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

June 20, 2021

by Carla Hay

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

“Our Ladies”

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘Limbo’ (2021), starring Amir El-Masry, Vikash Bhai, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, Kenneth Collard, Sodienye Ojewuyi and Sidse Babett Knudsen

April 30, 2021

by Carla Hay

Vikash Bhai, Kwabena Ansah, Amir El-Masry and Ola Orebiyi in “Limbo” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Limbo” (2021)

Directed by Ben Sharrock

Some language in Arabic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed part of Scotland, the dramedy film “Limbo” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Arabic, African and white British people) representing refugees, the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Syrian refugee meets and befriends other refugees in a settlement in Scotland, as they wait to find out if they will be officially given asylum in the United Kingdom.

Culture Audience: “Limbo” will appeal primarily to people interested in quirky films about the refugee experience from the perspective of a Syrian character.

Vikash Bhai and Amir Al-Masry in “Limbo” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

Writer/director Ben Sharrock’s “Limbo” looks a lot like what Miranda July would do if she made a movie about a Syrian refugee in Scotland. It’s a movie that is best enjoyed by people who have tolerance for non-stop quirkiness with some angsty undertones. In other words, “Limbo” isn’t for everyone, but it’s unusual enough to make a lasting impression on people who see it.

Sharrock’s influences from filmmaker July are all over “Limbo,” beginning with the opening scene, which takes place in an adult-education classroom for refugees at a government-run refugee settlement area in an unnamed part of Scotland. The lesson for the day is written on the chalkboard: “Class Cultural Awareness 101: Sex: Is a Smile an Invitation?” The class’s two middle-aged instructors Helga (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Boris (played by Kenneth Collard) are awkwardly dancing with each other to Hot Chocolate’s 1982 song “It Started With a Kiss,” as a way of demonstrating Western mating rituals.

Watching this spectacle is a group of about 20 Arabic and African men, some with their mouths open in a gawking “what the hell am I looking at” expression, as you do in quirky movies like this one. This “dance instruction” is supposed to teach the men about sexual harassment boundaries when approaching women. And so, when Boris reaches over to grab Helga’s rear end, she slaps him. And then she says, “Thank you, Boris. You can now take a seat.”

Helga then turns to the class and asks, “Can anyone tell me what Boris did wrong?” A Syrian refugee in his 40s named Farhad (played by Vikash Bhai) raises his hand tentatively. The answer he gives is never shown in the movie, because the scene is supposed to satirize the patronizing way that these refugees are being treated in this nation where they are racial and ethnic minorities. Of course, things such as dancing and etiquette exist in the countries where these men are originally from, but the class is a metaphor for the European colonial mentality that sees people of color from other countries as brutes in need of social training.

One of the students in the class is a Syrian refugee in his late 20s named Omar (played by Amir El-Masry), the story’s protagonist. Omar is a musician who seems like he could have come straight out of a film made by July: He’s morose, very introspective, and he (like many of the characters in “Limbo”) often speaks with longer-than-usual pauses in between sentences.

Before leaving war-torn Syria, Omar was making a name for himself in his local area as a talent oud player. The oud that Omar brought with him to Scotland was given to him by his grandfather, who was a semi-famous musician in Syria. But ever since Omar has been a refugee, he hasn’t been playing the oud. He doesn’t even really want a lot of people in Scotland to know that he’s a musician.

It’s implied that Omar’s passion for playing music has waned because of his traumatic refugee experiences. But in the beginning of the story, one of the main reasons why Omar doesn’t play his oud is because his right arm is in a cast. Eventually, the cast comes off, but he’s still reluctant to play his oud.

At this refugee settlement, Omar shares living quarters with Farhad and two immigrants from Africa: Wasef (played by Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (played by Kwabena Ansah), who both identify themselves as brothers. Wasef is in his 20s and very cynical, while Abedi is 17 years old and more eager to please. All four of these refugees are waiting to hear if they will be officially granted asylum in the United Kingdom.

Their asylum status will determine if they can find legal employment in the U.K. or if they will possibly deported. Omar originally had plans to go to London to work, but he is stuck in Scotland until he finds out if he will be granted asylum. The refugees are told that the bureaucratic process could take weeks or months. In the meantime, Omar, Farhad, Wasef and Abedi find work at a fishery.

One of the recurring scenarios shown in “Limbo” is the phone calls that Omar makes to his parents, who are living as Syrian refugees in Istanbul, Turkey. Even though Omar and many of the refugees have their own mobile phones, “Limbo” shows the refugees using a single pay phone outside to make calls to their families. It’s never explained why they use this old-fashioned pay phone, but they gather and wait to take turns using this pay phone. Viewers can speculate that it’s supposed to conjures up images of people in prison waiting to use a phone.

During the phone calls to his family, Omar usually speaks to his mother (voiced by Darina Al Joundi), while Omar’s father (voiced by Nayef Rashed) can be heard occasionally joining in the conversation from the background. Omar’s parents, who don’t have names in the movie, are briefly seen in some video footage later in the movie. Shereen Sadiq portrays Omar’s mother, and Hayan Rich portrays his father in this footage.

The biggest insecurity that Omar has when it comes to his family is feeling inadequate compared to his older brother Hamad (played by Sodienye Ojewuyi), who is a soldier in the Syrian civil war. Hamad and Omar are estranged from each other. It’s implied that this estrangement is because Hamad thinks Omar is a coward for not being in the military.

When Omar speaks to his mother on the phone, she always asks Omar if he’s heard from Hamad. The answer is always no, and this type of questioning annoys Omar. It also irritates him when his mother suggests that Omar try to reach out to Hamad. Omar always has to remind his mother that he doesn’t know where Hamad is.

Abedi and Wasef get into some family squabbles too, but not to the extent where they stop talking to each other. Wasef tells Abedi what he thinks of the U.K. government: “You know they put us out here to break us.” Abedi is more willing to assimilate into this new environment than Wasef is. Meanwhile, when Wasef announces that he wants to be a soccer player/footballer, Abedi scoffs at the idea.

As for Farhad, he has a fascination with Fredde Mercury, the lead singer of Queen who died in 1991. Farhad tells Omar how he feels about Mercury: “He’s my hero. He taught me English. We have the same mustache. He’s Zoroastrian like me.” And when Farhad smuggles a chicken into the living quarters, he names the chicken Freddie Mercury.

Farhad and Omar become friends, and Farhad encourages Omar to start playing his oud. However, there’s an underlying understanding that they don’t want to get too close to each other because one person’s immigration status can change. And that could mean leaving the settlement area voluntarily or by government orders. While Omar thinks he might return to Syria one day, Farhad says he never wants to go back. “I can’t be myself there,” Farhad tells Omar, thereby implying that Farhad is gay or queer.

The refugee experiences in the story range from comedic depictions of their adjustments to Western culture to satirical depictions of the ugliness of racism. For example, the four housemates end up getting free DVDs of the sitcom “Friends” from the donation center where they receive supplies, because the DVDs were easier to get than highly coveted cots. The movie shows how they spend time watching the DVDs. In one scene, Abedi and Wasef have a heated argument about the breakup of “Friends” characters Rachel Greene and Ross Geller.

Omar experiences racism when he’s walking down a road and encounters four rude teenagers driving by in a car: Plug (played by Cameron Fulton), Stevie (Lewis Gribben), Cheryl (played by Silvie Furneaux) and Tia (played by Iona Elizabeth Thomson). Stevie says to Omar, “Don’t blow up shite and rape anyone, right?” But after a barrage of Islamaphobic and racist insults, the teens offer Omar a ride because it’s about to rain. And he accepts the ride.

Occasionally, Omar goes to a grocery store that sells sells ethnic food on shelves that are close to empty. At the grocery store, he encounters the Sikh owner Vikram (played by Sanjeev Kohli), who operates the cash register up front. Vikram is one of those movie characters who stares too long at people and talks in that slow cadence that oddball characters have in oddball movies like this one. However, Vikram teaches Omar a few valuable lessons about what are racial/ethnic slurs in Great Britain. These slurs aren’t allowed in Vikram’s store, and he has a list of “banned words” posted on the wall.

The first half of “Limbo” has a more consistent tone than the second half. The latter half of the film takes a significant detour from quirkiness into some heavy emotional family drama for Omar, before sliding back into the eccentric vibe that it had from the start. And there’s some predictable sentimentality in the film. It’s a transition that is a bit clumsy but apparently done to make Omar more of a relatable human being instead of just a two-dimensional “sad sack” character.

Nick Cooke’s cinematography in “Limbo” has some slow, sideways tracking shots that are reminiscent of Wes Anderson movies. And just like a movie from Anderson, “Limbo” has some whimsical production design that invokes the idea of adults in a children’s setting, with splashes of the fantastical. A children’s playground near the settlement area is used in scenes where the adults have conversations. And the promise of seeing northern lights plays a role in a pivotal scene in the movie.

Weirdo films like “Limbo” are an acquired taste. El-Masry does a good-enough job with his performance as the conflicted and somber Omar. However, Ojewuyi’s portrayal of Farhad is the real scene-stealer of the movie. Farhad’s optimism and kooky antics make him more endearing and entertaining to watch than Omar. “Limbo” isn’t a bad movie, but it would’ve been more interesting if Farhad had been the main character.

Focus Features released “Limbo” in select U.S. cinemas on April 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Robert the Bruce,’ starring Angus Macfadyen, Anna Hutchinson, Zach McGowan, Brandon Lessard, Talitha Bateman and Gabriel Bateman

April 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Angus Macfadyen in “Robert the Bruce” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Robert the Bruce”

Directed by Richard Gray

Culture Representation: Taking place in Scotland in 1306, “Robert the Bruce” has an all-white cast of characters representing royalty to the working-class.

Culture Clash: The movie’s title character is an exiled king of Scotland, which wants independence from England and is at the brink of civil war over it.

Culture Audience: “Robert the Bruce” will appeal mostly to people who are fans of historical European movies, but the movie’s low budget and mediocre storytelling prevent it from being an epic classic.

Anna Hutchinson and Gabriel Bateman in “Robert the Bruce” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

When Scottish actor Angus Macfadyen played Robert the Bruce in Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning 1995 epic “Braveheart,” he probably wouldn’t have predicted back then that he would have a starring role 25 years later in a movie about Robert the Bruce. Despite some impressive outdoor cinematography by John Garrett, “Robert the Bruce” is far from an Oscar-caliber film. It’s not terrible, but it’s also not very compelling.

The story is fairly simple: Robert the Bruce, an exiled rebel King of Scotland, has gone into hiding from the English army that’s out to get him for leading Scotland’s revolution against England. Clocking in at 122 minutes, “Robert the Bruce” (directed by Richard Gray) could definitely have cut about 30 minutes of the film, and it would’ve helped the mediocre screenplay (which was co-written by Macfadyen and Eric Belgau) become a lot less bloated.

People looking for majestic and suspenseful war battles with hundreds of people won’t find those kinds of scenes in this movie—and that’s probably because of the film’s low budget. Much of “Robert the Bruce” doesn’t take place on battlefields but instead takes place inside snow-covered, dilapidated houses in the woods, where Robert the Bruce spends time hiding out or recovering from attempted-murder injuries.

In the beginning of the film, there is a brief reference to William Wallace (the character that Gibson portrayed in “Braveheart”), when nobleman John Comyn III (played by Jared Harris), an opponent of Robert the Bruce, taunts him during a confrontation by saying: “You want the one thing that you cannot have: to be William Wallace, to be loved like he was, to be brave like him, to be free like him … How it must coil in your gut!”

Unfortunately, Harris (who’s a terrific actor in pretty much anything he does) has very limited screen time in the movie. His role in “Robert the Bruce” is essentially a cameo. But the Comyns and their allies continue to be a thorn in Robert’s side for the rest of the story.

The movie uses a somewhat unnecessary meta tactic of having a voiceover narrator in the beginning of the film, who’s eventually shown to be a woman telling the tale of Robert the Bruce to two children in a bedtime story setting. And then it turns out that the women and those children end up meeting Robert the Bruce and helping him with his cause. The narration aspect of the film kind of throws off the tone of the movie, and it doesn’t work well at all.

Before Robert the Bruce encounters the family that plays a pivotal part in the story, the movie shows betrayals among the small group of Scottish rebels who have stayed with Robert and have planned to go to Norway with him. There are some violent fights, Robert get seriously injured, and he barely escapes with his life.

In addition to the English army that is after Robert, some Scots who are enticed by the financial rewards of helping the English also become Robert’s enemies. One of these Scots is Brandubh (played by Zach McGowan), who leads a group of bounty hunters who are looking to capture and kill Robert.

The woman and children who find Robert almost dead in the snow are the same family seen earlier in the film in the storytelling scene. They are widow Morag Macfie (played by Anna Hutchinson), her orphaned teenage nephew Carney (played by Brandon Lessard), her orphaned teenage niece Iver (played by Talitha Bateman) and her 11-year-old son Scot (played by Gabriel Bateman). The family knows who Robert the Bruce is when they find him barely alive, so they immediately bring him to the family home to help him recover from his injuries.

It isn’t long in the movie before Robert has recovered enough to train Carney on sword fighting (in a scene that is very reminiscent of Obi Wan-Kenobi and Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars”), while Carney teaches Scott some archery. (Of course, these skills will come in handy later in the inevitable final showdown scene.) Robert’s physical recovery is so good that he even starts dancing a jig with Morag. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Macfadyen’s performance as Robert the Bruce is mostly stoic and serviceable. Viewers don’t really get to see a lot of the character’s leadership skills, because Robert the Bruce is isolated in hiding or recovering from injuries for much of the movie. The rest of the actors get the job done well enough, and the movie’s costume design is passable, but there’s nothing about this movie that’s award-worthy. And some of the dialogue lines are just plain corny. At one point, John utters to the family who’s helped him: “I see now in your eyes what Scotland can be.”

“Robert the Bruce” can certainly find an audience with people who feel compelled to check out any movie related to Scottish history. For everyone else, the film is worth watching if you don’t mind seeing an inferior spinoff to “Braveheart.”

Screen Media Films released “Robert the Bruce” on digital and VOD on April 24, 2020.

 

Review: ‘The Etruscan Smile,’ starring Brian Cox, Rosanna Arquette, JJ Feild and Thora Birch

March 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Thora Birch, Brian Cox and JJ Feild in “The Etruscan Smile” (Photo courtesy of Lightyear Entertainment)

“The Estruscan Smile”

Directed by Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnu

Culture Representation: Set in San Francisco and Scotland’s Valasay, Isle of Lewis, the family drama “The Etruscan Smile” has a predominantly white cast of characters representing the wealthy and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Scottish ferry operator goes to San Francisco to seek medical treatment and reunites with his estranged son, who has started his own family.

Culture Audience: “The Etruscan Smile” will appeal primarily to fans of the book on which the movie is based, as well as people who like sentimental dramas about emotional subjects, such as death and family.

Rosanna Arquette and Brian Cox in “The Etruscan Smile” (Photo courtesy of Lightyear Entertainment)

If you’re not in the mood for a tearjerking drama about a dying man who reunites with his estranged son, then “The Etruscan Smile” is not going to be for you. But if you want to see a well-acted story that is elevated by authentic performances by the cast, particularly star Brian Cox, then “The Etruscan Smile” is worth watching. Just make sure you have plenty of tissues nearby if you’re someone who cries during movies.

Based on the 1985 novel “The Etruscan Smile” by José Luis Sampedro, the movie version makes some location and cultural changes from the book. “The Etruscan Smile” book, which is set in Italy, is about a dying farmer who reluctantly seeks medical treatment in Milan, stays with his estranged son, and finds it difficult to adjust to city living, but his attitude toward life changes as he bonds with his grandson. The movie has a similar premise, but the central character is a 75-year-old Scottish ferry operator named Rory MacNeil, who travels from Scotland to San Francisco to get medical treatment.

“The Etruscan Smile” was released in the United Kingdom in 2019, under the title “Rory’s Way,” which isn’t a particularly good renaming of the film because it’s so vague. Even if people have never heard of “The Estruscan Smile” book, at least it’s explained in the movie why the story has this title, which carries more emotional resonance than a title like “Rory’s Way.”

The beginning of the film takes place in Rory’s hometown of Valasay, Isle of Lewis in Scotland, where he’s a widowed former carpenter who lives alone on Hebridean Island. Rory starts his mornings by skinny-dipping in Kyles of Valasay. He spends his work days as a ferry operator for tourists, and at night he’s usually drinking in local pubs. In addition to his drinking problem, Rory can be gruff, crude and stubborn. He has the lifestyle of someone who likes to live alone and is set in his ways.

While at hanging out at a pub one night, Rory gets in an argument with Alistair Campbell (played by Clive Russell), a local man he’s been feuding with for years. Campbell shouts to the pub patrons that he’ll pay for everyone’s drinks to celebrate that Rory is dying. Rory then insults Campbell, who eventually backs off. As viewers find out later in the movie, the feud involves a bizarre contest between the two men where they’ve decided that the “winner” is whoever outlives the other.

Viewers soon see that Rory does have a serious medical condition, to the point where he’s collapsed in his home. The only person who’s been treating him is a local veterinarian, who tells Rory that he can no longer give him medicine that’s meant for animals, and he urges Rory to see a doctor who treats humans.

And apparently, since there are no doctors in Scotland or the rest of the United Kingdom that Rory wants to see, he travels all the way to San Francisco to get medical treatment, even though as a visitor from the U.K., he wouldn’t have health insurance in United States. This is the only part of the story that doesn’t make much sense. However, there are a few explanations that clear up this apparent plot hole.

First, it’s pretty obvious that since the story revolves around Rory reuniting with his estranged son, Rory (who probably knows that he’s dying, but is afraid to get the official diagnosis) is going on the trip so that he can stay with his son and get to know his son and his family better. Secondly, the question that viewers might have about how Rory is going to pay for his medical treatment is answered when Rory arrives in San Francisco, is tensely greeted at the airport by his estranged son Ian (played by JJ Feild), and taken to Ian’s high-rise luxury condo in San Francisco: Ian has married into a wealthy family.

Ian, who is Rory’s only child, went to college for biochemistry, but his chosen profession is as a chef whose specialty is molecular gastronomy. He works as a sous chef at an upscale restaurant owned by a celebrity chef, who’s not named in the movie. Ian’s supportive wife Emily (played by Thora Birch) used to work at a hospital but has launched her own firm, which is in the start-up stage. She works from home and has a nanny named Frida (played by Sandra Santiago), but Emily also has to travel a lot for her business. Emily’s father has the kind of money to afford box seats at Candlestick Park for San Francisco Giants games, as Ian mentions to Rory.

It’s obvious from Rory and Ian’s first moments together, after not seeing each other for 15 years, that the reunion is going to be tense. Rory tells Ian that he’s glad to see him, while Ian only tersely nods and says nothing. While driving from the airport, Rory gives Ian a small wooden toy horse that Rory hand-carved himself, and says that it’s a gift for Ian’s infant child Jamie. Unfortunately, Rory calls Jamie a “she” when Jamie is actually a boy. Ian doesn’t even try to hide his disgust that Rory couldn’t be bothered to remember the gender of his only grandchild. (The adorable and expressive baby Jamie in the movie is played by twins Oliver Aero Kappo Epps and Elliot Echo Boom Epps.)

There are other reasons, explained in different parts during the movie, for why Ian and his father have been estranged. After Jamie was born, Rory never bothered to contact Ian and Emily—not even to send a card. It’s also hinted in the movie that because of Rory’s conservative viewpoints on how men and women should be, Rory never really thought of Ian as a “man’s man” and was probably disappointed in Ian’s career choice. It seems like Rory expected Ian to gave a more “manly” profession that requires physical strength.

Rory also has some resentment toward Ian, because he think Ian “abandoned” his Scottish roots by going away to America to attend the University of California at Berkeley. Ian’s late mother is briefly mentioned a few times in the movie. It’s implied that she was probably a long-suffering wife, considering Ian’s stubborn and sexist ways of thinking. And because Rory was most likely the more difficult partner in the marriage, Ian is angry with his father about that too.

Because Emily’s father has paid for the condo where Ian and Emily live, Rory makes it known that he doesn’t respect Ian for not being the family breadwinner and for taking financial handouts from Ian’s father-in-law. Rory also isn’t comfortable with Emily being the more dominant partner in the marriage, as he sarcastically remarks to Ian that Emily is the one who’s wearing the pants in the family.

While Rory is staying with Ian and Emily, he tells them the real reason for the visit: He needs to get an exam for some medical issues. Emily is understanding, but it’s another reason for Ian to get upset with Rory, because Ian doesn’t like that Rory wasn’t forthcoming about all of the reasons for the visit. Meanwhile, Rory tries to adjust to living in a big city and using modern technology. And he also has to adjust to being a grandfather.

When he’s alone with Jamie, who starts crying as babies do, he gruffly tells the child, “Man up!” It’s obvious that Rory doesn’t really know much about taking care of a baby, because he comes from the “old school” way of thinking that it’s a woman’s job to do that. But over time, Rory bonds with Jamie and looks forward to babysitting him.

One day, Rory takes Jamie out for a stroll for a couple of hours, but he doesn’t tell anyone that he’s leaving and when he’s coming back. Viewers can see that it’s entirely in Rory’s character to do something this irresponsible because he’s so used to living alone and not having to answer to anyone. When he returns with the baby to Ian and Emily’s home, Ian is furious, and Emily is worried but actually apologizes to Rory instead of scolding him. Emily says that she understands how Rory might be overwhelmed by his new surroundings.

After coming back from his first doctor’s appointment in San Francisco, Rory finds a tuxedo handing in his closet and a note attached to get dressed in the tuxedo and a car will pick him for for an event. The event is a black-tie gala at a museum, and Rory arrives only wearing the top of the tuxedo and a traditional Scottish kilt on the bottom. Ian is part of the culinary team that’s prepared the food at the event, which was organized by Emily.

It’s at this soiree that Rory meets Emily’s widowed father Frank (played by Treat Williams) for the first time. Frank makes a grand gesture in front of Ian, Emily and Rory, by telling Ian that he’s put a down payment on new restaurant for him, because he wants Ian to run his own restaurant. Ian is surprised and grateful, but Rory is repulsed that Ian has had this opportunity handed to him instead of working for it. Rory thinks it’s emasculating for Ian to be so reliant on Frank. Rory comments in Scottish Gaelic as he walks off, “The best way to tame your horse is to shoot his balls off.”

While wandering around the museum by himself, Rory sees an Etruscan sculpture of a smiling couple in a loving embrace. A museum employee explains to Rory that the couple is actually dead but still able to smile. The woman, whom Rory later finds out is named Claudia (played by Rosanna Arquette), chats with Rory some more, but she’s put off by his crude way of flirting with her. He tells her that she looks natural, unlike the women at the gala with the “big, fake tits.” Still, how Rory and Claudia meet is the kind of “meet cute” moment that you can immediately tell will lead to Rory and Claudia to begin dating each other.

Shortly after attending the party, Rory gets a call from Scotland that thrills him to bits: He’s found out that his enemy Campbell is dying from liver failure and doesn’t have much longer to live. It’s a moment of gloating that could be considered karma when Rory goes for another hospital visit, and this time, he gets bad news from physician Dr. Weiss (played by Tim Matheson): Rory has Stage 4 prostate cancer. Dr. Weiss refuses to tell him at first how many months Rory has to live, although the doctor relents much later in the story and tells Rory how much time he probably has left.

Rory reacts to the diagnosis with denial and anger. He calls Dr. Weiss a “good for nothing.” And when he tells Ian the news, he snaps, “I’m fine!” when Ian expresses concern. He also tells Ian that Dr. Weiss is an “idiot” and a “hack.”

It isn’t long before Rory is back at the museum—this time during the day as a visitor. He has Jamie in a baby stroller with him, but Rory gets distracted when a young woman in the museum pickpockets him, and he unsuccessfully chases after her, leaving Jamie and the baby stroller behind. When Rory frantically returns to where he left Jamie in the stroller, he sees Claudia holding the baby. It’s such an “only in a movie” moment—but then again, stranger coincidences have happened in real life.

While Rory is getting reacquainted with Claudia, a man standing nearby overhears Rory speaking in Gaelic and tells Rory that a local university is doing research on endangered languages and would love to hire Rory for his knowledge of Gaelic. Rory says he doesn’t need the money but he would participate in the research if Claudia accompanies him to the first session. Claudia is won over by Rory’s charming side, and they begin to date each other. It’s during the research sessions led by a professor (played by Peter Coyote, whose character in the movie doesn’t have a name) that Rory starts to feel valued as a person and completely accepted for who is he is, which affects his newfound appreciation of life.

Cox is one of those character actors who’s usually the best performer in whatever project he’s involved with (and he’s finally getting major acclaim with HBO’s “Succession”), so it’s not much of a surprise if you’ve seen his work that he gives another gem of a performance. Rory MacNeil can be unpleasant, but Cox infuses the performance with a lot of humanity that shows how tender Rory is underneath all of his blustery toughness.

The supporting actors also do a very good job with their roles. A particular standout is Feild, who goes through a wide range of emotions as Ian, a man who is struggling with his identity and confidence issues because he’s always been in a family where other people have dominated. During the course of the movie, viewers see that Ian realize that he needs to define his own happiness instead of letting others dictate it for him.

“The Etruscan Smile’s” screenplay (written by Michael McGowan, Michal Lali Kagan and Sarah Bellwood) can occasionally have hokey dialogue, but the actors improve these moments of triteness by their genuine portrayal of human emotions. All of the characters in the film are entirely believable, even though some of the words in the script are overly maudlin.

The pacing and tone of the movie (directed by Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnu) are at times a little too slow and quiet for some people’s tastes, but the direction is solid. The cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe is quite gorgeous at times, especially in the aerial shots of San Francisco and Scotland.

“The Etruscan Smile” (the first movie produced by Oscar winner Arthur Cohn since 2012’s “Russendisko”) isn’t a movie about a big, loud dysfunctional family. Most of the turmoil shown in “The Etruscan Smile” is internalized by the characters, but their true feelings come out in facial expressions and other body language, rather than non-stop melodrama. The last third of the movie is the best part, so the slower parts of the film are worth getting through in order to see how the movie ends. (The closing shot in the last scene is especially poignant.)

“The Etruscan Smile” isn’t a groundbreaking film, but it’s a compelling character study of how one man deals with a terminal illness and how he tries to right some of the wrongs in his life. At the very least, the movie can remind people what legacies they want to leave behind long after they’re gone and to not take loved ones for granted.

Lightyear Entertainment released “The Etruscan Smile” in select cinemas in New York state and New Jersey on March 13, 2020. MVD Entertainment will release “The Etruscan Smile” on VOD, EST, DVD and Blu-ray on June 16, 2020. The film was released in the United Kingdom in 2019, under the title “Rory’s Way.”

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Scheme Birds’

April 26, 2019

by Carla Hay

Scheme Birds
Gemma in “Scheme Birds” (Photo by Ellinor Hallin)

“Scheme Birds”

Directed by Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 26, 2019.

This bleak documentary about lower-class Scottish teens takes its title from the term used to describe females who are always on the hustle. At the center of the story is the film’s narrator, Gemma, a pretty blonde rebel who lives a rough-and-tumble lifestyle where she predicts she’ll either get “knocked up or locked up.” She lives in the steel town of Motherwell, Scotland, which was thriving in previous generations, but the manufacturing jobs have all but disappeared, and the community has been an economic downward spiral ever since. Gemma’s close circle of juvenile-delinquent confidants are her boyfriend Pat; her best friend, Amy; and Amy’s boyfriend JP. All of them are school dropouts who spend their days and nights not doing much but making mischief, partying, and sometimes getting into gang fights. Their accents are so thick and filled with so much slang that the movie has subtitles.

The most important adult in Gemma’s life is her paternal grandfather Joseph, who has essentially raised Gemma with his wife. Gemma has no relationship with her biological parents. As it’s described in the movie, her mother is a drug addict who abandoned Gemma as a baby, and her father passed on the responsibility of raising Gemma to his parents. Joseph has a hobby of raising pigeons and selling them to the locals. He also works at a boxing gym, and he tries to get Gemma interested in boxing and/or his side business of raising pigeons, but she’d rather continue her ambition-less existence in the council flats (the United Kingdom equivalent of public housing) where she and her family and friends live.

After being introduced in the first third of the movie, Joseph essentially isn’t seen again, as Gemma’s life undergoes a major change when she gets pregnant with Pat’s child. The documentary follows Gemma through her pregnancy and the birth of their son. Becoming a mother changes Gemma’s priorities dramatically, and her hard edge softens as her maternal instinct gives her a different perspective on life. She and Pat seem ready to settle down, and they try to become responsible parents by giving up their hard-partying lifestyle.

But life isn’t a fairy tale, especially in Gemma’s world, where expectations are low, ambition is discouraged, and people don’t have much motivation to get out of their rut of disenfranchisement. When it’s easier for unskilled young people in that world to get money by committing crimes or living on welfare than it is by getting a job, it’s no wonder that many are tempted to take the easier ways to get money. When a tragedy hits someone in Gemma’s social circle, it has long-lasting and damaging effects. That tragedy is the most emotionally riveting part of the movie.

Even though Gemma and her friends have what many people consider to be depressing lives, it’s hard to feel too sorry for them because many of their problems are of their own doing. They don’t have “third world” poverty because they are fortunate to live in a country where financially disadvantaged people can live off of government assistance. They also have access to birth control, unlike many people in truly impoverished areas of the world, so there’s really not much of an excuse for the rampant teen pregnancy in their community. The same places where chain-smoking, hard-drinking Gemma and her friends get their cigarettes and booze are the same places where they can get condoms. Birth control is obviously a low priority for people in this movie.

Even when Gemma becomes a mother, decides to sober up, and looks for a job, things come fairly easily to her. After she applies for a low-paying job at a local café by filling out an application online, even though she has no experience, she gets the job just by calling up the manager and saying that she’s a responsible person. Even the most low-paying café jobs nowadays still require applicants to meet the hiring manager in person, so it’s an uncommon stroke of luck that Gemma gets the job just by having a brief conversation with a stranger over the phone.

“Scheme Birds” was directed by Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin, two filmmakers from Sweden, a country that is considered one of the most advanced in the world when it comes to how it takes care of its financially disadvantaged citizens. Perhaps Fiske and Hallin thought this documentary would be more compelling if it focused on someone who looks like the girls who star in the MTV reality show “Teen Mom.” Unfortunately, Gemma’s story is not unusual enough to have a lasting impact on viewers, and the fact that she takes for granted so many privileges that she has makes her even less sympathetic. There are millions of impoverished teenage mothers who face even more obstacles and challenges because of the color of their skin or because they live in a third-world country. But those aren’t the kind of girls who get cast on reality shows or have tabloid stories written about them, so it’s not a surprise that a lot of documentary filmmakers don’t want to tell their stories.