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.