I was not a fan of this film. The filmmaking is juvenile, and the story director Hannah Bang is trying to tell is presented poorly and sloppily. Though South Korea’s night time looks gorgeous, and the production design and lighting is great. Other than that, the film was extraordinarily middling. A 16 year old tries to bring her runaway mother home. A simple plot, and oftentimes those can be the best executed because they can be open to new ways of telling the story as well as the viewers interpretation. The most complimentary thing I can say about this film is that DP Heyjin Jun does a fantastic job of showcasing a rain soaked South Korea. My main issues lie with the screenplay and the lead actress, Do Eun Lee. Lee does her best with what she is given, which isn’t much. The film wants to convey ideas of forgiveness and loss, but it’s dialogue between Do Eun Lee and Chaewon Kim is basic and only operates at the surface level. I wish I had enjoyed this film more the poor writing and acting that constantly bombard the film kept me from ever being able to lean in.
Coming of age stories are a dime a dozen. Good coming of age stories are far rarer, but Inbetween Girl adds a very solid addition to their ranks, standing out among its peers by deftly handling conversations of sex and race as seen through the lens of a mixed race teenage girl. Teenagedom is such a tricky time both to navigate in real life and to portray on screen—too often filmmakers go overboard, making the teenagers into walking bags of hormones and relying on overused tropes to create eye roll worthy caricatures. Inbetween Girl writer and director Mei Makinosuccessfully avoids these pitfalls, crafting instead an immensely relatable film with a lot of heart that feels like an authentic portrait of high school drama.
The film follows Angie Chen (Emma Galbraith), an art-minded teen who, amidst her parents’ messy divorce, finds herself drawn more and more to Liam (William Magnuson), who drives her home every day from soccer practice, despite the fact that Liam has a girlfriend, Sheryl (Emily Garrett). Well, as it turns out, Liam is also becoming more and more drawn towards Angie, and their attraction grows until Liam shows up outside Angie’s window one night, and, well, you can guess. (The way Liam uses a single finger to shut Angie’s computer during this scene is such a classic cocky high school/college boy move. My God. Does no man have any creativity these days?)
Angie, despite feeling guilt for her continual hookups with Liam, cannot bring herself to end things because she does truly have feelings for him, but most importantly, because Liam is the one thing in her life not spinning out of her control. Post-divorce, her white mother (Liz Waters, who looks suspiciously young to have birthed a teenager) has become more of a workaholic than usual, leaving Angie to fend for herself most nights. Angie’s Chinese father (KaiChow Lau) immediately begins dating Min (ShanShan Jin), and happily converses in Mandarin with both Min and her daughter, Fang (Thanh Phuong Bui), leaving Angie—who never learned the language—feeling usurped and uncertain of her racial identity. So, she sticks with Liam. Of course, this can’t last, and when Angie and Sheryl bond over an English project, things come to a head.
I have very few quarrels with Inbetween Girl. Most of the resolutions to Angie’s story feel appropriately messy, though some seem a little too neat; however, through the whole way, we are anchored by Emma Galbraith’s wonderful performance. She smoothly navigates all of Angie’s conflicting emotions, giving us a grounded, natural performance that never falls prey to any of the teen movie trope traps (say that five times fast). The rest of the cast give almost uniformly solid performances—in particular Magnuson, Garrett, and Lau—and Makino’s script gives them all a chance to shine.
Makino manages to make a very specific storyline about a biracial teenage girl discovering her sexuality in Galveston, Texas have resonance across all walks of life while still maintaining Angie’s unique identity on its own, pulling off a tricky balancing act with ease and charm. For a feature debut, this is no small feat, and if this is only the beginning for both Galbraith and Makino, I can’t wait to see where they go next.
I was very excited to see The Nipple Whisperer due to Denis Lavant being cast in the lead role. He is a fantastic character actor, and just last year at SXSW 2020 I’d seen him in the short film Figurant. Though I didn’t particularly enjoy Figurant Lavant was a delight to watch in it so I was very hopeful to see him again here. The Nipple Whisperer follows Lavant as he goes about his day, until he meets someone from his past that he has not seen in a long time. His former muse. It unfortunately doesn’t have enough time to explore Lavant’s character Maurice’s “power” and the film suffers for it, losing its chance for a deeper emotional connection with the audience. On the technical side it is very well shot, Fiona Braillon serves as the cinematographer. She relies on an Alexa Mini, which shows its power specifically in some of the scenes in the studio where the camera is moving. Despite these greater technical aspects, the film continually suffered from a lack of emotional connection and explanation that would allow the audience to connect with Lavant’s character on a deeper level.
The Mohel is about a circumcision. James (Daniel Maslany) and his wife, Lola (Kaelen Ohm), have just had a baby, and James wants his son circumcised in a brit milah, a traditional Jewish ceremony that occurs eight days after a baby’s birth. But more than that, The Mohel is about a man caught between tradition he never fully understood and his current life, and through the performances the film conveys universal emotions regardless of religious background, though it remains firmly grounded in the Judaic tradition.
James, it becomes clear, is not a “good Jew,” as evidenced by his constantly-falling-off yarmulke he dons for the brit milah. Rabbi Fishel (played wonderfully by Sam Rosenthal), whom James hired, quickly notices this, and catches on to the fact that wife Lola was not born Jewish but rather converted; she reaches out to shake the rabbi’s hand before remembering that he wouldn’t be allowed to touch it, and forgets to cover up her decidedly unOrthodox tattoos. Still, Rabbi Fishel charms everyone with his geniality, and James and Lola begin to relax.
Yet after the ceremony itself goes smoothly, Rabbi Fishel reminds James of his religious shortcomings and the ways in which he falls short. In short, James isn’t Jewish enough. But what, exactly, does Jewish enough mean? Does it mean James has to become like Rabbi Fishel, who follows the law to a T but passes severe judgments and punishments on those he deems unworthy?
The filmdoesn’t dig quite deep enough into its premise of someone caught between worlds, but remains a competently made film with a beautiful blue color palette and strong performances that elevate it. It’s surprisingly funny (a rabbi walks into a circumcision and says, “I don’t just work for the tips!”) and never drifts into melodrama; while it fails to completely connect on a deeper level, The Mohel is an easily watchable film, even if some of it is also easily forgettable.
Directed by Charles Wahl and starring Daniel Maslany, The Mohel tells the story of a man caught between the worlds of religion and money as he prepares for his son’s Brit Milah ceremony. The film received its world premiere at the 2021 SXSW Festival.
Interview by Anna Harrison
What was the inspiration for this movie? How much did you draw on your own experiences for the film?
The Inspiration for the film came from a conversation I had with another Jewish filmmaker when I was telling him about what it’s like to live in a smaller city that doesn’t have a big Jewish community. I had mentioned that there aren’t any Mohel’s anywhere near where I was living at the time and how stressful a process it was to have to fly one in for The Brit Milah ceremony. That conversation led to other stories I had heard from friends and family throughout the years about conversion, and interesting incidents around ceremonies. By the end of the conversation the other filmmaker said “you have to make a film about this!” Taking a step back I thought…he’s right! After sleeping on it for a little while I started to find a way to frame a story that dealt with all the themes I wanted to explore, the often transactional nature of religion, and the challenges of living with old-world traditions in the modern world. A Brit Milah seemed like a perfect setting to tackle those themes, and I drew from an amalgam of experiences from my family, friends, and my own life. I was really attracted to the dynamic of focusing on a character who is basically trying to do what he thinks is right by pleasing everyone around him. He doesn’t want to let his mother down, his wife down, his baby boy, or the rabbi!
Were there any major script changes from conception to end?
The screenplay remained pretty consistent from the start all the way to the end actually. As we moved closer to production I mainly reduced dialogue as we went, and made some subtle adjustments to Lola’s character. I wanted to make sure her presence was felt throughout, and how she felt about her husband and child was clear. In the initial drafts it was a little more ambiguous than the finished film.
How long did the development and filming process take in total?
From the time I committed to start writing the script, until we had a final master was about a year and a half. A good chunk of that time was spent waiting to find out if I received grant funding from Arts Nova Scotia, which I did and am incredibly grateful for. And also trying to find a production schedule that worked for everyone. All of the main players involved in the film are very busy, and it took a lot of time to find the right window of availability for everyone.
You wore several different hats for this film—writer, director, producer. Were there any times those roles clashed, i.e., the writer side wanted to do something, but the producer side knew it wasn’t feasible?
Haha all the time! I definitely wanted to write some larger scale sequences, and as I was writing the producer side would constantly slap the writer side’s wrist and say I don’t think we’ll be able to pull that off. For example I wanted to expand the child’s birth to kick off the film. I wanted to show how long intense, and vigorous the birth was, and then show how after all of that he had to instantly start organizing the Bris. I knew pretty quickly that I wouldn’t be able to pull the resources to do that.
Were there any unexpected production hurdles or challenges?
The biggest challenge was to make sure everything was authentic. For the film to work I knew that all of the religious aspects had to be right, otherwise it wouldn’t resonate with viewers. To achieve the authenticity Sam Rosenthal, the actor who plays The Mohel, and I went and met with a Rabbi at a local synagogue. We walked him through the story and he agreed to help us. He provided all the prayers used in the film, recorded himself saying them properly for Sam to use to rehearse with, and ultimately was the person we would reach out to throughout the process with any questions about propping, wardrobe, etc.
How did you get the babies to cooperate (or, rather, how did you handle when they were uncooperative)?
The baby was all of our biggest fear going into production haha. As a father of two children myself I know how unpredictable young babies can be. So to be ready for the shoot we put contingencies in place if the baby was acting up, like using one of the lifelike dolls in wide shots, and things like that. But in the end, the baby was amazing. He never fussed at all throughout the entire shoot…it was pretty incredible.
I love the film’s cool color palette; it was really striking and aesthetically pleasing. How do you decide on a film’s visual look? What’s the collaboration process like with wardrobe, set, etc. to arrive at said look?
Cinematographer Guy Godfree and I talked about different looks and styles quite a bit as we led up to the shoot, but we were both on the same page that it should all feel very natural, raw, and atmospheric at the same time. To do that we opted to film on an Alexa Mini with Vintage Anamorphic glass.That way we could get the production value and cinema quality from the anamorphic, while being able to stay lightweight and keep the lighting natural. In terms of colour we knew we wanted things to feel very earthy and muted. We didn’t want any really bright colours on people, and instead for it to be formal and restrained. We worked with the production designer, and wardrobe stylist to make sure all the colours stayed in the palette. And then we were really lucky to work with Colourist Wade Odlum to help refine the look and get it to the next level.
Right away, James and Lola’s relationship feels sweet and lived-in—specifically, I’m thinking of when James says, “We can’t afford either of them.” It’s such a small moment but the way the line is delivered so naturally and comfortably sold me on their relationship. How do you approach conveying strong relationships and three-dimensional characters when you have a shorter running time and script?
A lot of that energy came from Daniel and Kaelen’s energy together. They are both really incredible actors who do the work and come in prepared. I had spoken with them both at length ahead of the shoot about the characters, and by the time we got to the set we were all on the same page. Also it helps that they had worked with each other before so the ice had already been broken, and once they were together on set they could get to work on figuring things out. The way Daniel performed “We can’t afford either of them.” was all his choice. I had imagined it delivered a different way when I wrote the script, but when I saw Daniel’s choice I thought it worked so much better.
If you got a tattoo, what would it be and why?
I am actually planning on getting another couple tattoos soon. I have two young boys and I got them to write their names for me, and I am going to get them tattoo’d on different parts of my arm as if they had doodled them on. Parenthood has truly shown me how fast life moves, and I want to have something on me that will symbolize this time in their lives forever.
How did you get brought on board The Mohel?
I had worked with Kaelen Ohm (who plays Lola), before and I remember we had a great chat on set about the kind of work we were interested in. She had been in Charles Wahl’s SXSW 2019 Short Little Grey Bubbles and so she passed my name along to Charles when they were discussing casting for The Mohel. Charles sent me the script to read and Little Grey Bubbles to watch, and I loved his approach and ability to capture intimate and authentic moments on film – both in his writing and directing.
What drew you to the script and how did you relate to James?
I was drawn to the way Charles chose to present this story, and his use of comedic touches within a really tense situation. I liked the idea of playing a father too, as it’s not a role I’ve had the chance to play before. I completely related to James. He’s stuck trying to do what’s best based on expectations and tradition, and yet the film doesn’t end with a huge argument where everything is aired out, but instead all of the tension is simmering just underneath – which is way more interesting to play. Charles presents some interesting questions for audiences to discuss when the credits roll. I think the best short films pose those kinds of questions for an audience, without giving us all the answers.
Was there a rehearsal process, and if so, how long did it take?
Charles and I took a lot of time to chat about the character history and dynamics before, but we didn’t spend a lot of our time rehearsing in advance. Charles is really clear with what he wants, and yet he creates a space where it feels easy to play and explore and find things naturally. Charles wanted to minimize the time I spent with Sam Rosenthal (who plays the Mohel) off camera, which helped feed into our dynamic as strangers that are suddenly involved in a really personal and pivotal ceremony together. I had more time with Kaelen, and I think the two of us found a really fun chemistry with implied history that developed naturally when we did our first scene together. I love rehearsals but it’s also so fun to save things to be discovered on camera, and there’s an immediacy that’s difficult to recreate when you’ve gone over a scene many times before. Charles even asked me not to memorize the Hebrew blessing that James’ recites during the ceremony. I was only able to brush up on the first few lines, as they are more common phrases that James would have grown up hearing, but on the day I had to recite the blessing by just repeating after Sam – who was really motoring through it! We also shot that scene from only one angle without being able to edit around things. I was so nervous to mess it up, which is exactly what James would be feeling in that moment.
Did your understanding of James change over the course of filming?
Yeah, I think the more I play any character the deeper my understanding grows. I learnt the most about James from the other characters -my wife, my mom, the rabbi. You can prep your own lines as much as you want, but there’s so much information to be gained by just taking in how characters respond to you and treat you. It was such a great cast to work with.
I was really impressed by how real and fleshed out James felt despite the film only being 14 minutes long, which is a testament to your performance and the script; when you have a short runtime, how do you “maximize” your screen time to convey a complete character?
Thanks for saying that! I think the key moments Charles chose to show within those 14 minutes are really all you need. There’s a real freedom with a short film, knowing that the character isn’t going to be someone you live with and play for future episodes or seasons. You can imagine a history and obviously discuss that with your scene partners, but all that matters are the little moments that you might find within the scenes. I also felt I was mostly just playing myself, which I don’t get to do very often. And Charles is so delicate in what he even chooses to show on camera. He’s very restrained, and worked with our cinematographer Guy Godfree to give it a very spontaneous feel as if the camera is just catching moments rather than things feeling overly composed or set up.
What was working with Charles Wahl like? How much of a collaborative process was making The Mohel?
Charles gives so much space and respect to all of his collaborators. He creates a calm and positive atmosphere on set that really encourages play. And he is also incredibly detailed, and will have considered all of the answers and possibilities to any question you might have. He’s such a great director. I would work with him again in a heartbeat.
You have done extensive work in theater; how has your theater background informed your work in film? What are some of the biggest differences in how you approach your performance in the different mediums?
It’s funny you ask that, because I actually really feel a connection between the process of making a short film and working on a play. My experience in theater has often been that you can see the very origin of inspiration for what we’re making in the room – especially when developing new plays. Feeling close to each department, and involved in a real collaboration with other artists is so rewarding. I have that same feeling working on a short – and particularly The Mohel. The intimacy of the kinds of stories you can tell in a short film really reminds me of working on a play in a small black box theatre. The process might be different, but the creative spark feels very similar. In terms of performance style, the night before we started shooting The Mohel, Charles said to me, “Don’t worry about showing the camera what you’re thinking or feeling. Just feel it and experience it and we’ll take care of the rest.” That felt like the perfect key in to the tone and style he wanted for the film, and it’s such a liberating note to hear from a director.
Favorite movie of 2020?
I really loved the documentary Dick Johnson is Dead directed by Kirsten Johnson. It was so unbelievably moving and personal and funny, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it before.
Yet another Directorial Debut from SXSW ‘21. The Fallout ranked among the top tier of the festival’s films and Megan Park is perhaps it’s the most exciting new filmmaker to have premiered at the festival. The Fallout follows the story of Vada(Jenna Ortega) and some of her classmates’ lives in the wake of a school shooting as they grapple with its aftermath.
As the shooting begins Vada is in one of the school bathrooms with Maddie Ziegler’s Mia, the girls ostensibly ran in very separate social circles preceding the shooting. As soon as the shots pop off, they both run instinctively into the same stall and hunker together until the shooting ends and emergency services arrive. This shared experience in a bathroom stall serves as precursor to the girls’ coming relationship and the entrance and swift exit of a third party in it. Though Ziegler has a more restricted role as a supporting character, her work speaks volumes of capability and range. I’d had a feeling before that she might be very special, this has only affirmed that, and should she be given more room to grow or be offered more roles after Spielberg’s West Side Story later this year, I think we’re looking at a long term rangey top tier talent.
Park while broadly conventional does have a panache for understated lens flares, fun camera movement, and clean looking shots. She also serves as solo screenwriter. She’s focused primarily on the personal story and the shared feelings of humanity between the characters here rather than a message. She offloads the burden of a “message” about this charged topic to a side character and gives it some air, but never flounders too long in message over experience. It’s a strong storytelling choice, that excites me about her yarn spinning as she progresses. Her direction and voice are clear. If she continues to rely on sturdy acting from great ensembles and stories about the personal she’ll only continue to grow and improve. I’m excited to watch as she does.
Romeo and Juliet has been adapted and adapted and adapted, from Frank Zeffirelli to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet to West Side Story and, now, to R#J. Each adaptation attempts to make its mark and stand alone in the annals of Shakespearean adaptation history, some with more success than others. (Who among us can forget 21-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio half-shirtless and screaming, “I defy you, stars”?) Director Carey Williams makes his mark on the Bard’s tale by showing it completely through social media and phones, and though this means R#J will be outdated in a decade, he gets points for creativity. That, unfortunately, is almost all he gets points for.
R#J follows the beats of its source material: boy meets girl. They are horny teenagers, so they create a lot of drama. There’s family feuding and death, now told via Instagram lives and Twitter feeds. The concept, while initially neat, quickly begins to feel gimmicky and hamstrings the adaptation. Some moments can believably be told over FaceTime, but many other times the characters had no in-universe reason to have their cameras on, but it just so happens that the audience needs this information. Visually, this makes the film interesting; logically, it strains belief.
The performers, too, get hurt by this concept. Romeo and Juliet lives and dies by its lead characters’ chemistry: if the audience isn’t aching for them to just make out already by the time Juliet says, “And palms to palms is holy palmers’ kiss,” something has gone awry. This chemistry comes by much easier on stage or in a traditional filmic adaptation; here, with Camaron Engels’ Romeo and Francesca Noel’s Juliet rarely sharing the same space in the film and largely communicating through (annoying) Instagram flirting, their romance falls flat.
Williams’ bizarre decision to move the aforementioned palm line to Romeo and Juliet’s wedding neuters their initial interaction: instead of functioning as foreplay, the line becomes part of a wedding vow, and instead of rooting for Romeo and Juliet because of their great wordplay and teasing of each other, we are supposed to like them because Romeo sent generic Instagram DMs and for some reason Juliet didn’t immediately block him. Similarly, the iconic balcony scene is reduced to a few lines over FaceTime, and Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, while performed gamely by Siddiq Saunderson, has been gutted. The characters are then formed out of the leftovers, and their personalities are largely conveyed through the icons on their phones: Romeo has Letterboxd and the Criterion Channel, and Juliet has art apps. Thus their personalities get boiled down to sad film bro and sensitive art girl, two of my least favorite kinds of people. (Sorry.)
Let it be known I am not a Shakespeare purist. However, other than novelty, there seems to be no reason to tell R#J in this way, and that just isn’t enough. If Williams simply wanted to update it, he could have shown the characters using phones and communicating through them, but telling the entire story via Apple products grows wearisome. So does the mixing of language and the jarring transition from text slang to “A plague on both your houses.” Drifting from the text always presents problems for Shakespeare adaptations: it worked in My Own Private Idaho, but failed in The King (coincidentally both Henriad adaptations, and no, I am not still mad that David Michôd killed off Hotspur—Hal’s narrative foil—half an hour into his overlong movie, why do you ask?). Generally, it’s easier to stick faithfully to the text or go in the opposite direction and make a 10 Things I Hate About You. Williams had a hard job, and unfortunately didn’t stick the landing.
This becomes more and more apparent as the film goes on and the plot becomes more muddled and difficult to tell over social media, and the pretenses for phone use get thinner and thinner. The novelty wears off quickly, and once it does, we are left with precious little to care about. The ending deviates from old Billy’s, serving as Carey Williams’ own star-defying moment, a way to signal hope for these crazy kids and to avoid showing another dead Black boy on screen. Unfortunately, this seems to be the only social critique that Williams undertakes somewhat seriously, and it still remains shallow. Oh R#J, oh R#J, wherefore art thou so empty?
In Fruits of Labor, directed by Emily Cohen Ibanez, we are introduced to 15-year farm workers and high school student Ashley Solis who was born in California but whose family originally immigrated from Mexico. At its core this is a documentary about the human experience, told through the eyes of a girl, as she navigates life and the blessings that come with being from an immigrant family in the United States. The more I watch stories about immigrants the more in awe I am of those who made that journey. They remind me of my own immigrant experience and how it made me who I am today.
What made this documentary work wasn’t the horrific and cruel images of child separation and ICE raids that overlap with Ashley’s story. We know the US immigration system is broken. Instead, this narrative works because it tells a story of a girl coming into her own and finding her own voice so she can tell her story in her own words. Even though the odds are stacked against her Ashley perseveres, often unnoticed, putting her future on hold, and, at the same time, preserving her family’s tradition of curandera (healing) and storytelling. It is hard not to be moved by Ashley’s journey.
Kid Candidate was an unexpected and fun surprise. In this documentary, we are introduced to a well meaning 24 year old called Hayden Pedigo and his run for City Council in Amarillo, Texas. Jasmine Stodel’s directorial debut also gives us an inside look into local-level politics and the often maligned Texas panhandle.
Part of what made Kid Candidate such a fun experience was how Jasmine integrated Hayden’s amateurish and hilarious campaign videos, testimony from his wife and friends, as well as Amarillo residents and local politicians to explain the reality of small town politics in Amarillo. There was an unexpected universality to their descriptions which focused not only on politics but the lack of opportunities in small towns that often lead to an exodus of people looking for opportunities elsewhere. Hayden’s view, I am sure resonates with many people that were brought up in a similar town, was that people could not excel in Amarillo and he wanted to change this dynamic and give people a reason to stay. His mayoral run was also inspired by a desire to get more young people to become active participants in politics at the local-level.
The big picture dynamics of this documentary tell the story of political greed that runs rampant in the American political system by highlighting the role big money plays in politics. It was not surprising but fascinating to understand that 6-figure elections were being run in this relatively small city. While Hayden did not win the election he had a somewhat moral victory by being the only candidate to run without donations or official promotion. In the end, this documentary shows us that it is possible to imagine a new political future All incumbents might have held their place in the Amarillo elections but Hayden’s journey brought in a little bit of hope and humor into a vision of what Amarillo and American small towns could look like in the future.
You can check out some of the above referenced campaign videos here. Hayden and his friends were inspired by director Harmony Korine and were even able to set up a digital billboard to ask him to visit Amarillo.