Review: ‘This Is a Film About the Black Keys,’ starring Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney

March 12, 2024

by Carla Hay

Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney in “This Is a Film About the Black Keys” (Photo by Jim Herrington)

“This Is a Film About the Black Keys”

Directed by Jeff Dupre

Culture Representation: The documentary film “This Is a Film About the Black Keys” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans) who are all connected in some way to the American rock duo the Black Keys and who discuss the band.

Culture Clash: The Black Keys members Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, who have very different personalities from each other, go through their ups and downs in their careers and their personal lives.

Culture Audience: In addition to appealing to the obvious target audience of Black Keys fans “This Is a Film About the Black Keys” will appeal primarily to people who like watching documentaries that are similar to “Behind the Music.”

“This Is a Film About the Black Keys” is a competent but not outstanding documentary that comes across as a “Behind the Music” type of promotional showcase. It has candid interviews and great archival footage, but the film has some obvious omissions in the Black Keys’ story. The documentary raises some questions that never get answered. However, the behind-the-scenes footage makes the documentary worth watching, even if you know that the filmmakers could have made more courageous choices in how this story was told.

Directed by Jeff Dupre, “This Is a Film About the Black Keys” had its world premiere at the 2024 SXSW Film and TV Festival, about a month before the release of the Black Keys’ 12th studio album “Ohio Players.” The calculated timing of both the movie’s premiere and the album’s release has “Behind the Music” influences written all over it, since most artists who’ve agreed to do a “Behind the Music” episode do it to promote a new album. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it usually means that the artists won’t allow the most unflattering aspects of their lives to be explored in depth in whatever documentary they’re doing to coincide with the release of a new album.

“This is a Film About the Black Keys” follows the “Behind the Music” rock band biography narrative formula, almost beat by beat: A band comes from humble beginnings, slowly builds up a fan base from releasing albums and touring, has breakthrough mainstream success, and then gets caught up in the pitfalls of fame—usually having to do with huge egos, money and substance abuse. “This is a Film About the Black Keys” checks all of those boxes.

The Black Keys have a few characteristics that set them apart from most rock artists: They are a duo when most rock artists are either solo artists or are part of band with at least three members. The Black Keys members—lead singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Pat Carney—also don’t have a typical rock band origin story of a bunch of people forming a band because they were already friends or because they went through a lengthy search to find the right people to be in the band.

Instead, Auerbach (born in 1979) and Carney (born in 1980) say that they were more like friendly acquaintances than close friends when they started making music together. Carney and Auerbach both grew up on the same street and went to the same high school in their hometown of Akron, Ohio. The documentary dutifully covers biographical information that can be found on the Internet about the Black Keys. Carney and Auerbach are interviewed, as well as some of their family members, business associates and music industry fans.

When Auerbach and Carney were students at Firestone High School in Akron, Auerbach was a popular athlete but his real passion was music, having learned to play guitar from the age of 7. Carney says of his self-described nerdy teenage years: “I couldn’t get a girl to talk to me, so I got into rock and roll.” The “opposites attract” theme is repeated throughout the movie: Carney says he’s the extrovert who prefers to handle the duo’s business affairs and do interviews, while Auerbach is the introvert who prefers to do most of the duo’s songwriting and musical arranging.

Something that Auerbach and Carney have in common is that they both have several musicians in their families. Auerbach’s mother Mary Little says that most of her siblings are musicians. Auerbach’s cousin Robert Quine is a well-known avant-garde rock musician. Early on in their relationship, Auerbach and Carney also bonded over their admiration of musician R.L. Burnside.

As teenagers, Auerbach and Carney would occasionally play music together, but they were in different social circles in high school. Carney and Auerbach both attended the University of Akron but would eventually drop out to become full-time musicians. Auerbach says that he would skip classes in college so he could spend time in his room to play guitar. Carney describes his college years as still being at a freshman after three years of college.

Auerbach and Carney ended up forming a musical partnership in 2001. It happened after Carney had been hired to be a recording engineer for Auerbach’s band. The other musicians in the band didn’t show up, so Auerbach and Carney began jamming together and decided they could make music together as a duo. Auerbach says, “Right away, Pat and I bonded over our love of recording.” He says that they both still prefer recording over touring.

After some debate over what to call their musical act, they chose the Black Keys. The name was inspired by a friend named Alfred McMoore, who would sometimes call people the “black keys” of a piano if he was upset with them. Auerbach says in the documentary about the duo’s decision to become full-time musicians without having a record deal or a steady income: “There was no back-up plan. We had to make it work.”

By their own admission, the Black Keys have communication problems with each other. Auerbach and Carney say that they have always had difficulty talking about their problems. They say that they usually deal with their personal issues with each other by trying to ignore them. However, it causes resentment over time, which has led to periods of Auerbach and Carney being estranged from each other.

Nowhere is this communication problem more evident in the documentary than in a sequence showing Carney at a soundcheck for a Black Keys arena show while Auerbach is busy shopping for clothes. Carney is furious that his bandmate isn’t there for the soundcheck and rants about how unprofessional Auerbach is for not telling Carney and other people where Auerbach is during this soundcheck.

Meanwhile, Auerbach (accompanied by a few members of his entourage) is shown trying on high-priced clothing at a store and being treated like rock star. When the time comes for the Black Keys to do the concert, Auerbach and Carney are standing next to each backstage but don’t talk about Auerbach’s soundcheck absence that was upsetting to Carney. For this concert, Auerbach is wearing the jacket that he bought at the store.

The Black Keys’ slow and steady rise to Grammy-winning, arena-rock success is a familiar tale of “alternative rock” artists who want a lot of praise, recognition and money for what they do, but they don’t want to be perceived as “sell-outs” or fake. They also want to be able to experiment musically without alienating their core fan base. John Peets, a former manager of the Black Keys, says of the Black Keys’ musical outlook: “They are a fiercely independent band.”

The Black Keys were independent in the beginning of their career, having signed with a series of independent labels and producing their own albums. The band began getting positive reviews from their first album—2002’s “The Big Come Up”—and toured relentlessly for their albums. Carney did a lot of the duo’s bus driving and tour managing in the early days of the Black Keys. He’s the raconteur who is more likely than Auerbach to tell stories in the documentary about their experiences with dingy motels, low-paying gigs, and travel mishaps on the road.

In the early years of the Black Keys, their personal lives of the Black Keys also had parallels to their professional lives. Auerbach and Carney both got married to their first wives around the same time: Carney married his high-school sweetheart Denise Grollmus in 2007. Auerbach married Stephanie Gonis in 2008. Both marriages ended in very messy and public divorces—Carney and Grollmus split in 2009, while Auerbach and Gonis broke up in 2013, with their divorce becoming final in 2014. In the documentary, the divorces are described in vague terms that essentially amount to saying “irreconcilable differences” or “growing apart.”

The details of these divorces are left out of the documentary, but there is a little bit of acknowledgement in the movie about how these divorces affected the Black Keys’ work: By Carney’s own admission, he began drinking alcohol a lot more during his divorce from Grollmus, thereby making the recording of the Black Keys’ 2010 album “Brothers” much more difficult. It’s also mentioned that Auerbach’s divorce from Gonis had a big influence on the emotionally raw and wounded lyrics of the Black Keys’ 2014 album “Turn Blue,” the album that nearly broke up the Black Keys because it was made during a low point in the relationship between Carney and Auerbach. In retrospect, Carney says that during this tumultuous time, the Black Keys probably should have gone on vacation instead of doing an album and tour.

Gonis is the only wife or ex-wife interviewed in the documentary. Her comments that are in the movie mostly describe when her relationship with Auerbach was going well. However, she says their divorce happened because she and Auerbach drifted apart because of all the time he spent away from home. Gonis jokes about their “shotgun wedding” and says that although Auerbach is a loving father, she felt like a single mother raising their daughter Sadie Little Auerbach, who was born in 2008 and is seen briefly in archival footage.

The documentary does not mention any of the sordid information that was widely reported about the divorce filings, such as Gonis’ allegations that Auerbach abused her, or Auerbach’s allegations that Gonis attempted suicide twice in one day. Auerbach was married to Jen Goodall from 2015 to 2019. He is not forthcoming about what really happened in the failures of his two marriages. It isn’t too surprising that Auerbach is unwilling to talk about his personal problems in a biographical documentary that is largely about his life, since he is frequently described in the documentary as being secretive and mysterious, even by people who’ve known him for a very long time.

A turning point for the Black Keys came in 2007, when they collaborated with a pop music producer for the first time: Danger Mouse, whose real name is Brian Joseph Burton. At the time, it seemed to be an unlikely collaboration: Danger Mouse was a Grammy-winning hitmaker best known for the Gnarls Barkley’s 2006 R&B/pop smash “Crazy.” However, Carney says he fell in love with the song, which he describes as “cinematic.” The result of the first collaboration between the Black Keys and Danger Mouse was the Black Keys’ 2008 album “Attack & Release.”

The Black Keys went on to get an even larger audience with their 2010 mainstream breakthrough album “Brothers,” which featured the hit “Tighten Up.” It was the first album the Black Keys released after the duo relocated to Nashville and after collaborating again with Danger Mouse. The Black Keys won three Grammys because of “Brothers” and won another three Grammys for their 2011 album “El Camino,” which featured the hit “Lonely Boy.”

Although Carney comes across as the more socially confident than Auerbach, Carney admits that behind the scenes, he’s had longtime insecurities about his place in the Black Keys, because Auerbach has often treated him as a backup musician instead of as an equal. One of the biggest rifts that they had was in the mid-2010s, when Auerbach recorded his first solo album without telling Carney, who thinks that this secrecy was a betrayal to Carney. Auerbach says in the documentary that the reason for the secrecy was that Carney was “impossible to be around” at that time. Perhaps one of the more honest moments in the documentary is Carney expressing his fear that he is replaceable in the Black Keys.

The Black Keys’ personal problems within themselves, with each other and in their marriages get uneven exploration in the documentary. Carney’s drinking problem that severely affected the recording of “Brothers” is mentioned but somewhat glossed over. No one comes right out and says that Carney is an alcoholic, but that’s something the documentary filmmakers should have asked Carney. The documentary also doesn’t mention if Carney every got professional help for his drinking problem.

Carney’s marital problems are also described in generic terms or not mentioned at all. He admits that his divorce from first ex-wife Grollmus was bitter, but he barely mentions his second ex-wife Emily Ward, whom he was married to from 2012 to 2016. Carney’s third wife is Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Michelle Branch, whom he married in 2019. Their scandalous separation in 2022 and subsequent reunion—Branch publicly accused him of infidelity, filed for divorce, and then decided to call off the divorce—are not mentioned at all. In the documentary, Carney is briefly shown spending time with his and Branch’s son Rhys James (born in 2018), who appears in some Black Keys rehearsal footage.

A documentary does not need to go the tabloid route and air a lot of dirty laundry. But when a celebrity documentary is made about a celebrity’s life, and several people in the documentary say the celebrity’s personal problems directly affected the celebrity’s work, it behooves the documentary filmmakers to get more details and introspection from the people who caused the problems or were directly affected by the problems. It’s especially noticeable that the documentary doesn’t seem to care to mention if Carney got professional help for what many people describe in the documentary as his alcohol addiction.

In a director’s statement in the movie’s production note, Dupre says about the making of this documentary: “I was going to need Pat and Dan to tell me everything. What they told me first was that they weren’t always very good at communicating with each other. Would they open up to me? I soon realized I wouldn’t need to lean on them quite as much as I thought I would because their music would speak volumes if we let it.”

Dupre further commented in the statement: “Want to know who they were and what they were feeling at every step of the way? Listen to their songs. That became the operating principle in the editing room: as much as possible, let their music tell the story and drive the narrative. … Pat and Dan did open up and come through in their interviews … in spades. But their incredible music expresses who they are and what they’ve been through beyond talk and beyond words.”

That’s all well and good, but “This Is a Film About the Black Keys” is not a concert documentary or a documentary about the making of an album. It’s supposed to be a biographical documentary that looks at all aspects of their lives, but the movie comes across as playing it a little too safe, as if the filmmakers wanted the approval of the Black Keys’ publicity team too. The documentary has very good concert scenes, but gives very little insight into the inspirations or recordings of specific Black Keys songs.

The people interviewed in the documentary do not include any critics of the Black Keys. Oher interviewees include Dan Auerbach’s father Chuck Auerbach; Patrick Carney’s brother Michael Carney; Fat Possum Records executives Matthew Johnson and Bruce Watson; Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Beck; and journalist Peter Relic, who gave the Black Keys’ their first review in Rolling Stone magazine.

The Black Keys’ notorious feud (which has since been settled) with Jack White (formerly of the rock duo the White Stripes) is not mentioned at all in the documentary. The closest thing that the documentary will mention to any music feuds that the Black Keys had was when Carney got some social media hate from Justin Bieber fans in 2013, when a reporter asked Carney to comment on Bieber not getting any Grammy nominations that year, and Carney made a flippant comment that Bieber should be happy with being rich. This short-lived and petty trolling from angry Bieber fans is quickly laughed off in the documentary for what is. But if you believe everything in this documentary, the Black Keys never had any uncomfortable rivalries with other musicians, when the reality is that they did.

People can enjoy the Black Keys’ music in any number of ways, including this documentary. As entertaining it might be to look at the impressive array of archival Black Keys footage that the documentary has compiled, the movie’s overall story of the Black Keys looks very much like a sympathetically slanted portrait of how the Black Keys want to see themselves and not a complete story of who they really are. Based on the final results, the documentary filmmakers seemed all too willing to go along and leave perhaps the hardest parts of the Black Keys’ story left untold.

Review: ‘Monolith’ (2023), starring Lily Sullivan

March 2, 2023

by Carla Hay

Lily Sullivan in “Monolith” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Monolith” (2023)

Directed by Matt Vesely

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city Australia, the sci-fi horror film “Monolith” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asian people and one black person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A disgraced journalist, who now works as a podcaster, gets caught up in the mystery of black bricks that have a bizarre power over people who own the bricks. 

Culture Audience: “Monolith” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching suspenseful horror movies where a lot is left up to interpretation and imagination.

Lily Sullivan in “Monolith” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

The ending of “Monolith” might be frustratingly vague to some viewers, but this sci-fi horror movie is a suspenseful labyrinth featuring a captivating performance from Lily Sullivan as a podcaster trying to uncover the mystery behind ominous black bricks. Sullivan is the only person seen talking on screen for the entire movie, since she portrays a podcaster who has isolated herself inside her parents’ home while attempting to solve the mystery. “Monolith” is not the movie for you if you don’t want to watch a film where the majority of it shows someone talking on the phone with other people who do not appear in the movie.

Directed by Matt Vesely (his feature-film directorial debut) and written by Lucy Campbell, “Monolith” had its world premiere at the 2022 Adelaide Film Festival in Australia and its North American premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival. “Monolith” was filmed on location in South Australia, but the city where the story takes place is not mentioned in the movie. The name of the central character portrayed by Sullivan is also not mentioned and is listed in the end credits only as The Interviewer. She is a journalist working as a podcaster because she has been recently fired from a high-profile newspaper (a publication called the Evening Journal) for mishandling a news story about someone famous named David Langley, who ended up suing for defamation.

Before the movie focuses on The Interviewer, “Monolith” begins by showing a blank, black screen and eerie voiceover narration of someone identifying himself as Jarad (voiced by Damon Herriman), who says: “I want to tell you something. Ever since I was young, there was something different about my family. A secret. Mom reckoned she had been followed her whole life.”

Jarad goes on to describe a childhood memory of being at a beach with his mother and seeing his mother yelling at a man who was taking her picture. The man told his mother, “I’m sorry. This is the way it has to be.” He ran into a nearby street and got hit by a car.

The camera he left behind had thousands of photos of Jarad’s mother and their family that made it obvious that whoever took the photos was stalking the family. Jarad says the camera was given to the police, who claimed they had no evidence of who this mystery stalker was. And then, the camera went missing. Jarad also mentions in this voiceover that the stalker was from the future.

The movie then shows The Interviewer making an apology video for her mistakes in her news story on David Langley. She admits to failing to corroborate the evidence and investigate the credibility of her sources. She concludes the apology by saying, “My actions do not reflect the Evening Journal’s operations or integrity.”

The scandal has resulted in David Langley’s fans harassing The Interviewer, so she is staying at her parents’ house to lie low until the turmoil dies down. The only work she’s been able to find is for a low-budget podcast called Beyond Believable, which covers unsolved mysteries, conspiracy theories and hoaxes. It’s a big step down from the prestigious journalist job that she had at the Evening Journal.

Her podcast boss Tyler (voiced by Chase Coleman) has been waiting patiently for The Interviewer to deliver her first story for Beyond Believable, but The Interviewer hasn’t come up with any ideas, and she knows she’s running out of time before she’ll get in trouble with Tyler for not doing the job she was hired to do. Feeling desperate, The Interviewers checks her email for story ideas and comes across a cryptic email with the subject heading “The Truth Will Out.”

The email has instructions to call someone named Floramae King at Floramae’s phone number and says that Floramae needs to be asked about a brick that Floramae knows very well. With nothing to lose, The Interviewer calls Floramae out of curiosity. Floramae (voiced by Ling Cooper Tang, with a photo of actress Janet Tan shown in the movie to depict Floramae) seems very surprised to get this phone call and is very reluctant to talk about the brick.

However, The Interviewer is very persuasive in explaining why she is calling and why Floramae needs to do this interview. The Interviewer says if The Interviewer received this email, then other journalists got the same email, but The Interviewer will be better than other journalists in getting Floramae’s side of the story told. Floramae agrees to be interviewed and is told that this phone interview is being recorded and will used on the podcast.

Floramae tells her story about the brick, which was in her possession about 20 years ago. She describes it as a black brick that size of a gold bar and “darker than anything I’ve ever seen.” Floramae also says about the brick, “It was very heavy. As soon as I held it, I felt like something was changing.”

Floramae says that 20 years ago, she was working as a live-in housekeeper for a wealthy family consisting of two parents who had a son and a daughter. Floramae was a single mother living with her daughter Paula, who was a child at the time. The employer family treated Floramae and Paula very well and offered to pay for Paula’s private education at an elite school. The brick appeared on the family’s property, but Floramae can’t remember exactly where on the property the brick was found.

One day, Floramae found deep scratches on the furniture in the house, with the biggest damage done to the dining room table. The family blamed Paula for this vandalism, but Paula and Floramae both denied that Paula caused any of the damage to the furniture. Even if it could be proven that Paula caused the damage, Floramae did not have the money to pay for the repairs.

Shortly after this incident, the family’s patriarch took the brick without Floramae’s permission and sold it to an art dealer in Germany. The patriarch said the money from the sale would be approximately the same amount to repair the furniture damage. Floramae complained to the patriarch that he stole the brick, and she was fired. Floramae bitterly says that the family cut all ties with Floramae and Paula.

It just so happens that when Floramae is doing this phone interview, adult Paula is at Floramae’s house for a visit. When Paula (voiced by Ansuya Nathan) overhears her mother Floramae talking on the phone about the brick to a journalist, Paula gets very upset and orders Floramae to get off the phone. The conversation is cut short.

The rest of “Monolith” follows The Interviewer investigating the mystery of the black brick by making numerous phone calls. She tracks down the art dealer who bought the brick that used to be owned by Floramae. He’s a Berlin-based art dealer named Klaus Lang (voiced by Terence Crawford), who has a collection of these black bricks.

The Interviewer also talks to a man with an African accent named John (voiced by Rashidi Edward), who tells how this mysterious brick affected members of his family. Another clues come from a woman in Ohio named Laura (voiced by Kate Box), who used to own one of the bricks. The Interviewer finds out that people who come in contact with the bricks start to lose their appetite and have suicidal thoughts or hallucinations. At one point in the movie, The Interviewer notices that a turtle in the house’s aquarium hasn’t been eating.

The Interviewer has a brother named Scott Evans (voiced by Matt Crook), who works in the linguistics department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Scott helps with the investigation. And so does a London-based journalist named Shiloh Lowden (voiced by Brigid Zengeni), who has also been trying to solve the mystery of these bricks.

The stories that The Interviewer hears in “Monolith” are strange, but they feel even more unsettling in large part because of the way the movie was filmed. Although The Interviewer is in a spacious house with a lot of glass windows for walls, the Interviewer stays in one room (which has the podcast equipment) for a great deal of the movie, thereby making the location look claustrophobic. In addition, the musical score by Benjamin Speed enhances the increasing tension in the story.

Viewers watching “Monolith” will be very curious to find out what’s the mystery behind these bricks, but don’t expect the movie to give all the answers. The last 20 minutes of the film turn into a lot of weirdness that mostly makes sense if viewers are paying attention to all the clues leading up to the climactic part of the movie. Still, some parts of the story remained muddled, as if the filmmakers didn’t bother trying to explain everything. The horror that viewers are supposed to be left with is the feeling of not knowing if an entity that is hard to understand is really good or evil.

Well Go USA released “Monolith” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on February 16, 2024. The movie was released in Australia on October 26, 2023. “Monolith” will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on April 23, 2024.

Review: ‘Bleeding Love’ (2024), starring Clara McGregor, Ewan McGregor, Kim Zimmer, Devyn McDowell, Sasha Alexander, Jake Weary and Vera Bulder

March 2, 2024

by Carla Hay

Clara McGregor and Ewan McGregor in “Bleeding Love” (Photo courtesy of Vertical)

“Bleeding Love” (2024)

Directed by Emma Westenberg

Culture Representation: Taking place during a road trip from San Diego, California, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, the dramatic film “Bleeding Love” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Native Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A landscaper, who is a recovering alcoholic, takes a road trip with his estranged 20-year-old daughter within a day after she nearly died of a drug overdose. 

Culture Audience: “Bleeding Love” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Ewan McGregor and movies about families trying to heal from the trauma of drug addiction.

Ewan McGregor and Clara McGregor in “Bleeding Love” (Photo courtesy of Vertical)

“Bleeding Love” is a movie that can be heart-wrenching and hokey in different parts of the film. Credible performances from real-life father and daughter Ewan McGregor and Clara McGregor carry this uneven road-trip drama during its weaker moments. If you want a more realistic look at how addiction affects families, watch any episode of “Intervention.”

Directed by Emma Westenberg and written by Ruby Caster, “Bleeding Love” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival. “Bleeding Love” offers some moments of real-life parallels in this story about an alcoholic father trying to mend his fractured relationship with his 20-year-old daughter, who has addiction issues of her own. She is deeply resentful of him because she feels he abandoned her and her mother years ago. The daughter also has bitter feelings because she thinks he cares more about his more recent family, which includes his current wife, with whom he has a son.

Ewan McGregor has gone public about being a recovering alcoholic; he’s said in many interviews that he’s been sober since 2001. He also had a very public split from his first wife Eve Mavrakis, whom he left for his “Fargo” co-star Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 2017. During this messy and prolonged divorce (the divorce became final in 2020), Clara McGregor (his eldest child) went on social media to make insulting and angry comments about her father Ewan. Winstead and Ewan McGregor became parents to son Laurie in 2021 and got married in 2022.

If this movie sounds like it could be like real-life family therapy, it looks that way, up until a point. In “Bleeding Love,” Ewan McGregor and Clara McGregor portray a father and a daughter who do not have names in the movie, although the daughter’s nickname is Turbo. It’s a nickname that the father gave to her in her childhood. She doesn’t want to called Turbo anymore, because it reminds her of happier times when she and her father used to be close. The movie has several flashbacks to the daughter’s childhood (Devyn McDowell portrays the daughter at about 8 or 9 years old), showing mostly loving moments between her and her father.

It’s revealed near the beginning of the film that this father owns a small landscaping business called Highland Lawn & Landscape, which has a truck that he’s driving for this road trip from San Diego, California, to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Much of their trip is through remote desert locations. The daughter is reluctantly going on this trip with him. Her mother is never seen or heard in the movie, although there’s a scene where the daughter calls her on the phone.

Less than 24 hours before this road trip, the daughter had nearly died from a drug overdose. She’s a talented painter who has given up on painting, much to the dismay of her father, who thinks she shouldn’t be wasting this talent. He says he’s taking her to Santa Fe to “hang out for a few days” with an acquaintance who is an artist because the father says he hopes it will inspire the daughter to start painting again. It soon becomes pretty obvious that there’s more to this trip than just a casual visit to an artist.

The daughter seems to know it too, because within the first 10 minutes of the movie, she tries to run away on a deserted road after getting out of the truck to squat on the side of the road to urinate. The father runs after her and catches up to her, and they continue on the trip, where they often bicker and have personality clashes. “You’re pretty out of shape,” she sneers at him after their short chase in the desert. He replies, “I can never keep up with you.”

After stopping at a convenience store to get something to eat, the father offers her a bite of his meat sandwich. She dismissively says, “I’m vegan.” The father asks, “Since when?” She replies, “Since I was 15.” Throughout the road trip, the daughter repeatedly tries to sneak drinks of alcohol without her father knowing. She also denies that she has any addiction problems.

After their truck breaks down (a road-trip cliché), a talkative and eccentric tow-truck driver named Elsie (played by Kim Zimmer) takes them to a trailer-park area so that her friend Amos (played by Willie Runsabove, also known as Willard Runsabove) can fix the truck. While waiting for the truck to get fixed, the daughter strikes up a flirtation with a graffiti artist named Kip (played by Jake Weary), who’s dressed as a clown for an outdoor kids’ party taking place in the trailer park. When the daughter goes back to Kip’s place, they start drinking alcohol, until the father bursts in and pulls her away after scolding Kip for giving alcohol to his under-21 daughter.

The daughter also steals mini-bottles of liquor at a convenience store. Later, at a diner, when her father is outside making a phone call, the daughter drinks a half-full glass of wine that was left behind by another customer. Considering her recent drug overdose, it should come as no surprise that it isn’t long before the daughter begins craving something stronger than alcohol. It leads to her meeting two strangers named Eli (played by Travis Hammer) and Michelle (played by Sasha Alexander), who are a couple.

The father shows a range of emotions when interacting with his daughter. He is stern, compassionate, remorseful and frustrated. She is usually angry, petulant, rebellious, playful and stubborn when interacting with her father. They both have areas of vulnerability and weaknesses that are exposed to each other during this trip. The movie shows rather than tells that this father and daughter are more alike than the daughter wants to admit.

Some of the emotions in “Bleeding Love” are raw and very authentic-looking. One of the movie’s best scenes is an argument between the father and the daughter in a motel room. However, there are other moments that are downright corny. Viewers find out why the movie is called “Bleeding Love”: There’s a scene where the father and daughter have a bonding moment when they start to sing Leona Lewis’ 2007 hit “Bleeding Love” together while driving in the truck. (Ewan and Clara McGregor also sing a duet in the movie’s closing-credits song: a cover version of the Alessi Brothers’ 1976 hit “Seabird.”)

Other times, this movie seems to exist just to show all the unusual characters the father and daughter meet on this road trip. After one of her many frequent stops to urinate on the side of a road, the daughter gets a burning sensation in her vagina while they’re driving at night. The father thinks it might be an animal bite, so he frantically drives around to find a drugstore that’s open.

It’s during this search that the father and daughter meet a sex worker named Tommy (played by Vera Bulder), who’s hanging outside a closed drugstore. It leads to a scene that looks very contrived for a movie, but the acting in the scene is good enough to overcome some of the screenplay flaws for this scene. Bulder’s screen time in the movie is less than 15 minutes, but she makes her wayward character a memorable and vibrant presence in an occasionally dull movie.

It would be easy to assume that Ewan McGregor and Clara McGregor didn’t have to do much acting to channel the turbulent father/daughter relationship that’s depicted in “Bleeding Love.” However, re-enacting whatever problems they had in real life (they have since reconciled after the divorce turmoil in their family) is a lot harder than most people might think it is. “Bleeding Love” is at its best when it captures authentic nuances in parent/child relationships rather than creating hackneyed scenarios for the sake of filling up time in a movie drama.

Vertical released “Bleeding Love” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on February 16, 2024.

Review: ‘Problemista,’ starring Tilda Swinton, Julio Torres, RZA, Greta Lee, Catalina Saavedra, James Scully and the voice of Isabella Rossellini

March 1, 2024

by Carla Hay

Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in “Problemista” (Photo by Jon Pack/A24)

“Problemista”

Directed by Julia Torres

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and in Maine, the comedy/drama film “Problemista” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Latin, white, African American and Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Cartisano, who died of a heart attack in 2019, at the age of 63, was sued several times and had many allegations that his camps illegally abused the children who were forced to be there. 

Culture Audience: “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries that show how abuse and exploitation are excused or covered up, but some questions remain unanswered by the end of the movie.

RZA and Greta Lee in “Problemista” (Photo by Jon Pack/A24)

“Problemista” has enough quirky charm to keep most viewers interested in what will happen next. It’s a unique comedy/drama about an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador, his immigration issues in New York City, and his eccentric artist boss. It’s not a spectacularly great movie, but it has entertaining and memorable moments for viewers who are interested in watching slightly weird independent films about artistic people. “Problemista” has some sci-fi elements that come to the forefront near the end of the movie.

Written and directed by Julio Torres, “Problemista” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival. Torres also stars in the movie as protagonist Alejandro Martinez, who was born and raised in El Salvador, by his single mother Dolores (played by Catalina Saavedra). Now in his 20s, Alejandro has been living in New York City, and working at low-paying jobs while trying to fulfill his goal of becoming a toy designer. His dream job would be to work at Hasbro, the company known for numerous popular toy brands, including G.I. Joe, Transformers, My Little Pony and Mr. Potato Head.

Isabella Rossellini is the movie’s unnamed voiceover narrator, who explains in the beginning of the film: “This is the story of Alejandro. His mother was an artist. And he was a project. She gave him everything, so he wished for everything. “Problemista” has occasional flashbacks to Alejandro’s childhood in El Salvador, with the flashbacks looking like Alejandro lived in a whimsical, playground-like fantasy land. In these flashbacks, Logan J. Alarcon-Poucel has the role of Alejandro as a boy.

Alejandro’s fantastical childhood memories are in stark contrast to his current realities: He lives in a small, drab apartment and is struggling to pay his bills with a job he doesn’t like. In the beginning of the movie, Alejandro gets a low-level job at a company called Freeze Corp., which is in the business of freezing the bodies of people who want to be unfrozen and resurrected in the future. Alejandro soon gets fired from Freeze Corp. for accidentally unplugging a backup generator.

Alejando is in the United States on a work visa, which means he can legally stay in the U.S. if he has an employer as a sponsor. He seeks guidance from an immigration attorney named Khalil (played by Laith Nakli), who has his own law practice. Khalil has some grim news for Alejandro: If Alejandro doesn’t find a work sponsor in one month, then Alejandro will be in danger of being deported. In the meantime, Alejandro has to find a way to make some fast cash because his rent and other bills are due.

It just so happens that a demanding, fast-talking and quick-tempered artist named Elizabeth Ascencio (played by Tilda Swinton) is looking for a freelance assistant. Elizabeth crossed paths with Alejandro because her husband Bobby (who is a painter artist) is a customer of Freeze Corp., a company that Elizabeth does not like. And so, when she hears that Alejandro was fired from Freeze Corp., Elizabeth hires Alejandro to be her assistant.

Elizabeth is unpleasantly neurotic, argumentative and difficult. A great deal of the movie is about the uneasy work relationship that Alejandro and Elizabeth have with each other. Alejandro has a “fake it ’til you make it” attitude about the job, such as when he pretends to Elizabeth that he knows how to use FileMaker Pro software on a computer, and he has to go to certain lengths to cover up this lie.

Bobby (who makes paintings of eggs) wants to do a gallery exhibit called “13 Eggs.” Elizabeth tells Alejando that she will be Alejandro’s work sponsor if Alejandro successfully helps her pitch this exhibit to a gallery. And so, there’s a long stretch of the movie where Alejandro has to track down all of Bobby’s paintings (some of which were given away or sold) for this exhibit.

Elizabeth and Bobby (who have homes in New York City and Maine) have an unconventional marriage, not just because of their age difference (she’s about 10 years older than he is) but also because they also have an open marriage and they don’t spend a lot of time together. She tells Alejandro that she and Bobby fell in love with each other because they are both people “who feel misunderstood.” Even though Bobby and Elizabeth have an open marriage, there are still jealousy issues. Elizabeth doesn’t like that Bobby has gotten very close to a woman named Dalia Park (played by Greta Lee), who is one of Bobby’s most promising students.

“Problemista” also shows some of Alejandro’s life when he’s not working. He gets a roommate named Bingham (played by James Scully), who likes to party. Alejandro doesn’t have a love interest in the movie, but it’s shown that he is gay or queer. Alejandro can’t get paid for his assistant job until Elizabeth officially becomes his work sponsor. When he runs low on money, he resorts to a desperate way to make some cash.

One of the movie’s quirks is showing fantasy sequences involving a character named Craigslist (played by Larry Owens), who appears to Alejandro in hallucinations that make Craigslist look like he’s in a disco nightclub or drag-queen ballroom. Craigslist gives advice and pep talks to Alejandro when Alejandro is feeling doubt and fear. Even though Alejandro is in his 20s, Alejandro often looks and acts like an insecure teenager. He has tendency to dress like a high school student, including wearing a backpack. He shuffles when he walks, and he often stammers in conversations with people.

“Problemista” has some pacing and tonal issues when the movie has an awkward balance of comedy and drama. The story also gets a little repetitive in showing Elizabeth’s negative outbursts and ranting. However, the performances in the movie (especially from Torres and Swinton) are compelling. And “Problemista” shows with compassion and some grittiness what it looks like to be a lonely immigrant with visa problems in America. It’s a life that is often lived in quiet desperation but gets to live out loud in a movie like “Problemista.”

A24 released “Problemista” in select U.S. cinemas on March 1, 2024, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on March 8, 2024.

Review: ‘Scrambled’ (2024), starring Leah McKendrick, Ego Nwodim, Andrew Santino, Adam Rodriguez, Laura Cerón and Clancy Brown

February 14, 2024

by Carla Hay

Leah McKendrick in “Scrambled” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Scrambled” (2024)

Directed by Leah McKendrick

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Los Angeles area, the comedy/drama film “Scrambled” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latin people and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 34-year-old free-spirited bachelorette, who has no idea if she will ever find a life partner or if she’ll ever be ready to be a parent, decides to freeze her eggs anyway while she still looks for love. 

Culture Audience: “Scrambled” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in comedies about dating and fertility issues.

Leah McKendrick in “Scrambled” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

Even though “Scrambled” occasionally stumbles into a cliché sitcom tone about a bachelorette in her 30s who’s unhappy in her love life, this adult-oriented comedy has entertaining performances in this story about a single woman who wants to freeze her eggs. “Scrambled” was very obviously influenced by HBO’s 1998 to 2004 comedy series “Sex and the City” (with frank talk and explicit scenes about sex), but “Scrambled” is more of a tribute than a ripoff. Just like in “Sex and the City,” the narrator is a single, liberated woman in her 30s with a messy life of failed romances with ex-boyfriends, financial instability, and the nagging feeling that she should have her life figured out by now.

“Sex and the City” and “Scrambled” also drew inspiration from real-life people. Carrie Bradshaw, the main protagonist of “Sex and the City,” lives in New York City and is a sex columnist. The Carrie Bradshaw character is based on real-life writer Candace Bushnell. Leah McKendrick is the writer, director and star of “Scrambled,” where she portrays main protagonist Nellie Robinson, a Los Angeles-based jewelry designer who works from home and who experiences fertility issues that McKendrick experienced in real life. McKendrick makes an impressive feature-film directorial debut with “Scrambled,” which had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival.

“Scrambled” begins with a somewhat stereotypical setting for a movie about a lovelorn bachelorette: a wedding where she is a bridesmaid. Nellie, who is 34, is at the wedding of her best friend Sheila (played by Ego Nwodim) and wants to make a grand entrance with her date Conor (played by Henry Zebrowski), because she tells Conor it’s a tradition that’s expected of her, as someone who ends up being a bridesmaid at many weddings. In the movie’s opening scene, which takes place before the wedding ceremony begins, Nellie is shown debating with Conor about what type of dance they should start with at the wedding reception. She nixes the idea of doing the Running Man, but Nellie says that recreating iconic dance scenes from “Grease” or “Dirty Dancing” could still be in the realm of possibility.

Nellie goes to check on Sheila in a dressing room and sees that Sheila is a nervous wreck. Sheila babbles to Nellie about Sheila’s groom-to-be Ron (played by Max Adler), by asking this hypothetical question: “Would you fuck Ron for the rest of your life?” It’s Sheila’s way of asking if Nellie thinks Sheila is making the right decision to marry Ron and stay faithful to him. Like a good friend, Nellie says, “Yes.”

Sheila then rambles on to Nellie about how she and Nellie always thought that they weren’t the marrying type, and now here they are on Sheila’s wedding day. Sheila then asks Nellie if Nellie has some cocaine because Sheila wants to do some cocaine before the ceremony. Sheila nearly has a meltdown when Nellie says she doesn’t have any drugs. But then, Nellie remembers she might have some molly. Nellie and Sheila take the molly together—until Sheila abruptly announces that she’s pregnant, and then Nellie orders her to spit out the pill.

This scene sets the tone for the rest of “Scrambled,” which is revels in its raunchiness and crudeness in ways to make viewers laugh. At the wedding, Nellie is very stoned on the molly, but during the reception she gets a sobering lecture from an older friend named Monroe (played by June Diane Raphael), whose time in the movie is brief (less than 10 minutes) but it’s one of the funniest scenes in the movie. Monroe and Nellie are sitting at the same table when Nellie gushes to Monroe about how Nellie considers Monroe to be her “idol,” because Monroe seems to “have it all” as a wife, mother, and the owner of a successful business.

Monroe has brought her only child—a daughter named Zofia (played by Everly Taylor)—to the wedding. Zofia, who’s an energetic child and about 5 or 6 years old, was born when Monroe was in her early 40s, after Monroe went through in vitro fertilization treatments to get pregnant. Monroe then gives a raw and candid confession that although she loves being parent, the process of conceiving and giving birth was hellish for her. (She says it in a way that’s a lot cruder than that.) Monroe spent $50,000 on IVF treatments and says if she had to do it all over again, she would’ve frozen her eggs when she was younger and would’ve had a surrogate for the pregnancy.

Monroe also asks Nellie how her love life is, and Nellie responds that she’s single and actively dating: “It’s a smorgasbord. I’m seeing everyone.” Monroe then looks at Nellie sympathetically and says, “I know you because I was you. And so, the next time you’ve just boned some hot bartender with an app idea, and you’re sitting in his bathroom, staring at his shower encrusted with pubes and that fucking “Fight Club”/”Reservoir Dogs”/”Scarface” poster, I want you to remember my face.”

Monroe adds when she comments on men not having an age limit for conceiving children: “They can be in never never land, never growing up, never aging. But these eggs, those huevos rancheros? They are [aging], those eggs are!” When Monroe asks Nellie how old she is, and Nellie tells her 34, Monroe slaps Nellie on the face, and tells her not to admit that she’s older than 33. Monroe then sternly warns Nellie: “Freeze those eggs!”

After Monroe leaves the table, Nellie makes eye contact with a “hot bartender”(played by Matt Pascua) at the wedding reception and gets a drink from him. She and the bartender end up going back to his place, where they have sex. And sure enough, this bartender is working on app idea that he thinks will make him rich. He’s also got a messy bathroom with a “Scarface” poster hanging up on the wall.

It’s enough to be a wake-up call for Nellie that she’s should be focusing on finding Mr. Right instead of Mr. Right Now. (Something else happens at the bartender’s place, which won’t be revealed in this review, because it’s a sexual encounter mishap that’s supposed to be a sexually explicit comedic moment in the movie.) Nellie knows that there’s no guarantee that she will end up with a life partner/soul mate, and she doesn’t know if or when she’ll be ready to be a parent, but she decides to take Monroe’s advice and freeze her eggs anyway.

Weddings and baby showers are predictable scenarios in comedies that show how never-married women with no children are made to feel inadequate or uncomfortable by certain people who think women aren’t complete people unless they are mothers. “Scrambled” is no different. At a baby shower, Nellie is apparently the only woman there who isn’t a mother or in a committed relationship. When she announces that she’s freezing her eggs, the other women’s overall reaction is to congratulate her but they think she should save her excitement for when she becomes a “real parent.”

The reaction of Nellie’s sexist and narrow-minded father Richard Robinson (played by Clancy Brown) is even more negative. When Nellie tells her parents and brother during a family dinner that she’s freezing her eggs, Richard thinks it’s “voodoo science,” and women should conceive children the “natural” way. Richard is the type of parent who asks Nellie things such as “Where are my grandkids?,” but he doesn’t make those demands of his bachelor son Jesse Robinson (played by Andrew Santino), who’s at least five years older than Nellie.

Jesse is a pompous attorney who lets it be known to Nellie that he thinks she’s a pathetic mess when it comes to her life. Nellie, whose specialty is making butterfly earrings that she sells online, barely makes enough money to pay her bills. Meanwhile, Jesse is the type of cretin who makes misogynistic remarks (just like his father) and brags about being rich.

“Scrambled” has several “family dinner” scenes where Nellie argues with Richard and/or Jesse. Richard’s mild-mannered wife Sonja (played by Laura Cerón), an immigrant who speaks Spanish and English, tries to keep the peace when Richard and their son Jesse have conflicts with Nellie. Things get even more awkward between Nellie and Jesse when she reluctantly asks him to lend her the $8,000 she needs for her egg-harvesting procedures, which are not covered by her health insurance.

Early on in the movie, Nellie makes a remark that women are like avocados when it comes to women’s fertility: There’s a limited tme when they’re considered “ripe,” and then they are considered shriveled-up and useless. This avocado comparison becomes a running joke in the movie, as Nellie keeps checking the insides of avocados to see if they are still ripe and useful.

There’s also a very “Sex and the City”-type long stretch of the movie, when lonely Nellie reaches out to some ex-lovers in a desperate attempt to see if any romantic sparks can be rekindled with any of them. You can easily predict how these “reunions” turn out to be. “Magic Mike” alum Adam Rodriguez, who is one of the headliners of “Scrambled,” portrays Sterling Morales, one of Nellie’s ex-lovers, but Rodriguez’s screen time in “Scrambled” is less than five minutes. Nellie’s most recent serious relationship was with a slightly older man named Shawn (played by Harry Shum Jr.), who is mentioned frequently in the movie. “Scrambled” reveals the reason why Shawn and Nellie broke up and whether or not they get back together.

“Scrambled” works as well as it does because of the engaging screenplay and the very good comedic timing of the cast members. McKendrick has also crafted memorable characters who have mostly realistic flaws and foibles, although her tactless OB/GYN doctor (played by Feodor Chin) is meant to be a hilarious caricature of how doctors can sometimes be unprofessional. There’s a very poignant moment in the movie involving Nellie and her elderly neighbor Parveen (played by Vee Kumari), whom Nellie thinks is uptight and silently judgmental about Nellie’s sex life. Nellie might not be relatable to every woman, but “Scrambled” succeeds in showing that Nellie goes through universally relatable experiences that all reasonably responsible adults go through in making major life decisions that will affect people’s futures.

Lionsgate released “Scrambled” in U.S. cinemas on February 2, 2024. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on March 1, 2024.

Review: ‘Raging Grace,’ starring Max Eigenmann, Jaeden Paige Boadilla, Leanne Best and David Hayman

January 3, 2024

by Carla Hay

Jaeden Paige Boadilla and Leanne Best in “Raging Grace” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media and Doppelgänger Releasing)

“Raging Grace”

Directed by Paris Zarcilla

Some language in Tagalog with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed in city in England, the horror film “Raging Grace” features a cast of Filipino and white characters (with one black person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A live-in housekeeper and her daughter experience terror inside the mansion of a wealthy recluse. 

Culture Audience: “Raging Grace” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching eerie horror movies that include issues related to classism, racism, immigration and generational trauma.

David Hayman and Max Eigenmann in “Raging Grace” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media and Doppelgänger Releasing)

The story in “Raging Grace” gets a bit messy, and some of the acting is too stiff, but it’s a genuinely unique horror movie that succeeds in offering many effective jump scares, along with astute observations about immigrant exploitation. The first third of the movie is too repetitive. Thing don’t get interesting until the last two-thirds of the film, when a character emerges from a coma and becomes a major part of the story.

Written and directed by Paris Zarcilla, “Raging Grace” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXS Film & TV Festival, where it won the grand jury prize for Best Narrative Feature, and Zarcilla was awarded the Thunderbird Rising Award for debut directors. “Raging Grace” is a story that mixes supernatural horror with the real-life horror of undocumented immigrants being exploited by employers. Zarcilla, who was born and raised in England to Filipino parents, has said in interviews that the movie was inspired by his childhood memories of helping his immigrant mother clean houses for wealthy people.

“Raging Grace” (which takes place in an unnamed city in England) centers on a housekeeper named Joy (played by Max Eigenmann), who is a single mother to a mischievous daughter named Grace (played by Jaeden Paige Boadilla), who is about 7 to 8 years old. Joy, who is originally from the Philippines, works as a housekeeper for an agency that knows she’s an undocumented immigrant. Grace was born in England.

Grace’s father is a British citizen who was not married to Joy and is no longer in a relationship with Joy. He is also an absentee father to Grace. Joy has lied to Grace by saying that Grace’s father is dead. Joy is constantly nervous and worried about many things. She gets frightened easily by small noises. At night, Joy has nightmares, some of which are flashbacks to when Grace’s father physically abused Joy. The movie eventually gives more details about who Grace’s father is.

Joy has made plans to get fraudulent immigration documents (such as a fake visa), which will cost her £15,000. She only has £10,000. Out of desperation, Joy takes a six-week, live-in housekeeping job that will pay £6,000. It’s an “under-the-table payment” job where Joy was hired directly by the employer, who asks Grace not to tell the agency.

The person who hires her for this job is a wealthy woman named Katherine (played by Leanne Best), who is very moody and strange. Katherine alternates between being cheerful and being coldly abrupt. She has hired Joy to be the housekeeper and caretaker for Katherine’s bedridden uncle Nigel Garrett (played by David Hayman), who’s called Mr. Garrett in the movie. He lives with Katherine in a secluded mansion, where he is in a coma and breathes through an oxygen tube.

Joy arrives at the mansion and smuggles Grace inside, because Joy knows that she’s not allowed to have a child with her on this job. Joy avoids answering Katherine’s question when Katherine asks Joy if Joy has any children. There are no other servants in the mansion. During Joy’s first few days on the job, Katherine gives a little bit of information about her family, by saying she’s the last living relative of her uncle Nigel.

Joy is professional and polite, but she is terrified of losing this job, because the person who will supply Joy with the illegal immigration documents expects her to pay the full £15,000 before he leaves the area in the following month. The money that Joy gets from Joy’s housekeeping work not only supports herself and Grace but Joy also sends some money to unnamed relatives in the Philippines. It isn’t made clear in the movie if Grace is homeschooled or if she is on a break from school, but Grace stays with Joy during day and doesn’t have any interaction any other children.

Katherine gives some basic instructions to Joy on how to look after the house. Katherine (who is not married and has no children) has a busy career (it’s later revealed that she’s a lawyer), so Joy gets minimal supervision during the day. However, Katherine can and does stop by the mansion unannounced. “Raging Grace” takes a while to get to the real horror of the story, because so much of the first third of the movie consists of scenes where Grace tries to avoid being seen by Katherine when Katherine is in the house.

Grace is the type of prankster who will do things like put jam in ketchup, as she does in the movie’s first scene when she is having dinner with Joy. She’s not a bad kid, but she is very lonely, restless and stubborn. And in a horror movie where there’s a kid in a creepy mansion, it should come as no surprise that Grace can see ghosts.

Yes, “Raging Grace” is a “haunted mansion” story. But who are the real threats to the safety of Grace and Joy? The ghosts or the living human beings who are in contact with Grace and Joy? Katherine eventually reveals that she’s very racist and thinks Filipino people and immigrants are inferior to white British people.

Through a series of circumstances that won’t be revealed here, Mr. Garrett comes out of his coma. This isn’t spoiler information, since Mr. Garrett regaining consciousness is in the movie’s trailer. When he emerges from his coma, he drops a bombshell on Joy: He tells her that he doesn’t have a niece.

The rest of “Raging Grace” turns into an intriguing mystery that keeps viewers guessing on who’s telling the truth and who’s lying. And what about the ghosts in the mansion? Who are they? Those answers are also revealed in the movie.

Eigenmann gives a convincing performance as protective mother Joy, while Boadilla’s often-flat delivery of her dialogue as Grace needed a lot of improvement. The movie is called “Raging Grace,” but her mother Joy is really the catalyst for much of what happens in the movie. “Raging Grace” co-star Best is competent and occasionally campy in her role as Katherine, while Hayman has the standout performance as the complicated Mr. Garrett.

“Raging Grace” writer/director Zarcella shows a knack for creating horror visuals and making editing choices that cause genuine terror and suspense. The movie stumbles a bit in trying to do too much in how a certain character seems to go back and forth between appearing to be a villain and appearing to be a hero. It starts to become muddled and comes dangerously close to ruining the movie’s narrative. However, the last 15 minutes of “Raging Grace”—despite the narrative becoming a little disjointed in a showdown scene—has enough for the movie to end in a memorable and powerful way.

Brainstorm Media & Doppelgänger Releasing released “Raging Grace” in select U.S. cinemas on December 1, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on December 8, 2023. “Raging Grace” was released in the United Kingdom on December 29, 2023.

Review: ‘Black Barbie: A Documentary,’ starring Kitty Black Perkins, Stacey McBride-Irby and Beulah Mae Mitchell

November 24, 2023

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Black Barbie: A Documentary” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

[EDITOR’S NOTE: After Netflix acquired “Black Barbie: The Documentary,” the movie’s title was shortened to “Black Barbie.”]

“Black Barbie: A Documentary”

Directed by Lagueria Davis

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Black Barbie: A Documentary” features a predominantly African American group of people (with some white people, Latin people, and Asians) discussing the history of black Barbie dolls and/or racial issues for Barbie dolls.

Culture Clash: There is an ongoing struggle for black Barbie dolls to not be perceived as inferior or less important than white Barbie dolls.

Culture Audience: “Black Barbie: A Documentary” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a documentary about the intersection of Barbie dolls with African American history.

Stacey McBride-Irby, Kitty Black Perkins and Beulah Mae Mitchell in “Black Barbie: A Documentary” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Black Barbie: A Documentary” is essential viewing not just for people who are interested in this often-overlooked part of Barbie doll history but also for people who aren’t fans of Barbie dolls but want to watch a fascinating pop culture documentary. The movie (which has a total running time of 100 minutes) packs in a lot of different layers that are mostly cohesive. The movie is fairly ambitious in how it puts certain things in a broader historical and sociological context, thereby avoiding being a formulaic Barbie doll documentary that would probably ignore these larger issues.

Directed by Lagueria Davis (who wrote and spoke the movie’s narration and is one of the movie’s producers), “Black Barbie: A Documentary” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival and has since made the rounds at numerous other festivals, including its New York premiere at the Urbanworld Festival. Davis has said in many interviews that it took her 12 years to make this documentary. It shows in the amount of meticulous research in “Black Barbie: A Documentary,” which makes everything easier to understand by including a timeline of events.

This not a documentary made by a “Barbie fangirl.” In fact, in her narration, Davis (who occasionally appears on screen in the movie) tells viewers from the beginning that in her childhood, she didn’t even like Barbie dolls and never had an interest in them. She says that what inspired her to make this documentary was hearing stories from her aunt Beulah Mae Mitchell, who was one of the first black employees for Mattel, the Barbie toy manufacturing company, where Mitchell worked from 1955 to 1999.

The first Barbie doll, which went on sale to the mass market in 1959, was invented by Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler and was inspired by Ruth’s real-life daughter Barbara. Barbie dolls became a hit because they were not the type of shapeless woman dolls that were usually being sold at the time but were dolls designed to emulate the curves and contours of a fully developed woman. The first black Barbie doll went on sale in 1968, at the height of the Black Power movement.

Mitchell was mostly a receptionist throughout her career at Mattel, but she was privy to a lot of insider information that she shares in the documentary. Mitchell also kept many valuable mementos and memorabilia from her time with Mattel, some of which is shown in this documentary and would be right at home in a Barbie museum. In “Black Barbie: A Documentary,” Mitchell describes Ruth Handler as a kind and generous boss who always asked for feedback from employees on how to improve the company. Nevertheless, for years, Mattel had a blind spot or resistance to the idea of Mattel making Barbie dolls that were any race other than white.

Mitchell says part of that resistance came from cultural conditioning at the time in the United States, when it was more acceptable to “erase” people of color from representation in many areas of life where people of color existed. The image manufactured for Barbie at the time and which still exists today is that Barbie leads a life of glamour and privilege, which are often out of reach for people who are treated as being on the margins of society.

In the documentary, Mitchell comments: “My mother loved dolls. I loved dolls. I loved fashion.” Mitchell remembers that she was growing up, she was so used to seeing only white dolls being sold as the “pretty dolls,” that “it didn’t occur to me” that dolls that weren’t white could be included as “pretty dolls” too. She remembers the usual black dolls that were around in her childhood were the Aunt Jemima dolls that were considered frumpy and unattractive.

The reasons why the first black Barbie wasn’t introduced until 1968 had as much to do with race as economics. There was deep skepticism that there would be enough demand for black Barbie dolls to make the dolls a profitable investment for Mattel. The underlying doubt was that although black people might buy black Barbie dolls, what about white people, the majority race that was buying Barbie dolls?

“Black Barbie: A Documentary” briefly goes off on an interesting but necessary tangent by mentioning the famous Clark doll tests of 1947, as an example of how dolls can often influence how young people think of racial differences. Psychologist spouses Mamie Clark and Kenneth Clark conducted tests with white and black children by giving them a choice between choosing a white baby doll or black baby doll. The children almost always chose the white dolls, thereby showing how white supremacist racism can be internalized from a very young age.

These test results were used successfully in arguments in favor of making racial segregation illegal in U.S. public education in the 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. However, legislating racial justice in public education is one thing. Trying to do that in the business world is another thing.

As is often the case when white-owned corporate companies exclude representation of races that aren’t white, the excluded races create their own businesses. “Black Barbie: The Documentary” admirably mentions the importance of Shindana Toys, a co-op company that was the first major manufacturer of black dolls and became very successful at it. Shindana Toys, which was in business from 1968 to 1983, was a division of Operation Bootstrap Inc.

Mattel noticed the success of Shindana and saw that there was a viable economic demand to make Barbie dolls more racially inclusive. And so, the first black Barbie doll was launched in 1968. Her name was Christie, who was marketed as a friend of Barbie’s. In 1969, another black Barbie doll named Julia was introduced. Julia was inspired by Diahann Carroll’s title character in the TV comedy series “Julia,” where Carroll starred as a young widowed mother who is a nurse.

Eventually, Mattel responded to requests from consumers to make people of color dolls not just as sidekick friends to Barbie but as dolls named Barbie. Kitty Black Perkins was the designer of Mattel’s first black doll named Barbie, which was introduced in 1979 and went on sale in 1980. Black Perkins, who worked at Mattel from 1976 to 2003, is considered the most influential person at Mattel in creating a wider range of black Barbie dolls.

Black Perkins’ interviews in the documentary are among the most insightful. She mentions that a child psychologist was brough in by Mattel to assess her work when designing Mattel’s first black doll named Barbie. Black Perkins says that psychologist backed off when it was obvious that Black Perkins, as an African American, knew better than the psychologist on what should be done in creating a black Barbie doll. She also says that Mattel gave very little promotion to the first black Barbie doll that she designed.

Black Perkins mentored Stacey McBride-Irby, a Mattel designer who continued Black Perkins’ legacy in creating new black Barbie dolls, when McBride-Irby worked for Mattel from 1996 to 2011. One of the documentary’s highlights is showing Mitchell, Black Perkins and McBride-Irby—three generations of black women who have long histories with Mattel’s Barbie dolls—sitting down together for a talk. Their conversation doesn’t look forced or contrived. It’s a joy to watch. McBride-Irby mentions that her own daughter was an influence in many of McBride Irby’s design decisions for black Barbie dolls.

“Black Barbie: A Documentary” also has the expected array of talking head interviews with Barbie doll collectors, historians, entertainers, cultural experts and former Mattel employees. The movie acknowledges that Mattel has come a long way in diversifying Barbie dolls. However, the documentary also points out that there could be more progress in how Mattel’s “Barbie” animated movies still push the idea that the only Barbie who deserves the most attention has to be a white female who is thin, blonde and pretty.

For example, even though the “Barbie” animated movies have introduced a black Barbie named Brooklyn Barbie as a friend counterpart to white Malibu Barbie, the storylines often still presents Brooklyn Barbie as a sidekick, not the main star of the story. Malibu Barbie is still at the center of the marketing campaigns for these movies. If racism is mentioned in the “Barbie” animated movies, Malibu Barbie does most of the talking about it.

Mason Williams—Mattel’s senior director of diversity, equity, and inclusion—is interviewed in the documentary. He looks visibly uncomfortable in the documentary when he’s confronted with criticism that Mattel’s “Barbie” animated movies still don’t show racial equality among the Barbies. Williams gives a tepid response by saying that these changes take time and won’t happen overnight.

One of the best parts of “Black Barbie: A Documentary” is in the last third of the movie, when it goes beyond just talking head interviews and shows a series of focus groups with children (about 7 to 12 years old, male and female and of diverse races) to discuss what they think when they are presented with various Barbie dolls and are asked questions about these dolls. Yeshiva Davis (a therapist whose specialty is family and marriage) is the leader of these focus groups.

The results of these focus groups are revealing about children’s attitudes about race relations and perceptions of physical attractiveness, as well as how these attitudes affect their judgments of others and themselves. The children’s answers are sometimes funny and sometimes sad but always come across as very unfiltered and honest. Davis is then shown discussing the results of these focus groups with various educators and cultural historians, who comment on the children’s answers.

Perhaps that is the greatest takeaway of “Black Barbie: A Documentary”: It’s not about which black Barbie dolls are bestsellers for Mattel. It’s about how Barbie dolls, like them or not, have a great deal of influence on how people (especially impressionable children) can view the world.

Netflix will premiere “Black Barbie: A Documentary” on June 19, 2024.

Review: ‘It Lives Inside’ (2023), starring Megan Suri, Mohana Krishnan, Neeru Bajwa, Betty Gabriel, Vik Sahay and Jenaya Ross

September 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Megan Suri in “It Lives Inside” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“It Lives Inside” (2023)

Directed by Bishal Dutta

Some language in Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror film “It Lives Inside” has a cast of Indian and white characters (with one African American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A high school student, who has been shunning her former best friend, finds out that her friend has unleashed a supernatural evil monster.

Culture Audience: “It Lives Inside” will appeal primarily to people who want to see a horror movie with some jump scares and don’t mind if the rest of the story is weak.

Mohana Krishnan in “It Lives Inside” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“It Lives Inside” had the potential to be a more intriguing horror movie if the plot had been developed better. There are too many unanswered questions by the end of film. Some stylish horror moments and adequate acting can’t overcome the movie’s flaws.

Written and directed by Bishal Dutta, “It Lives Inside” is his feature-film directorial debut. The movie had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival, where it won the Midnighters Audience Award, given to movies that are usually in the horror genre or are considered movies that tend to be shown at midnight screenings. The movie has plenty of jump scares, but they don’t add up to much when the characters are so underdeveloped and the same types of scares get repeated.

“It Lives Inside” brings up issues of Indian immigrants living in the United States and navigating between Indian culture and American culture. However, the movie doesn’t really do much with this perspective, since “It Lives Inside” turns into a run-of-the-mill evil monster movie, where the monster just happens to come from Indian folklore. A lot of the Indian culture presented in the film is just style over substance.

Unfortunately, the trailer for “It Lives Inside” shows about 90% of the film’s plot, as well as reveals some of the best scenes in the movie, which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city. The plot of “It Lives Inside” is so basic, it would be enough for a short film. A lot of scenes could have been cut from the movie, and it wouldn’t have made a difference with the end result.

In “It Lives Inside,” a high school student named Samidha, nicknamed Sam (played by Megan Suri), is about 16 or 17 years old and living with her Indian immigrant parents: mother Poorna (played by Neeru Bajwa) and father Inesh (played by Vik Sahay), who are fairly traditional. Poorna is much stricter and more uptight than Inesh, who is laid-back in his personality and parenting style. An early scene in the movie shows Sam’s classmate Russ (played by Gage Marsh) inviting Sam to a party, but Sam says that she can’t go because her parents expect her to celebrate Magha Puja Day, which celebrates events in the life of Buddha.

Not much is ever told abut Sam during this entire movie. It’s mentioned that she failed her driver’s license test three times. She is also someone who has dropped her former best friend Tamira (played by Mohana Krishnan) because Sam wants to be in the popular students’ clique at the school. A teacher at the school named Joyce (played by Betty Gabriel) is concerned about the way that the other students talk about Tamira. When Joyce asks Sam why Sam’s friendship ended with Tamira, Sam doesn’t really give a completely truthful answer and vaguely says that they outgrew each other.

Tamira is immediately presented as a “weird” outcast. One day, Tamira shows up looking disheveled at the school while she is holding a mysterious jar. There also appears to be blood seeping from inside Tamira’s backpack. Tamira takes the jar with her everywhere. People at the school have noticed and are staying away from her or are making snide comments about Tamira behind her back.

Sam acts disgusted and doesn’t want anything to do with Tamira, who insists that something evil is living inside the jar, and this evil entity needs to eat raw meat. In the school’s gym locker room, Sam snaps at Tamira: “You’re such a fucking psycho!” Sam knocks the jar out of Tamira’s hand, the jar falls and breaks on the floor, and black dust comes out of the jar. There’s also an old book on the floor that Sam tries to give back to Tamira.

You know what all of this means in a horror movie like “It Lives Inside”: an evil spirit has now been unleashed. The monster’s name is The Pishach (played by Jenaya Ross), and it shows up in a lot of darkly lit scenes. What the monster does is entirely predictable, but don’t expect to hear anything substantial about the origins of this monster. “It Lives Inside” seems more enamored with how scenes look rather than telling a compelling story about the characters in those scenes.

Neon released “It Lives Inside” in U.S. cinemas on September 25, 2023.

Review: ‘Shiva Baby’ (2021), starring Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed and Dianna Agron

August 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Molly Gordon and Rachel Sennott in “Shiva Baby” (Photo courtesy of Utopia)

“Shiva Baby” (2021)

Directed by Emma Seligman

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York state, the comedy/drama film “Shiva Baby” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A bisexual college student, who secretly makes money as a sex worker for male clients, finds herself in uncomfortable situations when she, her parents, her ex-girlfriend, a sex customer and his wife all end up at the same post-funeral reception. 

Culture Audience: “Shiva Baby” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of sarcastic and well-acted movies about people who have secret lives.

Dianna Agron and Danny Deferrari in “Shiva Baby” (Photo courtesy of Utopia)

“Shiva Baby” seamlessly blends hilarious comedy and sobering drama in this incisive story of a college student forced to reckon with secrets and lies during a tension-filled shiva reception. It’s a stellar feature film debut from writer/director Emma Seligman. The movie authentically represents American Jewish culture (almost every character in the movie is Jewish), which is a big part of the story, but the essential elements of the plot could have been about people in many other cultures.

Seligman is also one of the producers of “Shiva Baby,” which was selected to have its world premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, but the event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Jury prizes were still given for the event. “Shiva Baby” went on to win the John Cassavetes Award at the 2022 Film Independent Spirit Awards, presented to the creative team of a film with a production budget of less than $500,000. (The John Cassavetes Award’s qualifying amount has since been changed to a movie production budget of less than $1 million.)

“Shiva Baby” is based on Seligman’s 2018 short film of the same name that she made when she was a student at New York University. Rachel Sennott, another NYU alum, stars in both “Shiva Baby” films, which get their title from the fact that the story takes place primarily at a shiva reception, and the protagonist is a college student who feels like her parents still treat her like a baby. Both movies were filmed on location in New York state.

In the “Shiva Baby” feature film, Sennott portrays bisexual Danielle, who’s in her early 20s and in her last year at an unnamed university in New York City. Danielle comes from a middle-class family (the movie never mentions how her parents make money), where she is the only child of her parents. Danielle’s life is revealed in bits and pieces in the movie until a portrait emerges of a deeply insecure woman who’s been lying to people about many things in her life. What “Shiva Baby” viewers first find out about Danielle isn’t necessarily the truth about her.

The movie’s opening scene shows Danielle and a man in his mid-to-late 30s having sex at his apartment in New York City. Viewers don’t find out until a little later in the movie that his name is Max Beckett (played by Danny Deferrari), and he’s also been keeping secrets. Max has been giving money to Danielle in a “sexual arrangement” relationship. Some people in this line of work might call Max a “sugar daddy,” but the reality is that he’s a sex customer.

Danielle has told Max that she needs the money to pay for her tuition at Columbia University Law School, where she says she is currently a student. Max seems a little jealous of other men whom Danielle might be seeing for the same type of arrangement. “How are you going to get through law school if you’re screwing around with these guys?” Max asks. Danielle doesn’t give a direct answer, but she makes sure to get the cash that she wants from Max before she leaves.

Danielle will soon have a lot more to deal with than nosy questions from Max when she attends a shiva reception later that day. Her parents call Danielle to remind her to attend the funeral of someone whom Danielle didn’t even know. The funeral is on Long Island, where her parents live, and Danielle has to ask her parents what the name is of the person who died. The deceased person has a very distant connection to Danielle’s family and is described as the sister of the second wife of someone’s uncle.

Danielle’s mother Debbie (played by Polly Draper) is very talkative, uptight and domineering. Danielle’s father Joel (played by Fred Melamed) is sensitive, gentle and easygoing. Debbie, who doesn’t like to talk about Danielle being bisexual, has been pressuring Danielle to find a nice Jewish guy to marry. Debbie wants to think Danielle’s bisexuality is just an “experimental” phase that has ended for Danielle.

Danielle skips the funeral but she meets up with her parents after the funeral at the shiva reception taking place at the middle-class house of a relative of the deceased person. Danielle is taken aback because one of the first people she sees is her ex-lover Maya (played by Molly Gordon), who has known Danielle since they were kids. Maya is also an only child of her parents. Danielle asks her parents, “Why is Maya here?” Debbie warns Danielle, “No funny business with Maya.”

The rest of the movie takes place at this reception, which becomes an increasingly volatile minefield of emotions, as the scandalous secrets of Danielle and other people are in danger of being exposed. Throughout “Shiva Baby,” Danielle is seen going to the buffet table to grab something to eat, or she finds some wine to gulp, which is the movie’s way of showing how Danielle uses food and alcohol as a way to cope with the stress she’s experiencing at this gathering.

Danielle’s issues with food are brought up in other ways that hint that she might have an eating disorder as part of her personal history. At this reception, multiple people (including Danielle’s mother) comment to Danielle about how much weight she has lost. It’s mentioned later in the movie that when she was younger, Danielle was considered to be “chubby,” but she lost a lot of weight during her college years. Debbie quips to Danielle about Danielle’s physical appearance: “You look like Gyneth Paltrow on food stamps—and not in a good way.”

Also at this reception are Maya’s mother Katherine (played by Glynis Bell), who is a very judgmental gossip. Just like Danielle’s mother Debbie, Katherine is aware of but chooses not to discuss the fact that Danielle and Maya used to be lovers. Katherine also seems to think that Maya will eventually settle down with a husband.

At this party, Danielle is asked several times by various people if she’s dating anyone and what her plans are after graduation. Danielle is honest about not currently being involved in a serious romance, but she gives people different or vague answers about her post-graduation plans. It should come as no surprise that Danielle and Maya have unresolved feelings for each other. Maya, who is a confident overachiever, is more likely than Danielle to be truthful about her feelings.

Even though Danielle wants to be independent and find a job on her own, her mother Debbie constantly asks people to help Danielle find a job after she graduates. It’s later revealed that Danielle’s parents are paying for all her expenses and have access to her bank account records. Danielle has been lying to her parents about the money she gets through sex work. She tells her parents that she gets the money from babysitting.

Maya isn’t the only guest whom Danielle is surprised to see at this reception. Danielle is even more shocked to see Max there. Max has a big secret that he’s been keeping from Danielle, but she finds out his secret at this gathering: Max is married and has an 18-month-old daughter. And he might not be the one paying for the apartment where Max and Danielle have been having their trysts. Danielle also finds out at this reception that Max used to work for her father years ago.

Max’s wife and daughter arrive later at the reception. Max’s wife Kim Beckett (played by Dianna Agron), an elegant blonde, is described by some of the reception’s gossips as a “shiksa” (a somewhat derogatory word for a non-Jewish woman), who’s a successful entrepreneur with multiple businesses and who earns a lot more money than Max. Kim works from home so that she can take care of daughter Rose (played by Edgar Harmanci), whose frequent crying in the movie is used as one of the things that causes Danielle to become more anxious.

Although “Shiva Baby” is mainly about Danielle’s worlds colliding at this shiva reception, Max and (to a certain extent) Maya have their own secrets and role playing that they do at this gathering. In a desperate bid to assert her sexual attractiveness, Danielle goes in a bathroom at the house, impulsively takes a topless photo of herself using her phone, and sends the photo to Max. You can imagine what might happen next.

“Shiva Baby” has a lot of dialogue that crackles with underlying resentments and hard feelings, as bitter rivalries and jealousies play out but are disguised by small talk that has a forced pleasantness. This dialogue wouldn’t work as well if “Shiva Baby” did not have these very talented cast members acting out the dialogue in realistic ways, especially in portraying how people often say one thing but are thinking the complete opposite. “Shiva Baby” composer Ariel Marx’s tension-infused music perfectly conveys in the movie how Danielle feels like she’s in a pressure cooker that could explode at any moment.

Sennott shines in this starring role as the moody and complex Danielle, who finds herself in way over her head when she sees the horrifying reality that her lies aren’t as harmless as she thinks they’ve been. Draper is also a standout in the cast and has some of the funniest lines of dialogue in “Shiva Baby” as Danielle’s overbearing but well-meaning mother. When Danielle accuses Debbie of not being able to see queerness (also known as “gaydar”), Debbie snaps in response: “Excuse me, I lived through New York in the ’80s. My gaydar is as strong as a bull!”

Agron and Gordon are especially good at portraying people who are in love with someone who’s fickle and a habitual liar, but these betrayed lovers are willing to risk getting hurt to have that person’s love. Deferrari is also quite skilfull in his performance of a cheating husband who’s terrified of being exposed and trying to keep his composure. Melamed’s Joel character is one of the few in the movie who does not put on airs. Joel is genuine about who he is, but he mistakenly thinks everyone is like that too, so he fails to see clues of deception that are all around him.

“Shiva Baby” has a few slapstick comedy moments that involve mishaps and accidents at the party. But the movie is laser-sharp in how it takes aim at people who put on fake appearances of having a great life when they might actually be very insecure, miserable and jealous of other people who are happy. “Shiva Baby” isn’t cynical about love. Rather, this very memorable movie is ultimately a poignant depiction of how true love can be found when people are willing to show their true selves to each other.

Utopia released “Shiva Baby” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on April 2, 2021. “Shiva Baby” became available on HBO, Max, Mubi, Blu-ray and DVD in July 2021. Utopia re-released “Shiva Baby” in select U.S. cinemas on August 4, 2023.

Review: ‘Bottoms’ (2023), starring Rachel Sennott, Ayo Edebiri, Havana Rose Liu, Kaia Gerber, Nicholas Galitzine, Dagmara Dominczyk and Marshawn Lynch

August 24, 2023

by Carla Hay

Ayo Edebiri and Rachel Sennott in “Bottoms” (Photo by Patti Perret/Orion Pictures)

“Bottoms” (2023)

Directed by Emma Seligman

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the comedic film “Bottoms” features an predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and a few Asians and Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two lesbian best friends start an all-female fight club in their homophobic high school as a way to lose their virginities to cheerleaders. 

Culture Audience: “Bottoms” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and comedic movies where queer people are the central characters.

Ayo Edebiri, Rachel Sennott, Zamani Wilder, Summer Joy Campbell, Havana Rose Liu, Kaia Gerber and Virginia Tucker in “Bottoms” (Photo courtesy of Orion Pictures)

“Bottoms” is a bawdy and occasionally bloody comedy that gets gleefully absurd in this story about two lesbian best friends who start an all-female fight club in their high school. The originality outshines some of the film’s clichés. Even people who might not like “Bottoms” can admit that there are many things in this movie that have never been said and done before in a teen-oriented comedy.

Directed by Emma Seligman (who co-wrote the “Bottoms” screenplay with “Bottoms” co-stars Rachel Sennott), “Bottoms” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival. A distracting part of this movie is that the cast members portraying high schoolers look too old (early-to-mid 20s) to be in high school. It’s why all the movie’s raunchy dialogue isn’t as edgy as the “Bottoms” filmmakers probably thought it should be. However, because of the talented cast members, the delivery of this dialogue is entertaining, even if many parts of the movie require a huge suspension of disbelief, including the fact that all the cast members playing high schoolers are not really teenagers.

“Bottoms” takes place in an unnamed U.S. city but was actually filmed in Louisiana. The begins with lesbian best friends PJ (played by Sennott) and Josie (played by Ayo Edebiri) talking about sex. At this pont in time, PJ and Josie, who are both virgins, are students in their last year at Rockridge Falls High School. Their fantasies are to lose their virginities to the cheerleaders at the schools who are their biggest crushes.

PJ is hot for Brittany (played by Kaia Gerber), a tall beauty with a sarcastic attitude. (Gerber, who got her start as a model in real life, is the daughter of former supermodel Cindy Crawford.) Josie is infatuated with attractive Isabel (played by Havana Rose Liu), who is dating the school’s start football quarterback Jeff (played by ), a conceited, dimwitted pretty boy who is a chronic liar and cheater. Isabel and Brittany are best friends.

PJ is bossy and obnoxious, but she’s also hilarious and a generally loyal friend. Josie is more sensitive and thoughtful, but she’s also very insecure and plagued with self-doubt. In their conversations about losing their virginities, PJ is confident that it will happen to her before she graduates from high school. Josie thinks that if she has any chance of getting together with Isabel, it’ll probably be if they see each other at their 20-year high school reunion.

At school, PJ and Josie are outcasts because they’re lesbian and because people have heard that PJ and Josie both spent time in juvenile detention for violent crimes. Josie and PJ are often the targets of bigoted hate. Homophobic slurs are often spraypainted on their school lockers. Even the school’s sleazy leader Principal Meyers (played by Wayne Pére) doesn’t hide his homophobia.

There’s an incident where Jeff insults Josie, and she deliberately injures his leg while driving her car with Josie and Isabel as passengers. Principal Meyers calls Josie and PJ into his office and scolds them for injuring the school’s star football player. Rockridge Falls High School’s Vikings football team has been in a fierce rivalry for about 50 years with the Huntington High School Golden Ferrets. And there’s a big football game coming up between the Vikings and the Golden Ferrets

A story has been going around the school that a Rockridge Falls female student was attacked by a Hungtington male student. And so, when Principal Meyers tells PJ and Josie that they need to find a way to channel their “negative energy,” PJ comes up with the idea to start an all-female self-defense club at the school. (It’s really a fight club.) Principal Meyers says the club will be approved if PJ and Josie can find a teacher to be the sponsor/supervisor. PJ and Josie recruit their history teacher Mr. G (played by Marshawn Lynch), who has a hip-hop persona and is going through a divorce.

Josie is reluctant to go through with this fight club idea, but PJ convinces her by telling Josie that the fight club will be a way that they can find potential sex partners. Josie and PJ are thrilled when Isabel and Brittany end up joining the “self-defense club.” Other students are join the club, to varying results.

One of club members is Hazel Callahan (played by Ruby Cruz), who’s androgynous-looking and openly queer, is an even bigger misfit at the school than PJ and Josie, who try not to associate too closely with socially awkward Hazel. Also joining the club is Annie (played by Zamani Wilder), who is proud to be an African American member of the Republican Party. Other memorable supporting characters in “Bottoms” is Hazel’s frisky divorced mother Mrs. Callahan (played by Dagmara Dominczyk) and Vikings football player Tim (played by Miles Fowler), who is Jeff’s smirky sidekick.

The plot for “Bottoms” is fairly simple and a little bit on the formulaic side. However, the movie’s snappy dialogue and great comedic chemistry between the cast members (especially between Sennott and Edibiri) are definitely not formulaic and make this movie shine. Sennott also starred in Seligman’s feature-film directorial debut “Shiva Baby” (written by Seligman), a comedy/drama that was released in 2021 and re-released in 2023. There’s a final showdown in “Bottoms” that gets very over-the-top in its slapstick comedy. Ultimately, “Bottoms” won’t be a massive breakout for any of its stars, but it’s the type of movie that will get a very devoted following who won’t get tired of watching it.

MGM’s Orion Pictures will release “Bottoms” in select U.S. cinemas on August 25, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on September 1, 2023.

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