Review: ‘Foe’ (2023), starring Saoirse Ronan, Paul Mescal and Aaron Pierre

October 1, 2023

by Carla Hay

Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan in “Foe” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Content Services)

“Foe” (2023)

Directed by Garth Davis

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Midwest state in the United States, the sci-fi drama film “Foe” (based on Iain Reid’s novel of the same name) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one black person) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After an environmental apocalypse has left Earth deprived of many resources, a married farming couple must decide what to do when the husband is selected to live in an outer-space colony populated by humans who used to live on Earth. 

Culture Audience: “Foe” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal and the book on which the movie is based, but this movie trudges through a lot of time-wasting scenes and that do a substandard job of telling the story.

Aaron Pierre in “Foe” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Content Services)

The pretentiously dull sci-fi drama “Foe” wants to say a lot about humans choosing between living on Earth or living somewhere else, but fails to tell anything substantial about the couple at the center of the story. Good acting can’t save this weak script. This cinematic dud had the potential to be a fascinating character study about a married couple facing a truly life-changing dilemma. Instead, “Foe” is a clumsy slog of disjointed scenes and hollow characters that will leave viewers feeling disengaged and not very interested in what happens to these two discontented spouses.

Directed by Garth Davis, “Foe” is based on Iain Reid’s 2018 novel of the same name. Davis and Reid co-wrote the disappointing “Foe” screenplay. “Foe” had its world premiere at the 2023 New York Film Festival. Although the movie’s relatively small number of principal cast members are very talented (only three people in “Foe” have significant speaking roles), they are limited to a very flawed screenplay that is like a car being stuck in the mud while spinning its wheels. Expect to see many dead-end scenes of marital spats, tentative truces, and then more spousal arguing.

The main location in “Foe” (which takes place in an unnamed Midwestern state in the United States) is the remote and desolate farm property of married couple Henrietta, nicknamed Hen (played by Ronan), and Junior (played by Mescal), who have been spouses for an unnamed period of time. (“Foe” was actually filmed in Queensland, Australia.) Almost nothing is shown or told in the movie about the personal histories of these two frequently quarrelling spouses, except that Junior inherited the farm, which has been in his family for five generations. Don’t expect to find out how and why Hen and Junior fell in love with each other.

The story takes place in an unspecified time period, after an environmental apocalypse has left a ravaged Earth depleted of many resources. Hen and Junior (who do not have children and do not live with anyone else) do what they can to scrape by in their meager existence. But mostly, they just hang around the house and have tension-filled conversations. Hen is often standoffish and abrupt when Junior shows her affection or when he wants to get sexually intimate with her.

“Foe” begins with the arrival of a mysterious stranger named Terrance (played by Aaron Pierre), who visits the couple’s farmhouse unannounced. Terrance, who wears a casual business suit, tells Hen and Junior that Junior is on the shortlist of a special lottery where Junior can live in another place in the universe where other humans have settled and where there are more resources and a more comfortable way of life. This other place is never named or described, but it’s referred to as “up there.” Terrance doesn’t say who employs him, but it’s implied that he works for the U.S. government.

Of course, the problem with this offer of a better life “up there” is that this offer does not include Hen. Terrance never explains how and why Junior was chosen for this lottery in the first place. Junior refuses to leave Hen, while Hen doesn’t seem to give Junior many reasons to stay, because she is very moody and argumentative with him. Hen also has a nasty temper and will throw things or get violent when she’s angry. Spaceships hover around from time to time, with no real explanation. And sometimes, men in suits randomly show up and try to kidnap Junior.

One of the weird things about “Foe” is that it tries to make it sound like resources have been scarce in this world for many years, but then the movie shows other things that contradict that concept. Junior tells Hen that he has fond memories of when the farm had livestock when he was a child. And when Terrance comes to visit, Terrance tries to entice Junior to go “up there” because he says people don’t have to worry about having enough food “up there,” compared to on Earth.

But then, there are multiple scenes of Junior working on an assembly line at a chicken processing factory that is filled with skinned and headless chickens. It doesn’t look there’s a food shortage at all—at least not at this place of business. Likewise, Hen has a job as a waitress at a casual restaurant, and there’s no mention of food shortages when she’s on the job. It’s implied that Hen and Junior have been unable to make a living from their farm, so they’ve taken jobs elsewhere.

The movie hints that Hen and Terrance (who always shows up unannounced) start to feel an attraction to each other. Junior predictably gets jealous. This boiling cauldron of emotions would only work well for this movie if it gave viewers reason enough to care about any of these lackluster and uninteresting people. Junior is the only one of the three who acts like he cares about others. Hen is mostly selfish and miserable. Terrance seems to take delight in seeing rifts between the couple, because apparently, Terrance has been tasked with getting Junior to go live “up there,” no matter what the personal cost.

“Foe” is a very dark and dreary movie, not just in its visuals but also in much of its tone and mood. There’s only one scene where there’s a hint that Hen and Junior had a great relationship in the past. They are both outside, when Junior asks Hen not to wear the white shirt that she is fond of wearing. When she asks why, he says it’s because it’s the same shirt she wore when they met, and it reminds him of the time when “we were happy.”

Hen and Junior have no friends or family members in their lives. And so, viewers are stuck watching this couple fight, reconcile, and then fight again. And then, Terrance occasionally shows up to have slow-paced conversations with Hen. This drudgery is the majority of “Foe,” which raises many questions that the movie never bothers to answer. There’s a drastic plot development that’s thrown into the last 20 minutes of the film, but it’s as phony and sloppily explained as the vague “up there” utopia that’s supposed to be the reason for the separation conflicts that could have made “Foe” an intriguing movie.

Amazon Studios will release “Foe” in select U.S. cinemas on October 6, 2023.

Review: ‘All of Us Strangers,’ starring Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Jamie Bell, and Claire Foy

September 29, 2023

by Carla Hay

Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal in “All of Us Strangers” (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh/Searchlight Pictures)

“All of Us Strangers”

Directed by Andrew Haigh

Culture Representation: Taking place in England, in 2017, the sci-fi drama film “All of Us Strangers” (based on the novel “Strangers”) features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A man, who was orphaned at the age of 11 when his parents died in a car accident, goes back to his childhood home to visit the ghosts of his parents, around the same time that he begins dating another man who lives in the same apartment building. 

Culture Audience: “All of Us Strangers” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners; the novel on which the movie is based; and uniquely told love stories.

Jamie Bell, Andrew Scott (with back facing camera) and Claire Foy in “All of Us Strangers” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“All of Us Strangers” is literally a haunting meditation on grief over the death of loved ones. This well-acted drama might be too slow-paced for some viewers, but the movie’s themes and performances are worth watching. Some of it gets repetitive though.

Written and directed by Andrew Haigh, “All of Us Strangers” is based on Taichi Yamada’s 1987 novel of the same name. The movie’s present-day scenes takes place in 2017, but there are also some flashbacks taking place in 1987. It’s a moody and mysterious film that unpeels in layers until its emotionally powerful conclusion. “All of Us Strangers” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival before showing at the 2023 New York Film Festival and the 2023 BFI London Film Festival.

In the present-day scenes, an openly gay screenwriter in his early 40s named Adam (played by Andrew Scott) is living by himself in a sleek high-rise apartment complex in London. Viewers will eventually notice that no one else seems to live in the building except Adam and a neighbor named Harry (played by Paul Mescal), another gay or queer bachelor who lives by himself. Harry, who is about 15 years younger than Adam, makes the first flirtatious move when introducing himself to Adam.

This apartment building could have previously been a hotel, because it has a common hotel feature of windows that can’t open, in order to prevent people from jumping or falling out of the windows. “How do you cope?” Harry asks Adam about the isolation of living in the building. As time goes on, viewers will see that the building is a symbol of being in emotional confinement.

At first, introverted Adam is polite but aloof with Harry. Adam has his guard up and doesn’t seem too interested in getting to know Harry better. But then, when Harry shows up at Adam’s door one day, Harry persuades Adam to let him into the apartment. Harry shows signs that he’s interested in Adam sexually and then comes right out and asks Adam if Adam is queer. The answer is yes.

Adam seems hesitant about starting a sexual relationship with Harry, who is more confident and forthight about what he wants. During their first date, which is at Adam’s apartment, Harry and Adam smoke some marijuana together. And once again, Harry makes the first move, and they become lovers. That’s only part of the story.

Adam has a secret: He has been taking train trips to the suburbs to go back to his childhood home to visit the ghosts of his dead parents (played by Jamie Bell and Claire Foy), who passed away in a car accident in 1987, when Adam was 11 years old. (This is not spoiler information, since it’s a big part of the movie.) Adam’s parents have the same physical appearance of how they looked in the year that they died, except his parents know that they are dead and are seeing the adult Adam, who has no siblings.

Much of “All of Us Strangers” is about Adam juggling his present-day life and escaping back to his past at his childhood home, where he wants to hold on to the memories of his parents and communicate with them, even if he knows that they are dead. Viewers must ponder if Adam has psychic abilities, or if he’s mentally ill and is imagining it all. As the romance between Adam and Harry heats up and they become closer, Adam has to decide if he will tell Harry his secret or not.

“All of Us Strangers” is the type of movie that is more about emotions than about a step-by-step plot. Through conversations that Adam has with his parents and Harry, viewers find out that Adam was a loner when he was a kid. He was bullied as a child for being effeminate. His bullies were other schoolkids who suspected that Adam was gay.

Adam’s parents, especially his father, are not hatefully homophobic, but they don’t quite know how to handle having a gay son when adult Adam comes out as gay to them. (Adam tells his mother first, and she tells Adam’s father.) Adam was also overweight as a kid. As an adult, Adam tells Harry, “When you’re fat, they don’t ask you why you don’t have a girlfriend.”

As for Harry, the only thing that he reveals about his family is that he has a brother who just got married and a sister who has a child. Harry tells Adam that Harry’s parents accept that Harry is gay, but “I don’t go home much. It’s inevitable, really.” The flashback scenes of Adam as a boy (played by Carter John Grout) show happy experiences, such as Adam and his parents at Christmas time.

However, Adam also has sad memories of his childhood. One of the more touching scenes in the film is when Adam and his father have a heart-to-heart talk about what the father remembers about the times when Adam would be in his room crying because of how Adam was bullied at school. It’s a scene that speaks volumes about how parents of LGBTQ+ children sometimes unwittingly cause emotional damage by being in denial about their children’s sexual/gender identities.

Adding to the 1980s atmosphere for much of the movie, “All of Us Strangers” has a very good soundtrack, with multiple songs from Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Fine Young Cannibals. (Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s 1984 hit “The Power of Love” is played during the movie’s tearjerking finale.) The production design for the movie is also stellar, contrasting the somewhat austere and imposing modern building of Adam’s present-day life with the cozy clutter of Adam’s childhood home.

Because of the small number of people in the movie’s cast, “All of Us Strangers” gives enough room for character development, even if the plot of the movie is fairly simple. Scott does a fine job of portraying Adam, who is a bundle of repressed emotional baggage. Mescal has roguish charm as Harry, who gets Adam to see life in a way that is more hopeful of the future.

Foy’s portrayal of Adam’s mother is realistic in her curiosity of how Adam’s life turned out as an adult. Bell shows a balance of parental strength and quiet remorse as Adam’s father, who is emotionally conflicted about Adam being gay. One of the admirable things about “All of Us Strangers” is that it doesn’t just ask if Adam can move on from his past. It also asks if his parents can move on from the past too.

Most of all, “All of Us Strangers” is a worthy depiction of how grief is a process that has ebbs and flows. Grief can keep people stuck in a certain debilitating mindset, or it can be a painful journey to personal growth and healing. People who don’t know how the movie will end might be surprised by a certain turn in the story, but it’s an example of how love can endure even in the midst of unexpected loss and struggles.

Searchlight Pictures will release “All of Us Strangers” in select U.S. cinemas on December 22, 2023.

Review: ‘Carmen’ (2023), starring Melissa Barrera, Paul Mescal, Rossy de Palma and Tracy ‘The D.O.C.’ Curry

April 29, 2023

by Carla Hay

Melissa Barrera and Paul Mescal in “Carmen” (Photo courtesy of Goalpost Pictures/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Carmen” (2023)

Directed by Benjamin Millepied

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Mexico and in California, the dramatic film “Carmen” (very loosely based on the classic French opera “Carmen”) features a Latin and white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After her mother is murdered, a young woman illegally immigrates from Mexico to California to find her mother’s best friend, and she gets involved with an American border patrol agent who’s a fugitive for murder. 

Culture Audience: “Carmen” will appeal primarily to people who are curious to see what an unconventional re-imagining of the famous opera looks like as a movie told from the perspective of a Mexican immigrant.

Rossy de Palma and Melissa Barrera in “Carmen” (Photo courtesy of Goalpost Pictures/Sony Pictures Classics)

It’s a little too pretentious at times, but this dance-oriented version of the classic French opera “Carmen” at least took some bold risks and tried to do something different from what might be expected. Melissa Barrera and Paul Mescal give very watchable performances. The movie is not going to appeal to people who think it’s going to be a traditional musical or a formulaic “outlaws on the run” action flick.

“Carmen” (which premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival) is the feature-film solo directorial debut of Benjamin Millepied, who has a background as a ballet dancer. He had a small acting role in 2010’s ballet drama “Black Swan” and married Natalie Portman, the Oscar-winning star of “Black Swan.” Millepied co-wrote the “Carmen” screenplay with Loïc Barrere and Alexander Dinelaris.

The passion for dance as a form of expression is shown throughout “Carmen.” However, people who want to see a version of “Carmen” where people sing while dancing will be disappointed. There is some singing in “Carmen,” but it’s mainly with Barrera doing a sultry performance on stage as the title character, not singing dialogue in a conventional musical format.

“Carmen” begins with a scene of in the Chihuahuan Desert, near the Mexico/U.S. border. A woman named Zilah Rosas (played by Marina Tamayo) is doing a flamenco tap dance by herself, on a flat wooden board outside of her modest home. Suddenly, a hat-wearing man (played by Nico Cortez) drives up in a car, points a gun at her, and asks, “Where is she?” Zilah says nothing and tap dances furiously in response. And then, the man shoots Zilah and drives off, just as the woman he is looking for runs near the house and hears the gunshot.

That woman is Carmen, who is Zilah’s daughter. Carmen sees her dead mother, mourns for her, and buries Zilah in the front yard of the home in a makeshift grave. In a voiceover from the dead, Zilah tells Carmen to go to the City of Angels (Los Angeles) to a nightclub called La Sombra Ponderosa, and find Masilda. Viewers later find out that Masilda and Zilah were best friends but haven’t not seen each other since Masilda moved to Los Angeles. Masilda has not seen Carmen since Carmen was a child.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Marines veteran named Aidan, who’s in his late 20s or early 30s (about the same age as Carmen), is attending a barbecue cookout in Texas with some working-class people he doesn’t know very well. He has recently been discharged from the military, after serving in combat duty in Afghanistan, and he is currently unemployed. Aidan’s concerned older sister Julieanne (played by Nicole da Silva) tells him he needs to get a job. “It’s been nine months,” Julieanne tells Aidan. “And there’s only one job in this town.”

That job is being hired as an independent contractor for the U.S. Border Patrol. Aidan reluctantly takes the job and is given a brief orientation by a supervisor named Phil (played by Justin Smith), who tells his new subordinates that their job is fairly simple: If they see people illegally crossing the border, apprehend the border crossers and call for officials to handle it from there. All of these border patrollers are white men who are armed with guns.

It doesn’t take long for Aidan to see how some of the men he’s working with are openly racist, because the act very eager to cause violence against the non-white, Spanish-speaking people they expect to catch at the border. One of the new hires asks if anyone in this group of border patrol agents knows how to speak Spanish. A racist named Mike (played by Benedict Hardie), who has been paired with Aidan as a border patrol partner, smirks as he says, “Why? Do you speak deer?” It’s Mike’s way of saying he wants to hunt these people down like animals.

It should come as no surprise that Carmen is one of the people who ends up getting caught illegally crossing the border at night. She is among a group of some other captured Mexicans who are strangers to her. A few of them are children whom Carmen tries to protect. Mike gets very aggressive and shoots some of the Mexicans who try to run away.

A horrified Aidan is nearby, and helps some of the Mexicans escape. An infuriated Mike points a gun at Aidan, who shoots Mike in the head. Mike is killed instantly. In the chaos, Carmen steals Aidan’s truck, which is parked nearby. Aidan runs after the truck and manages to get in the back.

Carmen steers the truck in a way to try to throw Aidan off the truck, but it doesn’t work, so she stops when she sees that Aidan isn’t going to hurt her. When the the truck runs out of gas on a deserted road, Carmen gets out and run away. However, Aidan has a spare can of gas in his truck.

Aidan re-fuels the truck and drives up to where Carmen (who can speak Spanish and English) is walking on the road and offers to give her a ride and help her. Knowing that they are both fugitives from the law, Carmen accepts Aidan’s offer. And so begins the outlaw journey of Aidan and Carmen, who convinces Aidan to go to Los Angeles with her.

“Carmen” doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, which might be frustrating to some viewers. And the dialogue is often very simplistic. However, the movie does have a way of maintaining viewers’ attention for people who are curious to see what will happen next.

As already revealed in the “Carmen” trailer, Carmen and Aidan make it to Los Angeles, where Carmen goes to see Masilda (played by Rossy de Palma), is the owner of La Sombra Ponderosa. Masilda, who is happy to see Carmen doesn’t know at first that Carmen is a fugitive, wants to mentor Carmen as a performer in the nightclub. Masilda is an unusual character who puts her passion for music and dance above everything else in her life. Elsa Pataky has a small role as Gabrielle, one of the nightclub’s employees.

The movie has scenes where, right in the middle of a suspenseful plot development, people suddenly start dancing, usually in open outdoor areas. The modern dance performances are well-choreographed and convey the obvious: These dance interludes represent the moments of freedom that Carmen wants to experience in her chaotic life. Nicholas Britell’s musical score is very absorbing and complement the tone of the film that is sometimes suspenseful, sometimes meandering.

“Carmen” gets a little stale in a sequence where Aidan gets involved in underground boxing to make some quick cash. However, these scenes are enlivened by rapper Tracy “The D.O.C.” Curry portraying a boxing referee. Curry performs some original raps in the movie during these boxing scenes. It’s eventually revealed that Aidan has post-traumatic stress disorder and a complicated sibling relationship with Julieanne.

Carmen and Aidan inevitably become lovers (also revealed in the movie’s trailer), but the movie does a very good job of showing the growing attraction and affection between these two characters. Aidan and Carmen are both lost souls who have a hard time trusting others. However, through their shared experience of looking out for each other while going into hiding, they learn to trust each other, to a certain extent. Barrera and Mescal have some sizzling chemistry, but viewers should not expect the Carmen/Aidan relationship to be a fairytale romance.

“Carmen” is by no means an award-worthy movie. It has some moments where the pacing is very sluggish. The movie’s dialogue could have been a lot more engaging. And the ending won’t be satisfying enough for viewers who want movies with unambiguous conclusions. However, “Carmen” shows very early on that it’s an experimental project where many of the emotions are expressed in the dance numbers. Viewers will know within the first 20 minutes of watching the 116-minute “Carmen” if they want to stay engaged in the story, or if they will lose interest in watching the rest of the movie.

Sony Pictures Classics released “Carmen” in select U.S. cinemas on April 21, 2023.

Review: ‘Aftersun’ (2022), starring Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio

October 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal in “Aftersun” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Aftersun” (2022)

Directed by Charlotte Wells

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Turkey in 1999, and briefly in the United Kingdom in 2019, the dramatic film “Aftersun” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Middle Eastern people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Through home movie footage, a Scottish woman looks back on the last childhood vacation that she took with her single father in 1999, when she was 11 years old and not fully aware of his personal demons.

Culture Audience: “Aftersun” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in watching a well-acted dramatic movie that doesn’t tell a straightforward narrative but trusts the audience to piece together the meaning of the film.

Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal in “Aftersun” (Photo courtesy of A24)

It’s best if viewers know up front that “Aftersun” is mostly a series of “slice of life” flashback scenes shown through videos taken during a family vacation in Turkey in the 1990s. What’s more intriguing is the melancholic mystery behind these flashbacks. The story is told in fragments, so viewers who have the patience and curiosity to figure out what the movie is trying to say will be emotionally moved by the quietly devastating implications of why these home videos are on display. “Aftersun” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, and has since made the rounds at several film festivals in 2022, including the Telluride Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival.

“Aftersun” is a boldly unique feature-film directorial debut from writer/director Charlotte Wells. Most filmmakers telling a flashback story with an adult looking back on childhood memories would make the predictable choice of having the adult narrating the story in a voiceover. “Aftersun” doesn’t do that. The adult who’s doing the reminiscing is not at the forefront of the story, almost as if she wants the happy childhood memories that she’s conjuring to overshadow the sadness and vulnerability that she is feeling now.

In the production notes for “Aftersun,” Wells says that the movie was inspired by an experience she had when she was looking at childhood photos of a vacation that she took with her father, and all the memories that came flooding back about this vacation. However, Wells says that “Aftersun” is not an autobiographical film. The movie has something to say about anyone who has experienced looking back at a cherished moment in time with a loved one that turned out to be the last time being with that loved one.

The beginning of “Aftersun” shows video footage a 11-year-old Scottish girl named Sophie Patterson (played by Frankie Corio, also known as Francesca Corio) making a home video of herself and her single father Calum Aaron Patterson (played by Paul Mescal) while they’re on vacation together in Turkey. It’s 1999, and Sophie has a very good relationship with her father, even though she doesn’t see him as often as she would like.

Throughout this trip, Sophie is usually the one filming with the video, but Calum also does some filming too. Other times, the video footage scenes are just recreated memories of the adult Sophie (played by Celia Rowlson-Hall), who is seen in the movie occasionally looking sadly at these old videos that she took 20 years before. Why is Sophie looking so glum? Those answers aren’t obvious, but they are hinted at in fleeting glimpses throughout the flashback scenes.

In the footage shown in the movie’s opening scene, Sophie states her age and jokes to her father that he’s 130 years old. Calum is actually 30 years old, but he looks young enough to be mistaken for Sophie’s older brother, which occaisonally happens during this father/daughter trip. Sophie lives in Scotland with her unnamed mother, who is never seen or heard in the movie. Calum moved to England an unspecified number of years ago. (“Aftersun” was filmed on location in Turkey and the United Kingdom.)

It’s unclear if Sophie’s mother and Calum were ever married, but their breakup happened long-enough ago that Sophie has gotten used to living apart from Calum. She knows about some of the women whom Calum has been dating, and she openly discusses his love life with him. Durng this vacation, Sophie asks Calum what happened to a woman he was dating named Claire. He matter-of-factly tells Sophie that the relationship is over because Claire decided to get back together with a previous boyfriend. Calum seems disappointed by the end of this relationship, but not devastated.

Sophie is a naturally curious child. She asks Calum why he still tells Sophie’s mother, “I love you,” even though they’re not a couple anymore. Calum answers that it’s because he still considers Sophie’s mother to be like a family member. Sophie also teases Calum when she mentions one of her female schoolteachers, and Calum admits that he remembers this schoolteacher because he thinks she’s pretty.

Calum and Sophie are staying a middle-class resort in Turkey, where most of the resort’s other guests are also white Europeans. Many of them are families who have underage kids. The home videos show that Sophie ends up hanging out with some teenagers, who are impressed with her skills at playing pool.

Sophie also has a mild flirtation with a boy close to her age named Michael (played by Brooklyn Toulson), whom she first meets when they play a race car simulation game together. Michael initially acts like a brat with Sophie, but later she notices that it’s all an act, because he’s attracted to her. When Sophie and Michael are alone together at a public swimming pool, they kiss each other for the first time.

Viewers who look beyond the surface can see the signs that this vacation is not the fun-loving getaway that it might first appear to be. At first, Calum seems to be a loving and attentive father. There are moments when he shows some impish qualities, such as when he and Sophie are watching a singing performance while having dinner at the resort, and Calum comes up with the idea to harmlessly throw food toward the stage and quickly run away like pranksters. Calum also appears to be interested in spiritual wellness, since he’s avidly practices tai chi (which 11-year-old Sophie misidentifies as martial arts) and has many self-help books about inner peace and personal enlightenment.

Early on in the movie, Sophie tells Calum how she copes with not being able to see him as often as she would like. She explains that she sometimes looks up into a sunny sky and thinks about if he is looking up at the sky too, wherever he is. Sophie says to Calum, “We’re both underneath the same sky, so we’re kind of together.” As soon as Sophie says that, it’s easy to know why this movie is called “Aftersun.”

Eventually, the cracks begin to show in this seemingly idyllic vacation. First, there are signs that Calum is living beyond his means but is too embarrassed to admit it to Sophie. When he and Sophie visit a carpet shop, he tries to pretend that he can afford the merchandise, but they eventually leave without making a purchase.

Later, in a pivotal scene, Sophie and Calum are watching some other people at the resort doing karaoke. Sophie defies Calum’s wish for her not to get up on the stage and do a karaoke performance. She goes on stage anyway and sings a very off-key and stiff rendition of R.E.M.’s 1991 hit “Losing My Religion.” Something about the song’s lyrics triggers Calum, but it’s not quite obvious at first.

After the performance, Calum tells Sophie that he can pay for her to get singing lessons if she wants. Sophie is slightly offended and asks him if that means he thinks she’s a terrible singer. Calum says no, but Sophie snaps at him: “Stop offering to pay for something when I know you don’t have the money!” Calum is stunned into the silence and seems deeply hurt by this comment.

After that karaoke performance, Calum is seen by sobbing by himself. And there’s a time on the trip when Sophie goes back to their resort room and finds Calum fully naked and sleeping face down asleep on his bed. The implication is that he’s passed out while drunk.

Earlier in the movie, there’s a more subtle sign that Calum might be abusing substances, or at least is on some type of medication, when the video footage picks up the off-camera sound of Calum opening a bottle of pills. Calum also has a cast on his right arm during this vacation. How he injured is arm is never really explained, which implies that he doesn’t want to talk about it.

The movie also reveals that Calum is perhaps haunted by an unhappy childhood. When Sophie asks him what his birthday wish was when he was 11 years old, Calum seems uncomfortable answering the question. However, Sophie asks him again, so he tells her that no one remembered his birthday when he turned 11. He tells Sophie that when he reminded his mother that it was his birthday, she got irritated and told Calum’s father to take him to a toy store to buy a birthday gift for Calum. Calum says he chose a red phone as his toy.

The movie has some scenes that are not video footage but appear to be a montage of the adult Sophie’s memories speculating that Calum was spending some time at nightclubs during this vacation while Sophie was asleep. These nightclub scenes show Calum on the dance floor, with strobe-light effects, and are filmed like fever dreams that mix the past and the present, since the adult Sophie is seen in these visions. There’s a particularly revealing sequence of this “nightclub fever dream,” with David Bowie and Queen’s duet “Under Pressure” playing on the soundtrack, where the adult Sophie shows some anger at her father.

Viewers should not expect to find out much about the adult Sophie. There are brief hints of of what her current life is like as a 31-year-old in 2019. She’s in a live-in relationship with a woman, and they have an infant son together. And whatever Sophie’s memories are of her father, they are bittersweet. It’s not said out loud, but the emotional tone of the film is that this vacation in Turkey was the last time that Sophie and her father were together.

“Aftersun” is not the kind of movie that will please people who want a more traditional narrative structure for a movie that relies mostly on flashbacks to tell the story. Some viewers might get bored at what seems to be a compilation of meandering home video footage. However, observant viewers will notice that in order to fully appreciate the story, it’s about understanding that this footage is being looked at by an adult Sophia to make some sense of what happened to her father, to see if there were any clues that she missed in the video footage that she took back in 1999.

Mescal and Corio give riveting and believable performances as father and daughter Calum and Sophie. There’s nothing that looks fake or contrived in their depiction of this relationship, which is filled with love, tenderness, a little bit of mischief and some underlying tension that is sometimes expressed and sometimes left unsaid. In other words, it’s a lot like many parent/child relationships, but the relationship that a 11-year-old girl has with her father is usually not explored as the central story in a movie.

One of the other standout qualities of “Aftersun” is a nostalgia-driven soundtrack of well-placed pop hits from the 1980s and 1990s. They include Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” from 1997, Los Del Río’s Macarena” from 1993, and Blur’s “Tender” from 1999. Each song enhances the mood intended for the scene and doesn’t come across as “needle-drop shilling” for the movie’s soundtrack.

“Aftersun” is not a movie that’s filled with big, dramatic, emotional scenes. The story shows that much of life’s biggest lessons are not necessarily “in your face,” but are presented as subtle clues that a child might not be old enough to fully understand until adulthood. The storytelling of “Aftersun” also takes this subtle approach and offers a quiet commentary about appreciating loved ones while they’re still alive and being aware of the not-always-obvious signs that someone might be crying out for help.

A24 released “Aftersun” in select U.S. cinemas on October 21, 2022. The movie is set for release in the United Kingdom and Ireland on December 18, 2022.

Review: ‘God’s Creatures,’ starring Emily Watson and Paul Mescal

October 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Paul Mescal and Emily Watson in “God’s Creatures” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“God’s Creatures”

Directed by Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed rural village in Ireland, the dramatic film “God’s Creatures” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class.

Culture Clash: A woman who manages her family’s oyster farm has to decide how loyal she wants to be to her son after he’s accused of raping one of her employees, and she tells a lie to create an alibi for him.

Culture Audience: “God’s Creatures” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of star Emily Watson and well-acted movies about moral dilemmas.

Aisling Franciosi in “God’s Creatures” (Photo courtesy of A24)

Despite its slow pacing, “God’s Creatures” is a very effective psychological drama that brings up ethical questions about family loyalty and dealing with sexual assault. Emily Watson gives an emotionally stirring performance as a conflicted mother who has to reckon with her own responsibility in possibly covering up a serious crime. It’s a movie that shows why denial can be just as toxic as a criminal act.

Directed by Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer, “God’s Creatures” (written by Shane Crowley) was filmed on location in County Donegal, Ireland. It’s here, in an unnamed fishing village, that Aileen O’Hara (played by Watson) thinks she’s living an uncomplicated life that revolves around her work and her family. Aileen has been happily married to her husband Con (played by Declan Conlon) for about 35 years. Together, they own an oyster farm, where Aileen works as a manager of the oyster processing plant. Con mainly supervises the oyster fishermen.

Aileen and Con have two children: Erin O’Sullivan (played by Toni O’Rourke) and Brian O’Hara (played by Paul Mescal), who are opposites in many ways. Erin, who has lived in the village her entire life, is in her 30s and is a single mother to an infant son. Brian, who is in his mid-to-late 20s, is a freewheeling bachelor with no children. For the past seven years, Brian lived in Australia and had stopped contacting his family. Near the beginning of the movie, Brian suddenly shows up in the village and expects to pick up right where he left off before he moved away to Australia.

The father of Erin’s baby is not in Erin’s life and won’t be involved in raising the child. Erin knows that many people in the community are religious and politically conservative. And therefore, she’s aware that being a single mother who is not widowed carries a certain stigma. Based on the fact that Erin has a different last name from her parents, it’s implied that she’s divorced. It’s not clear if her ex-husband is the father of her child or not, but Erin has told her family that the father of her child didn’t even know she was pregnant and therefore doesn’t know the child exists.

Brian is a prodigal son who was known as a troublemaker before he moved away to Australia. He is welcomed back with open arms by Aileen, who is very happy to see him. Con and Erin are much more wary and skeptical of Brian’s sudden reappearance. It’s open to interpretation why Brian suddenly wanted to move back to this small village. Was he running home to his family or running away from something?

Brian won’t really say why he suddenly decided to move back to his hometown without giving his family any advance notice. His family doesn’t press the issue, and he lives in Aileen and Con’s home. Brian is also quickly given a job as a fisherman in the family business. Although the O’Hara family is responsible for employing about 40 to 50 people in the village, the family lives modestly but is aware that the family has a certain amount of power in this community.

Con’s elderly father Paddy O’Hara (played by Lalor Roddy) also lives on the family property. Paddy, who is mute and might have dementia, passed on the family’s oyster business to Con, who promised Paddy that he would keep the business going. In his current mental state, Paddy is mostly unresponsive when people try to talk to him.

However, when Brian comes back to live in the family home, Paddy seems to light up when he’s around Brian. Brian is attentive to Paddy and helps take care of him like a dutiful and compassionate grandson. At one point, Brian is able to coax Paddy out of Paddy’s muteness, by getting Paddy to sing out loud.

It becomes obvious early on in the story that Aileen favors Brian over Erin. Brian has a very charismatic side to him where he shows that he can be outgoing and charming. He’s a “mama’s boy” who knows that Aileen is more likely than Con to forgive or overlook Brian’s flaws and misdeeds. As far as Aileen is concerned, whatever wrongdoings that Brian committed in the past, they should stay in the past. Aileen thinks Brian deserves a chance to prove that he’s turned his life around.

The opening scene of “God’s Creatures” is a subtle indication of how this village is rooted in traditions and superstitions. A fisherman named Mark Fitz, who worked for the O’Hara family, has been found dead in the sea, and his body has been taken out of the water. He drowned because he didn’t know how to swim. His mother Mary Fitz (played by Marion O’Dwyer) works in the processing plant. This drowning happened before Brian came back to the village to live.

The villagers traditionally don’t want their fishermen to know how to swim, so that if one of them is drowning, other people won’t be responsible for jumping in the water to save the drowning person. No one really questions this tradition, which is an indication that people in the community are willing to sacrifice others for a “survival of the fittest” mentality. As an example of Erin’s willingness to be a nonconformist in this tight-knit village, she tells her family that she’s going to teach her son how to swim.

One of Erin’s closest friends is Sarah Murphy (played by Aisling Franciosi), who works at the O’Hara family’s oyster processing plant. Like many people in the village, Sarah has lived there her entire life. Sarah, who is closer in age to Brian than she is to Erin, is a former schoolmate of Brian’s. She is trapped in an unhappy and abusive marriage to Francie D’Arcy (played by Brendan McCormack), who is very controlling and often accuses her of being unfaithful to him. Sarah having a different last name from her husband is an indication that she has an independent streak.

Sarah confides in Erin that due to her arguments with Francie, “I’ve been back in my parents’ house for a couple of nights. Time puts it all into perspective very quickly. He was brutal with his words. Still, though, he’s just like anyone else, though. We’re all God’s creatures in the dark.”

One night, Brian is hanging out at a local pub owned by a man named Dan Nell (played by Enda Oates), who is also the chief bartender. Sarah is there too, and Brian strikes up a flirtatious conversation with her. “I can’t believe you’re still here, to be honest,” Brian tells Sarah. “I thought you’d long abandon this place.”

Sarah replies, “Everything I need was here. I didn’t have to go looking for it.” Brian says, “Likewise.” This statement from Brian seems to be not very honest, since he obviously was looking for something somewhere else, by living in Australia for years and deliberately not contacting his family.

Brian then begins to reminisce about the good times that he and Sarah used to have when they were teenagers. Sarah curtly says about this reminsicing, “I wouldn’t get too hung up on it if I were you.” It’s implied that Brian has been attracted to Sarah for years. And now that he knows she’s in a troubled marriage, he wants to know if he has a chance with her. However, Sarah quickly shuts down this possibility.

About one week after this encounter, the O’Hara family business gets some bad news: Fungus has been found in some of the harvested oysters, so the fishing operations are temporarily halted. Around the same time, Sarah has been acting strangely on the job. On day, she faints near one of the conveyor belts, and when Aileen goes over to help her, Sarah says to her in a hostile manner: “Don’t touch me!”

Aileen will soon find out why Sarah is acting this way. One night, a garda named Mike (played by Andrew Bennett) visits the O’Hara family home to tell Aileen that a woman (whose name he won’t disclose) has accused Brian of raping her the week before. Brian has denied it and says that on the night in question of the alleged rape, he was at home all night, and Aileen can vouch for him. Mike asks Aileen if Brian’s alibi is true, and Aileen automatically says yes.

However, later when Aileen confronts Brian about where he was that night, he admits he was out in Dan Nell’s pub, where his accuser says that they were at, but that he had no sexual contact with her. Brian vigorously tells Aileen that he didn’t sexually assault anyone. It isn’t long before Aileen finds out that Sarah is Brian’s accuser.

Aileen believes Brian, so she feels resentment toward Sarah and thinks that Sarah is trying to ruin Brian’s life. Sarah feels resentment toward Aileen, because she thinks that Aileen is willfully covering up for Brian. Meanwhile, Erin is inclined to believe Sarah and doesn’t like it that Aileen refuses to hear Sarah’s side of the story. Needless to say, the tension builds when an investigation yields a result that is bound to make one side very unhappy.

“God’s Creatures” is a “slow burn” story where the last third of the movie is the best part. As soon as Aileen finds out that Brian doesn’t have an alibi for the period of time that he was accused of raping Sarah, the seeds of doubt have been planted in Aileen’s mind, but she tries to repress this doubt at all costs. Erin, who always felt like Aileen unfairly favored Brian over Erin, becomes increasingly infuriated with Aileen for what Erin thinks is misguided parental protection. Con stays out of this family conflict by not taking either side.

Meanwhile, Brian gets the support from many people in the community who think of him as a reformed “good guy,” and they want the rape accusation to go away. As for Sarah, coming forward with this rape allegation has made life much worse for her at her home and at work. She gets bullied and shamed by certain members of the community who think that she’s lying.

“God’s Creatures” is a scathing and often-melancholy rumination of how society often deals with sexual assault—a crime that is typically very hard to prove because there are usually only two witnesses: the accuser and the accused. If the accused admits to having sexual contact with the accuser, the accused usually says that this sexual contact was consensual. Sarah is blamed by some people for waiting a week to come forward with her accusation. It’s a common reaction from people who don’t know or don’t care that when an accuser chooses to comes forward is not proof of an accuser’s honesty or dishonesty about the allegation.

Watson gives a very nuanced performance as Aileen, who thinks of herself as a moral and upstanding person, but Aileen starts to question what kind of person she is the more she begins to doubt that Brian is telling the truth. Mescal probably has the hardest role to play, since the Brian character is supposed to keep viewers guessing up to a certain point if he’s a “good guy” or not. Franciosi has some standout moments in her role as Sarah, who finds out quickly that her entire reputation can change once she’s labeled a rape accuser.

The rape accusation causes a rift in the O’Hara family, as Erin makes it clear that she’s on Sarah’s side. However, the movie also shows how the accusation affects the entire community, not just the O’Hara family and Sarah. “God’s Creatures” is a depiction of how society can be complicit in enabling harm. And in this community, where the attitude is “survival of the fittest,” justice and peace often can’t be found in a court of law.

A24 released “God’s Creatures” in select U.S. cinemas on September 30, 2022.

Review: ‘The Lost Daughter,’ starring Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson and Jessie Buckley

December 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Dakota Johnson and Olivia Colman in “The Lost Daughter” (Photo by Yannis Drakoulidis/Netflix) 

“The Lost Daughter” (2021)

Directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal

Culture Representation: Taking place in Greece, England and Italy, the dramatic film “The Lost Daughter” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A British woman, who works as a comparative Italian literature professor, goes on vacation in Greece, where she has flashbacks of her troubled background as a young mother, after she encounters a young mother from a boisterous Italian American family who are staying in the same vacation villa spot. 

Culture Audience: “The Lost Daughter” will appeal primarily to fans of star Olivia Colman and expertly acted psychological dramas.

Jessie Buckley (center) in “The Lost Daughter” (Photo by Yannis Drakoulidis/Netflix) 

“The Lost Daughter” upends the stereotype that mothers depicted in movies are supposed to think that parenthood is the greatest thing that ever happened to them. Much of the discontent in the movie has to do with doubts and insecurities that mothers have when they find out that motherhood doesn’t make them as happy as they were taught to believe it would. The movie might start off looking like a mystery thriller, but it’s really a psychological drama that takes viewers inside the restless and uneasy mind of woman during a tension-filled vacation and how she affects other people around her. Olivia Colman anchors the movie with a memorable and intriguing performance.

“The Lost Daughter” is the feature-film directorial debut of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who wrote the adapted screenplay, which is based on Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel of the same name. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation of the book, but the movie changes the nationalities of the main characters and the coastal vacation setting from Italy to Greece. “The Lost Daughter” benefits from cinematic elements (such as production design and music) that very much enhance the mood and emotions conveyed in the story. Just like in the book, the movie centers on a vacation that is fraught with some psychological torment and guilt over motherhood issues.

In “The Lost Daughter,” Colman portrays Leda Caruso, a 48-year-old university professor of comparative Italian literature. Leda is originally from England: She grew up in Leeds and currently lives in Cambridge. Leda is on vacation in Greece, where she is renting a villa during this trip. (In “The Lost Daughter” book, Leda is an Italian native who is a university professor of English and vacationing in Italy.)

Leda is divorced with two adult daughters: 25-year-old Bianca and 23-year-old Martha, who are not seen in the movie but whose voices can be heard when they talk to Leda on the phone. Ellie James is the voice of the adult Bianca, while Isabelle Della-Porta is the voice of the adult Martha. At different points in the movie, Leda has flashbacks to when her daughters were underage children. In these flashbacks, Jessie Buckley plays young Leda, Robyn Elwell plays Bianca at approximately 7 or 8 years old, and Ellie Mae Blake plays Martha at about 5 or 6 years old.

Leda is looking forward to spending some quiet and relaxing time alone on this vacation. Two of the first people she meets are Lyle (played by Ed Harris), the middle-aged caretaker of the villa where’s staying, and Will (played by Paul Mescal), an Irish college business student who works at the resort during the summer as a lifeguard and general handyman. Lyle and Will are both friendly and accommodating. Lyle mentions that he’s been the villa’s caretaker for the past 30 years.

Leda’s plans for a tranquil holiday become disrupted when her vacation becomes anything but quiet and relaxing. Not long after Leda finds a space on a beach to settle down and get some sun, a large and very loud Italian American family shows up and interrupts Leda’s peace and quiet. There are about 12 to 15 people in this group of raucous newcomers.

Two of them are a married couple named Callie (played by Dagmara Dominczyk) and Vassili (played by Panos Koronis), who ask Leda to move out of her spot on the beach to make room for some people in the group. Leda firmly says no. In response, a young man in the group calls Leda a derogatory and sexist name that rhymes with “punt.” Callie and Vassili walk away, visibly annoyed with Leda.

Needless to say, Leda and this family do not make a good impression on each other. From where Leda sits on the beach, she observes this family. Leda notices a strikingly good-looking couple who’s part of the group: They are Callie’s younger sister Nina (played by Dakota Johnson) and Nina’s husband Toni (played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who seem to have a passionate marriage, based on their public displays of affection. Nina and Toni have a daughter with them named Elena (played by Athena Martin Anderson), who’s about 5 years old.

Shortly after the awkward encounter with Leda, Callie approaches Leda again on the beach. This time, it’s to make an apology for the family being so rude. Callie brings a piece of cake as a peace offering, and she asks Leda about herself. Leda doesn’t really seem interested in making friends with anyone on this trip, but she reluctantly answers the questions, such as where she’s from and what she does for a living.

During this conversation, Callie is talkative and friendly. Callie says her family is from New York City, but they have other family members who’ve lived in this part of Greece for “300 years.” She mentions that she’s 42 years old and seven months pregnant with her first child, which the family already knows will be a girl. This talk abut motherhood makes Leda visibly uncomfortable. Leda comments to Callie: “Children are a crushing responsibility.”

During her observation of this family on the beach, Leda notices that Elena shows a strong attachment to a girl doll that Elena carries around. Elena also shows signs of possibly disturbed behavior because she bites the doll in an unusually aggressive manner. The doll and what happens next to Elena end up being the catalyst for most of what triggers Leda’s memories and actions during this trip.

While the family’s adults are partying on the beach, Elena suddenly goes missing. A frantic search ensues that takes a few hours, but Leda ends up finding Elena by herself in a wooded area near the beach. When Leda brings Elena back to her family, Leda is treated like a hero. But deep inside, Leda doesn’t feel like a hero.

That’s because Elena’s disappearance reignites a painful memory of when Leda’s elder daughter Bianca went missing on a beach when Bianca was about the same age as Elena. This memory and other things that happened in Leda’s past are presented as flashbacks in the movie. And that’s when it’s revealed that Leda didn’t really enjoy being a mother very much.

Slowly but surely, viewers find out how Leda was as a mother to two young children; what led to the demise of Leda’s marriage to her husband Joe (played by Jack Farthing); and what happened when a young Leda was accepted into grad school at a university in Italy. Gyllenhaal’s real-life husband Peter Sarsgaard has a supporting role as Professor Hardy, a charismatic professor of an Italian literature class that Leda took when she was in grad school.

Colman gives a compelling performance as Leda, who seems brittle on the outside but has emotional vulnerabilities on the inside. Elena’s doll and what happens to it are symbolic of clinging to youthful memories. As Leda’s memories from the past come flooding back, she also becomes increasingly caught up in what’s going in Nina’s life and the distress that’s caused when Elena’s doll goes missing.

At one point, Will warns Leda that Nina and her family are “bad people.” How dangerous are they? Leda finds out at least one big secret about Nina, who remains somewhat of a mystery throughout the entire movie. Buckley’s portrayal of a young Leda gives a necessary emotional depth to the older Leda, who wants to keep her inner turmoil hidden from the world.

“The Lost Daughter” is best enjoyed by audiences if people know from the beginning that this isn’t a movie filled with big action scenes or with any obvious villains. It’s a searing portrait of how one woman reflects on how she handled motherhood and how her personal encounters with another mother often feels like an eerie and upsetting reminder of the past. The title of the movie refers to a child who goes missing in two separate parts of the story, but the overall emotional arc is how a woman finds parts of herself that she wants to lose or forget.

Netflix released “The Lost Daughter” in select U.S. cinemas on December 17, 2021. The movie premieres on Netflix on December 31, 2021.

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