Class Rank (2017)

“Annihilating an ecosystem for political appearances is not my modus operandi.”

So, how do you know when you’ve just watched a great film? Not a good film but a great film? Film is such an accretion of magical sleight-of-hand, such an array of hidden talents that I think you have to feel it. In your nads. It hits you precisely because you didn’t see that punch coming, you didn’t notice a setup. If you do notice something like editing or acting or the EQ on a microphone, that most usually means that the film has failed, unless it’s deliberately going for some neo-Brechtian questioning of form, of course.

The first time I watched Class Rank, I didn’t notice any of the technical aspects, I was way too immersed in the story. So, firstly, let’s say that Class Rank is magnificent from a technical point of view. Whoever worked on this film, from sound to set to edit to make-up to grips to costume, every single person who lifted the tiniest of their tiny fingers, you get a fucking A+. And a gold star. You’ve helped create a hyper-naturalistic story that feels like I’m watching a documentary about my most awkward moments at secondary school. Artifice invisible, I’m left with raw emotion.

As ever, no spoilers here but the basic premise is of hyper-geeky Bernard (Skyler Gisondo) and over-achiever Veronica (Olivia Holt). She has her eyes set on Yale and higher but this appears stymied when she only achieves a class rank of second, instead of first. Shenanigans then ensue when she realises Bernard may be able to help her if she in turn helps him with his campaign to replace French with Chinese on the school curriculum.

This may all seem very generic and, looking at the bald words, it is. If this were another rites-of-passage movie, many high jinks would line up to be ticked off, all present and correct. But Class Rank doesn’t do that. Instead, it does a deep dive into the characters of Veronica and Bernard, one that drags your heart along with it. Even as you laugh at the undeniably funny lines they trade, you know you’re not laughing at them in a cruel way. When Bernard asks, “Surely the melting of your dairy products is not more important than the future education of your child?” I giggled but he’s actually right. Like most of us geeks, both kids are well aware they’re out of step without it being simplified into your classic ‘jocks versus geeks’ or other high school comedy cliches.

Filling out their world is an ensemble of characters who are equally real even if they get much shorter screen time. No character is under-written or unimportant here. The gentle banter between Bernard’s Grandpa (Bruce Dern) and the editor of the local paper (Kathleen Chalfant) is sweet without ever being that special ageist sickly of ‘oooh, look, old people holding hands, aww!’ Veronica’s Mom (Kristin Chenoweth) is similarly un-caricatured and, again, I forgot she was acting… she was just her Mom in a tender and loving way. Then there’s Nick Krause’s insouciant grace as the shop bagger, Mike, watch out for him. I’m not kidding when I say the final scene with him made my eyes sting. Damn this hayfever.

Let me also take this paragraph to congratulate this film on having A GREAT SOUNDTRACK. In this respect, it’s the antithesis of most Hollywood in that there’s space and beats and it never intrudes or de-stabilises, it supports and helps tell the story. Y’know, like scores are meant to do? Well done, Brian Byrne. In a cinematic world overflowing with the same threadbare martial beats and monotonous pitchbent braaaaams, his score is a cold glass of water in a bloody desert.

It’s the final act of the film that left me stunned enough that I’m writing this review. When the complications happen, Holt and Gisondo are stunning, I was on the edge of my seat. There is such rawness and honesty here that it hurts, built as it is on how we’ve come to know and love both characters during the film. Nothing is overdone, everything makes emotional sense. It’s so rare to see scenes like this in film and even more amazing when you realise the actors were nineteen or twenty when they filmed them. These two motherfuckers played keepy uppy with my heart and I’m a cynical, fat old man. Be forewarned!

Finally, I have to praise writer Benjamin August and director Eric Stoltz for a brilliant story, perfectly delivered. This film could have settled with being farcical, it could have been throwaway, it could have been silly. Instead, there is such heart and candour here, about love, friendship, about the human condition at every age. As soon as the credits finished, I started writing this review and re-started the film from the beginning. I’m enjoying it even more second time around. Thank you for giving me this wonderful film.

It’s now one of my favourite films about love. I know I’ll be watching it again many times in the future.

American Heritage

White North Americans have an identity vacuum that manifests as claiming to be Scottish, Irish, Welsh or whatever without any actual connection to those places, cultures or even recent lineage. It always turns out to be an ancestor fifteen rows back that they home in on and ignore the rest of the DNA mixed in there.

I’ve not observed white Aussies or Kiwis doing it to the extent Americans do; they seem to be more secure in their national identities even though, like Americans, it’s based on colonisation and occupation of other people’s land.

Kind of weirds me out…

Helios 44M 58mm f2 Test Shots

Conifer Bonifer

Check out the gallery above for some Helios 44M 58mm f2 test shots.

First impressions: it’s way sharper than I expected and I could easily become re-seduced by the simplicity of on-barrel focus and aperture controls. Putting the EM1 into Manual mode and judging shots by the lightmeter also made me very nostalgic. The Helios produces a very pleasing bokeh and though it does flare, it’s easily avoided. Unless you’re going for that flarey, washed out look, of course.

Most of my Oly lenses have easy focus rings but now I’m wishing they had equally accessible aperture control.

Skater Girl (2021)

Still of the film Skater Girl, young Indian girl holding a skateboard and looking at the viewer
Source: IMDB

I don’t often give out 9 stars out of 10 but ‘Skater Girl’ thoroughly deserves each one.

If, like me, you’re part of the South Asian diaspora, you’ve grown up watching Bollywood. I’m very used to the feel-good films, the corny-but-cute rom-coms, the classics with their high drama and soaring scores. ‘Skater Girl,’ though it has touches of tender romance, is not one of those films. It’s a film about a young girl, Prerna (Rachel Saanchita Gupta), on the cusp of womanhood who wants to go to school, who is reaching out for something but also cannot see how she can leave her assigned path. Enter Jessica (Amy Maghera), a woman with hidden connections to the village. No spoilers but looking at the film’s title, I don’t think it’s too much to say skateboards ensue.

The clever part is that the skateboard is essentially another character in the film; Prerna’s Rosebud. When she skates, she is gloriously free, she is truly alive. The board is not a piece of wood on wheels, what it symbolises is far, far greater. The film’s brilliance is the way that skating, the visiting British woman and the village background are all interwoven such that, even over two hours, the story’s pace never languishes.

I’m avoiding all specifics as I want you to watch this film for yourself but I can say that this film moved me deeply. It hit nerves I didn’t know I had. A lot of this is due to the stunning performance of Rachel Saanchita Gupta in the starring role of Prerna. The joy, grace and fierceness she imbues into Prerna seem utterly natural, there’s never an exaggeration or needless embellishment.

The same could be said for all the cast, including the charming, chaotic gang of skater kids tumbling through the dusty village streets. Every person is perfectly used in each of their roles. The direction is flawless. It’s a testament to Manjari Makijany that she’s the producer, writer and cinematographer as well as directing this gem of a film. You really can’t get more auteur than that, which is evident in the aesthetic and narrative cohesiveness. We have shots that are pure poetry, we have tiny exchanges between actors that are novels. In particular, I want to give Makijany extra props for her direction of the little kids – I really haven’t seen anything this real and non-romanticised since Truffaut’s ‘L’Argent de poche.’

It would have been easier to have made a less challenging film, to have made the father a caricature villain instead of the complex, flawed man he is, stuck in his life like a fly in amber. The director could have elided the brutal reality of caste or of South Asian diasporic privilege. She could have made a more traditional, less realistic film. Or, conversely, she could have made a ‘gritty,’ Western-oriented film where Indians have no agency or humanity, they’re just poor, silly natives for white people to cry about before slipping into some cool new threads made by child labour.

The fact that ‘Skater Girl’ dodged those pitfalls but is still fundamentally a feel-good film about reaching for your dreams, about getting up every time you fall down is why I love it. It is witty, silly, passionate, provocative. If you have a heart not made of stone, it will make you laugh and cry.

It’s life, affirmed.

Tomboy (2017)

Source: IMDB

I was expecting this to be quite throwaway and was really only drawn in by Weaver and Rodriguez. But then, up pop Shalhoub, Lapaglia etc. ~ there are no bad performances in this film.

That being said it veers between B-movie with an A-movie cast and arthouse, Looper-esque weirdness. That’s not an insult as I love B-movies and arty indie films. The tone is unique; so much that it’s truly suspenseful. You really don’t know what’s going to happen, despite large parts being flashback. The gender identity themes are very now even though, apparently, this is a very old original script?

I loved the VERY Looper end, it was the perfect little Hammer Horror flourish.