The Films of 2016: Short takes (II)

Miss Stevens (dir. Julia Hart) – This charming micro-indie is primarily a showcase for the talents of Lily Rabe, who plays a high school English teacher acting as a chaperone for three of her students during a weekend-long drama competition.  But it’s also perceptive and mostly clear-eyed about issues of mental health, depression, mania, etc. as experienced by kids and grown-ups alike, and about the often tricky navigation of boundaries that can happen when teachers and students go out of the classroom and into the real world together. 

Hell or High Water (dir. David Mackenzie) – I wasn’t really a fan of No Country for Old Men—a film to which this neo-noir Western bears some generic resemblance—and I can’t say I found Hell or High Water to be any more noteworthy, smart and lean as it may be.  That is to say that I don’t completely understand the love for this film beyond its sporting a fine, hammy performance by Jeff Bridges in full-on irascible Rooster-Cogburn mode as a casually racist Texas Ranger on the trail of two bank-robbing brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster). 

Captain Fantastic (dir. Matt Ross) – If you press on this quirky indie dramedy too hard a lot of it doesn’t really hold together…so I made up my mind not to press on it, because it’s mostly winsome and likable, and because it’s a reminder of how immensely appealing Viggo Mortensen (he plays a left-wing survivalist raising his kids off the grid) can be.

Indignation (dir. James Schamus) – There’s a passage in Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound that’s as true an account of what it feels like to be a young male college student as any I’ve ever read, and though I’m not familiar with the Roth novel on which Indignation is based it’s equally as smart in capturing what is now sometimes called “the first-year experience.”  This elegantly wrought film is ostensibly about the attempt by precocious and feisty Jewish freshman Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) to settle into life at an Ohio liberal arts college in the early 1950s, and about his being flummoxed by the mere existence of girls like Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), who wears pastel cardigan sweaters and looks like Eva Marie Saint and also gives blow jobs on first dates and has a history of suicide attempts.  It’s also about the subtle persecution Marcus faces as one of the only Jewish students on campus, a persecution which is revealed to have its roots in the administration of the college itself, as represented by a smug and passive-aggressive dean played brilliantly by Tracy Letts.  But over the course of the film the two plots end up becoming the same plot, as Roth (and Schamus) suggest that the persecution of Jewish boys like Marcus and that of sexually active girls like Olivia are two parts of the same problem, and that said problem is more than just an issue of college administrators being meddlesome and stodgy and punitive.  It may be that I’m also re-reading (and loving) Roth’s American Pastoral right now, but I was impressed with this, even if it gets a bit too heavy for its own good at the end.   

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