FilmSpace: Five Feet Apart; Ben is Back; The White Crow

Film critic Calum Cooper looks back at the week’s additional releases, including the teen romance, Five Feet Apart, the Julia Roberts led Ben is Back, and Ralph Fiennes’ latest directorial feature, The White Crow.

Five Feet Apart – ★★☆☆☆

Do I have some kind of prejudice against teen romance films? I hope not. When executed correctly romance can be one of, if not the most powerful of genres. You need not look further than the likes of Casablanca, and Beauty and the Beast (the animated one), or even platonic friendships that suit the love story structure, e.g. Stan & Ollie. However, when handled pedestrianly, it’s easy to succumb to clichés and predictable patterns. Case and point: Five Feet Apart.

Haley Lu Richardson plays Stella Grant. Born with cystic fibrosis, she is regularly confined to the hospital ward. She doesn’t mind this however, as it allows her to run her YouTube channel and maintain a personal, rigorous schedule. She comes across another patient, also with cystic fibrosis, Will Newman (Cole Sprouse), who appears to be the antithesis of Stella, as he cares little for his own well-being. Stella steps in to help him get back on board with his prescribed routine, and from there, a romance and all its complications ensue. Due to medical policy, the two of them have to remain six feet apart from each other or risk life-threatening illness. The film is called Five Feet Apart however, for as their romance intensifies, Stella wishes to take back the stolen distance, one foot at a time.

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Although the film’s reception has been understandably mixed, both with the cystic fibrosis and general movie-going communities, I do think it has its appeal for the right audience, most of all because of its actors. Richardson is proving herself to be one of the finest talents of her generation. She is somebody who can tap into a vast assortment of range and depth. This role is no exception, as she gleans so much out of an otherwise typical role. Sprouse, having long since shed his Disney Channel image, is also a charismatic presence. He and Richardson do have some chemistry together, allowing for a few funny and heart-warming moments at times. I did somewhat believe in the characters, but I think that came more from the performances than the characters themselves.

I say that as the film as a whole is far too formulaic. I know I’ve said that for the past two films I’ve reviewed, and I hate sounding repetitive, but it is what it is. As each scene progresses you can see exactly what conclusion each one is arriving to. It’s the classic lovers can’t be together storyline. In this case medical conditions keep them apart, but it’s not that exciting an addition. Particularly when each scene feels like it was ticked off a checklist. We get misunderstandings, sappy monologues, a stern but well-meaning third party that tries to keep them apart, and a mechanical third act that’s built primarily around conflict rather than emotion. Making this worse is the reliance on exposition from other characters to fill us in despite the endless visual possibilities at the film’s disposal. There’s no surprises and very little for the film to distinguish itself on.

There’s some quality production design, and the occasional amiable scene. But as a whole, the movie is dull and saccharine, despite the efforts of its magnetic lead actors. If it seems like your kind of film then by all means go for it. But, honestly, I’m forgetting what happened even as I type this.

Ben is Back – ★★★☆☆

In the opening scenes of Ben is Back, Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) returns home with her three children on Christmas Eve to find someone standing outside her home. That someone is her eldest son, Ben (Lucas Hedges), a recovering drug addict. Holly is immediately happy to see him, but other family members, such as her daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance) are sceptical given Ben’s past mistakes, which are hinted to be both numerous and gargantuan. They agree to let him stay so long as Ben hinders to strict conditions enforced by Holly. Over the day however, Ben’s past mistakes come back to haunt himself and his family.

The film’s title is equal parts misleading and foreboding. It’s a film that deals with the consequences of addiction, but exists entirely within the aftermath. When we meet Ben, he claims to have been clean for over seventy days. But the air of mistrust is all we need to understand what is happening. Ben is back from rehab, but is he really back? Is the Ben that Holly knew pre-addiction finally returned?

A lot of character can be derived from this, which is the film’s strongest element. The relationships between everyone is front and centre. Ben and Ivy. Ben and Neal. Ivy and Neal. But most of all Ben and Holly, whose relationship is the key foundation of the film. The sense of history you can feel between each character is rich and deep rooted, creating genuine dynamic between everybody, which capitalises off of strong performances, especially that from Hedges and Roberts. Any time the two of them are in a scene together, even for the most mundane of exchanges, pure electricity radiates off the screen.

The sense of history you can feel between each character is rich and deep rooted, creating genuine dynamic between everybody, which capitalises off of strong performances.

I liked the ambiguity the film utilised too. For the majority of the picture Ben seems genuinely remorseful and eager to atone. Yet small details and seemingly miniscule happenings gnaw away at us and force us to question this. As the film progresses we start to learn the full extent of Ben’s addiction, and seemingly insignificant actions or lines of dialogue make us debate whether or not Ben’s feeling of guilt is legitimate or a mere façade. Holly bears her own sense of guilt too for her son’s addiction, questioning whether she is making the right decisions as she too frets over whether or not her son’s words are true.  It’s the kind of uncertainty that keeps the audience on edge, while also exploring the full ramifications of such an unfortunate phase in their lives.

The film is hindered from being great due to inconsistencies and conflicts within its writing. For the most part it plays as a drama, I’d argue a psychological one. But some scenes feel like they contrast with this genre, with lines of dialogue heavily shifting the tone up and down the gears within minutes of each other. It can be as distracting as it is confusing, with the film’s second half focused on a sudden disappearance feeling like an excuse to keep the two main characters together as they discuss Ben’s past. It takes dramatic contrivance just a little too far for some viewers.

But the things Ben is Back does well, it does very well. It’s not going to change the world, but its themes are articulate, its narrative is engaging, and its sense of uncertainty is suitably unnerving. If nothing else, it provides a sturdy platform for both Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges to demonstrate their sheer acting prowess.

The White Crow – ★★★☆☆

White Crow is an idiom for an outsider. A suitable image, for a white crow stands out among the murder of black. However, unlike the bad omen that is a black swan, a white crow is often seen as a sign of hope. When a white crow flies you no longer have to be afraid of danger. And without fear of danger, a bird flies freely.

Rudolf Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) wishes to fly as well, but not through wings. He is a passionate, skilled ballet dancer from the Soviet Union during the midst of the Cold War. To him ballet is more than just a method of dance. It is an extension of himself. It is truly the only way he can feel on a higher plane. Directed by Ralph Fiennes, the film is a biopic on Nureyev’s early years and beginnings on tour in Western Europe, where his allegiance to the Soviet Union is tested by the expressive society around him.

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Fiennes is as ambitious behind the camera as he is in front of it. He has honed in on a really fascinating individual, and has used his true story to explore the wide canvas that is art and expression. In Nureyev’s case, his drive for ballet is what gives him his reason to live. This has made him a superstar of sorts in the Soviet Union. But in a time when individuality was repressed in favour of communist conformity within the Union, Nureyev’s desire to explore new cultures, specifically in France, the home of ballet itself, can easily be seen as a political statement, one with connotations of treason. It provides the audience with an intriguing dissection on what you would be willing to sacrifice for an artistic passion.

Driving such a notion is Nureyev, who is a respectably layered character in this film. In many ways Nureyev is an arrogant man. He goes after his dream, even if it means completely disregarding the feelings and needs of others. He is loud, brash, and often acts childish, such as one scene where he tells the director of an elite dance academy that he can’t dance with him in the room. They’re early signs of the later arrogance that Nureyev supposedly possessed later in life. However, because we know all that emotion comes from a place of dedication, he’s an easy character to empathise with, his specific passion fitting comfortably within the film’s pro-expressionism ideology.

What it amounts to is a relatively absorbing film with stunning visuals, breath-taking choreography, immersive performances, and some solid commentary. It’s sadly more interesting than it is riveting, with its slower pacing, while artistically sound, often feeling a little too drawn out. Nonetheless, the themes compliment the craftsmanship, and the ballet shines vivaciously in The White Crow. The last third of this film is set in an airport, a place where various people and cultures pass by one another, and its chair gripping intensity is worth the price of admission alone.

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