In Tara Westover’s bestselling 2018 memoir, Educated, a wildly intelligent young woman finds herself stuck working in her family’s junkyard, unable to leave her isolated Idaho town even as she longs to go to college. Public school is forbidden by her fundamentalist Mormon father, so she is homeschooled with her siblings and forced to scrap metal in illegal and unsafe conditions. Westover’s gripping story of escape captivated readers across the country, and I found myself thinking of it as I watched Nicole Riegel’s directorial debut, Holler, which concerns a young woman facing similar challenges.
Robin Wright’s directorial debut, Land, is interesting for the way it seems to be in conversation with several recent films that explore the urge to isolate in the wake of trauma. Land follows Edee, played by Wright, a middle-aged professional-seeming woman who abandons civilization to live off the grid in Wyoming. She finds a spartan hunting cabin to rent, and stockpiles it with canned goods and survival gear. Her goal is to learn to live off the land by hunting, fishing, and growing her own food. It’s a lofty ambition for someone who appears to have very little experience in the wild, but she’s determined, going so far as to hire someone to drive her car away so that she doesn’t have the option to leave except by her own two feet.
For a movie about the impending birth of a baby, Together Together is oddly lifeless. Written and directed by Nikole Beckwith, it tells the story of a friendship between a middle-aged single man, Matt, and his surrogate, Anna, a young woman who has agreed to bear his child for a fee. The film opens with Matt (Ed Helms) interviewing Anna (Patti Harrison) about her qualifications for surrogacy, and we quickly learn that the main requirement is a previous successful pregnancy. Matt is confused because Anna has no children of her own and in an awkward exchange, Anna reveals that she had a child in college but gave it up for adoption. This event, we later find out, was so disruptive that it completely threw Anna’s life off course and left her estranged from her family. She is pursuing surrogacy so that she can pay for college and finally finish her degree. Matt’s reasons for single parenthood are less clear, except that he seems to be a profoundly lonely person. Once, he was in a long-term relationship, but it didn’t work out–he never explains why, and Anna never explains why she decided to bear a child in college and give it up for adoption, although they haltingly ask each other these questions. It’s a script full of half-asked, half-answered questions, one that left me feeling very frustrated and sometimes bored.
I will forever associate this movie with my vaccine convalescence, that brief period after your booster shot when it feels like you’re coming down with the flu. Yesterday morning, I got my second Moderna vaccine and I felt fine until around dinnertime. Then I got hit by a wave of fatigue that reminded me of the first trimester of pregnancy. I knew I had to get in a supine position immediately so I retired to my bed with the ipad. I was too tired to even read. I chose By the Sea mainly because I knew my husband had no interest in ever watching it. It got fairly withering reviews when it came out in 2015, and I had pretty much written it off, too, until a couple of weeks ago, when some scenes from it were included in the first episode of the Criterion Channel’s miniseries Women Make Film. I was dazzled by the location and the glamour in those images. I wanted to see more. How bad could it possibly be with Jolie and Pitt starring?
Never Gonna Snow Again (2020) Directors: Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert
This haunting, meditative movie got under my skin even as I wasn’t totally sure what it was trying to say, and sometimes felt that the filmmakers were also unsure. More often than not, scenes seemed to exist to establish a certain mood rather than to advance a story. But I didn’t care. The images were strange and beautiful, tinged with magic and sci-fi, and posing questions about life after death, the nature of healing, and climate change. Written and directed by Malgorzata Szumowska and her long-time DP Michal Englert, the film was Poland’s entry for the Oscars for Best Foreign Picture. The story centers on a masseuse, Zhenia (Alec Utgoff), a Ukranian immigrant whose work takes him to a gated suburb on the outskirts of a large city. Zhenia goes from house to house carrying his folding massage table and getting an intimate look into the houses that all look the same from the outside, but whose occupants each carry their own specific pain. In its simplest telling, it’s a story about upper-middle class suburban life, with Zhenia as the all-seeing narrator who draws connections between the families’ shared spiritual malaise. But beneath that structure is a darker and more mysterious tale about humanity’s relationship to a dying planet.
Shiva Baby looks and sounds like a comedy but it’s actually a horror movie about being in your twenties, with a surprising vein of emotion. The film centers on Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a college senior whose Gender Studies major makes her parents anxious as it doesn’t seem to correlate with any specific career. They also don’t like — or even totally believe — that Danielle is bisexual. When Danielle joins her parents for the shiva of a family friend, they coach her on what to say about her future prospects and to be on the lookout for potential job opportunities. It’s funny and awkward and soul-crushing for Danielle, who already feels guilty for her lack of ambition. Danielle also has a secret: she’s a sugar baby, a young woman who is paid for her sexual favors. She tells her parents, who support her financially, that she earns extra money by babysitting; she tells her sugar daddy that she needs the money to pay for college. When her sugar daddy, Max (Danny Deferrari), turns out to be a guest at the shiva, Danielle realizes that the lies she’s been telling everyone are about to be exposed. To make things even more complicated, her ex-girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon), is also in attendance.
Little Joe (2019) Writer & Director: Jessica Hausner
I was initially turned off of this movie –and maybe you were, too — when it first appeared in the U.S. in late 2019. It got mixed reviews, including a lot of pans, and I lost track of it in the rush of end-of-the-year releases. I was reminded of when it turned up on Pedro Almodovar’s list of the best movies of 2020 and then, when I saw that it was streaming on Hulu, I decided to give it a try, and I’m so glad I did. It’s an eerie story about the ways humans try to control the natural world, and at first it seems like it’s going to be a high-concept commentary on the danger of GMOS. But then it turns into a kind of meditation on the nature of perception and reality. I can see why a lot of viewers would find it frustrating, but I would have watched it for the color scheme alone.
I’ve yet to see Vanessa Kirby on a big screen, but I know she’s a movie star. Over the past year of pandemic home viewing, she is the actor who has jumped off my living room TV. Whether she’s playing a young Princess Margaret (The Crown), a grieving American woman in contemporary Boston (Pieces of a Woman), or a foreign correspondent in 1930s Moscow (Mr. Jones), she is the actor who captivates you most with her resonant voice and direct gaze. She has done it again in The World to Come, bringing a much-needed liveliness to a film that sometimes felt claustrophobic and glum.
John Lewis: Good Trouble (2020) Director: Dawn Porter
My third-grader is writing a report on John Lewis for Black History Month, so Dawn Porter’s Good Trouble was an obvious choice for family movie night. This documentary came out over the summer, just a few weeks before Lewis passed away. Lewis served as a representative for Georgia’s fifth district from 1987-2020, and it was interesting to review his career in this political moment, after Georgia has elected two Democratic senators for the first time in decades. For much of the country, Georgia turning blue felt like a huge surprise, but for Lewis and his supporters, it was the obvious — if not quite inevitable — result of years of grass roots organization to grow the Democratic party and increase access to the polls. Although Lewis is probably best known for his extraordinary example of nonviolent resistance during the marches in Selma, when he and other activists were brutally attacked by state troopers, Porter’s documentary shows how much of his legacy comes from the work he did in the decades that followed the Civil Rights Era, both as a legislator and as a mentor to budding activists and Democratic leaders.
I’m calling it: Herself is the first movie of the Biden Era. It’s empathetic, kind, and emotionally direct. It’s the kind of movie where characters say things like, “you impress me so much.” It would not have been out of place for anyone to remark, “Here’s the thing about life: there are some days when we need a hand and there are other days when we’re called upon to lend one.” Set in Ireland, Herself centers on a single mother, Sandra, who needs help starting over after leaving an abusive marriage. Her employer, friends, and acquaintances quickly come to her aid, volunteering to help her build a house for her and her two young children. It sounds corny, but isn’t in the least, because director Phyllida Lloyd makes room for the complexity of abusive relationships, as well as the lingering psychological and physical trauma. This isn’t a story where everything is okay in the end, but it is one where people are decent and kind to one another, and do their best to fix what is broken and heal one another.