“I want to find a character who is difficult, on the surface, to understand.”
With an actress visiting a once-infamous family to learn details that will help her portray the mother, there is an argument for going into May December blind to the story. I won’t spoil anything that is not apparent within the first 20 minutes of the film. Gracie and Jae Yoo’s infamy arises from the fact he was a child when their relationship began but they have stayed together and raised a family. By approaching their relationship from the back — as their children are about to leave for university — rather than from the start, the script has a broader canvas and an ability to wrong-foot the audience. Our perspective is largely Elizabeth’s as she investigates and gradually develops a fuller perspective by speaking to more family and locals, the score matching this mysterious tone with insistent strings and enquiring piano. The central performances from Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore and Charles Melton are nuanced and emotionally compelling, particularly in the parallels drawn between the leading women — both are manipulative, Gracie in her desire to control the narrative and Elizabeth in her search for acting inspiration. There are missteps, like the late “revelation” of a lie that ought to have been clear, but overall Todd Haynes weaves an excellent tapestry of ambiguity that leaves the audience uncomfortable as we evaluate the relationship before us.
“We’re all just playing our parts now. This was written long before we got here.”
A Western stripped of American exceptionalism, these are pioneers at the mercy of a barren land, not taming it. Meek’s Cutoff prizes verisimilitude of the experience over narrative, which will frustrate many. Even the characters are mere sketches, elevated by an excellent cast who convey both camaraderie and mistrust. Michelle Williams stands out with a mixture of bold resolve and empathy, aided by a lens that tends toward the female perspective. A litmus test is likely your view on a Native American character who neither conveniently speaks English, nor is subtitled, since the pioneers have no way to understand him. With patience, however, Meek’s Cutoff is both memorable and haunting in its simplicity: the unrelenting sun by day, the enveloping blackness of night. The cinematography is also of note, this being a rare modern film shot in the Academy aspect ratio of 1:1.33, with the additional height being used to present vast skies overhead and the landscape dwarfing the wagon train. It is a tiny slice of The Oregon Trail, with less dysentery.
“A lot of the time we feel that our life’s the worst, but I think that if you looked in anybody else’s closet, you wouldn’t trade your shit for their shit.”
Jonah Hill’s directorial debut is a nostalgia-soaked homage to the Los Angeles streets of his youth, following 13-year-old Stevie as he balances a questionable home life and a newfound friendship with a crew of skaters. Youthful aimlessness captured through grainy, low-fi production (shot on 16mm film) recalls Kids as well as early Richard Linklater. Befitting many of his acting roles, Hill demonstrates a well-attuned instinct for the awkwardness of male bonding, and the poor adolescent advice that accompanies it (“don’t thank people — they’re gonna think you’re gay,” Stevie is initially warned before the crew’s leader disabuses him of the notion). The unvarnished presentation of the reality of risk-taking and adult behaviour amongst children rarely feels forced, though its recurring theme of subconscious self-harm is only addressed at the end. Setting the film over two decades in the past also reduces its relevance to today’s teenagers. Mid90s may not be a stellar debut, but it demonstrates that Hill has skill behind the camera that indicates a bright future.