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Film reviews: Lucky, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and The Nun

14 September 2018

Stephen Brown views current film releases

David Lynch (left) and Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky

David Lynch (left) and Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky

IT ALL starts with a tortoise retreating into the Arizona desert before the opening credit states that “HARRY DEAN STANTON IS LUCKY”. Lucky is the title of the film (Cert. 15) and the name of the leading man. It’s a hypothesis to be tested. Is the actor or his character lucky? Still to be alive when you’re 89 (Stanton’s age when filming) or 91 (Lucky)?

The film shows us a man of routines: yoga exercises before shambling to a diner. He settles down to a crossword. A seven-letter word eludes him until he is helped out: “Realism”. It heralds the start of a spiritual journey for this cantankerous old atheist. Returning home, he seeks a definition. It’s accepting a situation as it is, and being prepared to deal with it accordingly.

Some, like Plato, would say that realism was about there being an objective or absolute existence. Lucky is unwittingly Existentialist, believing that each of us may see things differently from anyone else. Mainly, he tolerates other outlooks. He is warm towards Bibi (Bertila Damas), the Spanish-speaking owner of the grocery store. He isn’t phased by the images of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary festooned at the counter, buying more milk despite having a refrigerator full of it. In the afternoons, he watches television game shows. Then it’s down to the bar where an assortment of has-beens pontificate on the issues of life.

David Lynch, who usually directs films, is one of them. He plays Howard, grieving for President Roosevelt, his lost tortoise. “I can’t help thinking of the burden he carries on his back. Yeah, it’s protection, but ultimately it’s the coffin he’ll be buried in.” Howard’s pet is symbolic of Lucky’s angst. He confides to a waitress that he’s frightened of dying. Despite a hard shell, Lucky, throughout the fim, is tacitly acknowledging a need of other people.

One of his drinking pals, Paulie (James Darren), declares: “Friendship is essential to the soul.” “It doesn’t exist,” Lucky snaps. There is a lingering suspicion that he protests too much. He suffers anxiety attacks and nightmares, in many ways typifying that existential dread of nothingness in a world without meaning, or of a life to come. Later, we perceive a change in him; he is more tranquil, even smiling. Howard has talked to him about leaving the gate open, should the tortoise decide to return. “If it’s meant to be, I’ll see him again.” Perhaps that’s the key to existence: faced with mortality, keep the options open about what happens next.

The film doesn’t have much of a plot. Because it is character-driven, it places an over-reliance on the cast to retain our interest. There is no pretence of intellectual eloquence. Lucky’s atheism is never contested: he simply asserts his beliefs without stating the reasons for that position. It is unclear how much this is a fictitious film rather than a homage to the now deceased Stanton’s undoubted acting skills. The film clearly thinks (and I agree) that we are lucky to have enjoyed them, even incorporating his name into the song accompanying the credits.

Forrest Goodluck, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Sasha Lane in The Miseducation of Cameron Post

THE film The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Cert. 15), which has been gaining momentum since its award-winning reception at the Sundance Film Festival, is now on general release. Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) is sent to an institution run by a sister and brother, Dr Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) and Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr). “Now you’re officially a disciple of God’s Promise. Welcome.”

It treats adolescents “struggling with same-sex attraction” by using questionable conversion-therapy techniques. This is because, it would appear, Cameron’s boyfriend had shopped her for being amorous with Coley (Quinn Shephard), another girl, at their Montana high-school prom. The year is 1993. Lydia and Rick seek to help people “get better”.

Group-therapy sessions frequently are reduced to syllogisms. Masturbation is a sin that gives one pleasure; therefore all pleasures are sinful. Bible passages get bandied around irrespective of context to justify one ethical position: same-sex relationships are wrong.

It is obvious, if just from the title, that the film, based on a novel, disagrees with this. Yes, the result of this treatment of disciples is poignant to witness, serving only to reinforce their own sense of self-disgust. Self-harming and emotional abuse make sure of that. The exceptions are the feisty Cameron and certain other unwilling inmates who find clandestine ways of rebelling.

Plot-wise, I was strongly reminded of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which the Jack Nicholson character, McMurphy, leads fellow mental-institution patients into more liberating ways.

The difference here is that Cameron is both victim and conqueror. She hardly questions her sexual orientation. Thus, it is more a matter of being misunderstood than of being miseducated. Christian brainwashing is under scrutiny in this film, but where is the line between education and indoctrination? Many of what are regarded as our best forms of behaviour are more the result of constant pressure on us to conform. Only later in our lives might we, weighing things up, come to the intellectual conclusion that these are desirable attributes rather than just impositions.

This does not excuse gay conversion therapy, which, by most accounts, fails to deliver happier or better people. It would be no surprise to find that most patrons of Desiree Akhavan’s film already are kindly disposed towards, or members of, the LGBT community. If so, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is simply pushing against an open door. A more thorough debate with those who continue to view homosexual practices as a sin would have been welcome in this film: a comprehensive examination, for instance, of what “God’s Promise” actually means, or could mean.

Instead, we are in danger of seeing Lydia and Rick as pantomime villains uttering banalities such as “There’s no such thing as homosexuality.” One hopes that any real-life counterparts to God’s Promise have a more enlightened approach to adolescents, enabling them to explore their sexuality in a spirit of love. It makes one distrustful that this film does justice to its subject.

courtesy of Warner Brothers Inc.Something nasty lurks behind Taissa Farmiga as Sister Irene in The Nun

THE NUN (Cert.15), unlike Jacques Rivettte’s film (Arts, 27 July) or Guillaume Nicloux’s (Arts, 1 November 2013), owes nothing to Denis Diderot’s philosophical novel. Instead, Corin Hardy, director of The Hallow, continues his investigations into the paranormal.

This latest instalment of the series The Conjuring (in the form of a prequel) is again concerned with hauntings and demon possession. It is 1952, “where it (the subsequent Conjuring stories) all began”. The Vatican dispatches Fr Burke (Demián Bichir) and Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), both with painfully damaging pasts, to the Romanian Abbey of St Carta, where a young nun has committed suicide.

There they discover an evil presence in the form of the demonic Nun Valak (Bonnie Aarons). Fans of the franchise will have already clocked her from The Conjuring 2. Demeanour, visage, and, not least, her religious clothing all contribute to a very scary spectacle. Add to this Gothic tale, set in Transylvania, a convent reminiscent of Dracula’s castle, with arches and long cloisters steeped in shadows, and we soon know what we have let ourselves in for. These nuns, by quarantining themselves from the world, are heroically striving to contain a demonic entity within their walls. Practically all the characters in the film, not just Burke and Irene, have inner demons with which they are grappling. As such, they speak for the human condition.

Diverse camera choices used to frame characters’ different points of view, atmospheric lighting and special effects notwithstanding, The Nun self-consciously places itself within the Hammer House of Horror tradition, one with serious intent. Press notes’ headings take phrases of the Lord’s Prayer. Like its Conjuring predecessors, a priest was acquired to bless the studio and locations.

Because filming church interiors in Romania is forbidden, Hardy had to construct a set. He decided to substitute a model of his home parish church of Chiddingly, in Chichester diocese, to represent the Transylvanian chapel. While the director claims to be sceptical of the supernatural, he experienced during the shoot two ethereal figures who mysteriously disappeared without any rational explanation.

The film unashamedly sets out to scare us and often succeeds, albeit with some rather too familiar tropes of the horror genre — such as using sudden ear-splitting chords to startle us. At a more profound level, there is an underlying premise. In the course of their investigation Burke and Irene come across an inscribed plaque, “Finit Hic, Deo!” (God Ends Here). The film relies on our believing (at least for the duration of this white-knuckle ride) that we live in a dualistic universe: there is a sphere over which God reigns, and another in the power of the Devil.

Coupled to that notion is a refutation of universalism. The Abbey of St Carta isn’t simply a battleground between Good and Evil, but between those who will be saved and the others consigned to eternal damnation. But if you like roller-coasters, you’ll be too busy holding on to your seat to worry about the film’s theology.

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