No, you don’t want to stuff a movie in a genre box, but, admittedly, that’s how I arranged my schedule for this year’s festival. I isolated the types of movies I planned to see based on the most rudimentary synopsis and just rolled with it from there. Sure, that process very likely eliminates films I would have loved that might not necessarily fit my must-see requirements, but I’ll get around to those eventually. For now it’s time to celebrate a trio of films that not only made due on my expectations, but exceeded them, offering up experiences I never could have anticipated.
What were my parameters for choosing Caroline and Jackie? Recently I’ve become an avid Grimm fan, I grew up loving The Mighty Ducks and I’ve got a sister of my own. I knew the film starred Bitsie Tulloch and Marguerite Moreau as sisters, but beyond that I had absolutely no clue what I was getting myself into and I think that made the experience all the more powerful.
Tulloch is Jackie. She’s organized, takes pride in keeping up her beautiful home, is a loving girlfriend and would do anything for her sister, Caroline (Moreau). While the latter may be true for Caroline as well, she’s the more free-spirited of the two. When she comes to visit Jackie for the weekend, her insistence on changing the plans Jackie made doesn’t only ruffle Jackie, it ultimately manifests into a nightmare. Caroline uses the evening to reveal Jackie’s skeletons amongst a group of friends. While Caroline makes a compelling case, pleading for her sister’s life, you can’t help but wonder if Jackie really is sick or, as Jackie suggests, Caroline is just desperate for attention.
Caroline and Jackie is easily one of the most honest films I’ve seen at this festival. First-time feature director Adam Christian Clark opts to use a very loose camera technique, letting the performances dictate the coverage rather than the other way around. What results are imperfect frames, but something that makes you feel like you’re really there right alongside the characters. Or better yet, trapped in the situation with them, a sensation that wholly suits the material.
Part of what makes this film so compelling is you never really know which one of them is in their right mind, but Moreau and Tulloch don’t play it like they’ve got something to hide. Caroline and Jackie so deeply believe in their stances, it’s really impossible to label one “right” and the other “wrong,” enticing you to stick with it out of desperation for the answer. Moreau and Tulloch also deserve quite a bit of credit for their ability to sustain long and often dialogue-less takes. Both have absolutely no trouble letting the camera sit on them for great lengths, not say a word, but get their feelings across through mere facial expressions.
While Caroline and Jackie is most certainly Moreau and Tulloch’s movie, their supporting cast makes for a pitch perfect backbone. David Giuntoli uses his relationship with Tulloch to further enhance the ambiguity of the situation, but also exhibits such honest affection for Jackie, it provides a much-needed element to root for. Valerie Azlynn and Jason Gray-Stanford step in as Michelle and James, two of Jackie’s good friends while David Fuit is the seemingly random addition, Charlie, Michelle’s very young new boyfriend. At first they’re mere faces at the dinner table, but then Clark brings them all together, proposes the main issue and let’s them run with it, making them intriguing to track.
Caroline and Jackie does have a very somber tone and perhaps it’s not the most uplifting experience out there, but it’s oddly magnetizing and while that may have a little something to do with the story, the large majority of the credit belongs to Clark’s styling choices and his leads’ tantalizing performances.
Talk about a nice surprise. Death of a Superhero caught my attention for two reasons: the whole superhero thing and Andy Serkis. While both certainly lived up to my expectations, this film roused more emotions than I ever could have imagined.
Thomas-Brodie Sangster leads as Donald Clarke, your typical moody teenager with a fresh mouth that acts out at school. However, it can be difficult to put the blame on Donald for his actions as they’re fueled by the fact that he’s got cancer. While his mother still remains hopeful, Donald’s growing increasingly negative with nothing stopping him from putting his life on the line and dodging a speeding train. Donald’s only solace is his drawings, a superhero-type series inspired by his situation. Donald’s parents take him to a new therapist (Andy Serkis) to help lighten his mood and while their relationship gets off to a tumultuous start, eventually Dr. King and Donald’s friends and family give him something to fight for.
While Donald’s cancer is ever-present throughout the film, initially, there’s something about it that isn’t life threatening. It’s simply something that contributes to who Donald is and he’s a pretty cool kid, so if that’s the case, then so be it. Yes, he’s temperamental and has a sour attitude, but he’s very much your average teen and the fact that he’s got some flair makes him all the more captivating.
Writer Anthony McCarten, who penned this adaptation of his own book, strikes a perfect balance between making Donald inhibited and giving him enough to care about so you’re never under the impression Donald will just call it quits a take his own life. And that, in turn, gives Death of a Superhero a somewhat hopeful vibe under the dire circumstances. Portions of the film are undeniably tough to watch, but generally it’s got the enjoyable elements of a coming-of-age story. Donald isn’t only a kid with cancer; he’s someone who’s trying to fit in amongst the student body and a guy trying to get a girl. While Donald’s situation is never undermined by typical teenage troubles, we’re allowed to enjoy the little things. Brodie-Sangster’s romance with Aisling Loftus is particularly touching and his connection to his best friends and brother offer up a rather amusing encounter with a stripper.
Then again, there’s no ignoring the elephant in the room and both McCarten and director Ian Fitzgibbon handle it beautifully. While it never feels like we’re wading in the sorrow of the situation, even those happier moments in the film have a tinge of sadness. The same is true of the portions of the film that involve Donald’s drawings coming to life. It’s an action story in and of itself, but at the same time the truth to it is undeniable. The pairing of Donald’s drawings and the events of the live-action material helps us get into Donald’s head, but in a tamer manner, something that highlights the hope in this experience and make it an enjoyable watch. That being said, Death of a Superhero will rip your heart out, but when it does, it earns it.
On a lighter note, just guess what lead me to catch Struck By Lighting? The film stars Glee’s Chris Colfer as Carson Phillips, a high school outcast who doesn’t let his status on the social ladder get him down. Carson doesn’t have the time or energy to waste on his stereotypical peers who are destined to live out their days in their tiny hometown of Clover because Carson has big dreams. Not only is he going to Northwestern University, but he also plans on being the editor of The New Yorker and the youngest freelance journalist to be published in The New York Times, The LA Times and The Chicago Tribune. When he doesn’t hear back from Northwestern, his guidance counselor suggests maybe he needs more, something that’ll make him stand out amongst other aspiring writers who are also likely the head of their school papers.
When not trying to make his dreams come true at school, Carson struggles through a tumultuous home life. His parents’ divorce left his mother (Allison Janney) a drunk and his beloved grandmother (Polly Bergen) can’t even remember who he is. Sure, Carson has it a little rough, but a bolt of lightning is about to change everything.
Watch our video interview with Chris Colfer
Typically in film, the school nerd is a pushover. Carson, on the other hand, is rough around the edges. In fact, he’s quite reminiscent of Ezra Miller’s Gonzo in Beware the Gonzo, which debuted at Tribeca back in 2010. Kids at school don’t like Carson and it’d be easy to jump to the same conclusion about him as an audience, but Colfer always keeps Carson’s passion and values at the forefront, and, despite his methods, his efforts are aimed at very noble results. Blackmailing other students into writing for his literary magazine? Sure, blackmailing is wrong, but he’s getting kids to write that otherwise, would never even make the attempt.
Colfer isn’t only deserving of praise for his work bringing Carson to life, but also for creating the character, period. Struck By Lightning has weak spots, but generally Colfer delivers a solid script. It follows all the rules of screenwriting 101, which makes it feel formulaic, but for this type of film that kind of structure is perfect. Colfer developed a movie that’s grounded in all of the all-too-familiar high school clichés, but then added his own spin to it, putting an engaging character at its core and peppering the rest with his own unique flair. In turn, we get the good old fun of school truisms, but also something that feels quite fresh.
Struck By Lightning has so much going for it that it overpowers a potentially devastating technical element – the camerawork. I don’t know what the budget for this film was nor how long the shooting schedule was, but Struck By Lightning looks like it was shot cheap and fast. At first, director Brian Dannelly’s choice to obscure his frame by putting random objects in the foreground and shooting his subjects in wider shots seems like an interesting formula. However, when that style doesn’t change with the material and often contradicts the goals of scenes, it becomes distracting. In fact, sometimes this is taken to such an extreme, you’re made to feel like your hiding in a bush, spying on the characters.
However, if you’re not keeping a keen eye on the camerawork, it’s quite easy to get lost in Struck By Lightning’s assets. The characters are wildly likeable, the jokes are spot on and the film is an all-around good time. Poor cinematography might keep the film as a whole from being great, but it’s still a very worthy watch and certainly suggests Colfer is a filmmaker with immense potential.