The Week in Movies: December 31st 2018 – January 6th 2019

Shirkers
Dir: Sandi Tan
Many films are lost, but I’m not sure I’ve ever previously heard of a film being stolen.

Shirkers is a film about a film, one made in 1989 by a group of film students, written by 18 year old Sandi Tan and directed by Georges Cardona, who taught her and her friends to be filmmakers, Shirkers was one of a tiny handful of independent films made in Singapore, which at the time had no film industry to speak of. After the film was shot, Sandi and her friends returned to their studies, scattered across the world. They left the film with Georges, for him to finish post-production. He and the film vanished, for 20 years there was no word of them.

One of the most interesting documentaries of 2018, this is the story of a stolen film, but that’s only the surface of this movie. What this is at its heart is a ghost story. It’s the story of the ghost of a film that, for two decades, existed only in the memories of the people who made it. It’s the story of their ghosts, the memory of the people they were that summer. It’s also the story of the ghost of Georges Cardona, a man who may only ever have been an apparition, in that it seems almost everything about him was a lie, with Sandi finding that each time she thinks she can grasp a fact about this man she thought she knew well, it may as well be a puff of smoke. The story is fascinating and empowering. As well as being a ghost story the narrative is one of reclamation, Sandi rediscovering her film and the stories and people behind it, and the lives she and the others have led since the film. This documentary itself, in using excerpts from the original Shirkers, feels like Sandi finally being able to once again take ownership of a film that, while she didn’t direct it, appears to have been her vision through and through. In the age of Me Too and as we find ourselves talking more and more about the importance of promoting voices other than those of white men behind the camera, Shirkers couldn’t feel more timely, poignant or triumphant.

The lost Shirkers, the footage rediscovered without its soundtrack, might not be a masterpiece (Tan says she was terrible in the lead role), but the glimpses of it we get are tantalising. Cardona was clearly liberal in how he drew from influences (one sequence is shown to be copied shot for shot from Paris, Texas), but the film also has an unmistakable youthful energy and a warmth to its cinematography that gives an intimacy to many of the scenes we are able to see. Telling its own story deftly, and intriguing us in the story we might see in the original Shirkers, this is a documentary any movie lover would do well to seek out.
★★★★

Melody
Dir: Waris Hussein
This 1971 British coming of age film (also known as SWALK) doesn’t seem to have much of a profile in its home country. I heard about it only last year, while watching interviews on the Blu Ray of an even lesser known British film, and soon sought out the blu ray.

Oliver stars Mark Lester and Jack Wild play Daniel and Ornshaw, two schoolboys who, despite very different backgrounds and personalities, become fast friends. That friendship is then threatened when Daniel falls in love with classmate Melody (Tracy Hyde) and the two decide they should get married.

Despite not being a particularly long film, Melody takes its time getting where it’s going. For the first hour or so, screenwriter Alan Parker and director Waris Hussein lay the groundwork, letting us see how each of the kids; Daniel, Ornshaw and Melody, lives and how their respective home situations seem to reflect parts of the social strata of London in the early 70s. We also spend a lot of time with the kids at school. These are some of the film’s best scenes, using the children from the school where the film was shot rather than actors gives everything an observed, naturalistic, feel that at times took me vividly back to my own school days (corporal punishment was long since outlawed by then, but a lot of the other iconography and practices felt very familiar). Hussein captures the time and place brilliantly. The film was shot entirely on location in London, making it, retrospectively, something of a time capsule.

The performances are excellent. Lester and Wild bounce off each other nicely, and are both well cast. One thing that comes through particularly well is that the streak of mischief that Ornshaw has naturally may inspire something in Daniel that allows him to act on his feelings for Melody in a more rebellious way in the film’s third act. Those two had experience, but this was Tracy Hyde’s first film and seeing it (and the next film she made, a full decade later) will make you wish she’d done more. It may simply be that Hussein turned the camera on her just to capture what she was really going through at this time in her life, but she and Lester capture both the thrill and the naivete of first love. In one poignant, but perfectly childish, moment Melody asks Daniel “Will you love me forever?” and he replies “ Of course. I’ve loved you a whole week already, haven’t I?”

The only real issue with Melody is the fact that it was initially structured less around the story than the soundtrack. The company had the rights to the Bee Gees songs that make up the bulk of the soundtrack and Parker was instructed to fit a narrative around them. This becomes very obvious thanks to the sheer amount of montages in the film. There are lovely moments in these montages; evocative and beautiful images like Daniel and Melody sitting together in a graveyard in the rain, but they still are more early forms of music video, and make you long to hear what’s being said rather than the music, pleasant though it is. That said, the more I think about Melody, the less of an issue that is and the warmer I feel towards it. I imagine if I’d seen it as a kid or a teenager it would now be a warm nostalgic blanket of a film, and as I write this I am becoming ever keener on revisiting it and getting wrapped up in its mix of social realism and rose tinted romanticism again.
★★★★

Every Day
Dir: Michael Sucsy
Each morning, A wakes up in a different body. Always someone roughly their age (about 16), always quite close to the last person. For that day, A lives that life and tries not to leave much of an impression on the life of the person they are inhabiting. Until the day A wakes up in the body of Justin (Justice Smith) and falls for his girlfriend Rhiannon (Angourie Rice). Rhiannon definitely notices the difference in Justin, who that day is more spontaneous, more caring, more romantic. Over the next few days, in a variety of bodies, A tracks down Rhiannon, eventually explaining their unique life, and the two begin to fall for each other.

Every Day presents an interesting acting challenge for Angourie Rice and for more than a dozen actors who play A across the film’s running time. The actors playing A have to have enough continuity in their work to give us the sense that the same being is occupying each body we see and that this entity would be something that Rhiannon could fall in love with. To the credit of the actors and director Michael Sucsy, the film pulls this off. There are a couple of incarnations of A that stand out. Justice Smith does good work introducing the character and then drawing a clear distinction between A and the real personality of Justin, while Jacob Batalon (best known as Peter’s friend Ned in Spider-Man: Homecoming) draws poignancy out of what is a purely expositional scene he has as A. That said, there isn’t anyone who stands out in a negative way, even the briefest incarnations of the character feel consistent. The challenge for Angourie Rice is different. Of course, actors are used to having to find or feign a romantic connection with people they may only slightly know, but here Rice has to find that chemistry over and over again, more than that, she has to convince us again and again that this is the same connection. That she manages this is more than just impressive, it’s the glue that holds the movie together.

While the acting is impressive, it’s not quite enough to make Every Day a great movie. Beyond the typical issues of a novel – for instance, the storylines involving Rhiannon’s family have clearly been cut down to the point of oversimplification – there are some problems here that make it a challenge to root for Rhiannon and A. In a lot of ways, Every Day is extremely progressive, it’s a romantic drama that unfolds between a young woman and a partner who is, at various times, in bodies of different colour, shape and gender identity. The message here is that love is universal, that it’s not defined by these boundaries that society puts on it, and while most of the most intimate scenes are between Rhiannon and a conventionally attractive white male version of A, we do see her share moments of intimacy with A when they are female and when they are African American (as is her boyfriend Justin). The problem here is one created by A’s unique situation. Consent is touched upon as an issue, when Rhiannon questions why A kissed her in Justin’s body, the answer never feels entirely satisfactory, but the film brushes past it because the two fall in love. However, it’s implied that A ends up in a lot of intimate situations, and we have to assume they have had sex in several of the bodies they have inhabited. We also see A and Rhiannon have several very intimate moments and if they don’t go all the way together they certainly come close at least once. The issues of consent around that are incredibly thorny and only addressed towards the end of the film, when A spends several days in the same body.

The other issue here is how the film, and A, regard Rhiannon. Her boyfriend Justin is a shit, in the way a lot of teenage boys are shits. It should be noted there’s never any hint that Justin is abusive, he just takes Rhiannon for granted and is not a caring boyfriend, but it’s amazing how quickly, when inhabiting his body, A seems to decide they need to save Rhiannon from this guy, first through their love and later in another way. Not only does this make a lot of the film feel like an adaptation of the terrible Shawn Mendes song Treat You Better, it makes me feel I need to reject what is set up as a happy and romantic ending, involving a character we see, but never get to know until A inhabits him.

There are definite rewards to be taken from Every Day and I will be interested to see Angourie Rice develop from the charming and technically accomplished performance she gives here. Ultimately I suspect this is a case where the book works better, as there is the potential to spend more time digging into the characters and the issues that the film only has the time to glance at.
★★

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