It’s Not Just A Phase: ‘How To Build A Girl’ Is About A Teen Still Figuring It Out

By Ailsa Chang

Beanie Feldstein stars as Johanna Morrigan in How To Build A Girl, adapted from Caitlin Moran’s 2014 semi-autobiographical novel.
IFC Films

Beanie Feldstein does not like the way teenage experimentation and growth gets dismissed as just a phase. “There tends to be the sort of stigma or judgment,” she says, whether it’s about dress, mood, makeup, or music choice.

What she loves about her latest film, How to Build a Girl, is that it gives teen phases the respect they deserve. “Those phases matter,” she says. “It doesn’t mean they’re going to last, but they do matter. … I think we could all be reminded of that lesson — especially adults.”

How to Build a Girl is a film adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s 2014 semi-autobiographical novel about an awkward teen turned music critic. Feldstein stars as Johanna Morrigan, a 16-year-old growing up in England in the 1990s. Johanna “hasn’t found her people yet,” says Feldstein, and her closest confidants are her heroes (Julie Andrews, Freud, Sylvia Plath, Karl Marx) whose pictures are taped to her bedroom wall.

Feldstein admits she sometimes felt nervous during filming, but found thinking back to her own teenage years helped: “I would just say to myself: Imagine if someone had done this for you — or if this film had an opportunity to be made — when you were 14,” she says. “It would have changed my whole understanding of myself.”

Interview Highlights

On what guides her in choosing projects

I was a sociology major in college. And I think that side of me — that side of my brain is really on high alert every time I read a script. … I might … be kind of enthralled by the idea of this director, or this actor, or this DP, or whoever it might be that is kind of intoxicating. But is this script important for the world? Is this story important to bring into the world? Is it going to change things? Is it diverse? Is it inclusive? All of those things. … I really do make an effort to always come back to those questions that I feel like the sociologist in me would ask — or would hope that an actor would ask.

On her character Johanna

She’s genuinely a happy and joyful, optimistic, imaginative young girl. But she’s also fed up. … She’s busting out of her skin. She’s busting out of her circumstance. She wants more. But at the same time, she’s so joyful and she loves the world. And I think that was something I really related to. I think the most prominent connective tissue between me and the character are that I am also very, very naturally optimistic … but that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen sadness or tragedy in my life. … The film itself and the character, they just give you permission to feel multiple things at once.

On playing a teen character who hasn’t found her people

Johanna is a young woman without her tribe. … I was lucky; I had my musical theater-loving tribe. … I was so lucky to find my people so early and to have a really loving, attentive, supportive family. But not everyone is that lucky. And that ebbs and flows throughout your life. And so I love How to Build a Girl because it celebrates those that had to go at it alone during their adolescence, and were kind of out there and paving their own path and being their own best friend.

On what the film taught her about forgiveness

I think [it] gives everyone permission to make mistakes and not feel defined by those mistakes. But to feel sort of empowered — to fold them into the identity of who you are so you can become stronger and learn from them. I feel like I learned so much from doing this movie in that, you know, you can be a little more forgiving of yourself sometimes — and it doesn’t mean that you’re excusing the behavior or the decision — but you can just kind of forgive and learn from it. … You have to apologize when you’ve done something wrong, profusely and honestly, and then just continue to lead your life with kindness and just know: This is who I am today and you don’t have to have it all figured out.

On Caitlin Moran’s guidance about how to inhabit the character of Johanna

She said to me … ‘This is loosely based on my life, but it’s not my life. And I am here for you whenever you want me, whenever you need me. … But I also want you to feel free to create her as you inhabit her.’ … I just couldn’t have been more lucky in that way. Because every question I need answered, she has answers to — and lived answers to — which is sort of the greatest gift to an actor. But at the same time, both Coky [Giedroyc, the director,] and Caitlin and the whole creative team never sort of said: Well, we need you to be like Caitlin.

On the day Moran came to rehearsal

I just froze. Like, I’m not being self-deprecating. I was awful. I was so nervous to have her in the room … I was shaky and not locked-in. … And Caitlin emailed me about an hour after we finished rehearsal and it just said: Do you like to swim? And I emailed her back, and I was like: I love to swim. And she was like, meet me at this place at this time on Saturday. And I met her at … a women’s only swimming pond. … And we didn’t talk about the movie. We didn’t talk about the characters. She just got me out of my head. We just had, like, a heart-to-heart, a true friendship conversation where we got to know each other on a more personal level. … I had this sort of remarkable, magical day with her. … And I think it really kind of relaxed my soul and my heart. … It was so unspoken and quiet, but it was really beautiful.

On why she wanted to make this film

I never saw a young girl who looked like me … I never saw anyone with my body on-screen and I never saw anyone with my ethos on-screen. … I just think there’s so many aspects of Johanna’s story that were never, ever given to me when I was younger. And whenever I was nervous, I would just think about if I could have had that film, how much it would have changed my sort of understanding of where I fit in the world.

Brian Dennehy’s ‘Driveways’ Performance Is Gruff, Graceful — And A Goodbye

By Justin Chang

When 8-year-old Cody (Lucas Jaye) temporarily moves into the house next door to Del (Brian Dennehy), the two strike up an unlikely, intergenerational friendship. Dennehy died April 15 at the age of 81.
Courtesy of FilmRise

When I first saw the lovely independent film Driveways last fall, I didn’t know that I was watching one of Brian Dennehy‘s final performances. I remember thinking he was wonderful in the movie, which in itself was no surprise. I also remember wishing that this great American actor, so acclaimed for his work on stage and television, had been given more of his due in movies. In Driveways, Dennehy gives the kind of graceful, deeply lived-in performance that reminds you why he was so often taken for granted: When you never hit a false note, you run the risk of making it look easy.

Dennehy plays a suburban widower named Del who befriends a woman and her 8-year-old son when they temporarily move into the house next door. Kathy, played by Hong Chau, and her son, Cody, played by Lucas Jaye, have driven some distance so they can clean out the house of Kathy’s late sister, April, and put it on the market. Easier said than done: April was quite the packrat, and the house is a mess, full of boxes and clutter, and with a dead cat lying in the bathtub.

We get to know the characters gradually. Kathy is studying to be a nurse, and we can sense immediately that she’s a great mom: She’s always looking out for Cody, nagging him to eat more and encouraging him to come out of his shell. Cody is a shy, sensitive kid who likes to keep to himself.

But then Cody meets Del, a Korean War vet who lives next door and spends a lot of his time sitting on his front porch. Things don’t get off to a promising start. In one scene, Cody gets water splashed on his T-shirt, and Kathy, mistakenly thinking Del was responsible, goes over to confront him.

Del might seem gruff at first, but it doesn’t take long for him and Kathy and Cody to warm up to each other. Kathy helps Del out by driving him to an appointment, and Del returns the favor by looking after Cody one afternoon following a babysitter mishap. Del and Cody bond naturally and with minimal conversation; sometimes Cody just likes hanging out on Del’s porch, reading a book while Del looks at his newspaper. “He’s good company,” Del says.

All this might suggest a sappy, paint-by-numbers setup, or maybe the indie dramedy version of Pixar’s Up: Cranky old man bonds with cute kid. But the movie is subtler and more delicate than that. The screenwriters, Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, don’t try to engineer big emotional moments or shock us with cathartic revelations. They simply show us three people at different life stages coming together under imperfect circumstances and, somehow, fitting together perfectly.

Chau, a great actress known for her work in the movie Downsizing and the TV series Big Little Lies, beautifully captures Kathy’s lingering guilt at not having spent more time with her sister. Cleaning out the house becomes her way of getting to know a sibling who was, in many ways, a mystery. Jaye is also terrific as a smart, thoughtful kid who doesn’t make new friends easily, but desperately needs the support and validation of others.

The movie was directed by the Korean American filmmaker, Andrew Ahn, who made the moving and perceptive coming-of-age drama Spa Night. It was Ahn’s decision on Driveways to cast Kathy and Cody with Asian American actors, a choice that enriches the film without calling attention to itself. It’s a gentle reminder that cross-cultural relationships happen every day in America, even if our movies don’t always reflect that reality.

Watching Driveways a second time recently, I found it even more emotionally affecting than before. That’s partly because its portrait of neighborly goodwill strikes a resonant chord at the present moment, when many of us are staying home and isolating from others. But mostly it’s because of Dennehy. At one point, Del gets a quietly stirring monologue in which he looks back on his life — his military service, his decades-long marriage, his blessings and failings as a husband and father — and sums it all up with an exquisite mix of joy and regret. Like all great actors, Dennehy left us far too soon, but it’s hard to imagine a more poignant farewell.

Troubled Teen Finds New Direction In Clear-Eyed ‘Bull’

By Scott Tobias

“Can’t you just take me to juvie?”

There’s a disturbing resignation to the way Kris, a 14-year-old white girl from a run-down Houston suburb, poses the question to a cop who’s picked her up for trashing a neighbor’s house. Her mother is already in jail and her grandmother, dirt poor and overtaxed in the best of times, lacks the health and the resource to look after her and her little sister. Kris’ academic prospects are so dire that her English teacher doesn’t even bother to call her out in class for watching a video on her phone. “I saw you, Kris,” the teacher says. “I’m just to the point where I don’t care anymore.”

Getting the audience to care is a challenge, too, though the two first-timers responsible for Bull, director Annie Silverstein and her lead actress, Amber Havard, are up to the task. Despite the sentimental outlines of the story, which ultimately centers on the redemptive relationship between Kris and an aging African-American bull rider, don’t actively court sympathy for her. They want to make her persuasive first, so they emphasize the deflating apathy of a girl who doesn’t believe her future will be any different than her mother’s. Kris doesn’t want to take even the minimal steps to keep herself out of trouble. She just wants to get it over with.

There are several recent points of comparison for Bull, like the Heartland drift of a traveling magazine sellers in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, the lost children in the shadows of Disney World in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, or the teenage girl fighting her way through meth country in Winter’s BoneBull could use more of the expressive spark of those great films — it’s humble and low-key to a fault — but it share with them a keen sense of what it’s like to grow up poor in America, and how even young children become aware of their narrowed options. What’s different about Kris is that she doesn’t have the will to fight for anything better, at least not at first.

South African ‘Queen Sono’ Is A Savvy Secret Agent — And A First For Netflix

by Michel Martin

Queen Sono is both a classic spy thriller and a ground-breaking entertainment endeavor. The drama is Netflix’s first commissioned script-to-screen series from Africa, and the first such show to get major distribution in the U.S.

Filmed across the continent with a diverse cast featuring multiple languages, the show stars Pearl Thusi as a South African secret agent with a complicated past.

Creator and executive producer Kagiso Lediga has a background in stand up comedy and says his jump to a crime drama is “just a graduation of storytelling.”

“Stand up was the cheapest way to tell a story because you don’t require crews and lights and cameras,” he says. “It’s just you, and the mic, and a spotlight.”

There are a lot more moving parts now, and he acknowledges that being the first comes with some pressure.

“If you do stand up, you get into a room, you perform and you’re … representing yourself … ” he says. “People laugh? Great. People, don’t laugh? You just avoid eye contact and keep it moving.”

But when you’re making the first Netflix original fully produced in Africa?

“Everybody’s coming with this expectation,” he says. “It’s like what is the first African original? … What are we going to see?”

Interview Highlights

On why he wanted to tell a spy story

I’ve always loved the spy genre. You know, I love everything from John le Carré-type of spy stuff all the way to James Bond. And you know, what I like most about it is that you can infuse it with history. … You get to tell the story of a culture very easily.

So I thought, you know, that the world doesn’t necessarily have like a context of Africa. You know, Africa is always this place over there with kids that are covered in flies. And I thought: Africa’s way sexier, and what better way to show it off than through a spy story where you have like this great female agent who traverses the continent?

On featuring a female protagonist

For African women and for little girls to see a woman do that — you know, punching people in the face — because [those are] the kind of roles that men generally play on this continent. I wanted to flip that. I wanted to have women see themselves or see another female that’s empowered and maybe that could make a difference. You know, for like a 15 year old, 16 year old seeing Queen Sono, you know, that’s a great image. That’s, I think, something empowering for them going forward. That was sort of a driving force for me.

It is the elephant in the room. The legacy of apartheid is everywhere.

On Queen Sono being haunted by the murder of her mother, an anti-apartheid activist

Our recent history is apartheid. And it kind of is like the ghost — it is the elephant in the room. The legacy of apartheid is everywhere. It’s pervasive in general society. And for me, it’s very important that that narrative doesn’t get lost.

You know, like for young people who … might have been born 10 years ago, for them, it might just be regular that black people are always working on the side of the roads while, you know, the yards and the spaces are owned by white people. If you don’t sort of explain why that is, people are just gonna think that’s how God intended it. … The universe just likes it that way, you know?

And so I felt in this piece of entertainment, it’s important to tell that history. … I thought it would be like a cool thing to imbue the story with the history and see how that goes.

On creating the first Netflix original series where the whole production is centered in Africa

So you come with a spy thing and people recognize all the tropes, then they’ll go: ‘It’s not original.’ … And then you get people who get it and they’re like: ‘Oh, my God, this is unbelievable to see ourselves, to hear our languages.’ …

So then at some point you just have to kind of grow a thick skin and go with it, because we knew that it was going to be a tightrope walk, because you can’t please everybody, but you’re going to try to make something very original and fun — and I think we succeeded in that.

On how he’s doing in Johannesburg, during the coronavirus pandemic

We’re good. In my town, it’s illegal to go jogging or to walk your dog. So luckily, my dog is really, really old. So walking it would probably kill it. But it plays a little bit in the garden. It’s winter — winter’s starting. So that could also be bad news because it’s when people get flus and all of that type of stuff. But I think as a nation people are staying at home. We’re doing our best.

Portrait Of The Outlaw As A Young Man: ‘True History Of The Kelly Gang’

By Ella Taylor

If you’ve read Peter Carey’s marvelous 2001 True History of the Kelly Gang, you’ll be aware going into a faithful new film adaptation of the novel that the word “true” is a signal to literary mischief and sly tampering with received history. Director Justin Kurzel and writer Shaun Grant mirror Carey’s grimly playful take on the myths that have grown around Ned Kelly, leader of the notorious Australian Kelly Gang.

In his second feature after the chilling 2012 horror movie Snowtown, Kurzel adds a ravishingly brutal visual grammar that pictures the country’s state of Victoria as a late 19th century Wild West with no clear boundaries between those who break the law and the British colonizers meant to enforce it. Not that there’s much law to start with. A former theatrical designer, Kurzel wrings a ravaged beauty from a rural landscape so blighted, its trees stick straight up in the air, leafless and barren. The soundtrack, by turns eerie and jangling, draws on the frantically nihilist punk canon of the 1970s, exactly a century after the Kelly Gang’s rise and fall. In a recurring, misleadingly romantic long shot we see Ned riding a white horse through the countryside.

Depending on your tolerance for savage mayhem, Ned Kelly — famous down under and overseas for the crude metal bucket he wore to butt heads with the Brits — was either a folk hero with Robin Hood tendencies or a murderous thug who spent his short, sharp life stealing horses, robbing banks, and whacking the constabulary who got in his way as reigning overlord of the Sons of Sieve, a ragtag band of Irish-born or bred resistance fighters whose odd signature was the frilly dresses they wore to battle the oppressor.

Hero or villain, that duality has pretty much come to be a staple of any knowing 21st-century revision of the Western hero, and certainly in anyone as drawn to subversive subtext as Carey. Faithful to the writer’s sly vision, Kurzel pries loose the man from both myths and digs deeper to give Kelly an origin story in three parts, told by Ned himself in a letter he writes from prison to the baby daughter he will never see grow up. Woven into Ned’s earnest missive, an alternate tale unfolds as a black tragicomedy studded with the pathos of a frightened and confused boy forced into manhood far too early, with myth and reality all jumbled up in his addled head.

Carey’s Ned, expanded by Kurzel, is something of a screw-up as both saint and sinner. There’s something biddable about Ned that makes him both easy to love and fatally vulnerable to baleful influence. Which may be why Kurzel cast George MacKay as his lead and not the more dashing Nicholas Hoult, who plays a cruel and callow local policeman who preys on Ned’s mother. MacKay showed himself a versatile performer in Pride and 1917, but there’s an irreducibly sweet goofiness that serves him beautifully as Ned, an innocent warped into avenging angel by early trauma, destitution, and the brutal injuries of the colonial rule he was born into.

Played as a child by a seraphic Orlando Schwerdt, Ned is shaped early on by the loss of his father and the twisted devotion of his mother, played by the terrific Australian actress Essie Davis, recently seen as a harried single mother in The Babadook and as the sexy lay detective in television’s Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Davis’s Ellen Kelly may be the most bracing portrait of maternal devotion gone bananas on the screen today. A proud, wild-haired warrior, Ellen Kelly will do anything, including selling her body and her favorite son, to protect the little that’s hers. Even the religiosity that sustains her has gotten tangled in her head, and, inevitably, her credulous son’s.

A hyper-responsible little man of the house, Ned adores his mother back, and their mad kinship will remain the movie’s fulcrum, molding the eager-to-please lad into an adult who’s equal parts creative writer and bitter avenger. In the latter he’s helped along by bush ranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe, vast in size and billowing rhetoric), whose sexual impotence feeds straight into a horrifying sadism that lands his young charge in prison. Years later Ned emerges a man of sorts but divided against himself, his most creative impulses twisted by circumstance into violence and a tendency to bend with every wind. Ned has been shown enough affection to enable him to fall in love and father a child with a sweet young prostitute (Thomasin Mackenzie). But his encounters with a viciously exploitive British constable, played wittily against type by Charlie Hunnam, will be the making of Ned, and also his undoing.

And so Ned’s story comes to an end, his account always refracted for us by the film’s visceral interpretation. True History of the Kelly Gang ends with a set piece that both tops and undercuts every bravura climactic gunfight you may have seen. The spectacle, at once brutal and absurd (here comes that metal bucket), affirms and demolishes Ned’s messenger-of-God fantasies and those of the Western too. Behind his dangling body we hear echoes of an earlier comment by a buddy with a clearer head. “None of this is the work of God,” he whispers to Ned. “You’re just a man.”

CorrectionApril 24, 2019

An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that George MacKay had appeared in Game of Thrones.

SXSW Film Festival Heads To Amazon

by Andrew Limbong

Amazon Prime Video will be hosting some of the movies that never got screen time at this year’s canceled SXSW Film Festival. Amazon and SXSW announced today that the online film festival will be free to all audiences for 10 days — but you will need an Amazon account. 

According to the statement, the slate of films offered will depend on which filmmakers choose to opt in to the festival. “Filmmakers who choose to participate will receive a screening fee for streaming their film over the 10-day period … SXSW has shared details on the opportunity with 2020 filmmakers, who can opt in starting today.” 

SXSW joins a number of canceled and delayed film festivals going the online route: the Tribeca Film Festival has been posting a short film every day, the Greenwich International Film Festival will be bringing its May festival online, and the Washington, D.C., Environmental Film Festival has posted a number of this year’s movies, along with an archive going back to 1990. And the film distributor Kino Lorber has begun working with independent and art house theaters across the country to “screen” current independent releases, starting with the acclaimed Brazilian movie Bacurau.

It Ain’t Cabot Cove: Murder In Maine Haunts The Twisty ‘Blow The Man Down’

by Scott Tobias

Note: Blow The Man Down will be available for streaming Friday, March 20, on Amazon Prime.

Tourists know coastal Maine as an idyllic summer spot of rocky beaches, lobster piers, cute little towns where independent bookstores and coffeeshops still thrive, and the bed-and-breakfast places are among the quaintest in the country. Blow the Man Downtakes place in the fictional seaside town of Easter Cove, Maine, and while no approximate location is given, it looks like a straight latitudinal line to Brainerd, Minn., the primary setting of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo. There’s surely a time of year when the snow and wind doesn’t bite at your skin, but the film makes it impossible to imagine. 

The Fargo connections run deeper still in Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s tight, evocative drama. Beyond the frosty milieu, the two share a fascination with macabre crimes committed by ordinary people and the inevitability of amateurish mistakes and crises of conscience. Though the twists and turns are unsurprising for anyone schooled in the Coens — or in this type of genre film in general — Cole and Krudy make the backdrop the star: a fishing village where the past informs a sinister present and women struggle to find their place in a brutal patriarchy, often taking it out on one another.

Opening with burly fisherman singing the sea shanty of the title — a wonderful touch the film repeats to great effect — Blow the Man Down starts with two sisters, Mary Beth and Priscilla Connolly, who are finally burying their mother after a long illness. Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) and Pris (Sophie Lowe) have inherited problems that are keeping them penned down in Easter Cove for the time being, including a house that’s on the brink of foreclosure and a lightly trafficked fish market. But those worries are minor compared to the grisly events that follow, when Mary Beth goes out drinking the night of the funeral and comes back begging her sister to help cover up a crime. 

In truth, Mary Beth was in the right. She has a reputation around town for “liking the creeps” and she found herself a doozy that night, but given her own inebriation and recklessness, she and Pris assume the police won’t understand why she harpooned a man in self-defense. As the Connollys set about sloppily hiding the body and other evidence, some other ugly subplots in Easter Cove begin to surface, including another dead body connected to the Oceanview, a local brothel catering to the port. The Oceanview’s proprietor, Enid (Margo Martindale), holds many of the cards in this whole scenario, but how she chooses to play them is anybody’s guess. 

In an inspired bit of writing and casting, Cole and Krudy have hired three veteran actresses — June Squibb, Annette O’Toole and Marceline Hugot — as the village busybodies and standard-bearers, always sticking their nose in other people’s business. The history of Easter Cove, and of the brothel especially, accounts for a fascinating split between the morally upstanding trio and Enid, who sees herself as continuing a service that’s foundational to the community. Martindale has excelled at playing against her gentle image as a Russian agent on The Americans and a criminal mastermind on Justified, but Enid is a slipperier character, ruthless yet not entirely irredeemable. 

It’s normally not a great sign when the lead characters are less compelling than anything around them, but the Connollys’ predicament opens up the weird bits of village mythology and feminine conspiracy that secretly drives the film forward. Blow the Man Down functions just fine as a skillful replication of Fargo or Blood Simple, but Cole and Krudy’s attention keeps drifting to the darker edges of Easter Cove, where such crimes of passion seem folded into a rough-hewn way of life. Isolated from the rest of civilization — Maine yet as discreet as a snow globe — it plays by its own unwritten rules and the film teases them out beguilingly.

‘Onward’: Timid Teen On A Mythic Quest For Elf-Assurance

by Glen Weldon

In the opening minutes of Disney/Pixar’s Onward, we are met with various manifestations of loss.

There’s the film’s setting, a world where magic once flourished, and with it, pixies, unicorns, pegasi, elves, ogres, centaurs, mermaids — your standard-issue high-fantasy mythofaunic biome. But even here, in a gimmick the film leans into juuuuust enough, the Industrial Revolution arrived. As automation increased, magic faded. Elves still live in giant toadstools, but said toadstools are now rigidly apportioned into vast, Spielberg-suburban subdivisions and cul-de-sacs. Once-splendid unicorns have gone feral, raiding raid trash cans and hissing at passers-by like peculiarly horsey raccoons. If Middle-Earth had more strip-malls, it’d look something like this.

There’s also the loss experienced by the elf-family at the film’s center: mom Laurel (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her two sons — the younger, anxious Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) and his older, buff, RPG-obsessed brother Barley (Chris Pratt, squarely back in Andy Dwyer mode). It’s Ian’s 16th birthday, and he’s given a gift left to him by his late father, who passed away when Ian was too young to remember him: A wizard’s staff.

Finally, in these opening minutes, there’s still another feeling of loss that manifests in the viewer — that of lost opportunity. 

The jokes are glib and smarmy, the family dynamics achingly familiar, and as we follow Ian to high school, his every encounter and interaction feels less Disney/Pixar and more Disney Channel — which is to say, too sweet, too cornball, too affected, too faux-contemporary. The average very young child in the audience won’t notice; the average parent will start checking the theater’s exits.


On or about the 20-minute mark — not coincidentally, upon the arrival of a manticore called Corey, voiced by Octavia Spencer — the film seems to discover what it is: A testament to the remarkable degree of emotional expressiveness that Pixar’s character-animators can imbue into a story. 

That’s not to say that the voice cast isn’t solid — they are. But so much of what enlivens Onward has to do with the characters’ body language, their facial expressions and their pure, albeit pixelated, physicality. In my screening, the scenes that produced the longest, loudest, deepest bursts of audience laughter — like Corey’s interactions with her Chuck E. Cheese-esque doppelganger, or Ian’s crossing of a yawning chasm — landed as hard as they did because they were so fully imagined, enfleshed and executed, with such confident, entirely visual, comic timing. I’m pretty sure they would have worked with the sound off.

As for the story, it is, fittingly enough, a mythic quest/road movie: Ian, guided by a supportive Barley, must follow clues on a map that will outfit him with the tools he needs to bring their dead father back for a single-day visit. (Ian managed to bring the lower half of his father back in the film’s opening minutes — and it’s remarkable how much personality a pair of brown trousers and a couple of Florsheims can convey.) It’s here that the film’s suburban/fantasy hybrid nature coheres most strongly, as when one of the greatest challenges Ian must face is not slaying a beast, rescuing a damsel or finding a treasure, but instead … merging onto a highway.

Pixar’s been doing this whole story-structure thing for a while now, so it’s no surprise that the various lessons (read: spells) that Ian learns over the course of the film will slot neatly into the film’s climax. What is a surprise — and a good one — is how satisfying that climax turns out to be, especially since so many animated films remain content to collapse into noisy spectacle in their closing minutes. (Note: Onward‘s climax does count as spectacle, and it is noisy — but it has also been carefully crafted to directly reflect the emotional stakes that the filmmakers have been systematically raising over the course of its running time.)

The film remains true to its Pixar provenance in its willingness — nay, it’s doughty insistence — on playing on viewers’ emotions. Which is to say: The film’s final moments do not simply attempt to pluck at the heartstrings, they saw away at the heartstrings savagely, with Gwar-like abandon. Prep your kids for this eventuality. And, discreetly, yourself.

‘First Cow’: A Profound, Ruminative Western

by Chris Klimek

First Cow, writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s seventh feature and her fifth collaboration with novelist/screenwriter John Raymond, is as rich and melancholy an expression of the themes that have defined her career as one could ask. It’s another unhurried, keenly drawn excerpt of subsistence living in the Pacific Northwest, with the savage mandate of survival butting up against the “civilized” — the quotation marks are Reichardt’s — forces of capitalism. Any expectations based on prior Reichardt joints, particularly her rustic relationship drama Old Joy or her harrowing western Meek’s Cutoff, prove correct: You’ll need to slow your breathing to sync up, or more likely, down with the movie’s tempo, but Reichardt rewards your patience with a profound experience that lingers in memory.

After a contemporary prologue involving a discovery on the banks of the Columbia River, Reichardt moves the clock back two centuries, to a time when a growing intercontinental market for gold, beaver pelts and other prizes made the Oregon Territory a land of violent opportunism. Cookie (soulful John Magaro) is a soft-spoken itinerant cook and forager who has taken the unenviable job of keeping a menacing group of fur-trappers fed. He befriends King Lu (Orion Lee), a handsome Chinese ex-pat whose English is better than his own and who does not share Cookie’s innate aversion to risk.

The arrival of a bovine to the territory — she’s owned by blowhard Englishman Chief Factor (Toby Jones, who calibrates the character’s innate superiority perfectly) — allows these two hungry men to launch a small enterprise. Their “oily cakes,” confections of fried dough made using milk stolen under cover of night, become a sensation. Everyone who tries them is reminded of home — a detail that feels vaguely supernatural, given the diversity of King Lu and Cookie’s customer base. Reichardt makes the point that American industry was built by people from everywhere, all of them hostile to, or dismissive of, the natives, sans underlining. That’s not her way.

Chief Factor is so tickled to taste South Kensington in his snack that he hires Cookie and King Lu to prepare a special dessert — a clafoutis — to impress an influential visitor to his home. He wants desperately to demonstrate to the Captain (Scott Shepherd) that frontier life is not without the indulgences these prosperous white men think of as their birthright. Cookie is baffled that it never occurs to his rich employer to wonder where the milk is coming from: “Some people can’t imagine being stolen from,” he reflects.

Like Reichardt’s earlier westerns — though she’s voiced ambivalence about that label — First Cow is shot (by Christopher Blauvelt) in Academy ratio; close to the 4:3 frame that was more common in the early decades of cinema, and in TV for half a century after that, than it is today. She’s not one for establishing shots or for ogling the beauty of the forest, nor does she shoot the food Cookie prepares with any palpable gluttony. Her new film is more likely to make viewers feel cold than hungry. She wants nothing to distract from her close observation of the severe nature of these brief, tough lives, and of the tenderness of the friendship that tempers that severity just a little. Although the screenplay Reichardt and Raymond cowrote is adapted from Raymond’s 2004 novel The Half-Life, they’ve discarded, well, more than half of it.

That rigidity of focus is impressive, but it will make First Cow a forbidding sit for some. The 121-minute picture is almost deliberately dull in stretches, vividly conjuring an environment wherein the labor of keeping oneself alive for a single day was occupation enough. (Imagine The Revenant without any of the action-movie stuff, or Deadwood minus Al Swearengen’s flights of filthy poetry or, well, women.) Once the gearworks of plot finally turn just far enough to nudge this scenario to a sort of resolution, even audiences conversant in Reichardt’s trademark minimalism may feel undernourished. This is the sort of picture that requires the viewer to meet it more than halfway without soothing the mileage of that journey. You might appreciate that sensation or you mightn’t, but it was clearly induced by design.

‘The Night Clerk’: Hitchcockian Premise, Half-Cocked Execution

by Mark Jenkins

Everyday life is a big mystery to Bart, a 23-year-old hotel worker who describes himself as having Asperger syndrome. Yet The Night Clerk is such a tiny mystery that it barely intrigues at all. The film may intend to be a Rear Window for the mini-cam era, but it lacks Hitchockian perplexity and perversity. 

Bart (co-producer Tye Sheridan) lives at home with his over-solicitous mother (Helen Hunt, one of several overqualified bit players). She puts Bart’s meals on the stairs to his basement domain, so he can eat alone and avoid the agony of conversation. Yet Bart tries hard to chat with the people he encounters on his 8-p.m.-to-4-a.m. shift at a mid-priced suburban hotel. 

Bart’s enthusiasm for improving his small-talk skills sets up the first of writer-director Michael Cristofer’s improbable contrivances. The awkward young man is a tech savant who has outfitted the hotel’s rooms with cameras he monitors from an elaborate computer network. His motivation is not peeping but self-improvement. He eavesdrops on how guests speak to each other so he can mimic natural dialogue.

To do this, of course, he could just listen and not watch. But an audio-only system wouldn’t give him something that’s crucial to the plot: a view of the murder of a female guest by a man who enters her room otherwise unseen. 

The police detective assigned to the case (an unusually bland John Leguizamo) quickly determines that Bart is hiding some information, and begins to treat him as a suspect. Bart can be disastrously candid, but he’s sufficiently guarded not to reveal that he has video of the killing. The recording would exonerate him of homicide, but convict him of invasion of privacy.

Since Bart’s detached reaction to the murder strikes his boss and co-workers as weird, he’s transferred to another hotel. That’s where another plot device walks through the door. Her name is Andrea and she’s played by Ana de Armas, seen most recently in Knives Out. Andrea is sympathetic to Bart’s condition — “my brother had it,” she says — and Bart mistakes her kindness for love. But is she staying at the hotel by happenstance, or does she have a sinister motive? 

Bart and Andrea’s relationship is the heart of the movie, and Sheridan and de Armas are the only two performers allowed the space to construct nuanced performances. Too bad the script doesn’t send them anyplace interesting. 

Cristofer, a TV and movie veteran who’s probably best-known as a playwright, has said that Bart was inspired by someone he actually knows. Yet The Night Clerk is no character study. As in the much showier Motherless Brooklyn, the protagonist’s condition moderates whenever the story requires it. Bart’s unconventionality doesn’t hinder a conventional outcome, or even provide any surprising detours or asides. 

Like many films that play on the affinity between cinema and voyeurism, this one intercuts naturalistic viewpoints with surveillance-camera footage and often captures the characters’s images reflected in mirrors. Looking is as complicated as talking, Cristofer seems to want to say. But just about everything in The Night Clerk is all too simple.