If any movie this season can truly unify parents with their teenagers, it'll likely be Missing, the new mystery thriller whose morals can be effectively boiled down to “You need to always be honest with me, Mom” and “You need to pick up when I call, sweetie.” That being said, things could also easily go south. For a teen constantly harangued about the hours she spends on her devices: “That's the only way that girl could save her mother!” For the parent desperate for her child to spend more time sans electronics: “Yes, but she also needed face-to-face conversations with that grown-up!”
Like its 2018 predecessor Searching, Missing is an example of the “screenlife” sub-genre, a term I just recently learned indicating a film – usually a thriller – that unfolds through events witnessed solely on screens belonging to computers, smartphones, tablets, and so forth. We've been treated (or “treated”) to a bunch of these things over the past decade, and Searching was one of the good ones, telling of how John Cho's middle-aged, tech-averse dad eventually found his missing teen daughter by hacking into her Facebook account and figuring out how to correctly spell Tumblr. In debuting writer/directors Nick Johnson's and Will Merrick's non-sequel sequel, the situation has been flipped, and it's now up to 18-year-old June (Storm Reid) to locate her mother (Nia Long) after the woman vanishes while vacationing abroad with her boyfriend (Ken Leung). Luckily for her, June is far more adept at navigating the Internet than Cho's paterfamilias was. Unluckily for her, June might not even know her absent mom's real name.
Though I missed the built-in comedy of Searching's lead typing slowly with two fingers and accidentally misspelling every third word, having June be a speedy and proficient keyboard whiz came with its own benefits. Within minutes of Mom's disappearance, June's screen is enjoyably littered with pop-ups and opened apps that she toggles with fearsome skill, and a few of Johnson's and Merrick's plot-advancing conceits are quite clever, as when June employs online translation to communicate with a Colombian hotel's desk manager. Missing's filmmakers also do a pretty sensational job of dropping seemingly random plot points into the mix that will effectively pay off later. The movie's prelude – one blatantly reminiscent of the fractured-family hints that opened Searching – winds up particularly well-planted into the larger narrative. And I really appreciated how June's initial hiring of TaskRabbit to clean up after her week-long rager led to her inspiration to seek out a Colombian version of the service, and with it, a Colombian who might act as a private investigator from afar.
She finds one in a 50-something named Javier, and it's Joaquim de Almeida's portrayal of this sweet-natured day laborer that prevents Missing from turning into professionally executed tedium. While Storm Reid is a lovely, earnest presence and her film provides a fair share of amusement and suspense, watching someone endlessly type and read aloud doesn't make for terribly enthralling viewing. (Reason number 3,507 why I don't live-stream my workdays.) But de Almeida shakes up Missing's rhythms in delightful ways, adding much-needed bursts of geniality and levity, and giving Reid a lively personality to play off – not that rapport is easily gleaned through a cinematic demonstration of FaceTime. Still, I looked forward to the man's every call, even if references to Javier's own “missing” relative proved annoyingly coincidental, and too nakedly built toward delivering a self-improvement two-fer.
Despite the heartstrings it obviously wants to pull, Johnson's and Merrick's outing is a contraption pure and simple, and only really fails when it tries to be more than that. Although most of the twists are modestly inventive, the movie's final 15 minutes suggest a teary Lifetime drama in which already dicey credibility is stretched past its breaking point, with Reid required to engage in ill-timed, unconvincing histrionics that fellow patrons at my screening were right to snicker at. Ignore its disappointingly pat ending, though, and Missing is a decent amount of throwaway fun, as well as a juicy argument for teens either spending more or less time on their devices, depending on how you look at it.
Without indulging in spoilers, if you've seen The Banshees of Inisherin and/or Triangle of Sadness, you'll probably agree that it's been a rough few months for big-screen donkeys. And things just got a whole lot rougher with the area arrival of EO, Polish writer/director Jerzy Skolimowski's haunting, beautifully shot road picture that follows its titular donkey from his apparently contented tenure in a European circus to … . Well, never mind. Let's just say that these creatures are called beasts of burden for a reason.
Poland's official contender for this year's Best International Feature Film Oscar, EO (currently playing at Iowa City's FilmScene at the Chauncey) is a largely wordless drama with tremendous sound effects, and it's not an overstatement to call the film's namesake – portrayed by a sextet of donkeys named Ettore, Hola, Mariette, Mela, Racco, and Tako – the film's sole protagonist. Humans do occasionally enter the picture, and frequently exit it sooner than you'd expect. Yet from Skolimowski's first images, we're clearly being invited to view the world from EO's four-legged perspective: aching for him when he's separated from his beloved owner Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska); cheering his escape from a pub suddenly overrun by football-crazed hooligans; wincing when that escape proves heartbreakingly short-lived. An updating of Robert Bresson's 1966 Au Hasard Balthazar, the movie doesn't grant us a first-”person” view of EO's numerous tragedies and rare triumphs. Skolimowski's supremely vivid colors and aural effects, however, provide a sense of what the world looks and feels like from our non-human hero's perspective, and they do so without the experience leaning in any way toward “cute.” There isn't a single “Aw-w-w-w!” moment to be found, and after realizing that one of my screening's patrons was a boy of about 10, I deeply wanted to check in with the kid, or his guardian, during the end credits to make sure the tyke wasn't traumatized. I didn't, though, partly because I didn't want anyone to catch me crying.
Yet while I'd be happy to join in the critical chorus of those hailing Skolimowski's achievement as a masterpiece – EO nabbed the trifecta of Best International Feature laurels from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the National Society of Film Critics – a couple of caveats kept my passion in check. One was the movie's slightly distracting anthropomorphism. Although EO has hardly been humanized in the standard Disney-nature-flick manner, Skolimowski's and his wife Ewa Piaskowska's screenplay still features a few too many beats in which the donkey's behavior elicits silent “That's how a person would react!” responses: EO's single teardrop when he's driven away from Kasandra; his howling misery upon gazing at pet-store fish trapped in their tanks; his deservedly brutal, conspicuously well-timed kick to a cruel handler's face. These and other inclusions don't feel false, exactly. But they definitely feel scripted, and have a habit of briefly pulling you out of the in-the-moment realism that's one of the movie's chief accomplishments.
And I'm frankly embarrassed to admit this, especially in the context of a film that puts us so thoroughly on the side of an animal, but I actually wanted more time spent with humans – or rather, with a specific handful of humans. Those few minutes among loutish footballers were already several minutes too many, and most of the farmers, cops, and animal-rescue staffers that EO encountered deserved to remain afterthoughts. But I was dying to learn more about the drunken, broken Kasandra, and her grim-faced boyfriend, and the friendly/creepy Polish trucker whose horrific demise elicited gasps at my screening, and, especially, the donkey's final two-legged companion (the arresting Lorenzo Zurzolo) and the untethered woman he occasionally lives with. EO is oftentimes a magical piece of work – as wrenching as it is presentationally fascinating, and something that won't be soon forgotten. How long will I be stuck in reviewer jail for revealing that, as much as I loved following its donkey around, I was also aching for a standalone feature that focused entirely on the potentially incestuous relationship between Isabelle Huppert and her hot-priest stepson?
Back in late-summer, before September's film festivals got underway and Academy Awards prognosticators were teeing up their lists of conceivable nominees, one title that appeared near the top of everyone's Best Picture, Directing, Screenplay, and acting guesses was The Son, and for seemingly solid reasons. It was the followup to 2020's The Father, likewise adapted from one of Florian Zeller's plays, and again directed by the author and co-written by Christopher Hampton. (The pair won an Oscar for The Father, as did, memorably and deservedly, star Anthony Hopkins.) Its narrative centered on debilitating teen depression, following Zeller's remarkably trenchant, imaginative examination of octogenarian dementia. Its cast boasted Oscar nominees Hugh Jackman and Vanessa Kirby alongside winners Laura Dern and Hopkins himself, the latter in a role that may or may not have been his Father character pre-Alzheimer's. (Both figures, like their portrayer, are named Anthony.) Much of Zeller's first-rate production team from his debut feature – including cinematographer Ben Smithard and Oscar-nominated editor Yorgos Lamprinos – was on-board for its followup. The shrewd awards magnets at Sony Pictures Classics were releasing. The film was primed for an end-of-the-year arrival to coincide with Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, Critics Choice, British Academy of Film & Television, and Academy Award voting bodies. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, we were certainly offered hints when, despite the film's reported 10-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival (where any ovation under eight minutes is cause for concern), the movie's initial reviews were mixed, at best. Then came the film's limited, Oscar-qualifying November run in major East and West Coast markets, which resulted in, among other public dissings, a devastating New York Times pan and a memorable headline from Vulture magazine: “The Son Is So Bad, You May Question Whether You Actually Liked The Father.” (Ouch.) Then came Jackman's Best Actor in a Drama nomination from the Golden Globes … a life raft quickly punctured by the film's total absence of recognition from every other awards group. (The Globes do enjoy having superstars attend their galas ... especially these days.) And now, with Oscar nods a mere two days away, Zeller's work is finally getting an area run – for a mere two showings per day at Iowa City's Marcus Sycamore Cinema. Over the weekend, I managed to catch one of them, and wound up being the only patron in the auditorium. I quickly understood why. That Vulture headline wasn't lying.
Aside from The Son's inspiration being what I can only imagine - having not seen the stage version - is an astoundingly bad play, it's hard to pinpoint precisely what went wrong here, given that the results aren't merely underwhelming, but staggeringly incompetent. It's almost as if Zeller, Hampton, and company had not only never participated in, but never before seen, a movie. Part of the problem must lie with translation. Zeller is a French playwright and, in its theatrical iteration, The Son debuted in Paris. But unlike The Father, whose action was transplanted to England, Zeller's latest is set in New York, and this shift in locale proves to be a disastrous mistake. The film is all about divorced parents facing their teen son's depression that has caused him to miss a month of school without their knowledge, and it's offensive enough that the material pays only glancing attention to the harrowing issues raised. (Most of it, damagingly and dismally, is focused on the self-pity and unacknowledged criminal stupidity of the kid's folks.) But none of it sounds right, either.
When the disturbed 17-year-old Nicholas (poor Zen McGrath, a Timothee Chalamée lookalike currently incapable of matching Chalamée's charisma) leaves Dern's home for the one shared by Jackman and his new wife (Vanessa Kirby), the youth apologizes for the inconvenience. Jackman's Peter Miller consequently says, “We're pleased to have you here.” With its stilted "pleased," that's a line that might work with a European dialect, and offered with maximum stuffiness to demonstrate emotional ice. Hopkins could've pulled it off. Instead, it's delivered by Jackman with his huge grin and customary waves of inherent likability (plus an oddly strenuous American accent), and it just comes across as bad, stagey writing awkwardly performed. Who talks like that?! I felt a similar sense of dislocation when Jackman and Dern met for drinks, and ordered martinis, and their waiter took the order and left. Wouldn't any legit server have a few questions before hitting the bar? Gin? Vodka? Straight up? On the rocks? Here, it's just “martinis” (the way people in theoretically dumber movies ask for “beer”), and the waiter promptly returned with two glasses filled with clear liquid and olives on swizzle sticks. All of The Son transpires in this sort of nuthouse Twilight Zone. Teen depression is something to be treated with a simple changes in scenery, obvious suicide attempts can be worked through with gumption and grit, and no one converses, behaves, reads a room, or orders a drink in ways that any sentient human being would recognize as real.
The Son's awfulness is so egregious – one whole scene is devoted to Jackman and Kirby recounting a massive fight from the night before that we never got to see – that I feel no need to pile on further, and the film's existence should be enough to forever dispel the notion that 10-minute standing Os in Venice mean anything at all. But beyond noting that Jackman and Dern have rarely been less convincing, and that the insultingly treated Kirby never has, let me conclude by saying that for all of his five minutes on screen, Hopkins owns this thing. (It's a bit like owning the most trustworthy beater from the used-car lot, but still … .) Playing Jackman's cold, long-absent father who wants his 50-year-old child to stop whining about his petty concerns – like, you know, his grandson's well-being – Sir Anthony is deliciously, deliriously loathsome, luxuriating in hatefulness with such subtly gleeful abandon that every noxious thing he says sounds weirdly sensible. “Just f---ing get over it” Anthony hisses to Peter at the end of their lunch, Advice that I'm relieved, and grateful, to see other reviewers and international awards bodies choosing to take.