FilmSpace is at the 15th Glasgow Film Festival, bringing a series of reviews on loads of new films. Film critic Scott Wilson reviews a feel-bad family story, a co-dependent relationship drama, and a middling coming of age movie.
All Creatures Here Below – ★★☆☆☆
Ruby and Gensan are down on their luck, freshly fired from minimum wage jobs, living with flies crawling up the walls. They sit on their mattress – on the floor, obviously – hoping to win on a scratch card, before desperation pushes Gensan to bet on an illegal cockfight. When the night doesn’t go as planned, the couple end up on the run, guilty of more than just gambling.
Karen Gillan and David Dastmalchian make for a convincingly broken pair of young lovers. His survival instincts kick in as they face certain destitution, adopting a macho swagger that hides his fear. Her fragility is left unexplored for a time, instead often seen curled defensively into a ball, more like a little girl than a grown woman.
Despite an evocative setting and characters who ought to provoke sympathy, All Creatures Here Below is an unrepentant misery fest, one without respite or, more pressingly, a point.
Working class representation on screen is usually accompanied by any number of tragedies – addiction, violence, abuse – which is in itself a problem. When handled with dignity, such as in Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, these films can avoid the trappings of poverty porn, where we revel in the otherness of others’ extreme misfortune.
Not so here. Instead, the increasingly grim narrative piles on the grief without purpose, like a social realist version of a late entry in the Saw franchise. Perhaps this no-lessons-to-learn approach is the point; that there is an inevitability to a life filled with only harsh adversity.
Harrowing for harrowing’s sake, All Creatures Here Below is an unpleasant experience. While there is something to be said for not shying away from dark stories, it is not unrealistic to hope that those dark stories also have something to say.
Angel – ★★★☆☆
Fae is a Senegalese sex worker. A gazelle, not a whore, she narrates, standing in an empty room considering what has come before. Thierry is Belgian cyclist, squandering his potential with addiction and a bad attitude. To unwind before making another return to the sport, he books a trip where he meets Fae and the two hit it off, completely aware of the initially transactional relationship between them both.
Thierry is adamant he cannot sleep with anyone he is not in love with. What first sounds like a romantic gesture becomes something more ambiguous; the film is never certain he can feel love at all. The story of a man and woman walking at night could draw parallels with Before Sunrise, but the spark here is a wholly more co-dependent one where the couple are living on the fringes, hiding from bad situations with each other. Thierry is a surprisingly sympathetic figure, seemingly on a path of self-destruction fuelled by an emotional disconnect. Fae, while compos mentis, is so receptive to a pathetic man because of what he offers, both the veneer of support and a crutch to share her woes with.
In a post-screening Q&A, director Koen Mortier spoke of how difficult it was working with Vincent Rottiers who plays Thierry. He compared the actor to the character himself, on a similarly slippery path, and described his personality as volatile, treating others on set with disrespect and becoming hysterical if any changes were made to the script. Mortier’s bemusement was played for laughs, but the reality is troubling. With hindsight, Thierry is all the more intense knowing how method – intentionally or otherwise – the actor playing him became.
Thierry dreams of death, and in those dreams he is always wearing his cycling gear. His trip to Senegal can be seen as a limbo between two extremes: devoting himself to the sport he has a rocky relationship with, or a way out through death. Fae adopts his dreams, acquiring his anxieties, by no means a passive partner in their pairing. She sees him, and the film is far more interested in what she is seeing than giving him validation via being seen.
Angel is an intense little film, made all the more so by the actor’s behaviour on set. It is a love story without much love, but presents without judgement a dynamic which will be familiar to more people than we would like to hope.
All These Small Moments – ★★☆☆☆
Coming of age films straddle the universal and the personal: hormones and puberty are a shared horror, but some aspects are more generational, keeping the genre evergreen. The Saturday detention of The Breakfast Club is long gone, and the social cliques of Mean Girls aren’t as in vogue as they were ten years ago. All These Small Moments is a quieter story, focusing on a young boy called Howie while he tries to make sense of love, tapping in to a modern, more isolated version of the coming of age tale.
He stares longingly at a (comparatively) older woman on the bus, going as far as having his shirt professionally pressed just so she will notice him. In a time of digital dating, it is a throwback to falling in love on the commute with someone you will never talk to. But the film is savvy enough to know Howie is projecting his fantasies on to her; she is Odessa and, with her own life in turmoil, the reality of her situation is contrasted with what Howie is selfishly imagining for them.
He isn’t the lovable dork at the centre of a coming of age film either. He rarely empathises with his mum while his parents’ relationship falls apart, and he is cold towards Lindsay, a girl he sits out of P.E. with because he has an injured arm and she has asthma. It’s tough to root for a boy seemingly only prepared to devote emotional labour to a woman he doesn’t know on the bus.
All These Small Moments isn’t as biting or as subversive as it could be, but there are moments where it reaches for something more, particularly once peripheral characters get a chance to have their say. It runs the risk of having these characters – many of them women – exist only to further the development of the central male character. It’s a clunky experience, one which never seems to find its way.