Unpacking Adjectives

C’mon C’mon

by Hope Madden

In looking back over the notes I took as I screened Mike Mills’s latest feature, I find more single words than helpful phrases or insights. I wrote down these words: intimate, vulnerable, hopeful, sincere, earnest.

In other words, C’mon C’mon is a Mike Mills film.

The filmmaker’s most memorable movies dig deep into one connection within a family to see how that tumult ripples out to the rest of our hero’s relationships. Beginners pitted a man’s evolving bond with his aging father (Christopher Plummer, who took home an Oscar for the role). Six years later, Mills digs into mother/son issues with the incandescent 20th Century Women. (Mills nabbed his first Oscar nomination for the screenplay.)

In C’mon C’mon, a man’s changing relationship with his young nephew mirrors his deepening bond with his estranged sister. That man, Johnny, is played by Joaquin Phoenix, who presumably does not need to be described as one of the greatest actors working today because everyone knows that by now.

Phoenix is particularly endearing in this film, hitting those earlier adjectives with such authenticity it would be very easy to believe he simply loved the little boy he was spending all this time with, regardless of the amount of energy a 9-year-old sucks from you, not to mention the frustration that comes with that territory.

Jesse, the 9-year-old, is played by quite an amazing actor himself. Woody Norman (love that name!) shoulders the responsibility of being precocious, frustrating, brilliant, adorable, tender and human. He soars, and his chemistry with Phoenix couldn’t be more charming or genuine.

So many adjectives!

Gaby Hoffmann deserves one, too, because she’s wonderful as well as Norman’s mom, Johnny’s sister Viv. Viv needs to look in on Jesse’s father, a bipolar musician who’s bitten off more than he can chew with his new job, new apartment and new dog. Johnny agrees to look after Jesse, eventually bringing the boy along with him to New York and then New Orleans where Johnny interviews kids for a radio program.

Johnny is finding out how the world looks to a child and realizing that it is genuinely terrifying.

Both sound design and cinematography also need to be acclaimed as adjective worthy as well, because this film looks and sounds amazing.

Mills blends the interviews (of non-actors whose responses are not scripted) with the fictional relationships among Johnny, Jesse and Viv. The blending of reality with fiction is seamless enough to buoy the sense of authenticity and heighten a mood of empathy.

As is true with Beginners and 20th Century Women, C’mon C’mon wraps the messy, awkward, disappointing realities of being human in a blanket of hope. As cloying as that sounds, the film is so sincere it’s hard to deny its warmth.

Family Matters

Encounter

by Hope Madden

Just two features in, filmmaker Michael Pearce is proving himself a master craftsman. His sly ability to shift tone is matched by storytelling instincts that leave you holding your breath against seemingly inevitable heartbreak.

Pearce’s 2017 film Beast (see it if you haven’t!) benefitted from Jessie Buckley’s raw, morally complicated performance. For his latest, Encounter, he can thank Riz Ahmed.

Fresh off his Oscar-nominated turn in Sound of Metal (see it if you haven’t!), Ahmed delivers another searing, searching turn, this time as Malik. A marine with 10 tours under his belt, Malik returns to the home his wife makes with another man. He arrives not to cause familial conflict, but to save his sons (Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada, both as cute as they are talented) from a problem much bigger than mere marital discord.

Ahmed’s chemistry with the young actors brings a touching vulnerability to every scene, and as the boys’ road trip turns ever darker and wearier, Chauhan proves a formidable acting partner.

Rare missteps stand out specifically because of their rarity. When a line delivery rings false, over-the-top or melodramatic it screams its presence because this cast and this script deftly convey so much so honestly.

Octavia Spencer offers support in a role that feels out of step with the jarring authenticity the main cast brings to an otherwise wild, almost sci-fi storyline. Likewise, the police force Spencer’s parole officer Hattie rides along with — soft-spoken Shep (Rory Cochrane) and self-satisfied Lance (Shane McRae) — toe the line between character and cliché.

Otherwise, though, Pearce, Ahmed and gang uncover tensions and complications, picking at your worries for these sweet boys and their beautifully damaged father. Tone shifts gradually but decidedly, every moment building a queasying energy until the inevitable finale (a beautifully choreographed sequence that calls to mind the insect infestation imagery of Act 1 while articulating the nerve-frazzling tension).

The filmmaker and his game lead challenge expectations both in theme and in genre, and while their gamble doesn’t entirely pay off, it’s often riveting stuff.

Sheep’s Clothing

Wolf

by George Wolf

More metaphorical than Cuckoo’s Nest, more elusive than Girl, Interrupted, and with less satirical bite than The Lobster, Wolf brings a few other films to mind. But like many of her characters, writer/director Nathalie Biancheri is committed to her own different animal.

George MacKay is hypnotic as Jacob, a young man suffering from species dysphoria. He believes he is a wolf trapped in a human’s body, and when we first meet Jacob, his distraught parents are dropping him off for an extended stay at a treatment center promising a cure.

Once inside, Jacob meets others in similar circumstances: Parrot (Lola Petticrew), German Shepard (Fionn O’Shea), Duck (Senan Jennings), Horse (Elsa Fionuir) and Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp) – all patients under the domineering thumb of The Zookeeper (Paddy Considine).

Though enemies in the wild, Wolf and Wildcat become drawn to each other within the confines of the treatment center. She’s mysterious, with privileges the other patients don’t enjoy, which comes in mighty handy when Wolf starts resisting The Zookeeper’s increasingly harsh methods.

Biancheri’s metaphor for conversion therapy certainly isn’t hard to pick out, but on a wider scale, her film speaks not only to ignorance toward the LBGTQ+ community, but to a universal push for conformity across all lanes of society. To The Zookeeper, a happy and productive life comes only when you accept what is expected of you, and while Biancheri often juggles different tones within this theme, she is able to craft several moments of powerful humanity, including a structured lesson on laughing that will just about break your heart.

MacKay (1917, The True History of the Kelly Gang) is such a wonderful actor, and it’s no surprise that he’s able to uncover Jacob’s inner conflict with a touching, understated depth. But even beyond that, his command of the role’s animal physicality is powerful and striking.

As Wolf and Wildcat grow closer, MacKay and Depp (also impressive in a comparatively underwritten role) often seemed locked in to an acting school exercise on primal instincts that left the rest of the class in the dust.

There’s more than enough here – from the narrative core to the stellar ensemble to the clinical production design and beyond – for a compelling and thought provoking parable. But while Biancheri’s ambitions are bold and worthy, her second feature (after 2019’s Nocturnal) can’t quite settle on a species.

Such commitment to a unique identity is certainly thematically consistent, but a more streamlined focus may have made the finale feel less abrupt, and brought more clarity to Wolf‘s high concept vision.

Sister Act

Benedetta

by Hope Madden

In 17th Century Italy, a nun challenged the church as well as social and sexual norms, rallying a town around her. Was she a charlatan? Was she a saint? Regardless, she seems to be a fascinating image of early feminism. You’ll have to imagine that yourself, though, because her story has been brought to the screen by Paul Verhoeven, which means her story is now soft-core porn.

Who would have thought that the director behind Showgirls would eventually make a hot lesbian nun movie? I mean, besides everyone.

Verhoeven challenged preconceptions about himself as a filmmaker (mine, anyway) in 2012 when he released the most discombobulating rape-revenge thriller, Elle. A masterstroke of a performance by Isabelle Huppert certainly helped.

With Benedetta, Verhoeven takes another shot at ogling the female form inside a context that suggests that ogling is really empowering.

Benedetta (Virginie Efira) was dedicated to the Virgin Mary as a young child by her wealthy father and has been at the convent since she was 10. She’s content, a devoted disciple. As an adult, though, the sexual awakening triggered by new novice Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) coincides with ecstatic visions of both righteous and demonic leanings.

Is Benedetta crying out for attention and power, or is something supernatural truly afoot?

That right there — the question of the source of these visions, whether the result of a lust for power, true divine intervention, or undiagnosed schizophrenia — might have given Verhoeven’s film a cogent central conflict.

Naturally, his interest is in the sexual awakening.

Which is fine, if uninspired. You might be surprised by how many films you can find that depict shockingly attractive sisters engaging in nun-on-nun action. (I recommend Alucarda.)

At well over two hours, the film feels remarkably self-indulgent. There are the requisite nods toward the corruption of the church, but Verhoeven, who co-wrote an adaptation of Judith Brown’s book with David Birke, earns points for sidestepping the demonizing of the Mother Superior and the other nuns.

Instead, the always luminous Charlotte Rampling portrays Mother Superior as a wise, graceful and respectable businesswoman working within a profoundly misogynistic system. Scenes between Rampling and Lambert Wilson, as the ambitious and crooked head of the regional church, spark with wit and cynicism.

Still, the director cannot pass up the opportunity to fetishize an act of church-sanctioned torture. One step up, two steps back and all that.

If you’re longing for a film about women and the historical, hysterical afflictions they faced because they were women, but you really miss seeing these lessons from a leeringly male perspective, I have a hard time imagining a film that better suits your mood than Benedetta.