In the wake of Planet Earth’s zeitgeist arrival in 2006 and DisneyNature’s subsequent founding a short two years later, the nature documentary — and, increasingly, docu-series — has become ubiquitous, with virtually every major streaming platform doling out a handful of (often aesthetically anonymous) offerings each year. For a certain demographic of armchair travelers, this intersection of the digital and natural worlds is catnip viewing — familiar and lulling. There may be myriad complex psychologies underlying this prevailing cultural fixation, or it may just be wanderlust, but either way, the product is being consumed, despite a profound variance in quality; all it takes is a few sweeping aerials of tropical canopies and cascading waters, some exotic locales denoted by on-screen text, and a mix of faraway animals to cover a mess of movie sins. The final point there often proves especially crucial, as few things are surer in cinema than the casual anthropomorphizing of animals and the narrativizing of their existence — much like a bevy of Disney’s animated catalog, if the DisneyNature connection wasn’t clear enough.
The latest such work to enter the house that Attenborough built, Fathom concerns itself with the business of humpback whales, but immediately sets itself apart by keeping the gargantuan creatures as distant objects of study, focusing instead on a pair of scientists — Dr. Michelle Fournet and Dr. Ellen Garland — who are conducting studies on the species’ bioacoustic ecology. Specifically, Fournet is looking for clarity on the nature of the whales’ “whup” call in relation to their interpersonal communication, while Garland is studying their haunting songs and the way they can be passed from (and traced to) pods throughout the ocean. More philosophically, the pair are part of a larger scientific inquiry into the oldest culture on the planet, one that predates humanity and speaks to a desire to more intimately know, as they put it, “the language of the natural world.” It becomes clear fairly early on that Fathom is less about whales than the people who fanatically seek to better understand them — standard looking-at-people-looking-at-animals ethnography — and, it’s implied, some grander existential truths. (The film’s title is pretty on-the-nose, but better than the unimaginative Whale or King of the Ocean that Disney would have slapped it with.) This allows for some of the film’s best scenes, such as when Fournet and a fellow scientist lament the difficulties of their intense work and travel, teary as they commiserate over their inability to ever truly “come home” anymore (again, a far cry from the juvenalia of family-facing nature docs).
Fathom further distinguishes itself with its nonchalance. It’s become de facto for films of this ilk to graft traditional story arcs onto conveniently edited footage, and so there’s a certain pleasure in seeing how director Drew Xanthopoulos not only refuses to offer conclusion, but to even suggest its possibility. His film understands from its beginning the infinitude that’s innate to the pursuit of discovery, and embraces an almost Keatsian view of living perpetually in that place of possibility: “happy boughs! that cannot shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”). But while the gesture is a welcome pivot from the foregone histrionics of other docs of this genre, even at under 90 minutes the film’s urgency begins to wane and its vision destabilizes. The film admirably resists both easy moralizing and cheap nature worship, but doesn’t ultimately have much to supplant them with beyond half-thoughts. The magnitude of the ocean setting and the mammoth creatures of study gifts the film with an early sense of wonder, but for layviewers, too much of that dissipates when over-the-shoulder shots of charts reflecting slightly differentiated whale vocalizations prove to be the dramatic high points. There are some undeniably beautiful images, mostly courtesy of the Alaskan scenery, but viewers familiar with such films will likely find the dark blue waters and white sea spray underwhelming in its lack of variance, while the handheld, on-boat photography never approaches any of the gorgeous immediacy, chaos, or claustrophobia of something like Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan. Certainly, more films should take this restrained tack with wildlife documentary filmmaking, an obvious and organic counter to the grand drama of the natural world, but in allowing itself to be defined primarily by what it’s not, Fathom never establishes what it wants to be.
Writer: Luke Gorham
Part sci-fi thriller, part western, part survivalist drama, Wyatt Rockefeller’s Settlers has a lot of familiar genre antecedents, but not much of a clue of what to do with them. In other words, its own high concept — Mars colonists refashioned as Old West pioneers — is the only idea it has, and it runs awfully thin awfully quickly. Divided into three chapters, the film begins with a brief survey of an isolated outpost; there’s father Reza (a near-unrecognizable Jonny Lee Miller), mother Ilsa (Sofia Boutella), and daughter Remmy (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince, as effortlessly charming as ever). They pass the daytime growing crops and tending to their pigs, then studying the constellations and having sing-a-longs at night. Curiously, they wander about outside freely, with none of the usual accoutrement so familiar from other space movies — no zero-atmosphere suits, no oxygen, no pressurized doors, etc. By all appearances a halcyon existence, their routine is interrupted by ominous noises around the compound and Reza’s increasingly jittery nerves. When Remmy awakens one morning to the word “LEAVE” written in blood across their windows, all hell breaks loose. Intruders assault the compound, but after fending off this initial wave, Reza is killed by Jerry (Ismael Cruz Córdova). Jerry claims that the compound actually belonged to his parents, and that Reza and Ilsa stole it, banishing him as a child in the process. Now, he’s come to reclaim what’s rightfully his. Chapter two details a new, volatile dynamic, as Jerry allows Reza and Remmy to stay with him and get the compound back up in working order. Córdova is an intense onscreen presence, speaking calmly and seemingly with benevolence, but with something ominous behind his piercing eyes. It’s particularly alarming when he lays hands on Ilsa, who tentatively acquiesces to his romantic overtures, much to Remmy’s horror. She runs away and makes a startling discovery about the place where they live, while Jerry tells her cryptic tales about the dangers that lay beyond the boundaries of their home and the generations of terraforming undone by strife.
To disclose much more of the story would not only constitute spoilers, but also take up very little space. Nothing much happens in the glacially-paced Settlers, which emphasizes mood and ambiance over story mechanics. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but this world is so vague, so barely fleshed out, that there’s nothing to really grab ahold of. Jerry’s story of being driven from his birth home suggests a kind of “return of the oppressed” subtext, but it’s never developed beyond simple, broad strokes. In keeping with the film’s nods to the Western genre, Reza and Ilsa could be stand-ins for manifest destiny colonizers, which in turn would suggest that Jerry represents displaced indigenous peoples. But this isn’t developed much either, the film instead focusing solely on whether or not Jerry represents a threat to Ilsa and Remmy. That question is definitively answered in chapter three of the film, which casts Nell Tiger Free as a now decade-older version of Remmy, who has been contemplating escape for some time. Rather than delving even obliquely into the sticky matter of America’s racist, genocidal past (certainly fruitful, and timely, material), the film floats the deeply unpleasant specter of potential sexual assault over the proceedings, an old genre trope one might’ve thought we were done with at this point. Settlers is well-made, and the cast is as good as they can be, but there’s nothing of actual substance here. It’s hard to shake the impression that Settlers is a rough draft of a better, more thoughtful work.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Finn (Sam Richardson) is the new forest ranger in the little town of Beaverfield, which, as friendly (and gossipy) mail carrier Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) tells him, is fraying a little bit, partly because of the pipeline an oil company wants to build through main street, but mostly because everyone’s sort of at each other’s throats to one degree or another. That assessment gets literalized pretty fast, as a vicious storm traps everyone in town, and someone or something starts picking off the citizenry one at a time. They quickly become convinced they’re being stalked by a werewolf.
Mileages will vary here based on just how much quirky charm one can handle, especially since the film doesn’t really bother to counterbalance its humor with anything that could be considered very scary. But with the genre as a whole swerving hard into clumsy politics without much substance, and with horror comedies in particular descending into winky self-reflexivity in order to appeal to hardcore fans and mine their knowledge of genre tropes and gore gags for laughs (see Freaky or the Happy Death Days), it’s refreshing to see something like Werewolves Within come along, getting by almost entirely on the charm of its stacked cast of utility players being served by some tight, purposeful filmmaking. Director Josh Ruben keeps his scope frames either packed with characters bickering or full of dark negative space, and mines some of his biggest laughs with well-timed edits that frequently double as punctuation. Dialogue, meanwhile, is just on the right side of a little too cute.
Mostly, though, it’s the murderer’s row cast that makes this work. Richardson and Vayntrub have such terrific chemistry that it makes their sort of perfunctory potential romance seem sweet instead of cloying. And they’re backed up by a stack of comics that do all of the script’s heavy lifting: Cheyenne Jackson, Michaela Watkins, Michael Chernus, and Harvey Guillén, not to mention Glenn Fleshler as a scary survivalist nutbag. Collectively they’re helpless, but individually they’re all equally unstable and dangerous, hence the title’s pun, “We’re wolves within.” And so, most of the surprise and suspense is generated not by the mystery of who might be the lycanthrope and when exactly the monster will strike, but rather which of them is going to snap next and who’ll be closest to them when they go off. Everyone’s relationships are stripped bare, and embarrassment usually coincides with a grisly demise. It’s hardly as alchemical as Shaun of the Dead or, more appropriately, An American Werewolf in London, both of which managed to be very funny and scary, but something this amusing and breezy still feels like a treat.
Writer: Matt Lynch
Drawing from her own experiences as a college athlete, writer/director Lauren Hadaway has crafted a bold debut feature, a startlingly immersive portrait of ambition curdling into obsession. Taking place in the competitive world of rowing, a physically demanding sport that emphasizes repetitive, mechanical movement, The Novice follows freshman Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman), an overachiever who is determined to move up from the novice squad to the JV crew. Her single-mindedness is matched by the film’s aggressive formal qualities, which eschew much in the way of traditional narrative for a more impressionistic, experiential approach; indeed, this arch stylization is both invigorating and, ultimately, the film’s biggest flaw.
Comparisons to Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash are perhaps inevitable, what with such similarly conceived protagonists, but Hadaway’s film owes more to the rat-ta-tat editing rhythms of Darren Aronofsky’s work. We learn materially little about Dall, who barely utters a word for the first 15 minutes or so of The Novice. We are, however, locked in to her perspective, as she rushes to finish an exam (it’s eventually revealed that she takes tests 3 or 4 times per, trying to achieve better scores), then frantically running to make the first meeting of the beginners rowing crew. She takes notes while the other girls chat, declining to mingle and instead taking in details with furtive, harried eyes. From there, it’s a constant barrage of montages and ostentatious technique, as Dall furiously trains, pushing herself to the limit and then beyond. It’s a noble effort that seeks to illuminate a character’s subjective point of view through action instead of words, and it works for about an hour or so.
Various entreaties to “have fun” and “relax” are repeated throughout the film, to the point of becoming a desperate plea on the part of the people watching Dall implode. She’s wound so tight that it seems like she could snap at any moment, with various sequences taking on the patina of a horror film, as Dall pushes her body to yet further extremes and enters a fugue state of sorts. She frequently vomits from the exertion, at one point even passing out and wetting herself. But none of this seems to phase her; when her classmates go home for winter break, she continues to train, determined to get some kind of edge over her competition. Dall has a roommate who we see very little of, and she forms a friendship of sorts with another member of the novice crowd, Jaime (Amy Forsyth), who desperately needs the full scholarship that accompanies making the JV squad. But Dall isn’t motivated by money, or even necessarily any deep-seated competitiveness — she seems to only really ever be competing against her own body, her own limitations. The question of her motivation constitutes the psychological undercurrent of the film, which never offers a pat answer, but instead a number of possible avenues. When Dall begins dating her physics TA Dani (New York-based model Dilone), the film eases off some of its more overt stylistic overkill, suggesting the calming effect that Dani’s presence has on her younger paramour. It’s these (too infrequent) scenes between the two women that mostly fully realize some of Dall’s tortured psyche, her need to constantly work the hardest in some masochistic quest to prove her own worth.
But eventually, the film’s more aggressive qualities, much like Dall’s personality, begin to overstay their welcome. There’s an increasing abundance of on-the-nose symbolism, and as Dall’s erratic behavior begins to tilt into full blown psychological horror territory, a pronounced Black Swan influence rears its ungainly head. It’s clear that Hadaway doesn’t have much use for subtlety, and the result is that there’s no rhythm, no ebb and flow to the proceedings. When everything is pitched to the rafters from the start, there’s nowhere left to go. Fuhrman is remarkable in a tough, demanding role, and Hadaway’s assertive camera ogles her body in awe of its physical ability rather than in any sexualization. All told, there’s a lot to like in The Novice, and if it suffers from a surfeit of ambition, it’s at least trying something, which is a valuable currency in this age of template and rehash. For her next project, maybe Hadaway can figure out how to stick the landing. She’s certainly done enough here to be rooting for her.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
The Perfect David
The Perfect David, the debut feature from Argentinian filmmaker Felipe Gómez Aparicio, opens with a shot of a teenage male working out, his swollen biceps on full display as he engages in a series of pull-ups. The camera never wavers from its vantage point, fixed just outside a door frame to the room that houses this exercise bar. Blackness fills the outer edges of the widescreen image, and our sole focal point is the stunning specimen of ostensible masculinity before us. This is a visual motif repeated throughout the film, as Aparicio takes great pains in showing his protagonist, the titular David (Mauricio Di Yorio), in a perpetual state of isolation. Single-minded in his quest to obtain the perfect masculine form, David has forsaken anything resembling normalcy in a quest to please his perfection-obsessed mother, Juana (Umbra Colombo). Even when David is seen in a high school setting with his friends, he is always located on the periphery of the group, hugging the edges of the camera’s frame. In its blocking, compositions, and narrative framework, The Perfect David is presented as a horror film more than anything, with a propulsive synth score courtesy of the electronic group EUI building feelings of unrelenting dread as David goes to increasingly dangerous lengths to achieve physical perfection for an upcoming body-building showcase.
It’s quite obvious that Aparicio has a lot on his mind in regards to societal standards of masculinity and male beauty. At one point, the camera lovingly pans over David’s body as he engages in strenuous weightlifting, focusing on each specific muscle group as they bulge and ripple. In another scene, David removes his shirt at a party and is met with cheers and applause by his classmates, fully aware that his body can be used as a tool in pursuit of the approval he desires most, something he is unable to obtain from his cold and distant mother. It’s this toxic relationship between the two that makes up most of the film’s running time, as Juana’s obsession with her son’s physical form borders on the sexual, unsettling in scenes such as when she approaches him from behind and meticulously feels his pectoral muscles for signs of progress. It’s only upon the reveal of the film’s “twist” that the full shape of Aparicio’s thematic intentions come into full focus, as Juana comes to represent a society that both sexualizes and fetishizes its ideals of male perfection, rendering them nothing more than works of art, a la Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of which David is namesake.
Unfortunately, The Perfect David works only as allegory, and David the character is rendered a blank cipher, little more than a collection of symbols and signposts. In fairness, this was clearly done by design, but the film feels cold and distant as a result; a work to admire, but one with which emotional engagement is nearly impossible, operating much in the way of the fetishization culture it seeks to critique. And none of this is helped by the heavy-handed symbolism. David’s sexuality is even called into question at various points, hinting at commentary on masculinity, male sexuality, and their intersection in cultural perception, but that too isn’t really explored in any meaningful way. Yet, despite these shortcomings, The Perfect David is never ultimately less than a film that’s hard to shake, with Aparicio’s strong formal execution its greatest asset, marking the director as an immediate follow. Hopefully, he’ll remember to bring a little more subtlety next time out.
Writer: Steven Warner
Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road
Brian Wilson, the singer-songwriter who was the main creative force behind the Beach Boys for the better part of the 1960s, is legendary for being the genius behind such pop masterworks as the single “Good Vibrations” and the album Pet Sounds. He famously, thrillingly reconfigured the three-minute pop song as a canvas for groundbreaking musical experimentation, orchestral beauty, and theretofore unseen sonic complexity. Wilson is also legendary for being a deeply troubled and tortured soul, the debilitating mental illness and drug addiction he battled with for much of his life considered inextricably linked to the core of musical genius. The story of Brian Wilson is a tragic one, but also one of survival and resiliency, since, against all odds, he’s lived to tell the tale and to regale enthusiastic audiences with his vast catalog of beautiful musical creations. Indeed, the scenes of Wilson in action, whether on stage or in the recording studio, or simply in a car listening to music and reminiscing with his good friend, Rolling Stone writer-editor Jason Fine, are the most affecting ones of Brent Wilson’s (no relation) documentary Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road, structured around drives Wilson and Fine take in the area of Los Angeles where the musician lives.
Brian Wilson’s life story is one oft-told on film — most notably in musician/producer Don Was’ 1995 documentary Brian Wilson: I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times and Bill Pohlad’s magnificent 2014 biopic Love & Mercy — so redundancy was an immediate problem this new documentary had to solve. The film does include some standard doc stuff: archival footage, rhapsodic talking heads including Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Linda Perry, Don Was, and also, for some reason, Nick Jonas — maybe because he’s in a band with two brothers like Brian Wilson was? The familiar beats of Wilson’s narrative are likewise all hit: Wilson wresting control from his overbearing manager father; how competition with the Beatles spurred him to make Pet Sounds; the mental illness that caused him to retreat from onstage performing and into endless obsessive tinkering with sounds in the recording studio; his harrowing years with the controlling and abusive therapist Eugene Landy. However, the contemporary footage of Wilson — now nearing 80, often terse and taciturn, prone to nervousness, and by his own admission a fearful person — gives this well-worn material added heart and dimension.
Watching Wilson revisit the sites of his childhood home and the first Beach Boys album cover shoot, share memories of his long-deceased brothers Dennis and Carl Wilson, and react to hearing his songs again, recalling the experiences attached to them, one can’t help but feel a visceral, deep sympathy for the man, for the pain, sorrow, and trauma permanently etched into his face. But the intended effect isn’t to feel sorry for Brian Wilson; instead, it’s to marvel at the strength it took to survive, persevere, and emerge on the other side, damaged but still intact. It’s these present-day updates that distinguish this latest chronicle of Wilson’s still-ongoing journey, and which add new, resonant beats to an old, beloved tune.
Writer: Christopher Bourne