ALWAYS SHINE, directed by Sophia Takal
When Anna (Mackenzie Davis) calls her friend Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) a “horrible” person, she makes sure to pronounce it with an emphasis on “whore.” They’re both actresses, and the movie’s angle is that males have made it so the two professions aren’t entirely dissimilar. The big-eyed and soft-featured Beth gets so many roles that she’s done 10 nude scenes in two years. Anna, who’s characterized by a more angular sense of beauty, struggles to even find unpaid work in student shorts. They’re together on an anxiety-laden holiday away from Hollywood, where horror-cinema flash cuts suggest that there’s more than jealousy brewing in Beth’s brain. Then Always Shine obliges that aesthetic by following her into Repulsion/Persona territory—a final movement is centered around threatening home fronts and psychological identity swapping. It’s the pernicious influence of men that dissolved whatever support system might’ve once existed between these two women; Takal utilizes offscreen space (characters are constantly refused the right to be looked at) and discussions of cinematic sexism (everyone’s obsessed with nude scenes, and Takal pointedly declines to give us one of her own) to continually reorient the ensuing bloodshed in the context of her industry criticism. Cineastes will recognize it as a work that exists within an auteur-specific tradition, the “women locked in a remote location while going crazy” subgenre—that includes the two aforementioned movies, 3 Women, Images, Interiors and last year’s Queen of Earth, which served as an abstract compendium of the subgenre’s numerous tics and trends. Takal’s addition is to take the madness out of the abstract and into the specific: the way that a casting director is more interested in a woman’s body than in her voice, the way that commercial arts boil a female identity down to a hairstyle and breasts. The “vacation home for furious females” setup is well-tread ground; Takal’s scream-queen meta-text searches for the reasons why that is.
ALWAYS SHINE WON THE SPECIAL JURY PRIZE FOR NARRATIVE FEATURES AT IFFBOSTON.
TRANSPECOS, directed by Greg Kwedar
The emptied-out expanse of the Mexican line becomes the setting for a modern-western-slash-morality-play, with border politics filling the vast spaces between people. Patrolman Lou Hobbs (Clifton Collins Jr) is the hat-wearing platitude-spitting white man who’s prone to using words like “wetback.” Benjamin Davis (Johnny Simmons) is the double agent being paid to wave drug traffickers past the stop signs. Corpses of prior cartel collaborators populate the land they work on each day. And the third patrolman, Lance Flores (Gabriel Luna,) just wants to do his job—which becomes rather difficult when one of his partners is shooting at the other one. Kwedar is seduced by the lusciousness of the setting, often resting his camera back far enough to capture the landscapes resting miles away. Mountains dwarf the characters, with the sky beating down like another constant threat. He’s rendering his leads as bit players in a war they can’t hope to comprehend—talking heads with little chance of altering the preordained fate that their paycheck has indirectly guaranteed them. His men tend to speak in declarative sentences and learned jargon, but Kwedar’s also seduced by a sense of literary romanticism: his world is one where blood remains on a man’s hands permanently (for symbolism’s sake) and where even bigots get romantically-structured last words (on man’s relationship to nature, via diction cribbed from Hemingway). They might be searching for a political truth out there, but what’s found is aching poetry.
TRANSPECOS WON THE GRAND JURY PRIZE FOR NARRATIVE FEATURES AT IFFBOSTON.
THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER, directed by Osgood Perkins
Another movie about 3 Women, if you’ll indulge the wordplay: Perkins has fashioned his own film about crazed females in enclosed spaces, and he’s fractured it into a trio of timelines. Each is a swirl of visually distressing recollections from the adolescent minds of three young women: crashed cars, inescapable captivity, domineering men, snowy tundras, lost parents, and principal’s offices. The names are Joan, Rose, and Kat (Emma Roberts, Lucy Boynton, and Kiernan Shipka), the location is the Bramford School (girls only), and they all seem desperate to escape the potential demon is lurking in the basement (because the subtext is the text, that same demon seems to propagate the traumas repeating in their minds). Perkins’ nonlinear structure allows him to do the nightmare-dreamscape thing—if there’s a developed mythology to this scenario, then it’s been deliberately clouded by the flash-edited traumas and the fractured psychologies of his characters. Audio is clouded by whispers and harsh winds, strong enough to drown out whatever voice is speaking, which admittedly befits the theme—the horror is abandonment, the enemy is whatever atmosphere remains behind.
THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER IS SCHEDULED FOR A GENERAL RELEASE IN JULY.
LITTLE MEN, directed by Ira Sachs
Sachs’ last two films play like human-scale horror: The victims are interpersonal relationships, and the villain is the real estate market. In Love is Strange, it was a recently married gay couple that got separated by an insurmountable rent. And in Little Men, it’s two teenage boys who get priced out of their own friendship. 13-year-old Jake (Theo Taplitz) and his family (Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle) move from Manhattan to Brooklyn after his grandfather (unseen) passes away. They’ve inherited rights to the building he owned, which includes a storefront area (resting, quite symbolically, below their new living space) operated by single mother Leonore (Paulina Garcia) with her son Tony (Michael Barbieri). The two boys quickly branch away from the upstairs/downstairs metaphor to foster an atypically unguarded friendship, one that’s brokered on a shared interest in art and a shared awkwardness with women. Suddenly Leonore’s once-minimized rent is much closer to the market standard—Jake’s family triples the cost she’s been paying—and the boys are right back where they started (alone). Sachs conjures up melodrama, then skirts away from it; numerous sequences implicitly suggest that Jake’s grandfather might be Tony’s father, but the text itself never even acknowledges that possibility. Instead the director prefers just to observe the way these wounds fester (when the characters cry, it’s alone) and then heal (when they recover, it’s typically with a hug, and in a group). Taking formal and narrative influence from Maurice Pialat, Sachs’ scenario gracefully weaves together instances of racism and classism and sexism, not for ideology but for the human pleasure of watching his people try to navigate—physically, emotionally, and linguistically—through each intersection. He’s a rare filmmaker: deft enough to manage a complex narrative scenario without letting it suffocate his real subject.
LITTLE MEN SCEENS AT IFFBOSTON ON TUESDAY 5.3. COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE. 7PM. NOT RATED. DIRECTOR IRA SACHS IS EXPECTED TO BE IN ATTENDANCE.