Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakaolva, Chase Sui Wonders, and Rachel Sennott in "Bodies Bodies Bodies" (2022)
How well can you trust the company you keep? That is the question posed by Halina Reijn’s horror-comedy, “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” a blood-soaked satirical blend of murder mystery and fragile Gen Z friendships. Written by playwright Sarah DeLappe, and based on a story by author Kristen Roupenian, the entertaining A24-produced slasher has an endgame with a twist. The film takes place in one setting, a remote family mansion in upstate New York, where a group of rich twenty-something friends gather for a hurricane party. A storm is on the horizon, and tensions within the group are about to make impact like crashing waves. When an ice-breaker drinking game leads to an actual murder, the friends must identify the killer among a group where everyone is a suspect. Ah, the classic “party gone wrong,” a familiar trope in the horror genre designed to disrupt safe spaces. There are some parties where you do not want to be a guest at. But sometimes horror films are best enjoyed with the company you keep, especially a wickedly fun experience like “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” which deploys a good ensemble as the driving force for its story. Reijn’s film is stacked with a brilliant cast — from the tremendous comedic timing of Rachel Sennott, and the mysterious effervescence of Amandla Stenberg, to the appealing naivety of Lee Pace. “Bodies Bodies Bodies” shape shifts around the company it keeps, and mutates into a sharp narrative about vulnerable relationships in a digital-obsessed age.
The ‘bodies bodies bodies’ game of “killer” and “victims” playing in darkness is an effective framework for a film with silent dynamics at play. When the lights are out, the killer taps other players, who must pretend to play dead on the spot. Once the lights are turned on, the surviving players vote on who the killer is. But “Bodies Bodies Bodies” goes beyond a simplified whodunnit. The film is not just about the killer’s identity, but asks where the killer resides from a big picture. Is an outside threat slashing their way in, or is the call coming from inside the house? A literal storm may be raging, but what’s brewing behind closed doors is far scarier. Sarah DeLappe’s screenplay pushes characters to the edge of their respective breaking points. All the thoughts left unsaid between them are coaxed out through backstabbing, resentment, jealousy, paranoia, and passive aggression. Staring fear in the face, they reveal dark sides of themselves to one another that they may not have intended to. As more bodies fall, the film leans more into the complicated dynamics at play between the characters and offers something else to chew on, beyond simply escaping from a house of horrors. The film constantly makes you second-guess the characters’ intentions and convictions. The idea of everyone being a suspect in a deeply satirical setting has been done before, expertly in films such as the “Scream” franchise. “Bodies Bodies Bodies” feels fresh and twists in all the right places.
DeLappe’s sparkling script, Rejn’s energetic direction, and a fabulous cast captures lightning in a bottle. While questionable on whether this will stand the test of time, the film has a lot of fun conveying Gen Z social relevance and privilege, sprinkled with buzz words and a strong meta self-awareness. The characters are well defined, and the actors do a tremendous job fleshing them out. “Bodies Bodies Bodies” has one of this year’s best casts — naturally, some (Rachel Sennott, Lee Pace, Myha’la Herrold) shine brighter, but all of the actors bring a burst of charisma here. The film zones in on Amandla Stenberg and Maria Bakalova who play Sophie and Bee, a new couple visiting Sophie’s friends at a luxurious mansion. Pete Davidson plays the chaotic house party host, and Chase Sui Wonders plays an aspiring actor in a toxic relationship with him. Myha’la Herrold plays the tough passive-aggressive friend, and Lee Pace plays the goofy intimidating older guy of the group. Then there’s Rachel Sennott, who absolutely runs away with this film as self-obsessed Alice, who loves having a good time and has a podcast. She brings levity to the more tense situations with dazzling spirit, and in equal measure, tangible panic in the face of immediate danger. One can’t help but wonder just how much of Alice’s lines are improvised by Sennott herself. Her comedic timing and pitch-perfect delivery shine brighter than her character's glow-stick jewelry.
The cast share an entertaining push-pull dynamic that pulls you into the characters’ emotional, problematic mayhem. Every moment of paranoia and distrust feels high-stakes. The friend group’s crumbling relationships become the focal point in a setting of murderous bloodshed. Reijn brings an up-close-and-personal quality to her direction. She achieves an impressive feat where you feel trapped in the stormy mansion alongside the characters, as opposed to being unpleasantly stuck with them. While the friends are subjects of deep satire and mockery, they are not left for dead. The screenplay is full of strong characterization and keeps an enlightening thread open for each of the characters. The actors bring out interesting layers and are complemented by Reijn’s remarkable empathy, never veering into Gen Z caricatures but instead holding a mirror to the universality of wanting to belong. The balance of generational specificity and ubiquitous themes speaks to a grounded, relatable sensation. Looming in the darkened corners of the remote mansion is a deep-down desire to be part of something. Proving to be as good as the company it keeps, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” is an energetic slasher that blends humorous satire with sincerity.
“Bodies Bodies Bodies” arrives in U.S. theaters on August 5 and Canadian theaters on August 12.
Eleana Ignazzitto and Liliana Suarez in "Abuela" (2022)
Having spent most of my childhood with my grandparents, I have since carried into adulthood an unbreakable bond, indescribable but unmistakable in the emotions it stirs. The relationship between a child and their grandparent can be a beautiful thing. Precious lessons and memories are passed from generation to generation. Whether it be through a favorite past time, or a particular food dish. Making a family recipe is a powerful way of connecting to your loved ones, as seen in writer-director Rebeca Ortiz’s debut short film “Abuela”. This beautiful short, which premiered at the 2022 Future of Film Showcase (FOFS), feels like a warm hug of a story. “Abuela” tells the story of a young girl named Kathy (played by Eleana Ignazzitto) and her visiting grandmother/Abuela (played by Liliana Suarez); the two initially struggle to connect through different languages, but ultimately find a way to break through barriers. One afternoon, when the grandmother starts making empanadas, the granddaughter switches off the TV in the next room and is drawn toward the kitchen. In one moment, through a traditional family recipe, their relationship begins to blossom.
The film shows a sweet glimpse into family dynamics and the dichotomy that dissolves between both characters by sharing an activity together. Resonating themes of generational bonding and tradition are wrapped into a few short minutes. Ortiz finds strength in simplicity; with a brief runtime, one setting, and two main characters, “Abuela” is a memory in the making. In real-time, as the young girl helps her grandmother make empanadas, Ortiz engages with the power of generational bonding. She sits with the idea that the young girl will carry this memory with her when she grows up, and that the grandmother has made a mark on the younger generation. The richness of perspective and detail is impressive. Ortiz brings a marvelous voice to this story, sure to resonate as a memorable depiction of generational relationships. Well-acted and beautifully shot, “Abuela” is a heartfelt directorial debut filled with the promise of a great filmmaker.
Wo Chan in "Little Sky" (2022)
From June 17-26 at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto, the 2022 FOFS presented a showcase of Canadian short films that explored a range of subjects and complex storytelling. One of the shorts that premiered at this year's showcase was Jess X. Snow’s incredibly cinematic “Little Sky”. The short is executive produced by Andrew Ahn (director of “Fire Island,” “Driveways,” and “Spa Night”). "Little Sky" is about non-binary Chinese American drag sensation Sky (Wo Chan), who returns to their hometown to confront their estranged father. The film shows glimpses of Sky’s childhood memories through hazy flashbacks that give the viewer an idea of what their experiences were like within a nuclear family household. Their father can be seen in those tense moments. But the impact their father had has never truly left Sky. In the present day, those childhood memories haunt their frame of mind and feel difficult to shake. When Sky and their father finally meet face to face by surprise, the tensity is raw. As Sky emotionally reaches out to him, he fails to recognize them for who they truly are. Instead of attempting to understand, their father backs away in rejection of their child. Jess X. Snow tells this story (along with co-writer Moxie Peng) of identity from an intimate, consuming perspective. With a strong voice and resonating emotional core, “Little Sky” is a beautiful portrait of childhood memories that linger into adulthood. As well, a striking depiction of self-acceptance, chosen families, and the comfort of expression drag performances give to Sky.
Tom Choi in "Til it Blooms" (2022)
Calling all moviegoers! The Future of Film Showcase kicks off tomorrow, and believe me, you will not want to miss this year’s tremendous lineup. Running from June 17-26 at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto, the 2022 FOFS presents a showcase of Canadian short films that explore a range of subjects and complex storytelling.
One of the shorts premiering at the festival is Wendy Xu’s “Til It Blooms,” a 10-minute horror-comedy about grief. A distraught father, just before his big speech at his own father’s funeral, desperately tries to suppress a “grief flower” sprouting from his face and body. Written, directed, and edited by Xu, the film has an original premise around the significance of flowers at a funeral. Not only can grief be difficult for mourners to express into words, but the process of grieving is often hard for family and friends to understand. Flowers are a visual condolence, an expression of sympathy and healing. The life of a flower is also fragile, beautiful, and fleeting.
“Til It Blooms” explores the flower as an expression of grief, that the film’s protagonist Bo (played by Tom Choi) wants to push away. The film uses florals to convey body horror and achieves realistic-looking effects. An eerie scene of a flowerbed in a bathtub, rising and falling as if taking breaths, stands out as a vivid image. The film has a strong sense of place; as a viewer, you feel immediately drawn to the setting and understand the weight of being in a room of mourners. Xu strikes a great balance of fantasy, horror, and drama with an interesting concept. The film makes a memorable mark among this year’s FOFS lineup.
“Til It Blooms” premieres June 19 at the Scotiabank Theatre Toronto. Visit www.fofs.ca for online and in-person tickets. The shorts program will also screen nationwide on CBC Gem starting June 20.
Imani Lewis and Sarah Catherine Hook in First Kill (2022)
In the vampiric underworld of Savannah, The Fairmonts and the Burns are two powerful feuding families. After all, vampires and vampire slayers are destined to be at war for eternity. That is until the families’ youngest, Juliette Fairmont (Sarah Catherine Hook) and Calliope Burns (Imani Lewis), meet and fall in love. Juliette had been crushing on Calliope (nicknamed Cal) at school for a while, and clumsily invites her to a house party. After a quick round of spin-the-bottle, they are alone in a room together for the first time. But this ‘first time’ quickly becomes a potential ‘first kill’ as the teenagers reveal their true nature. Both on the cusp of achieving this ‘milestone,’ they feel pressure from their families to prove themselves worthy. Juliette and Cal are taught the three golden rules of a first kill: stay calm, keep your head on, and be prepared for anyone. But nothing could prepare them for the emotional rollercoaster following their first kiss. Based on the short story by best-selling author Victoria “V.E.” Schwab, First Kill is an entertaining queer YA series and a modern day Shakespearian Buffy with a love story at the core. Many young adults will be able to see themselves on screen given the open-hearted storytelling, subversion of queer tropes, and strength of representation.
While film and television has been saturated with vampire content over the years, First Kill feels refreshing in its central themes around identity and belonging. Rather than turn queerness into a point of conflict, this is simply portrayed on screen as matter-of-factly and invites a younger generation of viewers to watch queer characters who feel real. Juliette and Cal are going through normal teenage insecurities and butterflies, plus dealing with a high standard set by their families to succeed within a very specific path. On top of all the typical teenaged angst, they face the otherworldly threats of ghouls, zombies, and stake knives to the heart. Juliette comes from a family of Legacies, powerful vampires who draw strength from their queen mother serpent and make it nearly impossible for slayers to kill. Cal is from a family of celebrated vampire slayers whose mission is to ward off monsters. Savannah is a tough city to keep clean, its centuries of violence the perfect hub for the Legacies to feed. In order to fulfill destiny, Juliette as a vampire and Cal as a vampire slayer, they must train to see each other as monsters. But when it comes to the heart, no amount of training can simply change how they feel. The first episode sets up the premise nicely; we learn the perspectives of both protagonists and their family dynamics at home. We also get to know how Cal in particular is able to see the signs of Juliette’s identity as a day-walker vampire.
This love story has Shakespeare written all over it: two young lovers destined to be together but whose love is forbidden by opposing families. Episodes five and six feature sweet references to Romeo & Juliet (in the protagonists’ case, Juliet and Juliet), from recreating the famous balcony scene to reciting words from the play. Whether Juliette and Cal will subvert tragedy and get a happy ending is enough reason to anticipate the green light of a second season. As well, the concept of First Kill works through interesting dynamics within the horror genre. The question of ‘what if the monsters are not all monsters inside?’ is the driving force for most of the conflict. Cal is taught that vampires don’t feel and don’t love. As the love grows between her and Juliette, she begins to question her family’s beliefs and her loyalty to them is tested. Meanwhile, Juliette uncovers ugly truths about her own family and in particular her sister Elinor (Gracie Dzienny), whose ‘perfect vampire’ persona has dangerous tendencies.
First Kill is a fitting example of how ‘cheesy’ is not necessarily a weakness. Sure, the visual effects are goofy and stick out like a sore thumb. Yes, the dialogue can be on-the-nose and a little stifled. But the episodes are certainly entertaining to watch unfold. The story is anchored by great chemistry between the two leads; Imani Lewis and Sarah Catherine Hook bring such conviction to their characters, it would be impossible for this series to have much bite without them. They have a push-pull kind of attraction and carry the emotional weight of their characters with an understanding of Cal and Juliette’s internal conflict. Also complimenting their work is a strong female gaze behind the camera. Felicia D. Henderson, show runner/writer/executive producer, is among a team of mostly female producers including Emma Roberts and Sarah Preiss. As well as a female writer, V.E. Schwab, who is adapting her own short story. From the way the protagonists’ backstories are presented, there is a clear level of care taken to exploring who they are and how they navigate the world as teenagers under pressure. Time is also given to a lot of the supporting characters, played by actors who are game for the material and know exactly how to draw that fine line between camp and earnest. Among the cast standouts are Aubin Wise, who plays Cal's mother Talia with such wonderful pathos and screen presence.
Schwab’s story resonates as one that older audiences may have wished they had growing up. First Kill is a campy 8-episode horror series centering queerness in a way that feels authentic and simply a part of the storytelling. The two protagonists are each given autonomy in their perspectives, and share a compelling dynamic that intensifies. Each episode ends with an unraveled thread that keeps the stakes high and makes you thirsty to watch more. While the ending opens doors to a second season, the decision to end on the development of less interesting supporting character journeys is questionable. Especially given the strong dynamics set up between Juliette and Cal for the series duration. Both protagonists are still learning about themselves, their capabilities, and whether to pursue the true feelings they have for each other despite the vampire/slayer roles. What Juliette and Cal come to realize is that there is a first for everything.
All eight episodes of First Kill are streaming June 10th on Netflix.
Jack Lowden in Benediction (2022)
The biopic sub-genre has seen plenty of films follow a similar trajectory: one that lands on the greatest hits of a person’s life and feels like a Wikipedia page adaptation in chronological order. With the ‘no stone unturned’ approach, a lot of material is crammed into a few hours of screen time out of obligation. As a consequence, you lose the intrigue of what makes a subject interesting to explore in the first place. For writer-director Terence Davies, his new film Benediction shines through an observational portrait of 20th century English poet and solider Siegfried Sassoon. The film is about Sassoon’s life in fragments, as he is in perpetual search for peace of mind over time. As a solider who lived through the first World War, his vulnerability was raw. As a gay man who expressed his sexuality at a time when it was dangerous to do so, his relationships under the pressure of societal expectations pushed him further from his own truth. Through narrative past and present, Davies makes such keen observations of Sassoon’s internal battle as someone drowning in regret while cushioned by privilege. With a sharp screenplay and non-linear direction, Benediction makes impact as a haunting story of a redemption that never comes.
In the best performance of his career, Jack Lowden plays war poet Siegfried Sassoon, whose poetry is a vivid reflection of his internal conflict. The film introduces him protesting a war of aggression, and the political eras against which men are being sacrificed. Having survived the war, he finds himself in a different dilemma. One that calls into question his morals, his responsibilities, everything he once believed in. From the way Sassoon carries himself, you can tell this character has crossed the bridge from passive resistance to active salvation. His engine of change is powered by the way he challenges the war, no longer willing to be part of suffering to unjust ends. In challenging his beliefs, he finds himself committed to an Edinburgh mental hospital for “questioning his superiors and his own duties as a captain”. A nervous breakdown, others call it. The film drives Sassoon to an endless crossroad; he is in constant search for truth and resolution, looking everywhere except the one place he ought to, within himself.
From Sassoon’s hospital time in Edinburgh, to his affluent interactions with members of high society, to the later stages of his married life, Benediction is a story driven by memory. The film explores the war poet’s life in the way he seemed to have left it: unresolved. While fragmented in structure, Davies has a measured eye. His attention to detail, both as a director and writer, is far too strong for the story to ever lose focus. Benediction takes shape with the use of poetry, which features as narration of Sassoon’s experiences from time to time. These moments recall how Davies shows a deep understanding of his subject. Through writing, Sassoon was able to articulate emotion that could not be explained outside of poetic expression. Davies honors the sentiment by choosing to convey pieces of Sassoon’s life as if they were dreamt up from reading the poet’s words.
The power of one’s mind is captured so beautifully, and tragically, throughout this film. Because of Sassoon’s internal conflict and constant search for contentment in life, the memories that flood in from his past experiences take on a haunting quality. With memory comes the painful regret of his destructive relationships; after befriending and losing fellow poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), Sassoon falls for the wrong men over and over again; we see some who are cruel and indifferent towards him. Ultimately, his experiences lead him down a path later in life where he struggles to face all his regrets. The film includes elegantly shot transition scenes between young characters and older versions of themselves. Peter Capaldi plays the older version of Sassoon; while not given nearly as much material to chew on in comparison to Lowden, Capaldi brings a visible exhaustion that speaks to the life of someone who got lost along the way of finding himself. The later stages of Sassoon’s life show how, following years of unfulfilling relationships, he manages to carry on in a new life unrecognizable from the one he once led. The way Sassoon grapples with his decisions can’t be explained by just one reason. Getting from one point to another in life is a collection of tiny moments, many of which seem inconsequential, but for a filmmaker like Davies are the stuff of plentiful significance.
Working magic with Davies is Jack Lowden, who gives what is easily a career-best performance as Sassoon. His blend of sensitivity and rigorous detail is Davies’ match made in heaven. Lowden dives deep into an intriguing portrait of a character in the thick of grief and loneliness. His performance is layered, witty, and full of the command needed for this character to feel alive. Often times period films can generate and encourage performances that exist in the confines of a regimented structure. But with themes of morality and humanity on the table of discussion, Benediction gives Lowden the material to find something fresh to say through the vessel of such a mysterious subject. He consumes his lines with passionate spirit and delivers with a punch. Davies’ screenplay is full of biting dialogue, quick-witted and at times funnier than expected.
As the dialogue so carefully crafted in Benediction shows, the story cuts through pleasantries with an unapologetic straightforwardness. What appears to be an old fashioned war film very quickly becomes a reminiscent study of Sassoon’s life. The film has the look of a classic period piece, from Nicola Daley’s elegant cinematography to Annie Symons’ polished costume design. But Davies makes a point not to forget what lies outside the privileged walls of Sassoon’s surroundings. He juxtaposes wealthy and distinguished settings with grim 1920s footage from the First World War. It’s a reminder that while Sassoon and the circles he ran in were somewhat protected from a life of artistic influence, the lower class of the world were facing imminent repercussions.
The story of Benediction is a fascinating exploration not just of Siegfried Sassoon, but also the climate in which he lived. Davies mediates on the emotional aftermath of war and how it alters the rest of a person’s life. As well, the pressures around a gay man expressing his sexuality at a time when doing so could have resulted in jail time. Davies’ storytelling portrays Siegfried Sassoon like a collection of memories; ranging from poetic and funny, to lonely and tragic. There’s an unrelenting tang of regret in the character’s eyes that both Lowden and Capaldi capture well at different periods of the man’s life. Not much time is spent on articulating what Sassoon is thinking at any given moment, but by the end of Benediction, it is clear just how much sadness he carried across a turbulent lifetime. The film builds to a final scene that will certainly be hard to shake from one’s memory.
Benediction is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Caleb Landry Jones in Nitram (2022)
The 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania is one of the worst atrocities that occurred in Australia. The lives of several people were tragically stolen. Media coverage of shootings tend to focus heavily not on the victims but the shooter’s identity. Movies about this subject tend to reenact events of the shooting from a day-of perspective. But expectations are challenged in director Justin Kurzel’s film Nitram, which is based on the Port Arthur massacre. Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant approach the subject matter with delicacy. The real shooter’s name is not specifically referenced. Shootings are filmed from afar, never sensationalizing nor showing the aftermath. The film opens with a list of support lines for anyone in distress. While any depiction of a day such as the Port Arthur massacre will understandably be met with scrutiny, the filmmakers behind Nitram bring authenticity and sensitivity in an attempt to understand the unfathomable. As the film follows in the footsteps of the shooter “Nitram” (played by Caleb Landry Jones), the story questions what leads someone to commit such evil acts, and how the inaction by others can build to devastation. Nitram is a disturbing, uncomfortable character study of a family shattering to pieces like a crash in slow-motion.
Nitram has a slow-building sense of dread, the early makings of a cloud about to cloak a quiet suburban town in mid-90s Australia. “Nitram" lives with his parents, struggles to fit in, and is often found playing with fireworks. Despite suffering serious burns as a child, he never learned his lesson about getting too close to the flames. The film opens with archival footage of “Nitram” as a child, recounting the experience. This scene is one of many examples of Kurzel using warning signs in the storytelling to indicate something is amiss. The signs are alarming, but the way they are revealed speaks to the inaction of those around “Nitram”. For instance, during a scene when he assaults his father (played by Anthony LaPaglia) for not getting off the sofa, his mother (played by Judy Davis) watches silently from afar. The weight carried by “Nitram’s” family is felt deeply. His mother in particular has an emotional detachment, knowing who her son is and not having the resources to help beyond keeping a watchful eye on him. Because of what she knows, she sees no future for “Nitram” that is different from the cocoon she has seemed to keep him under. Where her character seems more resigned to her son’s behaviour, “Nitram’s” father expresses the frustration of being accustomed to not understanding him. Even though centered on “Nitram,” who is looking for a way out, the film is every bit about parenting and mental illness as it is about the heinous acts he commits.
There is a candor about Kurzel’s direction that teeters on the verge of documentarian. Instead of reenacting the events of the massacre, the story takes a completely different approach that grounds it into humanity. Not by means of justification for “Nitram’s” crimes, but to inject the very unsettling reminder that for some people in the world, this is a reality. Whether it be the shooter’s family, the victims and their families, the bystanders, those who saw troubling signs and chose to look the other way. The film intently questions what leads someone to commit atrocities, and explores a nightmarish culmination of anger that immerses the story in overwhelming dread. As a viewer, it feels like being dropped in the middle of this unassuming community in Tasmania and experiencing first-hand the genesis of evil. As a testament to authenticity, the casting of Nitram is in large part what gives the film its immersive quality. Caleb Landry Jones is exceptional as “Nitram”; his performance feels so settled into the character’s mindset, not a single trace can be found of watching an actor “act”. This is nuanced, unflinching work; no doubt a haunting portrayal that will be impossible to shake.
While certainly clear that Jones is the acting standout, the talented supporting cast help keep the film rooted in realism, as opposed to sensationalism. Playing “Nitram’s” parents, Anthony LaPaglia and Judy Davis carry different weights of knowing their son fully. What they know simply cannot be accessed by anyone else, no matter how willing they seem to understand. When “Nitram” randomly knocks onto a neighbor’s door offering to mow her lawn, she extends pity when the lawnmower fails to start and offers that he walk her many dogs instead. The viewer eventually gets to know this neighbor as Helen (played by Essie Davis), an aloof heiress who listens to old-time instrumental music and dreams of going to Hollywood. She takes “Nitram” under her wing: buys him a car out of the blue, lets him live in her mansion, sees a potential in him. It is never made clear whether she views him in the figure of a son or a partner, but either case is a cause of concern for “Nitram’s” mother. When the two women are introduced at “Nitram’s” birthday lunch, the tension is palpable. The scene is a turning point in the film; an astonishing monologue by Davis gives insight into her character’s experience as a parent. She tells a story of “Nitram” as a boy, hiding in a fabric store and ultimately sneaking away from her. After frantic attempts to find him, she gives up and walks to her car, only to find him hiding there laughing at her pain, like it was the funniest thing in the world.
All hell is unleashed after the ‘fabric store’ monologue in Nitram. Not only does it give warning to Helen and remind the viewer how unpredictable “Nitram’s” behavior is, but it also speaks to Judy Davis’s talent. With just one scene, she speaks volumes about her character's distress as a parent. The monologue alludes to what must have been years and years of her trying to find ways of coping, ultimately resigning to the idea that her son cannot be changed. Davis brings remarkable detail and understanding to the character. As an actor, she holds her cards close to her chest, which makes her screen presence even more intriguing to watch. She and LaPaglia (also delivering some career-best work here) make the family feel like a real family. Their portrayals accomplish what Kurzel’s direction and Grant’s screenplay tap into: challenging the role parenting plays in the story. As well, the film sheds light on the stigmas around mental illness and how lack of treatment can manifest into dangerous paths. In Kurzel’s depiction of what leads up to the massacre, he sits with the root of evil and questions the enablers who let it rise. He doesn’t attempt to justify nor determine what exactly causes “Nitram” to commit violence. Instead, he sits with the family dynamics and observes. The humanity makes the film so unsettling; that a human being could be capable of such monstrous acts.
After the Port Arthur massacre, thousands of guns were bought back and destroyed by the government. The shootings changed gun laws in Australia forever, initially taking less than two weeks for reform. The swiftness calls into memory a scene from the film that happens just as swiftly, on a far more destructive level. “Nitram” is able to walk into a gun shop, without a license or any sort of background check, and purchase rifles. Kurzel avoids using this scene as a cause-and-effect moment. Instead it is yet another delicate observation made about the way numerous factors, whether social or personal, build over time. The character of “Nitram” is depicted with the same delicacy. Kurzel observes from afar a person who is ultimately unknowable, not just to his surroundings but to himself. There is understandable trepidation going into a film based on a tragedy that is still raw for many people. While Nitram is an uncomfortable watch, the cast and crew bring a level of sensitivity to the story that keeps it grounded.
Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll: Season 2 (2022)
For a show so deliberately repetitive in its genesis, and now back for more, Russian Doll never suffers the ramifications of being tiresome. Quite the opposite is achieved. The brain child of Natasha Lyonne (who stars, writes, directs, produces, and is one of three creators) is just as invigorating in its second season. Following the success of the first, which sees main character Nadia (Lyonne) as defiant and self-destructive, season two of Russian Doll delves deeper into the personal history she carries around. Set 4 years after being forced to relive her 36th birthday party, Nadia is now on the cusp of 40, when questions of family history and bruised paternal relationships emerge in a pause for self-evaluation. Having escaped one strange time loop, Nadia has fallen into another entirely, now through an unexpected portal in one of Manhattan’s most recognized places. The idea of playing around with time loops, throwing in different destinations that Nadia is able to experience, keeps Russian Doll on track as an ever-expanding journey. As a follow-up to a critically revered first season, Lyonne brings back that intoxicating cocktail of spirit and pathos for a new adventure spanning eras and generations. Season two of Russian Doll introduces a far more introspective train of thought, with enough staying power to keep you mentally onboard for the entire ride. Hold onto your Metrocards!
Instead of relying on its mind-bending time travel concept to do the narrative heavy lifting, the show’s trio of creators (Lyonne along with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland) have clearly explored how they can use the sci-fi elements to build on storytelling. They don’t have the ‘lighting in a bottle’ effect of the first season, which they wisely treat as a one-time occurrence and steer clear of chasing it for recreation. With a commitment to finding new ways of expanding the material, season two of Russian Doll is a lot more ambitious and existentially weighty this time around. The 7 episodes play like an accordion, expansive and collapsible in how plot unfolds. Lyonne reprises her role as Nadia Vulvokov, a spirited New Yorker who finds herself stuck in a time loop in season one when forced to relive her 36th birthday over and over again. It’s a loop even mortality cannot break; after dying multiple times in a day, she bounces back to her repetitive stare in front of a bathroom mirror, wondering what the hell is going on. As fate would have it, Nadia eventually meets Alan (a role reprised by Charlie Barnett), another character stuck in a death loop. The two connect and, in attempting to piece their experiences together, they realize that the loop started because both characters were in a self-destructive mode. So, in the end they vow to help each other find a way out of this wild purgatory. Are they successful? Season two is set 4 years later, with both characters having resigned themselves to repeating the same day, every day.
Season two goes deeper into the personal family history that Nadia and Alan are respectively carrying around like a weight. The new portal into another time loop gives them the opportunity to patch what Nadia calls unfinished business. But like any sort of retrospective into one’s past, one can only hope that the recipient of the history lesson will come out the other side learning more about themselves. What philosophical questions season one sets up through sharp writing and a soulful lead performance, season two uses as building blocks to push its protagonist further into the unknown. The story feels a lot more transcendent and ambitious in where it ends up. Sometimes it feels like a different show in comparison to the first season. But some things never change, one of which being the level of compassion for the characters and themes. From the efforts of the creators, to Lyonne herself playing the lead, Russian Doll continues to bring humanity and empathy for those who are struggling with mental health. While also, shining a light on the importance of thoughtful care. The show’s use of time portals is a great way of emphasizing the intergenerational differences in how mental health was treated through time.
Although the show doesn’t quite devote enough time (heh) to fleshing out such characters from the past, including Nadia’s mother (played by Chloë Sevigny). With a grander scope as the playing field, certain plot points and characters fall by the wayside. It seems as though Adam is forgotten along the way; the show quickly switches to his perspective every now and then as a reminder that he’s still part the story. His connection to Nadia holds far more intrigue in the first season and, while he gets his own new time loop subplot, there feels to be a disconnect between the two characters that contradicts whether they’re meant to intersect or not. And as a massive Schitt’s Creek fan, advertising Annie Murphy proves to be the ultimate tease given she doesn’t get a lot of screen time. But of course, she shines on anyway. Then there is the MVP of Russian Doll, the one and only Natasha Lyonne. Nadia has a compelling character arc throughout the 7 new episodes, and it gives Lyonne plenty of moments to shine. She continues to bring this spirited character to life with quick wit, an endless source of energy, and an emotional gut punch when the time calls for one. Above all, as her character goes on this intergenerational journey of finding certain remnants from the past, she becomes a reminder of what is important to value.
Existential questions about one’s value, and what one values in life, swirl in this twisty world Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland have created. The strength that Russian Doll plays to this season is taking a concept designed to be repetitive and, rather than catch lightning in a bottle twice, takes the ambitious path of trying to make sense of it all. Season two expands on the surrealist possibilities that its predecessor introduces, and finds a new story to tell in all the empty space. As vocalized towards the end of the season, there is so much empty space around us, we’ve forgotten it’s there. It’s a wonder the whole thing doesn’t cave in. The creators of Russian Doll are mindful of that space, particularly when it comes to family matters. For many, there is so much unresolved trauma, unfinished business floating in the space created by what’s left unsaid between people. This takes a lifetime to unpack, and whichever steps are taken to get even close to understanding, the direction looks a lot more like a zigzag than a linear one. With each new movement, comes a slightly deeper perception about one's self. It seems only fitting that the final episode of Russian Doll stirs up feelings of unfinished business and completeness, simultaneously. Season two is an ambitious journey through the concept of time that serves as an emotional reminder, one cannot escape from what cannot be changed.
Tim Roth in Sundown (2022)
Sundown, written and directed by Michel Franco, unfolds around the magnetism of Tim Roth. The actor plays protagonist Neil Bennett, a character seemingly detached from his surroundings from the start. He is introduced in paradise, spending time with family at a secluded resort in Acapulco. There is something about his presence that feels he is lightyears away from where he is physically, as if he is not existing at all. A distant emergency disrupts the vacation, but this news quickly fades into oblivion given where the story progresses. His family: sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her children Colin (Samuel Bottomley) and Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan), appear to be tight-knit. Together upon hearing the news, they don’t think twice about packing and heading for the airport. Neil trails behind with uninhibited demeanor, nonchalantly realizing he’s forgotten his passport and ensures the family fly home without him. Neil’s intentions and reasoning for his actions to follow are tricky to understand, but it is Roth’s knowing gaze that invites curiosity beyond else to see this performance (and this film) through to the end. It is no easy feat to play a character whose emotions are more hidden, and Roth does so with a gut-punch reminder of why he’s such a great actor. For Sundown benefits greatly from a towering talent at the center who can create a simmering tension by way of aura alone. Without uttering any explanation for all the questions his actions conjure up, Roth casts a relaxed spell on this existential puzzle of a story.
Sundown takes a slow-build look at the rising tensions within a wealthy British family, of which Neil is part of. Much like this protagonist who doesn’t seem to be thinking twice, fleeing from one decision to another, the film moves at a measured pace matching the energy he carries. The distant emergency that cuts the Bennett family vacation short is just one of a series of bleak events. Michel Franco does well to frame the story around Neil and his perspective, which itself is shrouded in mystery. Sometimes the director pushes too far into vagueness and starts to lose grip of a story to tell, but Roth’s performance is a strong enough core to anchor the long contemplative takes. The protagonist running away from confronting the cause and effect of his actions makes watching this film consistently unexpected. By the end, Franco’s screenplay reveals a puzzle left unfinished. Sundown sparks conversation around the human urge to be someplace different, to change your surroundings. Neil acts on this urge, though what is most interesting to watch is the space in between his past life and the life he wants elsewhere. It’s the perpetual state of not just being lost, but losing what you had. Those moments of Neil in utter silence and hard-to-read are the most memorable.
Sometimes a film comes along where the collaborative magic between an actor and director is felt so strongly. The trust in Tim Roth to lead this journey, holding the key to what makes you feel so inclined for answers and yet kind of pleased not to know, is well-placed. The restraint with which this character leaves one life behind to start another is startling to process. Neil makes awful choices, painful ones that are consequential for his family, especially his sister Alice who is left shellshocked by what has transpired. Charlotte Gainsbourg has the more heightened emotional scenes of the two; she expertly conveys her character’s frustration and the pain of being left behind in the blink of an eye. One scene of an aloof Neil asking Alice to dinner so nonchalantly, after everything that happened between them, is a standout moment indicating just how unnerving it is to watch the consequences of his actions without accountability. Especially when not knowing the thought process behind it all.
The unsettled disposition of Neil Bennett calls into memory the protagonist of another recent film: Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman) in The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel. Albeit, they find themselves at different stages of making difficult choices with familial consequences. While Leda is confronting years-long memories, Neil is fresh in the wake of his decisions. Whoever you think Neil is at sunrise, his character is painted in an entirely new light by sundown, and the pattern repeats. There is more to the character than meets the eye. Tim Roth does a fantastic job of revealing just enough to maintain mystery, without giving too much sway towards a definite conclusion. With impressive restraint in Franco’s direction, matched by Roth’s played-down performance, Sundown shines as a thought-provoking story of a human being in perpetual search not necessarily for something better, but for an awakening from his slumber. Someplace where the warmth of the sun will be there to greet him without interference.
Catch Sundown at the TIFF Bell Lightbox starting April 8.
The Canadian Film Fest (CFF) is an indie-spirited festival dedicated to celebrating Canadian filmmakers. The third edition of the festival begins Tuesday, March 22 and will run Tuesday to Saturday for two consecutive weeks, presenting ten feature films and 28 short films as part of the virtual festival experience. This year’s slate of compelling Canadian features and shorts includes 50% female and 40% BIPOC filmmakers.
The scars of family trauma are ones that never really go away. Instead, they are deeply embedded in daily life, difficult to simply get away from. For three brothers and their father, all subjects in Marie-Geneviève Chabot’s documentary Beneath the Surface, a getaway is their beacon of hope for healing. Stéphane, Jean-Pierre, Jérôme, and Laurent hope to find answers; they hope that a fishing trip with dad, who was absent from their childhood, would give them the isolation needed for reflection. Beneath the surface of this fishing trip, lives are entangled with deep regrets and clashing priorities. This is one family’s journey within nature to find what they lost years ago. While Beneath the Surface feels a little lost in its focus, the well-intentioned and heartfelt storytelling gives enough pause for one to reflect on what it means to be a family.
Nature itself is both humbling and isolating. Spending time in nature calls on your vulnerable self, providing those moments of silence that can be hard to find elsewhere. But there is also a restlessness that rushes in when reality kicks in. It feels fitting that a fishing trip is the place where this family are attempting to reconcile; they each sit with their emotions, exposed as they are surrounded by nothing but water as far as the eye can see. The setting of this documentary makes the family’s story feel all the more vulnerable and confronting. With nowhere to run or hide, emotion takes center stage. It’s especially intriguing, as well as being relatable, to see the brothers navigate their way through years of hurt with a reluctance to share their feelings vocally. The weight of their presence with their father on the boat as well is enough to speak on the tensions bubbling between them. Marie-Geneviève Chabot doesn’t often veer away from the setting; her documentary sits with the family and lets conversation (or attempts at conversation) flow naturally.
While centering the family conflict around a fishing trip draws from nature to heighten vulnerability, the structure of this documentary moves in circles trying to draw bits and pieces of insight from the family. There are certainly moments of powerful emotion bubbling beneath the surface. One of the brothers shares his fear of repeating patterns of abandonment on his own child, having felt the pain of abandonment from his father. Beyond everyone’s individual story, there’s a shared sentiment among the brothers that their children have a relationship with their grandfather, meanwhile the brothers themselves never did.
When it comes to family trauma, the very meaning of the word ‘family’ is called into question. How painful it must be to reevaluate and foray into a world of silence, struggling to break through. Marie-Geneviève Chabot explores a lot of untapped emotions and history left to unpack, though in all that’s going on beneath the surface, her direction lacks a clear intention of what she wants to share about giving lens to this family. The documentary tends to sway more to perspective of the brothers’ father, whose defensiveness glosses over the validity of his sons’ experiences. After learning what the sons have kept bottled inside, it is startling to discover their father’s ability to change the channel of the past to move on. The swiftness of simply changing channels, while his sons are left with the ramifications of his absence, sheds light on just how differently people cope with the painful moments they wish not to remember. Beneath the Surface makes resonating conversation not just about lost time and the pain of never getting it back, but also the resilience with which the past gnaws at one’s soul.
Beneath the Surface will screen at CFF on Thursday, March 31, 2022. Visit https://www.canfilmfest.ca/how-to-watch for more details. Follow along with CFF @CanFilmFest on Twitter/Instagram with the hashtags #CanFilmFest and #CanFilmFestOnSuperChannel.