Tag Archives: Talia Balsam

Freshman Blues


by Hope Madden

Filmmaker Mariama Diallo’s episodic and short film work has explored — in comedic and dramatic form — the impact of living within a culture of micro- and not-so-micro-aggression. Her feature debut Master dives deeper, taking themes in more horrific directions.

Regina Hall plays Gail Bishop, the first Black residence hall “master” in the long and storied history of New England’s Ancaster College. In her first year on campus, she’ll meet another newcomer, freshman Jasmine (Zoe Renee), the only Black student in her dorm.

Jasmine has the bad luck of being assigned to the dorm’s spookiest room, where a student haunted by campus’s legendary witch once killed herself. As freshman year progresses, both Jasmine and Gail begin seeing menace around every corner.

Diallo sets up shop at the intersection of racism and misogyny. While her story tells of a history of racism that’s clearly alive and well, the filmmaker’s comment on institutional and historical contempt for women is more sly but ever-present.

The result for this particular position in the crosshairs is a palpable, inescapable sense of loneliness. If there’s one thing Master communicates it’s the isolation and aloneness both Gail and Jasmine face at this institution and, more broadly, in this world. The effect is poignant and sincerely scary.

It’s always great to see Hall at the center of a film. The veteran has provided reliable support, both comedic and dramatic, in films for ages. Her frustrating but sympathetic lead offers the perfect balance to Renee’s vulnerability.

Amber Grey’s turn as confidant Liv Beckman is superbly brittle and narcissistic. Likewise, a sea of white faces (Talia Balsam, Will Hochman, Bruce Altman, D.C. Anderson) hit varying degrees of condescension and hostility to create a drowning pool with little chance of escape.

Diallo struggles at times balancing allegory and horror story. On occasion, genre tropes become too obvious. At other times, the obviousness of political points overtakes cinematic narrative. But the underlying horror of reality ably depicted by Hall and a game cast make sure these minor issues remain minor.

No Mountain High Enough

South Mountain

by Cat McAlpine

Lila is trying to hold it together, but things keep falling apart. Her best friend has cancer. Her daughters have both left for the summer. Her husband might be leaving forever. The ants will be back soon.

Written and Directed by Hilary Brougher, South Mountain refuses to settle into one place.

At first, we follow the youngest daughter, Dara (Naian González Norvind), back home from the woods. Then the older daughter, Sam (Macaulee Cassaday), arrives home before her big sail across the Atlantic. We discover that father Edgar (Scott Cohen) has a secret. Gigi (Andrus Nichols) has a lump and her daughter is scared. Everyone has an opportunity, even if glancing, to be the main character. Life’s like that.

But it is Lila (Talia Balsam) with whom the camera stays. Lila is at the center of it all.

There is only one reference, in passing, to South Mountain’s namesake but the title still fits the tone of the film. Brougher never lets you forget how close the outside world is or how integral it is to this family’s backdrop.

We see nature in micro and macro as Lila’s journey comes in and out of focus. The credits open on a nearby waterfall, but as the story narrows, the details get smaller and more mundane. Flies are constantly zooming around the dining room. Fresh blackberries are picked for dessert. We even get a look inside the compost bin because life and leftovers are messy.

The narrative is loose. Sometimes new scenes are introduced with a date stamp. “June 22nd”, announces one, in unassuming white letters. Other scenes come and go without any anchor. The clothes change, the light shifts, and you simply realize that this must be a different day. Time never seems to move linearly, but it does keep moving forward. Paired with a shifting focus at the start, Brougher paints a more realistic story of grief and acceptance where some days matter and some do not.

Overall, what carries South Mountain is Balsam’s fantastic performance. The story can be too slow and too scattered at times. But it’s impossible to not keep watching Balsam as she moves from self-assured to train wreck to something in-between.

Is Lila going to be okay? There won’t be a definite answer but it’s worth the journey. Life’s like that.