El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie

AAAABTYD-SCYoagq9Sb6nEZqvmHE-CeWndT9Mk2Z1poBirWgiObFrVKONEp6WBIPmD-WR8cNHNt_gih4tcbUqnqfDs36vKYM*Spoilers for El Camino, Breaking Bad, and Old Yeller

Imagine a new world with me for a moment: I’m Vince Gilligan. I’ve spent the last six years being asked by fans what happened to Jesse Pinkman at the end of Breaking Bad. I can’t sleep well at night knowing that the fate of this beloved character that I tortured for years is still up in the air. I convince Netflix to give me a couple million dollars, and I write El Camino. I set it five years in the future, and tell a lovely and painless story of how Jesse Pinkman moved to Alaska, became an artisan carpenter, adopted a dog, bonded with his neighbors, is crushing it in therapy, and is now a big-brother mentor at the local elementary school. Aaron Paul wins five Oscars for it. How is that even possible? It just is. 

But alas, I am not Vince Gilligan, and instead, El Camino starts mere seconds after where Breaking Bad left off, with Jesse driving into the night after escaping the Brotherhood’s compound. The movie covers roughly the three days afterward as Jesse gets the money he needs to start his new life in Alaska. 

The largest criticism leveled against El Camino were accusations that it is superfluous. Jesse ends Breaking Bad driving to an unknown future, and that’s exactly how El Camino ends, too. Nothing in El Camino changes or informs us of anything new about Breaking Bad. So the accusation that it is superfluous is true- if you’re thinking purely in terms of plot. But plot and story are different things. The plot of The Lord of the Rings is getting the ring to Mordor, and everything after is technically superfluous. But the story of The Lord of the Rings is that of Frodo Baggins (and company) leaving the Shire to do an extraordinary task and the personal sacrifice it takes, which makes it impossible for Frodo to return to things the way they were. It’s that story that makes the long ending of Return of the King necessary. 

The plot of Breaking Bad may be over, but the story of Jesse Pinkman is not. Jesse’s ending in “Felina” completes the plot, but it doesn’t complete Jesse’s arc, because “Felina” ends with Walt freeing him from the Nazis, and that’s Walt taking action, not Jesse. Instead, Jesse’s arc has to be about him taking action to free himself, which is exactly what El Camino does.

The vice of Jesse Pinkman throughout Breaking Bad, more than his addictions or recklessness, is his malleability. He’s a sponge to outside influences, always looking to others to help him find a sense of direction and identity. His loyalty to these influences- Jane, Mike, Gus, and of course, Walt, form mental imprisonments that lead to his physical imprisonment. El Camino is about liberating Jesse from both.

Part of the way the film explores Jesse’s liberation and reclamation of personal agency is by building upon a connection that formed in the latter half of season 5, which is the comparison of Jesse to a dog. The title of episode 12, “Rabid Dog,” is in reference to Jesse and is when the connection is made explicit. Jesse has become a loose cannon to Walt’s operation, and Saul Goodman suggests to Walt that he should see this as “an Old Yeller type situationwhere he might need to put Jesse down, like a rabid dog. Walt stalls, but eventually hires Jack’s gang to do the deed.

The connection isn’t random; Jesse has always been a bit like Walt’s dog, tragically loyal and always there to be kicked around whenever Walt is angry. In El Camino, this connection is taken to its extreme, particularly in the flashback scenes of captivity with Jesse’s interactions with his primary captor Todd (a fantastically creepy Jesse Plemmons). Now literally in a cage and on a chain leash, Jesse has been dehumanized more than ever. Little actions from Todd- licking his hands and smoothing down Jesse’s hair, spraying Jesse with a water hose to clean him off, patting Jesse on the head as he sits crouched over in the car, his condescending words of positive reinforcement- all go to show that, as Plemmons says in The Road to El Camino: Behind the Scenes of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, “I think Jesse’s part [Todd’s] pet, and [Todd] thinks that what he’s doing is best for [Jesse], even if Jesse doesn’t realize it.” This is a sentiment similar to what Breaking Bad writer Gennifer Hutchison says of Walt, that “Walt does care about Jesse. The great thing about Walt is he kind of believes his own lies. He really does think he’s doing what’s best for Jesse.” In El Camino we finally see Jesse breaking free of these captors and regaining his humanity. Finally, it’s Jesse who is doing what is best for Jesse. 

All of this is conveyed through a truly captivating performance by Aaron Paul, whose work here is certainly cut out for him. He’s returning to a beloved character six years later, which alone brings plenty of skepticism. He has to play Jesse in five different time periods, and he has to overcome the sizable age difference between him and the character (Paul’s age works towards conveying that Jesse has been aged by his experiences, but can be distracting in flashbacks.) 

Most impressively, Paul portrays Jesse as he is processing this deluge trauma in real-time, while also trying to fight it off, knowing that, as Brian Tallerico says for RogerEbert.com, “he does not have the luxury of time to grieve or heal [yet]… capturing the push-and-pull of trauma and need within Jesse.” Jesse has been in survival mode for so long that he can barely remember who he is outside of those basic instincts, making the moments where we see glimpses of “old Jesse,” precious glimmers of hope. Through the extensive flashbacks, Paul is able to weave together the different versions of Jesse to remind us of the person who is still there beneath the feral survivor. 

The only thing about El Camino that gives me pause is the climactic shoot-out. So much of Jesse’s character has been about his guilt over the violence he’s caused, and his quest to leave this violence behind him. To have the climax of the movie require Jesse to kill two men feels… wrong?

On the one hand, Breaking Bad has always been a western, and El Camino leans heavily into the genre’s tropes and aesthetics. I think incorporating the genre conventions are fun, and a shootout is classic Western. Also, Jesse doesn’t go into the situation with the intention of violence, and the duel is mutually agreed upon. It’s an “honorable” killing, as moral an act of violence ever gets in the world of Breaking Bad. And, as a cherry on top, the man Jesse duels is the man who built the rig-system that kept Jesse captive, so there’s a sense of righteous retribution. 

But. On the other hand, the rule of threes means that this shoot-out scene is thematically connected to two previous scenes in El Camino. The first is a flashback with Todd, when Jesse gets his hands on a gun while he and Todd are out in the desert burying the housekeeper. The second is when Jesse hands himself over to the fake cops, rather than kill them. As James Poniewozik says for the New York Times, Jesse “gets a ‘Coward of the County’ Western arc, twice surrendering his gun to bad men who break his will, then finally winning his freedom in a shootout. The beaten cur gets his mojo back by pulling the trigger. Walt would be proud.” The progression of these scenes, of Jesse suffering greatly twice before for not pulling the trigger, and gaining his freedom in the third, sends the message that Jesse had to enact violence. Pulling the trigger is part of his liberation. It was necessary, part of his character growth. In a way, it also implies that Jesse surrendering the gun twice earlier was a sign of weakness.

I hate this implication. What has always been most powerful about Jesse is his aversion to violence and his conscience. In the Breaking Bad ending, Jesse doesn’t kill Walt because Jesse has always been better than Walt. He doesn’t run from the consequences of his actions. He accepts them and endures them. Jesse isn’t like Walt, that’s why we love him, and his final actions in El Camino shouldn’t be about becoming more like Walt or doing something that Walt would approve of. 

So.. sorry Vince, the climax doesn’t do it for me. But that’s hardly enough for me to disregard the rest of the movie, which otherwise is the perfect mix of soul-crushing sadness and hopefulness that we’ve come to expect from the Gilligan-verse, and is a fitting ending for Jesse. But if, say, we’re looking at an El Camino Dos: A Breaking Bad Movie Sequel, Vince, I have the perfect pitch for you. 

-Madeleine D.

P.S- My friend Kevin McGuire created a “poetry bot,” a computer program that will write poetry on any given topic in any given style. In honor of this review, behold, here is a computer-generated poem of the plot summary of El Camino in the style of the epic poem Paradise Lost, by John Milton. 

https://docs.google.com/document/d/13FTBJhfZxye3hNQWBt1To93vYUjfeClPihaF-LQWNbA/edit?usp=sharing

The Elder Brothers of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul

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*Spoilers for Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and El Camino below

For the past 9 weeks, my heart has been in Vince Gilligan’s Land of Enchantment. I have watched, for the first time, Breaking Bad, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, and Better Call Saul. I’m 12 years late to the party, but I’m here! Therefore, this is not a review about how amazing these shows and movie are, because by now that’s a pretty well-established fact. Instead, I want to examine an overarching theme of the Gilligan-verse.

In both TV shows, we see a reenactment of the biblical parable of the prodigal son, with a special emphasis placed on understanding the Elder Brother character. Walter White of Breaking Bad and Chuck McGill of Better Call Saul are archetypal elder brothers to Jesse Pinkman and Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman, respectively. These characters become case studies of the unique failings of both Elder Brothers and Younger Brothers, as depicted in the prodigal son parable. These allegorical connections are part of what makes Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul such rich examinations of morality.  

The Parable

The Prodigal Son narrative appears in Luke 15:11-32 when Jesus tells a series of parables to a group of Pharisees. In the story, there is a rich man with two sons. The younger son asks his father for his share of the inheritance (an extremely disrespectful action). The father gives it to him, and the son runs off. He squanders the money “in reckless living” (v. 13, ESV). When he runs out of money, there is a famine in the country he is in. The only work he can find is feeding pigs (which, when considering Jewish dietary laws, symbolizes a great spiritual deprivation). The son decides to go back to his father and to offer himself up as a hired servant in order to pay back his debt. He knows his father is a kind man, and he will be treated better as a servant for him than he is now.  But when the younger son returns home, his father runs to meet him and immediately embraces him back as his son and puts on a celebration, declaring that the son “was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found’” (v. 22). The son, despite his failings, has been forgiven and fully reconciled with the father. 

Meanwhile, when the elder brother, who has remained faithful to his father, hears about this, he becomes angry and refuses to join the celebration. His father comes out to try to bring him in, but the brother argues that it is unfair that while he has always served the father, it is his younger brother, who acted so shamefully, who is now being celebrated. The elder son has served his father out of duty and a desire to be recognized, not out of love. The father responds that “‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (v. 31). The parable ends without any reconciliation between the brothers or between the older brother and the father. 

Better Call Saul 

Better Call Saul is a more straightforward telling of the prodigal son story with the literal brothers of Chuck and Jimmy McGill. Chuck (Michael McKean) is the older brother who is a brilliant, respected, accomplished lawyer, and is nearly impossible to please. He casts a long shadow over his younger brother Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), who has a messy past and is more than willing to take a few shortcuts to get his way. Chuck operates in a completely black-and-white worldview. He is a staunch legalist who puts all of his trust in the law. He shows little capacity for mercy or grace. Because he sees Jimmy cut corners and get things without working as hard for them as he did, Chuck is full of self-righteous anger. 

Pastor Timothy Keller writes in his book The Prodigal God that “Elder brothers base their self-images on being hardworking, or moral, or members of an elite clan, or extremely smart and savvy” (61). Chuck does all of these things, and because he defines himself as being diametrically opposed to Jimmy, he refuses to recognize any of these characteristics in his brother. This means Jimmy, even at his best, can never earn Chuck’s love and approval. This is part of the reason he gives up on being good altogether and embraces the Saul Goodman moniker. 

Chuck’s resentment towards Jimmy is best reflected in the words of the older son to the father in the parable after he hears of the celebration for his brother:

“‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ [The father responds:] ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found’” (v. 29-32). 

The joy of the father’s inheritance has always been available to the older son. Being with the father is itself a gift. Likewise, a joyful relationship with his brother and personal satisfaction in his own accomplishments has always been possible for Chuck. But he self-sabotages both because he’s too preoccupied with the perceived unfairness of how he’s been treated compared to Jimmy. He sees any grace extended towards Jimmy as unfair, and isn’t unfairness the antithesis of the law? It is for a legalist who hasn’t experienced mercy. 

The tragedy of Chuck is that he is too focused on what he deems “fair” to see what is loving and kind. Even when Jimmy is at his humblest, Chuck continues to cut him down. Chuck did all the “right” things, but without the right heart, it leads to nothing. Chuck dies alone in his house, with nothing of value to show for himself. His story ends with alienation from joy and from his brother, just like the elder brother in the parable.

Amill Santiago writes in “Better Call Saul and the Ache for Approval” that, “The two broken brothers are trying to get essentially the same thing through very different ways: immorality and moralism… [But] In Christ we can be received and approved despite our moral failures (cf. 1 Tim. 1:15) and independently from our moral performance (cf. Eph. 2:8-9).” Chuck and Jimmy, like the Elder and Younger brother, are both trying to fill holes in their hearts for affirmation and reward, but simply in different ways. In this sense, Better Call Saul invites viewers to examine the ways in which they lean towards the younger brother or elder brother mindset, and the follies of both. The show understands, like the parable, that neither approach to life- duty and joyless obligation like Chuck, or self-centered rebelliousness like Jimmy, are satisfactory ways to have relationships with God or others. 

But, unfortunately for the McGill brothers, Better Call Saul is also a show about how seemingly minute choices put people on a path towards destruction from which they eventually find themselves unable to escape. There is no father/God figure in Better Call Saul who disrupts the road to destruction and redeems his wayward children, who stops Jimmy McGill from becoming the Saul Goodman we know in Breaking Bad. In this regard, Better Call Saul’s fatalism is at odds with the Prodigal Son parable. But despite this, there is still great value in the way the show prompts audience introspection, and how Better Call Saul shows other characters land in the middle of the extreme older brother-younger brother spectrum. Kim, Howard, Mike, Nacho, and others move around from one end of the spectrum to another, and this fleshes out how anyone can “break bad,” and the many incarnations this can take. This variation is what makes the show so compelling. 

Breaking Bad

In Better Call Saul, the older and younger brother dynamic is more straightforward because it plays out in the central sibling relationship between Chuck and Jimmy. But in Breaking Bad, Walt and Jesse are not brothers, nor is their relationship dynamic that of brothers. Instead, Walt and Jesse have a twisted father and son relationship. This means that the older/younger brother dynamic doesn’t play out so much in their interpersonal relationship as much as it does through their symbolic standings in society.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a quintessential elder brother in his world. When we meet him in the pilot, he’s a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who keeps his head down and is a steady father and husband. He is seen as the beta male to his DEA brother-in-law, Hank’s, alpha machismo. Walt feels emasculated by his wife Skyler. He feels underappreciated and underestimated. He is full of unrecognized genius, and therefore full of bitterness to those around him who do not recognize this genius. When he is diagnosed with lung cancer, he’s been dealt an undeniably crappy deal. But he chooses to let this be the reason why he indulges in self-pity and becomes unbelievably cruel. This is because, “The first sign [of] an elder-brother spirit is that when your life doesn’t go as you want, you aren’t just sorrowful but deeply angry and bitter. Elder brothers believe that if they live a good life they should get a good life” (Keller, 56). In El Camino, Walt tells Jesse in a flashback, “You’re lucky, you know that? You didn’t have to wait your whole life to do something special.” Walt wants the same thing as Jesse, but has spent his life trying to get it in a different way. Elder brothers try to gain what they want through loveless obedience, and become disillusioned when their efforts don’t pay off.  

Walt’s cancer diagnosis puts him in contrast to Hank when Hank is shot by the twins and loses his ability to walk. While Walt’s pain reveals pride, anger, bitterness, and entitlement, in the end, Hank uses his pain as a catalyst to become a better man, husband, and DEA agent. For Walt, “The good life is lived not for delight in good deeds themselves, but as calculated ways to control their environment” (Keller, 58). When he loses control of his environment, the Heisenberg that was always inside him does everything necessary to regain control, which means becoming a menace to everyone, especially to those in his own home. Walt feels that he’s earned the right to play Heisenberg, to live out this childish power fantasy because he has acted good and has been repressed for so long. He helps justify this with his mantra of doing it all “for his family,” a lie he holds onto until the very end, when he finally admits to Skyler in the episode “Felina” that he did it all for himself. In Walt, we see that the elder brother mindset is a ticking time bomb. When the elder brother feels cheated, or that his “good life” hasn’t paid off in the way he expected, he lashes out in self-righteous pride and anger. He is unable to relate to others with grace and mercy because he refuses to accept it himself, and nothing will ever be good enough for him. 

On the flip side, you have Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), who (despite actually being an older brother in his biological family) is a classic younger brother. In the parable, “The [younger brother] humiliates his family and lives a self-indulgent, dissolute life. He is totally out of control” (Keller, 39). This is how we meet Jesse at the beginning of the show. He’s considered by his family and respectable society to be an embarrassment; a wayward junkie, too dumb and unruly to ever do anything of value. He’s seemingly squandered all potential and resources he has for a life of easy living and drugs. Literally the third sentence Walt says to Jesse in the pilot is, “Honestly, I never expected you to amount to much.” 

Throughout the series, Jesse has quite a few “eating with the pigs” moments, from S02E04 “Down” when he’s kicked out of his house and spends the night on the floor of the Krystal Ship, covered in portapotty sludge and wearing a facemask, to being a meth-cook slave to neo-nazis by the end of the series. And that’s just the physical desolation; Jesse is constantly haunted by guilt and remorse and keeps being pulled further and further in over his head into the life of crime he was never cut out for. Jesse, unlike Walt, is brought low enough to see his need for forgiveness and redemption. It’s easy to imagine him saying the words of the younger brother at his lowest points- “I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (v. 21). But because there is no God/father figure in Breaking Bad either, Jesse turns to all sorts of self-flagellation to try and replicate this forgiveness, from rehab and its philosophy of unconditional self-acceptance, to mind-numbing partying, to helping the DEA, to going through a personal hell in captivity. We see here that the younger brother’s life of gluttony and self-fulfillment leads to great personal consequences. If the younger brother doesn’t come to see the error of his ways, this self-destructiveness is a never-ending spiral. If the younger brother does see the error of his ways, then he needs forgiveness and reconciliation to be able to move past his failings. 

In El Camino, Jesse gets his happy ending (as happy as one can be in Breaking Bad), and the older brother/younger brother’s differences are further parsed out. When Jesse escapes captivity, he is able to rely on his friendships and connections to help get him to Alaska. He doesn’t have Walt’s pride and is able to use his relationships with Skinny Pete, Badger, Old Joe the junkyard guy, his parents, Ed, and the memories of Mike and Jane to guide him. In the end, Jesse is, in part, saved by his reliance on others and their prodigal mercy towards him, while Walt dies utterly alone, having severed all relationships because he saw them primarily as transactional. Jesse as the younger brother experiences a restoration. Walt refuses every chance given to him of restoration with himself, his family, and moral society. 

While Better Call Saul invites viewers to consider themselves and whether they are an older or younger brother and how such mindsets lead down equally dangerous roads, Breaking Bad is focused more on the ending of the parable. Better Call Saul’s lack of a father/God figure means neither Chuck nor Jimmy get redemption. Breaking Bad gives Jesse as the younger brother a reconciliation, but leaves the elder brother Walt’s ending as unresolved, just like the parable. This zeros-in on a key point of understanding the parable. Jesus was talking to a group of Pharisees, hyper-religious men who loved the law over God and enforcing the law over loving others. By leaving the elder brother unreconciled, Jesus sends a clear message to the Pharisees- you look down on the younger brother sinners of the word, but your fates will be much worse if you do not see the hatred in your own hearts.

Breaking Bad, too, seems to think that being an elder brother can be potentially worse than being a younger brother, conveying this through both the respective endings for Walt and Jesse and also through the show’s tight-rope balance of pushing the audience to align themselves with Walt, only to then remind you of Walt’s monstrosity. By doing this, the show puts up a mirror and makes you realize how easily you too are swayed into his self-serving, self-righteous, entitled mindset. Perhaps it is easier in our current society to be elder brothers- and much more dangerous as well. These shows focused on morality come to similar conclusions to that of Jesus’ parables- that bitterness, anger, resentment, a lack of mercy, and entitlement are all key roots of evil.

-Madeleine D.

Oscar Movie Minute: Little Women, Dark Waters, The Two Popes, 1917, and Knives Out

Wow, after all of that Marvel propaganda, it’s time to talk about some real cinema! 

Little Women

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More than any previous adaptation, this Little Women has meta-textual interaction with the source material. Telling the story out of order and cutting between the adult and younger versions of the March sisters work mightily in some areas (Beth’s death has never been more devastating) but not as effective in others. Some characters suffer from this structure, such as Timothee Chalamet’s Laurie, who unlike Christian Bale’s version doesn’t get to build up into a confidant and friend of the March family. But it also helps characters like Amy, who is given her due and more time to justify her point of view and actions. 

Some of the ideas writer-director Greta Gerwig puts forth and the way she speaks to how the novel has been received and critiqued didn’t agree with me, but I admire how she elevates the art of adaptation. I’d rather have a story that had a unique perspective rather than just dutiful, stuck-to-the-original material. 

But what hasn’t been changed from the source material to this adaptation is the coziness or the timelessness factor. The story still rings true for women today and celebrates female narratives. The movie portrays sisterhood and women’s socialization with astounding accuracy. It also shows how women, who throughout time have been confined to the home, have made these domestic spheres into feminine sanctuaries, and the beauty in that. This adaption pays special focus to the bewilderment Mr. Brook, Laurie, and his grandfather have at experiencing for the first time a peek into this world, which probably will ring true to many men (including men like my father, who has a house full of girls). It’s charming, though, with no malice on either side. 

While this film does depict sorrow and struggle and pain, it’s ultimately a celebration, and that makes it not only a perfect holiday movie, but it’s also, in part, what helps it be one of the best movies of the year: beautifully made and carefully crafted at every level. 

Dark Waters

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True advocacy in the world, the work activists do, is long. It’s time consuming. It’s often detail-oriented and tedious. It’s not sexy. For every great march or momentous legislative win there are hours upon hours of unrecognized labor (often underpaid or not paid at all). Behind every win is a million disappointments and setbacks. 

Movies about advocacy and justice often win awards, but they win not for their realism but instead because they are perfectly engineered to boil down years of work into two hours, giving audiences a concentrated dose of inspiration that has plenty of spectacle and triumph. They’re a cliche, but they win. They make us feel good and keep up optimistic. 

Dark Waters, the newest film by director Todd Haynes, starring Mark Ruffalo (who also produced) and Anne Hathaway, is adamantly none of those things. It’s the anti-Oscar movie. Dark Waters tells the real-life story of corporate defense lawyer Rob Bilott, who discovers that the DuPont company is poisoning water in West Virginia and becomes a whistleblower. The film, which takes place over seven years, gets into the nitty-gritty details of the case it’s following, and shows the true, grueling nature of legal work. It doesn’t have a victorious ending, or big bravado speeches. It stubbornly refuses to fall into any of those tropes, and that’s probably why it hasn’t been nominated for any awards, including for Ruffalo, who gives probably the most humble performance of the year. 

It’s hard to recommend this film. It’s a downer. It feels long. Ruffalo and Hathaway give great performances, but their roles require them to be unlikeable and stripped of their natural charisma. The film, from simply a visual standpoint, is ugly. The movie wears on you. But… that’s kind of the point. By the end of it, you’ll feel defeated, like Bilott. You’ll feel like his wife and family, who have had to sacrifice an attentive dad. You’ll feel the wariness of knowing the corporations who make all of the products you use daily could be poisoning you, and you might never know it. And even if you did- what would you even do about it?

The Two Popes

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I didn’t expect to enjoy The Two Popes. Afterall, I’m not Catholic, and don’t know much about either Pope Benedict or Pope Francis. What could this film have for me?

I’m here to tell you that The Two Popes is a marvelous film, for anyone. It is worth seeing for the performances by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce and the sharp screenplay alone. But, there are two other elements I found that truly set this film apart. 

  1. Despite not being Catholic, I found plenty of similarities between the conversations of the Popes to conversations happening not only in my own church denomination but also in American politics. 

Pope Benedict represents a conservative interpretation of the faith. Pope Francis represents a more liberal one, both theologically and socially. This opposition extends into mercy vs. the law, personal responsibility vs. corporate responsibility, individual change vs social justice. None of these ideas should be binaries, but in both the evangelical protestant church and in American politics, crossing the aisle and creating bridges across what has become divided stances becomes more and more difficult. 

The Two Popes brings us a beautiful picture of what it looks like to actually engage someone on a human level, and only then being able to confront the differences between one another. You can’t always change someone’s mind, but sometimes you can. And sometimes you’ll find your own beliefs changed as well. But you must first engage as people. That applies even to Popes. 

  1. The Two Popes also captures something I very rarely have seen in film. If last year’s criminally overlooked film First Reformed understood the inevitable tragedy of being a minister, then The Two Popes understands the inherent comedy of being one. 

The concept of being a pastor/reverend/minister/priest- whether a humble youth pastor or a Pope, is somewhat ridiculous if you think about it (wait, hear me out- as a second-generation PK I say it with love). 

We suppose that the God of the universe has created an institution for his people, his beloved sinners, which will be led by other sinners. If you’re a pastor, you’re trying to guide others in all the ways you still sin yourself. You want to lead by example, but your example is littered with failures. You try to be truthful about your struggles, but you can’t be too truthful or people get uncomfortable and nervous. If you are a good pastor and in it long enough, you will see dozens of people fall and betray everything you thought you had taught them, and you will betray your own deepest held convictions dozens of times (a week) and yet you must continue admonishing and extending grace and forgiveness.

Isn’t it preposterous? Absurd? Contradictory, yet commonplace, yet rare? And yet it still remains almost untouched by cinema. 

The Two Popes is a serious drama, but moments of levity come from embracing the contradictions of being considered sacred while also being human. The two popes eat pizza in the Sistine Chapel. They watch football. They joke and laugh because they are human. They dance. Then they forgive one another. Neither knows exactly what they are doing, but when they are able to extend grace, they’re closer to God then they’ve ever been. 

Films that take religion seriously (and aren’t marketed as “inspirational films”) are fairly rare, and the conversations of doubt, forgiveness, and church bureaucracy in this film were deeply moving, thoughtful, and rang true. It’s one of the most well-written movies of the year, and I believe, a must-see.

1917

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1917 is a spectacular technical achievement that really can only be seen to be believed. The “one-shot war movie” pitch is executed perfectly. It’s exciting to watch cinematography be pushed to its very edge, right in front of you.

But what is there to 1917 outside of the one-shot gimmick? What does it have to say and reveal about war?

A friend who saw the film with me said that in a political time where many are hungry to start wars at seemingly a whim (*ahem* WW3 with Iran *ahem*) a war movie like 1917 is always timely and important to remind us of the truth of war: it is hell. It is not glorious. It should be avoided at all costs. 

But the warfare of WWI shown in 1917 is radically different from how war looks today, and this period of warfare had already been covered extensively in film. Any relevance and timeliness is rendered mute. This war is so removed from modern warfare that it is easy to categorize it as the past, with little to teach us today that has not already been taught. 

Because of this, 1917, outside of the cinematography, has no new things to add to the already extensive war-movie genre, on a storytelling or aesthetic sense. It’s not that it doesn’t deserve to have been made. I’m glad there’s a movie that demands to be seen on the big screen- those are becoming rarer. 

Yet it’s impossible to talk about this film outside of the knowledge that it’s currently a frontrunner for best picture, and so I have to remark that I sure don’t think it should. The best picture award is not awarded to the crew who wins the suffering-olympics. It’s about the best overall film, ideally one that captures its particular year’s zeitgeist, which 1917 does not do in any respects. 

Knives Out

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Knives Out isn’t quite the ensemble murder mystery it was advertised to be, but it’s got great surprises in store nonetheless. The main twist is that you learn who the murderer is right away, and are poised to root for them as they try to get away with their plan. The movie is atmospheric and fun, and the whole cast seems like they’re having a good time playing this deliciously spoiled family. 

There is an overt political message to the film that casts the Thrombey clan as emblematic white Americans who believe they earned everything they’ve got and who like legal immigrants who keep their heads down and work hard, but don’t like any immigrants that either challenge that persona or make them feel threatened in any way. I enjoyed the creativity in which this message was incorporated throughout the film, and loved the perfectly meta-casting of Chris Evans, the literal Captain America, as the embodiment of the worst of socially-accepted white nationalism. 

But outside of this political message is a spiritual one, one that was pointed out to me by my pastor, Ricky Jones. That is of true innocence unveiling fake righteousness. Marta’s innocence lays bare the fake righteousness of the Thrombeys. Her simple truthfulness confronts their deceit. This immigrant may remind us of another visitor, an immigrant to our world, whose complete holiness and innocence illuminated the sins of those around him and put their hypocrisy into the light. 

-Madeleine D. 

Next week: Top Ten of 2019

Boldness in Storytelling: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Jojo Rabbit, and Cats

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*Spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker 

I’ve said before that I’d rather have a movie that takes risks and sticks to a bold vision than one that plays it safe and is dull. When I say bold vision, that doesn’t mean the movie has to be big or flashy. Avengers: Endgame is a big, flashy film, but doesn’t have as bold a vision as, say, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, which is a much quieter film but sticks to its guns and has fascinating ideas. 

But after seeing the wild trio of WWII satire comedy Jojo Rabbit, the final movie of the newest Star Wars trilogy, and Cats, I have been forced to ask myself if I really, really do prefer boldness. 

Star Wars

You’re probably here for a review of The Rise of Skywalker, and you’ve probably already seen it and have a lot of thoughts. 

I like Star Wars, but would not call myself an invested fan. I enjoyed The Force Awakens, primarily for the promising new characters, and I really liked The Last Jedi, because it tried to move the franchise away from nostalgia and tired patterns towards a new future. It challenges Star Wars fans to imagine a more inclusive Star Wars, and it made the franchise less escapist.  

Unsurprisingly, it’s now one of the most divisive films in recent history. Not that director Rian Johnson couldn’t have gone about his radical reimaginings with more grace towards the original fanbase, but I can never forgive The Rise of Skywalker for doing him dirty and almost entirely retconning everything he tried to do. There are ways director JJ Abrams could have tried to unite the fanbase without erasing or ignoring everything Johnson introduced. The way it was handled reeks of desperation and cowardice. 

I usually see movies knowing most of the spoilers, but I didn’t for Rise of Skywalker, so there ended up being three moments I involuntarily threw up my hands and sighed. 

  1. Rey is a Palpatine- I’ve never been punched in the face, and I don’t know if Rian Johnson has either, but now we both know how it would feel. 
  2. Han and Ben/Kylo moment- I know Harrison Ford hasn’t cared about Star Wars for a while now, but after seeing this, I question if he’s ever had any genuine enthusiasm for anything in his entire life. 
  3. When Rey and Ben kiss- Writer/director Joss Whedon once said, “Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need.” This choice gives people neither of these things, which in a fandom as divided as Star Wars, with a movie as fanservice-y as this, is actually quite an accomplishment, I guess. 

There is a distinct lack of identity to ROS, despite the film trying to namecheck and cameo every part of the Star Wars legacy. It shows, more than anything, that Star Wars has to change. It can’t continue like this, and it’s going to take a very strong creative force (not a Dollar Tree-Spielberg) to move the franchise into new territory. Not everyone will like it, but that’s what bold vision takes. 

One of the worst parts of ROS is the hastily completed redemption arc of Ben Solo. We all knew it was coming, but that doesn’t excuse that there is absolutely no attention paid to the fact that he’s been, in effect, a fascist. In a world with a rising number of actual fascists, extreme alt-righters, and incels (these three things are not all the same, but there is a heavy overlap), Kylo Ren being one of them can’t be treated lightly. 

So if Star Wars isn’t going to teach you how to redeem a fascist, then Taika Waititi will. 

How to Redeem a Fascist: Jojo Rabbit vs Rise of Skywalker

Jojo Rabbit is a dark comedy about WWII and Hitler that tears apart the ideology of the Nazis. With the rise of neo-nazism today, a movie that is both critical of nazism but also has compassion for those who have been taken in by it is critical. 

The film tells the story of a 10-year old boy (a fantastic Roman Griffin Davis) living in Nazi Germany near the end of WWII who is one of Hitler Youth and discovers Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) a Jewish girl his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding in their house. His interactions with Elsa challenge all that he’s been told about the Jews and the war, and he comes to terms with the lies he’s believed. 

The film is able to show how those with hateful ideology prey on vulnerable young people by promising things that all people universally want- to be loved, accepted, and made to feel important and powerful in a world where so much is out of our control. By emphasizing throughout just how young Jojo is, the audience is reminded just how vulnerable and easily persuaded children are, which helps us root for Jojo’s redemption, even as he says and does terrible things. It reminds us to be compassionate for the scared child within all of us. 

Jojo is redeemed by the end of the film by realizing what he’s been taught is wrong, and then, with the help of others, finding love, identity, and community outside of this ideology. The people who help him don’t ever condone or excuse his bad actions, but they don’t give up on him. Most importantly, they offer Jojo alternatives. In our age of calling people out on social media and “canceling” people, it is very easy to say someone is doing something bad, but there’s very little offering of something better. That’s where the hope is in Jojo Rabbit. 

Meanwhile, in Star Wars, Ben Solo is a mass murderer and a father-killer who says he’s drawn to the light side every few scenes, but only changes when he’s healed by Rey, to whom he already has a force-connection with. Then he has a quick exchange with his dead-dad, and then he helps out Rey and then dies. 

Now there is no explicit outlining of the First Order’s ideology, but from context, visual cues, and the history of Star Wars, it’s clear they are supposed to be like the Nazis.* That makes Ben Solo, a young man who was taken in by Snoke/the First Order, fit to compare to Jojo. 

When Ben goes to the light side, he doesn’t have to reckon with his ideologies and past (besides being forgiven by dead dad.) There’s no conscious uncoupling with the systems that were approving and supporting his vile behavior. There is no real alternative he joins with, except Rey. Because in the Star Wars universe you can just switch to the “light side,” Ben never has to unlearn all of his behaviors and hateful thoughts like Jojo does. And Ben dies heroically, which, ironically enough, is a key component of fascism, the cult of death. When it comes to Ben vs Jojo, this lyric from Hamilton sums it up well- “dying is easy, young man, living is harder.” Jojo has to live with the continued consequences of having been a part of an evil institution. Ben does not. 

Even worse is that Rise of Skywalker implies Emporer Palpatine created Snoke to manipulate Ben, because then it’s like Ben was somehow mind-controlled and manipulated into becoming a neo-nazi, which makes it easier to excuse his behavior and it reduces the systematic and structural ways youths are pulled into ur-fascism to one individual bad apple. 

Jojo Rabbit never does this, instead showing the systemic and structural ways youths are pulled into ur-fascism/nazism while also not negating personal responsibility and choice. These complex choices make Jojo Rabbit a bold movie that doesn’t run from controversy or relevant commentary. But it isn’t controversial because it’s trying to be provocative or just rile people up. It’s for good reason. And it’s an overall excellent film. 

And then there’s Cats

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There’s been a lot of great memes about Cats. Reviews for the film have basically become a genre within themselves. It’s a movie so inexplicable that it makes it hard to talk about, and you’ve probably already decided whether you’re going to see it or not.

But while making a movie of the musical “Cats” was probably a fundamentally bad idea, this film is bold through the level of seriousness and commitment everyone, from the actors to the director, takes with this movie. It’s ridiculous and nonsensical and contains the eternal sin of somehow being able to make beautiful-human Idris Elba look like a naked mole-rat, but once you surrender to it, at least it tried. Honestly, I’d rather have something like this, with its breathless enthusiasm and wild disregard for things like “decency” and “respectability” than something that feels soulless and engineered. It’s unhinged, but isn’t it kinda beautiful that it can all bring us together in utter dismay? 

There’s this great story about Harold Prince, a legendary theater producer, who met with Andrew Lloyd Webber about his musical “Cats” and was insistent that there must be some kind of deeper analogy and theme behind the story (sounds like a man after my own heart) but simply could not figure out what they must be. He said to Webber, “‘I don’t understand. Is this about English politics? (Are) those cats Queen Victoria, Gladstone, and Disraeli?’ He looked at me like I’d lost my mind, and after the longest pause said, ‘Hal, this is just about cats.’” 

Sometimes, you have to surrender and realize that this is just about Cats. 

-Madeleine D. 
*Video essayist Lindsay Ellis has an excellent video on this subject of Star Wars, the First Order, and Fascism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAVeyXwy3BE

A Passover Story: A Guide to the Symbolism of “Uncut Gems”

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By Jonathan Dorst

The book of Exodus in the Old Testament is a story of two types of people and two ways of living. The first type of person and lifestyle is represented by Pharaoh in his drive to build bigger and bigger buildings and work his (Jewish) slaves seven days a week (Exodus 1:14) to produce the marvels of Egypt. The other type of person and lifestyle is represented by Yahweh God in His desire to have a (Jewish) people who are defined by their just and loving relationships to one another and their ability to rest (Exodus 20:10).

The dramatic highlight of the book is when God brings about a series of ten plagues upon Egypt to convince Pharaoh to let His people out of their slavery. When, nine plagues in, Pharaoh is still resolute in not allowing the Israelites to leave, God finally unleashes His angel of death to kill every firstborn son in Egypt. While the Egyptian families are devastated, the Israelite families are spared by spreading blood over the doorways of their homes, signaling to the angel to pass over their homes.

In Uncut Gems, the new film from (Jewish) filmmakers Josh & Benny Safdie, we see a man torn between these two ways of living and unsure of what type of person he wants to be. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a (Jewish) jewelry store owner who, from the beginning of the film, is working overtime to pay off his gambling debts at the same time that he’s trying to find the money to place his next big bet. As we follow him through a series of failures and new ideas, we find ourselves exhausted at the energy Howard must put forth to build his empire, try to satisfy both his family and his mistress, and keep ahead of his creditors and their goons. The Safdies do a great job of keeping the tension ratcheted up at an almost unsustainable pace.

In the middle of the film, however, we are treated to a peaceful scene that happens in the home of Howard’s father-in-law. His extended family is celebrating Passover together and we watch as they go through the motions of the traditional meal, at one point having Howard name each of the plagues- blood, frogs, gnats, locusts, etc…- while dipping a finger in their wine and throwing it on their plates. This Passover ceremony is a snapshot of the film as a whole, as we follow Howard, the materialist who can’t stop working to achieve, through close call after close call (plague after plague), hoping that he’ll finally stop making bad decisions and begin valuing relationships over money before he gets to his own final plague. While the film doesn’t go as literal as the 1999 film Magnolia, with its frogs raining from the sky, it does still clearly give us visual hints of the plagues, as when a character pours red Gatorade into Howard’s fish tank (Exodus 7:20-21).

One of the key images in the film is the door to Howard’s jewelry shop. This door, with bulletproof glass windows, automatically locks so that people can only get in after someone inside the shop buzzes them in. Halfway through the film, however, the door starts to get stuck, and after using a hammer to try to jolt it into working, Howard uses some metal shavings above the door to get it to open. Without giving away spoilers, the dramatic highlight of the movie comes when the shavings above the door are swept away and a literal bringer of death is summoned through the door.

Whereas Moses, the human protagonist of Exodus, “[chose] rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:24-25), Howard simply has to choose to slow down and live the rich life he already has. At certain moments, as when he is talking to his wife and daughter, Howard gets close to giving up his greedy schemes and settling in to a restful contentment with the good life he already has. But, ultimately, he is seduced by the way of empire, the way of Pharaoh and every other world builder whose avarice is unlimited, believing that that way of life is the best way to be truly alive. And we know, as we watch his folly, that there must be a better way of living- that our hearts were made for relationship, and the God who wants our hearts also gives us the rest that we need.

Check out more of Jonathan’s reviews at:

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/chorusinthechaos/author/jonathandorst/

Holiday Roundup: Last Christmas, Peanut Butter Falcon, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Marriage Story, and Bombshell

Last Christmas

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*Spoilers

In a possible attempt to be the anti-Hallmark Christmas movie, Last Christmas tries to be five different movies in one, with each storyline being just off-kilter enough to not be formulaic or guessable. 

Once you think you’re watching a quirky romance, you’re actually watching the psychotic breakdown of a woman who is falling in love with the ghost of the man who gave her a heart transplant last Christmas (“Last Christmas, I gave you my heart”- get it? GET IT?!). Once you’ve adjusted to the ghostmance, you’re actually watching a workplace rom-com. Then, wait- this movie is actually about the rise of xenophobia with Brexit and rising politicals fears. Then you’ve got a subplot about a woman who’s scared to come out as gay to her family. But wait again! This movie is actually about the holiday spirit as a woman is faced with the realities of being homeless. But it’s all cutesy enough not to feel, you know, uncheerful. 

I can’t say the film does any of these stories or tonal shifts well. It’s too busy trying to tie all these half-baked ideas together that it never gets around to saying anything. 

Yet… it charmed me?

Stars Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding really do have nice chemistry, and Clarke is immensely charismatic. The holiday cheer is undeniable throughout the film, yet there’s also a refreshing amount of admission that for many people, Christmas is still wrought with real problems.

At most, Last Christmas is a rental. I doubt it will be remembered as a Christmas classic. But it might just be remembered like the WHAM! song it’s based on- often irritating, but sometimes it hits you just right. 

Peanut Butter Falcon

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Like many critics have already pointed out, Peanut Butter Falcon is reminiscent of the works of Mark Twain, particularly The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The story of a young man with down syndrome (Zack Gottsagan) escaping from his care facility and joining an outlaw (Shia LaBeouf) on the run is the best kind of a feel-good buddy dramedy. It has both the heart and the smarts, and great performances all around. 

It also captures the deep South authentically. It’s able to portray some of the worst aspects of the region without feeling condescending or patronizing (unlike some films, *cough* Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri *cough*). 

The only weak spot is the ending, which feels hastily wrapped up in a way that suggests the screenwriters didn’t know how to end the story. But it doesn’t ruin the film and, in a way, keeps the overall fable-like tone. Peanut Butter Falcon is a great choice for an almost all-ages movie night and is, as the kids say, truly wholesome. 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood plays like an episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, but for adults. Because of that, Mr. Rogers (played by Hollywood’s Mr. Rogers, Tom Hanks), isn’t really the lead. This film isn’t going to give you more insights into Rogers, like last year’s excellent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? will. But if you want to understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of Roger’s gentle teaching and affirmations, and maybe think through some anger or bitterness you’ve been holding onto, this movie is the perfect way to do it. It’s an ideal holiday movie in this regard, and a great watch. If the documentary answers the question of who Mr. Rogers was, then this film answers the question, “How was his show and teaching style effective?” Just keep in mind that this film is for teens and adults- there won’t be much for kids. 

Marriage Story

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A lot of praise has already been heaped on Marriage Story, and with good reason. It truly is a great film, full of raw emotion, layered performances, and a lot of truth. 

I don’t usually let distance from a film’s subject matter keep me from commenting upon it. But as someone who doesn’t have any experience with the deeply complicated and personal topics of the film, I feel particularly ill-equipped to say much about Marriage Story. I think it will speak to everyone in a different way. All I’ll say is that I highly recommend it. 

Bombshell

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Bomshell is this year’s Vice or The Big Short, using an Adam McKay-lite style to tell the story of the women who brought down Fox News’s Roger Ailes and broke some of the first ground of what would become the #MeToo era of exposing sexual harassment and assault.

When talking to a friend of mine who was interested in seeing the film, he admitted that he was reluctant because he felt the trailers had made the film seem like it was going to be saying all men are evil. He is also conservative and didn’t want to sit through two hours of bashing Fox News. I was able to tell him that while this film isn’t pro-Fox News or its particular brand of conservatism, Bombshell is less concerned with liberals vs. conservatives and more concerned with right vs. wrong, no matter what side of the aisle you’re on. There are jabs at both liberals and conservatives, and there are voices in the film that speak to the positives of Fox News. It’s a much more balanced film than either of McKay’s works. 

The point of Bombshell is not to say “men are trash” or to condemn all conservative news outlets. Instead, it is to show how a system of power and predators can be built, how it’s controlled, and why so many are victims to it. This system is not just a Republican thing- it’s a human thing. The film makes it clear the paranoia this system feeds and how high the stakes are for the women who come forward with allegations. It shows that changing any social ill takes both individual leadership and institutional change. 

Bombshell isn’t content with just exposing Roger Ailes. Instead, it goes beyond one bad man and interrogates many of the elements that go into making a workplace toxic. By examining these systems, the film engages in a form of sociological storytelling. That makes it a film that goes beyond being timely into being important.

-Madeleine D.

Family and Falsehoods: The Farewell

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In Lulu Wang’s film The Farewell, Billi (Awkwafina), a woman whose family moved to America from China when she was young, learns that her grandmother Nai-Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has terminal cancer, and the whole family is going to China to say goodbye. The catch? The family is reuniting under the guise of a fake wedding, and Nai-Nai doesn’t know she has cancer. The family has decided not to tell her, per Chinese tradition. Billi goes and wrestles with returning to her home country and the grief that she must repress. 

The Farewell is a slow, contemplative film that is occasionally funny but mostly content with simply watching its characters. There is very little story, very little change within the characters, and no clear judgments on the central ethical question of whether it is wrong to lie to Nai-Nai about her condition.

Initially, this bothered me. My American sensibilities were frustrated with Billi’s lack of a character arc, the way the central problem isn’t “solved,” and how the film seems to emphasize all the wrong points. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to appreciate the film for what it is, which is two things: First, it is a film about grief, and grief is not something that is convenient, timely, concise, or narratively satisfying. Second, The Farewell is a movie less about its characters and more about its environment and sense of place. 

The first point. Billi is our protagonist in the loosest sense. We follow her around and she makes choices that change the course of the story, which makes her the main character. But she also doesn’t feel much like a protagonist because we don’t know much about her outside of her grief, and she doesn’t change (at least externally) over the course of the film. She is our point of view character, but less so as an individual and more so as a representative of her family. This, in and of itself, explores the theme of the American Individual vs. the Chinese Collective cultural mindset and, with that in mind, it is a less frustrating choice. 

Awkwafina does nice work here, but she doesn’t have a lot to do and doesn’t quite get across any indication that Billi has a rich inner life that we simply aren’t privy to. Because we know so little about Billi outside of her grief, it is hard to get a sense of her character or relate to her. But isn’t that the thing about grief? It can be so consuming that the grief feels like our whole identity and the only thing people can see in us. It is so overwhelming that our natural selves feel lost within it. Again, with that in mind, Billi’s character, and the film’s tone overall, is a less frustrating choice. 

What may have helped the film have higher stakes and have a more dynamic protagonist would have been to make Billi the one being coerced into the fake marriage. We would still have the outsider status and the central set-up, but there would have been more of a plot and more for Billi to proactively do than wander around the film and talk to various characters. 

But maybe that would have been too much like Crazy Rich Asians and too easy of a set-up. It would have also weakened the film’s focus on grief. And, after all, The Farewell is invested in its sense of place, and having wedding hijinks would distract from that. 

This sense of place, the atmosphere, is not only investigated in the physical environment of China, but also in the domestic settings. This film captures, scarily so, what it feels like to be at a family reunion. Maybe not for every family, but I had a family reunion about a month ago, and throughout the film I kept being reminded of it. The joy of the grandmother to have everyone under the same roof. The sitting around the table for hours. Various family members sneaking off to seek privacy and talk in hushed whispers. Taking pictures. Reading through old letters and visiting graves and collectively remembering those we’ve lost along the way. Looking around and wondering what it means that these people are tied into your DNA, yet you may know little to nothing about them. 

Ultimately, The Farewell is not interested in debating the ethics of such a lie. This is not a movie about mind-games and philosophical puzzles. It’s about presence, and it’s a clear reminder that every family, no matter cultural differences, is a family, and I think anyone will be able to see themselves in Billi’s family. So despite some small complaints, I think The Farewell is a beautiful film that is the perfect alternative to, say, Hobbs and Shaw, for your summer movie-watching.