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If Only . . .
by Marinell Haegelin

We all know the  feeling of seeing a film and mulling over afterward just what was missing,  thinking “If only ….” Making a film requires arduous commitment, know-how,  passion, and distribution luck. Hearts must harden filtering feedback and  scrounging for funds, albeit crowdfunding’s a godsend. Why, then, do only some  films cause a “buzz” at festivals? How a film’s synopsis is written, and  reviews from prior (festival) screenings, can be deceptive. With that in mind,  of seventeen films screened at Filmfest Hamburg, four prompted my thinking “If  only ….”

In alphabetical-neutral fairness, let’s begin  with Princess, a disturbing film  about aspects of sex and one’s sexuality. Even after Adar, age 12, reaches  puberty, her mother and Michael indiscriminately neck and paw each other in  front of her. Neither care that Adar skips school; Michael has self-identity  issues and ill-defined sexual direction. Therefore, when Adar brings look-alike  Alan home, any equilibrium shifts profusely. Self-assured Alan’s not up for  games, and the upshot is irretrievable. If only the dialogue wasn’t so  confusing, the screenplay not so questionable, the subtitles easier to read,  and the characters attracted some empathy. Even production values are average.  Still, writer-director Tali Shalom Ezer is having a good run, accruing festival  screenings and some awards.

My favorite part of Songs My Brothers Taught Me is the end sequence. Living on a  Dakotas Indian reservation Jashaun, her restless brother, and her disturbed  mother are surrounded by alcoholism. Their larger-than-life, estranged, and  randy dad dies; his twenty-five kids meet and mourn his death. Whereas the  youngster embraces her heritage, Johnny plans to move to L.A. with his girlfriend.  Finding out, the smart, sensitive Jashaun turns to surrogate figures, as does  mom. Halfway through the 98 minutes I wondered where we were going. If only  writer-director Chloé Zhao’s dialogue was more meaningful, and the editor had  applied some fade-transitions instead of constant cuts, the film’s choppiness  could’ve been alleviated. Also a debut feature, Magnus von Horn’s The Here After’s premise is life after  prison. John returns to the farming community and its high school, while his  single father and kid brother cope. Granddad needs attention; troublemakers’  provocations tip the scales. Redemption seems illusory. If only von Horn’s  story was more cohesive, with less stilted direction. Audiences are tasked with  envisaging his aim. Both debut features portend promise, and premiered at  Sundance.

Most disappointing is writer-director Yorgos  Lanthimos’s The Lobster. I bought  into the hype and attached star-power (Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C.  Reilly) dissuading me from seeing another film (that won a festival award). In  a future reality, being a couple takes precedence. Single people are confined  to The Hotel, and given uniform clothing, and forty-five days to find a  partner. Those who don’t will be relegated to living out their life as an  animal of their choice. Because desperation demands ingenious solutions,  physical imperfections unite. Our protagonist defiantly escapes into the  forest; The Loners rule, the edict is for solitary. If only Lanthimos and  Efthimis Filippou’s screenplay, and the direction, hadn’t got lost in the  trees. Although humor remains black, it looses its satirical and laconic edge.

Now read quotes from the festival catalogue. “Princess is a disturbing psycho-thriller  that moves between reality and imagination.” “Disturbing” is accurate, the rest  is a stretch. “The film is a sensitive portrayal of the young generation of  Native Americans in the USA and is marked by great performances by amateur  actors.” Correct but incomplete; it’ll be interesting to see Zhao’s next  feature. “The Here After is a  forceful, minimalist drama.” Minimalist negates forceful. “With biting humor, The Lobster tells its story in the form  of a dark, sinister fable and won this year's Jury Prize at Cannes.” That  description isn’t an accurate match: “fable,” i.e. a moral lesson, might be  interpreted that stronger scripts go the distance. The moral, then, is read everything about a film carefully, but always  trust your gut instinct.