Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Stranger Things

STRANGER THINGS                B                  
Great Britain  USA  (77 mi)  2010  d:  Ron Eyal and Eleanor Burke  
Official site                  

This kind of social realist film may represent the future of independent cinema, as it has a small budget, a minimalist low-key approach, using a simple concept of boy meets girl, though meeting under unusual circumstances, and at 77 minutes couldn’t be more concisely told.  Written by a husband and wife collaboration where the husband also directs, while the wife shoots and co-edits the film, what’s particularly effective is this small, quiet work has the intimate feel of a personal investment, feelings that are transferred to the audience as well, where a bare bones script never over-explains, where so much is communicated wordlessly, leaving something to think about afterwards.  It would be such a pleasure if more films could set out to accomplish those few goals, where the focus is on writing and acting, developing character, without ever revealing too much.  Part of the beauty is how much remains a mystery, where one can ponder various possibilities of what might eventually happen in the end.  The oceanside location on the English Channel in East Sussex, England couldn’t be more picturesque, and if you don’t believe it, check this out:  1,280 × 857 pixels, where that endless stretch of green leads directly into the back yard of one of the lead characters, Oona (Bridget Collins), who arrives at her mother’s seaside cottage after her recent death.  While the home is in a state of disarray, it’s also evident that Oona hasn’t been there for awhile, tidying up the place and resuscitating memories while she quietly sifts her way through much of the memorabilia.  Looking as if she’s having a hard time of it, especially getting it ready for sale, a friendly neighbor insists that she spend the night, where she spends much of the time recalling moments with her mother, who was apparently as socially awkward as her daughter appears to be.  Oona tapes the conversations, adding it to her collection of recordings as an anthropologist, where she’s attempting to establish an identifying train of thought that defines and brings her closer to her mother.               

When she returns the next morning with a real estate agent, she’s alerted by strange sounds, grabbing a mop and smashing the face of an intruder, screaming at him to get out.  Mani (Adeel Akhtar) is homeless, seen earlier traveling with a sick, elderly companion known as Bagman (Keith Parry), who he apparently left alone on the beach while he sought shelter, finding what he thought was an abandoned home to spend the night.  After sorting things out and collecting her thoughts, she finds a sketchbook left behind, where Mani had been drawing things her mother made, as she was something of an eccentric artist herself.  Moved to remorse, she runs down the road to return it, where the two have an awkward meeting filled with hesitations, but she invites him to spend the night in a small shed in the garden that used to be her playroom, also bringing him blankets and cookies.  Not much is said, but it’s clear her intentions are friendly, as she often smiles nervously and tries to be a gracious host.  Mani, on the other hand, is Middle Eastern, dark-skinned, and probably hasn’t been treated kindly since he can remember, but he’s not one to turn down a generous offer.  In the morning, she gives him some money and some bread, and resumes her cleaning.  When he returns again that evening, she’s initially mortified, but he’s completely non-threatening, so this time she offers him a bath, recalling the grimy bathwater in GUMMO (1997), and they share a meal, but they learn little about one another.  At first Oona tries to interview him, like one of her anthropology projects, but he’s obviously disturbed by her questions, probing areas of his life he’d just as soon forget.  In fact, they each remain a mystery to one another throughout, and to the audience as well, where they are a college graduate and a homeless person, where we can only imagine their pasts.

While there is a level of aloofness on Oona’s part, where Mani continues to belong to some “other” category, where her well meaning efforts can appear patronizing, the larger issue seems to be her own insecurities and loneliness, where both appear to have problems connecting with other people.  Oona dreams of traveling the world and learning to appreciate “other” cultures, not realizing those mysteries exist all around her.  In fact, she seems to have had a fairly distant relationship with her own mother, none of which is ever explained.  It’s this unknown aura that draws us to each of them, as they are likely not the people they would wish to be, and they really don’t know how to change the circumstances that led them there.  It’s of particular interest that Oona fabricates reality to make the world easier to live in, lying about how close she was to her mother at the end, while Mani avoids reality altogether, so caught up in daily survival, which plays into the finale, which remains grim, but is perhaps overly hopeful.  Coming together by accident, they’re both completely unfamiliar how to get past this awkward stage, both products of difficult pasts, where bits of flashbacks reveal a few troubled moments, followed by tight close ups where they remain puzzled by the enormous distance between people.  Apparently the cast and crew lived in this house while they were shooting, perhaps adding an element of unvarnished truth to these unglamorous lives.  This is a quiet film, without a musical soundtrack, that never reveals its secrets, that instead forces the viewer to examine what societal walls are constructed to keep “others” out, where we routinely walk past people on the street every day, or avoid faces on the bus, without knowing the least bit about them, often making judgments about their unpleasantness.  It’s an impersonal world that makes even death feel like a stranger has passed, where we often have little to no connection with our own families.  This film also examines social class and the collective baggage we all carry, where more often it’s easier to simply look the other way, but this has accumulative effects, leaving us further isolated from ourselves and one another, even those we care about the most. 

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