Sep 11

Unlikely Friendships (Animals Included)

In 2011 Jennifer Holland published the popular Unlikely Friendships, a book of (as the subtitle notes) 47 Stories from the Animal Kingdom. For a quick peek of some examples, see the photos collected on its associated Tumblr link.

A couple recent indie movies, one on DVD and the other newly in theaters, also celebrate unlikely friendships, but of the human kind. Both happen to involve teachers and adult students. Both also have been less successful with audiences than the non-human depictions noted above.

I. Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks

IMDB: “A retired woman hires a dance instructor to give her private dance lessons at her home…What begins as an antagonistic relationship turns into a close friendship as they dance together.”

Gena Rowlands is 75-year-old Lily, the lesson receiver; Cheyenne Jackson the young teacher.

Philip David Morton, Huffington Post: “The movie was adapted by Richard Alfieri, from his own play, and directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman who also directed the stage production first produced in 2001…The tight two-person story has achieved international success as a theatrical production…”

Unfortunately, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks has felt about that long to some viewers. Maybe it didn’t translate that well from theater to film.

You can watch the trailer below, and if you’re interested, the film’s available on Amazon.

II. Learning to Drive

In the newer Learning to Drive, Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), a writer in Manhattan whose marriage is suddenly kaput, begins taking driving lessons from Darwan (Ben Kingsley), so she can visit her daughter (Grace Gummer) in upstate New York. Darwan, an immigrant who was a university professor in his homeland of India, happens to be on the brink of entering an arranged marriage.

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: “In the not-so-subtle hands of screenwriter Sarah Kernochen and director Isabel Coixet, the symbolism in ‘Learning to Drive’ is about as obvious as a flashing ‘Construction Ahead’ sign.”

The trailer:

What I’ve gleaned from the decidedly mixed reviews is that this one’s for those who particularly like unlikely friendships between mature people.

Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice: “There’s a hint of romance between Wendy and Darwan, but the film’s true interest is in cross-cultural exchange, in how much better we’d be if we’d listen to each other — as Darwan teaches Wendy to breathe and focus, to stop chatting with phantoms as she negotiates Manhattan traffic, so he must learn from her to let others into his heart.”

Jun 20

“A Birder’s Guide to Everything”: A Summertime DVD

The film is far from a melancholy wallow, but it does examine the ways we cope with loss and the conflicts that result when one person’s healing process is faster or different from another’s. David aspires to be a watcher, a birder who truly communes with nature through the act of seeing. A Birder’s Guide to Everything encourages us to bring the same sense of attunement to each other — to recognize the humanity in everyone we see. Joel Arnold, NPR

According to IMDB, the plot of this year’s A Birder’s Guide to Everything, now on DVD: “David Portnoy, a 15-year-old birding fanatic, thinks that he’s made the discovery of a lifetime. So, on the eve of his father’s remarriage, he escapes on an epic road trip with his best friends to solidify their place in birding history.” David is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee.

Joel Arnold, NPR, elaborates on the simple plot:

David’s possible discovery of a living Labrador duck, a North American species thought to be extinct, sends the guys to Lawrence Konrad (Ben Kingsley), an enigmatic titan of the birding world. Konrad confirms that David’s shaky photo could be a Labrador, but the excitement of that meeting is tempered by the painful reminder that Konrad knew David’s mother, an unsung birding hero who passed away a year-and-a-half before. David is still grieving, a process not helped by the fact that his nonbirding dad (James LeGros) is getting married in just a few days — to his mother’s nurse.

Significantly, David and his dad have never processed the death of his mom.

While amateur ornithology helps David avoid dealing with important emotional issues, the trip helps him with escapism from the wedding—in which he’s supposed to be the best man. Accompanying him are best friends and co-birders Timmy (Alex Wolff) and Peter (Michael Chen), along with a girl new to the bird club, Ellen (Katie Chang).

Stephen Holden, New York Times, regarding the teens’ characterizations in A Birder’s Guide to Everything:

David and his friends are well-drawn portraits of innocents at an excruciatingly awkward age. Timmy, who affects a transparently bogus machismo, is really a scaredy-cat. After the discovery of a bag of what might be crystal meth under a seat of the car, he panics and imagines that they are being followed by a gang of gun-toting drug dealers. These adolescents are still young enough to be afraid of the dark.

How do you survive the humiliation and embarrassment of being 15 and desperate to be a grown-up? Through patience and the instinctive realization that you’ve reached an awkward transition and that the worst will soon be behind you.

And Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “‘A Birder’s Guide to Everything’ doesn’t forget that teenagers are not just obsessed with sex and peer-popularity at school, although those ‘types’ may dominate popular cinema. Nerds and geeks are usually the sidekicks in coming-of-age films, but here they take center stage. They are not handled patronizingly. Nobody is mocked for being smart, for having their nose in a book, for wanting to acquire knowledge.”

In birding terms, David is a “lister” who “strives to be a watcher,” viewers find out. As explained by O’Malley, “Watchers are the ones who actually learn how to see, whose obsession drives them into transcendent layers of sight, where the delineation between the bird and the watcher becomes irrelevant. It is a place of one-ness with your passion, with nature…Watching will include not only the birds through his binoculars, but his father, his lost mother, his new stepmom, his friends, himself.”

You can see the trailer below: