Film Threat (October 2019): Britt-Marie Was Here, Drive Me Home, Hamlet in the Golden Vale, Unlikely

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

Image courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

Britt-Marie Was Here

* (out of 4)

At first glance, Tuva Novotny’s Britt-Marie Was Here looks like a movie that you could get behind. Like the protagonist of the original book, after all, the film’s titular protagonist (Pernilla August) is a 63-year-old woman who’s been a housewife for the entirety of her adult life. To put it another way, she’s the kind of character who challenges the many isms – ageism, sexism, and so forth – that characterize most mainstream films.

Sadly, however, the stifling banality of Britt-Marie Was Here’s narrative quickly destroys whatever promise it initially seems to have. After her husband Kent (Peter Haber) suffers a heart attack, Britt-Marie discovers that he’s been having an affair. Out of anger and desperation, Britt-Marie leaves him and takes a job: coaching soccer at a youth center in a run-down rural town called Borg.

From this point on, the film’s plot neatly fits into the cliché “narrative arcs” that they teach you about in writing 101 classes. Britt-Marie and the youth center kids initially don’t get along, but – in a change that nobody saw coming – they eventually come to love one another. While coaching the kids, moreover, Britt-Marie meets a charming divorcé (Anders Mossling) with whom (lo and behold) she falls in love. And by the film’s end, Britt-Marie has turned from a passive housewife into a determined individualist, a total transformation whose inevitability makes a film like A Star Is Born look novel and unpredictable.

It doesn’t help, either, that Britt-Marie Was Here also has a problematic view of race relations. Most of the kids whom Britt-Marie coaches are children of Middle Eastern immigrants. But while you might be tempted to praise the film for rejecting stereotypes about Sweden’s “whiteness,” its portrayal of non-white characters turns out to be quite condescending. Novotny exoticizes the children, depicting them as figures whose untamed “energy” and “life” benefit “civilized” white people like Britt-Marie.

In some ways, in fact, the problems with Britt-Marie Was Here will remind you of Green Book. Just as the latter didn’t take much of an interest in its black characters, Novotny’s film doesn’t care about its non-white characters as individuals in their own right. Instead, it develops them only insofar as they help its white protagonist discover her “true self.” In this sense, Britt-Marie Was Here treats its non-white characters as mere means to an end, as though their own stories, struggles, and individuality mattered less than those of a white person. 

There are many other things I could say about Britt-Marie Was Here. Its portrayal of Britt-Marie sometimes feels condescending, several of its plot turns make no sense, and its visuals add nothing that wasn’t already there in the original book. But since it’d take too long to enumerate all of the film’s problems, I’ll just note that my personal reaction to this film appreciably differed from how I usually react to bad films. For me, bad films normally leave me feeling either angry or disappointed. This one, however, simply left me flabbergasted – aghast, in short, at the notion that someone thought that making this film was a good idea.

Image courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures.

Drive Me Home

** (out of 4)

As the stereotype goes, the job of a film critic is to determine whether a film is “good” or “bad.” In reality, however, there are many films that don’t fit into this simplistic binary. More to the point, there are a lot of films that could be described as “forgettably satisfactory” – perfectly adequate filmmaking, in other words, that nevertheless leaves no kind of lasting impression.

Simone Catania’s Drive Me Home offers a pretty good illustration of what this kind of filmmaking can look like in practice. The film’s protagonists are two 30-something men from Sicily, Antonio (Vinicio Marchioni) and Agostino (Marco D’Amore), who haven’t spoken since they were teenagers. At the film’s start, Antonio tracks down Agostino, now a truck driver, and embarks on a road trip with him across continental Europe.

Gradually, it becomes clear that Antonio and Agostino are more than just “old friends.” It turns out that the two of them had a torrid sexual affair when they were adolescents. After Agostino confessed everything to his homophobic father, however, the two boys were split up. To avoid his family’s wrath, Agostino ran away to Belgium, while Antonio ended up spending several years in London.

Its interest in LGBT-related themes aside, Drive Me Home also turns Antonio and Agostino’s relationship into an allegory about globalization. Catania associates the initial frostiness between Antonio and Agostino with a hyper-modernized and urbanized society in which people lack any concrete sense of purpose or identity. Antonio and Agostino’s more intimate moments, meanwhile, are associated with Sicily, which is depicted as a remote rural paradise where human connection is prized over economic and technological progress.

It would be unfair to say that Drive Me Home is a “bad” film. In the moment, it largely makes for a pleasant watch, and even though it hews to many tropes of the road trip genre, it has enough narrative twists that it’s never completely predictable. Moreover, Catania deserves some kind of praise for his interest in issues like globalization and sexuality, and his interest is sincere enough that it eventually might leave you somewhat touched.

Ultimately, however, this is a film that you’ll forget about almost instantly. And the main reason why is that the film often feels rather glib. For all his earnestness, Catania frequently falls back on what you could call “arthouse film clichés” – masculine men who can’t express emotions, impersonal urban zones with overcast skies, and so on. Far from interrogating or fleshing out these clichés, Catania accepts them at face value, and even as you appreciate his sincerity, you’ll likely find his direction to be somewhat obvious.

Normally, I’d say something here about how the actors “redeem” or “save” the film. But in this case, that doesn’t quite hold true. Marchioni and D’Amore press all the right buttons, to be sure: they act emotionally repressed for most of the film, launch into angry monologues when the narrative demands it, and eventually reveal vulnerability during their characters’ final reconciliation. But there’s nothing in their acting that surprises you. Their performances are correct but uninspired – a description that could just as easily apply to Drive Me Home as a whole.

Image courtesy of Roll The Bones Theatre Company.

Hamlet in the Golden Vale

** ½ (out of 4)

As one of the most influential works of literature of all time, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet has naturally given rise to many different kinds of film adaptations. Some, like Laurence Olivier’s Oscar-winning adaptation, remained faithful to the original play’s monarchical setting. By contrast, Michael Almereyda’s 2000 adaptation “updated” Shakespeare, turning Hamlet into a film student who lives in modern-day New York City.

In terms of its setting and setup, Dan Hasse and Taylor Myers’ Hamlet in the Golden Vale falls somewhere in between these two extremes. The film’s premise is that eight actors move in to an abandoned Irish castle. Over the course of the following days, they re-enact Hamlet, making the abandoned castle serve as Elsinore and omitting the subplot involving Fortinbras.   

For the most part, the film immerses itself in the actors’ worldview and plays as a straightforward adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. Notably, however, the film occasionally inserts “off-camera” shots of the actors doing out-of-character things – like eating dinner with a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood T-shirt, going on a morning jog, or slouching on a couch.

There are undeniably a lot of good things about this new adaptation of Hamlet. Initially, to be sure, an abandoned castle might seem like an odd place to set a story about an active monarchical state. But with its visible signs of deterioration and dark, winding corridors, the abandoned castle lends an eerie, decadent feel to the action, emphasizing just how rotten everything is in the state of Denmark.

The setting aside, the film’s acting also has much to recommend it. Some of his lines fall a bit flat, but Myers brings a welcome verve and fanaticism to the role of Hamlet. Personally, moreover, I also appreciated Jonathan Hopkins’ turn as Polonius: the unctuousness of Hopkins’ performance skillfully brings out the play’s interest in the contrast between appearances and reality.

All this said, however, two things ultimately temper my enthusiasm for Hamlet in the Golden Vale. To start, it’s never quite clear why Hasse and Myers insist on inserting “off-camera” shots of the actors being out of character. Conceivably, you could argue that they’re trying to provide some kind of meta commentary on the relationship between acting and reality. But however interesting they are, these ideas are never developed. To put it another way, these out-of-character shots are too frequent to not be noticed – but they’re also too rare to give us any clear sense as to their purpose or significance.

The bigger problem with Hamlet in the Golden Vale, meanwhile, is that – for lack of a better descriptor – it’s not particularly cinematic. Hasse and Myers don’t take advantage of all the unique visual possibilities that the camera offers. Instead, the majority of the shots in the film are simply medium close-ups or actual close-ups of characters’ faces.

Any filmic adaptation of a play is bound to feature a fair number of close-ups. Yet watching Hamlet in the Golden Vale made me think of Shakespeare adaptations (e.g. Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight) that harnessed cinematography and other aspects of film form to avoid an excessive reliance on this one kind of shot. Whereas such adaptations were films first and plays second, Hamlet in the Golden Vale is conversely a play first and a film second – and that crucial difference is the main reason why the film ultimately disappoints.

Image courtesy of Three Frame Media.

Unlikely

* ½ (out of 4)

In the United States, critics of the college admissions process have often focused on its negative psychological and intellectual effects. Numerous bestselling books (e.g. Excellent Sheep) have argued that the college “rat race” has forced students to pay attention to things (test scores, grades, etc.) that don’t actually matter. The result? Unnecessary stress, mind-numbing materialism, and the forgoing of the chance to get a truly meaningful education.

In Unlikely, co-directors Adam and Jaye Fenderson draw attention to another, frequently overlooked consequence of the college admissions process: economic inequality. To put it simply, the film tracks five students who’re attending college in various cities across the United States, like Boston, Akron, and Atlanta. Along the way, the Fendersons supplement these personal stories with interviews of college presidents, politicians, and philanthropists like Lebron James and Howard Schultz.

The gist of the Fendersons’ argument is simple. These days, most colleges care more about their U.S. News ranking than anything else. However, U.S. News’ rankings use criteria (e.g. average SAT scores) that rich students usually do better on. As a result, America’s most “elite” colleges have incentives to admit as few low-income students as possible. These students consequently end up at colleges that have fewer resources to support them, thereby making it more likely that these students will end up in debt and drop out before graduation.

Compelling as this argument sounds, however, the way Unlikely presents it leaves something to be desired. To start, most of the Fendersons’ evidence consists of things that their subjects say in interviews. You never have reason to question the sincerity or conviction of the people on screen – but at times, it feels as though the film were basing its entire critique of American universities on merely anecdotal evidence.

Then there’s the cheesiness of the film’s ending. Eventually, all of the profiled students either complete or get into programs that help them graduate without excessive financial hardship. But while this is certainly good news, the film plays up its significance to an exasperating degree. With its cloying background music and repetitive shots of smiling or tearful college graduates, the last part of Unlikely makes it seem as though the profiled students’ good fortune were enough to miraculously cure American colleges of all their problems.

Finally, you might find yourself questioning the Fendersons’ underlying conception of what college is. The film presents college as a place whose sole objective is to give people the skills they need to survive in the job market. Nowhere is there any recognition of the possibility that college could be something greater – that, beyond equipping people for the workforce, colleges should also be a place for intellectual and spiritual growth.

You could argue that intellectual and spiritual growth are luxuries that only upper- and upper-middle-class families can afford. But leaving aside that statement’s somewhat elitist implications – certain people should have privileges that others don’t, then? – the Fendersons never even acknowledge that there are potential alternatives to their narrowly functional view of college. You don’t have to embrace opposing arguments, but you should at least acknowledge they exist – and in failing to do even that, Unlikely ultimately feels both superficial and intellectually dishonest.