Slamdance 2011 Review: STRANGER THINGS
While most of the coming days will be focused solely on the Sundance Film Festival, its sister (or more like daughter) festival, Slamdance, apparently is a totally different beast to be reckoned with.
One of this year’s festival’s most compelling releases, from writer/directors Eleanor Burke and Ron Eyal, is the neo-neo-realist picture, the drama STRANGER THINGS. Featuring all of the trappings of any good mumblecore, kitchen sink style drama that would even make the likes of Miranda July or Ken Loach stand up and applaud for the duo’s brash take on the genre, STRANGER THINGS may be a bit trite and hyper sentimental, but it also is cinematic proof that maybe it’s time for the little brother of Park City, Utah based film festivals to stand up and take its moment in the sun.
STRANGER THINGS is as simple in its narrative as it is within the walls of its frames. The film follows two total strangers; one woman who returns home to go through her late mother’s belongings, and a homeless man whose mentor is on the verge of passing himself, and the time in which they meet, and spark an unlikely relationship.
It’s also one of the most compelling narratives I’ve seen in quite some time.
Anchored by two great lead performances, it is the film’s cast that is its true shining aspect. Featuring only one real supporting cast member, our two leads are early contenders for some of my favorite performances of this very young year.
The film opens on our lead, Oona, as she gazes out into the world, a world without her mother now, on a train on the way to her former home. Played wonderfully by Bridget Collins, she gives one of the most fantastic performances of the past 12 months, that is both hauntingly real, and without any artifice or sentimentality. It’s a wonderfully understated performance, that is paired perfectly with her partner in crime, Mani, played by FOUR LIONS’ Adeel Akhtar. Both are the epitome of understated performances, and while their relationship may ring a tad bit false near the end, relying on sentimentality instead of real emotion, the look into the lives of two people with raw and truly mixed emotions towards the elders within their lives is one that should not be missed. Simply put, when these two share the screen, it’s like watching a tea kettle come to a boil. Bit by bit the narrative momentum grows, until the two share a truly wonderful moment, reminiscent of something like Allan King’s A MARRIED COUPLE, which is utterly fulfilling.
However, all would be for naught if it weren’t for some genuinely inspired direction from the duo of Burke and Eyal. Drawing direct inspiration from filmmakers like Ramin Bahrani and the aforementioned Loach, the film is a distilled character study, that doesn’t rely on any directorial touches, outside of letting the camera linger for however long it takes to give us this poetic look into the lives of two strangers. With Burke and Eyal neglecting to give the actors scripts to scenes following the ones they would be shooting, there is a sense of truth that seems to be bred out of the film’s screenplay, that ultimately flows into the performances, and then into the frame that Burke and Eyal paint ever so minimal.
However, it may ultimately be this minimalism that doesn’t quite allow the film to truly go. Clocking in at a very brief 77 minutes, the film may allow for the narrative to breath in a specific way, but when the film’s conclusion begins to roll down the hill, everything seems to ring hollow. There is one final scene at the end of the film that epitomizes this, which ultimately leaves a truly sour taste in your mouth. Given an extra 15 minutes or so, STRANGER THINGS could have not only let the performances and the characters truly shine and grow, but it could have made the final conclusion not only believable, but actually worthwhile. As is, it is neither of those things, which for a film relying so heavily on that final statement, rings truly hollow. It’s wish fulfillment done by Ken Loach. And those twos don’t make four in my book.
Overall, despite a massively flawed conclusion, falling into the realm of sentimentality instead of reality, STRANGER THINGS is a poetic look at two people coming to terms with the most important members of their lives, and their vitality on earth. One has come home after her mother has passed, with the other dealing with the impending loss of the one man in his life he can call part of his family. It’s a haunting, if not completely sentiment-free, look into a relationship between two strangers, and for that, this is an absolute must see feature. You won’t be sorry.