From now through October, Film Misery will be covering the 56th New York Film Festival with regular dispatches on the films screened there.
It can be hard to tell what tonal register Alex Ross Perry is going to delve into next. His style maintains a kind of vivid kineticism about it because of how rarely he settles into a style, moving unpredictably between experimental, misanthropic or melodramatic keys. That’s true as ever with Her Smell (★★★★1/2), a chaotic rock saga that jumps from horror to fragility, tragedy to uplift, at the same abrupt clip as its focal point, manic punk starlet Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss, by now Perry’s go-to catalyst for onscreen chaos). It’s a mess incompatible feelings that seems too volatile a combination to work. Unlike Becky, though, Her Smell only gets more emotionally engrossing the longer you sit in it.
Split into five acts, each documenting in real time a kind of performance Becky sets into motion, Perry’s film charts not just Becky’s radical shifts in mood & temperate. It also develops a palpable empathy for the friends and family trapped inextricably in her orbit. That rotating roster initially consists mainly of her put-upon ex Danny (Dan Stevens) and her bandmates in Something She, Ali van der Wolff (GLOW‘s Gayle Rankin) and Marielle Hell (Sunset Song‘s Agyness Deyn). Fear not, for once she’s alienated them, she has a backup band of impressionable proteges in The Akergirls (Cara Delevigne, Dylan Gelula & Ashley Benson). Also sharing in the mayhem are her manager, mom, baby girl, spiritual guru and a camera crew to lend her hysterics an even more overblown stage. There’s nobody she can’t graft onto, or cruelly spurn out of, her world.
Significantly inspired by Courtney Love, Becky is like a crazed collection of cliche, juvenile and psycho-spiritually deranged catch-phrases that exist seemingly to entertain. Mostly they just block her off from the realities of her addiction and toxic behavior towards her loyal loved one. Any time the camera finds respite in a conversation that doesn’t indulge her, she screams back into frame. Often times she’s just gazing blankly in the background, waiting to pass positive or negative judgment on those around her. For the first act, it’s a nightmare they’ve all come to begrudgingly live with. By the middle act, it’s mother! re-envisioned with the central woman as both victim & perpetrator of the unholy hellscape around her.
Perry and regular D.P. Sean Price Williams explore a number of different approaches along the journey. Much of the film relies on raving tracking shots with a focus as shallow as Becky’s. The rare moments of sobering respite, though, allow the rest of Perry’s ensemble to share private moments of panic, exhaustion or immense disappointment. None hits more effectively than Agyness Deyn’s, who scorches the screen even when Moss’ exhilarating high-wire act careens around her. Her arc’s an empathetic pair with Moss’, as a woman-on-the-brink who at least recognizes the toxicity of her coping mechanisms. It’s through her that redemption, even just a dream of it, seems possible.
The music is as perceptive a measure of Becky’s state as any, so much so that the introductory song’s mediocrity actually lends to the collective onscreen exhaustion. As Becky’s mental state improves – I mean, as much as a deranged, distorted persona as hers can – so does her music, honestly confronting her disheveled state. Williams’ lensing suddenly trades unbound mayhem for crisp, nourishing contemplation. By the final act of Perry’s film, Becky is teetering on the verge between these two modes, aggrandizing or authentic. She may not end with clear reassurance of either, but it’s a comforting notion that Perry has found a way to forgive the volatility he once eagerly stoked.
Entering the American indie scene on more formally staid ground, Paul Dano’s directorial debut Wildlife (★★★1/2) is a more internalized glimpse of a family unraveling. Based on a Richard Ford novel & sharply adapted by Dano & Zoe Kazan, it centers on a family in Montana whose ostensibly idyllic domestic harmony is easily upset when the father, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), is fired for being too eager for promotion. A 1960s dad to the core, Jerry scoffs at work he deems inferior to him, even after his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) & son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) rise up to carry the financial burden in his laziness. You can sense they’re trying to subtly pressure him into finding a job by diminishing his patriarchal role. It backfires.
The moment Jerry packs his bags for a firefighting job with mediocre pay, though he may not realize it, he’s made a decision to abandon his family physically, emotionally and financially. Joe, a stable, mindful and responsible teen boy beyond his year, can handle the abrupt change. Jeanette, however, wastes no time moving on from Jerry’s departure, trading her previously sweetened demeanor for a more pronounced, commanding wardrobe and attitude. The absence of the man leaves her head of the household, and Mulligan takes deliciously charismatic advantage of her character’s sudden upheaval of identity.
When Jeanette takes Joe out to the forest fires, it’s not for him to see his Dad. It’s to prove a point about the recklessness of the choice Jerry’s made. Jeanette’s own choices, though, turn out to be their own kind of self-destruction, sublimating her role of caregiver in favor of a sexually frank affair with a rich divorcee (Bill Camp). Not that Joe can’t handle seeing his parents in a less flattering light, but it’s a disarming, at times upsetting, change at a time when he’s coming into his own both socially and professionally. In many obvious ways, Joe is the most responsible, patient adult of his family, and Oxenbould shoulders that caring perspective very nicely.
If there’s anything to be said against Wildlife, it’s that it’s perfectly lovely in all the expected ways. Dano & Kazan’s script is refreshingly honest about its characters’ contradictions. Mulligan manages to push you to tears with a simple contorted glance. Dano’s direction is consummately classical, but with a broiling existential unease below the surface. Wildlife may not totally upend expectations, but it meets them with a careful, personable twist. This isn’t a film about a family’s self-destruction. It’s about the creation of a family through dissolution, a nourishing embrace of alternate family models set in a time when such positive, if embattled, growth felt taboo.
Wrapping up the day in middle America, Monrovia, Indiana (★★★1/2) feels pretty significantly like a departure for Frederick Wiseman. It’s not just the relative brief runtime of 143 minutes, or his focus on a community instead of a institution. He’s done that before with In Jackson Heights, in many ways Monrovia‘s sibling. Here, though, he seems to be pointing his camera less for edification or fascination than for a kind of morbid curiosity. His prior films had the allure of immersing us in institutions viewers are often eager to learn more about. For some that may also be true of Monrovia, but for most viewers, this is hardly anything new or surprising. For Wiseman, though, that may well be the point.
There’s no titular In or At needed to clarify we’re only seeing a section of a community. You get the sense by the end of Monrovia that we may well have seen every inch of this town, so much that there’s a dozen shots where you can see the sign for Dawg House Pizza, the #2 restaurant in town. Still, Wiseman rarely settles in one spot for too long. We see a tractor auction where many of the spectators seem bored stiff. We see boys getting identically-conforming crew-cuts at the local barbershop. We empathize with the banality of listening to middle school band deflated covers of familiar tunes. The biggest orders of business in town is how many benches to put outside the library & whether the fire hydrants are real.
And then we’ll be cooing over seeing adorable pups at the vet, shortly before one is run in for an abruptly gratuitous, stomach churning surgery. That curtain-pull feeling sums up the tone of Monrovia, revealing some kind of ugliness beneath the genial surface. Perhaps because of the smallness of their lives, there’s a particular reliance on self-importance that’s visible both in the cult-ish ceremonies of the Free Masons and the city board meetings. The most recurring conversation is about the town’s expansion of housing, and the fears of who might occupy those spaces feel inevitably tinged by hints of racism. There’s only one discernible black face in Monrovia, and that cultural insularity can’t help but feel like a handicap to the town.
That aversion to change makes for an interesting pair with the meetings about city gentrification in In Jackson Heights. While Jackson felt like a defiantly hopeful portrait, though, Monrovia has a stillness and sadness to it that feels remarkably bleak by Wiseman’s standards. The film starts on an image of the sky and ends on an image of the ground. Those startling bookends situate this as one of Wiseman’s most poetically ruminative films, while also putting a startlingly cynical cap on the low-key lives of his subjects.