Tag Archives: Drama

Lady Bird (2017): Refreshingly Honest Transition to Adulthood

After starring in and often co-writing several independent comedies and dramas, Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) finally makes her solo directorial debut. Having worked with many talented directors, her style bears some similarities to her previous collaborators, especially Noah Baumbach, but she has a voice all her own. Her first outing confirms her as a genuine talent able to bring intimate stories to life. Lady Bird follows Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan; Brooklyn) through her last year of high school as she deals with the trials and tribulations that come along with transitioning to adulthood and independence.

With her vibrant reddish hair and anarchic mindset, Lady Bird is the epitome of an awkward teen. She is clearly an intelligent young woman, but doesn’t have good grades or the right look and attitude to fall into the popular crowd. She wants to escape Sacramento and go to a college on the east coast, but doesn’t have the resume or money to do so. She longs to become someone more than she is. Someone more sophisticated than her current self. Ronan plays Lady Bird as equal parts defiant and confused as she stumbles through the ups and downs of her life. There are moments when her American accent falters, particularly when yelling, but overall it holds up nicely. She is essentially a younger version of the character type that Gerwig almost exclusively plays. Her youth and the naivete that comes with it make her flaws all the more sympathetic.

Lady Bird’s often explosive relationship with her mother is the central conflict of the film.

Gerwig may have created the first coming of age story about a millennial, by a millennial. From the introduction of cell phones – rich kids first, of course – to the Justin Timberlake songs in the background of a party, the details of the setting ring painfully true to anyone who grew up in the period. Despite being shot digitally, Gerwig adds a noticeable film grain and a uses a softer focus that drenches the film in her nostalgia for the past. While she has stated that the film is not based on specific events from her life, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we are watching a fictionalized version of her own adolescence.

More than anything else, Lady Bird feels honest. Gerwig’s approach to her characters is reminiscent of the great Edward Yang (Yi Yi). She exposes the flaws, beauty, and heartbreak of ordinary people, normally hidden from view. Lady Bird’s struggles at school, with boys, and, most of all, her complicated relationship with her mother have a gentle, but raw veracity. Her bland suburban life isn’t glamorized, and each moment is immensely relatable. She may be deliberately contrarian, but she does so in a way that is too familiar for us to fault her. Each outburst or fight with her mom comes from deep-seeded insecurity. As a teenager facing adulthood, Lady Bird is searching for belonging in a changing world and Gerwig has a deep compassion for journey. Her sensitive touch and nostalgic tone make Lady Bird a beautiful, refreshingly honest, and poignant coming of age story for a new generation.

five stars

5/5 stars.

Our Souls at Night (2017): A Disappointing Waste of Talent

Netflix’s newest film continues their shaky track record when it comes to features. Based on the novel by Kent Haruf and directed by Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox), the film centers on two elderly people in the small fictional town of Holt, Colorado. Louis (Robert Redford; The Sting) and Addie (Jane Fonda; 9 to 5) have both lost their spouses years earlier and live alone. One afternoon, Addie visits Louis and makes a strange proposal. She wants him to sleep with her. Not anything more than that, just sleep. She is tired of being alone and wants someone to lay next to at night. What follows is their growing relationship and the effect it has on their humble lives.

It’s rare to see a cast this talented fall so flat. Seasoned and celebrated actors like Fonda and Redford, who have worked together onscreen before, completely lack the naturalism required. The soft-spoken, but straightforward dialogue of the book is mostly retained in the script, but is ruined by the delivery. If this was their feature debut, Fonda and Redford would not be getting calls from casting agents anytime soon. Their attempts at laconic delivery come off as awkward and surprised. They read their lines as if each statement is really a question and it kills any hope of establishing the mood required. The performances are so disconnected that if one actor had recorded their parts on a green screen and was later composited into the footage, I’d believe it. There are a few brief glimpses of the chemistry that could and should have existed, but the majority of the film is missing this vital ingredient.

The unfortunate lack of chemistry kills the movie’s emotional center.

Haruf’s novel was not the most obvious choice to adapt. At its core, it is a simple story without any of the trappings of typical movie. There are no villains, no major conflict, and no real stakes to speak of. The novel was a story of two lonely people near the end of their lives finding solace through companionship. What separated it from other books was its attention to detail. Haruf was able to capture the longing Louis and Addie had and the emptiness they felt without someone else in their lives. He knew the profound impact that a true emotional connection can have on a life and expressed it amidst the most modest of settings, but his work has been diluted in the film adaptation to the point of blandness.

None of Batra’s personal style is present here. His first two films took a gentle, compassionate approach to his characters and world which made him a perfect fit for this material, yet that approach is absent. The film is completely forgettable and misses the nuances of Louis and Addie’s relationship. The soft focus and earnest, but hushed speaking of his previous works are replaced by a flat production. Batra has put forth a workmanlike effort on what could have been his breakout feature. The obvious lack of interest behind the camera is a continual letdown as the movie settles for mediocrity. It may not be one of the worst films of the year, but it is certainly one of the most disappointing.

2/5 stars.

Brad’s Status (2017): A Self-centered Midlife Crisis

At some point in life, we look at what we have and wonder, “What else could I be?” It’s natural to compare ourselves to others and think about the alternate lives we could have led. Written and directed by Mike White (Year of the Dog), Brad’s Status is about a middle-aged man doing just that. When Brad (Ben Stiller; Zoolander) takes his son Troy (Austin Abrams; Paper Towns) to visit colleges, he starts to think back to his own college days and where his close group of friends ended up. One is a political commentator and author of several best-selling books, another owns his own hedge fund, and the last sold his tech company and retired to Hawaii at the age of 40. Brad, on the other hand, started a small non-profit and lives a normal life in Sacramento with wife and son.

Brad’s Status is the quintessential midlife crisis film. Brad feels like he missed his potential and his comparisons to the illustrious lives of his college friends are relatable because of his chosen profession. While others chose the money and power of politics, finance, or tech, he chose service to others and is now living through the consequences of that decision. The central question is not only what could he have done to become successful, but rather how could he have done the most good. Does his non-profit, scraping together financing from reluctant donors, make a difference? Brad’s only employee turns in his two-week notice and remarks “I’d rather make a lot of money and donate it than beg people for their money.” The realities created from a life of service versus self-interest and how decisions made for altruistic reasons can lead to middling personal outcomes is the film’s most sympathetic angle.

Stiller and Abrams have natural chemistry as father and son.

To a certain extent, Brad’s struggle is an exercise in solipsism. He only views the world in terms of how it affects him, sometimes even forgetting about his loved ones. This disregard can become callous when he looks at the effect of his relationship with his wife. One of his friends had a career-focused, ambitious spouse that, in Brad’s mind, forced his friend to push himself further in comparison. Brad’s wife is a loving, supportive partner but he wonders if her contentedness with their middle-class life held him back. This is the kind of reasoning that can often make Brad an unlikable character. He can resort to blaming others for his own failings. When issues with his personal success turn outward, it makes him seem less like tragic figure suffering for a noble cause and, especially when he is ungrateful towards his caring wife, more like a self-centered asshole.

Thankfully, the supporting cast eventually calls Brad on his bullshit. It’s a relief when even the college aged characters burst his bubble of self-absorption and point out his narrowmindedness, but his son is the main catalyst for change. Despite his age, Troy is a calm, self-assured individual and without his father’s crippling self-doubt. The realistic interplay between father and son is heartwarming as Troy’s confidence gives his dad hope and purpose. Regardless of his current position in life, Brad still made an impact on the world through raising his son. Some of the conclusions White comes to may be cliché, but his belief in the value of family and parenthood over material wealth still holds weight. It may not overcome a degree of navel-gazing, but, in an age of increasingly exhibitionist behavior, Brad’s Status is a worthwhile reminder of what defines true success.

3/5 stars.

Columbus (2017): Composed, Contemplative, but a Little Too Quiet

Known for his video essays dissecting the style of other filmmakers, first-time director Kogonada brings a unique voice and eye for images to his debut picture. Two people find themselves intersecting in Columbus, Indiana, a center for modernist buildings. A Korean man, Jin (John Cho; Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle), is forced to come to the city when his father, an architecture professor, has a medical emergency. He meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson; The Edge of Seventeen), a young architecture enthusiast delaying her college education to take care of her unstable mother. They begin meeting regularly as Casey shows Jin her favorite buildings in the city.

As the leads of the film, Cho and Richardson form a believable companionship. There is a hint of romantic feelings between them, but the film never makes them explicit. This is a relationship closer to that of Once than a typical romance. Richardson plays Casey as a bright, curious young woman that cares so deeply about her mother that she would neglect her own desires, but unfortunately Cho can’t match her performance. His readings as Jin are often stilted as he tries to relate to Casey, but their similar situations are enough reason to justify their bond. Both characters are trapped in Columbus by a parent and their candid conversations while surrounded by beautiful buildings become a gentle form of mutual therapy.

Every object in Kogonada’s film feels deliberately chosen for aesthetic balance.

Kogonada revels in the modernist architecture of the city. He relies on his fixed, wide-angled camera to allow the audience to dwell in the environments and heavily incorporates shots of building exteriors as connective tissue between scenes. Even though the locations are immaculate with each piece of fabric and furniture precisely chosen, they never feel sterile. He frequently uses symmetry in his framings and one-point perspective that funnels the viewer’s attention deep into the image, similar to the compositions favored by Edward Yang. For Kogonada, each plane of the image is of value and action is frequently placed at multiple depths. There are no flat backgrounds that only provide pleasant scenery here. Kogonada’s multidimensional images have a still, contemplative beauty.

There are several points where the director uses dialogue to reference his intents as a filmmaker. Referring to their dinner, Casey’s mother comments that it needed more spice to which she replies, “I was going for something a little more subtle.” In another scene, a librarian posits that people not being interested in reading is “…not a crisis of attention, but a crisis of interest.” With each of these lines, Kogonada appears to be describing his own style. The film has a subtle tone and may not have enough overt emotion to keep everyone interested. It’s true that it could have used more flavor. Jin’s estranged relationship with his father is something that is mentioned but never fully fleshed out and it leaves his character lacking in comparison to Casey. His motivations and callous behavior relating to his father’s health don’t receive the depth needed to be fully sympathetic which drains the film of some its central drama. Kogonada’s debut may not be a full success, but his pensive tone and skill with image composition mark him as a filmmaker of high potential.

3/5 stars.

Some Freaks (2017): Social Outcasts Coming-of-age

A one-eyed boy and an overweight girl form the unlikely pairing at the heart of Some Freaks. The film is the directorial debut of playwright Ian MacAllister McDonald and follows Matt (Thomas Mann playing a role similar to his in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), the boy missing an eye, and Jill (newcomer Lily Mae Harrington), a heavyset punk transfer student. The film is separated into two sections. The first shows the two meeting when they are the only people in their biology class without a partner for a project. Each has been the victim of bullying and they quickly enter an awkward, but caring relationship. The second section picks up when Matt visits Jill at college, having been physically apart since graduation.

The film suffers from a rushed and amateurish first half. McDonald repeatedly uses title cards to skip forward in time to advance the relationships but, save for the necessary gap separating the film’s two halves, the leaps are distracting. They’re an indication of poor editing trying to create character progression. The camerawork makes this feel even more slapdash. The lighting can be strong, but the camera is constantly jostling around to the point that it becomes difficult to track characters that are simply taking a walk. The cast is held in extremely shallow focus which can in general be a good technique, but when they move the focus doesn’t move with them. McDonald has stated that this was a deliberate decision to depict the unstable nature of teenagers still defining themselves but that doesn’t stop the film from feeling like it was shot by a subpar cinematographer. The characters are sympathetic, but McDonald seems to be rushing toward the second half where he can explore his true interests.

Harrington gives a realistic, conflicted performance.

Some Freaks is about how relationships can change us and how personal change can affect our relationships. These teens are in flux and the second half of the film, by far the stronger portion, examines the consequences of their development. When Matt finally visits Jill at her college, she is not the girl he remembers. She looks and acts completely different. Even though she still cares for him, he is unable to reconcile her new self with the one he fell in love with. In this half, Harrington reveals herself as the film’s true star and a breakout talent. She must come to terms with who she was, who she wants to be, and whether Matt is a part of that. In one of the film’s best scenes, she delivers an eviscerating tongue-lashing that hits the core of their problem. They were brought together by their outsider status so Jill’s progression has removed what was the foundation of their relationship. Their dissolution is a raw and nuanced portrayal of a couple that finds themselves moving at divergent velocities.

McDonald deserves praise for focusing on these specific characters. Few films bother with humanizing people at the fringe of society. The closest we normally get are fake misfits that are one makeover away from being on the cover of a magazine. In an intimate, but depressing scene, Matt confesses that he had never thought about girls before Jill. He spent so much of his energy struggling to make it through each day amidst the tormenting of his classmates that he never had time to think about romance. These teenagers are truly at the bottom rung of their social ladder and it is refreshing to see how their relationships benefit them. Even as their romance fades, its impact remains. It helped them get through a difficult time and despite the heartbreak it’s end may cause, it will be a part of them as they move on in their lives. Some Freaks is a film filled with difficult, honest insights about our formational relationships, dampened by a jumbled first half.

3/5 stars.

The Girl Without Hands (2017): Gorgeous Art, Unnecessary Adaptation

The world of animation has becoming increasingly similar. Despite growing options with new technologies, most companies opt for computer generated 3D animation. As beautiful as these renderings can be, the lack of diversity is disheartening with Japan remaining as the main producer of feature length 2D animation. The Girl Without Hands is a welcome visual change, featuring a singular hand-painted 2D art style animated entirely by its director Sébastien Laudenbach. The film is an adaptation of the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. It is the story of a miller that mistakenly trades his daughter for wealth in a deal with the devil and follows her as she faces the fallout of his decision.

The expressive images are worthy of hanging up on a wall.

Laudenbach art is the film’s most distinctive quality. He uses a minimalist, yet expressive style. The images are less like drawings and more like etchings. Each frame has a colored background with objects shaded in rather than explicitly outlined in a sort of spartan impressionism. The background colors are textured and often have a gentle gradient that sets the mood for each scene and the brush strokes are painted on similar to watercolors. The film animates by having these strokes pulsate and is particularly effective when depicting water or wind. The rippling colors perfectly encapsulate the energy and movement of nature. Laudenbach also has a unique method of showing the emotional state of the characters. Because they are so minimally sketched, he can paint a broad stroke of color over them and even as the character moves, this mark remains, showing their lasting presence and the unchanging state of their mind. His indirect approach to his images gives the film its unmistakable storybook quality.

The vibrant colors are a joy to look at.

If only the screenplay wasn’t also of storybook quality. The original fable is short and the film, while running only 76 minutes, still feels overlong. The material hasn’t changed significantly in adapting it for the screen so there isn’t enough content to justify the runtime and what is present is too simplistic. As gorgeous as it is, the film is clearly an excuse to show of Laudenbach’s beautiful images. Several scenes are elongated just to feature the artwork. The story, with its fairytale roots, never produces any emotional response. This is a fantasy world that is too detached from our reality to create a connection. There is supposed to be a moral lesson about admonishing the pursuit of wealth, but it is delivered using blunt platitudes that are as generic as they are groan-inducing. A character says to the girl’s father, “You are rich. How could you be at peace?”. These aren’t new or creatively presented insights. This might be a trait that stems from the source material, but even so that doesn’t mean it translates well in a film. The few original flourishes added to the story are scenes that show the director’s gross and unnecessary fetish with genitals that has no place in something that was originally meant for children. Laudenbach’s artwork and animation are uniquely expressive and minimalist, but the story they present would have been better suited to a picture book, not a feature length film.

2/5 stars.

Detroit (2017): Unsettling, Infuriating, and Timely

Working again with writer/producer Mark Boal to make a historically based film, Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) leaves military stories behind for a period piece set during the Detroit riot of 1967. As a brief, but informative intro animation explains, the city of Detroit had become increasingly segregated with many of its black citizens living in the crowded inner city patrolled by a predominantly white police force. A large-scale raid and arrest of an unlicensed bar leads to riots, city-wide destruction, and the deployment of the National Guard. The film follows an up-and-coming doo-wop group led by Algee Smith (Earth to Echo) as they retreat to a nearby motel to avoid the riots, only to be attacked by the local police.

The film is shot in a quasi-documentary style. Bigelow has used this technique before and she leans even harder into this direction here. She uses an unstable camera that rapidly whips between subjects and zooms in and out constantly as if a cameraperson is rushing to capture live action. This makes the film incredibly immersive and it would be easy to forget that this isn’t found footage from the actual time. Bigelow chooses to interweave real news video and photographs which makes this distinction even harder. She is also an expert at blocking her scenes. And by that I literally mean blocking. The film almost always features groups or crowds and the characters will routinely burst into frame and obstruct the camera’s view causing it to have to readjust around them. These cinematographic choices create a palpable feeling of boots-on-the-ground frenzy.

You will hate Poulter (left) because of this film.

There are times when the story can strain your patience. The film’s climax is a slightly overlong interrogation inside a motel where three Detroit police officers repeated assault and, in some cases, kill the mostly black tenants for a crime they have no physical evidence of. This depiction dramatizes an event using witness testimonies so, as the film states in the end credits, some liberties were taken during the recreation. The local police, led by Will Poulter (The Revenant) in an appropriately repulsive performance, continuously fail at drawing out a confession and the film shows each of their futile attempts. These start to wear thin as you wonder why the police, or the filmmakers, haven’t moved on already. At 143 minutes long, the movie would have improved with some editing in this particular scene. The incompetence, the racism, and the cruelty of the police becomes evident quickly which makes the extended sequences unnecessary. Bigelow may be using the length to emphasize the cast’s protracted suffering but the point has already been made and further emphasis without additional depth becomes somewhat redundant, even if these scenes are rooted in fact.

Despite some pacing issues, Bigelow uses the injustice on display to create a sense of terror and urgency. For these characters, the slightest misconstrued movement or innocuous comment could lead to a ruthless beating or worse, so every interaction is fraught with danger. It’s impossible to separate the events depicted in the film from our current problems in America. The actions of the police in the film combined with the horrifying news headlines of the past few years become both hideous and infuriating with later scenes involving John Krasinski (The Office) as a police union lawyer being blood-boiling in their blatant inequity. The inhumanity displayed by the authorities towards people of color makes for more than just a disturbing movie. It has been some time since we have had a film that can truly be described as polemic, but Detroit deserves that descriptor. Bigelow’s indictment of systemic racism and injustice in 1967 Detroit is an upsetting look into the tribulations of minorities at the hands of law enforcement that is infuriating and, sadly, relevant to our present world.

4/5 stars.

To the Bone (2017): A Grounded, Painful Look at Addiction

[BS Note: This film is currently available for streaming on Netflix]

With glamorous images of people with seemingly perfect looks and illustrious lives exacerbated by social media, we are inundated with unrealistic ideals of how we should look and behave. For some, this can lead to harmful behaviors, namely eating disorders. To the Bone follows Ellen (Lily Collins; Mirror Mirror), a 20-year-old living with anorexia nervosa. She has just left her fourth treatment facility without showing any improvement and returns home to a stepmother who is unsure of what to do next. She finds one final physician who may be Ellen’s last chance at recovery.

Keanu Reeves (John Wick) turns up in an unexpected, but welcome supporting role. He plays Dr. Beckham, an eating disorder specialist known for his high success rate and unusual methods. Reeves plays Beckham as a tough, no-nonsense doctor. Instead of sterile clinical language, he is direct and almost confrontational. “I’m not going to treat you if you aren’t interested in living”, he tells Ellen. His experience makes him impatient with pleasantries, but detailed during actual treatment and his advice, however blunt, is filled with support. He genuinely cares for the well-being of his patients and Reeves’s confident performance highlights his intelligence, understanding, and compassion.

The physical effects of anorexia create some of the film’s most unsettling images.

Director Marti Noxon’s approach to group dynamics goes far beyond the typical addiction movie. Instead of only focusing on Ellen’s struggles, she takes time to explore the damage done to her loved ones. This ranges from a mother too hurt to look at her suffering daughter, a frustrated stepmother, an absent father, and a loving younger sibling who misses having her older sister in her life. Noxon understands that these afflictions also manifest differently. She uses the different patients in the treatment home to show the lengths to which people will go. Whether it’s laxatives, diet pills, or hiding bags full of vomit, these are people trapped by their disorder into an unstable frame of mind. As a test of her size, Ellen tries to wrap her thumb and forefinger around her bicep. The film is deeply disturbing in its depiction of the unrealistic, self-destructive ideals the patients impose on themselves and the rippling effects they have on their families.

Collins is frightening in her performance. She has written about her own struggles with eating disorders and she clearly draws from those personal experiences in her acting. Her progressively skeletal frame and gaunt facial features show her deteriorating condition. “You’re a ghost”, her mom says after seeing her. The film has faced some backlash over its depiction of anorexia, but it neither glorifies nor indicts people with eating disorders. It repeatedly states its position: that this an addiction and one without clean answers. When Ellen’s stepmother tries to tell her doctor that the disorder has something to do with her mother, he cuts her off and says, “It’s never that simple.” This isn’t a film about easy solutions or motivational speeches. Noxon delves into the obsessive behaviors of anorexics and the fractured families that may be both a source and symptom of the disorder. The only exception is a dream sequence near the conclusion that is embarrassing in its literalism and contradicts the film’s grounded tone. Save for this specific mistake, Noxon has created a realistic examination of the struggles of someone clinging to warped body image ideals and the turmoil it can create for those who love them.

4/5 stars.

Lady Macbeth (2017)

Referencing one of the most devious characters in literature is a bold choice for a film, but, thankfully, the title isn’t a spoiler. That being said, the lead character Katherine (Florence Pugh) does share many traits with the famous femme fatale. She is a young woman in England during the mid-1800s married to an older man. The marriage provides her with stability, but not affection. Her husband is entirely uninterested in Katherine, emotionally or physically, and spends his time away for business, leaving Katherine to her own devices.

The setting echoes Katherine’s lonely life. Her house, while huge, feels stark and empty. This isn’t a Merchant Ivory film where homes are filled with countless knick knacks. Despite her husband’s wealth, the furnishings are minimal and she is the only non-servant residing there. She is initially forbidden from leaving the house, but even when she does the outdoors offer no reprieve. The landscape is barren and desolate. It only highlights her increasing isolation and how meaningless she feels her life is.

A vacuous existence is Katherine’s greatest fear.

Pugh makes the perfect Katherine. A relative newcomer, she embodies the ideals of a woman of her time while believably progressing into aberrant behavior. Many actors playing characters in the past have an incongruous look. Their body and features can be too sculpted for the simpler time. Pugh, while still attractive, has a more era appropriate frame. In her blue dress, she is the image of upper class England. As takes extreme measures to control the direction of her own life, her ruthless determination comes through. Pugh’s tenacious performance causes Katherine to be an intriguing character, even as her actions become heinous.

Director William Oldroyd makes some interesting casting choices. Improving diversity in film has fortunately entered public discussion as of late, but period pieces have always been an issue. How do you incorporate actors of different races when a film’s setting wouldn’t have allowed it? Oldroyd chooses anachronism which results in a welcome change. There is some initial confusion when actors of color are shown in positions unexpected for the time, but it quickly fades to the background. Unfortunately, the plot results in negative outcomes for most of the non-white cast which is alarming. It’s impossible to speculate on whether this was coincidence or not, but either way it gives the film an unwelcome nastiness.

Everything changes for Katherine when she meets one of the men working on her land and begins an affair with him. Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) finally brings some excitement into her empty life so when her father-in-law returns to scold her and beat Sebastian, she does what she believes is necessary to preserve her only passion. This is where the film hits its stride. Lady Macbeth proves to be about the limits of selfishness and, later, self-preservation in the face of accepted morality. The lengths to which Katherine goes are equal parts amusing and mortifying. As she descends deeper into depravity, the cause of her actions comes into question. Is this the result of her failed marriage? Loneliness? Or maybe this is just the manifestation of an impulse already inside of her? Oldroyd hints at answers for each of these questions but prefers to luxuriate in Katherine’s increasingly extreme measures. Pugh’s unyielding performance and the almost transgressive narrative turns make Lady Macbeth a wicked drama with a remarkably sinister lead.

4/5 stars.

A Ghost Story (2017)

With very few words and an austere tone, A Ghost Story is going to immediately turn off some viewers. This isn’t a film with an explicit narrative, nor is it a fast one. Where others use special effects to create representations of the dead, the ghost here is almost comical in appearance. Like a lazy Halloween costume, it’s just a figure under a sheet with two eyeholes cut out. But this simplicity is intentional. Director David Lowery reteams with Casey Affleck (Manchester By the Sea) and Rooney Mara (Carol) to create a film that begins with a young couple, but focuses on a ghost left behind. Coming off Lowery’s last film, a larger-budgeted Disney-produced remake, this feels like a cleansing exercise and a return to his independent roots. Although it was well-received at this year’s Sundance Film festival, to some, it felt like an unnecessary student film experiment.

Even at a slim 90 minutes, the film may be too long. The slow, deliberate style is appropriate for the story and tone, but, despite the big ideas at play here, the film would have been improved at 60-75 minutes. The early scenes with Affleck and Mara and their gentle intimacy are compelling and the final time-spanning sequence is incredible, but, in between, the film lags. We spend too much time with the various new inhabitants of the house without progressing the story. The worst of these segments features a ham-fisted monologue from an inebriated hipster about the meaning of life in an infinite universe. This is clearly Lowery’s message to the audience, but the blunt delivery is at odds with the film’s subtle style and can be repulsive in its direct proselytizing.

Even with its simple appearance, the ghost becomes an expressive character.

Lowery is known for his lyrical style of storytelling. His first film, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, was his version of an early Terrence Malick film. Heavy on voiceovers and light on narration, it used its natural light cinematography to create a sense of nostalgia which has proved to be Lowery’s primary interest.  While that film was soaked in sepia tones, A Ghost Story exists in the haze of fuzzy memory. The sets have a light fog that clouds each scene casting the entire film as something of the distant past. At one point, we meet another ghost in an unintentionally funny conversation. The other ghost is also waiting for someone, but can’t remember whom. As these ghosts wander through the lives of whomever moves into their houses, waiting for their special someone or someones to return, the film unveils itself as a look at our own emotional baggage and the legacy we leave behind. This recalls an intertitle from In the Mood for Love. “He remembers those vanished years as though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.” The ghosts misguidedly search for a feeling that they may never have again and as Lowery delves deeper into this futile search, the film expands beyond its seemingly limited scope. It becomes a film not just about one couple, but about the passing of time, memory, and the inherent history that every location carries, but rarely shows.

4/5 stars.