Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2018: Day 14

A Private War, Pachamama, and I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story.

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

You can tell when we’re properly into Awards Season because along comes a film with an interesting-sounding premise for a biopic to build off of, only to find out that the finished product is prime, uncut, Grade-A Oscar Bait of the purest form. You know exactly the kind. “Based on a True Story,” hot-button issue that (hopefully if you’re one of the producers) either is still or has only become more relevant in the time since the film went into production, helmed by either a relatively-anonymous journeyman or a somewhat respected foreign/documentary director making a big jump over to narrative filmmaking, is entirely competent but unspectacular in its construction and completely empty on a thematic level, but has its star (usually a long-serving member of the profession in their 30s/40s who’s overdue for recognition) solidly delivering a few big grandstanding speeches so we critics exit the movie going “it’s alright, but [x] was brilliant.”

The major difference between this kind of Oscar Bait and the Big-Time Oscar Bait is that it won’t actually win anything huge, maybe Adapted Screenplay or a Supporting trophy, but it will hog the nominations like parents at a holiday resort buffet and everyone will respond with a resounding, “really? That film?” because they’d completely forgotten having seen it as soon as they stepped out of the screening. It’s the difference between, to use 2016 examples, La La Land and Lion. La La was designed to win awards, Lion was designed to win nominations. Well, un/fortunately for the lot of us, Harvey Weinstein may have been exiled from Hollywood but his influence still lives on. 2018’s entry in the all-or-nothing sweepstakes to become a hard Jeopardy! question five years from now is A Private War (Grade: C), this year’s Mayor of London Gala here at the Festival – fittingly, the past two years’ have been Call Me By Your Name and the deservedly-forgotten Their Finest, so that’s a good 50/50 pedigree for Private War to be operating in.

Let’s run down that checklist, shall we? “Based on a True Story?” Well, it’s based on the life of famous war correspondent Marie Colvin, focussing on her exploits in the 21st Century from the Sri Lanka journey that cost her an eye up to the Syria excursion that tragically cost her her life in 2012. “Hot-button issue?” A Private War trumpets the need for dedicated, hungry journalists who go where others fear to tread in search of stories that need reporting no matter how dangerous the consequences, and does this through Marie and her editor (Tom Hollander classing up the joint) taking turns to monologue that fact to each other lke a Simpsons gag that’s gotten out of hand. “Relatively-anonymous journeyman or respected foreign/documentary director?” That would be Matthew Heineman, Oscar-winning director of Cartel Land and City of Ghosts making his narrative debut and he’s… fine, I guess?

“Entirely competent but unspectacular in its construction and completely empty on a thematic level?” Oh, that’s a big tick! A Private War is an ok and easy watch, but it is also vapid and utterly empty. The film’s decision to cover 11 whole years of Colvin’s life, splitting between her tours on the frontlines of wars in places like Iraq & Libya and her struggles back home with a PTSD she refuses to treat and the alcoholism she slumps into to numb the pain, in barely 100 minutes is obviously a ludicrous one that cripples the film fatally. The result moves with pace, yeah, but it doesn’t get to meaningfully explore Marie in any way – not with her PTSD, not with her addicted co-dependent relationship to putting herself and others, like her photographer Paul Conroy (a Jamie Dornan I honestly didn’t recognise yet still left absolutely zero impression on me), in danger in search of a scoop – or say anything even remotely deep about war or journalism (“BAD” and “GOOD” respectively are the best we get). Meaningful criticisms of Marie are almost non-existent, examinations of the actual impact of the journalism she risks her life to perform go staunchly unexplored (although we do get two Journalist of the Year awards scenes), so the film is completely shallow.

“Quality star performance we can single out in a desperate attempt to pump up the word count to more than that of an average Letterboxd review?” That would be Rosamund Pike playing Marie herself in a blatant attempt to make the pickier of us pretend she was nominated for Gone Girl instead of this when she’s finally able to add “Oscar-nominated” to her star billing. She is pretty good, mind, given the material, getting Marie’s voice and mannerisms down scarily-well (as the obligatory pre-credits archive footage of the real Marie demonstrates), and of course she’s good enough at selling grand speeches in a way that can stir even the most jaded of critical hearts. Funny thing, though, is that when the screenplay, penned by Aresh Amel of Grace of Monaco (which explains A LOT), gets broader in terms of material – including montages cutting between Marie having sex and frustratingly writing her latest article semi-naked, THIS IS A REAL MOVIE THEY WANT TAKEN SERIOUSLY – Pike actually gets worse. She’s an actress who rises or sinks to the level of the material she’s given (hence her disappointing turn in A United Kingdom a few years back), so the louder dumber moments of this screenplay come off even worse thanks to Pike meeting the material at its level, such as the umpteenth variation of a public breakdown late-on in the film that feels more at home in a soap opera.

Meanwhile, the few times A Private War does truly work are when it focusses on either the nitty-gritty of Marie’s attempts to get a story (like bluffing her way through an Iraqi checkpoint by using her gym membership card as proof she’s an aid worker) or civilians are tearfully telling her their own stories. Irony abounds, however, because the second of those actually pushes Pike into the background, forcing her to react to things and say stock lines like “I want to tell your story.”  (EDIT: the day this piece was scheduled to go live, but after I could do anything about it, I was informed by a fellow critic that these scenes were effectively real.  The civilians featured were actual Syrian and Iraqi extras relating their real stories to a not-acting Rosamund Pike, so I have rescinded and reworded elements of the last two paragraphs to reflect this new information.) Nevertheless, these brief sequences are the only times that A Private War becomes truly engaging and they’re over just as they begin because we have to jet to another war-torn nation or waste Stanley Tucci as a barely-there love interest.

But, ultimately, A Private War is just “eh,” which is the biggest requirement for this strain of Oscar Bait. Despite its infrequent moments of unintentionally hilarious dialogue or scenes that are the hallmark of Oscar Bait parodies the world over – you had better believe Marie gets a big “summing up” speech at the movie’s end which she dictates whilst staring off into the middle-distance, and which literally every major character is also watching her make at the exact same time, despite being located thousands of miles and multiple timezones away from each other, whilst ALSO staring off into the EXACT SAME MIDDLE-DISTANCE – it’s just too mediocre to work up strong feelings about. I watched it, it leeched 105 minutes of my life from me, I didn’t really care, and Pike was pretty good at points. I’m honestly quite shocked I managed to get this many words out of something so immediately disposable, but even then I’ve been talking more about the film as Oscar Bait than on its own qualities, which I think is really telling.

Oh, and there’s a godawful, overwrought and ill-fitting original song over the end credits by a big recording artist (here a role played by Annie Lennox YOU’RE BETTER THAN THIS) as a subtle indicator to the Academy that this person would look great on the telecast next year. Are we absolutely certain no Weinsteins were involved in the making of this?

Y’all know me, I can’t get enough of my animated movies and, as such, shall try and watch as many of the ones that play at the London Film Festival each year as my schedule will allow for. Last year, for example, I saw four separate animated films which made up a full ninth of my overall movies seen and one of which, The Breadwinner, ended up my runaway favourite of the Festival as a whole. But in 2018, I’ve been left wanting. Don’t get me wrong, Mirai was fantastic, but one film cannot sustain an entire medium by itself and the Festival programme is severely lacking in animation this year. I frankly just don’t believe that this was due to a lack of potential candidates or higher quality standards, especially after having watched Pachamama (Grade: D+).

I will give Pachamama this: it looks great. Maybe not in raw animation terms, with stiff character animations and a very limited amount of action happening on-screen at any one time betraying a limited budget. But the art-style and character designs are delightful to look at, translating the art and drawings of Incan civilisation into a semi-3D style that often looks more like paper-crafted stop-motion than CGI. The sunken eyes, smoothed-out characters that still retain traces of an angular origin, the usage of negative space that adds a painterly feel. Combined with the gorgeous shading work, warm and complimenting colour scheme, and the deliberate decision to run the film at less than the typical 24fps, creating a choppy sensation akin to those in various classic Peanuts television specials, director Juan Antin has crafted a very nice film to look at – and adding further evidence to my credence that animated films should be more willing to experiment with visual styles, rather than just badly emulating the Disney/Pixar/DreamWorks triumvirate.

Now, if only Antin and the film’s eight credited writers were able to have scripted a movie less insultingly generic, then we may have been on to something. Alas, if you’ve seen a low-rent animated kids’ film before, then you’ve definitely seen Pachamama. Set in a tiny very-traditional village in the 16th Century ruled over by the Incan Empire, our villagers are a modest, humble, selfless lot who perform regular sacrifices of their supplies to the goddess of the Earth, Pachamama. But our protagonist, 10-year-old Tepulpai, doesn’t care for any of your stuffy boring rules, maaaaaaan! He worships the awesome power of the Great Condor and wants to become a powerful shaman who fights bad guys and is even introduced by sprinting through his stuffy-old villagers tending to their crops in order to let kids know that this rebel is the character they’re supposed to identify with. Well, when those oppressive Incas take the village’s symbolic statue of Pachamama for themselves and all anyone else wants to do is pray the problem away, it obviously falls to Tepulpai to defy orders and venture off on a rescue mission. He has no plan and is a massive idiot, but he’s got a cute animal sidekick (an armadillo), a tagalong girl, Naira, who’s his polar opposite with her own cute animal sidekick (a llama), and a whole lot of self-belief, so you’d best believe he’ll somehow bumble his way into saving the day from both the Incas and the Spanish Inquisition in spite of being an irritating little turd.

Children are annoying, obviously – and I include myself when I make the proclamation, I was quite the spoiled entitled monster as a child, and if you don’t think you were annoying as a child then you definitely were – but there are ways to make that annoyance at least somewhat endearing. Hell, I praised Mirai to the heavens for its accurate portrayal of a young boy! But Kun had character, specific quirks, went on an arc that took time and felt believable. Tepulpai, meanwhile, is just Stock Kids’ Movie Protagonist, Scrappy-Doo Variant and he reeeeeeeally grates on the nerves. I should not be watching a kids’ movie hoping that the child protagonist actually does get shot to ribbons by the evil Spaniards, but Pachamama provides such a desire. He’s also the only non-visual thing that sticks out across the entirety of this 70 minutes and change film, which is the worst of omens. The storytelling is rote and simplistic, character arcs are missing the connective tissue required to make them work, there are poop jokes (of course), and everybody involved is utterly incapable of saying the word “dead” as if using that word suddenly makes things too heavy despite death being a thematic part of the movie.

The whole thing feels vaguely insulting, aimed at the lowest and least-discerning of age groups. Which is something I would be ok to admit except that a) I have always held animation and kids’ movies to higher standards and will continue to do so, and b) I just this fortnight saw Won’t You Be My Neighbor? which showed clips of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that dealt with racism, homophobia, depression, and the goddamnned Vietnam War despite being aimed at children. So Pachamama can’t skirt by on presumed lower standards and expectations, because such a thing is only ever used as excuses to offer non-committal passes to subpar films and children deserve better. A lovely art-style like the one featured in Pachamama deserved a film that displayed even a modicum of effort on the narrative side.

Here’s a confession that I can guarantee a lot of male readers will probably also share: I spent the entirety of my time in Secondary School (our equivalent to High School for American readers) snobbily dismissing boybands out of hand. Not just snobbily dismissing them, but with a proper disdainful hatred. They weren’t REAL MUSIC, they were annoying, they were stupid and childish and everywhere, and numerous other coded language for “this thing is primarily aimed at young girls instead of me, a growing White man, and therefore this is an outrage that must not stand!” Now, if boybands and that kind of factory-assembled pop music are just not to your personal taste, then that of course is fine, nobody is forcing you to like the music of Five or Blue or (*shudders*) *NSYNC.

But there’s something about liking boybands that is equated to a massive shame-magnet and a supposed reflection of immaturity.  That something is the toxic masculinity inherent in our patriarchal society that takes great pleasure in shaming women over their lifestyle choices, using any perceived enjoyment of a feminine-targeted outlet as an indicator that women are hysterical messes who don’t know what they really want or like. In the 40s it was talking out of turn one too many times, today it’s having a sincere fandom of BTS. Much of my social circle in Secondary School, as it has been for most of my life, consisted of girls, girls who liked Panic! at the Disco and Fall Out Boy and Paramore and all that cool music of the time, but they also had things for JLS and One Direction which would reliably bring about a round of mocking from myself and the other male friends in my group.

Like a lot of my shitty sexist faux-feminist behaviour pre-University, I woke up to the realisation that I actually had no good reasons for hating this kind of music. That I was genuinely incapable of properly articulating why I had such a staunch distaste for boybands, which, as a critic, is the best indicator that your opinion may in fact be total bullshit. Over the years, I’ve opened up to the joys of boybands, although I have more a preference of girl-groups thanks to my greater identification with women and femininity (Heidi-Keisha-Mutya-era Sugababes forever FIGHT ME), and learned to let the young girls have their fun free from judgemental assholes like me.

But, recently, there’s also been a shift in the music critic community towards a soft-acceptance of certain boybands and manufactured pop music under the idea of “respecting the motherfucking craft” involved in the songs themselves.  And whilst it’s a nice idea in theory, in practice poptimism is just as much bullshit as snidely sexist dismissals of the very music they’re supposedly praising. It’s the (heavily) White male-dominated music snobs deigning to legitimise certain kinds of pop music under a condescending guise of nobility. The insinuation being that the whole genre of manufactured pop music is still childish and stupid but they’ll grant the genre a pity-acceptance by throwing around names of producers and songwriters like Max Martin and Julia Michaels as status symbols indicating which interchangeable identikit boy-toys of the hour are worthwhile because of THE CRAFT and which are still for stupid teenage girls with their cooties and PMS-ing.

The fact is that the boyband doesn’t need some bullshit goalpost-moving condescending approval from snobby male critics to be worthwhile. The devoted screams and unconditional love presented by millions of teenage girls the world over is approval enough. And this, finally, brings us to Jessica Leski’s long-in-the-making documentary about boyband phenomena, I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story (Grade: A-) and it is sincerely one of my favourite films of this entire Festival. A witty, moving, unashamed love letter to boybands and fandom that adores these things for what they are to such a degree that its mere presentation like this effectively constitutes a feminist reframing of the issue. Yes, boybands are cynically designed by bottom-line obsessed record executives to prey upon teenage girls and resultantly line their pockets with fat stacks of cash; Leski admits that almost right away. But that fact does not negate the connection made to the boys, or the emotions released from listening to their music, or the personal growth and better understanding of oneself that can come from this music and this group, and to stand there and act like it does otherwise is a total dick move on the person which tries to do so.

To further this point, Leski structures her film around four subjects, filmed over several years, which means that I Used to Be Normal is more a story about four women personally explaining themselves and their own lives, rather than an all-encompassing examination of boybands and fandom in all their forms. This is a masterstroke and the absolute firmest rebuttal Leski could make against the misogynistic falsehood that young (and old) women can’t articulate themselves properly, don’t know what they like, and are too dumb to understand otherwise. Her four women – who, for the record, are high-schooler Elif (One Direction obsessive), writer Sadia (Backstreet Boys obsessive and former head of an online newsletter dedicated to them), Dara (Take That obsessive and whose current job is too perfect a reveal for me to even dream of spoiling), and the elderly Susan (Beatles obsessive in a LONG-OVERDUE reminder that they used to be a boyband and dismissed as such before they got “weird”) – speak candidly and with great eloquence, which I fear sounds really condescending coming from myself but it’s the truth. In doing so, they dive into not just the boys of their bands, the imagery of each, and the music the bands were pushing, but also the personal upbringings and life experiences outside of those boys that led these women to form such a strong attachment.

Elif is the eldest of a family of traditional Turkish immigrants and she’s adapting to American culture far easier than her often-unsupportive parents can or are comfortable with. Sadia is the daughter of conservative Indian parents who found her passion for writing through her obsessive message board-enhanced Backstreet fandom. Dara was able to understand her homosexuality thanks to the connection she made with Take That and Gary Barlow specifically. Susan rebelled against her conservative Australian hometown to get swept up in Beatlemania and gained shared solace in their music when tragedy struck one of her friends. These are real natural connections, the kind that anyone can make with any musical artist (REAL or manufactured), ones that help a young woman develop and discover herself, something that they should be allowed to take pride in rather than being constantly belittled and shamed over it.

Lest you get the impression that I Used to Be Normal is some kind of stern moralising lecture, let me assure you otherwise. After all, just because being a fan of a boyband isn’t inherently embarrassing, doesn’t mean there aren’t some actual embarrassing facets and stories to share. Much fun is made of the 90s fashion choices that Take That and Backstreet were draped in, Sadia reads us an extract from a book of published Backstreet Boys self-insert fan fiction (she didn’t write) and only half-sarcastically laments its chaste nature, and the adolescent fantasies these women would have with their favourite boys despite their minds not yet comprehending anything more scandalous than playing tag in the forest. All of these stories and more went down a riot at my almost-full public screening, that rare kind of laughter that came from a collective understanding of a shared experience rather than derisively mocking the thing in question. And Leski also grapples on occasion with the negative possessive sides of fandom – romantic fantasies interrupted by real-life girlfriends for the boys making an appearance, for just one example – and the questions of when fandom turns unhealthy and at what point does a boyband’s antics turn into nothing but cynical opportunism – touched upon when Sadia talks about her experiences going on the official Backstreet Boys Cruise and finding her life-long devotion being seriously challenged for the first time based on the circus she witnesses.

But, first and foremost, Leski’s film is a celebration of womanhood and a celebration of the things young women like that they shouldn’t have to apologise for liking. So, you can gripe about the film’s refusal to explore the hypocrisy in society’s shaming of boyband fandom but mainstreaming of geek fandom, or how it doesn’t critique the homogeneity and racial & sexuality issues at the centre of the boyband concept – the closest it comes to such a thing is when, during a brief detour to outline the general rules that define a boyband, Boyz II Men are disqualified from boyband designation because they sing too explicitly about sex – but that’s not the point of I Used to Be Normal. There are other days and (hopefully) other documentaries to look at all that. Leski instead wants to provide an earnest, charming, long-overdue corrective to decades of sneering condescension and, given that the post-film Q&A alternated between breathless soapboxing to thunderous applause and breathless admiration to thunderous applause (both of which were actually a lot better than they sound on paper and this was genuinely one of the best Q&As I’ve been to), I’d say it worked gangbusters. I know it worked on me, because I was beaming the entire way through and for hours afterwards.

To end, allow me to cosign Festival Programmer Anna Bogutskaya by quoting an interview Harry Styles gave Rolling Stone in 2017 to sum up this whole debate: “Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music… have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy… Teenage-girl fans – they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.”


Tomorrow: my time in London comes to a close with the World Premiere of Stan & Ollie.

Callie Petch is so accustomed to flames they couldn’t tell you what’s fire.



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