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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: 'Cherry' takes on abortion narratives with a...

Screen Grabs: ‘Cherry’ takes on abortion narratives with a light heart, flakey heroine

Plus: 'The Artifice Girl' and 'Beautiful Beings' offer dark visions of a kid's life.

There’s seldom a surplus of good, serious narrative films about children—by which I don’t mean escapist entertainments aimed at children, or stories for grownups in which the lazy screenwriter’s default “backstory” for a troubled character is some glibly drawn formative abuse. Movies with any real insight into child psychology remain rare, perhaps because it’s not an especially pleasant terrain (and when it is pleasant, it’s undramatic), one that most people prefer to retroactively improve with a nostalgic glaze. Note that it’s taken over half a century for Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret to get filmed. It’s been consistently one of the most popular YA novels ever since its publication in 1970, yet is only arriving in theaters this Friday. (There’s also related documentary Judy Blume Forever, which released to Amazon Prime last Friday.)

Still, there has also been a slow, steady uptick in such films of late. Last year alone saw several exceptional examples, including PlaygroundClose (both from Belgium) and Irish The Quiet Girl, the latter two nominees for the Best International Feature Oscar. Adding to their number is Guomundur Arnar Guomundsson’s Beautiful Beings, which Altered Innocence releases to US On Demand platforms this Tue/25. It is set in Iceland, the island nation whose total population is less than half of San Francisco’s, and which few outsiders associate with anything more threatening than Bjork, arresting polar landscapes, very expensive tourism, and the same enviable high standards of living as other Scandinavian countries. But if this film is any evidence, growing up there can be beset by the same problems of peer bullying and adult dysfunction as anywhere else.

On the outskirts of Reykjavik, 14-year-old Balli (Askell Einar Palmason) routinely expects the worst—his poor hygiene and haunted air, suggesting neglect at home, attract ridicule or worse from fellow students (and even teachers) at school. When he resists some bigger boys’ mistreatment, they beat him so badly he ends up in the hospital, and on the local news. Seeming unlikely to offer much sympathy is Addi (Birgir Daguar Bjarkason), a tough kid who deals with his own unhappy domestic situation by running amuck with two other lads. But Addi is somehow drawn to the wary Balli, even if his mates—Konni (Viktor Benony Benediktsson) and Siggi (Snorri Rafn Frimannsson)—are reluctant to let this pathetic misfit into their “gang.”

This is all rather bleak, as even within the group there is casual cruelty, and we’re not at all sure gaining these new “friends” isn’t going to make Balli’s plight still worse. But midway through the two-hour film, there’s a surprising interlude of fantastical lyricism that acknowledges there may be something to Addi’s mother’s (Anita Briem) claims of paranormal abilities, much as he scoffs. While some very harsh content lays ahead (including sexual violence), Guomundsson’s unexpectedly ambitious film pulls off a complex, unsettling, finally redemptive mix of realisms both brute and magical. Beautiful Beings’ disparate parts shouldn’t work together. But its whole is ultimately more than their sum, resulting in something that’s moving in a hard-won way, rather than just a gimmicky take on familiar abusive horror stories.

Child abuse is an issue very central to The Artifice Girl, which begins with two FBI-type “special agents” (Sinda Nichols, David Girard) interrogating uncooperative Gareth (writer-director Franklin Ritch), who certainly acts the shifty stereotype of a pedophile. But it turns out he has in fact invented something to trap pedophiles, a “highly detailed digital model” (Tatum Matthews) so convincing that his questioners can’t believe it’s not an actual blonde 11-year-old girl.

Dialogue-driven, greatly concerned with the ethical issues of fast-evolving technology, this is sci-fi of a very cerebral kind. There’s almost no “action” over the course of three narrative chapters that traverse decades, but only occupy three successive physical rooms. Those fascinated by artificial intelligence and its future applications will find a lot to chew on here. Anyone expecting conventional fantasy spectacle or suspense will be disappointed—this isn’t M3gan, or even Ex-Machina. It’s an assured, adventurous film of ideas, albeit one I found easier to admire than be emotionally engaged by. XYZ Films launches it in limited theaters, Digital and On Demand platforms this Thu/27.

Though the pro-life militants currently consigning “choice” to the dustbin of history seem to disagree, it is seldom a good idea for children to have children. The titular heroine (Alex Trewhitt) in Sophie Galibert’s debut feature Cherry may be 25, but in many respects she seems less mature than someone half her age—in fact, even an actual child would probably have greater ambitions than “rollerskating magician.” She has no healthcare, promptly loses yet another low-end job, has exhausted her family’s willingness to “help” financially, and in general is the kind of irritating flake from whom little is expected beyond empty good intentions. Needless to say, finding out she’s 10 weeks pregnant at the start of the plot is not good news. Nor does musician/DJ boyfriend Nick (Dan Schultz) take it well. Cherry has just only 24 hours to make her decision before an abortion pill is no longer a legal option—though at least it is one for now, this being California (LA to be exact).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a sprightly, Girls-y, more-comedic take on the thematic terrain typically taken very seriously by movies like Never Rarely Sometimes Always or last year’s Happening. Still, we’re supposed to root for Cherry, and call me a crusty boomer, but I found her exasperating. On some level even she realizes she needs to become “responsible” and “be an adult.” But the hapless distance between her and those goals is not cute or winning, though it’s presumably meant to be both.

Galibert does acknowledge that others (friends, family, employers) find Cherry a childish ditz they’re tired of making excuses for. Yet we’re expected to applaud her baby steps towards … well, something. I found her progress as non-existent as her charm, though other viewers have felt differently. This superficially well-crafted movie feels short on substance even at 76 slim minutes. It’s the kind of enterprise in which more thought seems to have gone into the soundtrack than the script. Entertainment Squad released it to digital platforms last Fri/21.

Also short and less-than-sweet, albeit more deliberately so, is Jason Abrams’ Hungry Dog Blues, which also involves a pregnant young woman. That would be Tina (Irina Gorovaia), who’s in her third trimester when she gets an uninvited knock on her rural Missouri doorstep from half-brothers Charlie (Jason Abrams) and Terrence (CJ Wilson.) They desperately need to track down her mother Ronnie (Amy Hargreaves), a figure who has apparently burned a whole lotta bridges, abandoning her own daughter some years prior. So Tina is sympathetic to their plight, but not necessarily eager or even able to help.

Yet Ronnie does soon get lured here. She proves a captive more dangerous than her captors—Ma Barker masquerading as long-suffering Ma Joad, with a little Lucrezia Borgia thrown in. Things rapidly spin out of control, each new crisis bringing its own shitstorm of messy physical peril. I like this kind of lean, mean thriller taking place in an otherwise turgid outback (Fargo and Blue Ruin are a couple good examples), and the cast is credible, with Hargreaves expert as this glint-eyed Lady Macbeth of the Plains. But it’s a mixed bag, as Abrams packs an excess of verbal plot twists into 79 minutes whose violent action isn’t quite viscerally inspired enough to override their convoluted nature. It’s certainly worth a look for those attracted to rural noir, though the promising results are never quite as clever or shocking as intended. Freestyle Digital Media releases Hungry Dog Blues to major streaming platforms Tue/25.

The notion of moral bankruptcy lurking beneath a respectable social surface was a favorite theme in 1960s sexploitation cinema, when the censorship walls were quaking but still intact. The limited degree of sexual content permitted onscreen then still had to be cloaked in ersatz condemnation of the semi-naked cavorting that “adults only” audiences paid to see. A prolific purveyor of that under-radar genre was the late Joseph W. Sarno, a native Brooklynite who’d been reduced to toiling in the field of straight-up porn (which he disliked) by the time his more interesting earlier softcore work started getting reappraised by cult film buffs in the 1980s.

At their best, in titles like Sin in the SuburbsAll the Sins of Sodom, or the Swedish-shot 1972 Young Playthings (a Pirandello-esque fantasia), Sarno’s pre-hardcore films were stylish no-budget psychodramas with soap-operatic, tortured relationships—all of which earned him a certain notoriety as the Ingmar Bergman of smut. Film Movement Classics has just released a couple of his titles from 1966, smack in the middle of a run that would encompass over 40 softcore features in about a decade’s span.

Opening with a long text scroll that ends with the scream “This could be happening in YOUR OWN COMMUNITY RIGHT NOW!,” the color-shot Moonlighting Wives finds Mrs. Joan Rand (Tammy Latour) dissatisfied with her working-class husband’s paycheck, as well as her own earning power as boss of a small temp secretarial pool. She decides to turn the latter into a prostitution ring, her entrepreneurial zeal soon making cuckolds and cheats of pretty much the entire Long Island population. In doing so, she neglects her own marriage and child. Needless to say, there will be heck to pay, particularly since vice cops are sniffing around her recklessly-expanding operation.

Sarno’s The Naked Fog, which was thought completely lost for decades, has Latour as Joan’s opposite number: Marge, a wistful seeker whose well-bred disillusionment is articulated in high-flown voiceover narration. Having met what she thought was her life love on the Riveria, she follows him to San Francisco, where her takes her to a party that “really gets rough”—off come the blouses, then the bras—while he makes out with his ex for good measure. She flees to (where else but) Long Island, in order to begin anew. Thinking to accrue “material” as an aspiring novelist, she moves into a bordello, while declining to join that oldest profession herself. But dammit, every time she thinks she’s found love again, the guy wants to turn it into a three-way. As in Wives, this isle is positively crawling with swingers.

B&W Fog seems to be one of Sarno’s more marginal endeavors of the time (which is saying something), with its barely-there script, gratuitous go-go dancing, and whatnot. But any aficionado of ’60s celluloid sleaze will recognize that his compositions, musicality and (to a degree) performances are above-average for the genre. These two joints are somewhat burdened by their leading lady, a competent actress with a dull screen presence whose film career understandably went no further than her brief Sarno stint. Still, both movies have their appeal for fans of vintage psychotronic obscurities. Despite recent 2K restorations, they retain enough time-worn decrepitude to detect the lingering musk of pre-Disneyfied 42nd Street grindhouses.

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