LA Film Fest 2014 part two, by David Bax
In most cases, the sub-genre of “white kid coming of age indie dramedy” is an enormous red flag for me. They tend to be cynically formulaic affairs dressed up in faux sincerity, like last year’s dreadful The Way Way Back. But when a filmmaker names his protagonist and his film after one of the towering giants of twentieth century cinema, as in Kerem Sanga’s The Young Kieslowski, I’m going to pay a bit more attention.
Krzysztof Kieslowski has nothing to do with Sanga’s film. He is not a character and his works are not evoked or alluded to in words or aesthetics. For all I know, Sanga is not interested in the late Polish director in the least and just likes the name. In any case, it got me into the theater.
Ryan Malgarini plays the titular role, Brian Kieslowski, a college kid and a virgin whose mother (Melora Walters) is dying of cancer while his father (Joshua Malina) vies for the twin trophies of Most Supportive Dad Ever and Most Supportive Husband Ever. At a party, Brian meets Leslie (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman who arrived alone and is now too drunk to sit up straight. She confesses (or shouts, really) that she is also a virgin because she’s saving herself for marriage. Brian gets her home safely, stays with her while she drinks water, eats some food and, over the course of hours, sobers up. They talk all night and then, soon, neither of them is a virgin anymore. Brian likes Leslie but loses her phone number almost immediately and can’t remember where she lives on a street full of identical apartment complexes. He searches for her fruitlessly, then learns to live with that night as a cherished experience that will never be the beginning of a love affair. Then, Leslie finds him and tells him that she’s pregnant with twins.
Unlike Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, this is not a movie about abortion. Yet, unlike Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, to which is bears a closer resemblance, The Young Kieslowski takes the option of abortion seriously, making it clear that Leslie would not be in any way transgressing by taking that route. She doesn’t want to, though. She wants to keep the babies and, while Sanga gives a good deal of time to her struggles to get others to accept her choice, Leslie is not the name that’s in the title. Mostly, this is a movie about a smart but sheltered and emotionally untested young male who has to decide much earlier than he had planned what kind of man he is going to be.
Brian’s journey to figuring himself out is not an easy one. He suffers numerous self-inflicted setbacks that make you want to grab him by the lapels and shake some sense of responsibility into him but that are also the believable hiccups of a cocooned white kid contending with the real world. Occasionally, Sanga missteps by making Leslie a bit too understanding and forgiving of his trepidations. But maybe she just gets, like we do, that this Brian’s a good person who just needs to realize how to follow through on that fact.
It’s been about four years since Debra Granik’s astounding second feature, Winter’s Bone, was released but it seems she hasn’t moved much, at least geographically. Her new film, and her first documentary, Stray Dog, takes place in the same region of Southwestern Missouri as her last.
This time around, her subject is not nearly as terrifying as the backwoods meth murderers ofWinter’s Bone. Ronnie Hall, the Stray Dog himself, though, may initially seem almost as intimidating, especially to liberal city slickers like myself. His tattoos and leather, motorcycles and guns, trailer parks and moonshine ways may lead to certain assumptions by those of us who spent more of their teenage years in the drama club than the wood shop. We’re smart, though, and we know those assumptions are as wrong and unfair as the ones made about us. Granik, however, doesn’t want us to just know. She wants us to understand. And she does that not by telling us, ever, but by showing us. Stray Dog is never strident; only unfailingly, warmly humanist in its depiction.
Ronnie as we see him is a human being like the rest of us. Yet, like the rest of us, he is an individual who is only like himself. The things that make him up come not just from his beliefs and the area in which he was born. They come from his experiences and his willingness to learn from others, not to mention his willingness to pass on to others, like his granddaughter, the things he has learned. So, yes, Ronnie is a biker and a hunter. He’s also a veteran, a husband, a friend, a patient and a student of life who is not done studying. We should all follow his example.
Stray Dog is proof that the universal lies within the specific. By simply spending time with one man with our eyes and ears open, we can learn untold volumes about the world at large. Granik’s film is the single best that I’ve seen so far this year.
One of the many strengths of art is the capability to take massive and uncomfortable chunks of truth and compress them into palatable pieces that we can process. Gabriel London’s The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest is an inflammatory blast of a motion picture that also gets to the very heart of the most sobering and infuriating truths about our fundamentally fractured prison system.
Mark DeFriest was a young man when his father died. Shortly before passing, the man told his son that he could have his tools. When Mark took them, though, his stepmother filed theft charges and he was sentenced to four years in prison. Being mechanically adept and almost certainly mentally ill, he immediately began plotting elaborate and semi-successful escape attempts and generally being a pain in the ass of the Florida corrections system. Due to his many infractions and despite only getting a four year sentence, Mark DeFriest remains imprisoned to this day.
London employs lively, animated reenactments with vocal work from Scoot McNairy and Shea Whigham. The result is as much a joy to watch as it is a galvanizing indictment of how our nation’s prisons fail our citizens in general and the mentally ill in particular.
Along with Robert May’s Kids for Cash, this films marks the second in 2014 to illustrate just how deeply our judicial system hurts our society more than helping it. As the title suggests, London’s film is just as much about DeFriest’s brilliant but tortured mind as it is his life behind bars. The upshot is that we’ve not only been robbed of DeFriest’s potential contributions to the world but also the suggestion that he’s only one of many that our inherently flawed methods have ruined.