“Carol”—A Salty Portrayal

Carol

 

The Academy-Award nominated film, “Carol”, starring Cate Blanchett in the title role and Rooney Mara as Therese, a department store “shop girl” deals with a lesbian romance set against the closeted and intolerant era of 1950s America. First titled “The Price of Salt” (and retitled “Carol” in 1990) , the novel was controversial when first published in 1952 prompting the author, Patricia Highsmith, to use a pen name. Other books of the time exploring the same subject, tended to have the heroine devolve into suicide or madness, if lesbianism was even hinted at .

Highsmith apparently drew from her own experience to portray that even a very wealthy woman had to stay under the radar. “Carol” ferociously depicts the discrimination and personal torment that lesbian women faced in the fifties. The romance between Carol and Therese is the major plot, as well as the entrapment in a society’s mores that doesn’t allow them to love.

This could easily have been one of the best movies of 2015, but it is not. I liked it but it wasn’t as good as it could have been. The family dysfunction beautifully displayed at Christmas time (symbolic of family and stress) is not balanced. What should have been a torrid love affair implied between Therese and Carol falls flat. The chemistry between the two actresses was glaringly missing.

Tightly controlled and magnetic performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (as well as Kyle Chandler as the offended husband of Carol) are slowed down by director Todd Haynes (of “Far From Heaven”) who seems to focus on visual scenes at the expense of the storytelling. “Carol” expresses not only a story about two generous souls falling in love but also the mindset of a society entrenched in hard-hearted “values”.

 

 

“Short Term 12” —Fostering Care

 

 

Short Term 12

In this 2013 film debut by Destin Cretton, we see Grace (Brie Larson) as a counselor in a group home for “at-risk” youth,–Short Term 12— a facility for “transitioning” out adolescents into the world. Grace is a beautiful, extremely vulnerable case worker who relates to everyone in the Short Term 12 residence. She struggles in a precarious balancing act between being a surrogate parent/friend/disciplinarian on the one hand and being a “professional” without emotional attachment to the young residents. We do not know Grace’s secret, but as viewers, we know she has personal demons.

Short Term 12c

Mason (poignantly played by John Gallagher, Jr. from television’s “Newsroom”) is a fellow counselor and product of the foster care system himself. Passionately in love with Grace, he eventually peels away at Grace’s defenses. Jayden, a young newcomer to Short Term 12, who has suffered and has also built almost insurmountable defenses to protect herself, is assigned to Short Term 12. Grace, who involuntarily identifies with Jaden, slowly chips away at the emotional distance between them as as Mason does with Grace. The major plot is now set.

Marcus, one of the oldest residents at Short Term 12, is about to be emancipated, but dreads life outside the group home. Talented and well-liked, Marcus is –as are all the young wards of the state—deeply wounded, dumped there as garbage by family members. The overriding theme in “Short Term 12” is the damage that dysfunctional families inflict on teenagers, jeopardizing their chances for future stability.

A riveting bird’s-eye view of a group home for troubled teenagers, “Short Term 12” has the feel of a documentary, a series of scenes of adolescents both lost and scrambling to make sense of the world they’ve been thrown out of and then back into. Larson gives a luminous breakthrough performance that foreshadows her next major role in “Room”, for which she has been nominated this year for Best Actress by the Academy Awards. (She won this year’s Golden Globe in that category). Just as Jennifer Lawrence astounded in her breakthrough role in “A Winter’s Bone”, this young actress will undoubtedly also amaze us in future films.

Lending subtlety and layers to a very flawed character, Brie Larson evokes, for the viewer, both sympathy and frustration with her choices. If the editing and tightening of the narrative had been more accomplished, I would consider “Short Term 12” a masterpiece. However, filmed in only 20 days by a newly-minted film graduate, it nonetheless is an engrossing study of young adolescents and adults who deserve much more from society and family. A wonderful human drama.

“Spotlight” –Illuminating Corruption and Cover-up

SpotlightIn this Academy Award-nominated film, Spotlight (on my Top Ten Films for 2015) reveals the 2002 exposé into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child molestation and rape by priests taking place over two decades.

Unflinching in its focus, “Spotlight” underscores a subtle outrage and sense of resignation about the power of institutions. We watch as the “Spotlight “ team—named for undercover exposés of difficult-to-prove cases– chases down leads; goes through archives with missing documents; and interviews priests, judges, and victims. The investigative Spotlight team at the Boston Globe is defined by their tenacity as they overcome powerful political interests committed to crushing their investigation.

Investigative journalism seems so “old-school” in our sound-bite, entertainment culture, but Spotlight deftly recognizes the heroism of the Boston Globe’s team, in a similar fashion to “All The President’s Men”. Igniting an almost unbelievable, worldwide scandal, the Boston Globe clearly demonstrates a conspiracy on the part of the Catholic hierarchy to protect priests while silencing the victims and their families. The impact on a predominantly Catholic city, the guilt of those who chose to ignore its victims and the adversarial response of the Catholic Church are not the major themes of “Spotlight”.

“Spotlight” excels at building up the sense of injustice and outrage over the young victims who have no voice. Only the Catholic archdiocese and the legal system that is entwined with it have the powerful voice of defense and obfuscation. Despite the fact that we all know the repercussions of this narrative, seeing it through the eyes of these reporters has its own power.

The ensemble cast–John Slattery, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, and Mark Ruffalo as the main reporters, and Liev Schreiber and Michael Keaton as their editors—keeps the focus on the true story of institutional corruption and cowardice that fails the young victims of sexual abuse. Perhaps one of the most unforgettable and stunning scenes is between Rachel McAdams (playing a reporter) and a priest who tries to explain his motivation for child rape. McAdams’s quiet, perfectly calibrated and understated response is truly an award-worthy performance in and of itself.

Like its predecessor “All The President’s Men”, “Spotlight” is a paen to the courage of journalists who feel compelled to tell a story full of ugliness that few want to see.

[As a postscript I would have also liked to see the voice of a young victim in flashback, and the toll incurred on him as a young adult when he finally comes forth to tell his story. The victims all had unhealed wounds, based on secrets and lies they had to endure for decades.]