Friday 24 November 2017

In the neighbourhood: "Suburbicon" and "Beach Rats" (Catholic Herald 22/11/17)

Suburbicon (**, 15, 105 mins) entered the autumn release schedule with the hottest roster of talent around – Matt Damon and Julianne Moore, as directed by George Clooney off a Coen brothers script – and it will likely emerge with the most lukewarm reviews of the year. Clooney’s directorial reputation has been a source of enduring disappointment for those of us who heralded 2005’s serious, engaged Good Night, and Good Luck.; since then, one period fumble (2014’s The Monuments Men) has followed another (2008’s Leatherheads). His latest, a misguided curveball, makes for a slightly more interesting failure than those dull splats in the movie centreground. Still, you watch with furrowed brow and narrowed eyes, wondering: what’s wrong with this picture?

An identity crisis, for a start. Suburbicon opens as social satire, with a whitebread post-WW2 housing development thrown into disarray by the arrival of African-Americans. (In a line presumably inserted during the 2016 election campaign, town elders promise to fence off the newcomers, and get them to pay for it.) With an abrupt lurch, however, we’re pitched into home-invasion horror, as Damon’s corporate mainstay finds himself besieged by thugs at the house he shares with his wheelchair-bound wife (Moore) and her identical twin sister (more Moore). The ensuing pile-up is observed from the perspective of Damon’s son (Noah Jupe), a cowering thing raised on War of the Worlds-style radio broadcasts – suggesting someone may even have had a lower rating than 15 in mind.

Somewhere amid this perplexing carnage, there lurks the suggestion that the Coens saw in this neighbourhood the origins of modern-day conservatism, some backstory for Trumpland’s prejudices and insecurities. Trouble is, their points come couched inside another of their resistibly arch shaggy-dog tales: they acknowledge as much by having Oscar Isaac’s beaming claims investigator state “It all boils down to coincidence.” Barrel-scraping digs at Episcopalians aside, that’s all Suburbicon has at base: hokey twists, put over by smirking stars. The result most often serves to assert rather than undermine white privilege, the work of multi-millionaires paying themselves handsomely to have way more fun than their audience.

Clooney simply never explains why he’s stuck on this trivial sub-Double Indemnity pantomime when full-on race war looks to be erupting outside, a choice that leaves the film’s black performers near-mute and ever-secondary to the leads’ blandly indifferent huffing. Suburbicon has its slicker stretches – it’s Clooney, after all – and in these one catches glimpses of a worthwhile curio along the lines of The ‘Burbs, Joe Dante’s far sharper, Reagan-era assault on homegrown conservatism. Yet the significant struggles in this universe are taking place on the other side of the picket fence, and it remains unclear whether the stellar talent drawn here has entirely grasped that reality.

Writer-director Eliza Hittman had a minor breakthrough in 2013 with It Felt Like Love, an authentically salty, confrontational drama about a dreamy teenage girl falling in among a pack of older, macho Brooklyn boys. Hittman, it has become clear, is a filmmaker fascinated by adolescence’s trickier aspects: the confusion, the violence, the lust. Her second feature, this week’s Beach Rats (****, 15, 98 mins), re-enters the world of her first, but with one crucial shift in perspective. Her protagonist this time is male – the rangy, athletic Frankie (Harris Dickinson) – and he’s struggling to fit in with his posse of identikit roughhousing jocks because, unbeknownst to them, he’s gay, or bisexual, or just plain undecided.

The confusion is upfront: “I don’t really know what I like,” Frankie confesses to a silver-haired hustler on the webcam site he spends his nights browsing. Lust follows close behind it. Egged on by his buds, Frankie picks up local beauty Simone (Madeline Weinstein), only to get wasted as a pre-emptive strike against further intimacy. Thereafter, Hittman sketches in some context for all this hormonal push-me-pull-you. Frankie’s household, we learn, has been left lopsided by the decline of his cancer-stricken father, leading the pop psychologists among us to ponder whether the imminent disappearance of a paternal role model explains our boy’s need to cruise for daddies online.

Evidently, we’re a long way from those merry-making American Pie movies. Hittman proposes that finding your own sexual identity is a seriously fraught business, which may be why she forsakes conventional plot, instead homing in on isolated moments – often jittery with the tension of being found out – that expose elements of Frankie’s divided personality. If her shooting style remains inobtrusive, she gives us a rich idea of her location – Coney Island as New York’s wild frontier – and time and again she alights on a telling image: Frankie catching a car-window reflection of kids at play just as his own innocence begins to recede from view, or posing for shirtless selfies with Simone, in a desperate bid to shore up a studly reputation.

Throughout, Dickinson provides an effective focal point, operating somewhere between Gosling and Redmayne, yet with a tentative sincerity all his own. A mixed-up kid is here revealed to us piece by piece, a process kept from blunt exploitation by Hittman’s sharp eye for body language: you wince at the hunched defensiveness of Frankie’s middle-aged pick-ups, or the way this dude flinches whenever someone approaches his laptop. Such fragments tesselate into uncommonly sensitive, insightful cinema: by Beach Rats’ conclusion, a nuanced collision between the straight and non-straight worlds, we have a sense of corners being turned, horizons opening up, and – in Hittman’s case – a notable career taking shape.

Suburbicon opens today in cinemas nationwide; Beach Rats opens in selected cinemas.

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