Archive for the ‘one of the year's best’ category

Parasite

January 5, 2020

parasitefilm It’s clear pretty early on that Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite — which took the Palme d’Or at Cannes and may yet claim more trophies this awards season — isn’t meant to be taken literally. Taken seriously, yes, but not literally. The narrative has many, many moving parts, but the parts are also combustible, and they’re all arranged to detonate on cue for maximum damage. Bong makes you feel as though you’d damn well better catch every little detail, every flourish and filigree, because it’s all inexorably marching towards something. But that destination can’t be guessed at or controlled — it’s chaotic and brutal, and only retrospectively makes sense.

Parasite is yet another movie that demands to be evoked, not described (as a plot synopsis would just ruin the experience). Put simply, it’s the story of two families. One family, just scraping by, lives cramped together in a “semi-basement” apartment of the sort common in urban Korea. The other family is wealthy, and one of their bedrooms would probably take up as much space as the poorer family’s entire living area. Each family is perfectly nuclear — man, woman, boy, girl — and the son from the poor family gets himself hired to tutor the daughter from the rich family. And it doesn’t stop there; in short order, each member of the poor family ends up working for the rich family, none of whom realize their new employees are all related.

Okay, that’s a little far-fetched. It’s also narratively convenient; some of it depends on just the right character hearing just the right bit of information. But the point Bong wants us to get is how the families respond to each opening. Nitpick Parasite if you must, but you’ll be watching a different movie from the one Bong has made. The actual movie underneath all the ornate plot scaffolding has a lot of questions, some of which it can’t answer, though art isn’t built to answer questions but to pose them. Bong asks, first and foremost, what prosperity is built on, and how far down the hierarchy goes (not how far up). You may feel the boot of the oppressor on your neck, but are you also oppressing someone just by virtue of what you have and what they don’t? You may not intend to oppress, but in truth, few actively seek to do so — the ones who have more, and who oppress more, just benefit from a certain moral laxity, a willingness to tune out the screams and wails coming from below. In our culture of late, we have discussed white privilege, and how it doesn’t mean a white person’s life is easy in every way, just that it’s easier in every way than a comparable person of color’s life is. And there are privileges among the less privileged, too: a hetero African-American man enjoys freedoms that a gay African-American woman does not. And both have it easier than a disabled African-American does. They share one aspect of experience, blackness, but in other respects are not alike.

So that’s what Parasite is about, but it’s also about the duelling production designs of the poor family’s packed but lived-in pad and the rich family’s expansive but sparse rooms, including a vast living room whose vast window looks out onto a vast backyard, where the climax unfolds in such an abrupt series of feints and jabs that we may want to stop the film and go back — we don’t feel ready for it, even though we know we’re on an accelerating ride into the inferno. One action during the climax isn’t readable at first glance because, in the moment, we see the father of the poor family the way the father of the rich family sees him: not as a father but as a driver. But then we say, No, he’s a father, and what he does makes some sort of sense.

Parasite will drive the literal-minded around the bend, because its events pile up and sometimes recall the ruthless structure of a sitcom, or a slamming-door farce like Noises Off. Much is made of the smell of the underclass, or the rich little boy’s American Indian fantasies into which the grown men of both families are conscripted, or water as a harbinger of disaster and forestalled revelation. The movie is also a lot of smooth fun to watch, Bong being an entertainer above most else. Parasite flips through about ten different genres and takes the best bits of each; it feels like a relaxing buffet that expresses and sparks a love of cinema. Some of the suspense and incidents rubbed me the wrong way while I was watching, but in memory they gain stature and gravitas. Finally, it stakes its claim as a Juvenalian satire in which products are more than once praised because “we ordered it from America,” but we Americans probably shouldn’t take that as a compliment.

Knives Out

December 15, 2019

knives out Rian Johnson’s amiably masterful Knives Out has been a surprise sleeper hit in the past few weeks, and I think I know why: It takes a lot of tensions and absurdities of today and turns them into a comforting evening’s entertainment. The genre is murder-mystery, and the tone is somewhere between wicked and tongue-in-cheek, but the message is an odd partner to all that: “Kindness will win.” Beyond that, I owe you the courtesy of saying practically nothing about the plot, other than that wealthy mystery-novel writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies under suspicious circumstances and there are many people who could be responsible.

Except there aren’t, because we see fairly early on how Harlan died — except for the parts we don’t learn about till later. Harlan’s family comes to his mansion for his 85th birthday, and all of them are terrible. His grim-faced daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her sleazy husband (Don Johnson); their black-sheep son (Chris Evans); Harlan’s saturnine son (Michael Shannon) and his racist wife (Riki Lindhome); Harlan’s GOOP-like daughter-in-law (Toni Collette) and her performative-liberal daughter (Katherine Langford). Harlan’s only friend is his personal nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas). When Harlan turns up dead, someone calls in the famous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), and we’re off.

Johnson writes and directs with speed and clarity; this thing ticks along beautifully. The dialogue, especially that which has little to do with the mystery and everything to do with establishing character, is sharp but juicy enough to push this into the arena of comedy. The character work is as crucial as the mystery plot, because Knives Out doesn’t, as you’d think, center on the grandly hypothesizing Benoit Blanc (though oh what fun Daniel Craig has with the accent, the intonations, the expansive wave of a cigar). It focuses on Marta, who has very real motives, rooted in current pain, to do what she does. Benoit finds her so trustworthy — for she literally cannot tell a lie, or else she’ll vomit — he enlists her as his Watson.

I guess I’m a Rian Johnson fan — I’ve seen four out of his five movies (Brick, Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and this) and enjoyed them. They are truly ornaments to their respective genres, but they also share a certain regard for decency in surroundings that don’t always reward it. Johnson has, with Knives Out, made a liberal fable disguised as a murder mystery, a fable where the characters run the spectrum between Nazi and SJW, between skeptic and mystic, and like most of us are flawed and complicated. The nice thing about Marta, the movie’s one true hero, is that she’s drawn so skillfully as a selfless person of the type that’s usually incidental to someone else’s story. Harlan’s family, selfish jerks all, envision themselves as the center of their story — don’t we all, though? And Harlan himself, he gets to go out in the most triumphant way a man like him can. But he is the object of the story; Marta is the subject. Ana de Armas’ soft features and Margaret Keane eyes can’t hurt her credibility as an angel among demons. Marta is humble, smart, reflexively compassionate; we gravitate to her. Even the great Benoit Blanc seems a little full of himself.

Given how much the movie pits itself against Trumpism, explicitly in dialogue or subtextually, its success has been heartening (after its third weekend in theaters it was still in the top three). Knives Out speaks for kindness, intelligence, generosity, truth, and sharing the wealth. The way it’s been marketed is a little tricky, though — for one thing, it de-emphasizes Marta, and makes this look like the sort of white-people murder-mystery dinner that might put off the same viewers who would really dig where it actually ends up. On the other hand, it’s going to lure in a bunch of well-to-do white folks, attracted by the delectable promise of a genteel genre piece, only to spit full in their faces. Or vomit, as the case may be.

The Irishman

December 1, 2019

irishman Martin Scorsese’s late-period masterpiece The Irishman kicks off on a note as darkly funny and devastating as much of the rest of the movie: a lengthy tracking shot through the halls of a Philadelphia nursing home, stopping on the gray, barely breathing husk of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). Forget the famous, triumphant Copacabana tracking shot in Scorsese’s GoodFellas — this is the cold, bleak truth of a cold, bleak life. Frank, a truck driver turned button man for the Philly mob, swam in the same deep waters as crime-family head Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and embattled Teamsters king Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Before he died in 2003, Frank claimed he whacked Hoffa, a confession in much dispute. I don’t care if he really did it. The Irishman is not about the mystery of Jimmy Hoffa’s death; it’s about the mystery of Frank Sheeran’s life, and that of men like him, who gave up the long-term nourishment of family for short-term security.

At a party honoring Frank, there’s a bit where De Niro and Pesci sit and talk while Scorsese’s camera swings over for a glimpse of Pacino chatting with Harvey Keitel (as another big-time mobster). For those of a certain age who grew up watching these four men, this is like fan-service, or Christmas coming a month early. The Irishman often comes off as a farewell-tour concert, though I imagine all of them (except maybe Pesci) want to continue working — just maybe not all together, like this. The point is that the movie isn’t all desolation and loss; it has many pleasures, including watching younger turks like Ray Romano, Jesse Plemons, Bobby Cannivale, and Sebastian Maniscalco looking like kids on that same Christmas morning, in a daze of disbelief that they get to play with legends. Then you have the nearly silent Anna Paquin as Peggy, Frank’s daughter, who knows exactly what he is, and has since she was little. Peggy is what you look like when you’ve learned the harder, sharper bits of life long before you should. Paquin’s sorrow and anger haunt the film.

Aside from the much-discussed de-aging computer effects that allow De Niro and others to play men ranging from their twenties to their eighties, Scorsese doesn’t indulge much whiz-bang. His stamp is clear and bold, but shots are held longer than you expect, or old men in huge aviator glasses sit and talk, quietly or not, in hotel rooms. There’s no hint of the Rolling Stones or any other Boomer rock on the soundtrack. If Saving Private Ryan was Steven Spielberg’s salute to the Greatest Generation, The Irishman is Scorsese’s much more ambivalent view of them. The message seems to be, Our fathers may have done what they had to do, but that doesn’t make them heroes.

Or villains, either. Mostly, we see men hobbled by their own shortcomings. Pacino gives us a showboating Hoffa, afflicted with short-guy pugnacity and pride; he plays with Hoffa’s vowels like a cat with string, while De Niro nods and reacts or sometimes stammers. By and large, though, Pacino just simmers and seethes. Over-the-top bravura is left to the young men; the old masters at work here, including Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, seem to disregard anything noisy or inessential and get to the point without fuss. The Irishman is reserved, though not repressed. The old gangster violence pops out now and then, unemphatic and casual. A bullet comes for a man the way a stroke or cancer does. Nothing personal, fella, it is what it is.

Like Frank, Scorsese has all daughters. Is there a Peggy in Scorsese’s life, judging him quietly for being off on the set all the time? Even if there isn’t, Scorsese can imagine Frank’s particular purgatory. The women in these men’s lives have been trained, generationally and socially, to stand by the men and not make problems. It takes a Peggy, a woman of the next generation, to say, Hey, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. The Irishman is more about the conflict between Frank and Peggy, even when she’s nowhere near the screen, than it is about Frank’s tutelage under Bufalino or betrayal of Hoffa. The final shot invites debate and analysis. What does it express — hope, or acceptance of what’s coming? Scorsese was idiotically shamed for not giving Anna Paquin more scenes or dialogue, but she makes her presence felt, woundingly, throughout. She, too, is a master, though at 37 far from old. It’s enough that in that final shot, we know that Frank is waiting for one of two visitors. We know for sure only that one of them did come for him. And that’s that.

Midsommar

October 13, 2019

midsommar Whether it was curiosity or masochism that led me to Midsommar, the second feature by Ari Aster, I’m grateful to whichever it was. I more or less hated Aster’s debut, the high-pitched horror Hereditary, but this one’s the real deal — it sets a brittle but menacing tone early on and sustains it for well north of two hours. Midsommar feels like a hard shot from the source of terror — an allusive work of art, admittedly built out of earlier art. It will be (already has been) debated and discussed in perpetuity, and it’s the sort of film as comfortable on the front cover of Fangoria magazine as it will be as an eventual spine number in the Criterion Collection. When you hear Martin Scorsese or someone else going on about cinema, Midsommar is what they mean. It doesn’t just shock or spook. It unsettles.

The set-up is almost comically thorough and bleak. The leads, Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), are in a relationship that looks to be circling the drain. Something traumatic happens that makes sure they stay together (thinking back on it now, I wonder who or what is ultimately responsible for the tragedy), and they find themselves accompanying a friend back to his home turf in Sweden, specifically a remote commune where dwell an ancient band of pagans called the Hårga. The Hårga are awfully sunny and polite and friendly, and if we’ve seen more than one movie before we mistrust them on sight. But as directors as disparate as Robin Hardy (The Wicker Man) and Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust) knew, the horror doesn’t only lie in the “foreigners” our onscreen avatars find themselves among; it’s also in how “we” change, or don’t, in relation to them or in response to them.

It is true that Midsommar gets a couple of mean creepy moments out of a disfigured boy, the result of inbreeding in the Hårga clan, but he doesn’t do anything bad — he’s elevated as an oracle in the society. Besides, Aster has louder and wetter disturbances in store. I should probably say that the reported level of violence and perversity in Midsommar — likely from viewers who don’t see many horror movies — has been overstated. When it comes, though, it’s a sharp jab in the chops, all the more ghastly for unfolding in broad, shadowless daylight. At certain points some of the characters take psychedelic drugs, which in the world of the Hårga is really gilding the lily. Pugh and Reynor add a prickly, precarious vibe to the festivities; they’re neither good nor bad but realistically flawed, and they don’t always act nobly or wisely.

If we “liked” any of the protagonists in a simplistic manner, it’d be harder to see what Aster is truly going for. At many points, we have a god’s-eye vantage point on the action; the script keeps us in the dark about the Hårga and their motives, while the filmmaking (cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski deserves awards) is all blue skies and open air. The camera eye is neutral, showing us the primal, alien rituals without editorializing. Even the Dani’s-eye, psilocybin-soaked visions are like, hmm, that’s odd. (There’s actually a character named Odd.) At one point the outsiders loudly berate the Hårga for “just watching” as gore makes rainbows in the sunny air. We agree, yet we’re also just watching, and this is what we came to watch, whether or not we knew it.

Midsommar is an immersive and illogical experience. There’s a director’s cut, for now available exclusively from Apple, that runs 171 minutes and fleshes out more of the relationship between Dani and Christian. It’s not necessary, though, for us to see ourselves in them or vice versa. We identify with the outsiders only sporadically (especially not the idiot who accidentally micturates on a sacred dead tree), and the minds of the Hårga are as obscure to us as the mind of a spider. Ari Aster has a distinct voice — he seems to take for granted that people are invariably going to be difficult and self-defeating — though maybe not the most steady control of his effects yet. There are still, as in Hereditary, a few too many moments wherein we’re not sure if we should laugh, or whether Aster means us to laugh. Consistency may never be his strong suit. But he has delivered, in this cult epic, a powerfully paranoid mood piece. Time will tell whether Aster can function without hellish covens and nightmarish attempts to re-assert gender primitivism, but I’m certainly ready to tag along with him and find out.

The Dead Don’t Die

September 15, 2019

Brody-DeadDontDie “The dead just don’t wanna die today,” growls Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, of course) near the end of Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan zombie doodle The Dead Don’t Die. The movie may seem like lightweight, lesser Jarmusch, but I have a feeling it’ll grow in stature in memory. Like George A. Romero before him, Jarmusch uses zombies as a Trojan horse for whatever ideas he has about society. His film feels like a riff on Romero’s work — a film-nerd character even wears a Night of the Living Dead pin. Well, Jarmusch and Edgar Wright know that if you’re working in the genre Romero invented, you show him due respect. The Dead Don’t Die has its wiseass downtown moments, but there’s also something morosely creepy about it, and Jarmusch isn’t larking around at Romero’s expense. Whatever Jarmusch is saying here, he’s as serious about it as Romero was.

Hermit Bob lurks in the woods of Centerville, a rural nowheresville impacted, like the rest of the world, by weird phenomena apparently caused by our planet going off its axis due to excess fracking. We meet a handful of townspeople, who all tuck little idiosyncrasies in their shirt pockets. Well, “little” except for Zelda Winston, a mortician who practices tirelessly with a samurai sword and who seems to hail from far away — like, way far away. Obviously, Zelda is played by Tilda Swinton, and her character name is one of several in the movie that function as scrambled variations on, or slight deviations from, either an actor’s name or the name of a past character he or she has played. So we have a news anchor named Posie Juarez played by Rosie Perez, and Adam Driver, who starred in Jarmusch’s previous film Paterson, plays a cop named Peterson.

The movie is a little long on meta fancies like this and a couple of fourth-wall-breaking scenes between Peterson and his older cop partner Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray). But generally Jarmusch holds to a melancholic realism (albeit a Jarmusch realism). Out in the woods, Hermit Bob happens across a paperback of Moby Dick, and twice he offers a partial quote of “For every one knows that this earthly air, whether ashore or afloat, is terribly infected with the nameless miseries of the numberless mortals who have died exhaling it.” Jarmusch possibly might have preferred The Nameless Miseries of the Numberless Mortals as a title, but I imagine it would’ve been a challenge for Sturgill Simpson to write the theme song around that. (In this universe, everyone has heard Simpson and has an opinion about his music; this is a reality where Sturgill Simpson exists, but other real-life musicians like Iggy Pop, Selena Gomez, and RZA  — driving a “Wu-PS” truck, ha-ha — appear playing characters.)

Anyway, that Melville quote seems to suggest we are sickened by breathing air filled with psychic toxins (sounds like Marianne Williamson after a dank bowl). This notion of a plague spreading like a mood across a community — peopled by drones who come back from the dead croaking the one word that defines them as consumers — is more poetic than the usual zombie epidemic, and perhaps shares more DNA with the excellent unconventional zombie flick Pontypool than with Romero. Driver and Murray put on their best deadpans, though not everyone is so affectless; consider the angry Trumpster farmer (Steve Buscemi) or the aghast cop (Chloë Sevigny) or the abashed geek (Caleb Landry Jones) or the gloomy mechanic (Danny Glover). The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t seem like a reverie on mortality like Jarmusch’s Dead Man; it has more to do with bad vibes, bad feelings, that threaten to splinter human connection.

Again like Romero, Jarmusch creates a circumstance in which the dead return — a miraculous event, or a perversion of Lazarus — only to be locked into their one favorite thing, like phones or coffee or Chardonnay. The dead become automatons, and the living, reduced to retreat and defense, become little better. Both groups are single-minded to the point of blindness to their surroundings. Thus “zombie comedy” doesn’t fit very well on The Dead Don’t Die; neither does “horror film.” Sometimes its sense of creeping global wrongness evokes Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World; sometimes it seems like Jarmusch’s typically elliptical response to current events. It does manage to be funny here and there, but I don’t think that’s the effect Jarmusch is after, or not the only effect. It’s beautiful almost in spite of itself; cinematographer Frederick Elmes finds the lushness in gas stations and diners and cemetery trees backlit by the moon.

Booksmart

September 8, 2019

booksmart The good-hearted, often hilarious coming-of-age comedy Booksmart deserves to be to Gen-Z girls what Clueless was and is to millennials. It’s the night before high-school graduation, and best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) have had a revelation. Since they can remember, they’ve hit the books and steered towards ivy-league colleges, after which, they’re sure, come fabulous, empowering careers. Their ambition has come at the expense of having any stupid kid fun, and the girls learn to their horror that many of their classmates, notorious party animals, are also getting into good schools. So Molly and Amy determine to find the biggest, coolest party and have at least one disreputable night to remember.

Booksmart feels solidly of-the-moment, very “Nevertheless, she persisted.” I don’t know that it would have felt so vital, felt so much like something one reaches towards gratefully, a few years ago. In the current moment it feels like an oasis and (forgive me) a hug. The movie was written, directed, and (with one exception) produced by women, and it pokes a little gentle fun at the performative wokeness of its era while never denying its necessity. There are holes here and there that I imagine are accounted for by deleted scenes — we meet Amy’s parents but not Molly’s, and one character makes such a belated comeback in the story I had a hard time remembering who she was and why she’s antagonistic to Amy. But mostly the narrative is loose and anecdotal, like so many other fond comedies about what goofy but lovable kids we were. (If “we” were well-to-do California kids, of course.)

The exuberant Feldstein and the wary Dever anchor the comedy in their characters’ respective insecurities, and director Olivia Wilde stacks the supporting cast largely with bright newcomers. One ringer, Billie Lourd, plays the school’s rich wild girl and turns in an eccentric but generous-hearted performance that does her mom, Carrie Fisher, proud. Some of the goings-on reminded me of the affectionately-seen hijinks of the kids in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. There are (with a brief exception) no villains here, just kids and — occasionally — grown-ups just trying to get by and have fun. Even the apparently mean kids have nooks and crannies of kindness. If they talk trash about you in the restroom it’s just because they don’t really know you.

Wilde is generally in gentle but firm control of the movie’s tone and moods, and when things get dramatic in the third act, we feel the potential loss sharply. It feels a little too much like a screenwriting trope, though, to have Molly and Amy fight and fall away from each other, and we don’t want to see them hurt (and we also know they’ll make up). We develop warm feelings for just about everyone — the rich dork who rents a yacht to throw a competing party; the drifty, smiling girl on whom Amy has a crush, but who might not actually be worthy of it; the teacher (Jessica Williams) who finds herself drawn into the party; and most of all for Molly and Amy. I always wanted more of everyone here; I would sit for a ten-episode Netflix Booksmart prequel series, as long as they could get the whole cast back.

I keep using words like “gentle,” but I don’t want to leave you with the impression that Booksmart isn’t also funny. The scenes are clipped to open up a line or a gag for maximum punch. There’s a bad-sex scene of titanic awkwardness that’s played for uneasy chuckles but mostly for cringing compassion; in general, we don’t have to wonder if it’s cruel to laugh at anything here. Even that well-worn stereotype the flamingly gay black guy is intended to be funny on his own terms. The movie is casual with gayness and is incisive on the inner lives of smart girls. For those reasons it often feels like a waft of cool fresh air piping into the humid, fart-filled elevator we’re all now stuck in. Some of the air is not so fresh; that’s what happens when you have four credited (albeit female) screenwriters. Every so often a line or situation lands with the heavy thunk of predictability or familiarity. But not too often. I’m glad films like Booksmart can still be made. I hope to see many more like it — or, not like it, but in the same spirit, with the same embracing soul. Its kindness makes it seem radical resistance.

Chained for Life (2018)

August 18, 2019

chained_for_life_still A little while back, Scarlett Johansson took some heat for wanting to play a transgender character. The controversy came on the heels of earlier heat attached to Johansson playing a formerly Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell. Johansson’s tone-deaf response, which she later walked back, was “As an actor, I should be able to play any person, or any tree, or any animal,” summoning an image of her as a pomeranian or as the title role in The Giving Tree. Yes, an actor can conceivably play anything, but should they? There are transgender actors, Japanese actors, not yet any tree actors, and they have enough trouble breaking through without cisgender white hetero actors enacting their experiences for plaudits and awards.

This goes double for disabled actors, and Chained for Life, written and directed by Aaron Schimberg, is an attempt to address their specific challenge as actors who are also disabled. Schimberg, himself born with a facial deformity, has lived and thought through the experiences of his characters, starting with Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), who has been hired to play a misunderstood-monster type opposite a blind character who falls in love with him. The movie within the movie is meant to be stupid, and many of the abled cast and crew say insensitive things (the script reflects Johansson’s remarks despite having been written long before she made them; her attitude is many things but not uncommon).

Pearson, who you may have seen opposite (ha!) Johansson in Under the Skin, lives with neurofibromatosis, and tumors pull and push his features out of alignment. His character Rosenthal says that he scares kids and animals, but I thought his face looked gentle — he looks kind, not monstrous. Sometimes his elongated jaw and full lips recall Fred Gwynne’s elegant mug. He speaks, with some effort but with precision, in a quiet English accent, though he gets his voice up in a roar when filming an argument in the movie within the movie. Rosenthal’s leading lady is Mabel (Jess Weixler), who plays the aforementioned blind woman. Mabel is the one who says, early on, to a reporter, “We’re all blind in some respect, aren’t we?” Well, no, Mabel, we don’t all have to contend with literal lack of sight and all the societal/political indifference, negligence, and downright violence associated with it. The movie knows this and doesn’t want to punish her for her entitled actor’s jargon — it wants to educate her, and eventually she comes to an understanding of disability that’s at least sharper than she had before.

Titled in a left-handed salute to the 1952 film of the same name starring the conjoined Hilton twins, Chained for Life brings in a group of actors with physical differences to play patients in a pompous melodrama about a surgeon who performs operations to make disfigured people “normal.” The director is an abusive jerk with a German accent — there’s some speculation on the set that he isn’t even German — called only Herr Director, strongly played by Charlie Korsmo in his first movie in 20 years (his last was 1998’s Can’t Hardly Wait, as the drunk kid who sings “Paradise City”). The performances in general are incisive, with the insecure Weixler playing deftly off the witty Pearson, who carries himself in a way that makes the case for disabled actors playing disabled characters all by itself. He simply speaks, gestures, and stands in a fashion that almost no abled actor (Daniel Day-Lewis may be the exception; most everyone else gets a side-eye these days, rightly so) could duplicate without having lived that life year after year.

It’s a fine movie, though sometimes it tests our patience with scenes in which we have to watch actors try and try again to nail a take. The film is as much about Schimberg’s chosen medium as about disfigurement and its discontents. I get the sense that Schimberg’s script consciously diverged from any clichés (he says he’s seen and mostly disliked every film he’s seen about deformity), including the one where Mabel and Rosenthal end up together. The final shot, over which the end credits appear, is one of shared, neutral-faced community — the disfigured, the tall and short, the conjoined, the folks of indeterminate gender, all sitting in the back of a moving bus. This feels right. Rosenthal doesn’t need to have his life validated by becoming part of the pretty-face world. He has his people, and they understand each other, and Mabel, however well-intentioned, can’t be on the ride with them.