Review: ‘The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed,’ starring  Scott Cohen, Babak Tafti, Joanna Arnow, Michael Cyril Creighton and Alysia Reiner

May 18, 2024

by Carla Hay

Babak Tafti and Joanna Arnow in “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed”

Directed by Joanna Arnow

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the comedy/drama film “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A gloomy and drab office worker, who is 33 years old and a submissive in her casual BDSM relationships, drifts from one day to the next until she starts dating a man who is interested in her for reasons beyond sex. 

Culture Audience: “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” will appeal primarily to people who can tolerate oddball movies that have full-frontal nudity and quirky “slices of life” scenes.

Joanna Arnow and Scott Cohen in “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” is definitely not a mass-appeal movie. It’s intended for mature audiences who aren’t easily offended by full-frontal nudity and kinky sex scenes among consenting adults. Viewers of this unique but often-repetitive film about BDSM sex and social isolation must be willing to appreciate the very dry and deadpan comedy that is the opposite of Woody Allen’s talkative and fidgety films about neurotic New Yorkers. It’s a series of “slice of life” sketches rather than a comprehensive story.

Written and directed by Joanna Arnow (who also stars in the movie as the main protagonist), “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. The movie screened at other major film festivals that year, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. It’s a minimalist and quirky movie that won’t appeal to people who don’t like slow-paced movies with open-ended conclusions.

“The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” is set in New York City (where the movie was filmed on location) and has a writer/director who plays an insecure protagonist who feels misunderstood and is struggling with relationship issues. It sounds a lot like the types of movies that made Oscar-winning filmmaker Allen famous, but Arnow has a filmmaking approach that is the antithesis of Allen’s style. The characters in Allen’s zippy-paced films are verbose and overly analytical about their problems, often to the point of being very self-absorbed. As seen in “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed,” the characters don’t do a lot of talking, and there are stretches of deliberately uncomfortable silences.

Arnow portrays Ann, a 33-year-old never-married bachelorette who lives alone and has no children and no friends. A graduate of Wesleyan University, she works in administration at an unnamed company that is in the business of selling unnamed products. Ann is the type of person who is so quiet and unassuming, people she’s known for years either don’t know many things about her or they forget. She’s the type of person who can be in a room and people will deliberately ignore her or don’t even notice that she is there.

Needless to say, Ann feels unappreciated in her job, where her supervisor Karl (played by Michael Cyril Creighton) is sometimes condescending to her and sometimes seems to feel sorry for her. It doesn’t help that Ann speaks in a monotone voice that would make anyone wonder if she has a personality. She is also the type of person who gives the impression that she is dull as dirt and has given up on trying to be happy.

As an example of how Ann hasn’t really connected with people at her job, one day she gets a plaque in the shape of a star, as a gift to commemorate her one-year anniversary on the job. “I’ve been here three-and-a-half years,” Ann says in her flat voice. No one seems to care. In group meetings, her ideas are dismissed by Karl. And in a one-on-one conversation with an unnamed supervisor (played by Ronda Swindell), the supervisor rudely tells Ann that Ann won’t last long at the company because Ann will make her own job obsolete.

Ann’s personal life does not have any fulfilling relationships either. Since she was 24, she’s been casually meeting up with a divorced, middle-aged father named Allen (played by Scott Cohen), in one of many relationships she has that revolve around BDSM, an acronym for bondage, discipline (or domination), sadism (or submission) and masochism. Ann is always the willing submissive in these non-monogamous relationships, because she seeks out sex partners who want to be the dominant person in their hookups.

The movie’s opening scene shows Ann in bed with Allen at his place. Allen is clothed under the covers and almost asleep. She is on top of the covers and completely naked. She grinds up against the left side of his body and says, “I love it how you don’t care if I cum and you don’t do anything for me. You go to sleep right after you finish. It’s so disrespectful and misogynist.” This is Ann’s version of foreplay.

“The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” has several scenes showing Ann doing things with BDSM sex partners. In addition to Allen, Ann hooks up with a musician/composer named Thomas (played by Peter Vack), whom she meets through a personal ad; verbally derogatory Elliot (played by Parish Bradley), who tells Ann to wear animal costume designs, such as rabbit ears and a pig’s snout, while he insults her; and emotionally open Chris (played by Babak Tafti), who is the only one who treats her like a real human being, not just a sexual plaything.

Warnow is the only person in the movie who has full-frontal nudity, which is her way of showing that Ann is the most vulnerable person in these scenes. Ann never seems self-conscious about her body, but she does seem self-conscious of her emotions and about the possibility that any of these relationships could turn into love. Being treated like garbage or sometimes asking to be in physical pain in the confines of BDSM is comforting to her. Falling in love is what really terrifies Ann, even though she doesn’t say it out loud. The closest that she will admit to having intimacy problems is when she tells Chris that she has never had an orgasm by someone touching her.

Ann’s immediately family members (who don’t have names in the movie) live nearby, but she is emotionally distant from them. Her family and co-workers do not know about her secretive life as a submissive in BDSM sex. Ann’s parents (played by David Arnow and Barbara Weiserbs) have given up hope that Ann will get married and have kids. Getting married and having children are sensitive subjects that Ann gets somewhat defensive about whenever those topics are discussed.

Ann’s older sister (played by Alysia Reiner) has a traditional life of being a married parent with children, but she doesn’t seem very happy either because she’s been having marital problems. Still, when the sisters are together or with their parents, Ann seems noticeably envious that her parents seem to love her sister more and consider Ann to be a “disappointment.” Ann doesn’t seem to have any interest in being around kids at all.

Even though Ann is a submissive in her sex life, that doesn’t mean she’s a complete pushover. There are times at her job and in her personal life when she asserts herself and makes it clear that she does or does not want to do something. However, don’t expect the movie to give a backstory about Ann to explain why she is the way she is.

“The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” is an example of how people shouldn’t always be judged by surface-level appearances. Based on her physical appearance, many people would assume that Ann is very prim and uptight and would be surprised to find out about her uninhibited BDSM sex life. It’s not a movie that is supposed to make people feel the same way that a romantic comedy makes people feel, but the movie is bold enough to be different. It offers an unusual perspective of someone who is usually not the protagonist of a movie and is usually overlooked in real life.

Magnolia Pictures released “The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed” in select U.S. cinemas on April 26, 2024.

Review: ‘Wildcat’ (2024), starring Maya Hawke, Rafael Casal, Philip Ettinger, Cooper Hoffman, Steve Zahn and Laura Linney

May 10, 2024

by Carla Hay

Maya Hawke in “Wildcat” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Wildcat” (2024)

Directed by Ethan Hawke

Culture Representation: Taking place in Georgia and in New York, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the biopic drama film “Wildcat” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Young author Flannery O’Connor struggles with various issues, including writer’s block, sexism, lupus, a domineering mother, and religion, specifically Catholicism. 

Culture Audience: “Wildcat” will appeal primarily to fans of O’Connor, filmmaker Ethan Hawke and slow-paced and uneven biopics.

Maya Hawke in “Wildcat” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“Wildcat” wants to be an edgy and experimental biopic of author Flannery O’Connor, but it’s just a pile-on of overly pretentious rambling that’s trying too hard to look clever. Everything in this drab drama looks phony and forced, not natural or organic. This is the type of pompous movie that gets into major film festivals mainly because the director is famous. “Wildcat” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival, and later screened at other festivals that year, such as the Toronto International Film Festival, the Zurich Film Festival and the Stockholm International Film Festival.

Ethan Hawke directed “Wildcat,” which he co-wrote with Shelby Gaines. “Wildcat” (starring Maya Hawke, daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) is based on some of O’Connor’s short stories. (For the purposes of this review, the real O’Connor will be referred to as O’Connor, while the Flannery O’Connor character in the movie will be referred to as Flannery.) “Wildcat” (which takes place in the late 1940s and early 1950s) is a mixture of realism and surrealism. In several scenes, O’Connor’s short stories come to life as she’s writing them, with Maya Hawke portraying not only O’Connor but also the protagonists of these short stories.

It’s an ambitious concept for a movie that only works in short spurts and then gets muddled and meanders for long stretches. Parts of “Wildcat” look better-suited for a stage play (especially in poorly lit scenes were people just talk in rooms), while other parts of the movie fit better in a cinematic format. For example, Flannery is fascinated with peacocks, and one of the best shots in the film involves a visual image of Flannery with peacock feathers unfurling behind her, like an art installation. But artsy visuals and self-indulgent monologues (of which this movie has plenty) cannot turn “Wildcat” into a very good movie.

People who are not familiar with O’Connor might be rolling their eyes at how O’Connor in “Wildcat” is depicted with every checklist cliché of an artist who died young. (At the age of 39, she died of lupus in 1964). Flannery in “Wildcat” is a moody and insecure loner, with a “tortured soul.” She puts her writing above everything else in her life. And then, she’s frustrated that her personal relationships are unfulfilling or downright disastrous.

“Wildcat” opens with a scene that might confuse some viewers. It’s a fictional trailer for a fictional 1964 movie called “Star Drake,” based on one of Flannery’s semi-autobiographical short stories. Flannery is supposed to be imagining this movie trailer in her head. “Wildcat” depicts many fantasies imagined by Flannery. In this imaginary “Star Drake” movie trailer, the movie’s plot is described as “the outspoken story of an indiscreet woman.”

Flannery portrays the title character of “Star Drake,” who is a young writer who temporarily stays with a middle-aged couple and causes havoc in their lives as a femme fatale. It’s no doubt partially inspired by O’Connor’s real-life 1949 experience of temporarily living with classic book translator Robert Fitzgerald and his wife Sally Fitzgerald in Ridgefield, Connecticut, although O’Connor’s real-life visit wasn’t as dramatic as it’s portrayed in “Star Drake.”

Throughout “Wildcat,” the movie switches back and forth between Flannery’s “real life” and the “fantasies” inspired by her short stories. An early scene in “Wildcat” takes place in 1950, when Flannery (who spent most of her life living in her home state of Georgia) has a tense meeting in New York City with her book publisher John Selby (played by Alessandro Nivola), who admittedly doesn’t understand the eccentric Flannery and her writing style. (“Wildcat” was actually filmed in Kentucky.)

John thinks Flannery’s angst-filled short stories aren’t very ladylike. He tells her that she doesn’t have to write like “she’s picking a fight” with readers. John also suggests that Flannery give him an outline of what she’s writing before she turns in the draft. However, Flannery explains that she doesn’t do outlines. She just writes what comes to her.

“Wildcat” doesn’t want to dwell on harsh realities of being a female author in a male-dominated field in this particular time period. Flannery, for all of her “struggling artist” posturing, is never really seen struggling with harmful sexism or poverty in “Wildcat.” The way it looks in “Wildcat,” the people who are Flannery’s biggest obstacles in life are women: herself and her domineering mother.

Flannery has an encouraging mentor is Robert “Cal” Lowell (played by Philip Ettinger), a bachelor who isn’t much older than she is and is a great admirer of Flannery’s work. Flannery gets accepted into a writer’s workshop at an unnamed university. Cal is Flannery’s writing instructor for this workshop, where Flannery is one of only a few female students.

This part of the movie seems inspired by O’Connor’s real-life stint at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. The character of Cal seems to be based on a combination of the real-life Paul Engle, who was the workshop leader. In “Wildcat,” Flannery and Cal they seem to be attracted to each other for more than just professional reasons.

Some of the dialogue in “Wildcat” is cringeworthy. In a scene taking place at train station, Cal says to Flannery: “I love you, Flannery. That’s not a [marriage] proposal. You know me. I’ve got a lot of eggs to fry.” Flannery responds, “You let me know when you’re done with breakfast then.”

Flannery’s relationship with her widowed mother Regina (played by Laura Linney) is the source of most of Flannery’s conflicts in the movie. Regina is a conservative Catholic who is overbearing and racist. Flannery (who is an only child) moves back home to Georgia to live with Regina and Regina’s gossipy sister Duchess (played by Christine Dye), who becomes Flannery’s closest confidante.

Flannery’s father died of lupus when Flannery was a child. His death is barely mentioned in the movie. In real life, O’Connor’s father Edward, who was a real-estate agent, died in 1937, when she was 8 years old. “Wildcat” never really explores how this tragic death affected Flannery.

Flannery seems to take pride in being an oddball non-conformist, but she also seems conflicted over it. She likes to dress in men’s clothing (much to the dismay of her mother Regina), but the female heroines in her stories are often ultra-feminine and vulnerable. Flannery openly scoffs at and questions the concept of religion, but she sometimes wonders if being a devout Catholic would make her life better. (Liam Neeson as a cameo as a Catholic priest named Father Flynn, who counsels Flannery when she’s at a low point in her life.)

Flannery has lupus, which is a diagnosis that she doesn’t discover until later in the movie. By then, “Wildcat” viewers will see depictions of various characters in Flannery’s short stories. In these short stories that play out in her head and on screen, Flannery usually imagines herself in the role of a young woman who is sexually repressed and/or sexually inexperienced, including Sarah Ruth Cates from “Parker’s Back,” LucyNell Crater from “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” Mary Grace from “Revelation” and Joy “Hulga” Hopewell from “Good Country People.”

Each of these imaginary heroines is usually controlled and manipulated by an older woman, who is a mother or maternal figure to the heroine—and obviously representative of Regina. In “Wildcat,” Linney also has several roles in the movie, including the roles of Mrs. Crater, Mrs. Turpin and Mrs. Hopewell. Predictably, these bossy characters are argumentative and difficult.

“Wildcat” also has depictions of various love interests of the heroines from these short stories. Obadiah Elihue “O.E.” Parker (played by Rafael Casal) is the tattooed and gun-toting rebel from O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back.” Tom R. Shiftlet (played by Steve Zahn) is the homeless con man from “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” who agrees to marry naïve LucyNell Crater, after Mrs. Crater sells LucyNell into this marriage with cash and the use of Mrs. Crater’s car as a “dowry.” Manley Pointer (played by Cooper Hoffman) is the conniving Bible salesman from “Good Country People.”

Maya Hawke certainly has an admirable acting range that she gets to show in “Wildcat.” Linney is always a pro at what she does. And the rest of the “Wildcat” cast members do reasonably well in their roles. The problem is that you never forget that they are acting in a way that comes across as showboating instead of truly embodying the characters.

The movie’s cinematography consists of mostly of shades of blues and grays, as if to reflect the story’s depressive mood. “Wildcat” doesn’t really have a lot that’s important to say about Flannery O’Connor and her life experiences. Instead, this lethargic movie depicts her as a fever dream of disjointed fantasies that she thinks about when she wants to escape the uncomfortable realities of her life.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “Wildcat” in select U.S. cinemas on May 3, 2024.

Review: ‘We Grown Now,’ starring Blake Cameron James, Gian Knight Ramirez, S. Epatha Merkerson, Lil Rel Howery and Jurnee Smollett

April 28, 2024

by Carla Hay

Blake Cameron James and Gian Knight Ramirez in “We Grown Now” (Photo courtesy of Participant/Sony Pictures Classics)

“We Grown Now”

Directed by Minhal Baig

Culture Representation: Taking place in Chicago, in the autumn of 1992, the dramatic film “We Grown Now” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with a few white people and Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two 10-year-old boys, who are lifelong best friends in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects, have their friendship tested during a time when their crime-ridden neighborhood has become increasingly dangerous. 

Culture Audience: “We Grown Now” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in emotionally authentic movies about childhood relationships in challenging circumstances.

Blake Cameron James, S. Epatha Merkerson and Madisyn Barnes in “We Grown Now” (Photo courtesy of Participant/Sony Pictures Classics)

Artistically made and emotionally moving, “We Grown Now” avoids many of the cringeworthy traps of African American struggle dramas. The beautiful and brotherly friendship between two boys in 1992 Chicago are the heart and soul of the movie. “We Grown Now” has some stereotypes that have been seen before in many other films about people who live in low-income housing projects, but these stereotypes are not demeaning because the movie shows the reality that most people who are in these circumstances are not criminals.

Written and directed by Minhal Baig, “We Grown Now” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and screened at other festivals that year, including the Chicago International Film Festival and AFI Fest. The movie received three nominations at the 2024 Film Independent Spirit Awards: Best Feature, Best Cinematography and Best Editing. Baig is originally from Chicago. She did extensive research about the Cabrini-Green Homes housing project (usually referred to as just Cabrini-Green), where the main characters in “We Grown Now” live.

“We Grown Now” (which takes place in the autumn of 1992) is centered on two 10-year-old boys, who have known each other their entire lives and have both been raised their entire lives in Chicago’s Cabrini-Geen. Cabrini-Green was a group of government-funded apartment complexes built from 1941 and 1962, in order to provide affordable and safe housing to low-income people. About 15,000 people lived in Cabrini-Green during its peak residency. Cabrini-Green was demolished from 1995 to 2011 and became a mixed-used development property for businesses and residences.

In 1992, Cabrini-Green had become a dangerous place to live because of the high rate of crimes, but many of the residents couldn’t afford to live anywhere else in Chicago. That’s the situation with the immediate families for Malik (played by Blake Cameron James) and Eric (played by Gian Knight Ramirez), who are classmates in the same public school. Malik is the more outgoing, confident and academically talented of the two pals. Eric is introverted, sensitive and is comfortable with Malik taking the lead in many of their activities.

Malik lives with his divorced mother Dolores (played by Jurnee Smollett); his talkative younger sister Diana (played Madisyn Barnes); and Dolores’ widowed mother Anita (played by S. Epatha Merkerson), who shares stories with her grandchildren about the family’s history. Eric lives with his widowed father Jason (played by Lil Rel Howery) and Eric’s older sister Amber (played by Avery Holliday), who’s in her late teens or early 20s.

Dolores doesn’t like to talk about her ex-husband, who is not involved in raising Malik and Diana. The movie never shows or explains what caused the divorce and why this ex-husband is an absentee father. However, there’s a great scene in the movie that reveals how Malik still thinks about his father.

Malik’s household is religious, while Eric’s household is not. This difference is apparent when Malik and have a discussion about whether or not there’s life after death. Eric believes that death is final. Malik thinks that there could be truth in the concept of an afterlife. Malik also believes that the afterlife can include rewards or consequences for how people lived before they died.

Malik and Eric (who are being raised by good people in loving households) are typical children who like to have fun. They are both big fans of the Chicago Bulls and naturally admire Michael Jordan, who was known for his high-jumping style of playing basketball. When Eric and Malik are on playgrounds, one of the things that Malik and Eric like to do is play games to see who can jump the highest.

Malik says in a voiceover near the beginning of the movie: “In Cabrini-Green, there’s only one rule on the playground: It don’t matter how old you are, how much money you got, how big or tall or small. All that matters is if you can jump.”

In school, Malik is more likely to speak up in classroom sessions. He is intelligent and curious. Eric and Malik are good kids overall, but they are occasionally a little bratty. For example, they have a classmate friend nicknamed Slug (played Giovani Chambers), whose real name is Samuel but who prefers to be called Tyrone. Eric and Malik sometimes tease Slug over little things, such as his real name.

Something that Malik and Eric like to do, which is shown more than once in the film, is they when they are outside in open spaces, they shout, “I exist! We exist!” Sometimes, they make these statements when no one else is there. Sometimes, they say these things so people can hear them.

One day, the atmosphere at the school suddenly changes when the news spreads about Dantrell Davis, a 7-year-old boy from Cabrini-Green, who was killed by gun violence while walking to school with his mother. (“We Grown Now” brings this real-life tragedy into the movie.) Davis was the unfortunate victim of gunshots fired by a gang member who intended the bullets for a rival gang member. As a result of this tragedy, the school where Eric and Malik attend begins requiring all students to have ID cards in order to enter the school property.

It’s under these tension-filled circumstances that Dolores (who works in the payroll department at an unnamed company) starts to re-think being stuck in a job where she can barely afford to pay her bills. Dolores feels like she’s overworked and underpaid. There’s an opportunity for her at the company to apply for a job promotion in a managerial position that would give her a higher salary.

However, Dolores confides in her mother Anita that she’s afraid to apply for the job because she’d be competing with people who have a college education—something that Dolores doesn’t have. Dolores also says she’s afraid that she might get fired if she indicates she wants to leave her current position for something better. There are racial implications to how Dolores is feeling because she mentions the company has almost no black people in managerial positions.

Anita is encouraging and supportive of all of her family members. Some of the most important parts of the movie are when Anita shares her advice and family stories. What Anita has to say isn’t always immediately appreciated in the moment but might be understood later. Anita and her husband Gordon, who died in 1987, took a big risk by leaving their families behind in Tupelo, Mississippi to start a new life in Chicago. Dolores has spent her entire life living in Cabrini-Green, just like Malik.

Malik shows signs that he’s more mature than a typical 10-year-old boy. When Malik and Eric play hooky from school one day, it’s Malik’s idea that they should spend the day at the Art Institute of Chicago. These scenes of Malik and Eric together or a joy to watch, whether the two friends are looking in respectful awe at some of the museum’s artwork, or mischievously speculating what an arguing couple are quarreling about from a distance.

However, this day of educational fun comes crashing down with the reality that Malik and Eric were missing for several hours without telling anyone else where they were. The fallout of this unapproved trip will have an impact on Malik and Eric. In Cabrini-Green, where kids often have to grow up fast, it’s still a reality for Malik and Eric and they are not adults who can go wherever they want, when they want.

In 1992, Cabrini-Green had also become a place where law enforcement officers could enter a home without a warrant and do a destructive search. One of the families in this story has this painful and humiliating experience when officers raid the household after midnight for no plausible reason. It’s a harsh lesson that the kids in the family learn.

However, “We Grown Now” falls short in showing how the realities of black families in America have to educate their kids about how they can be treated differently because of racism. The movie didn’t need to have any preachy or corny lectures. However, when one of the kids gets yelled at by a parent for skipping school for that a day trip to the museum, the parent mostly mentions safety issues and not the racism reality that black kids (especially black boys) have to fight a negative stereotype of being problematic troublemakers.

Another flaw in “We Grown Now” is that Eric’s father Jason is a fairly underdeveloped character. Jason would have a lot to teach his son as a black male growing up in America, but those conversations aren’t really shown in the movie. And whatever happened to Malik’s father remains a mystery. In other words, the black men in the movie don’t have as much importance as the black women.

Despite these shortcomings, “We Grown Now” is still worth watching for the compelling and charming performance by James, who absolutely shines in his role as Malik. James has a natural way of acting that makes everything Malik does entirely believable. He embodies the character instead of just reciting lines of dialogue. Smollett and Merkerson are also quite good in their roles, but they’ve played variations of these types of characters in other movies or TV shows.

“We Grown Now” is not a pity party for low-income people. It’s also not a stereotypical “warning” movie about “at risk” youth who need “saving” from do-gooders, who usually come from outside the community. At its core, “We Grown Now” is a poignant and effective story about the power of true friendships and learning not to take life and loved ones for granted.

Sony Pictures Classics released “We Grown Now” in select U.S. cinemas on April 19, 2024, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on April 26, 2024.

Review: ‘Boy Kills World,’ starring Bill Skarsgård

April 21, 2024

by Carla Hay

Bill Skarsgård in “Boy Kills World” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

“Boy Kills World”

Directed by Moritz Mohr

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed dystopian society, the action film “Boy Kills World” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A deaf and mute man, who was raised as an orphan and trained to be a warrior by a shaman, goes on a revenge mission against the tyrannical dictator whom he blames for killing his family. 

Culture Audience: “Boy Kills World” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of videogame-styled action movies that have some offbeat comedy and don’t take themselves too seriously.

Famke Janssen in “Boy Kills World” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

“Boy Kills World” is a cartoonishly violent revenge flick with touches of psychedelia and self-deprecating comedy in a dystopian society. The story drags with repetition in the middle of the movie, but a plot twist makes up for this occasional banality. This plot twist is not as predictable as another plot twist that happens around the same time.

Directed by Moritz Mohr, “Boy Kills World” was written by Tyler Burton Smith and Arend Remmers. “Boy Kills World” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie is based on director Mohr’s unreleased short film “Boy Kills World,” which has a similar concept.

In the feature-length “Boy Kills World,” which takes place in an unnamed dystopian society, a young man whose name is listed in the credits Boy (played by Bill Skarsgård) goes on a revenge mission against a tyrannical dictator named Beatrice Van Der Koy (played by Famke Janssen), whom he blames for murdering his mother (played by Rolanda Marais), his father (played by Ashley Dowds) and Boy’s younger sister Mina (played by Quinn Copeland) when Boy was about 13 or 14 years old and when Mina was about 9 or 10 years old. The teenage Boy is played by twins Cameron Crovetti and Nicholas Crovetti. Beatrice is the leader of the Van Der Koy family, who have several members who also abuse their positions of power to intimidate and kill people.

Every year, this bleak society has a mass murder event called the Culling, where Beatrice orders the military to go after enemies and kill innocent people on live TV. Boy’s family got caught in the Culling crossfire. Flashbacks show that he witnessed his mother’s murder. Boy was able to escape but became deaf and mute from the attack. He was rescued and taken to a remote wooded area by a mystic whose name is listed in the credits as Shaman (played by Yayan Ruhian), who raised him in isolation and trained Boy to become a warrior skilled in martial arts.

Boy does not talk out loud in the movie, so his inner thoughts are heard with the voice that he says was the voice of his favorite video game character. (H. Jon Benjamin does Boy’s voice in the movie.) Talent Digital Art has a free-to-play 2.5D fighting video game titled “Super Dragon Punch Force 3,” which is described in a press release as a “real world sequel inspired by the fictitious 2D fighting game franchise” depicted in “Boy Kills World.”) Even in the flashback scenes where Boy is literally a boy, his voiceover is that of an adult man.

Boy’s inner thoughts show that he can be self-deprecating and frequently sarcastic. Boy says of the city that he left behind when he was rescued by Shaman: “This was never a great city. Hilda Vander Koy took it from us. She has a list of all of her enemies. If you’re on it, she’ll find you.” Boy adds, “Hilda took everything from me. And when I become the ultimate warrior, I’ll return the favor.”

Several scenes in “Boy Kills World” show that part of Shaman’s training includes blowing smoke from a hallucinogenic substance into Boy’s face. As a result, Boy often has psychedelic hallucinations. Boy says early on in the movie that there’s a state of being between reality and dreams. The visual effects for the psychedelia are among the more memorable aspects about this sensory overload film.

Boy frequently has visions of Mina appearing to him and talking to him and looking the same way since the last time he saw her. Boy and Mina had a very close and fun-loving relationship before their lives were torn apart. Even in his life as a vengeful warrior, Boy still gets teased and playful scolding from Mina, whom he sees as the only person in his life who truly made him happy.

During his vendetta quest, Boy encounters other members of the Van Der Koy family, including Hilda’s ruthless sister Melanie Van Der Koy (played by Michelle Dockery); Hilda’s arrogant brother Gideon Van Der Koy (played by Brett Gelman); and Melanie’s buffoonish husband Glen Van Der Koy (played Sharlto Copley), who is dominated by Melanie. (It says a lot that Glen took the Van Der Koy surname.)

The Van Der Koy family has a security chief named June27 (played by Jessica Rothe), and programmed assassin who wears a helmet and who might or might not be human. She has almost superhuman-like strength and becomes a formidable and elusive opponent to Boy. Meanwhile, Boy forms an alliance with two rebels: wisecracking Basho (played by Andrew Koji) and resourceful Bennie (played by Isaiah Mustafa), who both join in on the mayhem. Boy encounters many dangerous foes, leading to several brutal and bloody battles.

Skarsgård is quite skillful in combining the action and facial expressions required for this character who is supposed to be deaf and mute. Melanie the villain who is the most fun to watch in the movie, thanks to Dockery’s prickly performance. Janssen’s Hilda is a fairly generic and predictable villain, while Gideon and his bad jokes quickly become annoying.

“Boy Kills World” is by no means an intellectual movie, but some of the quips are amusing enough to keep most viewers entertained. One of the movie’s plot twists is very predictable, while other plot twists are not as easy to predict. The movie’s most surprising “reveal” has some imagination, which saves “Boy Kills World” from being just another violent action flick that’s a checklist of death and destruction.

Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate will release “Boy Kills World” in U.S. cinemas on April 26, 2024.

Review: ‘Limbo’ (2023), starring Simon Baker, Rob Collins, Natasha Wanganeen and Nicholas Hope

April 15, 2023

by Carla Hay

Simon Baker and Nicholas Hope in “Limbo” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media and Music Box Films)

“Limbo” (2023)

Directed by Ivan Sen

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Australian Outback fictional town of Limbo, the dramatic film “Limbo” features a cast of white and First Nations/indigenous characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A police detective travels from an unnamed Australian city to Limbo to review a cold case about a teenager who disappeared from Limbo 20 years ago. 

Culture Audience: “Limbo” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Simon Baker and well-made, “slow burn” crime dramas about missing people and fractured families.

Pictured from left to right: Simon Baker, Andrew Dingaman and Rob Collins in “Limbo” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media and Music Box Films)

The spellbinding and atmospheric crime drama “Limbo” moves at a pace that might be too slow for some viewers. But beneath this unhurried tone are simmering tensions and resentments over racism and generational trauma. Viewers expecting a format that’s similar to a TV series crime procedural will be disappointed by “Limbo,” which offers no easy answers to the mystery at the center of the story. However, by the end of the film, there is at least one outcome that shows the reality of how people can expect one thing and end up getting something else.

Ivan Sen is the chief creative force of “Limbo,” since he is the movie’s director, writer, cinematographer, editor, composer, colorist and visual effects supervisor. He is also one of the movie’s producers. “Limbo” had its world premiere at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival and made the rounds at other film festivals that year, including the Toronto International Film Festival. “Limbo” earned three nominations for the 2024 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Awards—Best Indie Film, Best Lead Actor (for Simon Baker) and Best Supporting Actor (for Rob Collins)—and won the prize for Best Indie Film.

“Limbo” takes place in the Australian Outback fictional town of Limbo, but the movie was actually filmed in Coober Pedy, Australia, whose main industries are mining and tourism. “Limbo” was filmed in black and white, which makes the desert atmosphere look even more stark and at times even more foreboding than if the movie had been in color. In this remote area depicted in “Limbo,” feels of isolation and stagnation seep into the tone of the movie as well as the character performances.

“Limbo” begins with the arrival of police detective Travis Hurley (played by Baker), who drives into Limbo and stays at the only motel in town: the Limbo Motel. It’s an unusual motel because it’s partially inside a cave. (Several of “Limbo’s” scenes take place inside or near caves.) Therefore, Travis’ room looks like a cave room.

Travis is in Limbo for a few days to review the missing person case of Charlotte Hayes, a First Nations/indigneous person who lived in Limbo and who disappeared when she was a teenager 20 years ago. The case has gone cold, but Travis has been assigned to investigate the case and to find out if there are any new clues that can be uncovered. During his investigation, Travis gets more emotionally involved with Charlotte’s family than he expected when he first arrived in town.

Viewers soon find out that Travis is not a squeaky-clean police officer. One of the first things that he does when he goes in his motel room is melt an unnamed opioid powder in a spoon and shoot up the substance in his arm with a hypodermic needle. Most people will assume that the drug is heroin or Fentanyl, based on how Travis has a “nodding out” reaction after injecting this drug.

Travis’ drug addiction is not mentioned or shown again in the movie, until he has a private conversation with someone where he confesses that he uses drugs. It’s during this conversation that Travis also mentions that he was formerly an undercover narcotics officer and used drugs as part of this job. It’s unknown if he got hooked on drugs directly because of his narcotics officer job or if he had already been addicted. However, what’s clear is that his drug addiction is a secret from almost everyone Travis knows. He tells the person he confesses this secret to that this is the first time Travis has told anyone that he currently uses drugs.

Most of “Limbo” shows Travis doing interviews with Charlotte’s family members and other potential witnesses. The people he spends the most time with are Charlotte’s older stepbrother Charlie (played by Collins) and Charlie’s sister Emma (played by Natasha Wanganeen), who is a single mother raising three kids. The parents of Charlotte, Charlie and Emma are all deceased.

The family is still haunted by Charlotte’s disappearance and have become disillusioned about ever finding out what happened to her because police have treated cases of missing indigenous people as inferior to cases of missing white people. The indigenous people in the area call themselves “black” people. Charlie tells Travis that in Charlotte’s missing person case, police delayed investigating until a week after Charlotte disappeared. Charlie and Emma believe that if Charlotte had been white, police would have investigated Charlotte’s disappearance immediately.

Two of the children whom Emma is raising are actually Charlie’s biological kids: rebellious and sullen son Zac (played by Marc Coe) is about 12 or 13 years old, while cheeky and inquisitive daughter Ava (played by Tiana Hartwig) is about 9 or 10 years old. Emma’s biological daughter Jessie (played by Alexis Lennon), who is about 11 or 12 years old, has an absentee father, and she is often bluntly rude and brutally honest. For example, Jessie tells Travis that he looks like a drug dealer instead of a cop.

Charlie is a bachelor who lives alone. Why is Emma taking care of Charlie’s children? The movie doesn’t mention what happened to the mother(s) of Zac and Ava, but Emma tells Travis that Charlie had some type of guilt-ridden mental breakdown after Charlotte disappeared. For a while, Charlie was under suspicion for Charlotte’s disappearance, but he insists that he was falsely accused by two local indigenous men, one of whom had a personal grudge against Charlie. Charlie says he was at a cousin’s house when Charlotte disappeared. Charlie has been estranged from his children for years and doesn’t talk to them, but he will often drive by in his truck and look at his children, and then drive away.

As Travis continues his investigation, he hears more about the racial divide in Limbo. This racial tension doesn’t surprise Travis, but he sees firsthand how this racism can affect people’s lives and attitudes. Charlie is very suspicious of Travis when they first meet each other and says to Travis, “I don’t talk to cops, especially white ones.” However, Charlie eventually opens up to Travis when he sees that Travis is the Hayes family’s best chance of getting Charlotte’s case investigated. Emma is also wary of Travis at first (but she’s not as openly hostile as Charlie is), and she eventually agrees to be interviewed by Travis too, which she does separately from Charlie.

During interviews and conversations between Charlie and Travis, Charlie sometimes bitterly complains about how indigenous people are unfairly targeted by white law enforcement officers, who are quick to harass or arrest indigenous people for the same things that police officers excuse or ignore if white people do these things. There’s a scene where Travis and Charlie are talking outside while Charlie is drinking a beer. A police car drives by them and doesn’t stop. Charlie says to Travis: “Usually, they tell you to move along [for] drinking on the street like this.” Charlie tells Travis why he thinks the police inside the car didn’t stop to reprimand Charlie: “Maybe because of you.” In other words, Charlie is saying that Travis has white privilege.

Throughout the investigation, Travis keeps hearing about a white man named Leon, whom Charlie and Emma believe is the most likely suspect in Charlotte’s disappearance. Leon had a reputation in the area for hosting parties for young people, who got alcohol and maybe other drugs illegally from him. Leon seemed especially fixated on indigenous teenage girls. Leon had a green Ford Laser at the time of Charlotte’s disappearance. What happened to that car is revealed in the movie.

Travis finds out soon after he arrives in Limbo that Leon died of dementia the year before. Leon’s elderly brother Joseph (played by Nicholas Hope), who is a heavy drinker and is in obvious ill health, tells Travis about Leon dying and also shows Leon’s unmarked grave to Travis. Leon’s photo is never seen in movie, but it’s implied that Leon was close to the same age as Joseph, so Leon was most likely a middle-aged man when Charlotte disappeared. Travis also listens to audio recordings of interviews that police did separately with Charlie and Leon, who also denied anything to do with Charlotte’s disappearance.

As Charlie begins to cooperate more with Travis, Charlie points Travis in the direction of more potential witnesses in the First Nations/indigenous community. A middle-aged man named Stoney (played by Andrew Digaman), who is very suspicious of police, told Charlie that years ago in a pub, Leon once made a drunken confession to Stoney that Leon killed an unnamed person. Oscar Porter (played by Joshua Warrior), who had a personal feud with Charlie that involved at least one physical brawl, was one of the men who accused Charlie of having something to do with Charlotte’s disappearance. Travis finds out that Oscar’s accusation was because of something other than a personal vendetta against Charlie.

Because Travis is only in town for a few days, and he is the only investigating officer for this cold case review, the chances are very slim that Travis will solve this case in such a short period of time. However, there is enough revealed in the story for viewers to put together the pieces of this puzzle, as certain conclusions can be made, based on what Travis and other people discover. Viewers will have to look for visual clues, as well as consider things that are said and the credibility of the people saying these things.

It’s not revealed right away, but Travis is a divorced father who is no longer in contact with his only child (a son) because his ex-wife remarried, and his son likes his stepfather more than he likes Travis. When Travis tells Emma about his family situation, he describes it as bowing out of his son’s life, but you get the feeling that there’s more to the story that Travis isn’t telling, especially since his drug addiction undoubtedly affects all aspects of his life. “Limbo” doesn’t go too deep into Travis’ personal history, but this information about being estranged from his son is enough to see why Travis is emotionally touched by Charlie’s estrangement from his own children—especially with Zac, who feels abandoned by Charlie and is very angry at Charlie.

Emma makes a confession to Travis about something that happened in her past. This confession shows that Charlie isn’t the only one who feels guilty about Charlotte’s disappearance. Baker, Collins and Wanganeen give admirable performances as three damaged but not completely broken people who are doing what they can to ease some of their pain and hopefully heal. By the end of the movie, viewers will care not just about the “whodunit” aspect of the story but will also be concerned about the well-being of these characters.

“Limbo” is the name of the movie and the name of the fictional town in the movie, but it also describes the tragic state of mind that loved ones of missing people feel when they don’t know what happened to their loved ones who disappeared. Travis sees the trauma that this case has brought onto the Hayes family, so it makes him confront certain issues in his own life. The way that Travis reacts doesn’t make his problems go away but it might give him a little bit of redemption. “Limbo” is a solemn and meaningful reminder that when people talk about a system that fails, there are untold numbers of people who get hurt and might never recover.

Brainstorm Media and Music Box Films released “Limbo” in select U.S. cinemas on March 22, 2024. The movie was released in Australia and part of Europe in 2023.

Review: ‘Wicked Little Letters,’ starring Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Anjana Vasan, Gemma Jones, Joanna Scanlan, Malachi Kirby, Lolly Adefope, Eileen Atkins and Timothy Spall

April 6, 2024

by Carla Hay

Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley in “Wicked Little Letters” (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Wicked Little Letters”

Directed by Thea Sharrock

Culture Representation: Taking place in the early 1920s, in Littlehampton, England, the comedy/drama film “Wicked Little Letters” (inspired by real events) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians and black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two women, who have opposite personalities and who happen to live next door to each other, get into an escalating feud when one of the women is accused of anonymously sending hateful and obscene letters to the other woman and several other people they know in the area. 

Culture Audience: “Wicked Little Letters” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and well-acted satires about crime and discrimination.

Timothy Spall in “Wicked Little Letters” (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Wicked Little Letters” not only has an accused libelous harasser on trial but this smart and funny satire also puts sexism, xenophobia and classism on trial. Top-notch performances give an incisive edge when the comedy gets too slapstick. The movie’s ending is a bit rushed, but the overall story should be enjoyable for viewers who like movies that poke fun at societal flaws and hypocrisies.

Directed by Thea Sharrock and written by Jonny Sweet, “Wicked Little Letters” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie is inspired by real events that took place in early 1920s England, when people in the small coastal town of Littlehampton were receiving anonymous, handwritten letters that had obscene insults directed at the letter recipients. “Wicked Little Letters” is partly a mystery about who is sending the letters and partly a send-up of how people react to the letters.

“Wicked Little Letters” also takes place in Littlehampton but condenses the real timeline of events from about three years to about a little over one year. The movie begins by showing that religious and conservative Edith Swan (played by Olivia Colman) has received the 19th letter in a series of obscene hate letters sent to her anonymously. Edith is a middle-aged, never-married bachelorette with no children. She lives in a townhouse with her parents: domineering and gruff Edward Swan (played by Timothy Spall) and passive and devoted Victoria Swan (played by Gemma Jones), who are understandably upset but the letters.

Edith shows this offensive letter to her parents. An outraged Edward wants to file a police report about these letters, but a reluctant Edith says she wants to avoid the embarrassment of making these letters public. Edith also says that whoever sent the letters deserves forgiveness and compassion. Eventually, Edward convinces Edith that they should file a police report because the only way for the letters to stop is to catch the culprit, and they need the help of law enforcement. Edith reluctantly agrees to give a statement to police.

Edward storms off the local police deparment and tells the investigating officer on duty about the letters. Constable Papperwick (played by Hugh Skinner) listens to what an angry Edward has to say and replies by saying that Constable Papperwick will fill out a form that will be filed for the police report. That response isn’t good enough for Edward, who thinks that Constable Papperwick isn’t taking the matter seriously. Edward insists that there should be a formal investigation.

Constable Papperwick relents and goes to the Swan home to do an interview with the Swans. Edward is quick to name the only person whom he thinks is sending the letters: a single mother named Rose Gooding (played by Jessie Buckley), who recently moved to the area from Ireland and who lives next door to the Swan family. Rose, who says her husband died in World War I, lives with her tween daughter Nancy (played by Alisha Weir) and Rose’s boyfriend (played by Malachi Kirby), who treats Nancy (who’s about 10 or 11 years old) and Rose with kindness and respect.

Edith then backs up the theory that Rose is sending the letters by telling Constable Papperwick more about why Rose is the most likely suspect. Rose and Edith actually started out as friendly acquaintances after Rose moved in next door. But some conflicts began to arise between the two women, who have opposite personalities.

The Swan family and Rose share a bathroom, which Edith says Rose often leaves in messy conditions. Edith thinks that Rose is a foul-mouthed slob, while Rose thinks that Edith is an uptight prude. The Swan family also disapproves of Rose because she sometimes likes to have rowdy fun and get drunk at bars, which the Swans think is a very unladylike lifestyle.

Edith, who is nosy and judgmental, thinks it’s horrible that Rose dated several men before she began dating Bill. The Swans also don’t really approve of Rose because she’s Irish and an unmarried woman who’s “living in sin” with a lover. And it’s not said out loud in the movie, but it’s implied that because Bill also happens to be black, the Swans dislike that Rose and Bill are in an interracial romance.

At one point, someone anonymously called Child Protective Services against Rose. Nothing came of the CPS investigation, but Rose suspects that Edith is the one who called CPS to get Rose in trouble. All of these circumstances have made Rose the subject of gossip in the community, even before the obscene letters started being sent.

The tensions between Edith and Rose got worse during a birthday party for Edward, when a man at the party insulted Rose, and she punched him. This altercation ruined the party, and Edith put all the blame on Rose. Shortly after this party, Edith began receiving the obscene letters, which crudely accuse Edith of being promiscuous and kinky. The Swans tell Constable Papperwick that Rose is the only obvious suspect because she’s the only person they know who frequently curses like the curse-filled rants that are in the letters.

Constable Papperwick believes the Swans and immediately arrests Rose, who is charged with libel. Rose vehemently denies anything to do with the letters. Constable Papperwick and his boss Chief Constable Spedding (played by Paul Chahidi) think they have an easy open-and-shut case in proving that Rose is guilty.

However, police officer Gladys Moss (played by Anjana Vasan), the only woman in the police department, is skeptical that Rose is guilty because there is no real evidence against Rose. Gladys thinks that the police were too hasty in arresting Rose and believes that a handwriting analysis should be done as part of the investigation. Constable Papperwick and Chief Constable Spedding both think that doing a handwriting analysis is a waste of time and doesn’t count as evidence.

When Gladys expresses her concerns to Constable Papperwick and Chief Constable Spedding, these higher-ranking male cops are dismissive and condescending to Gladys in repeatedly sexist ways. Gladys suggests they should investigate further, because she thinks that Rose could be the target of a setup. Constable Papperwick sneers at her: “Woman officers don’t sleuth.” Chief Constable Spedding orders Gladys to stay out of the case. After Rose gets bailed out of jail, the obscene letters are sent to many more people in the community. And the scandal becomes big news in the United Kingdom.

In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, “Wicked Little Letters” shows the double standards that women face in society and how harsher judgments are placed on women if they do certain things that men are allowed to do without such judgment. Rose’s arrest is essentially because she does not conform to what this conservative community thinks a woman should be like: Rose sometimes gets drunk, she frequently swears, and she occasionally gets into fights to defend herself. A man doing the same things would not be condemned so severely.

Later in the movie, Rose finds out that Gladys is not allowed to marry and have children if she wants to keep her job as a police officer. It’s a sexist workplace rule that obviously doesn’t apply to men. When Rose asks Gladys why she wants to be a police officer, she says it’s because her father was a police officer, and she wants to do the work more than anything else. Gladys also has an adolescent niece named Winnie Moss (played by Krishni Patel), who also wants to become a police officer, and Gladys is mentoring Winnie.

The sexism doesn’t just come from men. An early scene in the move shows that Rose’s daughter Nancy likes to play acoustic guitar, but Rose tells Nancy, “Nice girls don’t play guitar.” (To her parental credit, Rose also tells Nancy to focus more on her academic studies.) On a more extreme level, Edith (who craves the approval of her strict and patriarchal father) has very bigoted ideas of what females should and should not do to be considered “respectable” and “feminine” in society.

“Wicked Little Letters” has some twists and turns in the story, which stays mostly faithful to the strange-but-true events that happened in real life. Although the names of the main characters have not been changed for the movie, some of the supporting characters were fabricated for the film. Rose finds some unlikely allies with three women who are Edith’s friends in a Christian women’s club that gets together to play cards: open-minded Mabel (played by Eileen Atkins), jolly Ann (played by Joanna Scanlan) and cautious postal worker Kate (played by Lolly Adefope), who is initially very suspicious of Rose.

“Wicked Little Letters” can get somewhat repetitive in showing how the odds are stacked against Rose. However, the investigation and the subsequent trial are intriguing and take comedic aim at the snobs in the community who are often hypocrites blinded by their own prejudices. The movie does not make adversaries Rose and Edith into caricatures. There are layers to Rose that show she’s a loving and responsible parent, not the unfit mother that she has been described as by her critics. Edith is also not quite as prim and proper as she appears to be.

Rose’s fiery personality and Edith’s reserved personality are seemingly at odds with each other. But Rose and Edith—just like Gladys—also share the common experience of being oppressed by sexism that wants to dictate or control how they should live their lives, simply because they are female. The heart of the film is in the admirable performances of Buckley, Colman and Vasan, who skillfully blend the film’s zippy comedy and the more serious drama. Amid the story about a criminal investigation and trial, “Wicked Little Letters” has poignant observations about female independence and female friendship—and what can be gained or lost under certain circumstances.

Sony Pictures Classics released “Wicked Little Letters” in select U.S. cinemas on March 29, 2024, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on April 5, 2024. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on February 23, 2024.

Review: ‘Shayda,’ starring Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Osamah Sami, Mojean Aria, Jillian Nguyen, Rina Mousavi, Selina Zahednia and Leah Purcell

March 17, 2024

by Carla Hay

Zar Amir Ebrahimi and Selina Zahednia in “Shayda” (Photo by Jane Zhang/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Shayda”

Directed by Noora Niasari

Some language in Farsi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Australia in the late 1990s, in the dramatic film “Shayda” features a white and Arabic/Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: While living in Australia, an Iranian immigrant and her 6-year-old daughter stay at a shelter for domestic abuse survivors, as the mother worries for their safety and how her impending divorce from her estranged Iranian husband will affect her immigration visa issues.

Culture Audience: “Shayda” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of are interested in watching movies about issues related to immigration and domestic abuse.

Bev Killick in “Shayda” (Photo by Sarah Enticknap/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Shayda” tells a nuanced and meaningful story of an Iranian immigrant woman raising her 6-year-old daughter, as they live in an Australian shelter for domestic violence survivors. The film shows in heart-wrenching details what coping with trauma looks like. There have been many movies about women and children seeking safety from domestic violence, but they are rarely told from the perspectives of immigrants living in a nation where they are not citizens.

Written and directed by Noora Niasari, “Shayda” is inspired by Niasari’s own childhood experiences in Australia of temporarily staying at a domestic violence shelter with her mother. “Shayda” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2023, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival. “Shayda” was Australia’s official entry for Best International Feature Film for the 2024 Academy Awards but didn’t make it on the Oscar shortlist to be nominated.

In “Shayda” (which takes place in Australia in the late 1990s), a woman named Shayda (played by Zar Amir Ebrahimi) is seeking shelter from her abusive, estranged husband Hossein (played by Osamah Sami), who is also an Iranian immigrant. Hossein and Shadya moved to Australia because Hossein is a graduate student at an unnamed university. Shayda and Hossein’s 6-year-old daughter is Mona (played by Selina Zahednia), who is an inquisitive and obedient child who is a big fan of “The Lion King” movie.

Shayda wants to divorce Hossein, but the matter is complicated because the divorce has to be in Iran. Shayda wants to keep living in Australia after the divorce. Hossein wants to move back to Iran after he graduates from his university program. He also threatens Shayda by saying that she will be killed if she goes through with the divorce.

The movie has some scenes showing Shayda’s frustrations of doing depositions by phone for these divorce proceedings. (Remember, this story take place the late 1990s, when video streaming over the Internet was still very uncommon and not accessible to the average person.) She often has the sinking feeling that the attorneys and judge involved in the divorce are biased against her, because it’s considered to be scandalous in patriarchal Iran for a wife to divorce her husband.

The shelter is operated by a no-nonsense manager named Cathy (played by Bev Killick), who often has to instruct the frightened women at the shelter on what to do, in case their abusers come looking for them or try to violate child custody arrangements. There’s a scene where an unidentified person in a car is parked across the street from the shelter and seems to have the place under surveillance. Cathy goes outside to confront the driver, who quickly drives off. It’s implied that one of the women in the shelter is being stalked.

There are no flashback scenes in the movie of Shayda being abused, nor does she tell anyone the specifics of what Hossein did it her. It’s left up to viewers’ speculation how bad the abuse was. Throughout the movie, Shayda shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. She has trouble sleeping. And she’s very paranoid that Hossein is out to get her, to the point where she sometimes hallucinates that he is in the same room, when he isn’t even in the building.

Shayda also has a dilemma of how much she should shield Mona from the truth. There are hints that Mona doesn’t know exactly what’s going on with the divorce, because Mona sometimes complains to Shayda that she wants to go home. Shayda doesn’t want Mona to hate Hossein, but she doesn’t want Mona to completely trust hm either.

Hossein’s visitations with Mona are fraught with tension. Shayda doesn’t say it out loud, but she’s worried that Hossein will go somewhere with Mona and never come back. Understandably, Shayda gets very upset when Hossein in late in bringing back Monda during a visitation. Shayda doesn’t want to get too upset with Hossein because she doesn’t want to make their divorce proceedings worse. Shayda sees indications that Hossein has been spying on her, either by himself or by getting other people to do the spying for him

Shayda keeps mostly to herself and isn’t very sociable with the other women at the shelter. The other shelter residents include shy Lara (played by Eve Morey), extrovert Vi (played by Jillian Nguyen) and racist “wild child” Renee (played by Lucinda Armstrong Hall), a young single mother who expects Shayda to look after Renee’s toddler, as if Shayda is a servant. Shayda’s closest friend is another Iranian immigrant named Elly (played by Rina Mousavi), who is very concerned about how Shayda’s horrible domestic problems are affecting Shayda’s mental health.

Elly encourages a reluctant Shayda to go to nightclubs and parties with her to meet new people, have some fun, and take Shayda’s mind off of her troubles. It’s at one of these nightclubs that Shayda meets Farhad (played by Mojean Aria), an attractive cousin of Elly’s, who has recently arrived from Canada. Farhad and Shayda are immediately attracted to each other. But if Farhad and Shayda start dating each other, what will happen if jealous and possessive Hossein finds out?

“Shayda” shows in unflinching ways how even though Shayda is a very attentive mother to Mona, the stress and paranoia that Shayda is experiencing can negatively affect her parenting skills. There’s also the valid fear that any decision that Shayda makes regarding the new life that Shayda wants away from Hossein could make Shayda vulnerable to even more abuse from him and possibly murder. “Shayda” doesn’t try to oversimplify these very complicated issues.

The admirable performances of Ebrahimi and Zahednia as Shayda and Mona are at the heart of this tension-filled movie. The other cast members also play their roles quite well. The story takes place during Nowruz, the two-week celebration of the Persian New Year. However, the end of the movie shows in no uncertain terms that what Shayda and Mona experience in these two weeks will affect them for the rest of their lives.

Sony Pictures Classics released in select U.S. cinemas on December 1, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on March 1, 2024. “Shayda” was released in Australia on October 5, 2023.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLUMNtMXd1Qa

Review: ‘One Life’ (2023), starring Anthony Hopkins, Johnny Flynn, Lena Olin, Romola Garai, Alex Sharp, Jonathan Pryce and Helena Bonham Carter

March 16, 2024

by Carla Hay

Anthony Hopkins in “One Life” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“One Life” (2023)

Directed by James Hawes

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1938, 1939, 1987, and 1988, in the United Kingdom, Poland, and the country then known Czechoslovakia, the dramatic film “One Life” (based on the non-fiction book of the same name) features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: In 1938 and 1939, British stockbroker Nicholas “Nicky” Winton leads a crusading group of people who rescue 669 Jewish children from an impending Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, and he gets recognition for these heroic deeds about 50 years later.

Culture Audience: “One Life” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Anthony Hopkins and true stories about rescuing people from the horrors of the Nazi-led Holocaust.

Johnny Flynn in “One Life” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

If you can tolerate filmmaking that’s a bit stodgy and old-fashioned, “One Life” is worth a watch for its meaningful true story. Anthony Hopkins is memorable in a film that is often undercut by its messy timeline jumping. The movie needed a more cohesive narrative, but the story is still easy to understand and requires patience to get to the movie’s best parts toward the end of the film.

Directed by James Hawes, “One Life” was written by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake. The movie is based on the 2014 non-fiction book “If It’s Not Impossible…: The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton,” which has been retitled “One Life: The True Story of Sir Nicholas Winton,” written by Nicholas “Nicky” Winton’s daughter Barbara Winton, who died in 2022, at the age of 69. “One Life” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie was filmed in the Czech Republic and in the United Kingdom.

“One Life” jumps around in the timeline from 1938 and 1939 to 1987 and 1988. In 1938, Nicky Winton (played by Johnny Flynn) is a 29-year-old stockbroker living in London, when he hears from his friend Martin Blake (played by Ziggy Heath), who has been helping refugees in Prague, Czechoslovakia. The refugees want to escape, as Nazi Germany prepares to invade Czechoslovakia. Just as Nicky was going to join Martin in Prague, Martin has called to tell Nicky that Martin is going back home to London. Nicky plans to go to Prague as planned.

Nicky has a strong-willed and opinionated mother named Babette “Babi” Winton (played by Helena Bonham Carter), a widow who is originally from Germany. The family of Nicky’s father was also originally from Germany. Nicky’s parents have relatives who are Jewish. Nicky identifies as an agnostic and a socialist. Babi doesn’t think it’s a good idea for Nicky to go to Prague, because she fears that his life will be in danger. Nicky can be just as stubborn as his mother, so he goes to Prague, despite her objections.

While in Prague, Nicky meets two British people who will change his life: Trevor Chadwick (played by Alex Sharp) and Doreen Warriner (played by Romola Garai), who both work for the British Committee for Refugees in Czechoslovakia. Doreen tells Trevor that she first came to Prague 10 years earlier for a university study trip. She returned to Prague because of her love of Prague’s people. Nicky, Travor and Doreen decide to what they can to help as many children (with permission from their parents) relocate to the United Kingdom and be placed in foster homes until it’s safe for them to come back to Prague.

When they tally up the numbers, there are more than 1,000 children who could potentially be rescued. Although the vast majority of the children are Jewish, Nicky says he wants to rescue children of any or no religion. In a race against time, Nicky and his allies have to not only find enough funding for these relocations, but they also have to find enough families in the United Kingdom who will be willing to be foster families. Nicky says these foster families can be of any religion.

Many of the potential foster parents have specific requirements, such as only wanting a child of a certain gender and only being able to take care of one child. An unfortunate reality was that many siblings were separated, in order to be placed in foster homes that could take a limited number of children. And an even harsher reality was that many of the children’s parents and other loved ones would be murdered in the Holocaust.

Nicky eventually returns to London to raise money and awareness (with the help of his mother) for these child refugees. He faces an uphill battle, since many British people at the time did not want to get involved in Eastern European politics. Nicky also gets some skepticism about his intentions from Jewish leaders in Czechoslovakia and in the United Kingdom, until Nicky makes it known that he has Jewish heritage. The rescue mission, which is called Kindertransport, ends up saving 669 children.

“One Life” shows these rescue efforts in a perfunctory manner, often in montages. These scenes are intercut with elderly Nicky (played by Hopkins) in 1987 and 1988, when he is living in suburban Maidenhead, England. Senior citizen Nicky is finding some of his Kindertransport mementos and records while he is cleaning up his cluttered study. The reason for the cleanup is that Nicky’s wife Grete Winton (played by Lena Olin) has been complaining that Nicky’s mementos and records have been taking up too much space in their home, and they need room for an upcoming visit from their pregnant daughter.

Nicky was an amateur photographer who took a lot of photos of the children he rescued, as well as their Czech neighborhoods. He kept these photos, as well as meticulous records of the refugees, without knowing what happened to them. His wife Grete tells Nicky about these memories that haunt him, “You have to let go, for your own sake,” but Nicky can’t really let go. Going through these photos and records of these refugees bring these memories back to him.

Jonathan Pryce has a small role as the elderly Martin Blake, who meets Nicky for lunch and comments to him about Nicky’s Kindertransport rescue efforts in the late 1930s: “It’s incredible what you achieved.” (It’s an on-screen reunion of Prye and Hopkins, who both starred in 2019’s “The Two Popes.”) Nicky humbly says that Trevor and Doreen took more of the risks in the rescue efforts, because they stayed in Prague. “One Life” doesn’t really extend that acknowledgement, because the rest of the movie is all about Nicky getting recognition for this rescue mission.

It all starts when Nicky gets a call from a library in England saying that they’re interested in the archives that he wants to donate. At his wife’s urging, Nicky decided that these records were better off in an official institution instead of in their home. When he meets with Holocaust researcher Elisabeth “Betty” Maxwell (played by Marthe Keller), she is amazed at Nicky’s collection and says that it’s too big and important for a library and should belong in a museum.

And what do you know: Betty just happens to be married to Robert Maxwell, the Czech-born British media mogul who owned the Mirror Group Newspapers at the time and who got the publicity machine going to tell Nicky’s story. The movie doesn’t mention the later scandals associated with Robert Maxwell (who died at age 68 from a boating accident in 1991), including his history of fraud and the fact that his socialite daughter Ghislaine Maxwell became a convicted sex offender due to her relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. The publicity over Nicky’s Kindertransport archival collection results in him getting invited on the BBC talk show “That’s Life!,” which leads to the most tearjerking parts of the movie.

“One Life” is certainly an inspirational story. However, the movie could have been a little bit more gracious in showing that happened to Trevor and Doreen, instead of reducing them to brief updates in the movie’s epilogue. Hopkins and Bonham Carter give very good performances, but there’s nothing award-worthy about this movie, which has a formulaic style and at times a manner that is too plodding. The movie is called “One Life,” but the real lives from this story are at the heart of the movie and what viewers will be thinking about the most.

Bleecker Street released “One Life” in select U.S. cinemas on March 15, 2024. The movie was released in Italy and in Australia in December 2023.

Review: ‘They Shot the Piano Player,’ starring the voice of Jeff Goldblum

March 14, 2024

by Carla Hay

A scene from “They Shot the Piano Player” (Image by Javier Mariscal/Sony Pictures Classics)

“They Shot the Piano Player”

Directed by Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal

Some language in Portuguese and Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 2000s (with re-enacted flashbacks to the 1960s and 1970s), the animated docudrama film “They Shot the Piano Player” features a predominantly Latin cast of characters (with a few white people and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: American music journalist Jeff Harris (a fictional stand-in for “They Shot the Piano Player” director Fernando Trueba), investigates the mysterious 1976 disappearance of Brazilian piano player Tenório Jr., who was an highly respected musician in the Bossa Nova musical movement.

Culture Audience: “They Shot the Piano Player” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching unusual documentaries about Brazilian music or true crime cases.

Jeff Harris (voiced by Jeff Goldblum) in “They Shot the Piano Player” (Image by Javier Mariscal/Sony Pictures Classics)

“They Shot the Piano Player” mostly succeeds in its intention to be an unconventional documentary, but much of the story gets bogged down in repetitiveness. Overall, this animated film is watchable for people interested in Brazilian music or true crime. It’s a hybrid of a fictional narrator telling a true story, with audio recordings of real interviews featured in the documentary.

Directed by Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal, “They Shot the Piano Player” was written by Trueba. After screening as a work in progress at the 2023 Annecy International Animation Film Festival, “They Shot the Piano Player” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival. The movie then made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2023, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival.

In the production notes for “They Shot the Piano Player,” Trueba (who is a Spanish filmmaker) says that sometime around 2019, he discovered the talent of Brazilian pianist Tenório Jr. while listening to a Brazilian album from the 1960s. Trueba became fascinated with finding out more about Tenório after discovering that Tenório (whose full name was Franciso Tenório Jr.) had vanished while on tour in Argentina in 1976, when Tenório was 35. Trueba went to Brazil and Argentina to interview family members, friends and associates of Tenório to try to solve the mystery of what happened to Tenório. Many of the resulting interviews are featured in “They Shot the Piano Player.”

“They Shot the Piano Player” creates a fictional narrative around these real interviews. In the movie, which takes place in the 2000s, the person doing the interviewing is a fictional New York City-based journalist named Jeff Harris (voiced by Jeff Goldblum), whose quest to find out the truth begins when he writes an article in The New Yorker about Bossa Nova, the music genre that combines Brazilian music and jazz. Bossa Nova, which originated in Brazil in the late 1950s, flourished in Brazil and in other countries.

As a result of this article in The New Yorker, Jeff gets a book publishing deal to write a nonfiction book about the history of Bossa Nova. While listening to a 1960s Brazilian Bossa Nova album, Jeff discovers Tenório Jr. when he hears a piano solo on the album. Jeff is intrigued to find out that Tenório Jr. hasn’t been featured on any musical recordings in more than 30 years. Jeff (who only speaks English) wants to know why, so he travels to Brazil to interview people. Jeff is sometimes accompanied by his Brazilian friend João (a fictional character, voiced by Tony Ramos), who is a tour guide/language interprerter of sorts during these trips.

Through a series of interviews, Jeff finds out that in 1976, Tenório disappeared in the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires, during a tour as a band member with singer Vinicius de Moraes and guitarist/singer Toquinho. Jeff then becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of what happened to Tenório, so he travels back and forth between Brazil and Argentina to get answers. (It’s not that much of a mystery, since the title of the movie says it all.) Tenório’s disappearance happened around the same time of the 1976 coup d’état that ousted Isabel Perón as president of Argentina, so it’s not much of a surprise that this political turmoil (and the thousands of innocent people who were victims of it) are part of this story.

Most people who knew Tenório tell Jeff that it was widely believed that Tenório was murdered in Buenos Aires in 1976. But who murdered him and why? Those questions are answered by some people who are interviewed in the movie and an archival interview that Jeff hears. The interviews also reveal what type of person Tenório was by the surviving people who knew him best. Jeff also visits several of the places where Tenório used to go, such as recording studios and nightclubs.

Jeff’s book editor Jessica (a fictional character, voiced by Roberta Wallach) sees how enthusiastic Jeff has become about solving the mystery, so she tells Jeff that instead of writing a book about the history of Bossa Nova, he should instead write a book about what happened to Tenório Jr. “They Shot the Piano Player” actually begins in 2009, after the book is published, and Jeff is doing a book reading at The Strand bookstore in New York City. The rest of the movie is a flashback to Jeff tellng the story about his journey in writing the book.

Through stories and descriptions from interviews, a portrait of Tenório emerges as a highly respected and talented musician who was passionate about music, who didn’t really care about becoming rich and famous, and who had a messy personal life. At the time of his disappearance, married man Tenório had a mistress and a pregnant wife, who was expecting their fifth child. His mistress Malena Barretto (who is interviewed in the movie) was staying with Tenório at a hotel in Buenos Aires on the night of Tenório’s disappearance. She had been feeling sick at the time, so he left the hotel to find a pharmacy to get some medicine for her. That was the last time she saw him.

“They Shot the Piano Player” is packed with several interesting interviews, but after a while, many of them say the same things over and over about how talented and sweet-natured Tenório was. The movie could have used better editing in reducing some of this repetitiveness. There are also some extraneous scenes that look like nothing but travelogue footage.

Most of the people interviewed are musicians who knew Tenório, such as Toquinho, Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, Ben Shank, Caeton Veloso, Milton Nascimento, Jorge “Negro” Gonzales, Ian Muniz, João Donato, Laércio de Freitas, Raymundo Bittencourt, music producer Roberto Menescal and sound engineer Umberto Candardi. Family members interviewed include Tenório’s widow Carmen Magalhäes, his sister Vitoria Tenório and his uncle Manuel Tenório.

Also interviewed are several of Tenório Jr.’s friends in the Rio de Janeiro’s arts community, including Alberto Campana, the owner of Bottle’s Bar and Little, the nightclub where Tenório Jr. got his first big break; poet Ferrreira Gullar, who says that a psychic named Mrs. Haydée told Tenório Jr.’s father that Tenório Jr. was murdered; and family members and associates of de Moraes, such as his ex-wife Marta Santamaría, ex-brother-in-law Carlos Santamaría and friend Elena Goñio. Experts who weigh in with interview include Agrentina’s National Memory Archive coordinator Judith Said, human rights lawyer Luiz Eduardo, filmmaker/university professor Rogério Lima and journalists John Rowles, Nano Herrar and Horatio Verbitsky.

The animation is eye-catching and looks like painting art come to life. However, some people might not like the animation style that’s in this movie. The scenes where Jeff is visiting nightclubs to watch performances are enjoyable. And his investigation will keep viewers interested. It’s especially impactful when Jeff finds out what reportedly happened on the last day of Tenório’s life.

There are pros and cons to Goldblum’s constant narration in this movie. On the one hand, he gives a very good voice performance that remains engaging throughout the film. On the other hand, Goldblum has such a distinctive and famous voice, a lot of vewers might find his celebrity voice distracting. You never forget that you’re listening to Goldblum, which makes it harder to believe the narration is from a character named Jeff Harris.

Despite these narrative flaws, “They Shot the Piano Player” is a very good history lesson about Bossa Nova and about a fairly obscure and underrated Bossa Nova musician. The movie also tells a tragic story of someone who died simply because of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. “They Shot the Piano Player” doesn’t make any statements about all the political turmoil in South America, but it tells a compelling human story about someone affected by this turmoil who left an influential legacy in Brazilian music.

Sony Pictures Classics released “They Shot the Piano Player” in select U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2023, with a wider release in U.S. cinemas on February 23, 2024.

Review: ‘Four Daughters’ (2023), starring Hind Sabri, Olfa Hamrouni, Eya Chikhaoui, Tayssir Chikhaoui, Nour Karoui, Ichraq Matar and Majd Mastoura

March 10, 2024

by Carla Hay

Pictured from left to right: Eya Chikhaouim, Ichraq Matar, Nour Karoui and Tayssir Chikhaoui in “Four Daughters” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Four Daughters” (2023)

Directed by Kaouther Ben Hania

Arabic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Tunisia, the docudrama film “Four Daughters” features an all-Tunisian group of people discussing a family whose two of four daughters became terrorists.

Culture Clash: Through re-enactments and interviews, the women’s mother and the other two sisters take a candid look at their family dynamics that led them to this point.

Culture Audience: “Four Daughters” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about how families are torn apart when members of the family leave to become radical terrorists.

Hind Sabri and Olfa Hamrouni in “Four Daughters” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Four Daughters” is an impactful movie that layers documentary elements with dramatic acting to make a film within a film. By using some of the real-life people in the re-enactments, it’s both an examination and cinematic therapy of a family’s love and painful fracturing. The transitions between the documentary-styled interviews and the dramatic acting are mostly seamless, although it all might be a bit disorienting to some viewers.

Directed and written by Kaouther Ben Hania, “Four Daughters” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where the movie won three awards: L’Œil d’or (the prize for Best Documentary), in tie where the award also went to “The Mother of All Lies”; the François Chalais Prize (the award for journalistic excellence); and Prix de la Citoyenneté (the Citizenship Award). “Four Daughters” also won Best Documentary Feature at the 2024 Film Independent Spirit Awards and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2024 Academy Awards.

“Four Daughters” begins by introducing the three women who portray themselves in the re-enactments: Olfa Hamrouni is the divorced mother of the four daughters who inspired the name of the documentary. Eya Chikhaoui (born in 2003) and Tayssir Chikhaoui (born in 2005) are Hamrouni’s two youngest daughters, who were living with her at the time this movie was filmed. Hamrouni’s two eldest daughters are Ghotrane (born in 1998) and Rahma (born in 1999), who both became raidical terrorists, and left Tunisia to go to Lybia. A caption in the movie’s introduction says that Ghotrane Chikaoui and Rahma Chikaoui were “devoured by the wolf,” which is a euphamism for saying that they became consumed by the radical ideology that took them away from their mother and sisters.

“Four Daughters” has several scenes of Hamrouni, Eya and Tayssir acting in scenes with and getting to know the actresses who are in the re-enactments: Hind Sabri has the role of Hamrouni; Ichraq Matar has the role of Ghofrane; Nour Karoui has the role of Rahma. Sabri is seen early in the movie getting makeup applied before she is about to meet Hamrouni. Sabri admits that she feels “stressed,” as if it’s her first movie and that she’s nervous to meet the woman she has the responsibility of portraying.

The first meeting between Sabri and Hamrouni goes very well. Hamrouni assures and warns the anxious Sabri about what “Four Daughters” director Ben Hania has planned for the movie: “Kaouther isn’t going to invent anything in the story. It’s all true. And that could be disturbing for you.”

In a separate scene, Hamrouni admits in an interview that acting in a movie about her life has made her feel like the heartbroken-but-resilient character of Rose in “Titanic.” Hamrouni gets more emotional when she, Eya and Tayssir meet Matar and Karoui. At first, the mother and daughters are in awe of how much the actresses resemble Ghotrane and Rama.

But then, Hamrouni breaks down in tears as they all sit on a sofa together. Hamrouni begins to cry after asks Matar to sit next to her on the sofa, because Hamrouni says she was the real Ghofrane would have sat next to her if she were there. Eya says, “That’s what’s going to be so painful. We are going to relive it all. It’s going to open the wounds.”

Ghofrane is described as having a calm presence, and she was closer to her mother than Rahma was. Later in the movie, the family says that Ghofrane was the one who became a religous fanatic first and started wearing a hijab at all times. Rahma then followed and became a more hardcore radical than Ghofrane. For a while, Hamrouni and youngest daughter Tayssir also wore hijabs, but they never became radicalized. Eya was the only one in this family of women who refused to wear a hijab and become a fundamentalist Muslim.

Viewers of “Four Daughters” will have to be patient before the movie gets to the story of how Ghofrane and Rahma drastically changed. The first two-thirds of the movie are a combination of showing and telling how the family was before Ghofrane and Rahma reached the point of no return in becoming estranged from their mother and sisters. What emerges is a portrait of the family that was already splintering from generational trauma and abuse.

Hamrouni begins by talking about and re-enacting her unhappy marriage. It’s implied that it was an arranged marriage because Hamrouni makes it clear that she was never in love with her husband. On their wedding night, which is re-enacted in the movie, she resisted having sex with her husband, whose first name is not mentioned in the film. They got into a physical fight, and blood ended up on her wedding dress.

Hamrouni proudly says that she got her way and avoided having sex with her husband that night. However, Hamrouni’s sister scolded her that night and told her that she needed to be a good wife and do what her husband expected her to do. Hamrouni then says that for the rest of her miserable marriage, on the rare occasions that she and her husband had sex, it was only to conceive children.

“Four Daughters” has only one actor portraying all the movie’s male characters: Majd Mastoura. He portrays the abusive men in Hamrouni’s life: her husband (whom she eventually left) and an ex-con boyfriend named Wissem, who was in prison for murder but escaped from prison during the chaos of the Tunisian Revolution of 2011. Mastoura also has roles as a boyfriend of a teenage Ghofrane and as a police officer who takes a report when a frantic Hamrouni reports Ghofrane missing after Ghofrane ran away from home.

“Four Daughters” takes a brutally honest look at the problems in the family. Hamrouni says that her ex-husband was physically and verbally abusive to her and her daughters. Ghofrane got the worst of the abuse, her sisters say, because Ghofrane was the eldest child. However, Hamrouni admits that she physically abused her daughters too. She would often whip them out of anger. A tearful and regretful Hamrouni says that she ended up mistreating her daughters in the same way that Hamrouni’s abusive mother mistreated Hamrouni.

Hamrouni acknowledges that she was overly strict and paranoid about her daughters dating or being interested in sex. Part of that paranoia stems from Hamrouni’s own childhood, when she says that she and her sisters were raised by a single mother, and men would try to force themselves into the home to sexually assault them. Hamrouni says she had to disguise herself as a man to protect herself, her mother and her sisters. Hamrouni’s bad experiences with her male partners also undoubtedly affected her attitude in how she tried to instill in her daughters a fear of men.

Hamrouni says that her relationship with Wissem started off as a fairy-tale romance, where she fell in love with him like a giddy teenager. She said the fact that Wissem (who was a butcher as his job) was in prison for murder didn’t bother her because he treated her so well. But a dark family secret is revealed in the documentary: Eya and Tayssir say that Wissem was far from the “nice guy” he appeared to be, because he sexually abused all four of the sisters.

Hamrouni doesn’t comment in the documentary about this sexual abuse, but when it’s mentioned, her eyes and facial expression give away that she knows that it happened, and she feels ashamed that she didn’t protect her daughters. Apparently, Wissem had her fooled, and Hamrouni was blinded by her love for him. Rahma and Ghofrane say that their mother blamed them for Wissem going away. A scene briefly shows actor Mastour as Wissem in a prison cell, which implies that Wissem went to prison for these sex crimes.

In the movie, Eya is more talkative and expressive than Tayssir, although Tayssir later says that Eya is less likely to stand up for herself than Tayssir is. The family also experienced hunger and poverty. A re-enactment of a family dinner scene reveals that even when the family was starving, Ghofrane was very picky about what she would eat. By contrast, Rahma would eat almost anything that she was given.

An emotionally powerful re-enactment scene happens when Eya and Tayssir, portraying themselves, are sitting on the same bed as Mastoura, who portrays the predatory Wissem in this scene. Eya tells Wissem, “I hate you” with an intensity that affects actor Mastoura so much, he has to leave the room, and he asks to have a private conversation off-camera with director Ben Hania.

Meanwhile, Eya is clearly feeling some kind of catharsis from doing this scene, because she seems very proud of herself for doing this scene without breaking down and crying. After actor Mastoura asks to take a break because of how he was affected by this scene, Eya says that Mastoura should understand that she’s only acting. However, the painful memories are all too real for Tayssir, who quietly cries during this emotionally heavy scene.

During “Four Daughters,” the actresses are seen observing the real-life people they are portraying and practicing things such as mimicking their voices and body language. Old videos of Ghotrana and Rahma are shown to the actresses portraying them. All four daughters were in a parade for then-Tunisian president/dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in 2011. Hamrouni says that she and her daughters were loyal supporters of Ben Ali.

It’s unclear when the family really began to experience financial hardships, but Hamrouni says the family’s life got worse after the Tunisian Revolution. Hamrouni went to work in Libya as a house cleaner. And that meant her daughters were often not under her supervision.

Older daughters Ghofrane and Rahma started to rebel by doing things such as skipping school. They began listening to heavy metal and dressed in Goth style, much to the disapproval of Hamrouni, who thought that Ghofrane and Rahma were becoming satanists. The movie has a re-enactment of an exorcism on Rahma.

And so, when Ghofrane and Rahma began seemed to have religious awakenings by ditching their Goth lifestyles and dressing in hijabs, Hamrouni says that she was initially relieved because she thought that it meant that her two oldest daughters were on the right track to turn their lives around. Little did the family know that this switch from one extreme to another would turn out to cause a permanent family rift.

There are moments in “Four Daughters” that are not easy to watch, especially scenes involving abuse. Rahma became so fanatical, she would whip Eya and Tayssir for things such as being late to prayer sessions. Rahma would also frequently accuse her younger sisters (especially Tayssir) of being “infidels.”

All four sisters had a fixation on death and would play games where a sister would pretend to be dead, and they would pretend to have burial and funeral rituals. Eya says these games were “fun” for the sisters, like “going to Disneyland.” But these morbid games are indications of severe emotional turmoil.

“Four Daughters” also shows how these family members see how they are perceived by the actresses who are spending time getting to know them. Karoui, who has the role of Rahma, keenly observes that Rahma’s religious fanatacism was a way for Rahma to control and manipulate the sisters’ overly strict mother after Rahma’s Goth rebellion phase didn’t work.

There are also indications that the actresses want to keep a certain professional distance when the family members start to blur the lines between wanting to get to know the actresses and treating them like real family members. Hamrouni essentially admits that she was closest to eldest daughter Ghofrane. But when Hamrouni asks actress Matar (who has the role of Ghofrane) if Matar would want Hamrouni to be her mother in real life, Matar looks uncomfortable and doesn’t answer. Matar’s non-response says it all, and Hamrouni tries not to look hurt and embarrassed.

For better or worse, “Four Daughters” doesn’t reveal until toward the end of the film what happened to Ghofrane and Rahma after they became terrorists. Some viewers might think this information comes too late in the movie. However, the buildup to these final scenes is meant to show that this family—even with their problems before the separation—had a certain unity that is now gone. “Four Daughters” might not heal the family’s heartbreak over the two daughters who left the family. The movie is a cautionary tale of what can happen when people lose loved ones to radical ideologies that can destroy family relationships.

Kino Lorber released “Four Daughters” in select U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on December 19, 2023.

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