I didn’t go out to the movies this weekend. Hollywood presented me with with a plate full of things I didn’t want to see and I decided to vote with my hard-earned dollars. I love children’s movies, but water turning into immense piles of food is too much for me. Watching vigilantes torture a mentally ill vagrant, which is OK because he might be a sex offender makes me ill to even think about, so no thank you Prisoners. The conflicting egos of superstars never really interested me, even when it was really well done (as it was in The Prestige), so I’m skipping out on Rush.
That meant I spent the weekend curled up with my Movie Pass at the local Blockbuster, which has continued the program and stayed in business when most of the rest of the franchise has given it up and succumbed to Red Box and Netflix.
It is no secret that I am a moviephile. It seems pretentious to claim the title aficionado. One of the great sources of frustration and delight in my movie-watching life is the growing genre of independent films. Just like “Christian” fiction, searching through indie films is a lot like rooting around in the forest for truffles. There is a lot of dead brush to sift through. Many if not most indie films did not deserve to be mainstreamed as they are either political drumbeats or half-written scripts. Some of them are truly horrific. But every once in a while I come across genuinely masterful films with something powerful to say about relevant topics that the mainstream in Hollywood would not or could not touch.
This year has had several powerful offerings in this department. Hello Herman with The Walking Dead‘s Norman Reedus is a great film adaptation of the play by the same name about a reporter who interviews a school shooter. Nor’Easter is sweeping through indie film markets with a great mood piece that deals with Stockholm syndrome in an abused kid trying to recover his identity, and the decision of a priest who genuinely believes and risks his life to save a child at risk without compromising his faith. (Yes, an actual film about a Christian who believes so strongly it effects his behavior even when it costs him everything. Who knew that such a story could be told?) Bittersweet ending and all it is a powerful film that deserved to be made and seen. I’m eagerly waiting the American release of Blackbird about a high schooler falsely accused of being a school shooter in Canada. For those in search of more family fair than controversial issues, To Save a Life, So We Bought a Zoo, and Lost and Found Family were all delightful releases from the past few years.
This weekend’s truffle find is Disconnect, one of the best low-budget films I have ever seen. The film is an ambitious, multistory ensemble piece centered around the disconnect in our lives that are so filled with communications devices. Writer Andrew Stern describes it as “a mile wide and an inch deep” in the DVD commentary.
There are three stories weaving through one another in this film. One is about cyber bullying between some tenth grade students and the serious nature of its fallout. The next is about a couple who have to struggle with identity theft that costs them almost everything they own. Finally there is the story of an ambitious investigative reporter who tries to expose an illegal pornography website using teens (thankfully played by actors in their twenties). None of those stories are easy or comfortable, but they were all very well done.
It is almost impossible to single out one or two performances from this cast.
The kids in the cyber-bullying storyline give some of the best, natural, and believable performances that I have seen in years, no stiff over-acting for the camera. Props to Colin Ford, Jonah Bobo, and Aviad Bernstein. Good as they are, the two fathers’ performances steal scene after scene. Jason Bateman turns from comedy to drama as a believable workaholic father of the bullied loner while Frank Grillo is the tough ex-cop cyber crimes detective whose own son is torturing another child online right under his nose. Haley Ramm as Abby Boyd, the mother of the bullied son does not get much screen time but fills every scene she has with nonverbal presence and compassion.
British actress Andrea Riseborough plays investigative reporter Nina Dunham to perfection. Equal parts user, crusader, professional, and a lonely woman herself, she ha a complex interaction with Max Thieriot’s eighteen-year-old sex worker Kyle. If this had only been a short film with two characters they could have carried it off as the relationship vacillates between reporter-source, patron-client, friend-to-friend, rescuer-victim, and antagonism. It isn’t often that child actors grow up to be skilled adult actors, but Thieriot may be one of the rare few between his work here and this year’s Bates Motel cable series. Andrea Riseborough has in the same year played a sixteen-year-old girl and Margaret Thatcher. She’s an established name to watch.
Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist of Generation Kill fame plays Stephen, a former Marine who loses everything. The fallout highlights the estranged nature of his relationship with Cindy (Paula Patton) after the death of their infant son. They walk through a powerful story that hits on important themes like the need for emotional intimacy in grief, the dangers of vigilante actions, and a man’s need to protect what is his. The frustrating ephemeral nature of identity theft come through loud and clear.
Director Henry Alex Rubin is famous for documentaries not fiction, and he uses documentary technique so well that twenty minutes into the film he and the actors made me feel that I was watching real people deal with tough situations (the holy grail of empathy in characterization and storytelling) and not listening to someone tell me a story. This film reminds me of Gary Cooper’s performance in High Noon, which seemed so understated that one frequently thought ‘That was it?’ and then by the end it was impossible to imagine any other performance matching up.
There is a fair amount of skin in this film. The bullies send a pornographic photo pretending to be a potential girlfriend to Ben (Bobo), and ask him to send one back, which is then spread throughout the school. And a story about trying to interview, and perhaps rescue a sex worker is going to have flesh in it. But I was struck by how modest the story was (blissfully relieved, honestly) for the topics it covered. I wish I could forward this film to every director in Hollywood with an attached note: “Hey, this is how it is done. Tactfully!” Once again I am not Plugged In.org or Focus on the Family. The average age of exposure to pornography is eleven years old these days so there is little shocking here in terms of images, but this is still a film from and for adults overall. Nothing was gratuitous. Every bit of skin established a plot point, set a scene, or served the story. This was the complete opposite of most action movies I’ve seen, where the only place in a city to have a gun battle must be a strip club. I will not apologize for the recommendation, either. The amount of sexting here is so much less than actually goes on among children that age that it is ridiculous. It shouldn’t happen at all, but any parent who sees this and is disturbed… good. That’s the danger your kids are in. Go protect them. Know their every password and site they participate in, just like you know where they go to spend the night. You would never forgive yourself for letting them camp out with a random stranger. Don’t let a random stranger camp out in their bedroom via the computer. I’m not talking about dirty old men in a trailer somewhere. Kids are victimized by peers, older kids, and friends and family members more than strangers by factors of four or five times over. This film would be worthwhile just because it illustrates that point.
Public service announcements aside, there are some excellent, amazing beats in this film. Colin Ford’s character Jason, the cyber-bully, is himself isolated from his own father, lonely. He accidentally forms real connections with the kid he bullies, and then Jason Bateman’s character in some powerful, nuanced scenes. Both Ford and Bateman pull off a deep character interaction without saying a single word, just non-verbally interacting with a glowing screen. The kid and the comedian prove that they have acting chops. Max Thieriot’s Kyle walks a thin edge between cocky self-assured person and some hidden vulnerabilities as someone who wants love, acceptance, and hope. Nyqvist’s character follows a perfectly understandable path from victim to vengeance that is more disturbing with every step, not because of his actions but because they are so believable.
All the best acting and writing in the world will not make me love a movie if it does not have something worthwhile to say. This film has a lot to say that fits well with truths from God’s Word. It is impossible to talk about this without discussing the endings, so here is your spoiler warning.
Youth worker and apologist Josh McDowell used to say, “Rebuke without relationship leads to rebellion.” This movie drives home that point about fatherhood so very well. Jason Bateman has a heartbreaking line about his son in a coma after a suicide attempt. “He was my son and I never asked him about anything. Now he may never wake up.” Whether our loved ones are friends, family, children, or parents, let us never fall into that pit. Scripture teaches us to love in action and truth, not just in words. Strong-man father Mike Dixon did not realize how much his son needed love as well as the protection and guidance he already gave, the other side of the coin. Watching them learn this lesson (while punching each other out on the lawn in front of horrified, guilt-riddled Jason (Colin Ford) was amazing).
We can know all the right answers, but without love we are nothing. Nina Dunham is a good reporter, but all the liberal awareness that she generated on CNN doesn’t help Kyle the sex worker. He sums it up so well as she’s begging him to leave his abusive life. “Tell me that I can come with you and I’ll go.” But Nina will not risk or sacrifice for her cause, for the living human being in front of her. So Kyle is left between the job and family he has, however exploiting that is, and an uncertain future with no one. What a contrast with Jesus’ saving the leper in Matthew. First he saw and cared (compassion). Then he reached out (connection). Then he cured the man. We cannot really save people in this life unless we are willing to love them more than those who hurt them. This film brilliantly illustrates that simple truth. But people are rough and rugged. Exploited sex-worker Kyle first reaches out the only way his abusive world has taught him: looking for a sexual relationship. It would have been a long, hard road to show him a better love, and unfortunately Nina isn’t equipped. (Shouldn’t our churches be?)
The quest for justice and the search for vengeance are not the same thing. I firmly believe that one reason God says that he will handle the vengeance is because he is the one who has all the facts. When Stephen (Nyqvist) gets his gun out to get some justice, he ends up almost killing a man who is just another victim of cyber-crime. With all his rage, best intentions, and incomplete knowledge the only thing that he could accomplish was hurt another hurting person.
This is not a really happy movie. Not all of the stories end in happiness, though I would say that two of the three stories do. It isn’t all about happy endings, but the film is about the disconnect in our modern society between one heart and another. That disconnect is largely defeated, and in the end we have our bittersweet victories.
This movie is worth watching if not owning, difficult material and all. Good acting, good story, and messages that illuminate the truths of God’s Word whether the director intended it or not.