Review: ‘The Exorcist: Believer,’ starring Leslie Odom Jr., Lidya Jewett, Olivia O’Neill, Jennifer Nettles, Norbert Leo Butz, Ann Dowd and Ellen Burstyn

October 4, 2023

by Carla Hay

Lidya Jewett and Olivia O’Neill in “The Exorcist: Believer” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“The Exorcist: Believer”

Directed by David Gordon Green

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror film “The Exorcist: Believer” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two 13-year-old girls, who are best friends, go missing for three days, return home, and are later found to be possessed by evil spirits. 

Culture Audience: “The Exorcist: Believer” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “The Exorcist” franchise, but it’s another disappointing sequel in the series.

Leslie Odom Jr. and Ellen Burstyn in “The Exorcist: Believer” (Photo by Eli Joshua Adé/ Universal Pictures)

“The Exorcist: Believer” will make you lose faith that there can ever be a movie in this series as outstanding as 1973’s Oscar-winning “The Exorcist.” This sad excuse for a sequel is a mishmash of exorcism clichés, disjointed scenes and underdeveloped characters. It’s not a good sign when the best part of the movie is the ending, which has a not-very-surprising but still welcome cameo from a familiar character.

Directed by David Gordon Green, “The Exorcist: Believer” (co-written by Green and Peter Sattler) begins with showing how two 13-year-old girls who are best friends—Angela Fielding (played by Lidya Jewett) and Katherine West (played by Olivia O’Neill, also known as Olivia Marcum)—go missing for three days. When they are found together—dazed and confused in someone’s barn—Angela and Katherine are returned home to their worried but relieved parents, who then find out something even more disturbing than Angela and Katherine not knowing why they disappeared for three days: Angela and Katherine have been possessed by evil spirits.

Angela’s widower father Victor Fielding (played by Leslie Odom Jr.) has lost his faith in religion, ever since his wife died while giving birth to Angela in 2010, during the massive earthquake that hit Haiti. By contrast, Katherine’s parents Miranda West (played by Jennifer Nettles) and Tony West (played by Norbert Leo Butz) are very religious Christians who go to church on a regular basis. Victor has a nosy neighbor named Ann Brooks (played by Ann Dowd), who happens to be a hospital nurse and an amateur exorcist.

What does all of this really mean? It’s just an excuse for repetitive scenes of Victor resisting any spiritual explanation for what’s wrong with Angela, until he eventually gives in and contacts exorcism expert/author Chris MacNeil (played by Ellen Burstyn), the mother of the possessed adolescent in the first “Exorcist” movie. Chris is now estranged from her daughter Regan, who was 12 years old when Regan underwent an exorcism. Chris mentions in “The Exorcist: Believer” that she doesn’t even know where Regan lives.

“The Exorcist: Believer” is Burstyn’s first appearance in an “Exorcist” movie since “The Exorcist.” Whatever salary Burstyn was paid, it doesn’t compensate for the creatively bankrupt “The Exorcist: Believer,” which doesn’t give her much to do as Chris MacNeil but stand around or talk about what she knows about exorcism. There’s a violent scene involving Chris that will upset some fans of the first “Exorcist” movie because of what happens to Chris in this scene.

Green also convinced Jamie Lee Curtis (star of the original 1978 “Halloween” movie) to do a trio of “Halloween” sequels that he directed and co-wrote: 2018’s “Halloween” (very good), 2021’s “Halloween Kills” (awful) and 2022’s “Halloween Ends” (even worse). With “The Exorcist Believer,” Green has now tarnished Burstyn’s legacy for this franchise. Chris should have had at least as much screen time as Victor, who has only a few scenes where he gets to show some emotional range. For the most part, Victor is a one-note character.

And forget about having any memorable clergy characters in “The Exorcist: Believer.” All of the clergy in this shallow movie are generic as generic can be. The priest who gets the most screen time is Father Maddox (played by E.J. Bonilla), who is very wishy-washy about getting involved in this exorcism. At first, he’s dead-set against it, but then he changes his mind in a very poorly explained part of the movie. Two other clergymen are in the mix—Pentecostal preacher Stuart (played by Danny McCarthy) and Baptist pastor Don Revans (played by Raphael Sbarge)—but they are mostly useless characters, since they are not spiritually ordained, such as a priest, minister or rabbi.

Another vaguely written character is Dr. Beehibe (played by Okwui Okpokwasili), a root doctor, who gets involved in the exorcism. Ann and Dr. Beehibe know each other, which is how Dr. Beehibe is introduced to the parents of the demon-possessed Angela and Katherine, who do the usual hissing, scowling, and talking in deep-toned voices that are not their own. Dr. Beehibe does things in time-wasting scenes, such as draw occult-like circles, talk about herbs, and chant in forgettable rituals. She becomes the leader of the exorcism, but the movie does a terrible job of explaining why Dr. Beehibe is supposed to be more capable than spiritually ordained clergy to cast out demons.

In “The Exorcist: Believer,” the jump scares and exorcism scenes are dull and stereotypical. All of the cast members give mediocre performances that are slightly better than the lackluster screenplay and haphazard direction. The last scene (with the not-so-surprise appearance) in “The Exorcist: Believer” is the best scene, which will leave viewers thinking that the last scene would have made a much better movie than the rest of “The Exorcist: Believer.”

Universal Pictures will release “The Exorcist: Believer” in U.S. cinemas on October 6, 2023.

Review: ‘Better Nate Than Ever,’ starring Rueby Wood, Aria Brooks, Lisa Kudrow, Joshua Bassett, Norbert Leo Butz and Michelle Federer

April 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rueby Wood (center) in “Better Nate Than Ever” (Photo by David Lee/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

“Better Nate Than Ever”

Directed by Tim Federle

Culture Representation: Taking place in Pittsburgh and New York City, the comedy/drama “Better Nate Than Ever” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 13-year-old boy, who dreams of becoming a star of musicals, temporarily runs away with his best friend from their hometown of Pittsburgh to New York City, so that they can audition for prominent roles in the Broadway show “Lilo & Stitch: The Musical.”

Culture Audience: “Better Nate Than Ever” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in sentimental, family-friendly stories about finding one’s identity and self-acceptance.

Aria Brooks and Rueby Wood in “Better Nate Than Ever” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

The comedy/drama “Better Nate Than Ever” is an unapologetically sentimental love letter to musical theater geeks and anyone struggling with self-esteem issues. Everything in the movie is entirely predictable, but the movie is so earnest in its heartwarming intentions, most viewers will be charmed by it. People who have a deep hatred of musical theater or schmaltzy stories about kids who love performing will think “Better Nate Than Ever” is very irritating, so it’s best to avoid this movie if sounds like it isn’t worth your time.

Written and directed by Tim Federle, “Better Nate Than Ever” is adapted from his 2013 novel of the same name. Federle is also the showrunner of the Disney+ series “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” Federle has said in many interviews that the title character of Nathan “Nate” Foster, who is 13 years old, is inspired by who Federle was when he was around the same age. In the book and in the movie, Nate is an unabashed fanatic of musicals. His biggest dream in life is to star in a Broadway musical.

Nate (played by Rueby Wood) lives in Pittsburgh with his parents Rex Foster (played by Norbert Leo Butz) and Sherrie Foster (played by Michelle Federer) and Nate’s brother Anthony Foster (played Joshua Bassett), who’s about 16 or 17 years old. Anthony is a popular athlete at his high school, and he thinks that musicals are a “wimpy” interest for boys to have. Nate has no interest in sports, and he’s somewhat of a social outcast at his middle school. Anthony sometimes acts like he’s embarrassed that Nate is his brother, and this type of rejection hurts Nate, but Nate tries not to let his hurt emotions show.

Nate’s best friend (and his only friend) at school is outspoken, confident and sassy Libby (played by Aria Brooks), who is the about the same age as Nate. Libby is also Nate’s biggest supporter in pursuing his dream of becoming a Broadway musical star. She has an interest in performing too, but she’s not as passionate about it as Nate is. Libby is very good at giving advice and coming up with ideas, so Nate often relies on her when he’s got a problem that he needs to solve or if he needs pep talks.

At school, Nate (who likes to wear lip gloss) is predictably the target of bullying. When Nate tries to take a seat on a school bus, a male student (played by Alex Barber) blocks Nate and sneers, “No more girls in this row.” When the bully steals Nate’s lucky rabbit’s foot, Nate fights back by hitting him. Nate gets more bullying in a few other parts of the movie.

Nate is the type of musical aficionado who can recite musical trivia by heart. He frequently sings songs from musicals out loud, and he practices his dance moves in front of mirrors at home. Nate’s school is staging a production called “Lincoln: The Unauthorized Rock Musical.” Nate has auditioned for the lead role of Abraham Lincoln. This audition is not shown in the movie, which opens on the day that Nate will find out if he was chosen for the role.

Nate is crushed when the casting results are posted, and he didn’t get the starring role that he desperately wanted. The teacher who made the decision tactfully tells Nate that Nate isn’t experienced enough to handle the lead role in this musical. As a consolation, Nate is offered the role of a background singer/dancer.

Around the time that Nate gets this disappointing news, Libby tells Nate about upcoming open auditions in New York City for the Broadway production “Lilo & Stitch: The Musical,” which will have a cast of mostly underage kids. Nate and Libby think it’s a good idea for them to audition for this Broadway musical. (In the “Better Nate Than Ever” book, Nate runs away to New York City to audition for “E.T.: The Musical.”)

And it just so happens that Nate’s parents Rex and Sherrie will be in West Virginia that weekend for a romantic getaway to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Anthony will be out of town that weekend for a sports meet. Nate and Libby hatch a plan to pretend that Nate will be staying at her house. Instead, Nate and Libby sneak off and take a bus to New York City to go to the auditions.

It’s never really mentioned what Nate’s parents do for a living, but the Fosters are a middle-class family who are going through a financial rough spot because Rex is currently unemployed. Sherrie is estranged from her older sister Heidi (played by Lisa Kudrow), who lives in New York City’s Queens borough. The two sisters no longer speak to each other because Sherrie thinks that Heidi abandoned the family to pursue a career on Broadway.

Meanwhile, Nate has a lot of admiration for Heidi and wishes that he could be just like Heidi. After a series of mishaps, Nate and Libby make it to the auditions, only to find out that an underage kid who auditions needs an adult guardian, for legal reasons. It just so happens that Heidi is available, and she reluctantly agrees to be the adult guardian for Nate and Libby.

Libby decides that being a performer isn’t really for her, so she decides to go back home to Pittsburgh, while Nate continues his pursuit of his Broadway dreams, with some help from Heidi. Nate finds out the reality that Heidi’s life isn’t as glamorous as Nate thought it was. Heidi is a struggling actress who lives alone in a small, one-bedroom apartment. She works for a catering company to pay her bills.

Nate turns out to be a plucky and optimistic kid who forges ahead, despite obstacles that get in his way. Many of these challenges test his confidence, but his love of performing is too strong for any skeptics and roadblocks to deter him. When Libby is away from Nate, she keeps in touch with him by phone to get updates on his audition journey.

Heidi is the type of person who starts off thinking that she’s not very good at taking care of kids. But as Nate and Heidi get to know each other better, they develop a newfound respect for each other. Heidi and Nate also begin to understand that the estrangement between Heidi and her sister Sherrie had repercussions on the family that went beyond the two sisters’ relationship with each other.

“Better Nate Than Ever” has some slapstick comedy that can be very corny, but it’s what you might expect from a Disney film. What isn’t typical for a Disney film is how the movie addresses Nate’s sexual identity without anyone in the movie ever giving Nate any specific identity labels. At 13 years old, Nate is too young to date anyone, by most standards.

However, there are signs that Nate and his loved ones know that he’s not heterosexual. People in his life describe him as “different” and not interested in dating girls. At various points in the movie, Nate goes out of his way to get merchandise in the style of the rainbow flag, which is the universal symbol for the LGBTQ+ community. For example, while he’s in New York City, Nate buys a rainbow-colored rabbit’s foot as a lucky charm.

“Better Nate Than Ever” shows these obvious signs without being preachy or heavy-handed about it. It’s all just presented as part of Nate’s natural identity. And although Nate gets some bullying for being “effeminate,” he embraces who he is and doesn’t try to change for anyone. That’s a positive message for people who go through life thinking that they have to pretend to be something they’re not, in order to be accepted.

As for the musical numbers, they are very contrived but play into fantasies that anyone might have of being the star of a musical. One of the standout musical scenes is when Nate attracts a crowd in Times Square as he does an impromptu performance of George Benson’s 1978 hit “On Broadway.” It’s a very corny scene but also very cute. Benson makes a cameo appearance as himself during this Times Square performance. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

“Better Nate Than Never” has some obvious cross-marketing promotion of the real-life New Amsterdam Theatre, which is owned by Disney and is home to all of Disney’s Broadway musicals. In “Better Nate Than Ever,” the “Lilo & Stitch” musical’s final auditions take place at the New Amsterdam Theatre. The “Better Nate Than Ever” movie seems like it’s a marketing test to gauge public interest in Disney making the 2002 Disney animated film “Lilo & Stitch” into a Broadway musical in real life, since Disney has turned many of Disney’s hit animated movies into Broadway musicals.

“Better Nate Than Ever” is the feature-film debut of Wood, who makes a lasting impression as the effervescent and talented Nate. This is a movie where the casting choices make a huge difference in how likable the characters are, because it’s obvious that Wood lives and breathes musicals as much as Nate does. Most people can’t really fake that kind of passion. Wood is also a fantastic singer who really does look like he was born to star in a Broadway musical. In addition to “On Broadway,” he sings the show-stopping: “No One Gets Left Behind” (written by Lyndie Lane), and he performs a monologue from “Designing Women.”

Brooks brings her own unique pizzazz to her role as Nate’s best friend Libby, a character who is thankfully not written as just another two-dimensional sidekick. Libby goes through her own journey of self-identity and figuring out what her passion and talents are in life. Libby is also a good “reality check” to Nate when he gets too hyper or too sarcastic. A recurring comment she makes to Nate to watch his tone of voice is to tell him calmly, “Nate: Tone.”

Kudrow also does nicely in the movie as Nate’s aunt Heidi, who finds a kindred spirit in Nate because of his love of theater performing. Nate sees Heidi as a role model, but she feels like a misfit and a failure. Through Nate’s perspective, Heidi’s self-confidence is boosted when she begins to understand how her life has inspired someone in ways that she didn’t even think were possible. The tensions between Heidi and Sherrie are eventually dealt with exactly how you think they will be dealt with in this type of family-oriented movie, as are the tensions between brothers Nate and Anthony.

“Better Nate Than Ever” sticks to a familiar formula, but there are elements to the movie that are truly unique and heartfelt. Federle obviously wanted to make a movie that could speak to people who have ever felt misunderstood, rejected or doubted because of who they are. Despite a lot of cloying moments in “Better Nate Than Ever,” the movie succeeds in its intended message to celebrate people for being their authentic selves.

Disney+ premiered “Better Nate Than Ever” on April 1, 2022.

Review: ‘Flag Day,’ starring Dylan Penn and Sean Penn

August 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sean Penn and Dylan Penn in “Flag Day” (Photo courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc.)

“Flag Day”

Directed by Sean Penn

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Minnesota, the dramatic film “Flag Day” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman reflects on the troubled relationship that she’s had with her con-man father, who has been in and out of her life. 

Culture Audience: “Flag Day” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of director/star Sean Penn, but this movie is an erratic mix of monotony and melodrama, adding up to disappointing filmmaking.

Dylan Penn in “Flag Day” (Photo courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc.)

“Flag Day” should’ve been titled “Daddy Issues in a Self-Indulgent Movie.” That should save people the trouble of wasting their time if they don’t want to see this rambling, uneven mess. Everything about this movie—from the acting to the screenwriting to the directing—could have been so much better, given the level of talent involved. Sadly, “Flag Day” is an example of what can happen when people capable of award-winning work just seem to be coasting off of those past glories instead of delivering a truly outstanding project.

Directed by Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn, “Flag Day” is the sixth feature film that he’s directed but the first in which he’s both the director and a star. “The Flag Day” screenplay, written by brothers Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, is based on journalist Jennifer Vogel’s memoir “Flim-Flam Man.” In real life, Jennifer’s father John Vogel was a notorious con man who was responsible for counterfeiting millions of dollars.

In “Flag Day,” Jennifer (played by Dylan Penn, the real-life daughter of Sean Penn and his second ex-wife Robin Wright) is the narrator and is supposed to be the story’s main character. However, she’s overshadowed by her father John (played by Sean Penn), even when he isn’t on screen, because the filmmakers make the Jennifer character someone who’s constantly thinking about and reacting to whatever her father does. It very off-putting because it’s yet another movie where toxic masculinity is given more importance and more forgiveness than the woman at the center of the story while she’s supposed to be finding her own identity.

There’s a half-hearted attempt at a “female empowerment” message during the last five minutes of the film. But it smacks of insincerity because she only arrives at this breakthrough not through her own choice but because she’s been forced to do so under some very disturbing circumstances where she has no other option. And the way she finds out that she has no choice is one of the worst scenes in the movie.

“Flag Day” gets its title because John was born on Flag Day. It’s another sign that this movie wants to be more about John than about Jennifer. As Jennifer says in her voiceover narration, because John was born on Flag Day, he likes to believe that any Flag Day parades and celebrations are really for him. Get ready for more narcissism and delusions of grandeur, because John is the epitome of these obnoxious personality traits.

The movie shows Jennifer at various stages in her life, from childhood to adulthood, in chronological order. The exception is the opening scene, which takes place in a police station when Jennifer is an adult in her 20s. She’s meeting with someone named U.S. Marshal Blake (played by Regina King), who shows Jennifer some of the evidence that law enforcement has against John for his counterfeiting activities. According to U.S. Marshal Blake, John passed more than $50,000 in counterfeit U.S. bills and had printed about $2 million worth of more counterfeit bills. For his forgeries, John was facing a maximum of 75 years in prison.

U.S. Marshal Blake seems sympathetic to Jennifer and confides in her that her own father “poked so many holes in his arm” (in order words, he was a needle-using drug addict) “that it was like a rehearsal for the ultimate rejection.” U.S. Marshal Blake adds, “We get used to it, don’t we?” The movie circles back to this scene with U.S. Marshal Blake toward the end of the film, as viewers find out what happened to John after he was caught for his forgery.

But in between, the rest of the story is about how John held Jennifer as an emotional hostage for much of her life—even when she didn’t know it. Because the movie is supposed to be told from Jennifer’s perspective, her childhood memories of John tend to be rosier than what he deserved. There are obvious clues that things were not as wonderful as Jennifer remembers.

The movie’s flashback timeline begins in the early 1970s, when a 6-year-old Jennifer (played by Addison Tymec), who grew up in Minnesota, has memories of her parents being free spirits who liked to party and go on road trips. Jennifer remembers her father as the more fun-loving parent. John and his wife Patty Vogel (played by Katheryn Winnick) moved around a lot with Jennifer and her introverted brother Nick (played by Cole Flynn), who is two years younger than Jennifer. As Jennifer tells it, she began to think that if her life were a fairytale, her father would definitely be a prince.

In reality, John had trouble making an honest living. He jumped around from one “get rich quick” scheme to the next, always with the promise that the latest one would be the one to make their dreams come true. And he also got involved with shady people, often owing large sums of money. If John showed up at home looking like he was in a fight, chances are it was because of his debts.

The movie shows that as a child, Jennifer also witnessed John verbally and physically abuse Patty. But as many children in abusive homes tend to do, they block out the worst memories. Jennifer still thought of her father as her hero. There’s a scene of reckless John teaching Jennifer at around 11 or 12 years old (played by Jadyn Rylee) how to drive, by having her sit on his lap to operate the car, even though she could barely reach the gas pedal and brake pedal. Tymec and Rylee are quite good in their roles as childhood Jennifer.

John’s con games and irresponsible lifestyle eventually took a toll on his marriage to Patty, who became an alcoholic. Patty left John around the time that Jennifer was 13 years old and Nick (played by Beckam Crawford) was about 11 years old. The couple eventually divorced. Because of Patty’s alcoholism, there’s a brief period of time when Jennifer and Nick live with John and his girlfriend Debbie (played by Bailey Noble), who treats the kids well. The children get a first-hand look at John’s outlaw lifestyle.

Because Jennifer idolizes her father, she blames Patty for the couple’s divorce. When Patty tries to warn Jennifer about how much John can be hurtful, Jennifer always dismisses these warnings. More than once, Patty tells Jennifer that she “knows things” about John that she can’t tell Jennifer. Those secrets are never revealed in the movie, but they don’t really have to be disclosed because enough is shown about John to prove what a lousy person he is.

The only other Vogel family members who are shown in the movie are John’s brother Beck (played by Josh Brolin) and their mother Margaret (played by Dale Dickey). Beck is sympathetic to Patty and helps her and the kids get settled into a new place when she decides to leave John. Beck is an intermittent presence in their lives, and he candidly tells Patty how sorry he is that John couldn’t be a better husband and father.

Margaret is a crabby racist who has one scene in the movie, where she complains that John (who is clearly her favorite child) had a great business years ago until it was burned down. Margaret says that she and John think jealous black people were the ones who caused the fire, even though there’s no proof of who committed the arson. Considering John’s history as a con man and his constant money problems, it’s easy to speculate that John was the one who committed the arson for the insurance money.

The movie than fast-forwards to 1981. Jennifer is now a rebellious, drug-abusing teenager in high school. Her natural blonde hair is dyed black and styled to look like she’s a Joan Jett wannabe. (It’s an obvious wig though. This movie needed a better hairstyling team.) Jennifer and Nick live with Patty and her boyfriend Doc (played by Norbert Leo Butz), who tries to come across as a respectable, upstanding person. In reality, Doc is a drunk and a sleazeball, who tries to sexually assault Jennifer one night in her bedroom while Patty is asleep.

Jennifer screams and manages to fight him off. The commotion is loud enough to wake up Patty, who goes in the room to find out what all the noise is about. Patty sees how distraught Jennifer is and sees that Doc is on the floor in his underwear. It’s easy to figure out what happened, even though Jennifer is too shocked and/or ashamed to say it out loud. Patty takes Doc’s side and makes the excuse that he was drunk and probably thought he was in the wrong bedroom.

Jennifer’s relationship with her mother is never really the same after that. They have some very angry arguments, where Jennifer expresses outrage that her mother failed to protect her from Doc. It isn’t long before Jennifer runs away from home. Jennifer barely says goodbye to Nick (played by Hopper Jack Penn, Dylan Penn’s real-life brother), who just kind of fades into the background for the rest of the movie. After Jennifer experiences the harshness of living on the streets (the movie doesn’t say for how long), Jennifer decides to show up unannounced at her father John’s place, where he lives alone, and she asks if she can stay with him.

John is reluctant at first, but he eventually agrees. Jennifer also tries to get him to turn his life around. John actually gets a straight-laced sales job in an office. But viewers can easily predict that John, who’s spent most of his adult life as a con man, is eventually going back to his criminal ways. The movie telegraphs it in the opening scene, where Jennifer has the meeting with U.S Marshal Blake about John’s counterfeiting.

After a while, it becomes tiresome to see the same patterns over and over again: Jennifer loves her father, but she can’t really trust him because he’s a pathological liar. They are in and out of each other’s lives. She struggles with deciding whether to give him yet another chance or to completely cut herself off from him.

But here’s the biggest problem with how Jennifer’s story is told in this movie: Even when Jennifer reaches adulthood, John is still portrayed as her unhealthy focus in life. Not once do viewers see if Jennifer had any significant friendships or fell in love—in other words, the movie makes it look like she never established any deep emotional connections or meaningful relationships with anyone besides her father. Jennifer and her brother Nick were close as children, but after she ran away from home, it seems like they were never that close again.

There are montages of Jennifer being a drifter and partying with various people whose names and personalities are never shown in the movie. Eventually, Jennifer decides to get her life together, and she enrolls in the University of Minnesota in 1985. But even that scene looks rushed and phony. She has a meeting with an admissions officer named Dr. Halstead (played by Nigel Fisher), who scolds her for lying on her application about being a high school dropout. At first Jennifer denies it, but then she admits she lied and that she never graduated from high school.

Dr. Halstead takes pity on her and says that if she lied about something like that, then it must mean that she really wants a college education. And just like that, he says that Jennifer can enroll in the university. In reality, university admissions are much more complicated and have more people involved in making the decisions than what’s portrayed in this movie. And telling a big lie on a college application would be automatic grounds for disqualification, unless someone can squeak by because of exceptional intelligence or because the applicant’s family is rich. Jennifer doesn’t fit either description.

“Flag Day” doesn’t know if it wants to be a gritty drama or a hokey soap opera. Jennifer says corny lines in her narration, such as when she makes this comment about her rogue father: “He left a trail of broken glass and broken hearts.” What is this? A Hallmark Channel movie? No, because there’s cursing, drug use and violence.

Sean Penn’s direction tends to be overwrought with close-ups of Dylan Penn’s face, as if Jennifer is a tragic ingenue heroine who has to bear the burdens of her father’s sins. She does an adequate job in her role overall, except in the melodramatic scenes which just look like over-acting. Sean Penn tries to depict John as a lovably messed-up outlaw. But it’s all so unconvincing and too contrived, in order to gloss over the reality of John being an abuser and a racist. Sean Penn does a lot of annoying mugging for the camera in this movie.

While the filmmakers clearly want viewers to feel sympathy for Jennifer, nowhere is it adequately addressed how she did some emotional damage of her own too, when she abandoned her younger brother Nick. The movie doesn’t care to explore how Nick was affected by all of his family trauma. And because “Flag Day” never shows Jennifer having any real friends or lovers, the movie leaves a big question mark about how her dysfunctional childhood affected her personal relationships as an adult.

There’s something very wrong with a movie that’s supposed to be about a young woman’s journey to form her own identity, and yet viewers learn more about who her father hangs out with and dates than they learn about her personal life. It’s a sloppily told story where the filmmakers use a woman’s pain as a “bait and switch” gimmick, when the movie is really a showcase about a man behaving badly.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures released “Flag Day” in select U.S. cinemas on August 20, 2021.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Good Posture’

April 28, 2019

by Carla Hay

"Good Posture"
Emily Mortimer and Grace Van Patten in “Good Posture” (Photo by Savannah Jankaosky)

“Good Posture” 

Directed by Dolly Wells

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.

In this “odd couple” comedy about two opposite people who end up living together as housemates, writer/director Dolly Wells takes on a myriad of issues that drive the story and the jokes. There’s the clash between Generation X and millennials. There’s the clash between old-school literary snobs who write books and tech-obsessed texters who write in abbreviations. There’s the clash between those who like to plan ahead and those who just like to “wing it.” Somehow, Wells makes it all work in “Good Posture” (her first feature film as a director), thanks largely to the movie’s witty dialogue and an engaging, talented cast.

In “Good Posture,” recent film-school graduate Lillian (played by Grace Van Patten) is a New Yorker who suddenly finds herself looking for a place to live, after her boyfriend Nate (played by Gary Richardson) gets fed up with her immaturity and breaks up with her. In an argument that the former couple has in the beginning of the movie, Nate tells Lillian that one of the many quirks she has that gets on his last nerve is that she takes showers without having a towel nearby. Lillian’s self-absorbed, widowed father Neil (played by Norbert Leo Butz), who keeps delaying plans to spend time with her, can’t give her a place to stay because he has recently moved to Paris to be with his French girlfriend.

However, Neil calls in a favor and asks his friend Julia Price (played by Emily Mortimer), a successful novelist with a chilly demeanor, to let Lillian stay at Julia’s place until Lillian can afford a place of her own. In exchange for living in a spare room rent-free in Julia’s home, Lillian has to do the cooking and the cleaning.

Julia, her musician husband Don (played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach), their young son and dog all live in the kind of Brooklyn brownstone that screams “yuppie establishment,” and Julia is very particular about maintaining her tidy and predictable existence. Naturally, Lillian (the queen of messy spontaneity) feels uncomfortable from the get-go, and it isn’t long before Lillian and Julia start clashing with each other. Meanwhile, Don tries to stay neutral. He loves his wife, even though she’s become increasingly distant from him, and he establishes a friendly rapport with Lillian.

Julia’s main claim to fame is her book “Good Posture,” which Lillian hasn’t read yet because she prefers watching movies to reading books. (Julia is naturally appalled that Lillian doesn’t like to read.) Still, Lillian can’t help but be intrigued by Julia, and she decides to start making a documentary about Julia, and enlists some of Julia’s peers and business colleagues to do on-camera interviews. Lillian also recruits an insecure dandy named Sol (hilariously played by John Early) to be her assistant on the project.

As the tension grows between Julia and Lillian, they begin writing notes to each other, in a passive-aggressive way to argue without getting in each other’s faces. Meanwhile, Lillian finds a job as a barista at a local coffee shop, and she awkwardly attempts to get back into the dating pool, knowing that sleepovers could get tricky as long as she’s living at Julia’s place.

There are two potential love interests who come into the picture—Jon (played by Nat Wolff) and George (played by Timm Sharp), but Lillian’s real issue isn’t finding a new boyfriend. Her living arrangement with Julia has sparked a mother/daughter dynamic that makes both women feel uncomfortable because Lillian is still grieving over her dead mother, and Julia’s only child is a son.

As one of the two central characters, Mortimer (who is writer/director Wells’ best friend in real life) does a fine job playing the uptight Julia. As Lillian, Van Patten is a winning standout, because she takes what could be a very annoying character and makes her into someone relatable. It becomes apparent that underneath her biting sarcasm and selfish ways, Lillian is someone who’s very hurt over the loss of her mother and by having a father who isn’t there for her. Most people have known someone just like Lillian—someone who’s still trying to figure out how to handle adult responsibilities while masking some deep emotional pain.

Comedies about “odd couples” usually have similar tropes about how the two opposites learn from each other in ways that they didn’t expect. In that regard, “Good Posture” doesn’t break any new ground, but the performances in the movie are so watchable, that it’s an entertaining ride from beginning to end.

UPDATE: Sparky Pictures will release “Good Posture” in the United Kingdom on VOD on January 26, 2020. Umbrella Entertainment will release “Good Posture” in Australia on VOD on February 5, 2020 and on DVD on February 14, 2020.

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