There was one name that my twitter feed lit up with throughout both the Sydney and Melbourne international film festivals earlier this year – Xavier Dolan. Five films into his career and the young writer/director/actor seems to have people abuzz, and in this case the film they are talking about is Tom at the Farm (2013).
The film sees the titular Tom returning to his deceased boyfriend’s home farm for his funeral. His boyfriend’s family, for the most part, do not know that he was homosexual and believe that Tom was a work colleague. Tom battles against this and even more so against the menacing Francis, the brother of his lover. There is a lot of atmosphere in the film and it shifts as Dolan wishes it too. For probably the first act or so, there is a pall of grief that hangs over the film. You are not crushed under the weight of it, the film is not actively setting out to make you miserable and remind you of the horror of death. But it is there, and you know it is driving every event and choice that is made by one of the characters in the film. Later, there is a pervading sense of menace, as the relationship between Tom and Francis shifts a number of times. The true nature of Francis is further revealed whilst also being further clouded and changed. This latter shift in character does at first jar, not quite feeling authentic or real to the world of the film. But a combination of quality scriptwriting and performance will make you believe in the end. Similarly the motivations of Tom at times feel totally out of whack. But the strangeness eventually all makes a level of sense and in part you just need to sit and go on the ride that Dolan is taking you. The plot gets there in the end and so do you as a viewer.
Writing about the use of music in film has never been my strength. Someone needs to (if it hasn’t already been done) really break down the way music is used in Tom at the Farm. It is plain that Dolan places a lot of emphasis on the interrelationship between the images on the screen and the music accompanying it. At times the music is bombastic and seemingly ill-fitting with what is onscreen. But it imbues it with so much feeling and atmosphere. The contrasts are also often stark, forcing the viewer to acknowledge and consider the choice that has been made. As a director, this is just one way in which Dolan puts his auteur stamp on the film. I would love to see him make a straight up horror film. The mastery of atmosphere and music chops are certainly there to make a very effective one.
On the writing front, Dolan has the gift of creating complex characters out of what at first feel like they could be ciphers – the mourning boyfriend and menacing homophobe of a brother definitely do not stay that way throughout the film. Their construction is effortless though, Dolan never seeming to be straining for quirk or nuance in the characters, they just gradually evolve into those more complex things. It is fair enough to be dubious of directors who star in their own films, but as an onscreen performer, Dolan is more than capable. His is a passive presence onscreen in this film, but his performance guides that passivity between and into engagement with other characters. As Francis, the menacing brother, Pierre-Yves Cardinal is certainly not a passive character in any way. He may not quite have the acting chops of Dolan but it is still an excellent performance. Cardinal has such a physical presence and has you feeling as if he will be lurking just around every single corner.
Verdict: You know I can certainly see what the hype was over with Dolan. I’m keen to check out the rest of his films now. Whether this is the best place to start, I have no idea, but as a complex, exceedingly intelligent drama thriller, you won’t go wrong if this is your window into the world of Dolan. Pint of Kilkenny
Now we all know that people who deny climate change are idiots. But those people are definitely out there and they get a lot of coverage from mainstream media. Merchants of Doubt (2014) takes a look at who these people are, how they got there and what qualifications they have to be speaking on such matters.
The first thing that Merchants of Doubt does is very comprehensively and effectively paint the similarities between the actions of Big Tobacco and the anti-climate change agenda. It is a telling comparison isn’t it, Big Tobacco being the standard bearer for the horrid deceit of the populace on a global scale, prepared to put the almighty dollar (well at least their almighty dollar) ahead of the health and wellbeing of every human being on earth. That is who the climate change lobby are taking their cues and tactics from. The point is excellently made and whilst it is something you could imagine being true, the film provides a range of rock solid examples of exactly how it is taking place. The issue with the idea in the film though is that it is made well, but the film lingers far too long on the point. I paid for a climate change film, not one about tobacco. Later in the film, there is a similarly long stretch of useful, but distracting information about the fire retardant lobby. The end result is a film that sort of sprawls. Each individual part or speaker is quite interesting. But you get to near the end and you can’t remember who spoke a couple of people ago. It is also a touch boring, because there is a lot of non-vital information that makes its way onto the screen between each nugget of gold.
At times it feels like the world is stuck in a constant, immovable dichotomy on the topic of climate change. For some reason, this issue has become a political one, with progressives on one side rigidly accepting the scientific consensus and conservatives on the other side steadfast in their position, based mainly on pseudoscience and just making shit up, that climate change is a myth. It seems like these positions are two parallel lines of people, with no flow in between. It is telling than that the two best speakers in the film are people who have crossed that divide. One is Michael Shermer, a libertarian professional ‘sceptic’ and the other is a former ultra-conservative Republican Senator whose name escapes me. Both of them make a number of really good points, but I think that they make one key one each that cuts to the heart of why this is still a debate (as a totally different person in the film observes “it is a debate, but it’s not a scientific debate”). Shermer, who attends conservative libertarian debates and boldly sells the climate change message, explains that the real issue is overwhelming tribalism. That is what makes people refuse to engage with new evidence. The senator makes the point that it is not evidence or science that is holding people back. It is fear of change, a fear stoked by those who profit from the status quo, which makes people fearful to see what is really happening. If nothing more, the position of these two conservatives, who do remain proud and rabid conservatives, is a hopeful note, that people will eventually see the scientific evidence that is shining in their face.
There is a very cool stylistic conceit in Merchants of Doubt that functions as an ‘in’ to the film. It is a magician, telling the secrets of how he crafts his illusions, or more accurately the technique of his trickery. The point being made of course is that if you take the sleight of hand and distractions that a close-up magician utilises during card tricks, blow it up to an earth wide scale, what you are left with is the tactical approach of the climate change deniers lobby. This whole conceit is perhaps the best bit of the film and gets an important balance right that the film on occasion veers to the wrong side of. It is exceptionally inventive but it is not too glossy. It functions to enlighten and enhance the ideas of the film, but thankfully does not inadvertently overshadow them at all. It never becomes the focus, it clarifies the focus.
Verdict: Unlike some other docos that have showed at CIFF, this one does not quite transcend its narrow subject material into a broader based appeal. But Merchants of Doubt is still worthwhile viewing for those with an interest in the issue. You may just need to wade through a fair amount of unnecessary supplementary material first. Stubby of Reschs
The Australian premiere of New Zealand film The Dead Lands (2014) was one of the more heralded screenings of CIFF 2014 and with pretty good reason. The producer of the film is a former Canberran, the film is the onscreen debut of the traditional Maori martial art Mau Rakau and it just opened at #1 at the Kiwi box office, defeating Brad Pitt and his tank in Fury (2014).
Dead Lands wears its heart on its sleeve right from the get go, with action and violence in the very first sequence. In fact there is very little let up throughout the entire first act. The plot is a pretty stock standard action set-up. One tribe wipes out another, yet one young man is left alive. He seeks his (bloody) revenge. Perhaps it is a little too straightforward because it is hard to buy into this quest. It should be an easy one to bring home. This young guy has just seen basically everyone he loves brutally murdered. But you never feel his anger or lust for revenge. There is a really bloodthirsty and savage edge to the characters in the film. I would be interested to know if there had been any backlash in New Zealand to the depiction of Maori people in this way. I’m not suggesting it is at all racist in its approach or anything like that, but there is little else that characterises the main participants in the film aside from their barbarism.
I genuinely don’t want to be glib and dismissive, but the first ever Mau Rakau marital arts film sure would have been a lot more impressive if you could actually see the Mau Rakau. So much of the film is wrapped up in the spectacle of the fight scenes that it is totally befuddling that they are shot so shakily. On the very rare occasions that the action is slowed down, you can see why the filmmakers were so keen to showcase this art form. There is a hard hitting, grounded brutality to the discipline it that could make for really wonderful action film viewing. But 90% of it is shot in daft shaky cam, attempting to imbue something with a kineticism it already has in spades. It is even more frustrating because there is the occasional nice stylistic flourish. Particularly when the film pays homage to classic martial arts films of the past, with extreme zooms into a character as a fight scene is about to kick off.
Verdict: The Dead Lands is an overwhelmingly frustrating experience. For me, it is so jerkily shot in the main that it makes the action simply too hard to see. When a film is totally bound up in the success of its action sequences this is not a good thing. Schooner of Carlton Draught
Related beermovie.net articles for you to check out: CIFF 2014: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and CIFF 2014: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby:Her.
It was strange to walk into the screening of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her (2013) with a sense of anticipation, after not particularly liking The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him (2013) the night before. The anticipation was justified however as this film brings to the screen an emotional power which is lacking in Him.
The film tells essentially the same story to the first one, in that it is the chronicle of a breakup. Broadly speaking, the films cover the same span of time, albeit through different eyes and the two characters do spend most of the films apart from one another. So whilst the headline plot is the story of a breakup, the minutiae of how they deal with and grow from that breakup is totally different. Part of the experience of watching this film (and I assume whichever you see second) is considering how it interacts with the first one. This interaction goes both ways. On one level it is difficult not to feel a touch cheated, as major plot points that were impacting on events in the first film but never revealed, suddenly see the light of day. On the other hand, it is a pretty revelatory experience, because whilst you are sitting there watching one film, you are simultaneously but not distractingly, totally reconsidering the film you saw yesterday. In sheer practical terms, for the most part the film takes a good approach to revisiting the scenes that are also in the other film. They are shot from a totally different angle or the scene appears much earlier or later in this film than in Him.
Jessica Chastain is the star here. Ever since she burst onto the screen in The Tree of Life (2011) she has impressed in a wide range of roles, Mama (2013) being probably the only blight on her filmography. Her powerhouse turn in this film is as good as any work she has done. In all the scenes where she appears, she elevates those around her, making all the other actors do better work. McAvoy does not grate as he did in Him, primarily because the focus is more on Chastain. And you go along with every rise and fall in the emotional journey, simply by her inhabiting the character and the journey of that character, without ever feeling manipulated by the performance. Here, Nina Arianda as Eleanor’s sister, Alexis fulfils the Bill Hader role of Him, lightening the load but carrying more of the emotional weight in this film. In terms of characters, it is interesting to note that the writing and editing of each film result in the focal character being less sympathetic. In this film, you begin to question your sympathy for Chastain a little whilst coming to understand the somewhat justified frustrations of McAvoy’s character, who it was hard to sympathise with in Him.
This film did benefit ever so slightly from being the one I saw second (it’s worth noting, at least according to the CIFF program, there is no ‘right’order to see them, though this is the order they played in both times). There is no doubt in my mind that it is the stronger of the two films. But in seeing it second, some of the knowledge gaps in terms of what exactly is taking place are fleshed out. You also get the payoffs that are built over the two films. So when a parent here reflects on something that another parent reflects on in the first film, you get the cumulative effect of the meaning of that (apologies that is such a vague sentence, but I needed to avoid spoilers). But as a stand-alone piece, this film succeeds in many areas that Him failed. Whereas in the first film the dialogue feels hollow, here it has depth. No doubt helped along by the fact that it is the likes of Chastain and William Hurt delivering it. Similarly, you feel the weight of what has been lost in this breakup and the swirling emotions that accompany it much more in this one. Overall you can see why the Them cut would probably not work, the two films are clearly designed and function well as totally separate but complimentary works. It is a thought provoking way to see the story and writer-director Ned Benson clearly likes pushing those buttons. He chooses (I am almost certain anyway) to script the same scenes slightly differently in the two films. It is intriguing as to why this decision is made and it is something I will certainly focus on when I revisit the films for a second time.
Verdict: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her is so good that I can happily recommend it as a stand-alone experience. The best way to experience this story though is to see both films in quick succession, even though I was not a fan of Him. Part of the attraction is seeing the novelty of how these two films interact with one another. That is only part of the attraction with this one though, as Chastain takes you on a journey with all the emotional punch that was so missing from the other film in this duo. Pint of Kilkenny
Related beermovie.net articles for you to check out: CIFF 2014: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and CIFF 2014: Kebab and Horoscope.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him (2013) is one part of a dual film telling of a single story. It is a pretty bold experiment, though it is anticipated that a ‘Them’ cut will be released in cinemas, rather than both the films. It is important to note that I saw this film before The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her (2013) as that is the order they played in at CIFF. All other festivals I heard screened the films have done it in the opposite order. No idea why CIFF bucked this trend or if the filmmaker has a preferred order for them to be shown.
The two films tell the story of the relationship of Conor, played by James McAvoy, and Eleanor played by Jessica Chastain. Or more accurately, the film tells of the break-up of the two characters rather than much about their relationship. That is one of the most noticeable aspects of the film early on, it kind of starts at the end. Though details gradually get sketched in, initially you are presented with the end of a relationship. Which, given our propensity to be shown otherwise, makes it a tough film to get involved in emotionally. As an audience, we have not seen the highs of this love story, so it is difficult to know how much we should mourn what has now passed. Without the backdrop, it is hard to truly understand the ramifications. McAvoy’s Conor fares badly as a character as a result of this as well, because he just seems like such an utter sadsack of a character. Perhaps a little more detail would have resulted in a little more empathy going his way. The other aspect of the film that is evident pretty early on is that the script is rather overwrought. There are no grounded interactions between the two main characters, everything is major. Perhaps that is because at the point of a breakup everything really is major. But there is a non-naturalistic theatricality to these engagements which is not there in some of the interactions between lesser characters. Strangely, this overwrought aspect of the dialogue does not imbue it with depth. Instead, it rings hollow, perhaps as a result of its unnatural feel.
James McAvoy is a performer that can go either way for me. I have enjoyed his turns in films such as X-Men: First Class (2011) and Welcome to the Punch (2013). But in other roles such as in Trance (2013), he has felt a little lightweight to me. As it is here, and the main issue is that he is acting opposite across from Jessica Chastain. When the two of them go toe-to-toe in a big emotional scene, McAvoy in some ways just cannot keep up. Chastain on the other hand cuts through much of the blandness of this film and the material and really lights up the screen. Which in no way suggests hers is a ‘happy’ character. Rather that the emotional depth of her performance is something to latch onto given how much she shines in comparison to everything else going on. The overall feeling I am left with is that McAvoy is quite simply miscast in this film. In performances aside from the two leads, you have to love Bill Hader’s easy charisma onscreen. As Conor’s chef and best friend, he brings a levity to the film, even though his role is not an overtly comedic one.
Verdict: As a stand-alone film, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him is a disappointment. The material and interactions are too overwrought and the miscast McAvoy is unable to carry the dramatic weight of the material. Check back later tonight or tomorrow to see if a focus on Chastain elevates Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her any higher. Schooner of Carlton Draught
When I spot a comedy on a festival program, it is not that hard to get me through the door. They are generally pretty rare, so the Australian premiere of Kebab and Horoscope (2014) made my list for CIFF 2014.
This is a film that wants you to know how quirky it is. In the opening, a kebab shop worker and horoscope writer quit their jobs on the same day (the former because the latter wrote in his column to do so). With absolutely no real explanation as to why, the two of them team up and pretend to run a marketing company trying to revitalise a carpet shop with no business. The shop is populated by extremely quirky characters – the old vulgar dude, the owner who likes attempting to have sex with everyone who works there, the young lazy dude, the straight-laced receptionist who is a closet hippy and the young woman dealing with her quirky mother who has come to stay and won’t leave. It all seems to be trying a little too hard and in the end it comes off as just being pretty boring really. As if it wasn’t tired enough, it utilises a chapter structure too, which is becoming such an overused trope. It rarely adds anything at all to a film and so it is with this one, merely serving to frustrate the viewer, or at least me, even more. The film also falls victim to thinking that if your characters talk about social issues, your script has a level of depth to it. Not so, this is as shallow and un-insightful as comedy gets.
Kebab and Horoscope is what I would a little dismissively call standard festival fare. It is not meant to denigrate festival organisers of any kind, but films like this seem to always crop up. For comedies, this generally involves being non-English language and ‘quirky’. Which obviously describes a lot of really excellent films. But also some really terrible ones that slip through the cracks for one reason or another. This is one of those. The script seems to confuse something being slightly strange or not ‘normal’ as being uproariously funny. There is almost a mean-spiritedness to some of the plot points that we are meant to find funny – the old dude in the shop telling a young female employee how if he was younger he would have had so much sex with her – is played straight and is meant to be funny. Yeah, cause sexual harassment jokes in the workplace are tops. Outside of those moments (there is also rape scene that is also played slightly comedically, that just comes out of nowhere) the rest of the film just feels very staid and flat. This was made even clearer by the dead silence that the film elicited from the crowd at each of its big joke moments. Actually the film got one of the deader reactions from a crowd that I have seen from a comedy. There was even a walkout that I saw. I sit really close to the screen so rarely see walkouts, but one dude in front of me gave up on this one after about 15 minutes. I never walk out of films and am never really tempted. But I had to fight pretty hard to keep my arse glued to the seat for this one.
Verdict: There are plenty of reasons I didn’t enjoy Kebab and Horoscope, but the main one is that it is a desperately unfunny comedy with a vulgar script. There is desperately little of note here and consequently very little to recommend. Schooner of Tooheys New
The film focuses on the titular Philip, an utter jackass of an author in the process of releasing his second book, as well as his relationships with his girlfriend and an older author who becomes a mentor for him. I suspect that much of the consternation around the film comes from the fact that the character of Philip is such an irredeemable jerk, which does make him not the most pleasant presence to be in for much of the film’s running time. The most successful aspects of Listen up Philip for me were those that focussed in on the art and pretensions of writing. At times it is a portrait of the necessary struggle, arrogance and ego of being a great artist. Or perhaps just an artist of any description. In addition, the funniest moments are not really the attempted out and out comedy ones, but rather the skewering of literary conventions and those that seek to uphold them. There is some really interesting and though provoking moments around these notions as Philip prepares to promote his book. But the sections of the film based on his personal relationships with those around him are far less interesting and unfortunately they seem to take up a fair chunk of the film.
Some of the filmmaking, as well as the characters of the film, slip into a Noah Baumbach hipster realm. There is a somewhat meta voiceover that falls into this realm, functioning somewhat like the narrative voice of a novel. It is a little distracting though, not least because I am almost certain that it is provided by the same person who does the voiceover in Anchorman (2004). Come to think of it, even what is being said is not too dissimilar as in that film, though deployed to different ends. There is a self-knowingness to the dialogue as well which, and not just because of the presence of Jason Schwartzman, recalls the work of Wes Anderson. This dialogue never really frustrates in and of itself, but it can get tiresome during the more character heavy sequences of the film. Even though you hate him, there is a quotable nature to some of the dry and acerbic zingers that Philip comes out with throughout the film. You will hate him though. As a character he is not at all charming and treats those around him terribly. Schwartzman imbues him with the air of superiority of someone you will no doubt recall if you attended uni – definitely philosophy or English lit classes are required to have a Philip or two – but dialled up to 11. Similarly, he seems unable to comprehend whatsoever that the way he treats those around him is unacceptable, even if he does view himself as a great artist.
Verdict: At its best, Listen Up Philip is a pretty fun yet very literate and smart film. The more standard relationship moments are less than engaging. When it focuses on the infuriating Philip and his engagement with the literary world though, it is more of a winner. Stubby of Reschs
There is simply no way that a Mads Mikkelsen western, that also stars the likes of Jonathan Pryce and frickin Eric ‘Kung Fu’ Cantona, could be anything other than spectacular right? Alas dear reader, The Salvation (2014) proves that not only can it be not spectacular, it can be quite awful.
Some promising signs emerge at the very beginning of the film as it proudly flashes its western credentials. Indeed the credits music, title font and text based intro had me a little excited about a good old fashioned modern western. The plot is also classical, yet re-imagined slightly. It is about outsiders creating a new life on the frontier, battling against both the brutal landscape and brutal people that populate it. The outsider aspect is exacerbated by the fact that those finding their way are foreigners, namely former Danish soldier brothers played by Mikkelsen and Mikael Persbrandt. Finally, after a number of years alone, Mads’ wife and child are coming to join him. When things go awry, the film morphs into revenge mode, which given the man on the rampage, should be all kinds of awesome. Unfortunately though, this film mistakes needless violence and brutality for depth. Or rather, the violence and brutality splashed around is meaningless, which it can’t be in a western.
More than anything else, what sinks the film is the woeful script. The plot is stock standard western beats, beset by a fair amount of silliness, not to mention glaring inconsistencies. The dialogue is shocking too and at times the actors almost seem to be embarrassed to be spouting it. Characters often say similar things that you hear in good westerns. But there is none of the quality or wit that the genre needs to succeed. In addition to the script, the film looks really shoddy too. There is some hideous and totally unnecessary use of effects, to deliver quite simple scenes like a wagon ride. The colouring in this sequence is out of whack too, which I suspect may be the result of average ‘day for night’ shooting, but I could certainly be wrong on that. For much of the film, the quality of the image looks like it could be from the 1950s. Who knows, perhaps that was a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers, to homage greats of the genre past? More likely though, it is just poor craftsmanship from those involved.
None of the performers really come out of this film having impressed. Jonathan Pryce gives what is closest to a good turn, as a leering villain. But maybe I just enjoyed that because for me it called to mind his turn in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), one of the most underrated James Bond films. The weakest link though is definitely Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Occasionally he is passable, such as in his occasional appearances in Weeds, but I have never found him to be a particularly charismatic presence or skilled actor. As the main villain in this film, he is very poor, mainly just mugging at the camera without actually acting as such. He is aiming for a not particularly subtle evil honcho caricature, but falls well short of that. A cipher of a good villain.
Verdict: The Salvation fails on basically every measure and I can’t even recommend it to the biggest western or Mikkelsen film. Revenge westerns should never be tiresome, but a very poor script and nondescript everything else, ensures this one certainly is. Schooner of Tooheys New
Eastern Boys (2013) is a French film that focuses on the interactions between one man and a gang of young migrants from Eastern Europe. The film manages to function as a couple of different stories in one, but impressively coheres them into a singular vision.
Eastern Boys opens with an extended, dialogue free verite style look at a bustling train station from a birds eye view. Generally just taking in the ant-like people going about their day and occasionally focusing in a little closer on the gang of teens milling about. This opening suggests that the audience is in for an anti-narrative piece of cinema, almost a portrait of a city type film. But director Robin Campillo defies expectations not just on that, but a number of times through the film as he brings narrative more and more to the fore. Next after the train station sequence is an eerie, almost hallucinogenic party/very slow robbery. Both of these first two chapters (and they are listed as chapters with titles on screen) are very much focused on mood. The third one plays out as a relationship drama or really it is two people having one relationship and then shifting and having another. That makes little sense really, but to say more would give away too much of the film. But what I can say is that at the core of the film is a relationship much more complex in its construction and presentation than is the norm on film. The final chapter is all about narrative, tying up the plot and the journeys of the characters that Campillo has gradually built up over the course of the first three. It is a prominent differential from the early mood and tonal filmmaking, to this last section that plays out almost as an action/thriller hybrid.
The characters and performances evolve over time, just as the approach of the film itself does. Through the first two chapters, many of the actors are just conveying a presence, rather than a character as such. They are ciphers such as the menacing presence of a gang leader, the middle aged homosexual man who lives alone and the young street urchin. Later on, characters are brought more to the forefront and we get to know the nature of each of them, their kindness, their lusts and it sounds cliché (but it is not in the film) their hopes and dreams. It must be difficult to deliver this kind of performance. Initially almost non-descript and then later deeply involved in a particular character. But the three male leads Olivier Rabourdin, Kirill Emelyanov and Daniil Vorobyev all do it exceedingly well. Without the skill of those three actors, then the early parts of the film could have so easily been bland and uninvolving, whilst their eventual journeys could have been twee. But there is an earthy, true to life feel about all of the performances. Furthermore, the three of them manage to play with and engage with the themes of the place of homosexuality in modern day France and the plight of displaced peoples in a society such as that one. Testament to the skill of writer-director Campillo is that these themes are a compliment to the enjoyment of the film, rather than serving to overwhelm it.
Verdict: Eastern Boys gradually evolves and morphs over the course of the four chapters, from mood focused to totally story focused. Borne out of three great performances, there is a realism to the film and especially the way the various relationships unfold that is rarely delivered like this onscreen. Pint of Kilkenny
Ryan Cassata is a musician and trans rights activist who has gained a measure of fame through appearing on TV in the States. The documentary Songs for Alexis focuses on the then 18 year old Ryan’s relationship with Alexis and the barriers that remain for trans people to simply love who they wanna love.
At its heart, Songs for Alexis is very much a love story. We see the couple in a very good place and we see them have fairly hefty fallings out. We see the pain that a long distance relationship can bring, that I am sure many of us have experienced, as well as the joy of being reunited that is equally an aspect of that. We also see something that I for one, and no doubt many others, cannot imagine. The manner in which ignorance and transphobia can inhibit the simple acts of love and attempting to be with someone. Where even the law can work against these basic rights, allowing hate to survive and thrive when in reality that is what should be outlawed and railed against. The film has three great subjects – Ryan, his girlfriend Alexis and Ryan’s mum Francis. Ryan’s bubbly personality enables him to tell his personal story with a bunch of good humour. Alexis is the perfect foil too and seeing how they bounce off each other in their youtube videos is a reminder of what young love looks like. Francis in many ways forms the emotional core of the film. She sees her son at the highs and lows that life and love bring him and is possibly even affected by those more than Ryan is.
So much of the mainstream public discourse around transgender people centres on whether they are post or pre-op and the choices that are made in terms of the extent to which surgery or hormone treatment is undertaken. The result is that people are reduced to their physical makeup and this approach shows a fundamental misunderstanding of gender identity. It is refreshing then to see a documentary on this transgender man which is not obsessed at all with that aspect of his journey. Sure, it is mentioned what surgery Ryan has had, and his scars are at times plain to see. But these come about in an incidental way, in day to day conversation. Instead the focus is on Ryan’s relationship with Alexis, the barriers that crop up to that relationship, as well as his music and activism. The film shows that not every story about a transgendered person has to focus on one single aspect of who they are. A documentary story can have a trans person as its subject and be about love rather than medical procedures.
Songs for Alexis is a generally positive film, but it doesn’t shy away from the hate and discrimination that is still out there. There is a sobering simplicity to many of the best scenes in the film, that remind us all just how far we still have to go – witness for example Ryan and Alexis plotting their road-trip across the States based on LGBT laws, trying to avoid those with the more despicable restrictions. It is difficult for me to imagine what it must be like to have to take such things into account in day to day life.
Many documentaries don’t really feature a soundtrack as such, presumably not wishing to cloud their ‘truthfulness’ by distracting with music. Songs for Alexis however uses music better than a vast majority of documentaries. The songs are not just plonked throughout the film to show off Ryan’s skill or promote his music. They are key for the story being told and help to move the film along. His titular songs for his girlfriend are a distinctly personal way to communicate how he is feeling about his relationship at a particular point in time, providing a depth of feeling that words alone would not have delivered. As the tone and mood of the relationship and film change, so too do the songs, which is a great way for music to accompany story in a doco. It does not hurt either that Cassata is clearly a very talented singer-songwriter.
Verdict: Eighteen or so films in and I am pretty sure Songs for Alexis is my favourite of the festival so far. And if not, it’s in the top three. One man’s personal tale with lessons for all of us, it also reminds that all is still not yet ok for the treatment of transgender people in our society and that we should keep fighting until it is. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter