Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

sundance Archive

Friday

5

February 2021

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Sundance Review: Playing with Sharks

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The greatest strength of Playing with Sharks is apparent almost instantaneously. Director Sally Aitken knows what an asset she has in her subject. Marine conservationist Valerie Taylor is such a joy to watch on screen that it feels like all the director has to do is sit back and let the magic unfold.

Obviously, a documentary requires extensive work, but it’s a testament to Aitken’s abilities as a director that she can present her narrative that carries such an aura of effortless glee. The passion that Taylor inspires in seemingly everyone around her radiates through the screen. Using extensive archival footage, Playing with Sharks is a fascinating career perspective that also sheds light on the ways that humans have come to care about preserving the ocean.

Taylor and her husband Ron, who died in 2012, were pioneers of underwater filmmaking, particularly with regard to sharks. Aitken shows that part of that was through their love of the animals, but also for economical reasons. Production studios favored footage of “dangerous” sea creatures, an idea that Taylor has railed against for the vast majority of her career. Misconceptions about the dangers posed by sharks and other sea creatures have had a profoundly negative effect on their continued survival.

Aitken’s depiction of Taylor’s vast career demonstrates the many roads that can lead one to an interest in conservation. Originally a competitive spear-fisher, Ron and Valerie grew disenchanted with the practice, committing themselves to only capturing the animals on camera rather than with a weapon. Such a dynamic sets up the most interesting chapter of the narrative with their work on Jaws.

Often considered the first modern blockbuster, Jaws’ effect on shark education and the well-being of their populations in general has been well-documented over the decades. Peter Benchley, author of the novel that Spielberg’s classic was based off of, has said he wouldn’t have written it if he’d known the damage it would cause. Though Taylor is reluctant to outright say it, the film gives the sense that she’s very much in agreement.

Fitting for its subject’s career, Playing with Sharks presents its remarkable footage of sharks without evoking anxiety from its audience. You may not necessarily want to put on a chainmail suit and jump in the ocean, but Taylor is quite effective at easing any tension one might feel toward these wondrous creatures. She even teaches a shark some tricks, an inspiring sense of confidence from a remarkable woman.

Aitken’s film is not super high stakes, a fairly conflict-free narrative that matches the frequency of its warm subject. The third act features several scenes of Taylor talking about her advocacy work to the Australian government, showing the resistance she faced years ago, as well as the progress that’s been made along the way. Playing with Sharks is a breezy documentary, a work that manages to operate on a similar wavelength as its subject. Wildlife aficionados will find much to enjoy in this fascinating depiction of Taylor’s life’s work.

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Friday

5

February 2021

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Sundance Review: Cryptozoo

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The sense of immense frustration that one might feel toward Cryptozoo does seem a bit fitting given the world that Dash Shaw created. Perpetually throwing frame after frame of psychedelic imagery up on the screen, the narrative seems more interested in living in the broader world of animation than the one of its own making. Disney’s presence looms large over all American animation, but plenty of features prefer to ignore that reality.

Cryptozoo never seems interested in shaking its middling fascination with capitalism and Disney, never quite sure what to say about them beyond the rudimentary observation that they are bad. This thesis would pack a hell of a lot more punch if it were the case that Cryptozoo was unmistakable good. The narrative never quite comes together enough for any of that to stick.

The film starts with such promise. Two naked hippies, Matthew (Michael Cera) and Amber (Louisa Krause) are doing drugs and having sex, fascinated by a giant fence that looks part-Jurassic Park, part-Star Trek: The Next Generation’s pilot “Encounter at Farpoint.” The animation alternates between crude and exquisitely beautiful, a sentiment that persists throughout the narrative.

Though the film keeps up its psychedelic visuals over the duration of the 95-minute runtime, the actual plot becomes a lot more mundane. The cold open gives way to Lauren (Lake Bell) and Joan (Grace Zabriskie), who operate a sanctuary/theme park for cryptids to find peace, security, and dining options finely tailored to the Cryptozoo’s individual lands. The Disney parody is abundant, but it’s not particularly funny or insightful.

The plot quickly devolves into what’s essentially Archer on acid. There are a lot of action sequences that aren’t very interesting. The script delivers most of its best moments in the first fifteen minutes. It becomes rather jarring to watch the inventive animation dragged down by such a superficially bland narrative, a film at war with itself.

Animation director Jane Samborski, Shaw’s wife, ensures that there’s always something spectacular on the screen to look at. The animation is superb, pretty much solely justifying the uneven experience that is Cryptozoo. You could basically watch the film on mute and still reap the film’s only worthwhile attributes.

Cryptozoo is easy to hate. As a narrative, it certainly does not deserve any love. Everything here should have enhanced the visuals instead of leaving the animation by itself to carry the film.

Despite all that, the animation is pretty great to watch. Maybe not great enough to transform Cryptozoo into the film it sort of wants to be, but it’s hard to write off the whole experience altogether. Shaw’s narrative is a frustrating mess, but there’s enough good here to justify the experience. A frustrating film that at least found some success in avoiding becoming a regrettable waste.

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Friday

5

February 2021

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Sundance Review: Cusp

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The advances in technology can suggest a kind of barrier between the struggles that modern teenagers face and those of us who came of age before TikTok and Instagram ushered in the era of perpetual connectivity. Directors Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill quickly dispel that notion as a piece of fiction. Thoroughly set in the present day, Cusp reveals layers upon layers of teenage angst, showcasing a degree of universality with regard to this awkward era of people’s lives.

The film follows a trio of girls, Brittney, Aaloni, and Autumn, over the course of a summer in a small Texas town. There’s nothing to do but hang out aimlessly, drinking, smoking, and snorting coke. Normal 15-year-old activities. Caught in a kind of limbo between adolescence and adulthood, limited freedoms within a world still governed by their parents, these girls make the most of their time simply by spending it in each other’s company.

Referring to a work as remarkably mundane suggests a kind of insult, but the descriptor seems oddly fitting for the directors’ intentions. Bethencourt and Hill perfect a technique where their subjects seem barely aware of the cameras at all, a rare triumph in filmmaking. Likely desensitized by years of smartphone addiction, the teens really do go about their business as if there was no one in the room filming them.

That kind of mastery makes it easy to hop on board with Cusp’s intentionally meandering narrative, where nothing really happens. One can imagine there are reams of footage of even more mundane activity or early days where the teens may be phased by the cameras documenting their every move. Bethencourt and Hill’s deliberate curation works quite well toward its objective of capturing this fleeting era of teenage life.

Much of it is hard to watch. While it’s easy to be amused by a kid smoothly cutting lines of blow, himself obviously charmed by the camera following along as this minor shares his very illegal plunder, other sequences are bound to make anyone feel uncomfortable. A sequence where one of the girls fights with her father over his callous treatment of her sibling on their birthday heightens the sense of powerless that many feel at this age. You’re old enough to drive a car, but your dad can still make you change a top he doesn’t like.

Bethencourt and Hill take great care with regard to some of the film’s heaviest subjects. The effects of PTSD on veterans and their families are presented in a raw and deeply moving manner. One of the subjects almost nonchalantly recounts how she was molested by a close friend of her father’s. The girls possess a keen understanding of consent and the distance between one’s broader perception of the concept, and the reality of the world they live in.

In other instances, mountains are crafted out of molehills. Teenagers cry over broken hearts, failed relationships they’ll probably laugh about in a year’s time. Bethencourt and Hill expertly capture the zeitgeist of teenage existence. Everything feels like the most important thing in the world, at least until the next party comes along.

Cusp finds deep meaning in the act of hanging out. The kids are rarely far apart from their smartphones, but at least they’re doom scrolling together. Through their exceptional work Bethencourt and Hill reveal a kind of universality to teenage life. It’s not an easy time to be alive, spending your days with the knowledge that you’re on the cusp of something bigger.

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Thursday

4

February 2021

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Sundance Review: Passing

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Part of the magic of watching modern period dramas is the way the set design and production values work together to transport the audience back in time. With Passing, director Rebecca Hall seems far more concerned with the feel of the era she depicts rather than simply the look of 1920s New York. Confining her narrative to the old-school 4:3 aspect ratio, shot using black-and-white cinematography that gives off a saturated feel, Hall ensures that her audience engages with the material on her terms.

An adaptation of the 1929 Nella Larsen novel of the same name, Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) is caught between two worlds. Harlem is her home and her community, a part of New York full of excitement for the future and all its possibilities. Downtown possesses all the irresistible glamour, a culture built on exclusivity. Between its fascination with old money and straight-up racism, Irene can visit its streets, but there remains the sense that no matter what, she’ll never fit in.

A chance encounter with a childhood friend, Clare (Ruth Negga), causes a drastic shift in Irene’s perception. Clare “passes” as white. Her racist husband, John (Alexander Skarsgard), has no idea that his children are half-black. The possibilities presented by this hiding-in-plain-sight level of stealth causes Irene to reexamine her own life choices, particularly her place in Harlem working for the Negro Welfare League alongside her husband, Brian (Andre Holland), a doctor.

Hall’s film is a mediative reflection on identity, propelled by superb lead performances and powerful cinematography. As Irene, Thompson shines through her subtle approach to her character’s broader desires. It’s not fully clear what Irene wants out of her life, but you get the sense that she’s trying to figure it all out in real-time.

Negga provides a valuable contrast, a woman firmly in command of her own life circumstances. In an era shamefully defined by limited opportunities for people of color, Clare enjoys luxury and stability. Hall asks no one to agree with this decision, a judgment-free approach to complex themes.

The script is a bit light on conflict. There’s a sense of reservation that fits well with the stakes at hand, but Passing does feel like Hall left quite a bit on the table. The film starts to drag a bit in the third act, repeating some of the same patterns until it’s time to set up the main conflict. Hall sticks the landing, but it’s one of those conclusions where you wish that there had been more time to process it all.

Passing is a strong showing from Hall in her debut effort. The script isn’t exactly a knockout the whole way through, but the acting and cinematography pick up the slack where the narrative lags. Few period dramas wield their own aesthetics in such an effective manner.

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Thursday

4

February 2021

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Sundance Review: Judas and the Black Messiah

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The biopic genre is forever caught between two occasionally conflicting notions. Reality and the dream. Feature film runtimes are hardly the best spaces to thoroughly explore complex history, two hours to depict an era or a movement. Narrative fares much better when it comes to conveying the spirit of the ideas that can change the world.

Director Shaka King crafts Judas and the Black Messiah with a keen sense of the injustice of Fred Hampton’s persecution by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, culminating in a police raid that it would seem more than fair to call an assassination. To the government, the young leader in Chicago’s Black Panther poses an existential threat to the political world, a powerful speaker with the gift to organize the various warring factions of his city, regardless of race.

The Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) we see on screen is hardly deserving of the rage depicted in several Hoover (Martin Sheen) rants, fundamentally racist in nature. At the core of Hampton’s radical plans lie something that actually might reasonably be considered radical to the complacent D.C. politicians, concerned only with their own power. Hampton pioneered the Free Breakfast Program, feeding the hungry among Chicago’s black youth.

In politics, a desire to genuinely serve thy neighbor is considered radical. King continuously grapples with the notion that “politics is war, war is politics,” particularly concerned with the latter. There is something quite radical in watching Hampton grow his organization from the ground up, a politics designed to uplift the many rather than the individual. King’s narrative captures the feel of organizing in action, the day-to-day work that goes into bringing about real change.

William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) is a man caught between two worlds. A true believer in Hampton’s vision, O’Neal is forced into the role of Judas when FBI Special Agent Roy (Jesse Plemons) catches him impersonating an FBI agent, fulfilling Hoover’s mandate to find an informant who could bring Hampton down. Both O’Neal and Roy see the power in Hampton’s ability to unite Chicago based on class struggle, a sentiment overwhelmed by the sheer force of one of America’s most powerful individuals.

Only 21 years old at the time of his assassination, Hampton quickly made a powerful impact on the country. With that in mind, King almost feels like he’s slowing things down through the 126-minute runtime, carefully depicting each figure’s own struggle to understand their place in a movement rapidly growing bigger than any one individual. King not only captures the power of grassroots politics coming alive, but the effect of its weight on those determined to bring about change.

King’s third act delivers the gold standard that all biopics should aspire to live up to, a keen understanding of history and legacy. Rarely does a director so forcefully demonstrate the care with which he crafted his work and the stakes at hand. The conclusion presents King’s findings in such stark terms that he makes you want to simply start the film over once the credits start rolling.

Kaluuya and Stanfield have never been better, intricately depicting the wear and tear that the grind has on their psyches. Through Kaluuya, you see why figures like Hampton are so hard to come by. It’s not enough to capture lightning in a bottle, you have to do it every single day. Nothing happens through fate or destiny, but by the work of people like Hampton to organize the masses.

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Thursday

4

February 2021

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Sundance Review: The Blazing World

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There are plenty of films capable of winning over their audiences through their sheer inventiveness. Director Carlson Young quickly demonstrates her immense talent in the opening scenes of The Blazing World, bold shots that send the message that you’re about to enter a world of her intricate design. A firm command of the camera can only take you so far.

The narrative follows Margaret (Young), returning home to pack up her things as her parents prepare to move away. Her parents (Vinessa Shaw and Dermot Mulroney) hate each other, though apparently not enough to divorce. We quickly learn that Margaret’s twin sister, Elizabeth (Lillie Fink), drowned at a young age in the midst of a parental disagreement, a tragedy that pretty much ended any hope for them to have a happy family.

While Young manages to keep things interesting through a chunk of the first act, the whole experience starts to fall apart when Margaret steps through the rabbit hole, embarking on the film’s reality-bending trip clearly inspired by Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and Pan’s Labyrinth among others. Just as things are about to get going, the main event, Young starts to muddle the waters beyond any narrative comprehension. Demonstrating immense directorial skill early on, it’s rather tragic to watch how boring The Blazing World quickly becomes.

Not even a competent showing by B-movie icon Udo Kier, playing a creepy man called Lained, can break through all the nonsense. Occupying a space somewhat halfway in between the Red Queen and the Cheshire Cat, Kier is menacing, but never really all that interesting. The script never really gives anyone anything to do.

As an actress, Young dominates most of the early scenes, an energetic personality amidst a sea of depressing figures. Largely left to her own devices throughout the rest of the narrative, Margaret loses a lot of steam. She communicates nothing as a protagonist, exacerbating the diminishing returns from Young’s stunts with her camera angles.

Young clearly has ballet on her mind with The Blazing World. An early scene between Margaret and her father hints at this direction, enhanced by a classical score that includes a beautiful rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Pas De Deux. Everything in ballet, from the music, the set design, the corps de ballet, and the male dancers, all works to enhance the principal. A ballet cannot succeed without a strong danseuse étoile to anchor the entire experience. Margaret is far too aloof to carry that burden.

Young’s technical skills as a director can’t overcome the gaping hole at the center of her narrative where there should be a story. An expansion of Young’s earlier short of the same name, The Blazing World never tries to justify why this story should carry a feature-length runtime. Everything is just too jumbled up, a disappointing showing from a talented filmmaker.

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Thursday

4

February 2021

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Sundance Review: Users

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Technology is taking over our lives, a preventable reality that also kind of feels inevitable. Advances in artificial intelligence could very well create a scenario where children love their devices more than their parents. Director Natalia Almada occasionally grapples with this idea, never quite sure what direction to take Users in.

Almada showcases plenty of visual wonders through the eighty-one-minute runtime. She finds beauty in many mundane activities, from watching a kid play video games or a stevedore unloading shipping containers. Her attention to detail is exceptional, finding emotion in a pile of crushed up computer chips.

For all the visual beauty to soak in, Users doesn’t have enough substance for the mind to digest. A jarringly forgettable adventure. There is no consistent narrative, nor any concrete idea that Almada seems interesting in grappling with. One can admire her ambition of scope, but there’s no takeaway.

This dynamic is best on display when Almada shows the sky from an airplane, the narration questioning why people would choose the tiny TVs over endlessly gazing at the horizon. Almada hints that there’s something wrong with the way people entertain themselves on long flights. While likely designed to be an open question, the whole exercise instead makes you wonder how many plane rides she’s been on without the use of a screen.

Users is not a pretentious narrative, but it does feel a bit smug-adjacent. Philosophical questions never arrive at answers, understandable given the gravity of Almada’s broader ambitions. The narrative hints at the idea of wanting to strike at the core of humanity, but all it ends up doing is tiptoeing around the globe until it’s time for the credits to roll.

The result is so unbelievably frustrating. Almada successfully communicates the weight of the world, no easy task for any narrative. Beyond its beautiful images, Users doesn’t really make you feel anything.

The film gives off the sense that it really wants its audience to grapple with the concepts that the narration throws to them every once in a while. There’s too little consistency and the fragments of meaning are too thin to tie together. It’s easy to be impressed by Users’ ambitious scope, but there’s nothing here to love.

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Wednesday

3

February 2021

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Sundance Review: We’re All Going to the World’s Fair

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We live in a world that is “terminally online,” filling the endless void of the internet with waste that nobody cares about. Connections at the tips of your fingers cannot adequately substitute the need for physical human connection. With all of that in mind, it’s easy to picture what would happen to a child with nothing but a computer to keep her company.

Relatable as that description can be, nothing really prepares you to meet “Casey” (Anna Cobb), a lonely teen in a boring lonely town. The derelict Toys ‘R Us serves as a blatant reminder that there’s nothing for a child here but empty space. Casey records her every action, uploading videos that nobody watches. She lives a sad life, one that director-screenwriter Jane Schoenbrun lays out in a matter of fact way throughout their debut feature We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.

Casey takes an interest in “The World’s Fair,” a horror-RPG game with major JeJune Institute vibes where people make disturbing videos and scare each other with their avant-garde creations. Casey finds a friend,  “JLB” (Michael J. Rogers), a soft-spoken adult man who isn’t as creepy as his interests make him out to be. The film really gets going as Casey connects with JLB, her personality beginning to reflect the creepypasta world she spends too much time in.

Never once sharing the stage with another human being, Cobb makes a remarkable debut. While Casey plays to an audience of no one, it’s hard to look away as Schoenbrun sends their star down the rabbit hole. Rogers provides an outlet for the audience to channel their angst for this poor teen’s mental health, but Cobb truly carries the film.

Few would argue against the idea that children spend too much time online, but Schoenbrun manages to illustrate the acute dangers posed to teens in their formative years. There are activities that teens participate in out of their own interests, and there are those they go along with because that’s what their friend groups like to do, less out of peer pressure than a more mundane sense of peer obligation. Casey has no peers, instead chasing an abstract sense of belonging with one painfully sad objective in mind. Casey simply wants to feel something.

One does not have to see the appeal in the horror-RPG aesthetic to embrace the way that Schoenbrun tackles their complex themes. The eighty-six-minute runtime is a bit longer than it needs to be, occasionally running into pacing issues as Schoenbrun balances Casey’s world with that of the broader game. It is a quite remarkable debut for both Schoenbrun and Cobb, intimately tackling an existential issue facing the teens of the world from a young girl’s bedroom. Parents might be a little creeped out at times, but this film is a valuable teaching tool.

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Wednesday

3

February 2021

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Sundance Review: Pleasure

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Those who work in the adult film industry are often asked a simple question not imposed upon plenty of other professions. Why? The implications of the question are simple enough for anyone to recognize. Adult films are often seen as unsavory to the public, a multi-billion dollar industry perpetually seen as taboo even as its place in popular culture has inched closer to mainstream acceptability over the past few decades.

Director Ninja Thyberg spends most of Pleasure grappling with an early question posed at customs when Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) lands in Los Angeles. Business or pleasure? Bella is a bit of an enigma, a loner with a lot to learn about her newfound profession.

Thyberg, on the other hand, demonstrates an intimate knowledge of her subject matter. The great triumph of Pleasure is the methodical way with which she explores the adult film industry, its inner workings, and the often-scummy figures who control the puppet strings. Few fictional narratives leave such a powerful impression as having so earnestly tried to deliver a faithful depiction of their material.

Kappel is a commanding presence in the lead role. Bella may be an amateur, but Kappel shows off her talents through her character’s constant struggle for a sliver of agency. Other characters know their places in the industry, but Bella never loses sight of the bigger picture.

For all the obvious deliberation that went into the worldbuilding, Thyberg’s script hinders Bella in a way that Kappel’s performance can’t completely overcome. We see Bella face plenty of hardships, abusive shoots filming hardcore scenes, as well as some triumphs. What’s missing at the center is a sense of understanding for why Bella sought out this impression in the first place.

Thyberg plays with the question first posed to Bella, business or pleasure, but it’s never really clear if she even likes this line of work. Others in her orbit clearly do, working hard on their followings and desperate to please those who can make their dreams into a reality. Bella lacks that similar sense of drive, claiming to be special but failing to deliver on those lofty standards.

That narrative is hardly Pleasure’s only concern. The film showcases the rampant industry sexism alongside the ways that women tear each other down to get ahead. Thyberg crafts a beautifully shot film, even if it’s hard to shake the idea that Bella isn’t terribly invested in her own success.

Pleasure is a worthwhile endeavor. Thyberg makes the most of the 106-minute runtime, thoroughly exploring the ins and outs of the industry in a way that never comes at the cost of the story she’s trying to tell. With Kappel possessing such a firm command over the lead character, it’s a shame that the film doesn’t deliver the knockout punch it’s clearly capable of achieving. A film this well-made should leave its audience feeling far more satisfied by the time the credits roll.

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Wednesday

3

February 2021

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Sundance Review: Together Together

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The greatest strength of Together Together is the film’s understanding of the innate sense of loneliness that pregnancy can evoke. The act of ushering life into this world is full of moments that feel like the most important things in your world, because they are. You want the world to care about these fleeting snapshots in time, but no support system can change the basic fact that this is your story and there’s no one on the earth who’s going to care about it more than you.

Matt (Ed Helms) is a successful app developer living a cozy life in San Francisco. Single and ready to start a families in his forties, he hires a surrogate to carry his child. Anna (Patti Harrison) has given a kid up for adoption before, bringing an additional sense of levity to the experience. Her matter of fact approach to surrogacy serves as a useful contrast to Matt’s controlling demeanor.

Helms does an effective job in the lead role, largely playing a composite of characters he’s played before. Matt is a pretty annoying guy, complete with his giant binder that houses his surrogacy contract. The audience can perfectly see why he’s alone, but also why he’d probably make a good father.

Like Matt as a character, the film largely relies on Anna to carry the narrative. Harrison elevates the film beyond its many shortcomings, a performance that carefully explores this delicate situation. She may not have a biological relationship to the child inside of her, but Anna possesses a more intimate relationship with the future baby than anyone. Harrison demonstrates her immense skills as a performer, experiencing all the complexities involved with being along for the first part of the ride and the first part only.

Director-screenwriter Nikole Beckwith has not reinvented the wheel with Together Together. Far too often, the film finds itself going through predictable motions, undoubtedly exacerbated by Ed Helms playing Ed Helms. There a few times where it feels like Helms and Harrison are compensating for the script’s deficiencies, which never really pushes either character to depths hinted at throughout the narrative.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with opting for a lighter tone. Harrison and Helms are very enjoyable to watch opposite each other, selling the audience well on the idea that these two people are just right for this moment in their lives. The third act loses a fair bit of steam, buckling under its own predictability.

On one hand, Together Together is an easy film to like. Beckwith crafts her narrative with all the fixings of a romcom, reluctant to fully subvert the genre tropes. Everything here works, a delightfully watchable story that should undoubtedly be of value to people looking to learn more about the surrogacy process. The film can’t quite shake the sense that it could have been more. Sometimes charming is enough, but everyone here is capable of better.

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