Monday, April 6, 2020

The Road to Edmond - a film review

If you’ve spent a lifetime undoing the self-loathing that comes from growing up in a fiercely homophobic environment created for the most part by toxic religion, you naturally want to applaud when a Christian shows up who clearly wants to detoxify his church. Even if your main issue with the church is its irrational faith-claims, and not its homophobia or its pre-modern patriarchal culture, you still want to recognize a friend when you see one. After years of church-bashing, I always welcome the opportunity to cultivate a more nuanced view of organized religion, shun the Bible-thumpers, and seek common ground with the seekers.

That’s the approach I’d like to take with Tripp Fuller, the co-author of Transforming Christian Theology and the man behind the pro-gay film I came across the other night on Amazon Prime Streaming entitled The Road to Edmond. I’d love to embrace the theology student and thank him for his efforts.

My problem is I love movies. And in evaluating them, I think they should be judged as works of art by world-class standards, and not let off the hook when they flop. The Road to Edmond is a really bad movie, amateurish, plodding and way too long.

Fuller himself play Larry, one of the two characters in the story, a pastor who meets the other character when he runs over his bike and offers to take him where he is going as a way of making up for his carelessness. The other character is Cleo, another pastor, a youth minister who has been furloughed by his church for telling a lesbian teen that God loves her just as she is, rather than following the church’s practice of admonishing young people to stop being LGBT and get right with the Lord.

The film is painfully didactic from end to end, and the undisguised effort to accomplish what progressive Christians might call putting Christ back into the church makes this a message movie, not a work of art. The theological questions that pop up here and there are answered with unhelpful slogans rather than clear thought, so what might be a portrayal of a troubled soul turns out instead to be a preaching of dull sermons to the choir.

I won’t reveal the surprising plot twists - to give credit where credit is due - in case you want to watch this flop despite my criticisms. Gay Christians might see things in a different light, and more power to them. 

An A for effort. A C-minus for the finished product.

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Monday, March 30, 2020

System Crasher - a film review

Helena Zengel as Benni
I had a student once who terrified me. Not physically. He presented himself as rather soft-spoken, and to look at him was to see a rather handsome young man, not a bully, not a gangster, not a low-life. What sent chills up my spine was the steady accumulation of evidence that he seemed to be entirely lacking in empathy. He showed no emotion over the suffering of others, no interest in their opinions, no apparent awareness that outside of his totally enclosed world there were others seeking friends and engaging in collaborative efforts to get things done.

He announced once in class, in a complete non sequitur, that his mother had just had another abortion. I said nothing. It could only have been an attention-seeking mechanism. I could have lectured him on the inappropriate nature of that outburst, but, given the shocked reaction of his classmates, that would have been redundant and, I expect, only fueled his craving. I could have asked him to leave the room, but that wouldn’t have cleared the air, either. We moved on to other things without comment.

I ran into him years later, in the subway. He took a seat next to me, asked me if I remembered him. I said of course I did and asked him how he was doing. He was working in a bank and to all appearances he seemed quite normal. Perhaps I was wrong about him, I thought, but there was something in his eyes that kept me from pursuing the conversation. I reached my stop, wished him well, and never saw him again.

The memory of this guy has haunted me ever since. Knowing him forced me to come to terms with the limitations of my talents as a teacher. Since I define education as an interaction with the whole person, I have been called on many times over the years to act as counselor, and in some cases as mentor, as much as instructor. With this guy, I could only hope there were others out there who might perform that service. I was not up to it.

I have been reliving the memory of this student since I happened upon a German movie last night called Systemsprenger - the English title is System Crasher - about a nine-year-old sociopath. Abused as a baby, she explodes into uncontrolled violence anytime anybody touches her face, or randomly when things don’t go her way, and she resists all attempts by the child welfare system to find a place for her. Her mother rejects her because she's afraid of the harm she's almost certain to bring to her younger siblings. The term “system crasher” is not an official one, but it is used informally among child therapists to refer to children who seem to be beyond anyone’s capacity to handle.

People have made movies about monster children before. If it’s fiction, one can expect them to be portrayed as some kind of “bad seed.” With non-fiction, probably in a documentary focusing on one or another social failure: abusive parenting, the lack of public awareness of problem children who get sucked into drugs or are conscripted into gangs. Or the horrors of a foster care system with revolving doors, or some other failure to do right by children requiring special attention. 

Writer and director Nora Fingscheidt took a different tack. She lets the story unfold without villains or judgment, and in the end leaves us hanging. Some things in life, she seems to be saying, remain mysteries. Not all of life's challenges get resolved.

I doubt Ms. Fingscheidt could have made this film in an American context. We don't like stories without resolution, where the bad guy gets away with murder and evil just sits there and stares at you. I’m guessing most Americans who watch the film will find it too frustrating for words. For one thing, the tantrums are endless, and for another, one by one, those who care for the girl - Benni is her name - are drawn in either by the power of her personality or by their natural desire to come to a child’s aid, whereupon they are chewed up and spat out.

This degree of frustration would be simply too much to bear, and folks would, I’m sure, leave the theater in droves, were it not for one of the most astonishingly powerful child acting performances - maybe the most powerful - I’ve ever seen. Benni is played by an 11-year old actor named Helena Zengel. “Helli” might actually carry the film alone, but she gets help from at least two others in the cast, Mrs. Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide), the head of the child welfare office, who collapses in a heap at some point in exhaustion, and Micha (Albrecht Schuch), a guy Mrs. Bafané calls in whose history of rising out of similar abusive childhood conditions would seem to make him the ideal candidate to handle this problem child with some sort of tough love. Together, they give a riveting performance.

Watch it for the acting. And then see if you can escape the nagging question of whether there are children beyond help. And whether medicating children into adulthood is the only path for some extreme cases. Not a theme for the faint of heart. But if you’re up for it, a great example of the power of film to tell an important story.

Nominated for a whole host of international film awards. It has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 96%.

Available on Netflix Streaming

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Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Giant Little Ones - a film review

If you grew up gay in the Pre-Stonewall era, as I did, you probably share my view that the history of gay cinema has moved with remarkable speed from the days of “I thought people like killed themselves” to today, where every soap seems to have a gay character who is witty and clever. It’s tempting to think that the whole question of coming out is oh so yesterday. Been there, done that, who needs another tale of kids of born-agains cowering in the corner.

But just as racism in America was not washed away by Obama’s presidency, coming out can still feel for many gay kids like walking on broken glass. And that means there is still lots to work with for storytellers and filmmakers looking for a tension-filled plot line to build on.

To my endless dismay, the stories with gay themes now coming out faster than I can watch them tend to be badly slapped together. The producers know there’s an audience for them: Netflix has LGBTQ listed among its choices. Prime doesn’t, but watch one and they’ll throw another half dozen gay-themed films your way in their “because you watched…” category. Somebody there is keeping track. But the quality is quite low, and it really feels as if they know they have an audience so desperate for gay-themes films that they’ll watch anything.

Actually, when you come to think of it, “gay-themed” as a category almost begs low quality. It’s not as if we’re dealing with the great moral dilemmas, courage in the face of disaster, heroism in the defense of country, the desperation of a Sophie’s choice. It’s more a question of wanting to see people like ourselves depicted on the screen. Or people we want to be, handsome, talented and smart, winning over the object of our affections, and putting the bully in his place. It’s not that we can’t make excellent gay-themed films. Brokeback Mountain managed to capture the heartbreak of a love the world would not permit. Moonlight tells the story of a kid handicapped by his size, by poverty, by a drug-addicted single parent as well as by his membership in this underclass of untouchables known as homosexuals. And Call Me By Your Name tells another story, at the opposite end of the spectrum, one of the heartbreak of a lost first love. All proof, as far as I’m concerned, that the best gay stories are those who frame one’s sexuality in the larger scheme of things. We know that boy-meets-boy or girl-meets-girl, sparks fly and they live happily ever after isn’t sufficient grit for a good story, but neither, it turns out, are tales of mom and dad coming around. “You’ll always be my son, no matter what” has to be the cliché theme of the day.

And that means the place to go is to the notion that sexuality is fluid, that the best plot lines revolve around the multiple paths to self-discovery. Not that one is gay and the world is all wrong about gay people, but that the path to self-knowledge is a bumpy road and with a little help from one’s friends, one can get by, and perhaps prosper.

Giant Little Ones is a Canadian film that came out in 2018 and just made it to DVD in February. It’s about two boys, Franky and Ballas, best friends and swim team buddies who, like most 17 year-olds are hot on getting laid. Only one night, when they’ve had too much to drink, they end up monkeying around with each other. The question of who’s the monker and who’s the monkee drives the plot line. Franky is the more decent kid, convinced that he’s straight but unafraid to question.  Ballas is more interested in saving his own macho reputation, and throws Franky under the bus. What makes this story worth watching is the way the two boys take it from there. In Call Me By Your Name, the denouement is the scene where the father shows his love for his son by helping him understand that, when your heart is broken, you can dwell on the loss, but you can just as easily focus on the fact that you’re blessed with the capacity to love. A similar scene takes place in Giant Little Ones, when Franky’s gay estranged father uses the opportunity to reconnect with his son.

I’ve given too much away. Sorry. But that’s both the charm and the weakness of the movie, depending on your politics and your understanding of what makes a good story. If this film is any indicator of where LGBT films are going these days, it’s a sign, in my view, that we’re finally coming of age as makers of artistic gay films, which, as I’ve implied, involve getting beyond the less interesting themes of “is he or isn’t he?” and whether the good guys win in the end. If you’re gay and you click on “gay and lesbian” to see others like yourselves on screen, you may want to pass this film up. If you’re fine with just watching the journey, and don’t mind if the story ends before it reaches the destination, this film’s for you.

available on Netflix Streaming and other sources for a small fee.

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