2013 Milwaukee Film Festival #3 – Troubled Youth, Big Brother in Italy, and David Lynch’s Creepy Sex Dreams
Vanishing Waves (Dir. Kristina Buozyte) – 5/5
Vanishing Waves starts out as if Tarsem Singh took his ideas for The Cell and instead used them to remake Ken Russell's Altered States. Then, around the 1/3 mark, David Lynch and Lars von Trier show up for a guest spot directing an orgy in a dark house where the participants' bodies start literally melding with one another. A guy who looks like Julian Sands is there, watching silently from a chair in a dark corner. If that doesn't sound like something you'd be interested in, disregard the 5-of-5 rating above.
The basic plot of Vanishing Waves concerns a research experiment that allows a scientist suspended in an isolation chamber to make a connection with the mind of a comatose woman (see what I mean?) in order to gain deeper insights as to how the human mind functions in a coma. The borrowing from and nods to other films are liberal, but director Kristina Buozyte isn't interested in horror or a special effects parade—instead we get a story about a man (the scientist) who becomes obsessed with the raw wish fulfillment and idealized experiences this process offers. He becomes despondent with his real life and current relationship, violent when he can't get exactly what he wants, and as the story progresses becomes more and more reliant on his times in this shared sort of liminal space.
The film is structured as a kind of doomed love story, but there's more to it than that. As the woman starts to realize that she's in a coma and begins to remember the events leading up to it, she starts to become more her “real” self, and less a simple object of sexuality and affection for the scientist. There's a lot going on in the background here about how and why we value others in our lives, and as the film takes a turn into a surreal suspense thriller, with the man trying to “save” the both of them from the encroaching reality of her situation, it becomes more about desperately clinging to one's own fantasies than anything else.
While definitely not perfect—there's a little bit of Lord-of-the-Rings Syndrome to be found in the overlong and monumentally misguided ending—Vanishing Waves is my favorite film of the festival so far. The staging and art direction is captivating, and it hits dark and desperate emotional notes in a way that, while not totally new, feel utterly original at the time.
Short Term 12 (Dir. Destin Cretton) – 4/5
Short Term 12 was this year's Super Secret Members Only Screening at the festival, and it may be bound for some awards consideration later this year. Taking place in a transitionary short-term foster care facility for teens, the film follows roughly a week in the lives of the staff and the kids staying there. Brie Larson is fantastic as Grace, one of the veteran staff members, and John Gallagher Jr. (of The Newsroom) manages the incredibly difficult feat of combining defensive humor and empathy in a way that not only feels real but also encapsulates the balancing act the movie must maintain throughout—this is intense material, all the more demanding because most of the hardships the characters encounter involve children.
It could have ended up as a solemn slog through bad feelingsville, but director Destin Cretton (who based the material on his 2008 short film, which was based on his own experiences as a worker at a similar facility) finds humor and humanity in the characters as opposed to letting their pain become the sole focal point. The structure and length of the movie demand that a lot of conflict is crammed into perhaps too brief a period, and this hurts the film a little—it starts to seem like everything that can go wrong has gone wrong, but then again, in many of these characters' lives, it has.
Short Term 12 is well worth seeking out when it sees a wider release later this year. It's the kind of movie that does something very difficult very well, and while it has its flaws, it's tough to nit-pick too much when the results are so often outstanding.
Reality (Dir. Matteo Garrone) – 3/5
Director Matteo Garrone made 2008's unflinching and stripped-down Gomorrah, about the ruthless organized crime organization in Italy, and Reality couldn't be further from what you'd expect in a follow-up. The film follows Luciano—a man loved by his family, neighbors, and regular customers at his outdoor fish market in the town square—as he gradually becomes more and more obsessed with becoming a cast member on the Italian version of Big Brother. Initially auditioning as a joke to appease his young daughter, Luciano grows convinced that he is obviously so interesting and charismatic that it's all but impossible for him not to be chosen for the show. He then begins to believe everyone around him is secretly a scout for the show, observing to see if he is “good enough.”
The premise for Reality is a great one, and there's plenty of room for commentary not only on our obsession with the voyeurism promised by modern media, but also on how we manipulate our perception of the real world. The issue here is that the film teeters between satire and something darker, which actually just prevents it from being either. One particularly funny scene has Luciano convinced that he's been denied a spot on the show because a “spy from the network” witnessed him turning a homeless man away from his fish stand—so he proceeds to give away all the furniture in his house to the town's homeless population. In another, a family member finds him in a closet, where he has replicated the show's confession booth, talking to a camera on a tripod.
But until the final (and brilliant) few minutes, the film can't fully commit to the delusion in a way that doesn't, at least a little bit, emphasize the very real sadness of Luciano's deterioration. One minute we're laughing, and the next we're just kind of uncomfortable—and because the movie doesn't do a good enough job indicating how we're supposed to take a lot of the scenes (the music also seems bafflingly sentimental), the potential impact is diminished.
Next Update (Tomorrow, Oct. 5) – If You Build It and The Act of Killing