Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Cold Mountain Mom

Before I talk about the stellar film Stephanie Daley, I just want to chastise movie studios and their shenanigans with release dates. If you look on IMDB for any given film released recently, you will see about a dozen release dates listed. First, it opened at this festival, then here at this other obscure festival, then it hopped a continent, then back, then usually to a better-known festival, and finally getting limited release in the U.S. All of this is B.S. When I'm reviewing films, I go by the date of when it gets released in the U.S. to the public, no matter how limitedly, even if it's in like one theater in New York or something. Stephanie Daley is listed on IMDB as a 2006 film. It is not. It premiered at Sundance in January 2006, and it was finally released theatrically in the U.S. in April of 2007. That's insane. I was just talking about this with someone. It does such a disservice to these small films. They get all this early acclaim and premature nominations, and then by the time people actually get to see them, no one does because they've already been forgotten. This happened with Stephanie Daley, and it happened on a bigger scale with After the Wedding, which should be nominated for Best Foreign Film for this year, and not for last year. And then the whole idea of "limited" releases - that's a whole other issue. It takes forever to get access to a film, because it opens in like one additional theater per weekend. And I'm talking about Chicago. It should be better here! I can't imagine what it's like in other smaller cities. For lack of more eloquent words, this system sucks.

I just had to vent, but I really don't want to detract from my review of Stephanie Daley. I just think it's so unfair that this film has slipped under the radar. It hasn't just slipped under - it's fallen off entirely. It completely could have been avoided. This is one of the best films I've seen all year, and I bet most people have never heard of it. I hadn't until it got recommended to me, and I'm so grateful I saw it. This truly has been the year of the unplanned pregnancy, as the person who recommended the film to me observed. There's Stephanie Daley, Juno, Knocked Up, and Waitress. I've seen Juno and Knocked Up, and I have Waitress waiting, but Stephanie Daley definitely takes the most brutal approach. It's not a comedy like the others. And I'm not dismissing the others - I think Juno is probably the best thing a young girl in that situation could see to help her deal with it. Stephanie Daley is a very serious drama/mystery. It's almost a psychological thriller.

This is another film that I want to avoid giving too much away plot-wise. It's about a high school senior named Stephanie Daley (Amber Tamblyn), a girl brought up in a stiflingly religious home. The film starts with her leaving a trail of blood as she trudges through the snow on a ski trip. She collapses and is taken to the hospital. We quickly learn that she had a baby (delivered it herself) and is charged with killing the child. Forensic psychologist Lydie Crane (Tilda Swinton) is brought on the case to evaluate her mental competency for another hearing and to find out what happened. Lydie is pregnant and terrified that something will happen to this child as it did to the baby she delivered still-born a year before. She must deal with her fears and her crumbling marriage. How will Lydie's situation affect her interaction with Stephanie? Are Lydie and Stephanie alike? What will happen with Lydie's pregnancy? Did Stephanie know she was pregnant? What really happened to the baby? What will happen to Stephanie? What motivates these characters, and are these motivations inherent in all people?

These are the questions, posed within the first 10 minutes, that keep you spellbound. I was totally mesmerized and emotionally invested from the start. That's just awesome screenwriting. The film is written and directed by Hilary Brougher. I really do love seeing great work from women filmmakers. Brougher brings such a sensitivity to the story and characters. She doesn't judge them, and neither do we. Stephanie and Lydie are very complex, and it's hard to know what to believe, but we always empathize with them and respect them. I love this portrayal of women. It's also a very real story, and it's unflinching and often horrifying. The ending of Stephanie Daley is one of the best I've ever seen. It's so brave and uncompromising. Brougher doesn't spoon-feed us anything, and I love that she trusts our intelligence enough to really go for it. It's not an easy ending, by any means. I got a lot of answers, but now I have all new questions, and that's what a great film does. I want to talk about it and debate about what it means. The theme of the film, expressed in the tagline, is: "The truth is what we believe." It's a fascinating idea. Just chew on that for awhile.

The acting is as good as any I've seen all year. Amber Tamblyn is haunting as Stephanie Daley. There's one crucial scene that involves a prolonged close-up of her face, and she pulls it off flawlessly. It's so powerful. This is a very courageous performance, one I'll never forget. She's heartbreaking, and her final scene left me breathless. She's so convincing that she makes you believe what Stephanie believes, and only after it's over do you question it. She could easily be nominated for an Oscar if the studio system wasn't so messed up and confused. Equally great and nomination-worthy is Tilda Swinton. I've only seen her in a minor role before, and I'm sad I haven't seen more, because she's outstanding. She makes Lydie's pain, fear, and tragedy so visceral and human. I love that she's not just the tough, one-dimensional investigator. She has her own life and problems, and we care just as much about her as we do about the title character. Swinton is brilliant. And the relationship between the two characters and how they connect is so amazing. It's something to behold.

Hilary Brougher has made a very special, moving, important film and avoided all clichés in the process. I hope more people discover it. But it's sort of like the saying about a tree falling in the woods. Does it still make a sound if no one is around to hear it? Well, I don't know about trees, but I do know about films. Even if not many people have seen Stephanie Daley, does it still have a powerful impact, and do its messages and characters still resonate as deeply? Absolutely.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

No comments: