My Summer of Love (4.5/5 stars) written & directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
Set in the Yorkshire countryside, this film explores the friendship and romance between two girls. Mona (Natalie Press), the orphaned daughter of working class parents, lives with her brother Phil (Paddy Considine) above the family's pub. After finding salvation in prison, Phil has decided to convert the pub into a charismatic house of worship for other hungry souls. Tamsin (Emily Blunt) is the lonely, troubled daughter of a wealthy family. During the summer, the two girls form a fierce bond.
This coming of age film is very well done, with strong performances from the three leads, and more unpredictable that I'd expected. I enjoyed the two lead performances by Natalie Press and Emily Blunt. However the stand out performance, for me, was by Paddy Considine as Mona's Bible thumping brother Phil. Underneath the wafer-thin veneer of evangelical Christianity and goodwill, we continually sense his tightly coiled rage and frustration. We aren't surprised when Mona's overt anger and scorn of her brother's newly adopted faith -- along with Tamsin's casual, unpredictable cruelty, -- triggers Phil's repressed anger.
I highly recommend this to people who enjoy cinematic realism and edgy coming of age stories.
Ladybird, Ladybird (4/5 stars) written by Rona Munro & directed by Ken Loach
I am a fan of Ken Loach's brand of social realism, based on the handful of his films I've seen so far (including Sweet Sixteen and Kez). This is in spite of the fact that, having worked in human services for many years, you'd think I'd seen enough painful social realism to last a lifetime without needing movies like this. :-)
I deeply appreciate Loach's ability to turn a compassionate eye on members of society many people dismiss. In this case it's a troubled British welfare mom who eventually bears nine children, despite losing six kids, one by one, to the foster care system. (Yup. This kind of thing happens a lot. Trust me on this.)
When the film opens, Maggie (Crissy Rock) is devastated after her four children -- all fathered by different dads -- are removed from her care for negligence and endangerment. It's an all-too-familiar story. Having had violence imprinted on her at a tender age by her abusive father, she has been drawn to a series of destructive relationships. The latest is Simon (Ray Winstone). This, along with her poor judgment, leads to her losing her kids. She finally has a chance for a loving, non-violent relationship with her new lover, Paraguayan humanitarian Jorge (Vladimir Vega) and they hope to start a family together. But "the system," for understandable reasons, doubts her ability to change and is unlikely to give her a chance.
To its credit, the film doesn't take the easy route by portraying Maggie as a victim. We watch her repeatedly make appallingly poor choices, including her refusal to cooperate with social workers and police. If you'd been in the room with my daughter and me while we were watching this movie, you would've heard me yelling at the screen a lot. ("Stop shooting yourself in the foot, Lady!" and "For the love of God, USE A CONDOM this time" were common refrains.) Nevertheless it was impossible not to have empathy for her, and I wanted things to turn out well for Maggie and Jorge.
As much as I judged her actions, I couldn't condemn or dismiss Maggie. First, it was made clear that at the root of her hostility to social services was deep rage because, as an abused child, she had not been protected. Secondly it was impossible to forget just how screwed you can be when, at a tender age, home is an unsafe place and basic human trust is unable to germinate. There but for the grace of God ...
In my opinion, this film wasn't as good as Kez and Sweet Sixteen, but it was an outstanding movie. Solid writing, strong performances, and nuanced character development work together to create a film with complexity worthy of the difficult subject it tackles.