SLIFF Reviews: Narrative Features

Over the last few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of attending the 30th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival, held in person and virtually from November 4-21. I watched a lot of really wonderful films, many of which will be released soon and look to be potential awards season contenders, and I wanted to share my thoughts on some of them. Below, you’ll find my reviews of four narrative features: “The Worst Person in the World,” “Petite Maman,” “Memoria,” and “Catch the Fair One.” You can also read my reviews of the recently released “C’mon C’mon” and “King Richard.”

For more information on the St. Louis International Film Festival and Cinema St. Louis’s other events and programs, visit cinemastlouis.org.

Herbert Nordrum and Renate Reinsve in “The Worst Person in the World”

THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD

Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s third installment in his loosely-connected Oslo trilogy surprisingly ended up being one of the best romantic movies I’ve seen in recent memory—surprising because that wasn’t what I expected from a film with this title and premise. The film tells the story of a young woman named Julie (Renate Reinsve) over the course of 12 chapters bookended by a prologue and epilogue, and almost immediately establishes that she is a mess. In just a few minutes we watch Julie flip from studying medicine to psychiatry to photography with such fleetingness it seems flippant (she actually does stick with the photography thing though). While “The Worst Person in the World” initially seems like it will encompass more aspects of Julie’s life over the course of the few years in depicts, it primarily centers around her relationships. At the start of the movie she falls for Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a comic artist 15 years her senior, and they begin a long-term relationship despite being at different places in their lives and seeming to want different things. The scenes from Julie’s life that unfold from there are sometimes hilarious, sometimes heavily dramatic (there’s a melancholy finale, and we also get a sense of her relationship, or lack thereof, with her father in a conversation that reveals the little interest he retains in her life). And sometimes, the film ventures into full-on rom-com territory, largely in the scenes shared with Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a man Julie meets at a wedding she crashes and reconnects with later in a swoony, dream-like sequence. That latter scene would come at the climax of a typical romantic comedy, but there’s little typical about “The Worst Person in the World” (in Julie’s case, it comes about halfway through this part of her story). There’s a messiness to all her relationships that’s far from the ideal, and that’s a big part of what makes this movie so great. Trier’s story (co-written with Eskil Vogt) has so much truth in it, and it deftly balances the varying tones and pieces of the story for the most part without losing sight of its protagonist. Reinsve is truly wonderful, convincingly relaying Julie’s changing desires and uncertainty about her life; for instance, whether or not she wants to have children is a question that comes up throughout the film, and as Julie’s attitude demonstrates, there’s no easy yes or no answer. Perhaps the most puzzling thing about “The Worst Person in the World” is its considerable lack of self-loathing on the part of Julie, or anyone else, for that matter. Is Julie truly the worst person in the world? Maybe she, and the other characters, have internalized that feeling of seeing yourself as little more than utter garbage. But if they are the worst people in the world, then all of us are, because we’re likely all guilty of at least one or two actions seen throughout this film. It is occasionally taxing to watch them fumble their way through life for a little over two hours, and even if the ending is probably the right ending, I’m not sure I liked it, but “The Worst Person in the World” still easily managed to rocket near the top of my favorite films of the year list.

“The Worst Person in the World” will be released by NEON in 2022. Runtime: 127 minutes. Rated R.

PETITE MAMAN

Not a single second is wasted in Céline Sciamma’s 72-minute fable “Petite Maman,” which unfolds with a magic reminiscent of a Frances Hodgson Burnett story. This brief but powerful film, written and directed by Sciamma, begins with the death of a grandparent. Eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) travels to her late grandmother’s home with her mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne) to clean it out, but after one evening, her mother, burdened by grief over the loss of her own mom, abruptly leaves. It’s while exploring the woods surrounding the home that Nelly runs into a little girl her age called Marion, who bears a striking resemblance to her (Marion is played by Joséphine’s real life twin, Gabrielle Sanz), shares her mother’s name, and lives in a mirror version of her grandmother’s house. This strange encounter, a reminder that her mother was once a child too, with hopes and dreams and fears and imagination, helps bring Nelly closer to her mom. With every shot, Sciamma turns the otherwise ordinary into something extraordinary: the sunlight streaming through the red and brown leaves of the trees at the houses’ gate; peering down long stretch hallway of the home’s interior, an air of mystery surrounding the rooms branching out of it and what mysteries they may hold; the identical girls, mother and daughter, standing with arms around each other as they observe the little hut they built out of sticks in the woods, a place just for them that provides a respite from the troubles of the adult world. Much of their chemistry may come from the fact that they are really sisters, but one of the best things Sciamma does with “Petite Maman” is just let the camera remain on the girls for a stretch of time, just watching them play. They’re sweet and funny and innocent, even as serious issues (Marion is preparing to go into surgery to remedy an ongoing health problem that has already affected her own mother) encroach on their periods of escapism. With “Petite Maman,” Sciamma has crafted a charming yet profound fairytale for young and old alike.

“Petite Maman” will be released by NEON in 2022. Runtime: 72 minutes.

Tilda Swinton as Jessica in “Memoria”

MEMORIA

Prolonged moments of zen interrupted of scenes of sharp anxiety: that’s the best way I can think of how to describe the experience of watching “Memoria,” the newest film from writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Tilda Swinton plays Jessica, an expat living and working in Colombia. The film opens with her awaking to a deep, earth-shaking boom, a sound that only she seems to hear— except for the fact that it sets off the alarms of all the cars outside. It can’t be in her head then— or is it? The uncertainty surrounding the state of Jessica’s mind only increases throughout the film. She forgets something while having dinner with her sister Karen Agnes Brekke and her husband Juan (Daniel Giménez Cacho) before hearing those ominous booms yet again. She meets up with a friend of Juan named Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego) at a recording studio to see if he can recreate the sound for her. The pair seem to hit it off, but before their relationship can progress any further, Jessica shows up at the studio again to find that none of the other sound engineers have even heard of a man there called Hernán. The mysteries pile on as Jessica travels outside of the city and memories that may or may not be hers resurface, but Weerasethakul is not one to provide easy answers. His film is both a thing to puzzle over (I’m still trying to parse through my thoughts on the out-of-left-field ending nearly a week after first watching it) and an experience that should be allowed to just wash over you. Weerasethakul lets his camera rest on quiet moments for long stretches of time; it’s almost meditative, but certainly not for the impatient viewer. I’m not going to pretend that I came away with a concrete understanding of “Memoria” and the implications its story has for Jessica and for the world at large after just one viewing, but the sense of unease that grew in me over the course of its runtime has not left me since.

“Memoria” will be embarking on a never-ending theatrical tour beginning on December 26, playing in limited released in one theater at a time. Runtime: 136 minutes.

Kali Reis as Kaylee in “Catch the Fair One”

CATCH THE FAIR ONE

This spare but brutal thriller is the second feature film from director Josef Kubota Wladyka, whose previous television work includes directing episodes of the series “Narcos.” And it’s the acting debut of Kali Reis, the part-Native American boxer who, in this movie, stars as a part-Native American boxer. That may not sound like a huge stretch, but don’t come into “Catch the Fair One” underestimating the depth of Reis’s performance, which proves that she earned this role with more than just her fists. She stars as Kaylee, a former boxer seeking both answers and vengeance in the disappearance of her younger sister Weeta (Mainaku Borrero) two years ago. A tip to her potential whereabouts prompts Kaylee to voluntarily enter a sex trafficking ring to try to find her. The latter half of the movie is a series of intense scenes that frequently explode in violence, but as uncompromising as Kaylee is when dealing with the men involving in the sex trafficking business, her empathy for the women caught up in it still shows through her tough exterior. But the most anxiety-inducing scene in when Kaylee is first brought in with a group of other girls and forced to audition by stripping down and taking photos of herself. The prospect of how far Kaylee might have to go is nauseating. Reis’s performance provides so many great character details in as few words as possible. Her hunched posture and quiet demeanor when we see her working as a restaurant server toward the beginning of the movie stands in contrast to her physical strength; it’s apparent before we know her whole story that this woman is broken. And when she lays down to sleep in the crowded boarding house where she lives, she places a small blade under her tongue for protection, waking up in the morning to blood trickling from her mouth. The film also has great atmosphere, from the barren snowy landscapes where Kaylee runs to escape those pursuing her, to the vast, ornate interiors of the villains’ homes (the main baddies are a father and son played by Daniel Henshall and Kevin Dunn), a constant reminder of the wealth they have accumulated at the expense of so many young women’s suffering. The bare-bones story makes Kaylee’s ordeal feel that much more intense, but it also doesn’t leave room for the additional drama—such as a more in depth examination of the trauma that fuels Kaylee’s thirst for vengeance—that could make “Catch the Fair One” pack a harder punch. Like the stories of so many girls who go missing—particularly girls from minority groups—this movie offers no easy solutions, which some viewers may find frustrating. But that doesn’t make “Catch the Fair One,” whose central conflict hews closer to reality than fiction, any less heart-wrenching, the obstacles that so many searching for missing family members and friends have run into summed up best in one single sentence: “No one’s looking because nobody cares.”

“Catch the Fair One” will be released by IFC Films in 2022. Runtime: 85 minutes.

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