Lamb (2021)

It’s difficult to define what qualifies something as Movie Magic, but the dark fantasy film Lamb is electric with it . . . for its opening half-hour.  The first of the film’s three “chapters” builds all its magical-realist tension on our curiosity over what, exactly, is going on with its titular child-creature and the lonely farmer couple who raise it as their own.  Isolated on an Icelandic farm with only sheep to break up the monotony of their quiet, daily chores, a married couple adopt a newborn lamb and swaddle it as if it were a human baby.  We peer into the lamb’s crib wondering what’s going on under those tightly wrapped blankets, what makes it any different from the other lambs who’re routinely born in the barn. We’re invited to look into the eyes of the older sheep on the farm, anthropomorphizing their intellectual & emotional responses to the humans who feed & shepherd them.  The longer we stare, the more they begin to look like expressive, reactive puppets instead of natural creatures, blurring the line between documentary footage and Movie Magic.  The loss of that boundary sets up an endless realm of possibility in what’s going on with the one lamb the couple has decided to raise inside their home, the one that the camera obscures so that our own imagination can fill in the details.  Then, when the baby lamb is shown in full, the magic vaporizes.

My heart sank in Lamb‘s second chapter when it had to stop obscuring its centerpiece creature.  Conceptually, I am onboard with this low-key fairy tale about an isolated couple’s desperation to be parents despite the lingering pain of past attempts, but the practicality of visualizing the human-lamb hybrid they adopt onscreen is a mood-killer.  Specifically, it’s the choice/necessity to supplement its practical effects with CGI that really zaps the Movie Magic out of the picture.  This is the kind of film that really needs the tactility of the Babe animatronics or even the surreal stop-motion of Little Otik to work. Instead, we see a tactile human body toddle across the screen with a cheaply animated CG head superimposed on top of it, never convincingly integrating with the physical world it supposedly occupies.  In close-up, when the lamb-child is napping or quietly observing her adoptive parents, she’s perfectly believable as a real, tangible creature that has magically appeared in the couple’s lives – which is why her more obscured presence in the first chapter works so well.  It’s when the camera pulls back to show her hybrid body structure in full that the spell is instantly broken, leaving Lamb with all the Movie Magic of a Geico commercial.  And since this film isn’t working with a Babe-level Hollywood budget, I’m convinced that the only way to fix it would have been to crudely superimpose her parents’ heads onto different actor’s bodies to level the uncanny playing field.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much to Lamb besides the magic of its titular creature-child.  It’s a quiet, unrushed film with very little plot or dialogue.  If you can’t gaze in wonder at the little lamb baby for all three chapters, there isn’t much else to do except wait for the credits (or hope for a scene where the lamb’s “mother” timidly asks her husband “Did . . . did you have sex with our sheep?”).  For a more truly magical narrative about an isolated, troubled Icelandic couple in which human actors dance with unconvincingly animated CG animals, I’d recommend watching Björk’s music video for “Triumph of a Heart”.  There’s way more heart, humor, chaos, and magic in those five minutes than there is in this entire two-hour snooze.

-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

Finding Belizaire in the Modern Cajun

The biggest shift in onscreen Cajun representation achieved by Belizaire the Cajun, our current Movie of the Month, is that it was a film written & directed by a member of the Cajun community. Previously, most Cajun representation on the big screen came in two forms: documentaries about Cajun culture filtered through the eye of an outsider and as dangerous backwoods yokels that spooked the protagonists of thrillers who wandered too far outside the safety of the big city. Belizaire marked a shift from there only being movies about Cajuns to there also being movies by Cajuns. Writer-director Glen Pitre had already been making self-funded “gumbo Westerns” for local markets before Belizaire, but that film was a breakthrough in budget & distribution thanks to financial & creative support from The Sundance Institute. Still, Belizarie the Cajun was somewhat of an educational drama about the history of Cajun culture; it did not do much in the way of representing what contemporary Cajun culture looked like in modern times. That update didn’t arrive in any significant way for another decade, represented in a film by fellow local director Pat Mire.

Dirty Rice didn’t reach quite as far or wide as Belizaire the Cajun, but it did see its own international distribution thanks to its inclusion in the 1997 London Film Festival. The film was also an extremely localized hit – breaking records for the longest running movie to play in Lafayette theaters, thanks to what ended up being a five-month engagement. It’s been largely forgotten in the decades since. Currently, the only official means of distribution for the film is for libraries to order DVDs from Pat Mire directly, for $100 a copy. The copy I borrowed from my own library was a VHS transfer with no closed captions tracks or special features – just a barebones home video release with zero fanfare. Considering the movie’s lowkey romantic & crisis-of-faith conflicts, this lack of prestigious distribution does make some sense, since there isn’t much of interest on the screen for anyone who’s not especially fixated on cinematic representations of Cajun culture. However, since there are so few narrative feature films in the Cajun canon (not to be consumed with Bobby Hebert, The Cajun Cannon), Dirty Rice is a significant work worthy of study & discussion – one that’s even more lost to time than Belizaire.

In the film, Benjamin Mouton plays a big-city architect who abandons his corporate life in the middle of a major development deal to save his family’s struggling rice farm on the Bayou. The divisions between his rural Cajun hometown and his corporate New Orleans world are about as broad & cliché as you would expect. The architect leaves behind his blueprints & business-woman girlfriend for shrimp boots and an old-fashioned Cajun girl; it’s a kind of reverse crisis-of-faith narrative as he rediscovers his Cajun roots and leaves behind the atheistic temptations of big-city hedonism. His new Cajun girlfriend challenges his prejudices against the community where he was raised, balking at his distrust of old-world holistic medicines with the retort “It’s not superstition if it works.” His big-city ex become increasingly villainous as he comfortably backslides into his old Cajun ways, eventually exiting the film to a chorus of “boos” when she calls him a “coon-ass” in a local dive bar. Meanwhile, he struggles to transform the farm into a profitable business despite its poor rice yield by distilling homemade rice wine & selling crawfish from his fields in city markets. Both the romance & bank repossession crises work out exactly the way you’d expect, but narrative surprise was never Dirty Rice’s focal point anyway. This is a film that’s merits are defined entirely by local flavor.

The depictions of Cajun culture you’ll see in Dirty Rice aren’t all that different from what’s onscreen in Belizaire the Cajun despite the century’s difference in their respective settings. It’s difficult to decipher exactly how much of that overlap is true to historical accuracy and how much is due to the national popularization of Cajun culture around the time of the two films’ releases. Zydeco music & Cajun chefs like Paul Prudhomme saw an unusual uptick in pop culture attention in the decade between these those films, which is likely what helped them get greenlit in the first place. As such, both films pay particular attention to the local musicians featured in their soundtracks (in the case of Dirty Rice, Wayne Toups & Zydeco Cajun), and the local specialties of their cuisine. This is the first narrative film I can remember ever seeing stage a traditional Louisiana crawfish boil, complete with newspaper-lined tables and a Tony Chachere’s salt bath for the little buggers when they’re fresh out of the pot. Fried catfish, gumbo, and conversational Cajun-French flavor the air around the film’s barebones romantic & financial conflicts, so that it gradually amounts to more than the sum of its parts. There’s even a sequence that thinks to document the costumes & rituals of Courir de Mardi Gras, which is a major aspect of Cajun culture that isn’t touched in Belizaire.

Belizaire the Cajun is a better movie than Dirty Rice, especially when considered only on its dramatic merits outside the context of Cajun culture documentation. Both films are important works for bringing the basic tenants of Cajun culture to the world at large, though. They’re rare examples of Cajun creators representing their own culture onscreen on their own terms. That localized culture preservation leads to some great people-watching among the extras in both films too, which might be the one area where Dirty Rice has Belizaire the Cajun beat in terms of quality. It’s one thing to see local extras restaging age-old Cajun rituals in period garb in Belizaire, but it’s almost even more substantial to see those customs & mannerisms continue into the blue jeans & sunglasses era represented in the modern setting of Dirty Rice. Both films are substantial in their allowance for Cajuns to control their own cinematic representation in legitimate movie productions, but only Dirty Rice can claim to show how that community’s traditions ­still looked & thrived in modern times.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the 1986 historical drama Belizaire the Cajun, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet