Sometimes a film strikes a chord that resonates long after the movie ends. A few recent releases (well, maybe not so recent, but in the same “Academy” year) that piqued my interest were both intelligently crafted, satisfying entertainments and for various reasons, eminently relatable.
Take American Fiction for example. There has been much discussion of the “race’ aspect but like the professor/author protagonist of the film (a superb Jeffrey Wright) who doesn’t want to see his book classified as Black Literature simply because he is Black, there is so much more to enjoy and discuss. To be sure, some of the funniest (and most perceptive) sections of the film concern Wright’s Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, his hastily written, satirical putdown of modern Black Literature—and his bemusement (and arousing ire) when it is accepted and praised by both the publishing community and the public at large—as a gritty, realistic, “important” novel. However, the film also delves into academia, the American Dream, and most importantly, family dynamics, especially the difficulties (emotional, financial and otherwise) of care-givers, the sometimes tense relationship among siblings over responsibility (or lack thereof). There is also the matter of the character of Ellison himself, whose horror at the novel’s success (and assumed importance) lead him to be critical and even condemning of the benefits involved—and anyone who finds the book to be worthy of acclaim. Naturally this puts him at odds with his publisher, editor—and most poignantly, his potential girl-friend Coraline (Erika Alexander)—who likes the book without knowing the true identity of the author.
There are a few flaws, namely that the movie isn’t quite sure how it should end (though there is some welcome ambivalence regarding a certain matter). However, the script and direction by Cord Jefferson are top-notch (based on Percival Everett’s novel Erasure; as are all the performances, from Tracee Ellis Ross as the wise, compassionate sister to Leslie Uggams as the slowly deteriorating matriarch and Sterling Brown as Ellison’s critical, perpetually stoned brother. Issa Rae and Erika Alexander are also fine as a rival author and Ellison’s love interest, respectively. Much to savor with American Fiction, seek it out in the theatres if you can.
Past Lives, written and directed by Celine Song, has been out a while, making its way to both streaming and cable (Showtime, I believe), and if you can see it, you’d be quite fortunate. Past Lives, two young South Koreans, Na Young and Hae Sung, develop a strong bond which alas is challenged when Na’s family emigrates to Toronto. Years pass, Na is now Nora, an aspiring writer living in NY, while Hae Sung has finished his required service and is now a student. He finds Nora through “the Facebook” (like the countless others who have found that “missing someone” through this method) and they commence a remote video relationship—until Nora begs off, saying they’ll reconnect at some point. Which brings us to the present, and Nora and Hae-Sung, finally in the same country again, each interested, for different reasons, in reviving the friendship.
If you’ve ever been a victim of “crossed wires” or “missed connections,” the bittersweet unfolding of events in Past Lives may cause you to get a little misty. In the beautiful and mostly understated playing by Greta Lee and Teo Yoo, we see how these two love each other (perhaps in different ways) and how right they might be for each other, if other, plausible obstacles didn’t remain (distance, ambition, family). Nora’s patient writer husband (John Mugaro) also becomes an important character, and even though the viewer might want Nora to end up with Hae-Sung, the film has other things on its mind. Past Lives winds up being quite emotionally affecting, both in its restraint and in the occasional release. It’s nominated for Best Picture, and I think the nomination is quite deserved.