in the food he was served. In another scene later in the movie, Willis throws raw eggs at John when John suggests that Willis have a healthier diet.

A family meal at Sarah’s home with John, Eric, Sarah and their kids cant go without Willis making derogatory comments. Sarah’s son Will has recently dyed his hair blue. Willis comments on his grandson’s hair by saying, “Do you want to be a homo?” He makes other homophobic comments until a distressed Will gets up and leaves the table, but not before telling Willis that he’s ashamed to be named after him.

As insufferable as Willis is, there are miserable haters like this who exist in the world, and they want everyone else to be as miserable as they are. Willis might be difficult to watch, but “Falling” seems to be making an often-heavy-handed point that this is what happens when toxic people go unchecked. Pity anyone who has to live with someone like Willis in real life.

Willis’ filthy mouth isn’t just about spewing hate speech. This movie has a lot of talk of bodily functions (urinating, defecating and farting), and most of these cringeworthy comments are from Willis. In one scene in the movie, Willis tells his granddaughter Mónica  that when John was a child, John used to be so frightened of an imaginary monster named Mortimer, that John used to “shit the bed.”

In another scene, Willis has a prostate exam to determine if he needs surgery for prostate cancer. In the examination room, with John in the room, Willis tells the physician named Dr. Klausner (played by filmmaker David Cronenberg, who’s worked with Mortensen on several movies): “Don’t let my son anywhere near my asshole. He’s likely to get excited.”

John and Sarah mostly react to their father’s hate-filled rants by trying not to argue with him. A lot of viewers will be frustrated by how Willis isn’t called out enough for his despicable comments and actions, regardless if he has dementia or not. However, as uncomfortable as it may be to watch, John and Sarah’s enabling is very realistic of how people try to ignore bigotry and hate instead of trying to confront it and stop it.

John and Sarah also seem afraid to confront their father because even though he’s an ailing old man, John and Sarah still seem to be a little bit afraid of him. Scenes in the movie show that Willis has a violent temper. And so, there’s probably unspoken violent abuse that Willis inflicted on his kids when they were young that still haunt John and Sarah.

However, the best scene in the movie is when John finally unleashes and gives Willis the verbal takedown he very much deserves. A lot of viewers will be thinking about John finally standing up to his father: “What took you so long?” Other viewers might have different reactions.

One of the few scenes in the movie where the family isn’t under some kind of emotional attack from Willis is when John, Eric, Mónica and Willis all go to an art gallery together. John’s mother Gwen loved art, so this trip to the gallery is his way of trying to pass along Gwen’s appreciation of art to Mónica. However, this relatively calm family outing is rare, because most of what the Peterson family experiences in this story revolves around Willis’ negativity and problems that he usually creates.

The flashback scenes in “Falling” answer some questions about the Peterson family dynamics, but leave other questions unanswered. For example, viewers never get to see how John and Sarah were raised by Gwen after the divorce. And this omission is an indication that the flashbacks are mostly from Willis’ perspective. Maybe this disjointed way of telling the story is writer/director Mortensen’s way of depicting what fractured memories in dementia feel like. The final scene of “Falling,” just like the rest of the movie, can be frustratingly muddled, because it’s better at expressing moods than fine-tuning the details.

Perceval Pictures and Quiver Distribution released “Falling” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on February 5, 2021.

Review: ‘Haymaker’ (2021), starring Nick Sasso, Nomi Ruiz, John Ventimiglia, Veronica Falcón, Udo Kier, Zoë Bell and D.B. Sweeney

March 31, 2021

by Carla Hay

Nomi Ruiz and Nick Sasso in “Haymaker” (Photo courtesy of Kamikaze Dogfight/Gravitas Ventures)

“Haymaker” (2021)

Directed by Nick Sasso

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, Los Angeles, Greece, Thailand and Mexico City, the dramatic film “Haymaker” features a predominantly white cast (with some Latinos, African, Americans and Asians) representing people in the entertainment industry and the world of Muay Thai fighting.

Culture Clash: A Muay Thai fighter becomes the bodyguard of an up-and-coming singer and gets more than he bargained for when he starts to have romantic feelings about her.

Culture Audience: “Haymaker” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching a movie that’s a series of tedious scenes that don’t add up to much of a plot.

Nomi Ruiz in “Haymaker” (Photo courtesy of Kamikaze Dogfight/Gravitas Ventures)

The dramatic film “Haymaker” is a globe-trotting film that had the potential to be a compelling adventure/love story. However, the movie’s incoherent storyline, badly written dialogue and dull acting make it very forgettable. “Haymaker” is the feature-film directorial debut of Nick Sasso, who is also the star of the film as the story’s protagonist. But his Nicky “Mitts” Malloy character is so lacking in charisma that he is easily outshined by co-star Nomi Ruiz, who plays the seductive singer (also named Nomi) who steals Nicky’s heart.

In “Haymaker,” Nicky is a retired championship Muay Thai fighter who is now working as a bouncer/security staffer at a New York City nightclub. It’s the type of nightclub where young people like to party but some shady criminal types hang out there too. In the beginning of the movie, Nicky sees Nomi being sexually assaulted in the dressing room by a thug named Bluto (played by Olan Montgomery) before she goes on stage.

Nicky comes to Nomi’s rescue by beating up her attacker, who leaves the club. There’s no mention in the movie of calling the police to report this sexual assault because it’s implied that this is the type of nightclub that doesn’t want the cops anywhere near the place. Nomi, who is a dance/pop artist, thanks Nicky, manages to compose herself, and she performs on stage like a pro.

Nicky is transfixed and awed, as he watches Nomi perform while he stands near the bar. He looks at her in a way that it’s pretty obvious that these two are going to be headed toward a romance at some point in the story. Ruiz is a pretty good singer/performer, but the songs she does in “Haymaker” are very generic.

After the nightclub closes for the night, Nomi says to Nicky while they’re seated at the bar: “You know, I owe you a drink.” Nicky replies, “No, you don’t.” Nomi then says, “I could use one.” This is an example of the simplistic and boring dialogue that drags down the film. The actors also sometimes recite their lines awkwardly, with pauses that are little too long and pacing that doesn’t sound like an authentic conversation.

Because Nomi was impressed with how Nicky fought to protect her, she offers him a job as her bodyguard. Nomi says she needs protection from “her fans,” but her half-joking tone of voice when she says it will make people wonder if she’s serious or not. Nicky is going to need this bodyguard job, because shortly after he and Nomi have the conversation, he gets fired by his boss Javier (played by John Ventimiglia) at the nightclub.

Javier tells Nicky that the firing is nothing personal against Nicky, but it’s because Bluto is “a friend of the club,” and the boss can’t risk alienating this thug. The implication is that Bluto is some kind of gangster or shady person who’s given this nightclub boss a reason to choose Bluto over Nicky. Now that he’s been laid off from the nightclub, Nicky can spend more time being Nomi’s full-time bodyguard. How convenient.

Nicky and Nomi have a conversation outside of the nightclub where they both talk a little bit about their backgrounds. They’re both New York City natives. He’s from The Bronx, while she’s from Bay Ridge in Brooklyn.

Nomi tells Nicky that he’s also going to be her driver because she doesn’t have a car. Nicky doesn’t even bother to charge her extra money for this added responsibility. It’s pretty obvious that he’s infatuated with her and he thinks getting paid to be around Nomi is just a bonus. Nicky and Nomi exchange phone numbers and then part ways for the night.

The first time that Nicky goes to work for Nomi, she wants him to drive her to a recording studio. He picks her up at her modest apartment, where Nomi lives with her bed-ridden grandmother, whom she calls Mama (played by Kathryn Kates). While at the apartment, Nicky and Nomi talk some more about their lives. They both find out that they have something in common: They were both expelled from high school.

Nicky is the “strong, silent type,” so even though viewers can see that he’s probably falling for Nomi, he doesn’t really outwardly express it. In terms of personality, Nicky and Nomi are opposites (he’s an introvert, she’s an extrovert) and have very different lifestyles. Nomi is a bit of a wild child who likes to party (she does cocaine and Ecstasy in a few scenes), while Nicky seems to be leading a fairly straight-laced lifestyle.

Nomi is unpredictable and sometimes irrational, as Nicky finds out when he takes her to the recording studio. She orders Nicky to wait for her in the reception area until she completes her recording session. But then, a rapper named Logan (played by Ty Hickson) in the recording studio picks a fight with Nomi, so the recording session is cut short.

Nicky has no way of knowing about this argument because he’s in another part of the building and couldn’t hear what was going on. But that doesn’t stop Nomi from storming out of the studio and berating Nicky for not coming to her rescue. Nicky tells Nomi that she’s being unreasonable, but she makes it clear that she gets to decide what Nicky should be doing because she’s paying him. Nomi seems to be treating Nicky like a chump, so this movie will have a hard time convincing viewers that this would-be romance is built on mutual respect.

One of the biggest flaws in “Haymaker” is that it constantly hints of an intriguing backstory for Nomi, but then just leaves those hints hanging with no elaboration. For example, one night, Nick goes back to the nightclub where he used to work. He happens to see Nomi at the club. She’s sitting at a table with a mobster type named Fürst (played by Udo Kier, who has a brief cameo) and two couples who appear to be part of Fürst’s entourage.

Nick joins them at the table, but he looks and feels uncomfortable. Fürst talks about how Nomi burned down his Malibu house, but it was an accident. Fürst then tells Nomi in a slightly menacing voice, “You owe me.” After Nomi snorts some cocaine, Nicky escorts her out of the nightclub. Fürst is never seen or heard from again. It’s never revealed in the movie how Nomi and Fürst know each other, what she was doing in Malibu, and what she “owes” him.

And the movie hints at but never explores the fact that Nomi is a transgender woman, as is Ruiz in real life. There’s a scene that’s in the “Haymaker” trailer where she reveals to Nicky that she’s transgender, but that scene was cut from the movie. In the scene, Nicky and Nomi are in someone’s home while he looks at several framed family photos displayed on a table. He picks up a photo of a little boy and asks who the boy is. Nomi replies, “Me.”

Nomi says a few things in the movie that give hints about her transgender identity, by telling Nicky that she can’t really reveal all of herself to him and that she’s not who she appears to be. However, since the filmmakers cut out the scene of Nomi telling Nicky that she lived as a boy when she was a child, the movie doesn’t have a big reveal about Nomi being transgender.

Because Nicky is never told in the final cut of the movie that Nomi is transgender, this omission can be considered careless at best or deliberately dishonest at worst. Maybe the filmmakers didn’t want Nomi’s transgender identity to be a distraction to the story. Or maybe they feared that it would alienate transphobic viewers. Whatever the reason, muting or possibly trying to erase Nomi’s transgender identity was a missed opportunity to make this very tedious movie more interesting.

There’s another part of the movie where Nicky briefly meets Nomi’s mother Marisol (Veronica Falcón), and it’s hinted that Nomi and Marisol were estranged at some point. It’s also implied that Nomi spent a great deal of her childhood being raised by her grandmother. But the movie never goes into details over why Nomi was closer to her grandmother than she was to her mother.

Not much is told about Nicky’s background either. He has an older brother named Mack (played by D.B. Sweeney), who has been his trainer. And during a conversation between Nicky and Nomi, Nicky mentions that he had a fiancée, who was his co-worker, but the fiancée broke up with Nicky after he lost a fight. Nicky describes the breakup this way to Nomi: “She was cool. I hurt her feelings. The end.”

Even though it’s never said out loud in the film, and it’s not spoiler information, viewers can easily figure out the ex-fiancée is a woman named Rosie (played by Zoë Bell), who works at a gym where Nicky did a lot of training. Rosie’s brief interactions with Nicky give the impression that they used to be romantically involved and they’re now trying to keep things professional, but Rosie still cares about him as a friend. Nicky seems to have some hard feelings about the breakup though, because he’s a little bit standoffish toward Rosie.

A lot of “Haymaker” is a mishmash of scenes of Nicky going on tour with Nomi in various places, such as Los Angeles, Greece and Mexico City. She’s well-known enough to headline at large nightclubs that hold about 1,000 people, but she’s definitely not very famous. People watching this movie should be prepared to see a lot of scenes of Nicky literally standing around while he watches Nomi perform on stage, or else he’s lingering in the background while she parties in hotel rooms or nightclubs and he barely talks to anyone.

A major problem with “Haymaker” is that the filmmakers seemed more concerned with filming the actors in exotic settings than making this story interesting. Nomi actually doesn’t have anyone in her life who’s a real threat to her, so the supposed “protection” she needs is a very misleading part of this movie. Don’t expect “Haymaker” to be like an indie film version of the 1992 Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner blockbuster “The Bodyguard.” There are no chase scenes, stalkers or assassination attempts in “Haymaker.”

As for the romance in “Haymaker,” it might have been intended as a “slow burn,” but it’s more like a “big snooze.” Because the dialogue is so dumbed-down, Nicky and Nomi don’t have any meaningful conversations that would make it believable that they’re connecting on a level that goes beyond physical attraction. The movie also doesn’t adequately address how Nomi takes advantage of the power imbalance that she has as Nicky’s employer.

Some very cliché jealousy issues happen between Nicky and Nomi. At one point in “Haymaker,” Nicky comes out of Muy Thai retirement, trains in Thailand, and does a Muy Thai fight with Brett “The Threat” Hlavacek, who portrays himself in the movie. But even the fight scenes and the outcome of the fight are formulaic and extremely predictable.

For a low-budget independent movie, “Haymaker” makes an admirable attempt to look stylish, since many of Nomi’s performance scenes and the outdoor vistas benefit from cinematography that tries to make the movie look more glamorous than it really is. “Haymaker” also has a few light touches of comedy, such as a scene where Nomi wants to spend time at a beach, but Nicky doesn’t have a swimsuit. They go into a public restroom and she makes him wear the type of swimsuit he doesn’t like: a Speedo.

Ultimately though, “Haymaker” is too disjointed with its poorly conceived screenwriting, amateurish directing and choppy editing. No one is expecting the Nicky character to be a talkative intellectual (look at “Rocky” movie hero Rocky Balboa, for instance), but viewers expect a leading man to at least have something magnetic about his personality. Unfortunately, between Nicky’s dullness and Nomi not doing much except pouting, singing and acting sexy, “Haymaker” is just a disappointing dud. The movie might have been filmed in various locations around the world, but “Haymaker” ends up going nowhere if people are looking for a quality story that’s entertaining.

Kamikaze Dogfight and Gravitas Ventures released “Haymaker” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 29, 2021.

Review: ‘Nina Wu,’ starring Ke-Xi Wu

March 27, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ke-Xi Wu in “Nina Wu” (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

“Nina Wu”

Directed by Midi Z

Taiwanese and Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Taiwan, the dramatic film “Nina Wu” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An unknown actress gets her big break with a starring role in a movie, but she has to cope with sexual predators in the industry and secrets in her personal life.

Culture Audience: “Nina Wu” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stylish-looking arthouse movies that are character studies with unsettling subject matter.

Ke-Xi Wu and Hsia Yu-Chiao in “Nina Wu” (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

“Nina Wu” is an artistically filmed movie-within-a-movie story that takes an unflinching and often-disturbing look at the compromises and indignities that entertainers, particularly women, experience in their quest for fame. The movie tells the story of Nina Wu (played by Ke-Xi Wu), a struggling actress in Taiwan who gets a big break by landing her first starring role in a feature film. But she has to confront what this role will cost her when she finds out that it comes with a heavy price to her dignity and self-worth.

Ke-Xi Wu co-wrote the screenplay of “Nina Wu” with the movie’s director Midi Z, and she says the story is inspired by some of her real-life experiences. She gives a very compelling performance in this movie, which contrasts its beautifully styled aesthetic with the ugly truths of what often goes on behind the scenes in showbiz. The movie tends to be a little jumbled in story structure, but the message behind the film is clear.

Nina’s backstory comes out in bits and pieces in flashbacks and other descriptions. Viewers will have to be comfortable with movies that play out in a non-linear manner. Nina is an aspiring actress who moved from a suburban area to the big capital city of Taipei. Her father (played by Cheng Ping-Chun) runs a factory in Taiwan. And she was discovered by a talent agent when she working at a market stall.

However, Nina’s life as an actress isn’t go so well for her in Taipei. In the movie, Nina (who also goes by the name Sufen) works as a cam girl to pay her bills. Nina has been hiding her struggles as an actress from her family and other people she knows in her hometown. As far as they know, she’s been getting respectable work as a small-time actress and is living a pretty good life in Taipei.

In a meeting with her agent (played by Rexen Cheng), who’s been working with Nina for the past six years, he reminds her that she hasn’t been in a feature film the entire time that he’s worked with her. She has only been in short films. However, the agent (who doesn’t have a name in the movie) tells Nina that he’s gotten an offer to audition for a starring role in a feature film (a spy thriller set in the 1960s) where she would be required to do explicit sex scenes. It’s not a pornographic film, but it’s a movie where there’s little left to the imagination when it comes to sex.

Nina is hesitant to do the audition, but the agent says that any good actor wouldn’t turn down a role because of nudity. (What he doesn’t mention is the reality that women are much more likely than men to be required to have nude scenes in non-pornographic films.) The agent says that he will leave the decision up to Nina. And he tells her that big Hollywood stars take a role for two reasons: It’s a good character or it’s good pay.

Nina decides to audition for the role. And what she goes through in the rest of the story is an emotionally draining experience that also forces her to confront secrets that she’s denied or kept from other people in her life. During the audition process, she meets with a female casting director (played by Hsieh Ying-Hsuan), who tells Nina that Nina’s performance should be as natural as possible. By way of comparison, she asks Nina, “When you take a shower, do you worry about being naked?”

Nina then auditions for a panel of filmmakers. The casting director is the only woman in this group of decision makers. Nina gets the role, but that’s the easy part of making the film. Things get much harder for her when she has to work with the very demanding and sexist director (played by Shih Ming-Shuai), who doesn’t hesitate to be derogatory to her. Most of the characters in “Nina Wu” do not have names. It might be the “Nina Wu” filmmakers’ way of showing how these experiences are so common that they could apply to many people without specific names attached.

Nina’s starring role in the movie is as a woman in a troubled love affair that nearly drives her character to violence with a knife. She threatens to kill her lover and herself. The director is abusive in the name of getting the performance that he wants out of Nina. He chokes her to get her in an agitated mindset. In another incident, he slaps Nina.

Because the director is a highly acclaimed filmmaker in the industry, people on the movie set act as if Nina should feel lucky to work with him. And so, Nina starts to second-guess her discomfort at how she is being treated in this very male-dominated and demeaning work environment. Everyone around her acts like this physical abuse is “normal,” so Nina doesn’t complain about it. It’s also her very first feature film, and she doesn’t want to be perceived as a “difficult person,” which could ruin other career opportunities for her.

At a New Year’s dinner with her family (including her parents, aunts and uncles), they give a toast to Nina to congratulate her on the movie role and wish her success. But as Nina’s career seems to be taking off and she gets some media attention for being cast in the movie, she becomes more miserable inside. Nina’s movie is expected to be a critically acclaimed hit, but this possibility of becoming a famous actress doesn’t bring Nina the true happiness that she expected.

Nina doesn’t say it out loud, but she’s thinking about how her family might react when they find out about the explicit sex scenes that she has in the movie. And she wonders how this high-profile role might affect how she’s perceived in the entertainment industry. Will she be typecast as someone who does sexually explicit performances? Nina is also having nightmares that a woman is chasing her in a life-threatening way.

On the movie set for one of the sex scenes, the director says that the scene is supposed to convey the hopelessness of life. Far from being passionate, the scene is coldly and clinically choreographed. In a set-up for a threesome in the movie, Nina and two male actors pose in sexual positions to test the lighting and are told not to show any emotions while posing.

Instead of feeing like a glamorous movie star, Nina feels like an exploited piece of meat. Nina has no real friends in Taipei, so she turns to a longtime friend of hers named Kiki (played by Sung Yu-Hua, also known as Vivian Sung), a school teacher she knows from her hometown. Nina confides in Kiki about a dream that she had where Oscar-winning actress Nicole Kidman told Nina to hold on to a tree during a storm. And then, Kidman disappeared and Nina was washed away in the storm.

Kidman was probably in Nina’s dream because in real life, Kidman has done several nude/sex scenes in her career. Kidman is often named as an example of a highly respected and versatile actress who’s able to do big-budget studio films and edgier independent films. The storm in the dream is a metaphor for the inner turmoil that Nina feels about doing the sex scenes in the movie. And it’s a problematic situation where Kidman isn’t going to come to Nina’s rescue.

There’s something else that Nina has to come to terms with as she deals with her conflicted feelings about starring in this sexually explicit movie: Nina is a lesbian and she’s in love with Kiki. Nina’s family doesn’t know about her true sexuality. Ultimately, Nina has to decide if she wants to live openly as a lesbian and how she wants to handle her feelings for Kiki.

In the midst of these issues in her love life and career, Nina has to deal with some crises in her family. Her father’s factory has gone bankrupt and her mother (played by Wang Chuan) has a heart attack. Nina then visits her hometown to help her family during this difficult time. And it should come as no surprise that Nina sees Kiki again during this visit.

The movie-within-a-movie part of “Nina Wu” offers some chilling parallels to the character that Nina plays on screen and who she is off-screen. Both Nina and her on-screen character are tortured in some way by love and sexuality. “Nina Wu” takes a very dark turn toward the end of the film when it shows how women are often pitted against each other by rich and powerful men for their own perverse pleasures. Nina and some other actresses who were in a group of auditioners, including a woman identified in the credits by the name Girl No. 3 (played by Hsia Yu-Chiao), are abused in this sick and twisted game.

Not all the villains in the story are men, because the movie shows that some women can be just as complicit or active in sexual misconduct as men can be. However, within the realm of the entertainment industry, as depicted in “Nina Wu,” men tend to have the most money and power. What’s most haunting about the movie is that the sexual harassment and other degradation portrayed in the movie are all too-often what many desperate and vulnerable people experience in real life when predators abuse their power and exploit people who want to achieve their dreams.

Film Movement released “Nina Wu” in New York City on March 26, 2021. The movie’s release expands to more cinemas in U.S. cities and on digital and VOD on April 2, 2021. The DVD release date in May 18, 2021.

Review: ‘The Fallout,’ starring Jenna Ortega, Maddie Ziegler, Niles Fitch, Will Ropp, Shailene Woodley, Julie Bowen and John Ortiz

March 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jenna Ortega and Maddie Ziegler in “The Fallout” (Photo by Kristen Correll)

“The Fallout”

Directed by Megan Park

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in California’s Los Angeles County, the dramatic film “The Fallout” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Latino, white and African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: After experiencing a devastating school shooting, a teenage girl, her schoolmates and her family have different ways of coping with this tragedy.

Culture Audience: “The Fallout” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted and realistically written dramas about how a mass murder has psychological effects on survivors, particularly young people.

Jenna Ortega and Maddie Ziegler (Photo by Kristin Correll)

There have been several documentaries about how survivors of school shootings in the U.S. are coping with these tragedies. “The Fallout” is a fictional drama, but the movie achieves a rare balancing act of handling this sensitive subject matter with realistic emotions and above-average acting. What makes the movie also stand out is that it’s not a non-stop barrage of depression. It’s able to convey, with occasional touches of levity, how life can go on for survivors, even if their lives will no longer be the same.

Written and directed by Megan Park, “The Fallout” had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival, where it won the top jury prize as the best movie in the narrative feature competition. Writer/director Park, who made her feature-film directorial debut with “The Fallout,” also won the 2021 SXSW Film Festival’s Brightcove Illumination Award, given to a filmmaker on the rise. Park previously directed music videos, such as Billie Eilish’s “Watch.” Eilish’s brother/musical collaborator Finneas O’Connell wrote “The Fallout” musical score.

The beginning of “The Fallout” gives the appearance of being a typical teenage story. The movie’s protagonist Vada Cavell (played by Jenna Ortega, in a standout performance) and her openly gay best friend Nick Feinstein (played by Will Ropp) are driving in Nick’s car to their high school. They live in an unnamed city in California’s Los Angeles County. (The movie was filmed in Los Angeles.)

Vada (pronounced “vay-da”) and Nick appear to be 16 or 17 years old, probably in their third year of high school. If they were in their last year of high school, movies like this would make a point of telling the audiences that these students are high-school seniors because Vada and her classmates would be talking about their plans after they graduate. All of the main characters in the movie come from stable, middle-class homes.

Vada and Nick have the type of comfortable rapport that best friends have with each other, where they discuss things they wouldn’t talk about with just anyone. In their conversation while going to school, Nick and Vada talk about drinking coffee, which leads to Vada mentioning that coffee gives her the urge to defecate. Vada and Nick laugh and say that they should have a code for that bodily function when they talk about it in front of other people.

When Vada and Nick arrive at school, it seems like it’s going to be a normal day. The biggest problem that Vada thinks she’ll have to deal with that day is how to comfort her younger sister Amelia (played by Lumi Pollack), who has texted Vada a “911” emergency alert while Vada is in one of her classrooms. Vada quickly excuses herself from class to go in the hallway and call back Amelia, who attends another school and appears to be about 13 years old. Amelia is hiding by herself in one of her school’s restrooms.

It turns out that Amelia called because she’s surprised and embarrassed that she got her first menstrual period while in school, and she’s confused about how to handle it. Vada mildly scolds Amelia for scaring Vada into thinking it was a real emergency. Vada calms Amelia down and gives her a “big sister pep talk” on what do next. And like any good older sister would do, Vada offers to take Amelia out for a meal after school, so they can talk some more about this milestone in Amelia’s physical growth toward womanhood.

Feeling satisfied that she handled the situation correctly, Vada then goes into the ladies’ restroom. She sees a fellow classmate named Mia Reed (played by Maddie Zeigler) doing her own makeup in the restroom mirror. Based on the way that Vada stares at Mia, Vada is slightly in awe of Mia, who has the look of an Instagram model and a reputation at school for being somewhat of a social media influencer. The other students talk about Mia as if she’s a mysterious and glamorous loner, who gives the impression that she’s more sophisticated than the average student in high school.

Mia comments to Vada: “Photo day,” to explain why she’s doing her makeup instead of being in class. Vada replies before she goes into a stall, “I’ve got to get my shit together.” It’s Vada’s way of saying that she thinks she should pay more attention to her own hair, makeup and wardrobe. When Vada comes out of the stall, she says to Mia as a compliment, “You don’t even need to wear makeup.” And that’s when they both hear gunshots.

During the next six minutes of terror, which are shown from the point of view of the students trapped in this restroom, viewers can hear that people in the school are being killed by a gun. There are screams and cries for help amid the gunshots. This violence is never shown on camera because it doesn’t need to be. It’s a massacre that has occurred all too-often in real life.

Vada and Mia hide in the same bathroom stall together and stand up on the toilet, in case the shooter comes in and looks for feet underneath the stalls. As Mia and Vada clutch each other in horror, someone bursts into the room in the stall next to them. At first, the girls think it’s the shooter, but it’s really a fellow classmate named Quinton Hasland (played by Niles Fitch), who quickly identifies himself.

Mia and Vada tell Quinton that he can hide with them in the same stall. The girls are shocked to see that Quinton’s clothes are covered in blood spatter. He tells them that he hasn’t been shot, but he’s panicking because he witnessed his brother getting shot. Quinton is understandably anguished over the decision to run for his life or stay behind to try to help his brother.

The movie doesn’t show how long Vada, Mia and Quinton were crouched in fear in the bathroom stall. Nor does “The Fallout” show what happened when the police and medical emergency teams arrived. A visual clue later in the movie indicates that eight people died in this massacre.

And “The Fallout” isn’t about what happened to the shooter and why he committed this heinous crime, except to indicate that he was a male student from the school. The shooter is never seen or heard in the movie, although his name is mentioned in one of the movie’s most emotionally powerful scenes. It’s implied that the shooter died at the scene, most likely by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The rest of the film is from Vada’s perspective about how Vada, Mia, Quinton, Nick and Vada’s immediate family (her parents and Amelia) deal with the aftermath of tragedy, including coping with survivor’s guilt. Vada goes into school-appointed counseling with an empathetic therapist named Anna (played by Shailene Woodley), who tries to break down the emotional walls that Vada puts up in their first few sessions together. Vada tries to persuade Anna that she’s doing as well as she can in her recovery.

In her first session with Anna, Vada talks about how she sleeps up to 14 hours a day, but insists (not very convincingly) to Anna that it’s only a few more hours of sleep per day that was part of her normal routine before the shooting. Vada gives this self-evaluation of her personality: “I feel like I’m very good at managing my emotions. I’m very low-key and chill.” Anna patiently advises without sounding judgmental: “It’s really good to show your emotions.”

Despite what Vada told Anna, there are signs that Vada isn’t coping well at all. When Vada is awake in bed, she shivers and twitches in fear. Her excessive sleeping is a sign of depression. And when her parents—Carlos (played by John Ortiz) and Patricia (played by Julie Bowen)—try to talk to Vada about what happened, she shuts them down and tells them that she’s going to be fine. Vada avoids her family by sleeping in her room as much as she can.

During family time together, such as during meals, Amelia talks as if nothing bad really happened, perhaps in a way to try to get things back to normal. But based on Vada’s angry reactions to Amelia’s nonchalant small talk, Vada is offended that Amelia acts oblivious to how this tragedy is affecting Vada. Although Vada doesn’t want to open up to her family about what she’s going through, she doesn’t want them to completely act as if the school shooting didn’t happen either.

Shortly after the massacre, Vada found out that the shooter (whom she didn’t know) had followed Vada on Instagram. It’s a small detail, but how Vada reacts when she finds out is indicative of how she doesn’t like to show many of her emotions on the surface. She expresses some surprise, but then is quick to add that she never knew the guy and never followed him on social media. Her response is to brush it off, but deep down, this information must be disturbing to her.

After the shooting, Mia and Vada begin texting each other and become each other’s confidants. Mia invites Vada over to her house (it’s here that it’s obvious that Mia’s family has more money than Vada’s family), and this invitation leads to Vada going to Mia’s place for regular visits. Both girls are afraid to go back to school, but Mia’s anxiety is more severe, since she tells Vada that she’s afraid to leave her bedroom. Because of Vada’s visits, Mia gets over that fear and the fear of leaving her house.

Mia’s gay fathers, who are successful artists, are away in Japan on business. Mia, who is an only child, keeps in touch with them by phone, but they are never shown in the house with Mia. It’s implied that they leave Mia alone a lot, which is why she’s more independent than most of her teenage peers. But it’s also made her lonely, and it explains why she quickly bonds with Vada. After the school shooting, Mia’s parents grant Mia’s request to not go back to the school and to be homeschooled instead.

Vada is intrigued by Mia because before they became friends, she had a perception of Mia of being somewhat of a “badass,” based on Mia’s dance videos that Vada watches on the Internet. The first time that Mia and Vada hang out together, Vada remarks that in real life, Mia is very different than what Vada expected: “In the videos, you come off as so hard.” Vada is pleasantly surprised at how nice and down-to-earth Mia is when interacting with her. When Vada expresses anxiety about going to the funeral of Quinton’s brother, Mia offers to go to the funeral with Vada.

Because of what they went through together during the school shooting, Mia and Vada feel like they can openly talk to each other about it. During one such conversation, it’s revealed that while Vada’s way of dealing with the trauma is excessive sleeping, Mia’s anxiety has resulted in insomnia. Vada asks Mia, “Did you have the craziest nightmares last night?” Mia replies, “You have to be able to sleep to have nightmares.”

Mia is seemingly more confident than Vada, but Mia has her insecurities too. Mia guzzles wine and liquor and she smokes marijuana to block out whatever emotional pain she’s experiencing. Vada gets caught up in drinking alcohol and smoking weed with Mia.

And there’s a memorable scene in the movie where Vada impulsively tries Ecstasy for the first time when she’s at school. While flying high on Ecstasy, she gets blue ink from a pen all over her face, and she has trouble navigating her way down a flight of stairs. It’s one of the few scenes in “The Fallout” that’s intended to be funny. “The Fallout” infuses this slapstick comedy into the story as a way to show that life after a school shooting isn’t all gloom and doom for the survivors.

However, the movie also authentically shows in a non-judgmental way that drug use is often a coping mechanism for trauma survivors. Not much is shown or discussed about what Mia’s drug/alcohol use was like before the school shooting. But there are definite references to Vada being a good student before the shooting. Her “good girl” image begins to tarnish after the shooting took place when her grades start to slip, and she shows signs of minor delinquency.

Despite her occasional acts of teenage rebellion, there are signs that Vada identifies more with nerd culture. Vada mentions in a therapy session with Anna is that she has a celebrity crush on actor Paul Dano, who usually plays soft-spoken, geeky characters. And in a conversation between Vada and Mia, they ask each other if they prefer Drake as a sex-symbol rapper or when he portrayed a basketball-star-turned-misfit-paraplegic teen in the TV series “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” Mia and Vada both agree they prefer the wheelchair “Degrassi” version of Drake.

Vada’s parents try to do the best that they can to help her cope with the shooting tragedy, but Vada tends to avoid them. Vada’s relationship with her mother Patricia has more tension (Vada describes Patricia as “uptight”) than the relationship that Vada has with her father Carlos. There are also hints that some of this tension is because Vada thinks that Patricia prefers Amelia over Vada.

There’s a scene in the movie that exemplifies this tension. Vada sees Patricia and Amelia joking around together in the kitchen. Amelia and Patricia don’t see Vada though. Vada looks sad and a little jealous as she observes them and then walks away.

And in an earlier scene, Patricia tells Vada: “All I want is what’s best for you. I want to see that sparkle back.” Vada looks insulted by that comment, and then tells Patricia, as a way to hurt her mother emotionally: “You know that Amelia got her period?” Patricia looks surprised and says, “When?” Vada than smugly replies, “Like forever ago. I guess she just didn’t want you to know.”

But Vada is keeping secrets too. She doesn’t tell her family about her friendship with Mia. And as Vada spends more time with Mia, they become closer in a way that indicates that their relationship will become more than a friendship. Vada also expresses a sexual attraction to Quinton. (This isn’t spoiler information because it’s in the movie’s trailer.)

Vada doesn’t define her sexuality in this movie, but at one point in the story, she describes herself as a socially awkward virgin, and she expresses some disdain at the thought of herself having a husband in the future. It’s interesting that the two people who are her possible love interests are also the ones who were hiding with her in the restroom during the school shooting. The movie leaves it open to interpretation if Vada showing a romantic attraction to them after the shooting was a direct result of this shared trauma or if she was already attracted to them anyway.

Meanwhile, Kevin and Vada start to become distant from each other. He’s aware that Vada is spending more time with Mia. But he’s become an anti-gun-violence activist (there are scenes of Kevin doing things that will remind people of the real-life David Hogg), while Vada avoids going to the activist rallies that Kevin now enthusiastically attends. Vada admits to Mia that she feels a little guilty over not doing more to speak out against gun violence. But the movie shows that, just like in real life, not every survivor of a gun shooting is going to become an activist.

Before Vada’s life was turned upside down, she was closest to Kevin, her sister Amelia, her father Carlos and her mother Patricia. After the shooting, the movie shows an emotionally resonant moment that Vada has with each of them, as she comes to terms with how she’s changed since the tragedy and how her relationship with each of them has changed. When Vada has a heart-to-heart talk with her father, she says something that rings true to anyone who’s survived a mass shooting: “I had no idea one guy with a gun could fuck up my life so hard in six minutes.”

What will stick with people who watch “The Fallout” is how the main characters in the story seem like they could be based on real people, thanks to writer/director Park’s terrific handling of this story and the superb acting by the cast members. It’s not an easy thing to do a coming-of-age drama about people affected by a school massacre. And the last five minutes of “The Fallout” is a harrowing example about how “getting back to normal” is something that’s hard to define and even harder to experience.

UPDATE: HBO Max will premiere “The Fallout” on a date to be announced. Warner Bros. Pictures will release “The Fallout” in countries where HBO Max is not available.