Pageant brings mother-daughter relationship into focus in engaging MISS JUNETEENTH


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Miss Juneteenth42‘s Nicole Beharie and newcomer Alexis Chikaeze deliver incandescent turns as mother and daughter in writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ arresting feature debut. Using a small Texas town’s Miss Juneteenth pageant as the lens from which to view a complicated parent-and-child relationship and a mom’s attempt to secure her progeny’s future, Peoples limns an indelible portrait of family and community life.

Once upon a time Turquoise Jones (Beharie) was Miss Juneteenth. The scholarship pageant was supposed to be her ticket to a bright future. Other Miss Juneteenths went on to great personal and professional success. But that was not Turquoise’s fate. Oh, she still has the drive of a Miss Juneteenth. That is evident in everything she does as she manages a bar and BBQ joint, works on call as an aesthetician for a funeral home, does what can for her alcoholic mother (Lori Hayes), and raises daughter Kai (Chikaeze) with only unreliable support from Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), her on-again/off-again partner and Kai’s dad.

Now, Turquoise’s ambition is burning again at the idea that Kai could be the next pageant winner. Her intention is not to relive her own youth through her daughter, only that Kai should have the future Turquoise was denied. Fourteen-year-old Kai is not so enthusiastic. She resents that her mother does not support her passion for dance and actively shoos away the boy she likes. Pageant-mandated etiquette lessons Kai finds humiliating when a vicious former competitor of her mom’s—now a pageant bigwig—delights in calling her out when the teenager makes mistakes. Turquoise means well, but she is also overly controlling, right down to insisting that Kai recite Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” during the pageant’s talent competition, the same poem Turquoise performed in her day.

The mother-daughter relationship is beautifully expressed in all its messiness. Kai is at an age where she wants to start claiming her own place in the world, while Turquoise is afraid of where that measure of independence might lead. There is a generation gap to negotiate and a refusal on both sides to acknowledge the other’s position. Yet there is no doubting the bond between parent and child. Perhaps learning from her difficult relationship with her own mother, Turquoise has built a connection with her daughter that is built to withstand arguments and tension.

Among Miss Juneteenth‘s strengths is its depiction of the community around Turquoise and Kai. The film offers a nearly tactile portrayal of life in a small town where the Juneteenth parade is a celebration not just of history but of the town, pride expressed in marching bands, floats, and local horsemen showing off their steeds. It is the type of place where people help one another out in times of trouble. And while the ladies at the Miss Juneteenth pageant may look down at Turquoise for not fulfilling the promise of her reign, she is, in fact, one of the town leading citizens by dint of her always doing for others despite her own troubles.

With this first feature, Peoples, an award-winning maker of short films, establishes her mastery of place and mood. Gorgeously shot, beautifully acted, Miss Juneteenth won the Louis Black/Lone Star Award for Best Texan Film at SXSW, that spring pageant for independent movies. It deserved that tiara. Like Turquoise Jones, Miss Juneteenth is all heart and that heart is most definitely in the right place. –Pam Grady

Miss Juneteenth is available at the Roxie Virtual Cinema and other on-demand platforms.

Gordon-Levitt soars in high-flying thriller 7500


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7500There is a sizeable cast in director/co-writer Patrick Vollrath’s breathtaking feature debut, set on a flight from Berlin to Paris in mostly real time, but only one actor who really counts: Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the flight’s co-pilot Tobias, an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Hijacking dramas are nothing new but this is not the stuff of a Steven Seagal or Kurt Russell movie. 7500 is not an action picture, but rather a slow-burn psychological thriller in which the hero’s defining trait is an ability to hold fear at bay on the worst day of his life.

Vollrath sets the stage from the opening frames, introducing the flight’s passengers as they pass through security and lounge at the gate. The angle is overhead, the view that of surveillance cameras, establishing an uneasy tone from the start. Moving into the plane, Tobias and the pilot Michael (Carlo Kitzlinger) do their pre-flight checks while flight attendants Nathalie (Aurélie Thépaut) and Gökce (Aylin Tezel) get ready to greet passengers. It is all very routine, prosaic and a little dull, a far cry from the mood established in the terminal.

That banal calm shatters not long after takeoff as hijackers emerge among the passengers, determined to breach the locked cockpit door and commandeer the aircraft. Sporadic action gives way to a sharp focus on Tobias, struggling with limited options. A video feed allows him a tiny view of the area right outside the cockpit door. He has radio communication with air traffic control. But mostly what Tobias has are his wits. He thinks fast on feet, which when coupled with his Herculean effort to keep his rising panic down, gives him a fighting chance against an existential threat.

7500 is a modest endeavor that serves as a calling card for its director as Vollrath extracts maximum suspense out of a story that plays out within the confines of the claustrophobic cockpit. Masterfully edited by Hansjörg Weißbrich, the film’s pacing is superb, the flight’s horrors emerging bit by bit during its slim 92-minute running time.

Austrian actor Omid Memar lends strong support as the one hijacker with whom Tobias finds some rapport, but this is Gordon-Levitt’s movie. With the camera trained on him in nearly every scene, often in closeup and only rarely with another actor to play against, the one-time child star gives a master class in performance. Tobias’ fear, grief, and sense of helplessness are only too real, pulsing always just below the surface as he works to extricate himself and everyone else on the plane out of a dire situation.

7500 is no sweeping epic. It is a small story, but one that is masterfully told and magnificently acted. –Pam Grady

7500 is available on Amazon Prime.


Fathers, Sons, Scrabble: SOMETIMES ALWAYS NEVER


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Sometimes Always Never 3Family, syn., blood, clan, kin, linage, tribe. Disappearance, syn., loss, concealment, hiding. Eccentric, syn., bizarre, erratic, off-kilter, off-the-wall, peculiar. Family, disappearance, and eccentric and their synonyms are words at the heart of this offbeat British melodrama in which an online Scrabble game reenergizes a father’s search for a long-lost son even as it stirs resentment in the child who remained home. Sometimes Always Never flirts with being twee (syn., cutesy, cloying, gooey), but never quite crosses that line, thanks to welcome doses of humor and assured performances form stars Bill Nighy and Sam Riley.

Nighy plays Alan, the oddball tailor and Scrabble hustler at the center of the story. Years before during a heated family contest of the word game (or a version of it, anyway), 17-year-old Michael walked off in a huff, never to be heard from again. Alan’s conviction that he has found his son in an anonymous online opponent in Scrabble pushes him toward imposing on son Peter (Riley) and his family, wife Sue (Alice Lowe) and teenage son Jack (Louis Healy). A short visit one evening turns into an extended stay, with Alan scarcely noticing Peter’s frustration and resentment while he schools his grandson on the importance of sartorial style and Scrabble strategy.

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The script by Frank Cottrell Boyce tonally resembles that of his screenplay for Danny Boyle’s Millions, a certain fairytale quality butting up against darker, more realistic notes. The fantasy aspects are further amped by the film’s production design, which would not be out of place in a Wes Anderson movie (granted, one on a far smaller scale than the typical Wes Anderson film). Even a road trip Alan and Peter undertake takes on a magical quality through director Carl Hunter’s liberal use of back projection. Locations in Yorkshire and the shore in Merseyside add to the air of enchantment.

Even one key grudge that Peter holds against Alan adds to the fanciful quality as the now middle-aged son rails against his widowed, single dad who would never buy him or Michael normal toys. Scrabble was not Scrabble. Legos were not Legos, and so on.  The family was not poor, but Alan was not – and is not – quite part of this world. It is a quality that has apparently only worsened in the intervening years as Alan obsesses over the absent child at the expense of the one who is present. At its most heavy-handed, Sometimes Always Never touches on the Biblical story of the prodigal son, a flourish that is a little too on the nose.

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This is a souffle of a movie and one in constant peril of falling flat. What keeps it buoyant is Nighy, playing Alan with a measure of sadness that grounds the character in reality, and Riley as the frustrated Peter, whose exasperation with a difficult parent is palpable. Alan has let Michael’s memory loom so large that it has crowded out the reality of Peter in his mind. The central question that Something Always Never seeks to answer in its own oddball way is which son Alan really needs to find. –Pam Grady

Sometimes Always Never is currently playing virtual cinemas, including Rafael@home and will be available on VOD platforms on July 10.



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Pete Davidson plays a man-child that cannot get out of his own way in this irresistible dramedy that cements his status as the latest Saturday Night Live cast member bound for big screen stardom. Judd Apatow’s first feature directing job since 2015’s Trainwreck is one of the best films of his career. A screenplay by Davidson, former SNL writer Dave Sirius, and Apatow embroiders facts from Davidson’s real life to spin a coming-of-age tale both goofy and poignant.

In a way, The King of Staten Island is a kind of examination of where Davidson’s life might have gone had he not had the drive to start doing stand-up in his teens and the talent to carry it all the way to a job with SNL at 20. Like Davidson, 24-year-old Scott Carlin is a Staten Island native with a sister and widowed nurse mother, suffers from Crohn’s Disease, and lost his firefighter father when he was just a little boy. (Davidson’s father, to whom The King of Staten Island is dedicated, died at the World Trade Center on 9/11; Scott’s father died at the scene of an ordinary fire.)


The similarities end there. Scott’s failure to launch is tolerated by his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei); a cause for worry for his younger, college-bound sister Claire (Maude Apatow); a source of frustration for childhood friend Kelsey (Bel Powley), whose torch for the big galoot shines brightly (not that he is observant enough to notice); and scarcely noticed by Oscar (Ricky Velez), Richie (Lou Wilson), and Igor (Moises Arias), his trio of buddies who are even more clueless than he is. Scott can barely hold down a job and his dream of becoming a tattoo artist seems destined to be thwarted by his tendency to embrace self-defeat.

Something has to change, but this is not a movie of epiphanies and sudden self-awareness. Instead, it is pique at firefighter Ray Bishop (Bill Burr) showing interest in Margie that inadvertently spurs Scott to his first baby steps to an adult life. The two cannot stand each other. Ray sees Scott as an impediment to a relationship with Margie. That Ray is a fireman is too much for Scott, who has never gotten over his sense of abandonment when his father died. But Ray and his fellow firefighters, including Papa (Steve Buscemi, who was a New York fireman before turning to acting) and Lockwood (Domenick Lombardozzi), are also living embodiments of Scott’s dad. Through watching them, the memory of his father begins to accrue flesh and blood, a necessary step if he is ever to get out of the rut that has become his comfort zone.


Apatow has shepherded so many young talents toward connecting with their best selves as actors and writers. He does it again with Davidson, who can be hilarious in his high dudgeon over his mom’s relationship with Ray and with his bluster of false bravado whenever the subject turns to his unrealistic ambitions. But he also has a sweet side that comes out in exchanges with small children and at his worry and wonder when he watches Ray and his crew at work.

The King of Staten Island is exceptionally well-cast down to its smallest roles, but the biggest delight comes in watching Davidson and character actor Burr. As adversaries, Scott and Ray are hysterical whether engaging in a war of words or slapstick fighting. A movie built from that alone would have been satisfying, but the story is deeper than that and part of the joy of it is watching these actors add shading to their characters and to that relationship. It is a pleasure watching comedian and character actor Burr step up to his first major role in his 50s and it is a pleasure watching the 26-year-old Davidson take his place as a leading man. Staten Island should be proud of its famous son. –Pam Grady

The King of Staten Island opens on Premiere Video on Demand on June 12.



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Somewhere Rod Serling is smiling. Nearly 61 years after the 1959 premiere of his classic sci-fi series The Twilight Zone comes a whip-smart movie that plays as if it could be one of show’s greatest episodes. A spooky mystery tale set in 1950s New Mexico, it makes a virtue out of its small budget, creating an eerie sense of paranoia and hair-raising thrills out of offbeat characters, ingenious use of a screen gone pitch-black (and held there), evocative sound design, and a portentous score.

It seems like just an ordinary Friday night in Cayuga, NM, for 16-year-old Fay (Sierra McCormick) and her DJ friend Everett (Jake Horowitz). It is the night of the high school basketball team’s biggest game of the season, an event that will draw in most of the town. But after visiting the gym to try to diagnose a problem with flickering lights and showing Fay how to use her new reel-to-reel tape recorder, he is off to his night shift at WOTW radio. Fay, too, has a job to go to, manning the town’s switchboard. But before long, a bizarre audio tone, disconnected phone calls, a mysterious caller to Everett’s show, sudden disappearances, and other intrusions into Cayuga’s normally mundane existence suggest something strange is afoot in the isolated town.

A central conceit of The Vast of Night is that what we are watching is a Twilight Zone-like TV show. At key moments within the narrative, the view switches to that of a 1950s living room where someone is watching the events in Cayuga unfold through snowy black-and-white images on a small television set. But when the image widens and the muted color comes back up, we are thrust again into Fay and Everett’s world, the normal rules of suspension of disbelief applying.

Fay is an earnest teenager, smart but already resigned to a dead-end life, telling Everett she has no plans for college because her family cannot afford it. Everett has the beat energy of a hipster, tempered by a certain earnestness. Together, they are Nancy Drew and a Hardy boy determined to get to unravel the cause behind the strange goings on around town. As they investigate clues, they are inexorably drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery.

Director Andrew Patterson’s debut ingeniously spins the yarn written by first-time scripters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger. Told in close to real time, during the span of that high school basketball game, and full of references to classic sci-fi, The Vast of Night exists in its own off-kilter world.  Like the show that clearly inspired it, the film exists in “another dimension,” as Serling would have said, one that casts its dreamy spell not just on Fay and Everett but on anyone watching. –Pam Grady

The Vast of Night is available on Amazon Prime.

Welcome to Phoenix, Oregon


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PhoenixTwo middle-aged men decide to take a chance on themselves, swapping their dead-end lives for a shot at controlling their own destiny in an affable comedy that stars James Le Gros and Jesse Borrego. A throwback of sorts, Phoenix, Oregon tonally fits the types of indies Borrego (Lone Star, I Like it Like That) and especially Le Gros (Living in Oblivion, Floundering) made back in the 1990s, big-hearted and full of idiosyncratic characters.

In late middle age, lifelong friends Bobby (Le Gros) and Carlos (Borrego) are still living in Phoenix, their small hometown. Working at the same restaurant for the smarmy Kyle (Diedrich Bader), Bobby as a bartender and Carlos as a chef, it is a bearable but bleak existence. Both harbor dreams: Bobby spends his days in his cramped Air Stream trailer, working on a graphic novel, a long-gestating memoir with perhaps too much focus on his failed marriage. Carlos, whose exacting standards are constantly thwarted by Kyle’s insistence on stocking only cheaper—and inferior—ingredients, wants his own restaurant. When a dilapidated bowling alley comes on the market and they are able to pool their life savings with money from an angel investor found by their friend Tanya (Lisa Edelstein), it seems like the answer to an unspoken prayer.

Writer/director Gary Lundgren intersperses vivid scenes from Bobby’s novel into the action, but the most striking images are those within the bowling alley as these men discover a newfound passion for life. Both are a little bit too exacting for their own good – Carlos will not brook an ingredient as mundane as pepperoni on his artisanal pizzas, while Bobby turns up his nose at the idea of stocking Budweiser in the bar. Neither is a good negotiator, revealed as Al (a hilarious Kevin Corrigan), the repairman they hire to refurbish the lanes and pin setters, sets his price high and will not budge. As Tanya pitches in to help prepare for the opening, Bobby’s crush on her is only too evident.

The buoyant middle section of Phoenix, Oregon is pure delight as, little by little, Bobby and Carlos transform a seeming pipe dream into a tangible reality. The film hums with their pleasure and enthusiasm. Hovering over them as they work are the unspoken questions. Is this real? Can it last? Lundgren makes a lively game out of answering those questions. And he has cast his story well. Le Gros and Borrego are likable actors playing likable characters, but neither actor rests on his charm. Bobby has issues with trust and anger, and he allows his disappointments to fester into resentment. Carlo is far more optimistic, but his dreaminess can get in the way of his good sense.

Phoenix, Oregon feels as retro as Bobby and Carlos’ bowling alley. The essentially sunny outlook, the ensemble work, and its rich vein of goofy humor seem like throwbacks from another era. Not that that is bad thing. In the midst of pandemic, worldwide strife, and a dismal election year, a feel-good movie like this one is a welcome reminder that joy still exists, sometimes in the most unlikely places. –Pam Grady

Phoenix, Oregon is available on streaming and cable platforms. DVD and Blu-Ray editions are coming soon.



Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon come to the end of the road in THE TRIP TO GREECE


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It almost seems cruel for Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Greece to be coming out now with COVID-19 still wreaking havoc in the world and tourism at a standstill. Like the three previous The Trip movies, this one stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as fictional versions of themselves on a culinary/cultural tour of a corner of Europe. Like the three other films, it is designed to send the viewer scurrying to guidebooks and travel sites to follow in the actors’ footsteps. For now, any plans to turn those dreams into reality are delayed. Visceral adventure is all that is available.

At least, Coogan, Brydon, and their director deliver the goods in what Winterbottom is calling the series’ final installment. This time the premise is that The Observer has once again hired Coogan to write an article, this time sending him to follow the route laid out in Homer’s The Odyssey, beginning in what is now Turkey and traveling through Greece. Brydon’s observes tartly that Odysseus’ journey back to Ithaca in the ancient epic took 10 years, while he and Coogan are devoting only six days to their CliffsNotes’ version of the trek.

However compact the trip, the odd acting couple pack in a lot of incident. If Greece has a bad angle, it is not apparent from this film. Traveling by car and sometimes boat, Coogan and Brydon take in azure seas, verdant countryside, and sleek cities. When they are not indulging in gastronomical delights, they walk in the steps of the ancients. Among the sites the pair visits are Athens’ agora, the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the Caves of Diros, and the Theatre of Epidaurus.

What is surprising about this film as The Trip series reaches its finish line is its tone. Oh, there is still plenty of humor and celebrity impressions – a highlight is Coogan and Brydon offering competing versions of the torture scene between Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man. Coogan remains dedicated to proving his superior intellect, even as Brydon gently chides him with his own displays of knowledge. Coogan is still a heat-seeking missile of all-consuming ambition. Fresh off his BAFTA-nominated success as comedian Stan Laurel in Stan and Ollie, now he has his heart set on a part in La La Land director Damian Chazelle’s latest film. The more family-oriented Brydon continues to be content with his lot in life as a character actor.

But with all that, The Trip to Greece is scarcely a comedy. Coogan is in a different place in his life and the film takes a melancholy turn as he absorbs news from home. The situation transforms his dreams into vivid, surreal nightmares. He is often distracted in his interactions with Brydon. And for all the ways the series has portrayed Coogan as the completely self-involved one, Brydon never asks the reason Coogan is so often on the phone with his son Joe (Timothy Leach).

Some will carp at this turn from humor, but The Trip to Greece is the most resonant of the quartet of films. Lost among all the praise for Coogan and Brydon’s dueling Michael Caines and other impressions is the fact their very performances are impressions – of themselves. At last, Coogan and, to a certain extent, Brydon emerge as deeper, more complex characters and the film is the richer for it. If this really is the end of The Trip‘s road, the series takes its final bow on a satisfying note. Now, if only the rest of us could take our own Greek vacations. –Pam Grady

The Trip to Greece is available in select theaters and all major digital/cable platforms.

Beanie’s Baby: HOW TO BUILD A GIRL


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“How to Build a Girl” publicity stillMost of us would be appalled to win a prize called “Asshole of the Year.” In general, no one wants to be that asshole. But in Coky Giedroyc’s acerbically funny adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s novel How to Build a Girl, rock scribe Johanna Morrican aka Dolly Wilde (Beanie Feldstein) accepts the dubious honor exultantly as a measure of her success. The bullied has become the bully and it feels good – a momentary rush inside the fantasy Johanna’s built for herself until stark reality intrudes in a comedy that tracks where one teenager’s inchoate ambition to be freed of her circumstances leads.

Feldstein, a scene stealer as the best friend in Lady Bird and one of the good girls who riotously let go in Olivia Wilde’s directing debut Booksmart, nails not just Johanna’s Wolverhampton accent but also her precociousness and her unhappiness. At school and around town, she is a target for abuse. At home, she has an ally in her brother Krissi (Laurie Kynaston), but her mother (Sarah Solemani) suffers from postpartum depression after giving birth to twin sons, and her father (Paddy Considine) is well-meaning but lives in the past of his ’70s rock musician glory days. Besides Krissi, her closest companions are the “gods” attached to her bedroom wall who come to life and commune with her in her imagination, a diverse collection of personal heroes that encompasses Elizabeth Taylor (Lily Allen), Sigmund Freud (Michael Sheen), Sylvia Plath (Lucy Punch), and more.

Johanna’s salvation – for that is how she sees it – comes in the form of an advert looking for rock critics. It is the pre-internet 1990s, but trolls are already in ascendance, not that Johanna recognizes the breed in the music tabloid’s editor and staff. She is not even a rock fan at first, but she is a quick study and a gifted writer. There are hiccups on her road to notoriety as Dolly Wilde, but once fellow critic Tony (Frank Dillane) explains that the whole point of the publication is to promote a very chosen few and denigrate the many, Johanna wholeheartedly embraces snark to stunning effect.

Only 16, Johanna is a work in progress readily adaptable to changing conditions. To interview for the job, she utterly transforms her look into that of a striking, dramatic redhead with a penchant for micro-minis. When mean-spiritedness makes her not only popular in school but also in the pop culture firmament and allows her to support her impoverished family with her earnings, she is all in with that persona. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll become her lifestyle and her religion. It makes her the asshole of the year, not just to her readers, but to her family and to John Kite (Alfie Allen), a rock star who shows her genuine kindness and friendship.

The question that hovers over How to Build a Girl is just what kind of girl is Johanna building? She is at a pivotal moment in her life. As sweet Johanna is subsumed by boisterous, malicious Dolly, can that Johanna ever return? It is to the film’s credit that that question hovers unanswered for most of the movie. How to Build a Girl has been compared to Bridget Jones’s Diary, but other than being about two ambitious young women with jobs in the media, there are few similarities. Johanna is not seeking a Mr. Darcy to give her a fairytale ending and Bridget was old enough for her selfhood to be set, not necessarily the case with Johanna. Is she capable of more transformation or is she stuck at asshole of the year?

One question is settled by How to Build a Girl. What her previous movies and her triumph on Broadway as Minnie Fay in Hello, Dolly! suggested is made manifest here: Beanie Feldstein is a young woman who is going to have a monster career. She is a charming actor, but not one that needs to be liked, and she embodies the baser aspects of Johanna’s personality in those moments when the teenager is truly abhorrent. Yet, it is impossible to dislike Johanna for long, if only because she is so funny. Feldstein is the complete package, a gifted comic with a full emotional range at her disposal. Moran has written a witty, insightful adaptation of her own book and Giedroyc has made a delightful, well-cast, and resonant film, but How to Build a Girl film lives or dies on Feldstein’s performance. It lives. –Pam Grady

How to Build a Girl is available in select theaters and on demand.

Killer fashion: DEERSKIN


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Quentin Dupieux, the writer/director who 10 years ago made a homicidal maniac out of a tire in Rubber, now turns his attention to a jacket and the goofball who wears it in the mordantly funny Deerskin. Oscar winner Jean Dujardin stars in this bloody and buoyant blend of horror and comedy that hinges on one man’s obsession.

We never learn much about who Georges might have been before the jacket comes into his life. He was once given to wearing tweedy jackets – at least that is what he wears in the opening frames, soon ditched in the most passive-aggressive way in a gas station lavatory. He was married but announces his permanent separation over a pay phone to his wife and is later shocked to learn she has blocked his access to their joint bank account. And he needs money, if only to add yet more deerskin accessories to his ensemble.

The fringed suede jacket itself – bought from an old man who has kept it in a trunk for 30 years, consigned there when it was no longer fashionable – resembles those favored by the likes of musician David Crosby in the 1960s and ’70s. It is fringed suede, a hippie’s dream of outerwear. It fits Georges like a sausage casing, but he is enamored with it. The jacket enchants this 50-something-year-old who is apparently bent on reinventing himself one sartorial choice at a time.

Settling in a hotel in a small village in the Pyrenees where he knows no one, sets about remaking himself. A home video camera given him by the man who sold him the jacket allows him to call himself a filmmaker. He finds a collaborator in Denise (Adèle Haenel), a bartender who trained as an editor. Moviemaking allows Georges to document his real project: Ridding the world of all other jackets – by any means necessary – so that his deerskin will be the only one.

The absurdity of Georges’ quest and the lengths to which he will go to tilt at that particular windmill drives Deerskin‘s humor. Dupieux has written a screenplay in which the comedy (and the horror) build in increments. Georges begins as a mild eccentric with an apparent flair for grift, his mental instability and loose grasp on reality becoming ever more apparent along with a propensity for sudden violence hidden beneath his doofus personality. Dujardin nails the character’s many shadings and does not give into an actor’s natural tendency to make his character likable. Georges is a wolf in a deerskin wrapper and Dujardin plays that to the hilt.

The Pyrenees setting was a brilliant choice on Dupieux’s part. The natural beauty and serenity of the alpine town provide a potent counterpoint to the chaos Georges creates within it. In returning to an inanimate object once more for inspiration, Dupieux has gifted audiences with a bloody good time. –Pam Grady

Deerskin is available to screen from Roxie Virtual Cinema and other VOD outlets.



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Selah And The Spades

Step aside, Mean Girls and Heathers and Election‘s Tracy Flick. Your portraits of high school power games and popularity contests are so… well, teenage, when put against the actions of the titular character in Selah and the Spades. In Tayarisha Poe’s sensational feature debut, 17-year-old Selah Summers (Lovie Simone) is more Lucrezia Borgia or John Gotti than adolescent queen bee.

Poe sets her tale in the hermetically sealed world of a boarding school. These kids are rich and have the sense of entitlement that comes from money and privilege. At the same time, they are also their parents’ prized trophies, raised with the expectation that will attend Ivies or other elite universities and go on to fabulous lives that will reflect well on the family.

It’s a lot of pressure and the kids at Haldwell School in Pennsylvania have reacted by taking the normal cliques familiar to any high school and weaponizing them. Instead of jocks and geeks and stoners, the five strata at Haldwell are teenage crime families. Working in tandem with one another in an uneasy alliance, each group plays a different role and wields far more power than their neutered headmaster (Jesse Williams). The band that Selah rules over, The Spades, keeps their classmates awash in liquor and drugs.

But, as Shakespeare noted in Henry IV, Part II, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” and so it is with Selah. On the surface, she is a picture of composure and supreme confidence. But she trusts no one, not even her second in command Maxie (Jharrel Jerome). Compounding her issues are a long-simmering feud with Bobby (Ana Mulvoy Ten), leader of a rival faction, that threatens to break into the open, and an obsession with her legacy. Selah is a senior, who will inherit the Spades when she graduates?

New student Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) might hold the key to succession. The two girls become instant besties. Paloma is smart. She’s reliable. Very little fazes her. But she also has a streak of independence that resists Selah’s attempts at control and manipulation. And not much gets past her as she observes how Selah treats Maxxie and the fraught interactions between Selah and Bobby. Can anyone truly be friends with Selah or does she ultimately see everyone as a frenemy?

At one point, Selah visits her parents. Her mother (Gina Torres) relates to her the old fable of the scorpion and the frog in which the scorpion hitches a ride with the amphibian across a river, only to sting his benefactor mid-crossing, dooming them both. The scorpion can’t help it; it’s his nature.

Selah and the Spades zeroes in on Selah’s nature, which is not so different from the scorpion’s. She is a smart young woman, but it is not her intelligence that drives her but something much more primal. Her outward calms masks a tumultuous emotional life rife with anger, resentment, and jealousy. There is also an element of fear: When she moves on from Haldwell, who is she? Who is Selah Summers when she is no longer a high school celebrity, when she is just another anonymous college freshman?

Writer/director Poe has created an outstanding first feature, one that sells the offbeat reality of the situation and the idea that these kids have successfully forged a world completely separate from their teachers and parents. Simone’s performance is indelible, a finely etched character portrait of a young woman who has found her purpose within that universe and reacts badly as the time nears to move on to her next chapter. –Pam Grady

Selah and the Spades is streaming on Amazon Prime.