Amazon Prime’s new series for families is a delight. Gortimer Gibbons: Life on Normal Street is the story of three middle school-age friends and the mysteries they investigate on Normal Street are anything but normal. It has fun and fantasy but mostly it has friendship. It’s a perfect choice for some family viewing in between the turkey and the football games.
Will Bakke has followed his two thought-provoking documentaries on faith with a remarkably smart, funny, brave, and heartfelt first feature film that explores religion and values without ever falling into the easy conventions of many faith-based films. Bakke has a sharp eye but a warm heart and a refreshing honesty that allows him to let us laugh at some of the silliness and hypocrisy he has observed but is always respectful of those who find meaning in the way they engage with God. He is a sharp observer of the craft of filmmaking as well, and the story structure and camera and editing work here show that he is ready for the big leagues. I am looking forward to what he does next.
In his last film, a documentary called “Beware of Christians,” Bakke told the story of his journey with four friends, all from devout Christian families, as they traveled through ten European cities to expand their understanding of what it means to be a person of faith. That experience clearly informs this fictional story of four college fraternity brothers. When one of them discovers that his scholarship has run out with one more tuition payment still due, he persuades his friends to establish a fake Christian charity so they can keep the money. Each of them has a different perspective. Sam (Alex Russell, soon to be seen in Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken”), is the slick, dimpled operator who thinks this is just the ticket to smooth his path to law school. Pierce (Miles Fisher) is the selfish rich kid who does not want his father to know he is in debt. Baker (Max Adler of “Glee” and “Switched at Birth”) is the party animal who is up for whatever’s going on. And Tyler (Sinqua Walls of “The Secret Life of an American Teenager”) is a nice guy who goes along because they promise he will not have to speak in front of a group and they promise that some of the money will actually go to charity.
Sam is a charismatic speaker and the audience wants to believe. Not only do they raise money quickly for their fake charity (cutely dubbed “Get Wells Soon”), but they attract the attention of a promoter named Ken (Christopher McDonald), who wants to book them on a nationwide tour for Christian audiences. Also on the tour are a singer named Gabriel (“Happy Endings'” Zachary Knighton, with just the right touch of oily smugness) and the tour manager (and Gabriel’s girlfriend) Callie (Johanna Braddy). The guys have to up their game to appear to be more authentic. They don’t just use highlighters and post-its to mark Bible passages, they baptize their Bibles in swimming pool water to give them that thoroughly-thumbed look. In one of the movie’s highlights, Sam explains to the others how to use certain words and poses (like “The Shawshank”) to communicate piety and get more money from believers, and even how to swear just enough but not too much. Can they immerse themselves in the world of faith — and the evidence of true need — without being affected by it, especially with the example of at least one believer who demonstrates true grace?
Bakke and his co-screenwriter Michael B. Allen bring a lot of specificity to these scenes, and a sensitivity that shows he is laughing with the Christians (especially when it comes to Christian entertainment), not at them. They understand that their open-hearted generosity can be unthinking but is almost always kindly meant. And they understand that being a believer does not inoculate anyone from human failings, especially pride. They also understand that true faith requires the full engagement of the spirit. And they respect their characters and the audience enough to make it clear that the answers we value most are never easy.
Parents should know that this film has some drinking and partying and some criminal and unethical behavior.
Family discussion: Which character best fits your idea of what it is to have faith? What should Ken have done when he found out what the boys were doing? What will Sam do next?
If you like this, try: “Beware of Christians” and films like “Elmer Gantry,” “Jesus Camp,” “Marjoe,” “Blue Like Jazz,” and “Leap of Faith”
“The One I Love” is pretty good as a movie and sublime as an exercise, especially an acting exercise. Just describing details about the story will require a huge spoiler alert, which I will insert below before giving away some of what happens in the film (omitting the ending, of course). But first, we can mention the acting challenge presented by the film. Two actors are on screen for almost the entire running time and are required to display small but distinctly different characteristics to help us and the characters keep everything straight. That is a pleasure to watch on a whole other level aside from the storyline. Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men”) and Mark Duplass (“The Mindy Project”) play Ethan and Sophie, a married couple seeing a therapist (Ted Danson) for counseling. Ethan remembers with great warmth when they first met, and impulsively went for a swim in a stranger’s pool. The sense of fun and freedom they had is something he misses. Sophie is having trouble trusting Ethan again because he had an affair and he is embarrassed and defensive. “I felt like our happiness used to be so easy and there used to be so much of it,” she says sadly. The therapist recommends a weekend getaway to a beautiful, remote cabin, assuring them that every couple he has sent there has returned “renewed.”
They arrive at the cottage, which is lovely, and discover that it has a guest house. SPOILER ALERT: As each of them enters the guest house separately, they encounter what they at first think is each other, but then realize is some other version of the person they married, a little brighter, sweeter, more considerate, more agreeable. Sophie’s new Ethan apologizes sincerely and contritely for his transgression and paints a portrait of her to show his devotion. Ethan’s smiling, slightly Stepford wife-ish new Sophie makes him bacon for breakfast, which the old Sophie didn’t like. At first, each thinks that the other is somehow making progress, becoming more cooperative, more committed to intimacy and rebuilding the relationship. But then it becomes clear that only one of them can enter the guest house at a time, and that the spouse they experience inside is someone new, different, and possibly some sort of projection, not a real person at all.
Ethan and Sophie respond very differently. He takes it on as an opportunity for rational detective work. “Of course you thought the fun was the investigation,” Sophie says, reminding him of the magic show where she enjoyed the show but he insisted on deconstructing all the tricks.
The original Sophie and Ethan at first decide to leave. It is just too creepy. But then they decide to return, making a pact about how each of them will handle the guest house doppelgangers. Is that the therapy? Giving them a shared experience so bizarre that it jolts them into working together to puzzle it out may be part of rebuilding their relationship, after all. “It’s like an exercise in trust,” Ethan says.
Screenwriter Justin Lader plays out the possibilities very cleverly, and it would be unfair to spoil it further. If the ending is not all one might hope, more of a trick than a conclusion, the performances and the ideas are provocative, fun, and something of a therapeutic trust exercise of their own.
Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, sexual references and situations, drinking, and drug use.
Family discussion: What is your explanation for how this retreat came together? If you had a chance to enter the guest house, would you? What would you find there?
Seriously, don’t read this review until after you’ve seen the movie. The less you know, the more you will enjoy this nifty thriller, which craftily makes the most of its micro-budget to maximize a deliciously mind-bending story. As in all great thrillers, the scary stuff is not what’s on the outside, but what the stuff on the outside does to the stuff in the inside, meaning not just the inside of the characters but the inside of the audience.
James Ward Byrkit, who wrote “Rango” and created the visual design for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies (all with Gore Verbinski), wanted to take some time away from seven-figure-budget blockbusters and create something small and intimate. He literally shot it in his living room, with a cast of vaguely familiar looking but under the radar actors. As the movie begins, eight friends are getting together for a dinner party. We get some sense of the relationships and some tensions as they gather. They engage in routine dinner party chat, mentioning in passing some news about a comet due to pass overhead along with the usual updates and gossip. And then the phones stop working. And then the lights stop working. And then someone says he’d better go outside to find out what is happening. And we’ve all seen enough movies to know that this is probably not a great idea.
What happens next is not a plot twist but a plot Rubik’s Cube, an ingeniously plotted infinite regression of meta-realities. To say any more would be to spoil the movie’s best surprises.
Parents should know that this is a psychological thriller with a pervasive sense of dread and some violence. Characters drink and use drugs and there is strong language.
Family discussion: What decision do you wish you could go back and do over?
An outstanding cast, a weighty subject, and the sincerest of intentions are almost enough to make up for an undercooked, stuntish, and stagey script in this story about a man who decides to die and the family he leaves behind.
The always-brilliant Richard Jenkins plays Robert, who has been fighting cancer for twelve years, eleven and a half longer than his doctors expected. We get a glimpse of him in a flashback, superbly confident and capable as he crisply guides a boardroom through the details of a complicated transaction and then leaves them behind to take his adored and adoring 14-year-old son Jonathan to lunch.
Garrett Hedlund plays Jonathan at 26 and we first see him getting in trouble on an airplane for smoking in the lavatory, and then persuading a flight attendant not to have him arrested with charm — and a request for sympathy because he is on his way to be with his dying father. He is on his way to be with his dying father, but we get the idea that he has been using that as an excuse for a long time.
This visit is different, though. While Jonathan and his mother Rachel (the lovely Anne Archer) and lawyer sister (“Downton Abbey’s” Jessica Brown-Findlay) tell Robert that he can get through this as he has so many times before. But he says, “I fought for 12 years. I’ve got nothing.” He wants to be taken off the drugs so he can see his family clearly. And then he wants them to let him go.
He has a surprise for them. He has given away his money. “I love you both and I raised a couple of spoiled brats,” he tells them.
It takes about a day to sort this all out, and a lot happens. Some of it is touching, as when Hedlund explains why he has stayed away: “It’s hard to love someone with an expiration date stamped on his forehead.” And he did not want to come home until he could be proud of what he had accomplished. Jonathan has to admit that he is the one who is not ready. Rachel is devoted but shows some asperity when no one acknowledges the challenges she faces as the caretaker.
But too much seems artificial. Jessica Barden, like many of the other actors, does far more than it is fair to expect with an underwritten role. In her case it is the plucky dying teenager who just wants to know what one of the normal pleasures of adolescence might feel like, which gives Jonathan an opportunity to duck out on his family as a personal Make-A-Wish, with a chorus of cute sick kids cheering him on. There is a sort of seder in the hospital chapel and an impassioned oral argument. Amy Adams shows up as Jonathan’s ex and Terrence Howard and Jennifer Hudson are the doctor and nurse. All three are sensitive performances in underwritten parts. Issues and hostilities between family members appear and disappear without the underlying emotional heft necessary to provide a reason for the changes. When Robert says he is proud of Jonathan, it is hard to understand why. And yet Jenkins and Hedlund find something in the moment that makes it matter. Writer/director Andrew Levitas shows promise, but he needs to trust his audience a little more.
Parents should know that this film deals with issues of death and dying, including assisted suicide, and it includes smoking, drinking, drugs, sexual references, and strong language.
Family discussion: Who should decide when someone should be allowed to die? Have you discussed your wishes with your family?