Thursday, March 26, 2015

movie review: Becoming Bulletproof

Becoming Bulletproof 
(USA, 2014)
director: Michael Barnatt

Before I watched this movie I had never heard of Zeno Mountain Farm or any of their projects. It turns out that ever since about 2008, they have been organizing a number of annual events where people with disabilities get the chance to come and experience the joy and satisfaction that come with collaborating on a group project.

In the case of Becoming Bulletproof, that project is a film. In previous years, Zeno has made a horror movie, a romantic comedy, and a time-travelling movie. Each film involves a professional crew of volunteers and a large cast of actors, approximately 1/3 of whom have disabilities such as Williams syndrome, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, and autism. This year, the film is a western called Bulletproof Jackson.

The documentary follows the filmmaking process, showing both the exciting moments (staging a gunfight) and the boredom inducing or downright irritating moments (waiting to shoot your scene while others are doing theirs; sitting through take after take as your costars forget their lines or someone lets the boom cast a shadow over an actor's face).

At the same time, it explores the philosophy behind Zeno. Each person who attends the camp is paired with another person who looks after his or her physical needs and provides companionship. However, the camp does not use terms like "clients" and "staff or "campers" and "counsellors." This means that even though some participants need someone to, say, help them with physical activities like bathing or dressing themselves, there is still a sense of dignity about the whole affair. As one of the camp founders points out, many of the camp attendees spend little to no time during the rest of the year with people who aren't paid to spend time with them. One of the rules of the camp, therefore, is that no one pays to be there, and no one is paid to be there.

There are many cast members, but the film focuses on just a few. AJ is a 32 year old man with cerebral palsy who has just joined Zeno this year. He had applied to attend a while back, but because the organization's philosophy states that people are invited back every year, he had to wait for a space to open up. When it finally did, he was overjoyed. AJ's mom, with whom he lives, expresses happiness that he has this opportunity, relief that she will have some respite, and trepidation at sending her son across the country to be with strangers for several weeks.

AJ is an incredibly appealing and thoughtful person. His life is not easy; he experiences pain on an almost minute by minute basis, accompanied by frustration at his physical limitations, and yet, as his mother says, he maintains an amazing sense of hope and happiness. He wants to be an actor; as one of the able-bodied Zeno participants says, he is hopeful but realistic about his situation. AJ knows he isn't likely to be the lead detective in a CSI show. But if there's a character who is in a wheelchair and has cerebral palsy? Well, then AJ would definitely be the person to do it.

Jeremy, a Zeno veteran, has the lead role as Jackson. He has Williams syndrome, a chromosomal condition which results in a preturnaturally excellent ear for music (we see Jeremy playing the piano and drums with ease and skill), but also intellectual difficulties. People with Williams Sydrome are very social and verbal, and it is easy to see what a benefit this is to Jeremy as an actor. He is natural and charming in the role of Jackson--he has a lot of natural charisma and wit on screen and knows it.

Judy is a woman with cerebral palsy who is more physically limited than AJ, but unlike AJ, she is quite isolated in her daily life. She spends a lot of time alone, and as a result has acquired a doll because, she says, she needed someone to nurture and talk to. Judy is heartbreaking in her directness about her life circumstances, and like all the others is very appealing. She's not always easy to understand (the film helps out with subtitles) but as we witness conversations between her and her Zeno companion, we witness her sly humour emerge.

The film's subject matter could lend itself to a glossily superficial treatment of inspirational people with disabilities. It would be easy to just make a feel-good film that didn't delve deeply into the uncomfortable truths of people's lives. But Becoming Bulletproof doesn't do that. In addition to Judy's frank and honest admission about her lonely day-to-day existence outside Zeno, we also see AJ's mom break down as she admits the grief of knowing that her son experiences excruciating pain and she can't make it better for him. Not only that, but we also see AJ break down as he expresses his frustration at his limitations--Zeno, he says, helps him feel his life has purpose and that he is a worthwhile contributor. When he's at home and can't do anything, he says he feels like he is worthless. By this point, we have gotten to know him quite well and it is heartbreaking to hear such a vibrant, engaged person speak this way about himself. But it's something that we need to hear, because it is the reality for many with his condition.

The documentary neatly avoids many of the pitfalls that could beset a feel-good movie. There is no glossing over the uncomfortable facts of life with a disability, and it is not artificially upbeat. But at the same time, it's not a grim life lesson, either. There are plenty of genuinely funny moments where we are laughing with, not at, the actors. The participants are natural and charming, and they all clearly care deeply about each other. The director of Bulletproof Jackson plainly states that he holds everyone up to a high standard, and we can feel the sense of purpose that the cast and crew feel as they pull together to accomplish this amazing project.

At the end of the film, we see the Zeno movie's premiere. The end result is polished looking and professional--a miracle on a budget that probably doesn't even come in over $25,000. I found myself wishing we could watch more than the two or three minutes of the finished result that we see in the film.

I'm happy to see that Becoming Bulletproof and the film within the film are getting more publicity at various festivals across North America. I highly recommend Becoming Bulletproof--it is exactly what a good documentary should be. It's impossible to watch this and not root for the participants! Definitely two thumbs up.

More information about Zeno Mountain Farm.
More information about Becoming Bulletproof.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

movie review: Felix et Meira

Félix et Meira
(Canada, 2014)
directors: François Delisle, Maxime Giroux

What is it that causes some people to chafe against cultural expectations when others are at peace with conforming? And what happens when these individuals decide there is simply no place for them in their culture of birth?

In Félix et Meira, a young Orthodox Jewish woman, Meira (Hadas Yaron), battles feelings that the life she is expected to lead—early motherhood to an enormous brood of children—is one she dreads. Although Meira has grown up with her religion’s expectations of women, she finds them stifling. She rebels in small ways (listening to forbidden pop music) and large (taking birth control, which she carefully hides in a box of maxi pads along with everything else she doesn’t want her husband to know about). When her husband becomes exasperated with her embarrassing refusal to act like everyone else, she drops to the floor and teases him by playing dead. This, of course, is her unconscious expression of what she is really feeling inside—there is no room for the real Meira whom she must suppress under averted eyes and silent obedience.

One day while waiting to pick up an order from the local kosher deli, Meira crosses paths with Félix (Martin Dubreuil), a feckless artist who is struggling with his own inability to conform to expectations: in his case, the expectations belonged to his wealthy bully of a father, from whom he has become estranged. After many years of bitterness between them, his father is now on his deathbed and doesn’t recognize him. Félix, in his grief, announces to everyone in the deli that his father is dying, but Meira is prevented from expressing her sympathies because according to her culture's dictates, she is not allowed to make eye contact with or speak to him. Even so, the two do make a connection: as he leaves the deli, Félix gives her infant daughter the watercolour painting he is carrying with him. Sure enough, the painting takes its place among Meira's other hidden possessions.

The relationship that develops between the two characters is believable, understated and surprisingly chaste. Here we have two characters driven not by lust, but by longing of a different kind. Meira longs for escape from the fetters of her community; Félix longs for a meaningful connection and escape from the isolation and loneliness he feels, drifting around Montreal under the worried gaze of his affectionate sister.

Part of the strength of film is its nuanced portrayal of each of the three main characters. A lesser movie would have created a villain out of Shulem (Luzer Twersky), Meira's husband. But he is not a cruel man. He is devout, and he is happy within the confines of his Orthodox Judaism. He wishes that Meira could feel the same way. However, he is not a monster, and he cares about her very deeply. (A former Orthodox Jew himself, Twersky also acted as cultural consultant on the film, ensuring that the cultural portrayals were as authentic as possible.) Martin Dubreil does a good job as the playful but gently sorrowful Félix, and Hadas Yaron is especially good as Meira. She manages to convey youth, shyness, and naïveté combined with intelligence, strength, and agency. 

Another strength of the movie is the pacing, which is precise and economical. There are no unnecessary scenes; each one is there for a specific purpose and moves the story along effectively and efficiently to its conclusion. The cinematography is muted and melancholy, as is the soundtrack, which features the excellent "After Laughter" by Wendy Rene and "Famous Blue Raincoat" by Leonard Cohen.

Overall, I would definitely recommend Félix et Meira for a satisfying and sensitive portrayal of a woman coming into her own sense of self.

Monday, March 09, 2015

movie review: Mommy

(Canada, 2014)
director: Xavier Dolan

It's true that Mommy received the Jury Prize at the Cannes film festival last year, but as far as I'm concerned, its true triumph is to have finally convinced me of Celine Dion's musical genius. I'm (mostly) joking, but there is a scene in the movie that pairs Dion's insanely catchy "On Ne Change Pas" ("We Don't Change") with the events on screen in a way that is equal parts amusing, disturbing, and eventually quite beautiful.

Watching Mommy is like being strapped in for the ride on a towering roller coaster. It is equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. At the centre of the movie is the relationship between Diane (Anne Dorval) and Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), her charming but very troubled teenaged son. When we first meet Diane, Steve is being released into her care from a juvenile institution--he's been kicked out for yet another in a series of violent incidents. It's easy to see that Diane loves her son and that he loves her, but it's also clear that they are very capable of bringing out the worst in each other.

Steve's father passed away a few years ago, leaving Diane as the sole breadwinner. But because she never finished high school ("Don't be like me!" she pleads with her son), it's hard for her to find work. Compounding the problem is that in addition to making a living, she has to find a way to homeschool Steve so he can get a high school education and stay out of trouble. Watching Steve and Diane with shy but intense interest is Kyla (Suzanne Clément), the schoolteacher on sabbatical who lives across the street. She seems to need a friend as much as Diane and Steve do, and the unfolding of this triangular relationship is fascinating and unpredictable.

Mommy has so many things going for it: the soundtrack, the sharp and clever writing, the effortless acting of the three leads. Pilon is astoundingly good for such a young actor; Dorval completely inhabits her role with ferocity and beauty; and Clément's calm watchfulness, which could easily have been obscured, manages to assert itself despite the crazy energy of Diane and Steve. The cinematography is beautiful and accomplished: nearly all of it is shot in a very unusual aspect ratio--1:1, or square. Dolan uses this odd framing to great effect, closing us in tightly with the characters on screen in a way that creates both intimacy and intensity.

I have only two minor criticisms of the film. The first is about the rather inexplicable text at the beginning of the film stating that the story is set in the near-future--it's distracting, and the movie would have worked just as well without it. The second is that at 2 hours and 19 minutes, it is a bit too long. However, the final 15 or 20 minutes are wrenching, and easily as riveting as anything at the beginning. Mommy, like Steve, is a howling, whirling dervish of energy that mercilessly whips the audience along, forcing us to bear witness to the destruction he leaves in the wake of his furious love.

Monday, March 02, 2015

movie review: Force Majeure

Force Majeure (original title: Turist)
(Sweden, 2014)
director: Ruben Östlund 

Force Majeure is a movie where you laugh, but then feel kind of bad for laughing. The director is a master of scenes that start out seeming normal, but slowly, slowly spiral downward into discomfort. If I could actually see my fellow audience members' thoughts, I'm pretty sure the words "WORST DINNER PARTY EVER" would have appeared over everyone's heads (including mine!) at a certain point in the movie.

Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) are an attractive thirtysomething Swedish couple with two attractive children (real life siblings Vincent and Clara Wettergren). They seem to be reasonably well off, because they are at a beautiful, expensive ski resort in the Alps. It, and the surrounding mountains, are so beautiful it made me want to go on a ski holiday. I'm normally the last person who wants to go skiing--my last downhill ski outing consisted of me inching down our tiny local hill in abject terror, swearing I'd never do it again--but such is the power of the gorgeously filmed scenery in this movie.

All seems to be going well until the second day of the trip, when the family has a scary experience and Tomas reacts in a way that surprises and disappoints everyone. Even though everyone is OK afterward, Ebba cannot let it go, and Tomas can't admit what happened. Both must acknowledge that the fissures that were there before in their marriage have now deepened, and someone is going to fall in. There is a lot going on here beneath the placid happy-family surface: dissatisfaction and stagnation; chafing and resentment at traditional gender roles; exposure of the contrived nature of the narratives we create about our own relationships.

There are a lot of shots where the camera lingers just a little too long to be comfortable. It creates an  unsettling effect where we, the audience, feel we are voyeurs in these people's lives: we are uncomfortable but at the same time, it's impossible to tear our eyes away. We are on pins and needles, waiting for the next disaster, natural or otherwise.