16th Black Nights Film Festival Review Roundup – Almost 18, The Sessions, Resolution

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Almost 18 (Competition of North American Indies)

(Kohta 18) Finland, 2012, 110′

Director: Maarit Lalli
Writers: Maarit Lalli, Henrik Mäki-Tanila
Stars: Henrik Mäki-Tanila, Elina Knihtilä, Karim Al-Rifai

Rating: ★½

There were five of us guys. We stuck together through thick and thin – most of the time. I think we all had normal families. Normal problems. Normal feelings. There was nothing we couldn’t overcome. And then one year, for some reason, everything started going to shit.

Teenage family dramas have been seriously occupying both European and American indie scenes for the better part of the last couple of decades. With the arrival of the digital age and the vast accessibility to filmmaking they flourished, adopted new codes, developed certain genre conventions and in some cases delivered admirable low-budget gems that got enthusiastically welcomed by audiences and dearly favored by critics. Either by conducting profound studies or simply by succumbing to passing trends, modern directors are increasingly concerned about the uncharted territory of the teenage psyche. That is the exact case with Maarit Lalli, who appears to be overwhelmed by their indiscreet charm.

The plot is exceedingly simple. Five teenage pals are reaching 18. We will follow them closely in their everyday struggle with their family, with their lovers, with society. They will have fun, fall in love, get drunk, fight, cry, regret. Through their domicile misadventures we will witness them mature. The above voice-over in the beginning of the film sets up the viewers’ anticipations right away. The hand-held camera and hip-hop music adds to the raging hormonal tone. We’re clearly off for some seriously messed up situations. Well, almost…

Almost 18 is above all, a product of pure love. It is not by mere chance that in her feature debut, the 48-year-old Finnish with television origins which do not fail to show, did not only serve directorial and screenwriting duties, but is also responsible for the production, cinematography, editing, costume design and art direction of the film. Maarit Lalli does not only care about her characters. She is truly, deeply in love with them. One can easily realize this every time she touches them gently with the camera, every time she pads their dreamy sequences with moody acoustic strings, every time she speaks though their lines. And there lies the fundamental problem of the film. It is as if her involvement in this have resulted the loss of her objectivity and clear gaze.

There are many reasons why Almost 18 is your average teenage drama. There is a feeling of a constant attempt to create conflict. Each individual story is floundering to reach a climax, but eventually fails. And the reason is simply because these kids are alright. They are all strong, handsome, cool, smart well-dressed ladies-men. They don’t make real mistakes. Their worse misbehavior is drinking beer and smoking pot. Even the one who is into some gigolo stuff, is very much aware of the unfulfilling sense this pursuit of fleeting pleasure offers him. They are already fully realized personalities that could easily give their own parents a lesson on maturity. So it plays like a latent maternal fantasy of a perfect son. Moreover, from the obvious focus-playing shaky camerawork to the predictable musical choices, it is cinematically trite. What ultimately holds it together and prevents the final tailspin are the at least sincere performances of the actors, something that was arguably the main directorial focus from the very beginning.

The fact that teenage dramas can be inexpensively produced doesn’t make them an easy genre to deal with. Teenage characters do not coincide with grown-up characters’ motives and their behavior can be highly unpredictable. This is why in a genre that tents to glut, every new offering debts to be truly original, unmistakably clear and rudely daring.

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The Sessions (Competition of North American Indies)

USA, 2012, 95′

Director: Ben Lewin
Writers: Ben Lewin
Stars: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy

Rating: ★★½

I believe in a God with a sense of humor. I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be to able blame someone for all this.

Film and paraplegics share a long and tearful history of tense, heart-ripping drama. War, desperation and suicide are common themes in their mutual encounters. The fact that a more light and humorous paraplegic story comes along can only be received positively. Even more so, since it deals with a very certain and usually untouched perspective of those people’s lives: sex.Grounded on a moving bed since childhood, it is on his late thirties that Mark, a witty poet/journalist who lives with an iron lung, realizes that it’s time for sex to finally play an actual role in his life. He timidly decides to hire a sex surrogate, a professional sexual therapist whose intimate involvement with patients is part of the therapeutic process and his journey to manhood begins. When, as expected, feelings get in the way, things will get complicated.

There is much trueness to the film. It is based on the true story of Mark O’Brien and his On Seeing a Sex Surrogate memoir. Susan Fernbach, O’Brien’s real partner and Cheryl Cohen Greene, the surrogate, closely collaborated throughout the whole creative process. Moreover, writer/director Ben Lewin happens to suffer from polio himself. So the occasion this being a ‘normal’ peoples’ point of view on how disabled people are -and all the dangers this may involve- is avoided. The first-hand experience of the participants provides the film with a rare feeling of honesty.

The film’s strongest point is undoubtedly the way it represents sex itself. It is not being patronized or mystified, but instead treated as the simple and essentially humane thing it is. Mark’s relationship with the local priest truthfully demonstrates the idea that sex is something we all need to have in our lives, to think and to talk about. Character actor John Hawkes delivers a brave performance, both amusing and tender. In its second part the film gives in to a series of safe choices, screenwriting easinesses and lightweight sentimentalisms that weaken the final result. But, thankfully without overshadowing its virtues.

Despite its flaws and hesitations, The Sessions is a charming, funny and sincere attempt to offer a different take within a genre where weeping melodramas overwhelmingly prevail.

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Resolution (Competition of North American Indies)

USA, 2012, 93′

Directors: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Writer: Justin Benson
Stars: Peter Cilella, Vinny Curran, Emily Montague

Rating: ★★★

There is this moment in the Blair Witch Project, where Josh wonders why on earth is Heather still shooting her damn movie. Heather desperately answers: “It’s all I fucking have left”. Despite the hell that is unwrapped all around them and until the very final chiller, she keeps filming. She keeps documenting. She cannot stop. Does this have something to say about our addiction to technology, obsessive nature and insistent fascination towards the unknown?

Enter Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, two up and coming American indies with a plan: to take all their favorite cinematic influences, put them together in a melting pot and come out with a truly original directorial debut. Story follows a guy who visits his childhood junkie friend in an eerie resort in the middle of nowhere, in order to detox him. He chains him inside the house determined to watch over him for a whole week, providing him with food, drink and cheerful company. In the meantime all sort of strange things begin to happen. With a series of spooky events and genuinely WTF moments, the movie takes a 360 degree turn.

Resolution is a medley of different genres and references. It starts off as an addiction character drama, only to surprise you with its hilarious flashes of comedy you would probably expect to see in a buddy movie. It goes on drawing heavily on tech horror movies such as Hideo Nakata’s The Ring, but on the same time nods towards the absurdity of David Lynch’s Lost Highway and the domestic insanity of Michael Haneke’s Hidden. Another one that pops in mind, at least in terms of originality within the genre, is this year’s Cabin in the Woods. Question is: does all this make Resolution a movie on its own right?

The directors do quite well in broaching the significant issue of addiction in an intriguing new way. The protagonist gets progressively absorbed in a delirious maze that distracts him from his initial purpose. His obsession with sorting out the obviously malicious occurrences puts them both in fatal danger. From being sober, it is he who eventually becomes the addict. Due to a moody mise-en-scène and an impressive sound design, the tension is nicely built, creating an ongoing sense of menace and descent. But unfortunately, the final result is uneven. The variant elements seem to solely serve impression purposes and fail to create a storytelling coherency. Save some enjoyable dialogues, the character development feels superficial and driven. And most disappointingly, it’s not that scary.

Although sharing similar qualities with the movie it evidently worships (The Blair Witch Project) it never quite achieves to deliver neither in terms of originality, shock value or drama. However, genre fans will undoubtedly fancy Resolution for its joyous mishmash of religious symbols, queer cults, Native American obscurity and found footage on every single recording device imaginable.

Reviews written for the NISI MASA special edition webzine for the 16th Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn, Esthonia on November 12-28 2012.

Read the full webzine here: Ninimazine Tallin

November 2012 / NISI MASA

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