WORDS ON BATHROOM WALLS (2020)

August 20, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Very little outside ‘the norm’ is required for teenagers to ostracize one of their own. Sometimes it’s a haircut or a brand of shoes, or even some other minor detail that sets them apart. But when it’s a mental illness, the tribe can be merciless. Director Thor Freudenthal (DIARY OF A WIMPY KID, 2010) takes on Julia Walton’s 2017 novel, with a screenplay from Nick Naveda. The film features two rising young stars and addresses some of the challenges brought on by the uncertainties associated with a mental illness.

Charlie Plummer (so terrific in LEAN ON PETE, 2018) stars as Adam, a high school senior who has dealt with the challenges of undiagnosed mental health issues since he was quite young. His father abandoned the family years ago, and Adam’s devoted mother (Molly Parker, “House of Cards”) is not only patient and loving, but also committed to researching any possible treatment that would lead Adam to a better life. On the other hand, Adam and his mother’s new live-in lover Paul (Walton Goggins) don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on things, leading to more anxiety for Adam.

In an interesting and unique approach, director Freudenthal allows us to not only hear the voices Adam hears, but also see the hallucinations and visions he sees – three of whom are Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb, THE WAY WAY BACK), a sweet, hippie-ish optimist; The Bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian), a cigar-chomping, bat swinging he-man; and Joaquin (Devon Bostick), an inappropriately horny ‘best friend from a 90’s move.” On top of that, there is a black mist that periodically manifests, enveloping Adam and bringing on crippling fear and isolation. After a years-long stream of drug therapy, Adam is pronounced “treatment resistant” and diagnosed as schizophrenic. Adam’s only mind-calming escape is when he’s cooking. He knows his way around the kitchen and his goal is to attend Culinary School after graduation.

One day, Adam has a psychotic break during Chemistry class. He gets expelled, which jeopardizes his Culinary School dream. His mother gets him admitted to a Catholic School run by Sister Catherine (Beth Grant) at the same time he is accepted into an experimental drug trial. He’s allowed to stay in school as long as he takes his meds and maintains his grades. It’s here where he meets the dynamic Maya (Taylor Russell, WAVES, 2019). Maya is smart and ambitious and proud, and the two quickly form a bond – an interesting bond between two smart high school kids carrying their own burdens and holding their own secrets.

Sister Catherine is balancing the specific needs of Adam with her responsibility to the school, and then there is also prom and graduation to deal with. With the new drug, the voices and visions disappear, but Adam has some issues with the side effects. A desperate plea for help from Father Patrick (Andy Garcia), the school priest, provides a boost as Adam tells him, “It’s nice to be listened to and not just observed.” That line provides significant insight into what it’s like to have this affliction, and that’s really where the movie excels … putting us in the shoes of a schizophrenic and allowing us to experience the good and bad moments. What can Adam trust? His eyes? His ears? His mind?

Adam and Maya are both trying to figure out who they are, at the same time learning what it really means to love someone. Adam refers to his illness as his “burgeoning insanity”, and in fact, schizophrenia does have a history of accelerating over time once it strikes a young person. The movie succeeds in taking away some of the mystique of mental illness, by making it approachable and something we want to better understand. There is a visual reference to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” that might be a bit too “nail on the head”, but Freudenthal’s movie is profound and features two very talented young actors. The humanity beneath the surface of those society would rather pretend don’t exist is effectively compared to those stricken with cancer … those we would do anything for. I watched this film back-to-back with another teen-drama-romance new release entitled CHEMICAL HEARTS, and it’s extremely rare to find two such thought-provoking films centered on a pair of high school students … but quite a treat (although I believe all 4 actors are long past high school age).

Being released on August 21, 2020 in THEATERS ONLY

watch the (entirely too long) trailer:


LEAN ON PETE (2018)

April 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Andrew Haigh’s follow-up to his gut-wrenching 45 YEARS (2015) is “a boy and a horse” movie that is every bit as emotionally draining, and secures his spot as one of the best filmmakers at bringing characters we thoroughly believe to the screen. It’s based on the novel by Willy Vlautin and could be described as coming-of-age, slice-of-life, or even a road movie. While it’s each of these, it is also much more … though I fear it is one of this year’s indie gems that will likely slide between the cracks with far too few taking the time to experience it.

Charlie Plummer was most recently seen in ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD as Getty’s kidnapped grandson. Here he stars as Charley, a 15 year old boy living a half-step from poverty with his caring, but unprepared single dad (Travis Fimmel). Charley goes for morning runs around town, and his polite mannerisms include effusive praising and expressing gratitude to his dad’s mistress (Amy Seimitz) for cooking a full breakfast – a rare treat for this growing teenager. Charley stumbles into part time work with has-been horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi), a man whose career, health and demeanor have all seen better days. Horse trainer in this context is far removed from the glamour of the Kentucky Derby. Del works his horses hard for meager winnings on the county fair circuit, and when their time is up, the horses are shipped to Mexico for ‘processing’.

Charley and Del form a bond based on Del’s cheapness and Charley’s work ethic and love of the horses. When tragedy strikes, the movie shifts to a road trip vibe, with Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) joining on as a jockey. The three are a quasi-family but mostly they are each just trying to get along in a life that isn’t always kind. When Charley ignores Bonnie’s advice to not get too attached to the horses, he and the titular Pete are soon trudging across the backcountry.

Charley’s life on the streets provides many life lessons, but not much joy. He crosses paths with an initially friendly addict named Silver (Steve Zahn), and along the trip, his childhood memories provide some hope – especially as related to Aunt Margy (Alison Elliott). These all feel like real folks that we could meet at any time. Some are helpful, yet the biggest life lesson of all comes roaring through these mostly quiet scenes – people care most about themselves.

This most certainly isn’t a Disney-style horse movie like DREAMER, and in fact, it’s much less a horse story than it is Charley’s story. The core message seems to be that no matter how gentle one’s soul, human nature adapts in times of desperation. It’s pure cinematic pleasure to have both Mr. Buscemi and Ms. Sevigny in the same film, but the shining light here is Charlie Plummer. With little dialogue, he conveys so much about what he is thinking and feeling. His desire is to have some stability – someone or something that he can depend on. It’s the security many of us take for granted. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jonck (A WAR, 2015) beautifully captures the endless Pacific Northwest landscapes, while also managing the intimate and thoughtful moments. Mr. Haigh’s two most recent films add him to my must-see list … I just wish there were more who would find pleasure in his displays of lack of joy.

watch the trailer:


THE DINNER (2017)

May 4, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Oscar nominated writer/director Oren Moverman (The Messenger, 2009) takes the source novel from Herman Koch and turns it into a checklist of items and people to detest. Rather than a cynical look at humanity, we endure a shrill commentary on white privilege, entitlement, misguided parenting, social media for millennials, and mental illness. If somehow the world and local news doesn’t feature quite enough ugliness for you, then Mr. Moverman’s movie should fill the gap – making Roman Polanski’s Carnage (2011) look like a light-hearted comedy by comparison. It’s definitely no Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or even My Dinner with Andre.

Dinner for four at an over-the-top ostentatious restaurant is the setting, and aggravation is the sauce for each course – labeled on screen for our convenience as Aperitif, Appetizer, Main course, Cheese, Dessert, and Digestif. Richard Gere is Congressman Stan Lohman, a candidate for Governor and a slick politician in the midst of a battle to get the necessary votes for approval on his sponsored bill. He is joined by his second (yes it matters) and much younger wife Katelynn, played by Rebecca Hall. Rounding out the foursome is Stan’s estranged (and strange) brother Paul (Steve Coogan) and Paul’s wife Claire (Laura Linney), who is every bit as off-center as her husband.

These four have no real interest in sharing dinner time conversation, but the horrific actions of their teenage sons have brought them together for a strategy session. Michael (Charlie Plummer) is Paul and Claire’s son, while Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is Stan’s son with first wife Chole Sevigny. Video of their despicable and unforgivable act has been posted on YouTube, and now the four “adults” are convening to decide the best step for these “good kids” who just need help getting back on track. At least that’s what Claire would have us believe. In fact, if satire exists at all in this script, it surely would be in the fact that the politician is the only one to exhibit any semblance of moral fortitude in this situation. We even hear the incident described as “an unfortunate chain of events” … further emphasizing the film’s theme that EVERYTHING is political these days.

The film itself is often too-congested and convoluted. The flashbacks are messy and unnecessary, and the dialogue ill-timed and seemingly written for shock value rather than with situational purpose. No one does droll like Steve Coogan, yet his character spends the film sermonizing (with his running narration of a Gettysburg analogy) and showing no signs of humanity. The big reveal with his character is borderline shameless and insulting. Somehow we are left to ponder who shows the worst judgment – the teenagers or the adults. Evidently we are supposed to feel the moral outrage that all of society is now driven by politics, and in politics, “someone always gets hurt”. Personally, if I have outrage, it is directed at a manipulative film that stole valuable time from me.

watch the trailer: