Sundance Review Round-Up! Quint reviews horror flick THE BABADOOK, Mark Ruffalo in INFINITELY POLAR BEAR and Aaron Paul in HELLION!
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. It is time to start grouping my Sundance reviews together and to completely knock them out. The fest is over, it's time to move on, so I've paired a few films up and will be rapid-firing articles until I've got them all covered.
All the movies covered in this piece have something in common... The Babadook, Infinitely Polar Bear and Hellion are all about parents shitty at their job. One's a horror film, one's a period drama and the other is a coming of age story, but despite their different genres they all share that same jumping off point. They also all happen to be helmed by female directors, something I didn't even think about until I had already bundled them together.
Let's get to it, shall we?
The Babadook is about the depressed and stressed out mother of a young monster-obsessed boy. This kid has a big imagination and has developed a disturbing theory that a monster attack on his family is imminent, so he's been building booby traps and monster-killing weapons.
Essie Davis plays young Samuel's mother and she's pretty much on her last nerve. Not only is she still dealing with the violent death of her husband emotionally, this little bastard is acting out at school and keeping her from sleeping every night.
She loves her son and he loves her, but there's only so much a woman can take. I can relate. I could have the best kid in the world, but I covet sleep like a dragon does gold and that shit would get old real quick.
But I was also weened on genre movies, so I wouldn't ignore the incredibly intricate and detailed story of the coming of a spooky evil monster from my 6 year old like most stupid adults do. Especially when a creepy-ass pop-up book appears in my son's room with no publisher information detailing the coming of a shadowy figure with long nails and a top hat.
The mythbuilding is the strongest part of this Aussie dark fairy tale. The Babadook is visually striking and the storybook serves as a great way to ratchet up the tension, giving us a glimpse at the scares to come without spoiling the impact of them when they do come around.
I liked The Babadook as a monster so much that I was a little sad at the turn they take with it in the last act. In consideration of spoilers I won't go into great detail, but what they do works great on paper and I like what it means emotionally for the characters, but I found myself wanting them to simplify it. Sometimes a monster should just be a monster.
In a weird way I think someone could remake this for US audiences and make a movie that would work better for me, at least tie itself up in a more satisfying way. It's tough saying that because Essie Davis is so damn good in the movie, as is young Noah Wiseman and writer/director Jennifer Kent shoots the hell out of the movie. The Babadook is undoubtedly Kent's complete vision, getting across everything she wanted to say in one beautifully told story, but I still couldn't help but feel the air let out of the movie a bit with the finale, despite really digging the implications to the overall story.
Anyway, I was really impressed with the production design and gothic influence to this story and really hope genre fans get a chance to check it out for themselves.
Infinitely Polar Bear ended up being one of my favorite movies of the fest. It manages to be sweet without being cloying, funny, but not at the expense of the drama and emotional without feeling fake.
It's a period flick about a family that has been torn apart by mental illness. Mark Ruffalo's Cam is manic depressive. He loves his family, his family loves him, but his bouts of crazy get too much for any sort of normalcy. Thankfully all that stuff pretty much happens before the film starts. We get a glimpse at one of his attacks right up front and then we rejoin the story during his recovery as his preteen daughters try to mend the fractured relationship between their parents.
Zoe Saldana plays Maggie, his wife, who is way ahead of her time, pushing the gender and racial limits of the time. She's determined to provide for her daughters, further her own education and fight for a good job that rewards her strengths. Saldana could have easily played Maggie as a selfish woman who is cold towards the broken, but still nice guy husband. Considering how charismatic and likable Ruffalo is that would have been a movie-killing misreading of the character.
It's possible credit for that angle on the character belongs to writer/director Maya Forbes, however Saldana deserves all the credit for fleshing out the character and making her real. Maggie has to be strong for her family and is obviously still in love with Cam, but knowing of his bi-polar swings she can't fully open up again.
Ruffalo is always dependable, but he's so damn good in this movie. Cam is so earnest that when he has his swings into manic depression you feel bad for him instead of judging him.
It sounds like I'm saying this is a depressing movie, but it's absolutely not. I found it completely charming with a real strong dramatic throughline that keeps you invested in the trials and tribulations of this particular family just trying to find their way.
Infinitely Polar Bear might have a weird title, but it's a strong film that feels like a throwback to the dramas of the '70s that were comfortable balancing comedy and the darkness of the average day to day person's struggle to make sense of life.
Now we're on to Hellion. I feel a little bit like a traitor because this was one of the big Austin movies at Sundance this year and I ended up being lukewarm on it.
Director Kat Candler is an Austin institution. She's been making films here as long as I've been attending SXSW (which is coming up on 20 years). I'd be lying if I said I was paying close attention to her work, but I have caught some of her shorts and features over the years as she's played various local fests.
Hellion is about a young man (Josh Wiggins) acting out after the death of his mother and the subsequent emotional abandonment of his father (Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul). Wiggins delivers a nuanced inward performance between explosions of rebellious (and/or dickish) activity while Paul plays a depressed, lost man with all the attention to anguished detail that you'd expect from him after his multi-year work in Breaking Bad.
The problem isn't with the performances, but in the structure and editing. It's tough to streamline your narrative when you're making a character study instead of a straight A to B plot-driven story and Candler falls into many of the traps involved in such a difficult task. The film is overlong and repetitious, but thanks to a fantastic newcomer find in Wiggins and the chemistry he shares with the undeniably great Aaron Paul it never fully tanks.
Sadly, I found the end result to be heavily flawed that doesn't quite reach the heights it is reaching for. It's just a little too haphazardly put together, with some emotional conflicts not really established enough (there's a moment involving a gun in the last act that is kind of set up, but still feel like it comes out of left field, for instance), for me to fully endorse, but I will say it's worth a visit to check out the two leads and how they work with each other.
And that's batch one. Got a few more reviews to hit you guys with and a whole slew of interviews on the way, so stay tuned!
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