Fierce People (2005)

One of the most promising debut features of the year so far has been playwright Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds, which coldly (and comically!) examines ruthlessness & sociopathy among the wealthy. Watching the film, there was something about its studied emotional distance and trilling tribal drum soundtrack that reminded me of the 2002 novel Fierce People in a way I couldn’t shake. A distastefully fun read, Fierce People is a work of outright pop fiction in which a young son of a cultural anthropologist studies the wealthy people in his immediate social circle as if he were a National Geographic reporter researching a third world tribe. One of the most significant aspects of Thoroughbreds is its featured performance of the late Anton Yelchin, a surprise delight that made its connection to Fierce People even more apparent. In 2005, a baby-faced Yelchin starred in a feature film adaptation of Fierce People, a movie I’ve been putting off watching for years because of its . . . muted reputation. Directed by Griffin Dunne—a prestigious auteur who has been involved in such celebrated projects as Practical Magic, Movie 43, and the Rear Window-riffing romcom Addicted to LoveFierce People is an ill-conceived adaptation of a deeply #problematic novel that could only get more glaringly awkward in its translation to the screen. If considered in direct comparison to Thoroughbreds, it can only be understood as the lesser work on both a narrative & technical level, lacking both the latter film’s attention to dialogue and its thrilling sense of visual craft. Still, much like with the novel, I found myself enjoying Fierce People despite myself, if not only for the strength of its before-they-were-stars cast. Besides Yelchin (and old-timers Donald Sutherland & Diane Lane), the film also features performances from Kristen Stewart, Chris Evans, and Paz de la Huerta. I find the novelty of that crew near impossible to resist.

With an adapted screenplay from the novel’s own author, Dirk Wittenborn, Fierce People largely retains its original story, with only a few details excised for brevity. Because his mother (Lane) is detoxing from a cocaine habit on a rich man (Sutherland)’s dime, Yelchin’s impossibly smug protagonist misses an opportunity to study the fictional Ishkanani tribe in South America for a summer with his estranged father. He instead pours all his frustrated anthropological energy into studying the rich people around him for the primal racists, rapists and murders that the they truly are beneath their mask of civilization. Caught between the worlds of the wealthy (Stewart, Evans) and their exploited staff (de la Huerta), Yelchin’s coming of age story is a dangerous game of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll in a violently inhospitable environment. Besides Dunne’s awkwardly cheesy visualizations of his psychedelic drug trips and pubescent sexual awakening, the movie stumbles in a couple major ways that are likely to be instant turnoffs for most audiences. They’re both problems inherent to adapting the source material in the first place: 1) Part of Yelchin’s internal transformation requires him to dress like a South American tribesman and become a savage warrior. Again, the Ishkanani are a fictional people, but still. 2) The story takes a violent left turn in its second act with a plot-derailing male on male rape, which completely shifts its tone from dark comedy to sexual assault whodunit. It’s a turn that’s not entirely earned either onscreen or on the page, if not only because it values mystery over trauma.  Even the film’s marketing is unsure how to deal with it, addressing only the more humorous opening half with inappropriate taglines like “Every family tree has its nuts.” It’s possible that someone who’s masterfully adept at uneven tones could’ve navigated these two issues in an expert adaptation, but Dunne & Wittenborn were probably not team to do so. Fierce People remains just as politically awkward (yet oddly compelling) as its source material.

I can’t recommend Fierce People, the book or the movie, in good conscience without a litany of cautionary warnings about its attitudes towards colonization & sexual assault (the latter of which is at least taken seriously, if not thoughtfully). However, I do think the strength of its cast, which only gets more unbelievable every year, is enough of a draw to overcome some of that awkwardness. This is especially true in Yelchin’s case, considering the rarity of seeing him command a lead role and the film’s thematic overlap with Thoroughbreds, which might prove to be one of his most significant performances. If you’re looking to supplant your Thoroughbreds experience with some extratextual materials, Fierce People would not at all be a terrible place to start; the connections are there. I’d just prepare yourself for an occasional cringe before taking the plunge. It’s far from the most self-aware of modern narratives, even if its ultimate target is the 1%.

-Brandon Ledet

Personal Shopper (2017)

Kristen Stewart is finally starting to collect the recognition she deserves as one of the most rawly talented actors working today, at least in major critical circles. While polling my sister or my coworkers for their thoughts on KStew still only trudges up old Twilight residue, Stewart’s earned herself a nice little pocket of mainstream critical recognition, whether it be an entire Filmspotting episode dedicated to her work or a world class impersonation of her physical tics & quirks from Kate McKinnon in an otherwise middling SNL sketch. The problem is that the level of obvious, powerful talent in her screen presence (which I’ve described as a mix of Lauren Bacall smokiness & James Dean cool) isn’t being matched by the quality of the films they serve. I might personally go to bat for titles like Equals or American Ultra every time they come up, but they’re not films most people hold in high regard. Director Olivier Assayas’s two collaborations with Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria & Personal Shopper, seem to be a corrective for that career trajectory disappointment. Assayas is almost single-handedly (along with Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women) providing Stewart the arthouse context that allows her consistently fascinating work to earn real attention & prestige. In Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart is afforded the opportunity to hold her own against dramatic heavyweight Juliette Binoche and does so with casual finesse. In Personal Shopper, she has no such indie world giant to contend with and carries an entire arthouse film on her back as the constant center of attention. I’m grateful that Assayas has been able to promote & boost Stewart’s notoriety as a significant talent in this way. I just wish either of these collaborations could match the potency of the performances she lends them.

In a lot of ways Personal Shopper seems specifically crafted to be the perfect ideal of a Kristen Stewart vehicle. Stewart’s physical displays of nervousness, a concrete set of tics that allowed McKinnon to land such a dead-on impersonation in the first place, make perfect sense within the context of the film. A personal shopper for a high-strung socialite in Paris, Stewart’s skittish protagonist is alone in a major city, attempting to communicate with her brother’s ghost through one-woman séances, and blindly stumbling into the center of a murder mystery & ensuing police investigation. Given the circumstances, Stewart’s usual mode of darting her eyes back & forth, nervously running her hands through her hair, and just generally giving off the vibe that’s she’s gone her entire life without a full night’s sleep make total sense. Her character is a scared, emotional wreck. She can’t make a big show of these emotions, however, due to a medical condition that prevents her from becoming too physically excited or stressed, doctor’s orders. Personal Shopper is the exact ideal of a Kristen Stewart vehicle, not only teeing up a screentime-demanding performance she’s more than qualified to fulfill, but also pairing that presence with recognizable genre thrills audiences can easily latch onto. There’s almost no genre older than the ghost story, a tradition Assayas acknowledges in-film by referencing old movies that have already covered the territory. That’s why it’s such a shame that the film itself finds ways to underwhelm, avoiding any fresh or significant payoff to the nervous energy Stewart expertly builds in the first two acts.

As a ghost story, Personal Shopper is satisfyingly eerie in its mix of old world technique & modern urban ennui. In an early scene Stewart is alone in her brother’s old residence calling out to the spirit world for a definite, unmistakable sign that his ghost is attempting to contact her from beyond the grave. The loud noises and physical disturbances she’s met with when she makes these demands are familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a haunted house feature before. Even more familiar are the physical manifestations of ghosts, who do eventually appear, but look like the same rudimentary CG smoke that has defined ghostly cinematic representation going at least as far back as Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners. References to séances, ectoplasm, Spiritualism, mediums, and portals into the spirit world all feel just as rooted in ancient movie magic tradition. Assayas does find a way to at least slightly modernize this old world ghost story by questioning whether it’s even ghosts or spirits that are being communicated with instead of some sort of non-human presence or, as Stewart puts it, just “a vibe.” He also makes modern technology a kind of medium in itself. Empty elevator cars, automatic sliding doors opening for no one, text messages seemingly broadcasting from beyond the grave: Personal Shopper is peppered with images of a spooky modernity. In a way, Stewart’s protagonist is a ghost herself, haunting the streets of Paris. Her brother, a large part of her, has died before the movie even begins. She mostly communicates with her boss through passed notes instead of direct interaction. Her boyfriend can only reach her through the digital grain of long-distance Skype sessions. This thankfully doesn’t lead to a Shyamalan-type twist about her vitality, though, just questions about who or what she’s communicating with, what life alone in a major city can do to one’s sense of isolation & grief, and how the world beyond our grasp can be felt & understood as, well, a vibe.

It does seem a little silly to fault Personal Shopper for being merely pretty good when I wanted (if not needed) it to be truly great. If nothing else, I found it to be a huge step up from Assayas’s work in Clouds of Sils Maria, an acknowledgement for the necessity of satisfying audiences with emotional payoff from a film’s central themes. The basic genre thrills of a classic ghost story narrative don’t hurt the film’s muted, but pleasant charms either. It’s just frustrating to feel Assayas reach for something more ambitious & intangible beyond those modest rewards without ever getting close. It’s interesting to see him frame this ambition in the context of Abstract Art as a tradition, specifically referencing the work of painter Hilma af Klimpt as a comparison point. His work never fulfills that kind of transcendental analysis, though. If it did, he’d have found new, unfamiliar ways to represent ghosts onscreen or completely shift the film’s visual representation of its narrative into something more vibe-conscious and less straightforward. Personal Shopper is a film that’s confident in its sense of mood, a haunted reflection of modern melancholy, but does little to excite in terms of breaking form & offering something that’s never been seen before. The film’s biggest accomplishment is in providing KStew enough room to once again prove herself to be an effortlessly powerful screen presence. She would have been better served, however, if the film were able to achieve more than that. She’s already had enough stepping stones on her way to a career-defining barn burner of a starring role. It’s likely unfair to judge Personal Shopper harshly for not being that knockout of a KStew film that’s sure to come (and soon), but it was close enough to being that ideal that it left me disappointed for not getting there.

-Brandon Ledet

Certain Women (2016)

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threehalfstar

There’s a growing cult following for writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s work that I don’t yet fully understand, as I’ve only seen a couple of her pictures to date. As with the Michelle Williams canine drama Wendy & Lucy, perhaps Reichardt’s most well-known film, the recent release Certain Women didn’t quite hit me with the full, emotionally devastating force it has with some critics. For me, Reichardt’s work has the impact of an encroaching tide, not a crashing tidal wave. I leave her films quietly sad, subtly moved, but not rocked to my core. Certain Women finds Reichardt telling three separate stories in a loosely connected anthology, each vignette beginning & ending on an open, ominous note like the movie equivalent of distant, lightningless thunder. I understand how certain audiences can latch onto this less-is-more approach to storytelling and easily sink into Reichardt’s quiet, but confident filmmaking style, but I can never get past feeling like an appreciative observer, casually peeking into an uncovered windows as I stroll by unchanged, but intrigued.

Honestly, this is the kind of movie I would typically wait to watch until it reached a convenient at-home state of availability. There’s no visual poetry or genre thrill to Certain Women that’s especially enhanced by watching it large, loud, and with a crowd. I mostly turned up at the theater for this title because of the talent promised in the cast. Besides the consistently rewarding Reichardt alum Michelle Williams, Certain Women also boasts featured performances from Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern, two immensely talented & eternally undervalued actors I respect deeply. A great, front & center performance from Dern is always worth cherishing, considering the surprising rarity of her lead roles, but I have to admit Stewart’s inclusion is what really perked my ears in this case. Stewart has a quiet, measured presence in her dramatic roles I imagined would be a perfect fit for Reichardt’s own dedication to discipline & subtlety, an expectation that payed off nicely. Their pairing here makes for an all-too-appropriate director-actor team-up and, although I’ll readily admit I’m a much bigger fan of Stewart’s, I’d love to see them continue to work together on future projects just because their wavelengths are already so in sync.

Williams plays a contractor attempting to secure a delicate businesses deal for precious sandstone building materials she desires for her own home. Dern is a lawyer frustrated with an increasingly unhinged client who won’t accept the finality of a failed workman’s comp claim. Stewart, who is admittedly in the second bill slot in her segment, plays a young lawyer & night class teacher who becomes the unrequited target for flirtation from a lonely horse rancher. Each segment has stray themes and details that make them feel connected in a significant way: a shared character, a clear dichotomy between blue collar workers & their wealthy employers, the way men can undercut a woman’s authority without even noticing, etc. It’s really Reichardt’s understated gaze at desolate Midwestern expanse & small town relationships that makes the film function as a single unit, though. The routine of horses feeding, the dim lighting of strip malls & late night diners, a title credits scroll over a slow moving train; there’s a quiet frustration in Certain Women‘s imagery that links its individual parts together more than any of its overarching narratives strive to.

Kelly Reichardt guides this film with a confident command. As the writer, director, and editor, she holds a godlike control over the production that results in a work unmistakably her own, yet confoundingly light on stylistic flourish. Much like Todd Solondz’s recent anthology-style film Wiener-Dog, Certain Women finds a director delivering exactly what they’re known for, except dissected & presented in isolated pieces, almost like a career retrospective or an artist’s manifesto. A major difference, though, is that Reichardt’s work intentionally avoids grand, sweeping statements, so it’s all too easy to overlook the immensity of what’s covered in the film. Certain Women doesn’t aim for the earnest lyricism of an American Honey. It’s a very different portrait of Nowhere America, one deliberately dulled by an almost absent score & a filter of digital grain.

Personally, I usually look for a little visual poetry and cinematic escapism in my movies. Reichardt’s filmmaking style is a little outside my comfort zone, to put it mildly. I do think she has a great way of framing disciplined & meaningful performances from her actors, though. Williams, Dern, and Stewart all convey an impressive range of humanity here (along with Lily Gladstone, who is devastatingly effective as the horse rancher) without calling attention to themselves in a way a more obnoxious drama would invite. There’s a lot I admire in Reichardt’s work, but it’s the stage & environment she sets for her actors that keeps me coming back for more. I’ve yet to wholly fall in love with one of her films, but the dramatic performances they deliver consistently make the effort worthwhile.

-Brandon Ledet

Equals (2016)

fourstar

Is it all transgressive or radical anymore to point out that Kristen Stewart is a divinely talented actor? Have her Twilight days been sufficiently been wiped out by the ever-expanding wealth of killer onscreen work she’s put in outside that franchise? I hope so, because it’s becoming tiresome starting reviews like this (my third defensive preamble for her talents after American Ultra & The Clouds of Sils Maria). Kristen Stewart’s main problem, if she has one at all, is that the film industry often seems confused about exactly how to utilize her detached onscreen cool, a visible lack of urgency that lands her presence somewhere between James Dean & Lauren Bacall in its smooth, smoky, effortless charm. Although it nearly approaches the YA romance territory that has threatened to pigeonhole her career, the dystopian sci-fi drama Equals does know what to do with Stewart’s detached cool. Besides indulging in an always-welcome, heartachingly sincere story of sci-fi romance, Equals presents a future where emotion has been outlawed, a perfect platform for Stewart’s own emotive talents, which are typically communicated through subtle body language & small shifts in tone. It’s not my favorite Stewart performance by any stretch, but it might serve as a convincing argument on her behalf for those still on the fence in regards to her immense, underappreciated talent.

As much as I’m rambling on about the many merits of Kristen Stewart here, the true protagonist of Equals is a man named Silas, played by Nicholas Hoult. Silas navigates a cold, clinical world in which war has been eradicated by outlawing human emotion. As a member of the emotionless Collective, Silas lives & works in a society of Spocks. Everything is bland, uniform, and designed for logical, streamlined function, the entire world an Apple Store. Silas’s peaceful life as an illustrator of “speculative non-ficiton” is threatened when an outbreak of the disease S.O.S. (or “switched on syndrome”) starts to trigger “behavioral defects” (emotions) in members of The Collective, including our protagonist. Silas dutifully takes his prescribed pills, but continues to feel anyway (likely a comment on the effectiveness of anti-depressants), and eventually finds himself dangerously infatuated with a coworker, played by Stewart. His love interest is dealing with her own rapidly-progressing S.O.S., however undiagnosed & unmedicated, and initially treats his advances like the unwanted attentions of any other workplace creep. Their attraction is inevitable, though, and sets up an achingly sincere, doomed-to-fail romance full of secretive, tender sexual encounters that put both Hoult’s & Stewart’s characters at risk for correctional “defective emotional therapy” at the hands of The Collective’s governing elite, a “treatment” that often ends in encouraged suicide.

Equals is mostly a slow, sensual drift through a cold, calculated future defined by its clean lines & blue lighting. Its romanceless dystopia most closely resembles the surrealist fantasy of this year’s The Lobster, but it approaches the subject from a more sincere, open-hearted place that recalls the sci-fi romance of titles like Her & Upside Down. There’s a metaphor to be found in the way this future society values “productive” lives over genuine mental health, but its true bread & butter is in the nervous, trembling touches Hoult & Stewart share as two young lovers unaccustomed to intimate human contact. The film finds its own visual language in the way it zooms in on actors’ bodies & faces in search of the tiniest of emotive responses, shrinking even the subtle bodily flirtation of Carol to a more microscopic stature (until, you know, it becomes full-on boning). There’s a little dose of subtle comic relief mixed in with this chest-heaving sensuality in the emotionless delivery of lines like, “You’re going to live, pal,” and [upon witnessing a coworker’s suicide] “That’s unfortunate,” but the film works best for those easily won over by sincere romance juxtaposed with a clinical sci-fi setting, an aesthetic I’ll admit I’m a huge sucker for.

Nicholas Hoult does a great job of selling the heartbreaking sincerity of this futuristic love connection (and, speaking of underappreciated actors, The Diary of a Teenage Girl‘s Bel Powley shows up to support the main cast), but Equals is Stewart’s show, not only because it fits the detached cool of her already established persona so well. As much as I appreciate the cold, clinical future presented here, it mostly makes me wish for a not-too-distant future where Stewart’s recognized for the full scope of her talent, not for being the girl from Twilight. Equals is a welcome step in that direction as well as a great, self-contained love story heightened by an oppressive air of emotional restraint.

-Brandon Ledet

American Ultra (2015)

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fourstar

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It’s not exactly accurate to say that the bloody stoner action comedy American Ultra is completely without precedent. It’s at the very least possible to see echoes of the film telegraphed in properties as wide in range as Pineapple Express, Hot Fuzz, Hitman, Spy, Clerks, MacGruber, and the Borne franchise. What we have here instead of a wildly idiosyncratic picture without predecessor is the distinct sense that director Nima Nourizadeh & writer Max Landis have a deep love & appreciation for movies, especially for the violent action comedy as a genre. American Ultra currently isn’t doing so hot in terms of ticket sales or critical reception, but it has the makings of a future cult classic (like a Near Dark or a John Dies at the End) written all over it, because that love for irreverent action cinema shines through so brightly. Although Landis has been recently been making an ass of himself on Twitter complaining about the lack of immediate returns on a screenplay he’s obviously proud of, he can at least take solace in the fact that future blood-thirsty stoners will be greedily streaming his film on loop as they reach for the nearest bong & nod off in their respective piles of empty two liter bottles & Cheetos.

Plotted over just three event-filled days, American Ultra follows the panic attack stricken stoner/amateur cartoonist Mike Howell as he transforms from a pathetic loser to an inhumanly capable killing machine assassin. Played by Jesse Eisenberg with the exact neurotic fragility you’d expect from a performance from Jesse Eisenberg, Mike is a pitiable weakling who relies on the emotional strength of his partner-in-crime stoner girlfriend Phoebe Larson (played by Kristen Stewart, of whom I’m becoming a not-so-secret dedicated fan) for any & all basic life functions. What Mike doesn’t know is that his frailty is actually a safeguard invented by the government to protect his well-being (and potential danger to others) as a discarded “asset” (read: killing machine assassin). Once Mike is re-activated by a well-meaning CIA agent gone rogue he finds himself capable of killing even the most menacing of threats (including other “assets”) with items as ordinary as dust pans, cookware, extension chords, and spoons, when he was just minutes ago not capable of doing much more than rolling joints & tending a corner store cash register.

What’s so unique about American Ultra is its ability to avoid the more pedestrian lines of thought you’d expect from that kind of plot. For instance, Phoebe is much, much more than the girlfriend accessory you’d expect from a male-helmed action film. Her role is constantly active & vital to the surprisingly layered plot, making for a deeply engaging love story once the full details of her relationship with Mike is revealed. Besides Phoebe’s active role & the satisfying romance narrative, the film also surprises in its distinct style of comedy. Although there’s no shortage of glib jokes on hand, most of the successful humor is anchored in its over-the-top violence. American Ultra is shockingly violent, completely giddy in its comic blood lust. It’s likely that audiences’ mileage may vary depending on the viewer’s love of action movie gore, but I personally had a really fun time with the film’s outrageous brutality.

The movie’s standard action movie palette of G-men, satellite surveillance, and drone strikes may not scream the height of creativity, but there’s plenty to play with between the lines to make it a unique property (besides propensity for violence & an active female lead). American Ultra‘s very specific world of CGI pot smoke, black light dungeons, illegal fireworks, bruised & beaten leads (despite action films’ tendency to show their battered heroes with only the lightest of scratches), and refreshing ability to shoot extended sequences in grocery stores without succumbing to grotesque product placement all pose it as the kind of distinctive property destined to gain a cult audience likely to overshadow the narrative of its lackluster theater run. Max Landis might be squirming (or, more accurately, throwing a temper tantrum) over what’s currently perceived as a commercial (and critically middling) failure, but I believe a little patience will eventually lead to American Ultra finding its proper (drug-addled, gore-loving) audience, who are perhaps currently a little too intoxicated to make the trek to the cinema.

-Brandon Ledet

Clouds of Sils Maria (2015)

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three star

Nothing can sink a film faster or more thoroughly than the viewer’s misplaced expectations. I know it’s not fair to judge a film based on what you expect it to deliver as opposed to what’s actually on the screen, but sometimes I can’t help myself. Clouds of Sils Maria is a good movie. It’s visually stunning, hosts a handful of excellent performances from greatly talented actresses, and doesn’t have any particular scenes that fall flat without impact. Still, I can’t help but feel like the movie let me down in some way that I can’t quite put my finger on. It was good, but I was expecting it to be great, an unfair expectation or not.

As far as the film’s performances go, most of Clouds‘ emotional weight rests on the shoulders of Juliete Binoche & Kristen Stewart, who play an aging actress of stage & screen who’s struggling with an ever-evolving industry & her young, no-bullshit assistant, respectively. Having never seen Stewart in a single Twilight movie (okay maybe I drunkenly heckled the first one), I’ve only ever had positive experiences with her work, so her success in Clouds of Sils Maria comes as no surprise to me. Juliet Binoche’s immense talent is another no-brainer, but it’s her unlikely chemistry with Stewart that makes the screen sing. Whether the two are tensely conducting business across a series of electronic devices, tensely rehearsing lines for Binoche’s latest role, or tensely enjoying an alcoholic beverage, there’s a great push & pull to their relationship that unfortunately proves to be a well-played non-starter. Chloë Grace Moretz also cashes in on some long detected, but rarely seen acting chops here in a role as a Lindsay Lohan/Miley Cyrus archetype, but there’s no mistake that this is Binoche’s & Stewart’s show.

The other significant element in play is the movie’s play within a play structure, which of course comes with an avalanche of meta context. As Stewart’s & Binoche’s characters discuss acting as a craft, it’s difficult to separate their words from the real-life actors speaking them. As they rehearse lines from a script about an older executive seducing a younger version of herself, it’s difficult to separate the-play-within-the-movie’s sexual power dynamics from their characters’ relationship as intimate coworkers. As they discuss the current state of tabloid culture & celebrity gossip it’s difficult not to think of the dialogue as the actresses venting on camera. Clouds of Sils Maria has a lot of fun playing with audience perception, blurring the lines between fiction & reality in an admittedly catty, but intricately layered fashion.

There’s also a lot of simplistic, but effective visual majesty derived from the location of the film’s title. The clouds of Sils Maria’s mountaintops are flowing, river-like washes that add a drowning sadness to the separation, death, and axiety that plague the opening of the film. At one point the clouds & mountain roads overwhelm Stewart’s character in a psychedelic cacophony that suggests a drastic change coming in the film’s structure (à la Bergman’s Persona) is imminent, but alas very little changes & the film silently rolls along, just like the clouds that decorate it. There’s so much commendable about Clouds of Sils Maria that it pains me to admit that I wasn’t fully satisfied with the entirety of what was delivered. I left the film with a mind full of pleasant sentiments & images, but still feeling empty-handed, as if I had tried to grasp a passing cloud, only to watch it dissipate between my fingers. It’s a difficult reaction to describe, but I also doubt I’m the only one who felt it.

-Brandon Ledet