Written by Sarah Gubbins
Directed by Josephine Decker
This is not a biopic about Shirley Jackson. This is an adaptation of a novel that is, in turn, a fictionalized version of Jackson’s life. In particular, it focuses on the tension between Jackson and her husband Stanley Hyman, a literary critic and professor. The film attempts to tell this story in the style of the writer’s gothic psychological short stories, with lots of people descending into a realistic form of madness. There’s no homicide involved, just humans breaking down and resisting saying the most horrible things to each other. On paper, this sounds fantastic, but something happens in the translation that renders the film lacking in the emotional impact I believe it should have had.
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The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)
Written & Directed by Sara Colangelo
In the middle of The Kindergarten Teacher, the titular educator, Lisa is sitting in the office of her poetry teacher Simon. She’s going to night school to workshop her poems, and he’s interested in some pieces she’s brought in. When Simon learns she teaches the littlest of students, he remarks, “That’s so fragile. You give them something that they carry with them forever.” You see Lisa contemplating this statement and realizes he’s correct, weighing how much influence she truly has over these tiny people charged to her care. Lisa’s entire arc in this film is about her own fragility and regret, which is what drives her to take some shocking actions.
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Written by Jonathan Bernstein & James Greer
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Sawyer Valentini has recently made a big move away from her home in Boston. The circumstances that led her to this decision was the persistent stalking by an acquaintance. The trauma of this experience leads Sawyer into seeing this man everywhere she turns. It reaches such a point of distress that she books an appointment to visit a counselor at the Highland Creek Behavior Center. After a brief and productive meeting with a therapist, Sawyer is saddled with filling out some extra paperwork. Before she realizes, Sawyer has voluntarily checked herself into the center for a 24 hour period. This causes her to get physical with fellow patients and staff leading to an extension of a week. And then she begins seeing her stalker around the mental hospital. Is this her mind genuinely fracturing or something much more insidious?
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Always Shine (2016, dir. Sophia Takal)
Two friends, Beth and Anna, are headed to Big Sur for a weekend getaway. Both women are actresses in Los Angeles with a big difference: Beth keeps booking bigger and bigger roles while Anna is passed over regularly. Anna believes this is rooted in their personal demeanors. Beth is perfect for the sexy but non-threatening female roles. Anna is “aggressive” by simply being very clear and direct about what she wants. Over the course of this weekend the friendship between these women will be strained to the breaking point with horrific consequences.
It’s no surprise that Always Shine is thematically about women existing in male dominated spaces. Our main characters are archetypal depictions of women in cinema, or in Anna’s case women that are marginalized in cinema. Director Takal shows a ton of skill in layering that theme under the story of this friendship and the psychological breakdown of one character. What could have been didactic and ultimately turned into a philosophical abstraction ends up being a visually engaging psychological thriller that isn’t exploitative.
The challenge in a film like Always Shine is making sure the audience doesn’t view one character as the bad one and the other good one. Beth is your traditional Final Girl and the film opens with her auditioning for the role of such a character in a horror movie. The producers inform her that the role will have “extensive nudity” and Beth is unaware of this fact, her agent didn’t tell her of that detail. Our introduction to Anna is a direct to camera monologue when she picks up her car from the mechanic. A repair was made without her consent and she unloads. Both of these scenes set up how these women are perceived by the men they interact with, but they are also subverted for the rest of the film. In particular as we get to know Anna better, we learn she is not a sweet, kind person. In many ways, she is playing a role to her own advantage.
Mackenzie Davis’ performance as Anna is the core of the film and, like in everything she appears in, she knocks it out of the park. It’s likely Davis experienced the struggles as she was developing her career and likely faces the problem of being offered roles that would force her to take on this behavior that is so antithetical to who she is. There are a number of compelling character scenes between she and Caitlin Fitzgerald who plays Beth that are beyond just awkward but painful. One scene has Anna learning about Beth’s casting as the lead in the horror film from the opening. Anna pushes to do a read through with a hesitant Beth and the scenes plays out like a competition or challenge. Anna is adamant that she’ll show Beth her prowess. The film is intelligent enough to not overtly talk about male perceptions shaping these women, but the subtext is there, buried beneath all the tension.
The structures and the themes of identity working in the film reminded me of Nicolas Roeg’s Performance. In that movie, the traditional macho archetype meets a counterculture sexually liberated almost sorcerer and their persona’s begin to meld and split. Always Shine leaves the final outcome up to the viewer. We see police. We see an ambulance. But one character’s fate is left in question. Will she disappear into the woods, invisible or will she step out and make herself heard?
The Living and The Dead (2006, dir. Simon Rumley)
Starring Roger Lloyd-Pack, Leo Bill, Kathy Fahy
It’s very hard for me to write about this film after having just watched it today. It affected me in a deeply emotional way that very few films are able to. After cinema becomes a daily occurrence, you are naturally numbed to the typical emotional tricks of filmmakers. I was aware of this film first as a horror picture. The director, Simon Rumley came out of nowhere with this small picture that made the festival circuits. It never really the mainstream venues, instead traveling to the fringe horror festivals. I am very curious as to how it was received because more than anything this film is a deeply disturbing, yet also sensitive, portrayal of the pain of severe mental illness. The film achieved something very few have in recent years, it made me cry. There is a scene in the last third of the film that is so emotionally devastating I can’t see how anyone could watch it and not break down.
The former Lord Donald Brocklebank must leave his dreary estate in the middle of the English countryside for unknown reasons. His wife, Nancy is suffering from cancer and his son James is severely mentally challenged, requiring daily pills and injections to keep his delusions in check. Donald instructs James that Nurse Mary will round to tend to Nancy. However, James forgets his injections and decides to prove he can be the man of the house by locking Nurse Mary out and trying to tend to mother himself. It’s painful to watch James descend into madness while unknowingly hurting his mother again and again. The film makes a sudden major shift in the narrative about half way through that really cements the idea that we are seeing the story through the mind of a mentally ill person. And the finale is just jolting and ambiguous enough that I believe this film will stay with you for years.
Leo Bill should have received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of James. His face is recognizable as that of Darwin in Tarsem Singh’s The Fall, as well as the arranged suitor of Alice in Tim Burton’s recent Alice in Wonderland film. Here is firing on all cylinders, delivering a performance that is so powerful and unrestrained. Even now, just thinking about certain scenes I feel my gut in a knot and heart breaking all over again. James is both terrifying and sympathetic. I thought of the prayer of Christ on the cross, crying out “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.” That is exactly how we and the other characters in the film inevitably have to view James. His reality is a different plane of existence than ours and he can hurt people while believe he’s simply giving them a hug.
I can’t emphasize enough what a profound piece of cinema this is. While labeled “horror” I would argue that there is no human monster in the film. The monster is mental illness and the shattering pain and emotional trauma we humans are forced to bear. I don’t know if I could ever watch The Living and The Dead again, much in the same way I am unable to revisit Requiem for A Dream. Both movies are so effective in getting across the helpless pain they want to portray that, while we acknowledge them as masterpieces, our psyches are too fragile to confront them again.