Review: ‘You Are Not My Mother,’ starring Hazel Doupe, Carolyn Bracken, Ingrid Craigie and Paul Reid

April 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Carolyn Bracken in “You Are Not My Mother” (Photo by Cait Fahey/Magnet Releasing)

“You Are Not My Mother”

Directed by Kate Dolan

Culture Representation: Taking place in North Dublin, the horror film “You Are Not My Mother” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After a single mother mysteriously vanishes for a few days, she comes back to her home and seems to be a strange and different person, and her teenage daughter begins to wonder if this mother is possessed by something evil. 

Culture Audience: “You Are Not My Mother” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in predictable but effective horror movies about the supernatural.

Hazel Doupe and Ingrid Craigie in “You Are Not My Mother” (Photo by Cait Fahey/Magnet Releasing)

“You Are Not My Mother” has a mystery that’s very easy to solve, but this well-acted horror movie adeptly maintains suspense in a story influenced by Irish folklore. It’s a solid feature-film directorial debut from Kate Dolan, who also wrote “You Are Not My Mother.” The movie should satisfy people who like supernatural thrillers that can be frightful but don’t wallow in a lot of bloody gore. “You Are Not My Mother” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

In “You Are Not My Mother” (which takes place in North Dublin), teenager Char Delaney (played by Hazel Doupe) is an introverted loner who attends an all-girls Catholic school. Char is about 15 or 16 years old. Char lives with her single mother Angela Delaney (played by Carolyn Bracken), Angela’s brother Aaron (played by Paul Reid), and Char’s grandmother Rita (played by Ingrid Craigie), who is the mother of Angela and Aaron. Char’s biological father is not seen or mentioned in the move.

“You Are Not My Mother” opens with a scene in the woods, where a baby (played by Dante Woods) is being taken into by Rita, who lights a circular fire around the baby. The baby then apparently burns to death. Why would Rita do such a horrible thing? By opening the movie with this scene, writer/director Dolan foreshadows too much of the movie too early. Within the first 10 minutes of the film, it’s obvious that Char’s family has secrets that will eventually be revealed.

Angela has had a long history of depression. In the beginning of the movie, her depression is so debilitating, she is frequently bedridden. One day, Char asks her grandmother Rita for money to take a bus back home from school. Rita says in response: “Why don’t you ask your mother? I’ll get her out of bed.”

Angela manages to get out of bed, and she gives Char a ride to school. However, Angela seems so distracted, Angela almost hits a horse on the road with her car. Meanwhile, Char says, “Mum, we need food in the house. Mum, what’s wrong with you?”

Angela, who seems exhausted and sad, replies: “I’m sorry. I don’t think I can do this anymore.” When Char comes home from school, her mother isn’t there. Later, Char finds her mother’s car abandoned in a field, with a bag of groceries left on the front passenger seat. Angela is nowhere in sight.

Angela’s concerned family eventually contacts the local police to report her missing. Aaron is very concerned that Angela could’ve been kidnapped. A policewoman named Officer Jenny (played Aoife Spratt) has come to the home to take the missing person report. Aaron gets impatient and angry when it’s suggested that, because of Angela’s history of depression, she might have left to go somewhere on her own for a while. Later, Char has a nightmare about finding her mother dead.

When Char’s mother goes missing, it’s just another stress in Char’s life. At school, she is bullied by a group of “mean girls,” led by a snooty brat named Suzanne O’Connell (played by Jordanne Jones), who has her own mother issues that are later revealed in the story. Two of the other girls in this “mean girls” clique are named Kelly (played by Katie White and Amanda (played by Florence Adebambo), and they later participate with Suzanne in a very cruel prank on Char.

In one of the movie’s classroom scenes, Char is first seen having to interact with Suzanne, who reacts with annoyance when art teacher Ms. Devlin (played Jade Jordan) tells Suzanne to sit next to Char. When the teacher isn’t looking, Suzanne takes some gum out of her mouth and smears the gum on Char’s notes. Char is considered an outcast at this school because she comes from a working-class family who is considered a little strange.

Later in the art class, Char shows Ms. Devlin a drawing that Char made of shadows engulfed in flames. Char tells the teacher that she made the illustration from a dream that she had. It’s a very cliché and obvious clue in the movie.

Another clue is when after Angela goes missing, Rita gives Char a small ball of twigs and leaves, while saying, “I made this for you—for protection.” Why does Char need to be protected? Could it have anything to do with that apparent birthmark on her face?

At any rate, Angela eventually returns to the home after a few days, with no explanation of where she went and why. However, Char and the other family members notice that Angela is not the same person she was before Angela disappeared. This new Angela is more energetic and in better spirits. She even starts doing things like cheerfully making dinner. It’s close to Halloween, so the meal includes pumpkin.

But this new Angela now has a loss of appetite. And this mother, who was once so listless that she could barely get out of bed, is now enthusiastically talking about taking a mother-daughter trip with Char. It’s an idea that Aaron vehemently opposes.

“You Are Not My Mother” is much more of a psychological horror film than a movie that relies on a lot of action-packed jump scares. There are some moments that are meant to induce terror, but a lot of the horror is about what can’t be seen rather than the story being about a killer on the loose. This movie could’ve benefited from more character development, but “You Are Not My Mother” also doesn’t clutter the movie with a lot of unnecessary scenes.

All of the cast members give reasonably authentic performances, but the horror merits of “You Are Not My Mother” are mostly in Bracken’s eerie transformation as Angela. Without this unsettling performance, “You Are Not My Mother” would just be an average or laughable horror movie if mishandled by someone who was miscast in the Angela role. (Fun fact: Writer/director Dolan appears briefly in the movie in the role of a pharmacist.) “You Are Not My Mother” is not a going to be considered a classic horror movie, but it delivers plenty of intrigue for horror fans who are looking for a thriller that explores issues of generational trauma and family burdens.

Magnet Releasing released “You Are Not My Mother” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 25, 2022.

Review: ‘Petite Maman,’ starring Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne

April 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz in “Petite Maman” (Photo courtesy of Lilies Films/Neon)

“Petite Maman”

Directed by Céline Sciamma

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in France, the dramatic film “Petite Maman” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An 8-year-old girl meets another girl of the same age who is eerily similar to her.

Culture Audience: “Petite Maman” will appeal primarily to people are interested in unique movies about families and time travel.

Nina Meurisse and Joséphine Sanz in “Petite Maman” (Photo courtesy of Lilies Films/Neon)

The very memorable drama “Petite Maman” takes an insightful and endearing look at parent-child relationships and how personalities are formed in childhood. It also depicts the rhetorical question: “What would you do if you met one of your parents as a child but didn’t know it right away?” The results are fascinating, charming and often sentimental without being mawkish.

Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, “Petite Maman” clocks in at a brisk 72 minutes, which is really all the time needed for this engaging cinematic story to be told. “Petite Maman” (which takes place in an unnamed city in France) made the rounds at several top film festivals in 2021, including the Telluride Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. Sciamma has made a name for herself as a filmmaker who does female-centric movies about authentic personal relationships. “Petite Maman” (which translates to “Little Mother” in English) is Sciamma’s first movie where the central female characters are pre-teen girls.

“Petite Maman” is a movie with a relatively small cast of characters (less than 10 people have speaking lines), because it’s a fairly simple story that’s rich in detailing the meaningful experiences of an 8-year-old girl who meets her mother when her mother was also 8 years old. There’s no elaborate science-fiction explanation for this time-traveling experience. Observant viewers will figure out the mystery fairly early on in the story, but it’s a delight to watch the unwitting girl discover what her mother was like at her own age.

In the beginning of “Petite Maman,” 8-year-old Nelly (played by Joséphine Sanz) is visiting a nursing home where her maternal grandmother, who was a widow, has passed away. Nelly asks her unnamed mother (played by Nina Meurisse) if she can keep a stick that used to be owned by Nelly’s grandmother. Nelly’s mother says yes.

Nelly then accompanies her parents to the house where Nelly’s grandmother used to live. It’s also the childhood home of Nelly’s mother. The house (which is located in a wooded area) is going to be sold, and most of it is already packed up, except for some essential furniture, most of it wrapped up in sheets. The kitchen is the only room in the house that looks like it hasn’t been packed up or wrapped yet in the process of the house getting a new owner.

Nelly’s mother and Nelly’s father (played by Stéphane Varupenne) have stopped by the house for some final moving arrangements. They decide to stay in the house for a few days. Nelly sleeps in the bedroom that her mother had a child. When Nelly’s mother tucks her in before Nelly goes to sleep, she mentions to Nelly that when she was a child, she didn’t like being in the room at night.

It’s soon revealed that although Nelly is a fairly obedient child, she’s more of a “daddy’s girl.” Nelly is more likely to get into disagreements with her mother, who has an unspoken air of sadness and regret about her. Nelly’s parents also don’t like to talk about their childhoods very much. Nelly’s father explains that the only thing they like to discuss about their childhoods is the Christmas presents that they received when they were kids.

But one thing that Nelly knows about her mother’s childhood is that her mother had a special hut that she built in the woods. This hut was her place where she could go when she wanted private time to herself. One of the first things that Nelly asks her mother about when they arrive at the house is: “Mom, where was your hut? Can you show me? I want to make one.”

Nelly’s mother seems too distracted with grief to grant this request. However, one day, Nelly is out walking in the woods when she sees a girl who looks exactly like her making a hut out of tree branches. The girl, whose name is Marion (played by Gabrielle Sanz, the identical twin of Joséphine Sanz), asks Nelly for help in building the hut. Nelly notices that Marion has the same name as Nelly’s mother.

It’s the beginning of a friendship where Nelly develops a deeper understanding of Marion and her childhood. Viewers find out that Marion grew up with a mother who was very overprotective. In her childhood, Marion had an operation to correct a problem that she might have inherited from her mother. Marion’s mother (played by Margot Abascal), who walks with a cane, is shown in a scene where she’s scolding Marion for playing outside because it’s against doctor’s orders.

“Petite Maman” has a plot twist revealed at the end of the movie that is emotionally poignant, especially for people who feel that this story of friendship within a family is relatable on some level. Sciamma’s telling of this story is at times whimsical but always genuinely observant of the nuances in how people relate to each other as children and as adults. The casting of identical twins Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz (who are both very good in their respective roles as Nelly and Marion) is an inspired choice because it makes viewers pay more attention to how to tell these girls apart, in terms of their personalities.

“Petite Maman” also touches on the issue of what friendship can mean between a parent and a child. Parents of underage children often have to show or tell their kids, “I’m your parent, not your friend,” in order to set discipline boundaries. What “Petite Maman” does in a special and creative way is show that every parent’s inner child is never really lost but becomes part of who that person is as a parent and a possible friend.

Neon released “Petite Maman” in select U.S. cinemas on April 22, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on May 6, 2022. The movie was released in several European countries and in South Korea in 2021.

Review: ‘The Guilty’ (2021), starring Jake Gyllenhaal

March 3, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jake Gyllenhaal in “The Guilty” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“The Guilty” (2021)

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Los Angeles, the dramatic film “The Guilty” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A police officer, who has been demoted to 911 operator duties, gets a harrowing phone call from a woman who says she’s in a vehicle and she’s been kidnapped, and the police officer breaks protocol to try to help her. 

Culture Audience: “The Guilty” will appeal primarily to people interested in thrillers that have many twists and turns, with some plot developments more believable than others.

Jake Gyllenhaal in “The Guilty” (photo by Glen Wilson/Netflix)

Gripping and tension-filled, “The Guilty” succeeds in creating a suspenseful story with good acting, even though some parts of the movie are hard to believe and seem too contrived. Unfolding in “real time,” it’s a story about an intense two-hour period in the life of a police officer while he’s on 911 emergency call operator duties. During the course of the story, he frantically tries to save an adult female caller who claims that her ex-husband has kidnapped her in a vehicle. “The Guilty” had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by Nic Pizzolatto, “The Guilty” is a remake of the 2018 Danish film “The Guilty” (“Den Skyldige”), which was co-written and directed by Gustav Möller as Möller’s feature-film debut. By most accounts and critics’ reviews, the original Danish movie is better than the American version. However, the American version of “The Guilty” is still a satisfying thriller for anyone who can tolerate a movie where most of it is centered on a not-very-likable protagonist working as an emergency phone operator in a call center.

The American version of “The Guilty” adheres very close to the original story in the Danish version on “The Guilty.” There are some questionable things in the American version that might be more acceptable or overlooked in Denmark because of different laws and policies when it comes to emergency call operators and what cops can and cannot do while on duty. The American movie was filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic before a COVID-19 vaccine existed. Because almost the entire setting of the movie is a call center and consists of phone conversations, it turns out those were ideal conditions to film during a pre-vaccine COVID-19 pandemic.

In the American version of “The Guilty,” Joe Baylor (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is a Los Angeles police officer who’s under a great deal of stress. Joe has been assigned 911 call operator duties because he’s been temporarily demoted. And he’s not happy about it. The reason for Joe’s demotion is revealed toward the end of the film. Joe has asthma and uses an inhaler. Not surprisingly, his asthmatic condition is aggravated by all the stress he goes through during the course of the story.

Even without this demotion, it’s obvious from the beginning of the film that Joe is someone with a short temper. When he gets a call from a bicycle rider who injured himself in an accident and has called 911 to request an ambulance, Joe scolds the injured person and tells him not to ride a bike when he’s drunk. And then Joe hangs up. Joe has no proof that the caller is intoxicated. His lack of empathy and the way he jumps to conclusions with anger are indications that he’s a “loose cannon.”

Adding to the stress level at the call center, a wildfire is raging in Los Angeles County, so there’s a shortage of emergency workers who can respond to calls that aren’t related to the fire. The 911 call center has TV monitors tuned into the local news to keep track of the wildfire situation. This wildfire is a plot development that was added to the American version of “The Guilty.”

Joe gets some other calls in the beginning of the movie that show how he’s ill-tempered and impatient with callers. When Joe talks to a male caller who’s having a panic attack, and the caller admits that he’s high on meth, Joe says he’ll send an ambulance as well as police to arrest him. The caller quickly hangs up.

Joe takes another call about a computer stolen from a rental car. He quickly determines that the caller whose computer was stolen was involved in a sex worker transaction that went wrong. Joe concludes that the sex worker probably stole the computer, so Joe is unsympathetic to the theft victim. Throughout the movie, viewers see that Joe cannot be an impartial phone operator and he acts like an investigative cop who reaches his own conclusions when he might not know all the facts.

The first big clue that Joe is involved in a high-profile matter is the movie’s opening scene, when he gets a call on his cell phone from a female Los Angeles Times reporter, who wants to interview him. Joe abruptly tells her that he has no comment, and he hangs up. People who work at call centers generally aren’t allowed to use their cell phones while they’re on duty in the call center, so it’s also the first sign that Joe thinks that the call center’s policies don’t really apply to him.

Joe’s sense of entitlement becomes even more apparent later in the story when Joe goes beyond what a 911 call operator is allowed to do, and he acts like a cop who wants to solve a case and be a hero rescuer. For example, emergency call centers, such as the one depicted in “The Guilty,” usually have a policy of using only the authorized, monitored phones to help a caller. But there’s a scene in the movie when Joe breaks this policy by sneaking off to an empty office room to make secret phone calls that can’t be recorded.

Joe is also standoffish or rude to any of the other 911 operators he interacts with, including a friendly co-worker named Manny (played by Adrian Martinez) and a supervisor named Riva (played by Becky Wu), who seems to just let Joe do what he wants because he’s a cop. The only time that Joe is shown being somewhat nice to his colleagues is when he wants a favor from someone. But even then, it’s only after he finds out that getting angry at them won’t help him get what he wants.

Even though he has a mostly dismissive attitude toward his work colleagues, there is one colleague whom Joe seems to care about: his cop partner Rick (voiced by Eli Goree), whom Joe later describes as his best friend. While Joe is at the call center, he calls his police supervisor Sgt. Bill Miller (voiced by Ethan Hawke) to ask how Rick is doing. What’s wrong with Rick that has gotten Joe so concerned about Rick’s well-being? That answer is also revealed toward the end of the movie.

It’s eventually shown that things aren’t going so well for Joe in his personal life. He’s been separated from his wife Jess (voiced by Gillian Zinser) for the past six months, and he doesn’t get to see their young daughter as often as he would like. Joe seems to want to get back together with Jess, but she’s very reluctant and seems to be fed up with him. During a phone call, Jess tells Joe that she won’t be there for his upcoming court appearance that’s happening the next morning.

Joe’s personal problems temporarily take a back seat when he becomes consumed with the kidnapping call. The female caller identifies herself as Emily Lighton (voiced by Riley Keough), and she says she’s been abducted by her ex-husband, who’s driving the two of them in a white van. Through some quick detective work of looking up the cell phone number that Emily is using, Joe finds out that the ex-husband is named Henry Fisher (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), and Henry has a criminal record.

There’s an additional urgency to this phone call because Emily and Henry have two underage children who are home alone: a 6-year-old daughter named Abby (voiced by Christiana Montoya) and an infant son named Oliver. The biggest problem in locating Emily is that she doesn’t know the license plate number of the van, and she doesn’t know exactly where she is on the road because she says she can’t look out of any of the van’s windows. The rest of the movie is about Joe’s race-against-time in his efforts to save Emily. There are some twists and turns (some more shocking than others) that happen along the way.

“The Guilty” requires some suspension of disbelief when showing Joe as the only person who seems to care the most about finding this alleged kidnapping victim. However, the movie’s plot addition of the wildfire happening at the same time does make it plausible that emergency responders have to give priority to the fire at that time. There are some parts of the movie where Joe steps way over the line of police ethics to play judge and jury. But when more details about Joe’s personal problems are revealed, it’s actually consistent with his personality and past actions that he acts this way.

Gyllenhaal is the only actor seen on screen for most of the film, so his compelling performance is effective in depicting this anxiety-ridden situation. The voice actors in the cast also perform capably in their roles. The last 15 minutes of the movie cram in a lot of melodrama that might have some viewers rolling their eyes in disbelief. However, stranger things and more melodramatic things have happened in real life, so the movie isn’t completely far-fetched.

After it’s revealed why Joe is going to court, a few questions remain unanswered at the end of the movie, such as: “How or why was Joe allowed to work in law enforcement in this capacity, considering what he’s being accused of in court? And what kind of attorney (it’s presumed that Joe has an attorney) would allow a client to work in this high-stress environment the day before an important court appearance?”

There are some believable explanations, of course. Maybe the police department didn’t want to suspend Joe, for whatever reason, and demoted him instead. And maybe Joe is the type of stubborn person who wouldn’t take an attorney’s advice and thinks he could handle working in a stressful job the day before his court appearance.

As for how realistically “The Guilty” depicts 911 call centers and 911 phone operators, the podcast Real Crime Profile interviewed two real-life former 911 phone operators to get their perspectives of the American version of “The Guilty.” (Spoiler alert: This podcast episode discusses everything that happens in the movie.) These former 911 operators say that “The Guilty” is mostly accurate.

Fuqua (whose directorial credits include “Training Day” and “The Equalizer” movies) and Pizzolatto (the Emmy-nominated creator of HBO’s “True Detective” series) are very familiar with telling stories about law enforcement officers who operate outside the law to solve a case or to get what the cops want. “The Guilty” tells an intriguing story, but some viewers might be bored that most of the movie takes place in one location, and the on-camera action mostly centers on a series of phone calls. People who can appreciate “The Guilty” the most are those who use their imagination, because a lot of the terror is what’s not seen on screen.

Netflix released “The Guilty” in select U.S. cinemas on September 24, 2021. The movie premiered on Netflix on October 1, 2021.

Review: ‘The Worst Person in the World,’ starring Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie and Herbert Nordrum

February 14, 2022

by Carla Hay

Herbert Nordrum and Renate Reinsve in “The Worst Person in the World” (Photo by Verdens Verste Menneske/Oslo Pictures/Neon)

“The Worst Person in the World”

Directed by Joachim Trier

Norwegian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Norwegian cities of Oslo and Hønefoss, the comedy/drama film “The Worst Person in the World” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Over a period of about four years, a restless woman in her late 20s to early 30s is torn between two very different men who are her love interests.

Culture Audience: “The Worst Person in the World” will appeal mainly to people who like quirky European films with social commentaries on how women navigate society’s pressures and expectations when it comes to love, committed relationships, and if or when to have children.

Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie in “The Worst Person in the World” (Photo by Kasper Tuxen/Oslo Pictures/Neon)

“The Worst Person in the World” centers on a female protagonist who actually isn’t a horrible and cruel person, but she often makes selfish and impulsive choices that hurt other people, including herself. It’s a sometimes-funny, sometimes-melancholy story about a free-spirited but complicated and insecure young woman who’s awkwardly trying to figure out who she is and what she wants in life. Some of this 127-minute movie tends to wander a bit too much, but the cast members’ intriguing performances and some bold filmmaker choices make “The Worst Person in the World” a fascinating film to experience.

Directed by Joachim Trier, “The Worst Person in the World” is Norway’s entry for the 2022 Academy Awards, where the movie was nominated for Best International Feature Film and Best Original Screenplay. Trier co-wrote the movie’s richly layered screenplay with Eskil Vogt. “The Worst Person in the World” made the rounds at several prestigious film festivals, including the 2021 Cannes Film Festival (where the movie had its world premiere), the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, the 2021 New York Film Festival and the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

The central character in “The Worst Person in the World” is Julie (played by Renate Reinsve), who turns 30 years old during the course of this movie’s story, which takes place over a period of about four years. Julie lives in Oslo, Norway, and it’s clear within the first 10 minutes of the film that’s she’s intelligent but very fickle. The movie (which has a prologue, 12 chapters and an epilogue) has occasional voiceover narration by an unidentified woman, who tells Julie’s story as an observer who knows Julie’s thoughts. Ine Janssen is the actress providing the voiceover narration.

Viewers first see Julie as a 29-year-old college student, who switches her major from biology to psychology to photography. All of these changes seem to happen within the space of a year. The narrator comments that Julie’s sudden switch in majors happened because “She felt trapped in the role of a model student.” It’s unclear if Julie ever graduates, because she is never shown in college again. She makes money working as a sales clerk/cashier at a bookstore called Norli, which is located on the university campus.

There’s a montage of Julie seeming to enjoy her part-time work as a photographer (she mostly does fashion-oriented portraits) and having meaningless flings with some of her male models. She’s on a date with one of these models at a nightclub/bar when she meets a man who will become her live-in boyfriend. Julie doesn’t think twice about ignoring her date when she finds herself attracted to another man.

The man who charms Julie is Aksel Willmann (played by Anders Danielsen Lie), a well-known artist whose specialty is adult-oriented graphic novels that he creates. Aksel, who’s 15 years older than Julie, is the proverbial life of the party who attracts attention almost everywhere he goes. Aksel’s most famous graphic novel character is a randy and rude cat called Bobcat, who is the star of Aksel’s successful “Bobcat” graphic novel series. Viewers later find out that Aksel uses Bobcat to be crude and sexist through a fictional character, in ways that Aksel wouldn’t be able to get away with in real life.

Aksel and Julie have an immediate attraction and flirtation at the party. It isn’t long before they hook up, and then she moves into his place. Shortly after becoming a couple, Julie finds out that the age difference between her and Aksel could be a problem. She doesn’t want to have children at this point in her life, but Aksel is ready to start a family. Not only does Julie feel that she’s not ready to become a mother, she’s also pretty certain that she never wants to have kids.

Julie and Aksel have some disagreements over this family planning issue, with Julie and Aksel both coming to a stalemate about how the other partner is handling the issue. Julie thinks Aksel is being overbearing and trying to bend Julie’s will into what Aksel wants. Aksel thinks Julie is making weak excuses because he tells her that no one is ever really ready to have kids, and people just figure out parenting as they go along.

There are other issues in Julie and Aksel’s relationship: Julie also doesn’t fit in very well with Aksel’s circle of friends, who are mostly in his age group. During get-togethers with Aksel’s friends, Julie often feels left out of the conversations. Askel’s friends are very sophisticated when it comes to art and literature. Julie often feels that her taste in the same things don’t really match the tastes of Aksel and his friends.

She also feels somewhat inadequate around Aksel and his friends because she has less life experience and can’t relate to some things that people in Aksel’s generation can relate to with each other. For example, Axsel can remember a time when the Internet and cell phones didn’t exist. He wistfully says that tangible objects are becoming less important to people’s memories, as technology has made more things go digital.

At a house party hosted by two of Aksel’s friends—a married couple named William (played by August Wilhelm Méd Brenner) and Karianne (played by Helene Bjørneby)—Julie gets interrogated by Karianne about when Julie plans to have a career and children. William mildly scolds Karianne for being so intrusive, but it’s a question that Julie tends to get from people in a way that makes her feel like they’re silently judging her for not saying that she’s looking forward to becoming a mother.

At the same time, Julie is judgmental too, because she seems to have a little disdain for people who think being a parent is the greatest thing that could ever happen to them. Over the course of the movie, Julie shows a pattern of being afraid of anything that would require a long-term commitment, whether it’s marriage, parenting, or sticking to one career choice. Some viewers might interpret it as being commitment-phobic, while Julie would describe as it wanting her freedom.

During a book launch party for Aksel, the discontent in his relationship with Julie becomes obvious. While Aksel is being fawned over by partygoers, Julie feels like an ignored and underappreciated sidekick. She spontaneously walks out of the party and wanders on the street until she impulsively walks in uninvited to a wedding reception where she doesn’t know anyone. It’s at this wedding reception that she meets Eivind (played by Herbert Nordrum), who’s about the same age as Julie. Eivind, who is at this wedding reception by himself, quietly observes Julie mingling with people at the party before he and Julie begin talking to each other.

As an example of the mischievous side of Julie’s personality, she strikes up a conversation with two women at the party and lies to them by saying that she’s a doctor. One of the women gushes about how happy she is to be a mother and how she loves to cuddle with her children. Julie then tells her that cuddling with kids can turn them into drug addicts. She lies and says there is medical research to prove it. When the woman expresses skepticism about this research, Julie insists that it’s true. Eivind watches this conversation with some amusement.

Julie and Eivind end up meeting each other and immediately begin flirting with each other. Eivind tells her that he overheard parts of the conversations that she was having, so he thinks that Julie really is a doctor. She doesn’t tell him the truth about what she really does for a living, but Julie does confess to Eivind that she doesn’t know anyone at this wedding reception. She tells him she crashed this party on a whim and that she has a live-in boyfriend.

Eivind tells Julie that he’s romantically involved with someone too, but he doesn’t go into details. He also says that he hates infidelity, because he’s been hurt by it before. However, because Eivind and Julie feel a noticeable attraction to each other, Eivind suggests that they can do things together that are “not cheating.”

This flirtation leads to one of the more memorable scenes in the movie, where Julie and Eivind play games with each other, by pushing the boundaries of intimacy without kissing or doing anything sexual. Julie starts off by telling Eivind, “Let me smell your sweat.” And he lets her. Julie and Eivind are both drinking alcohol during the party, so it explains why their inhibitions are lowered.

And during the party, they both go into a bathroom together and watch each other urinate. They have a laugh over it and laugh even more when Julie farts during this bathroom encounter. Later, when they’re both outside, Julie blows cigarette smoke in Eivind’s mouth. At the end of the night, Julie and Eivind part ways without telling each other any more personal information.

One day, Julie is working at the bookstore, when she’s shocked to see Eivind in the store. He’s there with his live-in girlfriend Sunniva (played by Maria Grazia Di Meo), who’s a yoga instructor looking for a specific yoga book, which she asks Julie to find in the store for her. Julie is at the cash register when Sunniva buys this book. It’s how Eivind finds out what Julie really does for a living.

Immediately after Eivind and Sunniva leave the store, he comes back by himself. Eivind tells Julie that he pretended to Sunniva that he left his sunglasses in the store, but that he really just wanted to come back to tell Julie that he can’t stop thinking about her, ever since they met at the wedding reception. Eivind tells Julie that he works as a server at bakery cafe called Apent Bakeri, and he invites her to come by and see him anytime that she wants. The rest of the movie follows Julie’s journey as she makes a decision on whether or not to choose to be with Aksel or with Eivind.

There’s also a subplot about how Julie’s family background has affected a lot of the insecurities she has about love, marriage and raising a family. Her parents are divorced and split up when Julie was a child. Julie has a tension-filled relationship with her father Harald (played by Vidar Sandem), who lives in the suburb of Hønefoss with his current wife Eva (played by Marianne Krogh) and their teenage daughter Nathalie (played by Sofia Schandy Bloch), a tennis player who competes in tournaments. Julie is annoyed that her father never wants to visit her, and she always has to visit him if she wants to see him. He also tends to forget Julie’s birthday. Julie has a polite but distant relationship with her stepmother and half-sister.

On her 30th birthday, Julie has a small get-together with Aksel, her mother Kathrine (played by Anna Dworak) and Kathrine’s mother Åse (played by Thea Stabell) at Kathrine’s home. It’s during this birthday scene that the movie has a montage (with voiceover narration) of family photos with the narrator listing what Julie’s mother, maternal grandmother and their mothers from previous generations were doing at age 30. The purpose of this montage is to show how Julie’s life at age 30 compares to the women on her mother’s side of the family in previous generations.

At this milestone age, Julie’s mother was divorced for two years and working as an accountant at a publishing house. Julie’s maternal grandmother was an actress who played Rebecca West in “Rosmer Sholm” at the National Theatre. Julie’s great-grandmother was a widow with four children. Julie’s great-great-grandmother was married and the mother of seven kids, two of whom died of tuberculosis. Julie’s great-great-great-grandmother had six kids and was in a loveless marriage.

With life expectancies getting longer in each generation, and with more planned parenthood options in a post-feminism world, women are feeling less pressure to get married and have kids by age 30. But the montage clearly shows that Julie hasn’t had many of the life experiences that other women in her family had by the time they reached 30 years old. Julie is still struggling with finding out what she thinks her purpose in life should be.

Because it isn’t entirely clear what career Julie wants to have, she dabbles in some writing. There’s a “chapter” in the movie called “Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo,” which is also the name of a personal essay that Julie writes. She reads this sexually explicit essay to Axsel, and he’s very impressed. He tells her that she’s a very good writer. Julie ends up getting the essay published on a media website, where the essay goes viral.

But this moment of self-confidence is fleeting. Julie wonders if she’s letting life pass her by. And she worries that when she’s in a relationship, she will end up feeling pressured to do things that she doesn’t really want to do. During the scene where Julie and Aksel disagree about if or when she should start having kids, Julie says with frustration in her voice: “I feel like a spectator in my own life! I feel like I’m playing a supporting role in my own life!”

The movie has some unexpected whimsical moments too. During a turning point in Julie’s love life, she makes a decision that leads to a fantasy-like sequence that shows her being able to stop all movement by turning on the light switch in her kitchen. She walks through the streets of Oslo as everything around her is frozen in motion. It’s her way of making time stop to make a fantasy of hers come true.

After she fulfills her fantasy, she goes back to her home, switches off the kitchen light, and life goes on as if no one else knows that they were frozen in time. But Julie knows. And she knows what she did, which leads her to tell other people about the decision that she confirmed for herself when she fulfilled her fantasy. The light switch can be seen as symbolic of Julie having a moment of clarity in her life, illuminating what she wants to do, and giving herself permission to do it.

Most of the movie’s comedic scenes have to do with some of the witty banter that Julie exchanges with people. But there’s a laugh-out-loud funny scene where she takes psychedelic mushrooms during a house party and has inevitable hallucinations. It’s a peek into Julie’s subconscious mind. Not all of it is light-hearted, since there are a few images in this hallucination that some viewers might find vulgar and nauseating.

It’s easy to see why Reinsve won the Best Actress prize for “Worst Person in the World” at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Julie is full of contradictions, and that’s not easy to portray in an acting performance. Julie is unpredictable in many ways, but she’s predictable when it comes to feeling uncomfortable with stability that she thinks is boring. She wants to be seen as an independent woman, but she deliberately puts herself in situations where she is in a co-dependent, “arrested development” emotional state when it comes to her love life and career.

The two men who are the focus of Julie’s affections are also very different from each other. Aksel is self-assured with a successful career, but does he really accept Julie for who she is? Eivind is socially insecure with a dead-end job, but does he emotionally have what it takes to hold fickle Julie’s interest? These are some of the dilemmas faced by Julie, who has to come to terms with how much she wants a relationship to define her happiness, when she often struggles with her own self-esteem issues. Nordrum as Eivind and Lie as Aksel are very good in their roles, but their characters are not as complicated as Julie.

This movie is called “The Worst Person in the World” not because Julie is the worst person in the world, but she often thinks that she’s the worst person in the world when she knowingly does things to hurt people. The last third of the movie has the most tearjerking parts of the story. The movie’s ending might not be what a lot of viewers are expecting, but it’s a conclusion that’s an example of how “The Worst Person in the World” defies conventions in movies about self-identity and love relationships. Julie’s life is often messy by her own design, but it’s a mess that’s compelling to watch, no matter how everything turns out.

Neon released “The Worst Person in the World” in select U.S. cinemas on February 4, 2022. The movie was released in Norway and other countries in 2021.

Review: ‘The Power of the Dog,’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee

December 11, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Power of the Dog” (Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix)

“The Power of the Dog”

Directed by Jane Campion

Culture Representation: Taking place in Montana in 1925, the dramatic film “The Power of the Dog” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A bullying rancher, who is secretly gay and who comes from a wealthy family, tries to make life miserable for his younger brother’s new wife and her young adult son from a previous marriage. 

Culture Audience: “The Power of the Dog” will appeal primarily to fans of star Benedict Cumberbatch, filmmaker Jane Campion and well-made Westerns where the challenges are more psychological than physical.

Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst in “The Power of the Dog” (Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix)

“The Power of the Dog” gives an unflinching and riveting portrait of toxic masculinity, homophobia and family tensions. Even though the movie is set in 1925 Montana, the themes are universal and timeless. Written and directed by Jane Campion (who adapted the movie from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name), “The Power of the Dog” is a masterfully made film on every level. Many parts of the movie are not easy to watch, but unless you have a heart of stone or only want to watch mindless junk movies, it’s nearly impossible not to be affected in some way after seeing “The Power of the Dog.”

The story of “The Power of the Dog” essentially centers on four people, who end up being caught up in a maelstrom of mistrust and hard feelings. There are varying degrees of love and fear that drive the motives behind these characters’ actions and words. The four characters who are the focus of the story are:

  • Phil Burbank (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), the aggressive alpha male rancher, who seems ultra-skilled at almost everything except staying in a healthy and loving relationship.
  • George Burbank (played by Jesse Plemons), Phil’s mild-mannered younger brother, who is the opposite of Phil in almost every way.
  • Rose Gordon (played by Kirsten Dunst), the widow restaurateur who becomes of one the targets of Phil’s scorn, especially after Rose marries George.
  • Peter Gordon (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee), the sensitive, young adult son from Rose’s first marriage, who also gets Phil’s wrath because Peter is unapologetically effeminate.

Many other characters come and go in “The Power of the Dog,” but the most interesting and best parts of the movie are about the four main characters. Campion (who is also one of the movie’s producers) wisely pared down the “Power of the Dog” novel by choosing the parts that have the most cinematic impact. If everything in the book had been adapted to the screen, the “The Power of the Dog” would’ve been a miniseries, not a feature-length movie.

Still, the deliberately slow pacing in the beginning of the movie might be a bit of a turnoff to people with short attention spans. The first third of the movie takes place before Rose and George get married. She’s the sole owner/manager of a small eatery called the Red Mill restaurant, which is her only source of income since her first husband, Dr. John Gordon, passed away. Dr. Gordon was a loving husband and father, by all accounts. Peter helps out at the restaurant as a waiter/busboy.

Phil (who is in his mid-40s) and George (who’s in his early-to-mid 30s) come from a wealthy rancher family and live together on the family’s expansive ranch property in Montana. (“The Power of the Dog” was actually filmed in New Zealand.) Their parents are both deceased. Phil (a never-married bachelor) is in charge of the ranch, where he shows off his cowboy skills to his underlings. Phil oversees the ranch’s day-to-day manual operations, while the better-educated George handles the ranch’s business affairs. But if push came to shove, everyone knows that Phil is really the boss of the ranch.

Phil isn’t just talented at ranch responsibilities. He also plays the banjo, which he learned how to play with ease and speed beyond what the average person would be able to do. Later in the movie, Phil uses his banjo playing as a weapon to emotionally torment Rose. Because Phil is so multi-talented and has a charismatic side (he’s well-known for enrapturing people with his storytelling), he gets away with a lot of appalling things with people who seem to both admire and fear him.

Rose and Peter (who’s in his early 20s) are still grieving over the loss of Dr. Gordon, but they do what they can to survive in an often-harsh world. They experience some of this harshness when Phil and his rancher cronies come into the restaurant and put their toxic masculinity on full display. Phil is a bully who likes to taunt and insult people he thinks are vulnerable, just so he can feel superior to them.

Phil makes obnoxious and cruel comments to Rose and Peter while he’s a customer at the restaurant. Phil’s rancher buddies just laugh and do nothing to stop Phil. These weak-willed enablers often join in on Phil’s bullying. One day, at the restaurant, Phil’s bad behavior becomes potentially dangerous, when he deliberately sets fire to a bouquet of paper flowers that’s on display on the restaurant table. The fire doesn’t spread to cause any significant damage. However, this arson is the first sign that Phil has destructive tendencies.

During this restaurant meal, Phil leads a group toast to his deceased best friend Bronco Henry, who died in 1904 at the age of 50. Bronco Henry (who is not seen in flashbacks) is described as a mentor to Phil. As time goes on, there’s a pivotal scene in the movie that reveals that Bronco Henry was more than a best friend/mentor to Phil. It’s the scene that reveals that Phil is gay and in the closet about his true sexuality. It’s left open to intepretation if Phil and Bronco Henry had a sexual relationship, but it’s clear from this scene that Phil was in love with Bronco Henry.

Until that scene happens, the movie drops big hints that Phil’s homophobia is masking his own self-hatred about being gay. The biggest indication is in how Phil zeroes in on Peter for Phil’s worst bullying. Peter, who is shy and very intelligent, is contemplating going to medical school. He has no interest in a job that would require athletic prowess. Therefore, Phil delights in calling Peter a “sissy” and other derogatory names so that Phil can let it be known to everyone that he thinks Peter is probably gay.

Peter’s sexuality is not identified or defined in “The Power of the Dog,” because Peter doesn’t state what his sexuality is, and he doesn’t show interest in dating anyone at this point in his life. Peter is definitely a “mama’s boy” though, and his mother is very protective of him. Having an annoying and homophobic customer who comes into the restaurant is one thing. Having him become part of Peter’s family is another.

And so, it’s with growing dread that Peter (who does voiceover narration in the movie) notices that Phil’s younger brother George has taken a romantic interest in Peter’s lonely mother Rose. George is very smitten with Rose. The feeling isn’t mutual, but she likes George enough to entertain his amorous attention.

There’s an ulterior motive for Rose to consider marrying George: She needs money to pay for Peter’s medical school fees. Her restaurant is also struggling, and she wouldn’t have to work outside the home anymore if she married this wealthy rancher. Rose appreciates that George is kind to her, but she doesn’t have the same romantic passion for him that he does for her. She’s also living in an era when a woman’s financial stability depends largely on what kind of man she marries.

Peter isn’t the only one who doesn’t really want Rose to marry George. Phil tries to discourage George from marrying Rose. During a private conversation between the two brothers, Phil reminds George that they’ve had fun together when they visit prostitutes. Phil also warns George about not being seduced into paying the “nancy boy’s” medical school fees. George is undeterred in his pursuit of Rose because he’s truly in love with her.

Under these circumstances, it doesn’t take Rose long to decide she’s going to marry George. Rose and George have a whirlwind courtship, they get married, and she and Peter move to the Burbank family ranch. It’s during this life transition that things start to get ugly for Rose and Peter. George is often away on business, so he’s at first oblivious to what goes on at the ranch when he’s not there. And he’s sometimes clueless about the trouble that’s brewing, even when he’s at the ranch.

Because of George’s trusting nature, he lives life in an open and transparent way. By contrast, Phil is very secretive and highly manipulative. Phil sees life almost like a chess game where he always has to end up as the winner. George tends to dismiss the bad things that he hears about Phil, partly because Phil is his only sibling (and closest living relative) and partly because George likes to think that all people are essentially good.

Rose is a talented piano player, but Phil is the type of egomaniac who can’t stand the thought of anyone outshining him in any talent, especially in his own home. And so, one of the more fascinating aspects of the movie plays out, when Phil engages in psychological warfare with Rose, by using the music he plays on the banjo, how he plays it, and when he plays it. The marriage of Rose and George also threatens the closeness that Phil and George once had but is now changed because most of George’s attention is now on Rose, not Phil.

You also don’t have to be a psychiatrist to see that Phil is also jealous of George because George has found love and is with a spouse who makes him happy. It’s something that Phil knows he can never experience as a gay man, when homosexuality is forbidden in every way in this 1925 society. Over time, Rose starts to care deeply for George, and that makes Phil even more jealous.

A warning to viewers who are sensitive about seeing animal abuse depicted in movies: There’s a shocking and disturbing scene where Phil takes out his anger by brutally and repeatedly punching a horse. This act of animal cruelty is not entirely shown on camera, but the sound effects are sickening. And there are other scenes of horses being mistreated when Phil and his ranch workers use rough methods to “break” a horse in training. (There’s a disclaimer in the movie’s end credits that confirms that no animals were harmed in the making of this movie.)

People who abuse animals usually abuse other people too. Needless to say, Phil tries to make Peter’s life a living hell at the ranch. And when Peter temporarily goes away to attend medical school, Rose gets the brunt of Phil’s animosity. While on a break from medical school, Peter comes back to the ranch to visit. Rose is shocked and fearful when Phil suddenly starts treating Peter like a protégé.

Even though Phil has stopped overtly bullying Peter, Rose is suspicious that Phil’s sudden transformation into being a “nice mentor” is all an act, and that Phil is setting up Peter for something sinister. Rose confides in George about her suspicions, but George doesn’t really know what to think. Peter seems happy and grateful that Phil is no longer bullying him. The movie delivers a knockout punch to audiences in showing how all of this turmoil is resolved.

All of the cast members give terrific performances, but the biggest standouts are Cumberbatch, Dunst and Smit-McPhee. Dunst and Plemons are a couple in real life, and they have an easy chemistry together. Where things really get really shaken with unease is in how Phil, Rose and Peter navigate their relationships with each other in this very uncomfortable blended family situation.

Rose and Phil predictably don’t get along with each other. But what Dunst portrays so well is being emtionally knocked-off balance when she sees that Phil and Peter, who could easily be enemies, are now starting to become close to each other and could possibly become friends. Phil knows that Peter is the person whom Rose loves the most, so what better way to disturb Rose than to gain the loyalty and trust of Peter?

It’s easy to see why Rose would feel emotionally betrayed by Peter too. Peter is starting to assert his independence, so he seems to want to ignore his mother’s increasing apprehension that Phil does not have good intentions for Peter. The tension is ramped up even more in scenes where Peter and Phil spend time alone together. As the hard-to-read Peter, Smit-McPhee probably has the most diffcult character to play because Peter doesn’t express his emotions as easily as the other main characters.

Cumberbatch gives one of the best performances of his career as the ruthless and complicated Phil. This character is by no means an “anti-hero”—he’s a villain, through and through. But the movie can inspire thoughtful discussions over how much homophobia plays a role in Phil’s deep-seated hatred and bitterness. If Phil had been able to live his life openly as a gay man, would he still be a jerk? That question is definitely open to debate.

It’s one of the many aspects of Campion’s version of “The Power of the Dog” that make it intriguing cinematic art. The movie does not offer easy answers and weaves a rich-enough tapestry in the story that’s open to interpretation. The movie’s cinematography, production design and musical score enhance the film’s ability to be both hypnotic and suspenseful. It’s easy to see why Campion won the Best Director prize at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival, where “The Power of the Dog” had its world premiere. The movie also screened at other prestigious film festivals in 2021, such as the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival.

“The Power of the Dog” gets its title from Psalm 22:20 in the Bible: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” In the movie, a mountain range can be seen from the ranch, and the characters talk about how the mountain has a specific rock formation that resembles a dog, if looked at in a certain way. Phil represents any toxic force that threatens to ruin someone’s life. And the powerful message of the movie is that you can either fear this toxicity and look away, or you can look at it directly and confront it head-on.

Netflix released “The Power of the Dog” in select U.S. cinemas on November 17, 2021, and on Netflix on December 1, 2021.

Review: ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ starring Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Colton Ryan, Danny Pino, Julianne Moore and Amy Adams

September 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ben Platt and Julianne Moore in “Dear Evan Hansen” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Dear Evan Hansen”

Directed by Stephen Chbosky

Culture Representation: Taking place in Bethesda, Maryland, the musical film “Dear Evan Hansen” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Due to a misunderstanding over a typed letter, a lonely teenager in his last year of high school pretends that he was the secret best friend of a fellow student who committed suicide. 

Culture Audience: “Dear Evan Hansen” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the Tony-winning musical on which this movie is based, but the movie fails to capture the spirit of the stage version.

Danny Pino, Amy Adams and Kaitlyn Dever in “Dear Evan Hansen” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

On paper, the movie musical “Dear Evan Hansen” seems like it would be guaranteed to have the same appeal as the Tony-winning musical on which it’s based. However, the movie’s talented cast can’t redeem this misguided mush that clumsily handles serious issues such as mental illness and suicide. Sometimes, it isn’t enough to have members of a Broadway musical’s Tony-winning team reprise the same roles for the movie. The “Dear Evan Hansen” movie had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

Several of the principal team members who won Tony Awards for the “Dear Evan Hansen” stage musical came on board for the movie version of “Dear Evan Hansen.” Ben Platt returns in his starring role as Evan Hansen. Steven Levenson wrote the musical’s book and the movie’s screenplay. Marc Platt (Ben Platt’s father) is a producer. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul wrote the musical score and songs. The movie version has most of the same songs from the stage musical, except for the original songs “A Little Closer” and “The Anonymous Ones,” which were both written for the movie.

Stephen Chbosky, who earned rave reviews for writing and directing his 2012 movie adaptation of his novel “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” misses the mark in directing “Dear Evan Hansen,” another story about a teenage boy who’s struggling with mental illness. (Chobsky was not involved in the “Dear Evan Hansen” stage musical, whose original Broadway production was directed by Michael Greif.) In “Dear Evan Hansen,” Evan Hansen is a socially awkward loner, who is in therapy for anxiety and depression. In the “Dear Evan Hansen” movie, these issues are treated like “disease of the week” plot points. The movie also callously fails, until the last few scenes, to have much regard for the inner life of the person who committed suicide in the story, because the movie is all about Evan Hansen’s angst over keeping secrets about lies that Evan Hansen created.

Unfortunately, the movie missed some opportunities to have more exploration and sensitivity about what led to the suicide that becomes the catalyst for the entire story. Instead, the emphasis is on trying to make viewers feel sorry for a teenager who lies to people about being the suicide victim’s best friend. The movie doesn’t make him an anti-hero but someone who should be admired for coping with his mental health issues while under the stress of concocting elaborate lies.

In the beginning of “Dear Evan Hansen” (which takes place in Bethesda, Maryland), Evan is shown doing a therapy exercise required by his psychiatrist Dr. Sherman: writing a diary-like letter to himself. It’s an assignment that Evan has to do on a regular basis in order to ease some of his anxiety and hopefully boost his confidence. Dr. Sherman is never seen or heard in the movie, which is one of the reasons why parts of this movie look very phony and off-kilter. The self-addressed letter writing becomes the reason why Evan becomes entangled in a misunderstanding and a complicated deception that end up getting out of control.

Evan, who is in his last year at the fictional Westview High School, is the only child of divorcée Heidi Hansen (played by Julianne Moore), a nurse who works the night shift at a local hospital. Evan’s father abandoned Evan and Heidi when Evan was very young and has not been in their lives since then. More recently, Evan has been recovering from a broken left arm, which is in a cast, because he fell out of a tree.

The early scenes of Evan at high school embody a lot stereotypes of teenagers who are social pariahs. He’s ignored in the hallways and in classrooms. No one wants to have lunch with him in the cafeteria. Evan is afraid to talk to people, and when he does, he often stutters and stammers. And people usually don’t talk to him either, because he keeps mostly to himself.

There’s no indication of what type of academic student Evan is because the movie mostly cares about the web of lies that Evan ends up spinning. At home, Evan’s mother Heidi constantly reminds him to write the self-affirming letters, because she doesn’t want him to “go back to how it was last year,” which implies that Evan had some kind of breakdown back then.

As is typical for a story about a male nerd in high school, he has a crush on a girl whom he thinks is out of his league, and he’s too shy to even talk to her. Evan’s crush is Zoe Murphy (played by Kaitlyn Dever), who is two years younger than he is. Zoe, who is artistic and introverted, plays guitar in the school’s marching band.

Evan’s only “friend” at school is someone who often acts embarrassed to be around Evan. His name is Jared Kalvani (played by Nik Dodani), who makes a lot of cruel remarks to Evan, but Jared think he’s being witty and funny when he says these awful things to Evan. For example, Jared tells Evan that they are not “real friends,” because Jared feels obligated to hang out with Evan only because their mothers are friends. Jared also calls Evan a “total disaster” when it comes to dating. Jared tells Evan that he won’t sign Evan’s arm cast because Jared doesn’t want people to think that he and Evan are friends.

It’s the beginning of the school year, and Jared (who is openly gay) brags to Evan that he spent his summer vacation at a camp where he gained muscle weight and hooked up with a Brazilian hunk who’s a model. Jared is a motormouth who seems like the type to exaggerate things about himself in order to boost his own ego. Viewers will get the impression that Jared hangs out with Evan so Jared can feel socially superior to Evan.

One day in the school hallway, Evan has a run-in with a school bully named Connor Murphy (played by Colton Ryan), who is in Evan’s graduating class. Connor also happens to be Zoe’s older brother. Connor sees Evan looking at Connor while Evan gives a small nervous laugh. Connor’s temper explodes and he yells at Evan for laughing at him.

Zoe is among the people who saw this outburst, so shortly afterward, she approaches Evan and says she’s sorry for the way that Connor was so rude to Evan. Zoe introduces herself, but bashful Evan is tongue-tied and almost having a panic attack. Evan stammers something that Zoe can’t understand and then he runs away from her.

One day, Evan is in the school library, where he has printed out another letter to himself. The letter reads: “Dear Evan Hansen: Turns out this wasn’t an amazing day after all. This isn’t going to be an amazing year because why would it be? Oh, I know, because there’s Zoe, who I don’t even know and who doesn’t know me, but maybe if I talk to her, maybe things will be better. Or maybe nothing will be different at all. I wish everything was different. Would anyone notice if I just disappeared tomorrow? Sincerely, your best and dearest friend. Me.”

Just as he is about to leave the library, Evan runs into Connor again. To Evan’s surprise, Connor is even-tempered and asks to signs Evan’s arm cast. After Connor signs it, he smirks and says, “Now we can pretend to be friends.” However, Connor sees the letter that Evan wrote to himself, Connor reads it, and he has another angry tantrum. Connor is upset about Evan’s letter, which Connor calls a “creepy letter” about Zoe. Connor is so incensed that he takes the letter from Evan.

A few days later, Evan finds out about something tragic that happened the night before: Connor committed suicide. Word quickly spreads throughout the school. Evan is called into the school principal’s office because two people want to talk to Evan: Connor’s mother Cynthia Murphy (played by Amy Adams) and Connor’s stepfather Larry Mora (played by Danny Pino), who helped raise Zoe since she was a 1-year-old and since Connor was 3.

Cynthia and Larry found Evan’s letter among Connor’s possessions and assumed that Connor wrote the letter. Larry and Cynthia are surprised by the letter because they didn’t think Connor had any friends. At first, Evan tries to tell these grieving parents that he didn’t know Connor and he wrote the letter to himself. But when Cynthia and Larry see Connor’s signature on Evan’s arm cast, Cynthia is convinced that Connor and Evan must’ve had a secret friendship.

Cynthia in particular seems desperate to want answers about Connor’s suicide. She’s trying to find anyone who was close to Connor to help her understand things that she didn’t know about Connor. It’s at this point in the story that you have to wonder why Cynthia would think that Connor would write a letter saying that he doesn’t know his own sister Zoe, but the movie wants viewers to think that Cynthia is so overcome with grief that she isn’t thinking logically.

The more Evan tries to explain that he was never Connor’s friend, the more upset Cynthia gets. She thinks that Connor had secret email addresses and fake social media accounts to hide his “friendship” with Evan. Cynthia also asks a lot of leading questions that make it easy for Evan to give answers that she wants to hear. And so, with Evan’s anxiety starting to kick in as he faces these parents who want answers, he makes up a huge lie in this meeting, by saying that he and Connor were secret best friends. (It’s not spoiler information, because it’s in the movie’s trailers.)

The rest of the movie shows how Evan’s lies get more elaborate and how he desperately tries to cover up these lies. First, he tells Jared his secret and convinces computer whiz Jared to create fake email messages to and from Connor, so that Evan can forward these messages to the Murphy family. It makes Jared a willing accomplice to this deceit, but the movie badly handles the consequences that Jared would realistically have to face if the secret is revealed.

Cynthia and Larry want to know more about Connor from Evan. And so, it isn’t long before Evan is invited over to the Murphy home for dinner. During this dinner, Evan finds out that Zoe despised Connor, whom she calls a “bad person.” She has nothing good to say about her dead brother, and it naturally upsets Larry and Cynthia every time they hear Zoe insult Connor.

Later, in a private conversation between Zoe and Evan, she expresses some skepticism that Evan was ever really Connor’s friend. Although she and Connor weren’t close, Zoe finds it hard to believe that Evan and Connor were friends because she never saw them hanging out together. The only time that she saw Evan and Connor interacting with each other was when Connor yelled at Evan in the school hallway. Despite these major doubts, Evan is able to convince Zoe that he and Connor just had a minor argument in that school hallway and that they were really friends.

“Dear Evan Hansen” ignores the larger questions of what kind of emotional support Connor was or was not getting at home. It’s revealed that he was shipped off to rehab on multiple occasions for his substance abuse problems. And it’s obvious that Cynthia doesn’t want to talk about Connor’s worst flaws, so her denial about his problems might have made things worse.

However, viewers are only left to guess what went on inside Connor’s home and what was inside his head to make him commit suicide. To put it bluntly: Evan’s mental health problems are given all the importance in the movie, while the suicide victim’s problems are mostly ignored. This discrepancy defeats the movie’s supposed intention to bring more understanding and compassion for people who have suicidal thoughts.

The movie also goes off on a brief and unnecessary tangent that Jared gleefully participates in Evan’s deception because Jared likes the idea of making people think that Connor and Evan were secret gay lovers. It’s an idea that falls by the wayside when Evan and Zoe become closer and eventually start dating each other. Evan and Zoe becoming romantically involved is not spoiler information either, because it’s shown in the movie’s trailers.

Zoe opens up to Evan about why she and Connor never got along with each other. Connor had a long and troubled history of being a violent bully. For example, when Connor was 7 years old, he threw a printer at a teacher. He was also cruel to Zoe on many occasions. And mental illness apparently runs in the family. Zoe and Connor’s biological father died when she was a 1-year-old. His cause of death will not surprise viewers when it’s eventually revealed in the story.

At school, a concerned student named Alana Beck (played by Amandla Stenberg), who didn’t know Connor, decides to form a support group called the Connor Project to help create student awareness for mental health. She asks for Evan’s help in launching this project, but he avoids going to the student meetings about the project. Alana finds it difficult to get anyone to attend these meetings because Connor was not well-liked, so she’s surprised and disappointed that Connor’s “best friend” doesn’t want to attend these meetings either.

And when Evan tells a lie that Connor was the one who rescued Evan after he fell out of the tree, Alana gets the idea to launch a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to rebuild the defunct orchard where the tree is located. She wants to name it the Connor Murphy Memorial Orchard. Alana tries to enlist Evan’s help for this campaign too. And so, now Evan knows that this fundraising campaign was created as a direct result of his deceit. Can you say “financial fraud”?

Why is Alana going to all this trouble for Connor, someone she didn’t even know? It turns out that Alana has a personal reason for wanting to launch the Connor Project: Just like Evan, she’s on medication for anxiety and depression. Alana thinks that Connor also had a mental illness that could’ve been better treated if he felt that he had a support system at school. And therefore, Alana has a lot of empathy for anyone who is going through these struggles.

One of the reasons why the “Dear Evan Hansen” movie will turn off some viewers is that the movie tries to make Evan look sympathetic because he’s a social outcast, but he actually comes across as very selfish. Would he have continued lying to the Murphy family if he didn’t think it was a convenient way to get closer to Zoe? Probably not. Would he have kept up the charade of being sympathetic to Connor’s emotional problems if this fake sympathy hadn’t raised his social status at school? Probably not.

Evan also doesn’t seem to care to understand who Connor was as a human being until something happens in the story that forces Evan to look like he’s curious about what Connor’s interests were when Connor was alive. Throughout most of the movie, Alana is more inquisitive about Connor than Evan is. Of course, in real life, this discrepancy would have set off red flags very early on—not just with Connor’s family but also with teachers and students who would know best what the friendship cliques are at the school. It’s a reality that’s mostly ignored in this movie, which makes the students and teachers look extremely gullible to Evan’s lies, which aren’t even that clever.

And there’s an icky subtext that Evan is enjoying the attention and approval he’s getting for coming forward as Connor’s “best friend,” even though Evan is supposed to feel guilty about his lies. He does feel guilty, but mainly when he comes close to getting caught and other people get backlash that Evan didn’t expect. This backlash is rushed into the story as a way to force an inevitable plot development.

It’s possible that this movie could’ve been more convincing if it had been set in a time before the Internet and social media existed. However, no one ever asks Evan for more proof that he knew Connor as a best friend, such as things Connor would’ve told a best friend about himself. Everyone just accepts the superficial and vague email as “evidence” of the friendship.

Evan claims that his friendship with Connor was mostly online, by email. However, except for saying that Evan rescued him after the tree fall, Evan never provides the dates and times of when he and Evan supposedly hung out in person together. Viewers are supposed to believe that Evan thinks he can get away with this scam with his mother, who knows pretty much everything about him and is skeptical that he had a secret best friend. But somehow, Evan convinces her too. It’s a very flimsy part of the story.

The cast members capably handle the acting and song performances. However, the way the songs are placed in the movie don’t come off as well on screen as they would on stage. There’s a very cringeworthy fantasy sequence where Evan and Connor frolic, dance and sing in a carefree manner together, as if they were best friends. Ben Platt vacillates between portraying Evan as a pitiful wimp and a troubled opportunist. Dever does quite well in her scenes as Zoe, especially when she depicts Zoe’s conflicting love/hate emotions about Connor.

The songs from the stage musical that are in the movie are “Waving Through a Window,” “Good for You,” “Anybody Have a Map?,” “For Forever,” “Sincerely, Me,” “Requiem,” “If I Could Tell Her,” “Only Us.” “Words Fail,” “So Big, So Small” and the musical’s most well-known anthem “You Will Be Found.” The original songs “A Little Closer” (performed by Ryan) and “The Anonymous Ones” (performed by Stenberg, who co-wrote the music and lyrics) are serviceable but aren’t that outstanding. In addition, the soundtrack has Sam Smith doing a version of “You Will Be Found” and SZA performing “The Anonymous Ones.”

Mostly, the overall cloying tone of the movie is off-putting because it tries so hard to get viewers to root for Evan while he’s doing a lot of despicable lying about someone who committed suicide. Just because Evan has anxiety and depression shouldn’t be used as an excuse, which is what this movie does in a way that’s insulting to people with these mental health issues who would never stoop to the pathetic levels of what Evan does in this movie.

And it’s made even worse when it’s wrapped up in bombastic musical numbers that are intended to make people shed tears for Evan more than anyone else in the story—even though he’s not the one who lost a loved one to suicide and he’s causing more pain with his lies. This gross spectacle of a movie amplifies the deep-rooted flaws of the entire story, which might have been more acceptable to theater audiences who are more accustomed to seeing song-and-dance numbers about suicidal thoughts and other mental health issues. “Dear Evan Hansen” has a lot of deluded worship of Evan, who’s got a bland abyss of a personality and who isn’t even creative with his lies.

Universal Pictures will release “Dear Evan Hansen” in U.S. cinemas on September 24, 2021.

Review: ‘Saloum,’ starring Yann Gael, Roger Sallah, Mentor Ba, Bruno Henry, Evelyne Ily Juhen and Renaud Farah

September 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Renaud Farah, Roger Sallah, Mentor Ba, and Yann Gael in “Saloum” (Photo courtesy of Lacme Studios)

“Saloum”

Directed by Jean Luc Herbulot 

French and Wolof with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2003 in Senegal and briefly in Guinea-Bissau and Gambia, the horror film “Saloum” features a predominantly African cast (with a few Latinos and white people) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: Three Sengalese mercenaries for hire are tasked with transporting a Mexican drug dealer to Dakar, but they end up in a camp in the Saloum Delta, where they encounter mysterious and sinister wind monsters.

Culture Audience: “Saloum” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in suspenseful horror movies that explore issues of fallouts from civil wars and exploitation of children.

Yann Gael and Evelyne Ily Juhen in “Saloum” (Photo courtesy of Lacme Studios)

The horror movie “Saloum” artfully poses this question: “What’s scarier: monsters on the outside or personal demons on the inside?” During this intensely suspenseful story, three African mercenaries for hire have to confront this question, as a trip to Senegal to transport a Mexican drug dealer turns into a living nightmare. “Saloum” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

Written and directed by Jean Luc Herbulot, “Saloum” takes place in 2003, and begins with an Atlantic Ocean scenery in the African country of Guinea-Bissau. A woman says in a voiceover: “They say revenge is like a river. And our actions are the dugouts guided by the current, whose bottom is reached when we drown.” It’s revealed at the end of the movie who said these words, since these words are repeated in the movie’s last scene.

But most of the movie follows three Sengalese mercenaries who call themselves Bangui’s Hyenas. Chaka (played by Yann Gael), who is in his mid-30s, is the group leader and is the most fearless and ruthless of this trio. Rafa (played by Roger Sallah), who is in his late 30s or early 40s, is physically the strongest. Minuit (played by Mentor Ba), who is in his 60s, is the most spiritually minded and has a visually striking appearance with long white dreadlocks for his hairstyle.

The first time that viewers see this renegade trio, they are rampaging through Guinea-Bissau, where there’s chaos on the streets. According to a caption on screen: “The military declares a coup d’état. Their pledge to restore order looks more like bloodshed. First in their crosshairs is the international drug trade. Bad news for the pushers, unless you have a military plan.”

The mercenaries who call themselves Bangui’s Hyenas find several dead or dying people on the streets. Minuit (which means “midnight” in French) has a mysterious powder that he blows in people’s faces to render them unconscious. The three mercenaries burst into a building, where they emerge with several gold bricks and have captured a human as bounty.

The bounty is a Mexican drug dealer named Felix (played by Renaud Farah), who doesn’t talk much in this story because he spends about half of his screen time passed out from the powder blown in his face by Minuit. Rafa says a drug cartel is paying “a million” to bring Felix back alive. Felix insists that they take him to Dakara, the capital of Senegal.

But on the private plane ride in a small aircraft, something goes terribly wrong: The plane is shot at, and the bullets have penetrated the gas tank. The plane runs out of fuel while over Gambia. They are forced to make an emergency landing in the Saloum region of Senegal. It’s mostly a desert area.

Rafa is suspicious about who was shooting at the plane, and he wonders if they might have been set up to make this emergency landing. Chaka isn’t as skeptical because he doesn’t think that the drug cartel would risk this type of double-cross when the cartel wants Felix back alive. As a precaution, Chaka and Rafa bury their gold bricks near certain trees in the desert, while Minuit blows the powder in Felix face so he’ll lose consciousness and won’t see where the gold is being buried.

The down side to Felix being unconscious for a certain period of time is that he has to be carried through the desert. The four men, with Felix awake, eventually find a boat to use, and they end up in Baobub Camp, a isolated holiday gathering area in the coastal region of Sine-Saloum. The camp is so remote that the nearest village is 10 kilometers (about six miles) away.

These four interlopers try to pretend to be innocent tourists who are just passing through the area, in order to fit in with the other camp dwellers. They use alias to hide their identities. Chaka says his name is Cheikh, Rafa calls himself Rufin, Minuit is now known as Maudou, and Felix uses the fake name Felipe. But it isn’t long before these criminals expose how dangerous they can be.

The camp has a friendly host named Omar (played by Bruno Henry), who tells these new visitors: “Saloum is a natural sanctuary. It’s our job to preserve it.” The four guests are invited to a group dinner, where they get to know the other dwellers of the camp.

A woman in her 20s named Awa (played by Evelyne Ily Juhen) immediately stands out because she’s the only deaf and mute person in the group. She can communicate by sign language, which only a few people in the camp know. Awa is no pushover. When Rafa makes rude suggestive remarks to her, she scowls and gives him the middle finger.

One of the people at the camp notices that Chaka has gold dust on his hands. He fabricates a story about how he works in a gold mine. Chaka also lies and says that “Felipe” is a contact for South American investors who are interested in the gold. As time goes on, Minuit suspects that Chaka is being dishonest about other things, because he notices that Chaka has been acting as if his nerves are on edge ever since they arrived at the camp.

In a private conversation between Minuit and Rafa, Minuit mentions his suspicions that Chaka might be hiding something from them. It’s implied during the story that Minuit is can communicate with spirits or has a psychic side to him. At the very least, he’s the most intuitive member of this mercenary group. And he’s right: Chaka is hiding a big secret, which is eventually revealed in the movie.

Chaka tells Omar and the rest of the camp dwellers that the four men in Chaka’s group will eventually go to the Senegal city of Kedougou in three days. However, those plans go into awry when monsters suddenly descend on the camp. The best way to describe these creatures is that they look like swirling dust devils with black mop-like fur, like a Puli dog. And since “Saloum” is a horror movie, not everyone makes it out alive.

The terrified camp dwellers find out that these monsters can be killed with guns. But there’s something else that’s life-threatening: If the humans’ ears aren’t covered, they hear a distinct and dangerous sound from the monsters that causes humans to eventually get pustule infections on their bodies and they cough up blood. Headphones are used to block out this noise. Awa doesn’t need the headphones because she’s deaf.

“Saloum” isn’t the type of horror movie that doesn’t explain why these monsters suddenly arrive to plague the camp. There’s a clear cause-and-effect that conjured up the arrival of these sinister spirits. As the humans fight to stay alive, people who previously didn’t care for each other have to form alliances to help each other, while other people are left to fend for themselves.

All of the cast members are perfectly fine in their roles. However, the characters with the most intriguing backstories are Chaka and Awa, who are both trying in their own ways to heal from emotional pain. Awa knows the pain of being isolated because of her disability, while Chaka knows the pain of being isolated because of his dark secret. It’s eventually revealed that Chaka, who seems arrogant and fearless on the outside, is a mess of insecurities on the inside.

The monsters signify what can happen when evil intentions are unresolved and allowed to fester. “Saloum” is also a disturbing story about the fallout of war. This movie is not for people who are overly sensitive to seeing life’s atrocities, but it’s a riveting depiction of how sins of the past can haunt people in the present.

2021 Toronto International Film Festival: winners announced

September 18, 2021

 

TIFF logo

Pictured in front row: Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Jude Hill and Lewis McAskie in “Belfast” (Photo by Rob Youngson/Focus Features)

 

The following is a press release from the Toronto International Film Festival:

The Toronto International Film Festival® has announced its award recipients for the 46th edition of the Festival, which concluded tonight with screenings of Zhang Yimou’s One Second at the Visa Screening Room at the Princess of Wales Theatre and Roy Thomson Hall.

“2021 brought an exceptional selection of films that excited Festival audiences around the world,” said Joana Vicente and Cameron Bailey, TIFF Co-Heads. “Our lineup showcased beloved auteurs alongside fresh voices in filmmaking, including numerous women powerhouses. TIFF welcomed guest press, industry, international stars, and directors back to the city and into cinemas. The sweeping range in cinematic storytelling from around the world is a testament to the uniqueness of the films that are being made. We’re so grateful and proud of this year’s Festival.”

Thanks to the hybrid nature of the Festival, TIFF’s Industry platform welcomed close to 4,000 industry and press professionals from around the world, both digitally and in-person. TIFF remains a site of industry activity and a key marketplace for film title sales, hosting 105 market screenings and facilitating the sales of “France,” “Silent Night,” “A Banquet,” and “Huda’s Salon,” as well as Industry Selects title “The Pink Cloud.” TIFF’s Industry Conference presented 37 digital sessions for industry and press delegates from filmmakers to advocates and funders. The Dialogues stream featured conversations with creators E. Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, Sterlin Harjo, Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and Rebeca Huntt; Visionaries welcomed Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Sahraa Karimi, Greig Fraser, Nancy Utley, and Steve Gilula; Perspectives explored narrative sovereignty with Indigenous industry leaders and hosted a discussion on dismantling toxic industry culture; and Connections highlighted conversations on funding diverse films with ARRAY and talent to watch with Telefilm. TIFF also welcomed 20 new Filmmaker Lab participants, and eight new Rising Stars, who participated in intimate development labs with programme governors and special guest speakers.

TIFF’s Satellite Screenings wrapped Monday, September 13 in the evening. TIFF’s Film Circuit partners Bell and Cineplex worked with TIFF to bring screenings to audiences across Canada, in seven cities and six provinces (Collingwood, ON; Markham, ON; Montreal, QC; Moose Jaw, SK; Prince Rupert, BC; Saint John, NB; and Summerside, PE).

Honouring the film industry’s outstanding contributors and their achievements, and serving as TIFF’s largest annual fundraiser, the TIFF Tribute Awards was broadcast this evening across Canada on CTV, CTV.ca and the CTV app and streamed internationally to the rest of the world by Variety for the second straight year. The 2021 event raised funds for TIFF’s diversity, equity, and inclusion fund, Every Story, and championed a safe, community-focused, and inspiring return to cinemas. During the one-hour broadcast, two-time Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain at the Festival with “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and “The Forgiven,” who will receive the TIFF Tribute Actor Award supported by the Tory Family; and Academy Award–nominated Benedict Cumberbatch who was also at TIFF with “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” and “The Power of the Dog,” who will receive the TIFF Tribute Actor Award; Academy Award–nominated French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who will receive the TIFF Ebert Director Award and brought the epic and breathtaking “Dune” to TIFF on the big screen; award-winning documentary filmmaker, writer, singer, and activist Alanis Obomsawin, who will be honoured with the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media supported by Participant Media, also celebrated with a retrospective and premiere of her new powerful short film “Honour to Senator Murray Sinclair”; cinematographer Ari Wegner, whose stunning work was featured in “The Power of the Dog,” who will receive the TIFF Variety Artisan Award; “Cree/Métis Night Raiders” filmmaker Danis Goulet who will receive the TIFF Emerging Talent Award, presented by L’Oréal Paris and supported by MGM; and six-time Grammy Award-winning, music legend Dionne Warwick whose documentary “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” had a World Premiere at the Festival, will be honoured with the Special Tribute Award.

Produced by Bell Media Studios, with etalk’s Tyrone Edwards and Chloe Wilde returning as hosts, the third annual awards show opened with an introduction from Sigourney Weaver and special tributes were presented by Shamier Anderson, Kirsten Dunst, Rebecca Ferguson, Emma Ferreira, Gladys Knight, Phillip Lewitski, L’Oréal Paris brand ambassador Eva Longoria, David Oyelowo, Michael Showalter, and Kiefer Sutherland. Starting on Sunday, September 19, the TIFF Tribute Awards will be available to view on Crave.

New this year, the highly anticipated winners of the TIFF People’s Choice Award and Platform Jury Prize were announced live during the awards broadcast, just moments ago. Academy Award–nominated actor Riz Ahmed, head of the jury for the 2021 Platform Prize, announced the prize winner for that competition, and the 2021 People’s Choice Award winner was announced by TIFF Co-Heads Cameron Bailey and Joana Vicente.

PLATFORM PRIZE

Arawinda Kirana and Asmara Abigail in “Yuni” (Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

Named after Jia Zhang-ke’s trailblazing second feature, Platform is the Toronto International Film Festival’s competitive programme championing bold directorial visions. Now in its sixth year, Platform is curated by TIFF Artistic Director and Co-Head Cameron Bailey. The Platform Prize Jury members for 2021 are Riz Ahmed (Jury President), Clio Barnard, Anthony Chen, Kazik Radwanski, and Valerie Complex.

The Platform jury provided this statement: “The jury was moved by a film that brings a fresh, intimate perspective to a coming-of-age story, marked by a subtle structure, delicate framing, and lush cinematography. For drawing us into a unique inner world too rarely seen on screen, the 2021 Platform Prize goes to Yuni, directed by Kamila Andini.”

An honourable mention from the Platform Prize Jury goes to Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), dir. Jenna Cato Bass.

PEOPLE’S CHOICE AWARD

Judi Dench, Jude Hill and Ciarán Hinds in “Belfast” (Photo by Rob Youngson/Focus Features)

For the 44th year, the People’s Choice Awards distinguish the audience’s top title at the Festival as voted by the viewing public. Audiences watching films at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Roy Thomson Hall, the Visa Screening Room at the Princess of Wales Theatre, Scotiabank Theatre, the Ontario Place Cinesphere IMAX Theatre, the Visa Skyline Drive-In, the RBC Lakeside Drive-In, the West Island Open Air Cinema, and at home via digital screenings on the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox platform voted online. All films in TIFF’s Official Selection that screened both in-person and on digital TIFF Bell Lightbox were eligible.

The TIFF 2021 People’s Choice Award winner is: “Belfast,” dir. Kenneth Branagh. The first runner-up is “Scarborough,” dirs. Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson. The second runner-up is “The Power of the Dog,” dir. Jane Campion.

A scene from “The Rescue” (Photo courtesy of National Geographic Films)

The TIFF 2021 People’s Choice Documentary Award winner is “The Rescue,” dirs. E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. The first runner-up is Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over, dirs. Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner. The second runner-up is Flee, dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen.

Agathe Rousselle in “Titane” (Photo by Carole Bethuel/Neon)

The TIFF 2021 People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award winner is “Titane,” dir. Julia Ducournau. The first runner-up is “You Are Not My Mother,” dir. Kate Dolan. The second runner-up is “DASHCAM,” dir. Rob Savage.

SHAWN MENDES FOUNDATION CHANGEMAKER AWARD

Pictured clockwise, from left to right: Anna Claire Beitel, Essence Fox and Liam Diaz in “Scarborough” (Photo courtesy of Telefilm Canada and the Talent Fund)

Presented by the Shawn Mendes Foundation, the 2021 Changemaker Award is awarded to a Festival film that tackles issues of social change, and comes with a $10,000 cash prize. The winning film was selected by TIFF’s Next Wave Committee, a group of young film lovers who recognize cinema’s power to transform the world. The Shawn Mendes Foundation will also be making an annual contribution in support of TIFF Next Wave, helping TIFF deliver key initiatives to elevate young voices. The jurors for the Changemaker Award are members of TIFF’s Next Wave Committee: Norah Daudi, Sia Mehta, Saharla Ugas, Julia Yoo, Lina Zhang, Charles Liu, Naiya Forrester, Honora Murphy, Dev Desai, Elli Tripp, Michelle Kofia, and David Rhomberg.

The 2021 Changemaker Award is presented to “Scarborough,” dirs. Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson. Shasha Nakhai developed Scarborough at TIFF Industry in 2019 as an inaugural TIFF Talent Accelerator filmmaker.

TIFF’s Next Wave Committee provided this statement: “This film is etched on my heart. Scarborough is an utterly captivating and earth-shattering story of three intertwined families who are no strangers to hardship. Through the charms of misfits and unlikely heroes, directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson pose big social questions while framing them in a real and affirming story of resilience, community, and love. Written and directed with power and grace, this film truly feels like home.”

Directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson offered this statement: “Thank you to TIFF for giving this film a platform. It has been a really long and challenging road to get here, and we are so grateful to the TIFF Next Wave Committee and the Shawn Mendes Foundation for this award. We’re happy folks are coming away from the film feeling moved, seen, and affirmed, with a renewed commitment to community — and what we hope is a renewed commitment to resisting the forces that seek to erase, fracture, and monetize community. We are excited to bring this film to wider audiences after the Festival, and especially looking forward to using it as a tool to support the front-line work already being done on the myriad issues that it tackles.”

AMPLIFY VOICES AWARDS PRESENTED BY CANADA GOOSE

Canada Goose embraces diversity in all its forms and definitions, including technique and passion that transports storytelling to the screen. This year, Canada Goose presents the Amplify Voices Awards to the three best feature films by under-represented filmmakers. All feature films in Official Selection by emerging BIPOC filmmakers and Canadian filmmakers were eligible for these awards, and the three winners will receive a cash prize of $10,000 each, made possible by Canada Goose.

The three Amplify Voices Awards presented by Canada Goose winners are:

A scene from “Ste. Anne” (Photo courtesy of Exovedate Productions)

Amplify Voices Award for Best Canadian Feature Film: “Ste. Anne,” dir. Rhayne Vermette
Jury’s statement: “Rhayne Vermette’s debut feature shows us a unique vision that makes full use of all the tools of filmmaking to lure us into its emotional topography. Deeply personal yet inviting, Ste. Anne is true cinematic art made in a setting that’s often missing from the landscape of Canadian film.”

Special Mention: “Scarborough,” dirs. Shasha Nakhai, Rich Williamson
Jury’s statement: “With a strong sense of place, Scarborough tells a heartfelt story about community that charms with great performances from its actors, both young and old.”

Yasmin Warsame and Omar Abdi in “The Grave Digger’s Wife” (Photo courtesy of Orange Studio)

Amplify Voices Award: “The Gravedigger’s Wife,” dir. Khadar Ayderus Ahmed
Jury’s statement: “At once specific to Somali culture and universally recognizable, The Gravedigger’s Wife tells a deeply romantic tale that’s both emotionally and visually textured. With Omar Abdi as its magnetic lead, Guled’s journey captivates from the first scene to the final frame.”

A scene from “A Night of Knowing Nothing” (Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

Amplify Voices Award: “A Night of Knowing Nothing,” dir. Payal Kapadia
Jury’s statement: “Payal Kapadia’s unique documentary balances the personal and political with a surprising snapshot of her home country. Shocking at times, but also sweeping in its beauty, A Night of Knowing Nothing is a first feature that already demonstrates her strong voice as a filmmaker.”

The 2021 jurors for the Amplify Voices Awards presented by Canada Goose are Yung Chang, Calvin Thomas, Kaniehtiio Horn, Hugh Gibson, and Aisha Jamal.

IMDbPro SHORT CUTS AWARDS

A scene from “Displaced” (Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

The 2021 IMDbPro Short Cuts Awards are for Best Film, Best Canadian Film, and the Share Her Journey Award for best film by a woman. Each winning film will receive a bursary of $10,000 CAD and a one-year membership to IMDbPro, the essential resource for entertainment industry professionals, to help them continue achieving success in their careers. These awards build on IMDbPro’s nearly 20-year history of empowering entertainment professionals to discover new talent and projects, and on its ongoing commitment to supporting and collaboratively working with organizations that create greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in the entertainment industry, including TIFF’s Share Her Journey campaign.

The winners of the three awards are:

IMDbPro Short Cuts Award for Best Film: “Displaced,” dir. Samir Karahoda
Jury’s statement: “Standing out in a strong selection of films, Samir Karahoda’s Displaced captivated us with its unique look, locations, and characters that all brought to life the quixotic yet enduring dedication to a sport — and a country — that is hard to articulate, even to one’s self.”

Honourable Mention: “Trumpets in the Sky,” dir. Rakan Mayasi

IMDbPro Short Cuts Award for Best Canadian Film: “Angakusajaujuq – The Shaman’s Apprentice,” dir. Zacharias Kunuk

Jury’s statement: “’Zacharias Kunuk’s Angakusajaujuq – The Shaman’s Apprentice’ is an enthralling stop-motion that encapsulates an array of textures, sound, and nuanced expressions that collectively invite you into the apprentice’s journey in learning traditional knowledge and caring for community while confronting your own fears. You can’t help but feel the questions asked of the apprentice are for us all to consider: Who are you? What have you learned?”

Honourable Mention: “Nuisance Bear,” dirs. Jack Weisman, Gabriela Osio Vanden

IMDbPro Short Cuts Share Her Journey Award: “ASTEL,” dir. Ramata-Toulaye Sy
Jury’s statement: “Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s ASTEL moved us with its powerful storytelling, beautiful shots, and a captivating lead performance that explores the complex nuances of womanhood, patriarchy, and coming of age when you least expect it.”

Honourable mention: “Love, Dad,” dir. Diana Cam Van Nguyen

The 2021 jurors for the IMDbPro Short Cuts Awards are filmmakers Sudeep Sharma, Tiffany Hsiung, and Nicole Delaney.

Today the Toronto International Film Festival, alongside the International Federation of Film
Critics (FIPRESCI) and the Network for the Promotion of Asia Pacific Cinema (NETPAC), announced award winners for work screened at TIFF 2021.

FIPRESCI PRIZE

“We are thrilled to announce that ‘Anatolian Leopard’ has received the 2021 FIPRESCI Jury Award,” said Diana Sanchez, Senior Director, Film, TIFF. “Every year we are amazed at the creativity and audaciousness of the filmmakers in our line-up. ‘Anatolian Leopard,’ directed by Emre Kayiş, is no exception.”

Hatice Aslan in “Anatolian Leopard” (Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

This year’s FIPRESCI jury members include: Andrew Kendall, Esin Kücüktepepinar, Caspar Salmon, Gilbert Seah, and Teresa Vena.

The 2021 FIPRESCI jury released the following statement: “In a perfectly controlled comedy of manners, ‘Anatolian Leopard’ takes the temperature of a country torn between the old ways and modernity – not to say between honour and corruption – while offering up a melancholy portrait of a man at odds with his surroundings. Emre Kayiş shows great formal accomplishment in this measured and thoughtful film, which stood out from the competition for its singular tone and worldview.”

NETPAC AWARD

Saleh Bakri and Nadine Labaki in “Costa Brava, Lebanon” (Photo courtesy of MK2 Films)

The 2021 NETPAC jury members include: Gemma Cubero del Barrio, Isabelle Glachant and Elhum Shakerifar. TIFF is delighted to announce that the 2021 NETPAC Jury has selected “Costa Brava, Lebanon,” directed by Mounia Aklas this year’s NETPAC winner. The jury released this statement, “’Costa Brava, Lebanon’ – an exquisite intergenerational family story – is an ode to sustainable futures by visionary new talent, Mounia Akl from her precious and troubled country.”

Please visit tiff.net for more information.

AFTER THE FESTIVAL

This fall, TIFF Bell Lightbox reopens its doors to audiences for year-round programming with a full roster of new titles, Festival hits, and beloved favourites. TIFF programming will restart with the Festival Midnight Madness body-horror smash hit “Titane,” from director Julia Ducournau (“Raw”). “Titane” begins screening October 1 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Starting October 14, TIFF also invites audiences to enjoy Welcome Back, TIFF Cinematheque’s lineup of big-screen favourites — including Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy,” Jane Campion’s “The Portrait of a Lady,” Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich,” and Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail.”

Following a highly anticipated Special Event Festival screening of “Dune,” TIFF Cinematheque presents The Uncanny Vision of Denis Villeneuve, an in-cinema programme of the filmmaker’s earlier works (Arrival, Enemy, August 32nd on Earth), as well as films selected by Villeneuve that have inspired him throughout his career (David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Le Mystère Picasso”). The Uncanny Vision of Denis Villeneuve begins October 15.

Rounding out the Fall Season in-cinema lineup is In Case You Missed It, a selection of acclaimed titles from recent Festivals, starting on October 6. Audiences who may have missed their chance the first time around will now have the opportunity to have the full theatrical experience for titles like Kazik Radwanski’s “Anne at 13,000 ft,” Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” and Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” winner of TIFF 2020’s People’s Choice Award. Additional programming will be announced in the coming weeks.

TIFF is also pleased to announce that digital offerings will continue for film lovers across the country. TIFF patrons across Canada can experience Ann Shin’s A.rtificial I.mmortality, David Lowery’s The Green Knight and Heidi Ewing’s I Carry You With Me, among other titles, from the comfort of their homes via digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

COVID-19 health and safety measures will continue as TIFF Bell Lightbox reopens for year-round operation. As of September 22, audience members and visitors entering TIFF Bell Lightbox will be required to show proof they have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Masks remain mandatory throughout the building, including in cinema. Additional details are available at tiff.net/covid-19.

Learn more about the Every Story fund at tiff.net/everystory

The 46th Toronto International Film Festival ran September 9–18, 2021.

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Review: ‘Montana Story,’ starring Haley Lu Richardson and Owen Teague

September 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Haley Lu Richardson and Owen Teague in “Montana Story” (Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

“Montana Story”

Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel

Culture Representation: Taking place in Montana’s Paradise Valley, the drama “Montana Story” features a cast of white and Native American characters (with one black person) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An estranged brother and sister have a tension-filled reunion after their father is in a coma, and the two siblings end up confronting some dark family secrets.

Culture Audience: “Montana Story” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted and realistically crafted dramas about dysfunctional families.

Owen Teague and Haley Lu Richardson in “Montana Story” (Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

“Montana Story” shows in nuanced and heartbreaking ways how a rift in a family can come not just from damaging words and actions but also by what’s been left unsaid. It’s an emotionally genuine and contemplative story of a tense family reunion between a brother and a sister who have not seen and spoken to each other in seven years. The movie also touches on issues of euthanasia, controversies over pipelines running through Native American land, and the daily struggles of working-class people who are a few paychecks away from financial ruin. “Montana Story”—written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel—had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The movie unfolds in layers to reveal the reasons why siblings Cal (played by Owen Teague) and Erin (played by Haley Lu Richardson) have been estranged for seven years. The full story of why Cal and Erin became alienated from each other comes out about halfway through the film. Cal and Erin have both reunited at the Montana ranch of their widowed attorney father Wade (played by Rob Story), who has been in a coma from a stroke and is not expected to recover. Although the movie does not name any cities where the story takes place, “Montana Story” was filmed on location in Montana’s Paradise Valley, in the cities of Bozeman, Livingston and Ringling. The movie’s cinematography (by Giles Nuttgens) of this Montana outdoor scenery is suitably breathtaking.

The ranch where Wade is bedridden in a coma is the same home where Cal and Erin grew up. Cal, who is 22, is a quiet and introverted bachelor who lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He’s an aspiring civil engineer who currently works for Cheyenne’s city planning department. Cal arrives at the family home first by driving there in his own car. Cal doesn’t know it yet, but Erin is about to show up for a surprise visit.

Erin, who is 25, is a feisty and stubborn bachelorette who lives in New York’s Hudson Valley. She works as a cook at a farm-to-table restaurant, and she is deeply concerned about environmental issues. Erin has traveled by airplane to go to Montana and doesn’t have a rental car. She uses a rideshare service to go to and from the airport.

It’s mentioned later in the story that Cal and Erin have two different mothers, who are both deceased. These two mothers are not shown in flashbacks but are briefly described in the movie through conversations. Erin’s mother Libby, who was Wade’s wife, died when she gave birth to Erin. Libby is described as the greatest love of Wade’s life.

Cal’s mother Connie was the nanny who took care of Erin after Libby died. Connie, who died in a car accident two years ago, is described as someone who knew that Wade didn’t love her as much as he loved Libby, but Connie loved Wade anyway. Connie and Wade never married each other, but they lived together and raised Erin and Cal.

Before Erin shows up for her surprise visit, Cal braces himself for some of the difficult but inevitable experiences of a family member who has to prepare for a loved one to die. When Cal goes inside the home, he doesn’t immediately go into the bedroom where Wade is in a coma, because it will be the first time that Cal will see his father in this condition. Instead, Cal goes into his childhood bedroom, which has been kept exactly the way he left it when he moved out of the family home to go to college in Wyoming. The way he looks around the room is the way someone might look at a mausoleum filled with long-buried memories.

When Cal does go into the room to see his father (who is hooked up to a ventilating machine), the expression on Cal’s face shows a range of emotions. It’s the look of someone who’s had a love/hate relationship with a parent and doesn’t quite know how to process that this parent is unable to communicate. How do you reconcile with someone who’s in a coma?

There are two people who have been taking care of the day-to-day duties of the household. The part-time housekeeper Valentina (played by Kimberly Guerrero) has been a longtime employee of the family. Valentina has known Erin and Cal since they were children. Wade’s home care aide, who is being paid for by state government assistance, is a Kenyan immigrant named Ace (played by Gilbert Owuor). Cal and Ace meet for the first time when Cal comes home to visit Wade, who isn’t expected to live much longer.

Valentina and Ace are very kind and compassionate. Ace tells Cal that although Wade is in a coma and cannot communicate, Wade’s brain is still functioning. It’s this piece of information that probably motivates Cal to do something in one of the more emotionally powerful scenes in the movie.

Wade used to be a financially successful attorney. But something happened (some of the details are revealed but not all) that resulted in him filing for bankruptcy before he had a stroke. It’s why all of his medical bills are being paid for by government benefits and why the family ranch (which is in Wade’s name) is going to be sold after Wade dies. Wade apparently has no other immediate relatives besides his two children.

Cal has to meet with an attorney named Don (played by played by John Ludin) to gets these matters sorted. Don tells Wade that the sale of the ranch should be enough to pay for Wade’s medical bills that would have to be paid by any heirs. Don advises Cal to sell Wade’s car, since the car is no longer of any use to Wade.

The ranch used to be thriving and had several animals, including horses. There are still a few remaining animals, such as chickens, but now there is only one horse on the property: a 25-year-old black stallion named Mr. T. Because of Mr. T’s advanced age and arthritis, it’s unlikely that anyone will buy the horse, so Cal takes Don’s advice to arrange for Mr. T to get euthanized.

When Erin arrives at the ranch, Cal is in complete shock. It’s revealed that Erin had run away from home at age 18 and cut off contact with all of her family members. Cal had tried to get in touch with her, but she eventually changed her phone number and never told anyone in her family where she was.

When she sees Cal again all these years later, Erin is cold and abrupt. She explains the only reason why she’s there is to see their father one last time before he dies. How did Erin find out about Wade being in a coma? Cal asks this question and Erin tells him. (The answer won’t be revealed in this review.)

As the two siblings spend time together in an already stressful situation, long-simmering resentments come to the surface. Viewers will notice that Erin and Cal have different ways of dealing with problems. Erin is more outspoken and determined to do what she thinks is right, even if it makes other people uncomfortable. Cal is more willing to compromise and is more likey to be a people pleaser.

It’s why Erin and Cal end up clashing over what to do about Mr. T, the family’s longtime horse. Erin is livid that Cal made plans to put down Mr. T. She’s so angry about it that she insists that she’s going to buy a truck and horse trailer and drive Mr. T all the way back to New York state with her. Of course, Erin and Cal’s arguments about the horse are just symptoms of a larger problems and traumatic family secrets, which the siblings eventually have to confront if they have a chance of healing their fractured relationship.

Although “Montana Story” is centered on Erin and Cal, the movie also brings up issues experienced by the supporting characters who are feeling the ripple effects of what will happen to them after Wade dies. Valentina has another part-time job at a retail store, which has just reduced her work hours. Based on worried conversations that Valentina has, she’s in danger of being financially ruined if she doesn’t have another job lined up in time after Wade dies.

And even though Ace is being paid by the state, he too is in a precarious financial situation because it’s unknown where he will find his next home care job. In a conversation that Ace has with Cal, Ace opens up about needing a steady job because he sends some of his income back to Kenya to help his family. It’s in these quiet moments that the movie shows how lives of working-class “gig” employees are often dangerously close to sinking them into poverty under unfortunate circumstances.

“Montana Story” also includes a brief snippet of a newscast reporting that a federal judge ordered the shutdown of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The newscast mentions that this shutdown is a victory for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which opposed the pipeline because of concerns that the pipeline would cause pollution in the water and land where many of the tribe members live. It just so happens that Vivian and her family are part of this tribe, so the pipeline is another added stress in her life.

Vivian has an adult son named Joey (played by Asivak Koostachin), who’s about the same age as Erin. Because of Valentina, Joey has known Erin and Cal for several years. Joey used to work at the ranch and now works part-time for a tow truck company, but he’s also hurting for money. Joey and Cal are happy to see each other. Joey is disappointed to hear that the ranch will be sold, but he understands why the decision was made.

Joey is also delighted to see Erin because it’s obvious that he’s had a longtime crush on her, but the feeling isn’t mutual. Erin has put Joey in the “friend zone,” which he has accepted, but his hopeful demeanor is of someone who still thinks there’s a small chance that Erin might change her mind. Another tribe member named Mukki (played by Eugene Brave Rock) ends up playing an important role in Erin’s plans for Mr. T.

“Montana Story” isn’t an action-packed movie. It moves along at a pace that’s entirely realistic for rural and isolated areas. And this isn’t a melodramatic and talkative movie where people get into arguments every 10 minutes. What makes “Montana Story” better than the average family drama is how it uses moments of silence to depict unspoken hurt and regrets.

For example, there’s a scene where Cal and Erin are driving somewhere in Cal’s car. He fills her in on what his life has been like since they last saw each other. Cal seems very eager to share this information, and there’s a sense that he wants Erin’s approval. But she doesn’t say anything in response to finding out these major updates in his life. Her lack of response seems to be partly out of spite and partly because she doesn’t really know what to say. The look on Cal’s face is of someone who is crushed by his sister’s aloofness.

And that’s why Richardson and Teague are so perfectly cast for this movie, which has just the right tone and direction from writer/directors McGehee and Siegel. There are so many moments in “Montana Story” where Richardson and Teague convey emotions (and repression of emotions) with their facial expressions and body language that other actors wouldn’t be able to convey, even if they had all these feelings spelled out for them in articulate lines of dialogue. Without the admirable performances of Richardson and Teague, “Montana Story” would not be as emotionally resonant as it is.

“Montana Story” could be described as understated or low-key, compared to other dramas about family members dealing with grudges and estrangement. In addition to the siblings’ issues with each other, Cal and Erin had a very difficult relationship with their father. Those hard feelings don’t automatically disappear when someone is close to death. It’s an uncomfortable truth that “Montana Story” shows in various shades and details that don’t have a single moment of “only in a movie” phoniness.

UPDATE: Bleecker Street will release “Montana Story” in select U.S. cinemas on May 13, 2022. Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Stage 6 will release the movie outside of North America, on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ (2021), starring Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield

September 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (2021)

Directed by Michael Showalter

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S., the biographical dramatic film “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Tammy Faye Baker and Jim Bakker rose to the top of the Christian televangelical business, only to have their empire come crashing down in the late 1980s, due to sex scandals and fraud charges. 

Culture Audience: “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in exaggerated depictions of the rise and fall of rich and famous people.

Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

Just like the disgraced televangelists at the center of this story, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” might have wanted to be taken very seriously, but people will either be repulsed or entertained by the campiness of it all. This biographical movie is best enjoyed if viewers know in advance that Tammy Faye Bakker is going to be presented as a misunderstood, makeup-caked, misled spouse who was both obedient and rebellious, when it came to conservative Christian beliefs. Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield give very committed performances as former televangelist power couple Tammy Faye Bakker and Jim Bakker. But when you portray people who became much-ridiculed public figures by their own doing, it’s nearly impossible to avoid becoming caricatures when acting out what it was like to be these human train wrecks.

Directed by Michael Showalter and written by Abe Sylvia, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” offers a narrative that goes something like this: “Those scandals were all Jim Bakker’s fault. Let’s talk about how Tammy Faye Bakker just wanted to love everyone and be happy.” Tammy Faye (who died of cancer in 2007, at the age of 65) might have a lingering public image of a tear-soaked, sorrowful televangelist brought down by betrayals and scandals. However, the majority of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” portrays her as relentlessly perky, to a fault. The Bakkers went from doing a low-budget traveling Christian puppet show to owning a lucrative empire that included the Praise the Lord (PTL) network and related businesses headquartered in Fort Mill, South Carolina.

The 1990 TV-movie “Fall From Grace,” starring Kevin Spacey as Jim Bakker and Bernadette Peters as Tammy Faye Bakker, covered similar territory but wasn’t as concerned with casting Jim or Tammy Faye in a redeeming light. One of the biggest criticisms that “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” might get is how it mostly frees her from blame for being a willing participant in the greed that led to her and Jim Bakker’s downfall. She’s portrayed as someone who was just along for the ride and was blissfully unaware of the depth of how much people were being cheated by the Bakkers. It’s a very hard-to-believe premise, but that’s why this movie is a scripted drama, not a documentary.

However, this dramatic version of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is based on the 2000 documentary of the same name. Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (co-founders of the production company World of Wonder) directed “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” documentary, which was narrated by RuPaul. In 2009, World of Wonder and RuPaul later launched “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which went on to become an Emmy-winning hit. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” drama movie goes out of its way to depict Tammy Faye as an underrated influencer of drag queens and other LGBTQ people—and not just because of how she did her hair and makeup.

There are multiple scenes in the movie where Tammy Faye speaks up for LGBTQ people, even though she would face criticism and shunning from many conservative Christians who disagreed with her. In a scene where Tammy Faye and Jim meet powerful preacher Jerry Falwell Sr. (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) for the first time in the early 1970s, Falwell insists that their brand of Christianity should be about helping Republican politicians get elected and should be against a “homosexual agenda.” Tammy disagrees because she thinks Christianity should be about “loving everybody.” She also wonders aloud why she and Jim can’t just stay out of politics, but those thoughts are shut down by Falwell.

In another scene that takes place in 1985, on the PTL network, Tammy Faye does a compassionate interview by live satellite TV with an openly gay minister named Steve Pieters (played by Randy Havens), who is HIV-positive. She starts off the interview with her usual perkiness, but eventually she’s moved to tears by his story, especially when he talks about how people are afraid to touch him or be near him. “I just want to put my arm around you,” she tells Pieters. “I want to put my arms around you too, Tammy Faye,” he replies in a virtual lovefest.

Meanwhile, Jim and Falwell are seen backstage watching the interview, and they’re shocked that Tammy Faye has gone rogue on them. Falwell is predictably outraged and disgusted. Jim acts embarrassed and says he had no idea that this live interview with a gay/HIV-positive minister was going to take place on the PTL network. This backstage brouhaha is the type of melodramatic scene that looks like it was fabricated just for the movie.

The movie chronicles Tammy Faye’s childhood in Minnesota, as one of eight children growing up in a strict Christian household ruled over by their domineering, no-nonsense mother Rachel Grover (played by Cherry Jones) and her “go along to get along” second husband Fred Grover (played by Fredric Lehne), who brought his own children into the marriage as a widower. Rachel and Tammy Faye often disagree because Rachel believes in living modestly, while Tammy Faye obviously does not. In their churchgoing community, Tammy Faye was made to feel “inferior” to her siblings because she was born from Rachel’s first marriage, which ended in divorce.

Rachel endured her own stigma in their conservative Christian community for being someone who had been a divorcée. An early scene in the movie shows that Tammy Faye was aware that people in their church community called Rachel a harlot behind her back. Rachel knows it too, because she says that the only reason why she was let back into the church was because she knows how to play the piano.

The movie depicts Tammy Faye as having a flair for dramatics and wanting attention at an early age. There’s a scene where, after taking her first communion, a 10-year-old Tammy Faye (played by Faye Chandler Head) begins speaking in tongues. Her mother is visibly shocked.

When Tammy Faye met Jim in 1960, they were both students at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis. Their first scene together shows Tammy listening to Jim preach in a chapel to a small group of students. She seems enraptured by his preaching style and is the only one in the group to nod her head and verbally affirm what he says.

And just to put an emphasis on the narrative that Tammy Faye was treated like an “outsider” almost all of her life, she gets called a “jezebel” by someone in the group who mutters this insult, all because Tammy Faye likes to wear makeup. Jim comes to her defense. An instant attraction is sparked.

During Jim and Tammy’s first date together, she tells him that she has no secrets because she’s never done anything scandalous. He confesses to her that he originally wanted to be a radio DJ. He’s secretly a fan of rock music, which is considered sinful in the Christian society where Jim and Tammy live and grew up.

Jim also tells Tammy why he decided to become a preacher. One day, when he was driving his father’s car, he was listening to rock music and having lustful thoughts, which caused him to be distracted from his driving. He ended up in a car accident that hit a boy named Jimmy Summerfield, who suffered serious injuries but survived. Jim made a promise to God that if Jimmy lived, then Jim would give his life over to religion instead of being a DJ.

Jim and Tammy Faye’s awkward first makeout session is filmed with a certain level of comedy, since these teenagers have been taught that sex outside of marriage is a sin. While they’re kissing and groping, they both say, “I can’t.” It’s one of the funnier scenes in the movie. And because Jim and Tammy Faye want to have sex, the next thing you know, Tammy Faye and Jim show up at her parents’ house in 1961, her mother opens the door, and Tammy introduces her husband Jim to her family for the first time.

There’s a fairly long stretch of the movie that’s about Tammy Faye and Jim’s Christian puppet show, which was the start of their career in religious showbiz. They took their puppet show on the road as a way to make money. Tammy Faye is particularly fixated on a female pig puppet with blonde pigtails named Susie Moppett, which later became a bestselling toy for the PTL network. Tammy Faye was also fascinated with Betty Boop, so expect to see several scenes of her talking in high-pitched, breathy voices.

Tammy Faye is depicted as the more creative partner in the marriage. She became famous for her singing. And she was the one who invented the couple’s puppet characters and wrote much of their dialogue. In the movie, Tammy Faye explains to her mother that the puppet show is a way to attract parents whom Jim and Tammy Faye wanted to become followers in a church owned by Jim and Tammy Faye.

Tammy Faye was also the one who supposedly came up with the idea to bring the Bakker ministry to television. When she and Jim see televangelist Pat Robertson (played by Gabriel Olds) preaching on TV, she strokes Jim’s ego by telling him that he’s much more charismatic than Robertson. The Bakkers’ plan is to eventually build a ministry that’s even bigger than Robertson’s.

While staying at a motel, Jim and Tammy Faye discover that their car is missing from the parking lot. Tammy Faye is shocked, while Jim is scatterbrained. At first, he thinks the car was stolen. But then he admits: Yes, maybe he stopped making the last several car payments, so the car was repossessed and towed away. It’s supposed to be an example of how financial matters were handled in their marriage. According to this movie, Jim was in charge of the finances, and he hid his money mishandling from Tammy.

With their car gone, Jim and Tammy Faye try to figure out how they’re going to get to their next destination. But what do you know, in an “only in a movie” moment, a man staying at the same motel just happens to walk right near Jim and Tammy Faye in the motel parking lot. He recognizes them and mentions that they should do their puppet act on Pat Robertson’s TV show. And gee, what a coincidence: This man happens to know Robertson and can make this TV appearance happen.

Jim and Tammy Faye do several appearances on Robertson’s show and develop their own fan base. When they visit Robertson’s lavish estate in Hot Springs, Virginia, for the first time in 1972, their avarice and egos start to go into overdrive when they see a lot of Robertson’s wealth on display. Jim tells Tammy Faye: “We paid for all of this, Tammy!,” as if Jim and Tammy Faye are the reasons why Robertson is so successful.

It’s at the Robertson estate where Jim and Tammy Faye are depicted as meeting Falwell for the first time during a luncheon with several guests. Tammy Faye is shown finagling her way into a men’s-only discussion at a table that includes Jim, Robertson and Falwell. She knows she’s not really welcome at the table, based on the men’s reactions. But with her toddler daughter Tammy Sue in tow, Tammy Faye uses her plucky charm to seat herself at the table and voice her opinions in their conversation.

In a hilarious moment, after the PTL network became successful long after the Bakkers ditched their traveling puppet show, Tammy Faye is seen on the PTL network promoting the use of a penis pump to help improve marital intimacy when a male partner is impotent. In the movie, Tammy is portrayed as being more comfortable than Jim when it came to publicly discussing sex and sexuality. The movie depicts Tammy Faye as a groundbreaking trailblazer in putting things on the PTL network that were traditionally considered taboo or too risqué for religious television.

The rest of the movie shows the rise and fall of Jim and Tammy Faye, as well as Tammy Faye’s failed attempts at a showbiz comeback. Over time, their marriage changed from Tammy Faye being the more confident and more assertive partner to Jim being the one who was mostly in control. The marriage was affected by infidelity, although Tammy Faye is portrayed as less caught up in cheating than Jim was.

Tammy Faye is shown having just one extramarital lover, when she had a brief fling with music producer Gary Paxton (played by Mark Wystrach) in 1975. They worked together on Tammy Faye’s songs. Their affair is depicted as something that Paxton instigated because he showered a lot of attention and praise on her, knowing that Tammy Faye was being neglected by Jim.

An example of the movie’s campy side are the pickup lines that Paxton uses to try to seduce Tammy Faye. In the recording studio, he tells her after recording some of her vocals, “I haven’t been this excited about an artist since I produced ‘Monster Mash’! We could get a Grammy!”

And later, when Tammy is eight months pregnant with her son Jamie, Paxton comes right out asks her when was the last time she was touched the way she deserves to be touched. It leads to one of the campiest scenes in the movie. Let’s just say that the movie doesn’t leave it up to the imagination on how Tammy Faye went into labor when she gave birth to Jamie.

Jim’s extramarital flings—most notoriously with former church secretary Jessica Hahn—are mentioned in conversations or shown as news headlines but not depicted in any explicit scenes. In real life, Hahn claimed that Jim and his right-hand man Richard Fletcher (played by Louis Cancelmi) drugged her, raped her, and later paid her a six-figure sum from church funds to keep quiet about it. Jim and Fletcher both denied that the sexual encounter was rape, but they admitted that sex occurred and that there was payoff money using PTL church funds.

In real life, Fletcher testified under oath that he was Jim’s secret lover, but Jim denied it under oath. There’s a scene in the movie where Tammy Faye sees Jim and Fletcher play-wrestling with each other on the ground, and she looks at them as if she silently suspects that something sexual might be going on between the two men. And the movie mentions that several men came forward to accuse Jim of making sexual advances on them.

Of course, in a movie about a marriage that goes bad, there are argument scenes between the two spouses. In “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” these over-the-top scenes are very reminiscent of soap operas that were popular in the 1980s, such as “Dynasty” and “Dallas.” Joan Collins and Larry Hagman would be very proud to see that in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” Chastain and Garfield have carried on their tradition of portraying wealthy people screaming hateful things to each other while surrounded by gaudy 1980s decor.

Some choice words include Tammy Faye wailing to Jim: “I’m so sick of my faith in you!” Jim yells back: “You’re a bottomless pit!” Jim shouts at Tammy Faye: “I built you an empire!” Tammy Faye shrieks, “You built you an empire!,” conveniently forgetting her spending sprees. Tammy Faye’s descent into pill-popping hell is duly chronicled, including her being high as a kite on live TV and, on a separate occasion, having a near-fatal overdose. “I’m not a drug addict,” she insists. “I’m only addicted to Diet Coke!”

Chastain, who does her own singing in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” certainly gives her utmost in her performance in this movie. She transforms into numerous incarnations of Tammy Faye, whose physical appearance went through drastic changes over the years. Garfield gives a more restrained performance that is most chilling when showing Jim’s cold cruelty, such as when Jim forces Tammy Faye to go on their TV show to confess her infidelity and beg for forgiveness. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival) won’t get a lot of major awards for acting. However, the film’s makeup and hairstyling will surely get numerous award nominations.

Tammy Faye is mostly portrayed as pathetic, rather than tragic. After all, it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for Tammy Faye when she’s whining about being a persecuted underdog, while she and her fraudster husband are living lavish lifestyles paid for by money that was supposed to be for their church and charitable causes. When she and Jim went on all those over-the-top spending sprees to buy luxurious personal things for themselves, she would’ve known that how they were misusing the money was illegal. The Bakkers made elaborate plans to build a religious theme park called Heritage USA, but it was all going to be funded by a Ponzi scheme.

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” screenplay is more interested in using broad strokes than in finessing details. Even though building contractor Roe Messner (played by Sam Jaeger) is in the movie as someone who helped the Bakkers with their construction plans, nowhere (not even in the epilogue) is it mentioned in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” drama that Messner was Tammy Faye’s second husband. They were married from 1993 until her death in 2007. And no one in the movie portrays rape accuser Hahn, who is only referred to in the movie as a news headline or (as Jim describes her) as an extortionist.

If people are looking for entertainment with deliberately hammy acting in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” then the movie delivers this type of comedic-tinged drama for viewers. If people are looking for a serious biography with comprehensive and thorough facts, then look elsewhere. People might or might not feel more sympathy for Tammy Faye after seeing “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” You’ll enjoy the movie more if you take it for what it is: a very Hollywood version of the truth.

Searchlight Pictures released “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” in select U.S. cinemas on September 17, 2021.

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