Making sense of things. Films reviewed: Little Men, Indignation PLUS Lo and Behold
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.
In Lo and Behold, Werner Herzog’s excellent new documentary about the internet, a scientist explains the first internet connection between two computers. The message was supposed to be “log on” to start the transmission, but it was cut off after the first two letters, LO. As in the biblical Lo and Behold. The mysteries of life.
This week I’m talking about two dramas, about young men trying to make sense of life’s mysteries. There’s two friends in Brooklyn trying to understand their parents; and a young man in Ohio trying to understand the meaning of life.
Dir: Ira Sachs
Jake and Tony are best friends. They met on the day Jake moved with his parents from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and immediately hit it off. Jake (Theo Taplitz) is a sensitive quiet boy who is bullied at school. Jake expresses himself through the art and comics he draws. Tony (Michael Barbieri) is his exact opposite. Outspoken, Brooklyn born and bred. He’s good at sports and always loyal to his friends. Jake is a shy introvert, while Tony is bursting out all over.
They meet because Tony’s mother, (Paulina Garcia), is a dressmaker with a small boutique. It’s on the ground floor of the apartment Jake’s family is moving into. They inherited it when Jake’s grandfather died, and Brian – Jake’s dad — (Greg Kinnear) inherited it.
Finally, Jake has a friend, someone to hang with. Tony shows him around the hood, lets him meet his buddies, they even take an acting class together. Tony excels there – he’s a natural. The two boys even have a plan: that they both get accepted to the NY High School of Performing Arts. Tony would pursue his acting, of course, and Jake could do his drawing.
So we’ve got two 12-year-old kids, best friends, everything’s going great, until… the grown- ups ruin everything. Jake’s grandpa was a kindly old man, who took a Chilean refuge (Tony’s mom) under his wing and kept her rent low. But Brian, Jake’s dad, has no such attachment or obligations to their tenant. They just want to make money. So the disagreement becomes a spat, which becomes a feud, which becomes a lawsuit. It’s spiraling out of control, and the parents aren’t letting their sons – who have nothing to do with it — see each other anymore. Jake and Tonty decide to fight back. But can they change their parents’ minds?
Little Men is not a remake of the Parent Trap; it’s not a kids’ movie at all. It feels more like an adult’s bittersweet memories of childhood. That said, it’s a great coming of age drama about two best friends torn apart by a family disagreement. The parents are well played, but it’s the acting of the kids that really shines, especially newcomer Michael Barbieri as Tony.
Dir: James Schamus (Based on the novel by Phillip Roth)
It’s 1951, in Newark, N.J. Marcus (Logan Lerman) works in his father’s butcher shop plucking chickens. He’s in High School, captain of the baseball team, with straight A’s. Which is very important. Because America is at war in Korea, and all his friends are being drafted, sent to fight, and shipped back home in a coffin. Only Marcus might avoid the war if he gets into university — students are exempt. Marcus isn’t concerned. But his Dad (Danny Burstein) is sick with worry that his only son will die. He develops a compulsion, and follows him around at night to make sure he’s safe. Marcus’s mom (Linda Emond) meanwhile is going bonkers over her husband’s obsessive behaviour. For Marcus, the only solution is to go somewhere far, far away.
He ends up a scholarship student at a college in small town Winesburg, Ohio. It’s a chance to shed his background, expectations, stereotypes – that of the insular Jewish community of Newark, New Jersey — by cultivating his intellect at a free and open mid-western campus. He can stay true to his ideals and beliefs: freedom of thought, freedom of speech, non-conformity, and freedom from religion – he’s an atheist. Unfortunately that’s easier said than done.
He arrives to find he’s placed in a dorm with the only other Jewish kids on campus not in a fraternity.
And the University head, Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) is a cold-war conservative, a churchgoer and nosy as hell. And seems to take particular interest in Marcus, forcing him – to his great distress — to defend all his personal beliefs and philosphies.
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The awesome Olivia Hutton (Toronto actress Sarah Gadon) seems to notice Marcus. Olivia is everything he dreams of – smart, beautiful, and independent with the manners of sophisticated society. Their first date is awkward but it’s what happens next when they park the car that’s important. She gives him a blow job… and it blows his mind. This is 1951, and he can’t understand what happened. “Nice” girls aren’t supposed to be sexual. Why did she do what she did? And what does it mean?
Marcus is in love, but everyone else – his roommates, the Dean, his parents, and Olivia’s secret vullnerability – threaten to destroy their relationship. Can Marcus stay true to his beliefs in oppressive, 1950s America?
Indignation is another great drama. It’s moving and fascinating, with an unexpected twist at the end. It’s literary in form – full of long debates and discussions – alternating with intimate scenes of suppressed sexuality.
James Schamus is a first-time director but he’s no newbie. He’s an old hand at scriptwriting and producing movies. He was Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s writer and producer for many years, including movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain to name just a few. He’s treading new waters here, but he does it quite well.
Lo and Behold, Little Men and Indignation open today in Toronto: check your local listings.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.