Kiss and Cry: Short movie notes

Kiss and Cry: Short movie notes January 26, 2023

Let’s start with Free Skate, a new drama from Roope Olenius. [edited to correct the release dates!] This fictional tale of an escapee from an abusive Russian training regime is doubly timely, with its limited theatrical release right in time for the US National Championships (and a European Championships without Russian or Belorusian athletes). It will be available VOD on Feb 28. Its themes are relevant to the USA as well as Russia, given the experiences of girls and women in US gymnastics programs–and every other realm in which exceptional performance intertwines with unbearable pressure and sexual exploitation.

The spine of Free Skate is solid, if a bit predictable. Star Veera W. Vilo, who also scripted, is asked to look silently wounded as the unnamed skater; her grandmother Leena Uotila and especially her choreographer Miikka J. Anttila display a bit more individuality, and Anttila especially is vivid in a small role. There are memorable scenes of cruel training, of which the most artistically-accomplished is a flexibility exercise during a weigh-in.

There were a few things that made this film fall short for me. Our skater doesn’t show any real ambivalence about the loss of her home country; not everyone would, I know, but it makes the film feel like a heroes-and-villains tale where Russia is all evil and Finland is all good. There’s little nuance in the portrayal of her responses to trauma. Her abusive coach is a cartoon (although I absolutely believe that many young girls still have the words Жирная не летает! echoing in their heads–“Fat can’t fly”). The film seesaws between too bland and too garish: The skater isn’t merely sexually-exploited, she’s basically pimped out because she won a big competition; her father doesn’t just yell at her or hit her, he knocks down her teddy bears with his alcohol flask; he isn’t just beaten up or scared off, but takes a figure skate to the back like something out of a B-horror.

It’s catty to be all “technical 5.4, artistic 5.2” but my point is that this isn’t a bad movie, just a movie that should have been better. (I viewed this via a screening copy, but received no compensation for a review and made no promises regarding same.)

Shock Corridor: Oh dang. This wild ride from 1963 begins when a journalist (Peter Breck) decides he’ll solve a murder by going undercover in a mental hospital (??). His wife (Constance Towers) objects in strong and bonkers terms–all the dialogue in this part of the movie is baroque to the point of ridiculousness–but in he goes. Various mental-illness cliches of the period ensue, EXCEPT that they are ALL holy cats ALL basically about race, this turns out to be a movie about racism as derangement. I wasn’t expecting that, and while it made Shock Corridor even harder to watch than you’d think it would be, it also made the film so much rawer, weirder, closer to, idk, a kind of White Fantasia on Themes from Invisible Man.

Caveat spectator: I specifically think I should mention that one of the patients is a black man who integrated his all-white college, then developed delusions of being a KKK leader, so he rallies the white patients with racist slurs.

Lars and the Real Girl: [edited]

So first off, this is a fable about Lars (Ryan Gosling), a Midwestern man who lives in his brother’s garage and seems to lack any interest in or capacity for human connection. He’s sweet in his affect, he isn’t highkey resentful or incel-like, although I think it’s clear that he starts the film lowkey resentful (understandably!!!) of his brother and sister-in-law. Then one day he announces that he has at last found a girlfriend, and in fact, she is coming to stay with them. She is a sex doll. The rest of the movie is about how the entire town rallies to accept Lars and Bianca the Not Actually a Human Person But Rather an Object, and this acceptance allows not only Lars but his brother to grow and heal.

(Nobody has sex with the doll. Nonetheless yeah, this whole scenario provoked some visceral rejection on my part, especially the very late scene which I’m sure is the one Steven Greydanus mentions as crossing a line.)

From the very beginning, everybody loves Lars. He’s pursued by a coworker (like why though), everyone reaches out to him, but he’s more deeply wounded than their good intentions can quite grasp. He needs Bianca as a mediator or starting point, and he needs the rest of the town to support him, even at the expense of their own humiliation (as a nice line from his nonconsensual therapist points out).

There’s a deep truth here. The image I see a lot in Christian discussions is the paralytic who needed his friends to lower him through the roof so he could be near Jesus. We need help; we often need extraordinary help; we have a duty to help those who need us; and in fulfilling that duty, we receive an opportunity for both surrender and healing.

[I wrote a messy/thoughtless thing here, about something that happened a long time ago, in which a friend and I hurt one another. I don’t actually need to go into it! My only thing is that it left me hypersensitive to portrayals of friendship as a kind of medicine for loneliness, rather than a reciprocal love.]

[T]here’s a bit toward the very end where the pastor says that Bianca loved Lars more than she loved anybody else… and I was like, “But this whole town loves Lars more than anybody else!” The sole motivation of every single character, very much including Lars!, is just to help Lars find happiness.

The film does work against the “what if the world really does revolve around you because you are unhappy?” feeling that I got from it. A neighbor gives Lars some home truths; he does something genuinely kind for his coworker, in a scene where his weakness becomes a means of connecting with another struggling person; he and his brother have a truly touching conversation about what it means to grow up. (It becomes clear that Bianca is not just girlfriend but mother figure.) On some level I may really be complaining about a) the film’s short runtime, which makes it hard to do more than gesture at Lars’s own responsibilities or the reality of other characters’ inner worlds, and b) Gosling’s performance, which I found cloying even for a movie that is trying very very hard to be a wholesome film about a sex doll. …Or maybe even a) is wrong, and the movie gives viewers enough of its story if they don’t have my particular bruised areas.

Lars exposed some of my own moral weaknesses, my self-protectiveness and eagerness to blame others for my failures, lol and also some of my own damage, so I have to give it credit for that. I saw myself most in the brother (Paul Schneider), whose character arc is handled beautifully. But I found myself thinking about a film with lighter moral ambitions, though it’s also a fable about messed-up and inappropriately-sexual, unhealthy behavior which nonetheless proves healing. Is it just pure self-parody if I say Lars and the Real Girl doesn’t reach the heights of Secretary?

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