Parky At the Pictures (30/7/2021)
(Reviews Limbo; Night of the Kings; Running Against the Wind; Madison and the Happiness Jar; and The Most Beautiful Boy in the World)
Cinemas are open again. But not everyone is going to want to sit in the dark being distracted by the prospect of whether everyone else in the auditorium is still behaving as though the social distancing guidelines are still in place.
Consequently, the streaming platforms seem set to keep up their good work a little while longer. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, therefore, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation will be staying open for business. Whatever choice you make, stay safe.
Having graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a degree in Arabic and Politics, Ben Sharrock trained at Screen Academy Scotland before making the shorts Closure (2011), The Zealot (2012) and Lost Serenity (2013). In 2015, he followed his feature bow, Pikadero, with the companion piece, Patata Tortilla, which won Scottish BAFTAs for Best Writer and Best Drama.
Sharrock shared the latter with partner Irune Gurtubai. Now, after a spell making commercials and filming in Algerian refugee camps, the pair reunite for a sophomore feature, Limbo, which arrives on screen after being BAFTA-nominated for both Outstanding Debut and Outstanding British Film.
While awaiting a government decision on his asylum application, Syrian musician Omar (Amir El-Masry) lives in a safe house on Uist in the Outer Hebrides. He looks on with a mixture of boredom and bemusement, as cultural instructors Helga (Bibse Babett Knudsen) and Boris (Kenneth Collard) dance to Hot Chocolate's `It Started With a Kiss' in order to teach the assembled migrants about reading signals when approaching a woman.
The fact that the phone signal was better in the middle of the Mediterranean means that the residents have to rely on the single call box on the island to call home. Hamad (Sodienye Ojewuyi) tells Omar about how he climbs the nearby mountain once a week to keep up with the antics of a kitten he has found online. However, their chat is interrupted when the man in the phone box (Adam Abdalrhman) bursts into tears and has to be consoled.
On getting through to his parents in Istanbul (Shereen Sadiq and Hayan Rich), Omar fields questions about his application and why he can't afford to send them any money. He reveals that his broken hand hasn't healed and, consequently, he hasn't been able to play the oud he carries with him everywhere in a leather case. Wandering back towards the house, he's stopped by the teenage quartet of Plug (Cameron Fulton), Stevie (Lewis Gribbe), Cheryl (Silvie Furneaux) and Tia (Iona Elizabeth Thomson). They ask through the car window whether he's a terrorist or a rapist and make him promise to behave himself. In reward, they give him a lift home, squashed between the girls in the back seat.
Under the jaundiced gaze of a woman on an invalid scooter (Barbara Hunter), Oman watches a game of basketball with Farhad (Vikash Bhai), an Afghani Zoroastrian Freddie Mercury fanatic who has also become hooked on Friends since buying a boxed set at the donation centre. Nigerian brothers Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) also share the house and complain about delays in the processing system and the fact that they are not allowed to work without documentation.
Sitting outside on a typically windy night, Farhad asks Omar about his oud and whether he is as famous as Donny Osmond or Umm Kulthum. He offers to be his agent and helps him peel an orange, which Omar has been struggling to do one-handed. But things move slowly on Uist, with the highlight of the day being to stand in the front garden and watch the opera-loving postman (Rob Keltie) manoeuvre his van between the other properties in their remote cul-de-sac.
At their next assimilation class, Helga and Boris try to explain the term `I used to' with helpful phrases like `I used to have a beautiful house before it was blown up by coalition forces,' that might come in handy during their asylum interviews. When she asks for a volunteer to try a sentence, Abdul (Raadi Mahdi) gets a round of applause when he declares that he used to be happy before he came here, but has stopped crying himself to sleep because he has nothing left to fear.
Playing with a biff bat he bought from the charity store instead of getting a coat, Farhad accompanies Omar to the surgery hut, where they find a note stating that the doctor will only visit once a month, weather permitting. After taking down a recipe from his mother and assuring her that he had heard nothing from his brother Nabil (Kais Nashif) in Syria, Omar goes for a walk to the jetty.
Dressed in a dolphin costume, Margaret (Grace Chilton) hands him a flyer, while
Mike (Raymond Mearns) asks if he's a tourist. They comment on the fact that the asylum seekers have boosted the island population by 25% and reassure him that the local racist bigot (who once bit a tourist's finger off and spat it in his beer) has just died, so Omar has no reason to be afraid of any abuse or violence. Mike also tips off Omar about cash-in-hand jobs at the nearby fish factory.
Having returned from a trip to the dunes, Omar looks at footage of his family on his phone, Later, he joins Farhad in listening to Wasef and Abedi arguing about whether Ross and Rachel were on a break when he slept with someone else. Wasef expresses his frustration because he is football mad and knows that Chelsea scouts are never going to come to Scotland and find him.
The housemates wander over to the fish factory in time to see workers being bundled into the back of a police van. Farhad vents his contempt for economic migrants, but Abedi has no idea what they are. Bumping into Helga and Boris, they notice a poster for an open mic night at the local pub. As Omar's manager, Farhad agrees to let him play at a finger buffer soirée that Helga is planning and Boris is excited by the prospect of hearing some Syrian music.
Omar goes to the supermarket to find the ingredients for his mother's dish. However, the shelves are virtually empty, despite Vikram (Sanjeev Kohli) listing the week's special offers over the tannoy. He's a Sikh and takes offence when Omar repeats Mike's term for a Pakistani. Speaking in a thick Scottish accent, he orders Omar to read from the list of banned words on the wall behind him. But he admits to not knowing how racist epithets work when they're used by people with the same skin colour. When Omar asks about whether he stocks sumac, Vikram takes a bite out of an apple and shrugs.
Farhad acquires a bicycle and takes Omar to a free range egg farm. Omar is curious to know what a `range egg' is, but Farhad is too busy looking at the chickens in a wired-off pen. Back in Afghanistan, he had a special chicken called `Freddie' and he explains how newcomers to a coop often get shunned. However, wolves aren't bothered which birds they kill and Farhad nods sadly at the sagacity of his words. He starts singing `The Great Pretender' and Omar joins in, as the lyrics speak for them both.
At the next class, Abedi practices making a phone call to ask Helga about a cleaning job. He pretends to check his diary before confirming an interview time and Farhad is curious to know whether he would get the post. Wasef sneers that he made a mess of things, but Abedi snaps back to deride his dream of playing for Chelsea, when he is too old and unskilled. Helga suggests that any ambition is worth having, but Wasef storms out of the hall.
Having has his plaster removed, Omar tries to play the oud. But it sounds awful and Farhad is worried that he has forgotten how to play. They sit on the slide in a playground and Omar claims the sound holes remind him of the family garden in Damascus. He misses the fresh apricots and notes that he never understood the proverb about apricots never coming because they always had them.
That night, Omar and Abedi watch Wasef play keepie up. Abedi confides that he isn't really his brother, as he is from Ghana. But Wasef had saved his life during their sea crossing and he had agreed to pose as siblings so that Wasef would have a better chance of claiming asylum as a 17 year-old's guardian. Shortly after Farhad steals a chicken (whom he names Freddie, Jr.), the police come to the house. Wasef bolts through the window, but Abedi is bundled into the back of a van, as snow starts to fall.
A dusting covers the long grass, as Omar phones home. He learns that Nabil has been in touch and has convinced his parents that it's safe to return to Syria. Having been involved in an altercation with the police, Omar's father is ready to quit Turkey and he implores his son to join them and fight for a noble cause. But Omar doesn't see the point of having come so far to become a martyr and he slams down the receiver.
Trudging home, he is asked by Jim (Gilly Gilchrist) to help search for some missing lambs on the next island. With visibility closing in, he stumbles on with his oud case and a torch. Through the murk, he finds Wasef's frozen corpse in a hollow, but decides to say nothing about it. Omar is so shocked that he forgets his oud and barks at Jim when he catches up with him on his buggy.
He is no more communicative with Farhad when he pops his head around the door to say he didn't win the karaoke competition. Tired of his chirpiness and his alektorophilia, Omar asks Farhad whether he ever thinks about his old life and returning home. When Farhad insists he can't go back, Omar accuses him through the mottled glass of the living-room door of being a nobody would rather have sitcom-inspired dreams of wearing a suit to work than face up to reality.
Calling home, Omar asks his mother if he did the right thing in leaving and she reassures him he did. She promises not to return to Syria while it's still dangerous, but pleads with him to phone Nabil. Climbing up to the wind turbines on the hill, Omar gets enough bars to call, but can't bring himself to leave a message.
Turning, he sees a shepherd's shack and lights a fire inside. Much to his surprise, Nabil sits down beside him. He offers him a bite of the apricot pastry and Omar asks if their mother made it. Nabil reveals that the apricot tree is long gone and they discuss Omar's reasons for fleeing. Refusing to judge, Nabil reminds his brother that a musician who doesn't play is dead. As he picks up his oud, however, Omar realises he's alone and he wanders outside to see the Northern Lights and remembers Boris's word about them reflecting the spirit of lost loved ones.
Returning home, Omar learns that Farhad's application has been successful and he apologises for being unkind to him. He one of the boatman to take him across to the next island, where he digs a grave for Wasef and recites a burial rite. When he goes to the supermarket, he is pleasantly surprised to see a single pack of sumac on a shelf. Vikram tells him it's for buying not sniffing before asking about the concert.
Omar accompanies Farhad, as he returns Freddie, Jr. to the coop and compliments him on his ill-fitting suit and clip-on tie. He's on the front row in the village hall, along with Helga and Boris, as Omar takes to the stage. His mind flashes back to the phone footage of his last performance in front of his family, but he retains his composure to play beautifully. As the sound drains away from the image in the dimly-lit hall, we see Omar striding out along a straight island road clutching his case. He still has to wait for his verdict. But, as the frame symbolically opens out from the boxy Academy ratio, he has regained his sense of direction and self.
Just as Pikadero felt like a Basque twist on the Boulting brothers comedy, The Family Way (1966), so Limbo contains echoes of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983), right down to the key role played by an isolated telephone box. In some ways, Omar and Farhad are complementary characters to Goska (Zorion Eguileor) and Ane (Bárbara Goenaga), as the former pair are coaxed out of their shells by the latter twosome.
Reminiscent of Scott Graham's Shell (2012), the measured pacing is also the same, while each film opens with off-screen sounds that are eventually shown to emanate from a cyclist struggling up a steep hill and a smiley face being drawn on a blackboard.
Smiles may be few and far between in the Hebrides, but Omar and Farhad's mouth-covering game reminds us that it's not always easy to detect what's going on inside someone's head from external appearances. As Abedi is the only man to discuss his experiences in reaching Scotland, we don't know what the housemates have had to endure either in their homelands or on their travels. But each is evidently dealing with his demons, while also trying to keep a lid on the dread that they may be deported.
Despite what's at stake, Sharrock (who will doubtlessly be accused in some quarters of tackling a subject for which he is unqualified, despite having lived in Syria and filmed in holding camps in Algeria) takes a leaf out of Aki Kaurismäki's book by lacing the action with moments of deadpan and sometimes absurd humour. Much of the latter comes from Helga and Boris, whose backstory is also left tantalisingly vague. They are wittily played by Bibse Babett Knudsen and Kenneth Collard, with the opening dance sequence being a delight. But Knudsen's phone exercise with Kwabena Ansah is also neatly judged, as Sharrock sends up the asylum process while also exposing its shortcomings.
This mix of wit, warmth and woe keeps a lid on the outrage that we should feel at the casual racism on show on Uist and the utter indifference displayed by the immigration authorities, who are despicably notable by their faceless absence. Helga and Boris might offer advice on how to behave in an interview, but there's little evidence to suggest that these migrants are being given a chance to make their case.
There's certainly no counselling on offer for Omar, whose calls home serve as both therapy sessions and the source of further guilt, homesickness and exilic anxiety. At least he has someone to call, as the same doesn't seem to be true for Farhad, Wasef and Abedi, who seem to have adopted the six cast members of Friends as their surrogate families. All four are superbly played, but Amir El-Masry and Vikash Bhai are exceptional.
The sparsely furnished refuge is a far cry from Central Perk, however, and production designer Andy Drummond plays as vital a role as cinematographer Nick Cooke and sound designer Ben Baird in capturing the bleak beauty of the environs and the aura of suspended time that cocoons locals and enforced guests alike. Hutch Demouilpied's score and the astute editing of Karel Dolak and Lucia Zucchetti also contribute to the alienating ennui that eventually drives Omar to question whether he has made the right decision to flee a war zone.
Omar's spectral reunion with his sibling is perhaps the film's sole misstep, especially as subsequent use of the Northern Lights seems out-of-keepingly sentimental. But the scene in which Omar ensures that Wasef remains free by burying him on the island without the knowledge of the authorities has a potency that should leave few unmoved.
NIGHT OF THE KINGS.
As a child, director Philipe Lacôte once visited his mother in La MACA, a notorious correctional facility in the Ivory Coast. Decades later, having followed a series of shorts with his feature bow, Run (2014), Lacôte blends a mix of memory and myth to recreate the prison and its seethingly febrile atmosphere in Night of the Kings.
In La MACA, a forbidding bastion situated in the middle of the dense Banco forest, power lies with the Dangôro, a prisoner who is feared by the rest of the inmates. According to custom, however, he must kill himself when he is too sick to continue and successors Lass (Abdoul Karim Konaté) and Half Mad (Jean Cyrille Digbeu) start to circle around Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), whose health has deteriorated to the extent that he has to carry around an oxygen mask.
In order to buy himself time to go out on his own terms, Blackbeard spots a new arrival (Bakary Koné) and appoints him to the post of `Roman', a storyteller who must keep his audience enthralled throughout the night of the red moon. A thief who belongs to the Microbe gang, Roman has been arrested following the assassination of his gang leader, Zama King. But he has never told a story in his life and feels intimidated when, on arriving in the wing known as `The Jungle', he is swept along by the prisoners who had been taunting a transvestite named Sexy (Gbazi Yves Landry). who had been made to strip off their leopard print dress and wear a Guantanámo orange bag on their head.
While in the showers, Roman asks Razor Blade (Macel Anzian) what he has to do, but he receives no reply and is further unnerved when Silence (Denis Lavant), MACA's only white prisoner, fixes him with his stare. Under the watchful eye of Warden Nivaquine (Issaka Sawadogo), Roman is led into the communal area in a purple shirt. He starts hesitantly and Lass informs his followers that Blackbird's stalling tactic has backfired and he makes plans to murder his ally, Koby (Stéphane Sebime).
However, Roman grabs the attention of his audience by revealing that he grew up with Zama (Goneti Oscar) in Abidjan's Lawless Quarter. Then, he shocks them by declaring that he witnessed his necklacing just hours earlier. But the story has to be paused when supper is served and Silence uses the delay to inform Roman that he has to sustain his tale until sunrise or he will be killed.
As he returns to his little wooden podium, Roman apologises for starting the story at the end and takes his hearers back to the Atlantic coastal village where Zama was raised by his blind beggar father, Soni (Rasmané Ouédraogo), after his mother, Hélène (Marie-Josdée Néné), was shot by the soldiers of the local queen (Laetitia Ky). However, Soni was a shrewd operator and he became the queen's closest confidant, as she waged war against her younger brother. Wrapped up in the saga, some of the inmates begin acting out scenes, while another group burst into a song in praise of Zama.
But the narrative is interrupted by a cry from Sexy's cell, where Koby has been slain. Blackbeard knows that Lass is plotting against him and he orders Roman to his quarters. He asks why he chose the story of Zama King and Roman insists he had no motive, as it had come to him out of the blue. Refusing to end the Roman tradition, Blackbeard informs the thief that he picked him because he wanted to shed blood one last time and believes he is a deserving candidate to die. However, he spares him and orders Half Mad (who has been urging Blackbeard to name him as his successor) to return him to the landing to continue his yarn.
Wearing the robe of a condemned man, Blackbeard descends into a water tank and drowns. But Roman is not allowed to stop and he explains how Soni had managed to convince the queen that she would be protected because he spoke the language of the stars. However, she is defeated in a battle of magical powers and Soni is forced to assume a disguise and smuggle Zama into the Lawless Quarter.
Soni seeks to protect Zama with a magic amulet that he wears around his neck and, following the overthrow of President Laurent Gbagbo, the rebels entrust Zama with ruling the Lawless Quarter. Adopting the name Microbes from Fernando Meirelles's City of God (2002), he launched Operation Clean City and not only fleeced the rich, but also eliminated his foes. Until the day, he strayed off his turf and was captured and burned with a tyre around his neck.
Roman had slipped away from the baying crowd and he saves his neck again by revealing that he has saved the twist in the tale until the end. The inmates are aghast to learn that Soni and Hélène were not Zama's real parents and that he had been a foundling. But Half Mad intervenes because he thinks Roman is spinning out the story to save his neck and a fight breaks out when Lass leaps to his defence. As Roman runs to hide in a spot where he can watch the sun come up, Nivaquine fires his pistol through a peep hatch in the wall and kills Half Mad, Lass and their sidekicks. A hush descends on La MACA and Roman edges outside to feel the hot sun on his skin.
Despite having a uniquely African feel, this uncompromising celebration of the griot tradition contains echoes of Zeina Daccache's 12 Angry Lebanese (2009) and Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's Caesar Must Die (2012), which were respectively set in Beirut's Roumieh and Rome's Rebibbia prisons. In fact, Lacôte only filmed the outside of La MACA and production designer Samuel Teisseire should be commended for recreating interiors that are every bit as terrifying as Lek Chaiyan Chunsuttiwat's recreation of Thailand's Klong Prem jail in Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire's A Prayer Before Dawn (2017).
Cinematographer Tobie Marier Robitaille's lighting is also key to both generating the intimidating atmosphere and pulling off the shifts in tone and setting that arise as Roman weaves his narrative against the power battle developing in The Jungle. The tension is further whipped up by the embattled instruments on Olivier Alary's soundtrack.
Yet, as we know nothing about the rivals for Blackbeard's throne, the feud between Lass and Half Mad is never as compelling as Lacôte. Similarly, the tale of Zama King needs more context for outsiders to grasp its social and political significance and it's only when some of the listeners start to participate in the telling that it intrigues.
Nevertheless, the debuting Bakary Koné proves a riveting presence as the sacrificial victim using his wits to stay alive, while Jean Cyrille Digbeu and Abdoul Karim Konaté are schemingly menacing as the thugs seeking to succeed the fading Steve Tientcheu. But the most polished scene-stealing comes from Denis Lavant, whose turn as the watchful Silence is made all the more disarming by the fact that he goes everywhere with a chicken on his shoulder.
RUNNING AGAINST THE WIND.
German debutant Jan Philipp Weyl has waited half a lifetime to make Running Against the Wind. As a schoolboy, Weyl had raised money for Menschen für Menschen to build a school in a remote part of Ethiopia and had travelled to the region with actor Karlheinz Böhm to see how the project was panning out. The impact his digital camera made on the younger villagers lingered in his mind and the result is this well-meaning, if somewhat convoluted drama.
Abdi Getachew (Ferhane Beker) and Solomon Tefera (Alamudin Abduselam) tend goats in the northern Ethiopian village of Ganda Abdi. Solomon is fascinated when humanitarian worker Tino (Carlo Sohn) comes to take pictures and he gets to see himself in the small screen at the back of the digital camera. Tino secures permission to take the boys to Addis Ababa and they view the bustle and bright lights with wide-open eyes.
Abdi has ambitions to become a runner, as he idolises Haile Gebreselassie. But, while he seems content to slip back into his routine, the trip to the capital unsettles his friend. When his father dies, Solomon urges Abdi to run away to the city and steals Tino's camera after he makes a return visit. Forced to sleep rough, Solomon falls in with street kids Mosambik (Abel Derje) and Joker (Eyob Engeda) and quickly develops a crush on Genet (Mahlete Dereje).
Dismayed by his friend's departure, Abdi dedicates himself to his running. Now a young man, he (Ashenafi Nigusu) is spotted by a talent scout and invited to a training camp in Addis Ababa to develop under coach Negussie Mariam (Genene Alemu). He is raw, but willing to learn. However, he is also curious to find out what has happened to Solomon, who has been given up for dead by the villagers. In fact, he (Mikias Wolde) and Genet (Samrawit Desalegn) have a young daughter, Fikir (Yemariam Melkamu). But they are still living in the Chichinea shanty on the outskirts and Solomon ekes out a living collecting rubbish with Joker (Sintayehu Geremew).
Kiflom (Joseph Reta Belay) has plans to make big money by stealing car parts for a Tatek the gangster (Sintayehu Arega). But he is unimpressed with their meagre pickings and Genet is furious with Solomon for taking Fikir to the club where Tatek hangs out. She threatens to leave him, but he still goes joyriding with his pals in a stolen people carrier, which they torch after Joker tips it on its side.
Despite winning a sizeable sum in prize money, meeting Haile Gebreselassie and catching the eye of journalist Sara (Dagmawit Darasfa), Abdi remains intent on finding Solomon and takes a risk by wandering into Chichinea at night. He is beaten up by Kiflom, but Joker guides him to safety because he recognises him from Solomon's photographs. However, when Kiflom hurls a Molotov cocktail into Tatek's bar, Joker is killed in a fall during the ensuing chase and Genet is so afraid for her daughter that she goes home to her mother.
Solomon gets drunk in a bar, where he comes to the attention of photographer Paul Reeb (Jan Philipp Weyl). He also reunites with Abdi, who persuades the coach to take him on as his assistant. Fellow athlete Sisay (Kiflom Aregawi) sneers at his uncouth nature, but the coach is pleased with his work and Solomon uses his wages to build a corrugated iron shack in the hope that Genet and Fikir will return.
Following a tearful reconciliation, Solomon promises Genet that he will find legitimate work. He bumps into Reeb in a gallery and he praises his pictures. When he is asked to pose for a condom advert with Sara, Abdi lands Solomon a job helping the photographer. But he gets fired for criticising his glossy style, as he favours street realism. Reeb shares his views and talks a gallery into exhibiting Solomon's work. Envious, Kiflom tries to gatecrash the reception and Abdi is confused by Solomon's loyalty to people who can only drag him down.
Sure enough, Tatek takes Kiflom hostage and tells Solomon that he will kill him, along with Genet and Fikir, unless he steals Abdi's prize money. Although he takes the cash from his friend's track locker, Tatek tells Solomon that the deadline has expired and he not only threatens to kill Kiflom, but also the kidnapped Abdi. A fight breaks out and the trio manage to prevail and flee. Kiflom returns Solomon's camera and Abdi's cash, but he tells him to keep it and turn his life around.
Heading to the stadium, Abdi joins the big race in the nick of time. However, he steps off the track at the last moment to allow Sisay to win, as he sees himself merely as a pacemaker rather than an elite athlete. Consequently, he joins Solomon, Genet and Fikir in Reeb's car and they leave the city behind and make for home.
Weyl has stated in interviews that he was intent on making an `anti white savior' narrative that focused on the viewpoints of the African characters. To some degree, he has succeeded. But Solomon's story would have taken a very different turn without the interventions of Tino and Reeb. Indeed, the former's failure to hop in his vehicle and retrieve his stolen camera from a tweenager high-tailing it across an arid plain is one of the more contrived elements of a storyline that has much in common with the Nollywood brand of melodrama.
Nevertheless, Weyl and longtime cinematographer friend Mateusz Smolka do a splendid job in contrasting Ganda Abdi, Chichinea and the swishier parts of Addis Ababa. However, Weyl and editor Amanuel Tilahun Tadesse prove unable to resist montage sequences that give the action a pop video vibe that does much to undermine its gravity. The more simplistic aspects of the screenplay prove equally enervating, as does the shallowness of the characterisation.
Yet Weyl coaxes fine performances out of Alamudin Abduselam and Mikias Wolde, as Solomon lurches between the consequences of his often reckless actions. He's a much more intriguing character than Abdi, whose sole purpose is to demonstrate that friendship is more important than wealth and fame. Samrawit Desalegn's Genet serves a similar purpose with regard to family, although Weyl and co-scenarist Michael Wogh rather fudge her decision to return to Solomon, in spite of the fact he's shown little sign that he has learned his lesson, let along turned over a new leaf. However, the sense of place is very strong, as is the clash between Abdi's life-changing triumphs and Solomon's small daily victories, which reveal a keen understanding of the culture of poverty and the moral and psychological commitment required to haul oneself off the lowest rung. Thus, the picture deservedly became Ethiopia's selection for the Academy Award for Best International Film.
MADISON AND THE HAPPINESS JAR.
Teenager Madison Garner (Melanie Britton) has a lot to think about, as she drives to the restored plantation house in Westmont where she used to summer with her grandparents. Mother Karen (Kim Britton) wants Madison to take a business studies degree, while Uncle Fred (Luke Brooks) has contested her right to the inherit the house and has offered her $50,000 to avoid a costly law suit. Sheriff Morris (Jacob Turner) warns her about Fred's nasty nature and she wishes her estranged father would come home to confront his grasping brother.
At the office of lawyer Claire Kent (Tanya Waltisbuhl), Madison is given the glass jar in which her grandparents had stored the notes they had written on their happiest days and she is inspired by their abiding love for one another to keep the house. While visiting the lake her grandmother had mentioned, Madison meets Axel (Jamie Carter), who works part-time at the local newspaper when not helping sister Paige (Claire Kavanagh) at her fruit farm.
While musing over Axel's torso, Madison also makes the acquaintance of Parson Yates (James Mana), who is under pressure from his older brother, Nathan (Michael Joaquin), to act like the son of Westmont's mayor and stop behaving like a spoilt brat. He invites Madison for a row in his boat and lesbian neighbour, Kenna (Isabella Hayes), notices that her new friend is torn between the two boys.
Reminded by his sister that a faint heart never wins a fair maiden, Axel tries to impress Madison by mowing the lawn at the house. But Parson trumps him with a surprise picnic, only to be spurned when he closes in for a kiss. Axel has more luck in that regard and Madison agrees to become his girl.
Parson takes the news magnanimously and each earns Madison's gratitude when he finds documents thwarting Fred's bid to level the house and build condos. But she has a new love in her life, the camera she bought of Mr Sullivan (Johnny Norris) at yard sale. He offers to develop her pictures and is so impressed by the way she captures personality that he encourages her to apply to his alma mater, the New York School of Photography.
As chance would have it, Axel lands a job at a paper in the Big Apple and the pair make plans to live together. But, at the annual end of summer lake party, Axel's old flame, Jessica (Jacinta Cahill), makes a play to win him back and Madison is crushed. Axel gets the wrong end of the stick when Parson tries to console her. However, they sort things out and a voiceover accompanying shots of the Manhattan Bridge suggest that everyone will live happily ever after, including Madison's mom and the sheriff.
The waffle breakfast involving Madison, Karen, their beaux and Kenna sums up the sappiness of Chrys Phillips's debut feature, which feels like Mills & Boon and Laura Ashley have teamed on a truncated YA soap opera. The acting is simply dreadful, yet it has a certain sincerity. Moreover, it has to be remembered that Phillips made the film in Australia at the height of the pandemic. For this alone, she and her cast deserve both enormous credit and to be cut a degree of slack.
The screenplay seeks to explore the options open to young women seeking a direction in life and the pressures they often face to follow parental advice. In truth, the speed with which Madison discovers her photographic métier and manages to secure a place at a prestigious New York school on the basis of some snaps we never get to see strains credibility.
Similarly, the ease with which she sees off wicked Uncle Fred deprives the action of any sort of dramatic conflict. Given that he is in cahoots with the mayor, it seems like an opportunity has been missed to resolve Parsons's family crisis. But problems are not made to last in Westmont, with even the romantic entanglements proving less knotty than a slipped buntline.
Borrowing the gladness theme from Eleanor H. Porter's Pollyanna, Phillips might have made more of the quaint notion of a jar filled with reasons to be cheerful. But, while these bon mots teach viewers to treasure the simple things in life, they also reinforce the sense of white entitlement that seeps into each soft-focus frame.
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BOY IN THE WORLD.
Director Kristian Petri first met Björn Andrésen when they were working on a children's television programme in Sweden. As he got to know the actor better, Petri introduced him to Kristina Lindstrom and, over a period of years, they persuaded Andrésen to look back on his life in what they hoped would be a cathartic documentary entitled, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World.
Andrésen had been given the eponymous epithet by Luchino Visconti, the Italian auteur who had cast him as Tadzio in his 1971 adaptation of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. Although the 15 year-old had acted before, in Roy Andersson's A Swedish Love Story (1970), he only attended the audition at the behest of the grandmother who had raised him since the death of his mother at the age of 11.
It's clear from the Super-8 test footage that Andrésen is uncomfortable before the camera. Yet his shy smile transfixed Visconti, who insisted on the youth stripping to his underwear to confirm that he had found the vision of beauty who would drive Dirk Bogarde's vacationing composer Gustav von Aschenbach to the brink of despair.
Seen today, with his long grey hair and a straggly beard, Andrésen is barely recognisable as Visconti's epitome of sailor-suited perfection and he is quick to claim that the film ruined his life. However, Lindström and Petri afford Andrésen the time and space to reassess his assertion, as they took him back to some of his former haunts during the five-year shoot.
An early scene shows girlfriend Jessica Vennberg arriving at Andrésen's flat to help him eradicate the years of neglect that had left him on the verge of eviction. She explains that they have a complicated relationship and the same seems true of his daughter, Robine Román. Sister Annike Andresen cuts more slack, however, as she recalls that Björn never knew his father and was plucked from his Danish home and dispatched to Sweden after his bohemian mother, Barbro, disappeared some time in 1966 and was found in some nearby woods seven months later. However, she left behind recordings of letters and poems that are played periodically to offer an insight into Andrésen's bond with his mother and the impact that her tragic loss might have wrought.
However, the primary focus falls on Death in Venice and the revelation that Visconti had to order the mostly gay crew to keep their distance from the underage Andrésen while they were on location. The director himself viewed the Swede as a statue and certainly treated him as though he had no feelings to hurt. At a press conference at Cannes, for example, he slipped into French to confide that Andrésen (who is sitting uncomprehendingly beside him) has lost his looks since they finished filming. Nevertheless, the producers still whisked him off to a launch party at a gay bar, where Andrésen got so drunk that he has no idea what might (and what might not) have happened during the course of the night.
Casting director Margareta Krantz and governess Miriam Sambol are adamant that nothing untoward occurred. But Andrésen recalls spending a bewildering time in Paris as the guest of a wealthy man who installed him in the lap of luxury and proceeded to loan him out as an eye candy escort to his gay friends.
He had more fun in Japan, where he was greeted like a rock star and whisked into a recording studio to produce a string of poppy hits. Andrésen also appeared in commercials and became a favourite model for manga artists like Riyoko Ikeda, who took inspiration from his flowing blonde locks for their androgynous `bishonen' characters.
While on his memory lane trip with Lindström and Petri, Andrésen is amused by having to sing one of his old hits in a karaoke bar. He certainly seems more at home here than in the murky corridors of the derelict Grand Hotel des Bains on the Lido in Venice. But so many places have unhappy associations for Andrésen that it seems impossible for him to escape from his past.
He looks through old photo albums with Robine and he reflects on his marriage to poet Suzanna Román. In particular, he recalls the time she entrusted him with their nine-month son, Elvin, when he was the worse for alcohol and he woke from a nap to discover that the boy had succumbed to sudden infant death syndrome. Crushed by the loss and stricken with guilt, Andrésen descended into an alcoholic depression from which it took a monumental act of will to emerge.
He continued to work intermittently, most recently making a notable appearance in Ari Aster's Midsommar (2019). But the shadow of Tadzio lingers, even though Andrésen decides by the end of his odyssey that its effect on his life hadn't been entirely negative. One can only hope he feels the same way about this profile, which remains forever mindful of the need not to leave its subject feeling exploited or betrayed, as it presents its discoveries with what can sometimes feel like self-hugging discretion.
Cinematographer Erik Vallsten deftly captures the sense that Andrésen feels like a stranger everywhere he goes and this aura of disorientation informs Anna von Hausswolff and Filip Layman's score and Brian Dyrby and Kristoffer Salting's sound design. There's a regrettable hint that every gay man who approached Andrésen was a pederast or a predator. But the points about the objectification and exploitation of beauty are capably made and connect (albeit a touch too subtly) with the issues raised in recent times by #MeToo activists.
Similarly, the co-directors prompt viewers into reflecting on how often bids to preserve and project perfection often result in its destruction. Indeed, there is so much to admire here that one is left frustrated that Lindström's Palme (2012) and Astrid (2014) - about Swedish prime minister Olof Palme and writer Astrid Lindgren - are as inaccessible online as L163 (2018), Petri's study of the production of Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light (1963).