Tuesday, 14 August 2018


Patrick Read Johnson, 1995        - USA/UK/Germany 

screenplay: Jill Gordon ~ from a short story by Chris Crutcher

“Fat kid” Angus’ (Charlie Albert) ambitions in life veer between talking to Melissa, to stop being picked on and to go to Jefferson. His only friends in this are his truck-driving mum, his ever-dozing grandfather who is over seventy and just getting married, and his geeky pal Troy. Luckily, coming-of-age conventions will help out and he’ll get his moment.

          Angus’ is conventionally and agreeably on the side of the big kid, and it’s funny and winning enough and not quite as smug as something offered by John Hughes, but it’s firmly embedded in tropes and predictability. You’re unlikely to miss its message of “freaks” being absorbed into the “normal” – his suit is plum and everyone else is in blue: wow! the same colours as his science experiment!* – but if you do somehow miss it, even though it’s been hammered home many times, Angus will speechify it at the prom showdown. For the most part, the agenda reaches the tenor of one of the tossed-off faux-poignant slogans projected on Troy’s bedroom wall: “Love stinks / Reality Bites”. It’s set at the same level of insight and symbolism as a TV show for tweens… and it’s true I probably bought into liked it more when I was younger. It’s one of those American Teen movies designed to be a reassurance and outcry against the realities of an outsider’s existence.

Each character is defined by how they don’t quite conform, as if they’re wearing allocated badges. Angus’s mum is a truck-driving, arm-wrestling female, challenging gender stereotypes but sadly not using Kathy Bates enough. There is Grandpa Ivan (George C Scott), dozing off at strategic moments, playing chess in the park, but at 72 (oh, 73) about to get married to a women thirty years his junior, challenging ageism. And even Angus himself is not your average nerdy, dejected fat kid, for he makes his worth at football (the point being that others overlook his contribution to the game) and just wants to get along and can stand up for himself. In fact, one of the more successful subversions of stereotypes has Angus frequently breaking the nose of jock bully Rick from the age of five; the unspoken gag/point is that here’s a bully we see continually getting hurt and pounded as a result of his own pranks, yet never stops bullying (but don’t worry, because he’ll get his). But there is a moment when Angus’ mum lists some of the humiliations her son has to go through at school which seems to hint at a parallel film, perhaps a less broad and less contrived exploration of his plight more in tune with the minutiae of his experience.

And then there’s Troy (Chris Owen): he’s Angus’s best
friend, small, big-eared and socially inept ~ surely a missed poster-boy for ‘Gummo’ ~ who isn’t challenging anything really, but just sticking by his big pal. It’s probably this friendship and Angus’ relationship with his Grandpa that resonate most: they are fluid, funny and relatable. Much is made of the childishness of both Angus and Grandpa Ivan: they bicker like siblings; they both have big dates with idealised women (females don’t do well here); the two run parallel with grouching Grandpa George C Scott representing lost chances. It is also only late into the film that it is obvious that Troy is far more physically abused than Angus and yet seems to be intent only in aiding and abetting Angus’s goals in life, thereby revealing Angus in a more self-pitying light. But the film only briefly touches on this foible. Again, the film misses a chance to delve deeper into character and instead goes for tired chess analogies instead. Even so, the film holds its own with the endearing performance of Charlie Talbert as Angus ~ reputedly found in a Wendy bar queue.

And what would a coming-of-age film without a great soundtrack of the times? Personal highlights are opening credits with a marching band playing along to Love Spit Love’s ‘Am I Wrong?’, starting things on a high, and slow-dancing to Mazzy Star’s ‘Fade into You’.

  • And much is made of the embarrassment this plum suit, but we see him a black suit for the wedding, so…?

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Lean on Pete

Andrew Haigh, 2018, UK

An excellently performed little heart-breaker, directed by Andrew Haigh with restraint and the deliberate tempo of barely stifled tragedy. The title and premise – a boy and his horse – probably conjure something more fluffy and more obviously manipulative, but ‘Lean on Pete’ has more in common with the subdued tone of its young star Charlie Plummer’s debut film, ‘King Jack’. 

Plummer proves to be one of what must be the most naturalistic and convincing teenagers in cinema and can carry an entire film effortlessly. As a character, Charley is mild, resourceful, vulnerable and capable in equal measure with the determination to just keep going on his own terms: this isn’t rebellion or defiance; it’s just what he knows. He comes from a negligible and unstable but not uncaring home-life with his dad (Travis Fimmel) and falls into work with the irascible Steve Buscemi who races horses into the ground for a meagre living. Charley is looking for something to call his own and soon takes to the horses, especially one called Lean on Pete who becomes his confidante as things get tough. And yet, this otherwise admirable independence alludes to the neglect and displacement that Charley has subsumed into his character: his indifference to authority isn’t a sign of insurgence but rather his inability to see and accept more official forms of assistance because he doesn’t feel a part of a more mainstream culture.

All the characters appear to have reached points of acceptance of their lot; this is not a world of aspiration. Charley’s dad is more a best buddy than a father, getting by on what remains of his shit-eating good-ol’-boy charm to win women as he forgoes stability. Buscemi is a master of projecting a twitching humanity suffocated by disappointment and self-loathing but even his Del seems to be trying to find a way to be empathic to the boy despite himself. Chloë Sevigny is the obvious port-of-call for sympathy but even she is broken by the knocks she has taken and callously repeats that you can’t treat horses like pets: “…they’re just horses”, she repeats like a mantra trying to convince herself. Later, Charley falls in with a couple of jocks who just want to play games, drink and sleep. They barely seem to care when he joins them. Elsewhere, dramas of abusive relationships play out across assumptions of what gender roles should be. It feels like a dead-end environment where empathy rears up regardless of the cruelty and apathy it’s up against. In that way, it captures the tone of drama lived rather than always announcing itself.

It’s a film that never quite does what you might expect. It’s not that Charley is always badly treated, but he just wants to do things his own way and walks away from official help multiple times. You get the impression that most people he leaves behind really would want to know he’s okay. He gets by on charity, pity, luck and just plain kindness. And when it calls for it, the strength to hit back: don’t mess with a downtrodden and determined teen with nothing to lose. It’s what Common Sense Media calls a “traumatically beautiful drama”, which may seem a somewhat clumsy description but is indicative of the contrasting forces always at work visually and dramatically.

Magnus Nordenhof Jønck’s cinematography presents bright and clear vistas of the Pacific Midwest, through which Charley marches on, resolute to reach his aunt through chronic sunburn, loss and homelessness. The scenery is wide open to him but, as placid as he may seem, it’s no match for his determination. All the time, the slow burn on misfortune and luck carry him onwards. Peter Debruge finds Haigh’s low-key approach distancing and problematic, but this isn’t so much making Charley unrelatable as the film giving him a respectful space to do things his way. It’s a careful tone that doesn’t high-light self-pity because it’s protagonist doesn’t. In this way, it’s more like the more observational coming-of-age dramas like ‘American Honey’ or even ‘The Florida Project’, but it’s still something warm and ragingly empathic. Ultimately, it is a thoroughly moving ramble through a rites-of-passage that doesn’t even feel like heroic overcoming-of-the-odds, but rather just how things are for this kid. 

The Secret of Marrowbone

Sergio G. Sánchez, 2017, Spain 

Evidently running from domestic horror, a mother and her children escape to a remote big house and call themselves Marrowbone (now there’s a name that’s trying hard). There, they try to hide away and keep to themselves, at least until Jack (George MacKay) turns twenty-one. But the ghosts of the past are not easily shaken, even when she declares that they should all have collective amnesia of it.

While other recent horrors are trying to stretch the ambient and ambiguous corners of horror, and where dramas like ‘First Reformed’ and ‘Custody’ utilise horror techniques and atmospheres, ‘The Secret of Marrowbone’ is agreeably old school in its gothic genre intents: there’s a family secret and there’s a crumbling house. These are essential ingredients for this kind of thing and, mostly, Sergio G. Sánchez’s script directs with attentiveness to shadows and delivers with decent scenes of creepiness – the youngest son chasing after dice and a descent through a chimney, for example. But there’s some negligible dialogue, some confusing geography and messing around with temporal displacement. There’s also an archness that belies a faint air of awkward over-insistence as things are put in place, but after the set up it gradually settles down and gets better. Like Sánchez’s renowned script for ‘The Orphanage’, there’s obvious thought and planning here that means that the final revelation is mostly earned. Or you may roll your eyes. But it’s a decent if minor and self-conscious thriller where – as with ‘The Orphanage’ – Sánchez proves ultimately as ruthless as he does sentimental.