FilmSpace at London Film Festival: Rose Plays Julie; Waves; Abominable; Lucky Grandma

Film critic Calum Cooper has gone south for the 63rd London Film Festival. On the roster today is the intense Rose Plays Julie, the poignant Waves, the charming Abominable, and the amusing Lucky Grandma.

Rose Plays Julie – ★★★★☆

In a way, I can see Rose Plays Julie being an effective horror film. Its subject matter, its themes, and even its filmmaking style are all entwined in ideas of the suspense and the horrible. This is a dark film in one of the grimmest senses. But it’s the underlying humanity beneath its story that makes it the film it is. It’s an unnerving setup to a powerful drama.

The premise: Rose (Ann Skelly) is a Dublin student studying to be a veterinarian. She is seen learning about euthanasia in the opening scenes, a subject she is evidently uncomfortable with, as she cries at the putting down of a dog. She has a phone number for an Ellen Wise (Orla Brady). It’s implied that Rose has owned this number for a while and is still mustering up the courage to phone. Why? Because Ellen is her birth mother. She gave Rose up for adoption when she was born, only Rose was called Julie on her birth certificate. Rose has since gone on to have a decent life, but the past is hard not to dwell on.

Rose eventually calls up and at last questions Ellen on the nature of her parentage. The two meet and Rose learns the awful truth about what Ellen endured, including who Rose’s father is, and the nature of her conception. I’ll leave it to you to put the pieces together.

When Rose goes to find her father, the film enters truly harrowing territory. The truth is so terrible that it seems nightmarish in quality. As revelations and decisions are made, we begin questioning ourselves. What would you do in Rose’s situation? I don’t know what I’d do if it was me. The ethics are clear, but the way forward is stormy and unknown.

Luckily, this is a masterfully thought out film by Irish directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor. It’s one of those films where every scene feels like a vital component to a wider whole – a greater message. Even Rose’s studies and Ellen’s career as an actress feel deliberately chosen. It’s slow burning, tense, and at times frighteningly atmospheric. But it’s the clear and overwhelming empathy the filmmakers have for its characters that shines through the most. By brimming with such understanding, the film is free to tackle its hard hitting themes head on – fearlessly and with the right amount of sensitivity.

It rocked me to my core in ways that stunned, horrified, and dazzled me. This is a brilliant film that’s smart, considerate, proudly feminist, and extraordinarily well made.

The opening scenes discussing euthanasia appear like a normal lesson, but the very subject is omnipresent throughout the film. As the desire to seek vengeance grows inside Rose, themes of taking justice into your own hands, including the control of death, become predominant on screen. Rose hates the idea of taking a life, despite studying to do so, but when an opportunity to weaponise euthanasia for justice arrives, who knows what Rose will do? As her teacher says in an early scene, animals get euthanized for bad behaviour all the time. How is this any different?

Visually, the film fits this bleak outlook. A murky colour palette and a considerable mixture of long shots and close ups add to the uncomfortable, even petrifying nature of the story. At times I recalled the feeling I get watching films like Argento’s Suspiria or Kun’s Perfect Blue – like you’re in a nightmare and don’t know how to get out of it. And yet this is all grounded in a sickening form of reality. The filmmaking is all done in the name of confronting the past, something that the film’s very title alludes to when you consider the context.

But at its core is a heartfelt look at the mother daughter relationship, something I am grateful to see is getting more and more attention in recent years (e.g. Lady Bird, Wild Rose, Gwen, Brave, Under the Shadow). These women are united in a tragedy neither wanted, yet the comradery they find in one another, whether as strangers or family, is what crafts the optimism underneath all of the sadness. With a truly spellbinding performance by Ann Shelly, and an equally compelling turn from Orla Brady, the two of whom share magnetic chemistry, we find ourselves invested in these women from their shocking revelations to their eventual conclusions, something I dare not spoil.

Rose Plays Julie is by no means an easy watch. In hindsight, it’s probably one of the toughest films I’ve seen all year. But it rocked me to my core in ways that stunned, horrified, and dazzled me. This is a brilliant film that’s smart, considerate, proudly feminist, and extraordinarily well made. With all the suspense of a horror, and substance akin to a great modern drama, this is sure to be one of my films of the festival.

Waves – ★★★★☆

In a pivotal moment midway through Trey Edward Shults’ Waves, you could’ve heard a pin drop in the press screening I was in. Here we have a film that takes what could’ve been an otherwise known set-up and do otherwise known things with it. Instead, it blends two different genres of film – the tragi-drama and the rom-com – to deliver a film that’s sometimes poignant and sometimes shocking, but always with wise observations.

IMDb describes the film as follows: Two couples navigate through the emotional minefield of growing up and falling in love. This is generally accurate, but the two storylines each couple goes through is separated into two halves of the film. The first half follows Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr) and his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie). Tyler is a wrestler and physical obsessive, training constantly with his father (Sterling K. Brown), whereas Alexis is a social media darling. The two seem madly in love. Yet, when two bits of news hit the couple, one of which Tyler keeps to himself, their relationship begins to get tested, as Tyler’s insecurities begin to spill over.

During the film’s latter half, we meet Tyler’s sister Emily (Taylor Russell), who served as a background character in the first half. She meets and eventually begins dating Luke (Lucas Hedges), both of whom have troubled pasts, Emily’s being a direct consequence of what happens in Tyler’s storyline. But the relationship depicted here seems much healthier by comparison. It is the contrasts between the two couples that makes Waves as hard-hitting as it is.

This is the latest from studio A24, a production company that my fellow FilmSpace critic once said were “single-handedly saving cinema.” His claim is justified, for the company continues to greenlight bold and ambitious projects, turning in fresh stories and spellbinding films. Waves is no exception.

Shults has crafted a gorgeously visual, and uniquely helmed movie that celebrates the best of romantic connection, and is unafraid to condemn the entitlement and disrespect that plagues so many relationships, whether platonic or romantic.

Relationships, and how Waves deconstructs their very nature, is what distinguishes the film. Of course romantic relationships are front and centre, but parental and child relationships, and sibling relationships play as important a role here. Tyler and Emily’s relationships directly contrast one another in several ways. Where Emily and Luke have an understanding and balanced union, one not bereft of disagreements but always with a level of respect, Tyler and Alexis’ relationship is entirely about control. As Tyler is in control of his body and what he physically endures, so too must he be in control of Alexis and her decisions, a medieval way of thinking. The turmoil of their relationship begins when Tyler learns news that robs him of his control.

This makes the film, in my opinion, an intelligently crafted call-out toward toxic masculinity. As Tyler’s world unravels from the news, he attempts to maintain control because he feels he has to. This is not condoning his shocking actions, merely an attempt to explain them, something the film itself tries. Perhaps Tyler’s own toxicity is a learned one from his father’s habits – a cycle doomed to repeat itself. Wherever the toxicity originated, it is the key difference between the two relationships. Where there is love between Emily and Luke there is entitlement between Tyler and Alexis, creating a visual argument on the destructive nature of toxic masculinity.

Shults presents this arguments in gorgeous fashion. As the tone changes so too does the aspect ratio, all while the spectrum of colour is explored to its fullest, utilised to fit each individual scene with acute precision. 360 perspectives soaks in the full scope of the world and the connections each couple feels, while handheld cam is utilised to place the audience in the moment with these characters. Whether that moment brings joy or tragedy matters not, for we are experiencing it side by side with the characters.

What keeps me from lauding this film completely is that it the two genres do feel separated. The change from Tyler’s story to Emily’s is so noticeable that Waves becomes akin to two films played on a double feature. It’s a sign of the film somewhat collapsing under the weight of its own material, and as such begins to feel its 135 minute runtime. I was never bored per se, but I did occasionally wonder how long the film was.

Nevertheless, such an observation is arguably a nit-pick given the stellar storytelling. Shults has crafted a gorgeously visual, and uniquely helmed movie that celebrates the best of romantic connection, and is unafraid to condemn the entitlement and disrespect that plagues so many relationships, whether platonic or romantic. That blending may not always mesh, but there’s no denying the skill of craft on display.

Abominable – ★★★☆☆

Abominable has a conventional setup, but an undeniably big heart. It’s the latest from DreamWorks Animation (co-produced by Pearl Studios of China), whose track record has usually impressed. Their new film may not achieve the heights of the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy, but it is very much a charismatic adventure film in its own right.

Featuring a predominantly Asian cast and set in China, Chloe Bennet plays Yi, a teenager who is seen working various odd jobs and saving money. Her father has recently passed away, causing her to distance herself from her mother and Nai Nai, as well as her old passion for the violin. Instead she is saving her money for a trip around China, to all the places her father wanted to take her and the family to.

Concurrently, a Yeti escapes from a scientific facility and finds itself seeking refuge on Yi’s roof. Realising that the Yeti wants to go home to Mt Everest (thus earning the nickname Everset), Yi decides to help Everest home, with enthusiastic and reluctant help from childhood friends Peng and Jin respectively. Thus the four set off on a nationwide journey, one that has dangerous forces chasing them, and may or may not have some magical properties involved as well.

Visually speaking, Abominable is euphoric. The character designs, both of the humans and yeti, are expressive and imbued with personality. You know precisely what kind of people the characters are just from a glance at them. The colours that fill the screen are magnificent, and while the animation style isn’t dissimilar to other DreamWorks’ properties, the way it captures the Chinese landmarks the characters visit is astonishing in both beauty and wonder. In between these stops, the film replicates the feel of How to Train Your Dragon by evoking the excitement of a journey through its eventual magical revelations.

READ MORE FROM FILMSPACE AT LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: The Personal History of David Copperfield

It also has warmth and affection for its cultural roots. Themes of rebirth and honouring those who have passed on are ingrained into many of the film’s qualities, from set pieces to character motivations and even to the music. I like the heavy inclusion of violins in the score, a nod to Yi’s own musical connection with her father, aka those who have passed. This is a film that is proud of its Asian identity and presents itself in such a benevolent way that, not unlike The Farewell, the film ends up universalising its themes and the culture it is representing through its story and characters, all of whom are perfectly charming and fun to be around, particularly the headstrong Yi and the seemingly shallow Jin, both of whom have a lot of great moments together and on their own.

Factors like this make Abominable a little more than your typical family film, although it certainly isn’t above using familiar ingredients for a known formula. It has plenty of comedy woven into its presentation – mostly typical but nonetheless amusing – while the character arcs are fairly commonplace in family cinema. But if you take those elements at face value, while also admiring the beautiful visuals, adventure thrills, and cultural themes, then there’s no reason why you won’t be able to find at least some entertainment in the film.

Abominable won’t change the world. But you look at its marketing and it does precisely what it says on the tin. It’s charming, amiable, occasionally quite funny, and has a heart big and warm enough for all ages.

Lucky Grandma – ★★★☆☆

Lucky Grandma is as wacky and colourful as its title would suggest. There isn’t a whole lot to digest once you’ve seen the movie, for its one of those films that is exactly what you’d think it is. Yet it embraces its premise confidently enough that you find yourself having a good old time with it (no pun intended).

Tsai Chin plays Grandma Wong, an elderly Chinese woman who immigrated to America with her family seemingly a while ago, as her son and his children are quite accustom to western family life. She dislikes the mundanity of elderly life, and wishes for a break in the cycle. That break comes after a trip to the casino, when an elderly man has a heart attack and dies next to her. He won a large sum of money from the casino, and Wong decides to nick it. But when it is revealed that the man had connections to a feared mob gang, The Red Dragons, safe to say things begin spiralling out of control.

This is a comic misadventure if ever there was one, and the filmmakers are fully aware of it. The plot is a hugely absurd one, and the film is joyfully proud of it. Each revelation is not unlike something you would find in a low-budget John Wick parody, but they are amusingly contrasted by the fact that the target is a sassy old woman rather than a killing machine. A delightfully goofy score by Andrew Orkin accompanies the unravelling insanity – one that is able to meld with both the comedic and more action-orientated elements of the plot.

This is a comic misadventure if ever there was one, and the filmmakers are fully aware of it. The plot is a hugely absurd one, and the film is joyfully proud of it.

In terms of thematic strength, pretty much all of it comes from its central character, who is both engaging and interesting. Chen gives one of her best performances as a bitter individual who can tell her life is near its end, yet also cares deeply for those around her, even if she’ll never admit it. She also presents a lot of cunning, often using her seeming external fragility as a weapon against those who would harm her. Wong eventually hires a bodyguard from a rival mob group named Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha), and the odd chemistry the two of them share is the highlight of the film, as the two humourlessly embody the two different worlds these characters come from. I could have watched another hour of just these two together.

As zany as it can get however, sometimes the film bites off more than it can chew. The film spends much of its runtime having fun with itself – which I fully respect – but around the two thirds mark it tonally gets more serious, as if it suddenly remembered that there was a story to wrap up. The third act involves a kidnapping and a hostage exchange that wasn’t bad, but felt out of place with the rest of the film. Everything wraps up well enough, but there was a hint of hurriedness to it that I think could have benefitted for even just a few more minutes to let the narrative breathe some more, not that it takes away from the film’s cordial tone.

Weighing it all up, there isn’t a whole lot to Lucky Grandma, but there doesn’t need to be. It embraces its setup and has fun with it. Sometimes that’s all a film needs to be. It’s funny, it moves well, and has charm to spare.

CommonSpace is entirely funded by small, regular donations from you: our readers. Become a sustaining supporter today.