July 2014

Double Feature Film Review: Keeping It Real

Rick Alber

Big-budget blockbusters are fine for their exciting demonstration of computer and explosive effects. But I’m drawn to personal stories that play out in a realistic, natural way, without paranormal or surrealistic plot twists. I indulged my passion for natural films this month with two flicks that tell small, but moving stories. One, a comedy, succeeds brilliantly. The other, a thriller, has its moments but ultimately falls short.

Obvious Child was written for and stars comedienne Jenny Slate. Jenny portrays Donna Stern, a stand-up comic much like herself who is brutally personal – and funny – on stage but flits through life relying on an acerbic wit, toilet humor, confidence and a silly laugh. Her Brooklyn home life unravels over a weekend when she loses her job, boyfriend, and apartment. Enter Max (Jake Lacy from The Office), a waspish, twenty-something who is button-downed where Donna is anything but. Attraction ensues, awkwardness reigns, and the film enters the well-worn rom-com terrain.

What follows is enchanting, with laugh-out-loud humor and realistic romantic turns fostered under the direction of first-time feature filmmaker Gillian Robespierre and executed by a solid cast. Much is made of an unintended pregnancy and how Donna handles the abortion decision – without moral quandary – but the film’s heart is the natural portrayal of how unexpected love can bloom. Obvious Child dances at the edge of sentimentality and bad taste, but more often than not the scenes rang true and the characters behaved like, well, real people.

Obvious Child takes its title from a Paul Simon song that highlights a raucous love-making scene and is one of several great musical selections made by Robespierre. At the end of the film I didn’t feel manipulated or offended by a tacked-on happy ending. Instead, I felt like I’d loitered with interesting people with whom I could spend another hour or two exploring the human condition. That’s what I like in films.


I had high expectations for Night Moves, a new film by Kelly Reichardt, whose previous works, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, were minimal-dialogue, thinking films that spun compelling stories out of minor events. The first half of Night Moves unwinds the interesting story of eco-terrorists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard) making preparations to bomb a small Oregon dam. The technical details required for bomb-making and execution are featured; the motivations of the activists much less so. Small asides and fragments of conversation provide context for the events and reveal some of the characters’ thoughts. Reichardt shows confidence that the viewer will deduce the details; she’s mostly right.

Night Moves gets tripped up in its second half, after the bombing preparation. The activists, particularly Josh (Eisenberg), have to deal with risky complications and forge a new, unexpected relationship. While the acting is steady, the lost, ambiguous portrayal of Josh in the first half of the film works against the plot line in the second. No actor does deep-thinking concern and angst better than Jesse Eisenberg, but his portrayal of the brooding, silent, Josh comes off as shallow. Josh is the pivotal character for the events after the bombing, but even after an intimate hour together I didn’t know enough about what drives him to care deeply. 

Night Moves retains its grounding in reality though out, helped by graceful, leisurely camera pans and eerie ambient music. Production values are high, even on a shoestring budget. If the story presented characters that seized our hearts or made a strong political statement for or against eco-terrorism, I might consider it a strong success. As it is, rent it for the acting and don’t expect much more than that.

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