Monday, November 22, 2021

Wrapping Up the 2021 St. Louis Film Festival

The Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival recently completed its 2021 edition in its first-ever hybrid format with theatrical and virtual screening options. This flexible approach made it possible for viewers to screen over 90% of its more than 400 feature films and shorts in the traditional manner at multiple locations or from the comfort of their own homes. While some of the virtual presentations were available in Missouri and neighboring Illinois only, many others could be streamed nationwide, making it possible for movie fans to see some excellent films without being in metro St. Louis, an increasingly popular viewing option for many film festivals (and one that I heartily applaud).

Thanks to this format, I was able to screen a great number of films – 23 in all. The festival’s 30th edition had its share of fine offerings (especially in the documentary genre), but there were also some that could have been better. Below are my summary reviews of the releases I watched. Full reviews of select films are to come.

“The Berrigans: Devout and Dangerous” (USA) (5/5)

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In times of war and great social challenges, it can be difficult to remain devoted to one’s principles – no matter how strongly we feel about them – when prevailing circumstances threaten to curtail our freedoms and our ability to express our feelings about them. Yet there are courageous, unflappable individuals who refuse to let such conditions stop them, as evidenced by the protests led by activists Philip and Daniel Berrigan and Elizabeth McAllister. In this superb documentary about the lives of these three heroic figures (two priests and a nun who walked their talk when it came to their Catholic values), director Susan Hagedorn chronicles the efforts of these anti-war advocates who destroyed draft records as a means of protesting US involvement in the Vietnam War, along with their activities in the civil rights movement and the early days of the AIDS crisis. They paid dearly for their actions, spending considerable time in prison, but they could not ignore their conscience in carrying out these acts of deliberate defiance. Through a wealth of archive materials and contemporary interviews with family members and those who worked with them (such as actor Martin Sheen and Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg), these three activists brilliantly come to life, both as advocates for their causes and as compassionate, committed individuals, all captured in a highly personal way. This material is supplemented with voiceover narrations of the brothers’ writings read by Liam Neeson and Bill Pullman, adding an intimate and thoughtful dimension to their portrayals. We owe much to these virtuous champions, and this eminently moving film makes that abundantly clear.

“A Sexplanation” (USA) (5/5)

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In a culture so pervasively obsessed with sex as ours, it’s amazing that it’s simultaneously so hung up and ignorant about the subject as well. That’s an intriguing paradox filmmaker Alex Liu wanted to explore. So, at age 36, the gay Asian-American director decided to make a documentary about it, one that he hoped would shed some light on this for society at large, not to mention himself, too. As someone who grew up with a shameful outlook about sex, both in terms of his individual orientation and the subject of eroticism in general, he wanted to get to the bottom of this conundrum, especially in light of his apparently robust libido as an adult. In his singularly humorous deep dive into this matter, he interviews a wide range of experts on sexuality and those who have contributed to shaping our collective views on the subject, including researchers, educators, counselors, scientists and religious figures, as well as family members, friends, and everyday men and women on the street across all ages, ethnicities and sexual preferences. The result is an eye-opening cinematic experience, one that offers significant insights and enlightened solutions for addressing willful bashfulness and broad-based ignorance, all served up in a delightfully whimsical, frequently hilarious offering punctuated with clever animation and frank though lighthearted conversations. The filmmaker’s debut feature is a real treat that leaves little to the imagination while pointedly but tactfully informing audiences of all ages on so many different fronts.

“Target: St. Louis Vol. 1” (USA) (5/5)

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If watching this damning indictment of reprehensible clandestine activities by the US government in the 1950s and ’60s doesn’t leave you thoroughly appalled, you must not have a conscience, a soul or a shred of humanity in your being. Director Damien D. Smith’s debut documentary feature tells the story of how the US military, in conjunction with various defense contractors, intentionally exposed residents of a predominantly African-American housing project in St. Louis to repeated open air dustings of toxic chemicals to determine what effects the substances would have on them, all without their knowledge or consent. The result was a host of serious illnesses, including rampant forms of cancer, that affected individuals at the time and many years later. What’s worse, because of legal technicalities, victims were effectively unable to sue any of the parties involved. Through interviews with survivors of the testing, as well as researchers and advocates working to bring the truth to light, the filmmaker has produced a shocking release that is bound to leave viewers incensed about what transpired – especially when it’s revealed that this sort of deplorable Third Reich-style form of experimentation may be only one such example of what our government had done (or could still be doing) without telling us. This is a powerful wake-up call, folks.

“Alien on Stage” (UK) (4/5)

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When an amateur British theater company decides to do something different for its annual holiday charity production, the crew goes out on a limb to stage a work that’s truly out of this world – a theatrical adaptation of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi cinematic classic, “Alien.” As audacious as this undertaking might be, however, the play’s initial run in the company’s hometown of Dorset is a flop. But, when the show catches the attention of documentary directors Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer, the company’s fates change dramatically. The filmmakers help the amateur troupe secure an opportunity to stage a performance of the play in London’s West End – and to a sold-out crowd at that. Thus begins this chronicle of an unlikely production brought to life both on stage and in this hilariously offbeat documentary. While the film could use a little more background about the principal players, this wickedly funny saga about a horror classic transformed into a campy romp provides meticulous behind-the-scenes detail, intercut with footage from the film original to provide context and comparison. Most of all, though, this is a fitting tribute to all the underdogs out there who are willing to stick their necks out and attempt the untried, all the while having fun and ultimately attaining unexpected yet much deserved success.

“Americanish” (USA) (4/5)

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Though somewhat uneven, sometimes predictable and occasionally formulaic, this otherwise-delightful rom-com about the budding love lives of two Pakistani-American sisters (Aizzah Fatima, Salena Qureshi) and their immigrant cousin (Shenaz Treasury), along with the intrusive meddling of their overbearing mother/aunt (Lillete Dubey), pleases on virtually all counts. This charming debut feature from writer-director Iman K. Zawahry explores the triumphs and challenges of balancing career, impending marriage, entrenched tradition and evolving values, and it does so with insight, candor and gentle humor, successfully fusing the traditional romance and cross-cultural assimilation genres. Watch for more from this filmmaker given the great start she has had with this release.

“Delicate State” (USA) (4/5)

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Imagine if you were parents-to-be, blissfully happy about the impending blessed event, when suddenly a devastating civil war breaks out. That’s what happens to a young middle class couple living in an unidentified American city as they await the birth of their first child, all the details of which are meticulously recorded in a video diary filmed during the increasingly troubled pregnancy. After a somewhat slow and slightly unfocused start, writer-actor-director Paula Rhodes’s debut feature soon changes lanes and tells a chilling story that grows ever-more compelling as it unfolds, leaving viewers on edge as they witness developments taking place in a simulated real-time context. The picture brings an added touch of realism to the narrative as it was filmed during the actor-director’s own pregnancy, accompanied by real-life husband Charlie Bodin as the protagonist’s co-star. The result is a startlingly eclectic mix of unnerving terror and relentless hope fused into one story with an all-too-familiar sociopolitical backdrop. Handily, this is one of the most unusual releases I’ve seen in some time, yet it offers us a potent cautionary tale that we had better take seriously if we expect our society to survive – or otherwise run the risk of lawless, uncontrolled collapse.

“A Matter of Perspective” (“Eine Sache der Perspektive”) (Austria) (4/5)

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How we perceive the nature of a particular situation ultimately depends on the perspective we each hold about it, even when those outlooks don’t agree with one another. But how can that be if the scenario is fundamentally “the same” for all concerned? That’s where the fallacy of this notion becomes apparent, and director Gerda Leopold’s second feature does a fine job of illustrating this through a collection of interwoven stories (mostly of romantic and relationship matters) involving 10 characters whose paths cross in myriad synchronistic ways. What’s most intriguing about these interactions, however, is how diversely the various participants in these scenarios view their circumstances compared to one another, despite their mutual involvement in them. Ironically, one of the film’s greatest strengths is its reluctance to provide definitive resolution to many of the narrative’s incidents, reinforcing the notion that, given differing perspectives, there often is no set answer that applies across the board. Admittedly there are some elements of this Austrian production that seem to be somewhat truncated, but that’s a small price to pay for an otherwise-engaging film, one that features a fine ensemble cast and some inventive camera work, with cinematography aptly befitting the picture’s subject matter. A delicious indie gem.

“My So-Called Selfish Life” (USA) (4/5)

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A woman’s life isn’t complete until she has a child and becomes a mother, right? Well, that may be the traditional view, but, is it still true today? And, for those who have opted to go the childless route, why is there such a strong backlash against their decision? Don’t they, as adults, have the right to make up their own minds? In light of this, director Therese Schechter, who has intentionally chosen to forego motherhood, decided to make a documentary on the subject, examining all of the implications involved, including those of a cultural, personal, familial, vocational and lifestyle nature. Through interviews with physicians, sociologists, researchers, advocates and women who have purposely chosen to go childless, intercut with clever animation and clips from movies and TV, the filmmaker presents an insightful look at the options today’s women have – choices that previous generations largely lacked, an outlook that enabled the prevailing view about motherhood to become so firmly entrenched. While this offering may ruffle some feathers among traditionalists, the film nevertheless gives a big, polite middle finger to those who try to dictate terms to women based on arguments that amount to little more than “Because I said so.” A real eye-opener, especially for those who continue to believe they have no choice in the matter.

“Soy Cubana” (Cuba/USA) (4/5)

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How frustrating it must be to have talent – and a tremendous gift to give the world – only to be thwarted by bureaucratic red tape and needless, outdated government restrictions. So it has been for many Cuban artists looking to showcase their talents abroad. Fortunately, though, there have been some lucky breakthroughs, such as those that occurred during a narrow window from 2015 to 2017, when cultural exchange relations between the US and Cuba were briefly relaxed, enabling artists like the Vocal Vidas – a Cuban a capella quartet – to slip through a visitation window that allowed the talented foursome to give three performances in Los Angeles. The process was not an easy one to negotiate, as the window of opportunity was in the process of closing, but the Vidas were able to pass through in time, to the benefit of everyone who saw them perform live and to those viewing this documentary about their storied odyssey. Directors Ivaylo Getov and Jeremy Ungar have assembled a delightful chronicle of their journey, including footage of their performances, as well as the complex process of securing visitation visas to perform in the US. The film features ample footage of their singing, both in the US and Cuba, as well as insights into their respective lives, both as performers and as individuals struggling to get by in the fiscally strapped island nation. A truly delightful, uplifting, inspiring watch.

“Voodoo Macbeth” (USA) (4/5)

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When the Roosevelt Administration launched the Federal Theatre Project in 1935 as part of the government-sponsored New Deal program, that initiative included a Negro Unit specifically aimed at developing African-American theatrical productions. One of that unit’s most auspicious undertakings was the staging of an all-Black cast adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, set in Haiti instead of Scotland. To get this version of the play into production, unit heads Rose McClendon (Inger Tudor) and John Houseman (Daniel Kuhlman) hired a 20-year-old neophyte director named Orson Welles (Jewell Wilson Bridges) to bring it to life. Welles had a bold vision for this Harlem-based production, but he encountered endless challenges in making it happen, including multiple casting issues, funding obstacles initiated by a Congressman (Hunter Bodine) who claimed the play was “Communist propaganda” and the director’s own obsessive, self-destructive behavior. Nevertheless, the cast and crew soldiered on, despite these obstacles, to put their own spin on this classic tale. This docudrama, a project of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, was written by a team of eight students and shot by a crew of 10 top graduate students, a collaboration that has resulted in a fine finished product. Some of the writing is a bit over the top at times, and some of the acting is admittedly rather hammy (and not in the Shakespearean sequences, where one would most likely expect it), but the casting overall is quite solid, as are the period piece production values. It’s gratifying to see a student project turn out as polished as this one has, making it a film that deservedly warrants a general release to reach a wider audience.

“Archipelago” (“Archipel”) (Canada) (3/5)

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This experimental animated film offering from director Félix Dufour-Laperrière is indeed difficult to categorize. On one hand, it feels like a cinematic meditation, a poetic visual tone poem. On the other hand, it comes across like a metaphysical, metaphorical, surrealistic travelogue to the islands of Quebec’s St. Lawrence River, attempting to draw connections between what has arisen there and those who created it – us. While the visuals certainly work beautifully, the narrative is often scattered, appearing more than a little disjointed and wonky as the film’s river journey to the ocean progresses. Kudos are definitely in order for the French Canadian filmmaker’s attempt at something different here, but there is something to be said for invoking restraint over unrestricted free rein, as is more than apparent in the finished product. It’s an ambitious effort that is likely to leave viewers visually dazzled but somewhat perplexed, as every review I have read of this film has interpreted it differently (and often at wide variance from one another). Make of it what you will.

“Atlas” (Switzerland/Belgium/Italy) (3/5)

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In filmmaking, it’s one thing to build suspense and something else entirely to forestall the obvious and inevitable. Unfortunately, in director Niccolò Castelli’s second feature, he seems to believe that he’s doing the former when, in fact, the film is more rooted in the latter. This fact-based story about a young Swiss woman (Matilda De Angelis) who loses three close friends (including her partner (Nicola Perot)) in a terrorist bombing in a popular Moroccan café while they’re on a trip to climb the nation’s legendary Atlas Mountains chronicles her efforts to recover from the incident, both physically and emotionally. As noble and inspiring as that may be, however, the overlong preamble leading up to the film’s depiction of that event – covering almost two-thirds of the movie – is needlessly stretched out, stringing along viewers toward something that they know is coming but that continually seems to get put off. The sought-after suspense just isn’t there, because everyone essentially knows what’s coming beforehand. While the film successfully makes observant statements about Western society’s pervasive fear of potentially traumatic events, as well as the inherent paranoia that often accompanies interaction with those of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, its primary narrative thread about the protagonist’s recovery could have been handled better on more than a few occasions, especially in the picture’s protracted and overly cryptic opening segment. A well-intentioned but mishandled attempt at telling a story that could have been far more compelling if treated differently.

“Confetti” (USA) (3/5); Rotten Tomatoes (***)

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As noble and uplifting as this family drama is, especially in its depiction of a concerned parent willing to do anything to help her child, the film is a little too rote all around to make it engaging and affecting. Writer-director Ann Hu’s third feature addresses the issue of dyslexia and what a loving mother (Zhu Zhu) puts herself through to aid her daughter (Harmonie He), a victim of an inadequate, unenlightened Chinese education system, to help her get the assistance she needs to overcome her learning disability. With the assistance of an American teacher (George C. Tronsrue) on an educational exchange program, mother and child subsequently relocate to New York to get that help, aided by one the educator’s friends (Amy Irving), an assertive, disabled writer who takes them in. Once there, the narrative faithfully follows the tried-and-true formula of what’s involved in realizing that objective, touching on each required development in precise, perfectly timed order. While the film may indeed be informative about its subject matter, its predictable presentation format could have just as easily been used to address almost any other health-related, psychological or social issue; simply plug in the right pieces to achieve the desired result. Ironically, though, there are also some crucial story elements that are all too easily glossed over, making one wonder how these significant developments occur with surprisingly remarkable ease. Then there’s the casting, which could use some shoring up, too; while Zhu and He are fine, the supporting performances leave much to be desired, particularly those turned in by Irving and Helen Slater as a special school administrator, both of whom could have easily phoned in their portrayals. Clearly, this is a picture with its heart and intentions in the right place, but its execution needs more spit, polish and imagination to draw audiences in and keep them suitably riveted.

“The Kinloch Doc” (USA) (3/5)

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The City of Kinloch, Missouri, located just east of the St. Louis airport, is the oldest incorporated African-American community west of the Mississippi River. Yet, because of deliberate political maneuverings, the city has slowly been eaten up by dubious governmental initiatives, forcing many residents out and leaving only a small remaining population, placing the municipality’s very existence in jeopardy. Director Alana Marie’s chronicle of a city of hard-working, family-oriented individuals that has been systematically torn apart by manipulative forces in the name of progress and serving the greater good reveals a frightening and nefarious pattern that has happened in minority-dominated communities in other parts of the US, one in which residents have been taken advantage of on multiple fronts. However, as effective as the film is at documenting these issues, the overall project feels a little thin and somewhat incomplete, mainly due to only scant inclusion of material on why residents have such beloved feelings for their community. Given the film’s mere 50-minute runtime, there is certainly room for more information about the people of Kinloch and not just the problems they have had to endure, details that would have certainly amplified the nature of the injustices being perpetrated here and made the story more personal in the process. As it stands, this documentary feels like a first cut that could benefit from some supplementation and reworking to strengthen the arguments behind what happened to Kinloch and why such practices should cease, both there and in other at-risk communities around the country, while reminding viewers that this is a story about people and not just property.

“The Lonely Man” (China) (3/5)

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Retirement can be a frightening prospect for many individuals, especially those who have occupied their jobs for a long time and aren’t sure what they’ll do with themselves when such familiarity is absent from their lives. So it is for a gas station manager in a remote Chinese province who serves his community by doing more than just pumping petrol. Can he bear the idea of giving up the sense of impassioned, personalized responsibility that he has cultivated with his constituency over the past 20 years? And what of the young apprentice successor he’s training – can he adequately follow in his predecessor’s footsteps? Those are the questions raised in director Han Wanfeng’s touching comedy-drama about life in the snowy frontier at the base of Tianshan Mountain in China’s Kazakh region. As delightful and heartfelt as the film often is, however, it’s somewhat episodic and predictable at times, along with some elements that seem odd and out of place, such as a Bollywood-inspired musical number featuring a colorful performance of a Kazakh folk song. There is also an issue with the subtitling, which is quite small, full of typos and frequently moves by at a rapid-fire pace. Nevertheless, despite these shortcomings, this gorgeously filmed offering is generally enjoyable, the kind of picture that will definitely tug at the heartstrings and bring more than a few smiles to one’s face.

“Solutions” (Denmark) (3/5)

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Coming up with viable solutions to the world’s many ills these days is by no means easy. There are myriad problems, and they’re often interrelated in ways that are difficult to identify, diagnose, quantify and resolve. Issues related to the environment, economics, democracy, inequality, communication and a host of other matters are difficult to address because of this intrinsic interconnectedness. So what do we do? In the days before the pandemic, a 10-day conference was organized involving 20 high-level experts in these and other fields. They met in New Mexico to discuss potential solutions, and this gathering provided the basis of the latest documentary project from Danish filmmaker Pernille Rose Grønkjær. The result is an engaging collection of recorded segments from the group’s sessions, as well as clips from interviews with individual participants, each examining the greatest challenges we face and proposing potential solutions. The film itself is well-organized and clearly defines the issues, providing concise summaries of how we might address them. However, as much as I enjoyed the presentations here, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the content itself. Many of the proposals come across as well thought out but overly intellectualized – Ivory Tower propositions that may well be needed but seem unlikely of ever being implemented for one very basic reason: they do not take adequate account of the impact of the current state of human nature. To believe that everyday citizens of the earth will simply agree with these lofty, principled ideas because experts tell them they should seems wholly naïve, even if they have the potential to rectify things. Without a corresponding change in human nature, no amount of intellectualism – no matter how seemingly well-reasoned – is going to get us out of the mess we’re in now. And, unfortunately, the film may offer good ideas but false hopes for getting the job done at a point in our history where time may be running out.

“A World for Julius” (“Un mundo para Julius”) (Peru/Argentina/Spain) (3/5)

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Picture yourself as a young boy from an affluent family in Lima, Peru in the 1950s. You live in a grand mansion with multiple servants in the lap of luxury. You’re an inquisitive, observant, sensitive child, but there’s much around you in your family and society at large that you don’t understand. Much of it doesn’t make sense to you, either, such as racism, sexism, abuses of power, bullying, discrimination, class prejudice, and, of course, death. Why, you wonder, do these things exist? That’s the challenge for a five-year-old (Rodrigo Barba) growing up in a world of privilege that often leaves him sad and lonely, especially when it comes to most of the family members who ignore him. In fact, the servants are about his only friends, people he adores and who return the favor in kind. Based on the 1970 novel of the same name by Alfredo Bryce Echenique, a work considered one of the most significant works of Latin American literature, director Rossana Diaz Costa’s made-for-TV movie does a generally fine job of capturing the angst of its young protagonist, despite the fact that it tends to lose its way in the final act, especially at the very end. However, in the first two-thirds of the film, don’t be surprised if it tugs at the old heartstrings and maybe even brings a well-earned tear or two to your eye. The filmmaker’s second feature is by no means a bad film, though, with some shoring up in the home stretch, it definitely could have been better.

“The Teacher” (“Muallim”) (Turkey) (2/5)

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When a member of the early 20th Century political reform group Young Turks returns home to the Ottoman Empire after earning his engineering degree in Paris, his political views get him exiled by the government to a small town in Anatolia to teach school to the destitute community’s children. While there, the teacher sees firsthand why he’s fighting for reform, but he’s frustrated at every turn, with his freedom (and even his life) put in jeopardy whenever he seeks to champion his ideals and the well-being of the uneducated and exploited townsfolk. As inspiring as this fact-driven story might seem, however, the film suffers from a woefully unfocused screenplay, with a narrative that continually jumps around without serious development and punctuated by some of the corniest dialogue I’ve seen in a movie in years. Director Muslim Sahin appears to have all the makings of a good movie here, but the finished product is so far off the mark that one can’t help but wonder where it’s headed virtually from start to finish.

“We Burn Like This” (USA) (2/5)

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The issues of anti-Semitism and Neo-Nazism, regrettably. are still alive and well, and they even show their faces in some unlikely locations, such as Montana’s Big Sky Country. Director Alana Waksman’s debut feature deals with this very subject and from a perspective based on actual incidents. The film follows the story of Rae (Madeleine Coghlan), a young Jewish woman living in Billings whose grandparents survived the Holocaust. However, much to her dismay, she’s now being targeted for harassment by hate groups, sending her into a downward spiral of depression and substance abuse. She finds herself living the religious persecution of her forbears, and she’s not entirely sure what to do about it. After a hospital stay for an overdose and an ongoing inability to resolve her circumstances, Rae pays a visit to her mother (Kendra Mylnechuk) in Butte, where she learns of and recalls other painful memories from her past, forcing her to either take control of her life or be consumed by it. Unfortunately, the film has trouble pulling all of this together to make for a coherent and compelling picture. The narrative often feels scattered, jumping around at random and skimping in terms of back story along the way. It’s too bad, given that it seems like there’s a good movie in there somewhere; it just never seems to surface.

“The White Fortress” (“Tabija”) (Bosnia and Herzegovina/Canada) (2/5)

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This is one of those movies where viewers wait 90 minutes for something to happen and nothing really does. Director Igor Drljaća’s latest tells the story of two Sarajevo teens (Pavle Cemerikic, Sumeja Dardagan) from different social and economic backgrounds who half-heartedly pursue an unconvincing romantic involvement, one that develops at a snail’s pace between individuals who have virtually nothing in common beyond their ability to stumble through deadpan, understated banter. To the film’s credit, it does a fine job developing the character of the two protagonists, but it doesn’t give them much to do. What’s more, the picture’s attempt at trying to fuse reality with fairytale-like qualities occasionally seems promising, but it, too, often falls short of its potential. The result is a meandering, unfocused tale that always seems to hold out the promise of a payoff, but regrettably it never comes. This one is easily skipped.

“The Insurer” (“L’asseureur”) (Belgium) (1/5)

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What an absolute mess of a movie. This Belgian offering from director Antoine vans can’t seem to make up its mind if it wants to be a crime caper, a rom-com, a buddy movie or some fusion of all three genres. But, to make matters worse, it’s peppered with irrelevant asides, implausible plot devices, needlessly hyped electronic graphic highlights that add absolutely nothing to the narrative and some of the worst subtitling work I’ve ever seen in a foreign film. I could go on further about this one, but I frankly don’t see the point since this is not worth wasting one’s time to watch. Quite a disappointment, given that there is a lot of material here that could easily have been worked up into something fun and entertaining, but that opportunity is lost early on in a film that never manages to recover.

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

A Film Fit for a Princess

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, Tuesday, November 23, at 2 pm ET, available by clicking here. And, if you don’t hear the show live, catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Deezer, Podchaser and Jiosaavn.

‘Spencer’ examines the life of a woman in transition

“Spencer” (2021). Cast: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins, Jack Farthing, Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry, Sean Harris, Laura Benson, Stella Gonet, Richard Sammel, Lore Stefanek, Elizabeth Berrington, Amy Manson, Thomas Douglas, Kimia Schmidt, Emma Darwall-Smith, Greta Bücker. Director: Pablo Larraín. Screenplay: Steven Knight. Web site. Trailer.

Removing oneself from a difficult situation can be a challenging task. Numerous impediments can infringe on the process, not only making it difficult to execute, but even to launch. That prospect can be exacerbated even further for those in the public eye, their words and deeds scrutinized in virtually every detail. Consequently, transitioning out of such circumstances may be truly daunting, as illustrated in the new hypothetical historical drama, “Spencer.”

In talking about this film, there’s one important consideration to bear in mind up front: this is a work of speculative fiction involving real-life individuals, not a literal chronicle of historic events. From the very beginning of this picture, an electronic graphic in the lower corner of the screen refers to “Spencer” as a fable about a tragic truth. Thus viewers who expect something else out of this offering will be sorely disappointed. This is a caution that audiences ignore at their peril.

It’s 1991, a decade since the fairytale marriage of England’s Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) and Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), heir apparent to the throne. Despite that romantic beginning, things have soured between them. Rumors of affairs, incessant quarreling between Charles and Diana, and disapproval of the Princess as a persistent complainer by the royal family have circulated widely, despite efforts to maintain a blissful, problem-free public façade. However, internal pressures have been mounting for some time, and it has taken quite a toll on the Princess, bringing her near a breaking point.

Challenges aside, the royal family has gathered at the Sandringham Estate of Queen Elizabeth II (Stella Gonet) for the Christmas holidays, a time during which all controversies have supposedly been declared off-limits in favor of three days of feasting, hunting and celebration. For Diana, however, merely attending the event is a strain on her composure, some might even say her sanity. For some time, she has largely bottled up her feelings, resulting in a stockpile of unexpressed anger and frustration. Her husband’s affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emma Darwall-Smith), the never-ending expectations of meticulously fulfilling often-silly royal protocols and her own battles with eating disorders have left her exceedingly distraught. Add to that the disdain felt for her by her in-laws, and you’ve got an emotional time bomb waiting to explode.

Given how circumstances have been unfolding, Diana has begun to wonder what the future holds for her marriage and her place within the royal family. The Windsor clan suspects this, too, fearing that her “delusional” state of mind may cause her to go off the deep end, a concern that has prompted the appointment of long-trusted aide Maj. Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall) to oversee the weekend’s festivities and to keep the rebel Princess in line. Because of this, however, Diana has come to resent this deliberate attempt at handling. She has even quietly pondered the possibility that she might – either metaphorically or literally – befall a fate not unlike that of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), one of King Henry VIII’s wives, who was executed when she fell into disfavor with the monarch – and who has now begun appearing in visions to the troubled Princess.

While on an impromptu visit to her shuttered childhood home, Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) seeks to relive fond memories of her youth in director Pablo Larraín’s new speculative historical drama, “Spencer.” Photo courtesy of Neon.

To compound matters, Sandringham is located next to the Spencer Estate, Diana’s now-shuttered childhood home, where she enjoyed many years as a fun-loving, carefree child (Kimia Schmidt) and teen (Greta Bücker). She desperately wants to visit the property, if for no other reason than to attempt to relive those fond memories. But, like so many of the other rigid restrictions placed upon her, she’s forbidden from going there due to the dangerous, rundown state of the manor house, yet another frustration that weighs heavily upon her.

This is not to suggest that Diana is without sources of comfort. For example, she relishes her time with her sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), both of whom she positively adores (and vice versa). She also enjoys the company of two servants who serve as personal confidantes, her dresser, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), and the estate’s head chef, Darren (Sean Harris). She even develops a sort of arm’s-length rapport with Maj. Gregory, though, in true deferential fashion, he keeps a discreet distance, despite efforts to quietly look out for her best interests.

Over the course of the holidays, Diana’s interactions with these kindreds prove quite valuable, most notably in helping her retrieve, strengthen and develop her lost sense of personal power. She refuses to be kept captive by a thoroughly dysfunctional family, making her feelings known in deliberately defiant ways. More than that, though, she also refuses to allow herself to be held hostage by her own fears and apprehensions. She’s resolved to be herself, much as she was in her youth, free from the burdensome restrictions heaped upon her for the sake of appearances, to truly become the independent, self-determining individual she has always wanted to be. That may come at a high cost, but it’s what she needs if she’s to be at peace with herself and the future that awaits her.

To characterize Diana’s life as a tragedy, as the film’s opening graphic suggests, is, in some ways, an understatement. To be sure, her accomplishments for the betterment of humanity are undeniable. However, those achievements came about in a very public arena, one that often demanded much of her at a high personal cost. And, when she finally attained the independence she craved, her ability to enjoy it was cut short at an all-too-young age. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, she successfully managed to realize it for a time by taking the requisite steps needed to reach that goal.

Specifically, this came about by significant adjustments in Diana’s beliefs, and that’s crucial given the role they play in the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these resources in manifesting the reality we experience. It’s not known whether Diana had ever heard of this school of thought, yet, as the experiences in this film illustrate, it’s apparent she learned how to make use of it to her benefit. And, considering what she was up against, that was no small order.

While on a 1991 Christmas holiday visit with the royal family at Queen Elizabeth II’s Sandringham Estate, Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart), already on the outs with her in-laws, seeks to make the best of a tense situation in “Spencer,” now playing in theaters. Photo by Pablo Larraín, courtesy of Neon.

At the top of Diana’s list was a need to take back her personal power. The many demands placed on her were so daunting that she lost much of her ability to direct or control her fate. That loss, combined with the many extenuating distractions that burdened her, left her depleted and embittered. However, if Diana were to salvage a life for herself, she would have to refocus her beliefs to bring them into line with her wants and needs.

A number of components were part of this process. For starters, she needed to assert her desire to be her authentic self and to live her life with a sense of personal integrity. This meant following her heart and pursuing the free-spirited nature of her own wishes, not following the stuffy dictates of archaic practices and traditions, a maverick streak that ran afoul of her in-laws’ pompous sensibilities. By ignoring her own needs, she was suffocating under the weight of expectations that didn’t suit her. This stifling of her desires subsequently caused them to accumulate to a dangerous level, prompting them to emerge in an intense, exaggerated manner. It’s understandable why onlookers would be troubled by this. But it’s also understandable how this relentless build-up and denial of her true self negatively affected her. Change obviously had to come, and she wisely chose to make it happen.

To reach that point, though, she had to overcome the fears and limitations that were holding her back. These hindrances are themselves belief based, so those elements had to be altered as part of Diana’s personal transformation. Achieving this required a Herculean effort on her part, given how many forces were working against her. But, despite the many opposing factors, their presence also helped to steel her resolve, to push her in surmounting these fears and limitations to allow her true self to rise up and emerge.

With this piece of the puzzle in place, Diana was able to discern which aspects of her reality needed to be discarded. In particular, this meant leaving behind what no longer served her and embracing the aspects of life that enriched and fulfilled her existence. In some cases, that even called for willful acts of defiance to assure that she rid herself of what was now clearly expendable. This is quite a liberating experience for anyone, but it had to be especially gratifying for someone who was saddled with so much extraneous baggage on so many fronts.

As she attempts to deal with a cheating husband, disapproving in-laws and an array of ridiculous royal protocols, England’s Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) struggles to contain her composure amidst mounting pressures in director Pablo Larraín’s new speculative historical drama, “Spencer.” Photo by Pablo Larraín, courtesy of Neon.

Through all of this, Diana was wise enough to recognize that she required guidance in carrying out these plans, and, fortunately, she had many confidantes to draw upon in this regard. This was plainly obvious in her consultations with Maggie and Darren. But it also became apparent in her dealings with her sons, especially young Prince Harry, who, like his mother, could clearly see the writing on the wall where the royal family was concerned (which explains a lot when it comes to the real-life Prince’s very public and intentional disengagement with his relatives). These intimate discussions and interactions helped Diana determine what mattered most in life, giving her the power to make the necessary decisions and form the essential beliefs required to implement these changes for the better. And isn’t that something we all ultimately want for ourselves?

There’s a big difference between fable and chronicle, and that seems to be the point on which many viewers are misunderstanding this historic “what if” saga about one of the world’s best known and most celebrated icons. At a time when the storied marriage of Charles and Diana was quickly dissolving, we see a frazzled woman in transition, fighting to protect her own identity and the well-being of her children under the crushing weight of traditions and expectations that did not suit her. However, as this story unfolds, viewers see a side of the beloved People’s Princess that is not always the most flattering or in line with their impressions but nevertheless depicts her honestly as an authentic human being seeking to keep herself from being consumed by the toxic environment surrounding her. Director Pablo Larraín’s latest is thus more of a hypothetical character study, presenting events and situations where the kinds of issues Diana was experiencing are depicted despite a lack of verified substantiation. To be sure, some of those incidents are a little melodramatic, with symbolism that can be a trifle heavy-handed and obvious at times. Yet, when considered within the narrative context in which they’re included, it’s understandable why they were made part of the story. In this way, much of what the filmmaker has done here for Diana is similar to what he did for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy  in “Jackie” (2016), both pictures being about women who experienced tremendous tragedy in their lives and how they attempted to cope with their circumstances.

The crowning element of this film, of course, is the stellar performance of Kristen Stewart, a portrayal that easily makes clear why she’s currently the leading contender to win this year’s Oscar for best actress. But there are many other fine attributes here, too, from production design to costumes to an excellent supporting cast and more. This theatrical release reinforces filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s status as one of the best directors working in the business today. It’s indeed unfortunate that this offering has become so misunderstood in a number of circles, but it truly is one of this year’s finest, as long as viewers appreciate why it is the way it is.

The Princess of Wales was an inspiration for many. However, it’s often overlooked that she was also a real-life person, one with her own faults, challenges and needs. As a larger-than-life figure, though, many forget that individuals such as Diana are fundamentally much like the rest of us, and they deserve the right to engage in the kinds of personal pursuits we all readily enjoy. Making the transition from one’s public self to the private side of life might be challenging, but it’s a birthright we’re all entitled to enjoy, even when one is a princess. Diana may not have had much of an opportunity to fully savor such a possibility, but we can only hope that she enjoyed what she experienced – just as it should be for any of us.

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Movies Worth Watching on Frankiesense & More

Movies aplenty are now coming out as the year's end approaches. So what's worth watching? Find out on the next edition of The Good Media Network’s Frankiesense & More video podcast with yours truly and special guest host Danielle Findlay. Tune in today, November 18, at 2 pm ET on Facebook Live by clicking here for a lively discussion of releases worth seeing in theaters and via streaming. And, if you don’t see the show live, catch it later on demand!

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Passing" and "Jump, Darling," as well as podcast and magazine article previews, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Check Out The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, Tuesday, November 9, at 2 pm ET, available by clicking here. And, if you don't hear the show live, catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Deezer, Podchaser and Jiosaavn.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Cinematic Lessons in Generosity

In this season of giving thanks, our thoughts often turn to matters of gratitude, generosity and giving back, gestures associated with being grateful for the blessings bestowed upon us. Consequently, many believe it’s incumbent upon us to express those feelings through our acts and deeds. And those looking for inspiration in such endeavors have many excellent cinematic examples to emulate. Find out more by reading "Celluloid Generosity" in the November issue of Modern Warrior magazine. For more about this uplifting online publication, click here.

‘Jump, Darling’ celebrates taking a leap of faith

“Jump, Darling” (2020 production, 2021 release). Cast: Thomas Duplessie, Cloris Leachman, Linda Kash, Andrew Bushell, Kwaku Adu-Poku, Katie Messina, Jayne Eastwood, Mark Caven, Sarah Camacho, Daniel Jun, Dylan Roberts. Director: Phil Connell. Screenplay: Phil Connell and Genevieve Scott (story editor). Web site. Trailer.

Life is full of opportunities, some great, some small. Many of us aspire to the former, but we often aren’t willing to do what it takes to reach those exalted summits. Whether that hesitancy is driven by fear, doubt, uncertainty, a lack of confidence or other considerations, we allow these self-imposed deterrents to hold us captive and stuck in place. Escaping these self-made prisons may take some effort, but we’ll never know what we’re missing until we try, initiatives that call us to make bold, courageous leaps of faith, as examined in the moving new comedy-drama, “Jump, Darling.”

Aspiring actor Russell Hill (Thomas Duplessie) is having difficulty getting on with his career. In fact, the Toronto-based performer has had so much trouble landing roles that he’s had to resort to taking a job as a drag queen at a local night spot, appearing under the stage name Fishy Falters. He’s not exactly thrilled to have had to accept this gig, but it’s been an even bigger disappointment to his partner, Justin (Andrew Bushell), an uptight, button-down corporate lawyer who sees Russell’s decision as an embarrassment – for both of them.

Disheartened by his lack of career progress and his partner’s unwelcome, unsolicited, deflating criticism, Russell impulsively decides to take an open-ended break from his current big city life. He packs a bag and embarks on a trip to rural Prince Edward County, Ontario to see his aging grandmother, Margaret (Cloris Leachman), a crusty but benign soul who adores her gay grandson. Margaret lives alone and is in failing health, though she’s fiercely independent and determined to stay put. That’s not always easy in light of the somewhat overbearing control freak tendencies of her daughter (and Russell’s mother), Eve (Linda Kash), who’s trying to relocate the matriarch to a retirement community.

Though surprised to see her grandson, Margaret is pleased to have him around (despite some questionable behavior on his part) to provide assistance and to run interference when Eve starts to become too intrusive and demanding. As for Russell himself, though, he’s somewhat adrift when it comes to the intentions behind his visit. He’s unsettled, nervous and directionless. He vacillates between staying and leaving. He alternates between feeling at ease and unduly anxious. And he appears to have resumed his ongoing, exasperating love/hate relationship with Eve. Yet, through it all, he takes comfort in Margaret’s company, particularly when she imparts some of her sage wisdom, much of which resonates strongly with him.

While on hiatus from his life in Toronto, aspiring actor Russell Hill (Thomas Duplessie) checks out small town night life in rural Prince Edward County, Ontario in “Jump, Darling.” Photo courtesy of 2645850 Ontario.

With the passage of time, Russell finally settles down enough to start exploring his options. He begins giving drag performances at a nearby small town gay bar, the only such club for miles, a venue that enables him to hone his skills. He also begins informally dating the club’s barback, Zachary (Kwaku Adu-Poku), an opportunity to discover whether there’s romance after Justin. But, despite these attempts at finding himself, these efforts aren’t fully satisfactory. In some ways, they feel like halfway measures.

It’s at this point that Margaret’s wisdom comes back into play. She cites a number of examples from her own life and those of other family members where they had to move past interim measures to achieve satisfaction in their respective undertakings. She tells Russell that sometimes such leaps of faith are necessary to fulfill one’s dreams, no matter what they may be. In fact, she hints that she’s considering one such leap for herself and that, if Russell wants to attain the success he’s seeking, he might want to metaphorically follow suit in his own particular way. Indeed, the time may have come for Russell to jump, darling.

Taking a leap of faith can be a frightening prospect. The uncertainty involved, not to mention the prospect of failure, can be extremely daunting. However, all too often, we fail to consider the fact that it just might work, too. And wouldn’t that be something!

Aspiring actor-turned-drag queen Russell Hill (a.k.a. Fishy Falters) (Thomas Duplessie) tries his hand at something new when his career otherwise stalls in director Phil Connell’s debut feature, “Jump, Darling.” Photo courtesy of 2645850 Ontario.

It’s important to remember that how such a leap turns out depends heavily on how we view it. Are we afraid of what we’re considering? Or do we see it as the opening of a new door of opportunity? In either case, it comes down to the beliefs we hold about such a proposition, and that’s important to remember, for our beliefs dictate how matters unfold. This is the cornerstone principle of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the power of these resources in manifesting the reality we experience.

In hoping for the best, we need to make sure that we conduct some judicious housekeeping when it comes to our beliefs. For example, if we allow fear-based beliefs into the mix, we significantly increase the chances of disappointment or stagnation, so those notions must be purged. At the same time, we must also affirm our beliefs in ourselves, especially when we know we can succeed at what the leap involves. To do otherwise would allow doubt to creep into the equation, which potentially could have the same effect as beliefs rooted in fear. But we can counteract this by bolstering our confidence, putting faith in ourselves and thereby reinforcing the likelihood of success.

Those measures all sound reasonable enough, yet it’s astounding how often we fall prey to the pitfalls that can trip us up. That’s important to recognize, because this illustrates just how powerful and persistent our beliefs can be, no matter what form they may take. In light of that, then, we must be cognizant of exactly what our beliefs are, because the foregoing illustrates how ingrained and influential they can be, as well as how difficult those conditions can be to overcome.

When aspiring actor Russell Hill (Thomas Duplessie, right) has trouble getting roles, he abandons his life in Toronto and pays a visit to his aging and ailing grandmother, Margaret (Cloris Leachman, left) in rural Ontario in director Phil Connell’s debut feature, “Jump, Darling.” Photo courtesy of 2645850 Ontario.

One of the potential hindrances that can keep us from taking a leap of faith has to do with the prospect of change. Moving into uncharted territory is often unnerving. In fact, many of us find change intimidating, even when we’re aware that it can ultimately leave us better off. Yet we should seek to make friends with change, particularly in our beliefs and especially for those associated with implementing alterations in our existence that we know are entirely attainable.

In Russell’s experience, for example, his exodus from his old life clearly represents a willingness to leave behind what no longer serves him. It reflects a healthy perspective on what change can enable. However, once he takes that initial leap of faith, he hesitates about taking any more, and that’s where his forward progress tends to stall. To his credit, he seems willing to take some baby steps, but are they enough? Based on how events unfold, it’s apparent he needs to engage in bolder measures to reach the fulfillment he seeks.

Change, by its nature, is at the core of one of conscious creation’s key principles, “everything is in a constant state of becoming.” However, if we resist it, we thwart the fulfillment of this concept, and leaps of faith often play an integral role in overcoming this issue. If Russell indeed hopes to fully understand and appreciate the value in this, he needs to take the required steps to avoid prolonged or permanent stagnation. This is particularly true for those of us who hope to live out our destiny, to truly live up to the potential we know we’re capable of.

In the wake of a failed romance, drag queen Russell Hill (a.k.a. Fishy Falters) (Thomas Duplessie, right) takes a stab at dating again when he begins seeing Zachary (Kwaku Adu-Poku, left), barback at a small town gay club, in “Jump, Darling.” Photo courtesy of 2645850 Ontario.

Such are the themes sensitively and warmly explored in director Phil Connell’s debut feature, one that expertly fuses tender affection with tough love. While the narrative may meander a bit at times, its heartfelt sentiments and sage advice about being willing to take a leap of faith, no matter what the endeavor, will resonate with viewers who have taken – or who need to take – steps aimed at pushing the reset button in their lives. The film is particularly noteworthy as the final screen performance of Cloris Leachman, who is positively superb in the role of the insightful matriarch, capping off a storied career in an auspiciously fitting way, a portrayal sure to tug at the heart strings without being manipulative. This delightful offering holds universal appeal for anyone who has ever had to go through a difficult transition but manages to come out looking like a queen.

“Jump, Darling” has primarily been playing at film festivals thus far, but it has also been released on several streaming platforms in the picture’s native Canada. Given the quality of this offering, though, it definitely deserves wider release. Here’s hoping distributors are willing to take a leap of faith of their own where this one is concerned.

Sitting on the sidelines, playing it safe, may provide a sense of security, and that can indeed supply us with feelings of comfort and protection. But that’s not where any of the action is taking place; it’s all on the playing field, and the only way to participate is to get in the game, no matter what kind of undertaking is involved. That requires getting noticed and taking the kinds of chances needed to make that happen. But that can occur only if we believe we can be noticed. Are we willing and able to take that kind of leap? It depends on us. And, in any event, isn’t it better to try and find out than to never even attempt it?

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

‘Passing’ wrestles with deception, intent and integrity

“Passing” (2021). Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Bill Camp, Alexander Skarsgård, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Ashley Ware Jenkins, Justus Davis Graham, Ethan Barrett. Director: Rebecca Hall. Screenplay: Rebecca Hall. Book: Nella Larsen, Passing. Web site. Trailer.

How far would you go to get what you want? In particular, how determined would you to be to fulfill your objectives if you felt you were being intentionally excluded from doing so? The temptation to succeed at any cost under such circumstances might be quite strong, and, if a path were to open up to make things happen seemingly easily, one could be seen as foolish for ignoring such an opportunity. But is that really true? That’s one of many thought-provoking questions raised in the new period piece drama, “Passing.”

In 1920s New York, many have benefitted from the economic boom of the era, but there’s a definite divide along racial lines in terms of how readily that bounty is enjoyed. There are both well-to-do Whites and Blacks, but African-Americans are restricted in terms of how they’re able to participate in celebrating such prosperity. For example, when it comes to living arrangements, Blacks are generally confined to certain designated neighborhoods, such as Harlem. Socially, they’re largely isolated, unable to go many of the places that Caucasians visit freely, limited to their own nightclubs, stores and dining establishments. And interaction between races is virtually unheard of except in extremely constrained, clandestine circumstances.

However, for many African-Americans, those conditions are unacceptable. They want to be able to share in the same pleasures and freedoms as their White counterparts. Some seek to achieve this through activism, often with the support of notable Caucasian backers. But others take a different path, especially those who are light-skinned or of mixed race. By carefully crafting their appearance and mannerisms, they seek to mimic those of the White world, seeking to “pass” for Caucasian, despite the nature of their true ethnic backgrounds. Some become quite good at it, too, so much so that they often blend into White society and no one notices. Obviously, this is not an option for all African-Americans, particularly those with darker skin, but, for those who manage to successfully pull off the deception, they’re able to engage in activities and relationships that many of their peers are unable to do. That is, unless they get caught.

After many years apart, childhood friends Clare (Ruth Negga, left) and Irene (Tessa Thompson, right) renew ties after a chance encounter in New York in the dramatic new period piece, “Passing.” Photo by Edu Grau, courtesy of Sundance Institute and Netflix.

Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) is one of those African-American New Yorkers who could “pass” if she chose to do so (and, on occasion, she does so when it suits her, despite the fact that it makes her uncomfortable). Generally, though, Irene prefers to be herself, working with activist organizations to further the causes of her people. Besides, it would be difficult for her to try to pass in most social situations, given that she’s married to a dark-skinned husband, Brian (André Holland), a successful physician, whose ethnicity is more than apparent.

On a hot summer day, while out shopping for her son’s birthday, she stops at the garden tea room of a popular hotel to cool off and refresh herself. While there, Irene has a chance encounter with a childhood friend from the days of their upbringing in Chicago, Clare Bellew (nee Kendry) (Ruth Negga). Irene barely recognizes Clare initially, given how different she looks from when she knew her so many years ago. Her clothes, mannerisms and hairstyle have all changed, but they’ve also been carefully coordinated to allow the light-skinned Clare to successfully pass. In fact, as they talk, Irene learns that Clare has become so adept at passing that she has somehow managed to conceal her true ethnic identity from her wealthy banker husband, John (Alexander Skarsgård), with whom she has given birth to a daughter.

As the conversation progresses, it’s apparent the old friends have much to get caught up on, so Clare invites Irene up to her hotel room to chat further. As it turns out, Clare and John still live in Chicago but are in New York on business, though, given the success of her husband’s career, there is a good possibility the couple may be moving to the Big Apple. Ironically, Clare also shares that John is extremely prejudiced against Blacks, a revelation Irene finds shocking. She wonders how her friend could get away with something so audacious as that. It also makes Irene nervous about being in Clare’s hotel room; after all, what would happen to her and Clare if he were to show up unexpectedly while she was still there?

While enjoying a respite in a fashionable hotel tea room, Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga) unexpectedly spots an old childhood friend in writer-director Rebecca Hall’s debut feature, “Passing.” Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Which is precisely what happens.

Because of her skin tone, wardrobe and mannerisms, however, Irene is able to successfully pass for John the same way that Clare does. Admittedly, she doesn’t stay much longer, anxious to remove herself from what could potentially become a tense and awkward situation. But, before departing, Clare confides that she would like to see Irene again while she is still in New York.

Once home in Harlem, Irene feels relieved to be back in her element, but she was clearly unnerved by the incident – not only because of the circumstances in which her friend is living, but also because she allowed herself to engage in what she sees as questionable behavior to make the best out of a difficult situation. She keeps the incident to herself and goes about her typical activities, like making arrangements for an upcoming activist function and spending time with Brian and her two sons (Justus Davis Graham, Ethan Barrett). But clearly she has been affected by what happened and tries to figure out how to react to it.

Some time later, Irene receives a letter from Clare, but she ignores it – until one day when she shows up on Irene’s doorstep. Irene reluctantly invites her in, and Clare angrily unloads on her for not responding. As the situation settles down, however, Clare confesses that she’s extremely lonely. Passing may have made it possible for her to avail herself of things that would be otherwise inaccessible, but that practice also fundamentally cut her off from the African-American community, and, now that she no longer has any kindreds of color in her life, she bemoans their absence. She thus saw her chance encounter with Irene as an opportunity to reconnect to her roots. Irene admits that it was good seeing her again, too, but she still has quiet misgivings about how it unfolded.

In the wake of this, Clare begins seeing Irene on a regular basis, though it’s rarely as a result of Irene initiating their meetings. Once Clare meets Brian, for example, he begins extending invitations (not to mention somewhat flirtatious glances), despite his initial decidedly cool reaction to his wife’s friend. Clare also takes a liking to one of Irene’s activist colleagues, famed novelist Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp), an ardent Caucasian supporter of minority civil rights. She even befriends Irene’s housekeeper, Zulena (Ashley Ware Jenkins), whose polite, deferential demeanor goes through a noticeable change afterward. It’s almost as if Clare is invading Irene’s life and taking it over, but to what end? Is this just the fulfillment of restoring contact with those whom Clare has lost touch? Or is there something more going on? And where is John in all this? He seems to have virtually disappeared, prompting one to wonder how Clare is able to explain all of her mysterious absences without his company.

Minority rights activist Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) has her values put to the test when she has a chance encounter with an old childhood friend in “Passing,” now available in theaters and coming soon to online streaming. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Through all of these encounters, Irene remains politely reticent despite the fact that her interactions with Clare obviously strike some uncomfortable nerves – and on multiple fronts – personally, socially, ethnically and even where her family is concerned. Tension quietly builds in virtually all of Irene’s relationships, not just with Clare. But what is it leading up to? And what role will passing play in all this? That remains to be seen.

An old adage maintains “It’s possible to fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” However, given the potential backlash that can come from this practice, is it really wise to attempt to fool anyone at all, even if the perceived benefits that come from it would seem to offer suitable justification? That’s what “Passing” asks us to seriously consider, and not just in a racial context, but in any undertaking. And that’s crucial to remember when we set about making plans for our lives, particularly what we seek to bring into being. Such is at the heart of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents in manifesting the reality we experience.

At its heart, the practice of passing – no matter how it’s applied – calls for creating a deliberate deception, conditions that are intentionally false and designed to purposely mislead others. The nature of this is based on compromised beliefs loaded with potential consequences that could easily outweigh the benefits such an undertaking might afford. And, as a result, those who attempt it could easily be left with bigger problems to solve than those this practice was originally aimed at allegedly overcoming.

In light of this, those who actively engage in passing are pursuing the fulfillment of an objective at all costs without due consideration for the fallout that might accompany it. This is otherwise known as the practice of un-conscious creation or creation by default. What’s worse, though, is that it’s a practice undertaken with deliberate false intent, which could potentially amplify the impact of harmful side effects. It can also result in significant damage to one’s personal integrity, an outcome that could, at the very least, undermine one’s credibility, while also leading to possibly greater harm on so many other additional levels. Given that, one can’t help but ask, “Is it really worth it?”

Light-skinned African-American Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga, left) has become so adept at “passing” that her own husband, John (Alexander Skarsgård, right), can’t distinguish her from “other” Caucasians, as seen in the new dramatic period piece, “Passing.” Photo courtesy of Netflix.

As the film so poignantly shows, this truly has tremendous ramifications when it comes to matters of ethnic identity. But there are other ways in which it can manifest, too. For example, how “harmless” are Brian’s coy exchanges with Clare? Is he trying to pass off his behavior as being playfully polite, or is there something more to his actions? Likewise, is Clare merely seeking the friendship of racial kindreds through her interactions with Irene and the members of her household, or is there another agenda behind this, one that she’s seeking to pass off for something that it’s inherently not? Indeed, what are the real beliefs behind these initiatives, and what are they ultimately being implemented for? These efforts potentially speak volumes about the true selves of the creators involved here, but are others able to see them for who they are? There’s much at stake in circumstances like these, and not all of it may unfold as hoped for.

This, of course, raises an important core question when it comes to our materialization efforts: When we seek to fulfill a particular goal, what is the best approach? Should we rely on directed, untainted, forthright actions, or is it better to pursue carefully crafted courses that essentially amount to forms of passive deception? For most of us, the preferred answer should be obvious, but, if that truly is the case, why would anyone want to follow a different path?

In an age of improved social conditions and race relations, one could easily argue that courses different from passing should be followed. Yet, as we’re all aware, hindsight truly is 20/20, and those who succeeded at overcoming their difficulties through shrewd actions as this would likely argue that their efforts were worth it in the end. It’s quite a gamble, however, one in which coming up with the precise mix of manifesting beliefs needed to achieve the desired result is absolutely crucial, a challenging undertaking that may prove exceedingly difficult to get right – and all too easy to get wrong.

The practice of passing also places a burden on those who are the target of the intentional deception. That’s especially true here where John is concerned. One might wonder how he could get things as wrong as he does. However, when we embrace beliefs that allow us to see what we want to see, it’s easy to perceive our reality as something different from how others see it. Indeed, in light of what transpires here, as the film’s tag line – “Nothing is black and white” – so eloquently illustrates, this discrepancy takes on greater relevance than John realizes, both literally and figuratively. His obvious love for Clare is so strong that he willfully ignores what should be obvious, allowing the camouflage of his ignorance and her deception to take over. This raises questions involving matters of discernment and the need to practice it in order to see things as they truly are – and to avoid the potential for grave disappointment.

After a troubling encounter with an old friend, activist Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson, foreground) seeks comfort in the arms of her husband, Brian (André Holland, background), in writer-director Rebecca Hall’s debut feature, “Passing.” Photo courtesy of Netflix.

In the end, trying to be something we’re not carries implications that can go far beyond anything we can see when we launch into such endeavors, and they can emerge in a heartbeat, often without warning. Given that, then, the time-honored notion “To thine own self be true” takes on added meaning. We should remember that the next time we attempt to pass ourselves off as something other than what we truly are.

Eloquently and poetically shot in black and white, writer-director Rebecca Hall’s debut feature gives viewers much to ponder where ethnicity, tolerance and integrity are concerned. This is all brought to life by the fine performances of Thompson, Negga, Holland and Camp, backed by superb period piece production values and a fittingly complementary musical score. Several story threads feel a bit underdeveloped, but, on balance, this intriguing look at a challenging subject is sensitively handled, thought provoking and an excellent premiere effort from an aspiring filmmaker. The film has been playing at film festivals and in limited theatrical release, but it will be coming to Netflix for streaming in the near future.

How we handle the circumstances of our lives says a lot about who we are. Do we want to be known as someone who’s genuine, authentic and governed by principles of personal integrity? Or are we willing to engage in deceptive practices if they will seemingly get us what we want with an apparent minimum of effort? Think about the difference in those options and how others would view us depending on which one we choose. Indeed, what would it take to “pass” a test like this? And are we up to making the right choice? Ultimately we must each look to ourselves for answers, but we must also be willing to accept the consequences of what we decide, a determination best governed by two simple words: Choose wisely.

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.