Unexpected (2015)

Another filmmaker working in the same vein of improv and talky comedy-drama as Lynn Shelton and the “mumblecore” scene is Kris Rey (née Williams), credited at the time of this, her third film, as Kris Swanberg, given she was married at that time to Joe. I think it’s fair to say she has her own sensibilities, of course, which find good expression in this solidly-wrought and well-acted small ensemble piece.


I wonder if maybe the title is a joke, because really there’s nothing particularly surprising that happens here, but maybe I’m just becoming used to Cobie Smulders appearing in this kind of low-stakes gently-twee American indie/improv film (she was in Andrew Bujalski’s Results the same year, as well). That said, focusing on a pregnancy isn’t all that common a theme — outside jokey Knocked Up-type films about loser dads — and everyone does a good job. Smulders is a teacher, while Anders Holm has another of those smugly infuriating nice guy roles as her husband (he had a similar role in The Intern, again made the same year). The film loops in class concerns by having a parallel story of one of her black school students (Gail Bean) who’s in the same situation, though without Smulders’ race- and class-based privileges that she is entirely unaware of, and that’s really what the film is interested in exploring. It may not be challenging, but it’s sweet and pleasantly undemonstrative and after some of her former-partner’s works that can definitely be a very good thing.

Unexpected film posterCREDITS
Director Kris Rey [as Kris Swanberg]; Writers Megan Mercier and Rey; Cinematographer Dagmar Weaver-Madsen; Starring Cobie Smulders, Gail Bean, Anders Holm, Elizabeth McGovern; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 15 September 2016.

Outside In (2017)

I was unsure how to follow a week of American films directed by women, but the unexpected news of the death of director Lynn Shelton was on my thoughts this weekend. I’ve reviewed two of her films here already, Touchy Feely (2013) and Laggies (2014, known as Say When in the UK), the latter of which I think may be my favourite. I’m not much of a writer of obituaries, and I wouldn’t really know where to begin with her life, though she was a long-time resident of the Pacific Northwest and made most of her films there, having started as an editor and done a little acting, such as in Nights and Weekends. She was inspired when she was almost 40 by hearing Claire Denis talk about her work, to start making her own films. She only had a decade and a half of that since her 2006 debut feature, during which time she worked in both cinema and on many acclaimed TV shows (titles like Mad Men, The Good Place, GLOW and the recent Little Fires Everywhere adaptation), and was, I think, really starting to flourish creatively. Her death is a sad loss to independent American cinema, and if you want to know more you could do worse than listening to the long-form interview on WTF Podcast. But as surely the best way to honour a director is to watch their films, I thought I would devote a week to that — not just her films (because I wouldn’t have enough reviews for a week), and not just the so-called “mumblecore” of the mid-2000s, but all the low-budget filmmaking since then (along with films by directors who came out of that), anything which shares a similar devotion to character and setting, and inevitably will touch on several more of Shelton’s films in the process.


This is another of Lynn Shelton’s wonderful, quiet little films about people dealing with heavy stuff in a low-key way. Like many such films, it features one of the Duplass brothers (Jay), here playing a guy called Chris, back in his small Pacific Northwest town after being released from a fairly significant stretch in prison. While there, he connects with his old teacher Carol (Edie Falco), who’d been campaigning on his behalf. There are naturally a few revelations about why he’d been in prison, but these come out rather by-the-by — there are some conflicts, but no huge melodramatic reveals, just a slow drip-feed of feelings that help us connect all these characters, and give a rounded sense of them dealing with various traumas, whether readjustment to civilian life, or a marriage breaking up, or just the sense of being in a small town with nothing much to do.

Outside In film posterCREDITS
Director Lynn Shelton; Writers Shelton and Jay Duplass; Cinematographer Nathan M. Miller; Starring Jay Duplass, Edie Falco, Kaitlyn Dever, Ben Schwartz; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 13 July 2018.

The Fits (2015)

This isn’t a new film (and it took a couple of years to make it to London), but I wanted to fit it into my week of American films directed by women, as I really liked it. You can rent it on BFI Player or YouTube, and it’s well worthwhile, a really strong atmosphere piece.


At a superficial level there are similarities with the previous year’s The Falling, but this film is very much its own thing, and a striking debut at that. It deals with young women, part of their high school’s dance team, having fits, but actually that’s only one element, sort of an allegorical rendering of what we already see in lead character Toni’s story (played by the incredibly named Royalty Hightower). It’s really a film about fitting in, though initially I had yet another reading of the title, as I assumed it was about people who were just particularly into fitness (the pre-credits sequence is Toni doing sit-ups, and there’s a lot of repetition of exercise throughout). Indeed I’d say that one of the strong threads in the film is the idea that you can become good at something through repetitive practice (Toni starts out as not very good at dancing), and if sport and dance are the only things we see these kids doing at school, there’s an implication there too about their life options perhaps. What hooks me most though, the acting aside, is the filmmaking vision. The framing is very precise and there’s a minimum of shot-reverse shot sequences (several scenes have characters showing Toni something while the camera just look at her watching). I think this director has great promise, but most of all this is a compelling film about school, in an already crowded field.

The Fits film posterCREDITS
Director Anna Rose Holmer; Writers Holmer, Saela Davis and Lisa Kjerulff; Cinematographer Paul Yee; Starring Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 24 February 2017.

Beach Rats (2017)

The reason for this week’s themed focus on American films directed by women is because the director of today’s film has a new one out on streaming in the UK at the end of the week, the abortion-themed drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always. This wasn’t her debut film, but it feels like some kind of breakthrough and got a fair bit of attention on the festival circuit. It’s a bleak gay story, as so many are, but with an artfulness helped by the cinematography of the great Hélène Louvart (who has shot Alice Rohrwacher’s films amongst others).


If I can be said to have a ‘type’ when it comes to movies, it’s probably the artfully distressed hazy focus-pulling indie intensity of this over the sun-dappled baroqueness of, say, Call Me by Your Name (the film I went to see just before this one) — but it’s not really fair to compare them, just because they both happen to have gay themes. In fact, this film seems to be more a film about everyone’s favourite post-millennial theme: toxic masculinity. It’s about a group of bros with short cropped hair and very well-defined abdominal musculature who aimlessly sit around and smoke weed. Our protagonist Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is dealing with some family drama, but seems to be sort of coasting, interested in men but also very much hiding it from those around him, performatively dressing himself up in hyper-masculine aggression and Instagrammable heteronormativity. I’m sort of over these kinds of stories (gay coming-of-age narratives) leading to bleak places, but in this kind of place, with these kinds of men, it all feels depressingly pre-ordained. Still, it grabs me as a real piece of filmmaking.

Beach Rats film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eliza Hittman; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 24 November 2017.

Honey Boy (2019)

The Israeli director who made Bombay Beach and LoveTrue — both of which I admired and both of which lurk uncomfortably somewhere between documentary and staged drama — gets an ostensibly fiction feature with this one written by its star Shia LeBeouf. However, it turns out to occupy a similar territory adjacent to Shia’s own lived experience, and tells a fairly traumatic story in an engaging and visually inventive way.


Shia LaBeouf is one of those actors I’ve always wanted to like — perhaps because some of the media excoriation of him has been so very ad hominem for so long — but finally this is a performance of his I can really get behind. He plays a fictionalised (only lightly, I gather) version of his own father in a screenplay he wrote and it very much puts him in the same territory that Joaquin Phoenix has been going over for years. It gets big and ugly at times, proper emotional turmoil, but it’s all underpinned by a deep vein of tenderness. That’s helped along significantly by Noah Jupe, who plays the younger version of himself, and very much holds his own in what is essentially a two-hander between the two actors (there are also some scenes with an older version of Shia, played by Lucas Hedges, but the dynamic between father and son remains similar). Director Alma Har’el has made a number of fine films in the past decade, which at least ostensibly have been documentaries, although these have always had a strong sense of performance at play — as if finding the characters at the heart of real people — so perhaps this step into fiction (but fiction based on reality) is a natural progression for her. In any case, she makes films with verve, humour and warmth, and that’s always evident.

Honey Boy film posterCREDITS
Director Alma Har’el עלמה הראל; Writer Shia LeBeouf; Cinematographer Natasha Braier; Starring Shia LeBeouf, Noah Jupe, Lucas Hedges, FKA Twigs; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 6 December 2019.

The Half of It (2020)

We used to talk about films sneaking out under the radar on streaming services (or on home video back in the day), but right now online is the only game in town, so the difference is whether you’re seeing it on subscription services like Netflix, or pay-to-play VOD, and Netflix can be a bigger platform than some cinemas (though as they never release their viewership, it’s difficult to be sure, aside from the vagaries of cultural impact). This is the case for the release of the new film from Alice Wu, or should I say the second film she’s been able to make in over 15 years, disappointing given how fundamentally solid her writing is. Anyway, it’s worth checking out.


This is a rather sweet film, and it’s a shame that it’s been 16 years since the last (and first) film by the same director, Saving Face (which I also very much enjoyed) — though I daren’t assume that the market for Asian-American-focused gay love stories has become any more viable in the intervening years. This one rather soft pedals the gay love story, focusing more on the relationship that develops between the jock, Paul (an appropriately lunkish Daniel Diemer), and the bookish Chinese-American girl, Ellie (Leah Lewis), who helps him write a love letter to his (far smarter) enamorata, Aster (Alexxis Lemire), the daughter of a Spanish pastor. Like a lot of high school-set quirky comedy-drama coming-of-age stories, it gets a magical/cutesy at times, pushing its characters at times beyond credulity, but it’s in the service of what is essentially a character-led film about three people trying to find their way in a deeply conformist little corner of America (a fictional town in, I think, New York state?). The three leads are all winning and likeable in their own ways, and the film never really gets dark, beyond a bit of love-based humiliation, when Paul wants to open up about his love (also an awkward scene in a church near the end). It’s an easy watch that may capitalise on the success of To All the Boys, but definitely goes in its own specific direction.

The Half of It film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Wu 伍思薇; Cinematographer Greta Zozula; Starring Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexxis Lemire; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 6 May 2020.

The Assistant (2019)

The biggest release of the past week in the UK has been this very minimal office drama, almost a chamber piece (it rarely moves outside of the office setting, aside from brief bookends of the darkened city streets), which engages with some of the dramas within the film industry in a frank way, while also making a strong point about casual misogyny ingrained in office culture, yet barely ever raising its voice, and a lot of that is down to Julia Garner’s performance (who until now has had more work on TV, as well as memorable supporting turns, such as in 2015’s Grandma).


This film is not quite what you expect when you read the précis, but if anything it’s more powerful for what it withholds as for what it shows — specifically, you barely ever actually see the Weinstein-like boss that our titular character works for. He is glimpsed, heard on the phone, read in subtly negging e-mails, and generally understood by everyone present to be the person being talked about when any talking happens about “him”. Of course it happens to be set in the world of film (and this one sure does have a lot of producers attached), but the non-specificity means it could be set in any office. It’s only as the film goes on that you start to pick up that he’s a film producer: the attractive women who always seem to be coming into the office; the tasteful poster art in the background; references to filming that become more pronounced as the story goes on, though the most we ever see of the actual art is a home-taped audition one of the women drops off (a woman who gets belittling comments once she’s gone, but, of course, she’s a good actor it turns out, not that anyone seems to care). What is effective (and affecting) is the way that it’s just the little microaggressions that build up, dismissive behaviour in the elevator, thrown bits of paper in the office, the expectation that she (of the three assistants, the other two are young men) will deal with “his” kids when they’re brought in, or will go fetch the food. As such, it requires a lot of discipline from Julia Garner as the lead actor — it’s very much her on whom the whole movie depends — and she does wonderfully well, and even the biggest setpiece (her confrontation with Matthew Macfadyen’s HR director) scarcely draws much more than a wounded look, as her defences are subtly but decisively battered down over a potential complaint she wants to make. This is in some ways a masterclass that shows how much you can achieve within a tight budget, evoking so much in its (long-)day-in-the-life portrait of this one woman.

The Assistant film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kitty Green; Cinematographer Michael Latham; Starring Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (Curzon Home Cinema streaming), London, Wednesday 6 May 2020.

Systemsprenger (System Crasher, 2019)

Another film that was at last year’s London Film Festival is this drama about a young girl (not yet 10 years old) who’s had a troubled upbringing and lashes out at everyone around her. It’s about the limits of empathy within bureaucratic systems, despite the best attempts of people within those systems.


This is a tough film in some ways — after all, its protagonist Benni (Bernadette, though she hates that name, played brilliantly by Helena Zengel) starts off being a deeply unpleasant young girl, lashing out at everyone around her and getting into fights easily. She’s first seen in a hospital, covered in bruises, being monitored by doctors. However, over the course of the film we come to, if not always tolerate her, at least understand something of how she has grown the way she has, and the filmmaking is engrossing, wrapping you up in her world and those of the (often patient, sometimes very much not) carers around her. It becomes a film as much about how society is shaped in ways that don’t tolerate or accept non-conformist attitudes, about how difficult it is to find the resources to deal with those who won’t conform, and how bureaucratic systems just aren’t designed to keep up with real people and their problems at times. Of course, Benni is trouble but nobody really has the time or energy to look after her the way she wants and so she finds herself lashing out, in ways that would get her killed if she were older — and may yet get her killed, in the troublesome future which awaits her, a future that her most patient carer (Micha, played by Albrecht Schuch) lays out clearly for her. I suspect we all know kids a bit like Benni (albeit hopefully not quite as out of control); it’s a thin line between just being vocally unhappy sometimes, and being treated as problem that needs to be locked away, and though people try to help, the institutions that support them only seem to be geared towards incarceration, which leaves our “system crasher” with so few options despite her age not even being in double digits.

System Crasher film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nora Fingscheidt; Cinematographer Yunus Roy Imer; Starring Helena Zengel, Albrecht Schuch, Gabriela Maria Schmeide; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Curzon Home Cinema streaming), London, Thursday 30 April 2020.

光 Hikari (Radiance, 2017)

Recalling my recent week devoted to films available on Amazon, I’m delighted to say that the recent Naomi Kawase film I’m covering today is now on that platform. She is a filmmaker who makes often rather gentle films, often about women, that have a sensory quality and a fundamental compassion, whether that of the old lady in Sweet Bean or the grieving family in Still the Water.


Director Naomi Kawase has always had a very particular way with her films, about translating texture, touch, taste and other sensory experiences through sound and image, so it makes sense that this film deals with Misako (Ayame Misaki), a woman who writes closed captions for visually-impaired filmgoers. She’s working on an apparently very subtle film by an older filmmaker about a man grappling with mortality (while also herself dealing with an ageing mother who seems to be slipping slowly away). Misako’s job is to relate the film-within-the-film’s themes to her focus group of blind audience members, but she’s having trouble finding the right balance of description and subjective editorialising. This seems to be particularly irksome for one of the group, a slightly older man (Masatoshi Nagase) who used to be a photographer but has now mostly lost his sight. The themes, then, are fairly clear, about seeing and not seeing, using the imagination to experience and move with the characters on screen, and so the film-within-a-film is more heard than seen, as we try to connect using the words to what the protagonist is going through, and this film too is equally oblique in some ways. There’s a romance of sorts between the two central characters, but I wouldn’t characterise the film itself as a romance, except perhaps that between two people and the physical world.

Radiance film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Naomi Kawase 河瀨直美; Cinematographer Arata Dodo 百々新; Starring Ayame Misaki 水崎綾女, Masatoshi Nagase 永瀬正敏; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 18 April 2020.

俳優・亀岡拓次 Haiyu Kameoka Takuji (The Actor, 2016)

Every year the Japan Foundation has a touring programme that takes over the ICA for a week or two, and then goes on the road around the country, with a (fairly random) selection of Japanese films, mostly recent but a few classics also. One of them this year was this 2018 family drama based on a series of children’s picture books, which has an appropriately engaging, childlike and colourfully comic sense of its subject.


There’s a lot of evident talent on show in this film, both behind and in front of the camera. It’s about this empty shell of a man, Takuji Kameoka (Ken Yasuda) — an actor of course (the actor of the title, named in the Japanese original) — who stumbles through his various minor film roles as thieves and heavies, often hungover from the previous night’s drinking. That’s a recurring theme, and the film is filled with recurring themes because partly it’s about a cycle of repetition in a life, and the way that a life spent being other people on film can lead to some strange blurring of the lines, as if he sometimes imagines his own life as an act, and how things might work out differently. Frequently the film moves seamlessly between what’s happening in the plot and the films-within-the-film that our actor Kameoka is in, or imagines, such that you’re never quite sure where the line is drawn. There’s a weird audition with a famous Spanish director that takes place on a soundstage and seems taken from some kind of filmed dream sequence, or the fight scene staged for a monosyllabic old timer which all seems to be going wrong except maybe it isn’t, and that’s somewhat how Tameoka lives his life. It definitely makes me wish the director had been able to make films more frequently than she has.

The Actor film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Satoko Yokohama 横浜聡子 (based on the novel by Akito Inui 戌井昭人); Cinematographer Yoichi Kamakari 鎌苅洋一; Starring Ken Yasuda 安田顕, Kumiko Aso 麻生久美子; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 5 February 2020.