Culture Corner

Emotional Immediacy in Recent Movies

Bernie Langs

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

(Source: Wikipedia)

The powerful lessons of the arts, can be used by each of us as tools for enabling the expansion of our emotional dictionaries. As the woes of the world grow in seemingly new dimensions with undercurrents of danger and potential violence, we are experiencing them through media and social network platforms at any moment of our day. I have come to depend on artistic media as a way of allaying the underlying state of anger and frustration induced by the current pervasive toxic political and cultural environment. There are many recently produced movies available on cable channels, Netflix, and other services that remind us of the complexities of our inner states, and teach us lessons about life, love and more, giving us respite and pause from the daily grind of pervasive anxieties. After a typical day’s deluge of negative news stories, I watch movies and shows to find solace in characters placed in extraordinary and unique situations, and in doing so, I become attuned to a broader depth of emotions.

As contemporary comedic dramas go, The Edge of Seventeen is a marvelous movie, starring the formidable Hailee Steinfeld as high school student Nadine Franklin caught in the whirlwind of being a strong-headed outcast at school, save for her bond with her childhood best friend. There have been many movies about the odd-person-out at school, but I venture to say that this is absolutely the best. Edge is startlingly funny, with Woody Harrelson playing one of her teachers who is placed in the uncomfortable position of having to hear out the details of Nadine’s constant travails. Harrelson has proven to be a powerful actor over the years, recently starring in and receiving a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role as the small-town sheriff in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and as a beastly drug lord running a bare knuckle fight ring in Out of the Furnace. Almost every line he speaks in Edge generates delightful laughter, a return to the masterful comic timing he displayed on television years ago in his first major role as the dim-witted, endearing character Woody on NBC’s hit Cheers. Edge is much more than a study of teens going through growing pains. It’s a beautiful snapshot of young people today with in-your-face, realistic dialogue about sex and drinking and the tricky dynamics and pressures of friendships in a text messaging world. The supporting cast of Nadine’s schoolmates includes the nuanced and understated performance by Hayden Szeto as Erwin, her shy, smart, and talented admirer. The plotline mostly revolves around how Nadine’s one true friendship with Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) is ruined as she angrily refuses to accept that Krista has become the girlfriend of her older brother, Darian Franklin (Blake Jenner). Darian is popular, and is a school star in academics and sports. He has also become the rock for their needy widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick), who often depends on him while serving in her role as single parent and family breadwinner. By watching the maturity and awareness of many of the movie’s high school students, I unexpectedly understand more of the world of my 20-year-old daughter. This is a joy of a film and I’ve watched it on cable at least five times.

Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, is an overwhelming study in tragedy, with its actors and actresses displaying stunning skills and emotional range. I’d heard about the powerful sadness of Manchester before viewing it but the harsh sorrow of the movie still came down on me with an intense immediacy. Casey Affleck plays the lead role for which he won an Academy Award. I expected a “situational” tear-jerker, a film about men and women facing a bad turn of life and learning to cope with the fallout. Instead, Manchester is the story of how a man sets off a series of events that leads to the accidental death of his children and how, years later, he has made no progress in moving on. Michelle Williams, a young actress of extraordinary brilliance, plays his ex-wife; their final confrontation, where she pleads with him to discover a way to forgive himself in an act of surprising reconciliation and healing, is an incredible cinematic moment. As the movie began to wrap up, I was suddenly devastated with the realization that Manchester would not have a typical Hollywood ending where lessons are learned, and everyone moves on to some degree. Oddly enough, I found myself hoping for that sense of cliché and relief. But Affleck’s character, on the surface a simple man, but at times violent and unlikable, is so completely lost in guilt and grief, which he will carry in an internal prison for all his remaining days. It is a portrait of a young man unlike any I’ve ever witnessed on the screen, a hard lesson about actions and circumstances from which someone chooses not to return to any semblance of normal life after experiencing a terrible loss.

The Florida Project is a superlative “dramedy” co-written and directed by Sean Baker and for which Willem Dafoe earned Best Supporting Actor nominations at the Academy Awards and Golden Globes. He shines as Bobby Hicks, the manager of the Magic Castle, a motel in Kissimmee, Florida near Walt Disney World. Bobby handles tricky situations again and again, struggling with the problems of the motel’s residents, many of whom are engulfed in near destitute situations. The story centers on a single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), and her six year old daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), as Halley falls deeper and deeper into desperation and trouble. As Moonee and the other children literally run around the area without supervision and with surprising independence, the viewer can’t help but fall into their strange yet innocent world. These children, all under ten years old, are crude, wild, and unexpectedly sharp and funny. I couldn’t tell if these young actors and actresses had been allowed to purely improvise many of their well-delivered and hysterical observations or if the script called for them. The various motels, abandoned fields, and apartment complexes, along with kitsch fast food and souvenir joints, are presented through a cinematography with a rich palette of muted colors. I am a frequent visitor to Orlando, and The Florida Project exposed me to a disturbing societal underbelly of which I was not aware. Looming large in the background throughout the movie, for both the film’s characters and audience, is the shadow and unseen majesty of Disney World, a contrasting paradise to what these children experience daily as they hustle tourists for ice cream money and create other dangerous mischief. The final sequences left me completely stunned and overwhelmed, especially the final closing minutes which were as uniquely memorable and moving as it can get..

Another notable film available for streaming is Get Out, which has been widely praised, earning first time director Jordan Peele an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, resulting in the category’s first African American winner. The movie is billed as a horror flick but it is much more than that, especially with its tension-relieving humor. Outside of one difficult sequence, the violence in Get Out is in line with what has been readily shown on television. There has been a lot of press about how Get Out is an original take on race relations in the United States. I found that the movie’s lessons are unusually subtle and it takes a lot of thinking on the part of the audience to appreciate the depth of what Peele is trying to convey. The film sets up clichéd characterizations of white and black tensions that veer off unexpectedly and don’t quite resolve the way the viewer might think they would. Peele is smart, quick, and extremely funny. I recently caught much of his hysterical 2016 film acting debut alongside Keegan-Michael Key, his partner for many projects, in Keanu; an absurdly laugh-out-loud adventure of two middle class friends forced to pose as tough street assassins as they work to infiltrate a violent gang who has kidnapped Peele’s kitten and made it a coveted gangster mascot. Peele is a force to be reckoned with, a young director and writer who knows how to make his audience laugh and recoil in shock, while also giving them much to think about. I can’t wait to see what he does next.