In Theaters 

The road of life is full of twists and turns, many of them unexpected. How we address them is crucial, for they help to shape the individuals we become, which, in turn, further shape the lives we continue to experience. But, in the midst of the hubbub of everyday existence, sometimes we lose sight of this, thereby drawing attention to the need to consider what we hope will come out of life’s challenges. Such is the experience of a pair of unlikely traveling companions in the meditative new release, “Gavagai” (web site, trailer).

Affluent German businessman Carsten Neuer (Andreas Lust) has a heavy burden weighing upon him. Having recently lost his wife, a translator of the works of famed Norwegian poet Tarjei Vesaas, he feels compelled to honor her memory by finishing a project she started, translating the poet’s verse from its native tongue into Chinese. Given the significant language differences, the undertaking is considered virtually impossible. However, Carsten believes that completing his late wife’s work is the best way to pay respects to her, no matter how difficult the venture might be.

To seek inspiration for this, Carsten decides to travel to rural Norway, Vesaas’s birthplace, hoping that walking in the poet’s footsteps will help to put him in a proper frame of mind for finishing this translation. However, there are a few challenges with that. Logistically speaking, the poet’s birthplace is somewhat remote, so simply getting there takes some effort. To make the journey easier, Carsten hires a guide/driver, Niko (Mikkel Gaup), to take him there. Although Niko is initially reluctant, he quickly relents when he learns of the hefty fee Carsten is willing to pay him, money that will come in handy in light of the pittance he’s earning from his business as a wildlife tour operator.

This challenge pales in comparison to Carsten’s bigger issue – he misses his wife terribly, and his despair seriously distracts him from carrying out his mission, despite his apparent heartfelt sincerity for wanting to see it through. She’s constantly on his mind, diverting his attention from the project and keeping him from finding the peace of mind he so desperately seeks. Even being in the poet’s homeland doesn’t help to inspire him as much as he thought it would. However, his journey does evoke thoughts and images of a mystical nature, even though they’re not the sort he was expecting or hoping for. Instead of visions and insights that remind him of the author, he’s flooded with memories and apparitions of his late wife, distracting him even more and hampering his work.

To complicate matters, Carsten is quietly irritated by his guide. Niko and his client are anything but compatible. The lively, burly, affable Niko frequently tries to engage him in conversation and camaraderie, something in which the sullen Carsten has no interest. In fact, were it not for their business arrangement, Carsten would otherwise probably have nothing to do with him. But, as their journey together unfolds, it becomes apparent that they benefit from one another’s company as each of them needs a friend. Carsten can use a consoling companion to help him work through his grief, while Niko needs someone to help him come to terms with the news that his girlfriend, Mari (Anni-Kristiina Juuso), is pregnant with his child.

German businessman Carsten Neuer (Andreas Lust) seeks to come to terms with his grief over the loss of his wife while on a trip to rural Norway in the thoughtful new cinematic tone poem, “Gavagai.” Photo courtesy of Shadow Distribution.

Through their travels together, Carsten and Niko seek to make peace with their issues – and with one another – so that they can move on in their lives. In doing so, they deal with the big issues – love, loss, life, death, friendship, maturity and the motivation to carry on under changing circumstances. The visions and insights that come to them during their journey help to provide them with the means to address these issues, both practically and philosophically. The experiences may be difficult, even painful, but they’re also transformative, helping them to realize what they need to do to get through their respective transitions.

In telling this story, director Rob Tregenza employs a quiet, meditative approach, cinematically fusing what’s going on in both the characters’ lives and minds. The imagery is complemented by narrated excerpts of Vesaas’s works, showing how the poet’s verse reflects the thoughts and impressions of the protagonists. When combined with the picture’s beautiful cinematography and its ethereal score, the film takes viewers on a vicarious metaphysical journey of their own, one designed to provoke thought and provide them with examples of how they can maneuver their way through the challenges of their own lives. The cinematic merging of actions with underlying thoughts, as well as depictions of alternate paths of existence to the ones on which we find ourselves, makes for an inspired metaphysical tutorial.

Given where Carsten and Niko are at in life, they’re faced with significant changes to the lives they’ve known. They’re each trying to figure out why these alterations are happening and how they might cope with their new circumstances. And, considering the scope involved, they’re each up against formidable challenges in their attempts to move forward. But, before they proceed, they need to assess what they’re leaving behind – and to accept that it is, in fact, time to let go of their old lives.

Like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, the protagonists each struggle with their respective losses – Carsten of the passing of his beloved, Niko of the passing of his carefree days of independence – and their attempts at envisioning what lies ahead. For Carsten, this means a fresh start; he’s a relatively young man in good health and has the second half of his life ahead of him. And, as for Niko, this means finally settling down and taking responsibility for his life, especially now that his existence will be tied up in the lives of two others. Those represent significant adjustments to what they’ve known, so allowing themselves the time and space needed to accept and grow comfortable with these changes is thus crucial to let go of their pasts and turn the pages of their lives.

As they work through this process, they each come upon some intriguing realizations. For instance, their lives are, like the nature of the story, innately poetic. The voiceovers interspersed throughout the film illustrate this fittingly, showing how the characters’ beliefs, outlooks and actions are aptly reflected in the realities surrounding them. Is it any wonder, then, how anyone could doubt that our lives are indeed poetic representations of our minds?

Some specific elements of the story draw particular attention to this. For example, Carsten makes his journey to complete his wife’s work on a translation of Vesaas’s verse from Norwegian into Chinese, a project that that he freely acknowledges is virtually impossible. He clearly grapples with the task, reaching for words that can’t possibly do proper justice to the original sentiment. It really is the proverbial square peg and round hole conundrum. But, for Carsten, this is a quandary that he struggles with in more ways than just trying to complete a poetry translation. His quest to make the impossible possible also applies to his longing for his wife; he wants to be with her again, but it’s a quest that’s simply not achievable, no matter how much he seeks its fulfillment.

Coming to grips with the realization that certain impossibilities are genuinely unattainable is thus essential to Carsten’s odyssey of letting go and moving on. Only by accepting that fundamental truth and sincerely believing in its veracity can he make himself ready for the next chapter. The poetry project serves as a subtle but significant allegory of this notion, one based on beliefs he’s devised and must now come to understand and appreciate. This is far from easy, but it’s truly necessary to make the break he needs to move on.

The beauty of the rural Norwegian landscape provides the backdrop for two unlikely traveling companions in the meditative new release, “Gavagai.” Photo courtesy of Shadow Distribution.

As we go about the business of daily life, most of us would probably just as soon not think about such matters. But, since they’re all inevitable parts of our existence, it would behoove us to take the time to give them some consideration, for how we address them in the here and now will ultimately have influence over how we experience them in the hereafter – and beyond. Getting our heads right about such issues is undoubtedly a productive use of our time, something we should make a practice of doing on occasion, and “Gavagai” serves as helpful reminder of this practice.

Of course, in finding meaning on such matters, we must determine what constitutes it for each of us individually, given that there’s no universal, one-size-fits-all concept or explanation that applies to all of us. To assume otherwise is fruitless, and trying to make it happen in life (and death) is akin to what Carsten and his wife have attempted to undertake in their poetry translation. The inherent inscrutability in such ventures – be it in explaining the meaning of life or translating something from one language to another – is at the heart of what “gavagai” means, both as a made-up word from a nonexistent language and in the central message of this film. But, then, finding our own meaning is at the heart of what it takes to manifest what we each experience.

If it’s not apparent by now, “Gavagai” is not a picture to be viewed casually. Director Tregenza’s ambitious attempt at getting a handle on such heady issues as these is certainly commendable. Telling a meditative tale of life, love, death, loss, friendship and carrying on in the context of a road trip buddy movie in the wilds of the Norwegian countryside is certainly inventive, one that in many ways is reminiscent of the thoughtful cinematic tone poem “Columbus” (2017). However, the film’s sometimes-cryptic narrative and cinematography weave a story that often feels padded and somewhat underdeveloped. Nice sentiments and heartfelt emotions permeate the film, but sometimes they’re depicted through photographic sequences that would benefit from some much-needed editing to make them more manageable — and meaningful. Enjoy this one as much as you can, and take time to appreciate the thoughtfulness it encourages in each of us, but don’t be surprised if it also starts to try your patience after a while.

Life goes by fast, sometimes a lot more quickly than we realize. Needless to say, it’s a precious resource we should never squander, one that we should appreciate and make the most of. But, to do that, sometimes we need to stop and take some time to assess it – what’s happened, what we’d like to happen and where we’re going. Periodically giving thought to the big issues that shape it, particularly the bookends that define it, would be in our best interests. Indeed, we should hope that, by doing so, we can avoid that regretful outcome of which Pink Floyd once sang so eloquently, “The time is gone, the song is over. Thought I’d something more to say.”

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Finding Fault (for Real)

Getting to the root of unethical or illegal behavior sometimes takes some doing. It may require considerable digging and ruling out what is initially looked upon as seemingly obvious. It might even involve traversing some highly unexpected paths to expose the culprits and their well-concealed misdeeds. So it is with life at an emotionally charged high school as seen in the seductive drama, “Blame” (web site, trailer), now available on DVD and video on demand.

Sensitive but troubled teen Abigail Grey (Quinn Shephard) is about to return to high school after undergoing treatment in a mental health facility for an undisclosed disorder. All indications are that she’s doing better, and her parents (Elizabeth Ann Howell, Carlyle Owens) believe she’s ready to resume her regular routine. Abigail’s not so sure, but she goes along with the plan, despite her apprehensions.

Abigail’s biggest worry is how she’ll be treated by her peers, and, on this front, she has legitimate reasons for concern. Bullying and humiliation, it seems, are common practices at her school, especially the kind routinely doled by manipulative mean girl Melissa Bowman (Nadia Alexander) and her various cronies, Sophie (Sarah Mezzanotte), Ellie (Tessa Albertson), Eric (Luke Slattery) and TJ (Owen Campbell). Melissa even has a pet nickname for Abigail, callously referring to her as “Psycho Sybil,” an insensitive reference to the title character of Flora Rheta Schreiber’s 1973 book about the treatment of a young woman afflicted with dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder).

Life is complicated for troubled teen Abigail Grey (Quinn Shephard, right) when bullied by mean girl Melissa Bowman (Nadia Alexander, center) and her cronies (from left), TJ (Owen Campbell), Eric (Luke Slattery), Sophie (Sarah Mezanotte) and Ellie (Tessa Albertson) in the seductive drama, “Blame,” now available on DVD and video on demand. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Needless to say, such cruel treatment makes Abigail’s return to school difficult. Fortunately, she’s able to find some solace in her drama class, a subject she seems to enjoy and one in which she receives ample encouragement from her teacher, Mrs. Howell (Geneva Carr), who also helps to shield her against malicious onslaughts from the resident bullies. However, when Mrs. Howell goes on maternity leave, Abigail’s future in the class is thrown into jeopardy. Thankfully, though, her fears are soon vanquished with the arrival of a kindly substitute, Jeremy Woods (Chris Messina), who takes a special interest in Abigail when he sees how unfairly she’s being treated by her classmates. But, even more than that, he’s also sufficiently impressed at how much talent she possesses.

Jeremy thus becomes both a protector and patron for Abigail. He intervenes on her behalf when she comes under attack from Melissa and her cohorts. And, to encourage the development of her acting ability, he assigns her the plum role of Abigail Williams in the class production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a part that Melissa also wanted. Needless to say, being relegated to Abigail’s understudy brings out the worst in Melissa, prompting her to ramp up her menacing machinations and making her rival’s life ever more difficult. But, whenever the need arises, Jeremy steps in to shelter his prize pupil to see that she’s getting a fair shake on all fronts.

Because of all this attention, Abigail quickly begins taking quite a liking to Mr. Woods – and he to her. The relationship between teacher and student begins to grow more complicated and precarious. Each thinks about the other constantly, causing new problems, such as troubles in Jeremy’s relationship with his girlfriend, Jennifer (Trieste Kelly Dunn). And, when Abigail’s classmates begin getting wind of what’s going on, innuendo starts making the rounds, providing Melissa with new ammunition to smear the reputation of her classmate and, potentially, that of her teacher if she doesn’t get what she wants. Suddenly Jeremy’s choice of The Crucible for a class production takes on a whole new irony of its own.

A special – and potentially inappropriate – relationship forms between troubled teen Abigail Grey (Quinn Shephard, left) and substitute teacher Jeremy Woods (Chris Messina, right) in writer-actor-director Quinn Shephard’s premiere feature, “Blame.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

As questions of propriety swirl, Jeremy begins pulling back. But this leaves Abigail confused about his feelings toward her, a development that threatens to undo all the progress she’s made at becoming psychologically stable once again. In his attempt to offer help, he may have inadvertently made matters worse, and, with rumors of a possible inappropriate relationship rearing their ugly head, there could be even more at stake, especially when Melissa fans the flames of speculation.

But, as strange as all of the foregoing twists and turns have been, even more lie ahead – and they have the potential to affect those least expecting them. How everything plays out for all concerned raises serious questions about who’s really at fault and for what. The answers to the thorny questions raised here indeed carry the seeds of surprise, but sometimes it takes circumstances as convoluted as these for the truth to be liberated – and to see where the blame for things really lies.

Though at times a little predictable and at other times a little underdeveloped, this premiere feature from writer-actor-director Quinn Shephard nevertheless shows her tremendous promise as a filmmaker. In this coming of age tale that combines elements of pictures as diverse as “Lolita” (1962), “Heathers” (1988) and “Carrie” (1976) (without the psychic aspects), Shephard explores topics ranging from mental health to emerging sexuality to inappropriate relationships to bullying in a thought-provoking yet entertaining vehicle. Shephard also turns in a fine performance as a misunderstood teen, backed by an equally strong portrayal by Nadia Alexander as her bad girl rival. Nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for best first screenplay, this film is now available for viewing through various home media options.

Bad girl Melissa Bowman (Nadia Alexander) hatches one of her many schemes to get her way in “Blame,” now available on DVD and video on demand. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Sometimes we’re all too quick to point the finger at others for their behavior. But, as the old saying goes, when one finger is pointed at someone, there are three others pointed back squarely at us. Assigning blame thus proves to be a trickier proposition than what might be apparent at first glance. We must thus be careful where we direct those digits of ours; it could prove to be a more painful and humiliating experience than we anticipate.

A complete review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

Who Will Win This Year’s Oscars? 

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will present its annual awards, the Oscars, in televised ceremonies on Sunday February 24. But who will take home the prizes? That’s where I come in. Through a blog entry and three podcasts, I offer my predictions for the winners of the awards for best picture, director, actor, actress, supporting actor and supporting actress.

On Thursday February 21 at 1 pm ET, join me and host Frankie Picasso for our annual look at the winners on Frankiesense & More on The Good Media Network. For the video version, tune in on Facebook Live by clicking here. And, for the audio only podcast edition, check out The Good Media Network’s home page by clicking here.

Beginning on Tuesday February 19, join me and host Sara Troy for our discussion on this year’s likely winners on Self Discovery Media. Until then, you can catch our current chat about 2018’s best and worst movie entries by clicking here.

And, if you can’t wait until then, take a listen now to my annual irreverent look at the Oscars on the latest edition of TheCoffeeCast with host Tom Cheevers. We take a rough-and-tumble look at the awards, so please be aware of the show’s explicit language warning!

To find out how I did, look for my scorecard blog on my web site the day after the awards broadcast. I’ll admit that picking the winners has been more challenging than usual this year, so wish me luck!

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.