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’.”

May 06

“The Meddler”: Mom, Grief, Boundaries, Therapy

…(I)n its heart, it’s a story about the lived experience of grief. Marnie is still dealing with the death of her husband, and Lori with her father. Matt Zoller Seitz, rogerebert.com, regarding The Meddler

A recommended alternative to the widely panned Mother’s Day this weekend is writer-director Lorene Scarfaria‘s semi-autobiographical The Meddler, which has “a diminutive and misleading title for such an affecting, often profound film,” states reviewer Matt Zoller Seitz, rogerebert.com. His intro:

Susan Sarandon plays the title character, Marnie Minervini, a sixty-something mom who moves from New York to Los Angeles to be closer to her screenwriter daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), who just broke up with her actor boyfriend (Jason Ritter). Marnie is one of those mothers who calls her daughter five times in the space of a couple of hours, leaving a message each time Lori doesn’t pick up, then leaves ten more messages throughout the day because she’s worried about not having heard back from her yet. Her daughter can’t take her relentlessness, so Marnie channels her energy into mothering strangers and near-strangers…

The trailer:

The Role of Therapy in The Meddler

Peter Debruge, Variety: “To the extent that the film is therapeutic, Scafaria clearly wrote it as a way to process her and [mom] Gail’s wildly different approaches to processing [dad] Joseph’s passing — going so far as to involve actual therapy sessions, in which Mom decides to see the same shrink in hopes of hearing what Lori won’t share with her directly.”

How this happens in the film is that Lori has set out to establish some needed guidelines with her mom. Bob Mondello, NPR: “‘I’ve been talking to my therapist,’ she begins, and you see Marnie’s eyes moisten before she even gets to the ‘boundaries’ part. Then mom’s out the door, and straight to the therapist. The therapist they share — so much for boundaries.”

Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “Marnie has started to see the therapist (Amy Landecker in a quick, deadpan turn) at Lori’s urging, though mostly she seems to go as a way to insinuate herself even more deeply into her daughter’s life. It’s no wonder that Marnie seems like a smother-mother who’s one 911 call away from a restraining order; no wonder too that she seems lonely.”

Marnie doesn’t stick with the shrink, though. David Noh, Film Journal: “When the therapist…tells Marnie that all this endless do-gooding may be some form of overcompensating and guilt over the money her husband left her, she kicks her to the curb. Meanwhile, she has herself been perilously navigating the shoals of senior dating with two age-suitable guys keenly after her (J.K. Simmons and Michael McKean).”

Selected Reviews

April Wolfe, Village Voice: “Hands down, what propels this film into likability is the acting — from J.K. Simmons playing a Sam Elliott twin with a stellar mustache to Rose Byrne nailing the neuroses of being a writer. The Meddler is what you watch before a weekend with your mother to remind yourself she’s doing it all from the goodness of her heart, not to drive you crazy.”

Ella Taylor, NPR: “The great thing about The Meddler is that it doesn’t force Marnie to change all that much. She comes to see that she needs to take care of herself as well as others. Likewise, Lori comes to accept the gift that’s been in front of her nose all along, and to accept that what’s most annoying (to her, if not to her friends) about her mother is also what’s finest about her.”

David Ehrlich, Time Out: “With a plot that plays like a string of incidental encounters, The Meddler could easily have felt like a glorified sitcom. But its heroine’s grief, her goodness and her complicated relationship with her daughter all feel so lived-in and true that the film stays grounded.”

Oct 27

“Tracks” and “Wild”: Which of These Similar Films Will You See?

In all of the much-deserved shouting already out there about Reese Witherspoon in Wild (to be released later this year), a little film like Tracks could easily get lost. It’s a less audience-friendly film because while the two physical journeys are similar, the psychological journeys are much different. Marshall Fine, The Huffington Post

Two new one-word-titled films are just begging to be compared. Which of these upcoming true-memoir adaptations will you see? IMDB descriptions:

Tracks: A young woman goes on a 1,700-mile trek across the deserts of West Australia with four camels and her faithful dog.

Wild: A chronicle of one woman’s 1,100-mile solo hike undertaken as a way to recover from a recent catastrophe.

Tracks is set in the 1970’s, Wild in the 1990’s. Watch both trailers below:

The Real-Life Main Characters: Robyn Davidson in Tracks

“As depicted in the film, Davidson is not much of a people person. But she has a way with animals, and plans to make the trek with three adult camels, a cute baby camel named Goliath, and her dog Diggity.” (Peter Keough, Boston Globe)

“…a mix of maniacal idealism and childish stubbornness that makes it seem her chin is perpetually stuck out at the world. It’s hard to judge who’s more cantankerous, her or the four feral camels she trains to haul supplies for her and her beloved black dog, Diggity.” (Kristin Tillotson, Star Tribune)

The Real-Life Characters: Cheryl Strayed in Wild

“Prickly, self-destructive, kind and hurtful, Cheryl’s a sharp-edged piece of work, and the story’s journey is not about blunting them, but, rather, finding better things to cut and slash.” (James Rocchi, Film.com)

“Witherspoon doesn’t shy away from showing the dark sides of Cheryl’s character — her surrender to sexual excesses and drug addiction, including heroin. Her battle for survival began a long time before she hit the wilderness trail, so her journey illuminates a whole series of internal as well as external struggles.” (Stephen Farber, Hollywood Reporter)

The Performances of the Leads: Mia Wasikowska (Tracks)

“…one of the best performances of the year.” (Peter Keough, Boston Globe)

“After witnessing Wasikowska’s tour de force, its hard to imagine that even Oscar-winner Witherspoon can top it.” (Kriston Tillotson, Star Tribune)

The Performances of the Leads: Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

“…transforms herself both physically and emotionally into this hardened yet needy young woman seeking to reinvent herself after a series of personal tragedies.” (Stephen Farber, Hollywood Reporter)

“This is a major comeback…” (Tim Robey, Telegraph)

Why the Journey? Tracks

“…(E)arly on in Tracks [Davidson] announces that her only motive for undertaking her journey through such unforgiving terrain was, ‘Why not?'” (Ella Taylor, NPR)

“Hints at why come in flashbacks to her childhood — her father’s walkabouts, her mother’s suicide. But they feel like a distraction. As you watch the film unfold, the why quickly becomes less important than the how.” (Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times)

Why the Journey? Wild

“Cheryl was all impulses and appetites after the death of her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern, superb and heartbreaking) about four years ago, and this hike a heroic quest for Cheryl to recapture herself, something between penance and therapy.” (Jame Rocchi, Film.com)

“The painful disintegration of Cheryl’s marriage, accelerated by her frightening if not entirely convincing transformation into a heroin-shooting nymphomaniac, is presented as a direct result of Bobbi’s death, at which point ‘Wild’ reveals itself to be, among other things, a mother-daughter love story.” (Justin Chang, Variety)

Those Met Along the Way (Tracks)

As a sunburned Robyn begins to learn about camels from a ruthless taskmaster named Kurt (Rainer Bock), the rough world of those who live on the desert’s edge takes hold…

Though Kurt is a cheating brute, more often Robyn is met by the kindness of strangers. Three become instrumental in her journey: the Afghan camel wrangler Sallay (John Flaus), the Aborigine elder Mr. Eddy (Rolley Mintuma) and Rick (Adam Driver), the photographer who starts as an irritant and becomes a friend.  (Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times)

Flashbacks of Other Folks (Wild)

…[mom] Bobbi, an inspiring life force who is stricken with a devastating medical diagnosis. We learn of the closeness of their bond only gradually…

Gaby Hoffmann as Cheryl’s supportive but skeptical friend and Thomas Sadoski as her conflicted husband make the most of their scenes, but it’s really Dern who tears at our emotions during her scenes with Witherspoon. (Stephen Farber, Hollywood Reporter)

 

Feb 24

“Teaching the Cat to Sit”: Michelle Theall’s New Memoir

“You said your mom’s moods dictate how everyone in the family acts and reacts….And yet you say she’s fragile, and you have spent your energy trying to protect her from anything upsetting….I guess maybe I’m missing something. She sounds pretty powerful to me.” Therapist of Michelle Theall, author of Teaching the Cat to Sit (Simon and Schuster)

In Michelle Theall‘s new memoir, Teaching the Cat to Sit, the lesbian journalist recounts significant struggles she’s experienced related to her sexual orientation, her religion, and her family. From the publisher:

Even when society, friends, the legal system, and the Pope himself swing toward acceptance of the once unacceptable, Michelle Theall still waits for the one blessing that has always mattered to her the most: her mother’s. Michelle grew up in the conservative Texas Bible Belt, bullied by her classmates and abandoned by her evangelical best friend before she’d ever even held a girl’s hand. She was often at odds with her volatile, overly dramatic, and depressed mother, who had strict ideas about how girls should act. Yet they both clung tightly to their devout Catholic faith—the unifying grace that all but shattered their relationship when Michelle finally admitted she was gay. Years later at age forty-two, Michelle has made delicate peace with her mother and is living her life openly with her partner of ten years and their adopted son in the liberal haven of Boulder, Colorado. But when her four-year-old’s Catholic school decides to expel all children of gay parents, Michelle tiptoes into a controversy that exposes her to long-buried shame, which leads to a public battle with the Church and a private one with her parents. In the end she realizes that in order to be a good mother, she may have to be a bad daughter.

Publishers Weekly provides more details about the author’s background:

Born in 1966, and diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2003, Theall had wrestled with issues of shame and acceptance her entire life; at age 11 she was raped by her best friend’s father and never told her parents because she knew her mother would be mortified and denounce her. The pattern of silence and denial was entrenched throughout her childhood, torturing her emotionally, and even after Theall came out to her parents, she felt keenly the residual effects of her mother’s displeasure, especially her inability to bring Jill into the family.

Kirkus Reviews: “In the journey away from Catholicism and the need for maternal approval that followed, Theall eventually found peace. She also came to understand that the ‘raging love’ between her and her mother was part of what made them ‘something more.'”

Below Theall introduces Teaching the Cat to Sit, including the meaning behind the title. Hint: have you ever tried to teach a cat to sit?

Selected Reviews

Cris Beam, author of To the End of June: “Teaching the Cat to Sit is a powerful reminder of the ways that discrimination and cruelty still flourish, even as laws shift to recognize more of the LGBT population. Michelle Theall beautifully captures the effects of bigotry on a community, a family, and on an individual psyche both afraid and determined to change.”

Wendy Lawless, author of Chanel Bonfire: “Theall’s written a memoir that is genuinely moving, compelling, and at times, hilarious. As she grapples with the basic questions of family, faith, love, and identity, she expresses with great poignancy the transformative power of love in all its forms.”

Sara Corbett, co-author of A House in the Sky: “Michelle Theall has written a clear-eyed, brave-hearted and utterly unforgettable memoir about life’s big things—love, faith, identity, and justice—and the sometimes-ferocious effort it takes to balance them. At this book’s center is a beautifully rendered relationship between a mother and daughter that’s as complicated and memorable as any I’ve ever read. Here is a story told with grace, honesty, and remarkable spirit.”

Find where she’s speaking by going to her website.

Jul 02

“Mother Daughter Me”: A Memoir of Turmoil By Katie Hafner

In the new memoir Mother Daughter Me that Parade called one of the top five nonfiction reads for this summer, journalist Katie Hafner writes about the year her 77-year-old mom “Helen” (not her real name) moved in with her and her teenage daughter. Hafner provides a succinct summary in a Q & A: “Mother Daughter Me asks a central question: what is our obligation to our parents as they age, particularly if those parents gave us a childhood that was far less than ideal?”

More from the publisher:

Filled with fairy-tale hope that she and her mother would become friends, and that Helen would grow close to her exceptional granddaughter, Katie embarked on an experiment in intergenerational living that she would soon discover was filled with land mines: memories of her parents’ painful divorce, of her mother’s drinking, of dislocating moves back and forth across the country,  and of Katie’s own widowhood and bumpy recovery. Helen, for her part, was also holding difficult issues at bay.

Kirkus Reviews further explains some of the family history as well as the decision to seek therapy:

Helen was the product of two brilliant but narcissistic parents who grew into a woman hungry for attention. When Hafner’s father didn’t give it to her, she had ill-concealed affairs, which led to divorce. Then Hafner and her sister Sarah watched as her mother ‘ricocheted between involvements with various men,’ drowned herself in alcohol and lost custody of her daughters. The ‘lucky one’ in her family, Hafner eventually found true love. But when her husband died suddenly, she and Zoë, who was the first to sense ‘the emotional energy of unfinished business’ that tied the author to her mother, became traumatized. Desperate to bring peace to a feuding household, Hafner engaged the services of a family therapist, and their sessions revealed the extent to which both she and her mother denied the reality of their situation.

Hafner’s new husband, Bob Wachter, excerpts on his own website a key moment in her realization of “how sideways things went” a few months into their shared living experiment. While buying groceries with her mom, Hafner struggles with such internal conflicts as whether or not the family therapy has a chance of working. She states:

…If she’s not going to give therapy an honest try—and she seems to distrust Lia already—that’s surely going to make things harder. In no mood to be agreeable, I watch her struggle with her good hand to retrieve a half-gallon of Lactaid from a high shelf. Pretending I haven’t noticed, I turn my back and, cruelly, offer no help.

When we get home, my mother pulls from her bag a receipt for something I had asked her to buy for me a few days earlier.

‘You owe me ten dollars,’ she says.

You owe me a childhood.

And with that I realize that perhaps I should have sought help before creating this situation. For years, whenever I told people about my childhood but assured them that my mother and I were now close, that I held no anger, they would ask, ‘How can you be so forgiving?’ I always responded with this: You can spend your life carrying hurt and anger toward a parent, or you can get over it and move on. All that time I had thought I resided safely in the latter category, but now I’m seeing that I’m still in the former.

I’m not over it. Not one little bit.

Below Hafner introduces her memoir video-style:

Some Reviews

Kirkus Reviews: “Heartbreakingly honest, yet not without hope and flashes of wry humor.”

Booklist: “Hafner writes with compassion and wit about the often uneasy alliances between mothers and daughters and the surprising ways in which relationships can be redeemed even late in life.”

Publishers Weekly: “Their year of living together elicits enormous spiritual growth, though not necessarily the way they envision. Sadly, the narrative is tedious, but some well-intentioned familial reckoning emerges.”

Library Journal: “Hafner’s midlife juggling act, presented here warts-and-all, will appeal to an army of readers…”

Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain“…a beautifully written, intimately provocative, and courageous unpeeling of the deep rhythms of love, hate, fear, and redemption in three generations of females. I love this book!”