(Reviews of Earth Mama; Every Body; Monica; The Lost Boys; and Band Four)
Having told the stories of five women from Sacramento striving to keep hold of their children in The Heart Still Hums (2020), the documentary short she co-directed with actress Taylor Russell. Savanah Leaf makes her feature bow with Earth Mama. Drawing on insights gained from her sister Corinna's adoption, this intimate drama dispenses with conventional notions of social realism to impart a gritty poetic spin on the economic realities and bureaucrat structures and strictures that impinge upon a pregnant woman whose maternal instincts risk being subverted by the legacy of addiction and self-doubt.
Heavily pregnant, 24 year-old Gia Wilson (Tia Nomore) works as an assistant at an Oakland photography studio. Her phone is low on credit and her card is maxed out. Moreover, the traffic makes her late for a supervised visit with Trey (Ca'Ron Coleman) and Shaynah (Alexis Rivas), the children who were taken into foster care because of her drug use. Her daughter refuses to acknowledge her. But her son clings to his mother, who is more determined than ever to prove to the court that she's fit to have custody.
Tired of needing gold stars to prove she's a good mother, Gia bawls out the case worker reminding her that she's behind on aspects of her appeal. As Gia points out, however, she has to attend so many appointments that she can't put in long enough hours to pay her bills. Yet, when she attends a prenatal class run by social worker Miss Carmen (Erika Alexander), she gets ticked off by pregnant friend Trina (Doeichii) for refusing to discuss her situation.
Denied a $100 advance by her boss, Gia strolls into a children's playground, steals some nappies from a buggy, and ignores the calls to come back as she hastens towards her car. She attends rehab classes and gives supervised urine samples, as part of the process of proving she's not using and is fit to mother. Trina's always there for her, while her childhood friend, Mel (Keta Price), helps her assemble a cot kit. But Gia knows she is making this journey alone, as there is no sign of the father(s) of her children, while her only family appears to be Ari (Slim Yani), the drug-dealing sister who is letting her sleep on the sofa.
Having consulted Miss Carmen about open adoption, Gia is urged not to give up by Trina, who declares that African Americans have had their culture, homes, and freedom taken away from them. But they have to keep hold of their babies. That night, Trey calls because he can't get to sleep and Gia soothes him by playing `Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye' by The Casinos down the phone. As she sits alone, she goes to her safe place, a giant redwood forest with the canopy over her head and a gnarled network of roots beneath her feet.
Miss Carmen arranges for Gia to meet prospective parents Monica (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) and Paul (Bokeem Woodbine) at a restaurant. She talks about school and her own changed dreams with their teenage daughter, Amber (Kamaya Jones), who has brought some teddy bears for Trey and Shaynah. Gia likes them, but zones out while they are telling her about their relationship, and she remains quiet in the car, as Miss Carmen offers to arrange a check-up to ensure her baby is healthy.
Taking Trina to a local beauty spot, Gia breaks the news about the adoption plan. While conceding that she worries about her kids forgetting her, she tries to explain that it would be nice to visit her child in a happy home rather than a Child Protective Services office. But Trina isn't sure it's the wisest move and tells Gia about the protective hand she sometimes feels from other mamas on her shoulder.
Mulling over her friend's words, Gia gets Trey and Shaynah to read to her when they come to her house. Gently coaxing her daughter and praising her hesitant efforts, she demonstrates the maternal suitability that her case worker needs to see. She also listens to the lifestories of some young Black friends having their picture taken and watches Amber and her parents through the window of their comfortable home.
When Monica joins her and Miss Carmen at the ultrasound appointment, Gia imagines herself pulling the umbilical cord through her navel. When Trina takes her to a nocturnal sideshow, she gets into an argument with a woman who disapproves of her adoption scheme, and Gia gets angry with Trina when she tries to console her. Still feeling the world's against her when she gets home, she sneaks into Ari's room and has a hit. Drifting away, she imagines herself naked in a moonlit forest and steps forward with a certain serenity.
Snapping back to reality as her waters break, Gia goes into premature labour. As she recovers, Miss Carmen informs her that the doctor has found substance traces in her daughter's system. Asking why she chose to abuse her baby, Miss Carmen refuses to accept Gia's excuses. But she also refuses to rise to the accusation that she makes a living from selling babies and tries to help Gia reach the best decision for her newborn before her case worker makes it for her.
Monica and Paul arrive and, having handed over the baby, Gia asks Amber to make sure her new sister avoids the mistakes she has made. Then, it's back to work before her day in court to request greater access and longer time with her kids to ensure they know she is committed to them and is doing her best, even if she sometimes has to wing it.
This sentiment is echoed in one of the testimonies from the support group that bookend this moving and deeply impressive debut. These frank, heartfelt contributions bind the feature to the short that begat it and help Leaf step outside the perameters of such linear realist influences as Ken Loach's Ladybird Ladybird (1994). She has also cited the importance of Michael Haneke's Code Unknown (2000), and Crisitian Mungui's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), and Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman (2008).
With their hints of body horror and magic realism, the dream sequences also keep miserabilism at bay, as does Tia Nomore, who inhabits her character rather than merely playing her. Almost daring the camera to capture her expressions and moods, she gives Gia a disarming stillness that conveys the emotional effort she is having to summon in order to cope with the endless everyday occurrences that keep conspiring to make her life so difficult.
The time she spends in the photographic studio hardly helps matters, as she keeps being confronted with happy people posing for mementos, as well as the chirpiness of her male co-worker, Miles (Dominic Fike), who is around her age yet doesn't seem to have a care in the world. Sister Ari barely has time for her, either, while her dealing makes it tough for Gia to arrange a home visit by her case worker.
A rapper like Nomore (a first-timer who is also training to be a doula), Doeichii almost duets with her during their exchanges, as the dialogue is so natural and their delivery so understated. The exchanges with Kamaya Jones also have a ring of authenticity, as Leaf had similar conversations with her sister's birth mother when she was 16. Only the discussions with Miss Carmen feel scripted, as they not only have to carry the plot forward, but also offer encouraging words and suggest options to those in Gia's position. Erica Alexander handles them with tact and compassion, as Leaf strives to achieve an observational approach that steers clear of melodrama - although a couple of intimately intense scenes might have benefitted from the absence of Kelsey Lu's otherwise discreet score.
Shooting on 16mm stock, cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes consistently hits the right note, as he plumps for stillness over the handheld jerkiness that has become such a realist cliché. His close-ups of Nomore are particularly poignant, but the shots of the forest and San Francisco Bay are also effective. Despite representing Team GB in volleyball as an 18 year-old at the 2012 London Olympics, Leaf grew up in this area after her animator mother, Alison, moved from Vauxhall for work reasons. Her familiarity with the surroundings filters into the film's tone, in much the same way that the Seraing district of Liège lends grounded lyricism to the work of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. There can be no higher compliment and one can only hope that whatever follows is up to the high standards set here and in the Grammy-nominated video for Gary Clark, Jr.'s `This Land' and the shorts, F Word (2016), Fin (2017), The Ayes Have It (2018), The 4th Wave (2019), and Run (2023).
Julie Cohen is perhaps best known for her collaborations with Betsy West on the Oscar-nominated RBG (2018) and My Name Is Pauli Murray (2021), which profiles the non-binary Black lawyer who had a profound influence on Ruth Bader Ginsberg. However, she also has a fine solo track record, with such actualities as American Veteran (2017), Julia (2021), and Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down (2022). Cohen also used to be a producer on NBC's Dateline programme and, while searching in the archives, she came across an episode on David Reimer and Dr John Money that has now inspired Every Body, a pioneering study of intersexuality.
Following a montage of deeply odd gender reveal celebrations, the three intersex individuals who will guide us through this overview introduce themselves: PhD student Sean Saifa Wall (he/him), who was born without a uterus but was declared female by the hospital without parental consultation. Having undergone anatomy surgery, Wall was raised as a girl, even though he felt like a boy; political consultant and writer Alicia Roth Weigel (she/her or they/them), who was born with XY chromosomes, a vagina, and internal testes that were removed during childhood (she calls it `castration') so that surgeons could determine her biologically female; and actor, screenwriter, and director River Gallo (they/them), who had been raised male, despite not having been born with testes, because they has a penis and a scrotum.
A quick caption blitz reveals that an estimated 1.7% of the US population has some sort of intersex traits, with 0.07% (or 230,000 Americans) having intersex traits deemed so significant that they may be referred for surgery. These numbers may seem high because intersex people are often told to keep quiet about their bodies. But Wall, Weigel, and Gallo don't consider themselves to be the quiet types.
Raised in Philadelphia, but resident in Austin, Texas, Weigel is shown swiping on a dating site and explaining how difficult it is to find worthwhile partners. Hailing from the Bronx, but now based in Manchester, Wall looks through documents relating to his birth as Suzanne and the medical decision to assign a female gender and recommend surgery in order to protect the medical well-being of the parents. Now living in Hollywood after growing up in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, Gallo looks through old photos with El Salvadorian mother Maribel. They recalls a happy boyhood punctuated by the occasional doubt that changed when they were told at 12 that they had been born without testicles and would be placed on testosterone prior to an operation to implant a prosthesis.
Intercut with these segments is footage from a 1963 lecture by John Money, a doctor based at Johns Hopkins University. We also hear sneering comments by TV hosts Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson, which are put into their shameful context by Dr Katharine Dalke of Penn State College of Medicine, who defines being intersex as `any variation within a person's sex traits with which they're either born or develop naturally during puberty'. She continues, `It is possible to be a "biological female" and have testes. It is possible to be a "biological male" and have a uterus.'
Lamenting the use of the word `hermaphrodite', Dalke notes that the focus in past treatment on genital appearance and gender identity has resulted in a lot of unnecessary surgery. As intersex herself, she also remembers the secrecy surrounding her body while growing up. Wall recalls how the birth description of `small phallus' was later changed to `large clitoris' in his medical records and he reflects on the pain and lasting impact of having a gonadectomy (without his consent) when he was 13.
A montage reveals how Wall, Weigel, and Gallo threw themselves into study and extracurricular activities in order to validate themselves as teenagers. Gallo discloses that they had a boyfriend and a girlfriend at school, while Wall and Weigel recall the issues that made dating difficult. While speaking together with Cohen, they discuss the 35-40 variations of intersexuality, with Wall (who has Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) averring that this leads to people becoming experts in their own bodies when the institutional approach is still rooted in the 1950s paradigm of creating men and women.
This leads to a recap of the career of New Zealand American child psychologist Dr John Money, who Dalke and Keith Sigmundson concur created a field of study that had not existed before. While he became a talk show regular, however, the case of David Reimer impacted upon his reputation. One of twin boys born to Janet Reimer, David had lost his penis during a circumcision accident and Money recommended the removal of the testicles and the imposition of female gender and the name Brenda. He also insisted that the family relocated and that neither Brenda nor Brian was ever told the truth about their early months.
Gallo, Wall, and Weigel watch the 1999 Dateline footage with dismay, which heightens when 34 year-old David is interviewed and tears up at the memory of the childhood taunts he had endured. They also learn of his rebellion against Money and how Sigmundson had intervened on his behalf and started the process of debunking Money's contentions about surgery and social conditioning, which had become textbook bywords. Yet, even though Reimer married and adopted wife Jane's three children, the legacy of Money's Frankensteinian arrogance led to him committing suicide in 2004.
Three years before this NBC report, the Intersex Society of North America had been founded by activists like Bo Laurent, Angela Moreno Lippert, Heidi Walcutt, Mani Mitchell, and Max Beck, who are shown speaking at the inaugural meeting. Wall acknowledges his debt to this group because it taught intersex people that they were not alone and prompted him to start speaking out.
This voice became more important as state legislatures started to pass bills, such as the Texas `bathroom bill', that discriminated against intersex and trans people. Weigel testified before the Senate to deny that there were only two genders and this led to a debate with conservative commentator Steven Crowder that went viral on YouTube. Wall also embarked upon a conversation with performance artist Alok Vaid-Menon that highlighted the errors the medical community kept compounding in its prejudicial treatment of intersex and trans people.
Cohen asks the trio to explore how their experience has altered their relationships with their parents. Wall's parents are dead, but Weigel's nurse mother, Char, has been her activist ally and Gallo is grateful that Maribel always prayed that they would pull through. They also accept that she will get pronouns wrong and can forgive because they know that she has had to struggle in order to escape childhood poverty and find her place in a strange land.
Weigel and Wall chat with Ericka, the mother of an intersex five year-old. She has internal testes, but the doctors advised waiting until the child could make an informed decision of their own. They approve of the care, but question the suggestion that Ericka didn't have any more children in case the same thing happened again. Dalke concurs that delaying decisions, especially over irreversible surgery, should not be taken until the intersex person is directly involved in the process.
Meanwhile, Gallo and Wall get to take their own strides forward, as the former seeks to become the first notable intersex performer and the latter travels to Berlin to see the photographs for which they posed in an exhibition curated by Luan Pertl and Jomka Weib. Weigel is continuing to stop prejudicial law changes and Dalke concurs in questioning the clitoral procedures being performed by Dr Dix Poppas at Weill Cornell. She attends numerous demonstrations (as does Gallo) and various cities are named, along with some renowned intersex people.
As the film finishes, Cohen joins her stars and crew principals in fooling around a bit for the camera to Lizzo's `Good As Hell', which climaxes a splendid acoustic songtrack that complements Amanda Yamate's score.
There's little more to add, really. This excellent film says it all. Weigel, Gallo, and Wall are erudite advocates and Cohen gives them the space and time in which to make points that are as trenchant as they are heartfelt. Katharine Dalke also makes cogent contributions, although it's the Reimer interview that hits home hardest.
Steadily edited by Kelly Kendrick, the mix of interview and archive footage expertly underscores the points raised an air of rationality and dignity that is so much more effective than impassioned stridency. At one point, Weigel walks away from a pointless debate with smug pundit Steven Crowder with the words, `I'm sorry I don't have a box of tissues for you.' Cohen adopts the same frankness and has produced a thoughtful and essential film that should change minds.
Born in Italy, but based in the United States, Andrea Pallaoro has been making quite an impression in the 15 years since he made his first short, Wunderkammer (2008). Following his acclaimed debut, Medeas (2013), he guided Charlotte Rampling to the Volpi Cup for Best Actress in Hannah (2017). But he misjudges the tone of his latest offering, Monica, by placing so much emphasis on the boxily gnomish visuals that he neglects the inner lives of his complex, but overly familiar characters.
First seen on a tanning bed and politely brushing off the unwanted flirtations of a passing stranger, Monica (Trace Lysette) works as a massage therapist in Los Angeles. She leaves phone messages for her ex-boyfriend, Jimmy, before responding to a call from Laura (Emily Browning), the sister-in-law she has never met, informing her that her mother, Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson). Despite not having seen her since being thrown out of the house as a teenager for coming out as trans, Monica gets into her red sports car and drives to Midwestern suburbia.
Deciding against risking a confrontation, Monica poses as a care assistant to help brother Paul (Joshua Close) and kindly nurse Letty (Adriana Barraza) minister to Eugenia, who has stopped taking her medication and is willing to endure the pain of edging towards death. Although she makes it clear that she doesn't want a stranger in the house, Eugenia is grateful to have Monica cradle her when she wakes in the night calling for her mother. She also walks her beloved dog.
Reacquainting herself with her childhood home, Monica inhales remembered smells and finds a musical jewellery box and tries on some earrings and an extravagant necklace. Needing to earn money, however, she has phone hook-ups as a camera girl. But nothing is said to Paul or Laura, who try not to intrude. They are having problems of their own and Eugenia implores Paul not to let the marriage break down, as they have two kids and a new baby.
During a sobering hospital visit, Monica admits to being disappointed that her mother hadn't recognised her. But Paul admits he would never have known her and shows her a video of Eugenia recalling how Paul had always used his younger brother to do his pleading when he wanted something he couldn't get. But Monica shows no emotion, even when her mother says she could never resist any request.
Back home, she helps Letty get Eugenia out of the bath and they have a conversation about her name. She says she chose it for herself and Eugenia wishes she could have done the same, as her genes have clearly let her down. Informed that she doesn't need to hang around every night, Monica arranges a bar hook-up via a dating site. The guy fails to show up and, having left Jimmy an angry message in which she accuses him of being a coward, Monica has vigorous sex with a trucker in his cab before heading home. On the long drive back, however, the car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and she screams with frustration.
Arriving home, Monica crawls on to Eugenia's bed and rests her head on her shoulder. She tells her that her `party girl' is there and dozes off beside her. There's a quiet recognition in Eugenia's eyes the next morning, but nothing is said, even when Monica announces that she has to leave. Letty gives her a hug and wishes her well, while Paul starts to remonstrate before letting her go. But, as she listens to Pulp's `Common People', Monica turns the car round and is parked outside when Paul and Eugenia return from an appointment. Lying on the bed, Eugenia reaches out a hand to ask if Monica is okay and they leave it at that.
Sharing a beer by the pool that has been allowed to decay since their father died, Monica and Paul recall childhood moments and he admits that he wondered about running away to find her. But she confides that she allowed the past to slip from her memory, as she could never forgive Eugenia for announcing she could no longer be her mother when she dropped her at the bus station.
Yet, as mother-child roles reverse, Monica feels she's in the right place and she does Eugenia's make-up before a trip to the hairdresser (and even gives Letty some lipstick). She cuddles her baby nephew and chats to Letty about the son she hardly sees and tells her he's lucky to have her. Letty says the same about Eugenia and tells Monica not to be so sure that she doesn't know who she is. And, when Monica gives her mother a bath, Eugenia takes her face in her hands and gazes into her eyes before kissing her cheeks and forehead.
Following a nice Mother's Day gathering in the garden, complete with puppies and family snaps, Eugenia apologises to Monica at bedtime for being a burden. She lies with her head on her mother's lap and is there when she wakes with pain in the night to provide comfort and reassurance. Shortly afterwards, Monica gives Eugenia a massage and rests her head on her back, wishing she could tell her so many things.
Monica plays hide-and-seek in the woods with Britney (Ruby James Fraser) and Brody (Graham Caldwell), who had earlier been enacting a doll's birth before their aunt came to check on them. During a trip to a swimming hole, Paul notes that he knows so little about Monica's life. But she assures him that she's happy most days before going for a dip and floating on the water in a strip of sunlight.
Leaving Eugenia with Letty, Monica accompanies the family to the school concert. She gives Brody her lucky musical box to protect him while he sings the National Anthem. Looking on with pride, she chokes back the emotion, as decades of regret wash over her.
No film that follows Middle of the Road's `Soley Soley' with `Electricity' by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark can be all bad. But Pallaoro's preoccupation with exhibiting his own virtuosity keeps deflecting a slender storyline that seeps emotional intensity each time a self-consciously posed or archly framed composition reminds the viewer that they are watching a series of artistic choices rather than a slice of life.
Just as Josef von Sternberg had used scrims, drapery, and props to frame Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s, Pallaoro makes extensive use of mirrors, windows, and picture frame glass to prevent the viewer from getting too close to Monica. He even utilises a bead curtain to hide any emotion when she first gets the call from Laura and reflects foliage on her car windscreen as she pulls up outside the house she has not seen since her youth. Moreover, Pallaoro frequently has Trace Lysette turn away from the camera and either shoots her from behind keeps her head out of the Academy ratio frame.
Fortunately, Katelin Arizmendi's camera is largely kept static, while Paola Freddi's measured editing respects the solemnity of the sickroom. This stillness affords Trace Lysette plenty of room to explore Monica's conflicted feelings and her growing rediscovery of a long-lost sense of belonging. She's ably abetted in this by touching support playing, notably by Patricia Clarkson, who frequently speaks volumes with a half-look. This is as well, as while Pallaoro and co-scenarist Orlando Tirado do well to avoid soul-baring confrontations, some of the dialogue is irksomely trite.
Worse still, scenes like the roadhouse tryst are disappointingly clumsy, with the backseat shot of Monica screaming in the headlights while smoke billows out from under the bonnet of her car belonging to a novelettish teleplay rather than a picture with arthouse pretensions to resemble Michelangelo Antonioni or Michael Haneke. With less auteurish egotism, this might have been genuinely poignant. But the contrivedly superficial storytelling and the self-reflexivity of the rigid formalism steal focus from some sincere and sensitive playing.
THE LOST BOYS.
The influence of Jean Genet's Un Chant d'amour (1950) is readily evident on Zeno Graton's The Lost Boys. The title evokes memories of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan and Joel Schumacher's cult vampire classic, The Lost Boys (1987). But Graton's debut feature - after the shorts, Seagulls (2013) and Jay Amongst Men (2015) - feels like a gentler variation on brutal borstal pictures like Alan Clarke's Scum (1979).
Despite being close to his release date, Joe (Khalil Ben Gharbia) keeps escaping from his juvenile detention centre. Caught on the Belgian coast, he is ordered to write an essay explaining his actions and an apology to the judge by warder Sophie (Eye Haidara). She strict but fair with the others on Joe's table in the canteen: César (Samuel Di Napoli), Fahad (Amine Hamidou), Yanis (Nlandu Lubansu), and Tom (Matéo Bastien).
Heading to breakfast before a day in the workshop, Joe spots William (Julien De Saint Jean), a newcomer who is rumoured to have stabbed someone. Seeing a radio in his cell, Joe steals it because Sophie had confiscated his. When Ilyas (Jonathan Couzinié) shows them how to make pinhole cameras during a study period, they are sent to take pictures and William chooses Joe as his subject after they share a crafty cigarette.
Following a furtive kiss during a recreation session, Joe holds the radio against the wall so that William can listen in the adjoining cell. However, Sophie hears the music and takes the radio off Joe and returns it to William, with a warning to take better care of his things. He's the one to get told off the next day, when he finds a snake in the grass during PE and refuses to put it down in spite of repeated warnings.
As he doesn't want to return to his mother's place, Joe is being readied to live in a halfway house while he serves an apprenticeship. But he still feels angry about the racial taunts he's had to endure and the sense of being caged up. It comes out in a rap written for Sophie's class and the rest of the group is impressed. Smoking with William, they discuss where they'll go when they get out and he claims he'd go to the Far North to enjoy six months of endless daylight and the rest of the time around a warm fire.
Shortly after they pause an outdoor game of basketball to watch some fireworks, Yanis consoles Fahad when he is refused a placement because of his record. Yanis then gets teased when he admits to missing his girlfriend. Having painted their faces, the lads go on a cross-country run. But Joe and William take a detour to enjoy some alone time and get back to the locked gate as it starts raining and everyone strips off their shirts to savour the sensation of being temporarily free.
A talented artist whose wall is covered with drawings, William makes himself a tattoo machine and inks a Viking ouroboros on Joe's upper arm, as the other watch intently. They now have regular trysts, while being careful not to betray their feelings in public. Neither gets visitors, but they watch the families arrive through the window, while Joe gets to meet the social worker who is arranging his accommodation on the outside. He nods with gratitude, but knows that liberty will also mean separation.
William had known nothing about Joe's imminent release and stops talking to him when he overhears Sophie urging him to complete his arrangements. When they go on a strimming detail in the nearby park, the pair get into a fight and have to be separated. Sophie warns Joe that if he messes up, the judge might not only extend his sentence, but could also rule that he is old enough to serve it in an adult prison.
Joe and William make up the night before the former leaves and they agree to live together. However, the judge (Laurence Oltuski) feels that Joe has yet to learn how to respect the rules and decides to extend his stay for another six months. Sophie escorts him back to his cell and Fahd has to be restrained by Ilyas after he flips out because he feels the system is designed to screw them over rather than help them. Reluctantly, the others return to their room and Sophie exhales deeply, as she has been left to bear the brunt of their frustrations.
Brushing off William's assurance that three months will fly by, Joe keeps to himself. When music is played for Tom's birthday, however, he gets so taken by William's dancing that he clings to him and Ilyas has to pull him away. Sophie walks with him in the garden and reminds him that this isn't the place for romance. He nods, but becomes surly and refuses to take his meds.
During a welding session, William sets light to the workshop and grabs Joe's hand when he comes to find him after the building is evacuated. They make a dash for it, but Joe trips as they sprint across a patch of grass and they are roughly recaptured by the cops. That night, the inmates bang on their cell doors in protest. Joe is transferred to a nearby jail and feels intimidated when he is allowed into the exercise yard. The walls are high and there are none of the amenities to which he had become accustomed. He walks tentatively around the perimeter, with others jogging past him. Realising he has to impose himself in order to survive, he breaks into a run.
Anyone familiar with Scum will shudder the first time they hear the off-camera click of pool balls. But Graton isn't interested in the violence that often simmers beneath the surface of borstal movies. Instead, he explores the dynamic between the inmates and how they try to support each other through tough times. Moreover, he focuses on the structural strictures of a penal system that undermines the efforts of the well-intentioned Sophie and Ilyas, as they try to prepare their charges for the outside by teaching them manual and life skills.
Providing discipline and encouragement, Eye Haidara and Jonathan Couzinié do well in thinly written roles, as do their young co-stars. Julien De Saint Jean gives little away as the shaven-headed William, whose brooding intensity channels into the passion of his embraces and the complexity of his artwork. Khalil Ben Gharbia is afforded more depth and nuance in Graton and Clara Bourreau's screenplay, but we learn little about his inner life beside the twice-told anecdote about discovering as a kid that fish trapped in winter ice aren't hibernating, but are doomed to die.
This stark message is reinforced by the way in which Olivier Boonjing's camera hems in the detainees within their already restricted spaces. The resort to jerkicam for some of the more fractious moments feels clichéd, as do the frenzied dance interludes to the pulsating beats of French-Lebanese musician Bachar Mar-Khalifé, which, like so many before, riff on Denis Lavant's eruption of pent-up masculinity at the end of Claire Denis's Beau Travail (1999). At least the homage to Genet's erotic smoking scene is more restrained, as Joe and William press their bodies against a partition wall. The seaside nod to François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) is also neatly done. Indeed, Graton, who was inspired to make the film by a cousin's experience of juvenile incarceration, directs steadily, with his tonal choices perhaps being more important than his visual ones.
There's no one quite like Mo Lai Yan-chi when it comes to Hong Kong culture. The founder of two theatre troupes, she is also a playwright, a university lecturer, and a celebrated stage actress. Having directed the acclaimed short, 1+1 (2010), Mo reworked the story of an old man and his granddaughter resisting the demolition of their village to make way for a railway line for her feature bow, N+N (2014). Now, she returns behind the camera for Band Four, a personal project Mo has been waiting eight years to realise while she searched for the right cast.
Cat Chan (Kay Tse On-kei) plays keyboards with a band while raising her aspiring drummer son, Riley (Rondi Chan Nok-ting). When her mother dies, Cat is surprised when her long-estranged father, King (Teddy Robin Kwan), turns up at the funeral with Matilda (Anna Hisbbur), a half-sister she never knew she had. She wants nothing to do with them and sobs on her nine year-old son's shoulder as she carries her mother's urn.
As he still has a key to the apartment, the diminutive, ponytailed King insists on staying and Cat's frustrations increase when one of Band Four leaves to get married just before the Great Escape festival they have been working towards. She auditions potential replacements, but they are hopeless, and Cat gets further stressed when Matilda shows Riley how to cheat on his English test and the teacher confiscates his drumsticks.
Matilda is so upset that she packs her bass guitar and heads for the bus station, Cat helps King look for her and Riley messages her that they are going to get the cops. So, she comes home and is given grandma's old room. She also goes to see Cat playing in a bar with her remaining bandmates and is impressed. But Cat is furious when King does some tidying and discovers in a wardrobe a document revealing that Riley is the son of musician friends. He learns more from an old friend and realises how much his daughter has put herself out to help the boy.
As the festival gets closer, the other two women in Band Four leave after getting an offer they can't refuse. Cat plays a mournful song alone to muted applause and gets drunk. King puts her to bed and strums along to a song of his own. After a visit to a guitar shop, he comes home with some drumsticks for Riley and they jam together.
Cat and Matilda also sing together after the latter's friend ditches her on her birthday. But Riley continues to do badly at school and Cat decides that she's a bad mother and that it would be better if she relinquished her guardianship and let someone else raise him. The boy flies into a rage and throws an heirloom Beatles guitar out of the window and it smashes in the courtyard. King tries to convince Cat that Riley needs her and apologises for walking out on her 20 years before. He hadn't known her mother was sick, but realised they were bad for each other and felt compelled to go.
Despite her misgivings, Cat allows Riley to have his sticks back and arranges for him to go to a music school. But she has just been informed by her mother's old doctor that she has early onset dementia and she is worried that she won't be able to care for Riley. She confides in her old friend, Harry, and tells him that she needs to find a new guardian. Dr Chu breaks the news to the rest of the family and encourages them to play music to help Cat stay alert. King and Matilda also vow to care for her so that she doesn't need to go into a home when her condition deteriorates.
Asked to play the last night before their favourite bar closes down, Cat appears with Riley, King, and Matilda. But she forgets the words to the first song and audience members hold up the lyrics on cue cards. A small orchestra accompanies the song, as we cut away to footage of Band Four going on a mini-tour using the inside of their truck as a stage. They play to small, but appreciative audiences and Riley hopes they can create memories that Cat will never forget.
The last number is played at night on a stage perched on Lion Rock looking out over the twinkling lights of Hong Kong. With a drone camera hovering overhead, the visuals rather overwhelm the sentimental song. But it works as a rallying cry to the beleaguered citizenty and provides a flourish to a film that never quite knows what it wants to be.
Clearly, Mo Lai Yan-chi is not averse to melodrama, as there are enough plot twists to see a soap opera through several episodes. Intent on showing that family ties come in many forms, the screenplay has tragedies following hard on each other. But, with the action being punctuated by songs, Mo just about keeps mawkishness at bay. The leads also help in this regard, with Teddy Robin's penitent rascality and Rondi Chan's impish eagerness lightening the mood, as Cantopop star Kay Tse (in her first acting role in a decade) deals with any number of domestic, musical, and health issues.
In truth, the surfeit of crises is more than a little excessive, especially as Cat is too sketchily limned to merit the craved amount of audience sympathy. The songs written by Teddy Robin and Day Tai are a touch samey and don't seem likely to erase decades of pain let alone have people dancing in the streets. But they odd one is catchy enough and the cast's charisma justifies Mo's decision to wait for them to come along.