Back Row Thoughts – Growing Up

We’re a day away from the Academy announcing the shortlists for the specialty categories, most prominently International Feature and Documentary Feature. As such, it’s only appropriate to take a look at a couple of films that may have their names called tomorrow, one from each category. Both of these movies are quite good, so you may wonder why I’m not giving them full reviews. Well, honestly it’s because both of them are very straightforward, and by extension, I really don’t have all that much to say. I typically default to a full review if I can get at least 10 paragraphs out of it, ideally 12-15. Longer reviews will go 18-24.

But if it takes less than eight to get the point across, I prefer to lump several together, particularly if there’s a theme I can use to link them. In this case, it’s childhood, as one entry is taken completely from the point of view of its young star, while the other is about people who guide new life into the world as we watch them grow and mature as individuals. Still, don’t let the fact that I’m pairing them off be an implication that either of these movies is subpar. It’s more that I don’t want to try to pad out a post for the sake of my own verbosity.

The Quiet Girl

Ireland’s entry for International Feature is one that will bring a tear to your eye on more than one occasion, thanks to its tender, loving approach to one of the more rich story veins of the culture. Steeped in the grandest traditions of Irish drama, the debut for writer/director Colm Bairéad is that perfect blend of melancholic and hopeful that you don’t often see in domestic cinema, but is a core aspect of the literary foundations of the Land of Poetry.

Set in the early 80s, the film stars Catherine Clinch in her first role as Cáit, a middle child in a large family of Irish farmers. Already poor and unable to properly care for their litter – with another on the way as the story begins – Cáit, who is very soft-spoken and withdrawn, is taken by her neglectful father Dan (Michael Patric) to Waterford, where she is to spend the summer living with distant cousins, the childless Eibhlín and Seán (Carrie Crowley and Andrew Bennett). Happy for the company – and quietly shaming their relations for even considering leaving their child with strangers – the two provide Cáit with the first truly loving home that she’s ever known.

The plot is very by-the-numbers, including the clues to the so-called twist at the end of the second act (when Eibhlín and Cáit agree that there will be “no secrets” in the house, you already know where things are headed), but it’s still presented about as well as can be done. Clinch is an absolute darling, conveying more with her forlorn eyes than most of the dialogue she’s given. Her fear, shame, and endless capacity for empathy and affection all shine through as the story progresses, to the point that when she delivers her final line, it’s all you can do not to sob. Crowley and Bennett also fit well into their archetypes, with Eibhlín serving as a doting surrogate mother and Seán being initially gruff and stern, but revealing his own soft spots as events unfold.

I studied Irish drama in Dublin for a summer abroad when I was in college, and these are character types and themes that show up a lot. Our main trio serve as avatars for the core themes of the young nation (remember, it’s only been [mostly] independent for about a century): a protective mother, a hardworking father, and a small but mighty voice ready to announce itself to the world if given the proper space. The family unit is also central to the form, be it a strong, loving one like Cáit joins or one filled with conflict and abuse like the one she temporarily escapes. A good deal of identity is tied to the land, which is why both families own farms, one getting by and the other not, their successes and failures reflecting on them as people. Small, insular communities where gossip can wound more than bullets are prominent. You see these images and symbols throughout the works of James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Oliver Goldsmith, Frank McCourt, Edna O’Brien, and of course, Claire Keegan, who wrote the novella, Foster, upon which this is based. The way Colm Bairéad handles it, showcasing the beauty in some darkness and the pure goodness of its protagonist, is what makes it stand out.

If you’re looking for something simple and heartfelt, this is an ideal entry. It gets the point across succinctly with a relatable story that’s shot beautifully and acted superbly. Ireland has never gotten a nomination for International Feature, and has only been shortlisted once (2015’s Viva, which was in Spanish rather than Gaelic). I sincerely hope it at least makes the first cut, because this is the type of small, earnest film that deserves to be seen by audiences the world over.

Grade: B+

Midwives

Currently available on PBS, Midwives is nominated for Best Documentary at the Independent Spirit Awards, and has already won a special jury prize at Sundance. One would assume it has something of an inside track to the shortlist and maybe even an Oscar nomination for Documentary Feature, but even if it doesn’t receive those accolades, it’s worth your time thanks to the nuanced view it gives us of a nation in turmoil thanks to the narrow lens of its subjects.

Filmed from 2016 to 2021 in the state of Rakhine in Myanmar, the movie focuses on Hla and Nyo Nyo, two young midwives working in a private clinic owned by the former. For several years before the events of the film, Rakhine was a diverse community where Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims lived in relative peace. However, since 2016, the military junta encouraged sectarian violence and genocide against Muslims, culminating in last year’s coup that ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and installed General Min Aung Hlaing as the head of a military dictatorship.

The swift scapegoating of Muslims in the community is part of what motivated director Hnin Ei Hlaing to make the film in the first place. Born in Rakhine, she later moved to Berlin, but retained memories of peace in the region, so learning of the discord and discrimination informed her decision to return home and make the film. Part of that bigotry is laid bare fairly early, as the reason for Hla’s clinic getting so much business is because Muslims are forbidden from traveling within the country, even to neighboring villages. Hla is willing to treat expectant Muslims regardless of their faith, and brings in Nyo Nyo as an apprentice because she too is Muslim, but at the same time she casually tosses out racial slurs and deals in microaggressions.

The crux of the film is in showing just how well the two can get along, and also just how hard it is to progress while civil war is breaking out all around them. Nyo Nyo has ambitions to smuggle herself to Yangon so she can attend nursing school, but abandons those plans once she becomes pregnant herself. She then decides to strike out on her own and open her own clinic with the help of a local Rohingya co-op, which Hla snidely derides with much the same language that was once prominently used to disparage Jewish people as “money-lenders.” Hla openly supports Nyo Nyo’s attempts to make something of herself, but there’s also an ethnocentrism to her where she feels entitled to mock, criticize, and expect gratitude for deigning to allow her societal lesser to even have an opportunity.

A lot of the film deals in these sly contradictions. Hla helps Nyo Nyo while also levying low-grade racism. Bombs explode in the distance and protestors march in the streets while the miracle of childbirth continues unabated. Highly literal patriotic songs play in the background while atrocities are committed on the screen.

But most importantly, this is a story about two women who bring children into the world, and we’re being shown how they grow as people in the process. For Nyo Nyo, it’s all about coming into her own, finding something that makes her feel happy and fulfilled (not to mention safe – the director has intimated that there are escape contingencies in place should the film be leaked to Burmese authorities, thus putting Nyo Nyo’s life in danger). For Hla, there’s a mixture of an older sister who’s proud of her junior’s accomplishments while also being jealous and petulant that the attention isn’t always on her. One is maturing while the other stagnates. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition.

If I have one complaint it’s that we don’t see enough of our leads. To be clear, they’re all over the film, nearly every sequence featuring one or both of them. But there’s not much in the way of true personality or process to their work. They simply go about it, and report to the camera in matter-of-fact ways. That’s all well and good, but it does lead to a few moments where I struggled to pay attention, and that shouldn’t have happened, especially when you consider how much extra both women have to do over the course of the story. In addition to providing maternal care, they also act as saleswomen, bankers, teachers, and oh yeah, actual mothers themselves. They’re bringing human beings into the world, and at times serving as every character type in a modern family, and yet somehow, there are areas where it comes off as boring because it’s all so rote to them. Maybe that’s the point, that they’re so used to doing everything that it all just runs together for them, but if so, that ennui only translates as random instances of tedium, and it then becomes hard to follow along or get invested. It doesn’t happen often, but it does pop up enough times to be noticeable.

Grade: B+

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen these films? What are your favorite docs of the year so far? Seriously, how gorgeous is Ireland? Let me know!

2 thoughts on “Back Row Thoughts – Growing Up

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