Film Threat (August 2019): Evergreen, Fearing Future, Greenfield, and Label Me

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

Image courtesy of The Daffy.

Evergreen

*** ½ (out of 4)

In most movies, a remote mountain facility is a place where something scary or violent happens. The Overlook Hotel drove Jack Nicholson murderously mad in The Shining. At Minnie’s Haberdashery, the men in The Hateful Eight shot each other to death. The Swiss asylum in A Cure for Wellness was the site of ghastly medical experiments. And so on.

In Joe Duca’s Evergreen, by contrast, a mountain cabin provides the setting for a simple – yet deeply impactful – relationship drama. When the film opens, a young, unmarried couple named Paul (Tanner Kalina) and Gena (Amanda Maddox) are en route to Colorado’s Western Slope, where they plan to spend Christmas together on a large ranch.

It soon becomes apparent, however, that Paul and Gena’s relationship is in for trouble. Paul, we’re told, is a practicing Catholic who doesn’t like premarital sex. Gena, on the other hand, has no such qualms – and on this particular trip, she’s really hoping that they’ll get physically intimate.

On the first night, this disagreement about sex leads to a frustrating, almost-but-not-quite-sexual encounter. And during the arguments that consequently ensue, we gradually learn that Paul and Gena both carry emotional baggage from previous relationships. Paul is still getting over his past marriage to a woman named Cassie (Olivia Grace Applegate). Meanwhile, Gena hasn’t completely moved on from an affair she had with a married man named Dylan (David Bianchi).

Some aspects of Paul and Gena’s relationship might leave you somewhat incredulous. For instance, the two of them have been together for well over a year, and they’re close enough that Paul wants to propose to Gena. Yet the film makes it seem like this Christmas vacation is the first time they’ve had a frank and wide-ranging discussion about anything significant, be it their sexual needs, their exes, or their views on religion and romance.

Even if its logic proves a bit faulty, however, Evergreen ably captures one important idea: relationships are messy. Far from being completely happy or completely at odds, Paul and Gena repeatedly oscillate between affection and combativeness. A scene where Paul questions Gena’s commitment is followed by one in which they get high and dance in front of a fireplace together. Later, a humorous conversation about dreams abruptly morphs into a heated discussion about Dylan. 

In depicting these up and downs, Evergreen not only avoids the cheesy and definitive resolutions you often see in romance movies, but it also becomes quite poignant. We realize that both Paul and Gena want their relationship to work. Tragically, however, they both have memories of past relationships that they simply can’t wish away. And no matter how many times they say they love each other, neither of them can overcome insecurities about whether the other person is truly committed.

None of this exactly makes Evergreen an uplifting or pleasant watch. But like Before Midnight, the film does us a service by refusing to shy from hard truths about relationships. It’s ultimately a moving testament to love’s simultaneous preciousness and fragility – and, thanks to Kalina’s and Maddox’s acting, a spellbinding experience from start to finish.

Image courtesy of Bunker In.

Fearing Future

* (out of 4)

If you made a list of common stereotypes about struggling writers, Leo (Facundo Cardosi), the protagonist of Ignacio Sesma’s Fearing Future, would probably fit every one of them. Is he poor and desperately looking for more work? Check. Does he suffer from an apparently insurmountable form of writer’s block? Check. Is his personal life a complete mess? Check. Does he regularly turn to drugs and prostitutes to escape the misery of daily life? Check.

As if all of that weren’t cliché enough, however, the premise of the film’s narrative is that Leo falls in love with Jazmín (Ailín Salas), a young female student in one of his writing classes. As you might expect, Jazmín is good-looking, talented at writing, and very eager to learn. Just as predictably, moreover, her admiration for Leo runs quite deep. At one point, she notes that she signed up for his class because she had read and loved his books.

Admittedly, Sesma seems to realize that his narrative brims with clichés – and in certain respects, he does try to counteract that. To make everything seem more “true to life,” for instance, he shoots the entire film with a shaky handheld camera, frequently relies on long takes, and uses no background music whatsoever.

It’s also worth noting that Fearing Future sometimes upends narrative conventions. Salas could have turned Jazmín into a wide-eyed ingénue, but she instead portrays her as confident and emotionally mature. Moreover, Leo doesn’t act on his feelings for Jazmín for most of the film. At one point, when he claims that it’d be inappropriate to do so, the film almost feels subversive, as though it were playing with our expectation that the two of them are going to quickly get together and have a torrid sexual affair.

Ultimately, however, none of these techniques or subversions make up for Sesma’s disinterest in character development. After introducing Leo as a stereotypically failed writer, the film makes next to no effort to add nuance to this portrayal. Most of the scenes in the film only serve to emphasize how miserable Leo’s life is, and as a consequence, they merely reinforce the notion that he’s just a stereotypically failed writer.

Perhaps the worst part of Fearing Future is its treatment of Jazmín. We never learn anything about her background or her motivations for pursuing Leo. And as a result, she comes off as an auxiliary character, someone whose only reason for existing is to make Leo feel better about himself. Films about relationships between young women and older men are often implicitly sexist – and in totally failing to develop Jazmín, Fearing Future proves that it’s no exception to that rule.

Image courtesy of Tino Films.

Greenfield

* ½ (out of 4)

Many films have offered powerful explanations for why homophobia is bad. By contrast, Julius Telmer and Jevgeni Jevsikov’s Greenfield provides one so illogical that it’s occasionally difficult to take the film seriously. In telling the story of James (Ethan Tomas) and Kelley (Marthe Snorresdotter Rovik), two residents of the titular fictional town in rural Australia, Greenfield ultimately suggests that homophobia’s primary victims are straight people who’d otherwise be able to live happily.

When the film opens, Kelley has just returned to Greenfield after spending several years abroad. At a welcome-home party, she meets James, an old flame who expressly came back to Greenfield to see her. The two of them hit it off immediately – and to the jealousy of Alex (Renato Fabretti), a friend of Kelley’s, they enter into a relationship.

As part of his attempts to reinsert himself into Kelley’s life, James befriends her younger brother Michael (Liam Graham), a social outcast who’s regularly picked on by others for his wimpy appearance. The two of them establish a decent rapport – and at one point, when a man named Jason (Daniel Tenni) tries to bully Michael, James punches Jason in the face.

Ultimately, however, James’ efforts to befriend Michael have consequences that James never could’ve foreseen. One day, when James visits Michael at work, Michael tries to kiss him on the lips. While James immediately rebuffs Michael’s advances, their kiss is photographed by Jason, who happens to be nearby. Jason sends the photo to Alex, who’s only too happy to share it with his friends, Kelley, and her father (Kym Bidstrup).

Since it’s only through this “photo incident” that you learn that Michael is a closeted gay, you find yourself wanting to learn more about him. How does he understand his own sexuality? What exactly are his feelings towards James? How does he feel when he’s bullied by others? Shortly following the photo incident, a drunken Jason brutally rapes Michael, and these questions only become more urgent.

Frustratingly, however, Telmer and Jevsikov end up taking Greenfield in a completely different direction. Instead of examining Michael, the rest of the film largely focuses on James. It shows us how everyone starts to think that James is a “faggot,” and we see how this prejudice drives a wedge between him and Kelley.

To put all of this another way: Greenfield painstakingly illustrates how homophobia ruins James’ life. At the same time, however, it displays comparatively little interest in how homophobia affects Michael. By definition, homophobia’s main victims are gay people – but in spite of this, Greenfield perversely makes a gay man’s experience with homophobia seem less significant than a straight man’s.

I don’t mean to suggest that Greenfield is completely bad. The film ably captures the cultural divide between urban and rural areas, and it also does a good job of illustrating the machoness of rural culture. Yet when it comes to homophobia, the narrative’s main antagonistic force, Greenfield adopts a maddeningly misguided approach. Telmer and Jevsikov were probably well-intentioned, but if you’re like me, you’ll likely find their film an insult to the LGBT experience.

Image courtesy of Outfest Los Angeles.

Label Me

** ½ (out of 4)

One of the most influential German films ever made is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which depicts a taboo-breaking sexual relationship between a German woman and an Arab man. In what you could call an attempt at channeling Fassbinder, Label Me, the second film from German filmmaker Kai Kreuser, depicts the illicit sexual relationship between a rich German man named Lars (Nikolaus Benda) and a Syrian refugee-hustler named Waseem (Renato Schuch).

The film opens when Lars pays Waseem to have a one-night stand in Lars’ apartment. It doesn’t exactly go great: Waseem sets the mood when he curtly tells Lars, “You cum, I get my money, I leave.” But in spite of this inauspicious initial encounter, Lars decides to make Waseem his regular hookup buddy – and through the questions he frequently asks about Waseem’s personal life, he hints that he’d like Waseem to become a romantic partner as well.

Throughout the film, however, Waseem reacts to Lars’ advances with a mixture of reluctance and anger. Insisting that he’s not a “faggot,” Waseem refuses to open up to Lars: at one point, Lars has to pay Waseem 20 euros just to learn where Waseem is from. Furthermore, when the two of them hook up, Waseem insists that they follow rules – for instance, no kissing – that allow him to maintain the illusion that he’s straight.

Waseem’s internalized homophobia might seem illogical. But as Kreuser persuasively shows us, it’s simply a product of the macho culture in which Waseem was brought up. To give us a sense of just how homophobic Arab culture can be, Kreuser spends parts of the film depicting life at Waseem’s refugee shelter, where guys who are suspected of being gay are bullied and ruthlessly beaten up.

If you exclude this look at Waseem’s homophobia, however, Kreuser doesn’t make much of an effort to develop his characters. For instance, whereas the film thoroughly probes Waseem’s conflicted feelings about Lars and homosexuality, it doesn’t take a similar interest in Lars. We don’t get insight into what he sees in Waseem, what kind of relationship he has with his own sexuality, or what kinds of prejudice he encounters as a gay German.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Label Me is its indifference to current sociopolitical realities. Although refugees have been a salient issue in Germany for years, Label Me has surprisingly little curiosity about Waseem’s life as a Syrian asylum seeker. We learn nothing about how he has or hasn’t adjusted to German culture. We don’t learn how he’s been affected by Germany’s rather complicated asylum application process. And with just a few exceptions, we learn little about how he’s been treated and received by the German community near his refugee shelter.

Still, even if it doesn’t go nearly as far as you’d hope, Label Me gets two crucial things right. In Schuch and Benda, Kreuser has found a perfect pairing, two performers who can pack worlds of emotional nuance into something as simple as a stare or a grimace. With actors as dedicated and mesmerizing as these, you almost find yourself forgetting how much Kreuser stints on character development.