Summer, 1993(6/24/2018)

The always sarcastic marquee at my local arthouse showing the new Spanish film Summer, 1993 had a special comment on one side which reads “Not about ‘Exile in Guyville’” in reference to the 1993 Liz Phair album of that name and on the other side it reads “I was listening to ‘Siamese Dream’ a lot that that summer” in reference to the Smashing Punpkins album of that name.  That joke marquee isn’t really referencing anything in the movie itself (which is entirely disinterested in popular music) but more about that strange way that references to the summers of various years almost always conjures up certain nostalgic images whether or not your own experiences had much of anything in common with the popular perception.  Case in point Bryan Adams managed to sing very plausibly about his magical coming of age experiences in the “Summer of ‘69” despite the fact that simple google searches reveal that he was actually only ten years old that year so he probably didn’t actually buy his first real six-string at the five and dime and play it until his fingers bled that year.  The year 1993 is of course no exception, when I saw the title of the movie I was also instantly thinking about grunge music and Michael Jordan even though I was six years old that years old that year and was probably spending a lot more time listening to the “Little Mermaid” soundtrack than I was listening to “Vs.”  Of course that would theoretically prove to be a bit of a boon when it comes to looking at Summer, 1993 the movie as it eschews the notion that the “summer of” construct is owned by teenagers as it is also a movie about people who were six or so in 1993.

Summer, 1993 begins with a woman named Marga (Bruna Cusí) and her husband Esteve (David Verdaguer) adopting their niece Frida (Laia Artigas) and moving her from Barcelona to their home somewhere in rural Catalonia after Frida’s mother dies and hope to raise her alongside their own slightly younger daughter Anna (Paula Robles).  That is pretty much the entirety of the plot summery for this movie as it is very much a movie about observing people rather than really relaying a plotline.  There is a subtext to be discovered in that it becomes clear that it was three letters that took Frida’s mother to her final resting place, which is probably the main reason this is set in 1993, but this only really comes up in something like four or five scenes and the movie doesn’t really come out and explain it explicitly until a very well rendered conversation in its final moments.  Instead the movie remains largely in the little girl’s point of view and continues to follow her through her many mundane days across that summer mostly oblivious to the social and political situation that her mother’s death represents instead observes her as she’s going through typical kid stuff as she slowly adjusts to her new life.

Summer 1993 is a tricky one because I get what it’s trying to do and when I step back far enough I can admire that, but the process of actually watching it was a bit rough.  I hate to use the B-word about an art movie but if I’m being honest there was only so much of watching these kids do a whole lot of nothing particularly special without finding it all a bit dull.  This has been something of a quirk in my taste, a lot of filmmakers seem very interested in letting their cameras observe kids being kids but it’s something that doesn’t really work for me except for a couple of very specific situations where it works very well.  Last year’s The Florida Project for instance, worked like gangbusters for me but that looked at a childhood that was very unique and really examined how that kid’s messy family life affected her in a way that this movie intentionally avoids and other movies like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood tends to move more quickly from year to year rather than focusing in on one rather mundane summer.  This one actually reminded me more of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, but not the interesting parts of it like the dawn of life sequence or the magnificent camera work or ethereal nature that made it interesting, more like an extended version of the somewhat dull sequences of kids playing that sort of made that movie not entirely work for me.  And if watching kids play aimlessly is going to make a Terrence Malick movie dull you can probably guess this one didn’t really stand a chance.  Still, I don’t want to be too dismissive of it as it does in theory at least do a pretty good job of showing with subtlety a major adjustment in this family’s life, shame it also had to be so boring.

** out of Five

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Hereditary(6/9/2018)

When did audiences and critics suddenly become so divided in their taste for horror movies?  It probably isn’t exactly a new phenomenon but it seems like there’s been a certain role reversal.  It used to be that critics looked down on horror movies in general and wrote snobby reviews of the likes of The Thing and it would be left up to audiences to recognize the skill on display and build its legacy.  Obviously there would be certain movies like The Exorcist or The Silence of the Lambs that would be so good they would win over critics as well as audiences, but for the most part mainstream movie critics were far less forgiving of the genre than the public.  That’s still the case to some extent given that there are plenty of horror movies of the Ouija variety that the public laps up despite critical apathy, but there’s been an odd trend recently of “arty” horror movies that critics have loved but which audiences have angrily rejected.  The most prominent example of this was probably Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, which was only kind of a horror movie but audiences were certainly expecting it to be one and they were not too happy with what they got.  Something similar played out with last year’s It Comes at Night and with less widely seen films like The Witch and The Babadook.  It’s a pretty disturbing trend, in part because it suggest that audience have really closed their minds to what a horror movie can and should be, but it is good to see smart movies like this getting recognition and the latest movie that seems to have fit this trend is the new film Hereditary, which received incredibly strong reviews on the festival circuit but seems to be confounding mainstream audiences.

The film opens with the text of an obituary of an old woman named Ellen and transitions to her funeral where her daughter Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is conflicted about how to feel.  Her mother had been mentally ill throughout her life and the two fought often and went through periods of estrangement.  Annie’s kids aren’t quite sure what to think about the death of their grandmother either.  The older son Peter (Alex Wolff) had not spent much time with Ellen as Annie was estranged from her when he was young but her younger daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) did spend time with her but generally has a rather cold demeanor and doesn’t reveal much in the way of her emotions.  In the days after Ellen’s death Annie finds herself seeing some odd things that her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) dismisses as her mind playing tricks on her but Annie still finds herself secretly going to support groups for grief where she meets a woman named Joan (Anne Dowd) who tries to support her and begins introducing her to alternative coping mechanisms.  However, as Charlie begins acting increasingly strangely and other odd things keep happening and it becomes clear that something far more sinister than mere grief is going on here.

Hereditary could be said to be a rather extreme example of the many ways not to handle grief and family strife.  Much of what makes the film special is the way that the family at its center starts to break down and turn against one another as things grow increasingly painful for everyone involved and we see different coping mechanisms out of each of the main family members.  The mother desperately searches for answers and becomes prone to anger, the son more or less cocoons himself away and falls into a sort of depressive stupor, and the father tries to just move on and ends up having to act as a sort of mediator between all parties involved.  I wouldn’t exactly say that this rings “true” exactly given all the horror trappings that adds a new dimension to everything, but it does sort of feel like an extreme version of dynamics that would exist in a similar if less fantastical scenario.  As such this requires more out of its actors than the typical horror movie and much of the cast delivers.  Gabriel Byrne does a good job of conveying the desperation of a guy who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a truly messed up dynamic and Alex Wolff does a pretty good job of making his character’s utter confusion palpable.  But the true standout here is almost certainly Toni Collette who brings to life a character who is in an almost constant state of mental breakdown because of an accumulation of years of confusion and repressed memories and also the desperation of her current situation.  Were this a more standard family drama in the Ordinary People vein she would be a shoe in for an academy award for this performance.

This focus on mental breakdown in a familial situation draws some comparison to another recent “arty” horror movie, The Babadook.  I would say that in general Hereditary is a scarier and more hard hitting horror movie than The Babadook but it lacks the ambiguity of that movie and other clear inspirations like Rosemary’s Baby.  I think the movie wants you to sort of be unclear, at least for a little while, as to whether or not there’s truly something supernatural going on or whether Toni Collette’s character is letting her paranoia and insecurities get the best of her, or at least that’s a card I wish it had wanted to play but it shows you things early on that are plainly supernatural and in doing so it sort of discards that possibility early on.  In general if I have a problem with the movie it’s that it is perhaps trying to be a few too many different kind of horror movies at once.  At times it feels a bit like a ghost story of the Paranormal Activity variety and it isn’t above going for a jump scare here and there, at times it feels like an occult/witchcraft movie along the lines of The Exorcist or The Witch, and at times it wants to be more of a psychological thriller along the lines of The Babadook and the weight of trying to be so many things at once sort of prevents it from being everything it could potentially be.  I think dropping some of the elements that fake towards it being a haunting movie and letting it be more of a slow burn at the beginning would have been to its benefit and I also don’t exactly know that it lays out the rules of its horror universe as clearly as I would have like (I was never exactly clear how the rules of possession are supposed to work in it), though of course there is probably a decent argument to be made that a more mysterious approach would was the right one.  Whatever it’s imperfections that may or may not preclude it from the pantheon of horror masterpieces, this is plainly a cut above most of the horror movies that are likely to be in theaters at a given moment and is well worth seeing if you’ve got the stomach for a lot onscreen trauma.

**** out of Five

First Reformed(6/3/2018)

Review Contains Spoilers

Paul Schrader is a bit of an anomaly among veteran film directors in that, when looked at from afar, he actually has a pretty impressive filmography but it doesn’t always feel like that.  Part of that might simply be that his accomplishments as a screenwriter have long overshadowed his work as a director.  That’s perhaps understandable, handing off a script like Taxi Driver off to a different director tends to have that effect, but he does have some really solid directorial credits as well like Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and American Gigolo so that can’t be the only problem.  The real problem is simple inconsistency.  For a guy who tends to speak very seriously about cinema and who once wrote a book called “Transcendental Style in Film” about Bresson, Ozu, and Dreyer Schrader sure seems to get involved in some questionable projects.  This has always been a problem for Schrader, who even in his prime years found himself making sensationalist projects like Hardcore and bad ideas like his Cat People remake.  But the last fifteen years have been particularly dismissible with him making Exorcist prequels, trashy Nicholas Cage movies, and tabloid baiting Lindsay Lohan movies with hardly a single real triumph since 2002’s Auto Focus.  Admittedly I haven’t actually seen most of the movies he’s made in that stretch and it’s possible that there are actually some hidden gems in there, but from the outside it’s been pretty easy to write the guy off as a has been chasing former glories.  But lo and behold, out of nowhere Schrader has suddenly made a movie called First Reformed that has actually gained a great deal of critical respect.  Could it be a true comeback?

First Reformed follows a modern day Calvinist pastor named Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) who is currently in charge of a historic church in the Albany, New York area called the First Reformed, which is about to go through its 250th anniversary.  Toller was once a military chaplain and he encouraged his son to follow the family tradition and join the military but this went bad when that son was killed in action during the war in Iraq.  Toller is now divorced and alcoholic but still takes some solace in preaching to his small flock.  One day a woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) comes to him and asks him to talk with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who has become increasingly depressed about the state of the world.  Michael is worried about his wife’s pregnancy and feels that it’s immoral to bring a child into a world that will inevitably be decimated by climate change within the child’s lifetime.  Toller tries to console the man but is himself disturbed by what he’s saying, which sparks a crisis of faith in the pastor about everyone’s culpability in destroying the world.

First Reformed uses as a framing device the fact that the depressed pastor at its center is writing a diary to get out his inner spiritual turmoil.  This of course harkens back to Robert Bresson’s The Diary of a Country Priest… I think.  Confession: I’ve never actually seen The Diary of a Country Priest.  Bresson and his theological explorations have never been my cup of tea and while I’ve seen a couple of his movies that one is a blind spot.  I have, on the other hand, seen the other movie that this one clearly draws influence from: Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light.  The connection between the two is pretty clear with the film’s look at environmental despair being essentially an update of the nuclear paranoia that’s going on in Bergman’s film.  There are various other bits and pieces lifted from European classics and Schrader more or less announces that he’s working within this tradition by filming the movie in the old Academy Ratio, but the movie is not necessarily as slow and meditative as some of the movies that Schrader describes as “transcendental.”  This is not exactly a summer popcorn movie or anything but it isn’t the kind of art film that’s filled with pauses and lingering shots of the kind you might see in a Tsai Ming-liang movie or something.

This also shouldn’t be mistaken for a movie so indebted to the films of the past that it isn’t bringing anything of its own to the table.  There are elements of the film that hue closer to what Schrader’s own interests in almost hysterical obsession to the point where the film almost shares the structure of Schrader’s breakthrough screenplay Taxi Driver.  These Taxi Driver like elements are probably where I start to take issue with the movie, in part because the act of violence that the movie leads up to never quite seemed plausible to me.  For one thing, the basic notion of an “eco-terrorist” owning a suicide vest strained credibility from the beginning.  “Eco-terrorists” are a thing, but they are pretty different from “terrorist terroists,” they’ve been known to cause property damage and pull stunts like breaking into labs and freeing test animals but they’ve never killed anyone and it’s doubtful they would have much use for a C4 vest.  Even ignoring that, I have trouble seeing the logic in Toller’s eventual plan, which seems to involve killing several innocent people to take out one easily replaceable industrialist.  Deranged as he may have been, Travis Bickle at least had enough common sense to hatch a plan that actually would conceivably succeed at freeing the Jodie Foster character from her pimp.  Toller is older, better educated, and seemingly less far gone than Bickle and yet his plan seems even more disconnected from reality than that crazy taxi driver’s violent outburst and it’s tough to believe that even someone in extreme spiritual tumult would hatch such a scheme.

Ignoring whether or not the development at the end quite makes sense, what are we to make of it?  I think a big part of the message might be in the music that Schrader chooses to set his climax to.  As Toller begins to mutilate himself with barbed wire and contemplate drinking drano Esther is singing an old American Hymn called “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” a song that will be familiar cinephilles from its use in Night of the Hunter and its incorporation in Carter Burwell’s score for the Coen Brothers remake of True Grit.  It’s filled with lyrics like “what a blessedness, what a peace is mine,” “safe and secure from all alarms,” and “O how sweet to walk, In this pilgrim way.”  In short it’s a song about finding bliss and comfort in religion, which is about the opposite of what Toller is experiencing.  On the contrary, Toller finds that truly thinking through the implications of his faith and the toll of being moral in a fallen world to be anything but comforting.  I don’t think the movie is suggesting that this is an experience that’s unique to religion given that the character of Michael also ended up being consumed after truly thinking through the implications of what we’re doing to the world.  I don’t think the movie is trying to suggest that people should be living in blissful ignorance either but it is suggesting that people maybe shouldn’t try to bear the weight of the world on their own and in the final shot of the film Toller manages to unburden himself, even if only in his dying imagination, by throwing out the burdens of the cloth and following the carnal instincts that he’s been suppressing this whole time.  Some of the chains that bind him still remain, but in this final vision there is perhaps at least some hope that remains.

**** out of Five

Solo: A Star Wars Story(5/27/2018)

Four months ago I went to a packed screening of Black Panther, which was a pretty memorable night at the movies for everyone involved for a lot of reasons but one moment that stood out to me was something that happened before the movie even began.  That moment came during the trailers when, in a moment of Disney corporate synergy, they played a trailer for the new Star Wars spinoff Solo: A Star Wars Story.  I thought the trailer looked pretty good all told.  It had some neat images and looked pretty fun, but when the trailer ended I overheard something.  A girl who sounded like she was about nine or ten sitting a row or two behind me said out loud “that guy doesn’t look like Han Solo.”  This was one of those moments where someone spoke up and said what everyone was thinking and it mirrored something I had tweeted a month earlier when the film was advertised during the Super Bowl: “The #SoloAStarWarsStory trailer looks solid, shame it has to be about a character called Han Solo who isn’t played by Harrison Ford.”  The thing is Han Solo isn’t really a very deep character, he’s an architype, and his appeal is largely focused on what Harrison Ford was able to bring to him.  What’s more there just seemed to be something kind of odd about recasting original trilogy characters like that.  Yes there were a few examples like that in the prequels like Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan, but the age difference there was so wide that it feels like a whole different ballgame.  As such I wasn’t too excited about this, but at the end of the day it is a Star Wars movie so it’s not like I can just not see it.

Solo begins about ten years before Han Solo showed up at the Mos Eisley cantina in the original Star Wars and sold his services to an old man and a young farmer on a quest to find a princess.  This younger Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is revealed to have been an orphan raised on the streets of an industrial planet called Corellia.  There he and a girlfriend named Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) dream of running away from the planet and the gangster who they’re in debt to.  Unfortunately for Han his escape plan goes a bit awry and while he gets off the planet Qi’ra does not.  From there he swears he’ll come back with enough money to get her off the planet but first he finds himself enlisting with the Imperial army in order to become a pilot.  We cut to three years later where he meets a group of thieves led by a rogue named Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and plans to join his crew of outlaws but needs to find a way to impress him first.

Now, in my introductory paragraph I focused in on the question of how a movie about Han Solo can possibly be made without Harrison Ford and I was walking into the theater with my mind pretty thoroughly closed on the issue.  To Alden Ehrenreich’s immense credit, I found these worries pretty actively slipping away while I was actually watching the movie.  It’s not even that Ehrenreich is particularly impressive in the movie so much as the youth of the Han Solo seen here makes more of a difference than I expected it to.  He’s younger here and less cynical and it’s easier to envision him becoming everyone’s favorite smuggler than I expected from the movie.  He also manages to look more like a young Ford than I expected and the movie did a pretty good job of replicating the character’s slightly dated 70s hairstyle without making it look silly.

Additionally, I remembered about half way through the movie that Ehrenreich actually isn’t the first young actor who was tasked with taking on a youthful version of a legendary Harrison Ford role.  The previous actor with this task was the late River Phoenix, who at the age of 18 needed to become the young Indiana Jones during the opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which we learn exactly what inspired most of that character’s trademarks like his hat, his interest in whips, how he got his scar, and where he got his fear of snakes.  Solo plays out a bit like that sequence but for Han Solo and expanded out to feature length.  We see how Solo became a pilot, met Chewbacca, met Lando, encountered the Millennium Falcon, and made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.  It doesn’t get up to the point where he met Jabba the Hutt and became indebted to him but other than that it leaves basically no stone unturned in establishing most of the traits associated with the character albeit in a somewhat shallow way.

Solo: A Star Wars Story comes out less than six months after the release of the divisive The Last Jedi, a movie that I was highly critical of.  That was a movie that took big risks, something I’d be in favor of in theory but decidedly was not in favor of the way they chose to go about it.  Solo by contrast is a movie that plays it safe.  If anything I feel like it should be the other way around.  The “saga” movies should be the traditional movies carrying on a tradition and these spinoff movies that people are less invested in should plainly be the place where they’re free to experiment but the opposite seems to have happened here.  Despite that, if asked whether I liked Solo better than The Last Jedi my answer would almost certainly be “yes.”  I might not have a great deal of respect for Solo but it doesn’t make the same kind of boneheaded mistakes that Rian Johnson’s movie did and it mostly succeeds at its rather modest goals.  On the flipside The Last Jedi, for all its faults, was a movie that inspired me to write a 3330 word review which remains a site record while I’m straining to even come up with a thousand words about Solo.  At the end of the day this is a fun movie, and when compared to any number of other summer movie it measures up.  However, people generally expect a bit more of an event out of Star Wars and that sense of excitement is what’s missing from Solo.

***1/2 out of Five

Deadpool 2(5/21/2018)

Let it be known, while I look pretty closely at box office figures week to week I am not always that great at predicting what’s going to catch on and how big.  That was certainly the case of the first Deadpool film, which I expected to find an audience but I never imagined it would make $132 million in its opening weekend and go on to make nearly $800 million worldwide.  There might have been a little personal bias there because by 2016 I’d been pretty frustrated by the “comic book adaptation with attitude” genre as exemplified by such films as Wanted, Kick-Ass, and Kingsmen: The Secret Service.  As such I skipped Deadpool in theaters and when I finally caught up with the movie on Blu-ray I can’t say I particularly regretted that decision.  Deadpool was a fun movie but it certainly didn’t stand out to me as any kind of zeitgeist capturing triumph.  Some of its profane fourth-wall breaking antics were amusing but hardly the funniest thing I’d ever seen and ignoring the jokes it was a pretty dull origin story with a bland villain and it’s lower budget was readily apparent in its small-scale action scenes which couldn’t really compete with the giant superhero spectacles that Hollywood has been regularly churning out.  And yet, I find myself more inclined to see the film’s sequel in theaters than I was for the original, which maybe has less to do with the movies themselves and more to do with the fact that Hollywood didn’t have the balls to put out anything in the two weeks following Avengers: Infinity War and I was jonesing for an action movie.

Deadpool 2 picks up a few months after the end of its predecessor and Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) has embraced a life of doing mercenary work against criminals while easing into his relationship with his fiancé Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) until one day one of his enemies follows him home and kills Vanessa in front of him.  Deadpool dispatches the responsible parties quickly but is overcome with guilt and tries to kill himself explosively only to have his healing powers save him once again.  Seeing that Deadpool is hurting Colossus (Stefan Kapičić) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) try to rescue him and bring him into the X-Men fold once again.  Deadpool plays along, but on his very first mission he finds himself shooting someone to save a troubled mutant teen named Firefist (Julian Dennison) and both he and his friend are arrested and placed into a special mutant prison where everyone wears collars that suppress their powers.  All hope seems lost when the prison is attacked by a time traveling mutant named Cable (Josh Brolin) who seems oddly hellbent on killing Firefist.

One of my biggest problems with the original Deadpool is that is just seemed kind of, well, cheap.  I got why it was cheap, the studios were clearly as skeptical as I was about how much of a mass audience the Deadpool character could draw, but given that it was competing with any number of actual blockbuster superhero films its rather meager action scenes were a problem.  That has been solved in the sequel, which is perhaps to be expected given that the budget has almost doubled and one of the guys behind the “John Wick” series has been brought on to direct.  It would have been a massive disappointment if the action scenes in this thing weren’t a major step up, but they are.  That’s not to say that this is some kind of action movie classic but on scales of spectacle it does hold its own against most the other more conventional superhero movies and the R-ratedness of the film’s violence does give it a flavor that most of those movies don’t have.

This time it’s actually the comedy I’m a bit shaky about.  Having only watched the original Deadpool in a fairly casual fashion I didn’t really have firm opinions about the comedic stylings of the series but watching this sequel it’s clear that what’s basically going on here is that the movies are taking the “throw everything at the wall” approach to comedy that movies like Airplane! took except that it’s working with a much larger budget and only one character is really allowed to break the fourth wall.  As tends to be the case with this approach some jokes work and some don’t, and in this movie I’d say the ratio is maybe one in three landed jokes, which could be worse, but some of the jokes that don’t work are kind of cringey.  The movie really wants to seem cool and subversive but in many ways its not as smart as it thinks it is and you can really see the way it does things that seem aimed at a very wide and frankly kind of basic audience.  Like, this is a movie that feels the need to throw in parodies of the boombox scene from Say Anything and the interrogation scene from Basic Instinct as if the world didn’t already have enough of both and even feels the need to announce exactly the movie they’re referencing in the latter example.  The weird thing is that every once in the blue moon the movie actually will reference something that’s a little bit more obscure like when someone casually brings up the 2005 Australian film The Proposition or when Deadpool makes the occasional inside joke about the comic books, but a lot of these jokes just seem kind of like low hanging fruit rather than subversive digs.

The constant jokes and digressions here certainly leads to some amusing moments but they also sort of undercut the occasional moments where the movie semi-ironically tries to actually play something straight.  The moments in the film where it tries to fight for the soul of a child and prevent him from becoming a killer seem particularly hypocritical given the general disregard for human life that is otherwise on display in the movie.  This is a movie that begs you not to take it seriously outside of its overwhelming irreverence and given that I kind of wish it had gone for the jugular even more.  The film certainly isn’t making any kind of statement about society and while it does make certain digs at the comic book genre I’m not sure they’re all that biting either.  Of course this isn’t to say that the movie is a complete failure or even a failure at all really.  As summer entertainment goes the movie mostly succeeds and I think there is reason to say that it offers more to the viewer than some of the more cookie-cutter of the Marvel movies.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.  That said I don’t really respect the movie in spite of its entertainment value.  At the end of the day it’s a rather immature work and I don’t think it’s going to age we, but again, there are worse ways to spend your time.

*** out of Five

The Rider(5/18/2018)

You know that big award ceremony that happens in Hollywood every year in the last weekend of award season?  No not the Oscars.  I’m talking about the Independent Spirit Awards.  If you’re not familiar it’s an award show that’s given out every year the Saturday before the Oscars (when all the celebrities are in town) since the mid-80s which were meant to be something of an anti-Oscars where the makers of plucky independent films got together in a large circus tent while wearing casual clothing.  It’s been a bit redundant now given that their definition of “independent” is pretty broad and the real Academy is more receptive to “independent” films than ever and at this point the overlap between the two shows is pretty heavy.  In fact it’s been something like ten years since the winner of the Spirit award wasn’t also an Oscar nominee and even longer since it was won by something that wasn’t pretty heavily on the Oscar radar.  Still, there does seem to be at least some sort of voting bloc at Film Independent that is, for better or worse, interested in highlighting less prominent indie films to the point where they’ve occasionally nominated movies the year before they’ve even come out in general release.  That happened about ten years ago when they gave two nominations to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker months before anyone who hadn’t been to a film festival had ever heard of it.  A similar thing happened last year as well when they gave a “Best Feature” nomination to a movie that had been well off my radar called The Rider despite the film’s general release not occurring until almost half a year later.

The Rider is set in modern rural South Dakota and focuses on a guy named Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) who has just suffered a major injury while performing in a rodeo.  Blackburn appears to be in his twenties and lives in a trailer with his father Wayne (Tim Jandreau) who appears to be a heavy drinker and gambler and his fifteen year old sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) who seems to have some sort of mental disability.  As the film begins Blackburn has a large gash across the side of his head under which a metal plate has been attached and as a result of this brain injury he occasionally loses control of one of his hands.  He’s been told that another rodeo injury could kill him and that he needs to avoid riding and rest in order to heal.  Frustrated, Blackburn tries to find a way to make a living outside of his one true skill and to find a way to leave behind his passion for horse riding and the thrill of rodeo performance.

The obvious reference point for this is almost certainly Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler, which also focused on the plight of a guy in a disreputable “sport” who’s told that he’s no longer physically fit participate in said sport and has trouble accepting that he needs to give it up.  Both films focus on their protagonist’s shame at their current state and have sub-plots where they are miserable while trying to get menial day jobs where people recognize them from their previous more glamourous life.  They even have similar titles.  Of course there are differences; Randy “The Ram” Robinson was depicted as someone who had been very famous in his past life and was brought down both by age and by years of wear and tear while Brady Blackburn is a guy who only appears to have had some slight regional success before having his career cut short by a sudden injury.  Now, being similar to another movie is not a deal breaker by any means and there are a number of stylistic differences that make this different in both tone and message than Aronofsky’s film.

Almost all of the characters in The Rider are played by non-actors and all the members of Blackburn’s family appear to be played by actual relatives of Brady Jandreau but the film is scripted and technically a work of fiction even if it does sort of mirror the lives of the people acting in it.  I’m not the biggest believer the use of non-actors in movies.  Every once in a while it works beautifully in something like The Florida Project but for every one of those there are a dozen indie movies made by Rossellini-wannabes that just sort of feel cheap.  I would say this one felt like a bit of a mix of the two.  Brady Jandreau was pretty impressive in the film, especially in the scenes where he’s not speaking and in the scenes where he’s doing his horse training work, which seemed pretty authentic.  I also thought Lilly Jandreau added an interesting presence to the film and felt very real for obvious reasons and it’s probably fair to say that the approach added a number of interesting faces to the movie.  However, the downside of this approach is that there are moments where the amateur nature of the performers comes through, especially in the dialogue scenes which occasionally results in some rather questionable line-readings.

Rather than harken back to the visual style of Hollywood westerns Chloé Zhao’s visual approach is minimalist and has a very straightforward digital look that emphasizes its realism.  A lot of people have been interpreting the film as a statement about “toxic masculinity” because it’s about the culture that demands that this guy keep doing something dangerous to prove his manhood, and there is a little of that in there but I’m not so sure that people would be seeing all of that had the movie not been directed by a woman.  For one thing, Brady Blackburn doesn’t strike me as a terribly agro individual so much as this thoughtful horse whisperer type and at times the character’s stubbornness clashes a bit with the more thoughtful take that Jandreau has on the character.  Instead, to me this feels like a sort of dark reversal on the kind of “chase your dreams and you can do anything” philosophy that gets espoused by movies like La La Land.  Society loves telling stories about people who overcome injuries and beat people’s expectations but it’s not so interested in telling the stories of people who try to do that and only end up digging themselves deeper into holes.  That’s worth exploring to be sure, but I’ve seen it explored more excitingly elsewhere (did I mention that this resembled The Wrestler?) and the tour through rural America is only going to do so much for me.  There is some skill here though and I can imagine Zhao’s approach working better as it evolves and finds other more original subjects.

**1/2 out of Five