Wednesday, April 25, 2012

We Need to Talk About Cyril

No sign of dad in The Kid With a Bike.

* * 1/2  The Kid With a Bike. Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne.

Fathers. Who needs 'em?
            A recent long-term study of children raised by lesbian couples reported some surprising results. After following eighty-four families from birth to age seventeen, researchers Nannette Gartrell and Henry Bos showed their subjects not only matched their straight-raised peers by most measures, but were actually superior in academic performance. Children of lesbian parents also more self-confident, showed more social competence, and had fewer disciplinary problems.
            Studies like Gartrell-Bos need to be taken with a grain of salt, because only the most motivated, conscientious parents-to-be (including ones with something to prove) tend to sign up for studies that take decades to complete. But this hasn’t stopped some advocates for same-sex marriage from touting them uncritically. The other implication of their argument—that having a male parent around is not only unnecessary, but actually harms academic performance, self-confidence, and discipline, is never talked about. Yet if you buy the study, the logic is inescapable: to raise well-adjusted kids, it’s better to have that second female around than a male.
            Though outwardly beyond dispute, our collective esteem for fathers has never been lower. The word “patriarchy”—literally, “rule of the father”—is now a dirty one, while the female equivalent has a hip, sandalwood-scented wholesomeness to it. For quite a few  people, a free-association exercise starting with the word “dad” only elicits the response “deadbeat”. And if you can name a current prime-time TV sitcom or commercial where, for a change, the father is handsome and wise and the mother the fatuous, overgrown kid, please write to us here, care of The Tompkins Weekly.
            None of which has much directly to do with the Dardenne Brothers The Kid With a Bike, except that it compelled my attention so intermittently that thoughts on the state of modern fatherhood were never far away. The film concerns Cyril (Thomas Doret), a ten year-old boy who yearns for his père Guy (Jérémie Renier), even though the latter abandoned him to a state-run institution in the bleak exurbs of Liège, Belgium. His increasingly desperate attempts to contact the disinterested Guy doesn’t get him back. Instead, the boy somehow attracts the sympathy of Samantha (Cécile De France), a single hairdresser in the neighborhood. For Cyril, being fostered by Samantha beats life at the orphanage, but is no substitute for his dad. That role gets taken up by Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a local tough who only pretends to befriend Cyril as he uses him to stage petty thefts in the neighborhood.
            The Kid With a Bike is a small-scale story with big themes on its mind. With such films as La Promesse (1996) and The Son (2002), the Dardennes have developed a reputation for gritty, unadorned stories from Europe’s underbelly. Kid is perhaps their most accessible offering yet. Though the film never explicitly cites them, it is set against a tradition of big-city father-figure-and-son stories like Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921) and Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948), and at its best has something of the emotional punch of those classics.
            For all that’s good about it, though—the directness, the aired-out simplicity, the quiet power of the performances of Doret and De France—there just not enough of it. Samantha clings to Cyril with the tenacity of a barnacle, even sacrificing her relationship with her long-term boyfriend (Laurent Caron) for him. But the Dardennes, in their trop cool refusal to psychoanalyze their characters, never account for why. With respect to this key element, the Dardennes are not practicing minimalism as much as deprivation. Explaining Samantha’s motive would not necessarily have entailed dull verbal exposition; it simply would have entailed some creativity.
            The ending, though well done, likewise leaves a feeling of a job left incomplete. To repeat, there are some strong moments here. But there are also surprisingly ham-handed ones, as when the Dardennes fire up the Deutsche Grammophone to pound out emotional cues from Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto (Can you feel that? Can you feel it?). Overall, the rapturous critical reception to this movie seems to have more to do with its intentions than what it delivers.
            Whatever Samantha’s motive, Cyril is obviously better off with her than the feckless chump who acted essentially as his sperm donor. He wants his father, but does he need him? One thing’s for sure: guys like Guy love to excuse themselves by insisting their kids are “better off without them”. Results of studies like Gartrell-Bos, though inspiring to same-sex couples, unintentionally play into such excuses among the much, much larger number of at-risk straight families. The lessons of sociology, like parenthood itself, are rarely unmixed blessings.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Smells Like the Human Spirit

* * *  In Darkness. Written by David F. Shamoon, based on the book by Robert Marshall. Directed by Agnieszka Holland.

Wieckiewicz as working-class Moses In Darkness
After the better part of a century and hundreds of films, you might think every conceivable angle on the Nazi Holocaust has been covered. We’ve gotten comprehensive views of the tragedy in such works as the 1978 ABC miniseries Holocaust and Schindler’s List, and we’ve gotten the narrow, subjective view in The Pianist. We’ve gotten stories about conspirators (The Wannsee Conference), collaborators (Mephisto, The Counterfeiters), resistors (Triumph of the Spirit, Defiance, Escape from Sobibor), Jews in hiding (The Diary of Anne Frank), Jews passing for German (Europa Europa), Germans on the run (Marathon Man, The Reader), spies (Black Book), children (The Tin Drum, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), mothers (Sophie’s Choice), fathers (Life is Beautiful), even mutants (briefly, in the first X-Men). And that’s just counting the non-documentaries.
            With In Darkness, director Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, Treme, Angry Harvest) has found a fresh line of attack—albeit an extremely low-angle one. In German-occupied Poland, Jews were herded into ghettoes in preparation for deportation and liquidation. In the town of Lvov—as in the more-famous Warsaw uprising—some Jews escaped underground, where they eked out precarious existences in gloom and filth, until the country was “liberated” by the Russians fourteen months later.   
            The sewers of Lvov, it turns out, were the bailiwick of Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a native Polish sanitation worker and part-time thief. At first, Leopold can scarcely spare a thought for the “Yids”, against whom many beleaguered and minimally-educated Poles keep a petty, spiteful sort of bigotry. His only motivation in hiding them is extorting money from the wealthy Chiger family (Maria Schrader and Herbert Knaup). But like a working-class Oskar Schindler, Leopold discovers a better, more humane side of himself as he becomes invested in the struggle of the Chigers and their companions, including a valiant bruiser (Benno Fürmann), a  lout’s pregnant mistress, and especially the children. Before long he’s running heroic risks for “his” fourteen Jews, proving that even an ordinary man with shit under this nails could summon more moral courage than other, more powerful people who did nothing. (The historical Leopold Socha is commemorated in Israel as one of “The Righteous Among the Nations”, non-Jews who helped defy the Nazi genocide.)
            Holland, a half-Jew who lost her grandparents in the Warsaw uprising and whose gentile mother helped Jews escape the Nazi round-ups, has a keen feel for the moral ambiguities at the margins of both communities. Neither her Poles nor her Jews are rendered simplistically; both groups are divided against themselves, and show as much selfishness as they do courage. This richness lends In Darkness a feel of authenticity that is rarely found in stories with such enormous—and crushingly obvious—moral stakes. Wieckiewicz’s portrayal of Socha shows less Hollywood romanticism than the boozy, low-key venality of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder anti-hero. He is never less than terrific.
            So why isn’t In Darkness easier to watch? The problem is the down-side of Holland’s unromanticized approach: with its claustrophobic underground spaces shot claustrophobically, lit only with jiggling flashlights, it becomes so hard to tell the grime-faced characters apart. Just following them becomes such a labor that we barely have energy enough to care about their problems.
            The subject justifies it, but In Darkness still demands the viewer to spend two and half hours crawling around a Polish cesspit. That might not require heroism, but it does take commitment.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Only Connect

Segel and Helms can't relate in Jeff, Who Lives at Home.
***1/2  Jeff, Who Lives at Home.  Written and directed by Jay & Mark Duplass. 

Based on the title and the marketing, you might suppose Jay and Mark Duplass’ Jeff, Who Lives at Home is some kind of slacker comedy—the kind of thing the soft, round spirit of Seth Rogan hovers over like a sweet puff of bong smoke.  But it turns out that Rogan isn’t in this movie, and you’d be wrong in assuming much about what the Duplass brothers have cooked up.
            Jeff (Jason Segel) is a soft-bodied sasquatch of a guy who lives at home with his mom Sharon (Susan Sarandon). His lifestyle does involve plenty of couch time and yes, a bong. But Jeff is lazy only in the way a permanent existential crisis can inspire—weed and solitude have made him into a kind of suburban yogi, on a never ending quest for snacks and his place in the cosmic order. Things get interesting when his mom sends him on an errand to Home Depot, and he meets up with his brother older brother Pat (Ed Helms). The latter is the sibling who’s made all the ”right” choices—job, marriage, expensive toys like a Porsche. But things are not so good for the dickish Pat, as his wife (Judy Greer) may or may not be having an affair, and only the reluctant Jeff can help find out the truth.
            The comedy here rarely involves big laughs, but lies more in the realm of “funny ‘cause it’s true”. The Duplass’, meanwhile, have released Jeff against a highly topical discussion of so-called “boomerang kids”—the estimated three million US adults in their twenties forced by unemployment to move back in with their parents. These are not always underachievers, mind you, but young people who perhaps foolishly believed that their prime years would bring them more opportunities than careers in tech support or the day shift at Applebee’s. Public debate usually involves questions like “what’s wrong with these kids?”, but the Duplass’ (Baghead, Cyrus) have a more nuanced view of the issue, framing it not in terms of right or wrong but of comparative fulfillment. Pat and Sharon may have jobs, but they don’t necessarily have purposes; Jeff may wear nothing more complicated than gym shorts, but he seems to grasp our profound need to, as E.M. Forster famously said, “only connect”.
            As he did in Freaks and Geeks and the surprisingly human Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Jason Segel explores new modes and colors of oafishness here. The contrast with Ed (The Office, The Hangover) Helms, who has long cultivated an image of insanity in a bland package, is not exactly subtle but it works. They look nothing alike, but as brothers who both need and loathe each other they are more than plausible. The only weakness is that the plot strand involving Susan Sarandon—an office romance with a surprising twist—seems cut off in its own narrative universe. If the brother Duplass’ had found a way to make the plot strands of Jeff connect as well as its characters, it might really have been worth getting off the couch for. 
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro