These Are the Rules (2014)

Pain, anguish and confusion are at the heart of this Croatian film about two low-income parents who are incapable of coping with tragedy. 

These Are the RulesCroatia
3*

Director:
Ognjen Sviličić

Screenwriter:
Ognjen Sviličić

Director of Photography:
Crystel Fournier

Running time: 75 minutes

Original title: Takva su pravila

Perhaps the best way to create tension is to have a character ask those questions that we, the viewers, are also thinking but that we know cannot be answered, at least not by those in the scene. In Croat director Ognjen Sviličić’s absolutely heart-wrenching These Are the Rules, a mother and father have to deal as best they know how with the sudden death of their only son, Tomica (Hrvoje Vladisavljević). The mother, Maja, keeps asking very basic questions that the father, Ivo, cannot answer, and this frustration ultimately leads to an arbitrary act of catharsis for them, but not for us.

The 17-year-old Tomica is consistently unwilling to share his life with his parents, who have grown used to him being holed up in his room. He gets beaten up and chooses to hide his bruises from his parents, especially the overprotective Maja, but he eventually relents and lets them take him to the doctor, even though he initially scoffs at his mother’s suggestion of getting stitches. But soon he falls into a coma and then into an eternal sleep, and we quickly come to share the parents’ sense of despair at this predicament they are in because their son sought to shield them from what seemed like unnecessary worries.

The rest of the film is relentlessly bleak, and the dread that starts to set in following Tomica’s hospitalisation at the end of the first act is easily on par with the emotion evoked by a similar plotline in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. In the case of Sviličić’s film, however, there is no dramatic breather provided by cutting away to other stories, and the knot in the pit of our stomachs never goes away.

Ivo and Maja are low-income Croats living on the outskirts of Zagreb. Ivo is a bus driver, while Maja appears to be unemployed. They reveal themselves to be out of their depth when it comes to not only handling their son’s secretive behaviour but also searching for meaning following a tragedy like the one they are thrust into when their son passes out while drawing a bath. Sometimes, the setting is to blame (overcrowded hospital waiting rooms, especially, as well as medical personnel who blatantly – and in this case, fatally – disregard the urgency of their patients’ conditions), but at other times they simply do not have the experience to ask the right questions. Their lack of engagement is not directly to blame for their son’s untimely demise, but it makes the process of coping so much more difficult, because there are no satisfying answers when they don’t know which questions to ask or whom to ask for help.

It is entirely understandable that the events leave them in shock, and the father’s decision to tell people things are not particularly serious is a lie whose purity of purpose the viewer should recognise (and sympathise with) immediately. But his and his wife’s inaction in the face of trauma leave us pining for help to arrive. They visit the police station to report the attack on their son, but instead of explaining the severity of their situation, they relate the events calmly to the officer and leave without any real prospect of a serious investigation. The same happens at the hospital and at the morgue, where they receive life-changing news without any detailed explanation or advice from a professional. Their response is always either to be inactive or to talk around the problem by asking questions that are inconsequential.

Despite the director’s well-chosen approach of frustrating the viewer with traumatic stasis, however, the climax is wholly unsatisfying because it plays out more like a dream than the grim reality full of obstacles we have come to expect. While the violence in the final act makes sense on paper, it is committed in a void: a public space that someone has no witnesses that could incriminate the aggressor. It is a fantasy, and its inclusion in the film goes against the pain and confusion at the core of the film.

Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2016.

Boyhood (2014)

Childhood and adolescence are explored in film that was shot over more than 10 years with the same cast.

boyhoodUSA
3*

Director:
Richard Linklater

Screenwriter:
Richard Linklater

Directors of Photography:
Lee Daniel

Shane Kelly

Running time: 160 minutes

Sprawling but not unwieldy, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood takes the eventful but not overly dramatised life of an ordinary teenager from a broken home to construct an epic tale of one boy’s slow transition to manhood. His role models – a mother whose many husbands always end up drinking the relationship into calamity and a father who doesn’t hold a steady job and seems to be entirely carefree – don’t have the strongest or the most ambitious personalities in the world, but they form him nonetheless in their own ways.

Linklater shot the film over an unusually lengthy period of time (from 2002 until 2013), using the same trio of actors at its core: Ellar Coltrane as Mason Jr., Lorelei Linklater as his older sister, Samantha, and Patricia Arquette as their mother, Olivia. Ethan Hawke also features in many of the scenes as the children’s biological father, Mason Sr., who has already divorced Olivia by the time we meet them all in the opening scenes.

Obviously, Boyhood’s peculiar production schedule is the primary reason many readers will be intrigued to watch it. But another, related rationale better explains the attraction to the film: The process of aging has been compressed into 160 minutes, and time flows much more quickly, perhaps too quickly, as we come to realise towards the end, when we sympathise with Olivia during the most heartrending moments of the production.

While it lasts, as Marcus Jr. says, the present is “always right now”: That is what we deal with. It is only at the end of a sequence of these moments that we can take a step back and consider the history of our lives, however long or short they might be, and appreciate the people who have been there with us through it all.

But the first act already points towards a life of memories that might not be shown but are unequivocally present in the lives of the characters. It is a powerful moment when the family ups and moves from their small town to Houston, selling their house and repainting the inside, including the years of pen markings of the children’s heights in the door frame that vanish with the stroke of a brush.

With a title like Boyhood, one would expect the focus to be solely on Marcus Jr., but the importance of his mother’s turbulent life, tied to and impacting his own, becomes more and more clear as the film progresses. Despite the many years of them living together, the inevitable cutting of the chord still comes as a punch to the stomach, as we realise she has kind of been taken for granted.

The film contains many beautiful moments, perhaps the best of which is captured in a long, unbroken take (calling to mind the work Linklater did with Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunset, the opposite of this film in that it took place in a single afternoon) between Marcus Jr., walking back from school, and a girl on a bicycle next to him. The girl is teasing out Marcus’s feelings for one of her friends, Lee Anne, but in the process of a single camera take, we see these two actually ought to strike up a relationship. The moment is comparable to a short but strong exchange in You, Me and Everyone We Know, as we see an entire world can change within the space of a few words exchanged between people who were strangers when the shot started.

Overall, however, the film has a meandering quality that many viewers might find frustrating. We don’t have any sense that the story is going anywhere, except that time is passing, and everyone is growing older. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but in terms of content, there is no clear issue that needs to be resolved or question that needs to be answered.

Many would argue this is what life is like, and that may be true, but Boyhood would have benefited from having a tighter focus on the narrative as it relates directly and visibly to the development of Mason’s character. Furthermore, Mason is simply too nice to relate to, especially over such an extended period of time. He never seems to do anything he feels bad about, or anything that embarrasses him. A scene with bullies at school goes nowhere, and Linklater patches up the boy’s frustration with his drunken stepfather’s decision with ellipses that show off spectacular scenes of conflict rather than seething scenes of anger, which are sorely missed by their absence.

It is also understandable and even commendable that Linklater didn’t show too much of his own daughter growing up (she plays Mason’s sister), but we lose any indication that she has much of a relationship with her brother, a bond that could have supported or undermined the boy in a way that would almost certainly have been successful with the audience.

Boyhood may be original, even unique, in its treatment of the teenage years of a single character by the same actor, but the final product feels too much like a documentary about a mostly ordinary family, leaving us with the question why the director felt so compelled to tell their story. Yes, people grow old and experience ups and downs, and usually they don’t grow as wise as the other movies tend to suggest. Is that an insight that warrants a running time of 160 minutes? Time will tell.

Viewed at the 2014 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival