Review by Camden Ferrell
Passing is a movie based on the 1929 book of the same name by Nella Larsen. It had it’s premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and marks the directorial debut of Rebecca Hall who also wrote the film. The movie is visually gorgeous and thematically ambitious, but it doesn’t consistently stick the landing despite the great performances from its actors.
This movie follows two childhood friends, Reenie and Clare, who reunite in adulthood. Reenie is proud of her African-American identity and has a Black family, whereas Clare is white-passing, spending her days married to her prejudiced husband. The two former friends become involved in each other’s lives and become familiar with each other’s insecurities and emotions. This is a delicate premise that is simple on the surface but promises the room for a lot of thematic exploration beneath the surface.
From the start, the movie makes it clear that it’s more character-driven than plot-driven. Hall’s script is steady, meditative, and it doesn’t feel rushed or forced in anyway. This is one of the script’s biggest virtues. It feels very natural, and it does a great job of setting down the foundations for the film’s setting and aesthetic. While the dialogue is fairly strong throughout, one of my main complaints is with how it doesn’t take full advantage of its premise. There is a lot of promising commentary in its premise, and even though certain scenes touch on it, it never feels wholly engaging in its exploration of its themes.
One of the main highlights of the movie comes from its two main performances. Tessa Thompson leads the film as Reenie, and she is supported by Ruth Negga who plays Clare. Both of these actresses do a great job embodying their characters and doing what actors are supposed to do, convincing us that what we’re seeing is real. They both have great chemistry and fit very well within the film’s style while still feeling realistic in their portrayals of their complex characters.
The movie is beautifully shot in black and white with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Cinematographer Eduard Grau truly demonstrates he knows how to use this aspect ratio and black and white style effectively. The shots are consistently composed well, and the camera always feels motivated and intentional.
While there is a lot of merit in the craftsmanship in the movie, it can’t help but feel hindered by its execution at times. There are moments that get very close to be revelatory but never quite reach that level. The movie also has a very questionable final few moments that can also mitigate the impact the movie had up until that point.
Despite its flaws, Passing is a promising directorial debut from Hall. It features some great performances, an interesting premise, and captivating cinematography. It may not be to everyone’s liking, but despite some problems, there may be something for most audiences to enjoy in the film’s message.
Passing is in select theaters October 27 and on Netflix November 10.