Reviews: The Fan: Empathy, Mutual Wavelengths, Wounded Boys, and Points of View

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by Carole McDonnell

fan-200Happy New Year to my fellow lovers of fantastic stories. I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season and I’m wishing you a healthy and happy 2015.

On to my reviews:

There I was lying on the floor ready to toss a book with great force across the room when I had a sudden realization. I, Carole McDonnell, Black person, Christian, mother of two boys, with both a Muslim BFF and a Latina BFF, and animal lover extraordinaire, had not reviewed many YA books or films for teenaged boys. Or animal stories. Or Christian spec-fiction. Or Muslim spec-fic. Or Latina spec-fic.

I went on a search and ordered quota-qualifying books from publishers and other sources that feed my ravenous book-reading appetite. Some have arrived and are in the middle of being read, others have yet to arrive. But let me tell you: I found out I am not easy to please when it comes to spec-fic YA for boys. (Well, I’m not easy to please about a lot of books.) I must’ve begun and tossed six books and the equal number of films. Seriously… if I see one more super-human fated savior-child or one more haunted house (or haunted child) I will give up on my belief that American writers can write a good hero-in-training novel or ghost story. Okay, Disney’s How To Build a Better Boy was kinda cute and reminiscent of the Japanese and Korean dramas, Absolute Boyfriend. And Werewolf: The Beast Among Us was pretty good until it went all corny and romantic. Darn it, who goes around forgiving a werewolf who has murdered pert near everyone in the village?

Anyway, more books are arriving soon, so I have hope. For stories about boys, I could only think of Dark Eden and A Werewolf Boy offhand. Herewith my attempt to balance that situation. Here then are the films that survived and made it to my review:

badook-300wThe Babadook; Jan 17 2014. Australian. Causeway Films. Director: Jennifer Kent. Written by: Jennifer Kent. Essie Davis as Amelia, Noah Wiseman as Sam.

The Babadook is a slow burn. But it is a compelling watch. I generally am very choosy about horror films. I like a good scare. I like the supernatural done well and with validity. But I also want horror films to have meaning. As I was looking around for spec-fic films that fit into this month’s theme, I found The Babadook. The poster didn’t exactly grab me but I’m glad I went ahead and watched it. I think it’ll become one of my favorite films of this year.

The story concerns Amelia and her son Sam. Seven years before the story begins, Amelia went into labor with Sam. Her hubby was racing them to the hospital and got into an accident. Hubby died, and a baby is no substitute for a dead husband. Or a dead brother. Growing up fatherless with blame hovering over one’s very existence could be daunting but Sam is a sweet, well-adjusted kid who absolutely adores his mother although he is a bit too precocious, honest, and energetic for those in his community — school, and family. And it certainly doesn’t help matters that he sees a Babadook under his bed, in his closet, and sometimes even in school or in the family car.

Okay, kids see things. In this case, Sam sees the Babadook. Whether it’s their imagination or some childlike ability to suss out the supernatural. It’s up to the parent to figure out what all is happening. Kids often can’t express the pain or powerlessness they feel, but Sam is incredibly good at expressing himself. Much to everyone’s annoyance. He is the innocent child who mentions the elephant that Mom — and the world around her — is pretending is not in the room. That is: the sorrowful past and the terrifying, isolating presence. And as the picture book on the Babadook tells us, Babadooks feed on denial.

There’s a very melancholy subtext in this film. Mom’s solitariness and grief, the kid’s futile stress that he isn’t believed. The world’s happy belief that pain goes away and that with a little help orphans, grieving people, neglected housebound old women, and disadvantaged women can be helped to return to life.

The Babadook is a supernatural horror flick that is also psychological horror. The Babadook monster clearly exists so lovers of the supernatural will be satisfied. But this is also a psychological film because the Babadook is the shadow of a repressed committed-to-life-and-happiness culture that doesn’t want to recognize grief. The Babadook is what happens when a society worships the idea of closure and closes away uncomfortable emotions. In such societies, the folks appointed to help the discomfited are useless. The medical profession provides debilitating anti-anxiety drugs for Sam. The Australian version of Social Services are threatening to take Sam away. And family just doesn’t want to deal with the wounded.

The ending of The Babadook is satisfying both supernaturally and psychologically. Some may speculate that the experiences were all in Amelia’s head, but there were some occasions when the Babadook caused problems when Amelia was nowhere near her son. And we all know that demons love attacking the mentally ill. And every demon conqueror knows that any flesh and blood human can tell an evil spirit entity when it’s trespassing. And most folks who’ve gone through grief and hurt understand that there is a place for the acknowledged shadow in our lives… and that acknowledging that shadow and encountering it leads to peace and greater skill at the magic of life. The stand-out performance is Noah Wiseman, the child actor who is not only imperiled but who is determined to take on the Babadook before Mom’s meltdown leads to murder-suicide. I really loved this film. It made me remember that art and writing is about healing, and healing is about being honest. Good, good film! This is going to become a lifelong favorite and I highly recommend it.

dark-skies-300wDark Skies; American; Feb 22, 2013; 97 minutes; sci-fi-horror; Written and Directed by Scott Stewart; Entertainment One; Josh Hamilton as Daniel, Keri Russell as Lacy, Kadan Rockett as Sam, Dakota Goyo as Jesse.

The main protagonists of this film are not kids. But kids figure prominently.

Little Sam has been dreaming of The Sandman and seeing him in real life in his bedroom. His parents (Mom the successful real-estate salesperson and Dad the stressed unemployed job-seeker) comfort him but they don’t believe him. Strange things happen in the house but the cops find a logical reason to comfort the family. Strange things happen outside the house — and on the kids’ bodies — but (again) the adults (inside and outside the family) come up with answers that are “normal” or based on limited human “logic.” (Again, the medical world can only offer meds and protection.) More and more strange stuff happens and finally the wearing down of human rationalism occurs. And about time! It’s all too late, of course. Too late for the family, and too late for the audience who knew all along.

I totally get it. Believing what other people say is hard. It requires humility. Not that unbelievers are prouder than the average person. But setting one’s own limited logical mind aside and deciding to trust that someone telling you about the supernatural is actually, intelligent, honest, and sane…can be difficult. Even if that person is your child.

But really, isn’t this kind of unbelief based on a limited logical belief system kinda normal? What is this drama saying about unbelief that Jaws didn’t say? At least Jaws honed in and focused on unbelief based on greed. I wanted to give Dark Skies a chance. I’ll give any story a chance if there’s a good psychological subtext to it.

I kept wondering if this film was going to go… ya know… deeper. What did the alien mean? Was the story about Daniel’s ineffectualness, since he’s been jobless and all? Was it about houses and what happens behind closed doors? Were we seeing an allegory about kids being stressors or about the way we see ourselves as “normal” and other people as “different” or “crazy”? Was it about our lack of ability to empathize with someone we have decided is different? I seriously went through the gamut of questions and then… I realized this story was going down the wholly unoriginal path of a typical alien abduction story. And when we got to the scene with the expert loner researcher giving our besieged couple advice, my heart sank. I probably would have loved it if the characters’ suffering was better depicted. I don’t know if it’s the predictability of American plotting or the shallowness of the storyline. Seriously, this story skims the surface. Which it should not have because it seemed to promise more at the outset.

Dark Skies is okay. It doesn’t touch the soul, though. But it’s not a total loss. Few films really are. It’s good to be reminded yet again that empathy and humility go together and that humans show their lack of empathy by continually coming up with a logical reason for not believing what desperate people are saying. So, that’s something. But really, The Babadook did that much better.

in-your-eyes-poster300wIn Your Eyes; April 20, 2014; 105 minutes. American. Fantasy-Rom-Com; Writer, Joss Whedon; Director, Brin Hill; Zoe Kazan as Rebecca; Michael Stahl-David as Dylan.

Okay…this movie started off reaaaalllly slow. There was a heck of a lot of meaningful talking. And there was this whiff of pretentious high concept indie preciousness that I had to get past. But dangnabbit, after a while I got into it because it’s a love story and I’m a sucker for romances. Add the speculative fiction element and I’m good to go.

The story begins with Rebecca and Dylan as kids. For reasons they don’t know, they get seizures, or they fall down, or they black out. What they don’t know until about twenty minutes into the film (when they’re adults) is that they see — and are affected by — events in each other’s lives. Now adults — our heroine is married to an unsympathetic husband, and our hero is an ex-con — the connection gets stronger. They begin hearing each other’s voices and they realize they’re able to see, feel, hear, smell, and taste what the other is sensing. Of course, he builds her confidence and she is the purity and innocence he needs. Five seconds after seeing the adult version of these kids I knew this heroine needed rescuing. (Yeah, I know… but go along with it; it’s a romance, after all. Besides, her innocence and neediness rescues his soul as well.)

Of course there are a few struggles to overcome. The aforementioned unempathetic, arrogant, workaholic, husband cares about Rebecca’s mental health. (Again, the possibility of meds rears its head.) And Dylan’s an ex-con. Are ex-cons ever free from temptation? And then there is the fact that if one has perfect telepathic empathetic communication with someone else, your significant others are not going to measure up well. Eventually these two fall in love and — if I may say so — it appears that sex with a telepathic partner who sees, feels, hears, smells everything you do seems like the best sex of all.

This film is definitely a working out of a “what if” speculative concept. For better and for worse. There are some great moments of organic storytelling. But it doesn’t get as deeply into its subject as it could have. It’s cute, but it is pretty much a date movie.

frequencies-300wFrequencies; (original title: OXV: The Manual); 125 minutes; Australian; 2013; Writer/Director, Darren Paul Fisher, Daniel B. Fraser as Zak; Eleanor Wyld as Marie; science fiction, alternate world, romance.

This film reminded me a little bit of Primer and of Vantage Point. In an alternate world there exists the science of frequency. Over the centuries, the Powers That Be have discovered that one’s destiny — luck, love, prosperity, and general happiness — are all linked to certain frequencies. Zak (Daniel B. Fraser ) has a low frequency, and falls in love with the high-frequency Marie (Eleanor Wyld). The basic truth of this world is that “Knowledge is destiny.” Zak’s school tests forecast a meh destiny but he will have emotion and the ability to love. Marie, with her extreme high frequency and higher intelligence, is not connected to her emotions because extreme intelligence pushes emotions out of the equation. Unfortunately, through a series of events which began in childhood, Zak has fallen in love with Marie. The Powers That Be are not exactly against romances between people from different frequencies, but there are cultural prejudices, the fabric of the world reacts badly when such extreme frequencies meet, and Marie is just utterly incapable of falling in love.

But Zak — determined, lovelorn low-achiever that he is supposed to be — is determined to bring their frequencies together and ends up doing a lot — a lot, a lot, a lot — of research. After many years he manages to get their frequencies attuned so that Marie can experience love. (By the use of meds, of course.) But really, has he? This is when the twists and the questions of freedom, false freedom, masterminds, and who is controlling whom or what pops up.

Ever liked a film until the big secret is revealed? Yes, that was me. I thought the answer to this world’s frequency problem was a bit meh. And the plot thread about the “prime mover’s” POV came too late for me. I understand why the screenwriter saved the reveal for the end but I think the film would’ve been better if the audience had seen that timeline earlier.

tokyo-girl-300wTokyo Girl; Japanese. Feb 23, 2008; 98 minutes, fantasy, Written by Masato Hayashi; Directed by Kazuyo Konaka; Kaho as Miho Fujisaki; and Kazuma Sano as Tokijiro Miyata,

The last movie has both male and female protagonists. It was so sweet I simply could not resist its charm. Besides I got tired of all those endangered children named Sam, and all those doctors who were constantly on the lookout to prescribe meds.

This film is called Tokyo Girl. It’s not exactly a time travel story. It’s more a portal story. Miho is a modern schoolgirl and when an earthquake happens, her cellphone drops down a flight of stairs and is found by a boy, Tokijiro, in 1912. The cellphone is the portal. Think Dennis Quaid’s Frequency without all that pesky angst.

Tokijiro wants to be a famous writer, but his name is not known to our modern schoolgirl. Why not? And how can they go on dates if they are in different times? This is a good historical film that both boys and girls will like. I highly recommend it.

So that’s it. Have a wonderful New Year!

Carole McDonnell is the author of Wind Follower and The Constant Tower, published by Wildside Books.

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