The second day of the festival delivered a cloisteringly twee drama about finding one’s place in the world; a gloomy, salt-of-the-earth tale about familial friction; and a close-up study of mournful connections.
Day 2 of my festival choices were entirely driven by the previous directors work: with Todd Hayne’s Safe, Clio Barnard’s The Arbor and Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth all being excellent, anticipation was fairly high. Unfortunately, none were able to match their director’s best, with one not even coming close to being good.
Two years ago, Todd Haynes overwhelmed audiences with his sensitive portrayal of sapphic love in 1950s New York that it’s not hard to speculate just why people are falling head-over-heels for the mawkish, sappy Wonderstruck (D+). Adapted into a script by YA novelist Brian Selznick – who also wrote the unbearably twee Hugo – Hayne’s quaint vision misses the target with unusually high frequency. It was clear to me from the very beginning that it wouldn’t be a festival favourite, but by the suffocatingly earnest resolution, it made its bed in the gutter. Told as two sovereign stories of two youths breaking free from their closed-society, Wonderstruck tries to thread this narrative spine, flitting between gaudy monochrome and drab sepia at such a frustrating rate that it’s exhausting. There’s no doubting Hayne’s proficiency for dazzling visual language – the costumes and sets for both the 1920s and 70s eras give the film the sense of wonder that it so limply pursues when anyone is on screen – but this barely makes up for its shortcomings. Millicent Simmonds’ Rose is entirely mute (both in character and silent era replication), forcing those she interacts with to overdramatise every movement and speech: this soundless enunciation and gesticulating fit for pantomime quickly became infuriating. Things don’t fare much better in Ben’s (Oakes Fegley) story: newly deafened yet completely unaffected, his arc jumped from ludicrous contrivance to cosmic coincidence without so much as a pause, played with dumbfounded, but well-intentioned sincerity by Fegley . The constant withholding of crucial information until literally read out loud stunned me like so many others, just not in the way Haynes had intended.
After this crushing low, things only slightly picked back up with Clio Barnard’s Yorkshire based agricultural melodrama Dark River (C+), which handled the subject of child abuse and sibling conflict with a degree of sensitivity characteristic to Barnard’s style. Ruth Wilson is fantastic here, playing a woman brought back to her childhood farm promised to her by her recently deceased father (Sean Bean). Her brother’s (Mark Stanley) indifference toward the upkeep of the family estate brings their emotional history to the forefront, as they both combat to gain tenancy of their land. Information as to why she fled and remained gone for 15 years is peppered throughout – in a much less flagrant way than Wonderstruck – slowly communicating her history of sexual abuse. In cinema as a whole, at this point, we really needn’t have this as driving force of a narrative, especially when Dark River could remove this discussion completely and focus on the tug-of-war of individual nobility. Additionally, the seriousness of this subject is never far from the spotlight – often flashing back for a matter of seconds – which allows for little to no levity: think of The Selfish Giant’s emotional gut punch as a result of an entirely avoidable situation, only exacerbated by desperation. I couldn’t help the feeling that it would’ve just been better had it not barrelled toward this morose climax, with unending misery in its heart.
“Love. Jealousy. Deficiency.” – three words uttered by Lily Rabe’s world-weary assistant, three words that sum up the core of Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits (B): an intimate and melancholy portrait of gloomy isolation in New York City. Within its surprisingly braided plot, characters are introduced, unbeknownst to the single degree that divides them. The way Perry pulls on multiple strings, teasing encounters to an emotional crescendo, agitated me to the thought of another Queen of Earth-style dinner confrontation, but more than gladly he shuns the genre cliches of meet-cutes and sneaky trysts for something far more tacit and mature. Everyone in Golden Exits is not-so-secretly unhappy: seeking satisfaction in attempted drunken fumbles, or trash-talking a demanding employer. These moments of release materialise in a more sophisticated way rather than shrill screaming matches or physical showdowns. Filmed primarily in close-up, Perry takes immense pleasure in giving focus to the awkwardness by remaining static on those being talked to, be it Emily Browning’s Naomi as her advances toward Jason Schwartzman are rebuffed, or Adam Horowitz (yep, Ad-Rock himself) as he realigns his restrained love for his psychiatrist wife (Chloe Sevigny). It’s a deft balancing act that occasionally falters: Mary’-Louise Parker’s slurring monologues are a bit too on the nose, as is the entirety of Lily Rabe’s permanently dour assistant, who further douses the mood whenever she’s in frame. While it’s not as fascinating – or indeed terrifying – as Queen of Earth, Alex Ross Perry has a way of rinsing emotion from the ordinary in such a way that I’m curious to what direction he goes in next.
As is evident, Day 2 was a fairly measured day of disappointments, starting with what will most certainly be ending up on my ‘Worst of 2017’ list and never so much as picking up, but rather coasted toward the finish line. There’s so much to choose from throughout the festival that this dissatisfaction was bound to happen, I just wasn’t expecting it to be so early.