Arts Review


Helplessness is the defining condition of childhood. As children, we are entirely at the mercy of parents and caregivers. We can complain, we can make ourselves difficult, but these adults’ decisions—about where we live, whom we live with, how or whether we are educated, what we eat—are out of our hands. We are in bondage for eighteen years, and especially for the first thirteen or fourteen, before we start developing the tools to fight back.
Some try to cope with a lack of agency by becoming “problem children,” disrupting the agenda forced on them. Others, like Cáit (Catherine Clinch), the Quiet Girl in the recent Irish film of that name, take the opposite tack and attempt to disappear into the background. Cáit, who seems to be about nine years old, is the middle child in a large family on a ramshackle farm somewhere in County Waterford, in the early 1980s. Their Da (Michael Patric) is a handsome good-for-nothing who drinks and gambles away what little cash they manage to earn and clearly knocks the sad Mam (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) and their brood around. Cáit’s siblings have developed a tough exterior; Cáit, painfully shy and sensitive, cannot. She is a misfit both at home, where she wets the bed, and at school, where she struggles to read, and she has developed a habit of hovering in the background of every scene, a pale ghost of a girl.

Mam is pregnant once more, and her older cousin Eibhlín (pronounced Eileen, and gorgeously played by Carrie Crowley) offers to take one of the children off her hands for the summer. So Da drives Cáit, clearly the most expendable of the litter, off to the farm where Eibhlín lives with her husband Seán Cinnsealach (Andrew Bennett). This new temporary home is a far cry from Cáit’s own. The house is orderly, spic-and-span. Meals are carefully prepared and eaten together at the kitchen table. The farm animals are healthy and well tended. Eibhlín and Seán are soft-spoken, courteous. Upon arrival, the grubby child is put right into a steaming bath where Eibhlín gently washes her. Her hair is brushed a hundred times. She is called “love.” Having arrived with only the clothes on her back, she is soon togged out in some old boys’ clothing out of the cupboard, slightly too big for her.

It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that Eibhlín and Seán lost a son, long ago, in a farm accident. The clothes and Caít’s bedroom wallpaper covered in images of trains are giveaways, not to mention a distinctly wounded quality in the solitary couple. They never mention the son or his death, though. And indeed there is a great deal that doesn’t get talked about. These people, and Caít herself, are repressed, undemonstrative. Dialogue, which interestingly is in a mixture of English and Irish, is minimal, except in one scene in which Cáit gets cornered by the village busybody and another where Seán’s cronies come over for an evening of poker. There are no hugs. Seán is at first so shy with Cáit that he can hardly talk to her. We are quite far into the movie before he passes her at the kitchen table and quickly, surreptitiously, places a cream cookie beside her, before hurrying out of the room.

The love that develops between the lonely couple and the neglected child is profound, and director-screenwriter Colm Bairéad (he based his film on Foster, a novella by Claire Keegan) has risen brilliantly to the challenge of infusing heightened emotion into scenes in which no one says very much and even physical gestures are economical. Too many directors seem to think that having characters weep and emote will move audiences, but the opposite is far more often the case: it is the character who suffers valiantly in silence who moves us most. We understand these characters through their faces, not their words, and Bairéad, with a skillful use of close-ups and angles, makes every gesture meaningful. Da’s awfulness is made apparent by the way he stubs out his cigarette in his dinner plate, the way he ungraciously throws the stalks of rhubarb Eibhlín has given him into the back of his car. Toward the end of the film, when Eibhlín pays a visit to Mam, the same rhubarb makes a reappearance, offered by the gentle Mam to her guest in the form of jam. Every incident holds significance.

The director and his cinematographer, Kate McCullough, decided to shoot with a Sony Venice, a digital camera with a very large frame that provides epic scope—it helped create the look of Top Gun: Maverick. But rather than widening the frame, they kept it narrow and used the camera’s capacity to give a heightened vertical frame, putting the viewer in the position of a smallish child who is always having to look upward. The point is to inhabit the mind of the child throughout the film, a goal that is achieved in subtle ways. There are few distance shots or broad vistas; anyone who has spent time around children knows that they focus on their immediate surroundings rather than on views. And when Cáit is being driven to the Cinnsealachs’ farm, we see what she sees out of the window from the back seat: the sky and the tops of trees. “The whole film,” Bairéad has said, “is built on a philosophy of authenticity and across all departments, just trying to present things as truthfully as possible.” Bairéad’s background as a documentary filmmaker—The Quiet Girl is his first feature—might have a lot to do with this philosophy. It conforms with the way he and production designer Emma Lowney have approached the look of the film: “We were very careful . . . in terms of situating the film in the correct era, but also not trying to make it too nostalgic [because] my sense was always that we’re making a film in the present tense.”

The ending, when summer is over and Caít has to leave the Cinnsealachs to go home, is almost unbearably sad; the audience weeps. And yet it is a hopeful movie, despite everything. Caít now knows what it is to live in a home where people love and care for each other, where order reigns, where duty is pleasure. She might have ended up like her mother; now, one would venture to predict that she will not.

Sophie (Frankie Corio) in the British film Aftersun is a couple of years older than Caít and infinitely more assured and at ease in the world; but like Caít, she struggles to comprehend the mysterious inner lives of adults and her relationships with them—especially in regard to her father, Calum (Paul Mescal). Calum is a very young father, only twenty years older than Sophie, and they are sometimes mistaken for siblings. Sophie lives in Edinburgh with her mother while Calum has moved to London—it is implied that they were never married, but they are still close. Now Calum and Sophie are embarking on a father-daughter holiday at a cheap Turkish resort. It’s a trip that for reasons that are never fully revealed to us has remained seared in the memory of the adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall). She has gone over it again and again, and we experience it through her reconstructed memories, aided by some patchy camcorder footage she and Calum shot at the time.
Why is she so fixated on this trip? And why does the film begin and end with Calum and Sophie’s airport farewell at the end of the holiday? The probable answer is that this was their last time together and that he died soon afterward, most likely from suicide. For the holiday occurs on two levels. On the surface, it is a pleasant, unremarkable time. Father and daughter swim in the pool, go snorkeling, visit ancient ruins, have a mud bath, play pool with the teenagers at the resort, laugh at the place’s silly evening entertainments. They are affectionate and jovial together. Yet we—and Sophie—are always aware of a deep underlying distress in Calum. He seems curiously rootless. He left Edinburgh because he never felt he belonged there, but one doubts he feels at ease in London either. A girl he “liked” (loved?) has dropped him. He makes vague promises about setting up house with a friend, where Sophie will have a room of her own. But one understands that he is in some sort of despair. Tiny windows open, through which we get glimpses of a neglected childhood. He does Tai Chi and practices meditation. Alone in the room for a few moments, he sobs uncontrollably. One night, when he and his daughter go their separate ways, he runs fully dressed into the sea, gets hammered, and passes out in the room. The next day he’s in an agony of guilt.

Sophie senses it all. With valiant cheer she jollies her father along, prods him, keeps him having fun. But she can’t find out what really ails him. At one point he tells her she can tell him anything: boys, drugs, whatever. The tragedy is that he can’t do this himself; he can’t tell her about his pain. Once again, we see a story mostly through a child’s eyes, and we are accorded only as much knowledge as that child has. The assured young director Charlotte Wells—this is her first feature—uses film in a strikingly creative way to evoke the layered and often strained nature of memory, the search to re-create a vanished past. The adult Sophie, who now has a child of her own, sometimes sees her father in flashes, through strobes as if they are at a rave. The camcorder footage is sometimes watched by her in the present tense, sometimes by Calum just after it was taken. Sometimes a hand-held camera is used.

Like Bairéad, Wells has had the challenge of setting her film in a time she probably can hardly remember. She was born in 1987, and the film is set in the ’90s. You can identify the period by the technology: there are no cell phones yet, and the characters have little tape players to which they listen with ear buds. There are still functioning phone booths. But as in The Quiet Girl, there is no attempt to bring nostalgia into the formula, no knowing winks at “period” details. The film is so intently focused upon the two central characters that such details are almost beside the point.

And the two stars do a beautiful job. Frankie Corio is a cute girl, and a less serious director might have played on that cuteness; under Wells’s direction she is charmingly direct and unaffected. And Paul Mescal, an intense young Irish actor, is riveting; his character’s pleasure at being in his daughter’s company and his simultaneous inability to shake his underlying pain create an acting challenge that he meets beautifully.

In the Belgian film Close there are two youthful protagonists: Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele), both thirteen years old. Close is set in the present—one gets a glimpse of the occasional video game—but its world seems timeless. The boys live in the countryside. Rémi’s mother (Émilie Dequenne) is a maternity ward nurse; Léo’s family has a flower farm, and the footage of the two boys running through the blooms is stunning. They enjoy old-fashioned, adventurous make-believe games. Rémi plays the oboe. They are best friends and seem to have been so all their lives. They appear to have no other friends, apart from Léo’s older brother Charlie (Igor van Dessel). They sleep in the same bed many nights, usually at the home of Rémi, with his kind, welcoming parents. Yes, they are close; very close.
Have they even been to school yet? They seem entirely untouched by the social conventions and hierarchies and peer pressure so important to schoolchildren. Innocent; just on the cusp of adolescence.

And then they do go to school, and everything shifts. Their sharp-eyed classmates immediately remark on their closeness and ask them whether they are a couple. Rémi is placidly unconcerned by the question; Léo doesn’t like it. The dreamy Rémi would be happy to continue their exclusive friendship, but Léo is more group-oriented. He likes his new classmates and wants to fit in. He joins the ice hockey team and befriends a teammate, Baptiste (Léon Bataille), a popular, athletic boy.

Léo and Rémi are still best friends, but Léo has new friends now and Rémi has no interest in anyone but Léo. He shows physical affection to Léo at school, and Léo pulls away. Léo is no longer comfortable sharing Rémi’s bed—he slips into the trundle bed instead. Rémi’s remonstrations initiate a fierce physical fight, probably the first they have ever had.

If you plan to see the movie and don’t want a spoiler, SKIP TO THE NEXT SECTION!

Rémi becomes withdrawn. And then one day he doesn’t show up for a school trip, disquieting Léo. It turns out he has killed himself—in the bathroom at home. (We are spared the agony of seeing the act.) Léo, of course, is more shocked than anyone except the bereaved parents, but on some level he seems to have expected it; the moment he sees a phalanx of parents arriving at the school to collect their children, he realizes what has happened.

Why is he not surprised? And are we, really? What clues have there been? A couple of them, we realize. Rémi suffered from insomnia which he explained to Léo as “My head—it never stops.” And then there was his mother Sophie’s unreasonable anger, surely laced with fear, early in the film when Rémi has locked the bathroom door; she has expressly told him not to do that. Why not? Thirteen-year-olds should be able to lock the bathroom door if they want to . . . And then one understands that this fear has long been at the back of Sophie’s mind.

I saw the movie with my daughter, and she perceived nothing sexual or necessarily romantic in the two boys’ friendship. She saw it as beautifully innocent, the last pure relationship before the teenage years complicate everything. I, on the other hand, strongly felt Rémi’s suicide to be the result of doomed love. Until they went to school, Léo had been his world, and he had believed that life would always go on like that. It’s not what I’d call a “gay” film—I’m not sure Rémi is even mature enough to formulate his feelings; but it is a film about the loss of love and the unwillingness of the lover to compromise with life for anything less.

As with Catherine Clinch and Frankie Corio, I kept wondering, “Where do they find these children?” I can remember a time when child actors, even the good ones, were a bit affected and precocious, too clearly the product of vocal coaches and accent modification. These children appear utterly natural, though none of them has much experience. A friend of mine suggested that Instagram might be a good place for casting directors to find young talent, and that does make sense. But it takes a director with the sensitivity of Close’s Lukas Dhont, or of Wells or of Bairéad, to keep the kids honest, as it were. Eden Dambrine is an elfin, slightly androgynous blond child with enormous, intelligent blue-green eyes; he watches everyone closely, intent on uncovering the rituals and mores of school life, determined to find his niche. Gustav De Waele, with dark hair and eyes, is his opposite. They are beautiful rather than adorable; Dhont treats them with respect, never condescension. Again we have the story told largely from the child’s point of view, in this case Léo’s, and again this makes us, the moviegoers, notice different things from what we normally might notice through our adult eyes.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, adapted and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig from the 1970 children’s classic by Judy Blume, is a very different kind of movie from any of the above. It’s more staged, more showbiz, more discernably “acted.” I don’t say this to criticize; it’s simply the difference between Hollywood and indie, and both can be great. Are You There is a very good movie and a worthy adaptation of a beloved favorite. It has garnered excellent reviews. And yet it has bombed at the box office.
Why? Being of roughly the same vintage as the titular Margaret—I was fourteen in 1970, when she is twelve—I hate to admit what is probably the truth: that bourgeois adolescent life in that era now seems exceedingly tame, and the issues that preoccupy Margaret and her friends—When will they get their periods? When will they have enough bust for a bra? Should Margaret, the product of a mixed marriage, attend church or synagogue?—will not impress a generation that has been exposed since early childhood to internet porn, active shooter drills, friends and relatives overdosing on fentanyl, the climate crisis, the uncertainty of a future run by artificial intelligence, the freakshow on Capitol Hill. A 2023 counterpart of Margaret might be wondering not so much when her breasts will develop as whether or not she is a girl at all. I suppose Fremon Craig could have updated the material, but then what would be left? The gentle spirit of the original would probably be lost in the transposition. As a period piece the film succeeds very well; Fremon Craig and production designer Steve Saklad have done a beautiful job in re-creating an era that ended before the director’s birth. I only found a few false notes. In 1970 an educated man like Margaret’s father (Benny Safdie) would not have said “anyways”; her teacher (Echo Kellum) would not have said her essay topic was “compelling”; she herself would not yet have heard the word “supermodel.” But these are very minor gripes; the quality of the time travel on offer is generally outstanding.

Unlike her contemporaries Catherine Clinch and Frankie Corio, Abby Ryder Fortson is a seasoned professional, having appeared in several movies. Her Margaret Simon is appealing, forthright and thoughtful. Moving, at the beginning of the film, from Manhattan to a New Jersey suburb, Margaret almost immediately gets sucked into the “secret club” of her new neighbor, Nancy (Elle Graham), a bossy little blonde in practice for a future as a high school queen bee. There are four girls in the club, including Margaret, and Nancy instructs them in mandatory rituals like keeping a “boy book” and practicing bust-enhancing exercises. Nancy is overbearing, but she is no Regina George, at least not yet; her naivety is so obvious, her plots and machinations so transparent, that it’s impossible not to warm to her.

The original Regina George, Rachel McAdams—already old enough to play a teenager’s mother!—is lovely in the role of Barbara Simon, a 1970s archetype: the “career woman” (art teacher) who has decided to stay home and care for her family for a while. A people pleaser, Barbara soon gets dragooned into endless PTA committees until, in the end, she declares her independence. Her dreadful parents (Mia Dillon and Gary Houston), who disowned Barbara for marrying a Jew, attempt a predictably disastrous reconciliation. And as Margaret’s other grandmother, the brassy, exuberant Sylvia, Kathy Bates has almost too much fun.

Bates’s portrayal is sparkly, but a bit cartoonish. The movie is at its best when the actors play it straight, as McAdams does. A scene that stood out was Margaret’s trip to a fancy New York restaurant with Nancy and her family. In the middle of dinner, Nancy gets her period for the first time. Trouble is, she has lied and told the other club members she’d got it months previously. Nancy’s shock and humiliation and Margaret’s disillusionment and feelings of betrayal are spot on; everyone in the scene is humanized and softened.

The minor characters conform closely with my memories of the time and its mores. In school, there is the inevitable fat boy, Norman Fisher (perfectly played by Simms May); the equally inevitable male hottie, Philip Leroy (Zack Brooks) whom every girl in the club feels obliged to put down in her boy book; and the equally inevitable girl who looks twenty years old (Isol Young), tall and shapely: an object of horrified fascination to her female peers. A spin-the-bottle scene where this unfortunate girl has to go into the closet with the shortest boy in the class is viscerally painful.

In short, Are You There is a likeable and very well-made movie. But alas! It’s a message in a bottle, a relic of a dead civilization. Thinking about this film has done more to help me comprehend the changes that have come over my world in the last fifty years than any recent work of social history.