Kindness on film

FEB 16 — Some people believe that the whole point of indie films is to be different from Hollywood. Most of the time people take this to mean films that are extra quirky, extra saucy, extra violent, extra vulgar, extra arty and all sorts of extra they can think of. 

And that is also why the term "indie film", especially those US indie films associated with the Sundance Film Festival, has its own set of clichés, not unlike the way that Hollywood films themselves are considered clichéd.

At this stage, you can more or less describe most of the US indie films taking their bow at Sundance as either quirky, heartwarming, violent or sexy. Sometimes you can use the word "weird", but not enough of those arrive onscreen these days. 

"Original" is an even rarer word used to describe these films (you can try looking at the Cannes sidebars like Directors’ Fortnight or International Critics’ Week or other "smaller" festivals like Locarno or Rotterdam for works that can be considered "original").

But sometimes you don’t need to be extreme in the indie film world. Even the simplest of things can be rare in this increasingly jaded world. And to me, one of the rarest things to find in audience-friendly films, especially comedies, is kindness. 

Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor wrote in their book “On Kindness” that “real kindness is an exchange with essentially unpredictable consequences.” They also wrote that “it is a risk precisely because it mingles our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others.”

As much as I’ve been discouraged by the US indies in the last few years (except for films like “Daddy Longlegs”, “Putty Hill”, “Margaret”, “Win Win” and a few more I can’t recall right now), it looks like 2012 has produced a few unassuming and underrated gems like “The Sessions” and “Celeste & Jesse Forever”, both of which were unreleased here but were recently released on DVD in the US. 

Why am I singling out these two films instead of other strong US indies from 2012 like P.T. Anderson’s quite extraordinary “The Master”? Because they show kindness, that’s why.

They both more or less use the same language that Hollywood films use, but to show something different, yet in a manner that’s no harder to digest than your average Hollywood product, which I think in itself is something special already. 

“Celeste & Jesse Forever” especially is something quite special in that it is more or less your standard Hollywood rom-com from afar, but it actually charts the road that a married couple, who’ve been best friends since childhood, takes towards divorce after a six-year marriage.

It has all the standard ingredients of your typical Hollywood rom-com from the breaking up to the making up, it’s consistently funny, yet the things it shows on screen feel painfully true. In short, it’s a rom-com that doesn’t pull its punches, and if you’ve ever broken up with your best friend, and the kindness that both of you need to do so, then you’ll know how true it all feels when you watch the film. 

Cinematically it’s nothing special, as the director simply uses your standard mumblecore intimate close-ups to get us close to the characters, but this is the rare film in which it’s the script that makes it special, and kudos must go to lead actress Rashida Jones (of TV’s “Parks And Recreation”) who co-wrote it with her ex-lover and now friend Will McCormack.

Even more special though is the Sundance 2012 Audience Award winner “The Sessions”, which tells the true story of polio victim Mark O’Brien (whose article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” inspired the film) who, sensing that his time may be running out, wants to experience sexual intercourse with a woman before he dies. 

On paper it sounds exactly like the kind of disease-of-the-week pap that Sundance never fails to deliver every year. But just like the similarly humble and unpromising sounding “Win Win” from 2011, there’s a delicacy in its execution here that is nothing short of wonderful.

Helen Hunt deservedly received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod for her role as the sex surrogate or sex therapist that Mark hires to fulfil his wish, for it is the kind of nakedly honest and open-hearted performance that we very rarely see these days. 

But I feel that John Hawkes as Mark has been robbed of an Oscar nomination for his is a hugely affecting performance in which he can only move his head by 90 degrees and nothing else, but I will guarantee that you will be entirely convinced by how a bedridden guy who’s lived in an iron lung for almost his entire life, with the exception of a few hours out of it every day being pushed on a gurney by his carer/assistant, can charm the hearts and win the love of three smart and beautiful women, albeit in three different ways.

And how did he manage this? Simply by being kind, and having the luck to encounter three women who are similarly kind enough to return the favour. And to see that depicted so successfully onscreen, without even an ounce of cheesy sentimentally whilst being incredibly (and hilariously) frank about sex is something very rare indeed. 

Go seek the movies out. You know where to find them...

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.



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