Monday, June 29, 2015

Dope (2015)

DOPE                         B                
USA  (103 mi)  2015  ‘Scope  d:  Rick Famuyiwa                 Official site                

This is a film that seems to have gone out of its way to hit all the touchstones of youth culture, a place where television, pop music, the Internet, drugs, race, and sex all come together in the teenage world, where hip-hop is the anthem that blares in the background while kids try to make their way through the minefield that is high school, complete with an entire set of distinctly black social obstacles placed in the way.  While ostensibly a coming-of-age comedy, the film delves into a myriad of stigmas and stereotypes about blacks growing up in gang-infested neighborhoods, where the stomping grounds are a return to the mean streets of Inglewood, California made famous by John Singleton’s legendary BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991).  But instead of accentuating the contemptuous distrust between the LA police department and the South Central LA neighborhoods, coming on the heels of the Rodney King Incident that took place in March 1991, RODNEY KING BEATING VIDEO Full length footage ... YouTube (8:08), this film seems to have evolved from the Shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012, where the life of an unarmed 17-year old black teenager wearing a hoodie was unnecessarily wiped out in an instant, an all-too-familiar headline-grabbing story where guns in the hands of trigger-happy whites are the growing answer to racial fears.  While LA has been nicknamed the gang capital of America, home to more than 1350 gangs and 120,000 gang members nearly a decade ago, Inglewood still has a huge gang problem, with close to 50 different gangs residing within the city, where this film seems motivated to change the stereotype by creating friendlier, less threatening characters.  “Malcolm is a geek.”  These are the first words we hear from the narrator (Forrest Whitaker, one of the film’s producers) about Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a high school senior looking surprisingly like he’s fresh off a 90’s black TV sitcom like In Living Color (1990 – 94), where he might have been one of Theo’s friends from The Cosby Show (1984 – 92), or a featured character in an early Spike Lee film.  Despite growing up with a bus driving single mom (Kimberly Elise) in a low-income neighborhood known as “The Bottoms,” Malcolm, a straight A student with a love for 90’s hip-hop and “white shit,” namely getting good grades and going to college, hangs out with two other equally bright and geeky friends, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a likeable, light-skinned lesbian that dresses as a man, whose parents have tried unsuccessfully to “pray the gay away,” and Jib, Tony Revolori, the lobby boy in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), a multiracial oddball who maintains a bit of his impish personality.  Together they play in a garage band known as Awreoh (whose songs are actually Pharrell compositions), while cruising the neighborhoods of the streets of LA on their bikes, often extremely careful about what streets to enter and which ones to avoid, where the prevalence of guns can make these life altering decisions.  On more than one occasion we see the results of random street violence, including an unfortunate burger joint customer that is killed while simply standing in line, literally seconds away from reaching a supposedly unattainable level on his Game Boy. 

At least initially, the idea of presenting material in a new light feels intriguing, where the intelligence of the characters suggests a film at least attempting to cut through the stereotypes, where three definitions of the entitled word “Dope” are provided:  an illegal drug, a stupid person, and something overly cool, each of which at some point or another becomes the focal point of the film.  Perhaps most interesting is the notion of a black geek being into the same things white people are into, like good grades, anime comic books, being in a grunge band, skateboarding, riding bikes, and getting into college, where Malcolm has his sights set on Harvard, and has already written an essay proposal (A Research Thesis to Discover Ice Cube’s Good Day) that examines exactly what day Ice Cube was talking about in his gangsta rap classic Ice Cube - It Was A Good Day (Explicit) - YouTube (5:12), arguing “If Neil deGrasse Tyson was writing about Ice Cube, this is what it would look like.”  His guidance counselor steers him away from that idea, suggesting he needs to distinguish himself from the rest by revealing personal details about his own life, much of which Malcolm feels is a tired, worn out cliché, another story about a poor black kid from a single-parent family in Inglewood.  In the process of discovering himself, however, the film rather circuitously touches on what it means to be black, which has become something of a paradox in the era of Obama, Trayvon Martin, and the Ferguson police Shooting of Michael Brown, where Obama’s 2008 election was accompanied by a multi-ethnic surge of hope, a promise of a better tomorrow, ushering in a supposedly post-racial order, but has instead unleashed a continuing series of violent, racially-tinged incidents that once more remind us as a nation just how far we have yet to go.  In the post 9/11 world, terrorism and Islamic extremists raise the public’s ire while twice as many deaths on U.S. soil have been attributed to white supremacists and right-wing, anti-government fanatics, creating large-scale public misconceptions of what “terrorism” looks like in the United States.  Like derogatory racial epithets, the word “terrorist” has been spewed as a piece of propaganda meant to dehumanize dark-skinned Muslim people while the white killers among us are allowed complex psychological profiles.  Much like that premature elation, this film promises more than it can deliver, where racial identity is so much more complicated than how it’s portrayed here, but the director appears to be drawing from the Trey Ellis 1989 essay The New Black Aesthetic, where “a black individual possesses the ability to thrive and successfully exist in a white society while simultaneously maintaining all facets of his or her complex cultural identity.”  While that goal is evident at the outset, the film is eventually bogged down in familiar Hollywood cliché’s, resembling a black version of RISKY BUSINESS (1983).  When Malcolm accidentally gets pulled into a serious discussion about 90’s hip-hop with a reputable drug dealer on the street, Dom (A$AP Rocky), what starts out as a humorous aside becomes an unexpected side trip into nostalgia, where hip-hop groups like Biggie, Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Tupac, and Dr. Dre are being named with the historical importance of former presidents, where these are the cultural icons of contemporary black history, yet these are also the same rap lyrics that started calling women bitches and hos while revitalizing the use of the N-word, becoming an expression of endearment among brothers, but a controversial word when used so conventionally in a breezy and nonchalant fashion.  When Dom involves him in a message game with a sultry girl down the street, Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), inviting him to his birthday celebration, she quickly becomes the girl of his dreams, helping her get out of the party safely after a police raid with guns blazing.  While indicating “Those other niggas” stepped right over her to get out of there, Malcolm replies, “Guess I’m not one of ‘those niggas.’” 

Only afterwards does Malcolm realize his backpack has been stuffed with drugs and a gun, where in no time he’s dealing with the criminal element he’d been avoiding all his life, becoming part of his daily routine alongside taking SAT exams and interviewing with the visiting Harvard college representative.  While he’s a total novice in dealing with drug lords, he suddenly finds himself on the speed dials of rival gang leaders, or perhaps an impersonating FDA agent, receiving mixed instructions that he somehow needs to sort out.  While Dom insists that he deliver the merchandise to the upscale home of a business associate, but when he’s not there, he’s instead lured into a bizarre labyrinth of wrong turns, led by two dysfunctional children, a wannabe rap producer Jaleel (Quincy Brown) and his half-naked, stoned-out-of-her-mind little sister Lily, high fashion model Chanel Iman in her film debut, the object of every teenage boy’s sexual fantasies, who makes quite a lurid impression before doing the utterly unthinkable, captured, of course, on YouTube video that streams on all the local news broadcasts.  Perilously close to missing his college interview, Malcolm is even more amazed to discover the Harvard man he’s being interviewed by is the same man he was supposed to deliver the package to, turning the interview into a skewed discussion spoken entirely in code on the merits of Ivy League meritocracy versus the crass, often contemptible conduct of unfettered capitalism, where exploring his options afterwards is not easy.  Drawing upon the knowledge of a former friend he met at band camp named Will (Blake Anderson), a white, all-purpose stoner with an affinity for drug dealing and calling people “niggas,” a social miscue that is eventually discussed at some length, they explore the best way to move the merchandise without being detected, using cyber thriller techniques seen in espionage movies.  While this is all in good fun, it’s also borderline ridiculous, drawing inferences from an early flashback that reveals the only gift he ever received from his long absent father, a VHS copy of SUPER FLY (1972), identified as his Dad’s favorite movie, leads the viewer into a myriad of Blaxploitation references.  Stripped to its barest essential, however, this is actually the story of a boy who likes a girl, where visions of Nakia are everpresent in his all too vivid imagination, where he agrees to help her with her schoolwork, hoping it will lead to more.  Both Shameik Moore (in his first lead appearance) and Zoë Kravitz are excellent, where their flirtatious dynamic has a sweetly underplayed naturalness about it, like it’s only just beginning, where both are seen as evolving figures, vulnerable and compelling, mutually exploring the hazards of the territory needed to cross to get to that next destination in life, whatever it may be.  Part of what works best is the brashness of the young trio of friends, never underestimating themselves or their futures, where the film has a different kind of trajectory in exploring the black experience, vibrantly energetic with a cranked-up musical soundtrack (iTunes - Music - Dope (Music from the Motion Picture) by ...), even if it does have a somewhat preachy and by-the-numbers Hollywood ending. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL        B+                
USA  (105 mi)  2015  ‘Scope  d:  Alfonso Goméz-Rejón   Official site                                        

In the past, Sundance Festival winners tended to be hit or miss, as most met the festival criteria guidelines more than any overall significance as art films.  While there have been major surprises, like Todd Haynes gay revelation Poison (1991) or Noah Baumbach’s exquisite short story THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005), most Sundance winners tended to be forgettable, interesting in smaller ways that often lost their relevance outside the festival setting.  But that has all changed of late, as the festival has strung together an eclectic mix of American indie films that have a rediscovered sense of urgency on social matters while retaining a certain poetic elegance, like Jennifer Lawrence’s unflinching performance in Debra Granik’s 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #3 Winter's Bone, Benh Zeitlin’s largely poetic, post-Katrina 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #1 Beasts of the Southern Wild , Ryan Coogler’s parable on race in America, Fruitvale Station (2013), and the performance of a career by J.K. Simmons in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014).  While ME AND EARL tends to divide audiences, many finding it too sarcastically irreverent, finding the humor at odds with the somber nature of the film, where it nonetheless retains a startling emotional resonance that is highly unusual for adolescent coming-of-age films.  Set in the former steel city of Pittsburgh, a working class town that has been the site of several other indie films as well like Adventureland (2009), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), and THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (2014), but also earlier standards like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), THE DEER HUNTER (1978), and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), while let’s not forget FLASHDANCE (1983), where the decaying and dried-up steel mills have been transformed into studio backdrops, on equal footing with Atlanta, New Orleans, and New York for choice movie locations.  Adapted from the 2012 young adult novel by the same name from Jesse Andrews, a Pittsburgh native and former graduate of Schenley High School on the edge of the Hill District, the neighborhood origin of August Wilson plays as well as Steven Bochco’s surprisingly realistic TV cop drama Hill Street Blues (1981 – 87), writing a fictionalized teen romance story taking place at his old high school where the film was actually shot, while also featuring his actual childhood home as well.  The title itself may put people off, where the silly rhyming scheme is reminiscent of the corny Bubble Gum pop hit Me and You and a Dog Named Boo, LOBO - Me And You And A Dog Named Boo - 1973 Official Video  YouTube (3:07), while the film’s premise, an awkward, socially isolated young boy named Greg (Thomas Mann) tries to do a good thing by helping cheer up a dying high school classmate named Rachel (Olivia Cooke) who’s been diagnosed with stage-four leukemia.  The narrative itself has all the trappings of a sappy after school special on the risks and hazards of fighting cancer, where one might think it couldn’t be more sentimentally maudlin.  While it is fundamentally flawed, where the characters feel more stereotypical than real, the film nonetheless rises above its self-imposed artificiality and produces a surprisingly novel approach that is worth the journey. 

At the center of the film is its self-loathing narrative structure, recalling Sofia Coppola’s THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (1999), where Greg offers his snarky views of the world around him, where his sarcastic, self-centered outsiderism is pretty typical of the high school perspective, as that’s all he really knows at this point in his life, showered with what he feels is undeserved affection from his parents, having little more than one friend in the world, a black kid named Earl (Ronald Cyler II) that he’s known since grade school, but he refuses to call him a friend, which suggests a certain intimacy, instead identifying him as a co-worker.  Told from the point of view of Greg, Earl is an honest and unpretentious sidekick, a man of few words who tends to be a straightshooter, offering clarity in the often muddled world of Greg, but Earl’s life remains elusive, mostly taking place offscreen, where we learn little about his hopes or dreams, but can only evaluate him through his interactions with Greg.  Some may think this sells Earl short, as it doesn’t scrutinize his life with the fullness of Greg’s world, but that would be another story, one with greater awareness of the existing racial dynamic that Greg simply doesn’t have.  This one instead abounds with a quirky energy throughout that far more accurately reflects the white experience, similar to the wise-beyond-its-years JUNO (2007), where the fundamental, underlying dialogue is filled with sardonic wit and self-effacing humor.  Both Earl and Rachel tend to be smarter and more mature than Greg, but that’s why he always feels boxed in by his cultural limitations, unable to feel a part of the greater social experience.  In this film, his deluded, self-imposed disconnect is at the heart of the film, where he feels safer without the emotional investment of reaching out to friends, refusing to take the plunge, so to speak, where he reflects the typical overprotectiveness of white culture, where his constant sullenness perfectly suits a seemingly justifiable feeling of alienation.  It’s like living in a bubble, where reality is constantly whizzing around him nearby, but it escapes him.  When Greg’s mom literally orders him to spend some time with Rachel, someone he barely knows, he reluctantly obeys with the typical resistance of trying to actually connect with someone, where Rachel is not looking for pity and would rather he simply leave her alone.  He somehow gets past the uncomfortable zone with awkward humor, where he discovers her room is filled with literally dozens of pillows, far more than anyone could possibly use, so he develops make-believe conversations with the pillows, giving them personalities much as one might do with dolls, invisible friends or hand puppets.  Soon Greg adds Earl to his visits, where he’s surprised to learn Earl has no problem sharing personal secrets, where suddenly Greg feels exposed and violated, where he inadvertently becomes the focal point, but it’s only his inflated view of himself, as his so-called problems are nothing compared to what Rachel is going through.         

Something should be said for the absurd tone of the film, which is infused with warmth and comic insight throughout, much like the J.J. Abrams film Super 8 (2011), which pays tribute to the Spielberg era of movies, including plenty of film references.  But even more than the heavy use of Hollywood special effects, the best thing about that film is the smaller-world interaction of the kids, whose unique personalities add humor and intrigue to the story, where they’re a close-knit group that draws the audience in with their personal appeal.  Similarly, this isn’t just a kid with cancer movie, but utilizes an amazing script that accentuates believability, becoming something of a love letter to the Criterion collection, as Greg and Earl have been making Kuchar brothers style ultra-cheap movies all their lives, doing silly and stupid homages to the classic works of Visconti, Kubrick, Clouzot, Schlesinger, or Hitchcock, retitling them Death in Tennis, A Sockwork Orange, Wages for Beer, 2:48 PM Cowboy, or Vere’d He Go?  These delightful movie parodies add a dreamlike visual style and are interspersed throughout, adding comic levity, while actually developed by Edward Bursch and Nathan O. Marsh who made 21 stop-motion animated and live-action works seen in the film.  Greg also has a 400 BLOWS poster prominently displayed in his bedroom while spending a good portion of the film wearing a NOSFERATU T-shirt, while it should also be pointed out that Werner Herzog is used to comical effect.  Even Greg’s imagination resorts to animation, almost always at the sight of his overly attractive dreamgirl and high school crush, Madison (Katherine C. Hughes), usually making a complete fool of himself, where one of the more familiar recurring images is a moose stomping on a smaller woodland animal like a chipmunk, which represents his sinking self-esteem.  These nutty films become the shared link between the three characters, where despite the severity of Rachel’s deteriorating medical condition, requiring heavy doses of chemotherapy leaving her glum and dispirited, there remains an upside throughout.  It’s Madison who convinces Greg to make a movie for Rachel, something that proves more difficult than he imagines, as it’s hard not to be influenced by the elephant in the room, the looming presence of death.  Despite being derailed by critics who lambasted the film, indie maverick Gus van Sant made Restless (van Sant) (2011), an equally intriguing film about a teenager with a terminal illness, where both movies are love poems on the subject of death, where instead of an obsession with morbidity or wretched emotional excess, these films both create a tone of fragility and tenderness, where the characters are a bit goofy, not afraid to make fun of themselves, but always fully aware of the tragedy of their situation.  The scene of the film is the use of Brian Eno’s The Big Ship, Brian Eno "The Big Ship" - YouTube (3:04), the moment when Rachel finally watches Greg’s film, a provocative experimental film that generates an abstract Kubrickian Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite moment from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) that is both enthralling and transforming, literally raising the roof off the theater in what is arguably the most intensely dramatic and mystifyingly exotic sequence of the year, a tribute to Andy Warhol, Charles and Ray Eames’ stop-motion animation, and Stan Brackhage, where the euphoric feeling is achieved from utterly sublime filmmaking, where the quietness of the starkly humane denouement afterwards is equally haunting and heartfelt, elevating and transporting the material into magical realms.  After the somewhat slight and cynical opening, it’s certainly not what anyone could have expected, becoming one of the transcendent films of the year.  


A few words on the racial dynamic in this film, which features a black character, but next to nothing is known about him, where the film shows surprisingly little curiosity about Earl’s circumstances or home life while instead spending nearly all its time in both Greg and Rachel’s bedrooms, which provide an intimate glimpse of their lives.  Many viewers and critics find this degree of racial imbalance problematic.  For what it’s worth, I fail to share that view, though one can easily see how some might accurately criticize the film for its racial blinders, as the Earl character never really comes to life, is only touched upon without ever being examined, while the white world is delved into more deeply than the black experience, which is near absent.  But I do believe this accurately reflects white culture, especially in teenage years, where whites grow up thinking of themselves as the center of attention, where they may spend their days side by side with blacks, but don’t ever stop to think about the “other,” as they’re too busy thinking only about themselves.  Blacks, on the other hand, are forced to be aware of whites whether they want to or not.  They really have no choice.  This difference in perspective is immediately apparent to blacks but unrecognizable to most whites, where the real “cause” of racism as that whites are so overprotected, especially by parents and police, while blacks are viewed and treated differently, as if they can be manhandled, in order to protect the prevailing “white” society from the epidemic that is black on black crime.  But that’s nowhere to be seen in this movie.

This film doesn’t spend a minute analyzing racial implications, which is pretty typical of the more privileged white culture, where this film essentially expresses overly sarcastic, overly literate “white” humor, exactly as does an entire vein of indie films, like JUNO, ADVENTURELAND, THE SPECTACULAR NOW, or THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, not to mention dozens of others.  The only difference here is that one of the featured characters in this film is black, so the expectation is that the prevailing white culture would be more respectful and observant of the black experience.  While it may not be the racially inclusive and diversified world we’d like, it’s actually more honest to portray whites, particularly teenagers in high school, avoiding the issue, demonstrating little racial acumen, where instead they spend all their time thinking only of themselves.  This deluded and self-centered view of the world is at the heart of the picture and only evolves beyond that once Greg chooses to show Rachel the film he made specifically for her, which brings about a radical transformation.  This film uses a cinematic aesthetic to demonstrate how art can transcend otherwise narrow cultural interests and social limitations. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

2015 Top Ten List #10 About Elly (Darbareye Elly)

ABOUT ELLY  (Darbareye Elly)        A-               
Iran  France  (119 mi)  2009  d:  Asghar Farhadi                  

Asghar Farhadi is one of the few major Iranian directors that still makes films in Iran, a nation where literally dozens of filmmakers have been arrested and released under the Ahmadinejad regime, as Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, along with filmmaker and actress Mahnaz Mohammadi, remain imprisoned for political differences, their passports revoked, banned from making future movies, while legendary Iranian New Wave directors Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf work in exile.  It’s a significant paradox that Farhadi has been free to serve on juries for major international film festivals, and even win major prizes himself, including his highly acclaimed A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) (2011), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film (also nominated for Best Original Screenplay), becoming the highest grossing Iranian film ever made (listed as #40 foreign language movie of all-time, Foreign Language Movies at the Box Office - Box Office Mojo) and the first Iranian to win an Academy Award in any competitive category, while his compatriots languish in prison.  We are reminded that in September 2010 during the making of A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin), which due to past film successes was made without any governmental support, Farhadi was banned from making the film by the Iranian Ministry of Culture, as during earlier acceptance speeches at award ceremonies, he expressed support for Mohsen Makhmalbaf, an exiled Iranian filmmaker living at the time in Afghanistan, and imprisoned political filmmaker Jafar Panahi, both of whom are linked to the Iranian Green Movement that questioned the validity of the 2009 Iranian Presidential election, demanding the removal of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from office.  The ban was lifted a month later after Farhadi apologized for his remarks and claimed to be inaccurately perceived.  While certainly considered one of the most important directors of the 90’s, the Iranian government has long refused to permit the screening of any Kiarostami film for well over a decade, causing him to remark, “The government has decided not to show any of my films for the past 10 years... I think they don’t understand my films and so prevent them being shown just in case there is a message they don’t want to get out.  They tend to support films that are stylistically very different from mine – melodramas” ("Abbas Kiarostami – Not A Martyr", Stuart Jeffries from The Guardian, April 26, 2005), which begs the question, why is Farhadi still visibly working in Iran while others have disappeared or been silenced?  The Past (Le Passé) (2013) was even partially financed by Iran.  Perhaps it’s a matter of economics, as his films continue to make money, seemingly at odds with arthouse filmmakers who have other priorities.  That being said, ABOUT ELLY is only belatedly having an international release six years after it premiered to considerable acclaim at the Berlin Festival in 2009 where Farhadi won a Silver Bear for Best Director, winning dozens of other awards as well, but it was mysteriously shelved afterwards, as an earlier distributor that acquired the film apparently went out of business.  It’s curious that this film’s public introduction comes “after” his two earlier films drew such heavy international praise, where one of them surprisingly became the most successful film in Iranian film history. 

When seen in this context, how ironic that the film with the least amount of accompanying accolades is arguably this director’s best film.  This may be the closest Farhadi has come to emulating Jafar Panahi, where Western elements creep into an Iranian film, whose CRIMSON GOLD (2003) mixes the stylization of Iranian social realism with a European art film, actually paying tribute to Fellini’s NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957).  In similar fashion, ABOUT ELLY borrows liberally from Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA (1960), a film where Italian neo-realism comes face to face with contemporary modern society, a brooding interior film that expresses extreme emotional alienation through slow pacing, narrative ambiguity, and extraordinary visual stylization.  In each, a large degree of the film’s success can be attributed to the brilliance of the character development, where multiple figures literally come to life onscreen, becoming familiar to us all by the end of the picture. While Antonioni creates spaces between characters through silences or long wordless sequences, Farhadi takes a more collective approach, creating a group dynamic that is reflective of a casual self-interest mindset when one member of a group of friends goes mysteriously missing during a weekend trip to the Caspian Sea.  Intent on examining the fractured and hypocritical culture of the middle-class, Farhadi conceals their underlying motives throughout most of the film before allowing them to erupt in emotional fireworks during an explosive finale.  An essay-like comment on contemporary times, ABOUT ELLY also accentuates the extreme degree of alienation from rapidly changing cultural norms, exposing utter indifference to the social injustice of women, whose powerlessness leaves them even further isolated from the mainstream, their lives dominated and completely controlled by the arrogance and paternalistic whims of selfishly deluded men, revealing just how completely out of touch they are with their wives and female counterparts who are all but invisible to them.  The stark divide is a breathtaking surprise, a social critique beautifully revealed through unraveling layers of seemingly innocuous conversations that become dramatically intensified, ultimately a distinctively evolving passion play that reaches heights of hysteria, dramatically expressed with a great deal of clarity, though this only becomes evident by the end.  Farhadi’s true strength is his writing, and while there are nearly a dozen featured characters, the naturalism of their performances really serves the overall outcome.  Much like a stage play, though expressed with utter simplicity, the speed and rhythm of the conversational interplay between characters must reflect the overall mood changes of a very complicated social dynamic, where it’s essential they be viewed as believable and authentic.  The success of this film is that all the movable parts contribute to the whole, where what’s lurking under the surface, seemingly benign and of little consequence, has a powerful impact that in the end provides a stunning societal exposé. 

The film begins innocently enough, as a group of middle-class friends, old classmates from the university, set out for a relaxing weekend on the shores of the Caspian Sea, three married couples and their young children, including Sepideh, Golshifteh Farahani from My Sweet Pepper Land (2013), who organized the trip, who brings along Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), her daughter’s kindergarten teacher, while also inviting a male friend Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), who recently separated from his wife and is visiting from Germany.  While the boisterous mood remains upbeat, with plenty of music and chatter, the overriding feeling is one of exuberance, expressing the joy of being young and happy, shot in a cinéma vérité style, where the audience is exposed to wave after wave of overlapping conversations.  Not to be deterred, despite being full for the holidays, the group is offered a seaside villa with broken windows and no beds that hasn’t been fixed up yet, but the charm of the nearby sea is inviting.  Playing charades, singing songs, or spontaneously breaking out into dance, it’s a celebratory atmosphere with plenty of food brought in for the occasion.  While Elly is admittedly shy and reluctantly hesitant, there’s a bit of matchmaking going on behind the scenes, which is all in good fun, where they’re playfully introduced as young newlyweds to the rental owners to avoid any hint of scandal.  Nonetheless, with things seemingly going well, Elly is admittedly uncomfortable and seeks to leave early, spoiling the fun for Sepideh who encourages her to stay.  While the women are out buying food and the men are having a strenuous volleyball match on the beach, Elly is watching the kids, seen in a state of ecstasy while flying a kite, but then Sepideh’s daughter frantically cries out for help as one of the other children has gone out too far and is being carried out to sea, creating an panic-stricken moment of hysteria where all the adults run and jump into the water without a clue where he is.  Fortunately, after a delirious search, the child is safely rescued, but then they notice Elly has disappeared, where no one knows what happened to her.  Unsure whether she drowned or returned home on her own, suddenly the film takes on a more sinister mood, where they have to get their stories straight before calling the police, as they don’t wish to be implicated.  Self-preservation overrides any sense of honor in the face of tragedy, as each begins looking out for themselves, pointing their fingers at others, trying any way they can to escape blame.  It’s a sad and pathetic situation when they literally turn on one another, like sharks with blood in the water, with husbands blaming wives, claiming they should have been watching the kids, not some stranger whose last name they don’t even know, fearing how this might ruin their reputations and good social standing.  A carefree vacation of best friends turns into a desperate moment of panic, fear, and outright suspicion.  In no time it grows even more complicated, like a house of cards imploding on itself, where a protracted series of lies meant to spare someone emotional grief only escalates, reaching a level of emotional hysteria previously unseen in Iranian films.  Relying heavily on suspense, Farhadi unspools this extraordinary drama in sophisticated fashion, first creating the unsettled, murky waters of suspicion and distrust, then critiquing the morality of patronizing, overzealous social conventions while also exploring the male/female dynamic in modern Iran.  It’s a masterful effort that moves from the sunny comforts of Èric Rohmer territory to the dark psychological realms of Hitchcockian suspense.