Assassination Nation

Release: Friday, September 21, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Sam Levinson

Directed by: Sam Levinson

With a title like Assassination Nation, you probably shouldn’t go in expecting a film of subtlety and nuance, and that is exactly what you do not get in director Sam Levinson’s sophomore feature. In fact, a lack of subtlety and nuance is the entire point of this little social experiment. Seven years after his début Another Happy Day and Levinson’s imagined a sort of Salem Witch Trials for the Twitter generation, a vicious American satire that finds four teenage girls becoming the collective target of a town gone mad when a malicious data hack exposes everyone’s sordid little secrets and floods the streets with violence.

In the town of Salem (state unspecified), Lily Colson (Odessa Young) is just another normal high school student with a tight-knit group of friends in Bex (transgender actress Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (ABBA), and they do pretty normal teenage things — finding that sweet selfie angle, partying, blowing off studying. When a casual hacker (Noah Gavin) stumbles upon a video of the town’s staunchly anti-gay mayor cross-dressing and engaging with male escorts, he can’t help but share the hypocrisy with the rest of the townsfolk and posts it to an online forum, leading to public outrage and an inevitable suicide. But Mayor Bartlett (Cullen Moss) won’t be the last to be outed. Principal Turrell (Colman Domingo)’s phone is the next to be hacked, precious photos of his young daughter presumed to be damning evidence of a pedophile.

In a movie that gets progressively more uncomfortable this awkwardness is merely the first drops of rain before the deluge. Still, there’s something really disconcerting about the way the chaos begins, the adults being the first to fall victim to their own indiscretions. But then it gets REALLY personal, with a major data breach exposing Bex’s identity as a transwoman and that of Lily’s secret contact ‘Daddy.’ Nude photos go viral, causing friendships to sour and intimate relationships to end in bitterness and violence. Locker room jocks are outed as homosexuals, then beaten down with the baton of Proper Masculinity, while computer geeks are tortured into becoming snitches, then murdered on camera anyway. “For the lolz.”

Aesthetically, Assassination Nation is what you get if you dropped Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers into the middle of The Purge. This is a very stylish presentation that revels in bloodletting as a holy war is ignited between the people of Salem. And on the matter of style, for me this film is also a tale of two halves, the first sluggishly paced as Levinson sets about establishing key relationship dynamics, like Lily and her envious, big-eyed beau Mark (a nasty Bill Skarsgård). Cut to the second half and the film really livens up. Despite the generally unpleasant characters it took all I had not to marvel at Levinson’s audacity as he turns the fall-out into an allegory for the most offensive aspects of social media — sanctimonious opinion-shoving, ad hominem attacks and baseless speculation.

Assassination Nation isn’t your typical high school drama. Lily isn’t your typical teen protagonist, and she and her friends aren’t your typical ‘Witches of Salem.’ Style and substance combine to form an explosive, invariably controversial package. Levinson throws down the hammer when it comes to expressing his thoughts on what life on the internet is doing to our life outside of it. Unfortunately he does this often to the detriment of our entertainment, with the coda about society’s double standards when it comes to gender roles tacked on at the end being particularly on-the-nose. Levinson’s forceful execution doesn’t always pay intellectual dividends, but it does succeed in creating an experience that isn’t easily forgotten.

Everybody gun-ho tonight!

Recommendation: In defense of Assassination Nation, it gives you fair warning up front about what it plans to do to you, opening with a list of trigger warnings in brilliantly colored font describing everything from teen drug/alcohol abuse, toxic masculinity, homophobia, rape/murder and even giant frogs. If any of that stuff actually does trigger you, I would actually take that message to heart and attempt getting a refund. Like, totes for realz. This is a film not for the squeamish (or fragile male egos, for that matter). 

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “This is the 100% true story of how my town, Salem, lost its motherf**king mind.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Widows

Release: Friday, November 16, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Gillian Flynn; Steve McQueen

Directed by: Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen, master of the discomforting drama, is back at it again with Widows, an uncommonly menacing heist thriller that makes room for trenchant social commentary in between fits of short-lived but significant action. Given his past films, I guess I understand the sentiment but I still think it’s disingenuous to describe his brand of crime drama as purely popcorn-spilling entertainment. That’s what The Italian Job and Ocean’s Whatever Number We’re On Now are good at. Realized through some of the year’s most intense performances, Widows is SERIOUS (and seriously good).

The fun begins when a multi-million-dollar robbery goes awry leading to the deaths of professional criminals Harry (Liam Neeson), Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Jimmy (Coburn Goss). As it usually goes, the amount stolen isn’t really the story, it’s from whom they’ve stolen and how badly the aggrieved party wants it back. That isn’t so much a problem for the men anymore, but it is for the wives they’ve abruptly left behind. It’s especially problematic for Veronica (Oscar winner Viola Davis), whose beloved Harry was the one who decided it would be a good idea to thieve $2 million in campaign funds from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss gunning, quite literally, for county alderman in Chicago’s South Side — a seat seemingly forever occupied by the notoriously racist Mulligan clan. Oscar winner Robert Duvall plays the incumbent Tom Mulligan.

With a disgruntled Manning breathing down her neck (also quite literally), Veronica finds herself with no choice but to attempt to carry on the work of her late husband, whose scent still clings to the pillows and bedsheets. When she comes across Harry’s notebook, in which lay detailed plans and building schemata for a future job worth $5 million, she rounds up two of the other four widows, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), with the fourth, Amanda (Carrie Coon), keeping her distance. In two hectic weeks this crew, bound only by circumstance, will have to bring themselves to not only face the realities of what their husbands did to provide, but they must also make their tricks their own. They’ll also need a getaway driver (Cynthia Erivo).

On paper, that seems like the groundwork for your traditional heist plot. But McQueen’s films have always been complex works, the material rooted in the concept of freedom, whether that’s political (as in Hunger, wherein IRA member Bobby Sands led his fellow inmates on a hunger strike in an effort to be recognized as British POWs), sexual (such as we witnessed in Brandon Sullivan’s self-destruction in Shame), or civil (see Solomon Northup trying to untangle himself from the antebellum south in 12 Years a Slave). They’ve consistently been challenging viewing experiences as we’ve seen the things the suppressed and oppressed have had to sacrifice in order to gain said freedoms.

The kind of freedom Widows is concerned with is maybe less obvious. This is about what having money — a lot of it! — can provide (a new life maybe, but also political influence, the tools needed to change a current and possibly loathsome paradigm — precisely what the Mannings are aiming for here, albeit via morally bankrupt methods), and, conversely, the desperation that arises in its absence. By extension, having money means having the freedom of choice and McQueen (who wrote the screenplay with best-selling author Gillian Flynn, of Gone Girl fame) seamlessly dovetails the economic with the societal, making the crux of the action — indeed, the execution of the heist itself — about more than a matter of financial necessity. This is an emotional gauntlet that sees the quartet evolve from prized possessions to steely-nerved agents of their own liberation. They’ll use this robbery to simultaneously pay back a debt, make a little profit and break free from a past where not everything is as sunny as it once seemed.

Some trajectories are more compelling than others. Debicki’s Alice is a truly heartbreaking character, a pretty girl held hostage to abusive relationships and whose own mother (Jacki Weaver) compounds her low self-esteem by encouraging her to sell her skin as a way to support herself. See also the extraordinarily confident Veronica, whose arc is responsible for some of Widows‘ biggest moments. Davis is a dominant force, but what else is new? Sadly we don’t get quite as close to Rodriguez’s clothing store owner, which is a shame because this is a more mature role for an actress I will forever link (ironically) to the heist-driven Fast & Furious franchise.

Beyond its thematic textures, what makes Widows a cut above your standard procedural — get-in, get-out and get-away-for-good — is how large the threat of physical violence looms; how grave the situation is. The men in the film are almost universally antagonistic, imposing figures, whether that’s Brian Tyree Henry’s physical size or the omnipresence of his character’s younger, psychotic brother Jatemme (a nightmarish Daniel Kaluuya), or Robert Duvall leaning upon decades of dramatic clout to justify his slightly more histrionic outbursts. The complex political landscape of inner-city Chicago is brought to life by these excellent performances, a number of which are destined for awards consideration.

Ultimately Widows is grittily entertaining, but more importantly it sends a powerful message of what it can look like and how it can feel to be female and empowered in an era where the leader of the free world is boasting about grabbing his fellow Americans by the crotch.

Recommendation: Elegant in style, bleak in tone and often uncomfortable to watch, Widows is absolutely a product of British director Steve McQueen. That might be all the endorsement I need to give. This movie kicked my ass, and sometimes that’s just what the doctor ordered.

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Searching

Release: Friday, August 31, 2018

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Written by: Aneesh Chaganty; Sev Ohanian

Directed by: Aneesh Chaganty

Searching is undoubtedly among the year’s most pleasantly surprising discoveries. Featuring a unique presentation style that repurposes your local big screen as a 20-foot-tall facsimile of your own favorite personal devices, as well as a crucially sympathetic performance from star John Cho (of Harold & Kumar fame), Searching is an über-modern thriller that’s as technically impressive as it is emotionally involving.

You read me right. The internet-set Searching earns a Roger Ebert 👍👍. It’s hash-tag legit with the way it makes you 🤔 and 😮, effectively doubling as a police procedural in the age of social media-fueled misinformation and obscured identity. In it, father David Kim (Cho) engages in a desperate search for his daughter Margot (Michelle La), who disappears without a trace after attending a study group one night. A Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned to his case. She and her team will carry out the ground investigation, while a dismaying David is tasked with tracking Margot’s online activity for any potential digital leads.

Aneesh Chaganty’s first feature film proves nothing less than a feat of meticulous craftsmanship, one in which identity becomes the key search term. The story is fairly simple but the canvas is anything but basic — an ever-shifting landscape of multiple open tabs which expose everything from chat history to diary confessions to bank account anomalies. What David thought he knew about his daughter, who’s on the cusp of high school graduation and appears ready to take on the world, turns out to be woefully inaccurate as his necessary privacy violating offers a heartbreaking discovery process steeped in today’s en vogue communication tools — FaceTime, Skype, Facebook, Instagram and YouCast to name a few.

As the investigation heats up and earns national attention viewers are led down a dark, twisting path paved with red herrings and often culminating in frustrating dead-ends. The screenplay, co-written by Chaganty and writer Sev Ohanian, is intelligent and sharply focused. Limited as his physical appearance is, Cho rises to the occasion and builds an affecting portrait of a father way out of his depth. Learning on the fly the basics of life on the internet, David’s newbie status offers parents in the audience a fresh set of nightmares to contend with, simultaneously cautioning millenials over the dangers of volunteering up sensitive information about themselves to third parties. Importantly, this never becomes a lecture. All of these realities are seamlessly woven into the fabric of a genuinely gripping story.

As a film centered around relationships — arguably the lack of them — perhaps the most fascinating one is that which it establishes with us. Watching David’s face contort in anguish and confusion while Twitter users come out of the woodwork calling him a pervert and more besides, we find ourselves in the awkward position of being on the other end of a live stream in which we are unable to interact, try as we might. It moves us to commit major moviegoing sins like breaking out our phones and seeing what it is that we can do to help find the missing Margot. The drama is that authentic and that urgent. It inspires reaction to the point of interaction, and that’s a kind of depth paradigmatic films such as Unfriended and its sequel The Dark Web failed to tap.

Quite hash-tag honestly, it carries a profundity that a great many films fail to grasp, however they are presented. This is a must-see movie folks. 👏

Recommendation: Bubbling with emotional conviction and stuffed to every corner with detail, Searching is a beyond-impressive début feature from a man who knows a thing or two about what the internet can do (director Aneesh Chaganty used to work for Google). Judging this particular film by its cover/poster would be a rather unfortunate mistake in my view. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “I didn’t know her. I didn’t know my daughter.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Circle

Release: Friday, April 28, 2017

→Theater

Written by: James Ponsoldt; Dave Eggers

Directed by: James Ponsoldt 

I don’t know if “knowing everything is better” but I do know that The Circle is an experience I need not have again. I wish I never even had it. A parable about the dangers of being too plugged in to the digital world does little to justify both your time and its high-profile, talented cast.

Director James Ponsoldt, known for his sensitive character studies like The End of the Tour and The Spectacular Now, adapts the 2013 Dave Eggers novel of the same name. Seemingly having little faith in the material itself he overhauls what could have been another indie sleeper hit with a one-sheet of Hollywood names guaranteed to create a box office draw. (He wasn’t wrong; rather than bombing, his latest has gone on to become his highest-grossing effort internationally.)

Emma Watson stars as Mae Holland, a young go-getter who lands an entry job with a powerful tech conglomerate known as The Circle, run by the visionary Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks in a Mark Zuckerbergian capacity). The film traces Mae’s rise to prominence as she goes from Customer Service representative to the first Circler to go “fully transparent” — wearable cameras giving her followers access to her every waking moment. In the process it asks us where we draw the line between virtual popularity and physical privacy.

At the Circle, a Google-like campus where every amenity under the sun can be found, employees are encouraged to throw themselves headlong into their work. To get connected and not only stay engaged, but intensify that engagement in perpetuity. Everyone comes across passionate and friendly. Only the most motivated of millennials are able to thrive here. If you’ve ever seen a movie, you’ll see right through this front and recognize this idyllic community for the insidious, disingenuous construct that it is (a similar problem plagued Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness earlier this year).

Mae takes the job initially to help fund treatments for her father who suffers from multiple sclerosis (Bill Paxton in his final role) but it’s not long before that selfless nobility gives way to a more unhealthy obsession with her own status. Before she’s drunk on the same Kool Aid that all her colleagues have been binging on, most notably her obnoxious college friend (Karen Gillan) who helped her score that interview and with whom Mae’s inevitably thrust into direct competition. She soon realizes that the benefits of going transparent are too many to count, and wants her parents and even her friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), the latter notorious for staying off the grid, to adopt the technology and learn to become part of the Real World.

Mae’s meteoric rise is nurtured by Hanks’ unnaturally likable CEO, who sees great, scripted potential in his protégé. After catching her breaking the law via one of his recently installed SeeChange cameras — part of a new initiative to keep the entirety of humanity more accountable for their actions and behavior — Bailey decides to give her an opportunity to become her best self. Meanwhile, comedian Patton Oswalt is stuck delivering some spiel about how none of this will manifest as one giant middle finger in the face of national and international privacy rights. Like everyone else, he’s unconvincing.

The movie from here becomes such that I really wish Hanks had just fired Watson. The movie wouldn’t have made much sense but, critically, it would have been over sooner. Declining to actually do the unpleasantries is such a Tom Hanks thing to do, and he can’t even make reading the riot act to a disobedient employee an uncomfortable experience. He’s badly miscast, though no one in this movie comes out smelling like a rose. I think it’s this fact, how even Forrest Gump has been set up to look like a dope, that makes me more mad at The Circle than its obnoxious air of superiority or the way it turns relevant social commentary into a boring, predictable and downright condescending lecture.

Recommendation: On the grounds that this is the last movie featuring the great Bill Paxton, it pains me to tell people to avoid the movie. But avoid it. Avoid it like political commentary on social media. Avoid it like the comments section underneath actors’ profiles whenever they make a statement about something other than their chosen professions. Avoid it like you would avoid anyone who tells you they’re still active on MySpace. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 110 mins.

Quoted: “We’re so f**ked.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Belko Experiment

Release: Friday, March 17, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: James Gunn

Directed by: Greg McLean

Office workers at a mysterious nonprofit organization on the outskirts of the Colombian capital of Bogotá participate, let’s call it reluctantly, in a twisted social experiment wherein they must murder a certain number of their colleagues within a certain timeframe or else everyone in the building goes kaboom. Instructions are disseminated throughout the facility by a disembodied voice via the company’s P.A. system.

Directed by Aussie Greg McLean, clearly an apologist for B-horror schlock, and written by Guardians of the Galaxy helmer James Gunn, The Belko Experiment isn’t so much experimental as it is perfunctory and predictable. Worse, it’s unenjoyable, a sick fantasy overflowing with blood and admittedly inventive kills. The story is a floundering attempt at social satire, an interrogation of human psychology as people become thrust into life-or-death situations.

The Belko Experiment opts for a cartoonish, histrionic treatment rather than a nuanced exploration of specific characters, a design flaw in the writing that ultimately proves fatal to the infrastructure as a whole. The film spends all of ten minutes introducing several role players, such as Michael Rooker and David Dastmalchian as a pair of orange-suited mechanics, a few office drones played by a smattering of bit-part actors like Rusty Schwimmer and Josh Brener and a new hire in Melonia Diaz’s Dany. It establishes these people fairly convincingly within the context of yet another ordinary day, but once the chaos begins everyone seems to shed their humanity faster than they can clothing.

The voice initially instructs that two people must be killed or indiscriminate killing will commence. Those who lapped up the exploding heads phenomenon at the end of Kingsman: The Secret Service will be as happy as a pig in shit here. The stakes become more serious as they’re soon told that if 30 people aren’t killed within two hours, 60 will die. With blood pressure and despair mounting, the workers become divided into two factions — the corporate honchos, led by the slimy COO Barry (Tony Goldwyn) and supported by the brutish and intensely creepy Wendell (John C. McGinley), and then everyone else, the underlings corralled by office nice-guy Mike (John Gallagher Jr.).

Gunn’s screenplay tries to shock the system, and occasionally succeeds, but the technique is more manipulative than natural. His story is primarily concerned with mass hysteria and its effects on the individual. Tension stems from whether the group should be taking the voice seriously or whether to dismiss it as some sick prankster. The higher-ups prefer obedience because they see no other way. Mike and others believe there’s a non-violent solution. Meanwhile, Mike’s girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona) is concerned that his defiance is going to get more people killed than necessary.

As the chaos builds it becomes increasingly apparent the film’s dalliance with philosophical concepts like self-preservation and Darwinian theories on survivalism is more of an accident than a serious pursuit. The story just isn’t smart enough to be convincing in that way and that’s made painfully clear in the thoroughly anticlimactic Big Reveal. For all of the nastiness that tries its damnedest to shock and repel, it’s the total lack of creativity and originality in the film’s final moments that is the most obnoxious of all. 

Recommendation: The Belko Experiment manifests as a deliberately unpleasant and vicious social experiment that’s underwritten, overproduced and not well enough acted for those other shortcomings to go unnoticed. In short, it’s difficult to reconcile James Gunn’s contributions to this picture with what he was able to do with a certain Marvel property. It’s a night-and-day difference to me, not just in terms of tonality but quality. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 88 mins.

Quoted: “Now is not the time for timidity.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Get Out

get-out-movie-poster

Release: Friday, February 24, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Jordan Peele

Directed by: Jordan Peele

Jordan Peele announces himself as a talent to keep an eye on with his surprisingly enlightening and even more entertaining directorial debut, the horror-comedy Get Out. His first try proves an early candidate for sleeper hit of the year, a film that manages to balance provocative themes, an interesting premise and a handful of solid performances in a way that’s rare even for seasoned filmmakers.

Get Out centers around a young mixed-race couple, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) and Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), who visit the former’s parents for a weekend. While Rose feels they’ve reached that point in their relationship, Chris isn’t sure how her parents are going to respond to him being black. She hasn’t told them because she’s adamant the only thing he needs to worry about is how uncool they are.

When the two arrive, awkwardness wastes no time setting in. Rose’s father Dean (played by a nearly unrecognizable Bradley Whitford) is a neurosurgeon who immediately sets out on a crusade to impress Chris with aggressive politeness and generally overcompensatory behavior. He takes “[his] man” on a tour of the house, making sure to let Chris know he’s not one of those ignorant types. After all, he has great appreciation for Jesse Owens and if he could, he would have voted for a third term for former President Obama.

His wife Missy (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist whose hypnotherapy may not come free of charge but it sometimes does without patient consent. I’ve never really liked Catherine Keener, even while acknowledging the knack she has for portraying emotionally unstable weirdos. In Get Out her eccentricity functions as more than a character trait. Missy is actually more a plot device than a character, which isn’t nearly as disappointing as it sounds. Rose has a younger brother too, Caleb Landry Jones’ wild card Jeremy, whose domineering albeit brief presence threatens to undermine the film’s subtle strategizing. He’s a bit harder to take seriously.

As are the numerous black servants on the premises. They’re all so goofy they inadvertently become beacons of comedic relief rather than legitimate concerns. And this is the issue I have with the hybrid genre: knowing which reaction is appropriate can prove frustrating at best. Even if their behavior is intended to be funny, it’s not quite funny enough to be convincing in that way either. I chuckled at a couple of the interactions, particularly with maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel), but felt bad when I did. It was awkward. Luckily there are other instances where the humor succeeds and actually enhances the experience — see Lil Rel Howery as Chris’ security guard friend, for example.

As Chris wanders the grounds snapping photos and asking seemingly innocuous questions of the staff, wafts of institutionalized racism become stronger. It has become evident Chris’ discomfort isn’t just personal. There’s a larger, more sinister dynamic at play, suggested by the servants’ unnatural mannerisms and body language. And the discomfort only grows as more of Rose’s family unexpectedly show up for the reunion she forgot to tell Chris about.

Peele, no stranger to skewering the politically correct in his successful and often controversial Comedy Central sketch show Key & Peele (and whose co-host you can find starring alongside him in 2016’s hit action-comedy Keanu), has found a way to expand his observations about the American society in which we live today into a full-length feature presentation. And he does so without falling back on a blueprint that has treated him very well thus far. He also avoids overtly politicizing his message.

Get Out could have manifested as a series of skits all building toward some unifying theme. It could have been, like Logan to some degree, a specific jab at a specific American president putting into effect specific policies. Instead the fiction is broader, more immune to current political trends. Peele legitimizes his cause with insightful commentary and an effortlessly likable lead — a seriousness of purpose only moderately undercut by a few emotionally confused cues and a truth-revealing climax that doesn’t quite live up to the standards set by the movie that preceded it.

Recommendation: Get Out is a movie that has gotten people talking. It’s going to be one of the surprise hits of the year and the hype is pretty much justified as Jordan Peele very clearly has his finger on the pulse of what not only the typical moviegoer wants to see in their movies, but that of film critics and skeptics as well.

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “Man, I told you not to go in that house.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Divines

divines-movie-poster

Release: Friday, November 18, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Uda Benyamina; Romain Compingt; Malik Rumeau 

Directed by: Uda Benyamina 

Divines provides a bleak but brilliant look into the lives of two teens in the Parisian banlieue. It follows Dounia and her best friend Maimouna as they seek out ways of making quick money so they can one day break free of their oppressive environs, an urban sprawl so neglected it almost looks post-apocalyptic. Small-time hustlers turn big-time drug pushers in this searing indictment of the socioeconomic climate of modern France, where the rich get richer “because the poor aren’t daring enough.”

Powerful female performances dominate but the French-Moroccan Uda Benyamina in her feature debut stops just short of making a film explicitly about female empowerment, and in so doing she creates a film that’s a little more open to interpretation. The narrative is more concerned with economics and how simply the lack of money so often coerces good people into making poor decisions. It just so happens to feature two impressionable young women going to extreme measures to realize a dream. Along the way Benyamina also examines the prominence of religion in poor communities. It is no accident the film opens with a sermon.

Dounia (Oulaya Amamra, the director’s sister) comes from a broken family, her mother an exotic dancer who sleeps around and is more often drunk than sober. There’s no real father figure as such, aside from a cross-dresser who hangs around for casual sex and to feign giving emotional support to the quietly angry teen. Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena) comes from a more well-to-do family, her father a prayer leader at a mosque. The film’s major themes — poverty and religious devotion — become increasingly apparent through the perspectives and conversations had between the two girls. They are first seen peddling whatever items they have been able to thieve from a shopping mall on the streets to whomever will give them cash. When Dounia discovers a potential fast-track to success she starts cozying up to a drug dealer named Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda).

Divines is hardly the first film to filter the political and economic turmoil of Western Europe through the experiences of young and naïve characters — in this case, young women from a Parisian ghetto. It will not be the last. That doesn’t mean Divines is a predictable or insignificant affair. Quite the contrary, actually. The story revitalizes tropes and breathes new life into expected character arcs, patiently building toward one of the most punishing endings you are likely to see. Julien Poppard’s cinematography, a heady combination of gritty realism and ethereal experimentation, forces viewers to acknowledge Paris as something other than just the City of Lights. This is a city of darkness. It’s worth noting the juxtaposition of these slums against iconic landmarks like the Arc de Triomphe. Poppard often frames the city in a contradictory manner, imprisoning the characters within a crumbling square betwixt decaying buildings while tossing in plenty of romantic stimuli to assure viewers are where the street signs say they are.

While the edifices certainly could use some attention, Dounia in particular is desperate for it. Or at least some sort of positive influence. As the narrative expands she is shown a door to an altogether different life with a dancer named Djigui (Kévin Mischel) whom she has been spying on from the rafters of the theater she and Maimouna frequently break into. (Initially I was put off by their ability to sneak in so easily but then I realized the set-up was quite intentional, that perhaps the motif is microcosmic of Benyamina’s frustrations over the French government’s failure to protect and look after all its citizens, as any good government should.) Djigui seems an odd sort, if only to the girls who don’t envision men as dancers. His commitment to his craft is what could lead him to better things. Dounia becomes fascinated by his devotion.

Divines is at its most heartbreaking when it offers the wayward teens a choice. As is the case in reality, they are forced to make decisions over the course of an hour and forty-five minutes that no teenager should have to make. The economics that have outlined her past as well as determine her future make Dounia an utterly tragic character (the less said about Maimouna’s fate, the better). Yet she’s far from an entirely empathetic person. She carries a lot of anger inside of her, and she often makes the wrong choice when it is plain to see there is a better one. She is seen in the film’s opening in temple with her best friend. By the end she couldn’t seem further from salvation. That contrast is not only heartbreaking but wholly convincing. It is the world we live in.

divines-2

Recommendation: Richly textured, occasionally symbolic and often breathtaking cinematography and some artistic but not distracting stylistic choices — some portions of the film are created such that we are “receiving” Snapchat videos — make Divines a physical beauty to watch. The story is dark and saddening and a conclusion that’s nothing short of devastating makes this a noteworthy film for the politically minded and the socially conscious. And fans of unorthodox directors need to add this to their shortlist. Good for Uda Benyamina for getting this film made. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 105 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.variety.com