This month, I rectify an omission from the March Oscars column, and I add in a Best Documentary nominee as well. To follow the theme, I include a timely short book review that tracks along with the film reviews. Enjoy.
Women Talking (2022)
Sarah Polley is a phenomenal writer-director. Her last two films, Women Talking and Stories We Tell (2012) show incredible talent, and we can only hope her next feature is not 10 years away. Better known as an actress, she was on the screen for 25 years before she gave it up to move behind the camera. We are all better for it.
Women Talking tells the complicated story of a group of Mennonite women who are making the difficult decision whether to stay or leave the compound after uncovering a devious plot by the men of the group. This is where the wonderful ensemble cast takes over as each woman gets a chance to voice their opinion and engage in real conversation. The plot device here is interesting since we don’t see the action, but rather, the reaction, and to put it more succinctly, the discussion about the reaction. Hence the title.
The “complicated” part is the mix of voices in the room, the different stances taken by the women, the role of the one male in the mix, and the interplay between all of the women from different social stations and age groups. Polley has fashioned a screenplay wherein the women portray a symbolic group outside the film and it can be a metaphor for many things. The performances are incredibly tight and fierce: Claire Foy, Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Michelle McCleod, Judith Ivey, and Frances McDormand are just a few of the women talking, and aside from a refreshing view “inside the room,” it is also a testament to the talent of the women talking. This is an ensemble cast worthy of an Oscar nomination for the group dynamic.
I have read several interesting reviews of this film, and many focus on the lack of action, or how we don’t see the actual crimes perpetrated by the men of the collective. The inference is that “we don’t see and therefore understand the motivation of the women.” My reaction to that was simple: Isn’t that the point? We see such stories in our lives all-too-often: women are abused on so many levels, and the story is told from the violent frame, or to put it another way, from the perspective of the men. The framing of this film takes away that agency and gives it to the women. We don’t need to see what the men did; we see that every day. We do need to see women talking, and the women acting. That is the win here.
You will enjoy this if you liked Martha Marcy May Marlene, Little Women, and/or Prophets Pray.
A House Made of Splinters (2022)
“Life has always been hard here. The war made it worse.”
It is with great trepidation that I (highly) recommend this wonderful documentary. I say that because this film will break you. It is so incredibly sad and heartbreaking, and since it is a documentary about a children’s shelter in contemporary Ukraine, there is certainly no happy ending. There will only be more heartbreak. Much more.
A House Made of Splinters tells the story of children from an orphanage in Lysychansk, Eastern Ukraine. The children are temporarily housed in the orphanage until a family member claims them, or they are transferred to a permanent orphanage, or they go to a foster home. Most of the children have lost their fathers to the (first Russia-Ukraine) war and their mothers are unable to care for them (alcohol, drugs, abuse), creating heartbreak after heartbreak as the kids of all ages talk to their mothers and come away disappointed. We come away disappointed and enraged. The world comes away disappointed.
The Danish/Finnish/Swedish production is directed by Simon Lereng Wilmont, who spent two years in the war-ravaged area and chronicled the efforts of the women who run the shelter. The war is a backdrop to the individual stories, but this film tells the story of another war—one we wage with ourselves and with our children. The war that could be in the middle of a battlefield or the middle of a city or the middle of a suburb. Wherever it takes place, the kids suffer.
Wilmont filmed from April 2019—October 2020, and therefore finished before the more recent Russian invasion of February 2022. As a postscript to the film, the current war forced the evacuation of the shelter on Feb. 24, 2022, hours before a Russian bomb crashed into the house. Staff evacuated everyone safely, and the bomb lay unexploded, wedged into the broken splinters of the roof. This final episode of the story may be the unkindest cut and the ultimate metaphor—not only were the children taken from their homes, but then they had to be taken from what little refuge they had left in the world. It is a brutal indictment of our world: the bomb is still unexploded, but still there.
You will like this if you appreciated Born Into Brothels, Klondike, and/or Atlantis.
Kick the Latch, by Kathryn Scanlan.
In honor of the Kentucky Derby and horse racing’s Triple Crown, a short review of a short book about horse racing is in order. This book was recommended by a prominent racing commentator, and although it may not be for everyone, it is a stirring, poetic work of art. The story is about a young woman who finds her way into the horse training/racing business, and it details her challenging life in that difficult world. There is a smattering of violence—some toward humans and some toward animals—but it is authentic and earnest and never forced. Beyond the story, the writing is poetic and ethereal, qualities we don’t often associate with the business of horses (but always associate with the regal animals themselves). Scanlan’s prose is found somewhere inside the nexus of poetry, short story, and novel. It is bizarre at times and yet as honest as a rusty nail. And then, it can be as colorful as upstate New York in fall. Give it a minute and it blossoms in unexpected ways.
Vincent Piturro, PhD., is a Professor of Film and Media Studies at MSU Denver. Contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter. For more reviews, search The Indie Prof at FrontPorchNE.com.