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Films I Neglected To Review: True Stories?

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/27/19 00:24:27

Please enjoy short reviews of "Family," "JT LeRoy" and "Stockholm."

''Family'' may mark the feature debut of writer-director Lara Steinel but with the exception of its aggressively pro-Juggalo agenda in the later stages, there is nothing in this formulaic indie comedy that you have not seen at least a dozen times before. Taylor Schilling stars as Kate, a hedge-fund manager who is so laser-focused on her career that she is unwilling or unable to engage in even the most basic elements of social interaction. Her life of comfortable isolation is upended when she is forced to go out to the suburbs for the night to watch over her 11-year-old niece, Maddie (Bryn Vale) when her brother and his wife have to attend to a family emergency. When the one night stretches out to an entire week, Kate gradually begins to realize that Maddie is unhappy with the decisions that her parents have made for her in a misguided attempt to help her make friends and fit in—including ballet lessons and mandatory attendance at an upcoming school dance—and encourages the girl to start pursuing things that she is more interested in, including karate and an oddball boy who is a Juggalo, one of the Faygo-chugging followers of the rock group Insane Clown Posse, a fanbase that combine the odder aspects of Deadheads and members of the KISS Army.

For all of its talk about following your own path and whatnot, ''Family'' is a film that seems almost obscenely eager to follow the formulas laid down by predecessors like ''Little Miss Sunshine.'' Other than the Juggalo stuff--which doesn’t really add much of anything of substance to the proceedings and which feels more like an ICP PSA than anything else--every single element seems to have taken directly from a screenwriting template and not even its aggressively quirky nature can take away from that overly familiar feeling. That said, while the film as a whole does not amount to much, it isn’' too painful to watch thanks to the efforts of its game cast. Schilling, for example, is playing a character that never feels like anything other than a writer's construct but she still manages to wring more laughs out of the increasingly hackneyed material than one might expect. More importantly, she and Vale develop a nice chemistry in their scenes together that make you wish that they could break out of the narrative rut and go off on their own tangent. There are also amusing supporting turns from Brian Tyree Henry as an understanding karate instructor and Kate McKinnon as the neighborhood tyrant-next-door. These performances are all good and amusing but they never quite keep you from having the sense that ''Family'' is less a movie and more like an extended sitcom pilot that did not get picked up for any number of very good reasons.

The story of JT LeRoy, who became a literary phenomenon about twenty years ago with a trio of books inspired by a horrific and abusive childhood at the hands of his monstrous truck-stop prostitute mother until it was discovered that he did not actually exist, has been recounted so many times in so many different mediums that anyone even attempting to tell it again had better have a really good hook to hang it on. At first, ''JT LeRoy'' would seem to have just the right kind of hook by recruiting two of the best American actresses around, Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern, to portray the key players in the saga but even their best efforts cannot quite sell the same old story again. As the film opens, Savanah Knoop (Stewart) arrives in California to live with brother Geoffrey (Jim Sturgess) and his wife, Laura Albert (Dern) and has barely moved in when the latter confesses a secret. She is the real author of LeRoy's acclaimed books and has even been doing phone interviews posing as the writer. Now at a point where Leroy's alleged reclusiveness is beginning to attract suspicion, Laura asks Savannah, who possesses just the right androgynous look and retiring attitude to match the character, to pose as LeRoy for photo sessions and other public appearances. Savannah, who is still in the process of trying to figure out who she really is, agrees and begins to enjoy taking on this new persona, especially when a glamorous European film star (Diane Kruger) begins pursuing her in the hopes of acquiring the film rights to LeRoy's work. Laura, on the other hand, begins chafing over not being able to take credit for her own creation and tensions between the two begin to build before the inevitable collapse of the entire house of cards.

While the sheer weirdness of the story may be of some interest to viewers who are going into it with no prior knowledge of the whole strange saga, those with some familiarity with the details are likely to find the film to be a strangely frustrating misfire thanks to a couple of key flaws that cripple it right from the start. The first problem is that the film was co-written by Knoop and was based on her memoir of the affair, inevitably leading to a skewed perspective that attempts to position that Knoop was an equal contributor to the creation of JT LeRoy in regards to how that fake persona helped to guide and inspire fans who were going through their own personal identity issues but was a complete innocent when it came to all of the immoral and illegal details. (Yes, the 2016 documentary ''Author: The JT LeRoy Story' told the story primarily from Albert's perspective but she came off so awkwardly there that the film felt oddly balanced after all.) The other problem with the film is that it doesn’t really have anything new or interesting to add to the story to warrant another retelling--considering that we are at a point when the discussion about who has the moral, ethical and literary right to tell the stories of specific subcultures is of particular interest, the way that it shies away from that perspective is especially frustrating. The performances from Stewart and Dern are good, as are the supporting turns by Kruger (thought her character is undermined throughout by the fact that even though she is clearly supposed to be playing Asia Argento, who did make a movie out of LeRoy's ''The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things,'' she has been reconceived as a generic European starlet, presumably for legal reasons) and Courtney Love as a suspicious Hollywood producer, but they don’t go far enough to illuminate what drove these people to do what they did. ''JT LeRoy'' is a film that clearly hopes to go down as the final word on its particular and peculiar subject and if we are lucky, it will be.

Many films over the years have discussed the concept known as ''Stockholm Syndrome,'' the idea that hostage find themselves bonding psychologically and emotionally with the captors as an ostensibly subconscious survival technique. ''Stockholm,'' however, not only deals (albeit loosely) with the very case that gave the phenomenon its name but appears at times to be suffering from the very same condition. Set in 1973, the film stars Ethan Hawke as Lars Nystrom (not the man’s name in real life), who one day single-handedly stormed into a Stockholm bank, took numerous hostages and demanded money, a free path to escape and the release of a jailed friend (Mark Strong) in exchange for his prisoners. As the ordeal unfolds and the cops try to figure out how to bring the incident to a close, Lars proves to be not as tough-minded as he pretends to be and finds himself growing increasingly close to one of his captives, bank teller Bianca (Noomi Rapace), even though he finds himself forced to shoot her at one point to prove to the police that he means business. (Don’t worry--he does it in the nicest way possible.)

Right at the start, writer-director Robert Budreau announces that ''Stockholm'' is based on a ''true but absurd'' story but never gets around to demonstrating why he felt a need to tell it. Instead, he seems more interested in treating the whole thing as some kind of mild farce that is more interested in the oddball period details than in the story proper. That is especially true in the case of Hawke's character, who is such an off-putting dope throughout that the entire notion of his captives siding with him, even subconsciously, seems like a joke more than anything else. The movie essentially gives him a pass for his misdeeds by positioning him as some kind of adorable holy fool in over his head but unlike, say, Al Pacino in the similarly themed ''Dog Day Afternoon,'' it completely fails in its attempt to place him in a convincingly sympathetic light. After a while, ''Stockholm'' itself begins to feel like an ordeal but it is unlikely that its victims--sorry, viewers--will wind up on its side by the time it concludes.

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