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Quiet Movie Weekend

George Wolf George Wolf Quiet Movie WeekendThe Starling - Photo via IMDb
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Fifteen movies come out next week. That’s a lot. But what to do this week? Well, if you like emotional musicals, tense downward spirals, or low-key road trips, you will find fine ways to bide your time. Here’s the low down.

Dear Evan Hansen

In theaters

by George Wolf

It’s not that Evan himself is hard to like, even flawed and unlikeable main characters can be ambitious and welcome. The real challenge for the big screen adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen is turning the young man’s choices into something truly hopeful and inspiring.

Evan (Ben Platt, whose Broadway performance garnered one of the musical’s many Tony awards) is a painfully shy, anxiety-ridden high school senior getting assignments from his therapist that involve writing letters to himself. Through a convoluted mixup that actually lands as plausible, one of those letters ends up in the hands of Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), another troubled young man who can’t make friends.

When Connor takes his own life, his mother (Amy Adams) and stepfather (Danny Pino) read the letter and reach out to Evan, looking for comfort from someone they believe must have been their son’s best friend.

It’s a cruel and horrible lie, one that Evan ultimately indulges because it makes his own life better. Evan gains friends, he becomes close to the Connor’s wealthy family while his own mother (Julianne Moore) works late to makes ends meet, and he gets alone time with Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), who just happens to be Evan’s longtime crush.

While the facade can’t last, it’s one that’s chock full of possibilities for another shallow YA specialness parade. But director Stephen Chbosky and writer Steven Levenson do manage to craft moments of truth that help offset the manipulative atmosphere.

Chbosky’s (The Perks of being a Wallflower, Wonder) choice to have the cast sing live is a smart one, bringing a needed intimacy to the music and giving Platt the chance to really impress. But while Chbosky often maneuvers into and out of the music with style, too many of those set pieces seem tentative, with only a few of the songs (“Requiem,” “Words Fail,” “So Big, So Small”) resonating beyond the frequent and generic “I feel seen” messaging.

Platt truly has a wonderful voice, but he has trouble trading what served him so well on the stage for a more nuanced film approach to emoting. Yes, at 27 Platt is a bit too old now for the role, but that’s less of a problem than surrounding him with such authentic screen talent. As Evan becomes less of an awkward outcast, Platt’s screentime with Adams, Moore and especially Dever (who gives the film its most honest moments) only highlights a need for understatement that Platt and Chbosky don’t address.

At a robust 137 minutes, Dear Evan Hansen has plenty of time to grapple with the moral conundrum at its core, but ultimately falls just short of the more universal insight it seeks.

The film shows us teens that are stressed and over-medicated, with feelings of inadequacy compounded by social media expectations and misunderstood by families and peer groups. Then when tragedy occurs, the shock opens avenues for exploitation and personal gain. Evan takes one of them.

There are teachable moments there, and the soaring melodies of Dear Evan Hansen will put occasional lumps in your throat. But is Evan’s journey a thoughtful and cautionary parable, or a shameless exploitation in itself?

In the end, neither. Much like its flawed main character, it’s a mess of awkward and misplaced intentions, as likely to generate facepalms as it is a loving embrace.

Grade: B-

The Starling

On Netflix

by Hope Madden

A quick synopsis of The Starling, the new drama from Hidden Figures director Theodore Melfi, brims with potential, offers an appealingly messy notion.

Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack (Chris O’Dowd) are suffering, silently and separately, about a year after the death of their baby girl. Jack waits out his grief in an institution while Lilly tries to tough it out on her own. Eventually she decides to plant a garden, but a territorial, dive-bombing starling makes that difficult. She turns to psychologist/veterinarian Larry (Kevin Kline) for help.

That’s a lot to unpack, but when the core theme is grief, complications are welcome. Hollywood tales of grief and relief tend to be too tidy, the metaphors too clean, while the unruly emotion being presented is rarely tidy or clean in real life. A good mess is called for.

Unfortunately, The Starling is not a good mess. Just a regular old mess.

Matt Harris’s script never digs below the surface — not even when Lilly is gardening. Melfi relies on the score to represent emotional weight rather than leaning on his more-than-capable cast to depict that grief. An anemic comic-relief subplot at Lilly’s gig managing a grocery store feels wildly out of place and wastes real talent. (Timothy Olyphant has four lines – funny lines delivered via a character that should be on a TV sitcom, not in this movie.)

O’Dowd — who was the absolute picture of grief in John Michael McDonagh’s masterful 2014 film Calvary – fares the best with the material. Even though his character’s resolution feels unearned, there is heft in the performance that allows human emotion to overcome a weakly written character.

McCarthy suffers most, though. Unable to ad lib her way toward elevating a drama, she sinks beneath the unrealistic banter between Lilly and Kline’s Dr. Larry. Kline is solid, strangely aided by Harris’ weak characterization, which allows the actor to find a groove that conveys more than what’s on the page.

Moments of genuine emotion punctuate the film and, while welcome, they mainly serve as a reminder of what The Starling had the potential to become.

Grade: C

Surge

At Gateway Film Center

by George Wolf

Joseph swallows too loudly. His mother tells him so, which is just part of an uncomfortable family dinner where even eye contact is a chore.

Surge follows Joseph’s downward spiral during the hours after that awkward meal, when table manners become the least of his concerns.

Joseph (a mesmerizing Ben Whishaw) works security at London’s Stansted airport, where his days pass by with monotonous routine and lifeless social interaction. But unsettling encounters with two separate air travelers seem to puncture Joseph’s bubble of detachment, setting the stage for a 24-hour journey of primal indulgence.

In his feature debut, director/co-writer Aneil Karia leans heavily enough on handheld shaky cams and closeup framing to earn a warning for anyone triggered by such frenzied motion. Though this approach does work fine as a mirror to Joseph’s frayed psyche, and Paul Davies’s sound design is impeccably detailed, it’s really Whishaw’s Sundance award-winning performance that constantly keeps you invested.

The minimalistic script provides little insight into Joseph’s breakdown beyond the standard pressures of modern life and alienation. This keeps us at a distance as well, making it hard to relate to Joseph as much more than the latest guy who ate detergent.

Surge does have craftsmanship and style, leaving little doubt that Karia is a talented filmmaker with more deeply felt features in his future. But right now, he’s got a terrific actor to showcase, and that turns out to be just enough to get him by.

Grade: B-

Hudson

On VOD

by Hope Madden

I never thought I would miss mumblecore, but here you have it. Co-writer/director Sean Daniel Cunningham transports us back to that time of slight, meandering plots, awkward vulnerability, and low-stakes white people problems.

The thing is, Hudson is pretty great.

As low-key as they come, Hudson follows two estranged cousins on a brief but somewhat eventful road trip one autumn day through Upstate New York. I mean, they don’t really leave the area – they go maybe a couple of hours from home, tops. A game of putt-putt becomes one of the most major events in the adventure. It’s not an edge-of-your-seat thriller is what I’m saying, but it is laid back, sweet and lovely.

Much of that is due to a spot-on performance in the title role by David Neal Levin. Hudson is lovable, sweet and tender due to the recent death of his mother. A middle-aged man still living at home, he mostly writes haiku now, feeds his bird, maybe gets out a remote-control car. Levin’s performance never mocks or belittles the character, never makes him the butt of a joke.

Then Hudson’s cool cousin Ryan (co-writer Gregory Lay) shows up. He’s waiting to do some reshoots for his latest movie, has some time to kill, missed the funeral but wants to hang out now.

The movie sinks or swims on the lived-in relationships. It’s like we’ve dropped into these lives mid-relationship until the cousins pick up a new friend who knows how to get them where they’re going.

Sunrise (played by producer Mary Catherine Greenawalt) gives the film, if not a jolt of energy, then maybe a quiver of it. Her presence allows the writers to explore the cousins’ personas and relationships more deeply, and offers more opportunities for good-natured if not gut-busting humor.

It’s a lovely film. It looks great, performances are solid in a very mellow way, and the resolution feels like a long-coming hug from a buddy. It’s nice.

Grade: B

Follow George and Hope on Twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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