By BRUCE DENNILL
20th Century Women / Directed by Mike Mills / 13LS
Manchester By The Sea / Directed by Kenneth Lonergan / 13L
My Father’s War / Directed by Craig Gardner / PGLV
Lion / Directed by Garth Davis / PG
Families. You can’t live with them and you can’t lock them in the caravan while you’re driving. But you can make films about the myriad ways they form, develop, change, fail and – with any luck – triumph.
In 20th Century Women, the story, such as it is, is of far less import than the characters. That’s not a weakness, necessarily, except that none of them have anything particularly interesting to say. Annette Bening plays, with considerable charm, Dorothea Fields, single mother to a son (Lucas Jade Zumann) who is in obvious need of a father figure. William (Billy Crudup), who is working on their house, helps to fill that gap to some degree, but Dorothea’s meandering hippy ways consistently undermine any progress he makes in that arena. That sort of stilted development is symptomatic of the film as a whole, and ultimately, however endearing the characters can be, their refusal to take responsibility for the impact their actions have on others is frustrating to make the piece a bit of a drag.
Manchester By The Sea, as first and foremost an examination of grief, was never going to be a bundle of laughs. Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler is a fairly dour, uncomplicated man whose life becomes considerably more complex when he discovers that he has been made the sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who lives in the eponymous town, which is even more gray and damp than its English namesake. Everything is slow and considered and real – JD Salinger would probably have approved – but, for exactly that reason, it’s not very entertaining at all. Neither is it universally moving: while there are different moments that speak to the pain of loss, they are fairly tightly defined for these characters, and so tied to time and place rather than offering a model for viewers to take on board in their own grief.
A war film with a difference, My Father’s War has a premise that, if poorly handled, will make the result instantly laughable. Happily, director Craig Gardner gets it right, and the situation in which Dap Smit (Edwin van der Walt) gets to know his estranged father (Stian Bam) via a series of dreams in which he meets his dad in a warzone in Angola and, by experiencing various hardships at his side, comes to understand the effect of that period on his father’s emotional state and ability to contribute to relationships. Bam in particular gives a strong performance, though everyone is good, and the futility of war is is again underlined, but this time – at least in part – by the understanding gained by two generations who have entered each other’s contexts and grown closer together as a result.
As is so often the case, truth is not only stranger but far more compelling than fiction and Lion, based on a book that tells the true story of Saroo Brierley, a young Indian boy separated from his family after climbing on a train and ending up on the other side of the country with no means of piercing the layered bureaucracy that stands in the way of being returned to his home. Considered an orphan, he is adopted by an Australian family and lives a life on another continent until a desire to discover his roots grows strong enough to risk his now established relationships there. The film is beautifully made, with Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel giving the young and older (respectively) Saroo a completely believable mixture of angst and joy – as changing situations demand. It’s a sad but wholly satisfying watch.