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London Film Festival Review Capsules: 'The Keeping Room,' 'Girlhood,' 'It Follows,' and 'Still the Water'

By Caspar Salmon | Film | October 13, 2014 |

By Caspar Salmon | Film | October 13, 2014 |

THE KEEPING ROOM - dir. Daniel Barber

Introduced by its director at the London Film Festival as being “dedicated to all strong women” (Bad luck, weak women! Someone will make a film for and about you one day, I’m sure), The Keeping Room is about three women defending their home from male intruders towards the end of the Civil War in the deep South.

You sense a debt in the film towards new, revisionist Westerns and Civil War-era films: perhaps to Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, maybe even to True Grit, which also featured Hailee Steinfeld. Everything in this film is meticulously researched, each shot well framed, and the set decoration is on point: the farmhouse the women are defending feels well lived in, their dresses simple and realistic, the food they eat out of unvarnished bowls is meager, and they spend their lives hoeing dry land. This is a plausible and convincing existence, well painted: the only problem is that these scenes of exposition, drawing a picture of their lives before they are to be splintered by an onslaught, are teeth-grindingly slow and ponderous. The actors (including an absurdly dewy-faced Brit Marling) get to do a whole lotta accentin’, and there’s a lot of tedious home-spun wisdom going on in their conversations. It’s only really when the women start to be attacked that the film is actually set alight in any way: at this point, the tiresome drone-y violins-based score gets more exciting, the editing speeds up and there are some genuinely tantalising shots. You get a sense that making entertainment out of vulnerable women being attacked (especially a highly unpleasant scene where someone forces himself on Steinfeld’s character) might not be the most feminist of moves, exactly, but the screenwriter and director clearly deem themselves to have made something that celebrates women, as their central characters overcome their difficulties. Race relations are handled similarly ambivalently: the slave is mistreated by her mistresses on several occasions and the actor playing her, Muna Otaru, is sometimes reduced to a kind of Hattie McDaniel mugging, but the film clearly imagines itself to be bracing egalitarian in that it lets her get a piece of the action on the same footing as the other protagonists. Overall, the film should have maybe spent less time being slow and brooding, got to the exciting action scenes faster, and had a bit more of a think about the ol’ race and gender stuff.

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BANDE DE FILLES (GIRLHOOD) - dir. Celine Sciamma

After her elegant and devastating Tomboy, Celine Sciamma returns with Bande de Filles, a staggeringly vibrant and engaging drama set in the suburbs of Paris and centred almost completely on a gang of girls. With a perspective so feminine that the film passes the Bechdel test roughly every minute, this new picture feels like a genuinely new and unique experience in the cinematic landscape.

As the film begins, Marieme (a brilliant Karidja Touré) is a bright but troubled young woman who is struggling at school because of a turbulent home life. She is soon befriended by a local gang of fierce and alluring girls who bring her into the group, where she learns to steal from shops and her peers, engage in brutal fist fights, talk smack to other girls, and grow in confidence. The way Sciamma films these girls - their easy sexiness, their lightly worn charisma - makes being an impoverished girl in a gang seem like the most fun anyone could possibly have. She is never judgmental, always fully with these girls, with her camera right up close by them, conjuring images of winning intimacy.

There is so much that is startling and captivating about this film, from the way Sciamma adopts tropes to do with the Western (the outsider drawn into a celebrated gang, rising through the ranks to earn her fearsome reputation) to the bristling, muscular camera work and her bold use of music. Despite a final act that loses some of the rhythm and character work of the beginning, the film is always striking, always bold. In one scene where the girls dance to Rihanna in a hotel room they’ve hired for one night, Sciamma films them like goddesses. Look at these women, she says. Look at them!

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IT FOLLOWS - dir. David Robert Mitchell

David Robert Mitchell’s new film, a teen horror movie with an indie aesthetic and a hint of brains behind the big scares, seems to view sexuality and adulthood as the true scary monsters his protagonists must confront. Jay, played by Maika Monroe, is a run-of-the-mill (incredibly good-looking) teenager with perfectly average (attractive, sensitive and caring) friends in an unassuming suburb of Detroit, who finds when she sleeps with a boy during a date that he has passed on to her the curse of being haunted by terrifying apparitions. The curse is passed on via the sexual act, meaning that Jay must sleep with someone else to be rid of it. If that person is then killed by the apparition, then the curse reverts back to the last person in the sexual chain.

It’s a good premise - one that conjures a very modern fear of the effects of casual sex but that also plays on the the idea of a hyper-sexualised youth who have grown up fast but fear commitment - and the director and his cast exploit it fully, mining the concept for some scary set pieces and some more dialled back scenes that are evocative and touching, in which the teenagers face their fears together. While the movie plays like an impressionistic and vivid portrayal of teenagers, drawing on mumblecore dialogue and lo-fi cinematics, it never forgets to be balls-out terrifying either, providing lots of shock-jolts and more eerie freak-out moments, in combination with a loud, pulsating score that plays on a visceral level.

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STILL THE WATER - Naomi Kawase

Almost certainly the most purely beautiful film playing at the festival so far, Naomi Kawase’s confident and haunting evocation of adolescence feels like the work of someone who has completely come into their own, who knows exactly what she is doing at every moment. Filming her teenage protagonists with the utmost sensitivity, Kawase also depicts landscape so well, using a turbulent, raging sea to mirror the turmoil and changes her characters are going through.

The action of the film kicks off when the shy and withdrawn Kaito, who lives alone with his mother, discovers a body drowned at sea during a recent storm. He enters into a tentative, tender relationship with Kyoko, a school friend whose mother is dying, and the two of them help each other out, give each other support. That is about the entirety of the plot: no real mystery is solved, but these events act as an impetus to draw out character in the boy and girl, to reveal the world to them in all of its horrors and beauty.

Kawase perfectly seizes the fragility of the teenage mind: the way young people are uncertain of their actions but also not sure of their own opinions; at every point these people are questioning and vulnerable. Kaito shouts it at his mother in one scene: “I don’t understand you at all.” Her characters are sketched well in a few gentle touches: to see Kyoko relax at home in the smiling company of her parents, being affectionately teased by each of them, is to see someone who is learning to find her place in the world, who has been given strong markers to carve out her own existence. Throughout the film, Kawase manages to eke wonder from the smallest activities: a crawling spider hopping into grass in the opening scene; the two kids riding one bike together against a great churning seascape; the young boy and his estranged father soaping one another in a bathhouse. All of this feels so real, so rich and fully imagined.

For this reviewer, the film may well take its place alongside the great film portrayals of youth: it has a poetry all of its own during its slow, contemplative scenes, and there is a melancholic quality to it, a sort of sad nostalgia for those teenage days, that lends the film a true poignancy.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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