Film Threat (June 2019): Cancer Rebellion, Chance Has No Empathy, Pause, and Southern Pride

(NOTE: These reviews were all initially written for another site. Here are links to the original reviews.)

Cancer Rebellion

*** ½ (out of 4)

Every year, approximately 70,000 American teenagers receive a cancer diagnosis. In his new documentary, Cancer Rebellion, filmmaker and leukemia survivor Hernan Barangan tries to put faces to that statistic. Generally speaking, the film is a compilation of interviews that he recorded during a yearlong, cross-country road trip, on which he met former and current teen cancer patients from all 50 states.

Overall, Barangan has two objectives in Cancer Rebellion. As mentioned, the first one is giving visibility to teen cancer patients – and in this, he definitely succeeds. For one, by featuring interviews with patients from all 50 states – whether they’re white or black, male or female, gay or straight – Cancer Rebellion naturally draws attention to cancer’s ubiquity. It inherently allows you to see, in other words, that cancer affects many more young people than you might expect.

In keeping with this idea of visibility, moreover, what specifically stands out about Cancer Rebellion’s interviewees is how ordinary they are. If you don’t know anyone who has cancer, it’s easy to see cancer as a distant problem that affects either movie characters (think The Fault in Our Stars) or abnormal people. But the teenagers we see in Cancer Rebellion are both unglamorous and commonplace: they want to go to prom, they like video games and sports, and so on. If you didn’t realize it before, you consequently leave Cancer Rebellion with the awareness that cancer affects people who are just like me and you.

Meanwhile, Barangan’s second objective is to depict what it’s like to have cancer. Over the course of the film, his interviewees discuss every aspect of life with cancer, including what it’s like to get the initial diagnosis; the process of chemotherapy; awkward topics, like the freezing of sperm and egg cells; and the constant fear of recurrence that accompanies the end of chemotherapy.

In the past, filmmakers have often exploited stories of life-threatening illnesses, distorting them for the sake of cheap sentimentalism or attention-grabbing sensationalism. One key reason why Cancer Rebellion feels nonexploitative, however, is the fact that Barangan includes his own story in the film. Although his main focus is the people he interviews, Barangan also turns parts of Cancer Rebellion into a sort of diary. We see that the stories of his interviewees affect him personally – and at one point, in a testament to the brittleness of his post-leukemia body, we watch as he’s forced to spend time in a hospital after coming down with a severe fever.

Ultimately, this self-reflexiveness has two meaningful consequences. First, Barangan’s presence in the film illustrates cancer’s lasting effects, demonstrating the physical and emotional burdens that patients carry even after they’re officially “cured.” More significantly, however, you could say that Barangan’s presence also “levels the playing field” between him and his on-screen subjects. Instead of approaching his subject matter as a removed, potentially exploitative outsider, Barangan is in some ways a part of the story he tells, and that lends the film an authenticity and empathy that a more conventional and melodramatic screen treatment would lack.

Cancer Rebellion certainly isn’t a perfect film. Its ending is a bit cheesy, and some parts of it feel tangential, like a scene in which Barangan tells a friend about driving from Fargo to Kansas City in a day. But in general, this is a well-made film that captures the complexity of life with cancer, depicting its good and bad aspects without being condescending or weepy. With luck, at least some teenage cancer patients will get the chance to see this film – and thereby realize that they’re anything but alone.

Chance Has No Empathy

½ (out of 4)

Gabriel Saint’s Chance Has No Empathy tells the story of Chance (Will Rothhaar), a visual artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. At the film’s start, Chance is afflicted with artist’s block. Desperately in need of “inspiration,” he ends up finding something of the sort in Charlie (Brooke Culbertson), a female student and part-time model who’s doing research for a thesis on sociopathy.

In recent films about artists and their muses, the artists were either control freaks (Phantom Thread) or megalomaniacs (mother!). In what you could call a continuation of this trend, Chance turns out to be a sociopath – namely, the kind of person who habitually stalks people, breaks in to their apartments, and kills them by stabbing them with scissors. Given that he subjects even his girlfriend (Michelle Roselle) to this sort of treatment, it’s only natural that Chance eventually decides to make Charlie a target of his sadistic tendencies.

As you could probably guess from this plot summary, Saint’s primary objective in Chance Has No Empathy is to portray the worldview of a serial killer. The film abounds with voice-over monologues in which Chance expounds on his artistic philosophy and the reasons for which he kills people. In his eyes, what he’s doing isn’t murder: rather, he’s simply relishing the thrill of “following someone who recognizes you.”

What makes Chance Has No Empathy hard to stomach, however, is that it seems to endorse the sadism it portrays. On the numerous occasions that Chance breaks in to Charlie’s apartment, for instance, the film doesn’t try to scrutinize or question the motives for his creepy, voyeuristic behavior. Rather, it indirectly reinforces it by turning his break-ins into fodder for suspense, equipping the scenes in question with pulsating music and male-gazey shots of Charlie in the shower.

Compounding the film’s problematic portrayal of Chance, moreover, is its simultaneous insistence on treating Charlie as a one-dimensional character. Aside from the fact that she is researching sociopathy and has a boyfriend, we learn next to nothing about Charlie. Throughout the film, in other words, she’s not so much a full-fledged human being as a pretty object through which we can learn more about Charlie’s misogyny and misanthropy. In creating such a character profile, in short, Saint treats Charlie with the same kind of dehumanizing disdain that she receives from Chance.

To clarify, I don’t mean to suggest here that movies should be moralizing or endorse a Sunday-school-esque, “murderers are definitely horrible people” conception of morality. As anyone who’s seen films like The Silence of the Lambs and The Godfather knows, after all, plenty of good movies refuse to abide by such clichés. Some of the best films out there, in fact, are ones that adopt an ambivalent or positive attitude towards killers.

The reason why films like The Silence of the Lambs and The Godfather “work,” however, is that they give their characters qualities – charm (Hannibal Lecter), a sense of honor (Vito Corleone) – that you wouldn’t expect to see in cold-blooded killers. By contrast, however, Chance always has an “evil aura” about him. Far from making him seem human, his voice-over monologues are really just deranged, self-aggrandizing rants that would’ve been right at home in something like the Unabomber manifesto. More generally, nothing about Chance’s behavior in the film suggests that he’s anything other than an antisocial, arrogant narcissist.

I normally close negative reviews by saying something about a film’s “redeeming aspects,”  which usually means something like its acting or aesthetics. In this case, you could say that Chance Has No Empathy has some of these features – for instance, Rothhaar does do a decent job in his role. Yet ultimately, these aspects of the film can’t save a fundamentally misguided narrative that takes pleasure in portraying hateful, objectifying behavior. For me, at the very least, that all made this a film that I still find repulsive to even think about.

Image courtesy of Film Republic.

Pause

*** (out of 4)

Tonia Mishiali’s Pause follows a middle-aged Cypriot woman, Elpida (Stella Fyrogeni), who has a decidedly miserable life. To start, Elpida’s husband Costas (Andreas Vasileiou) is a gruff, insensitive blue-collar worker who only talks to her when he wants to order her around. Far from being characterized by productivity, moreover, Elpida’s daily life epitomizes monotony: in contrast to Costas, she usually only leaves their apartment to go shopping or attend a weekly painting class. And if all this weren’t enough, Elpida also happens to be going through menopause.

Naturally, these unfortunate realities have collectively left Elpida feeling deeply frustrated. Over the course of Pause, she copes with them by creating revenge fantasies in her mind. When Costas watches TV, for instance, Elpida imagines taking a pair of scissors and using them to cut the power cord. And when he yells at her for eating too much, she imagines throwing her dinner plate into his face.

For much of the film, Mishiali makes it clear that these fantasies of Elpida’s are just that: fantasies. Instead of actually cutting power cords, Elpida meekly allows her husband to continue watching football – and instead of actually throwing plates, she absorbs her husband’s criticisms about food without a word. Eventually, however, Mishiali decides to make the narrative more ambiguous. I don’t want to get into spoilers, but suffice it to say that it becomes increasingly difficult to tell whether scenes represent Elpida’s fantasies or things that actually happen.

As you could probably guess by now, Pause is primarily interested in portraying the discrimination that women face in modern society. Part of the reason the film succeeds in this is the strength of Mishiali’s direction. Throughout the film, Mishiali is always able to “show” – not “tell” – how Elpida is feeling. The film’s reliance on long takes, for instance, elegantly conveys the rigid monotony of Elpida’s daily life. Similarly, the camera’s penchant for close-ups wordlessly emphasizes Elpida’s “trapped” feelings, suggesting that she feels oppressed and unable to change things in her life for the better.

Beyond its style, however, Pause deserves to be commended for how it portrays bigotry. In many films about prejudice – think last year’s Green Book – the antagonist (or antagonists) takes the form of an unabashed asshole, a jerk who repeatedly says hateful things and openly relishes in making the protagonists feel miserable and unloved. Watching these films, you get the (wrongheaded) impression that such “haters” are the only things standing between the status quo and a prejudice-free, completely equal society.

One example of how Pause breaks these conventions comes in a scene midway through the film. In this scene, Costas decides to sell Mishiali’s car, even though Mishiali specifically told him not to. When she complains to him about this, he argues that “We need money to live by,” and he goes on to state, “Only I know what it’s like to work hard under the sun all day so that my wife and daughter can have a good life!”

With this statement, Mishiali hints at the underlying causes of the misogyny that Elpida deals with on a daily basis. Cruel and hateful as he often is, Costas himself is really only part of the problem. As illustrated by his claim that “Only I know what it’s like to work hard under the sun,” in fact, the real problem lies in society – specifically, a society that lionizes the “hardworking male breadwinner” and simultaneously expects women to remain slavishly subservient. It’s not the easiest thing to see, but this awareness of prejudice’s deeper structural roots sets Pause apart from the simplistic, Oscar-baity films about prejudice that you typically get from Hollywood.

None of this is to say that Pause is perfect. Towards the end, the plot can get rather confusing, and some of Elpida’s fantasies feel a bit repetitive. But in general, Pause is a thoughtful, quietly provocative film that spotlights an individual whom most films relegate to the sidelines. And even if you find some parts of the film underwhelming or bewildering, Fyrogeni’s consistently absorbing performance more than makes up for their deficiencies.

Southern Pride

** ½ (out of 4)

In 2006, Canadian filmmaker Malcolm Ingram made Small Town Gay Bar, a documentary about two gay bars in, of all places, rural Mississippi. Flash forward 13 years, and Ingram has made a film that in some ways could be called Small Town Gay Bar’s follow-up. Filmed during the early days of the Trump administration, Southern Pride follows two gay bars in Mississippi that try to organize gay pride events in their respective communities. One of these bars, KlubXclusive, is a black gay bar that’s located in Hattiesburg. The other, Just Us, is a predominantly white bar that’s located in Biloxi, a coastal city that was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

On the whole, the best thing about Southern Pride is how it subverts the conventional understanding of the South. If you were just going by the news and the results of presidential elections, it’s tempting to think of the South as a uniformly and irrevocably conservative region. To put it another way, we tend to stereotype the South as the land of things like Roy Moore, laws against abortion, homophobia, and evangelical Christianity.

Like Small Town Gay Bar, Southern Pride upends this perception. The people who frequent Just Us and KlubXclusive are mostly liberal, and even the one Trump supporter we meet expresses support for LGBT rights. Moreover, as we see towards the film’s end, the bars’ pride events both attract large, supportive crowds, and the right-wing protesters who show up end up being completely outnumbered. The overall impression you get is that the South is a region with many small but resilient liberal communities, a depiction that serves as a powerful counternarrative to the so-called “Bible Belt.”

Ultimately, if there’s one thing about Southern Pride that disappoints, it’s the fact that it’s more interested in Just Us than KlubXclusive. This, despite the fact that the latter will probably capture your interest more than the former. As KlubXclusive’s owner frequently points out, KlubXclusive’s patrons belong to two minority categories (black and gay) – and at several points in the film, it’s hinted that their race causes them to be viewed and treated differently from Just Us’ white LGBT patrons. Yet instead of delving deeper into KlubXclusive’s story, the film devotes most of its runtime to Just Us, thereby sidelining the tricky but important issues of intersectionality that KlubXclusive raises.

This flaw aside, however, Southern Pride is on the whole a well-made documentary that serves as both a wake-up call and an inspiration. Regarding the former, it’s a timely reminder of the fragility of the gains that the LGBT rights movement made during the Obama era. And as for the latter, the film shows that in spite of today’s toxic political climate, there are people out there who aren’t afraid to express their identity and engage in vigorous activism. If it isn’t as thought-provoking as it could be, Southern Pride is at least a film that you’ll be glad you watched.