A fellow film writer recently related the issues they have when having to write a negative review of a film written and directed by a woman. There is a wish to encourage audience viewership and of course more work from those under-represented in particular areas, but what does one say when they feel the text that they have to comment on is weak? Do you “soften” the blow? Do you worry that certain areas of readership will lazily chalk the text as another example of a woman/POC creative not being able to “cut the mustard”? Personally, the only true and often ugly answer is that a reviewer must be honest about the text that they have seen, and while one’s identity may heighten points in a way that others can’t, sometimes the coffee is a little too bitter, and it’s right to have things addressed.
This brings me to One Bedroom, a film in which the first few moments had me on high hopes. Warm establishing shots of Brooklyn. A slam poem – urgently narrated by DeAriesha Mack – sets the scene, and a sense of vibrancy emitting from the film, which centres around the type of relationship story often saved for a particular type of white millennial. A young couple who are on the rocks spend a day debating and deliberating on whether or not there’s anything left in the tank of their relationship.
While audiences are now lucky enough to see more prominent film and television deal with interesting and varied black relationships on screen, it’s still semi surprising and warming to see a film like One Bedroom get made. These particular themes of arrested development and search for personal and romantic purpose have been the bread and butter for a majorly white sub-section of film viewers. Especially when we consider the likes of Joe Swanberg, The Duplass Brothers and the rest of the mumblecore crew, who became lords of a certain style of lo-fi millennial soul searching which at the time may have felt eye-rollingly angsty, but also portrayed a certain honesty which came from their characters and their aimlessness.
To see One Bedroom, it’s hard not to think of it as an Afro-American version of those type of movies. There’s a bit more swagger to the characters. A little less actual shoegazing. But it’s not difficult to see the similarities. The problem with debut writer/director Darien Sills-Evans film is attention to detail. Cumbersome blocking and poorly framed/lit compositions are forgivable in the earlier mumblecore films, as the consumer-grade equipment only enhanced the aesthetic. Here with the crystal sharpness of whichever camera was used to film One Bedroom, the feature suffers.
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But the lack of focus also drifts into other areas, such as the screenplay, which references subjects such as Black Lives Matter, gentrification, and constraining nostalgia which has seemingly inhabited men between the ages of 25-35, but does little with these topics other than to highlight them as things that exist. Lead character Nate (also Sills-Evans) at one point is seen wearing a Malcolm X/Muhammed Ali t-shirt for little reason other than window dressing. The t-shirt doesn’t give insight into his character in any meaningful way but is there to give the pretence that it does. The same goes for lines of dialogue. A black couple living in a cheap, rent-controlled flat in Brooklyn perhaps needs a little more than the female love interest Melissa’s (Devin Nelson) casual aside: “Cheap rent in Brooklyn is a powerful aphrodisiac”. What’s inferred in that opening slam poem is rendered as unimportant in comparison to this couple bickering.
This would not be an issue if the film was simply stronger with its connections. In Barry Jenkins’ sharply realised Medicine for Melancholy (2008) the issue of gentrification presses on the characters so much that it becomes inescapable. Jenkins as a director is far more in charge of everything that surrounds the DNA of his story. The same goes for Spike Lee when looking at his metropolitan debut She’s Gotta Have It (1986), which borrows from Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese in terms of areas of aesthetics, yet thematically remains on point with the socio-political areas which have made Spike Lee the director he is. A film like One Bedroom doesn’t need to have such lofty goals. Not every black film needs to hold a heavy focus on the relevant themes of the day. But Sills-Evans’ drops nuggets of topics which suggest that they will influence the central relationship of the story but then end up feeling like false notes.
There’s a feeling of missed opportunity here. A sense that with a bit more polish and focus at the script stage, there could have been something a little funnier and more potent with its subject matter. However, it’s easy to see where something like One Bedroom slips when the likes of Netflix can allow Spike Lee to update and modernise She’s Gotta Have It for TV and have audiences engage with such material with a vibrancy that One Bedroom severely lacks.
Every movie is an experience, despite its flaws, it’s refreshing to see a film of One Bedroom’s type being something available to a new, young viewership. It’s also invigorating to see a film like this stick to its guns in consideration of the film’s climax when we consider what’s been observed of its characters. However, despite moderate ambitions, One Bedroom doesn’t hit the hallmarks of being a truly memorable relationship comedy. Black or White, one must be honest to the text. I’m honest to a fault and it’s my fault I’m that honest.
One Bedroom is out now on DVD and VOD.