A documentary about families in which the parents and children are very different and a romantic comedy based on a Nick Hornby novel were two of Monitor film critic Peter Rainer's highest-ranked movies to have been released this month.
‘What Will People Say’ presents a cultural divide with urgency
Nisha (Maria Mozhdah), in the extraordinary new film “What Will People Say,” is a 16-year-old girl who lives on the outskirts of Oslo with her tightknit Pakistani immigrant family. When her boyfriend sneaks into her bedroom at night and they engage in some chaste smooching, Nisha’s father, Mirza (Adil Hussain), walks in on them, and assumes the worst. Her father kidnaps her and takes her to live with his extended clan in Pakistan.
Iram Haq, the writer-director, is a Pakistani woman who grew up in Norway and endured an experience similar to Nisha’s when she was 14. This may explain why the movie has such bite and urgency. In a sense, “What Will People Say” is a real-life terror trip but with human ghouls and goblins. Except that Haq does something quite complicated and, given her own past experience, almost heroic: She gives Mirza and his family their due.
Although I thought that, given the film’s overall humanistic temper, they were portrayed perhaps a shade too unfeelingly, it is always clear from scene to scene why Nisha’s family members act as they do. (The film would have been stronger if Nisha had demonstrated some conflicted, deep-set attraction to the ways of her ancestors as well.)
Although the role may not have been written with great depth, Hussain’s performance as Mirza is richly layered. Clearly he loves his daughter and he is aghast both at her supposed wrongdoing and, even more so, by the indignities he is capable of committing against her. In the end, he is as riven as she is. Grade: A- (This movie is not rated.)
‘The Bookshop’ evokes nostalgia for all things literary
Based on the 1978 novel by Penelope Fitzgerald and written and directed by Isabel Coixet, “The Bookshop” is set far enough in the past – 1959, in the English coastal town of Hardborough in Suffolk – to evoke an instant nostalgia for all things literary. If nothing else, it makes you want to stock up on Penguin paperbacks.
Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) loves books and decides to convert the run-down home she owns and occupies into a bookshop, the only one within many miles. It’s a daring enterprise since the coastal inhabitants – a mix of working-class and upper echelon – are apparently not big readers. The one notable exception is Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), a crusty widower who has essentially been a recluse for decades.
For a movie that is about a collection of oddballs, it can sometimes feel rather generic. But the eccentricities issue from real adversity. Florence’s chief adversary is Violet Gamart, played by Patricia Clarkson, the town’s reigning society matron. She can’t abide anybody else acting as any kind of arbiter of taste, least of all someone who does not occupy her social stratum.
Coixet is rather heavy-handed in making her classist points. It also doesn’t help that the community is so sketchily filled in that it’s never clear whether a bookstore would indeed serve its people or engender new readers. But the acting in the film mostly triumphs over these defects. Clarkson’s is a remarkably pure performance, affirming once again the actor’s truism that a scoundrel should never be played as such. They all think they have their reasons. And Nighy is quite touching. Grade: B+ (Rated PG for some thematic elements, language, and brief smoking.)
'Far From the Tree' chronicles very different children, parents
Author and psychologist Andrew Solomon’s bestselling 2012 book “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity” chronicled some 300 case histories of families in which a child and the child’s parents were vastly unalike. Director Rachel Dretzin focuses on six families, in addition to Solomon’s story, and each one is compelling in ways that initially may seem disparate but gradually cohere into a thesis. Dretzin and Solomon are promoting that old inspirational chestnut about triumphing over adversity.
Besides Solomon, we also encounter Jack, who was born severely autistic, and Loini, who felt isolated by her dwarfism until she attended a Little People of America convention and connected with her “tribe.” Married couple Leah Smith and Joseph Stramondo are also of that tribe, seem joyful together. Jason was born with Down syndrome. Most problematic in the movie is Trevor, who at 16, for no apparent reason, stabbed to death an 8-year-old boy. The family’s attitude toward Trevor is extremely complicated. His mother asks, “How can you stop loving your child?” It is the core question posed by the film.
In their own very different ways, the parents in this movie have achieved a measure of acceptance and even uplift from their predicament. That the parents, and many of their children, were no doubt chosen for displaying this uplift skews the sample. But Solomon is on a good-news crusade here. Grade: B+ (This movie is not rated.)
Rom-com 'Juliet Naked' is indeed romantic and comedic
“Juliet, Naked,” directed by Jesse Peretz and adapted from the 2009 Nick Hornby novel, will never be mistaken for a classic, but it’s rather sweet and unprepossessing. Unusual for a rom-com these days, it actually manages to be both romantic and comedic.
Annie (Rose Byrne) lives with her boyfriend, Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), in an English coastal town. Dutiful to a fault, she tolerates Duncan’s fixation on an obscure ’90s rocker, Tucker Crowe. Annie finds her mettle when she thinks a demo by Crowe is mediocre and says so on Duncan's fan blog. This sacrilege has the unintended effect of drawing out the actual Tucker Crowe, who agrees with her. An email “courtship” ensues.
If all this sounds a bit twee and Nora Ephron-ish, you would not be wrong, but Peretz and the screenwriters – Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor, and Tamara Jenkins – keep things refreshingly funky. And when Tucker, played by Ethan Hawke, enters the picture, lured to London on a rather contrived pretext, the dual elements in this rom-com cohere.
Hawke is perfect casting because, as an actor, he already carries the superannuated Generation X vibes that define Tucker. Byrne is such a quicksilver presence that it is not always believable that Annie would often be so lacking in self-esteem. But her somewhat generic British reserve plays well opposite Tucker’s shambling Americanness. They fulfill one of the central tenets of the rom-com genre: Opposites attract. But the attraction is tentative and slow-growing, and this saves the movie from slickness. We seem to discover them as they are discovering each other. Grade: B+ (Rated R for language.)