French Exit (2021)

There was a lot going on in Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical whatsit mother!, all of it worthy of many fractured, contradictory conversations.  To us, it was both a 2.5-star misfire and one of the very best movies of 2017.  To others, it was simply an embarrassment to all involved, most notably Jennifer Lawrence as titular mother figure, who rarely leaves the screen.  In all those heated debates over mother!‘s merits, metaphors, and malice, I think we may have still overlooked one of its wildest, most deliciously fucked up ingredients: Michelle Pfeiffer.  An eternally lovable screen presence who’s been shamefully sidelined in the past couple decades, Pfeiffer pounced into mother! like a cat hunting unsuspecting prey, batting Jennifer Lawrence around with a mean-drunk indifference I found thrillingly campy & cruel.  It felt like a seismic shift in Pfeiffer’s career at the time, but then nothing really came of it – conversationally, professionally, or otherwise.

Finally, a proper career resurgence vehicle for a post-mother! Michelle Pfeiffer has arrived . . . and it’s being met with the same unenthused shrug she got back in 2017.  French Exit expands Pfeiffer’s role as a cruel, vamping drunk in mother! to a feature-length drag routine.  She delivers nothing but deliciously vicious camp from start to end here, easily putting in one of her career-best performances.  The response has been muted at worst, divided at best.  Maybe the movie would’ve earned more momentum in non-pandemic times, when word of mouth would’ve reached the exact right audience for what Pfeiffer is doing here.  Maybe the world would never be ready for Michelle Pfeiffer to star in an erudite revision of Leaving Las Vegas for pompous, affluent drag queens.  Who knows?  All I can report is that every bitchy barb, quip, and eyeroll she lands in French Exit is a precious gift to the few jaded cynics on the movie’s wavelength.

Pfeiffer stars as an heiress & former NYC It Girl who has completely depleted her dead husband’s fortune.  She decides to sell off the remainder of his estate for spending money, then fucks off to Paris with her adoring adult son (Lucas Hedges) in tow.  Her long-term plan is to kill herself when her funds run dry, something she announces in a matter-of-fact, smirking tone.  Despite the morbidity of that premise, there isn’t much grandeur or pathos to the film’s plot, as the mother-son duo aren’t especially emotional in demeanor.  Most scenes are slight, low-key episodes: a cross-Atlantic boat ride, an awkward dinner party, a search for a runaway cat, etc.  However, if you’re in tune with Pfeiffer’s scenery chewing (and Hedges’s studied impersonation of her faded, jaded glamour) there’s a dark humor to each of those episodes that will have you howling at even the slightest facial expression and casually tossed-off insult.

I’m surprised to learn that French Exit was based off a novel (adapted by author-turned-screenwriter Patrick deWitt himself), since its witty banter and for-the-back-row vamping feels so firmly rooted in stage play dialogue.  The best I can approximate its cruel, quirky tone is to imagine Wes Anderson directing an adaptation of The Boys in the Band, but even that description doesn’t cover its absurdist supernatural plot twists, which I will not spoil here.  Most importantly, French Exit is a Nic Cagian showcase for one of our greatest actors to go as big and as broad as she pleases from gag to gag.  Sometimes those payoffs are muted, finding her sharpening a kitchen knife in total darkness or absentmindedly musing about the sad nature of dildos.  At other times, she sets literal fires, slipping into full camped-up Cruella de Ville mania.  In either instance, she’s electrically, fabulously entertaining, and we all should be groveling at her feet for more performances in this vein.

-Brandon Ledet

The World to Come (2021)

It’s become something of a meme complaint over the past couple years that too much Queer Cinema is pervasively about white women longing for each other in period costumes.  Sometime between the ecstatic praise for Portrait of a Lady on Fire and the collective yawn over Ammonite, pro critics & hobbyist bloggers decided that the biggest threat to the artform of cinema wasn’t Disney’s IP-hoarding or Netflix’s refusal to license its films to libraries & universities; it was white women sharing intense eye contact in a historical setting.  Google “lesbian period drama” and you’ll find infinite hit-piece articles with titles like “Why Are All Lesbian Films Set in the Past?”, “Shoehorning Lesbian Scenes into Historical Dramas is Anything but Progressive”,  “Lesbian Period Dramas: Have We Seen Enough?”, and “Enough With The Lesbian Period Dramas” from publications high and low.  Personally, I understand this subgenre fatigue when it’s applied in broad strokes to a wide range of films, but not so much when it’s aimed at individual titles as if they were a cultural scourge.  The problem isn’t that mediocre WLW romance dramas like Ammonite exist; it just sucks that other kinds of queer stories aren’t getting greenlit in bulk beside them.

I assume the relatively tepid response to The World to Come is a result of its arrival after this particular strand of Online Film Discourse had already run its course.  It’s a great film, presuming you aren’t burnt out on the prospect of another lesbian period drama (or its pre-loaded critical baggage) at first sight.  A delicately sweet romance contrasted against a brutal, unforgiving backdrop, The World to Come is splendid & bleak in equal measure.  Its tale of secretive queer romance in a time of intense scrutiny & oppression is so familiar it’s almost regressive.  Still, its historical environment at least rings true.  It reminded me a lot of a college course I took on the literature of women’s travel writing in 19th Century America.  The women in those real-life journals and this fictional novel adaptation share the same two threats to their freedom, happiness, and well-being: the cruelty of Nature and the cruelty of their husbands.  It’s a shame how rare it is to see queer people flourishing in friendlier environments on the page & screen, but the romance & misery portrayed here still feels true to life on the American “frontier.”

Katherine Waterston stars as a hopelessly lonely housewife on an isolated, flailing New England farm.  She has a rich internal life, furiously reading & journaling in her idle hours but unable to express herself aloud when the center of attention.  While nursing her own grief over the loss of a child, she meets her exact opposite: Vanessa Kirby as a bold, brassy lush with no discernible talent for the intellectual arts.  They hit it off in ways that Waterston’s journals struggle to describe.  She confesses “There is something going on between us that I cannot unravel,” as if the concept of genuine sexual attraction is so foreign to her life that she doesn’t have the language to express it.  Eventually, the two women do find the physical language to express their attraction to each other, even if it takes longer for the words to arrive.  Unfortunately, the respective prisons of their marriages to cruel, repressed nerds and their shared prison of harsh, American wilderness prevent that romantic spark from reaching its full flame.  Waterston’s careful, whispered language & passion is in direct opposition to the cold, uncaring environment she occupies.  She finds her perfect fit in Kirby.  It does not go well.

While the broader details of The World to Come may sound blandly generic in a post-Portrait of a Lady on Fire world, I found its in-the-moment effect to be impressively distinct & chilling.  Its frontier setting might as well have been repurposed for a woodland A24 horror film, given its harsh digi cinematography and its frightfully unnerving score (which during one especially horrendous storm sounds like seagulls imitating jazz).  It’s a highly subjective film that follows the tones & moods of Waterston’s journals as she flips through the pages of her life.  There are great jumps in time when she has nothing exciting to write about, as well as loopy, unfocused entries when she self-medicates herself through depression with laudanum.  Her voiceover narration is wonderfully overwritten, with Waterston delivering pained line-readings of confessions like “We were the very picture of anguish” and “I have become my grief.”  Even when it releases the delayed flood of romantic & sexual bliss that always accompanies these films’ early stretches of pent-up longing, it’s in the most devastating possible context, undercutting the two women’s passion with a deeply felt loss & despair.  This is an unrelentingly cold, somber film, and I respect that truthful brutality even if I agree that it’s not the only kind of queer story that deserves to be told.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Loves of a Blonde (1965)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss breakout Czech New Wave director Miloš Forman’s classic romantic dramedy Loves of a Blonde (1965).

00:00 Welcome

02:30 Possessor (2021)
03:30 Millennium Actress (2001)
05:45 The Green Knight (2021)
11:22 Greener Grass (2019)
14:40 A Classic Horror Story (2021)
18:20 The Suicide Squad (2021)
28:08 Sound of Violence (2021)
31:10 In the Earth (2021)

34:30 Loves of a Blonde (1965)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Pig (2021)

I thought I knew what to expect out of a Nicolas Cage revenge thriller about a disgruntled chef’s John Wick-style fight to recover his stolen truffle pig.  Even now, I can picture exactly what that movie should look & feel like from start to end.  Pig is not that film.  It defies all expectations of its over-the-top genre premise & Cage’s late-career casting in its violence, performances, purpose, and tone.  Just about the last thing I expected was that I would be struggling to see the screen for the final third of its runtime because crying into my mask was fogging up my glasses.  It’s not any showier in its emotional beats than it is in its revenge-genre payoffs, but it still choked me up in ways I’m finding difficult to articulate.  It’s a quietly powerful, surprisingly thoughtful film about Nic Cage’s stolen truffle pig.

Nicolas Cage makes dozens of movies every year—most of which are rightfully ignored straight-to-VOD action thrillers—but there are only two kinds that typically get any wider attention: muted actor-showcase dramas like Joe and mindfuck genre-flicks like MandyPig can’t comfortably be sorted into either of those categories, since it continually flirts with being both.  Cage plays his unwashed Oregonian wildman with a quiet dignity & deeply felt sense of hurt – both for loss of his pig and for a greater loss suffered in his mysterious past as a big-city hipster chef in Portland.  His journey to recover the pig is an exaggerated, absurd caricature of the Portland culinary scene, though, complete with underground BOH fight clubs & violent mafioso food distributors.  It’s an understated execution of a preposterous premise, refusing to behave either as a sober return-to-form showcase for the often-mocked actor or as fodder for his infinite supply of so-bad-its-good YouTube highlight reels.  It’s its own uniquely beautiful, tenderly macho thing, with more to say about culinary arts than the peculiar flavors of Nic Cage’s screen presence.

Like in the high-fashion revenge Western The Dressmaker, the violence & cruelty suffered by our battered antihero in Pig is not avenged with more violence & cruelty; it is avenged with art.  Nic Cage ends the film caked in blood, as he does in Mandy, but his weapon of choice in seeking revenge are his skills as a chef.  His carefully-worded criticism of another chef’s menu choices or his own perfectly balanced, deliberately unpretentious cooking are delivered as skull-crushing blows to his enemies, undercutting the typical hyperviolence of the genre with food-culture commentary.  Pig covers a lot of ground in its food-scene philosophizing, from the cutthroat competition of food trucks to the self-aggrandized pageantry of fine dining.  I specifically got choked up by its focus on the ways passionate, authentic food preparation can trigger powerful sensory memories in us, an emotional effect deployed here like the detonation of a well-placed bomb.  I started to sorely miss sharing luxuriant meals with people I care about, an experience that’s been in short supply over the past 17 months, and one I never expected to be weaponized in Nic Cage’s pig-themed John Wick knockoff.

Nic Cage is my favorite working actor.  I know that bias makes me sound like an irony-poisoned hipster, but I genuinely find his choices in roles & performance ticks to be thrilling in a way few better-respected actors allow themselves to indugle.  Even so, I admire how Pig breaks through the expectations and boundaries typical to the modern Nic Cage Film.  At the very least, it’s his best work since Mandy, which Swampflix highlighted as our collective favorite film of the 2010s.  It’s especially worth seeing for anyone who’s ever worked a BOH position in a commercial kitchen, since its draw as restaurant-culture commentary often overpowers Cage’s consciously muted performance.  There’s a chance it’s both too restrained and too absurd to earn its place in the Nic Cage Hall of Fame, but it deserves that kind of recognition.

-Brandon Ledet

The Father (2021)

At this point, there’s nothing especially novel about a movie simulating the first-person, subjective experience of dementia.  If nothing else, the reality-shifting dementia narrative has been attempted at least twice on the television shows Castle Rock & BoJack Horseman in recent years, which indulged in the exercise for one-off episodes.  It’s already become a genre template with its own firmly established rhythms & tropes, not much different than the stuck-at-the-airport or trapped-in-an-elevator episode templates of 90s sitcoms.  What those immersive dementia narratives don’t have in their arsenal, though, is the acting talents of Sir Philip Anthony Hopkins CBE (no offense meant to Sissy Spacek or Wendie Malick, who anchored their aforementioned TV episodes capably).  I don’t know if you’ve heard this before, but Anthony Hopkins is very talented.  Get this: he even won an Oscar for Best Actor this year for his work in his own dementia-driven actor’s showcase, The Father (his first win since 1992’s Silence of the Lambs).  And from the outside looking in, The Father looked like it was specifically designed for those kinds of Awards Season accolades, landing an already beloved, established actor enough highlight-reel worthy moments to look believably Oscar-worthy on a television broadcast.  In practice, though, The Father gives Hopkins much more to do than to simply collect gold-plated statues in a late-career victory lap.  It doesn’t reinvent the immersive-dementia-narrative template in any substantial, formalist way, but it does find a way to make it thunderously effective as an actor’s showcase, and Hopkins makes the most out of the opportunity in every single scene.

While Hopkins’s performance as the titular, increasingly demented father is the film’s centerpiece, much of the credit for that performance’s impact is owed to first-time director Florian Zeller.  Adapting his own eponymous stage play for the screen, Zeller dutifully follows the standard tropes & rhythms of the immersive dementia narrative.  We follow Hopkins through his subjective experience of place & time.  The physical details of the apartment he occupies and the faces of his caregivers transform as he loses track of where & when he is in the labyrinth of his own mind.  His nonlinear sense of reality prompts him to recall future events, while he also conveniently forgets past traumas in an endless loop of repeating, excruciating conversations.  It’s a mildly surreal experience, but not an unfamiliar one if you’ve seen it done on TV before.  What really distinguishes this example is the complexity and sudden stabs of cruelty in its stage play dialogue, all excellently performed (including supporting performances by other talented Brits like Olivia Coleman, Olivia Williams, and Imogen Poots).  Watching Hopkins viciously tear down the few people in his life trying to help him cuts through the narrative’s familiarity like a dagger, especially since you never stop feeling for him even when he’s at his worst.  His basic persona shifts just as much as his sense of reality & time.  Within a single conversation, he’ll transform from an adorable flirt to a heartless monster, devastating the family members & nurses who’re struggling to care for him despite his stubborn pride & prickly demeanor. 

Sometimes Hopkins is deeply befuddled, his mind visibly buffering to reorganize the details of his environment until they make sense.  Sometimes he’s scarily sharp, psychologically eviscerating his loved ones with a throwback Hannibal Lecter sense of caustic wit.  That alternation between vulnerability and cruelty feels directly tied to stage play writing, recalling the tender-vicious turns of dialogue in works by Edward Albee, August Wilson, or Tracy Letts.  This movie earned a lot of attention for the subtle shifts in its set design and the surrealism of its demented reality.  Its real strengths are much simpler and even more familiar than its immersive dementia narrative, though.  It’s most impactful for providing an astonishingly talented actor with complexly written dialogue and setting him loose on the stage.  Unfortunately, time is linear, so it’s likely we won’t see many more virtuoso performances from Hopkins as the years march on, much less any of this high caliber.  His Oscar win was mildly controversial due to this year’s messy, Soderberghian Oscar ceremony billboarding a tribute to Chadwick Boseman that never came together.  That might’ve made for an embarrassing television broadcast and a major disappointment to Boseman’s most ardent mourners, but at least the work that was rewarded instead of Boseman’s stands out as something substantially, recognizably great.  If Boseman’s nomination had been upstaged by Gary Oldman for Mank or Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody there’d be a lot more to be angry about.

-Brandon Ledet

Minari (2021)

When the 2021 Oscar nominations were announced back in March, I put in a months-long effort to watch as many films nominated that I had genuine interest in, as long as I could access them for “free” (mostly via streaming services I already subscribed to).  This meant that $20 VOD rentals of still-in-theaters titles like The Father & Minari had to simmer on the backburner, unless I could get my hands on them via a borrowed library DVD.  Well, it’s June now and this year’s screwy, Soderberghian Oscars ceremony is only a hazy memory, along with any tangible critical discourse surrounding the films nominated.  Even now, I’m still 23rd in line for my requested DVD copy The Father at the New Orleans Public Library, but Minari finally did arrive.  The film is, to no one’s surprise, quite good.  There are some big laughs, a few tears, and a heartwarming performance from the world’s cutest kid; it’s just a solid Indie Drama all around.  But you already know that.  It turns out there’s a price to pay if you want to participate in Online Film Discourse while it’s still fresh, and in 2021 that experience goes for about $20 a title ($30 if it’s Disney IP).

There are two main narrative tracks running parallel in Minari.  In one, an enterprising Korean immigrant (Steven Yeun) moves his family from San Francisco to rural Arkansas, sacrificing their urban social life to pursue his obsession with starting a self-sufficient, profitable farm – the supposed American dream.  In the other, the amateur farmer’s youngest child David (Alan S. Kim, the aforementioned cutie) struggles to connect with his grandmother, who arrives directly from Korea to live on the newfound family farm.  Of those two storylines, I was much more emotionally invested in the latter.  The stakes are obviously much higher in the father figure’s risk-it-all obsession with starting his own farm, but the boredom and isolation his family suffers because of that choice is given equal emotional weight.  I remember what it’s like to live in the South as a kid, just far enough away from a major city that you can sense its presence but never get to enjoy its benefits; your only company is your family, whether you get along with them or not.  That tension is only amplified here by the arrival of an estranged family member who doesn’t have her own place in the group dynamic yet, especially when viewed through the eyes of the shiest, most sheltered member of the household.

David’s cautious relationship with his grandmother (Youn Yuh-jung, who did take home an Oscar statue for Best Supporting Actress) is the emotional core of Minari.  Her arrival on the Arkansan farm might as well be a UFO landing to him.  Not only does she represent a parental home country he’s completely unfamiliar with in his short time alive (early on, he complains that she “smells like Korea”), but she also does not act like the stereotypical ideal of a grandmother he’s come to expect based on American pop media.  She gambles, swears, loves pro wrestling, chugs Mountain Dew and, worst yet, she doesn’t even bake cookies.  Of course, all of those qualities are rad as hell in an elderly grandmother, but it takes young David a long while to warm up to that obvious truth.  Watching the two of them grow to truly know and love each other over the course of the film is a low-key kind of Movie Magic that cannot be matched by the flashier, more inevitable tragedies of the tear-jerking plot – most of which derive from the father figure’s almost entirely separate toiling on the farm.

Minari is seemingly aware that David’s inner life and personal relationship with his grandmother is its emotional anchor.  At the very least, choosing to set the film in 1980s Arkansas, as opposed to current-day, affords it a kind of nostalgia-tinged remembrance that focuses on highly specific sensory details—flavors, smells, textures—that transport you back to an otherwise half-forgotten childhood.  And because modern film discourse moves at such a rapid pace right now, even just thinking back to Minari‘s six Oscar nominations earlier this year is tinged with its own kind of nostalgia.  The world has already moved on from discussing it, but it’s still a great film.  My only real surprise in that months-late discovery is that my favorite aspect of the film was one of the few that wasn’t nominated by the Academy: Alan S. Kim’s performance as David.  Cute kid.

-Brandon Ledet

Clockwatchers (1997)

Even as a curmudgeonly thirty-something, I’m one of the youngest people working in my office.  By a lot.  Most of the staff has been haunting this building for decades, a kind of professional longevity that tends to encourage inconsequential, interpersonal resentments that have been simmering on a low flame for almost as long as I’ve been alive.  Such is the joy of bureaucracy, where someone taking the wrong parking space or forgetting to remove their coffee pod from the communal Keurig machine is equivalent to a war crime.  It’s an absurd dynamic to witness as a newcomer just trying to survive the daily shift so I can get back to Real Life, but Office Drama means the world to the poor souls ensnared by it, and I’m scared that I’ll inevitably be able to count myself among them.

While I was still just a middle school dweeb with delusions of one day becoming a Famous Writer (as you can guess, I eventually settled for Hobbyist Blogger), the Sundance sleeper Clockwatchers already perfectly captured the ugly, grey heart of those workplace resentments in a genuine, existential way.  Clockwatchers is an absurdist, subtly heartbreaking workplace satire in which Toni Colette, Parker Posey, and Lisa Kudrow play a collective of disgruntled office temps embroiled in a meaningless scandal over stolen office supplies.  It blows up petty, pointless office drama to a tragicomic extreme, wryly observing both the outsized importance of workplace resentments among the long-established people it matters to and the absurdity of it among newcomers who find it soul-crushingly inane.

In what should be a surprise to no one, it’s Toni Collette’s lead performance as a shy, lonely office clerk that affords the film most of its devastating pathos.  She starts off at her temp job’s typing pool following instructions like “Sit there until someone comes and tells you what to do” with a literal-minded obedience, failing to assert or draw attention to herself at every turn.  It’s exciting to see her meek demeanor corrupted and steeled by Posey & Kudrow’s more proudly obnoxious behavior as the film goes on, but she doesn’t fully transform into a who-gives-a-fuck office badass until it’s too late.  To survive the petty stolen office supplies conflict that drives the plot, the temps need to operate collectively, with strength in solidarity.  Watching her struggle to muster that strength is genuinely heartbreaking, especially in comparison to Posey’s loudmouth iconoclast, who has bravery to spare.

It’s probably not the most attention-grabbing achievement a movie could pull off, but Clockwatchers perfectly captures the unnatural, mind-numbing tedium of a day’s work in the life of an anonymous bureaucrat, something I can unfortunately attest to with plenty personal experience.  It would make for a great double bill with Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls or Kitty Green’s The Assistant, although it’s much, much lighter in tone than either of those blood-chillers.  The context of Clockwatchers’s scandalous typing pool might be less severe than either of those pairings’, but they each touch on similar themes of meaningless, soul-destroying office labor.  Watching these all-time-great actors collect dust in the blank, white-void walls of their excruciatingly ordinary office—”trying to look busy while there’s nothing to do”—is a very familiar strain of existential crisis.  And then someone has the nerve to make their days even more pointlessly excruciating over accusations of stolen staplers & paperweights?  It’s the absolute height of human cruelty.

-Brandon Ledet

Beast Beast (2021)

Much to everyone’s shock, Tubi has proven to be of the most surprisingly substantial players in the online streaming game over the past year or so. What used to be a low-rent platform for disposable horror schlock that falls just outside the public domain is now a staggering online library of great works on the level of a Criterion Channel or an HBO Max. To solidify its legitimacy as a formidable streaming giant, Tubi is now apparently getting into the business of premiering artsy indie films from the festival circuit, a far cry from its origins as a last resort destination to watch Wishmaster 3, or whatever.

Tubi’s bold foray into prestigious festival acquisitions is Beast Beast, a very Sundancey teen drama about gun violence.  Think of it as a Gen-Z update of Elephant.  The lives of three average suburban teens interweave in the weeks leading up to a fatal shooting, which shockingly does not take place on a high school campus.  The movie does nothing to hide the identity of the eventual shooter, making it obvious who’s going to do the killing even if their targets are obscured.  You know exactly where the movie’s going until it gets there . . . and then there’s fifteen extra minutes of unexpected, pulpy denouement.  This movie is the ultimate example of the dictum “It’s not what happens but how it happens,” as the hyperkinetic, youthful style entirely overpowers its afternoon-special PSA plotting.

The three youths profiled here are all distinct in their public & private personae, but like most kids born in The Internet Age, they all share a compulsion to produce online #content, building their personal brands on platforms like YouTube & Instagram.  As their disparate hobbies of drumming, skateboarding, amateur filmmaking, and firing assault weapons in the woods collide in frantic montage, it’s clear that we’re living in a post-context world.  One of those afterschool activities is way more sinister than the others, and it’s shocking to see it presented so casually in a teen melodrama with an inevitable tragic ending.  What’s exciting about Beast Beast is how aware the kids are of their online presence’s effect on the world, allowing them to weaponize Public Perception while avenging that tragedy once it occurs.  Its a film both horrified by and in reverent awe of the Internet as a creative & destructive tool, depending on who’s wielding it.

Beast Beast is the exact kind of low-budget filmmaking that earns a lot of unfair eyerolls, but it really worked for me.  Its multimedia approach to photography and its exponentially intense sound design genuinely rattled me in a way few dramas have managed to in the past year, thanks to the general emotional numbness of the pandemic.  Unfortunately, that’s the exact reason it’s such a poor fit for Tubi as a streaming platform.  Instead of being able to fully immerse myself in that tension for that full 85 runtime, I was frequently iced down by Tubi’s randomly interjected commercial breaks, the platform’s Achilles heel.  If Tubi’s going to be getting into smaller arthouse films, I’m not sure the commercial breaks are entirely worth it.  Beast Beast is one of the best new releases I’ve seen so far this year, but I’d likely be even more over the moon for it if it weren’t interrupted by Verizon shills & Charmin bears.

-Brandon Ledet

Rocks (2021)

The small-scale British drama Rocks appears to be standard coming-of-age docufiction at first glance. A naturalistic, mildly fictionalized portrait of kids’ lives alone in The Big City, the film invites skepticism of what could possibly set it apart from similar, contemporary works like Girlhood, Skate Kitchen, Nobody Knows, or The Florida Project. The answer is somewhat obvious: the kids themselves. Rocks mostly excels in its minor character details, platforming young performers who are authentically adorable, hilarious, and heartbreaking at every turn in their seemingly Real stories. As with a hagiographic documentary or a shamelessly formulaic mainstream comedy, the form of this kitchen-sink drama doesn’t matter nearly as much as the personalities it highlights. If anything, the movie better serves its characters & performers by stylistically staying out of their way.

The titular Rocks is a high school student in Hackney, London, and the daughter of a Nigerian immigrant. She’s a typical teenager at the start of the film, at least judging by her young Londoner peers. She’s mostly interested in dance, hip-hop, and Instagram make-up tutorials, and she pretends to be more annoyed with her absurdly adorable kid brother than she actually is. Her typical-teen life is disrupted early in the film when her mother abandons the kids in their cramped apartment with only a small stack of cash to keep them afloat until she returns (if she returns at all). Rocks quickly goes from bartering for candy in the schoolyard to being the head of her small family, lugging her brother and his pet frog all over the city in a daily struggle to survive life without income or a safety net. It’s unclear at first whether she’s just too proud to ask her circle of friends for help or if she’s fearful of what might happen if word gets out that she & her brother are going it alone. The movie is fascinated by where she belongs within Hackney as a larger community, though, and it feels most vibrant & alive when she’s figuring that question out among kids her own age.

If there’s anything especially striking about director Sarah Gavron’s filmmaking here, it’s in her attention to the artifice of social media while chasing down the grimmer details of Real Life. The movie is incredibly smart about allowing the kids’ preferred mode of communication—Instagram—to propel its visual language & drama. It shifts to a vertical smartphone aspect ratio so frequently that I have to wonder why the kids weren’t given their own “Cinematography By” credits. They check in with & lash out at each other through Instagram posts, and use the app’s Stories function as an edited-in-the-moment travelogue in the transitions between locales. The film is not as confrontationally in-your-face about that stylistic choice as genre films like Sickhouse, Assassination Nation, or Ingrid Goes West, but it is just as honest about how much of its teen subjects’ daily lives are recorded, filtered, and preserved through that very specific lens.

Speaking personally, my ideal version of this film might be one pieced together entirely through staged Instagram posts, like the tear-jerker drama equivalent of a found footage horror film. It would be dismissed as a gimmicky, attention-grabbing choice by most audiences, but to me it feels as authentic to the Kids Today™ as the cinema verité style was to the docufiction subjects of the 1960s & 70s. As is, these kids still feel authentically Real in every beat of the story, even when it’s at its most melodramatic. The movie is obviously more interested in highlighting those performers (who were credited for contributing to writing the dialogue) than it is in flaunting its own heightened sense of style or drama. That’s certainly a worthwhile goal, and the payoffs suggest it was the right way to go with this material (even if it somewhat flattens what distinguishes the film from similar works).

-Brandon Ledet

Dead Pigs (2021)

Because I don’t have the money to travel to the bigger players like Cannes or TIFF, most movies I see at film festivals are smaller, micro-budget productions with years-delayed releases or, often, no official distribution at all. It’s common for my favorite new releases at The New Orleans Film Fest—titles like Cheerleader, Pig Film, and She’s Allergic to Cats—to get lost in distribution limbo for years despite their explosive creativity & aesthetic cool. What’s a lot less common is for the filmmakers behind them to Make It Big before those calling-card films’ release. That’s exactly what happened to Cathy Yan, though. Because her debut feature Dead Pigs premiered to ecstatic reviews at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Yan landed a mainstream gig directing the pop-art superhero blockbuster Birds of Prey, one of Swampflix’s favorite films of 2020. In the meantime, Dead Pigs treaded water for two years with no means of wide distribution until Mubi picked up its streaming rights in 2021 (likely prompted by Birds of Prey). It’s Yan’s debut film but her second film released, a perfect encapsulation of the confounding labyrinth of the festival-to-wide distribution pipeline.

In Dead Pigs, Cathy Yan deploys a lot of the same candy-coated visual pleasures & chaotic irreverence that made Birds of Prey so fantabulous, except now in an entirely different genre: the everything-is-connected ensemble cast indie (sometimes referred to as “hyperlink cinema”). Think Me and You and Everyone We Know . . . except with pig corpses and neon lighting. We’re introduced to several, disparate citizens of modern Shangai who appear to be living entirely disconnected lives: a beauty salon owner, a pig farmer, a lonely waiter, a displaced white American architect, etc. As with other everything-is-connected stories like Magnolia, Traffic, and Short Cuts, their relationships with each other gradually become apparent and gradually construct a mosaic portrait of the region & community they populate — in this case Shanghai. It’s a great structural choice for a first-time director, as it allows Yan freedom to pursue many ideas at once without having to fully devote herself to a single option. It’s as if she couldn’t decide what movie to make so she made them all at once: a wealth-disparity romcom set in a hospital room, a low-level crime thriller about an unpaid debt to mobsters, an outlandish farce about a woman stubbornly refusing to sell her home to a predatory real estate corporation. They’re all individually great, and once they start directly informing each other they’re even greater.

All told, Dead Pigs is a snapshot of postmodern culture clash, a great movie about “the modern world” steamrolling the real one. The two major inciting events that link its disparate characters are the mass, city-wide death of pig-farmers’ stock and the rapid expansion of towering condos in neighborhoods that used to have distinct personalities & culture. However, describing the film that way doesn’t convey how fun & sinisterly beautiful it can feel in the moment – a tonal clash between form & content Yan would continue in her big-break blockbuster. The film is overflowing with culture-clash absurdism, broad comedic gags, and intense swirls of neons & pastels; it’s a delightful romp about the heartbreaking erasure of Shanghai’s authentic people & culture. That kind of tonal ambiguity & mosaic narrative structure is likely a tough sell marketing-wise, so it makes sense that Dead Pigs was allowed to float downstream for so long without proper distribution. I’m at least thankful that its festival-circuit buzz landed Yan such a high-profile gig and eventually got it in front of so many people. The system sometimes works, but it sure does take its time.

-Brandon Ledet