I liked Paul Weitz’s last film, Admission (2013), more than many people, perhaps because of its university setting (that’s where my day job is), but also because of its likeable protagonists. Yet I’d never have guessed the same person (responsible, lest we forget, for American Pie as well), might turn in something like Grandma. It’s just so unfussy and unpretentious, plus (surely unusual in the kind of political culture of the modern USA), it takes for its premise the unquestioned assumption that women have the right to want an abortion and be able to get one. It’s not as if the teenage character of Sage (an excellent Julia Garner, whose performance moves from teenage petulance to more sympathetic as the film progesses) is let off the hook for her decisions, just that it avoids the quirk (and moral compromise) of Juno. Still, whatever the excellent qualities of the script (and they should not be diminished, as a good script is the basis for all good films), it’s anchored by a fantastic performance from Lily Tomlin as Elle, an ageing lesbian academic and poet, who is irascible and cranky without ever being loveable exactly, but yet surely has the audience’s strongest sympathy in her response to the news from her granddaughter. It moves towards what you might expect is a group-hug heartwarming family moment, but never quite delivers on one’s worst fears in this regard. It’s a quiet champion of a film, and best of all, clocks in at under 80 minutes.
Director/Writer Paul Weitz; Cinematographer Tobias Datum; Starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 31 December 2015.
This film was presented at the London Film Festival. There was no introduction or Q&A.
It may be a co-production between many different countries, while the title may be a little unwieldy, but this Vietnamese film is a serious and stylish take on one, relatively poor, young woman’s life. The lead character is Huyen (Thuy Anh Nguyen), who lives in a little apartment by a railway line, just about making ends meet when she gets pregnant to her somewhat deadbeat boyfriend. Her resulting indecision about whether or how to get an abortion is partly what the title is alluding to, not to mention her boyfriend’s addiction to cockfighting that becomes one of the film’s key metaphors. Huyen’s repeated attempts to go through with the procedure never quite seem to work out for various reasons, and when she gets involved with sex work in order to pay her bills, her feelings alter subtly again when she meets up with a concerned client. One gets the sense at times that perhaps not all of this plotting is entirely believable if taken as naturalistic, but the film’s style pushes beyond that into a more dream-like world. The cinematography is beautiful and lush, though the film’s female first-time director never quite fetishises the poverty of the lead characters (as some other films are wont to do in this kind of setting). There’s a sense of eroticism throughout, as well, although this is sometimes resisted by Huyen as a character. The film ends on an unresolved note — an increasingly common practice these days I fell — but this works well within the narrative which the film has constructed. Definitely a filmmaker to keep an eye on, and a film well worth checking out.
Director/Writer Hoàng Điệp Nguyễn; Cinematographer Quang Minh Pham; Starring Thùy Anh Nguyễn; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Ritzy, London, Saturday 17 October 2015.
This film was presented at the London Film Festival, introduced by its director (with a small baby in tow) who stayed for a Q&A afterwards, which sadly I was not able to attend due to having another film across town.
I haven’t read many other reviews of this film as it’s quite recent, but I’m guessing a lot of them — including, oh hey, mine as well — are going to name-check Richard Linklater’s work, particularly Boyhood (because of its San Antonio, Texas setting), and they’re going to mention Juno (because of its teen pregnancy themes), but these are superficial reference points. If it has something of a thematic similarity to the latter, that’s pretty much where it ends, because Petting Zoo is very careful to avoid the writerly cliches and the self-conscious quirk of that style of film, preferring a far more naturalistic rendering of the world. The teens here talk like, well, like teens — with all the laconic self-absorption you’d expect, but also a healthy measure of unselfawareness. Layla (Devon Keller) is a good student, and has just received a scholarship to the University of Texas Austin, but has no real sense of direction or indeed much of a home life to speak of (her parents are only really around for one scene, enough for us to grasp why she might not want to live with them). As the film opens, she is hanging out with Danny, a guy her friends are quick to brand a loser when she just as quickly ditches him to move back in with her grandmother. So when she finds out she’s pregnant, it’s not obvious to her what she should do, especially when another guy, a much nicer one, shows up in her life. Acting awards tend to go to ostentatious displays of actorliness, but Keller does excellent, unshowy work at being sort of blank a lot of the time, which can be frustrating for an audience but is exactly right for where Layla is in life, and if there’s a sense of that life closing inexorably in (as so often there is in teen films, always heavy on the dystopia), it’s something the film never gives in to, though you worry at times that Layla might. For all its well-worn themes and situations, Micah Magee’s film nevertheless manages to find an interesting take on these turbulent life events.
Director/Writer Micah Magee; Cinematographer Armin Dierolf; Starring Devon Keller; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Ritzy, London, Friday 16 October 2015.
I’ve been on holiday in the United States for a few weeks and thus have not been seeing many films. However, thanks to the magic of cheap second-run cinemas (the wonderful Laurelhurst in currently-sunny Portland), I caught up with this comedy which is just being released in the UK. It’s been billed by various pundits as an “abortion romcom” although this is rather misleading and reductive, as the two aspects are fairly distinct. Abortion is hardly a laughing matter, nor is it treated as such; that the central character, Donna, a stand-up comedian, works it into a routine is more to do with her desperation and confusion at the way her life has been going. At the same time, the reality of abortion, and the importance of its availability, is not dodged either. It’s certainly something that could be an awkward blend for this kind of movie, but I think it’s all pulled off wonderfully, no little thanks to the excellent work of lead actor Jenny Slate, who had a single season as a cast member of Saturday Night Live before showing up in excellent smaller roles in TV comedies like Parks and Recreation (another training ground for many of the current generation’s finest comic actors). As Donna, she starts the film off on stage, joking about her relationship, which soon ends, leading a few nights later to some drunken sex with a cute, nice guy she meets at a bar, Max (played by Jake Lacy, who had a role in the last few seasons of The Office US series, and who has a similarly bland likeability here). The ensuing revelations are all handled well, with some low-key (and mostly self-inflicted) drama between Donna and her parents, as well as a series of awkward subsequent encounters with Max which are sympathetically handled, but not conclusively resolved. Quite apart from taking what remains a fairly hot-button issue (especially Stateside), this is a nuanced, well-made and very funny film that deserves every success, and is only more impressive for the sureness of its handling of the subject matter.
Director/Writer Gillian Robespierre (based on the short film by Anna Bean, Karen Maine and Robespierre); Cinematographer Chris Teague; Starring Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at Laurelhurst Theater, Portland, Oregon, Thursday 28 September 2014.