Another recent filmmaking talent who straddles both American and British film cultures is Desiree Akhavan, who was born and brought up in the States, but lives in London. Her film work feels very US-centric, but she’s also made a British television show, The Bisexual, which like her films explores queer sexual identities.
I’ve been waiting a long time for a Chloë Grace Moretz film I could really get behind (she’s done some good work in some sub-par films), and this film goes some way further towards proving she’s an actor with range — here never better than when she’s just quietly observing. That said, the actor I want to see more work by is Forrest Goodluck, who plays one of the misfits at a Christian ‘gay conversion’ camp to which Moretz’s title character is sent following a rather telegraphed same-sex coming-of-age story. However, in a sense, everyone there is a misfit, and that does seem to be the point the film is working towards.
This is quite tonally different from director Desiree Akhavan’s first film Appropriate Behavior (2014), for though it has moments of levity, it’s mostly quite a quiet reflective film about traumatic events. I was expecting more anger, given the subject matter, but it’s set in the early-90s and so takes on a tone of, if not nostalgia, a sort of hazy ruefulness about past life events. It’s a film about trauma from the point-of-view of someone who has (presumably at great length) started to move past it.
Director Desiree Akhavan; Writers Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele (based on the novel by Emily M. Danforth); Cinematographer Ashley Connor; Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Ehle; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Sunday 9 September 2018.
I mentioned a certain psychosexual element to Josephine Decker’s earlier film Butter on the Latch, and that’s a quality which is decisively extended with this film. The setting is now entirely rural, at a small farm where Akin (improv indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg) has been hired for the summer to help out Jeremiah and his daughter Sarah (Sophie Traub) with their work herding and milking the cows. Akin seems fairly straightforward — he’s a quiet man, married with a child, though he has been trying to hide this fact — but it’s Sarah who’s at the heart of the piece. She’s a complex character, at once ingenuous and manipulative, who apparently fits into a certain bucolic ideal of untainted femininity, but who has a much more earthy connection to nature and, more particularly, to her sexual desires. So naturally things get complicated when Akin arrives. Once again Decker’s filmic style has an elusive, oneiric and even spiritual quality, poetic in its use of out-of-focus shots and off-centre framings, but no mere pastiche of, say, Terrence Malick (go search out Ain’t Them Bodies Saints if that’s what you’re looking for). This all renders the latter part of the film a sort of nightmarish phantasmagoria, or perhaps it’s just a descent into familiar generic tropes, but I don’t think the film is quite that straightforward. It may even be a stronger work than Latch, because it’s in some ways even more challenging — if not necessarily at a formal level, certainly to the idea of male patriarchal violence that is encoded into its setting and which seems to dictate its denouement. Whatever one’s opinion, though, Decker is certainly a filmmaker to watch (which is another way of saying, I need to go back and see this film again).
Director/Writer Josephine Decker; Cinematographer Ashley Connor; Starring Sophie Traub, Joe Swanberg; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 1 August 2015.
I’ve spent my year watching female written/directed films at the cinema, and one of the things that’s becoming most clear is that women’s voices are not well represented via traditional modes of distribution (get an official release slot, arrange exhibitors, organise marketing, posters, promos, et al.). Some of the best work, some of the strongest and most interesting work, can only be seen at festivals or via alternative modes of distribution, with one of the most prominent of these in recent years being the value-added practice of appending Q&A sessions to touring (or live-streamed) programmes of small, independent films. This is the way that US director Josephine Decker’s two recent features have been packaged for the UK, doing a tour of receptive cinemas during early-August.
Butter on the Latch, to be fair, is probably a hard sell. It focuses on a couple of New York women (Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence playing characters with their own first names) attending a musical camp/retreat out in the woods, and whose friendship is ultimately tested. But a recounting of the plot would only tell you so much, and would need to be hedged around with all kinds of qualifications, because the style of the film suggests something so much more volatile and evanescent. It has a sort of dreamlike fragmentary quality, leaning heavily on decentred close-up framings of women’s faces, often shot from behind, claustrophobic in its affect, and frequently out-of-focus. This disconnect feels of a piece with the emotional terrain, which I’d describe as being somewhat psychosexual — not perhaps to the extent of Decker’s follow-up film Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, but with strong hints at various dynamics at play between the two friends, as well as a man who is also attending the music camp. However, the febrile style seems to allow for all the possibilities to be in play simultaneously; indeed it would seem almost reductive to speak of events in the film at all except insofar as they reflect an underlying unease between the two women, in which the male character becomes almost fodder. There’s plenty of mystery underlying it all, and if the style can be challenging and even at times frustrating, it also holds things together with a really fascinating creative tension.
Director/Writer Josephine Decker; Cinematographer Ashley Connor; Starring Sarah Small, Isolde Chae-Lawrence; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 1 August 2015.