Films I loved in September 2015

4 October 2015
Bel Powley as Minnie Goetze and Kristen Wiig as Charlotte Worthington in The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Bel Powley as Minnie Goetze and Kristen Wiig as Charlotte Worthington in The Diary of a Teenage Girl

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an extremely impressive portrayal of teenage sexuality, especially that of a teenage girl. Emerging actor Bel Powley gives a wonderful performance as 15-year-old Minnie Goetze whose sexual coming-of-age includes having an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. She is neither a victim nor a Lolita-style nymphet, she is simply a curious and sexual young person who has found a convenient way to explore her desires with an older man who probably should know better, but is more passively opportunistic rather than being an exploitive predator. This was a fun and funny film exploring all the complications and difficult terrain that such a scenario creates, without overt judgement or moral panic.

Olivia Colman as Julie in London Road

Olivia Colman as Julie in London Road

After Broken I was keen to see what theatre and director Rufus Norris would do next, and yet I was still surprised by how much I liked London Road. It’s an adaptation of a theatre show where interviews with the residents of the UK town of Ipswich, during the aftermath of the Ipswich serial murders in 2006, were set to music. This is a bold and compelling way of presenting the pain of a community in a way that resonates emotionally. It uses heightened artificiality to highlight that it is a reconstruction of actual interviews and events, and somehow this gives it a powerful authenticity.

Mya Taylor as Alexandra and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez as Sin-Dee in Tangerine

Mya Taylor as Alexandra and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez as Sin-Dee in Tangerine

Sean Baker is another filmmaker whom I’ve been keen to see what he does next so I was very much looking forward to Tangerine. While not as focused as his excellent 2012 film Starlet, it similarly depicts a side of Los Angeles that is typically marginalised and can attract instant judgement. In the case of Tangerine it is about the subculture of transgender women who are sex workers. Made in collaboration with the transgender women who also star in the film, the result is a loud, hyperactive and frequently very funny ride through a series of misadventures on Christmas eve. Completely unapologetic in attitude and shot on iPhones to create a new style of guerrilla filmmaking for the digital era, this reminded me of some of Gregg Araki’s more audacious films from the early 1990s.

Bob Hunter in How to Change the World

Bob Hunter in How to Change the World

If nothing else, How to Change the World is astonishing for the wealth of archival material it brings to light for the very first time, depicting the beginnings and early years of Greenpeace. It is mostly a conventional documentary that chronologically depicts the known facts behind Greenpeace’s origins and its visionary ideals and strategies, managing to also incorporate different sides of the various arguments over the many disputed areas. However, it also delivers an engaging discussion about the nature of leadership, the ethics of documenting versus intervening, and the struggle between pragmatism and idealism. And it also highlights how its reluctant leader Bob Hunter was a remarkable person whom we all owe a large debt to for his part in making us give a damn about the planet we live on.

I also caught up with a number of films on home entertainment that I felt worth mentioning, including Michael Winterbottom’s The Face of an Angel about a filmmaker trying to make an ethical film about a real-life murder. I completely understand how its refusal to conform to generic expectations has been infuriating for so many, but I was engrossed by how well the form of the film reflected the values it was endorsing.

I also enjoyed the South Korean drama/thriller Haemoo, very loosely based on a true story from 2001 about a group of Korean-Chinese illegal immigrants travelling by boat. While far from being a perfect film, I was impressed by the measured build, the severity of the situation when the film takes an extreme turn into something darker than expected, and the moral conflicts that play during the tense second half.

And finally, I was really pleased to see Heaven Knows What, by brothers Ben Safdie and Joshua Safdie. A low fi film about a young woman addicted to heroin and her unrequited love for her boyfriend. It’s free from sensationalism and romanticism, and yet still contains moments of beauty among all its rawness. Most revelatory is the lead performance by newcomer Arielle Holmes whose own experiences inspired the film. After watching the film I was extremely pleased to discover she has continued to act and will appear in Andrea Arnold’s upcoming new film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Film review – Broken (2012)

20 May 2013
Broken: Archie (Tim Roth) and Skunk (Eloise Laurence)

Archie (Tim Roth) and Skunk (Eloise Laurence)

People can be broken physically, emotionally and psychologically and few go through life avoiding being harmed in some way. The 2012 film Broken, adapted from the 2008 novel by Daniel Clay, portrays many different ways humans can suffer. At the centre of the film is a coming-of-age narrative, about an 11-year-old girl known as Skunk (Eloise Laurence) who experiences the cruelty and unfairness of life when she witnesses an act of violence. Within Skunk’s own home and that of her two neighbours, in a small cul-de-sac in suburban England, people are being broken in different ways. As the film unfolds, seamlessly portraying the joy of childhood with the terror of a community made to feel vulnerable, Broken questions why people are damaged and how they can be healed. What emerges is a film that can be shocking, but also deeply comforting in its belief that the truehearted can prevail.

Harper Lee’s seminal 1960 classic To Kill a Mockingbird was a major influence for Clay when writing Broken and that influence is felt throughout the film. Like Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird Skunk lives with her older brother Jed (Bill Milner) and her father Archie (Tim Roth) who is a lawyer. Even the names of the key characters from Broken are similar to their counterparts in Lee’s novel. Another key similarity is the pivotal plot point involving a wrongful accusation of rape, with the introverted Rick Buckley (Robert Emms) being a composite of the falsely accused Tom Robinson character and the reclusive Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley character from To Kill a Mockingbird.

However, it would be a mistake to simply categorise Broken as a modern day To Kill a Mockingbird. The film uses the core characters and basic scenario to set up themes of injustice, family, community and the loss of childhood innocence, but Broken develops the themes and narrative in its own way to beautifully complement To Kill a Mockingbird rather than rehash it. Perhaps most interesting is that Skunk is the focal point throughout Broken rather than her father Archie. While both texts are from the point-of-view of the Scout/Skunk character, To Kill a Mockingbird is centred on Atticus Finch as the moral authority that drives the narrative, while in Broken Skunk is the moral centre. One of the few things that unites the characters in Broken is their affection and love for Skunk.

Although, while caring for Skunk is something most of the characters have in common, Skunk is let down by most of the men in the film at some point. Through experiencing first love, unrequited love and family members experiencing romantic love, she is left feeling hurt, betrayed and abandoned. She learns that her father and brother are sexual beings and this difficult realisation is part of her coming-of-age narrative. However, it is the different expressions of parental love that becomes the most crucial component to Skunk growing-up.

On the one hand Skunk sees the borderline psychotic protective parental love as demonstrated by the brutal Bob Oswald (Rory Kinnear). Fiercely protective of his daughters, whose behaviour suggests they need guidance rather than lenience, Oswald is like a defensive animal. He tears off his shirt before attacking, eats raw ham from the packet and lives in an unfinished house – it is literally a broken home. As a result of his monstrous and delusional protective behaviour, he has raised three similarly viscous daughters who have grown up to view the world with aggression and suspicion.

On the other hand, Skunk receives far more considered parental love from Archie, who is affectionate but also firm. Both Archie and Oswald are single fathers and both are shown to have a tremendous love for their children and fear seeing harm come to them. The difference is Oswald has become savage to the point of terrifying the community while Archie upholds the law, even to the point of assisting a romantic rival because it is the right thing to do. Considering others and responding rationally are viewed in the film as essential for civilisation to prevail.

Notions of what it means to love and what it means to be civilised are not the only grand themes in Broken, as it also explores the question of fate. One of the many strengths of the film is its redemptive undercurrent, where a tragic event places a character in a position where they have the ability to prevent tragedy for others. This in turn invites speculation about what events caused the tragedy in question in the first place, challenging the audience to consider the cause-and-effect relationship between the order of events in the film.

The non-lineal structure of the film furthers this inquiry into how the film is suggesting a relationship between the different events in the film. Most interestingly is the way the film covertly skips over particular events, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions about the aftermath before the film then goes into flashback to fill in the missing details. Sometimes the film crosscuts between the scene about to end and the scene about to start, creating unusual spatial and temporal links.

This fractured – yet highly coherent – approach to the narrative also gives the film an at times dreamlike quality to suggest it is a collection of memories that sometimes overlap. It is not clear if the suggested memories belong to Skunk or Archie, and it is made even more ambiguous by the presence of images depicting Skunk in the future. The end result is to present the period of time the film takes place in as a defining one for Skunk as she begins the not always pleasant transition into adulthood.

The film’s director Rufus Norris has a background directing theatre, yet displays considerable talent as a filmmaker in his approach to not just the unconventional editing, but other elements of film style such as the cinematography. During the early scenes of the film, the adult characters are frequently shot from Skunk’s height so that their heads are cut off by the top of the frame. In the scene where Skunk has her first kiss with her boyfriend Dillon (George Sargeant), the pair stand up without the camera following them so their heads are similarly briefly out of frame. The camera then pans up and the technique of viewing adults from below slips away from the film, suggesting Skunk’s entry into the adult world.

The design and style of the film is also carefully crafted to deliver Skunk’s perspective of a world that is harsh, but also full of childlike wonder. Norris uses an unusual blend of social realist style shots with moments that are almost neo-romantic. In particular, the junkyard where Skunk hangs out is filled with broken cars and yet filmed with warm and soft light to present her imaginative view of the yard. Tellingly, a place filled with broken objects is one that Skunk can see beauty in.

Broken is a film of thematic, narrative and stylistic complexity that manages to remain highly accessible. The theme of learning to grow up nobly in a world of unfairness is very effectively transposed from To Kill a Mockingbird, but Broken pleasingly takes its own direction to deliver a very moving look at parental love. While a character such as Archie is comparable to Atticus Finch in terms of honour and inner strength, making Skunk the focus of the story was an inspired decision. By framing such universal issues such as the power of forgiveness, redemption and love through a coming-of-age narrative of a generous and kind 11-year-old girl, Broken delivers a moving and thoughtful cinema experience.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013