Saturday, May 8, 2021
Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: Intelligent adult drama? You don't say

Screen Grabs: Intelligent adult drama? You don’t say

Filmmakers dive into tragic memory loss, senior homophobia, Mexican Jewish identity, thorny family issues

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From the Pacific Northwest to France to New Zealand to Mexico, this weekend’s new streaming arrivals circle the globe without forcing you off your sofa. They also provide welcome doses of intelligent adult drama, a thing that seems to get rarer in feature-film form every week.

Little Fish

That category appears to be the one that director Chad Hartigan dwells in, since his well-received prior features Morris from America and This Is Martin Bonner were also unpretentious but serious-minded character dramas. Here, he dips a toe into genre cinema with something like 500 Days of Summer and/or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotted Mind meets Contagion, recalling the romance between two people whose love story sadly coincides with the outbreak of a catastrophic health crisis. Animal shelter employee Emma (Olivia Cooke), an English expat living in neither Vancouver or Seattle (it’s a little unclear), falls rapidly in love with professional photographer Jude (Jack O’Connell), and vice versa. 

But he’s soon a victim of NIA, a (fictitious) neurological syndrome that gradually eats away at people’s memories, not unlike Alzheimer’s. First they forget acquaintances’ names, then get lost in their own neighborhoods, forget what they said or did just prior, and finally reach panicked states of complete disorientation. The newly married couple try to hang onto their own still-recent shared past, pegging hopes on a possible experimental treatment. But the odds are against them—like Away From Her, only with young people, this is a story about characters on a slippery mental slope where the only progress is “down.”

Little Fish was shot several months before COVID reared its head, but is now benefitting from a sense of eerie fictive prescience. However, the script (by Aja Gabel and Mattson Tomlin) stumbles a bit on credibly detailing this plague, particularly when it strays somewhat ludicrously into DIY trepanning as a potential “cure.” There’s greater emphasis on the leads’ fight to preserve their deeper-than-deep love, though I found the characters a little underwritten and their screen chemistry middling. (It’s also annoying that, in typical only-in-the-movies fashion, they inhabit a giant luxe loft flat and otherwise enjoy a comfortable lifestyle… despite having no visible means beyond jobs that would bankroll a studio apartment at best.) Structurally, the film aims for a semi-scrambled-chronology complexity that doesn’t come off as meaningfully as intended. Nonetheless, this melancholy romance with a pandemical twist definitely has some resonance in our present situation. IFC Films has just released Little Fish to streaming formats. 

Leona

Another kind of thwarted-by-circumstance love story is writer/director Issac Cherem’s debut feature, set in his native Mexico City. Ariela (Naian Gonzalez Norvind) is a muralist and only child who gets along fine with both her divorced parents, while still living at home with mom. The entire family appears very comfortably well-off, with little pressure put on Ariela beyond everyone always trying to set her up with “suitable” eligible bachelors. But the elephant she didn’t even realize was in the room suddenly trumpets its presence once she meets Ivan (Christian Vasquez), and their relationship turns serious. The problem? He isn’t Jewish, and while her relations may not seem especially conservative in religious practice, they are apparently very much so in cultural views. Suddenly “the whole community knows” she is “dating a goy,” and she’s politely but firmly getting ostracized until she dutifully returns to the fold. 

It would have been nice if Leona provided more intel on the nature, history, and insularity of this community—how typical is their seemingly antiquated views on intermarriage? One minor character’s short speech gives the only contextualizing insight into Jews in Mexico City (or Mexico in general) as a distinct minority resistant to assimilation. Also, it seems a bit odd at first that star Norvind, who also co-wrote the script, makes her character at once the whole focus and a somewhat uninteresting blank slate. Ariela is a 25-year-old who appears to already be doing quite well as a paid professional artist, yet she seems as unformed as a college freshman. 

By the end, however, this works to the film’s advantage: We can see that her sheltered bourgeoise background gave her the illusion of freedom in order to keep her malleable. When she “rebels,” those freedoms are revealed to simply be indulgences that get quickly withdrawn. “Leona” means “lioness” (as does “Ariela”). If our heroine isn’t exactly roaring yet at the close here, a narrative that stealthily grows more complex assures that she’ll never be a passive little kitty again—she is done living her life to satisfy others’ expectations. Leona is now playing CinemaSF and the Rafael Film Center’s virtual cinemas. 

Two of Us

Filippo Meneghetti’s debut feature also hinges on lovers being wedged apart for reasons of societal judgement one would have hoped we’d already moved past. Seventy-ish “spinsters” Nina (Barbara Sukowa) and Madeleine (Martine Chevalier) ostensibly live across the hall from one another in an old apartment building in a small French city. But in fact Nina’s flat is just a ruse. It’s an empty space they pretend she inhabits solely because widowed “Mado” insists on keeping their relationship secret, fearing her grown children’s disapproval. It’s an awkward but workable arrangement until an unforeseen health emergency befalls them—and the lack of any public (let alone legal) status as a couple suddenly has disastrous consequences. 

It’s a situation reminiscent of the best segment in US cable omnibus If These Walls Could Talk 20 years ago, which story itself was set 40 years prior—as well as Michael Haneke’s more recent Amour, another tale about the harshest realities of aging. Written by Meneghetti with Malysone Bovorasmy and Florence Vignon, Two of Us is not quite as bleak as either of those prior efforts.

But it is still an uncompromising, powerful portrait of how frail control over (or even involvement in) a loved one’s care and well-being can become in a trice, even in an ostensibly liberal nation like France. Excellently acted and gracefully crafted, this is a memorably fine-tuned drama. Magnolia Pictures has just released it to home formats, including Roxie Virtual Cinema and Rafael@Home’s virtual cinema programs.

Reunion

Family ties are also a problem in this very good New Zealand feature from writer-director Jake Mahaffy, a psychological thriller that remains rooted in psychology even as it begins verging on hallucinatory horror. Having left an apparently abusive relationship (though it’s not quite clear which party was the bigger abuser), heavily pregnant Ellie (Emma Draper) has arrived to sell her late grandparents’ expansive old country home in order to bankroll hers and the baby’s future. 

She isn’t happy to find her mother Ivy (Julia Ormond) already on-site, dutifully if reluctantly cleaning out so the place can be shown to prospective buyers. Their relationship is, obviously, a testy one. Nonetheless, Ellie does need the help—in fact, she’s so distracted, she’s barely capable of packing a moving box herself—so the two agree to dwell under the same roof for as long as it takes to get the job done. Also present, though barely a presence, is Ellie’s father Jack (John Bach), now a senile, stroke-silenced ruin in a wheelchair. 

The relationships between all these people have long, charged histories that we glimpse in flashbacks—notably involving the unfortunate demise of Ellie’s half-sister, when they were both children. How that latter event came to pass, and whose fault it was, is a matter that becomes more and more fraught. Being back “home” triggers memories for Ellie, but those memories sometimes contradict each other. And they’re further muddied by her questionable mental health, which manifests itself in paranoia, hysterical behavior, nightmares, and waking delusional visions. That’s “probably just from you cutting off your meds,” mom says. Then again, are we so sure Ivy is simply a long-suffering mother trying to cope with an unstable adult child? What past damage did she, or Jack, inflict on the daughters—or on each other? Is damage still being inflicted now?

These are very thorny questions that Reunion isn’t about to answer neatly, as it gradually works itself up to quite a boil of blurred-together revelation and madness. It’s a very striking movie, eventually encompassing some grotesque, fantastical elements. Yet it remains much more an ambiguous exploration-slash-illustration of mental illness than simply a smarter-than-average genre exercise. It’s available on US On Demand/Digital platforms as of Feb. 5. 

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