While Honey Boy, The Farwell and Uncut Gems were all released to critical acclaim late last year, each had little to no cinema release here in the UK and missed out on the Oscar nominations they were tipped for. Of course, it’s not fresh news that the Academy isn’t the only decider of a good film, but these three swiftly fell out of conversation when cinema stealers like Parasite and Joker dominated this year’s awards season. Now recently released in the UK on Netflix and Amazon Prime, these films rightly deserve a second conversation, and they seem particularly apt for the current times.
For a couple of hours, you can run around New York City with Adam Sandler, follow Shia LaBeouf to a sound stage in Hollywood and watch a movie come to life, or escape to China with Awkwafina.
The Farewell (dir. Lulu Wang, 2019)
Dinner, and the city
builds itself around them. She
says, Tell me a lie.
Written and directed by Lulu Wang, The Farewell follows Billi (Awkwafina), who, upon finding out that her beloved Nai Nai (her grandmother, played by Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, travels back to China with her family for one final visit. However, Billi is shocked to find out that her family have decided not to tell Nai Nai that she is dying, instead throwing a fake wedding as a cover up for their goodbyes.
The film is based on Wang’s true ‘lie’ to her own Nai Nai, and Billi is told often in the film that not telling a family member they are dying is common practice in China. The Farewell explores these cultural differences of grieving in the East and West, offering up questions on whether it should be done collectively as a family, or individually. It is a humorous film but doesn’t ever become the outright comedy the plot line suggests it could turn into, and it resists falling into clichéd character arcs.
Awkwafina gives an outstanding performance, floating quietly through the film in a sort of pre-grief state that never slips into overly dramatic sadness.
Told almost entirely in Mandarin but from the point of view of a westerner, Wang doesn’t aim her film at either Chinese or American audiences, and the result is a uniquely honest and emotional film, that doesn’t offer its audience any clear answers but instead invites them in on the grand lie told to Nai Nai and allows them to explore it from every perspective, just as Billi does. In these times, the sentiments of the film are perhaps even more universally felt – phone your family and tell them you love them!
Amazon Prime picked up the distribution rights for the film earlier this year, so you can catch it on there.
Honey Boy (dir. Alma Har’el, 2019)
This is your playground,
make me look good, Honey Boy –
don’t be a chicken.
Shia LaBeouf writes and stars in Honey Boy, a film based on the actor’s own childhood and his relationship with his father. It takes place over two separate timelines, the first with Lucas Hedges playing Otis (the re-named, thinly veiled character of LaBeouf) who is admitted to rehab in his early twenties and diagnosed with PTSD. The second timeline takes place predominantly in a sleezy, neon-lit motel, and follows Otis as a twelve-year-old child actor (played expertly by Noah Jupe), where he lives with his father, and unpacks their complex relationship.
What makes this film more interesting than a simple psychological study of himself, is LaBeouf’s choice to play his own father, James. A failed rodeo clown and recovering alcoholic, it is clear from the onset that he is living through his son’s fame. LaBeouf gives a raw and very moving performance of a charming but destructive father, and Jupe’s remarkably accomplished performance of Otis gives the film a heartbreakingly emotional innocence.
Set alongside Alma Har’el’s natural and unobtrusive direction, Honey Boy is an exciting exploration of this complicated relationship, and of one of Hollywood’s most interesting and peculiar actors. It’s available to watch on Amazon Prime now.
Uncut Gems (dir. Josh and Benny Safdie, 2019)
Gucci loafers and
diamond studded belts. Chaos.
This is how I win.
Uncut Gems is a high tension, adrenaline-fuelled film that was sorely snubbed during the award season earlier this year. Don’t let that determine it’s worth though. It tells the story of Howard Ratner (played by Adam Sandler, in a career-high performance), a fast-talking New York diamond dealer who has a pretty extreme gambling addiction on the side. The film chases him around New York City, as he lends expensive jewellery and fake Rolex watches to jewellers for money that he uses to make extremely risky bets on basketball games, seemingly unfazed by the debt collectors who leer in his jewellery shop and assault him on the street.
When Howard reluctantly lends NBA basketball star, Kevin Garnett (played by himself), a rare black opal that he plans to auction off for a million dollars, so begins an infuriatingly unstoppable spiral of terrible decision making that propels the film forward. Every scene is clothed in shiny surfaces and mirrored walls, the audio is messy and not always distinct, and the camera twists in and out of scenes. It’s unpredictable and disorienting because of it – but it’s also hard to look away.
Just as Howard is addicted to the adrenaline that comes with gambling, so does the film have us wanting to find out if he’s really going to win it all. The Safdie Brothers let Sandler shine like a diamond in every scene; his performance is faultless and it’s another example of how great an actor he can be when given the right material. The same goes for Idina Menzel, Lakeith Stanfield and Julia Fox who give fresh and accomplished supporting performances.
It’s an exhausting and mesmerising film all at once, and it’s available to watch on Netflix, over and over again if you fancy a hit of adrenaline just like Howard.
[Lillian Salvatore – she/her]
[Artwork credit: Joanna Thomson]