Friday, January 22, 2021

52 Films By Women Challenge - A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) and Troop Zero (2019)

In 2015, the Los Angeles' Women in Film started a challenge to watch one film by a female director every week for a year. I've seen this floating around social media and movie blogs for a while, and always meant to join in. For 2021, I finally decided to try it out this year as one of my resolutions. 

Every week I thought it'd be fun to do a quick round-up of the film(s) I've watched for the challenge. The films I chose for the challenge are on letterboxd - if you want to see the slate so far - but I'm not going in an particular order of alphabetical or chronological. 

Since I started writing this series late, I'm playing a little bit of catch-up. My next two films are A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2020) and Troop Zero (2019)


A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

Directed by Marielle Heller

Reality is framed with an episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. He walks us through how he met a jaded journalist Lloyd Vogel, who was sent to write a fluff piece of his life as a hero but wants to dismantle the myth of a beloved childhood role model. Instead, Rogers works his magic by getting to know Lloyd, who has underlying issues with his alcoholic father, the death of his mother, and fears of becoming a parent. Vogel's mission slowly changes into his own redemption story as a son, father, and husband. 

Though this is a loose biopic, Tom Hanks isn't trying to imitate Fred Rogers. He provides an unnerving calm that makes you question if there is something more sinister or broken underneath, and there are enough subtle moments to believe that he does deflect the pain and anger he feels about his own misgivings or shouldering the burden of being a "saint." But he also just lets Mr. Rogers remain hopeful, kind, and patient. Matthew Rhys also captures Vogel's bitterness enough that doesn't make him unlikable or he's not capable of seeing the error of his ways. When Vogel starts to turn the tide from rejecting Rogers' innate positivity to wanting to make amends with his life, you can feel where he is coming from. (Chris Cooper also turns out a great supporting performance.)

The effect of their relationship mostly comes from Marielle Heller's direction. Between this and Can You Ever Forgive Me?, she's increasingly becoming one of my favorite filmmakers. The film, in the beginning, might feel like a cliche tale of a cynic whose heart will turn into gold, and that is technically the root of the story - but the consistent meeting of a father and son sharing similar emotional issues (abandonment, an inability to forgive, anger, etc.) is stunningly well-paced and simply bursts off the screen. She fuses the painful maturity of being an adult (especially from a dysfunctional past) with childlike wonder that lets you see we're all just flawed human beings capable of great heartbreak and compassion. No matter how justifiably cynical we may be today, she gives Mr. Rogers's lessons a new lease - it's okay to be in touch with your emotions, and life is complicated but it's gonna be okay.

Rating: ★★★

Troop Zero (2019)

Directed by Bert & Bertie

When aspiring astronaut Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace) learns that the first prize for a local youth group is to add their voice to a record boarding the 1977 Voyager flight, she puts together a group of fellow misfits in the hopes to win and have her voice echoed into the cosmos.

Any story about underdogs will make the biggest Scrooge fall in love with it, and Troop Zero isn’t limited in helping you find someone, nay everyone, adorable and charming - Christmas dreams of going into outer space instead of more feminine hobbies; her friend Joseph loves hairstyling and fashion; there’s a one-eyed kid who loves Jesus, and two other girls who love to blow things up. As most of the adults are hardened by broken hearts and unfulfilled expectations, this little band of misfits will make you want to feel like a kid again when you didn't know the difference between being "different" and "normal."

But even a story of underdogs has to offer more than just quirky characters. And that's where Troop Zero struggles the most - it doesn't develop a lot of conflicts that aren't easily overcome with more self-acceptance and gusto, and the characters don't evolve beyond loose stereotypes (though the performances are lovely.) Even for a fluffy family film, the plot becomes quite formulaic and familiar. By the end, I couldn't help but think of similar films that were better nurtured with earnestness (Little Miss Sunshine) or a mesmerizing aesthetic (Moonlight Kingdom). Don't get me wrong - there's nothing that's not enjoyable about Troop Zero. Bertie and Bert’s direction is overall lovely, but their production choices try to be as boisterous and quirky as the characters themselves, so much so it hammers home the points of self-acceptance instead of just letting it be.
Rating: ★☆☆

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