Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2019: Day 6

Premature, Honey Boy, and The Perfect Candidate.

Update on the new queue system five days after it’s been tested and with time to work out the kinks: attempting to queue inside the VUE building ahead of official queue start time, as everybody has been doing, now gets you sent outside to queue in the open street.  Once again, this new system was billed as trying to improve health and safety and prevent queuing into the open street in the smaller VUE cinema.  We Press & Industry folks armchair-quarterback the running of this Festival every year but we also know that we couldn’t deal with the logistics of putting on something of this magnitude so our bitching and griping is just bitching and griping.  That said, this system is officially a failure and surely somebody on the organisation management side of things must’ve known this wasn’t going to work out.  I mean, come on, everybody here called this exact thing occurring as soon as it was revealed and we have no event planning experience.  Perhaps realising this as one of our queues snaked back to the Leicester Square Cineworld, staff soon moved us back inside to officially start queuing an hour before film time.

Anyway, films, which is what we are here for!  I had a necessary lie-in on the Sunday morning to recharge and also because like fuck was I getting up at 5:50am for a Noah Baumbach movie of any length thanks very much.  Marriage Story‘s tale of two former lovers bitterly falling out of love has been receiving rave notices from every other festival (I have yet to speak to anyone here who’s seen it though I imagine the sentiments elsewhere will be echoed), but personally I don’t see it managing to surpass Premature (Grade: A-), the newest film from Rashaad Ernesto Green.  Set across one summer in New York City, this romantic drama follows 17-year-old Ayanna (Zora Howard) as she meets and falls for the slightly older Isaiah (Joshua Boone).  Initially reticent to open herself up to him, boisterous and confident plus a committed wing-woman when around her girlfriends but shy and guarded when Isaiah is trying to put moves on her, the sensitive artists soon end up bonding and encouraging each other in their respective fields.  At least until unrevealed baggage literally bursts in through the door and things start to slowly unravel.

Green co-wrote the movie with Howard and their screenplay is a wonder to behold.  Sure, in non-embellished beat-for-beat terms, the narrative is absolutely nothing new.  But it’s in the details and the specificities that the movie utterly shines and where Green most earns the Barry Jenkins comparisons he’s otherwise going to have lazily flung at him based on surface-level observations – if his film has an obvious influence, I’d argue it’s the introspective romance dramas of the French new wave.  The zinging naturalistic dynamic that Ayanna has with her girlfriends, the way that conversations can jump from clowning on someone’s new hairstyle to news about a recent sexual assault in the area with the same sudden yet matter-of-factness as one might make such a jump in reality – I got a lot of Skate Kitchen vibes from these scenes.  The way that Green’s camerawork evolves throughout Ayanna and Isaiah’s relationship, especially after that baggage walks in, beginning sensual and romanticised before slowly drawing attention to the growing cracks in the fault lines.  The exact manner in which Ayanna changes around Isaiah, subtly communicated through what isn’t said when and how heartbreaking that silence is when dwelled upon.

There’s a very specifically teenaged kind of love going on in Premature, one where the person involved gives themselves over so completely to something in spite of all red flags and all doubts that they begin to lose themselves because, to quote Charly Bliss, they’re “young enough to believe it should hurt this much.”  Green and Howard manage to communicate this with both an adrenaline rush at that first hit of unadulterated passion and the painful prolonged comedown when it all starts to fall apart, with the more melodramatic final third still speaking truth thanks to Howard’s magnificent and magnetic central performance and the radiant optimism which crystallises from the ashes in a way not dissimilar to the perfect ending of Fleabag.  Here ultimately is a movie about the terror, the ecstasy, and the pain of putting yourself out there, completely and truly, being bitterly heartbroken yet picking yourself up and trying again regardless.  I was devastated by the end of Premature, a film which may not break new ground for romantic dramas but finds a unique point-of-view and has enough specificity in the details to quietly become an absolute must-watch, no minted Oscar contenders required.

Commercially-released art-as-therapy often has wildly varying results.  They may be fascinatingly personal in a manner which at least provides a really interesting subtextual undercurrent but oftentimes doesn’t translate into a dramatically compelling work outside of that.  After all, such art is made less for the paying consumer and more for the person making it – Jon Favreau’s Chef being one of the most nakedly obvious examples of such – and a lot of the time the results kinda make one wish that the main creative in question had instead just spent all that money on actual therapy – instead of enabling the person in question by giving him another two series of television, BBC.  Honey Boy (Grade: A-) may only have been written by Shia LaBeouf – his long-time friend and collaborator Alma Har’el is the film’s director, alternating between an Indie chamber piece and a dreamy music video – but it’s quite clear who is the main driving force behind this movie.  The standard end credits scroll “the persons and events in this picture are entirely fictitious” disclaimer isn’t fooling anybody this time.

To wit: Honey Boy follows Otis (Lucas Hedges in 2005, Noah Jupe in 1995), a child actor since his youth whom we meet on-set of a giant explosive-laden action movie doing a quintessential Shia “nonoNO!”  Over the course of a pulsating montage where fiction and reality blur hopelessly together, Otis gets himself thrown into court-ordered therapy and is forced to confront the bitter memories of the main source of his rage-based personality, the abusive and often absent father who acted as his personal guide during those crucial early years as a child actor (played by, you guessed it, LaBeouf himself).  A recovering addict and war veteran (although that’s debatable given Otis’s insistence that his dad has a habit of repurposing stories from other support group members as his own) with extreme anger issues, a relentless stream of casually belittling insults, and a penchant for painting himself as the blameless victim who only cares about his son and pressures him to be better for the both of them.  The kind of abuser who genuinely doesn’t seem to know half of the time that what they’re doing is abuse.

In stories such as these, somebody like Otis’ father – named James, LaBeouf’s actual father is named Jeffrey and if you think I’m attempting to manufacture this narrative, know that the end credits are comprised of archive still images of LaBeouf and his real father – would dominate the narrative to an extent where no-one else gets to breathe.  And whilst it is true that Honey Bear does not have much room for characterising anybody other than its central pairing, and a possibly-never-better LaBeouf commands the screen with a multifaceted and equally pitiable and detestable performance, the film is just as much an interrogation of Otis (and by extension LaBeouf himself).

Anybody questioning whether the man is capable of self-reflection in manners which amount beyond gimmicky performance art may find themselves pleasantly surprised here.  Otis as a child exhibits flashes of egotism and a predilection for the Method which grow untreated into a toxic insistence that his unresolved trauma is the reason for his being a good actor, one that is threatening to send him down the exact same road as his father and grandparents.  And rather than be the useful supportive anchor against such an influence, his father actively shepherds him down that road through emotional manipulation and bitter insults.  The script almost acts like a mea culpa for LaBeouf’s well-documented transgressions over the years and a firm rebuke to the ideals he once held, as well as a paeon to forgiveness and acceptance of the past which honestly isn’t so far removed from LFF’s other major emotional standout, Waves.

And whilst LaBeouf may be the focus of everyone’s attention, naturally in a project like this, the true standout is Jupe as the young Otis.  Jupe has been one the best young actors going for a while now and here he puts in a truly wrenching performance, effortlessly balancing the desperate wannabe macho swagger of a kid trying to ape and make his dad proud, the palpable hurt of both the verbal abuse he receives but also the subtle psychological damage of having his wants and feelings invalidated at every turn, and the brief flashes of carefree precociousness which remind you that Otis is still just a 12 year-old boy underneath everything.  Perhaps my favourite scene involves a wordless connection formed with a shy young prostitute who lives across from him at the motel parking lot (fka twigs not given much of a character but exuding screen presence nonetheless) where Otis gets to utilise the acting skills he otherwise uses for work or to futilely please his father solely for play and his own joy, and the change in young Otis during that scene is remarkable to witness.  If there’s not a serious awards campaign for Jupe come that time of the season, something has gone wrong.  No mean feat to steal a movie out from under Shia LaBeouf and if that isn’t praise enough then I don’t know what else to tell you.

Continuing my inadvertent focussing on Official Competition entries in the line-up this year – and there’ll be even more next week, most likely – Haifaa al-Mansour returns to her native Saudi Arabia for the first time since her breakthrough 2012 drama Wadjda with The Perfect Candidate (Grade: B-).  Following a pair of American features that were alternately derided (2018’s Mary Shelley) and underseen (same year’s Nappily Ever After on Netflix), Candidate has al-Mansour retreating right back to the same sort of ground she covered in Wadjda, centring around a Saudi woman’s efforts to be heard in the country’s rigidly patriarchal social structure whilst being melancholically honest about how much change one woman can realistically enact.  The woman in question is Maryan (Mila al-Zahrani), a go-getting optimistic spitfire of a doctor at an underfunded, underequipped and under-staffed local emergency hospital in a village who, as a result of trying to solve an entirely different problem, ends up accidentally running for office in the local municipal council.

She doesn’t want the job, exactly.  Rather, she sees it as a potential signal boost to fulfil her desire for the hospital to finally become properly accessible – the current council leader having seen fit to build a new hospital in the middle of nowhere with no paved road leading to it and without properly securing the water pipe which is constantly bursting and flooding the dirt pile entrance.  Her entire campaign pledge is in fact almost solely based around this single issue which exasperates many of the (often male) people she talks to who, when they’re not shouting her down for daring to have a voice at all, keep trying to box her into being a women’s issues or feminist candidate whilst she insists she’s trying to put forward proposals which will help and be appreciated by everyone; one can likely draw frustrated parallels to al-Mansour herself and her being routinely pigeonholed as a feminist filmmaker.  In that respect, Maryan is effectively forced to have an activist feminist awakening although she never deviates from her initial one-issue platform in a manner which recalls the recent wave of new progressive voices springing up around the globe, people who get into politics not to win or for money and status but because it’s the right thing to do and the need to.

Al-Mansour keeps things genial and feel-good throughout, even neutralising the realistically honest deflation of its ending by instead shifting the tale to that of a woman reconciling her family history and recognising her own self-worth.  The political insight is extremely surface-level, we never see outside of Maryan’s little bubble and there are very rarely any heavy setbacks or risks displayed, with its most trenchant satire coming from her makeshift campaign strategy entirely consisting of watching one hilariously inept American local election campaign video on YouTube and printing out a 10-step checklist entitled “How to Run a Political Campaign.”  There are also frequent cutaways to Maryan’s unavailable father (Khalid Abdulraheem) getting the decades-late chance to tour the country as part of his state-sponsored musical group that don’t seem to go anywhere.  But although it’s not all that deep and a lot of its substance was better realised in Wadjda, Candidate is a very enjoyable watch aided in particular by a wonderfully charming central performance from al-Zahrani.

Tomorrow: Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones take to the skies in The Aeronauts.

Callie Petch is deep inside themselves, but they’ll get out somehow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s