Thursday, September 5, 2013

Three from the indie side

Three independent films arrive in Denver this week, each operating in a sphere that might be difficult to inhabit in the mainstream.* Two of the films (Adore and Afternoon Delight) were directed by women, and attempt to explore subtle and not-so-subtle aspects of the female psyche. None of this trio of films qualifies as stylistically groundbreaking, but Short Term 12 -- a clear-eyed drama about life in a foster-care facility -- stands out because of its heartfelt power. So a look at all three:

A tough look at a home for teens

Short Term 12 debuted at last March's South By Southwest Film Festival (SXSW), and stars Brie Larson as Grace, a young woman who works at a group home for troubled teens.

As the movie unfolds, we discover that Grace -- now in her 20s -- may be especially qualified for her job: As a teen-ager, she got slammed around plenty, experiencing her own version of a troubled life.

When we meet Grace, she's living with co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), a sensitive young man who's attuned to the needs of his charges and to those of the woman he clearly loves.

Loving Grace isn't always easy. Grace knows how to mix discipline with kindness at work, but tends to keep her inner life walled-off from Mason.

Something has to happen to move the story forward, and it does when the particularly difficult Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives at the group home carrying a carload's worth of adolescent attitude and hostility.

It may not be immediately apparent, but Jayden's presence will have a profound effect on Grace, who gradually begins confront the demons that haunt her own past.

Writer/Director Destin Cretton, who once worked in a group home, also introduces us to Marcus (Keith Stanfield). A young man who's about to turn 18, Marcus soon will outgrow the group home that has provided him with shelter from the stormy life that drove him there in the first place. Marcus knows a lot about rejection.

Cretton probably rounds off his screenplay a little too neatly, but by setting his story in a world where emotions never are far from the surface, he takes a big risk. His movie easily could have become sloppy and overly demonstrative, the dramatic equivalent of an oil spill. It doesn't.

The relationship between Grace and Mason adds additional richness. Early on, Grace learns that she's pregnant: She battles with herself about the wisdom of keeping a baby in a world that can deeply scar young people who receive the worst of things.

Larson's tough but vulnerable performance anchors the film, and Gallagher (familiar to those who've been watching HBO's Newsroom) grounds Mason in the kind of bedrock decency we don't often see on screen.

Cretton understands the difficulties of trying to provide a safe and reasonably stable environment for kids who live in unsafe and uncertain worlds. That understanding -- obviously shared by all involved -- makes Short Term 12 truly special.

Too annoying for redemption?

Short Term 12 has no shortage of heart-felt urgency. It's difficult to say the same about Afternoon Delight, a movie mired in the off-putting boredom and cynicism of its main character, a Los Angeles woman named Rachel (Kathryn Hahn).

Director Jill Soloway's movie makes the perilous journey from comedy to drama as it tries to digest a whopping contrivance. In the dramatic equivalent of bomb-throwing, Rachel invites a wildly uninhibited stripper, lap-dancer and prostitute (Juno Temple) into her home. Rachel's disenchanted husband (Josh Radnor) wonders whether this is the best arrangement for the couple's five-year-old son, but doesn't put up much of a fight.

So why would Rachel invite a prostitute into her home? The screenplay flirts with a lesbian attraction and with the possibility that Rachel really wants to help Temple's McKenna get her life on track. Of course, McKenna shows little or no interest in personal reformation. She doesn't consider herself to be a victim of exploitation, and she's more in control of her life than Rachel.

As a young woman who lives way beyond the judgment of others, Temple shines, and Hahn ably handles both the movie's comic and serious moments, including an emotionally challenging scene that casts a harsh light on Rachel's anger.

Still, it's difficult for Soloway and Hahn to overcome resistance developed in the movie's first half, and Afternoon Delight doesn't dig deeply enough to get past a feeling that Rachel might just be battling with her own superficiality.

It's no day at the beach

I would have thought that a movie starring Naomi Watts and Robin Wright and stemming from a novella by Doris Lessing would have ranked among the year's better works.

But Adore -- a French/Australian co-production directed by Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel) -- revolves a conceit that's proves provocative but hollow: Two lifelong friends may be sublimating sexual feelings for each other when they start affairs with each other's sons.

The movie opens when Watts' Lil and her young son attend Lil's husband's funeral. Penn's Roz offers support during her friend's time of grief.

The story then leaps ahead to a time when Lil and her grown son (Xavier Samuel) and Roz and her grown son (James Frecheville) are living what appears to be an idyllic life in a secluded Australian coastal town.

The young men -- described by Roz as "young gods" -- surf, swim, languish on a raft and enjoy what looks like a convivial familial relationship with each other and with their mothers.

Only Roz's husband (Ben Mendelsohn) seems like an intruder, and the screenplay -- credited to Christopher Hampton -- quickly disposes of him, leaving the movie's mothers and sons to deal with sex, love, jealousy and everything else arises as these near-incestuous, sexual relationships take hold.

Originally titled Two Mothers, Adore ends with all four characters sprawled on a raft, looking a bit like squashed bugs. They're wrung out, and so are we.

Oh well, crossing psychological and sexual boundaries can be exhausting, if not especially illuminating.

*I somehow failed to pay attention to an e-mail revising the opening date for Short Term 12. The movie doesn't open in Denver until next Friday. Consider the above review an early heads-up.

No comments: