The summer of sizzle and sequels is upon us, which too often means faster, louder, dumber. For sound and fury signifying nothing X-Men Apocalypse is up against a new franchise in Warcraft. Second helpings are on offer of The Conjuring, the ever-vulgar neighbours, and Now You See Me — with scenes filmed in Macau, a nod to the growing importance of China’s burgeoning box-office in Hollywood’s big-money calculations. Fantasy Alice Through the Looking Glass, however, flopped down the rabbit hole. For sentimentalists there’s the weepy Me Before You. For kids, Disney Pixar’s Finding Dory. Forget the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and moronic Central Intelligence. To come in July: The Legend of Tarzan; animated family comedy The Secret life of Pets; horrorfests The Shallows, The Purge (third “Election Year” instalment), and Lights Out; another Independence Day, Star Trek, Ice Age, and Jason Bourne; a female Ghostbusters reboot.
Still, good alternatives exist. During a recent visit to Calgary I was pleased to see in a regular Cineplex Whit Stillman’s wonderful 18th century comedy of manners Love & Friendship (adapted from Jane Austen’s first novella) and the dystopian Into the Forest from Canadian Patricia Rozema. Watch for other well-acted features from last year’s Toronto film festival: Canadian stories Sleeping Giant and Closet Monster; Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan, a witty New York dramedy of modern relationships.
Now in theatres is the stirring Civil War drama Free State of Jones (to be reviewed in the July 13 issue). For family viewing, arriving Canada Day is Steven Spielberg’s Roald Dahl adaption The BFG (Big Friendly Giant), which charmed many critics at Cannes. It has Oscar winner Mark Rylance in the title role. Woody Allen fans can look forward to Café Society, another Cannes selection. On the dark side, The Infiltrator and John Le Carré adaptation Our Kind of Traitor look promising.
Beyond that, three movies probing troubled father-son relationships merit attention.
Currently in limited release is writer-director Noah Buschel’s The Phenom about the struggles of Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons), a star American teenage athlete and ace pitcher who’s made it to baseball’s major leagues only to lose his confidence and control. Demoted to a farm club, the Port St. Lucie Pumas, he suffers from insomnia and anxiety. Hopper’s lack of future direction also concerns his sympathetic girlfriend Dorothy (Sophie Kennedy Clark).
The team sends Hopper to intensive sessions with an unconventional sports psychologist Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti), who faces his own demons having earlier lost a player patient to suicide. What soon becomes apparent is Hopper’s unresolved love-hate relationship with his overbearing dad Hopper Sr. (Ethan Hawke), a hard driving, hard-drinking macho man who has subjected his son to abusive demands and taunts from childhood on. The father has constantly pushed the son to achieve sports success; indeed takes credit for it. But his violent temper and criminal convictions make him an object of fear and shame, the opposite of a masculine role model. Without giving away more, let me say that an honest heart-to-heart encounter in a prison setting proves cathartic. There’s hope that Hopper can get back in the game, not just on the mound but in larger life terms.
Johnny Simmons is impressive as Hopper. As the problematic paternal influence, Ethan Hawke, sporting a crew cut and tattoos, turns in another terrific performance demonstrating his recent range (Born to Be Blue, Maggie’s Plan, In a Valley of Violence). He also played the father in Linklater’s 2014 masterpiece Boyhood. More than a sports story, The Phenom shows how a male culture that prizes winning and material success can warp the most basic human relationships.
Whether the sins of the father can be forgiven is also at issue in writer-director Bart Freundlich’s Wolves about another athletic phenom. Anthony Keller (Taylor John Smith) is an 18-year-old New York City high-school senior and the captain of its basketball team, the St. Anthony’s Wolves. Nicknamed “Saint,” on the surface he seems to have it all: success at an elite private school, doting parents, a steady girlfriend, the attention of college basketball scouts notably from Cornell University.
Beneath the façade is a different reality. The father, Lee Keller (Michael Shannon), an unhappy low-level college teacher, is a chronic gambler whose increasingly risky sports bets will eventually land the family in deep financial trouble. Alcohol only exacerbates Lee’s erratic highs and lows. As he takes out his aggression on Anthony, mother Jenny (Carla Gugino) tries to mediate and hold things together. Lee’s brother Charlie (Chris Bauer) also helps out. Indeed for Anthony, Uncle Charlie becomes a more trusted father figure and plays a key role in a climactic closing scene on the basketball court.
Pressures mount on Anthony as the season progresses toward a championship in which his coach (Wayne Duvall) puts everything on the line. Outside school Anthony gets knocked down a few pegs and receives advice from an older former pro. It’s made clear the scholarship he needs for Cornell is no sure thing. Girlfriend Victoria (Zazie Beetz) becomes pregnant leading to a breakup. Tensions with Lee escalate to the point of a violent confrontation in which Anthony suffers a serious injury. Going into a final crucial game, with Lee deeply in hock to a threatening gang, Anthony has to make an excruciating choice both physically and emotionally.
At the Tribeca world premiere, director Freundlich explained that he developed the intense screenplay from a short story written at age 16. Convincingly acted, it definitely feels both raw and real, on and off the playing court. Smith does a remarkable job as the son, especially for someone who had not played basketball before. Like Hawke in The Phenom, Shannon is brilliant as the abrasive bullying dad brought low by bad behaviour. (Shannon is also enjoying a string of prominent roles: Frank & Lola, Midnight Special, Elvis & Nixon, among others.) Again the sports narrative is a medium through which multiple layers of human relationships are observed.
Paddy Breathnach’s Viva, a Cuba-Ireland coproduction that was Ireland’s entry for the 2016 foreign-language Oscar (it made the shortlist of nine), tells a far less mainstream story. Jesus (Héctor Medina) is a young gay man in Havana who does hair and makeup for drag queens who perform in a nightclub owned by a caring owner and mentor known as “Mama” (Luis Alberto Garcia). Jesus, who lives hand to mouth, also does the hair of elderly ladies who usually lack the means to pay. He sometimes lets a female prostitute use his tiny dingy apartment.
Jesus inhabits a world on the margins of Cuban society. When he dreams it is of singing in the drag show, and after Mama lets him try, taking the stage name “Viva,” he makes a striking impression. That’s when he is struck by an apparently aggrieved older patron at the bar. The assailant turns out to be his long estranged father Angel (Jorge Perugorria) who, suffering incurable illness, has been released from many years in prison. The alcoholic indigent Angel was once a star in the boxing ring but has fallen far and his attempt to reconnect with that past glory is pathetically rebuffed. As much as he shows macho disgust for his son’s life — forbidding Jesus from performing in the club — he depends completely on Jesus for shelter and food (rice and beans) on the table. Their situation is so precarious that Jesus even resorts to prostitution to support them. The son who’s “been made to feel sorry for who I am” becomes the caregiver.
What redeems the relationship is how both gradually come to accept the other, a reconciliation that means both forgiving Angel’s failings as a father and letting Jesus express himself his way in returning to the stage. In such harsh circumstances — a side of Cuba we seldom see — it’s a small victory for tenderness and tolerance.