Film festival favourites

No less than six films from the Sydney Film Festival are arriving on our local screens this week. Some may be hard to find, but you really should make an effort to seek out these three gems

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Gay conversion therapy is the sort of premise which easily lends itself to either impassioned outrage or mocking satire. Neither approach will change anyone’s hearts and minds though, so wisely for someone who does seem to actually want to do that, director Desiree Akhavan chose a quieter and more emotionally resonant approach for her follow-up to 2014’s wildly provocative indie Appropriate Behaviour. And a star who serves her modest story of a LGBTIQ outsider finding herself magnificently, for Chloë Grace Moretz quietly shines as Cameron, the “confused” orphan teen with “unnatural” proclivities.

When caught in a bit of unfortunate hanky panky with another girl at her high-school prom, she’s promptly shipped off by her conservative aunt to an isolated ‘pray the gay away’ camp called God’s Promise. It’s is a decidedly odd place too. Cameron’s guitar-strumming “captors” (John Gallagher Jr, Jennifer Ehle,) are pleasant enough if a little creepy, while most of her fellow happy campers seem to have been drinking their Kool Aid with a bit too much enthusiasm… Rather naively, it lets its inmates roam freely in the woods tending to a secret dope patch – “hiking” being a God-approved activity (yes! I knew that). And it bunks hormone-raging same-sex attracted teens together, apparently not expecting an eruption of hot and heavy breathing after lights-out (with that hot chick from Kick Ass, of all people). Naturally enough, Cam (who is forbidden to use that “gender confusing” name) soon finds a couple of rebellious kindred spirits (Forrest Goodluck, Sasha Lane) to hang out with. She’s clever enough to keep her mouth shut too, and play along with all the indoctrination psycho-babble, biding her time and waiting…

After a somewhat melodramatic tragedy, there to thump home the destructive nature of this thoroughly discredited process,  the story (which is set in the early 90s) does wrap up on an optimistic, if melancholic note. That image is used in all the film’s publicity shots, so no spoilers – it’s the three kids in a pick-up truck in front the ever-so-hopeful “Clinton–Gore” campaign sticker. Yes, the US elected the famously liberal Bill Clinton in 92 – well, woo hoo! To this day, gay conversion therapy is still legal and practised in 41 US States.

Miseducation… won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2018, and played in competition at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. It’s on limited release from Sept 6 in Sydney and Melbourne only. M at Dendy Newtown (limited sessions) ★★★★

You Were Never Really Here

Lynne Ramsay’s long-awaited follow-up to We Need to Talk About Kevin has actually been around for a while. After screening at Cannes in 2017 — and deservedly winning Joaquin Phoenix a best actor award for his gut-wrenching performance — it turned up at both the Melbourne and Sydney Film Festivals this year, and is now getting a fairly wide art-house release. It’s been well worth the wait. Though it may make for confronting viewing (at least for some) – it is one of the strongest movies of the year.

The pitch-black plot follows Phoenix’s Joe, an ex-soldier and FBI agent turned brutal hitman whose new line of work includes rescuing children from paedophile rings. Unsurprisingly, this confronting task takes a considerable psychological toll, and Ramsay takes us on a tense, nearly unbearably bleak tour through the mindset of a man coping with many layers of trauma while at the same delivering a thrilling plot involving a senator’s daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov). Neither Ramsay or Phoenix put a foot wrong here – this is a highly ambitious feature that contains elements of visceral nastiness and moments of quite unexpected sweetness, particularly when Joe is looking after his ailing mother (Judith Roberts). It’s that contrast which raises the film far beyond standard revenge thriller fare into something much more memorable and lasting. Not surprisingly, it’s been compared to Taxi Driver.

Though for something so powerful, there’s very little actual violence, at least not on screen. Ramsay keeps us removed from the mayhem, in fact the closest thing to conventional multiplex-style action we see is Joe clearing out a house of villains via CCTV footage. We do get the context of his actions though, and see the aftermath – and there are some shocking traumatic images that reveal the lasting psychological damage haunting our unlikely “hero” – a great, hulking, mumbling wreck of a man. We share the confusion and unease he feels, a disorientation which is ramped up remarkably by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood’s astonishing and pulsing score. For those who like tough, unpredictable and demanding cinema – this is close to a masterpiece. MA15+ from Sept 6. Inner west venues include Palace Norton St, Central and Dendy Newtown. ★★★★1/2

Hearts Beat Loud

Chosen for the Sydney Film Festival’s closing night festivities, writer-director Brett Haley’s father-daughter dramady is  undoubtedly the lightest (and slightest) of the six releases. Strangely too, for a film set entirely in the hipster heartland of Brooklyn (Red Hook – a formerly industrial waterfront neighbourhood resembling Marrickville), it’s had all traces of irony surgically removed. Including any even slightly prickly sentiment, it seems – though that’s not necessarily a bad thing for an indie that defiantly signals its “heart-warming” intentions right at the outset.

Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman plays Frank, a former rock musician and owner of a declining vinyl record store faced with business failure and the departure of his impossibly sweet daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons), a talented musician herself who’s off to college. His landlady and sometime bed-mate (Toni Collette) is sweet too – and impossibly tolerant about unpaid rent, while his best friend (Ted Danson), the owner of an impossibly authentic bar (in reality a Red Hook tourist attraction), is not only sweet but incredibly wise. To top things off Sasha Lane pops in (fresh from that gay-conversion camp above) as Sam’s lovely girlfriend… Yes, she’s sweet too, especially when teaching Sam to ride a bicycle. (What? Someone in Brooklyn doesn’t know how?)

But none of that syrupy mixture grates – how could it when Haley’s touch is so warm and earnest, and Frank himself is so likeable. He’s the sort of character who can actually communicate directly, both emotionally and verbally in a way that is quite disarming. The easy success of his redemption project though, an unlikely impromptu band with Sam – may just be one improbable step too far… But film festival closers are supposed to make you smile, and send you home with your feet tapping and a song in your heart.  And this one does exactly that with a relaxed and confident ease. PG from Sept 6 at Dendy Newtown ★★★1/2

More festival films opening this week

Juliet, Naked at Palace Norton St

Three Identical Strangers exclusive to Hayden Orpheum Cremorne

McQueen at Palace Norton St, Central and Dendy Newtown

Reviews – Russell Edwards