New reviews: The Class, Three Monkeys, Ballast

The Class (dir: Laurent Cantet)

Laurent Cantet’s The Class is one of five films up for an Academy Award on Sunday and one of the best films of 2008. Shot like a documentary, structured like a dramatic slice of socio-cultural reality and performed with an authenticity that cuts deep into the fiction, it’s a remarkably observant, effective and affecting portrait of a single group of junior high students over the course of a year in a single classroom. It’s a fictional film based on the memoir of teacher (Francois Bégaudeau, who essentially plays himself in the film) and it has a lot to say, but more importantly it has a lot to observe. Set in one of the poorer arrondissements (or suburbs) of Paris with a vibrant cultural mix (kids of African, Middle-Eastern, Carribean and Asian ancestry, some immigrants, many first-generation French), the environment can seem alien and chaotic as we’re thrown into it. But it’s steeped in specificity, thanks to young actors who bring the weight of very different lives to each of the willful characters. Cantet and Bégaudeau worked with 13 and 14-year-old local students, non-actors all, to create the characters and the improvisational environment for the film. It makes its major points but lets the “reality” of its young characters define itself outside of the constructed events, even through the film never leaves the confines of the school. The complex and at times volatile dynamics of the classroom takes on a life all its own.

The classroom
The classroom

(T)his is not your classic tale of an inspiring teacher who wins the trust and respect of his triumphant class. The young cast, all nonactors who developed their characters with Cantet and Bégaudeau, brings the weight of full lives to each of the students.

Some of them take their street culture into the classroom and turn every interaction into a verbal confrontation, a matter of respect they demand without offering in return. The more articulate students make the case that French grammar and language skills have no relevance to their lives. They’re proud, frustrated, at times insolent and often playful. But they all have an integrity that burns with a conviction that can turn volatile.

I review the film for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here.

Three Monkeys (dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Thanks to the vagaries of film distribution and the increasing difficulties of small films and foreign language productions to get theatrical releases, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Turkish drama, which won the Best Director award at Cannes 2008, this one-week Seattle engagement at the Varsity Theatre is the film’s American theatrical debut.

It’s a a beautifully observed film about a family unraveling when the father takes the rap (and a nine-month prison term) for a hit-and-run by his boss, a politician running for election. The son drifts into gangs and the mom approaches the politician for money to buy a car for son, so he can get a delivery job and get off the streets. A lot of films would drift into familiar territory – the car gets wrecked or stolen, the boss (who loses the election) refuses to pay, the boy pulls the family into crime, something that would all spiral into tragedy. And spiral it does, but through bad decisions and worse communication between family members who pull into themselves. The dramatic events that would be the focus of most filmmakers – beginning with the hit-and-run that throws off the orbit of the central family – take place off-screen. At times they are just out of the frame. Ceylan is more interested in the reactions and the repercussions, the human story beyond the headline events. There’s a fourth presence in this family as well, seen in visions of a little boy who haunts them all with his absence.

Unerringly stunning images in "Three Monkeys"
Unerringly stunning images in "Three Monkeys"

This is Ceylan’s most polished film to date. His gift for composition and camera placement is amazing, but in past films his actors seemed to have a life outside the frame. Here his his care and control seem to constrain the events on screen, and the characters seem locked into fate by the script and the direction but for a few moments of raw emotion or resignation. It’s when they let their guard down and their emotions calm down that they start to become real again, and their responses genuine.

Read my review in the Seattle P-I here.

Ballast (dir: Lance Hammer)

The debut feature directed by former special effects artist Lance Hammer is the kind of American independent feature that is becoming increasingly rare in theaters, a regional production created from the raw materials of its place of origin: the people, the culture, the landscape. This intimate drama is the cinematic equivalent of a miniature, a piece carved out of the stories of three troubled and damaged souls, and out of the culture and poverty of their small Mississippi Delta town.

The film spells nothing out for you; Hammer just throws you into their lives in the aftermath of a suicide. Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.) is all but shut down after his brother dies. Marlee (Tarra Riggs), the ex-wife of Lawrence’s brother, is a single mother barely hanging on as her young son James (JimMyron Ross) drifts into drugs and petty crime. They are all non-actors who worked with Hammer in a quasi-improvisational method to find their characters and put their stories into their vocabulary.

Where Lawrence is despondent and listless, Marlee is filled with rage and resentment. Running out of options, she and James move in to her ex’s home on shared property with Lawrence. While it reignites a longstanding animosity between the adults, the fatherless James gives them reason to get beyond the past.

Hammer doesn’t wander from their world or their perspective, and he doesn’t stop to explain. From the first moments, as we’re thrown into their lives as intimate observers, we get the textures of their lives before any context.

This ultra-low-budget, regional indie is filled with the kinds of textures, and the kinds of lives, you don’t get with the polish of Hollywood. The crunch of the gravel as Lawrence and Marlee march between their homes is as defining as any dialogue… you hear the world beneath their feet.

Read my P-I review here.

ballast-dog
JimMyron Ross tries to connect

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I’m a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I’ve written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View.

I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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