The Vancouver International Film Festival wraps with cold hearts, family disintegration, and a reality check for sexual culture.
The Zone of Interest
A new Jonathan Glazer film is a cinematic event. The first Jonathan Glazer film in ten years is a major cinematic event. A new Jonathan Glazer film about the Holocaust is a cinephile hype machine unto itself. An intriguing concept, The Zone of Interest presents the Holocaust solely through the day-to-day life of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss and his family, who lounge in their well kept garden, meters away from the extermination camp that claimed the lives of more than one million people, most of them Jews. It’s a picture perfect existence that’s as mundane as it’s twisted.
Like Höss’s family, the audience is locked outside the real Auschwitz, forced into the same beautifully framed normality that sustained everyday life in Nazi-occupied Europe. By ignoring sentimentality, Glazer demonstrates the grim reality of how boring and bureaucratic evil can be in real time, how easily it can become distant and, ultimately, fundamental. The one constant is the unavoidable sound of suffering and death, rolling in the background like a 24-hour news cycle that nobody’s watching.
This strength of The Zone of Interest is, in the grand scheme, also its weakness. Glazer’s core message is timely and effective, but it is delivered early and without subsequent thematic progression. Nazi indifference to, and perpetuation of the most despicable of crimes will always be haunting to the point of incomprehensibility, but it is also well established, both historically and in popular culture. There is nothing new here, nothing challenging or shocking beyond the fact that pure evil had (and still has) a white picket fence. Höss was a faithful stooge of the Nazi High Command and a sophisticated instrument of mass murder. The decision to focus on such a notorious psychotic without digging beneath the surface is frustrating and struggles to justify this feature length ponder.
The Zone of Interest is a fascinating idea with notable technical execution that fails to evolve beyond a sinister oil painting. Given the infinitely dissectible nature of its subject matter, it is disappointing that we end up merely watching the paint dry. Its current form would have worked better as a short. As a feature, we needed to be forced down to the psychological depths we know Glazer is capable of reaching.
Local filmmaker Meredith Hama-Brown returns to VIFF with her first feature, an emotionally raw depiction of family instability amidst a culture of underlying racism in mid-1990s British Columbia. Judith (Ally Maki) and her husband Steve (Luke Roberts) take their daughters Stephanie (Nyha Huang Breitkreuz) and Emmy (Remy Marthaller) to a couples retreat, only for the family unit to collapse under the weight of their failing marriage.
Told through the eyes of all four family members, Seagrass is a slow-burning downward spiral that spotlights race as a point of increasing tension for Judith, who, like Hama-Brown, is Japanese-Canadian. Following the death of her mother, whose spirit hangs over the family, Judith’s identity comes to the forefront in her relationships with Steve and another man at the retreat (Chris Pang), her connection to her own heritage, and the “normalised” racism she and her daughters face in their day-to-day interactions. What was considered normal in the ’90s is of course completely overt today, which makes for distressing and effective sequences as Hama-Brown explores the complex dynamic facing Judith and her girls at that moment in time. One interaction between Judith and six-year-old Emmy, though brief, is particularly upsetting, and will stay with you long after the credits roll.
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The heart of Seagrass is its dismantling of the family relationship. The sisters rarely see their parents fight, but their intuition and reaction to the brewing destruction is beautifully channeled, not only by Hama-Brown’s writing and direction, but by two outstanding performances from Huang Breitkreuz and Marthaller. A story like this hinges on its child actors, and both girls carry their scenes effortlessly, despite the challenging material. The same goes for Maki, who is utterly broken at the heart-wrenching finale, yet still has us reaching out to Judith one last time, reaching for closure that Hama-Brown wisely cuts off, leaving us adrift.
How to Have Sex
When it comes to young people and sex, every generation needs a cinematic reality check. Arriving right on time, Molly Manning Walker’s debut feature delivers a savage appraisal of how the concept of consent remains blurred and buried in modern sexual culture, with devastating effects on young women. Sixteen-year-old Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) is the focus as she and two friends seek to conquer a rite of passage for British youth: the sand, sea and sex holiday in Malia.
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A shockingly accurate portrayal of the misaligned peer and power dynamics that drive so many ill-fated sexual encounters, How to Have Sex is an assault on the senses that isn’t afraid to lock the audience inside Tara’s overwhelmed headspace. We’re bound to her when she’s on a high and remain bound to her when she is suddenly and brutally exposed. As such, everything hinges on McKenna-Bruce, who nails Tara’s physical and mental vulnerability with an engaging and highly emotive performance.
Deeply uncomfortable but altogether essential, How to Have Sex should be a discussion-starter on the realities of sexual violence amongst young people. It holds a mirror up to its audience that will offer a different reflection for everybody, and though it is challenging, its message will hopefully make a difference.