Director: Alma Ha’rel
Writer: Shia LaBeouf
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Noah Jupe, Lucas Hedges, FKA Twigs, Laura San Giacomo, Martin Starr
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 93mins
What’s the story: An actor (Hedges) is sent to rehab and relives past trauma, when as an upcoming child actor he lived with his abusive father (LaBeouf).
What’s the verdict: Shia LaBeouf writes and plays a version of his own dad in this heartfelt semi-autobiographical movie. Troubled actor Otis (Hedges) finds himself in forced rehab to avoid a jail sentence after repeated DUIs. The source of his pain is the time he spent as a child with abusive, self-destructive dad James.
Slowly working his way to child stardom, the 12-year-old Otis (Jupe) lives in a rented motel room near the movie lot, dad belittling and encouraging him in unequal measure.
Boasting outstanding performances from LaBeouf and A Quiet Place’s Jupe, this moving, complex drama rises above finger-pointing for something far richer. LaBeouf finds the humanity in the pushy parent from Hell, living his failed showbiz dreams through his son (whom he nicknames Honey Boy), unable and unwilling to tackle demons ruining his life and those around him.
The flashback structure, reportedly a script change suggested by director Ha’rel, works to shade the behaviour of adult Otis with a shadow cast by surrounding scenes of his dad. A documentary filmmaker, Ha’rel shoots with raw immediacy, framing visuals around the naturalistic performances led by LaBeouf.
Martin Starr and Laura San Giacomo are quality support as case workers in the rehab facility. As is dancer-turned-actor FKA Twigs as a local sex worker who offers the young Otis platonic tenderness.
Director: Chinonye Chukwu
Writer: Chinonye Chukwu
Cast: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, Wendell Pierce
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 113mins
What’s the story: Prison warden Bernadine Williams (Woodard) begins to crack as the toll of overseeing executions weighs down on her.
What’s the verdict: A clear-eyed account of the realities of state execution in the US, Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency is intelligently scripted and directed with pared back restraint. Alfre Woodard delivers a powerhouse study of a woman cracking under her responsibilities as a Death Row prison warden.
But, the mournful tone threatens total inertia and while an interesting, carefully balanced character study, the film doesn’t add too much to the understanding of America’s execution system.
That doubt is cast on the guilt of the latest inmate facing lethal injection (an exceptional Hodge) muddles the central message that capital punishment is a moral wrong damaging everyone it touches.
Worth watching for the quality performances. An impressive supporting cast includes Richard Schiff as a defense lawyer similarly worn down by the system and Wendell Pierce as Bernadine’s sympathetic through frustrated husband.
GUEST OF HONOUR
Director: Atom Egoyan
Writer: Atom Egoyan
Cast: David Thewlis, Laysla De Oliviera, Luke Wilson, Arsinee Khanjian
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 104mins
What’s the story: Music teacher Veronica (De Oliviera) has been imprisoned for confessing to having sex with her pupils, despite being innocent of the crime. Jim (Thewlis), her health inspector father, attempts to discover why she has lied and past misdeeds are revealed.
What’s the verdict: The reviews have not been kind to one-time critical darling Atom Egoyan and his latest movie. But, there is much to enjoy in this twisty-turny tale dealing with usual Egoyan obsessions of familial discord and perceived betrayal.
The potentially queasy teacher-pupil subplot is deftly handled, abetted by De Oliviera’s captivating performance as the unpredictable Veronica.
Guest of Honour also serves as reminder of how enjoyable it is to watch Thewlis in a lead role. Odd, but not pitiable, he is a man imposing strict rules on others while his own life spirals for reasons beyond his control.
As story pieces come together across different timelines, Egoyan deftly flits between dramatic intrigue, black comedy and understated, but powerful emotion. The director also captures the vibrancy of multi-cultural Toronto, as Jim makes his rounds of the restaurants. A good eating tour could be made of the locations visited here.
Luke Wilson crops up as a sympathetic priest, while Egoyan’s wife and muse Khanjian appears as owner of a restaurant not recommended for rabbit lovers.
Director: Halina Reijn
Writers: Halina Reijn, Esther Gerritsen
Cast: Carice van Outen, Marwan Kenzari
Cert: 18 (TBC)
Running time: 98mins
What’s the story: Veteran psychologist Nicoline (van Outen) begins a new job at a penal institution. Despite being convinced serial rapist Idris (Kenzari) is not as rehabilitated as other doctors believe, Nicoline finds herself drawn to him.
What’s the verdict: Carice van Outen is incapable of a bad performance. But, in Instinct she rivals the intensity of Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher as troubled psychologist Nicoline, letting boundaries blur with her dangerous patient.
A clingy mother and content sister are possible reasons for Nicoline’s brittle, aloof personality, but van Outen’s layered performance plays a guessing game with the audience.
Kenzari (Jafar in Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin re-do) is similarly impressive as a patient vacillating between manipulator and wounded animal.
Director and co-writer Reijn (van Outen’s Black Book co-star) commendably deals with issues of consent, desire, and dark fantasies in a way far outside Hollywood’s comfort zone. But, while the tone is well pitched, character actions increasingly stretch plausibility as does the apparent lack of surveillance cameras in the institution.
The film’s message is also muddled, while the climactic moments are not a million miles away from the sexploitation twists Joe Eszterhas was doing back in the 90s.
Made by van Outen and Reijn’s production company Man Up, created to tell tough stories from a female point of view, Instinct is brave but a qualified success.
Director: Phillip Youmans
Writer: Phillip Youmans
Cast: Karen Kaia Livers, Wendell Pierce, Dominique McClellan, Braelyn Kelly
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 79mins
What’s the story: In a rural Louisiana town surrounded by sugar cane, a mother, her deadbeat son and an embittered pastor live increasingly desperate lives.
What’s the verdict: 19-year-old writer/director Phillip Youmans’ attention grabbing debut picked up three awards at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, including Best Narrative Feature and Best Actor for Wendell Pierce.
Favouring moods, textures and snatched moments from his characters’ lives, Youmans weaves a tapestry of desperation and possible redemption across the modest runtime. Extensive voiceover sets the film’s rhythms, while loose, handheld camerawork compounds a sense of character intimacy.
Karen Kaia Livers is quietly impressive as chicken farmer Helen, fretting after her son, Daniel (McClellan). An alcoholic, Daniel is not above plying his young son (Kelly) with whiskey as they bop along to Robert Johnson songs.
Wendell Pierce, incapable of turning in a bad performance, is typically outstanding as the other drunk in Helen’s life, a bitter pastor whose worldview is calcifying into intolerance.
Reminiscent of Moonlight and Tree of Life, Burning Cane, formerly titled The Glory, demands patience and attention, but rewards those who take the journey.