Beasts of the Southern Wild
Benh Zeitlin's debut film arrives in London having charmed audiences everywhere since its Sundance debut, and I can see why so many people love it. In fact, for a while I was confident that I was going to love it too, before it revealed just how little is going on beneath its gorgeous surface. The film takes place in an impoverished region of the Louisiana Delta referred to only as The Bathtub, and its central character is Hushpuppy, who is played by instant star Quvenzhané Wallis (6 years-old at the time of shooting). Hushpuppy lives with her father, a volatile drunk with a weak heart, and we are invited to view the world from her perspective, as she reshapes the environment through her own imagination. When Hurricane Katrina hits, Beasts of the Southern Wild becomes a tale of defiance and survival, as Hushpuppy and her father try to stay one step ahead of the mythical creatures she pictures roaming the land. Zeitlin and his cinematographer Ben Richardson certainly conjure some magical images in Beasts of the Southern Wild, from an early fireworks display to a beautiful interlude at a brothel late on, but the film never knits these individually striking moments together in a satisfying way. The film's first half is propelled forward by the spirit of its diminutive protagonist and the devastating impact of Katrina, but as it progresses, the narrative grows increasingly wayward, notably during a rushed detour at a disaster relief centre and an attempt to blow up part of the levee. ("They built a wall that cuts us off," Hushpuppy muses.) In Quvenzhané Wallis the director has a wonderful lead, an actress who is guileless and empathetic while also possessing a resolute toughness ("I'm the man!" she roars at her father's behest), and she certainly didn't require the overwritten voiceover that Zeitlin misguidedly saddles her with. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film you may well fall head over heels for, but I felt that too much of it – including many of the key emotional moments – felt forced by Zeitlin when they should have felt serendipitous and organic.
Despite its title, this is not a film about a comedian. Sure, we see Ben (Edward Hogg) onstage at the start of his film, performing in London pubs and comedy clubs to mixed results ("I'll tell you something else that makes me sick. Being a bulimic," gives you an idea of his quality), but the film's interest lies elsewhere. Bored with his deadening call centre job and frustrated by the lack of progress he has made on the stand-up circuit, Ben is a man stuck in a rut, and it is only when he meets young artist Nathan (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) that things start to look up. The pair begin a relationship that seems promising, but Ben is afraid of commitment...or he has confused feelings for his flatmate (Elisa Lasowski)...or he...well, what exactly is Ben's problem? In lieu of a script, The Comedian was developed by director Tom Shkolnik through improvisation workshops with the cast, and the result is a film that features a number of scenes in which characters inarticulately attempt to express their feelings, but it offers no real insight. Only the charming Nathan Stewart-Jarrett brings a sense of life to his portrayal, and one of the few scenes that sparks with any kind of real emotion is one in which Ben and Nathan are confronted by a group of homophobic teenage girls on a bus. Beyond that, The Comedian is oblique and irritating, hampered by uninteresting characters and Shkolnik's dull visual sense. Even though it runs for just over 70 minutes, the film drags interminably; a bad joke with no punchline worth waiting for.
Keep the Lights On
For his fourth feature, Ira Sachs has drawn on his own past, and the result is a film that is both his most ambitious and his most accomplished to date. Keep the Lights On charts the many vicissitudes in the relationship between Erik (Thure Lindhardt) and Paul (Zachary Booth), who meet initially for sex before their physical attraction develops into love. That love is sorely tested on numerous occasions in subsequent years, as Paul's drug habit grows ever more serious and Erik resolves to stand by his man, even as Paul threatens to pull him into the abyss with him. As they tell a story that unfolds over the course of a decade, Sachs and his co-screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias dip into the relationship every couple of years, showing how Erik and Paul have progressed – or regressed – and underscoring the cyclical nature of addiction. The two leads share a tangible chemistry that really drives the picture, and Lindhardt is particularly impressive, with his open nature immediately winning our sympathy as we see the emotional toll this destructive relationship is taking on him. Shot with a vivid sense of intimacy by Thimios Bakatakis (of Dogtooth and Attenberg fame, and impressing here with a different style), Keep the Lights On feels raw and honest in its depiction of a long-term relationship that's gradually falling apart. Sachs writes and directs with intelligence and insight, finding a crucial balance between high and low points, compassion and pain, while Arthur Russell's melancholy songs provide the perfect accompaniment. It's a sincere and moving film that stands as a fine achievement for its director, and hopefully a cathartic one.
The We and the I
Michel Gondry's new film largely takes place in a single confined location, but that shouldn't be a problem for a man of his imagination and ingenuity, right? The We and the I takes place on a bus in the Bronx, which is carrying a group of students away from school on the last day of term. As is traditional, a gang of teenage boys have commandeered the back seat, where they spend the journey trading stories and jokes and bullying other students and passengers. This is pretty much what the first half of the film consists of, as Gondry's camera flits from one set of students to another, alighting on conversations that reveal their cruelty, anxiety, desires and frustrations. The non-professional cast all appear relaxed and authentic in their roles, but much of the material is inevitably hit-and-miss and largely dependent on how funny you find the often puerile humour of teenagers. In truth, I'm not sure if Gondry really knows what he's trying to achieve here, and sometimes he seems to be simply throwing everything he can think of at the movie, including mobile phone clips and fantasy sequences (shot in his trademark lo-fi style). But what The We and the I does do very effectively is to show the pack mentality and braggadocio that teens use to cover up their innate insecurities, and as more passengers leave the bus, those underlying emotions are exposed in surprisingly interesting and affecting ways. The We and the I feels like a slightly underdeveloped experiment from Gondry, and the director is guilty of trying to pile a little too much content onto a slight conceit, but it is an intermittently entertaining and touching film that takes the director into some intriguing new areas.