New Rules. Films Reviewed: Wild, Félix and Meira, Regarding Susan Sontag

Posted in Canada, Clash of Cultures, Cultural Mining, documentary, Drama, drugs, Feminism, Queer, Romance, TIFF, Wilderness, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 13, 2014

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Do rules restrict us? Or set us free? This week, I’m looking at three new films about women. A religious woman who longs to be free of the rules that restrict her; a woman in crisis who, to save her own life, follows strict rules to hike and cam; and an intellectual who applied academic strictures to new topics like high camp.

FOX_3558.psdWild

Dir: Jean-Marc Vallée (Based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir)

It’s the mid-late 20th century. Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) is a young college student in Minneapolis. Her single mom (Laura Dern) wants to educate herself, too, so they’re in the same lecture halls doing English lit and women’s studies. Her mom asks her help understanding concepts like Erica Jong’s “zipless F*cks” (F-words.) Aw, Ma! So Cheryl reads her Adriene Rich, falls in love with a nice guy named Paul, and marries him. But then something terrible happens. And before you know it, Cheryl is taking tons of serious drugs and having countless Zipless Fs with strangers. I want to live like a man, she tells herself. But is what she really wants?

Her daily life spirals toward oblivion, until she’s rescued and brought back to reality by her husband and her best friend. She decides to start her life anew by doing something dramatic. So she decides to head out on a walk up the Pacific Crest Trail or PCT from the Mexican border to Canada.

Aside from her over-packed backpack, and too-tight boots, she has to overcomek5oMn6__wild_02_o3__8207946__1406599560 the potential dangers of wild animals and skeezy men, rednecks and deadheads. She interacts with the hikers along the way, people who have read the quotations she leaves in the record books. Cheryl passes through dried out deserts and snow-filled valleys, hiking ever-northward in a quest to find herself, and to learn to live by her mother’s optimistic words: always look for the kinder way of doing things.

Wild is worth seeing. It’s full of beautiful scenery and assorted unexpected characters. The movie itself is fairly flat, with no real suspense, conflict or climax. Which is fine… but doesn’t move you to tears. It’s an on-foot road movie. I enjoy her chronicling of what happens along the way (as well as the flashbacks that explain why she’s there.) Most of all, it’s a chance for Reese Witherspoon to show off her acting skills. But does she? I can accept her as a woman recovering from drugs and emotional loss. But what I don’t feel is her soul. She seems opaque, superficial. I haven’t read the memoirs it’s based on, but Movie Cheryl just seems like a woman facing hard times. She’s not Book Cheryl: a poet  a writer, a feminist or a thinker; just a character that things happen to.

Actress: Hadas YaronFélix et Meira

Dir: Maxime Giroux

Young, pretty and quirky, Meira (Hadas Yaron) lives with her stern husband Shulem (Luzer Twersky) and their baby. She comes from an insular, Chassidic community in Montreal, where her first language isn’t French or English, it’s Yiddish. She likes drawing pictures and listening to reggae music…but only when her husband’s out of the house. He’s strict and conservative, and quick to tell her what she’s doing wrong. In response, she’s as likely to listen as to drop dead, on the spot. Well, at least pretend to. She’s depressed. When the men burst into joyous songs at the Sabbath dinner table, she just fiddles with her matzo balls. She doesn’t like the headband or the wig she has to wear; she doesn’t like the dullness and tedium; she doesn’t like any of it anymore.

A couple of blocks away, but in a separate solitude, lives Félix (Martin Dubreuil). Actor: Martin DubreuilHe’s single and carefree, likes painting and music. He tends to his dying father suffering from Alzheimer’s. He doesn’t care about money, and supports himself by selling the tapestries off the walls of his father‘s mansion. But when he dies, Felix is at a loss. Religion plays no part in his life, so he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do, what he’s supposed to feel. On an impulse, he asks the woman he sees at the local pizza parlour. She studiously ignores him, and tells him to leave her alone. but eventually he wins her attention. Je m’appelle Meira she says.

Though reticent at first, she starts to appear at his doorstep, so she can listen to some music, she says. Something clicks. Meira longs to be a single woman, to wear blue jeans, to do as she wants. She looks with dread at the 14-kid families around her. One’s enough. Alienated Felix admires her calm, her grounded-ness, her Actor: Luzer Twerskytraditions. He finds her exotic, shy… different. She’s not like the women he usually meets. To her, Felix represents an unseen world. Shulem suspects something is up and sends her off to Brooklyn. But Felix and Meira vow to meet again someday, to experience each other’s lives. But are their cultures too distant to bridge their differences? And is what they’re doing morally right? Can she give up everything just to be with him? And…are they even compatible?

Felix and Meira is a sweet, gentle drama of tolerance and coexistence with the Other. It jumps neatly between the two sides, gradually revealing their hidden truths and desires. Most interesting is the unexpected shifts in its portrayals of the three characters, especially Shulem. Hadas Yaron (Fill the Void) is fantastic as Meira, again playing an ultra-orthodox Jewish woman, and Martin Dubreuil – who I’ve never seen before, is a sympathetic face to watch. I liked this understated drama.

85573_1416507737Regarding Susan Sontag

Dir: Nancy D. Kates

The late Susan Sontag was one of the most prominent American intellectuals, widely known for her essays On Camp, On Photography and Illness as a metaphor. But she kept her personal life under wraps. This new documentary reveals all. Did you know she was considered a pin-up girl for young lesbian women? Or that she read Kant and Proust at age 15, before she even know how to pronounce their names? Or that she appeared as an actress in an early French New Wave film. This doc chronicles her first visit to a San Francisco lesbian bar, her life in Paris, Oxford and Manhattan, her friends and lovers. And the controversies she faced — both in intellectual culture and in the mass media. Loaded with new interviews, and childhood photographs, film clips, TV footage, it’s informative and fascinating.

Wild is now playing in Toronto: check your local listings. Félix and Meira was selected for TIFF’s Canada Top Ten. It’s playing on Sunday, December 14th at 1 and 4 pm at the Empress Walk cinema as part of Toronto Jewish Film Festival’s Chai Tea and Movie series. Got to tjff.com for details. And you can see Regarding Susan Sontag on HBO Canada.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

 

 

 

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