Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2018: Day 7

Nancy, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and Mirai.

Note: elements of this article also appeared on Set the Tape (link).

I am writing this particular entry, as well as all future entries in this series for the remainder of the fortnight, on the edge of my seat.  The metaphorical seat, for clarification; my room at the HomeStay doesn’t have a chair or desk and that’s fine (I’m used to it from my bedroom at home being much the same as this for a few years).  Midway through the last entry, my laptop’s desktop just went.  The screen just went black and didn’t come back.  Laptop was still running perfectly fine, but the screen was gone.  This has been an infrequent although majorly annoying problem since I first got my laptop, but restarting the thing didn’t automatically fix this the issue this time.  So, there was a good half an hour where it appeared that my laptop was fucked and my work largely lost.  Fortunately, after the umpteenth Safe Mode reset and a massive panic attack, things started working again and I was able to bring you yesterday’s piece – although that explains why the effort displayed in the writing took a bit of a nosedive after Buster Scruggs; I was focussed more on getting everything finished ASAP in case the screen went again.  But at least you now know what’s happened if either these posts stop appearing before next Tuesday or they lack images and basic formatting.  I won’t be dead, but my laptop will be.

Anybody else have an actor or actress that they really like, and know is extremely talented, but have never seen in a properly good film or, if they have appeared in a properly good film, been perpetually undervalued and underserved by them?  That one you’re hoping against hope one day gets the chance to come good so you don’t feel like a crazy person for constantly hyping them up as the best part of otherwise bad movies?  I have quite a few, Elle Fanning being the one I have underlined in block-capitals with red ink (although I admittedly have yet to see 20th Century Women), but the most relevant to this piece is Andrea Riseborough.  Ever since turned up in the thankless role of Michael Keaton’s midlife-crisis girlfriend in Birdman back in 2014, she’s been cropping up in minor similarly-thankless roles of seemingly everything that I either really liked (The Death of Stalin, Black Mirror) or was majorly disappointed by (Battle of the Sexes, Nocturnal Animals, Mindhorn).  Her work opposite Emma Stone in the best parts of Battle of the Sexes especially hammered into me the belief that she’s a major talent who was growing increasingly overdue a meaty role that would let her finally show off her talents fully instead of just being hired for her ethereal facial features (which the prior-covered Mandy made full usage of and absolutely none of her other talents).

So, it brings me great pleasure to announce that somebody has finally given Riseborough the opportunity to shine.  First-time writer-director Christina Choe casts her as Nancy (Grade: B), a 35-year-old woman living with her ill mother (Ann Dowd) in the middle of nowhere.  She can’t get proper work, has no life outside of Mom and cat, called Paul, and her Mom is implied to have been verbally abusive throughout her life.  But before you go developing too much sympathy for her, Nancy is also a pathological liar who ritually abuses the trust of others in order to try and force connections with other people that might fill up the hole in her life she otherwise spends glued to her phone.  At her temp position, she brags about going on holiday to North Korea in an attempt to seem cool and even has the obviously doctored photos to display as evidence.  Far more problematically, she’s also been using her talents as a writer to blog about a fake pregnancy and keeps up the ruse when she meets someone (a cameoing John Leguizamo) in person who has found comfort in her lies.

When he discovers the truth behind her facade, he calls her “disturbed,” although Choe’s screenplay doesn’t go that far or pin a specific mental disorder to Nancy.  It’s clear that when Nancy lies, she’s doing so in an attempt to pretend she’s living the life she desperately wants – she’s never been out of the country because her mom lost the birth certificate required to let her get a passport, she fakes a pregnancy because she’s had problems conceiving before (or never been in a committed-enough relationship to try).  And this information, both the acts themselves and her rationale for doing so, is important because it’s what makes her next act so complicated. After her mother finally succumbs to Parkinson’s, Nancy sees a news report on the television commemorating the 30th anniversary of the disappearance of the daughter of Ellen (J. Smith-Cameron) and Leo Lynch (Steve Buscemi).  Through a combination of little details about her past she feels don’t add up and an artist’s mock-up of what the missing girl would look like 30 years on resembling her to scary degree, Nancy becomes convinced that she is the Lynch’s kidnapped daughter.

Now, Choe’s decision to make Nancy a demonstrable liar seems like a needless attempt to pump up a simple story with moral greyness that Serious Dramas are so enamoured by.  But in practice it proves a masterstroke because it forces the viewer to disconnect just enough from Nancy in favour of empathising more with the Lynchs, to be fully aware of the turmoil Nancy is putting them through.  Ellen desperately wants it to be true and can’t help but give herself over to Nancy before the DNA test results come in, especially when Nancy shares Ellen’s passion for writing and relates aspects of her memory that seemingly only Ellen’s daughter would know.  Leo remains more defensive and sceptical, partly due to his nature as a psychiatrist but primarily due to them both going through a similar situation 20 years earlier that turned out to be a false alarm.  Nancy’s actions, if she is entering into this action in bad faith, are abhorrent and emotional terrorism on her part.  Taking advantage of the blinding grief of people whose scars and wounds have yet to heal in order to grasp at the life and parental relationship she wishes she had.  But the waters are muddied by Nancy herself so desperately wanting it to be true, both thanks to her past and those little nagging details that don’t make other logical sense, that not only is she blind to the damage she’s causing but she may also truly believe it.  That in the temporary absence of an evidential truth, this is the truth to her.  Our memories at such a young age are quite fallible and trauma can muddy the details to a degree that one can become resolute in their truth being absolute.

That sounds like the makings of a pointed political commentary, but Nancy thankfully ignores such a track in favour of remaining an intimate, gruelling, and emotionally complex character piece of great skill and trust in its actors.  Trust that is completely earned as all three are excellent.  Buscemi gets the thinnest character to play comparatively, which is to be expected since someone needs to be the emotionally-distant sceptic, but he brings a weariness and deep-seated pang of hurt that’s not as scabbed over as Leo would like to claim.  Riseborough sinks her teeth into the extremely difficult title role and pulls it off with aplomb; Nancy is never fully knowable but not in a way that loses the character’s thread or pushes the viewer too far away (going right up to the line then pulling us right back again).  But it’s Smith-Cameron who gets the showier and most emotional material in a devastating turn as a woman who knows that she shouldn’t hope this easily but is too heartbroken to not grab tightly onto that speck regardless.  She’s so good that the question of whether Nancy is the biological daughter she lost almost becomes irrelevant, Nancy never feeling the need to conclusively spell it out either way.

Nancy is an assured and heavy debut that asks a lot of its audience but is composed and nuanced enough in its emotions, in its characters, and in its storytelling to pull through.  Aside from a score by Peter Raeburn that over-eggs the pudding with booming ominous choirs, this is a heck of a calling card for Christina Choe and a long-overdue moment of Andrea Riseborough coming good.

Morgan Neville is quite the busy bee.  Waaaaaaaay back at the start of the week, I covered his Orson Welles documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, as part of the Festival’s last round of pre-Fest screenings. And now, already, he’s back with another extremely enjoyable and fascinating documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Grade: A-)  Of course, this arrangement’s the result of UK distribution nonsense, since Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has been flooding cinemas across America in buckets of tears from June onwards.  In America, Fred Rogers was practically a saint – one of the interviewees mentions that he “was working for the second coming of Christ,” his own words, not mine – whose syndicated children’s television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran for over 30 years and was beloved by children of all ages right up until its ending and beyond.

So, for Americans, Neville’s comprehensive documentary on the ordained minister turned unlikely television star reads like the easiest lay-up in the world: just line-up a bunch of the greatest hits, let Mr. Rogers talk and, bam, you got waterworks!  However, for non-Americans who never saw Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, as it was never exported, there was every chance that the earnest, beaming, heartfelt tribute to an American icon just wouldn’t translate overseas.  Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, much like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood itself, is a patient, ultra-sincere, and unapologetically kind and sweet film without a single ironic bone in its body.  It’s a borderline hagiography of Fred Rogers but really only out of necessity because, unlike many other famous children’s television personalities, he doesn’t appear to have had any skeletons in his closet and was exactly what you saw on TV.  The worst he’s shown to do is sort of force his co-star François Clemens to stay in the closet lest the show lose its sponsors for having an out gay Black man in its cast, but they remained close friends regardless of that, with Clemens explaining in tears how Rogers taught him that men can sincerely love each other in a platonic way.

Since there’s no dirt to dig up, Neville instead constructs a portrait of Fred Rogers as decency personified, who took the spirit of Christianity to heart through a belief that one should “love thy neighbour as you would live thyself.”  Who compensated for a childhood mostly spent indoors thanks to contracting all there was possible to contract by remaining in touch with his inner child throughout his entire adult life.  Who hated television, and most loud cynical children’s television, but was preternaturally gifted at it anyway, using that gift and that unique connection with children to treat them with respect and discuss complex topics without dumbing them down (the first week of Neighborhood was dedicated to anxieties regarding the Vietnam War).  A man often confused by changing times but tolerant of them even whilst he remained resolute in the singular vision of Neighborhood.  A man who sought to improve the world and inspire younger generations, who would likely be appalled by the current state of the world, and whom imbecilic conservatives vilified for somehow making a younger generation feel “entitled” due to his sincere mantra that everyone “is special just the way [they] are.”

And it broke my screening.  My press screening was near-enough full, many of whom had never heard of Fred Rogers before setting foot in that room (as I overheard afterwards), and absolutely everybody was blowing noses, choking back tears, and glassy-eyed by the time it was done.  Neville does indeed just hand the mic to Mr. Rogers in archive form from time to time because much of the material is that powerful on its own – the “Am I a Mistake?” duet, plus the way that it doesn’t immediately cure the character singing its thoughts and doubts afterwards, left me a genuine wreck due to my struggles with depression.  But he arranges the footage, the testimonies, the stories with such a care and lyricism – especially ending on a gorgeous moment of collective personal reflection – that they gain an additional power which is impossible to resist.  I hate using this term when talking about films, because it’s mostly utter nonsense, but Won’t You Be My Neighbor? really does feel like a film we need right now.  A film about absolute good, of devoting oneself to a life of kindness and tolerance without a hint of cynicism and being celebrated for it.  There’s a catharsis to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? that feels like a tonic to the misery of the world today.  It’s a tearjerker, make no mistake, but it’s a happy one.  It’s an exuberant one.  It’s a joyous one.  If there’s a better pop-documentary filmmaker working today than Morgan Neville, I’d like to meet them.  This is one of the year’s best films.

Here’s a dark confession from the pits of my shame-filled soul: Mirai (Grade: B+) was my first Mamoru Hosada film.  Not Summer Wars, not The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, not even goddamn Wolf ChildrenMirai, his seventh major feature directorial work, was my first taste.  By all accounts, this is kind of a leftfield departure for one of Japanese animation’s most acclaimed voices, being a small-scale domestic family movie whose fantasy elements are explicitly left as metaphorical rather than driving the plot.  For much of its runtime, Mirai is an intentionally featherweight and charming little trifle with a pretty genius conceit.  Centred around a comfortable family of three – a Father who works from home as an architect (Gen Hoshino), a Mother who is the main breadwinner of the household (Kumiko Asō), and their four-year-old son Kun (Moka Kamishiraishi) – that’s just blossomed to four with the arrival of the titular baby girl Mirai (Haru Kuroki).  Since Kun is four, this alternately makes him very excited and extremely jealous because the new baby is commanding his parents’ attention more and more with Kun fearing he’ll be left unloved, causing him to act out.  But every time he does, time-travelling members of the family show up from the tree in their garden at the middle of the house (it’s a weirdly-designed house which is apparently “what happens when [you] marry an architect”) to try and teach Kun to get over himself.

So, It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol but for a developing young boy at the age where he’d start acting out even before he felt his position being threatened by the arrival of a younger sibling.  Hosada’s script is shockingly accurate when it comes to depicting the family dynamics and individual characteristics of the three family members capable of doing more than babble and cry.  The Father trying to win some cred with the other mums in the neighbourhood by making out that he’s a super-awesome stay-at-home dad so that his wife can forward her career, but being alternately a panicked wreck or easily-distracted workaholic behind closed doors.  The way that Mother and Father (neither are given names in the script) get into half-arguments over little things but not in a malicious way or anything.  Both of them sharing fears about their fitness as parents, always worried they’re not good enough because Mirai cries when Father holds her or because Mother shouted at Kun during one of his many temper tantrums and she knows she shouldn’t have.  Father trying to help and encourage Kun with learning to ride a bicycle and being utterly inept at it.  The comedic and dramatic material that Hosada mines from the well of parenting easily outstrips anything Brad Bird tried with Incredibles II earlier this year; these feel like autobiographical scenarios and conversations pulled from Hosada’s own life, possibly because they were.

But it’s in Kun that the film finds its most specific characterisation.  Not since the first Rugrats Movie have I seen a depiction of jealous unruly older siblings as accurate as this one.  The way that Kun flips on a dime from being incredibly excited about his new baby sister because it means she’ll totally be as obsessed with trains as he is, to emphatically deciding he does not like her and trying to hit her on the head with one of his toy trains simply because his Mother and Father are ignoring him.  The scene where he gets his first bicycle and immediately demands the training wheels off because he saw some older kids riding around without them up ahead and he’s at that age where he wants to grow up right now reminded me of my own brother when he was four.  Kun’s stubborn insistence that things MUST go his way at all times otherwise he devolves into a full-on paddy, including one over being forced to wear blue shorts because his favourite yellow ones are in the wash, was my favourite guilt-tripping tactic growing up.  Hosada’s animation team even get the movement and physicality of a four-year-old down perfectly, how they swing themselves around with purpose but aren’t physically developed enough yet to do so in any way that isn’t awkward and gangly.

Mirai is exactly what it sounds like.  There are no big surprises, no unique twists, and no additional subtext beyond the central metaphor.  That, for the record, is perfectly ok because it is an extremely sweet film which, even with the fantasy diversions that allow Hosada the chance to make the story a bit more cinematic, still feels like something refreshingly different from much of the current animation landscape.  It looks extremely pretty, it hits a lot of emotional truths, and it can be really properly funny.  But then, at the exact moment Mirai threatens to float off into the ether as an episodic breeze but not much more, Hosada unleashes his knockout blows with an ending that ties together the tighter story of Kun and Mirai with the entire prior history of his family into a gorgeous and extremely powerful bow celebrating all of the little miracles that bring each of us here to this point in time.  A reminder that life, in all of its folkloric proposals and insurmountable physical struggles, is a series of beautiful happy accidents that can be impossible to fully appreciate unless spelled out in front of us.  Hundreds of decisions and events, big and small, responsible for getting us to this particular moment right here, none of which exist in a vacuum and all of which bring us together, visualised via a fly-through of Kun’s family tree.

Like a magician, Hosada snaps his fingers and everything comes into focus.  Where the low-key and at times genial family movie briefly widens its scope for a big emotional payoff without alienating its all-ages audience before snapping back shut again, and it’s my favourite individual sequence of the entire year, one that would have caused me to hug my mother extra-tightly were she not currently located several hundred miles away.  Mirai’s powerhouse ending definitely elevates the movie, but it’s more of a coup-de-grace for an already very good film that pushes it into true greatness rather than a last-minute rally to finish strong.  If this is what Hosada’s deliberately minor works are, I cannot wait to find out what his classics look like!

Tomorrow: Jason Reitman hopes to continue his career resurgence with The Front Runner; Karyn Kusama brings her take on the noir, Destroyer; and we catch up with the Joan Jett documentary Bad Reputation.

Callie Petch is a left-wing Hades.

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