Leave No Trace (2018)

Directed by: Debra Granki Written by: Anne Rosselini

Based on My Abandonment: by Peter Rock

Leave_No_Trace[1]  I don’t know if there’s a name for a movie made with two largely distinct motives. Leave No Trace is one such movie. It is on, the one hand, a piece of scenic exploration that leads its characters from place to place, unapologetic when potential plot points are left unresolved. On the other hand it is a social film, an exploration of a, one could say politicized, mental illness. These two elements of the film are not disconnected as the mental illness of one of the characters explains their constant movement. Nonetheless, there’s a disunity in the film’s two underlying traits. Some version of Leave No Trace still would have been made even if mental illness wasn’t the driving force behind its plot, and similarly, its message about mental illness is too important not to have eventually been the subject of one film or another.

Note, I have not as of yet described Leave No Trace as a nature movie. Those who’ve seen its trailer or movie poster, perhaps even those who have simply heard its title, may be surprised by this omission. Leave No Trace can certainly be called a nature movie, however it’s one that breaks the rules of the genre, so much so that it’s probably safer to avoid labelling it a nature movie altogether. I would avoid this absolutist position and argue it is a nature movie in so far as it explores the concept of “nature” as something separate from “humanity” and hints at the question of what it means to go back to nature. Another positive, from my perspective, is that it is one of the few nature/survival movies I’ve ever seen that does not depict the killing of animals.

The quality of subverting expectations has notably been attributed to The Last Jedi. Other recent films that fit the description include Sorry to Bother You (in terms of its absurdity) and Mother! (in terms of the ridiculous degree to which it intensifies). All of these films, however, are science fiction works and rife with vicious energy. As I left Leave No Trace I was unsure as to whether subverting expectations works in a film where the subversive moments are all realistic and gently stated. It certainly made for an interesting work, but it also left me with an ambiguous feeling of calm unease.

The subversion of expectations continues up until Leave No Trace’s final moment; a moment when the film’s mental illness theme is really brought to the forefront. It is an opaque scene when a seemingly drastic, divisive and heartbreaking decision is made, but the characters involved handle it cooly. Perhaps this scene was a revolutionary imagining of human social potential: one critic hailed the film as one in which “compassion fills every frame” and I think they might be on to something. In my critique of  The Light Between Oceans, I asked why movies had to rely on the trope of characters refusing to understand each other (a trope we should be trying to overcome in our day to day interactions), and in its conclusion Leave No Trace indeed suggests its possible for people with radically different world views to accept each other.

Still, part of me was left frustrated by this application of the trend of  indie-movie-ending-ambiguously. I agree, admitting ignorance can be more powerful, empathetic, and intellectually rigorous then coming forward with more blatant, but forced analysis. Nonetheless, since Leave No Trace dealt with a particular mental illness and was clearly trying to teach something about it, it’s refusal to be more lucid about the affected character left me feeling something was missing.

Even if Leave No Trace falls a bit short as an-issue movie, it’s aesthetic motif is absolutely on point. The film shows us hidden campsites, Portland transit, the christmas tree industry and a youth agricultural fair to name a few things. While logically connected, the film’s locations nonetheless come across as individually inspired choices.

In short, Leave No Trace is a solid, artistic film which in retrospect has a lot of traits (its imagining of human and interspecies relationships, its breaks with cliche, etc) that speak to me as an individual viewer. I suspect viewers who are particularly passionate about the survival genre and stories of parent-child relationships should find this film and its radical empathy even more captivating than I did.


Eighth Grade (2018)

Written and directed by: Bo Burnham

Eighth_Grade[1]Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is not the movie you’d expect it to be. That’s not to say I went in with particular expectations, informed or otherwise. However, one would think a film by a sometimes crass musical-stand-up-comedian would be a tad more laugh-out-loud funny. Sure it’s about a serious topic: pre-teen/teenage isolation and cruelty , but one still might expect a work more like Mean Girls riddled with hyperbolic dramas and memorable one liners. Instead, Eighth Grade is an exercise in realism. In hindsight, perhaps its not shocking that a stand up comic wrote it. Stands up comics observe the absurdity and awkwardness of reality: all it takes then to make a movie like Eighth Grade is to take those same observations and deliver them with more calm and tenderness.

Eighth Grade introduces itself to the sound of an (apple) Photo Booth camera counting down. We meet protagonist Kayla (Elsie Fisher), eighth grader and self-help vlogger. She first comes across as someone simply seeking attention, who has nothing substantive to stay. The bulk of her videos consist of umms, uhhs and her sign out phrase “Gucci” (I guess I’m too old to get why that’s a cool thing to say.) Kayla’s videos prove thematically important. While they do not necessarily improve in quality, we come to see they are not a generic social activity, but in fact based in a genuine interest of Kayla’s in self-help, perhaps we can even call it psychology. Put simply, the videos are one of the film’s ways of saying that when it comes to middle schoolers, things aren’t always as they outwardly appear. Kayla’s videos add some subtle comic effect to the film as they offer advice on social issues she in fact struggles with. While at first glance this may make the videos feel superficial at worst, and inwardly-focused at best, they come to show Kayla’s true empathy: her genuine desire to make sure others don’t struggle as she did.

Eighth Grade toes the line between having and not having a plot arc. Sure something dramatic happens near the end and then a resolution of sorts is reached, but its series of events are loosely connected.  All we really see is the emotional arc of a soon-to-be fourteen-year-old girl. The film’s decision to focus on emotions and not a narrative, however, is again essential to its theme.  The premise underlying the movie is that a lot of kids are not “mean,” but act that way to hide their insecurities. We see this directly played out in Kayla’s relationship with her father (Josh Hamilton). Interestingly, Kayla and (to an extent) her father are the only three dimensional characters in the piece. This choice makes sense as it helps viewers enter Kayla’s headspace and share in her discomfort around popular “mean” kids like Kennedy Graves (Catherine Oliviere). We might not feel such discomfort if we simply saw Kennedy as misunderstood and easily reconcilable with Kayla. In other words, Burnham contradicts his message in order to strengthen it: middle schoolers are kinder and deeper than we give them credit for, but in order to see this we also need to feel the intense way in which middle schoolers  judge and fear each other.

Another key feature of Eighth Grade is the “Charlie Browning” of its adults. No there’s no one making trumpet sounds, and yes Kayla’s father is a main character, but the absence of adults remains a striking feature in the piece.  For example there is a moment when old-fashioned yearbook awards are given: not academic prizes but things like “most popular,” and “best eyes.” We see a teacher announcing these awards. At least in the schoolboard I grew up in, such an idea feels dated, perhaps even cruel. The teacher who gives out these awards in Eighth Grade is faceless, leaving us in the dark about what’s going on. Is her behavior supposed to come across as inappropriate or normal? I don’t think we’re supposed to know. That’s because the less pleasant elements of teen culture have weight in Kayla’s imaginary, and we are not supposed to see adults as having the power to break this illusion. Another manifestation of this dynamic comes after an awkward, cold exchange between Kennedy and Kayla at the former’s birthday party. This exchange is interrupted by some comic banter between Kenendy’s parents, but her father never appears on screen. This is because the father’s appearance could put things in perspective and suggests that, for the most part, all is well in the kids’ world. Such a sentiment would do no justice to Kayla’s perspective.

I suppose you could say there are two ways Burnham distances himself from his film. The first is that it’s not a comedy, and the second is that his protagonist is a girl. There are obvious political reasons for telling the story from a girl’s perspective; the film lays bare that sleeziness and rape culture develop quite early in people’s lives. There’s something striking about this theme coming up in a film called Eighth Grade. The film’s title does not situate it as a political work: but rather as an every(wo)man story of growing up. This adds another eerie layer to its already uncomfortable depiction of a girl’s experience. Recall the fact that the characters in the film, other than Kayla, are largely flat. This means that when its boy characters behave problematically we are not being told that they are individuals with some harmful behavioral tendencies, or even being presented with a critique of toxic masculinity. Instead, the harassing boys Kayla runs into are treated as forces of nature, yet another inescapable horror in her middle school experience.

A final theme of note in Eighth Grade is technology. Kayla, Kennedy and many of their peers are constantly on their phones, a behavior that comes across as anti-social, though in the case of Kayla we are given a more nuanced view. Burnham is ambiguous in his handling of this issue. One confrontation between Kayla and Kennedy sees the latter speaking monosyllabically while glued to her screen. I for one am undecided on the question of whether  such a scene would have played out differently in a film of years’ past (as middle schoolers like Kennedy no doubt found other ways to be rude in the past) or whether it truly is a moment about cell phone addiction.

I’m sure there’s more to deconstruct about the social and political content of Eighth Grade, and these qualities are no doubt part of its success. The film’s effectiveness, however, can also be attributed to far simpler things. Burnham’s writing captures the language and awkwardness of eighth graders with emotionally captivating authenticity (Eg when Kennedy messages Kayla on instagram “My Mom told me to invite you to my party so this is me doing that.”) And its not just coldness that Burnham writes well. He knows how to write an uplifting monologue with just enough personalized nuance thrown in that it actually feels beautiful and not like greeting card fluff. Eighth Grade may not be actual eighth graders, but middle schoolers of years past will find plenty to appreciate in this generalist, yet fine tuned story.

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Written and directed by: Boots Riley

Sorry_to_Bother_YouWhat does it mean to make a political film? I don’t just mean a film about politicians, but rather one with a clear political agenda. A quality one might assume necessary is directness: a film that makes its point, free from ambiguities. I thus sometimes find myself in a position of struggling to reconcile my political values and artistic tastes. Movies that are too direct rarely strike me as great. What I get out of movie watching is seeing interesting images, lines and personalities artistically thrown together in a way that miraculously forms a coherent whole. In Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley has done just that, and also, somehow, made perhaps the most important political film of the year (or the era?–how prematurely grandiose am I allowed to go with this?).

So how exactly does Sorry to Bother You pull this all off? Its effectiveness comes from the fact that its premise exists on several levels. At its core it is a film about a number of political issues: white privilege, precarious work, mass culture, and the (im)possibility of ethical consumption under capitalism. The film then seeks not to simply portray these issues, but to theorize about them. One of the themes the film deals with is the presence of modern day slavery. How, Riley asks, could/does slavery prevail? By branding it just enough to make it commercially palatable in the short term, and then granting it eternal life through deeply entrenching it in market networks.

To top off his politics and philosophy Riley throws in a final layer of aesthetic imagination. His dystopia is a colorful one meshed in the logic of advertising and high end party culture. This means his audiences get to experience an entertaining fiction rather than merely be bombarded with ideas. At the same time, Riley’s hi-fi humor accentuates his political message: the idea that capitalist society is so absurd, that laughing at it and mourning its consequence  are almost equally acceptable reactions.

Sorry to Bother can thus be described as a fine piece of cinematic architecture. This is a quality that extends beyond the film’s superstructure to each of its little rooms is as well. Sorry to Bother You is not a run of the mill collection of important moments connected by downtime transitions. Rather each scene is a mini-drama. Sometimes these scenes are relatively low stakes such as the confrontations between protagonist Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) and his uncle (Terry Crews). Sometimes they’re high-stakes and bizarre such as the confrontations between Cash and celebrity-CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). The great thing about the design of the film, however, is that it’s not clear until its end what exactly the high and low stakes plots are. Cash’s rifts with his modern-artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) and friends/colleagues Salvador and Squeeze (Jermaine Fowler and Steven Yeun), may dwindle  in comparison to the ultimate rift with Lift, yet the intensity they are presented with, their importance to the protagonist, and their political undertones make them a highly engaging form of drama. The result is that when Sorry to Bother You finally reaches its dramatic conclusion one can feel like it could have ended once or twice already, but nonetheless, each new plot twist is more satisfying than the last.

I’m sure there’s a lot more to be said about the richness of Sorry to Bother You. One more important point to be made about it is that it was conceived in the Obama era (in the wake of Occupy Wall St). This may partially explain why it comes across as a particularly smart political work. It is not a reaction to the obvious political travesties of Trump, rather it is a product of an age when the problem was not the president, but of the greater political culture he couldn’t or wouldn’t break from.

Given its political qualities, one can hope that Sorry to Bother will go mainstream and help rejuvenate a anti-racist union movement in America. Of course one can just as easily imagine the film simply playing a role in our market world: “have a cola and smile b****” and the logo of The Left Eye society could certainly adorn t-shirts. Would that be ironic? I suppose so, but it’s hard to pinpoint the degree of irony. Sorry to Bother You is thorough in its critique. It deals with capitalism as a complex, socially interwoven phenomenon, that many come to face with a “if you can’t beat it, join it” mindset. Anyways if your mindset is more Sorry to Bother You is more Billy Bragg in “There is Power in a Union” or Billy Bragg in “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward” (“mixing pop and politics they ask me what the use is?”), Sorry to Bother You is a viewing experience you won’t soon forget.

Thelma and Louise (1991)

Written by: Callie Khourie Directed by: Ridley Scot

  Thelma_&_Louiseposter                It’s a sign of my still amateurish relationship to film, that until taking it out of the library the other day I had barely heard of Thelma and Louise. Perhaps I had, but had simply confused it in my head with the numerous other “duo things” I hadn’t seen: Cheech and Chong, Starsky and Hutch, etc. I trust that these works are not very apt comparisons to the film I just saw, but part of me wonders if that’s not a problem. Thelma and Louise is a serious, political movie, yet its character perhaps comes from the fact that it is in fact disguised as something else.

Thelma and Louise is a buddy movie, a roadtrip movie. This setup implies comedy, as did the film’s trailer. I would not say it’s not a comic film: it has its share of light, and comedically shocking lines. But to call the film a comedy, even a black comedy, would miss that it’s a story not focused around its jokes, but around its core theme.

Without giving too much away, Thelma and Louise is a story about gendered violence and how women who fall victim to it are not believed in their accounts of what happened. This is a problem Louise (Susan Sarandon) and Thelma (Geena Davis) decide to deal with by escaping into the power and hedonistic thrill of an outlaw lifestyle. The film’s “comedic” story is thus not unlike that of Life is Beautiful: it can be appreciated as comedy, but only if one acknowledges that that comedy is an act of rebellion.

The film’s feminism is made obvious by its political premise: one that is explicitly, though not unnaturally, stated in the script. When a movie passes the Bechdel test, however, there will likely be more feminism to it than meets the eye. When we meet Louise and Thelma they fill somewhat familiar roles: Louise the grizzled veteran who knows what she’s talking about, Thelma the naïve sidekick. The film, however, is called Thelma and Louise not Louise and Thelma. This is perhaps because it is Thelma who suffers and transforms more in the period of time depicted on camera; and her transformation eventually allows her to upstage Louise. Thelma thus breaks what one might expect from a character in a buddy comedy: she can be naïve, but this is not her defining feature: in the right situation, she can be the strong, daring and articulate character. The film thus takes a transformative and not a mere reformist approach to the “ditz stereotype,” allowing Thelma to break free from its chains, while not denying her the chance to also show off her naïve side.

To elaborate on the Bechedelian point, the film’s unique feminist status can be seen in how its depicts men. Yes, one man stands out as an antagonist, but there are other problematic men along the way, including cops, who are like enemy robots, in their inability to look beyond the law and empathize with Thelma and Louise’ situation. An other male still is rendered fodder for one of the film’s road comedy scenes. Just as the film is feminist in its depictions of various male dangers, it also finds feminism in its strategic depiction of (sort of) good men (Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen and Brad Pitt). These characters enter the script providing color and additional layers of emotional complexity in the plot. Their greatest significance, however, is their inability to help the protagonists. Thelma and Louise only have each other, or at least, they come to see it that way.

Thelma and Louise find liberation, but that liberation relies on illusion and carpe diem (again, not unlike Life is Beautiful). This is a powerful image, one beautifully nailed in the film’s classic final scene. Perhaps you’ll spend some moments disappointed about the low ratio of gags to screen time in a film that you may expect to be a buddy comedy in Thelma and Louise, but ultimately it’s the kind of work where its thematic cohesiveness leaves one thoroughly satisfied.

Hereditary (2018)

Written and directed by: Ari Aster 

   Hereditary               Last fall, commenting on some of the horror highlights of 2017, I noted they had a quality which I described as “thorough horror.” This is to say that these films were rife with disturbing details, which either were mere compliments to the main horror (It) or were complete red-herrings (The Killing of a Sacred Deer). Hereditary feels like a film made in a similar vein. The good side of this is that it regularly reinvigorates viewers with shots of eerie excitement. The negative side is that, unlike the aforementioned movies, thorough horror is not a mere trait of Hereditary, but its premise.

In order to explain this matter further I will have to spoil a little of the film, not too much, but perhaps more than I’d like. Since surprise is particularly important to the experience of watching a horror film, consider yourself warned.


Hereditary opens with a funeral eulogy, as miniaturist artist and mother of two Annie Graham (Toni Collette) speaks on the life of her mother, a woman who was distant from her family and whom we latter learn struggled with a mental illness. When Graham and her family return home we get the sense that her son Peter (aged roughly 16) (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (13) (Milly Shapiro) did not feel close to, or at least can not be outwardly emotional about their grandmother. We further learn that Charlie never cried as a baby. Finally, we learn she is into art projects, one of which involves decapitating a pigeon corpse.

When I said I would have to spoil things I’ll say this much: the grandmother is a red herring (to a degree at least), and Charlie, the disturbed grand-daughter is certainly a red herring. Can I say certainly? It’s hard to say with the plot of this film: anyway, Charlie is not one of the film’s antagonists, and the grandmother’s funeral feels like the first five minutes of a Simpson’s episode (as in its there to be interesting, but is almost unnecessary for the ultimate plot trajectory).

Another oddity in the film’s development is its use of a dollhouse motif. We regularly see Annie at work. The instant appearance of the dollhouse in the film sets up the audience to figure it is part of the logic of the film’s horror. Annie, we are lead to believe, is intentionally or unintentionally doing some sort of voodoo work. This (as far as I could tell), is yet again a red herring. The logic of the film’s horror has nothing to do with dollhouse voodooism.

Now you may say, why do you keep throwing the term red herring around like it’s a bad thing? Horror movies are mysteries in a way, and red herrings are an essential part of the mystery genre. I agree on this point, and thus should qualify, Hereditary is not a bad film due to its rifeness with red-herrings. It can be appreciated as a collection of vignettes: a bit with a séance, a bit with a cult, a bit with sleepwalking, etc. What frustrated me about Hereditary, however, is that a) these vignettes were not quite vignettes (alone they did not have beginnings, middles and ends) and b) they did not feel like they were contributing to a thorough story. Sure, it matters that Peter and Annie have deep issues between each other, but this never seems to add up to anything, and only marginally matters when the film’s final confrontation takes place.

It’s hard to say what it would take to fix Hereditary since lots of its individual components are strong. The dialogue is believable, the horror/occult elements are creatively introduced, and the concluding scene is visually, if not narratively, satisfying. Perhaps, its problem, however, is that it tries to both be a thorough horror film, while also maintaining a subtle affect. Perhaps horror films don’t need to make sense, they can be collections of beautiful chaos. It’s hard, however, to be beautifully chaotic, when you constantly interrupt your nightmare scenes with realist depictions of mourning family dynamics. Another way to put it, is that horror movies can have two possible agendas: 1) to scare, or 2) to leverage horror as a mechanism to tell a witty story. Aesthetically, Hereditary took approach 2, but its aspirations seem more in line with agenda 1.

Then again, I could be missing something. I, for one. still find the title confusing, unless the writers felt simply having a family in your story justifies it being called Hereditary.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Written by: Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan Directed by: Ron Howard

Solo_A_Star_Wars_Story_posterSolo is a film that was released with a lot of weight on its shoulders. For whatever reason, Disney has decided to bombard audiences with new Star Wars films for the past few years, and the last one polarized audiences (yes, reactionary white men in particular but alas their viewpoint is widespread). Solo, like Rogue One before it, is not part of a trilogy: it is a “Star Wars Story” film. Its being “extra” adds another layer of pressure, as viewers will not simply question its quality but whether it deserves to exist.

Rogue One had the advantage of being about heroes whose identity and significance was unknown to most viewers at the time of the film’s release. Solo, by contrast, is about a well established Star Wars hero. As such it risks a mediocrity innate to many prequels: when you know a character’s fate, its hard for a script about them to bear much tension. Early into Solo, I feared the film would fall into this category, especially as I knew A.O. Scott softly-derided the movie as a “filmed Wikipedia article”. As I watched Han fight Chewbacca, for instance, I wanted to be a bit more compelled than I was, but felt the scene’s value was limited by my familiarity with both of these “adversaries.”

Solo, however, manages to work by being the mirror image of Rogue One. While the 2016 film connects unknowns to the main saga, Solo takes a familiar character and tells his story by linking him to figures otherwise independent of the main Star Wars series. Rest assured, however, the necessary links (Chewie, the millennium falcon, Lando, Jabba (sort of) ) to the character of old are there (I’ll throw in that I was disappointed not to see Greedo).

Solo is justified as a piece, not just because of Han’s individual significance to Star Wars, but also because his type of story is one the series has not previously covered. We’ve seen tales of white knights, and white knights-turned-supervillains, but not yet a tale of morally-middle-of-the-road figures. Solo’s story holds onto lots of the aesthetic charm of the Star Wars universe but, for once, it is not a fight between the light-dark binary, and for once, does not rely on the mysterious “force.”

Solo’s unique persona is shaped by the fact that he lives outside of the mythical realms of good and evil. In fact, is is almost as if he lives in a world that anti-heroes have all to themselves. This is a bizarre universe made up of compassionate people who also express quick willingness to kill those who stand in their way. Granted, these threats are not always acted upon, so perhaps are not meant to be taken literally: but they’re certainly not empty. The unpredictably of anti-hero society allows for surprise and confusion. There’s something very touching about seeing two outlaws (not previously revealed to be in a relationship) kiss and there’s something bizarre (an under-explained logic if you will) about a group of armed thieves with a ship refering to another group of thieves as dangerous “pirates.”

Solo, himself, is not an evil character, but he has shades of selfishness and arrogance that can lead him to be problematically self-serving. This too, at times, feels like a problem for the film. Wanting to make their protagonist likeable, the filmmakers imagined Solo not as the outright bad-boy outlaw he was in his first films but as more of a Luke Skywalker with just a pinch more of arrogant flavouring. This makes for an interesting character, but also left me wondering how he could plausibly develop into the Han Solo we know. Luckily, the film ultimately, though not implicitly, answers this question. Han’s story is made up of a series of traumas that could believably come to harden him, even as (and perhaps because), unlike Luke or Anakin he cannot simply break down and cry.

Perhaps one thing for viewers to ponder is whether Solo’s tale resembles Luke’s, or whether it is an entirely different kind of story. Indeed, both Luke in The Last Jedi and Han in Solo have been described as inconsistent with their characters’ original personas. While I disagree with this view (particularly when it comes to Luke), I can’t help but acknowledge that recent developments in the series have indeed shed light on Luke and Han’s similarities. One idea that struck in Solo is that its hero too has paternal issues: less intense and less literal than Luke’s, but they’re there nonetheless.

Action wise, perhaps some of the scenes in Solo are a bit drawn out. Nonetheless, there’s still that Star Wars charm to them. There aren’t lightsabers, but blaster bullets are still infinitely more beautiful to watch than the mundane ammo of other action movies. There’s also a wonderfully shot action scene in which a train snakes around a snowy mountain. One need not like action to appreciate Solo, however, as the film is rich with characters. It introduces, however sparingly, good additions to the Star Wars alien and droid imaginaries (Jon Favreau and Phoebe Waller-Bridge); Woody Harrelson as a thief whose persona I would argue mirrors that of his cop character in Three Billboards Outside Ebbings Missouri; and Donald Glover as Lando, a character who oddly enough seems relatively docile immersed in a world of anti-heroes. The cast is completed by Qu’ira (Emilia Clarke), Solo’s love interest whose exact nature (whatever that means) remains mysterious.

In short, I cannot understand why Solo has flopped at the box office. It tells the tale of an established hero; creatively fills in gaps; balances action and character development and even features a great final cameo. Literally speaking the force is not with this one, but who needs the force when you’ve got the self-proclaimed greatest pilot in the galaxy at your helm.

American Animals (2018)

Written and Directed by: Bart Layton

images        Perspective is one of the key themes in Bart Layton’s film American Animals. I say this because the film’s subjects say this. We are repeatedly told that the story we see is not unquestionably the truth: it is simply a recreation of the memory of one of the film’s subjects. This honesty, however, is not the only obvious way American Animals deals with perspective. The film takes a unique approach: rather than simply recounting a historical event, it combines its account with interviews with its subjects.

American Animals is a heist movie. It tells the story of four boys/young men who are inspired to steal a number of rare books, the main one a collection of Audubon paintings, from their college library. The first character Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is the one to see the books. We learn from the real Spencer that he felt his life lacked meaning, and he had a sense that as an aspiring painter he needed suffering in his life. We are later introduced to his friend Walter (Evan Peters) a carpe-diem dumpster diver, who is reluctantly at school on an athletic scholarship. The other two members of the team, Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner) join the fray once the heist is well underway.

American Animals in a way frees itself from realism by openly acknowledging that it can only deal with perspectives (and furthermore, by allowing its interviewed subjects to say they “Don’t remember things that way.”) Nonetheless, one way it lets itself be confined by realism is by Mr. Moleing Spencer. This is a reference to Kenneth Grahme’s The Wind in the Willows, which sets readers up to think Mr. Mole is its protagonist, before ultimately focusing on the wilder Mr. Toad. American Animals opens like the far darker (and fictional film) Thoroughbreds pairing a mild-mannered, sensitive protagonist who is ambivalent about crime with a more reckless sidekick. In its realism, however, American Animals ends up transitioning so that the reckless sidekick, Warren, comes to be the star: on the practical grounds that it is Warren who has the daring and initiative to immerse himself most in the heist.  This realist decision, I’d argue, is not the film’s best. While the real life Warren is very engaging when interviewed, the ascendance of his cinematic representation leads to Spencer’s drama-script being replaced with a technically-driven-action script (I guess that’s just not my cup of tea). Furthermore, when the film seems to be about Spencer’s role in stealing a rare art book, it feels like a quirky take on the heist movie: a thief driven more so as an artist than by his drive for wealth. When Spencer is moved into the background, however, the film’s unique persona fades a bit.

Even if one does not like heist movies for their own sake, however, there is still plenty of reason to see American Animals: the source story is too rich not to be engaging. While I would have liked the other characters to be as developed as Warren, there are ways in which his status as leader contributes to the film’s theme of perspective. Not only is Walter both a fictional and real person for us viewers, he is also a thing of mystery to those he guided

American Animals is not a film without a theme. Bart Layton explained this in an interview, saying the driving idea behind his work was the pressure society puts on us to be successful, regardless of what success actually means. Nonetheless, the film’s commitment to exploring perspective also makes it a themeless work in a way. The film is not a happy story for anybody. Its subjects, though legally men, are in many ways boys. They are still in school, their lives are still tied to their parents and their act, in their heads, is a playful one (for more thoughts on this subject see my comments on Bonnie and Clyde). Therefore, the film is largely sympathetic to its subjects and thus reflective of themes that speak to them (like the aforementioned notion of the pressure to be exceptional). At the same time the film also depicts the B.J Gooch (Ann Dowd) librarian from whose collection they try to steal. She was left traumatized by the event, in which she was tasered and tied up. Her appearance means the films ends in a moment of near cognitive dissonance. On the one hand viewers are left sympathetic for the boys and angry at a justice system that punished them far more severely than probably necessary to deter and correct their behavior. On the other hand, this message is not promoted at the expense of erasing the (albeit accidental) consequences of their actions (for the record, Gooch is a fan of the film).

It would be wrong to call a film as real and sombre as American Animals an escape from reality. Nonetheless, its appreciation of “perspective” makes it an escape from a certain kind of reality: a reality made up of politics and political pundits. American Animals rather allows us to escape back to a truer reality: one filled with ideas, enriching ones, but ideas that are not always fully coherent. Is this approach always cinematically satisfying?: not necessarily. At times I wondered if the story would have been better if it focused in on the soul of a single character more than the collective plot of four. Then again, this approach made it all the more effective when the script would briefly zone in on an individual. If you’re looking to see innovative cinema, definitely check out American Animals. How much and why you like it, however, will depend on your relationship with the heist genre.