The BFI London Film Festival 2012 starts tomorrow, and if you haven’t bought tickets yet, it’s not too late. There are still tickets left for many films, including the ones reviewed here. While neither of the following films is a masterpiece, both are engaging, and you’ll leave the cinema feeling you’ve seen something a little out of the ordinary.
Celeste and Jesse Forever (dir. Lee Toland Krieger) is part of the festival’s comedy section (this year given the annoyingly imperative title ‘Laugh’). For those who believe that everyone has one true soulmate, Celeste and Jesse is more tragi-comedy than laugh-a-minute. For the less romantic, those who believe that you can muddle along with one of any number of roughly compatible partners, Celeste and Jesse will be a bittersweet comedy.
The film’s premise is original: Celeste and Jesse are a young married couple who have recently separated. Professional trend forecaster Celeste wants someone more career-oriented than Jesse, a laid-back artist. In spite of their incompatible aspirations, the couple still consider themselves ‘best friends’ and spend all their time together. Meanwhile, their other friends are starting to berate them for being ‘weird’: they think Celeste should either get back together with Jesse, since they still get along so well, or cut him loose and let him get on with his life. When Jesse starts dating, Celeste thinks she’s completely fine with it. But you can almost hear the stentorian movie trailer voice intoning the cliché: ‘Sometimes…you don’t know what you’ve got…until it’s gone’ (cue images of Celeste’s face with a tragic expression). While this particular theme is hackneyed, the film’s script is not: there are a lot of jokes and situational comedy here that you won’t have seen or heard before, and the film doesn’t offer a facile happy ending like a Hollywood movie.
Although its original idea and attention to script seems to give Celeste and Jesse an affinity with independent cinema, its visual style and ideology make it not much different to standard romantic comedy: filmed in classical continuity style, with strong production values, a story centred on amusingly inept men and the pretty and accomplished women who become attached to them, plus one female best friend and one gay best friend to give advice and comfort. As in mainstream romantic comedy, the underlying assumptions about gender are conservative: Celeste and Jesse presents a stereotyped model of women as attractive on the surface but materialist and bitchy underneath, while men are sexual opportunists who are otherwise innocent and well-intentioned. Despite being educated and successful in their careers, and having a good support network of friends and family, what women really need (according to the romantic comedy) is a man to admire and protect them.
As a directorial debut, My Brother the Devil (dir. Sally El Hosaini) is impressive. Set in London’s poor housing estates, the film centres on two brothers and their difficult relationship with local street gangs, which seem to offer money and prestige while insidiously drawing their members into a world of violence and death. The title is misleading, as neither of the brothers is really such a ‘devil’. The film does involve a predictable reversal, though, regarding which brother is the supposed devil, and the festival’s synopsis of the film promises a ‘secret’ which, given the context, you will probably be able to guess. Although the film occasionally loses its momentum, and the character development can feel a little abrupt, the film offers a fresh perspective on a milieu that many viewers won’t know much about.
When making a film about the most underprivileged neighbourhoods and their residents, it is almost too easy to make a film that shows the worst things imaginable and leaves the audience feeling crushed. It takes more skill to look social problems in the face and still leave the audience with a feeling of hope, as El Hosaini does, especially when this is achieved without presenting an over-simplified explanation for those problems, or easy answers for dealing with them. Subtly, the film shows that even kids from happy homes can go bad. The brothers’ father is a bus driver, and their mother appears to stay home; they interact with their children regularly, acting as both loving parents and authority figures. Problems arise between the two brothers because Mo, the younger one, naturally looks up to the older Rashid, who naively thinks he can guide Mo away from the gangs while being a member of one himself. The film demonstrates the importance of role models, especially relatively young ones who understand the dynamics of gangs and have successfully distanced themselves from that world.
Complementing the film’s hopeful ending, the director’s particular way of framing London’s estates gives them the dignity of portraiture. Rather than simply recording an environment that exists in reality, the film captures a fictional character’s particular vision and experience of London, transforming a less-then-savoury area into a space of wonder and possibility. The wonder of youth discovering new ideas, the happiness and security of being surrounded by family, the pleasure of new friendships, the joy of play and laughter: all are qualities that transfer themselves to an environment, making it appear less bleak, even locating the beauty within it.