The Florida Project / *****

florida_projectIt’s hard to write a review of The Florida Project, a movie that is so much about its mood and tone – and so little about its plot, in some ways – and yet, it’s a movie that I’m compelled to talk about, just in the hopes of making more people watch it, because it brought me such joy. It’s a film that feels like you’re simply watching people live their lives, giving us a window into the lives of the working poor while filtering it through that inexpressible optimism and silliness of childhood. It’s funny, heartfelt, and achingly honest throughout, showing us its characters without judgment or scorn – and that’s a sentiment I can always get behind.

The Florida Project takes place at a hotel that’s more or less serving as an apartment complex for a number of lower-class working families. More than that, it focuses on the kids that live in (and around) that complex, especially a young girl named Moonee (played by newcomer Brooklynn Prince, who’s so natural here that you quickly forget you’re not just watching a documentary about children). Moonee is six years old, and this world is what she knows, from the odd tenants of the hotel to the local businesses, and director Sean Baker and the film follows Moonee and her friends as they play, goof around, misbehave (in more mischievous ways than anything bad)…and really, that’s about as much plot as there is to the film. We see Moonee’s interactions with her mom, a single mom named Halley (Bria Vinaite, another newcomer, and another incredible and naturalistic performance) – the love between the two of them, the struggles Halley goes through to provide for the two of them, and the difficulties of their lives. And weaving in and out of their lives is the hotel supervisor, played by Willem Dafoe (guess what? It’s another incredible performance, this one reminding you that Dafoe is a truly great character actor and not just someone to be cast as an oddball).

And really, that’s about it, in terms of what happens. Yes, we catch glimpses of Halley’s struggles, and catch implications about the outside world intruding into these children running wild (and often unsupervised); yes, kids come and go in the hotel, Disney World looms nearby, and tourists come and go; yes, in some ways there’s a conclusion that’s more heartbreaking and heartfelt simultaneously than you probably expected. But by and large, Baker simply follows around Moonee and her friends as they play games, sneak into off-limits room, check out derelict condos, and get into the kinds of trouble you probably expect 6-year-olds without much supervision to get into.

But more than that, The Florida Project immerses us in this world, letting us see everything through the eyes of Moonee and her friends – unaware of the darkness of the world, unaware of their place in society, unaware of the judgment that so many people have for them, and instead just joyfully and anarchically running wild through their world. Whether they’re shouting at tourist-filled helicopters, marvelling at rainbows or fireworks, begging for ice cream, or just watching TV, there’s something wondrous about the way that The Florida Project slowly but surely lets you live in this world and its naturalistic, warm performances. It’s all too easy to forget that you’re watching a movie with The Florida Project; it’s so warm and natural that it feels like you’re just another inhabitant of this hotel, keeping an eye on Moonee and her friends. Even Dafoe, who’s just about the only major name of the film, loses himself in the world, giving a performance that gives you a peek into his warm heart without ever preaching about it or beating you over the head with it.

Yes, there are ideas and themes to The Florida Project that I love – acceptance, empathy, a glimpse of the difficulties of live among the working poor, and more. But more than any of that, I loved The Florida Project because it’s warm and loving and honest and human in a way that few films ever manage. It’s funny, it’s charming, and it’s beautiful in its simplicity and storytelling. It’s my favorite film of 2017, and I can’t say enough great about it.

IMDb
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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri / **** ½

three_billboards_outside_ebbing_missouriIt’s been a bit over a week since I saw Martin McDonagh’s incendiary, inflammatory, angry Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and even now, I’m struggling with how I feel about the film. There is part of me that’s deeply frustrated with the movie for touching on controversial, important themes that it has no interest in truly grappling with – themes like police brutality and institutional racism, whose eventual sidelining in the film is truly frustrating. And yet, for all of that, I can’t deny the craft of the film on every level – from astonishing performances to a lacerating script, from beautiful visual elements to a haunting score – nor can I deny how much the message of the film hit home for me, even as I got frustrated by the film’s skirting of its bigger ideas.

So let’s begin with the film’s conceit, which is so good and propulsive that it gives the film an energy and strength it never truly loses. Three Billboards is the story of a grieving mother (Frances McDormand, who hasn’t been given a role this good since Fargo, and who brings an incredible performance with her) who leases three billboards outside of her small Missouri town in order to castigate and shame the local police force for its failure to figure out who assaulted and killed her daughter. It’s not hard to empathize with McDormand’s anger, which is palpable in nearly every frame and every interpersonal interaction; her loss (and its attending injustice) has stuck to her and left her in a constant state of impotent rage, one that directs itself to anyone unfortunate enough to be around her.

But the first sign that Three Billboards is more complicated and fascinating than you might expect comes in how it handles its police force. Because while our first impression of the force comes by way of Sam Rockwell’s belligerent, abusive officer, it becomes clear that the police are more accurately embodied by Woody Harrelson’s compassionate, dedicated police chief, who has clearly done his utmost on this case to no avail. And while much of Three Billboards should be experienced cold, suffice to say that McDonagh slowly reveals information about the chief that makes McDormand’s public shaming all the more problematic and complicated.

It would be easy to handwave Three Billboards aside as “both sides-ism” gone mad, a film where no one is right or wrong entirely, and instead are so polarized that they refuse to acknowledge the good points of the other side. But that’s not what this film has in mind; instead, while it’s nominally a film about this injustice and failed police investigation, it’s more than anything a film about how anger and grief can poison us emotionally, keeping us from being able to interact with the world around us and shutting down the very bonds that we need to have in our lives. And in a time and age when it’s so easy to be angry and frustrated and rage-filled at the slightest look at the news, McDonagh’s points about the toxicity of that are timely, trenchant, and valid.

And yet, that also finds the film grappling with Rockwell’s character, initially presented as the worst kind of police officer: abusive (both physically and verbally), racist, incompetent, and lazy. Rockwell brings an incomparable amount to the role, making it come to life as more than just comic relief, but also opening the door for the way the film complicates him, showing him as much a product of anger as McDormand in some ways. That’s a complicated choice, though, given how vile some of the things that Rockwell’s character is accused of, and can feel like the film wants to use toxic behaviors as “flavor text” and never really engage with them – and that’s before the final act begins to give him a sort of redemption arc that sits uneasily with me, no matter how good Rockwell is in the part.

For all of that, though, there’s little denying how successful Three Billboards is as a film. It moves like a rocket; the dialogue is every bit as good as you’d expect from McDonagh, shifting from pathos to vicious comedy to intensity without ever missing a beat; it’s beautifully filmed, with some knockout sequences; and the performances are truly incredible across the board, with McDormand giving one of the year’s best performances, and Rockwell and Harrelson being not far behind her. (And that doesn’t even get into the incredible supporting cast, which includes Peter Dinklage, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, John Hawkes, and so many more great character actors.) Yes, I struggle with how the movie shies away from the very themes it introduces…but if you look at the film not as a piece of social commentary, but instead as a character study and a look at rage in the modern world, it succeeds on every other level. I laughed (very hard) throughout it; I found it moving and effective; and more than anything else, I can’t quite stop thinking about it. And maybe that’s the most effective point of all about it.

IMDb

Reincarnation Blues, by Michael Poore / *****

51hmlljnwil-_sx327_bo1204203200_A good portion of the books I read are review copies, and while I’ve come to enjoy the chaos and unpredictability of reading books where I have zero expectations, there are definitely times where I’ve considered giving it up. (Why, yes, these times often correspond with long streaks of bad books – how did you know?) All of which goes to say, the joy of reviewing is that sometimes you get a book like Reincarnation Blues that can completely blindside you, coming out of nowhere and blowing you away with its imagination, humor, style, and richness.

Trying to describe Reincarnation Blues is a bit of a rough task; the best I can do is to say that it combines the millennia-spanning reincarnated souls of Cloud Atlas with the untraditional but rich love story of The Time Traveler’s Wife, with a rich sprinkling of humor that’s oh so welcome. But even that description doesn’t really do the book justice – it doesn’t convey the richness of the storytelling, the quiet silliness, and most of all, the pure warmth of the whole experience.

Reincarnation Blues is the story of a soul named Milo, who’s among the oldest souls in the universe – he’s been reincarnated nearly 10,000 times. That’s given Milo an incredible amount of experience and learning, with lives lived in the ancient past, the distant future, and everywhere in between. But Milo’s favorite parts of existence are the parts in between his lives, where he gets the chance to reunite with the love of his “life”: Suzie…also known as Death. And once you add to that the impending threat of oblivion – because any soul that hasn’t achieved enlightenment by incarnation #10,000 doesn’t get another chance – and there’s a lot of pressure on Milo to figure some things out.

And yet, Reincarnation Blues never feels like a high pressure book. Yes, there’s this deadline looming, and yes, there’s this complicated idea of having a romance with the incarnation of Death, but Reincarnation Blues remains focused, both in plot and thematic terms, on the nature of the human experience – on learning to be kind, on listening to other people, on trying to accept the universe for what it is. It’s a book that’s never really about all of Milo’s lives, despite the way it weaves in and out all of them, giving us scenes of combat, of peace, of future science, of primitive tribes, and every possible combination of all of those. It’s about what Milo did and learned in those lives, and the experiences that shaped him into the person he is.

And yet, there’s no denying that Poore’s incredible imagination gives the book a life that’s undeniable, and maybe all the more effective for how he backgrounds it throughout. More than that, the way he weaves all of Milo’s lives into one complex history – with actions in one life being referenced in another – give the sense of a complex mythology behind the book, a carefully planned out reality that we only get glimpses of. Add to that his quietly funny, sometimes silly writing style, and you have a book that succeeds in no small part to the authorial craft on display in every page.

But more than the imagination, more than the humor, what really made Reincarnation Blues work for me was the warmth of the whole novel. This is a book where the stakes revolve around finding a successful relationship and achieving some sort of internal peace and calm with the universe. And to that end, for all of the drama, for all of the stakes in each individual life that Milo leads, the book is more about connecting to other people, about learning the importance of how we relate to each other and the legacies we leave behind. That’s a great message to receive, but also a rich one, one that’s so welcome in days where we feel constantly pushed against each other. And it’s the thing that really sold me on this book – that, and the great writing, and the rich imagination, and the wonderful characters, and the great humor…well, maybe I just loved all of it, and loved it so much.

Amazon

The Leftovers (Season 3) / *****

the-leftovers-season-3-posterI’ve been a fan of The Leftovers since the beginning – yes, even that infamous first season, which I think is phenomenal television and gets an unfairly bad rap. (That’s not to say it’s not a bleak and draining experience, but I think people complain far too much about it.) Then came the second season, which managed to be even better – keeping all the themes and ideas of the first season, but turning into something more darkly funny and slightly more accessible, all while never compromising in the least.

And now, the show has ended with its best season yet, which went even further than the second, delivering some of the wildest, strangest, most ambitious hours of television I’ve seen in years, all while never leaving behind its basic themes: an exploration of grief, faith, doubt, and purpose in a hostile – or even worse, indifferent – universe. That’s heady, astonishing fare even for prestige television, but The Leftovers never flinches from its mission, exploring how faith can both give us purpose and blind us to reality, how suffering and pain are an essential part of the human experience but no less devastating for their necessity, how death leaves us walking wounded.

In lesser hands, The Leftovers would be overwhelmingly crushing (see that first season, which came close). But in the hands of Damon Lindelof, it’s one of the most remarkable, inventive, surreal, and powerful shows I’ve ever seen. What other show could take a throwaway joke about a beloved 80’s sitcom from season one, then twist it until it became a powerful scene about finding yourself rejected by the world and even the universe as a whole? What other show could take a character’s struggle with faith and have it culminate with an episode involving God, a sex cruise, and a lion? What other show could kick things off with a series of increasingly ludicrous bio-scanners (and one of the all-time funniest sound effects on a tv series), but end by forcing us to carry through an infamous and horrific nuclear deterrent? And honestly, I’m only scratching the surface of a season that delved into Australian Aboriginal culture, apocalyptic fears, damaged relationships, suicidal tendencies, but also a slow-motion trampoline sequence set to the Wu-Tang Clan, pratfalls, and a surprising number of penis jokes. The Leftovers has always been its own unique show, but never more than this season, when it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen on television – and I’m watching Twin Peaks right now. It’s unpredictable but always consistent, surreal but always comprehensible, surprising but logical – in other words, it was a constant joy to tune in, simply because I never knew what to expect, but it was always going to be great.

In other words, as The Leftovers hit its final season, its confidence grew, and the show was willing to go for broke, making its characters’ struggles literal, tangible, and even operatic in their stakes. These are big questions – questions about God, about why we suffer, why people die, how we can find happiness, what happens to us after we die, and the importance (or lack thereof) of faith. And rather than giving glib, simplistic takes or easy answers, Lindelof embraces the complexity and difficulty of these issues, exploring them and refusing to ever give us – or the characters – easy answers. The Leftovers has always been a show about uncertainty, a feat it managed to the end, somehow finding the absolute perfect way to handle the question of “What exactly happened in the Departure?” in a way that perfectly matches the show’s themes.

It doesn’t hurt that the show is anchored by such great performances. Christopher Eccleston’s religious figure Matt is all the more compelling and rich this year, as his faith leads him in some bizarre – and maybe delusional – places. Scott Glenn finally gets some showcases after far too long, carrying an episode on his back largely with his weathered, questioning face. Justin Theroux is as great as ever, mixing despair, anger, doubt, and public confidence in a way that’s instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever struggled with the moodiness that comes with depression. And best of all, there’s Carrie Coon’s wounded, bristly Nora Durst, perhaps the single person most affected by the Departure, whose pain can’t be covered up, no matter how tough her exterior can be. There’s any number of other great actors here, including a few I don’t want to spoil (but will be welcome appearances for fans), but the show’s main cast truly does remarkable work, investing us in these wounded, hurt people and following them as they grapple with issues that every single one of us grapple with as well.

Look, I know that so much of what I’m saying makes The Leftovers sound like work, or like seriously heavy fare. And make no mistake – the questions, the struggles, the themes of this series are huge ones, universal ones that are going to hit home for many of us, and evoke painful personal moments. But in the end, the reason The Leftovers works is that, for all of its questions, for all of its doubts, for all of its fears, it finds optimism and a reason to keep on, even in the midst of it all. Whether that be faith or family, relationships or purpose, The Leftovers ends up being far more reaffirming than you might expect for a show that’s so much about death, grief, and loss. And that optimism and hope is something very much worth remembering, maybe now more than ever.

IMDb

More Brief Book Reviews

Ah, May. That craziest time of year for teachers, where every spare second is taken up with grading, graduation prep, more grading, saying goodbye to seniors, making final exams, a bit more grading, and keeping all of the students under control. In other words, it’s not exactly my best time for reading and watching stuff. But I’ve still managed to catch up on a few things, even if one was for work and one was with the kiddos…

21412284The one book I read for me was Nick Cutter’s The Deep, a horror novel that finds its setting in a confined, claustrophobic underwater sea lab set up near the bottom of the ocean’s depths. That’s a great place to put a horror novel, and Cutter makes the most of it, never letting the characters – or the reader – forget the isolation, the darkness outside, or the sheer wrongness of existing in a place so hostile to human life. It’s the plot that’s a bit messier here, and it ultimately makes the book feel a bit cluttered and messy, even if the scares and horror work like gangbusters. The Deep opens as a post-apocalyptic tale, with a disease called “The ‘Gets” wiping out much of humanity, and one possible cure found in the aforementioned lab. But once the book moves into the waters, things get complicated, diving into twisted family backstories and a more constant, omnipresent horror that feels like Pennywise from It snuck into an apocalyptic novel. It all ends up feeling a bit all over the place for a while, as if Cutter had about three different novels going and decided to jam them all together, and the book’s odd pacing (which sort of shoots off in spurts once the book gets to the lab) keeps things a bit confusing and rushed at times. For all of that, though, Cutter maintains his gift for horror and psychological screw-turning, from a journal following a mind through madness to a cavalcade of nightmarish images that defy description and reason. And while The Deep sometimes feels like too much plot for its length – and occasionally feels unexpectedly rushed – it’s still a pretty solid piece of horror, if not as strong as either of the other Cutter books that I’ve read. Rating: *** ½

6867Meanwhile, work has found me re-reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement, only to find it solidifying even further as a true masterpiece, and among the finest books I’ve ever read. I’ve written about Atonement before (about a year ago, when I first taught it); suffice to say that it’s a story set against the backdrop of World War II, telling the story of a young girl who makes an awful mistake early in life, and her efforts to atone for that mistake. Re-reading Atonement, it’s even more clear how intricately structured this book is – how well it hides its secrets in plain sight, how its themes are established in even the most seemingly pointless scenes, and how every sentence, every word, is deployed to maximum effect. And none of that even gets into the way McEwan lets his narrative deploy emotional punches when the reader is least prepared, whether it’s watching as Briony makes her awful mistake or sitting by the side of a French soldier who’s dying far from home (in a passage that left me choked up when reading it out loud in class, and had several students confessing that they cried reading it). I’m in awe of Atonement – not just the prose, not just the powerful story, but the sheer craft and technique that went into it, weaving dozens of themes and ideas and stories together in a way that seems effortless, but holds together with each successive revelation and shock. A masterpiece, plain and simple. Rating: *****

9780439139601_p0_v1_s1200x630Finally, the kids and I recently finished up our bedtime reading through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the book that’s always been held up as the major transition of the series from light, fun kids fare to something more ambitious and “older”. That observation holds up, not only in terms of the plot, but also in terms of Rowling’s writing, which really feels as though it’s on another level from what we’ve seen once the book hits its big payoff. Goblet of Fire is a long book, and while there’s an argument that it’s got some unnecessary detours along the way, it’s hard not to enjoy all of the sidebars and wonderful journeys into Rowling’s imagination and world. What other series could dedicate so much time to the question of whether magical serving races are in fact being used as slavery, and lets that debate play out? (Indeed, one could easily argue that the book’s details are better than the main story, which really makes no sense whatsoever; there’s a lot I love about this book, but the story is pretty absurd, and deeply hurts the book along the way a few times.) But really, it’s the last section that everyone remembers, and rightfully so, as Rowling’s writing becomes sharper, her control of mood becomes better than we’ve ever seen it, and the characters’ ideals – and the themes of the series – become richer and more compelling. Indeed, maybe the biggest surprise to me was how much harder I took the big death of this book; while I initially dismissed it on my first read as “well, it’s a way to raise the stakes,” Rowling does so much more with it than I remembered, turning the last part of the book into a shocking moment that drives home to the characters the stakes of their fight. In short, I had a blast with it, even more than I remembered; it’s a fun book, sure, but reading it – and, undoubtedly, experiencing it through my daughter’s reactions – has given me a fresh love for Rowling’s novels. Rating: ****

Amazon: The Deep | Atonement | Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders / *****

97808129953431Not all five-star reviews are equal. It’s just a fact of life that you deal with as a reviewer – although grades and ratings are helpful, they’re not the be-all and end-all. No, the best you can do is choose a rating, and then hope to explain what the book/movie really deserves. And that’s doubly so in the case of George Saunders’ first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Because I’ve given five-star rankings on this site, more than a few times, but I’d be hard pressed to think of a book I’ve read in recent years that moved me, floored me, stunned me, and simply blew me away like Lincoln in the Bardo. It’s not just the best book of the last several years; it may be one of the best books I’ve ever read, period, full stop.

It’s going to be hard to convey the experience of Lincoln in the Bardo in a simple review – at least, in a way that doesn’t either reduce it to its barest outline, or explain it in a way that doesn’t make it sound pretentious and insufferably complicated. Taken at its simplest, Lincoln in the Bardo is the story of Abraham Lincoln’s time of grief after the death of his young son Willie, near the onset of the Civil War; taken as a novel, it’s a tale told through 100+ narrators, from distorted ghosts to primary sources (letters from the Civil War) to academic texts both real and fictional, all of which work together to tell a story about grief, war, public responsibility, and leadership. The former sounds simple and possibly saccharine; the latter sounds daunting and exhausting.

The truth, as you might imagine, comes somewhere in the middle. It undeniably takes a couple of chapters to get into Saunders’ rhythms, watching as he weaves in and out of his historical texts (both real and imagined), and slowly establishes his various narrators. And yes, as the book builds towards various “big” moments, the result can be overwhelming sometimes, creating a cacophonous effect that’s hard to escape. And yes, more importantly, this is a book about grief in its most primal form, as a man grieves for his son, who died before he ever truly lived.

And yet, none of that comes close to truly capturing the experience of Saunders’ book, which clearly proves the maxim that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Saunders’ miscellaneous excerpts from historical documents and academic texts, for instance, do more than simply setting the stage of the novel; they allow us to immerse ourselves into the difficult political situation of Abraham Lincoln, a president dealing with an unthinkable conflict that was far from popular, as well as the bloody guilt that came with each new battle report. In Saunders’ hands, we don’t just read about the war; we find ourselves plunged into that time period, seeing both the ardent supporters and the fervent opponents of the war, to say nothing of the wide range of opinions on Lincoln, whose beatified reputation is stripped away with a reminder of how he was received by his contemporaries.

But it’s Saunders’ bardo – the transitional state between life and death – in which Lincoln in the Bardo truly soars. Populating his graveyard with a slew of figures unable to leave their lives behind, Saunders fills his pages with Dante-like invention, letting figures be altered by their lives in poetic fashion. (One man, who began to see the beauty of the world as he died, is now entirely composed of eyes looking in every direction; another, who died awaiting his first night with his wife, finds his spectral form to be in a constantly aroused state, to an absurd degree.) Each provides their own unique voice, their own concerns, and Saunders widely allows them to be from all classes, all genders and sexualities, all races, turning this from the story of one man’s grief and into a universal exploration of regret, loss, and life. Whether it’s hearing the stories of regretful suicides, anger at children who abandoned them, concern for their businesses that they built – whatever their loss, Saunders brings it to life, turning the book into something more universal than one man’s story.

And yet, this is Lincoln’s story – and by extension, a fascinatingly American story. Here is a man who is mourning the loss of his son, even as the war he’s overseeing sent so many other people’s childrens to their own deaths – a fact that Lincoln is increasingly unable to forget, and which haunts him. At the same time, this is a father, grieving for his son, and there is something painful and heartrending in how Saunders approaches this, dealing with it in degrees, with both father and son unable to move on from this loss.

All of this makes Lincoln in the Bardo sound daunting, and that’s a shame – not only is it surprisingly accessible, it’s also surprisingly funny, with Saunders’ dry wit and ability to inject silliness and anarchy into his stories often in clear view. And in a lesser book, all of that – the humor, the grief, the Civil War allegories, the personal stories, the slew of narrators, the historical documents, the guilt, the supernatural elements, the poetic justice – might overwhelm the book, or turn it into chaos. But in Saunders’ able hands, all of it works together, creating something that reads and feels like nothing else you’ve ever read. It’s funny and it’s heartbreaking; it’s profound and it’s childish; it’s complex and it’s simplistic; it’s universal and it’s incredibly specific. But more than that, it’s also truly, astonishingly beautiful – a work of art that explores grief, loss, and guilt as parts of the human experience. It grapples with big questions about what it all means, and it tries to find answers, and it does so while telling an incredible story and bringing to life a world unlike anything else in fiction.

It is, in short, a masterpiece of the highest order, and one of the finest books I’ve ever read. And I can’t wait to read it all again.

Amazon

Toni Erdmann / **** ½

toni-erdmann-posterBy the time Toni Erdmann made its way to Nashville, its reputation was already far ahead of it. Almost universally acclaimed and beloved, it was hailed by many as one of the best films of the year, if not the best film of the year. That can make for an intimidating experience to approach a film, and when you factor in that Erdmann is a nearly three-hour German film, you’d be forgiven for making certain assumptions about the film.

But one look at the trailer for Toni Erdmann makes you realize that this film isn’t what you might think it is. Not unless you assumed that it’s a comedy about a prank-playing father who loves wearing false teeth and creating elaborate stories/lies for his own entertainment, and often at the cost of embarrassing those around him. And when he realizes that his work-obsessed daughter is at risk of letting her life pass her by, he decides to inject some madness into her world.

That’s right. This great film, this powerful experience? It’s a broad, silly comedy that mines some of the “slobs and snobs” archetypes. And that definitely isn’t quite what I expected.

To be fair, that’s not exactly what Toni Erdmann is, but it’s a good starting point. Because, yes, this film is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, with a knack for absurdism and broad comedy that you don’t often see in films like this, and a willingness to be silly that serves it well. But to call Toni Erdmann a comedy isn’t quite right, either; it’s a melancholy film in many ways, one that uses its comedic touches to lighten the material it’s grappling with: a father who worries that he’s failed his daughter; a woman struggling to make her name in the male-dominated (and often misogynistic) business world; a daughter who doesn’t understand her father at all, a feeling he reciprocates; a disconnect between corporate-speak and the real consequences that affect people’s lives; and plenty more. In short, this is heavy material, made palatable and enjoyable by the film’s comedy.

The result is a fascinating, odd film, one that really feels like little else that I’ve seen. It’s undeniably long, and yet, it lives in that length, using every minute of its time to let its characters breathe and develop, even in scenes that don’t add much to any traditional “narrative”. It’s a film that follows its characters through no end of trails – conversations with friends, awkward encounters with lovers, power struggles, moments of despair – and watches them all with equal compassion and understanding. And while the film’s synopsis above might make you think you know whose side the film is on – after all, in any film with a career-minded woman and an anarchic man, has any film ever taken the side of the woman? – writer-director Maren Ade doesn’t want to do anything so simple. She loves and admires both of these characters, and simultaneously finds both of them lacking and wanting in so many ways.

I’m still, to be honest, not entirely sure what I thought of Toni Erdmann, a film whose greatness seems to be less in filmmaking or being groundbreaking, and more in its humanity, its heart, and its kindness. (In some ways, it reminds me of my reaction to Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me, a film whose greatness arrived in a way I never expected.) It’s an endearingly odd, unique film, filled with memorable scenes, odd moments, and rich characterization, and marked by a refusal to give us any simple moral, any one lesson we can learn. Instead, it takes on the world, its characters, sexism, parenting, guilt, love, business, and more, and throws it all together into one unique mixture. It’s funny, and it’s heartbreaking, and it’s overlong at times, and just right at others, and in all really like little else out there. And at times, it’s genuinely profound, touching on the human experience in a way that a more “conventional” movie never could. But more than anything else, it’s wonderfully human, and wonderfully humane, and I kind of loved that about it. Is it great? Maybe, maybe not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a pretty wonderful (and wonderfully odd) movie.

IMDb