Aug 23

“Step”: Baltimore Girls Empowered Through Dance

Stories about young dancers hoping to make it in the world of dance are one thing. Stories about young dancers hoping to make it in the world, period, are something else. Step is a lively, heartfelt documentary of the second sort. Stephanie Zacharek, Time, reviewing Step

As described on Rotten Tomatoes, factual new film Step, directed by Amanda Lipitz, “documents the senior year of a girls’ high-school step dance team against the background of inner-city Baltimore. As each one tries to become the first in their families to attend college, the girls strive to make their dancing a success against the backdrop of social unrest in the troubled city.”

The turmoil surrounding Freddie Gray‘s death in 2015 serves as an intermittent backdrop. Peter Keough, Boston Globe: “Politics, though, is only part of what is being explored in ‘Step.’ Like ‘Hoop Dreams’ (1994), it tells the stories of young people from tough neighborhoods with a talent that might help them better their lives.”

What kind of school do the “Lethal Ladies” step team attend? Glenn Kenny, New York Times: “The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women was founded in 2009 to help underserved girls, predominately African-Americans, prepare for college.” Walter V. Addiego, San Francisco Chronicle: “The idea is to provide opportunities for girls who’ve grown up amid poverty, substance abuse and violence to break out of the cycle and make a better life for themselves. Admission to the school is by lottery, and the vast majority of its students go on to college.”

Step focuses mainly on three seniors: Cori, the academic achiever with high hopes; Tayla, the only child of a single mom who’s a Lethal Ladies superfan; and Blessin, the team leader whose home life, including a mom who’s depressed and often unavailable, is perhaps the most challenging. If you’ve been watching the TV competition So You Think You Can Dance, you’ve already gotten acquainted with Blessin, as her audition was recently shown. Although she didn’t make the cut, she and the Lethal Ladies performed on the show at a later date.

Walter V. Addiego, San Francisco Chronicle, describes the essence of Step: “Lipitz alternates sequences of the girls’ school days and home lives, and plenty of footage of the team’s practices, all concluding in the teens’ performance at the big regional meet, on which a lot of pride — both the school’s and that of the girls and their families — is at stake.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter, elaborates

The film’s depiction of different types of mother-daughter relationships is filled with lovely moments, many of them colored by sadness. And the investment of the school staff in their students’ success provides another heartening element — among them the principal, Chevonne Hall; tough step mistress, Gari ‘Coach G’ McIntyre; and most of all, college advisor Paula Dofat, whose big-sisterly concern for Blessin is extremely touching.

The Trailer

Selected Reviews

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: “Not for nothing did ‘Step’ win a Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking at Sundance. Heartening and unashamedly emotional, it’s a certified crowd pleaser that doesn’t care who knows it.”

 Robert Abele, The Wrap

‘Step’ looks like a dance film, but it’s really a rollercoaster ride about expectations, drive, and achievement. The weight in each rhythmic stomp produced by the young women featured in this movie isn’t just to produce a sound in glorious sync, but to signal a togetherness in an often-brutal world…
Start figuring out now how to clap and dab away tears at the same time; it’s that kind of experience.

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: “Like them, the film is inspiring and funny and lovely, and you may find the words of one of the girls lingering: ‘If you come together with a group of powerful women, the impact will be immense’.”

Aug 21

Suicidal Despair: A Total Eclipse of the Sun

I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse” (from Teaching a Stone to Talk)

The words above are three simple sentences from Annie Dillard‘s widely praised essay, published in 1982, that describes in detail her experience of witnessing a total eclipse of the sun. You can read a recent reprint in The Atlantic.

As GoodReads reviewer “Jenny” writes:

On the surface, it seems like an innocent enough story, a recollection of a journey to see an eclipse, but the act of witnessing the eclipse awakens the writer into the realities of life. Through the stages of the eclipse, she travels through time and space, witnessing and experiencing lives that are not hers but are shared by all who partake in the human experience. At one point, she hears someone refer to the eclipse as looking like a life saver (the candy) and translates it to literally be a life saver because it pulls her back to reality.

The sun was going, and the world was wrong. This could also serve as a metaphor for the symptoms of despair and hopelessness that lead some people toward suicidal desperation.

A new suicide prevention video movingly and powerfully captures the essence of a gay teen’s inability to find acceptance and the utter devastation that brings. But it turns out that it’s not too late for him. In the end, things will be okay. Better than okay.

The song is rapper Logic‘s “1-800-273-8255,” the actual number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Included in the video’s story are singers Alessia Cara and Khalid and actors Coy Stewart (the boy in question), Nolan Gould (the object of his affection), and Don Cheadle and Matthew Modine as their dads.

Add yourself to the seven-million-plus viewers who’ve watched this in the few days since its release. You can also scroll down below for all the lyrics, courtesy of Genius.com:

[Pre-Chorus: Logic]
I’ve been on the low
I been taking my time
I feel like I’m out of my mind
It feel like my life ain’t mine
Who can relate?
I’ve been on the low
I been taking my time
I feel like I’m out of my mind
It feel like my life ain’t mine

[Chorus: Logic]
I don’t wanna be alive
I don’t wanna be alive
I just wanna die today
I just wanna die
I don’t wanna be alive
I don’t wanna be alive
I just wanna die
And let me tell you why

[Verse 1: Logic]
All this other shit I’m talkin’ ’bout they think they know it
I’ve been praying for somebody to save me, no one’s heroic
And my life don’t even matter
I know it I know it I know I’m hurting deep down but can’t show it
I never had a place to call my own
I never had a home
Ain’t nobody callin’ my phone
Where you been? Where you at? What’s on your mind?
They say every life precious but nobody care about mine

[Pre-Chorus: Logic]
I’ve been on the low
I been taking my time
I feel like I’m out of my mind
It feel like my life ain’t mine
Who can relate?
I’ve been on the low
I been taking my time
I feel like I’m out of my mind
It feel like my life ain’t mine

[Chorus: Logic]
I want you to be alive
I want you to be alive
You don’t gotta die today
You don’t gotta die
I want you to be alive
I want you to be alive
You don’t gotta die
Now lemme tell you why

[Verse 2: Alessia Cara]
It’s the very first breath
When your head’s been drowning underwater
And it’s the lightness in the air
When you’re there
Chest to chest with a lover
It’s holding on, though the road’s long
And seeing light in the darkest things
And when you stare at your reflection
Finally knowing who it is
I know that you’ll thank God you did

[Verse 3: Logic]
I know where you been, where you are, where you goin’
I know you’re the reason I believe in life
What’s the day without a little night?
I’m just tryna shed a little light
It can be hard
It can be so hard
But you gotta live right now
You got everything to give right now

[Pre-Chorus: Logic]
I’ve been on the low
I been taking my time
I feel like I’m out of my mind
It feel like my life ain’t mine
Who can relate?
I’ve been on the low
I been taking my time
I feel like I’m out of my mind
It feel like my life ain’t mine

[Chorus: Logic]
I finally wanna be alive
I finally wanna be alive
I don’t wanna die today
I don’t wanna die
I finally wanna be alive
I finally wanna be alive
I don’t wanna die
I don’t wanna die

[Outro: Khalid]
Pain don’t hurt the same, I know
The lane I travel feels alone
But I’m moving ’til my legs give out
And I see my tears melt in the snow
But I don’t wanna cry
I don’t wanna cry anymore
I wanna feel alive
I don’t even wanna die anymore
Oh I don’t wanna
I don’t wanna
I don’t even wanna die anymore

Jul 10

“Notes on a Banana”: Bipolar Disorder and More

In his masterful new memoir, David Leite weaves together three of my favorite things: food, humor, and debilitating mental illness. Notes on a Banana is beautifully crafted, inspiring, and poignantly honest. A must read for all foodies and memoir lovers who know the power food and family have to overcome nearly every obstacle in life. Josh Kilmer-Purcell

In Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression the “Banana” in question is Leite’s nickname, the “Food” a significant part of his career, the “Love” his long-term relationship with “The One”—otherwise known as Alan—and the “Manic Depression” his symptoms of bipolar disorder that surfaced in childhood and didn’t stabilize until his late 30’s or so. Leite is now in his 50’s.

B. David Zarley, Paste, praises Notes on a Banana as “one of the finest portraits of bipolar disorder I have ever read.” He speaks from the experience, like Leite, of living with hypomania, and he states the following about Leite’s diagnosis:

Bipolar II, to be specific, the form of the disorder marked by deep depressive modes and hypomanic episodes (hypomania being, as Leite describes it, ‘a watercolor version of bright-neon manias’). It is the alternating currents of depression and hypomania that have galvanized and rendered black Leite’s life, a perpetual rolling brownout.

Leite also once had signficant difficulty accepting being gay. Kirkus Reviews:

In college, the author had affairs with men while ‘dating’ a woman he fantasized would be his wife but with whom he could never have sex. He also began experiencing the chaotic extremes of the bipolar disorder that psychologists had mistakenly diagnosed as depression. Leaving college without a degree, Leite went to New York, where he worked first as a waiter then as an ad writer while unsuccessfully trying to turn straight through involvement with the ‘gay curing’ Aesthetic Realism movement. A long-term relationship with a man who ‘loved everything about the ceremony of the table’ led to Leite’s reimmersion in the cooking he loved and the Azorean culture from which he had separated himself. It also gave him the courage to seek the answers that had eluded him and his doctors about the truth of his condition.

In addition to the medications and therapy Leite now uses, he’s described other parts of his “bipolar arsenal” (his blog) :

…Things no shrink can prescribe and no therapist can analyze—namely, cooking and writing about food. Even on my worst days, when it feels like I have some gargantuan creature threatening to drag me down through the couch cushions, the simple act of swirling a knob of butter in a hot skillet can cheer me. And nothing mercifully bitch-slaps depression for a few hours like the utterly frustrating and highly improbable act of stringing together words, like pearls on a necklace, and turning those words into stories.

Selected Reviews of Notes on a Banana

Publishers Weekly:

He expertly walks the line between sad and funny, making himself the clown and hero of this coming-of-age tale. His firsthand account of mental illness pulls no punches, serving up an honest and open perspective on personal and family issues that are often swept under the rug. Despite Leite playing the leading man, the true stars of the memoir are Leite’s parents, who mirror his passion (his mother) and thoughtfulness (his father) and allow Leite to continually draw the focus of the story back to family and food, love and learning.

Drew Ramsey, MD: “Born into a devout immigrant community that didn’t believe in psychiatry or being gay, Leite fought for twenty-five years to understand the truth about himself–his triumph is rich with lessons for us all.”

Marya Hornbacher, author of Madness: A Bipolar Life: “In hilarious, deeply honest prose, Leite has brilliantly captured the light and dark of bipolar disorder. But this book does so much more. It explores the relationships between culture and family, friendship and food, love and the body. A memoir about the astonishing resilience of the human heart.”

Nov 23

“Louder Than Bombs”: Deception in Grief

Louder Than Bombs is interested in the intersection between grief and memory, and how difficult it is to capture both either through photography or film. Brian Tallerico, rogerebert.com

Looking for an intense dysfunctional-family drama over your Thanksgiving break? I mean, besides at home? David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter, sets up the plot of Joachim Trier‘s 2015 Louder Than Bombs, seemingly overlooked in theaters but now available on DVD:

Three years after the death of celebrated war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert), a major exhibition is being planned and her longtime colleague Richard (David Strathairn) is writing a New York Times feature pegged to the opening. We learn via a quick montage of award speeches, interviews and news reports that Isabelle did her best work by remaining in conflict zones after the tanks pulled out, in order to capture the consequences of war. It’s also revealed that she died not in the field but shortly after retiring, in a road accident just a few miles from her home in Nyack, New York.

Richard respectfully informs Isabelle’s widower, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), that he intends to reveal the full circumstances of her death in the profile; it’s believed that she drove deliberately into an oncoming truck. Gene asks for time to tell his withdrawn youngest son Conrad (Devin Druid), who was just 12 when his mother died and has been spared any knowledge of her apparent suicide. Conrad’s older brother Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) takes a break from his wife, his new baby and his college professor job to come sort through Isabelle’s studio for material from her final trip to Syria to be included in the show.

Jesse Cataldo, Slant: “…(D)espite its status as the emotional and narrative center of the film, the exact nature of Isabelle’s death is never clarified. Possible scenarios are glimpsed via the daydreams of one character, and discussed obliquely by others, but precise explanations are avoided.”

The trailer:

Themes and Meaning

Bilge Ebiri, Village Voice: “A fractured film about a fractured family, Louder Than Bombs takes a potentially tired premise and reshapes it before our eyes…a story of parents and children in which we’re pulled by the currents and countercurrents of desperation, depression, and love.”

Sasha Stone, The Wrap: “…(W)hat are we obligated to tell our loved ones? What are we obligated to tell our wives to prevent their getting hurt by the things we do? What are the benefits of deception? What is the eventual harm?”

Oliver Lyttelton, The Playlist: “None of these characters are being entirely truthful to each other, or to those in their orbit. The three Reed men talk (or in Conrad’s case, don’t), but are incapable of communication, and their grief remains in stasis as a result.”

Selected Reviews

Michael O’Sullivan, Washington Post: “Along with his regular co-writer Eskil Vogt, Trier has crafted a profoundly beautiful and strange meditation on secrets, lies, dreams, memories and misunderstanding.”

Michael Rose, Huffington Post: “Some might fault Trier for tackling subjects about people who appear to have it all. In ‘Louder Than Bombs,’ the angst of the upper middle class becomes universal as Trier takes us into their struggle to find what it takes to hold a family together.”

Guy Lodge, Time Out :

This is the stuff of unapologetic melodrama, artfully structured in such a way that the rotating stories inform and enhance each other even when only one character is in focus: absence is a presence, and that doesn’t refer only to the missing mother in the family. Yet the emotional conclusions here can be a little pat, and catharsis too easily come by. It’s more cautiously sound-proofed than its title implies. Only when Huppert’s on screen does the film feel it could detonate at any moment.

May 18

“Imagine Me Gone”: Mental Illness In the Family

Adam Haslett‘s new novel Imagine Me Gone echoes a main theme from his highly acclaimed 2002 debut, You Are Not a Stranger Here: mental illness and its effects on loved ones.

As Haslett tells Scott Simon, NPR, there’s personal background to go with this: “…I’m no stranger to mental illness. You know, my father committed suicide when I was 14. My brother indeed suffered from anxiety. And I’ve been no stranger to those states myself, luckily, for some unknown reason, not in the same severity of my father or brother.”

Kirkus Reviews introduces Imagine Me Gone: “This touching chronicle of love and pain traces half a century in a family of five, from the parents’ engagement in 1963 through a father’s and son’s psychological torments and a final crisis…Each chapter is told by one of the family’s five voices, shifting the point of view on shared troubles, showing how they grow away from one another without losing touch.”

More info from Heller McAlpin, NPR, about the five family members:

…a British-American couple, John and Margaret, and their three grown children. We learn early that Margaret chose to proceed with her marriage to John even after unexpectedly learning about his history of severe depression during their engagement. We also learn that their eldest son, Michael, manifested a ‘ceaseless brain’ and obsession with the plight of slaves even as a child, while their daughter Celia began showing mature coping skills at an early age. Celia recalls the time her father cut the engine and played dead on a small boat in Maine, testing her and her younger brother Alec with the challenge, ‘Imagine me gone, imagine it’s just the two of you. What do you do?’ Celia kept her cool and reassured her panicked brother to regard it ‘like a safety drill at school.’

Celia becomes a social worker, Alec “a bossily opinionated gay man” (WSJ), but in the center of family turmoil is Michael. The following is an oft-cited quote from the book about Michael’s high anxiety, for which many different medications are tried:

What do you fear when you fear everything? Time passing and not passing. Death and life. I could say my lungs never filled with enough air no matter how many puffs of my inhaler I took or that my thoughts moved too quickly to complete, severed by perpetual vigilance. But even to say this would abet the lie that terror can be described when anyone who’s ever known it knows that it has no components but is instead everywhere inside you all the time until you can recognize yourself only by the tensions that string one minute to the next. And yet I keep lying by describing because how else can I avoid this second and the one after it? This being in the condition itself, the relentless need to escape a moment that never ends.

Jessica Winter, BookForum: “…Michael is…a figure at once half-deranged and brilliant, stymied and restless, utterly self-absorbed and yet pseudo-empathetic to the point of pathology…Imagine Me Gone confronts the moment when the motion finally stops, when the mind’s wheels spin and squeal against the skull until a person breaks apart, his family looking on helplessly, haunting him and haunted by him.”

Despite the seriousness of Haslett’s material, apparently there’s also no shortage of humor.

Select Reviews

Alexis Burling, San Francisco Chronicle: “Haslett hits the nail on the head when it comes to describing just how anguishing and time-consuming psychiatric disorders can be, not only for the afflicted but also for the flailing loved ones trying their damnedest-and failing-to find a suitable fix…”

Michael Upchurch, Boston Globe: “…Imagine Me Gone respects the mystery of how things happen the way they happen, while brilliantly conjuring the tide-like pull with which dreaded possibilities become harsh inevitability.”

Paul Harding, author: “The eldest son, Michael, is simply one of the finest characters I’ve ever come across in fiction. This beautiful, tragic novel will haunt you for the rest of your life and you will be all the more human for it.”