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Friday, March 1, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Delving into the toxic bastions

Screen Grabs: Delving into the toxic bastions

Love—both endearing and abusive—finds its way into prison, army, and sports in these new movies

Prison, the military, high school sports—this week’s new releases offer plenty of breeding grounds for toxic masculinity, though sometimes love manages to sneak into the equation, too. Not always the right kind of “love,” though.

Two of these movies are about gay characters and relationships in such generally averse, even threateningly homophobic settings. When Ruben (Ernesto Reyes) enters a penitentiary after a DUI car crash that leaves someone dead, he’s not exactly welcomed—in fact cellmate Carlos (Jesse Tayeh) does his best to intimidate the new fish. Yet over time their dynamic grows less hostile, then friendly, then…well. 

But just when they’ve fully connected in Jon Garcia’s ambitious US indie drama Luz, their paths divide. It’s not until Carlos is finally released that the two men meet again, under very different circumstances. Whatever can be worked out between them in the relative freedom of the outside world may be compromised by other factors—such as the live-in girlfriend Carlos now has, Ruben’s yearning for the young daughter taken from him, or the old ties to cartel members that might bring violence on them both. 

Initially seeming like a familiar downward-spiral prison scenario in the mode of Fortune and Men’s Eyes, Luz surprises by seldom going for the tragic worst-case-scenario plot turns you expect. On the other hand, Garcia (whose several prior features have included the Falls trilogy about forbidden love between two male Mormon missionaries) keeps things real enough that this doesn’t become some stock escapist gay movie fantasy of two hot dudes whose obstacles all miraculously fall over so we can see them nekkid together—though they are hot, and we do see them doing the deed. 

There’s enough gravitas and storytelling expanse to this well-crafted film to make its happier developments seem well-earned rather than mere viewer wish-fulfillment. There’s also a scene in which the leads (plus another ex-con) do ‘shrooms in the woods—not exactly what you might expect from a “gay prison flick.” Luz is out Fri/9 on DVD and digital from Dark Star Pictures. 

Though the characters in Luz are wary enough of embracing any gay identity, they arguably face less peril in doing so than those in Moffie, whose title comes from an Afrikaans slur equivalent to “faggot.” In 1981 South Africa, 19-year-old Nick (Kai Luke Brummer) is sent off to two years’ compulsory military service, which starts off with a Full Metal Jacket-style first half of sadistic basic training Hell. He manages to keep his head down enough to escape the worst abuses, even finding a possible kindred spirit in Stassen (Ryan de Villiers). But the slightest sign of weakness is pounced on in this setting, and even suspected homosexuality is enough to get someone packed off to a mental institution.

Moffie is based on a well-regarded, semi-autobiographical novel by Andre Carl van der Merwe. Some fans of the book have been disappointed by the movie’s emphasis on atmosphere over story, as well as its more arcane artistic choices. Those are reasonable criticisms: Oliver Hermanus’ film is mannered at times, but to me its narrative ellipses and stylistic idiosyncrasies (esp. in use of music) were more intriguing and flavorful than off-putting. 

The profound, racist injustice of the Apartheid system these boy soldiers are forced to defend (while told they’re “stopping the spread of Communism” and “protecting our women and children” by participating in the so-called Angola Border War) is never mentioned out loud here. Yet it pervades everything like a toxic gas. With its beautiful young men exuding homoerotic tension in a milieu that both heightens and crushes such feelings, Moffie is reminiscent of Claire Denis’ recently re-released Beau Travail, another terse, sometimes brutal, yet lyrical and evocative portrait of military life. It’s available at limited theaters and On Demand from IFC Films this Fri/9. 

There’s also boot-camp-style bullying afoot in the otherwise dolorous smalltown Southern setting of Giants Being Lonely, visual artist Grear Patterson’s directorial debut. Shot largely in his own teenage home of Hillsborough, North Carolina, it contrasts the ordinary social pleasures and insecurities of adolescence with the high expectations levied on high school sports. The town’s baseball team is formidable, but then its coach (Gabe Fazio) is almost a monster: A born screamer, his harangues often run in the general direction of “Y’all think you’re hot shit because you’re young but let me tell you life turns out to be TOTAL CRAP!!” No wonder his own son (Jack Irving) is buckling under the pressure, leaving room for another boy (Ben Irving) to grab the glory—and possibly the girl (Lily Gavin) they both like.

It’s hard to tell the two male leads apart (are the actors brothers?), and Giants Being Lonely is hazy in other ways, treating both melodramatic plot elements and random, improvised-seeming scenes with the same slack neutrality. This does nothing to build tension toward a fadeout that’s meant to be shocking, but which comes off as pretty silly instead. 

Landing somewhere between Larry Clark and early David Gordon Greene terrain, juggling elements of voyeurism, documentary realism, lyricism, and under-articulated masculinity critique, the movie has its points but too often feels lazy and affected. I was curious what Patterson’s other, “lauded mixed-media art” might look like (he’s well-connected enough that there are Schnabels involved with his movie). My jaw hasn’t quite left the floor since glimpsing his works, which include emoji-inspired “smiley faces” whose price tags remind that the art world can be a very nonsensical place. Giants is out on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD from Gravitas Ventures. 

Sports and abuse are also bedfellows—a bit more literally so—in Charlene Favier’s French-Belgian Slalom, which Kino Lorber is releasing to virtual cinemas (including the Roxie) this Friday. 15-year-old Lyz (Noee Abita) is a competitive skier who’s been on the slopes sine age 4. Like most athletes serious enough to aim for the Olympics, she’s single-minded to the point of near-obliviousness towards others and their concerns, insisting her divorced mother (who’s just gotten a job in Marseilles) leave her behind alone in the Alps so she can train, then peevishly feeling abandoned. 

At first Lyz is taken aback by the mercilessly harsh coaching methods of ex-champ Fred (Jeremie Renier of the Dardennes brothers’ films), which another girl explains as “He crushes you, you listen, and you get better.” When that actually does turn out to be the result, Lyz basks in being the object of his praise—even if that also means sometimes being the stick with which underperforming others are beaten. It’s already a worrying kind of highly-conditional “love” before Fred crosses a line…every line, eventually. 

Favier approaches MeToo territory with classic French-cinema ambiguity, refusing to shade the characters in strict victim/predator terms even as their actions do pretty much fit that description. The acute emotions and fledgling judgement typical to her age make Lyz alternately resent and pine for Fred’s inappropriate attentions, which on his part may not be premeditated so much as evidence that he, too, never outgrew a self-absorbed adolescent impulsiveness.

Nonetheless, he is the “responsible adult,” and the irresponsibility of the variably-consensual acts here are going to leave major psychological scars. This unpleasant, effective movie vividly illustrates how expecting young targets of sexual abuse to “just say no” levies mature wisdom on girls and boys who are often targeted precisely because they don’t yet know what is or isn’t “appropriate.” 

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