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This Is Not a War Story
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by Erik Childress

"Getting Left Behind At Home"
4 stars

“I mean, it's not just the uniform. It's the stories that you tell. So much fun and imagination.” It’s great that a film like Stripes exists to add some laughter about an institution both hoisted and demonized throughout history. Though that film meant to take shots at the hierarchy and establishment, there are many men and women who put on that uniform who cannot bring themselves to tell their own story of service, let alone describe it to us as fun. The irony of those who choose to call it not a “war” but “an occupation” thickens when you consider the recruitment ads referring to it as not just a job, but an adventure. Since the dawn of the motion picture, filmmakers have been trying to capture the experience of combat and the shrapnel of once coordinated stability seemingly provided by their armed force once they make it back home. Few have done it with as much harrowing grace as Talia Lugacy does here.

As the soundtrack chants with the lyrics of “follow me” we watch a young man hop from train to train. The yellow arrows pointing him in different directions but his footing appears decided with all the pills he is taking. He is found dead on one of those trains not long after. Will (Sam Adegoke) was his mentor and he channels his frustration in his own bottle but also a punching bag pictured with the faces of ex-presidents. He also works alongside a community of veterans who use artistic endeavours written down and painted on paper crafted out of military uniforms. Into this workshop arrives Isabelle (played by writer/director Lugacy), a Marine who has just returned home as is the only woman amongst a group of vets from Vietnam to Iraq.

The first half of the film exercises a docudrama approach to this world rather than dictating a plot, carefully working in elements of the characters that will eventually become the focus. Will’s guilt towards not being able to do more for his fellow soldier. Isabelle keeping mostly to herself but keenly aware of street cameras and the potential threat of men on a dark stretch. Lugacy’s previous film, Descent,starring Rosario Dawson (who is a producer here) documented the aftermath of a date rape and its revenge. She is smartly more subtle here reminding us of the risk women in the military have faced from those on the same team by her awareness and how someone she’s just met feels at liberty to accost her (even if only playfully) on the street.

What is so refreshing about Lugacy’s approach to the film as a whole is to not overwrite the trauma of her two leads with loud platitudes about their pain. Their horror is silent and is held within so when one of them does have a moment it catches us just as off guard. The performances by Lugacy and Adegoke are a match for this call too. Lugacy plays Isabelle as if she has to remember to breathe sometimes in-between every word and the language of every portion of her body trying to find her way to a closeness with Will is a beautiful dance of caution to not invade his space or inflame her own demons.

Adegoke (maybe best known for TV’s Dynasty reboot) also does work that demands attention from future casting directors. Again, he does not howl at the moon for attention cause who is listening anyway? Lugasy uses not the usual pops and loud bangs to trigger her characters. Instead it’s the sound of the trains that haunts them and another soldier that has been silenced. Will is a character who must realize that he cannot save everyone (and has done his share of life-taking) but helping another to find peace through art or human connection may be the goal. The build to the second half where we get to watch these two actors open up their characters is like a relief to the audience to and much of that is due to what is unspoken between them earlier.

This is not to say that is not a beautiful literacy to the screenplay which is peppered with original poetry by the veterans surrounding the two actors. We think if expressing themselves this way could get them any more latitude in qualifying for PTSD treatment from the Veteran’s Administration. Will namechecks some Hollywood movies (acclaimed award-winning ones) as “rah-rah war is good bullshit.” We could argue the merits of their intention of honoring the people who served, but why would we against somewhere who experienced in person as opposed in Dolby Digital. “Instead of being the Jedi we realized we were the stormtroopers,” Will says not for political purposes (those brief moments are critical of both parties) but as part of the emptiness of merely offering thanks for their services. Who or what were they servicing when placed into harm’s way? The thing Will says he likes about the art he is creating is because “it’s forgiving, if you fuck up you can start over.” A lot of “art” has been created in the name of war and service. Stripes did it with laughs but This Is Not A War Story is indicting with the haze of these “pawns” basically becoming POWs now in their own country and there are no Rambos to bring them all back.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=34278&reviewer=198
originally posted: 03/25/21 02:51:24
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Cinequest Film Festival For more in the 2021 Cinequest Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Talia Lugacy

Written by
  Talia Lugacy

Cast
  Sam Adegoke
  Talia Lugacy
  Frances Fisher
  Brian Delate
  P.J. Boudousqu
  Danny Ramirez



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