“Love” is a word we often bandy about rather casually without really giving much thought to what’s behind it. That can be unfortunate, since such a practice frequently sells it short, giving us a diminished perspective on what it actually can do. Fortunately, there are tales out there that shed a bright light on the subject, showing us what it can achieve when employed skillfully and deliberately. So it is with the new touching romantic drama, “Ordinary Love” (web site, trailer).
Middle-aged couple Tom (Liam Neeson) and Joan (Lesley Manville) have been happily married for a long time. Through the years, the couple from the suburbs of Belfast, Northern Ireland has shared many joys, as well as some sorrows, such as the tragic death of their only child, Debbie. But, much of the time, they’ve happily gone about their everyday lives with a mixture of reliable routines, playful banter and undeniable love, the kind that has fostered a strong relationship and enabled them to weather the storms of their lives. They’ve indeed built quite a satisfying life together.
Which is why it’s so disturbing when events arise that threaten to take away that happiness. While conducting a routine breast screening exam, Joan discovers an abnormality. And, when she subsequently consults her physician (Esh Alladi) and a specialist (Melanie Clark Pullen) about the matter, she’s diagnosed with cancer. The safe, secure, generally ordeal-free life they’ve built together suddenly seems perilously in danger.
With a prognosis that’s neither completely optimistic nor totally damning, and with her life at stake, Joan goes forward with her treatment program, which begins with surgery followed by chemotherapy. She endeavors to remain upbeat, but the difficulties she endures – post-surgical pain, as well as all of the side effects of chemo treatment (hair loss, incessant nausea, etc.) – take their toll on her. And, before long, they begin to take their toll on their relationship, too.
Tom wrestles with wanting to help, even though there is little he can do other than offer comfort and support. And, no matter how compassionate and reassuring he tries to be, he can never really fully appreciate what Joan is going through. She tries to spare his feelings and show gratitude for his attempts at easing her burden, yet she also knows that his well-meaning efforts are ultimately inadequate for her particular needs. In many ways, she feels alone, with no one – not even Tom – being fully able to understand what she’s undergoing.
At the same time, Tom feels alone, too. He experiences feelings of being shut out, upset that he’s seen as not being up to the task of providing adequate care (if there even is something such as that under circumstances as trying as these). He’s also frightened of the prospect of being alone permanently; with his daughter deceased and his wife’s future uncertain, he faces the very real possibility of being by himself.
As Joan moves through her personal odyssey, she at last meets someone to whom she can relate, Peter (David Wilmot), a fellow cancer patient who was once one of Debbie’s school teachers. Spending time in the company of a kindred spirit gives her comfort, support and hope, especially now that she has an opportunity to share her thoughts with somebody who can fully relate to what she’s going through. Their conversations not only allow her talk about the particulars of her illness, but they also provide her with a sounding board to talk about her relationship, especially given that Peter is experiencing similar challenges with his partner, Steve (Amit Shah). And, with Peter’s health failing fast, these circumstances also give Joan pause to contemplate her own fate, to get her own thoughts in order in the face of an uncertain future.
Even with such difficulties, though, Tom and Joan nevertheless have their undying love for one another to help them get through this ordeal. While there may be times when their love is tested or when they may lose sight of it, it’s always present and available in ample supply, and they can always tap into it when the need arises. It proves to be quite the rock on which to rest their burdens and give them stability when needed. But, most of all, it provides them hope for what lies ahead, the kind of solace they can use in times like this, both for themselves and one another.
How we view our circumstances – and what we foresee for our future – may not be easy propositions to address. But, in the end, they always come down to a matter of our beliefs – what do we think about where we are and where we’re going? Is our situation something we can handle? Or is it something that we view as being beyond us, out of our control? In any case, it comes down to what we believe, and that’s important to remember, for our beliefs serve to shape what we experience.
“Ordinary Love” presents the story of ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances, the big cosmic questions mankind has wrestled with throughout eternity. That may not seem so unusual, since all of us will face these issues for ourselves at some point. Nevertheless, that certainty doesn’t make the process any easier, especially for those who may have never given these questions much thought in the course of their everyday lives. That’s the challenge Tom and Joan are staring down now.
To be sure, they did face a crisis not unlike this with the death of their daughter. But, when the question looks at us squarely in the face, the impact is felt that much more strongly. And now the happily married couple – particularly Joan – must do so for themselves. So what are they going to do?
Given Joan’s prognosis, this is a scenario where it seems that “hope for the best but prepare for the worst” would likely seem most advisable. It’s an approach infused with optimism and realism at the same time, a practical outlook that gives hope but doesn’t falsely rely on wishful thinking. It requires walking a metaphorical tightrope, one that may not be easy to traverse. But it does help to make the best of a troubling and trying situation.
In many respects, this is where the belief in hope seriously comes into play. It gives us the strength to carry on, to move forward into the abyss of difficulty and to stay the course as we work our way through these travails. It’s often aided significantly by a belief in faith, a powerful motivator that assures us whatever we endure will serve our greater good. And, when combined with hope, this belief duo makes for a powerful tool in the face of hardship.
Perhaps the strongest belief to possess in a situation like this is one’s belief in the power of love, especially when it’s employed in a joint context, as it is here. When we make use of it on an individual basis, it can be a powerful force for our benefit and well-being. But, when it’s amplified through a collective initiative, its impact can be tremendous, especially when focused on a mutually sought-after goal. Despite their occasional disagreements, Tom and Joan are largely on the same page in this undertaking, and with their shared beliefs working in tandem, there’s no telling what they might be able to achieve.
“Ordinary Love” may seem a somewhat odd choice for a Valentine’s Day release, but, for a holiday all about love, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting offering when it comes to a film aimed at examining the profound depths of this subject. Directors Lisa Barrows D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn present a moving, exceedingly touching experience much in the style of filmmaker Mike Leigh, one that evokes genuine, heartfelt emotions throughout. This sensitive, highly personal look at what a cancer diagnosis does shows just how affecting the impact can be on anyone, but especially to a longtime married couple. It’s a fairly simple, straightforward story, one that’s been done a number of times before, but it presents the narrative in exacting detail yet with an extraordinarily everyday approach, one that illustrates how life goes on (or attempts to go on) even in the face of exceptional (and burdensome) circumstances. The picture’s excellent award-worthy performances by Neeson and, especially, Manville, along with simple but effective cinematography, a meticulous production design and a suitably fitting soundtrack, elevate a familiar narrative to an entirely new level of frankness and viewer intimacy.
When circumstances look bleak, we’re indeed fortunate to have love to fall back on. It offers us hope, comfort and support in the face of dire conditions, even when they seem irreconcilable. It shepherds us through our difficulties and leads us to a place of consolation, perhaps even a deeper understanding of ourselves and our existence. But, above all, it can work miracles, even in the most demanding situations. That’s quite an accomplishment for a little four-letter word – but one that embodies remarkable qualities beyond measure.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Digging One’s Way Out of Dysfunction
When we feel like we’re stuck in a rut, escape seems almost unfathomable. And, the greater the dysfunction associated with that condition, the more onerous the circumstances become. But such conditions need not be an irrevocable sentence, especially if we can find it within us to search for a way forward. These are the challenges of a group of adult and teen residents in a seemingly idyllic setting in the offbeat and arguably indescribable new offering, “Knives and Skin” (web site, trailer).
Life is a struggle of quiet desperation in a fictional community located somewhere in the assumed wholesome Midwestern confines of suburban Illinois, a place where everything should be perfect, uncannily resembling the set design of a 1950s TV sitcom. But that mythical idealized image couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, in many ways, this nameless locale is dysfunction personified. Consider the lives of some of its inhabitants:
- Dan Kitzmiller (Tim Hopper), recently laid off from his job, is trapped in a bad marriage to his neurotic wife, Lynn (Audrey Francis), an ultra-sensitive intuitive who’s obsessed with seemingly every type of New Age fad and propped up on a cocktail of prescription meds, a combination that leads to a questionable connection to reality. She looks on her husband with contempt, given that he’s a bad provider for the family and more concerned with becoming a full-time party clown, an occupation that generates only a paltry income. She’s also certain he’s having an affair, and, thanks to her intuitive abilities, she has a pretty good idea with whom. Her various conditions and neuroses, meanwhile, don’t make her much of a homemaker, a task that’s left to her live-in mother-in-law, Miriam (Marilyn Dodds Frank), a rambunctious senior who’s got quite a thing for pot and freewheeling sexuality. Grandma’s left in charge of the family’s two teenage kids, Joanna (Grace Smith), who makes a fortune selling her mother’s dirty underwear to the high school’s lecherous principal (Tony Fitzpatrick) while fending off the advances of a substitute teacher (Alex Moss), and Andy (Ty Olwin), an oversexed jock known for inappropriate behavior with the girls he dates. It’s quite a household.
- Sheriff Doug Darlington (James Vincent Meredith) and his wife, Renee (Kate Arrington), are expecting their third child. It should be a happy occasion for the long-married interracial couple, yet Doug seems less than thrilled, much to the dismay of his spouse, who’s ever chipper and bounces around like the perpetually ebullient Nora from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House. And, like the character whom she emulates, Renee has secrets of her own – but they’re potentially more damaging than anything Nora ever tried to conceal. Meanwhile, the couple’s two teenage children look on in bewilderment, Jesse (Robert T. Cunningham), who can’t wait to get out of town and move on with his life, and Laurel (Kayla Carter), who, because of Renee’s issues, reluctantly becomes a sort of surrogate mother for the family – and often has to bring her wayward mom back down to earth.
- The girls at the local high school struggle with coming of age issues, including everything from sexuality to asserting their personal power, especially in their relationships with boys and older men. This includes not only Joanna and Laurel, but also their friends April Martinez (Aurora Real De Asua), Charlotte Kurtich (Ireon Roach) and Afra Siddiqui (Haley Bolithon). While they generally hold their own well, it can be a challenge, especially in dealings with the school’s persistently randy athletes and in situations where they openly seek to explore alternate forms of sexuality.
- High school choral instructor Lisa Harper (Marika Engelhardt) lives on the edge of reality. The single mother has an unusual relationship with her daughter, Carolyn (Raven Whitley), an enigmatic teen who looks like a walking anachronism, frequently dressing like something out of decades past. Interestingly, Lisa seems to both love and envy her daughter, making for motivations and actions that are often hard to decipher. And, when Carolyn goes missing, Lisa becomes even more unhinged, engaging in progressively stranger and more unpredictable behavior. However, she also senses what may have happened to her daughter, a disappearance that came on the heels of a date with Andy Kitzmiller, a rendezvous that, curiously, Lisa knew nothing about at the time.
From the foregoing descriptions, it would seem that all of the characters in this community are terribly, terribly lost, with no clue how to get themselves or their lives on track. In fact, about the only thing they have in common is Carolyn’s disappearance, something in which they all become involved to one degree or another at some point. But, while the search for their missing friend and relative may give them some sense of purpose, they still need direction to get on with their lives and to rid themselves of the undermining behavior that’s holding them back – or sending them down potentially self-destructive paths.
Fixing that is easier said than done, however, since they all seem clueless when it comes to figuring out what’s wrong and how to go about correcting it. They almost seem fatalistic, resigned to bleak destinies without purpose, promise or direction. In short, they don’t seem to believe in anything. And, without meaningful or purposeful beliefs, there’s nothing to work with.
How sad it is that the characters in this film are without hope. That’s mainly because they’ve come to assume they don’t have any choice in their circumstances. But that’s not true, as long as they make the right choices to make such outcomes possible. Indeed, as long as they can get a grip on that idea, they can begin to move forward into a new (and, one would hope, better) future.
As the film progresses, the teens and adults seem to be latching on to this notion, even if only tentatively. Viewers are reminded of this in one scene where Jesse Darlington, the teen who wants to get out of town so he can get on with his life, makes a desperate plea for this from the rooftop of his high school. The school’s faculty and his friends are worried that he’s about to commit suicide, but he reassures them that’s not the case, that he’s up on the roof so he can see beyond his current circumstances, a gesture that reassures him that there’s hope for his future, one set in a different time and place. This might seem like a simple and obvious observation, but, for someone who feels he has been trapped by limiting and unfulfilling circumstances, this could come as quite a revelation, one that moves him closer to forging a more satisfying existence.
Realizing that we do possess the power of choice, that we can manifest what we want when we put our mind to it, can be an eye-opening experience, especially for the impressionable. For the women in this film, for example, they begin to see brighter futures for themselves when they tap into their personal power, realizing that they needn’t settle for what they’ve been led to believe they’ve been saddled with, especially in situations where insistent men try to steamroll over them. In many ways, one could say this is a feminist manifesto embedded within the larger story (or, some might even say, a feminist manifesto complemented by atypical story threads). Either way, this is further evidence that we can change our conditions when we put our minds to it, as long as we give ourselves permission to do so.
Of course, it helps tremendously if we believe in our ability to achieve this, a belief built on faith, hope and confidence that we can succeed in our efforts. It means galvanizing our resolve to surmount the prevailing challenges. It means getting serious about what we’re seeking to attempt. And it means being willing and courageous enough to eliminate self-destructive behaviors and to rid ourselves of people, things and situations that no longer serve us; the future is not set in stone, so neither should any of these things be. By embracing such a perspective, we just might get that brighter future after all.
And then there’s the enigmatic Carolyn and her mysterious disappearance. Did she die? Did she leave town without word? Is she in hiding in a secluded place? Or did she just somehow vanish into the ether, never to return? From what little we see of her in the film, it would appear that she’s not happy with her life, either, and that she somehow takes drastic, if cryptic, steps to change that and move on to something else. Her “example” thus serves as a sort of catalyst for the others, prompting them into thinking “If she can do it, maybe I can, too,” regardless of whether or not the mystery of her disappearance is ever solved. It could be seen as a case where the outcome is ultimately more important than the means by which she operated to achieve it, something that others might be able to draw inspiration from as they seek to change their lives as well. And, given what goes on in this town, goodness knows virtually everybody could benefit from that.
Although somewhat meandering at times, “Knives and Skin” is a refreshingly experimental, eloquently metaphorical, profoundly poetic look at the joys and challenges of coming of age in a pervasively dysfunctional world, presenting a truly original story unlike anything most viewers have probably ever seen. With tips of the hat to the likes of filmmakers David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson and John Hughes, as well as nods to such movies as “Heathers” (1989), “Carrie” (1976) and “Donnie Darko” (2001), director Jennifer Reeder serves up a frequently absurd, often hilarious, but sincerely heartfelt tale about a community of lost souls. It’s part thriller, part horror flick, part coming of age story, part cinema noir and part campy romp, all tinged with strokes of the surreal thrown in for good measure. Exquisitely shot with inventive lighting, striking cinematography, and a production design lavishly peppered with neon and pastels, these elements perfectly complement its razor-sharp script and an atmospheric soundtrack that consists mostly of beautifully performed choral versions of pop songs from the likes of New Order, Cyndi Lauper and the Go-Gos. Admittedly, this offering isn’t for everyone, but it surely gives everybody much to ponder – not to mention an undeniable desire to want to watch it multiple times.
“Knives and Skin” played primarily at film festivals, where it received numerous award nominations, as well as a few wins. It also had a brief theatrical run last fall. Currently, it’s available for streaming on Amazon, with a DVD and Blu-ray disc release scheduled for the near future.
When life seems patently dysfunctional, we may wonder whether things will ever be “normal.” But what becomes “normal” ultimately depends on us and what we seek to manifest for ourselves. Admittedly, it may take us some time to sort it all out, especially when it comes to figuring out the questions related to choice and change. Nevertheless, we’re not irretrievably locked into anything – including dysfunction.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Surveying the Bigger Picture
What does the future hold? That’s a question many of us ask ourselves often, both individually and collectively. But how wide a view do we take when answering it, again, either individually or collectively? That’s a subject addressed in the experimental new documentary, “The Hottest August” (web site, trailer).
It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that, when we contemplate the future, we usually do so in terms of how it most directly affects us as individuals or in our peer groups. We think about our homes, our families, our communities, our professions and so forth, the aspects of our lives that have the most immediate impact. We consider what lies ahead for each of these areas of our lives and speculate what shapes they might take and what qualities they could possess. And that’s not unexpected; after all, all of us have a vested stake in the outcome.
But how often do we ponder the future of areas outside of our immediate field of impact? A communications worker, for example, might ruminate about the future of his or her industry and the technology associated with it, but how readily would said professional think about global economics or the state of the environment? How likely is a low-income laborer to examine the effect that the prices of commodities futures have on the portfolios of the one-percenters? Does the extinction of an insect species in Africa affect the lives of Midwestern housewives?
Some of these questions may seem silly, perhaps even absurd. However, if we live in a truly interconnected reality, such queries may be more relevant than initially meets the eye. For instance, who would have thought that a hurricane in Florida could lead to the collapse of a publishing venture in Chicago and the layoff of its staff (a scenario I can speak to personally)? Thus, examining our world and its future from a holistic standpoint is more important than many of us might believe.
In “The Hottest August,” director Brett Story attempts to do this in a way that probably hasn’t been tried before. Through interviews with everyday individuals in the greater New York City area, representing all ages, races, and cultural, economic and social backgrounds, he asks them what they foresee for the future, be it on the macro level or personally. And their responses are quite revealing in terms of how they view the world, its challenges and their place in it all.
Since the world is an interconnected place, as the film contends, the challenges it faces realistically can’t be looked at in a vacuum; they need to be addressed from an integrated perspective. Yet, based on the answers of the interviewees, it’s quite telling how many of them view the world from such tightly focused, single-minded outlooks. Their answers reflect the concerns that impact them the most, with minimal to modest consideration for what’s outside their immediate existence, such matters essentially being treated as if they’re on the “periphery” of their lives (when, in fact, they’re just as much a part of their reality as the elements that affect them most directly, even if not as much or as often).
This is not to suggest short-sightedness or closed minds on their part; it merely demonstrates how many of these individuals have allowed themselves to become accustomed to thinking along those lines. They may not be unconcerned about the aspects of their existence that are outside of their immediate purview; rather, this is more likely a case of them just having never given them much thought, simply because of the way they think (and how they were taught to do so). However, given the issues the world is facing today, such a limited view can’t be allowed to continue. A more inclusive outlook must be put into place – and, as the occupants of this reality, that has to start with us.
Since existence is not something that we deal with on a compartmentalized basis, we shouldn’t expect that we can solve its problems using such an approach. Given that all of the components of reality are inherently intermingled, we must thus employ an integrated approach to solving their problems. The environment, for example, cannot be remedied without considering the economics involved, which, in turn, may affect consumer product development, which, in turn, may affect everyday lifestyle choices…and so on, and so on, and so on.
But how do we go about this? It has to do with our beliefs and choices, for they shape what we experience. In this case, however, it requires us to take a broader view than we typically have when it comes to this. For instance, from this perspective, to build a better mousetrap, we must go beyond merely coming up with the schematics. We must instead consider the need for such a device, the materials from which it’s constructed, the economics behind its production, and the impact on the environment, the mice and our relationship to them. In short, this calls for us to look at how we address matters from the standpoint of the overall bigger picture of our existence. And that’s essentially what this film is all about.
In many regards, this picture is aimed at showing us how to shift our thinking in the formation of our “core beliefs,” those upon which all others rest. Think of this as the metaphysical equivalent of a computer operating system, one upon which all of the “application program” beliefs run. In essence, making this shift calls for a whole new way of developing what emerges from these underlying templates. Such an approach pushes us to devise beliefs and make choices that incorporate the principles of these core notions automatically, qualities that are built in up front so that they’re taken as givens from the outset. Beliefs that don’t take such considerations into account from the very beginning simply don’t gain any traction – nor do they have a realistic chance of even coming into being.
This new way of thinking may take some time to become accepted and put into use. However, once we begin doing so routinely, we may well look back and wonder why we weren’t employing this practice all along. One of the hardest parts in this, though, is making individuals and communities aware of this principle and encouraging them to put it into use on a regular basis. Again, that’s what this film attempts to show us. It exposes us to many of the components we need to consider and subtly nudges us in the direction of looking for ways to integrate them with one another through a holistic, inclusive approach.
Since we’re new at this, we probably shouldn’t expect overnight success. But at least taking those very first baby steps is a move in the right direction. The more confident we grow at this, the more this will seem like second nature, something that will likely be reflected in the results we experience. And, like a muscle that grows stronger with greater use, so, too, will our proficiency at this. The pieces will start to fall into place more readily and transform the nature of the reality we experience.
Or at least that’s what we like to hope for. We could just as easily stay myopic and continue to plunge headlong deeper into the problems we’re experiencing, depending on what choices and outlooks we embrace. That’s a potentially scary prospect, and it’s one that’s raised in the course of the film. Will we heed the warning?
On the other hand, the film shows us examples of individuals who are beginning to move in the direction of taking a wider view. We can hope that their perspectives catch fire and that others follow their lead. That’s the other side of the coin – and the one that we should hope flips in our favor.
Depicting both perspectives shows us where we’re at as a species. And that’s one of the other aims of this film. By presenting us with a cinematic view of the world in one locale (greater New York) during one particular period (the month of August 2017), we get to see the kaleidoscopic panorama of our existence and its many components – as well as the many resources we have available to us to draw upon in shaping our existence as we move forward. The question is, what will we choose?
No matter how we ultimately proceed, we’ve got to start somewhere, and “The Hottest August” presents us with a poetic and inclusive illustration of this idea. It doesn’t tell us what to do, but it certainly shows us by way of example what we can do if we put our minds to it. The question here, of course, is “Are we astute enough to recognize the message being sent our way?” I’d like to believe the director thinks so (or at least hopes so), an aspiration to which I’d heartily lend my support and encouragement as well.
In the meantime, the film reminds us, we all have to remember to live our lives. We may have ongoing challenges to address, but we also have the daily aspects of everyday living to contend with, the things that sustain us, give us joy and provide us with meaning for living. We mustn’t lose sight of those activities as we tackle the bigger questions, as they’re part of what makes life and the human experience worth living. It’s a lot to take in, to be sure, but then that comes with the territory as we examine and assess the bigger picture of our existence.
While the tone of “The Hottest August” is decidedly experimental and the narrative definitely defies categorization, this unconventional documentary attempts to provide an integrated look at our existence, one that seeks to reconcile our present with what could be our future at a time that’s a crucial crossroad of change on many fronts – socially, politically, economically and environmentally, to name a few – and the impact of that amalgamation of influences on everyday individuals, both personally and collectively. By combining impromptu, unscripted interviews with everyday Gothamites and footage of ordinary daily events and happenings of global significance (most notably the August 2017 solar eclipse), director Brett Story attempts to assemble a holistic package that illustrates the interconnectedness of all these elements and how to deal with them, both now and down the road, a tall order for sure. While the film is not entirely successful at its task (it’s sometimes a bit too random and meandering in its approach), the filmmaker’s obviously sincere attempt to show how the coalescence of these many factors influence us as individuals and as a species is nevertheless commendable, achieving something that other directors have sought to attain but not nearly as effectively or poetically as is the case here. Check the film’s web site for screenings.
“The Hottest August” is indeed an important film, one to be admired on multiple levels and one that’s capable of both inspiring and terrifying us at the same time. Indeed, if ever there were a film that shows how we’re experiencing the ancient Chinese proverb of “living in interesting times,” this would be it. May our wisdom be up to the challenge.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
My Oscar Scorecard
What were my hits and misses on this year’s Academy Awards? Find out by reading “How’d I Do on This Year’s Oscars?” by clicking here. It was another year of surprises, so check out the wrap-up to end of this year’s awards season.
Copyright © 2019-20, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.