Band Aid (2017)

Band Aid is one of those intimate indie comedies that are easy to advertise in trailers as Sundance-flavored quirk fests packed with cutesy flights of whimsy, but deliver something much darker & more painfully honest once they get butts in seats. The last time I watched a film this tonally contrary to the light-hearted romcom romp it was advertised to be was last year’s Joshy: a darkly funny, yet emotionally devastating reflection on themes like grief, addiction, repression, and suicide. Band Aid similarly sweeps genuine emotional trauma under the rug until it can no longer be ignored, but sweetens its bitter medicine with even more of a quirk-friendly premise than Joshy‘s rogue bachelor party shenanigans: the formation of a novelty punk band. The film offers the same exciting swell of watching a fresh musical collaboration come together that was such a joy in last year’s Sing Street, except with a lot more focus on the stop & start failures necessary to make that magic work and a constant Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? mode of bickering romantic cruelty that consistently sours the mood. It’s much more of a personal, slyly devastating work of deep hurt & genuine pain than its quirk-focused advertising (understandably) makes it out to be, a kind of tonal sucker punch that arrives early & often enough to feel like an outright pummeling.

Writer, producer, and first time director Zoe Lister-Jones stars as a failed author & moderately successful Uber driver who’s stuck drifting through a joyless haze. Painfully conscious of her peers’ seemingly successful marriages & constantly bickering with her lazy stoner husband (Adam Pally, who was also in Joshy), she suffers every slight to her confidence, her independence, and her social status as a motherless wife as if it were a violent stab to the heart. Being around friends’ children seems especially painful for her, an anxiety she barely keeps at bay with the help of marijuana & old-fashioned emotional suppression. Couples’ counseling is not working. She seems to be stuck reliving the same fights with her husband over menial bullshit like doing the dishes & not having enough sex while more drastic elephant-in-the-room issues are allowed to fester, unspoken. While stoned at a friend’s kid’s birthday party & avoiding questions like, “When are you guys gonna make one of these things?” from cultish parents her age, she finally rediscovers the one healthy way she can still interact & collaborate with her husband without bickering & wanting to die: art. Music, specifically. As an act of self-actualized therapy, the couple decide to start a band (with the help of their wide-eyed creep of a neighbor, played by Fred Armisen) and turn all of the topics of their daily bickering into playful punk songs. Things get much better from there . . . for a while.

One of the most rewarding aspects of Band Aid is that it doesn’t allow for easy answers in what’s clearly an emotionally complex situation. At first it appears as if the couple’s cheeky songs about diminished sex drives & unwashed dishes are going to magically fix all of their deep-seated emotional pain in a convenient, only-in-movies release of pressure. That infectious spirit of creating art together eventually crumbles, though, and when they inevitably end up fighting again it’s over something much more significant & severe and they go about it in a much crueller way. But that’s okay. This is a film much less about mending a broken relationship than it is about embracing your right to fail. Bands, marriages, and all other kinds of intimate partnerships are difficult collaborations to negotiate, ones where successes can be less frequent than the failures necessary to make them possible. Band Aid is a film about that interpersonal push & pull just as much as it is about internal grief & despair.

Zoe Lister-Jones was not only ambitious in imprinting her auteurist personality in nearly all levels of production on her first feature as a director; she also set out to experiment with the general gender dynamics of a typical film production, indie or otherwise. Band Aid boasts an all-woman crew behind the camera, which has to be some kind of a rarity in film. Although gender dynamics is certainly high on the list of subjects tackled by Band Aid, I’m not sure you can clearly detect a tonal difference in the effect that atypical crew has on the final product. It is an idea worth celebrating & exploring, though, and it’s likely only Lister-Jones herself would be able to fully articulate the difference that dynamic made on bringing her script to life. There’s an undeniable omnipresence of the director’s personal voice throughout the work, not only because she plays the main character & sings all of her on her own songs. Dark humor about ISIS, Nazis, and mental disability offset a lot of the film’s potential twee whimsy. Its focus on the failures inherent to art & romance feels so much more relatably human it should in a film with this kind of a comedic premise. I guess it’d be easy to dismiss Band Aid as the quirky romcom it’s advertised to be if you only engage with its novelty songs & scenes of Armisen doing his usual post-Andy Kaufman schtick, but the film is so much more honest & nakedly sincere than that. It’s an impressively vulnerable work that often transcends its financial means and recognizable genre tropes by exposing an obviously raw nerve, then repeatedly attacking it with joking song lyrics & power chords. If nothing else, I very much respect it for that emotional ambition alone.

-Brandon Ledet

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

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threehalfstar

A lot of the critical dialogue surrounding Manchester by the Sea is about how soul-shatteringly sad the film is. For instance, warning audiences about the emotional heft of the film was actually the basis of Casey Affleck’s entire opening monologue when he recently hosted SNL. That reputation’s not exactly off-base. Manchester by the Sea is a dramatic study of a family in grief over two timelines, a portrait of loss & regret in the most realistic of terms. People get so unbearably sad in this film that their bodies shut down, their eyes go dead, and they can’t fathom a reason why they should live for another minute. The dirty secret about Manchester by the Sea, though, the part that most people aren’t addressing, is that despite its fearless gaze into the suicidal depths of grief & loss, it’s actually really damn funny. The immense pressure the film’s dramatic weight puts on its characters is constantly released by flippant, tough guy humor and you’re a lot more likely to laugh through a majority of the film than you are to cry. Just when you feel like you can easily laugh away the pain, though, the film’s emotional devastation crashes in on you in an insurmountable flood. It’s true to life in that way.

Casey Affleck headlines this small budget weepie as an underpaid handyman who has to step in to handle his brother’s estate after his sudden, but expected death. This responsibility includes caring for his teenage nephew, played by Lucas Hedges, something he’s not at all prepared for due to a past trauma that’s gradually revealed to the audience in flashbacks. What develops is two duelling timelines, both heartbreaking in their circumstances, but made amusing by the quiet, sullen humor of its tough guy protagonists who foolishly believe they’re stronger than their own emotions. Much like with the recent black comedy Joshy, Manchester by the Sea is largely about the way traditional masculinity doesn’t leave room for genuine expressions of emotional pain. Characters cover their feelings with tough-it-out jokes & good-natured ribbing until the arrival of someone actually willing to address the trauma head on, roles filled by the wonderfully talented Michelle Williams & Gretchen Mol, rushes the truth to the surface.

Casey Affleck’s lead performance is going to overshadow a lot of this film’s other details when it comes to its critical reputation. The quiet squeaks in his voice, the dead eyes of PTSD, the sudden bursts of explosive violence: his performance is well-deserving of the attention it’ll attract. This is a movie that’s non-imposing in its visual craft, washing everything in greys & seafoam greens so that the performances & the dialogue are more of the main attraction than the directorial work. Mol, Williams, and Hedges all make excellent use of each moment they’re afforded, but Affleck’s consistent hovering between looking like he might weep or throw a punch at any second is going to steal a lot of their thunder. That’s okay, though. What I was most impressed by in Manchester by the Sea wasn’t at all the heartbreaking drama Affleck skillfully conveys under the falsely calm surface of each scene. Rather, I was most struck by the way the film clashes a take-no-shit Boston bro attitude with devastating moments of emotional fragility to pull out something strikingly funny from the wreckage. The film works really well as a dramatic actors’ showcase, but it’s that act of black comedy alchemy that made it feel special to me.

-Brandon Ledet

Finders Keepers (2015)

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fourstar

Roger Ebert once called cinema “a machine that generates empathy.” He explained, “It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with people who are sharing this journey with us.” It’s a quote I (and many others) return to often because it is so remarkably insightful & concise, but I don’t think it’s ever more true than it is with documentaries. Documentaries have a way of taking a subject that seems so odd or quaint from the outside & establishing the all-too-relatable, often devastatingly depressing humanity within. While a memeified YouTube clip or local news segment can reduce someone to a modern day freak show (think “Hide your kids, hide your wife” or “Ain’t nobody got time for that”), documentaries have the luxury of digging deeper beyond that detached amusement & fascination. Suddenly someone you might mock for dedicating their life to worshiping the minor pop star Tiffany or donating their penis to a museum while still alive & breathing is revealed to be a real, living person you can’t help with empathize with on some level after being confronted with their humanity.

Finders Keepers is smart in the way it consciously pulls off this trick. The film documents a bizarre case in which a small town “entrepreneur” purchases a barbecue grill from a storage unit auction only to find a human foot inside. Instead of returning the foot to its original “owner” (John Wood), the foot’s new warden (Shannon Whisnat) decides to make a media circus out of the ordeal & initiates a years-long public legal battle over the foot in order to capitalize on the minor fame it affords him. He brands himself as “The Foot Man” & charges admission to see the grill he discovered it in as a kind of morbid roadside attraction. Local news affiliates eat up Whisnat’s snake oil greedily & openly, unashamedly refer to the fiasco as a “freak show”. The film portrays the early goings on with a lighthearted “Get a load of this!” attitude that lures the audience into joining in with the gawking, lest they cast the first stone. However, the empathy machine eventually revs up & things take a very sour turn.

What at first seems like a thin story for a feature length documentary is later revealed to be something fairly nuanced & sinister. Whisnat was not only making a mockery out of a lost limb (which would honestly be bad enough in itself), but also a familial tragedy. Wood lost his foot in the same airplane crash that killed his father. The recovery from this unexpected devastation sent the deceased man’s surviving family into a spiral of abuse, addiction, stagnation, and estrangement. Where Whisnat saw an opportunity for fame & financial exploitation in an accidentally discovered foot, Wood saw a physical manifestation of grief he couldn’t process in a healthy, productive way. Even more fascinating yet, the two men had a history together as children that raises issues like petty jealousy & class politics in a documentary that initially purports to be about something much smaller & more unassuming: a foot. Finders Keepers is eager to surprise at every turn with just how complex & uncomfortable this story can get when it’s initially treated as nothing ore than a joke by the public & the media.

I missed catching Finders Keepers (among several other promising-looking documentaries) at last year’s True Orleans Film Festival, which is an opportunity I’m sad to have squandered. Watching the film with a live audience seems like it’d be a great venue for appreciating what it delivers, since its M.O. is to make you laugh, then make you feel bad for laughing, then make you laugh through the pain. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this keen of an observation on the exploitative nature of media coverage & the memeification of human beings and although the film holds up really well as afternoon Netflix viewing, I’d love to have experienced this particular empathy machine at work with a room full of strangers. I imagine the delight & discomfort would’ve both been palpable.

-Brandon Ledet