BOOKSMART – movie review

BOOKSMART
Annapurna Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Olivia Wilde
Screenwriters: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Victoria Ruesga
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 5/20/19
Opens: May 24, 2019

 

The typical high school movie notes that kids sit in the lunchroom according to their personalities. You have the jocks, the nerds, the goths, with further divisions that are unfortunately along racial lines. We never see the students (with the word used loosely) in the cafeteria, but we see a helluva lot of them at parties, in the hall, in the home and in their cars in “Booksmart.” The picture is all the more of interest given that this is actress Olivia Wilde’s (“Life Itself”) freshman contribution to the celluloid pile, and since it’s written by four women—avoiding the usual problem of having script-by-committee emerge as something that none of the scripters want—it looks as though it comes from the pen of a single writer. Whereas as the greatest of the high-school movies, John Hughes’ “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” gets its speed-up from a climactic rally led by the title character, “Booksmart” almost never lets up its pace, bounding along at a furious clip save for its obligatory sentimental ending.

While the entire ensemble plays the tale without flaws—though some of the “high-school students” look like they might be doing graduate studies for their MBA’s—the picture is carried by the friendship of Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein). Though Molly is class president despite here lack of popularity with her peers, the two nerdie girls regret that they spent their four pre-college years hitting the books when they could have been partying non-stop like their classmates. The reason? They are determined to get into elite colleges, looking down on the others for seeming not to care about their education, but are hit hard psychologically when they discover that the fun-loving seventeen-year-olds have been accepted to Yale, Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown. Even one (Molly Gordon) girl who brags about her skill with hand jobs which she refers to as roadside pleasures is headed off to the Ivies. The only notion that adolescents are sexual creatures occurs when Amy notes that she “came out” as a lesbian in tenth grade and has waited until just before high school graduation to get it on.

With just hours to go before commencement exercises, which will star Molly in a valedictory speech, they decide to make up for four years of grinding the books instead of doing same with all the others during their final school night. Of course they are not invited to Nick’s party and have to spend some times locating the address—which leads them into a cab driven by principal Brown (Jason Sudeikis) of all people and by hitching with a pizza delivery guy (Michael Patrick O’Brien). At the party Molly plays up to Nick (Mason Gooding), having entertained a crush the past year, and her best pal hides underwater. While a few hours of treating the guys who at first they consider nobodies but ultimately respect cannot make up for wasting four years of fun that only teens can imagine, the two bond with their classmates and draw even closer to each other.

Wilde uses a soundtrack designed to deafen those in the audience not already hearing disabled from rock bands and rappers, including songs from Salt-N-Pepa and Alanis Morissette. The director hits us with a look at secondary education in America that might frighten some of the fuddy-duddies in the audience who still think that children should be seen but not heard. For the young and young-in-heart, “Booksmart”—which at the time of this writing boasts a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes out of sixty reviews—will appeal to a broad market but may dismay some of us who wonder why their own educations were so dull and predictable.

105 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B

THE DISTANT BARKING OF DOGS – MOVIE REVIEW

THE DISTANT BARKING OF DOGS

Final Cut
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Simon Lereng Wilmont
Screenwriter: Simon Lereng Wilmont
Cast: Oleg Afanasyev, Alexandra Ryabichkina, Yarik
Screened at: Neuehouse Madison Screening Room, NYC, 1/9/19
Opens: February 1, 2019 in LA

Poster

Oleg Afanasyev is a cute ten-year-old boy living in what our President would call a s…hole. There is this village in Ukraine of Hnutove, which has a population of 700, it’s just empty space with nothing growing and sporting no particular buildings, and worst of all it’s a short distance from the gunfire and mines and missiles set up by agents of the so-called Donetsky People’s Republic. Or maybe the Ukranian army is responsible. Ukraine has been at war with Russian separatists in their country who are backed by Putin in Russia, a miserable fight with cease fires that are routinely ignored. However, there’s a fairy story happening there. Young Oleg and his beloved grandmother Alexandra Ryabichkina were scooped up by Simon Lereng Wilmont, who directs a documentary called “The Final Barking of Dogs” and taken to New York where I had the pleasure of listening to them discuss their roles in the making of the film. We in the audience may have expected both Ukranians to say that they love New York, that they love America, and they can’t wait to file for asylum because of their anxiety-ridden lives on the battlefield. But no, both said that New York City is “nice” but they want to go home. Grandma is specific: “We are part of the place, part of the land.” There’s no second-guessing people. They love their land and wouldn’t trade it for a secure for life in New York, where they could presumably fit in with either the Ukranian section in Manhattan’s East Village or the Russian sector in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach. Surprisingly their talk is so apolitical that we do not know even whether they are ethnically Russian or full-scale Ukranian. (For more info on the war, check here:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_military_intervention_in_Ukraine_(2014%E2%80%93present).

Simon Lereng Wilmont, in his debut as sole director of a full-length movie, watches over Oleg and his grandmother as would a fly on the wall, apparently succeeding in coaxing them to behave normally and not to look at the camera. Little Oleg has pillow fights with his cousin Yarik, heartbroken when his pal leaves a for safer haven, but overjoyed when his cousin returns. They have an older friend Kostya, who acts like a big brother to them, showing Oleg how to hold a pistol and fire at bottles—though Oleg winds up with a fairly deep cut on his leg from a ricocheted bullet and is calmly and lovingly censured by his grandmother for shooting and killing a frog, making him promise never to that again.

This is the kind of documentary that happily is not the kind with dozens of talking heads. Nobody is interviewed. The three or four people do behave as though the director-cinematographer is not around, though we wonder how much landed on the cutting room floor during the year and a half that the movie was shot. If anything, Oleg is often curious about the waging of war, examining a mine, though carelessly zipping around the neighborhood without a thought that he could be blown up in an instant. This documentary landed on the Oscar short list for best doc where it will compete with the likes of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” “Free Solo,” and “RBG.”

90 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B

SHOPLIFTERS – movie review

SHOPLIFTERS (Manbiki Kazoku)

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Kore-eda Hirokazu
Screenwriter:  Kore-eda Hirokazu
Cast:  Lily Franky, Ando Sakura, Matsuoka Mayu, Kiki Kilin, Jyo Kairi, Sasaki Miyu
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/31/18
Opens: November 23, 2018
Manbiki kazoku Movie Poster
It could be an ordeal for a typical American audience to watch two hours of a film with such a measured pace as “Shoplifters,” but for those who appreciate a deeply humanistic look at a scruffy, odd-ball Japanese family, the film offers rewards.  The director, Kore-eda Hirokazu, in fact, is known for stories about folks who are living on the edge, barely getting by, or families that are faced with momentous decisions.  Consider “Like Father, Like Son,” in which a businessman is told that babies were switched at birth.  He faces the decision of a lifetime: to keep the boy that he and his wife raised from birth, or to tell the truth and replace him with his biological son.  In “Our Little Sister,” a group of sisters living with their grandmother prepare for the arrival of a 13-year-old half-sister.

“Shoplifters,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May, is all about a rag-tag group of people who consider one another as though they are legally or biologically related.  Husband, wife, children—all are together in a small rickety suburban home. They are led by a good-natured man, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) who makes the young ones earn their keep by shoplifting.  Osamu is Fagin to his Oliver Twist-like “son” Shota Shibata (Kairi Jo) and “daughter” Yuri (Miyu Sasaki).  Shota looks about 14 years old, having lived for a while with Osamu and Osamu’s “wife” Nobuyo Shibata.  Five-year-old Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is picked up by the family, the product of an abusive home, and she is treated like their own.  In fact, it’s not completely clear just which people have makeshift identities and which are genuine.  But all little Yuri had to do was show the burn on her arm, and she is immediately taken in and fed, no matter how poor her new family is.  What income the family uses is largely from the alleged pension collected by Granny (Kiki Kilin), an elderly lady who seems always to be eating, schlurping up noodles or biting into croquettes.

When we meet Osamu and his “son” Shota, they have been shoplifting on a freezing winter’s night at the local grocery store.  Back in the shack, the family ponders the danger of taking in five-year-old Yuri.  Isn’t that kidnapping?  It certainly is, but surely if anyone in the family were charged with the crime, they could always plead “guilty with an explanation” as we would do in traffic court.

Just as Osamu trains Shota to shoplift, so Shota trains Yuri.  In one scene, Shota takes off with a pair of fishing rods, a theft made easy as Yuri pulls the plug on the alarmed door and replaces it when her “big brother” has done the deed.  If this family were treated by the strict laws of kidnapping and shoplifting, the “dad” and “mom” would go to jail.  But a wise judge would consider the circumstances, and a kidnapping charge would be reduced to probation.  They have performed a service, taking in people from abusive homes and making them happy and healthy.

The sparks fly only in the final half hour, as police move in to enforce the law.  Granny’s demise has much to do with the penalties they face, and while we root for everything to turn out according to true justice rather than the formal laws, we wonder what will happen to Shota, who obviously would like to stay forever with these quirky people, and to Yuri, who has been treated with kindness for the first time in her life.

The acting is naturalistic, standouts being Lily Franky as the putative head of the family and Kairi Jo as his teen “son.”  Behind the lenses, Kondo Ryuto captures a part of Tokyo probably no tourist ever sees, while Hosono Haruomi issues a score that makes the proceedings look like a fairy tale—which, I suppose, it is.  In Japanese with English titles.

121 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B

BECOMING ASTRID – movie reveiw

BECOMING ASTRID (Unga Astrid)
 
Music Box Films
Reviewed for BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Pernille Fischer Christensen,
Screenwriterd:  Kim Fupz Aakeson, Pernille Fischer Christensen
Cast:  Alba August, Maria Bonnevie, Trine Dyrholm, Henrik Rafaelsen, Magnus Krepper, Björn Gustafsson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/14/18
Opens: November 23, 2018
Unga Astrid Movie Poster
Pippi Långstrump, Pippi Longstocking as we know her here in America, is the principal character in a series of books translated into eighty-five languages.  The little girl is a red-head, unconventional, strong enough to lift and carry a horse with one arm.  She has contempt for adults for their pomposity and condescension (kutchi-koo, presumably, and “you look like your mother”).  Her sense of morality is as strong as her muscular arm, as she cannot tolerate a man’s beating his horse.  All this comes from being the daughter of a buccaneer captain, who provides her with a solid role model or inner and outer strength, the ability to tackle just about anything, including dedicating hours daily to cleaning a house and cooking.  It’s no wonder that the book series itself provides a terrific model for the readers the world over.  In fact, I would opine that if you find high-school students today who can barely read, who have no idea of emotions behind the words in a book, those youngsters probably did not have moms and dads to read stories as they tucked them into bed.  (I know this from personal experience with hundreds of such high-school boys and girls.)
Yet the words “Pippi Longstocking” gets nary a mention in a movie loosely based on the author’s early life.  Co-writer and director Pernille Fischer Christensen bookends her charmer of a movie with the author, now an elderly woman receiving sacks upon sacks of mail from youngsters everywhere, many of whom ask the key question, “How do you write so well about childhood when you’re are not yourself a child?  How can you write about PippI, monkey, horse, Tommy and Annika?  What comes across in “Becoming Astrid” is that by the time the movie wraps up, you have a good idea of the experiences she has from age 16 to about age 23, the hardships faced, all fueling her vivid imagination. Her books enjoy the popularity of those written by Theodor Seuss Geisel. She’s a Dr. Seuss on the loose. 

Ms. Christensen may be best known for “A Soap,” hardly as conventional a movie as her latest, as the 2006 film deals with the relationship of the owner of a beauty clinic and a transgender woman.  Now she takes a break and goes conventional, tackling her subject in strict chronological order from ages sixteen to about twenty-three.  That should appear to a wider audience rather than the small arthouse crowd that indies often have to accept.  Not that this is a sentimental, Hallmark-type film, considering what happens to the principal subject, Astrid Lindgren (Alba August), despite spending her youthful days with religious parents Marie (Trine Dyrholm) and Samuel (Magnus Krepper) and listening to Sunday sermons of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Under Erik Molberg Hansen’s lensing, we get the feel of the life in a small farming village in the Sweden of the twenties where Astrid begins to display the unconventional behavior of her favorite character Pippi.  Bored with the Saturday night dancing and from the exhausting work on the small farm, she is discovered by Reinhold (Henrik Rafaelsen), a newspaper editor who has read some of her essays and hires her to intern on the paper.  Instead of settling for routine, she branches out with articles of her own and falls under the influence of fashion magazines.  She has the barber cut her braids and becomes a thoroughly modern Astrid.

The editor becomes more than a boss, falling in love with her despite an age difference of some twenty years, and gets her pregnant despite his promise to be careful.  Abortion in freewheeling Sweden did not become legal until 1938, leaving the young woman without quite the dilemma.  To avoid the censure of her whole family by the locals, she goes to Copenhagen by train where she lucks out by finding one Marie (Trine Dyrholm), who takes care of the babies of women like Astrid.  Though Astrid could take the easy way out by accepting the father’s marriage proposal, she refuses his entreaties and develops the strength that even nowadays could label her a liberated woman.

It’s not that anyone who makes strong choices is able to write children’s books.  The problems faced by Astrid might appear resolved, as she had the option of leaving Lasse, the child—played by Sigrid af Ekström at three weeks of age, Ludvig V Görensson at six months, and an already accomplished performer, Marius Damslev, at three years.  None of these experiences really explain how the woman who would become Astrid Lindberg became such a popular writer, so maybe we should forget about Pippi Longstocking and not worry about the fictional changes the director and writers make.  This is an involving enough tale brought nicely up to date as in 1987, Astrid (Maria Fahl Vikander) makes room in her home for the sacks of mail from appreciative kids whose missives are in plain envelopes and in sturdy wrappings alike.  Those of us born before the digital revolution might wonder whether such hero worship of a writer of children’s books could ever come to pass in 2018.  But take a look at any Barnes and Noble store, go to the children’s section, and you’ll find young mothers sitting on the carpet with their small fry as though they are monitor-hating intellectuals who keep reading and books alive in the marvelous sci-fi picture “Fahrenheit 451.”  In Swedish and Danish with English subtitles.

123 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+

OF FATHERS AND SONS – movie review

OF FATHERS AND SONS

KINO LORBER
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director: Talal Derki
Screenwriter: Talal Derki
Cast: Abu Osama
Screened at: Crosby St. Hotel, NYC, 11/7/18
Opens: November 16, 2018

What informal outdoor games did you play with your pals when you were a kid? When I was 12 we played stick-ball in the street, watching out for cars and dodging them as best we could. Punch ball was a variety of this without the technology of the stick. We relied on our own fists to knock out what we called spaldeens (acutally Spaldings). My favorite indoor game was spin the bottle. What do kids in Northern Syria do for fun? In their bombed-out country, courtesy of Bashar al-Assad with the help of the Russians, they play war. There’s not much else to do, as we can see from Talal Derki’s sophomore feature documentary. Derki, whose prize-winning 2013 doc “The Return to Homs” filmed over 3 years, is about a 19 year-old militia leader in a city in Syria’s West, virtually destroyed by Assad’s forces. Homs is a city full of history but is now pockmarked, block after block, its citizens largely having deserted.

This time the brave, even audacious Derki spends two years in Northern Syria as a war journalist who feigns sympathies with the jihadists, gains their confidence, and serves up his documentary as though a drama, full of action, with no tedious interviews—just people chatting with the camera as though it were an old friend, presumably excited to give their views to what they think will be millions of movie fans.

There is plenty of hated among the particular family being filmed by the writer-director’s photographer, Kahtan Hassoun, but though you might expect half the movie to be broadsides against America and Israel, only a token conversation bothers to mention the two states. Even stories of Moses and Abraham are treated warmly. Instead the hatred is directed against Bashar al-Assad who destroyed a good deal of his own country, gassing his own people, welcoming Russian jets into his air space to create more havoc against who he calls “terrorists.” What comes across most vividly, however, is something not overtly covered in the film. This is this: while a large percentage of Americans believe that our government should be arming the rebels against the Syrian dictator, it’s possible that most of the rebels themselves are members of a branch of al-Qaida, a terrorist group that may have contempt for ISIS but is just as much in favor of occupying a vast amount of Middle-East space to form an Islamic caliphate.

As principal character, Abu Osama, is proud of his eight sons—his daughters are not part of the conversation at all and in fact the camera captures only seconds of girls in school. He is proudest of the oldest boy, Osama, who he is training along with the others to become, if necessary, martyrs in the fight against the Syrian government. He passes his hatred down to his offspring, who when not play war games with live ammunition, their faces covered by balaclavas, wrestle with one another and practice throwing rocks at invisible enemies. Sadly, for the forty-something father, he steps on a mine and loses a foot, all of which occur during the two-year time period that Derki patiently spends in the company of what we in America would call terrorists.

Abu Osama is no one-dimensional foe. In a nuanced portrait, we see that he has justifiable rage against the Syrian president who obviously does not drop bombs and engage in chemical and biological warfare for fun. Assad is under attack for years now and has no problem gassing people as collateral damage rather than trying to pick out who are the actual combatants. We in the audience could not be blamed for treating Abu Osama as a character we can to some extent sympathize with, a father who is adored by all eight of his male children, who must suffer the loss of a foot with corresponding pain that is not treated with palliatives. The women who are wailing in sympathy are not shown, presumably because Abu Osama would not permit them to be filmed.

Derki, who lives in Berlin and has received considerable funds from Germany for the making of this film, has succeeded admirably with the risk of his own life and limb to capture the lifestyle—if you can call it that—of people under siege in a battle to which they have committed themselves for revenge against the destruction of their country. It is intimate, a fly-on-the-wall treatment of a single family, while broadly capturing the mind of the jihadist close up.

99 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

BOY ERASED – movie review

BOY ERASED

Focus Features
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Joel Edgerton
Screenwriter:  Joel Edgerton, based on Garrard Conley’s memoir
Cast:  Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Xavier Dolan, Troye Sivan, Cherry Jones
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/2/18
Opens: November 2, 2018
Boy Erased - Poster Gallery
When you live in New York, the most progressive large city in America, you may not realize what’s going on in broad swaths of our country.  Look at a map and you’ll find that blue states are largely in coastal areas while broad reaches of the South and Mid-West are red.  And since New Yorkers live in a state where parents have been noted to demonstrate with signs saying “I am proud of my gay son,” we are unaware that millions of parents of gay children are either in denial or coerce their gay kids into pursuing change.  These guardians, perhaps because they want to be grandparents or they believe erroneously that they are guilty of “making” their children homosexual, may opt to enroll their young ‘uns in gay conversion therapy.  Never mind that this technique has been proven worthless and that few if any graduates change their sexual orientation.

Thanks to the writings of Garrard Conley, whose memoir “Boy Erased: A Memoir” recounts his weeks in an Arkansas center claiming to reverse the sexual orientation of their charges, we now have a movie adapting his book.  “Boy Erased” could be called a biopic, though the names of the characters have been changed.  Though Joel Edgerton, the director who plays a major role of a counselor, is known principally as an actor. “Boy Erased” is his sophomore entry in filmmaking.

You might expect a writer or director to come out forcefully and with brutal satirical edges in describing what goes on in gay conversion centers, but Edgerton’s character are appropriately nuanced.  The head counselor at an Arkansas center, Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), is not the sort of person you might want to have a beer with since he does carry on with a project that endorses some sadism.  Though he seems to have no professional qualifications for the job, he treats the mostly young class of gays with tough love, breaking into some brutal treatment about midway into the story.

The nonlinear story is loaded with flashbacks which seem to me entirely unnecessary, as a straightforward chronological approach would have been less confusing.  We are introduced to Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe), the father of Jaren Eamons (Lucas Hedges) and husband of Nancy Eamons (Nicole Kidman).  Since Marshall is a Baptist pastor who wants his son to marry his girlfriend and make him a grandfather, he sees his chances fading when the 18-year-old confesses to being homosexual.  With the support of his religious wife, he enrolls the boy in a 23-weeks’ indoctrination program that pledges to bring the men and women back into the Lord’s fold.  The principal problem with the program is its worthlessness, not the brutality, which is shown in two scenes involving beating a boy on the back with the Bible.  Mostly the folks are treated with compassion.

Jared goes along with everything, sucking up his antipathy for the class, releasing his anger toward the movie’s conclusion, in effect dropping out while he still has some feelings of independence.  Hedges, whom you may have seen in “Manchester by the Sea,” conveys his mixed emotions exquisitely, filling almost every scene with his presence, and is particularly watchable when bouncing his emotions off his mother, who ultimately accepts her son’s homosexuality; his father, who refuses to keep the lad under his roof unless he changes; and especially against the counselor. Given today’s efforts by Judge Kavanaugh to defend himself against charges of involvement in a near rape, we are particularly horrified to watch Jared’s being raped by his college roommate, reinforcing the idea that he has been too passive for much of his life and needs to break out or be emotionally crushed for decades.

One hopes that in states that still allow conversion therapy of minors—that’s all but a handful—people will go to screenings, which might inspire them to do their own research.  A dispassionate look at the many reports that indicate that conversion therapy is not only cruel but worthless if the aim is to convert gays into hetero might convince some people but will likely be dismissed by Trump supporters who care little about science and more about mythology.

114 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B

BEN IS BACK – movie review

BEN IS BACK

Roadside Attractions/ Lionsgate
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Peter Hedges
Screenwriter:  Peter Hedges
Cast:  Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton, Rachel Bay Jones
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 10/16/18
Opens: December 7, 2018

Climate change, the economy, immigration, wars—these are global problems that cannot be solved by one country alone.  But the opioid epidemic, the thousands of deaths yearly from overdosing on prescription drugs; that appears to be a problem largely within our own United States.  The pundits and the medical community are not sure why this is so, but people of all ages have become devastated by a problem that they brought upon themselves, perhaps by being too trusting of the doctors who prescribe Oxycodone, Vicodin, Percocet and the like, all legal pharmaceuticals that should be used sparingly if at all to avoid dependence and addiction.

Substance abuse could be treated as a documentary, but more interestingly, Peter Hedges’ “Ben is Back” does the job of being both didactic and entertaining, however morbid the subject matter.  The action takes place in upstate New York (filmed largely in Nyack and Yonkers), centering on Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges) and his mom Holly Burns (Julia Roberts).  If you can picture Julia Roberts living in the ‘burbs, wearing an apron, and being married to an overly formal and strict husband, you can ride with the show.  In fact what gives the picture is heft is a stellar performance only somewhat by Julia Roberts but in this case more by the upcoming Lucas Hedges, who is the writer-director’s son and who has appeared winningly as Jared in “Boy Erased,” a splendid take-down of the Christian Right’s rooting for gay conversion therapy to convert homosexuals into what they consider normal people.  Never mind that it doesn’t work while it seeks to change identities that people have from the time they are born.

Ben is about twenty years old (Hedges is 22) and had spent the last 77 days in an expensive program to convert him from an opioid addict into someone who can carry on a normal life without the sickness and expense of a drug dependency.  Unlike conversion therapy, the treatment for addicts can work, though I’ve heard it said that you can be “clean” for even 30 years and yet become newly attracted to the very medications that have driven both you and your loved ones crazy.

On Christmas Eve, Ben, the family’s black sheep, comes home to celebrate the holidays, though his arrival has taken his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), his sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and his stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance) by surprise.  Thinking that he should not be spending even a day away from the institution, the family are properly concerned about the visit.  And they should be.  During the course of Christmas, already a season that drives quite a few people into depressive states, Ben will run into old friends and acquaintances, including the drug seller for whom he had operated as a runner and a fellow addict desperate for money to buy a fix and relieve his sickness.

Holly shows her tough love for the young man by insisting that he never leave her sight. She watches him while he is urinating, she hides her jewelry and every kind of pill that he might experiment with, and sits behind him at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting where the members applaud him for being sober for 77 days.

The movie is filled with melodramatic moments when a home burglary leads to the kidnapping of the family Cairn terrier, who has been taken from the home for purposes other than a cash ransom.  When Lucas steals his mother’s car, the story ends with a frantic chase, by which time Holly realizes that her son cannot be trusted for even an hour outside of her presence.

The end credits tell us where to go if you or someone you know has a substance abuse problem, but didacticism is hardly the principal purpose.  Perhaps the awards-worthy performance of young Lucas Hedges might be the principal reason for attending a screening, a solid detective story, a coming of age tale, and a dramatic look at why Christmas is not always a time for rejoicing.

103 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B