When I first had a glance through the festival programme this year once it was announced in mid-September – I may just be applying rose-tinted spectacles to last year since it was my first time, but I swear everything was better-organised last year in advance of the fest (the staff have all been super kind and helpful as the festival has gotten underway though) – I felt like it lacked a lot of the obvious “wow” that 2016’s line-up had in abundance. It wasn’t like last year when I saw names like Arrival, and Free Fire, and La La Land, and The Handmaiden, and so many others littering the programme from top to bottom. That’s not to say that there aren’t big names at this go-around, I’ll be jostling to get coverage for many of them later on in the fortnight, just that there were less big-ticket names that excited me by their mere mention.
In a way, however, it’s quite freeing, since that means I have to actually look more closely at the schedule and find the less-obvious but still-interesting films that I may have skipped out on had, say, Denis Villeneuve or Ben Wheatley turned up with something new that’s also not out in most cinemas in less than a month. Plus, after all, it’s not like potential big-ticket items can’t also be a letdown of some magnitude (it was only yesterday that I wrote about Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck). But my point, which I am laboriously reaching, is that I am yet to find a film that I unreservedly love. By this point last year, I had seen and adored The Handmaiden, Chasing Asylum, My Life as a Courgette, and Christine (plus Elle once it had sat with me for a little longer). In 2017, however, I’ve yet to find a film that gave me the same unabashed adoration as any of those early highlights. We’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out if we can finally break that dry spell, but I did manage to catch two films today that almost set that ball rolling, and are definitely my highlights of this early stage of the Fest.
The first was The Light of the Moon (B), the dramatic feature debut of writer-director Jessica M. Thompson, and which took home the Audience Award in Narrative Features at this year’s South by Southwest. I can see why, too, since the film is largely excellent. Set across roughly 6 weeks in Brooklyn, we follow Bonnie (Stephanie Beatriz), who has a great job, fun friends, and a loving but workaholic boyfriend Mike (Michael Stahl-David, nice to see him again). Then, one night, after drinking with her friends, she is assaulted on her walk back home and raped, with the rest of the film following Bonnie in its aftermath as she tries to deal and move on. Or, more accurately, does not try to deal, desperately trying in vain to ignore the event entirely and have her life continue as it were before. She explains the giant bruise on one side of her face to everyone as the result of a mugging, and the only reason Mike finds out that Bonnie was raped is because he accompanies her to the hospital shortly after and her mugging alibi quickly falls apart under questioning from police.
Having seen a fair number of rape-based dramas in recent years (some even at last year’s festival), what The Light of the Moon actually most reminded me of was 2015’s Room, in that they’re both stories about sexual assault that take the subject matter seriously yet never wallow in excess misery or become in any way exploitative in their depictions of. Unlike in Room, though, Light of the Moon makes the victim both our protagonist and the eyes through which we experience the narrative, and it’s a deeply complex and personal place to be. Bonnie’s attempts to avoid directly dealing with the trauma of what she was forced to endure only end up placing a greater strain on her relationship with Mike, and it leads her down some self-destructive paths. Internalising a belief that this was somehow her fault, that she and other women like her were just asking for something like this to happen to her; refusing to identify with fellow victims of what may be the same rapist, almost-violently reacting against the idea; and becoming deeply suspicious that it took her being raped for Mike to fully commit to their relationship.
Mike, for his part, is playing the role of the supportive boyfriend and “positive male influence” – a descriptor a social worker told him to act like, and which he sheepishly admits to Bonnie the morning after when he hangs around just a little too long; they both giggle over it – almost to a tee. He’s making breakfast-in-bed, he’s cooking garbage meals, he’s pushing her to go to support groups, he’s being super respectful of her space. But to Bonnie, all he’s doing is being super condescending. He’s trying to understand and he’s trying to make up for it, but he does not know. He cannot know, not really, not the full-extent of the pain and its lingering scars, and he cannot fathom what she went through. But to Mike, Bonnie’s also being deliberately difficult by refusing to open up and share that pain with other people in order to work through it, and it’s putting all that burden solely on Mike.
What makes The Light of the Moon so great is that it is aware of all of this and is willing to let its leads be wrong like this. Mike, who is right in that he is trying the best he can to help, is being super unintentionally condescending and making things worse, whilst Bonnie, who is right that Mike cannot ever truly understand what she went through and what it’s done to her, is causing further damage to herself and those around her by refusing to deal with the trauma head on and subsequently be able to live with it. It’s rather like Elle in the sense that it’s a deliberately character-specific view of the subject that’s unconcerned with having its protagonist act like a step-by-step guide for “correctly” dealing with sexual assault, although this is a far more serious and realist film than Verhoeven’s trashy masterpiece. Also much like Elle, although Thompson’s direction is refreshingly respectful and free of stylistic indulgences, Light lives on the central performance of Stephanie Beatriz, who is a near-revelation and elevates the film single-handedly.
I could have done with a slightly more satisfying ending – although I understand why Thompson has resisted, since doing so could have felt like trivialising rape through the usage of that mythical concept known as closure – and there are a few scenes and exchanges of dialogue that are more than a bit hackneyed and push a little too far in the direction of a sexual assault PSA, which is what keeps the film from becoming truly excellent. But The Light of the Moon is still a great, personal movie about a difficult subject that is handled respectfully without ever coming off as “tasteful,” and a phenomenal wounded central performance from Beatriz. Consider Jessica M. Thompson to now be firmly on my radar in the future.
The other “great, but so close to excellent” film I saw today was Golden Exits (B+), the fifth feature from writer-director Alex Ross Perry of Queen of Earth and the fantastic Listen Up Phillip, both of which have played at the Festival in previous years. His latest, shunted upstairs to Screen 4 by organisers who severely underestimated the demand for seats it would get, is Woody Allen by way of Ingmar Bergman, a witty drama about a group of deeply-unhappy and often self-centred New Yorkers fixated on both death and their own unhappiness, but largely unwilling to do anything about the fact.
Our perspective into this group comes from Australian expat Naomi (Emily Browning), who’s visiting the city for a few months as an assistant to archivist Nick (Adam Horowitz; yes, Ad-Rock from Beastie Boys). Nick has been very glacially archiving the work of his wife Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny) and sister-in-law Gwendolyn’s (Mary Louise Parker) deceased father, and had an affair with one of his 8 prior assistants some years ago that no party is fully willing to let anyone forget. Whilst in New York, Naomi gets in touch with old college acquaintance Buddy (Jason Schwartzman) under the pretence of telling her mother that she knows people in the city and isn’t alone. Buddy keeps protesting hanging out with Naomi, but continues to do so anyway, subsequently neglecting his own wife Jess (Analeigh Tipton), who herself harbours resentments towards Buddy’s inability/refusal to make time for her, whilst her own support system, sister Sam (Lily Rabe), completely fails to take any notice of her sister’s unhappiness in favour of ranting ceaselessly about their hatred of their job, being a live-in assistant to a Gwendolyn who does nothing but drink wine and moan about nothing in particular.
There’s every chance that Golden Exits, with a premise as utterly New York Movie as that, could have been absolutely unbearable, and it may still be for many people since, whilst still funny, this is far more of a drama than a dramedy, asking you to take at least some of this seriously. However, like in Listen Up Philip, Perry displays a very welcome self-awareness with regards to his characters, recognising just how self-absorbed and hypocritical they can often be, and utilising his biting wit to take them down a peg or three. Schwartzman’s Buddy, a recording studio manager and producer who married his assistant, takes less than 10 seconds to establish himself as the kind of perfect asshole that only Schwartzman could pull off, whilst several scenes involving Nick and his deep-seated misogyny and victim complex managed to draw equal parts laughter and genuinely disdainful (and fully intended) gasps of offense from the audience. Plus, just like in Philip, Perry gives plenty of time for the women constantly being casually taken for granted by the men in their lives to share the feelings and mindsets that are otherwise ignored by everyone else.
The performances are fantastic across the board, particularly a hilarious Mary Louise Parker vamping her way through almost every scene and Adam Horowitz surprisingly managing to hold his own, which is crucial since a lot of what constitutes as the narrative rides on him. Outside of the fact that some people may just straight up hate it on principle, what keeps Golden Exits from excellency is harder to define. It’s missing a certain spark that I can’t quite articulate but know just isn’t there. Part of me wants to blame the fact that, even though that film was more an-especially-acidic-Wes Anderson than Woody Allen, Golden Exits is largely covering ground already better trodden by Perry’s own Listen Up Philip – and that film gave Elisabeth Moss far more to do in the Chloë Sevigny role than Chloë Sevigny herself gets to do here – but otherwise, I can’t quite place why I am just unable to fully break out the raves for this one. Still, though, it is most welcome to be getting good Woody Allen films this half of the decade, since Allen is apparently refusing to provide them himself.
That leaves the film in between those two, and I am sorry to report that the Silver Bear-winning Senegalese drama Félicité (C-) just did not particularly engage me. I can see why other people would love it, mind. Centring around the title character (Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu), a Senegalese single mother who sings as part of a bar band, desperately trying to raise the cash required to perform a life-saving operation on her son after he suffers a motorcycle accident, the film radiates empathy and heart from every pore, whilst still drawing attention to the daily harassment and abuse women like Félicité must deal with. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, taking a genuine pride in the sights and life of Kinshasa, Mputu is a captivating screen presence, and the music performances are joyous to behold; showcasing the uniting power of music, and the polyrhythms and soul of West African music specifically. I personally just found the film far too long (it’s listed in the programme as 2 hours but my screening still overran by about 10 minutes) and far too slow to be able to hold my interest after the first half hour or so. By the time we were creeping up on two full hours, I just wanted to leave. Félicité is not a bad film in any noticeable way, but it did nothing to retain my attention.
Tomorrow: A severe deficiency of animated features so far gets remedied via the British-Saudi drama The Breadwinner, and the Chinese fantasy Big Fish & Begonia.