Cyrus, The Kids are All Right, and Solitary Man have something in common that makes me wonder if it isn't an indie trend. All three films feature a slice of life cinematic approach plus quirky characters that, in some cases, seem to exist only as a function of their appealing quirkiness and not as an integral part of the story and dramatic structure. It isn't enough to present a dramatic situation and flesh it out with various scenes and events that represent what happens to a person or group of persons without shedding any light on that dramatic situation or offering even a glimmer of insight or resolution that helps us understand the human condition.
Take Cyrus, for example, which happens to touch on a subject that I write about regularly. A mother and her adult son have a closer than normal relationship that becomes evident when mom begins dating a man who spends time in their home. It doesn't take long for the son to put the new man in mom's life on notice that he is not welcome in their lives. That, in itself, would have been a story worth exploring, albeit one that has certainly been told before.
But in this case, the son feels free to walk into the bathroom while mom is showering as the new man waits in the bedroom where he has been invited to stay for the evening. He not only enters the bathroom, but mom comes out wrapped in a towel suggesting that she went from being nude to the towel wrap rather comfortably in front of her son. In the middle of the night, the son cries out with bad dreams and mom rushes to spend the rest of the evening comforting him instead of in bed with her new man. Mom alludes to the notion that this may be somewhat unhealthy at one point but nothing is really acknowledged as to the importance of actually dealing with this odd and disturbing relationship triangle going forward. At some point, the story just ends.
The Kids are All Right presents a family with two moms and two teenagers that were conceived using a sperm donor. The lesbian marriage has similar issues to any long term marriage with one mom being the dominant, responsible bread winner and the other mom having given up her career path to stay home with the kids and well, be dominated. The marital struggles, along with their effects on the teenagers, are curiously entertaining and sometimes humorous, mostly carried by the twist of both parents being moms.
The conflict begins and is well laid out when the kids locate the sperm donor and he upsets the status quo, his presence digging into emotional nooks and crannies that are loaded with cobwebs. The stay at home mom has an affair with him as he, a single free spirit, becomes more attached to his instant family. When the affair is disclosed, the two mom family has to work hard to heal its wound, the man is left completely out in the cold with not even an indication as to whether he will ever have access to his biological children again, and life goes on. Just the way it was when the film started. The brilliant opportunity to explore how the kids feel about the absence of a father, why stay at home mom ventured into heterosexuality, and how the biological father feels about his second chance to make choices involving commitment remains completely unrealized.
Solitary Man is the story of a guy who has pretty much screwed up everything in life. He has lost a very successful business and hurt his family deeply. In the film, we are exposed to his many flaws and watch him do absolutely nothing to attempt to make amends. The most interesting story line involves his adult daughter's anguish as she gives him money and is repeatedly disappointed by his failure to change. While this character gives Michael Douglas a chance to show off in a role which fits him like a second skin, there is no development within the script. It is downright painful to watch this selfish, immature man continue to indulge his own needs at the expense of those he supposedly loves and if that is the point of the film, well done.
There are two outstanding examples of small films that involve appealing characters but use those characters as vehicles to accomplish a higher purpose. City Island, the wonderful story of a family that learns more about its love and commitment to one another through various character conflicts, is a satisfying look at how these dramatic conflicts can enrich our own lives with their universal themes, beautifully packaged in such a small slice of life story. And the dramatic, stark Winter's Bone is a chilling, sobering study of one young woman's deep commitment to her family. She is tested to the limits of her soul and finds that she is willing to risk everything to save her siblings and their disturbed mother despite desperate poverty and nearly unimaginable bleakness. The hope that she creates with her sacrifice is like the narrowest shaft of light that slips through a barely cracked door but in this case, it lights up our own sense of humanity.
I hope it is not a trend for today's new crop of writer/directors to be satisfied with small films that create roles that even A list actors covet without demanding more of themselves. It is not enough to be entertained with acclaimed performances for their own sake, we deserve meaningful, well constructed films that through their artistic structure, give us a little insight that we didn't have when we walked into the theatre and sat down. Work harder. It will be well worth it.
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