Sofia Coppola seems to be leaning further and further into mass appeal. If using any adjective to describe On the Rocks, it would be “watchable”. No matter how inconsequential the film gets, it’s never truly boring, and its pre-treaded path makes it a fairly certain viewing experience with your parents over that fall break, something you’ll finish watching, say “Hm, that was perfectly fine”, and never watch again. The heist tale of Bill Murray's playboy father to Rashida Jones’s anxieties over her husband's whereabouts isn’t bad, but it never says anything interesting enough to warrant memory in any canon, hardly more of a drop in the ocean than A Very Murray Christmas.
Laura (Rashida Jones) begins to suspect her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) may be having an affair. It's not that he seems unfaithful, but the jewelry store sightings, long work dinners, and time away toy with that little voice in the back of her head, and her idea of her father's (Bill Murray) infidelity, and his help investigating only lead her suspicions to rise. Father and daughter begin a series of late-night stakeouts, bathing in his wealth as they debate the nature of staying together and how this affects the whole family, and old bitterness at fatherhood comes to rise between glasses of champagne and fine art.
Coppola is the closest women have gotten to that common conversation canon of getting into movies masters — men like David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright, and Christopher Nolan who have become household names among twenty-somethings that like to claim to be into movies when they’re just starting out. From time to time, Twitter threads crop up, asking readers to name a female director that isn’t Sofia Coppola or Greta Gerwig. Its not that she’s undeserving of this pedestal of popularity, but the steam seems to be running out, and it's worth noting the Coppola family is an easier entry to the film industry than most get, but there’s no denying the great cinema we’ve gotten from her in the past.
What is missing here of Sofia Coppola’s signature charm is her style. The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antionette are as great as they are because they let darkness exist within their hyperfemininity. On the Rocks may believe itself to be a maturation, but in doing so it loses the feminine trappings that have created that distinctive style. If anything, the style here is Apple TV. Sleek and overpriced, like an iPhone, there’s more concern for caviar in a convertible than relatability as a woman in this world. It’s streaming service fodder through and through, and though tightly written, I can’t imagine anyone scrambling to rewatch beyond the novelty of a new Coppola film (though it is less disappointing than Gia Coppola’s newest entry Mainstream, a shallow and buzzy social media caper).
If The Virgin Suicides is the wide-eyed ingenue, then On the Rocks is not a wise mother, but a tired secretary of a film. It feels like it’s running on autopilot, an algorithmically determined family drama until the end, where it becomes a lovely acknowledgement of Laura’s anxiety and self-worth, and the ideas our childhood leave us with about family. Jenny Slate is an absolute star here as well, popping up every thirty minutes or so at Laura’s kids’ school to vent her own frustrations on affairs from the side of “the other woman”. This isn’t just a film about the struggles of marriage, but a map of everyone hurt by the lack of communication in an affair.
It is nice to see a Black family get their bland wealthy family drama, but there are some tropes that are stumbled into, even if unintentionally. It's common that Black families in popular media aren’t homogenous, and the mother is always mixed or lightskin when one parent is darker. It’s a trope that’s followed here, and whether or not it’s intentional, it’s a shame only lighter black women get these glossy romcoms about their families, and On the Rocks only makes it clear how deeply entrenched colorism is in Hollywood.
Perhaps I am being unfair to On the Rocks due to its all-star pedigree. For bourgeoisie anxiety drama, it’s very well made, and Bill Murray and Rashida Jones make charming co-conspirators. However, it does everything it can to pull the relatability out of anxiety, staying in the New York high society of yesteryear, a world that feels so alien that even the real conflicts presented start to feel like trifling rich people problems. It’s a shame Sofia Coppola has matured away from her distinct style, as On the Rocks is the just fine-est film of the year.
On the Rocks streams on Apple TV+ beginning October 23.
Review by Sarah Williams
Yet another “never before seen footage” type doc, Cured does its job fairly well. It is the story of how gay activists went toe-to-toe with the APA to get homosexuality removed from the DSM listing as a mental illness, and its yet another gap filled in LGBTQ history (and the ludicrous claim that the removal of the listing 'cured' every documented homosexual). Newspaper clippings, archival footage, and narration blend together to give a clear picture of this law, and its removal, an end result that doesn’t leave much more than the true story itself.
Gay history is often viewed as dominating relationships between aristocratic men and peasants in Ancient Greece and Rome, then Stonewall, the the United States Marriage Equality Act in 2015. It’s a Euro-centric view of LGBTQ history, skipping around to just the parts that are harder to erase. Even within the US, so many smaller legal victories towards acceptance are overshadowed, and it's great to see this important act of removing the dehumanization of love documented the same way this more commonly discussed history is. It’s hard to believe that the heads of the scientific nation would go out of their way to list homosexuality as a mental illness, but this is conveniently scrubbed from history, always discussed as pure phobia, and not societal classification that this is defective. Of course, unless outspoken, lesbians were instead ignored or written off as close friendships, an odd safety.
These kind of simple, direct docs may start to blend together, but it is important to note that we now see gay and trans history documented and released the same way other stories of a fight for equality have been. While some of these types of films may come off as merely serviceable nonfiction storytelling in a slate of imaginative fiction at an LGBTQ centered film fest, like Outfest or Frameline, this fits a specific niche. It’s educational content that doesn’t need to be sought out, and is made for more mass appeal in terms of filmmaking sensibilities, as this is something that many will genuinely learn from.
Kay Lahusen joined other protesters on a picket line in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on July 4, 1969. This protest marked the fifth “Annual Reminder,” a march held yearly on July 4 to remind Americans that LGBTQ citizens were denied basic civil rights. From Cured, directed by Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer. Photo credit: Nancy Tucker, image courtesy of Lesbian Herstory Archives.
Even though Cured isn’t the most adventurous in terms of filmmaking, it fits into a key sector of cinematic purpose. It’s the sort of film that you’d find on PBS late at night, the way information seeps into your brain when the moon comes up, an after dinner haze where you don’t realize you’ve learned something until it slips out in conversation at a dinner party. It’s great to see this assembled in a manner that normalizes it as a piece of history, the same kind that plays on the TV wheeled into a classroom on a substitute teacher. It’s LGBTQ history 101, but our history is hardly told, and it’s nice to be able to watch something that unpacks it so clearly.
What I do want personally is for these historical documents to focus less on suffering and discrimination, and to see more gay and trans joy when history decided we did not exist. Even though it is shown through the eyes of the family around them, Netflix’s A Secret Love was a step in the right direction, showing the love between an older lesbian couple that had flown under the radar for so long. Of course, seeing the truth is never troubling, but it would be nice if the media a heterosexual audience sees shows more than just our oppression, and for them to see that light was even possible at the height of it.
Cured had its world premiere at Outfest 2020. It is currently seeking distribution.
Three French Film Festival Favorites (BURNING GHOST, WONDERS IN THE SUBURBS, and THE BARE NECESSITY) Streaming on Virtual Cinema
Review by Sarah Williams
Kino Marquee is set to release a collection of three French films that have been fan favorites at recent film festivals, yet had yet to receive mass acclaim in the United States. Some of these have appeared on Mubi, or Kanopy, but are available now to support arthouse streaming services. Here’s what I thought of them, and this format certainly works well to curate the foreign market. (Seriously, when are we getting a triple feature of Losing It, Heroes Don’t Die, and Real Love as a second part to this?!)
Burning Ghost is a transcendent small production, a fainter echo of the intimate awe inspired by Mati Diop's Atlantics last year. Judith Chemla has a haunting gaze, her pale, wanting look alone leaves her ghostly in the lens of Céline Bozon's adept camerawork. Funny enough, she isn't a ghost, but Juste (Thimotée Robart) is. She is from his past life, and recognizes him as he has come to walk the earth again. He is a collector, taking memories off of those on the streets to help them move on, and hardly knows where he recognizes the souls from. The film is beautifully shot, lighting making city streets out to be an eerie afterlife, and the intimate sequences are particularly beautiful. Reds and oranges come out at night against bright blues, burning with colors of a flame, with blue that feels hot instead of the cool or serene hues it so often is relegated to. The end result is tender, yearning, and a pleasant surprise.
Burning Ghost is now streaming online in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.
Wonders in the Suburbs
Wonders in the Suburbs is a comedy of eccentrics, but the eccentricity falls flat into dry satire and joyless quirk. A supposed satire of French municipal politics directed by actress Jeanne Balibar, and produced by actor Matthew Amalric, it's embarrassing to see this running on autopilot "comedy" from actors with the privilege to try their hand behind the camera seemingly without any passion for the craft. It feels overbaked, a slew of French stars turning up, only for it to be utter nonsense (and an absolute waste of Bulle Ogier in the furthest thing from Rivettian comedy it could be). It’s unfortunate that this comes from genuinely talented people, some of the most passionate left wing faces in French cinema, but it’s a screaming, unfunny disaster. Emmanuelle Beart is a sad letdown, at the core of some of the many cringe inducing moments. It would be nice to pride the film for its diversity, but it’s too hollow, unfunny, and pointlessly quirky for this praise. Chaotic neo-liberal utopia would be entertaining to explore, but nothing lands, and it can’t help but seem like this wasn’t just lost in translation.
Wonders in the Suburbs is now streaming online in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.
The Bare Necessity
The one issue with The Bare Necessity is that it often feels like a script perfected on paper, but never tried in reality. Other than some awkwardness, it’s heartfelt, witty, and well-defined to its own little world. Swann Arlaud and Maud Wyler shine in a story of how easily our lives can change when someone enters or leaves it. Often deadpan, it is the story of a person as a meteor, given the chance to crash into the lives of a tight-knit community, and open eyes. The film finds its feet when pride is stripped down, personality flaws ripped apart to reveal a new, humbler man, as everyone watches. When the film is clever, it's very clever, and the weak first act, and its plot contrivances, are saved by great performances, and qualified camerawork. The adapt cinematographer shows nature wonderfully, a pale, serene delight for the landscape to stretch out into.
The Bare Necessity is now streaming online in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.
Review by Sarah Williams
A lingua franca, also known as a bridge language, is a language used for communication between people who do not share a native language. As we move through our lives, we exist in the world by how much it accepts us. It is like a language, a translation of social codes and risks we take that we translate to our own place in the world. It is hard to see the world through another’s eyes, this language of their movements, and the choices they must make, but the language that comes through art can bridge this. This is why we use cinema to see through into what someone else experiences, but this only really works when it comes from a place of authenticity. That authenticity runs through the veins of Isabel Sandoval’s Lingua Franca, a small, understated feature that feels deeply lived in.
Isabel Sandoval is Olivia, an undocumented Filipino trans woman in Brighton Beach, who works as a caregiver for aging Russian Olga (Lynn Cohen). She's working to be able to marry the man who has promised himself to her, until Olga’s grandson Alex (Eamon Farren) opens her eyes that immigration may not be the hardest factor here. There’s a tender safety between Olivia and Alex, but it’s not quite clear whose safety that is. When Alex tells her “you’re safe now”, he seems to mean himself, finally at peace where her life comforts him.
Lingua Franca is a quiet lull before the storm, a calm insight into the daily rituals that come with living in a world that is set out against you. All of this is normal for Olivia, the stressors of her life are normalized here to a point where the plot isn’t her being trans and the struggle of it, and her immigration status is only relevant for the financial struggle that arises to marry her lover. These things are not the focus of her character, and Olivia is allowed to live a normal life, and isn’t defined by her setbacks, but lives them.
I look forward to a world in which Isabel Sandoval is one of her auteur generation, as the story she creates is intimate, authentic, and smartly-crafted. A one-woman filmmaking wonder in the tradition of Akerman, she directs, produces, edits, writes, and stars in this quiet slice of life, scenes from an ordinary day that feels extraordinary when we don’t live it. Having worked on this idea during her own gender transition, Sandoval acutely depicts the stresses of life with a hand that rarely wavers as one of an amateur would. While her voice may be fainter here than it could be, the film is often too slight to leave as hard of an impact as it could. There is a commendable nature to how she never goes for the cheaper emotions, no loud outbursts come here. That being said, it’s almost too gentle, no one scene stands out as memorable, and it’s hard not to wish that tenderness went much further.
Released by Ava Duvernay’s ARRAY label, this is the kind of film that benefits from this wide audience. It’s put in a place where it will be clicked impulsively, and even if that view mainly resonates as too slow for a general audience, at least this story is presented to the broadest audience it could be. So often, queer cinema is relegated to the sidelines when it comes from a place of authenticity, in favor of watered-down stories made palatable to a general audience. ARRAY focuses on this authenticity, stories against an all-white cinematic canon that prevailed for years, that will challenge this general Netflix audience if they choose to view. It is the accessibility that matters, allowing for the world to see what they may not know to seek out on their own.
Lingua Franca streams on Netflix beginning August 26.
Review by Sarah Williams
A vérité-style documentary showing the formation of community through music, River City Drumbeat is a finely crafted portrait of how art can uplift us when the world won't. The story of the River City Drum Corps in Louisville, Kentucky, follows Edward "Nardie" White, and his assistant, Albert Shumake, a former member of the corps, and the music program they develop for at-risk elementary schoolers. We not only see what these kids go through in a city that tells them not to aspire to anything, but we see the two men's own struggles, and how the community they foster helps them too. It’s about the connection to and sharing of culture, and how art persists even when it is not invited in.
Using the music of its subjects for a rhythm, the constant drumming, growing more skilled as the young musicians thrive. It’s not about skill though, it’s about community, one that fosters talent and gives the young people a place to grow at something. The persistent drumbeat helps the pacing quite a bit, where the film slows there’s the music that keeps it from dragging too much.
The lack of talking head interviews keep the film from feeling blandly educational. Blending the stories of this community, including the escape from the cycle that is poverty, some mentions of family death (the murder of White’s granddaughter and his wife’s cancer) that may be upsetting for some viewers, and a discussion of racism, language, and bias from the education system itself, smoothly into the rest of the footage to make this a story of triumph, not suffering. It is able to tackle these struggles, many of which are systematic, in a way that shows that joy can be found, that people can work together, and make it past this, by showing the light instead of dwelling upon these tougher parts of life.
Overall, River City Drumbeat’s final product is a heartfelt, uplifting story about the power of community over prejudice. What it lacks in originality of craft, it makes up for in heart. It’s a powerful, compact story of triumph, and a love of the arts, and a testament to teamwork that makes it a great film to show mature kids. While showing one school in the south, it provides a leading example for what can be done to uplift young people by giving them an outlet for their energy, something to look forward to, and someone who believes in them having something to aspire to.
River City Drumbeat is now streaming in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.
Review by Sarah Williams
Ever want to see some of the most insufferable, empty people you will ever meet on a screen brutally killed by crocodiles? Well you’re in luck with Black Water: Abyss, as everyone is so unlikeable you’re not only rooting for the beast, but wanting to be it.
A sequel to the 2007 Australian sleeper hit, Abyss loses steam in any semblance of narrative or investment by refusing to develop its characters beyond pests to be exterminated. Eric (Luke Mitchell) and Yolanda (Amali Golden) lead the way, with Jennifer (Jessica McNamee) and Viktor (Benjamin Hoetjes) in tow, on an impromptu adventure into a subterranean cave Eric is intrigued by. The trip soon becomes the romantic getaway from hell as the four are trapped in the increasingly narrow cave tunnels by a storm, and a hungry reptile is ready to snack.
Admittedly, the cast of characters does play the game down there well, and no one makes dumb decisions, clear they know what they’re getting into. They aren’t whiny, don’t squabble unnecessarily, but everyone is so devoid of personality it's hard to care past the spectacle of the kill itself. They seem like bots at times, pre-programmed straw-men who make most of the right decisions, except for what kills them. These kills are well done, sparing much of the blood and gore for what we don’t see, a creature that rarely shows its face spare for a creeping sense of dread, the best case scenario for horror beyond the big-budget name brand flicks.
At times feeling like a reptilian knockoff of The Descent, it does get some solid scares in. If you’re unlike me and are able to be unsettled by a horror movie that doesn’t give you a tolerable audience surrogate, or at least someone to pity and be invested in, it’s a fun, if shallow ride at times. Whereas The Descent knows itself as high energy, shock driven, and gutsy, Black Water tries to ride on its scaly menace that does not quite provide the fear factor without an existing fear factor outside a few gimmicky jump scares. The scariest thing here is nature, and the tropical storm keeping the pair of couples down, rather than any beast that may come.
Black Water: Abyss almost works better as a disaster flick than anything else, but its lower budget and unmemorable performances keep it from going down with the greats in that genre. It’s mindless popcorn entertainment with a nice setting, the kind of late night ‘scary movie’ that starts to blend together with little difference outside the placement of jump scares. It’s not poorly made for a sequel this late in the game from the original, which does not share any characters, but it begins to blur together with the many similar films on the market, it's hard to find any stand-out element, or hook, for anything beyond the die-hard genre fan.
Black Water: Abyss is now available on VOD.
Review by Sarah Williams
Playfully intimate, Simon Amstell's Benjamin is a love letter to falling in love with the concept of being loved. A slight indie rom-com that's genuinely charming, it's the film we've been asking for to make the genre gay. Light, gentle, and still surprising Ben Whishaw doesn’t have a role anywhere in it, it’s a hidden gem of easy viewing with a massive amount of heart, not to mention the Mark Kermode cameo.
Merlin's Colin Morgan plays a film director, the titular Benjamin, on the verge of premiering his second film. He is introduced to a young French musician while at London Film Festival, and is enamored at first watching from a distance. The two soon hit it off, and it’s a slight love story filled with that messy awkwardness from the beginning of getting to know someone beyond just watching them. Noah (Phénix Brossard) has this natural, teasing chemistry with Ben, who can say anything, joking about French stereotypes constantly, and is enamored just the way Ben is when he sees Noah sing that first night.
Almost Xavier Dolan-esque in its brightly colored gay love story about two pale skinny guys with dark floppy hair (the only kind of Dolan love interest) meeting and falling head over heels, it avoids much of the enfant terrible’s melodramatic tendencies. Where the young auteur goes for heartbreak and over the top drama, Amstell’s film goes for tender laughs in a way that may appeal to those who’ve tried to like Dolan, but just can’t get behind the height of his maximalism. Nobody is perfect in this sweet little rom-com world, and though the romance is idealized, it is put on the same pedestal as the typical heterosexual rom-com (and even those seem to be disappearing), and never does it make the characters seem any different.
Neither man is given a struggle of toxic masculinity, allowing a refreshing save of tenderness to wash over the film. A scene where Noah softly washes Ben’s hair in the bathtub comes to mind, eyes shut as they touch, and it's so rare to see two men allowed their desire without any hardness. There's a warm, grainy haze washed over the whole film, like we are peering into an archive of memories of woozy nights spent falling into love, projected on a screen later on in the relationship. They’re the kind of memories you’d show the world, the moments in your love that create a neatly packaged retail book that make it all look so easy.
As a friend of Ben once says, “You only like people who are well lit and weak”. There’s a love letter here, drawn often from Amstell’s own experiences, to loving the easy targets, those that you are sure will love you back from a pretty picture. While this isn’t always the soundest way to go about things, as sometimes love is tough, it’s refreshing to see the two men slip together so easily. Benjamin may not be the meatiest romance, but it has a massive heart, and is the kind of simple gay romance the internet has been begging for.
Benjamin is now available on VOD.
Review by Sarah Williams
Perhaps the biggest sell of The Wolf House is its radically unhinged animation. It jumps between 2D, 3D, stop-motion, and anything in between as it scraps to follow its story. Rather than feeling messy and tacked together, the end result is a memory book of fairytale horror and reality. It works because the 2D interacts with the 3D, styles melding on screen at the same time to an effect of collaboration of multiple artists coming together to tell a story like it's being retold around a campfire by a group that knows it well.
There is no respite from the horror of this nation, this trapped place in which there has never been a way to flee, and it's a cold reflection of reality. It is the story of a young girl, from Chile's Colonia Dignidad, a German madman, a child predator fanatical with misplaced religious devotion. He has turned this land into a military dictatorship in service of Augusto Pinochet, and she is in danger after coming into trouble for losing three pigs. This last part sounds like the setup to a children's story, some fairytale book read before bedtime. And maybe it does seem to be so from here, as we have three pigs, and we have a house — the wolf house in the woods that our young heroine shelters in, but the broken fairytales of reality are far darker than anything in fiction.
The text grows richer knowing the history of Chile and the events that may parallel the story, but much of that imbued history lesson can be learned from watching it all play out. Would the film play better with the context? Yes, but the learning experience, even though shallower, still plays well for an audience not raised with this knowledge. It's colonial trauma projected onto the life of one young girl, and her youth is only clearer when her story is told through a classic children's tale, and we see the contrast between the typical sheltered childhood, and the fear in her life. The stop motion models are painted, cracking and messy, like a child's experiment come to life. The cobbled together style is eerie, with animation so focused on perfection it's unsettling to see the cracks in these models.
It's not the only recent animated film to tackle raw societal struggles through stop-motion in a powerful manner. Emma De Swaef's This Magnificent Cake! is a soft felt recreation of the horrors of Belgium's imperialist acts. It covers the pain of colonialism in this soft fabric so it's more easily digestible before the subject matter is broken down, while The Wolf House bares the messy underbelly of power struggle early on. This melding of animation is often dark and clashing, the power dynamic clear even within the medium. An exploration of trauma through the myths of childhood, perhaps The Wolf House makes the much needed statement that America has fallen behind on that animation is a medium, not a genre, and the surreality of the tools used to make a film do not have to make it any less raw.
The Wolf House is now streaming in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.
Review by Sarah Williams
Time comes with many conditions, but it also bears a potential for change. Sometimes this change comes with progressive attitudes, no longer feeling the need to destroy anything that challenges our worldview, but sometimes this change is forced, a trial to push away some unwanted concept. In the case of Kristine Stolakis's feature documentary, Pray Away, time, for many, is hope that they can change themselves to make the world easier.
So-called reparative therapy has originated in its prominent form within evangelical church groups. It is an attempt to cure one of homosexuality, whether by force of another, or voluntarily. It makes the subject overanalyze their attraction, and blame the world around them for leading them down some sort of "sinful path". This idea only works if it is viewed as a subconscious choice for the participant, and the "ex-gay" graduates of the programs often say they have chosen a new life of normalcy. This is true somewhat, but it isn't that they have made the choice of sexuality, but that of repression.
It’s fairly dense subject matter that’s received quite a few depictions, but few outside the realm of fiction fully dig into why this happens, and what the exact psychological effects are. This one is a little different than others, as we see the supposedly cured “ex-gays” who lead these programs, trying to help others become like them, even if they themselves are still actively repressing their own desires. We hear from the former face of a group called Exodus, Josh Paullk, who admits that even he never changed, and that he lied that he didn’t still have feelings for men. Since leaving the organization, that he says he truly believed had the power of change, he moved to Portland with his male partner.
The subject is handled showing voluntary conversion therapy as what it is: a form of self harm. Whether it comes from societal pressure, religious conviction, or any other fear of one’s same-sex attraction, this process of lying to oneself and the world, and treating a part of the self as a form of evil is incredibly damaging. For some, they panic, and for others, they turn further inwards. Trained self-hatred leaves scars, and these Christian fundamentalist programs are exactly that.
The hardest to watch of the four threads in the documentary is that of Julie Rodgers, who was held up as the teen ex-lesbian face of the movement after being forced into a reparative program at sixteen. Some parts, like enforced adherence to gender roles (girls must wear makeup, sports are too masculine), come off as almost cartoonish for these programs. Then the reality sinks in: these are young teenagers being trained to hate themselves. She says she’ll always remember being a teenager who was told she was a bad kid for having acknowledged part of who she was, and this is where we see just how much these teachings stick — even when those who’ve gone through them have left and denounced them. When we cut to Julie in the present day after meeting her through archival footage, we get to watch her prepare for her marriage to a woman, and we see the happiness that comes with freedom, as well as how the effect never quite leaves.
This afterimage is what sets Pray Away apart. Instead of beating down the misery, it shows that there has always been a future possible for the subjects who had tried to fix something they were told was wrong with them. We see them happily married, or living as themselves, years after what they had been through, and we can see that future instead of lingering on wondering if maybe it could have worked. When we are only shown the misery of conversion, we are led to believe that it is an ending, when it is very much so. Pray Away depicts it as a painful false path, but that there’s always a way back, and that’s when it hits hardest.
Review by Sarah Williams
Before touching upon the rich text of Kantemir Balagov's debut feature Closeness, let's take a moment to touch upon the spectacular knitwear in this movie. There is truly unparalleled sweater quality here. The rest of the film is much less warm and fuzzy, following a Jewish family in the '80s, when their youngest son and his wife disappear. They are held for ransom, an amount high enough to close their business and force them to seek help from the surrounding community in hopes of return.
Stemming from a funding initiative by legendary Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sukurov, it's an astonishing beginning for such a young filmmaker. It's the start of the weighty themes of fraught family and human connection in last year's Beanpole, only here the story is set within the confines of a strict Jewish community. Closeness has that same intimacy, veering tightly into the lives of its characters to watch their bonds break apart under stress. Strong performances flood the screen, particularly commendable is Darya Zhovner, who takes her heroine, Ila, and her refusal to marry to pay ransom to a higher level. Ila is denied a voice repeatedly, yet she persists, perhaps to see an end to her world surrounded by senseless violence and power struggle.
Iya's tomboyish nature and her realistic consideration of debts owed to family make her an incredibly compelling protagonist, an entry point to an otherwise overbearing world. The film is shot with a warmth despite the coldness of the cruel world depicted, an emotional hotness as the camera lingers upon bodies wrapped in a desperate embrace, or upon the fabric of the characters' clothing as we're given respite from emotionally fraught faces. Color is key, especially in the final moments, though exactly how so would spoil the surprise.
The film has become somewhat notorious for a sequence utilizing real footage of Chechen rebels killing a soldier. This scene is essentially a setup for anti-Semitism of this society to be shown, but it feels irresponsible not to simulate such a small moment. Perhaps the footage is used to create conversation around the film's premiere, but it's distribution overseas has only come a couple years later after the success of Kantemir Balagov's follow-up Beanpole with international audiences. It's a major ethical lapse that detracts from an otherwise strong feature, a head-scratching moment as to why we would need to see a real life ended on-screen, even if the footage had other origins. Kantemir Balagov defends the use of a real hate-killing from an archive, claiming a simulation would not have the same emotional impact (though this impact has resulted in much backlash).
In Russian, the title does not translate directly. It is not a direct "closeness" that this word refers to, but a squeezing, cramped situation, a confinement of sorts. What the film does best is an emotional confinement, never letting the audience leave the headspace. It's a typical arthouse drama that takes the side of emotion over minimalism, something that would later be taken farther with Beanpole. Much of the latter's lingering intimacy, a love broken by the stress of a cold world, and the warmth found in capturing the light that reflects off of these acts is present here in prototype, though more unsure, but certainly no less accomplished.
Closeness is now streaming in partnership with indie theaters.