Reviews From Cinequest/Cinejoy 2022

by on April 11, 2022

One side of Boland’s twin performance.

Getting struck by lightning used to be seen as a sign of God’s disapproval of the struck person’s actions.  Yet the first time the viewer sees elderly grump Don Campbell (Peter Mullan, “My Name Is Joe”), he’s walking along a country road minding his own business when the bolt hits him.

That incident is the prelude to the comic short “Don v. Lightning,” directed by Big Red Button.  It raises the amusing question “What if getting repeatedly struck by lightning was a different type of Act of God?”  In other words, what if a lightning strike was not deliberate punishment from on high, but a random event beyond human control (aka the legal definition of “act of God”)?  How would a person deal with it?

In Don’s case, the answer is not very well.  It’s unclear what irritates him more: the amused curiosity of the local doctor or the unwanted solicitous concern of neighbor Maggie.  What he obviously prefers is to be left alone, fish, and otherwise watch TV.  Part of the fun of the film is seeing how and when the lightbulb goes on over Don’s head that his old life has been zapped out of existence.

The decisive moment comes with Don’s attempt to bake a shepherd’s pie.  Making this rather simple dish wouldn’t normally be a problem.  But the old grump by this point is motivated by stubborn pride.  He doesn’t want to accept the shepherd’s pie Maggie offers him.  Don’s pride causes him to act as if he can still bake anything…even with one arm in a cast and sling from the most recent lightning strike.  The continual frustration of his prep work attempts eventually convinces him otherwise.

It’s left to the viewer’s imagination to guess how much of “Don v. Lightning” is the product of actual events and how much is whole cloth.  Even if the real-life individual who inspired Don never uttered the last line heard in the film, it’s clear by the setup of the last scene that this old man might as well be wearing signs that say “Zap me!  Zap me!”  In a way, that setup might as well be Don’s version of fatalistic acceptance.

***

A far more serious portrait of fatalism and acceptance can be found in Michal Krzywicki’s near-future science fiction drama “The Day I Found A Girl In The Trash.”  Protagonist Szymon Hertz (Krzywicki) has publicly declared he’ll commit suicide on New Year’s Eve as a protest against near-future Poland’s public slavery system.  His plans seriously change, though, after he finds one such slave, the woman (Dagmara Brodziak) referred to in the film’s title.

The system Hertz is protesting is what’s referred to as the automaton project.  Convicted felons have their heads shaved bald and are forced to wear a special collar around their necks.  Vaxina, the drug periodically released by the collar, keeps the wearer docile and automatically willing to perform mindless work for the community or a private renter.  But the automatons created via vaxina have lost both their emotions and even their memories of who they were pre-conviction.  A film title informs the viewer that a survey revealed 85% of Poles in this future world supported the automaton project.

From a historical perspective, the setup of Krzywicki’s film does seem plausible.  Slave labor during the Nazi occupation of Poland is an unfortunate historical fact.  The Global Slavery Index reports that in 2016 Poland, there were slaves from such countries as Ukraine, China, and Korea in such work venues as construction sites, processing plants, and even fashionable restaurants.  Krzywicki’s fictional automaton project is a callback to both this history and the phenomenon even in the U.S. of exploiting prisoners of the state as cheap labor.

Where “The Day I Found A Girl In The Trash” starts falling apart for the viewer is in the credibility of Hertz’ proposed act of civil defiance.  If a huge majority of Poles support the automaton project, then the reaction of people who publicly encounter Hertz should be more frequently on the jeering side rather than the “I want to take a selfie with you” side.  This is especially true given that Polish society, the viewer is led to understand, frowns on suicidal acts.

The viral video where Hertz announces his self-destruction plan is never seen on screen.  That absence undercuts any viewer suspension of disbelief in Hertz’ commitment to his extreme act.  Instead, with the flashbacks to an earlier abortive protest which ended with Szymon’s significant other Julia being nabbed by police, the viewer suspects the film’s main character is motivated more by guilt or aimlessness.  Hertz may talk a good game about fixing the world during the film’s opening.  But his actions veer as far from the spirit of tikkun olam as possible.

Hertz’ interactions with Blue (the name the automaton Hertz finds gives herself) may have been more interesting had they been motivated by a lack of abandon.  It’s already a crime to take off an automaton’s collar or remove their telltale, so what’s one more illegal act before the end?  Instead, Krzywicki opts for the sentimentally tedious route of his main character’s rediscovering his capacity to love.

Brodziak’s mostly silent performance gives her the opportunity to use her face to create glimmers of personality on the visage of someone for whom emotion was supposedly erased.  There’s an innocent joy in seeing Blue hold a chicken to her chest.  But that performance can’t ultimately compensate for a film whose mistakes begin with a six years from now setup that has no basis in real world reality.

***

Poland also happens to be one of the few countries in the world to outlaw abortion.  Emily Goss’ short “A Little House In Aberdeen” may take place in America, not Poland.  But given the manic determination of GQP legislators across the country to impose laws punishing women seeking abortion, the differences between the two countries on abortion narrow every day.

Goss’ film is essentially a stream-of-consciousness monologue.  Britney (Goss) is a minor about to undergo an abortion.  While the procedure occurs, she deals with her anxieties by talking about her family history (e.g. her father worked at a racetrack) and her own dreams (e.g. becoming a mother but not right now).

Contrary to the scare propaganda regularly proffered by the anti-abortion crowd, the abortion procedure depicted in Goss’ film is based in reality.  The procedure depicted in the film does indeed usually runs just 5-6 minutes.  Talking to calm oneself down during the procedure is a normal phenomenon, not a sign of the procedure’s painfulness.  In fact, Britney doesn’t even notice the procedure is done until the medical personnel there inform her.

Goss’ performance of Britney’s monologue engages the audience from beginning to end.  Tossing in elements of Goss’ own family’s history gives her character’s speech the weight of welcome detail.  There’s even a bit of poignant philosophizing as Britney muses on the phenomenon of dreams breaking away from people.

The film could still have fallen flat visually if the only image seen on screen was Goss’ face in close up for pretty much the short’s entire running time.  Fortunately, the film’s images complement Goss’ words by visually conveying what Britney’s consciousness is like during the procedure.  From seeing Britney on the table as from a distance to her noticing the cleanly ascetic nature of the procedure room, the film’s camerawork subtly complements the monologue.

What’s noticeably absent from “A Little House In Aberdeen” is any polemical position regarding abortion.  The neutral depiction of the procedure as opposed to frothing condemnation is admittedly a position as well.  But keeping things neutral allows any post-film discussion of abortion to turn away from imaginary problems with the procedure to a proper focus on the needs that lie at the heart of the clashes over abortion.

***

“Going over a waterfall in a barrel” would not be a first choice option for repairing a dysfunctional family.  But it oddly does the trick for the Parker family in Katie Boland’s quirky dramedy “We’re All In This Together,” an adaptation of Amy Jones’ bestseller.

The problems that divide the Parker clan would defeat a regular family counselor.  Matriarch Kate Parker’s grasp of reality constantly slips through her fingers.  The Parker father has long disassociated himself from the family.  Twin sisters Serafina (aka “Finn”) and Nicki (both played by Boland) intensely hate each other.  Younger sister Paris’ contempt for her older sisters is leavened by her constant vaping and her online relationship with activist Adam Pelley, whom she’s never met in person.  If a family portrait existed of the Parkers, it would be one that had been run over repeatedly by two hours’ worth of rush hour traffic.

What starts bringing the Parker clan back together could be described as a sort of miracle.  Kate and the rest of the Parkers become celebrities thanks to a viral video of the mother’s trip in a barrel over the local waterfall.  The stunt leaves Kate in a coma and with a couple of broken fingers.  But she survived, and that’s what counts.

It’s in dealing with the aftermath of Kate’s viral trip that the specifics of the problems facing the Parkers get gradually revealed.  Kate mourns her life’s broken dreams in her occasional moments of lucidity.  Each twin believes the other betrayed her, but for different reasons.  Finn resents Nicki’s sleeping with Gord, Finn’s boyfriend of six years, with whom she produced a son named Berlin.  Nicki in turn resents Finn’s abandoning their small town to leave her alone to care for Kate.  Paris’ self-conception of her worldliness falls short of reality.

The fun in this dysfunctional family dramedy is seeing what happens to each member of the Parker clan on the way to dealing with their personal problems.  It’s not a spoiler to say Kate doesn’t magically get saner, but she does overcome viewer temptation to automatically dismiss anything she says.  The poignant reason why Kate named her youngest daughter Paris speaks to just one of her many lost dreams.  Whereas a Hollywood film dealing with the same subject would treat the dialogue as if wit were going out of style, Boland keeps the quipping to manageable levels.  A particularly good line involves Finn’s comparing married life with Nicki to fulfilling a dozen of Nostradamus’ nastier prophecies about the end of the world.

But the biggest challenge in the film comes with Boland’s decision to diverge from Jones’ original by changing the makeup of the Parker family.  The absence of the father character from the original is nothing compared to Boland’s giving the original’s prodigal daughter character a twin sister.  That change allows the director to turn Finn’s “should I have stayed or should I have gone” internal debate into something that can be dramatically personified.

Viewers can be assuaged that Boland does make her twin sisters two plausibly distinct personalities who still share some similarities.  Finn has a serious drinking problem while Nicki has a temper problem that causes her to get frequently bleeped out on television.  Each sister’s shortcomings never get over-milked on the screen.  Yet Nicki knows Finn enough to know she genuinely did want to leave their small town.  The obvious unhappiness and aimlessness that Finn buries beneath heavy drinking and casual sex aren’t Nicki’s fault, though.  On the other hand, being angry feels better to Nicki than being left confused and uncertain by not knowing how to improve one’s self.

What Boland ultimately shows in her film is that for the Parker clan, “We’re All In This Together” is more than just touchy-feely sentiment.  It’s a belated recognition born of mishaps that even when each member thinks circumstances force them to face life’s challenges alone, they can reach out to their loved ones for the help they need.

(While most of Cinequest’s offerings can be streamed globally, “The Day I Found A Girl In The Trash” and “ A Little House In Aberdeen” is only available in the U.S.  “Don v. Lightning” is only available in the U.S. and Canada.  Online screenings are available until April 17, 2022

For further information on these films, and to order tickets, go to www.creatics.org/cinejoy .  New users need to create a free Cinejoy account before ordering tickets.)

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