Rapturous reviews have greeted this comedy/drama, the debut feature from multi-media performance artist Miranda July. I’ve had to grapple with my reaction because though the film didn’t completely work for me, I’m conflicted in that there is so much about it that is in fact so good.
To start with, there’s July’s delightful performance as Christine, a lonely, daffy video artist who creates her art by pointing a video camera at photographs and inventing dialogues for the people pictured therein. To pay the bills she runs a car service for the elderly. I liked the portrayal of the non-patronizing relationship between Christine and a senior man whom she drives around.
John Hawkes plays Richard, an eccentric who sells shoes for a living at a department store. His tendency to attempt to enliven everyday life, the tiresome rules of which he has little use for, with bizarre dramatic gestures is one factor that has led his wife to leave him. His children, one small and the other in his early teens, move in with their dad, whom they regard with a mixture of fright and stunned bewilderment.
July has a gift for working with child actors. There’s a hilariously serious little girl next door who keeps a “hope chest” filled with practical appliances for her future marriage. There’s a subplot in which Richard’s kids access an internet “adult” chat-room and the youngest convinces his big brother to give him a turn at composing a reply. Evincing that fixation that the excretory seems to hold on the youthful imagination, the poker-faced youngster dictates a message so scatological it’d make Burroughs blush. This scene has the potential to be controversial, as do others which expose underage characters to explicit situations, but the way July and the young actors stage it, the scene gets huge laughs.
There’s an extraordinary sequence which exemplifies what works about the picture. Christine has become smitten with Richard. As he gets off work she follows him, and as they share a walk to their cars they spontaneously begin to imagine the story of their imaginary future relationship using the landmarks of an ordinary street as milestones. However, when they reach his car she says it’d perhaps be better that they don’t try to live out the nice scenario they’ve just imagined. Confused, Richard drives off but when he comes to a stop sign she jumps in the car, expecting him to be delighted that she’s changed her mind. His words are cold and he basically throws her out of his car. It’s a genuinely painful moment, wonderfully played by both actors, especially because we know that Richard is sabotaging himself, that he dearly wants connection as well. He’s hurting himself as much as he’s hurting her.
Everything about the amazing sequence above rang true emotionally for me, but the film as a whole did not. I think it’s because I didn’t buy that Christine would ever speak to Richard again. For that matter, it’s actually quite hard to see what Christine sees in him: the filmmakers have made the decision to not make him likeable in any conventional sense.
So what we have here is an amusing comedy with poignant moments and some wonderful, even magical, scenes; which is populated by the sort of people we don’t ordinarily see on screen and which offers a still-too-rare woman’s perspective; and a film with a cogent theme, that of our use of technology to attempt to connect with others in an atomized world (or as a substitute for real connections). Add to that some unforgettable lyrical images and you can see why I’ve had to grapple with why I didn’t find this a more satisfying experience. I’d really like to see it again. That’s the first time I can remember saying that about a film which didn’t completely work for me.
This film won four awards at the Cannes Film Festival, including the Camera d'Or as best first film, and it took the Special Jury Prize at Sundance.
- Jul 4, 2005