Review: ‘Past Lives’ (2023), starring Greta Lee, Teo Yoo and John Magaro

June 1, 2023

by Carla Hay

Pictured in front: Greta Lee and Teo Yoo in “Past Lives” (Photo by Jon Pack/A24)

“Past Lives” (2023)

Directed by Celine Song

Some language in Korean with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1990 to 2014, in Seoul, New York City, and briefly in Toronto, the dramatic film “Past Lives” (partially inspired by a true story) features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Twenty-four years after moving from South Korea to North America in her childhood, a 36-year-old married woman reconnects with a single man of the same age who could have been her adolescent sweetheart if she hadn’t moved away from South Korea. 

Culture Audience: “Past Lives” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted dramas about missed connections, immigration, and contemplating “what if” scenarios, when it comes to love, friendship and romance.

Greta Lee, John Magaro and Teo Yoo in “Past Lives” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Past Lives” beautifully tells a mature and realistic story about love, friendship and heartbreak for two people whose lives have gone in different directions, but they find a way to reconnect. It’s a relationship drama that’s an instant classic. If you’re looking for a movie with a formulaic ending, then look elsewhere. “Past Lives” authentically conveys the unsettling effects of when people begin to wonder if the lives that they have are the lives that they really want, and if past decisions they made were the right decisions.

Written and directed by Celine Song, “Past Lives” (which had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival) is a movie that is inspired by events that happened in Song’s own life. The movie isn’t autobiographical, but it explores many of the same feelings that came about when Song (who is originally from South Korea and married to an American man) was visited by man who was her childhood sweetheart in their native South Korea. Song is a New York City-based playwright whose feature-film debut is “Past Lives,” which opens with a scene that’s based on one of Song’s real-life experiences.

As she explains in the “Past Lives” production notes, she, her husband and her close childhood friend went to a restaurant/bar together during this visit. “I was sitting there between these two men who I know love me in different ways, in two different languages and two different cultures. And I’m the only reason why these two men are even talking to each other. There’s something almost sci-fi about it. You feel like somebody who can transcend culture and time and space and language.”

The opening scene of “Past Lives” does something clever in introducing this potentially uneasy love triangle: In 2014, two men and a woman are sitting side-by-side at a counter in a New York City bar, with the woman the middle. This trio is being observed by a man and a woman nearby (who are never seen on screen), who have a conversation trying to guess how these three people know each other. “Past Lives” (which takes place from 1990 to 2014) circles back to this bar scene later in the movie to show what led to this pivotal conversation between the trio.

After this opening scene, “Past Lives” flashes back to 1990 in Seoul, South Korea, where 12-year-old Moon Na Young, also known as Nora (played by Moon Seung-ah), and is hanging out with her best friend, Jung Hae Sung (played by Leem Seung-min), who’s about the same age as Nora. Hae Sung is a basketball enthusiast, who gently teases Nora because she’s crying over the fact that Hae Sung got first place in a contest that they entered. Hae Sung asks Nora why she’s angry over not getting first place. “I’m always second-place to you, and I never cry,” he says.

Viewers will soon see that Nora is the more talkative and ambitious of this duo of friends. She’s excels in academics and wants to be a writer when she grows up. At this point in Hae Sung’s childhood, he is less certain of what he wants to do with his life. He is well-mannered and throughtful, which are personality traits that carries throughout his life. He’s also not as quick as Nora to reveal his feelings.

In another scene, Hae Sung’s mother (played by Min Young Ahn) tells Nora’s mother (played by Ji Hye Yoon), who both don’t have names in the movie, that Na Young/Nora and Hae Sung look cute together. Hae Sung’s mother implies that these two kids will probably get married to each other when they’re adults. Hae Sung seems to also think that this will be the natural progression of his relationship with Nora.

However, the lives of Nora and Hae Sung will soon go in very different directions. Hae Sung is shocked to find out one day that the Moon family is moving to Canada to try something new in their lives. It’s a relocation that was decided by both parents, although Nora’s father (played by Wong Young Choi), who works in film production, seems to be more of the driving force in this decision. Nora’s father is the one who decided what the English-language first names would be for Na Young and her younger sister Si Young (played by Yeon Woo Seo), who is quieter and more passive than Na Young/Nora. Nora wanted to be renamed Michelle.

Before moving away, Nora tells her classmates that her family is moving to Canada because “Koreans don’t get the Nobel Prize for literature,” which is another way of saying that Nora believes that she has to become part of Western culture to achieve what she wants in life. Viewers can infer that these beliefs were instilled in her by her parents. It also explains why Nora doesn’t go back to visit South Korea after she has moved away.

The first third of the movie ends with a poignant goodbye between Nora and Hae Sung outside on a street near her home, and then the Moon family is shown arriving at Toronto International Airport. The farewell between adolescent Nora and Hae Sung becomes a defining life moment that gets compared to something that happens later in the movie. Nora and Hae Sung don’t fully understand at the time how momentous this goodbye will be in their lives.

The middle section and last-third section of the “Past Lives” shows the adulthood of Nora (played by Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (played by Teo Yoo), who are leading two very different lives. The second-third of the movie begins in 2002, when 24-year-old Nora is a university grad student in New York City. Hae Sung is enlisted in the South Korean military, which is required for South Korean men in his age group. Hae Sung eventually becomes an engineering student.

Nora finds out that Hae Sung has been trying to contact her, by leaving a message on the Facebook page of her father’s production company. Nora is slightly amused and very intrigued, so she decides to reach out to Hae Sung through social media. They reconnect with Skype conversations that are flirtatious with underlying potential for romance. In her 20s, Nora is proud to tell Hae Sung that she’s no longer the “crybaby” that he knew her to be when they were kids.

There’s an unspoken “push and pull” going on in these conversations. Nora and Hae Sung both know that if they start a romance with each other, the issue will inevitably come up about who is going to move to another country to be with that person. It’s an issue that’s the main wedge in preventing this relationship from blossoming.

Nora, who is fluent in Korean and English, is very happy and settled in New York City. Hae Sung, whose English is limited, sees himself as always living in South Korea. Nora tries to motivate Hae Sung to visit her in New York City, but he asks her a question that has a ripple effect on their relationship thereafter: “Why would I want to go to New York?” Observant viewers will notice that Nora doesn’t offer to visit Hae Sung in South Korea.

The last third of the movie takes place 12 years later, in 2014. Nora is still in New York City and now happily married to an American book author named Arthur Zaturansky (played by John Magaro), who is an easygoing and loving husband. However, Nora’s world gets rocked when she hears from Hae Sung after not being in contact with him for many years. Hae Sung, a never-married bachelor, is coming to New York City to visit for a week. And he wants to see Nora. It will be the first time Nora and Hae Sung will see each other in person (not over a computer or phone screen) since they said goodbye to each other as 12-year-old in South Korea.

None of this is spoiler information, because “Past Lives” (which is told in mostly in chronological order) is being marketed around the last third of the film. The movie has occasional flashbacks showing Nora and Hae Sung in their childhoods. The chronological narrative of the movie helps better explain how the relationship between Nora and Hae Sung changed over the years.

Nora’s anticipation for Hae Sung’s visit doesn’t go unnoticed by Arthur, who is trying to be open-minded and not jealous. Arthur knows that Nora and Hae Sung were close friends in a relationship that didn’t blossom into a romantic dating relationship. However, even though Nora doesn’t say it out loud, it’s very obvious that Nora wonders if Hae Sung is her true love/soul mate, the “one who got away.”

What Nora does say out loud to Arthur is this defensive response when Arthur wonders if Nora is still attracted to Hae Sung: “I don’t think it’s an attraction. I think I just missed him a lot. I miss Seoul.”

It’s not that Nora doesn’t love Arthur. It’s just that Nora knows her emotional connection with Hae Sung goes much deeper that what she has with Arthur. Hae Sung is a reminder of Nora’s past, but he’s also an example of a future she could have had but chose not to have. After Hae Sung arrives in New York City, the time that Nora and Hae Sung spend reconnecting are mostly on platonic dates to various places in New York City. During a few of the conversations in these get-togethers, Hae Sung brings up the concept of past lives determining future lives.

“Past Lives” shows how two people who could be passionate soul mates might not be compatible when it comes to marriage and life goals. Unless someone wants a long-distance or unconventional marriage, part of the commitment of marriage is spending time living together. Curiosity is a huge reason for Nora’s willingness to meet up with Hae Sung. What does he really want from her? And has he changed his mind about living in the United States?

These questions linger during the most memorable conversations in “Past Lives,” until Nora gets some definitive answers. But the emotional heart of the story has to do with the unanswered “what if” questions that Nora and Hae Sung have about their lives. Lee and Yoo are stellar in their performances as Nora and Hae Sung. These two co-stars skillfully depict showing the restraint of two characters who don’t want cross boundaries into inappropriateness but have the openness of two formerly close friends who are eager to reconnect.

As for that bar conversation featured in the movie’s opening scene, it realistically shows how Arthur feels like a “third wheel” when he’s around Nora and Hae Sung, who frequently speak to each other in Korean. Arthur knows a little bit of Korean, but he’s not fluent in the language. Magaro is quite good in a role that is meant to be a supporting role, but it never looks diminished or undervalued. Feeling like the “odd man out” is as awkward for Arthur as it is intentionally uncomfortable for viewers to watch.

Unlike other movies that would turn this love triangle into heavy melodrama or unrealistic comedy, “Past Lives” is about how people who are emotionally mature adults can navigate this tricky situation. A sign of great acting is when viewers can sense what the characters are thinking but are not saying out loud. The biggest truths of “Past Lives” are in those unspoken moments, with a lot of these truths showing themselves in the movie’s very last and unforgettable scene.

A24 will release “Past Lives” in select U.S. cinemas on June 2, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on June 23, 2023.

Review: ‘You Hurt My Feelings’ (2023), starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobias Menzies, Michaela Watkins, Arian Moayed, Owen Teague and Jeannie Berlin

May 27, 2023

by Carla Hay

Tobias Menzies and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in “You Hurt My Feelings” (Photo by Jeong Park/A24)

“You Hurt My Feelings” (2023)

Directed by Nicole Holofcener

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the comedy film “You Hurt My Feelings” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An insecure book author gets deeply upset when she finds out that her psychotherapist husband has been pretendng to like her first novel, and this revelation leads her to question his honesty in the marriage.

Culture Audience: “You Hurt My Feelings” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, filmmaker Nicole Holofcener and satire-tinged comedies where people make a big deal out of problems that are very trivial in the real world.

Arian Moayed and Michaela Watkins in “You Hurt My Feelings” (Photo by Jeong Park/A24)

If you’re a fan of comedies that poke gentle fun at somewhat spoiled protagonists, then “You Hurt My Feelings” (written and directed by Nicole Holofcener) is the type of movie that perfectly fits this description. It’s a low-key and realistic comedy about people who live in the bubble of being privileged and neurotic New Yorkers. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is an actress queen for this type of character. This movie isn’t for everyone, but the performances are entertaining. “You Hurt My Feelings” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

In “You Hurt My Feelings” (which takes place in New York City), Louis-Dreyfus portrays Beth Mitchell, an insecure book author who is constantly seeking validation from people around her. The person whose opinions and respect that Beth values the most is her husband Don Mitchell (played by Tobias Menzies), who is an easygoing psychotherapist. Don is very laid-back and tolerant, while Beth is uptight and judgmental. Even though Beth and Don have opposite personalities, they’ve had a very long and happy marriage.

At least that’s what Beth thinks, until she finds out something that shakes her to the core: Don has been pretending to like the book that Beth is currently working on: her first novel, which is also her second book. Don is one of the few people whom Beth has let read the manuscript for this book. She’s already feeling insecure because her first book (a memoir detailing the verbal abuse she got from her now-deceased father) was not the bestseller that Beth hoped it would be. The memoir wasn’t a total flop, but it had sales that were lukewarm.

Adding to Beth’s unease about her first novel is the less-than-enthusiastic response from her book agent. Not long before Beth found out that Don doesn’t like the manuscript, her agent Sylvia (played by LaTanya Richardson Jackson) told Beth during a lunch meeting that Sylvia doesn’t really like the manuscript either and thinks it’s not as interesting as Beth’s memoir. Sylvia commented to Beth in this meeting that there’s a lot of competition in the book publishing industry, which is always looking for “new voices.” Beth interprets this comment as Sylvia telling Beth that she’s old.

Why is Beth so insecure? It’s mentioned about midway through the movie that her father did a lot of emotional damage to her with his verbal abuse. He often called her “shit for brains” when Beth was a child. It’s a phrase that Beth says out loud to herself when she’s having moments of very low self-esteem.

Beth’s world is fairly insular, since most of the people she interacts with are family members and work colleagues. She teaches a creative writing class to people who are mostly in their 20s and 30s. Beth encourages her students to take risks in their work. It’s advice that Beth doesn’t always follow for herself. The movie later shows how Beth can be hypocritical in other ways.

Beth has a younger sister named Sarah (played Michaela Watkins), an interior designer who’s battling her own insecurities about her career. Sarah is married to a frequently unemployed actor named Mark (played by Arian Moayed), who’s frustrated that he hasn’t been able to land starring roles and get work more often. Mark also happens to be Don’s best friend. (People from Don’s side of the family are never mentioned in the movie.) Beth and Sarah have a cranky and forgetful mother named Georgia (played by Jeannie Berlin), who might be showing signs of early onset dementia.

Don and Beth’s only child is a 23-year-old son named Eliot (played by Owen Teague), who works at a marijuana dispensary. Even though Beth occasionally smokes marijuana, she tells Eliot that she’s uncomfortable with his job, because she thinks there’s potential for danger on the job, and she thinks that college graduate Eliot (who is an aspiring playwright) isn’t living up to his potential. Beth thinks it’s also why Eliot’s girlfriend Alison (who’s never seen in the movie), an aspiring lawyer, seems to be drifting away from Eliot.

“You Hurt My Feelings” is made like a compilation of scenarios that show different personal angles of Beth and her loved ones. Beth finds out about Don’s true feelings for her manuscript when she and Sarah spontaneously eavesdrop on Don and Mark in a sporting goods store. The way that Beth reacts is as if Don betrayed her in the most hurtful manner possible. Beth begins to wonder if she even she even knows Don at all.

The movie goes back and forth between showing Beth’s interactions with people, as well as the therapy sessions that Don (a doctor with his own practice) has with some of his clients. These therapy sessions seem to be in the movie to show how Don approaches problem-solving in his clients’ personal relationships, compared to problem-solving in his own personal relationships.

The movie’s opening scene shows Don in a therapy session with a bickering married couple named Jonathan (played by David Cross) and Carolyn (played by Amber Tamblyn), who say hateful things to each other. (Cross and Tamblyn are spouses in real life.) Don passively sits and listens, even though Jonathan and Carolyn clearly want the type of therapist who will give them advice on what to do about their marriage. And as time goes on, viewers see that Don’s non-confrontational style can be a detriment in his own marriage.

An early scene in the “You Hate My Feelings” shows a wedding anniversary dinner that Beth and Don are having together at a restaurant. Don gives Beth a pair of gold leaf earrings as his anniversary gift. Beth gives Don a black V-necked shirt. They both smile and seem happy with these gifts during this romantic dinner. Later in the movie, it’s shown that these gifts are symbols of much deeper issues in Beth and Don’s relationship.

Louis-Dreyfus is the obvious standout in a movie where her Beth character is the main focus of the story. However, Watkins and Berlin also give terrific performances that skillfully balance realism with talented comedic timing. Menzies plays his part well as a somewhat bland but loyal husband, while the other cast members are part of the overall believability in their roles, which could easily have been played as caricatures.

Of course, many viewers won’t feel too sorry for Beth, because she has the type of comfortable life that many people would like to have: She’s healthy. She’s surrounded by people who love her. And she doesn’t have worry about basic needs, such as food or shelter.

But truth be told, a lot of privileged people who have charmed existences in real life can’t see beyond their own trivial problems because they really have no reason or motivation to do so. The closest that Beth wants to acknowledge any type of “real world” suffering is volunteering with Sarah at a charity that gives away free clothes to underprivileged people. If Beth’s worst problem is finding out that her husband doesn’t like her latest book, then that’s a pretty good life to have.

The movie admits it at one point when Don comments to Beth about how she’s reacting to him not liking her novel: “The whole world is falling apart, and this is what consumes you?” Beth replies, “I know the whole world is falling apart … but this is my small, narcissistic world, and I’m hurt.” For all the neuroses and self-absorption on display, a movie like “You Hurt My Feelings” serves as a reminder that people who seem to “have it all” can still find reasons to be miserable if they’re not completely happy with themselves.

A24 released “You Hurt My Feelings” in U.S. cinemas on May 26, 2023.

Review: ’32 Sounds,’ starring Annea Lockwood, Edgar Choueiri, Joanna Fang, Cheryl Tipp, Fred Moten, Christine Sun Kim and Mazen Kerbaj

May 24, 2023

by Carla Hay

Sam Green in “32 Sounds” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

“32 Sounds”

Directed by Sam Green

Culture Representation: The documentary film “32 Sounds” features a predominantly white group of audio enthusiasts (with a few Asians and African Americans and one Latino) talking about how sounds and other aural experiences affect people.

Culture Clash: People have varying degrees of how much they value or pay attention to sounds. 

Culture Audience: “32 Sounds” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of ASMR videos or who want to experience a movie that takes an up-close examination of sounds at various volumes.

Edgar Choueiri in “32 Sounds” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

The documentary film “32 Sounds” has a title that’s somewhat misleading because this movie is actually an abundance of more than 32 sounds. It’s more like a feature-length ASMR [autonomous sensory meridian response] video than anything that is extraordinary or groundbreaking. The movie is inconsistent in how it labels the 32 sounds that inspired the documentary’s title. Most of the anecdotes and sounds can keep viewers interested.

Directed by Sam Green, “32 Sounds” has a meandering quality in how it features interviews with various audio enthusiasts and then usually showing them reacting to or talking about whatever sounds they’ve created, recorded or are listening to in their current location. “32 Sounds” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Ironically, for a movie that keeps repeating that it should be seen in a theater, “32 Sounds” did not have its Sundance premiere in a theater, since the Sundance Film Festival abruptly cancelled its in-person events in 2022, due to COVID-19 concerns, and the festival was held virtually instead.

In an intro to the movie, “32 Sounds” director Green and “32 Sounds” composer JD Sampson are shown thanking people for seeing the film in a theater. Green provides voiceover narration throughout the documentary. He speaks in slow, measured tones that are similar to someone who’s leading a meditation session. Green’s narration for “32 Sounds” includes several comments that assume viewers are watching the movie in a theater.

Other times, the narration can fit to wherever viewers are watching the documentary. For example, multiple times in “32 Sounds,” Green suggests that viewers close their eyes during certain segments, in order to be more immersed in the aural experience without visual distractions. People who keep their eyes open during these segments will just see a blank screen while the sound is playing.

The movie’s frequent assumptions that people are watching “32 Sounds” in a movie theater make the documentary look a little bit out of touch, since movies like “32 Sounds” typically have a very limited release in theaters in low number of cities. The movie was available to the media for review as a digital screener, as well as in-person screenings in select cities. (I saw the movie on a digital screener and used headphones to get the maximum effect for the sounds.)

More people are likely to see low-budget independent films such as “32 Sounds” when they’re released for viewing in formats that are not in a movie theater. In addition, technology has advanced to the point where it’s possible to get a theater-like sound and visual quality in home viewing, with the right equipment. It might not be as big as an IMAX screen, most most advanced home theater systems come very close to replicating what movie theater screens and speakers have to offer.

Green brings a personal touch to the documentary by talking about how he’s kept old cassette tapes of voice mail recordings. Some of these recordings are by people who are now deceased. Green states the obvious: recordings like these are more than just recordings. They are collections of memories.

This is an example of the type of narration that Green has in the film, as he comments about these voice mail recordings: “I wondered if sound is somehow a way to understand time and time passing and loss and the ephemeral beats of the present moment.” If that type of narration makes your eyes glaze over in disinterest, then “32 Sounds” might not be the documentary for you.

The documentary includes some mentions of seminal moments in aural history. Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph is noted as the most revolutionary thing to happen to sound. Also included is what is believed to be the first recording of a human fetus in a womb, with the recording made by midwife Aggie Murch, the wife of famed film editor Walter Murch. (“Womb Tone” was Walter Murch’s famous essay about this recording.) Charles Babbage, the inventor of the computer, is cited as someone who believed that there are untold numbers of sounds that can’t be heard by human ears.

Famous experimental sound artist Annea Lockwood (whose specialty was composing songs from objects that aren’t musical instruments) is the person is prominently featured in “32 Sounds.” The documentary includes archival footage of Lockwood from the late 1960s, as well as exclusive footage of Lockwood filmed for “32 Sounds” when Lockwood was 81 years old.

The movie spends a little too much time being a mini-biography about Lockwood’s career, personal life and what she does in her spare time. One of the scenes in the movie includes Lockwood recording insects and other creatures at Constitution Marsh at the Hudson River in New York state. The sound mixing is played with and tweaked throughout “32 Sounds,” so that anyone can notice how the same sounds can be heard differently from various perspectives.

Cheryl Tipp, a curator of natural sounds at the British Library Sound Archive (which has more than 7 million sound items) is shown playing back the sound of the last known Moho braccatus, an extinct, small-sized bird. The recording features a male Moho braccatus giving mating calls, while rain can be heard in the background. The male Moho braccatus does not know that the last female Moho braccatus was killed during a hurricane. Tipp talks about how this recording is emotionally moving to her.

One of the more fascinating parts of the documentary are scenes with foley artist Joanna Fang, who demonstrates how sound effects are fabricated for movies. These effects are often not done with computers but by the traditional way of using hands and feet to create an illusion of something happening in the movie, whether it’s a dog walking or someone getting stabbed. Fang comments that the “cheat” sound “often sound better than the real thing.”

Edgar Choueiri, director of Princeton University’s electric propulsion and plasma dynamics laboratory, offers a scientific perspective of sounds, as he demonstrates some sounds with his lab equipment. Later in the film, Choueiri listens to a recording that he made for his future self when he was 11 years old. At the time he made the recording, Choueiri says that he vowed not to listen to the recording until after the year 2000. Choueiri is visibly nostalgic and says he went through a range of emotions when hearing his 11-year-old self making a recording to his future self.

The movie’s segments on music are rather eclectic. Green includes archival footage that he took in 2006 of left-wing activist Nehanda Abiodun (an American exiled in Cuba) grooving to a recording of McFadden and Whitehead’s 1979 hit “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.” She says the song reminds her of the time when she and other Human Right Coalition activists were planning a protest in front of the United Nations to accuse the U.S. of human genocide. Abiodun (who died in 2019) also says in the archival footage that the song triggers memories of her efforts to free her activist friend Assata Shakur from jail.

Green also interviews Don Garcia, who is notorious in his New York City neighborhood for driving on the streets late at night and blasting Phil Collins’ 1981 hit “The Air Tonight” at full volume. Garcia gives no real explanation for why he does it on a regular basis, but he seems to enjoy the attention he gets, even if it means that some people complain about the noise. The documentary doesn’t interview anyone who has complained about Garcia’s late-night music blasting. It’s a missed opportunity for “32 Sounds” to contrast how someone’s listening pleasure could be someone else’s listening annoyance.

There’s also a segment where “32 Sounds” composer Sampson is shown (in two invisible split-screen images) playing an original instrumental song on electric guitar and on electric bass. It seems like a promotional music video segment at best. And there’s a random segment where Donna Summer’s 1976 hit “I Feel Love” is in the movie, for no other purpose but for Green to say in a voiceover that viewers can get up and dance to the song if they want to, because no one will care in a darkened theater.

All of these segments on musical sounds are cobbled together with no real theme or central concept in the documentary. The footage of Abiodun just seems to be in the movie so that Green can say that she was his “friend,” as if he has some ties to Black Power activism. Curiously, “32 Sounds” leaves out any mention of tinnitus, a hearing disorder that causes constant buzzing or ringing in the ears. Tinnitus is an occupational hazard of people (such as musicians) who have long-term exposure to loud sounds without wearing earplugs.

The documentary includes an interview with sound artist Christine Sun Kim, who happens to be deaf. She says that deaf people know a lot about the etiquette of sound. Poet and cultural theorist Fred Moten is interviewed in another segment of the movie to talk about the cultural impact of sounds. And experimental musician Mazen Kerbai shares some sound recordings he made of bombs going off in his native country of Lebanon.

Because “32 Sounds” tends to be a rambling film, it might not appeal to viewers who are expecting a documentary that’s more structured. The movie starts off saying that it’s going to showcase 32 sounds, but the numbers identifying each sound are not always shown on screen. The film is ultimately a hodgepodge tribute to diverse sounds and aural experiences, with the movie’s sound mixing intended to cause some spine-tingling or goosebumps for viewers. The “32 Sounds” documentary is like taking an aimless road trip with views that please the senses but not much will be learned from the experience.

Abramorama released “32 Sounds” in select U.S. cinemas on April 28, 2023.

Review: ‘The Starling Girl,’ starring Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Wrenn Schmidt, Austin Abrams and Jimmi Simpson

May 20, 2023

by Carla Hay

Eliza Scanlen and Lewis Pullman in “The Starling Girl” (Photo by Brian Lannin/Bleecker Street)

“The Starling Girl”

Directed by Laurel Parmet

Culture Representation: Taking place in Kentucky in the mid-2000s, the dramatic film “The Starling Girl” has an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 17-year-old girl in a strict, religious community has a taboo affair with her married, 28-year-old youth pastor, while her troubled father struggles with his own personal issues.

Culture Audience: “The Starling” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies that realistically explore issues of religion, teenage sexual awakenings, self-identity and moral hypocrisy.

Jimmi Simpson and Wrenn Schmidt in “The Starling Girl” (Photo by Brian Lannin/Bleecker Street)

“The Starling Girl” is a memorable coming-of-age story that artfully juxtaposes depictions of repression and rebellion without falling into the usual plot clichés. Eliza Scanlen gives a riveting performance as a 17-year-old experiencing self-discovery. It’s a movie that doesn’t offer easy answers to the main characters’ problems, but it’s made clear to viewers that these problems are made worse in a culture of denial and hypocrisy.

“The Starling Girl” (which had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival) is an impressive feature-film debut from writer/director Laurel Parmet. The movie takes place in Kentucky in the mid-2000s, but “The Starling Girl” has a timeless quality to that transcends locations and generations, in the way that it depicts the relatable, restless energy of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. The teenager wants the freedom of an adult, but legally the teenager has to be treated like a child. Depending on the teenager’s environment and individual personality, this transitional phase can either help or hurt a teenager’s emotional growth.

In “The Starling Girl,” the title character is 17-year-old Jemima “Jem” Starling (played by Scanlen), who is navigating her way to adulthood in a conservative Christian community. It’s a community where people of the female gender are expected to be subservient to people of the male gender. Women and girls in this community are monitored and judged for what they say, do and wear around men and boys. Something as simple as wearing an outfit that shows the outline of a bra underneath can be reason enough for a girl to get scolded or lectured to by an adult.

It’s what happens to Jem after a chaste dance performance that she does with some other local teenage girls at their community church. The girls all wear matching long white dresses. Dancing is a passion for Jem, who also likes to do choreography for the group. After their performance, which gets polite applause from the congregation, Jem is in a very good mood.

But her upbeat mood soon turns to despair when, after the church service, the church pastor’s wife Anne Taylor (played by K.J. Baker) says sternly to Jem in front of Jem’s family and some other people in the congregation: “Mrs. Stone has noticed that the bra is visible from your dress.” Jem’s homemaker mother Heidi Starling (played by Wrenn Schmidt) says apologetically, “We try to be very conscious, but sometimes things slip.”

Within the first 15 minutes of “The Starling Girl,” it becomes obvious that Jem’s parents, especially her mother, want to impress church leader Pastor Taylor (played by Kyle Secor) and his family. Pastor Taylor has two children: 28-year-old Owen Taylor (played by Lewis Pullman) and 17-year-old Ben Taylor (played by Austin Abrams), who is expected to be the one to date Jem and possibly be her future husband. Heidi in particular is enthusiastic about the possibility of Ben and Jem getting married, because the marriage would elevate the status of the Starling family in the community. Even though Ben seems to be attracted to Jem, she is not at all attracted to Ben, who is socially awkward and a little weird.

After being reprimanded about her bra being visible through her dress, Jem goes outside the church to a semi-secluded area of the lawn and cries in shame. Jem think she’s alone, but doesn’t see until it’s too late that Owen is nearby and has been watching her. He tries to start a conversation with her, but she abruptly leaves in embarrassment. It’s soon revealed that Jem has had a crush on Owen for a very long time.

Owen has recently come back to his hometown after spending some time as a missionary in Puerto Rico. Owen is married to a pious and perky woman named Misty Taylor (played by Jessamine Burgum), who is a big believer in sticking to religious traditions. By contrast, Owen is open to non-traditional methods of religious worship. And even though Owen has been appointed as the youth pastor of the church, what he really wants to do with his life is be a farmer.

Jem is also someone who is struggling with what is expected of her and what she really wants to do with her life. For now, Jem is expected to marry and start a family not long after she graduates from high school, but Jem thinks she doesn’t want to be a wife and mother until she’s much older and more emotionally mature. Her mother Heidi has already decided that Ben would be a good match for Jem, but when Jem expresses reluctance to date Ben, her mother dismisses any of Jem’s concerns. Jem’s more lenient father Paul Starling (played by Jimmi Simpson) tells Jem that she doesn’t have to make up her mind right away about whether or not to date Ben.

At home, Heidi is a prudish taskmaster who expects the family to closely follow all of their religious teachings. Jem is the oldest of five kids. Her siblings are Noah Starling (played by Chris Dinner), who’s about 15 or 16; Rebecca “Becca” Starling (played by Claire Elizabeth Green), who’s about 13 or 14; Sarah Starling (played by Ellie May), who’s about 6 or 7; and a toddler named Jeremy Starling (played by Kieran Sitawi). Out of all of Jem’s siblings, Rebecca is the one who has the closest emotional bond to Jem.

During another religious service at the local church, a teenager named Edmond Tike (played by Ike Harrell), who’s about 16 or 17 years old, gets up in front of the congregation to ask for their forgiveness for sins that he says he committed but he does not detail. Edmond looks humiliated and ashamed when he tells the congregation that he’s now a “cleansed man.” He gets a lukewarm response from the audience. Pastor Taylor’s attitude toward Edmond is that Edmond is like an unruly puppy that needs patience and needs to be trained.

In the youth group meeting after the church service, some of the assembled teenagers gossip about Edmond, by saying he had just come back from a severe religious camp, which is notorious as a scary place where kids in the community are sent for punishment. According to the gossip, Edmond was sent there because he was caught looking at porn on a computer. Jem says self-righteously, “That’s why you have to be so careful with technology. It’s the easiest way for Satan to get to you.”

But it won’t be long before Jem gets caught up in something that would be an even bigger sexual scandal than looking at porn. At the youth group meeting that Owen is leading for the first time, he makes the group members lie down on their backs and meditate. Most of the group thinks it’s bizarre, but Jem is intrigued and can see that Owen isn’t a traditional youth pastor.

Jem’s attraction to Owen deepens when the dance group’s adult leader Mrs. Baker quits, and Owen is the one who gets to decide what to do about it. Jem confidently pitches herself to be the group leader until an adult can be found to replace Mrs. Baker. Owen agrees to this idea because he likes Jem and thinks she’s a talented dancer.

Owen also knows that this decision will also make Jem like him even more and be more loyal to him. Owen feels that most of the teens in the youth group don’t really like him because they think Owen is “different” and maybe too liberal. Jem also feel a little bit like an “outsider” in this community. Just like Owen, Jem thinks there are certain traditions in the community that she doesn’t necessarily want to follow.

Jem and Owen start to spend some more time alone together, and the attraction becomes mutual. Eventually, Owen and Jem open up to each other about their personal lives. Owen tells Jem that he’s miserable in his marriage to Misty, who wants to start a family with Owen, but Owen tells Jem that he doesn’t want to have kids with Misty. Owen says his dream would be to go back to Puerto Rico and start a farm. Jem has vague plans to possibly become a dance teacher after she graduates from high school.

Just as things are looking up for Jem as leader of the dance group and finding a new “friend” in Owen, her life at home starts to experience some turmoil. The day that Jem finds out that she’s going to lead the dance group, she comes home and accidentally walks in on her father sitting naked on his bed and snorting an unknown powder that was on his hand. Horrified and in shock, Jem quickly leaves the room and doesn’t say anything to anyone about what she saw.

It’s eventually revealed that before Paul got married and had a family, he used to have a wild life as a substance-abusing musician in a country/rock band named The Deadbeats, which didn’t make it past the level of playing bars and nightclubs. Paul recently found out that one of his former band mates committed suicide. And this news sends Paul on a downward spiral and relapse into secretive drinking and drugging. Heidi knows about Paul’s past, and it’s implied that she was the one who convinced him to become a sober, born-again Christian.

The rest of “The Starling Girl” shows the drama that happens in Jem’s family life, her new leadership role for the dance group, and the growing attraction between Jem and Owen. In Kentucky, 16 years old is the minimum age of consent for people to have sexual relations. What happens between Jem and Owen is no surprise. But the last third of “The Starling Girl” does have a few surprises that look authentic and not overly contrived for a movie.

Scanlen is absolutely fantastic in how she depicts a teenager feeling trapped while transitioning into adulthood. Jem goes through a sexual awakening that both fascinates and frightens her. Jem uses some of her feminine charms to get her way, but she also experiences the harsh realities of living in a sexist community that treats women and girls as inferior to men and boys. It’s a community that is quick to shame and blame women and teenage girls for the same things that men and teenage boys can often do without punishment.

One of the best things about “The Starling Girl” is how the cast members (especially Scanlen) express emotions without saying a word. It’s an essential reason why so much of this movie looks realistic in showing people who are living lives of quietly desperate repression. So much is left unsaid or denied by these characters, but their facial expressions and body language tell the real story.

“The Starling Girl” writer/director Parmet has accomplished a tricky feat of crafting a story that is specific yet universal. This gem of a movie is more than just about a teenage girl who wants to break free of her strict, religious environment. It’s about summoning the courage to be yourself, even if it means going through painful experiences of finding out who you really are. The ending of “The Starling Girl” won’t satisfy some viewers who want more answers, but the movie has a clear message that finding some kind of happiness in life is what you make of it.

Bleecker Street released “The Starling Girl” in select U.S. cinemas on May 12, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on May 19, 2023.

Review: ‘Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie,’ starring Michael J. Fox

May 14, 2023

by Carla Hay

Michael J. Fox in “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie”

Directed by Davis Guggenheim

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” features an all-white group of people discussing the life and career of retired actor Michael J. Fox.

Culture Clash: Fox has dealt with major health issues in his life, including Parkinson’s disease and alcoholism. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious fan base of Michael J. Fox fans, “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in celebrity documentaries and documentaries about health issues.

An archival photo of Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan in “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

Inspiring and with superb film editing, “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” is a must-see documentary for anyone who wants to get a personal look at how Michael J. Fox refused to make his Parkinson’s disease into a tragedy but instead turned it into a triumph. The movie could have easily been a complete nostalgia trip, but the movie’s narrative cuts back and forth from the past to when the documentary was filmed, mostly in 2021 and 2022. It’s a visually striking contrast of Fox’s life when he was an award-winning, working actor to his current life of being a retired actor who continues to be an activist for Parkinson’s disease awareness and research. What hasn’t changed is that Fox still has a charming mix of confidence and self-deprecating wit.

Directed by Davis Guggenheim and narrated by Fox, “Still: A Michael J. Fox Story” doesn’t play coy about Fox living with Parkinson’s disease. The movie (which has several re-enactments) begins in Florida 1990, with a recreation of Fox waking up in a hotel room “with a ferocious hangover” and seeing the first signs that he had this disease: He saw one of his pinky fingers trembling uncontrollably. His bodyguard also had to prop him up when Fox tried to walk to the elevator. (Danny Irizarry, whose face is not shown in the movie, portrays Fox in the documentary’s re-enactments.)

At first, Fox assumed that his loss of muscle control was due to the heavy partying he had done the night before with actor Woody Harrelson. But as the world now knows, Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991, but he didn’t go public about it until 1998. One of the most emotionally moving parts of the documentary is how Fox describes hiding this disease was in many ways just as damaging to his psyche as the disease was damaging to his body.

“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. There isn’t really anything new in “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” that he hasn’t already revealed in his memoirs (2002’s “Lucky Man: A Memoir by Michael J. Fox” and 2020’s “No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality”) or in interviews that he’s given before this documentary was made. But there never before has been a documentary like this made about Fox with Fox’s participation. Instead of just being a boring compilaton of archival clips and interviews, the documentary vividly brings Fox’s story to cinematic life with the way the movie uses clips from his on-screen roles to cleverly match the emotions and situations that Fox describes in his narration.

By now, most people who know why Fox is famous are already aware of his career highlights. Born in 1961 in the Canadian city of Edmonton, Alberta, he rose to fame in the 1980s, with starring roles in the 1982 to 1989 comedy TV series “Family Ties” (for which he won three Primetime Emmy Awards) and his breakthrough movie role in the 1985 sci-fi time-traveling comedy blockbuster “Back to the Future.” Many people also know about several of Fox’s other movies (such as 1985’s “Teen Wolf,” 1987’s “The Secret to My Success” and the “Stuart Little” movies), as well and his TV sitcom comeback in “Spin City,” which he starred in from 1996 to 2000. Fox won his fourth Primetime Emmy Award for “Spin City.” He won his fifth Primetime Emmy Award in 2009 for being a guest actor on the drama series “Rescue Me.”

Many of Fox’s fans already know the story of how he started acting while he was a child growing up in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby. As someone who was always shorter than most of his peers, Fox learned at an early age to use comedy as a way to make people like him—or at least back off a little from bullying or insulting him. In the documentary, Fox describes his teenage years as being an academically dismal student and a “serial fender bender.” He also had a rocky relationship with his retired military father, whom Fox describes as a pragmatist with a quick temper.

Fox decided to drop out of high school at age 17 to pursue an acting career full-time in the Los Angeles area. In the documentary, Fox says that he was surprised that his strict father didn’t put up much of fuss over this decision. Fox remembers his father telling him this analogy: “If you’re going to be a lumberjack, you better go to the goddamn forest.”

Like many struggling actors in the Los Angeles area, Fox was living in near-poverty and was able to book some jobs, but they weren’t enough to pay the bills. His big break as conservative teen Alex P. Keaton on “Family Ties” came about because actor Matthew Broderick wasn’t available for the role, and Fox was able to win over a skeptical David Gordon Green, the showrunner of “Family Ties.” In the documentary, Fox describes the first time he made people laugh in his “Family Ties” audition was a high that was like no other: “No drink, no drug, not woman could touch that moment.”

Fox’s starring role as time-traveling teen Marty McFly in “Back to the Future” also came about because he wasn’t the first choice: Eric Stoltz was originally cast in the role and had started filming the movie when “Back to the Future” director Robert Zemeckis fired Stoltz for not being a good fit for the movie’s comedy. Just as Fox described in many other interviews and in his memoirs, for about three months, Fox kept a grueling schedule where he worked on “Family Ties” and “Back to the Future” at the same time. “Back to the Future” made him a household name worldwide.

Also duly noted in the documentary is the love story between Fox and Tracy Pollan, a theater-trained actress who played Alex P. Keaton’s girlfriend on “Family Ties.” Life imitated art. Fox and Pollan fell in love, and they got married in 1988. In the documentary, Fox says one of the reasons why he fell in love with Pollan was because she wasn’t impressed by his stardom and was honest with him, even if it might hurt his feelings.

Fox and Pollan have four children: son Sam (born in 1989); twin daughters Aquinnah and Schuyler (born in 1995); and daughter Esmé (born November 3, 2001). All four of the kids and Pollan are in the documentary with Fox. They are shown joking around with each other and being a loving family.

“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” doesn’t clutter up the movie with “experts” or “talking heads” discussing Fox. Occasionally, director Guggenheim can be heard talking to Fox off-camera. One of the questions that Guggenheim asks Fox is: “Before [you had] Parkinson’s, what did it mean to be still?” Fox replies, “I don’t know. I don’t remember being still.”

The documentary frequently juxtaposes Fox’s career highs with current footage that shows the contrast of what his life is like now: He has difficulty walking and is in constant physical therapy. Falling down and hurting himself is a fact of life for him. One of the early scenes in the movie shows him taking a hard tumble on a sidewalk. In another scene, he has to have makeup applied to his fractured left cheekbone because of another fall that isn’t shown in the movie. There’s a montage of clips showing the tricks he used to do on camera to hide his shaking hands when his Parkinson’s disease was a secret from the public.

Fox also gets candid about becoming an alcoholic after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but he says he got sober in 1992. His father’s sudden death of a heart attack in 1990 also shook him to the core. Fox says it was like crossing another painful threshold in adulthood. He also admits there was a period of time from the late 1980s to the early 1990s when he became a workaholic in movies because he was under the delusion that keeping busy with work would make his Parkinson’s disease go away. His workaholic lifestyle and making movies far away from his home were taking a toll on his family life, which is why he decided to go back to doing a TV series with “Spin City.”

The Michael J. Fox Foundation, a non-profit group dedicated to Parkinson’s disease resources and research, is mentioned as one of the most significant accomplishments of Fox’s life. The foundation has raised more than $2 billion, according to the documentary. Fox has also been an outspoken activist who has testified in front of congressional committees and campaigned for more government funding for Parkinson’s disease.

Despite all the information in “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” that has already been revealed in other media, there’s no denying that seeing Fox open up in a movie about his life is illumninating in ways that can’t be done in a book, news article or a short interview. What emerges in the documentary is a portrait of someone who is not afraid to reflect on his life (including his past mistakes and failings) but doesn’t want to be stuck in the past. And most importantly, the movie is a positive example of how someone with a disease that weakens the body can gain emotional strength and help others.

Apple Studios released “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” in select U.S. cinemas and on Apple TV+ on May 12, 2023.

Review: ‘Polite Society,’ starring Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya

April 28, 2023

by Carla Hay

Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya in “Polite Society” (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features)

“Polite Society”

Directed by Nida Manzoor

Culture Representation: Taking place in London, the comedy film “Polite Society” features a racially diverse cast of characters (South Asian, white and a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A teenage girl, who wants to become a stunt performer, tries to stop her older sister from getting married to a smooth-talking, wealthy man, who wants the couple to move to Singapore after the wedding. 

Culture Audience: “Polite Society” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching female-empowerment comedies, told from a multicultural perspective.

Nimra Bucha stars as Raheela and Priya Kansara in “Polite Society” (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features)

“Polite Society” has fun with its absurdist take on action films. It makes clever commentary about modern feminism and how aspirational culture affects people. Nida Manzoor has sharp writing and directing in this well-cast movie with great comedic timing. It’s an impressive feature-film debut for Manzoor, who has TV directing credits for “Doctor Who” and “We Are Parts.” “Polite Society” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

In “Polite Society” (which takes place in London), two intelligent sisters named Ria Khan (played by Priya Kansara) and Lena Khan (played by Ritu Arya) are feeling frustrated with their lives for different reasons. Ria, who’s about 16 years old, wants to be a stunt performer and is taking martial arts classes in preparation. Ria believes in herself when pursuing this goal, even though most people around her think that this goal in unattainable for her. Lena, who’s in her early-to-mid 20s, is enrolled in art school in the very beginning of the film, but she drops out of school because she doesn’t believe that she has the talent to become a successful artist.

Ria is very upset that Lena has dropped out of school because she thinks that Lena is a talented artist but just gave up too easily. Lena moves back into the family home and mopes around while she contemplates what she might want to do with her life. The parents of Ria and Lena are immigrants from Pakistan. Based on the language accents of the Khan family members, it’s implied that Ria and Lena were either born in the United Kingdom or have been raised in the United Kingdom from a very young age.

Ria and Lena live and experience British and Pakistani cultures. Even though Lena has dropped out of school and is unemployed, her traditional Pakistani parents aren’t as worried about Lena as they are about Ria. That’s because Lena’s accountant father Rafe (played by Jeff Mirza) and homemaker mother Fatima (played Shobu Kapoor) think that Lena can redeem herself by finding a husband, preferably someone who is affluent. Rafe and Fatima think Ria’s interest in being a stunt performer is an unrealistic dream and not very feminine.

Ria attends an elite private school, where her two best friends are classmates: feisty Clara (played by Seraphina Beh) and mild-mannered Alba (played by Ella Bruccoleri), who are the only people in Ria’s life who encourage Ria to pursue her goals of being a stunt performer. Ria also makes amateur stunt videos that she puts on social media. Lena sometimes does camera work for these videos.

One of Ria’s goals is to do an internship with Eunice Huthart, a longtime stunt performer/coordinator who has worked on several superhero films and other action flicks. “Polite Society” includes voiceover narration from Ria, including Ria reading aloud the fan mail that she sends to Eunice. You know where this part of the story is going, of course.

Early on in the movie, Ria’s mother scolds Ria by saying, “Do you think your father sends you to that school to be a stunt woman?” At Ria’s school, there’s a guidance counselor session where students are assigned internships, according to what a counselor decides would be the best career direction for each student. It’s something that should be discussed privately, but these evaluations are done in front of the entire classroom.

When it’s Ria’s turn to get her assignment, she tells the counselor Ms. Spence (played by Jenny Funnell) that she wants to be a stunt performer. Ms. Spence is dismissive of that career goal, because she thinks being a stunt performer isn’t a real job for women or even a real job in acting. Ms. Spence assigns Ria to be an intern to a medical doctor, even though Ria tells her she has no interest in this line of work. There are some racial undertones to this assignment because of the stereotype that children of Pakistani immigrants want to work in careers involving science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

A loudmouth bully named Kovacs (played by Shona Babayemi), who is a female classmate, predictably taunts Ria about Ria’s desire to be a stunt performer. Ria retorts by loudly reminding the class that Kovacs’ father was in prison for financial fraud. At one point in the movie, Ria and Kovacs get in a physical fight in a school library. It won’t be revealed who wins this fight, but it’s enough to say that the fight confirms to Ria that she shouldn’t give up on her goal to be a stunt performer.

Meanwhile, Fatima is seen having lunch with a small group of high-society Pakistani immigrant women. The “queen bee” of this group is wealthy widow Raheela Shah (played by Nimra Bucha), who loves to brag about her eligible bachelor son Salim Shah (played by Akshay Khanna), a doctor whose specialty is in genetics. Fatima comes from a lower-income household than those of the other women, and she somewhat desperately wants to fit in this group.

And now that Lena has a lot of time on her hands, Fatima thinks it would be a good idea to play matchmaker for Lena. It just so happens that Raheela has invited the Khan family to a party at her mansion. Salim (who is in his late 20s or early 30s) is at the party, and he’s surrounded by adoring women, who all look like they want to date him. However, Raheela has been telling all of her lady friends that Salim is very picky and rejects almost all the women whom Raheela introduces to him.

As soon as Lena arrives at the party and isn’t one of the women fawning over Salim, you just know he’s going to take an interest in her. Lena and Salim begin talking. When he asks her what she’s doing with her life, Salim seems impressed by Lena’s honesty when she tells him, “What do I do? I disappoint my parents.” And when Lena says that she’s taking some time to figure out what she wants to do with her life, Salim tells her: “I think it’s great that you’re allowing yourself to be working it out.”

Meanwhile, Ria doesn’t have a very good impression of Salim. At the party, Ria tells an acquaintaince named Jezah (played by Tia Dutt), who’s close to Ria’s age, what she thinks about Salim as soon as she sees him: “What a prick.” Jezah openly swoons about how handsome and rich Salim is and says to Ria: “I hear he’s quite nice.” Ria says in sarcastic response: “Biscuits are nice.”

Ria is bored at this party, so she goes wandering around the mansion. And she makes a discovery that further raises her suspicions: In a study room, she finds a desk with several individual photos of women on it. Lena is one of the women in these photos. It looks like someone is planning which women could possibly date Salim. This type of planned matchmaking is very common in South Asian cultures, but Ria thinks it’s offensive.

It’s already revealed in the trailer for “Polite Society” that Lena and Salim get engaged. It’s a whirlwind courtship where Salim proposed to Lena after they were dating for only one month. Ria, who vehemently disapproves of this relationship, gets even more upset when she finds out that Lena and Salim plan to move to Singapore after the wedding. Ria also thinks it’s alarming that Salim is a “mama’s boy” who seems overly attached to his mother.

The rest of “Polite Society” is about Ria’s schemes to stop the wedding by any means necessary. She enlists the help of Clara and Alba. And the three pals also get some assistance from an unlikely person. There’s a lot of slapstick comedy in “Polite Society” but also some emotional moments about family relationships.

“Polite Society” takes a satirical look at the lengths that some people might go to climb up a social ladder or to stroke their own egos. The movie is filled with examples of how several people want to be accepted by those who are rich and powerful, while those who are rich and powerful often want to make other people feel inferior. In the beginning of the movie, Lena likes to think of herself as bohemian and edgy, but even she gets caught up in the idea of being a pampered trophy wife who is the opposite of bohemian and edgy.

Even with all the jokes and over-the-top action scenes, “Polite Society” also depicts examples of how women and girls can be “gaslighted” into thinking that they’re “crazy” for pursuing certain goals or for trusting their gut instincts. Although much of the plot is about Ria trying to stop Lena from getting married, the movie isn’t anti-marriage. It’s against the idea that people, especially women, have to give up who they are, in order to fit into someone else’s idea of what a “perfect spouse” should be.

One of the reasons why “Polite Society” is so entertaining to watch is because of the believable chemistry between the cast members. Kansara and Arya are especially convincing as sisters who have a volatile relationship that still has a lot of love. Bucha has some standout moments as Raheela, who becomes Ria’s biggest nemesis in the story.

“Polite Society” doesn’t present Ria as always being correct. It would be very easy to portray Ria as a crusading feminist who has all the answers, but the movie doesn’t make that lazy mistake. Ria is realistically presented as a flawed human being. Ria can get obnoxious in trying to prove her point, because one of Ria’s flaws is that she thinks she is always right. And it causes an even bigger rift between Ria and Lena.

In the last third of “Polite Society,” there’s a plot development that some viewers might not like because they’ll think the movie is taking a sharp turn into science fiction. However, there are clear indications throughout the movie that this story is a heightened version of reality. It’s not easy to balance wacky comedy with serious commentary about how women and girls are constantly being dictated to about how they should look or act when living their lives. “Polite Society” handles this balance as skillfully as an agile stunt performer.

Ria makes some comments in the movie that are criticisms of patriarchy, but “Polite Society” is not a feminist film that’s about bashing men. It’s a movie that encourages tolerance for women’s choices in life. Some of those choices might be mistakes, but people should be given an opportunity to learn from those mistakes.

Ria has to learn that her way of approaching life might not work for other people. Ria’s first impulse is to “rescue” her sister Lena from a life that Ria thinks will make Lena unhappy, but does Lena really need Ria to tell Lena what should make Lena happy? These types of meaningful observations make “Polite Society” better than the average female-oriented action comedies, which often depict feminism as shallow scenarios instead of experiences that truly embody female empowerment.

Focus Features released “Polite Society” in U.S. cinemas on April 28, 2023.

Review: ‘Judy Blume Forever,’ starring Judy Blume

April 21, 2023

by Carla Hay

Judy Blume in “Judy Blume Forever” (Photo courtesy of Prime Video)

“Judy Blume Forever”

Directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S., the documentary film “Judy Blume Forever” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) who are fans, loved ones and business associates of author Judy Blume, who also participated in this documentary.

Culture Clash: Blume talks about the controversies surrounding some of her books, her two failed marriages, and various insecurities and tragedies that she’s had in her life. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the target audience of Judy Blume fans, “Judy Blume” will appeal to people interested in documentaries about famous and influential book authors.

Judy Blume in “Judy Blume Forever” (Photo courtesy of Prime Video)

“Judy Blume Forever” is a fan tribute documentary in the best sense of the term. It doesn’t need a lot of exposé journalism, because Judy Blume candidly shares her flaws and failings in the movie. Anyone who is a fan of Blume should consider this documentary as essential as her best books. “Judy Blume Forever” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok, “Judy Blume Forever” beings with a scene of Blume reading an excerpt from her 1973 young-adult novel “Deenie.” In this excerpt, gym teacher Mrs. Eileen Rappaport talks to her students about masturbation. It’s the type of writing that got some of Blume’s books denounced or outright banned for being “inappropriate” reading for children. This type of banning is still going on in some places for books by Blume and many other authors.

Most of the protagonists in Blume’s books are tweens and teenagers, usually girls. And for millions of people, Blume’s books were the first books that they read as children where topics such as masturbation, menstruation, bullying, eating disorders, physical disabilities and teenage sex were openly discussed as facts of life that not everyone dealt with in the same way. The books validated many underage readers’ own feelings and insecurities about these issues that these kids couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to discuss with any adults.

Former 1980s teen idol Molly Ringwald, who knows what it’s like to be thought of as a relatable “role model” for girls, is one of several Blume fans interviewed in the documentary. Ringwald says, “Everything I learned about sex, or thinking about sex or crushes, I learned from Judy.” Filmmaker/TV producer/actress Lena Dunham adds, “Judy’s books speak about the unspeakable. It’s the reason why her books were so complicated for people.”

And author Tarayi Jones comments on what it was like to read a Blume book as a child: “It was like a look into a secret world. I felt someone was being honest. That’s a gift. That’s magic.” Tony-nominated actress Caitlin Kinnunen “(The Prom”) adds, “Judy wrote these scenes that were awkward.” It was that awkwardness that made her work so realistic, say many of her fans.

Blume says in the documentary, “When I started to write, I only identified with kids, not adults.” Although Blume would later write some books about and for adults, she is most famous for her books about adolescents and teenagers. She adds, “I was an anxious child. I felt like adults kept secrets from the kids. I hated the secrets. I had to make up what those secrets were. That fueled my imagination.”

Born in 1938 as Judith Sussman, she was born and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Blume describes herself as a child who loved to go to the library with her homemaker mother Esther Sussman. Her father Rudolph Sussman was a dentist. Blume describes him as a “nurturer.” She adds, “I adored my father. He tried to raise me to want an adventurous life … and to take chances.” Blume also grew up with a brother named David, who was four or five years older than her.

As an anxious child, Blume says what worried her the most was her father dying in middle-age, because all seven of her father’s siblings died before they reached the age of 60. Blume (whose family is Jewish) also remembers childhood worries about the Holocaust and World War II. Blume admits that she’s struggled with lifelong insecurities about not being “good enough.”

Joanne Stern, Blume’s best friend since childhood, describes Blume as a child: “She was a good girl. She was very cute, very pretty, had beautiful clothes. She was very thin.” Blume adds, “I was a good girl with a bad girl lurking inside.” Mary Weaver, another Blume friend since childhood, is also shown in the documentary. Weaver and Blume fondly reminisce about a boy who was a schoolmate crush.

Blume came of age in the 1950s, a decade that she describes as “the era of pretend: Pretend that we’re happy when we’re not. Pretend that everything is great when it isn’t.” You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to know maybe that’s why Blume chose to be so frankly realistic in her books that are fiction but discuss issues that happen to real people.

Blume met her first husband, attorney John Blume, when she was a second-year undergraduate student at New York University. Sadly, her worst fear about her father came true, when he died of a heart attack at age 54, just five weeks before her wedding in 1959. Judy and John became the parents of two kids: daughter Randy and son Lawrence, also known as Larry. Blume said she knew she wanted a career outside of the home. And so, this avid reader decided to become a professional writer.

Like many famous authors, Judy’s early career was filled with a lot of rejections from publishers. She describes her earliest unpublished work as “imitation Dr. Seuss.” Judy says her mother was always her biggest supporter, who typed all of Judy’s manuscripts and never gave any criticism of her work. But Judy also admits her feelings toward her mother were complicated: “My mother had some low self-esteem issues herself. She wanted me to be perfect.”

Judy’s first children’s book to be published was 1969’s “The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo,” which went largely unnoticed by the general public at the time of its publication. And then, Judy heard that book publisher Bradbury Press was looking for realistic fiction for middle-school kids. After getting a series of rejections, Blume finally got her big break: Bradbury published Blume’s 1970 novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” It was a bestseller and is widely considered one of the most influential young-adult novels of all time. It has now been made into a movie, starring Abby Ryder Fortson as the title character.

In the book, 11-year-old Margaret Simon has parents who are in an interfaith marriage (her father is Jewish, her mother is Christian) but they chose not to raise Margaret in any religion. Margaret frequently talks to God about her hopes, dreams and fears about her life and about growing up. She is afraid of being the last in her peer group to grow breasts and get her menstrual period. And she worries about being accepted by her peers in school and in her New Jersey community.

These are all insecurities that Judy says she went through in her own adolescence. She was embarrassed that she hadn’t started menstruating yet, like most of her female friends, so she lied to her friends about getting her menstrual period. Judy says, just like Margaret, she was also self-conscious about being flat-chested. Judy can laugh about it now, but at the time, these issues weighed heavily on her adolescent life.

“I wanted the truth, the reality of being that age,” Judy says about how she wrote “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” Judy adds, “Writing ‘Margaret’ gave me my sense of who I was and what I might be able to do.” Pat Scales, a librarian, comments on the phenomenal success of the book: “I knew when I read ‘Margaret’ that kids would flock to this book. The ‘realism’ that was available prior to Judy [Blume books] was not realistic at all.”

Simon & Schuster publishing executive Justin Chanda comments on the book: “It was explaining things that were foreign to me, quite frankly. But it was also speaking to me about stuff that I was thinking about, in terms of religion and where you fit in the world.” Young-adult author/historian Gabrielle Moss quips about the book: “Come for the masturbation. Stay for the empowerment.”

Judy says that although she supported the feminism movement that flourished in the 1970s at the same time as her career flourished, she was not an outspoken, public supporter. She says she wanted to march in protests and burn bras, like many feminists did at the time, “but I didn’t. I could be fearless in my writing in a way [that] in my own life I could not.

Among her other bestsellers are the aforementioned “Deenie,” whose title character has scoliosis and wears a brace; 1974’s “Blubber,” which covered issues of bullying and body shaming; and 1975’s “Forever…,” perhaps her most controversial young-adult book, because it had descriptions of unmarried 18-year-olds having sex with each other. It’s common for today’s young-adult books to have frank descriptions of teen sexuality, but back in 1975, it was unprecedented.

Judy says that even with all of her success, she’s always had many critics and opponents. “Some people weren’t necessarily wishing me well,” she wryly comments. Judy says one of the questions she would often get from literary snobs was: “When are you going to write a real book?”

After “Deenie” was published, she says a male school principal told her that male masturbation was normal, but female masturbation was not normal. During the worst of the criticism that she got from people who wanted to ban her books, Judy says that she was getting death threats, “which I took very seriously.”

At the height of Judy’s fame in 1975, she decided to end her first marriage. All she will say about why she and her first husband John were incompatible is this comment: “I married a man who, like my mother, never talked about his feelings.” Judy remembers feeling stifled in her marriage at the time: “Enough of this. I have to get out of here. I have to live.”

By her own admission, she jumped too quickly into another marriage after her first divorce. Her second husband was a London-based scientist named Thomas Kitchens. That marriage ended in divorce in 1978. Blume says her biggest regret in life is deciding to uproot her kids to live in England during this doomed marriage.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Judy comments on her second marriage. “I was rebelling in the stupidest way. It was very rough, not just for me but my kids. I still have guilt about that. The honest thing was to admit I had made a terrible mistake … Through all the worst times in my life, I’d been able to write, and my writing has gotten me through.”

Judy has been happily married to her third husband, George Cooper, since 1987. She describes him as “easygoing” and “non-judgmental.” Together, they own the retail store Books & Books in Key West, Florida. They are frequently in the store and make themselves accessible to customers and other visitors. The documentary includes footage of the couple greeting many of these people and interacting with employees, such as Michael Nelson and Emily Berg. Judy’s biological children are not in the movie, but Judy’s stepdaughter Amanda Cooper is briefly interviewed in the documentary.

Speaking of fans and admirers, one of the best parts of the documentary is how it shows that Judy considers her fan mail to be among her most treasured possessions and some of her fans to be among her closest friends. She reads some of her fan mail out loud and is obviously still emotionally touched by people telling her how her books have changed their lives and made them feel less alone in the world. Judy has kept so much of her fan mail, in 2017, Yale University acquired 50 years’ worth of her writing and fan mail to keep in the Yale archives.

Lorrie Kim, who has been writing to Judy since Kim was 9 years old, is one such superfan who became a friend. The documentary shows Judy attending Kim’s graduation from Bryn Mawr College. Karen Chilstrom, who’s been writing to Judy since Chilstrom was 12, shares her traumatic family history of having a brother who sexually abused her and who then committed suicide. Chilstrom says of how her friendship with Judy developed: “She saw a person who was hurting, and she didn’t give up on me.”

The documentary has mention of Judy’s foray into adult-oriented novels—most notably 1978’s “Wifey,” which covered the topic of marital infidelity. Judy also talks about how she’s said no to numerous lucrative offers to turn her books into movies because she’s so protective of her work. Her 1981 young-adult novel “Tiger Eyes” (which was inspired by her own real-life experiences of her father’s death) is one of the few of her books that has been made into a movie. The 2013 “Tiger Eyes” movie, starring Willa Holland and directed by Judy’s son Lawrence, was a low-budget independent film that flopped.

Many fans of Judy’s books talk about how her books helped them learn about many of life’s issues that are larger than a girl worrying about if she’ll be popular in her school. Jones comments on the impact that “Blubber” had on her: “It made me understand that just being a bystander to cruelty made you cruel.”

Other fans and associates interviewed in the documentary include comedian/media personality/author Samantha Bee, author Jacqueline Woodson, screenwriter/producer Anna Konkle (“PEN15”), author Cecily von Ziegesar (“Gossip Girl”), author Mary H.K. Choi, book publisher/editor Beverly Horowitz, author Alex Gino, sex educator Rachel Lotus and author Jason Reynolds. There are also numerous children of various races who are shown reading from her books out loud.

“Judy Blume Forever” is more of a “fan appreciation” documentary than a “fan worship” documentary. The movie doesn’t shy away from including criticism of Judy’s work, although that criticism is mostly shown in archival clips. One of the more memorable clips is from 1984, when Judy appeared on the CNN talk show “Crossfire” for a heated discussion with conservative media pundit Pat Buchanan, who was one her most outspoken critics. In the documentary, Judy comments on this “Crossfire” appearance: “It was a very strange experience.”

The documentary also mentions the uproar that some people had because of a line in Judy’s 1993 young-adult book “Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson.” The line was “Here’s to my fucking family.” This was in 1993, when most kids had access to movies and TV shows with vulgar language on cable TV and home video releases, but book publishers were still skittish about putting profanity in books geared to tweens and teens. Judy says that her editor told her that she would have full support from the editor on her decision to keep that line in the book. Judy describes her former book editor Richard “Dick” Jackson (who died at the age of 84 in 2019) as “the best editor in the world.”

The documentary probably would been more interesting if it had current interviews with Judy’s critics, especially since book banning (particularly in schools and in libraries) has been having a resurgence in recent years. Not surprisingly, Judy is vehemently in support of writers’ rights. Even with the absence of recent criticism of Judy’s work, “Judy Blume Forever” doesn’t feel like it’s an incomplete movie. The documentary undoubtedly shows that Judy Blume, who is a master of soul-baring storytelling, is indeed the best person to tell her own life story.

Amazon Studios released “Judy Blume Forever” in select U.S. cinemas on April 21, 2023, the same day that the movie premiered on Prime Video.

Review: ‘Rye Lane,’ starring David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah

April 2, 2023

by Carla Hay

David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah in “Rye Lane” (Photo by Chris Harris/Searchlight Pictures/Hulu)

“Rye Lane”

Directed by Raine Allen-Miller

Culture Representation: Taking place in London, the comedy film “Rye Lane” features a cast of white and black characters (with a few Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A man and a woman in their 20s, who have opposite personalities and have had recent romantic breakups with other people, meet by chance in a public restroom and start a banter-filled relationship that could turn into more than a friendship. 

Culture Audience: “Rye Lane” will appeal primarily to fans of quick-paced romantic comedies that skillfully blend realistic and fantastical elements.

David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah in “Rye Lane” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures/Hulu)

“Rye Lane” takes the usual romantic comedy formula, gives it a witty spin, and drenches it in Great Britain’s vibrant South London culture. Vivian Oparah and David Jonsson give winning performances in this funny and endearing movie. “Rye Lane” is the type of romantic comedy that could charm viewers who don’t like most romantic comedies, as long as viewers who understand the English language are willing to tolerate the heavy London accents in the movie.

Directed by Raine Allen-Miller, “Rye Lane” (her feature-film directorial debut) brings a dynamic visual aesthetic that is very reminiscent of hip-hop videos of the mid-to-late 1990s: bright hues, fish-eye lens camera shots, and fantasy sequences interspersed with the main characters’ “reality.” (Olan Collardy is the cinematographer for “Rye Lane.”) This visual flair greatly complements the appealing “Rye Lane” screenplay, which was written by Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia. “Rye Lane” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

“Rye Lane” (which takes place entirely in South London) begins with overhead views of the camera looking down at various people in toilet stalls in a unisex public restroom at a trendy art exhibit. One of the people in the stalls is a mild-mannered accountant in his mid-20s named Dom (played by Jonsson), who is privately weeping over a breakup he had three months ago with a girlfriend he had dated for six years. An outspoken woman, who’s about the same age as Dom, enters the toilet stall next to his stall during his heartbroken sobbing.

Her name is Yas (played by Oparah), which is short for Yasmin. Dom doesn’t know it yet, but Yas will soon become a part of his life. Yas notices that Dom is crying and tells him that she can hear him. A startled Dom says that Yas is in the men’s room, but Yas corrects him and says that the restroom is actually unisex. Yas peeks underneath the stall and sees the lower half of what Dom is wearing. An embarrassed Dom quickly leaves the restroom.

The art exhibit is for Dom’s friend Nathan Armstrong (played by Simon Manyonda), an avant-garde photographer whose current specialty is taking close-up photos of people’s body parts. For this particular exhibit, the photos are close-ups of people’s open mouths. It’s an interesting metaphor for this dialogue-driven movie, where the two protagonists get to know each other through snappy conversations that later turn into heartfelt revelations.

Dom is obviously still reeling from the breakup. He gets upset with Nathan when he finds out that Nathan had brunch at the home that Dom used to share with Dom’s ex-girlfriend Gia (played by Karene Peter). Dom later mentions that he and Nathan have been friends since they were teenagers. They also used to work together at Kentucky Fried Chicken. At this event, Nathan is hyper and more concerned about what people think about his art exhibit than whatever breakup blues that Dom is experiencing.

It doesn’t take long for Yas to find Dom in this exhibit space. She strikes up a conversation with him. Dom explains why he was crying in the restroom. Yas says she broke up with her most recent boyfriend Jules, also known as Julian (played by Malcolm Atobrah), about a month ago, because he cheated on her with his life coach Tabby (played by Alice Hewkin).

It turns out that Dom’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend Gia also ended because of infidelity. Dom tells Yas that he caught Gia cheating on him with his best friend Eric (played by Benjamin Sarpong-Broni). Dom found out that Eric and Gia were lovers during a video chat with Gia, when he saw a naked Eric in the background of the apartment where Dom and Gia lived. There’s a little more to the story about how Dom found out about this betrayal, but those are comedy details that won’t be revealed in this review.

In Dom’s first version of this breakup story, he tells Yas that after he found out about the cheating, he immediately stormed over to the apartment and gave Eric a beatdown. This scenario is shown in the movie. But then, Dom quickly admits that this version isn’t the truth. In reality, when Dom found out about this infidelity, he went to see a movie by himself and cried in the theater.

“Rye Lane” has several scenes where the characters tell their versions of the truth or express fantasies that come alive on screen. Dom and Yas continue their conversation after leaving the exhibit. She wants him to tell her about his life: “I’m interested in people who have messes,” Yas says. “Everyone has a mess.”

Dom says that, believe it or not, he always wanted to be an accountant. By contrast, his friends wanted to get rich and famous as “footballers or YouTube sensations.” He currently lives rent-free with his parents. Dom’s father (played by Andrew Francis) wanted Dom to be more athletic. Dom’s mother (played by Sandra Daley) is overprotective and pampers him by bringing meals to him in bedroom. His mother has fixation on making hard-boiled eggs.

Yas does not reveal much about her background, except to say that when she was a child, she wanted to be like Prince during his “Purple Rain” era. Yas tells Dom that she’s currently a fashion buyer for “an online brand you’ve never heard of,” and her dream is to become a costume designer. “I’ll get there eventually,” she says with wistfulness. Yas has a supportive best friend Cass (played by Poppy Allen-Quarmby), who makes only a few brief appearances in the movie,

During the conversations between Yas and Dom, it’s obvious that they have different personalities. Yas is bold, brash and fast-talking. Dom is a little timid, more hesitant about himself, and he thinks more carefully about how his words can affect someone’s feelings. Yas says she’s ready to move on from her recent breakup, while Dom isn’t so ready to get over his breakup.

Dom believes he’ll able to get closure by accepting an invitation to meet with Gia and Eric (who are now a couple) for dinner at the same restaurant where Dom and Gia used to go on romantic dates. Dom mentions the name of the restaurant to Yas. Yas gives her unsolicited opinion that Dom will be “rolling over like a bitch” if he has this meeting.

Still, Yas offers to be Dom’s date to help him get through this meeting. He politely declines the offer, and she seems slightly hurt by this rejection. When Dom reaches out to shake her hand and say goodbye, Yas flippantly tells Dom: “Good luck not having an extraordinary life.”

But since “Rye Lane” is a romantic comedy, Dom hasn’t seen the last of Yas. Shortly after this awkward dinner meeting begins, Yas suddenly shows up at the restaurant, sits down next to Dom, and pretends that she’s his new lover. And she doesn’t hold back on her sassiness and brutally honest opinions. It’s the beginning of an emotional roller coaster for Dom and Yas.

As good as the writing and direction are for “Rye Lane,” much of the movie’s liveliness comes from the believable chemistry between Jonsson and Oparah. It’s a case of “opposites attract” for Dom and Yas, but in a relatable way that will make viewers want to root for Yas and Dom to become a couple. “Rye Lane” also pokes some fun at working-class people who are social climbers and put on pretentious airs—as exemplified by Nathan and Jules, who makes very tacky art decorations and consider himself to be a high-end artist. Yas met Nathan because Nathan and Jules know each other, which is why Yas was invited to Nathan’s art exhibit, where she met Dom.

There’s a very contrived plot development of Yas and Dom trying to gain access to Jules’ home when he’s not there, because she wants to retrieve her vinyl album of A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Low End Theory” that she accidentally left behind in the breakup. The expected hijinks ensue, but “Rye Lane” still has some unexpected surprises. One of these surprises (that has no bearing on the plot) is an uncredited cameo by Colin Firth, as a food server named Colin at a Latino fast-food place called “Love Gua’ctually,” which is “Rye Lane’s” cheeky nod to Firth’s 2003 romantic comedy/drama “Love Actually” and the guacamole served at this fast-food place. Like all entertaining romantic comedies that resonate with audiences, “Rye Lane” has plenty of amusing moments but also shows the beauty of what happens when people open up and show their true selves when falling in love.

Hulu premiered “Rye Lane” on March 31, 2023. Searchlight Pictures released the move in the United Kingdom on March 17, 2023.

Review: ‘God’s Country’ (2022), starring Thandiwe Newton

March 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Thandiwe Newton in “God’s Country” (Photo courtesy of GC Film, LLC/IFC Films)

“God’s Country” (2022)

Directed by Julian Higgins

Culture Representation: Taking place during one week in an unnamed rural area in the United States, the dramatic film “God’s Country” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one black person and one Native American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A college professor, who lives alone, gets into a feud with two hunters, who get angry when she refuses to give them access to the woods behind her property.

Culture Audience: “God’s Country” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of star Thandiwe Newton and well-acted dramas about personal conflicts that have underlying roots in racism and sexism.

Jeremy Bobb and Thandiwe Newton in “God’s Country”(Photo by Ezra Olson/IFC Films)

The slow-moving “God’s Country” has a very predictable ending. However, this drama about an escalating feud gets a tremendous boost from Thandiwe Newton’s riveting performance, as well as how director Julian Higgins builds tension in the movie. It’s not a movie that does anything spectacularly groundbreaking, but it has enough authentic-looking scenarios to keep viewers interested, if they are looking for a realistic drama. “God’s Country” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Higgins makes his feature-film directorial debut with “God’s Country,” a movie based on James Lee Burke’s short story “Winter Light,” which was published in Burke’s 2007 short-story collection “Jesus Out to Sea.” Higgins directed the 2015 short film “Winter Light” as a faithful adaptation of the story. For “God’s Country,” Higgins co-wrote the screenplay with Shaye Ogbonna, and they made a major change from the original story. In “Winter’s Light,” the college-professor protagonist is a white man in his 60s or 70s. In “God’s Country,” the college-professor protagonist is an African American woman in her 40s. (Newton is British in real life.)

In the production notes for “God’s Country,” Higgins says that changing the protagonist’s race and gender was his and Ogbonna’s direct response to Donald Trump winning the 2016 U.S. president election. “Shaye and I wanted to respond to the deep-rooted racism, sexism and misogyny reflected by the election results,” Higgins comments. “We wanted to explore the interaction between a person’s psychology and the social structures around them, especially when norms, institutions, and belief systems fail—as we felt they were. Shaye and I felt the very simple story framework presented by ‘Winter Light’ would be a perfect conduit to explore these ideas.”

“God’s Country” takes place during one week in a rural area in an unnamed U.S. state that gets snowy weather. (“God’s Country” was actually filmed in Montana.) A college professor named Cassandra “Sandra” Guidry (played by Newton), who lives alone in a remote and wooded area, is grieving over the recent death of her mother, who passed away from a unnamed illness. Sandra’s only companion at home is her dog.

Sandra teaches at a local university, where her closet colleague Arthur (played by Kai Lennox), who is another professor. It’s later shown during faculty meetings that all of the university’s professors are white, except for Sandra. Most of the other professors are men. Sandra also appears to be the only African American person living in this small town. At one point in the movie, Sandra mentions that she’s originally from New Orleans, so living in this small town is almost the complete opposite of living in New Orleans.

One day, Sandra notices that a red pickup truck is parked in the driveway, with the owner or driver nowhere in sight. She mentions to Arthur and wonders if she should call the police. Instead, she leaves a note on the truck asking the driver not to park there, because it’s private property.

The next day, the driver/owner of the truck comes back to retrieve it. His name is Nathan (played by Joris Jarsky), who explains that he’s a hunter who needs to go through her property to get to the woods where he hunts. Sandra later finds out that Nathan’s younger brother Samuel (played by Jefferson White) is Nathan’s frequent hunting companion.

Sandra calmly and firmly tells Nathan that she left a note on the truck, asking him not to park there because her land is private property. She adds, “All I’m saying, before you park on someone’s property, you have to ask.” Nathan seems casually dismissive of this request. Later, Sandra finds that her note has been torn and crumpled up in the snow.

The next day, Sandra sees the red truck parked in her driveaway again. And this time, she isn’t going to play nice. She takes a chain and tows the truck away herself to an area nearby that’s not on her property. It’s close enough so that the truck owner can find the truck without thinking that it’s stolen.

The day after that, she tells a local cop named Gus Wolf (played by Jeremy Bobb), who is the town’s acting sheriff, about this parking problem. Gus seems sympathetic to Nathan and Samuel, whom he calls “gentlemen.” And when Sandra gives Gus the truck’s license plate number so that the truck’s owner can be contacted, Gus asks Sandra in a condescending manner why she had to do that.

It’s a small town, so Gus already knows who the owner is. Gus thinks the matter can be resolved without any arrests or citations. Gus reluctantly goes with Sandra to where Nathan works and tells Nathan to stop bothering Sandra and to stop trespassing on her property, Getting this reprimand in a public place seems to set off Nate, because Sandra then becomes the target of harassment, including finding an arrow stuck in her front door.

The feud between Sandra and the two brothers gets much worse. Although it’s not said out loud, it’s implied at there’s an extra level of hostility directed at Sandra because she’s an African American woman. She lives in area where people who aren’t white are considered “outsiders,” no matter how much politeness they get from people who don’t want to look like racists or sexists. Sandra still gets a lot of people in the community who stare at her with an attitude that she doesn’t belong there, just because she’s an African American woman

The tensions over race also spill over into Sandra’s job. Sandra and Arthur have an argument in the hallway because he didn’t keep his promise to recommend at least one qualified person of color for a job vacated by a retired professor named George (played by George De Vries). The top three job candidates whom Arthur voted for are all white.

Sandra considers having a diverse group of qualified applicants to be the right thing to do, in order to have a more even playing field. However, Arthur keeps calling this diversity a “quota,” and he accuses Sandra of playing “identity politics.” The problem is that Arthur assumes that there won’t be enough qualified people of color to find. This heated conversation is very realistic to how many people view diversity issues very differently.

Observant viewers will notice that Arthur refuses to be held accountable for breaking his promise, and he made no effort to find or recommend any qualified candidates who weren’t white. Arthur tries to turn the argument back on Sandra by saying that the fact that she works there is proof that the university isn’t racist. Sandra should have told Arthur to look up the definition of “tokenism,” since she is the only non-white person in the university’s faculty.

Another issue related to racial and gender identities comes up when a Native American teaching assistant named Gretchen (played by Tanaya Beattya) confides in Sandra about a harassment incident that occurred between her Arthur, her supervising professor. Gretchen says that Arthur asked Gretchen to rub lotion on him. Up until that point, Gretchen and Arthur had a strictly professional relationship.

It’s a “he said/she said” situation where Arthur and Gretchen were the only witnesses. Gretchen is adamant that she won’t report the incident because she’s afraid that Arthur will retaliate against her, and she wants to keep her job. Gretchen also thinks that people will be less likely to believe her because she isn’t white. This #MeToo subplot isn’t handled very well in the movie’s narrative. It just seems like it was put in the screenplay as a way to stretch out the movie’s run time.

The movie’s main conflict, of course, is between Sandra and the obnoxious brothers Samuel and Nathan, who enlist some of their buddies to join in on the harassment of Sandra. These local men, who act very entitled to do what they want, also don’t seem afraid of getting arrested, since law enforcement is almost non-existent in this small town. Gus is the main cop, and he doesn’t have much backup or much of a backbone to stand up to these thugs.

And you know what that means: The people involved in this feud start to act like they can take the law into their own hands and twist it to fit whatever agenda they have. “God’s Country” invites viewers to think about the choices they would make if they were in the same situation. The main takeaway from this stark and bleak film is that when hate becomes the driving force behind how to handle conflicts, there are no real winners.

IFC Films released “God’s Country” in select U.S. cinemas on September 16, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on October 4, 2022.

Review: ‘The Persian Version,’ starring Layla Mohammadi, Niousha Noor, Kamand Shafieisabet, Bella Warda, Chiara Stella, Bijan Daneshmand and Shervin Alenabi

February 11, 2023

by Carla Hay

Pictured in front row: Layla Mohammadi and Niousha Noor in “The Persian Version” (Photo by Andre Jaeger/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Persian Version”

Directed by Maryam Keshavars

Some language in Persian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and in Iran, from the 1960s to the 2000s, the comedy/drama film “The Persian Version” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A free-spirited queer woman, who feels like a misfit in her mostly male family that’s headed by conservative Iranian-immigrant parents, comes to terms with her identity and how her parents’ past had an effect on the family.

Culture Audience: “The Persian Version” will primarily appeal to people interested in movies about immigrant experiences and intergenerational relationships of family members.

Most of “The Persian Version” is a sharp and witty tale of an Iranian American woman navigating two ethnicities and her family issues. The movie’s last 20 minutes resemble a formulaic TV sitcom. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it lowers the movie’s quality. Even with its flaws, “The Persian Version” is a unique and vibrant story that shows perspectives that are rarely seen in American-made feature films.

Written and directed by Maryam Keshavars, “The Persian Version” is a comedy/drama inspired by Keshavars’ real-life experiences as the lesbian child of Iranian parents who immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s. “The Persian Version” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won two prizes: the Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic Feature and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. The movie features frequent voiceover narration from the movie’s fast-talking and sarcastic protagonist named Leila Jamshidpour (played by Layla Mohammadi), who is in her 30s when the movie begins in New York City in the 2000s.

“The Persian Version” also has several flashbacks throughout the story, going all the way back to the early 1960s, when Leila’s parents were living in Iran. The family moved to the United States in 1967, three years before the Iranian Revolution (also known as Islamic Revolution) ended the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979. It ushered in a new era of Iran being a republic but also increased Iran’s political tensions with the U.S., especially when 52 Americans were held as hostages for two months, beginning in November 1979.

The opening scene of “The Persian Version” takes place shortly after Leila has won the prize for Best Costume at a Halloween party, for wearing a burka-bikini combination costume dressed as a fictional character named Miss Burkatini. While still in costume, Leila is hooking up on in a bedroom with a British man dressed as transgender female singer Hedwig from the award-winning musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” The name of Leila’s sex partner is Maximillian Balthazar (played by Tom Byrne), who identifies as a cisgender heterosexual male, is dressed in this costume because he’s an actor, and this is the costume he wears as the star of the Broadway production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

Viewers soon learn that Leila identifies as a queer woman who is mainly attracted to other cisgender women. What is she doing hooking up with Maximillian? She says that men who look like drag queens “turn her on.” She’s also very drunk and horny at the moment. Leila expects that this sexual encounter with Maximilian will be a one-night stand and that they probably won’t see each other again. She’ll find out later that she was wrong about this assumption.

During this hookup, Leila looks up and speaks directly to the camera, as she frequently does throughout the movie. She then gives a monologue which is a quick summary of her life so far, accompanied by a montage of flashbacks. This intriguing monologue will hook viewers right away to find out more about Leila.

In this opening monologue, Leila says: “Obviously, I have some issues with culture. But can you blame me? I come from two countries [Iran and the United States] that used to be madly in love with each other. And like every great romance, it ended in a bitter divorce.”

Leila continues, “Like a child of divorce, I was right in the middle, being pulled at it from both sides. Being a girl, I couldn’t be drafted into the Iranian military. So, I was the only child in my family who could travel between the two countries—these two parents who wanted each other dead: Iran and America.”

Leila adds, “I never fit in anywhere. Unresolved childhood trauma: Clearly this neurosis led me to become a writer. Free therapy. Writers and neurosis: What’s more New York than that?” It’s mentioned shortly thereafter that Leila is also an independent filmmaker.

The movie then shows Leila describing her immediate family members. Her retired obstetrician/gynecologist father Ali Reza (played by Bijan Daneshmand) and her mother Shirin (played by Niousha Noor), who is a powerhouse real-estate agent, are strict Muslims who have conservative views of how people should conduct their personal lives. Leila has a particularly rocky relationship with Shirin, who seems to think that Leila is a wayward child who always manages to cause problems for herself.

Leila, who calls herself the “outsider of the family,” has eight brothers. She describes each of them in a few words. Shivaz (played by Samuel Tehrani), the eldest child, is the “disco king.” Vahid (played by Parsa Kaffash) is the “troublemaker.” Majid (played by Arty Froushan), who is a medical doctor, is like “JFK Jr., minus the plane crash.” Hamid (played by Reza Diako) is the “brainiac.” Eman Zaman (played by Andrew Malik) is the “Goth.” Rostam (played by Kamyab Falahati) is the “hippie.” Zal (played by Mahdi Tahmasebi) is the “greaser.” Abbas (played by Jerry Habibi) is the “metrosexual.”

Leila is one of the people in her family who has dual citizenship with Iran and the United States and was educated in both countries as a child in the 1980s. (Chiara Stella portrays Leila at about 10 or 11 years old.) “In America, I learned to put my faith in science. In Iran, I learned to put my faith in politics,” says the child Leila. As an adult, Leila is shown saying, “The only way to survive was to not put my faith in any of the rules—not science, not politics.”

The child Leila then says, “The only thing I could put my faith in was art,” as she holds a Cyndi Lauper cassette tape. Leila then explains that because Western music was banned in Iran, she would smuggle in music by artists such as Cyndi Lauper and Prince. Leila, previously an outcast at her Iranian school, became popular with her classmates when she let them listen to the smuggled music. Lauper’s 1983 breakthrough hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” is used in pivotal parts of the movie.

When the Jamshidpour family first moved to the United States, they lived in Brooklyn, New York. Ali Reza and Shirin currently live in New Jersey, while all of their children still live in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area. Shirin’s kind and patient mother Mamanjoon (played by Bella Warda) lives with Ali Reza and Shirin. Although this tight-knit clan has had its ups and downs, Leila says she always felt she was treated differently because she is her parents’ only daughter.

Leila’s sexuality has also led to feelings of alienation from her parents (especially her mother), who do not approve of Leila being gay. Leila is still recovering from a divorce from her ex-wife Elena (played by Mia Foo), who happens to be in a Brooklyn drugstore at the same time as Leila, several months after their divorce. Elena and Leila exchange awkward hellos.

Leila has been holding on to a glimmer of hope that she and Elena will get back together. However, those hopes are crushed when Elena tactfully tells Leila to pick up the belongings that she left behind at the home they used to share. Elena also asks Leila to stop calling her and to move on with her life. The reason for their divorce is explained later in the story, (Leila frequently put her work above the marriage), but the details are still left purposely vague about other aspects of this relationship.

In addition to feeling heartbroken, Leila will also be dealing with a health crisis in the family. Her father Ali Reza needs a heart transplant, and he doesn’t have enough health insurance to cover all the costs. Because he isn’t a U.S. citizen, Ali Reza is not eligible for full Medicare benefits. (And remember, this is in the 2000s, before the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare existed.) Ali Reza’s most recent hospital bill is $200,000. Shirin is feeling a lot of stress and pressure over how to pay this bill. She’s too proud to ask her children for any financial help.

In the midst of all this family turmoil, Leila is feeling like a failure and a lost soul. Leila always felt closer to her father than to her mother. And the possibility of losing him is overwhelming to her. But then, one day, Leila has a conversation with her beloved grandmother Mamanjoon that will change Leila’s perspectives of her parents, herself and their family history.

“The Persian Version” gets its title from the fact that the Jamshidpour family has two versions of their family history: the American version and the Persian version. The movie skillfully and often candidly shows how immigrant families often have to present two different versions of themselves, in order to survive and assimilate in a new country. Most immigrants move to a new country for a chance at a new life, which often means reinvention. But that doesn’t mean that the past can be completely forgotten, because the past often shapes who people are and how they look at life.

What starts off looking like a movie about a sassy but admittedly flaky divorced filmmaker trying to get her life back on track turns into an emotionally moving story about developing a deeper understanding of family members and what they might have gone through in the past that affects how they interact with family members in the present. Mamanjoon tells stories that are shown in flashbacks, back to the early years of Ali Reza and Shirin’s marriage. Shervin Alenabi has the role of young Ali Reza. Kamand Shafieisabet has the role of young Shirin. Sachli Gholamalizad portrays young Mamanjoon.

A big change unexpectedly happens in Leila’s life, but the movie somewhat mishandles this big change by bringing some wacky sitcom elements to the story that don’t quite fit with the more realistic aspects of the movie. Fortunately, “The Persian Version” has very good acting from all of the cast members, with Mohammadi and Noor as the obvious standouts in portraying Leila and Shirin, who have a tension-filled love/hate relationship.

“The Persian Version” also beautifully shows how three generations of women in a family can connect despite their differences. Leila is on mostly good terms with her brothers (she is especially close to “metrosexual” Abbas), but viewers of this movie will most remember the relationships that Leila has with Shirin and Mamanjoon. “The Persian Version” is the type of charming movie that not only celebrates the multicultural heritages of immigrant families but also has universal relatability that can resonate with people of many different backgrounds and generations.

Sony Pictures Classics will release “The Persian Version” on a date to be announced.

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