AFF Day Six: Controlled Demolition

After nearly a week of constantly watching and writing about movies, I'm beginning to experience an interesting phenomenon. As I become more and more steeped in cinema, my intros and closers in each post are getting shorter, harder to write, while my reviews are starting to flow naturally and stretch out in their word count. I think that's at least part of the point of a festival, to open up and truly engage with the films. I hope any Carbon Arc readers out there are enjoying my coverage as much as I enjoy writing it. If you're just joining us now, here's day five of my coverage, which will also lead you back through to the opening moments of AFF 2016.

 
Growing Up Coy (Eric Juhola)

Growing Up Coy (Eric Juhola)

 

I have to imagine that much of parenting is making tough decisions and hoping that things don't blow up in your face. That, even if the consequences aren't in your favor, you can protect your children from the fallout. That's definitely the case for the Mathis family in Eric Juhola's socially conscious documentary Growing Up Coy. The Coy of the title is the 6-year-old daughter of Kathryn and Jeremy; her school has just forbidden her to use the female restroom. In what has since become a landmark civil rights case for Colorado and other parts of the United States, the Mathises decide to fight back publicly when the school won't budge during private negotiations. Juhola follows the family in the lead-up to their decision, through a gruelling media schedule, and to the eventual verdict. At every turn, the subtext of the film is writ large: was this decision the right one? Coy quickly tires of the constant stream of reporters with their constant stream of questions, and her siblings don't fare much better, dragged along for the highs and lows of the ride but earning none of the attention. Kathryn and Jeremy's relationship grows strained. That's to say nothing of the vitriol that bubbles out of the internet and mass media cesspools, exposing the entire family to dehumanizing levels of hate. Mercifully, being open to more negativity also creates wider opportunities for love and support worldwide, and the outcome is uplifting enough to quell any doubts. The filmmaking itself is adequate — nothing to write home about, even — but in a week where I've spent countless hours analyzing and dissecting everything that happens on a screen, Growing Up Coy was a helpful reminder of all the humanity that happens off of it.

 
Land of Mine (Martin Zandvliet)

Land of Mine (Martin Zandvliet)

 

On a metaphorical level, Danish WWII film Land of Mine might consider Growing Up Coy a close cousin: in the abstract, both are about trying to rid a society of the artifacts of deep-seated hatred and violence. In Martin Zandvliet's period drama, the society is Denmark's western coastline and the artifacts are over 2 million land mines buried by the German military during the war. Based in truth, the story focuses on a group of young German prisoners of war who are told that they will not be freed until they have done their part to atone for their country's atrocities. This means crawling across expanses of sand in a literal game of Minesweeper, uncovering and defusing the dangerous devices to make the area safely passable. This story stands in contrast to the typical broad and bloody depictions of the era, opting for small-scale tensions that are wrapped up in passionate ideas of national identity and rebuilding after a calamitous six years. Anger, the film wisely observes, cannot be signed away by a peace treaty, and it does not treat innocence or villainy as absolute conditions. Seeing young, scared, homesick boys subjected to horrible acts of retributive justice highlights how raw the wounds on the world, and Zandvliet renders it all with excellent, barren cinematography and convincing special effects. Land of Mine has been announced as Denmark's official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at next year's Academy Awards, and it stands a solid chance of going the distance; for my dollar, it's certainly got more to offer than bigger, louder war pictures that have come before it.

 
Juste La Fin Du Monde (Xavier Dolan)

Juste La Fin Du Monde (Xavier Dolan)

 

No land mines are present in Xavier Dolan's Juste La Fin Du Monde, but that doesn't stop the film from being about as subtle as a warehouse of weapons-grade explosives. To say nothing of the filmmaking quality, this film is a truly miserable experience. The script is based on a stage play of the same name by the late Jean-Luc Lagarce, and the result is so blustery and overwrought that one of two things must be true: either Lagarce considered himself as the heir apparent to the gauntlet of family dysfunction thrown down by the likes of Tennessee Williams, or Dolan is up to more of his tricks as the edgy enfant terrible of domestic anguish. Amid high contrast closeups and soft-focus medium shots, each member in the bloviating cast of (usually) excellent French screen talent is reduced to a minimum defining quality. Trapped in scene after scene with Lea Seydoux (loud/mad), Marion Cotillard spins her tires to no avail as the meek wife of Vincent Cassel (louder/madder). Fans of Dolan will recognize his oddly-soundtracked diversions that here function as flashbacks for the main character, Louis (Gaspard Ulliel, quiet and, thus, salvageable). He has returned home to his family after being away for 12 years, hoping to share with them the news that he is soon going to die. He can't get a word in edgewise with everyone screaming, though, and when his opportunity finally arrives — in a providential burst of saturated orange sunlight, no less — he decides that some things are better left unsaid. With the histrionics cranked up to eleven, any observations on familial anxiety or obligation are lost in sound and fury. Dolan has never been one for a light-handed touch, but his previous work has at least shown some semblance of dynamic range. As an advocate of those films, and of Canadian cinema in general, I can only hope that with this primal scream out of his system he can return to films that wear their heart on their sleeves instead of tearing their shirt completely off.

Adam Driver and competitive chicken breeding are on the schedule for Wednesday as we draw near the finish line of the festival. Check back tomorrow for news on PatersonChicken People, and more.