by Robert J. Avrech
One of the most durable movie genres is the coming of age narrative. With roots in the 18th century literary novel, tales about young people who mature through ordinary and extraordinary circumstances have an irresistible appeal that is universal. Here are three films that are currently streaming on either Netflix or Amazon Prime. Each in their own way deal with the furnace of life and love, and all are highly recommended.
Room, 2015. I resisted screening this film until last week because I cannot bear stories where children are hurt or placed in danger in the name of entertainment. But my friend Michael Medved urged me to see this movie, assuring me that it was not what I thought it would be. Michael was right. Room is a wonderful film.
The set-up is simple: a devoted mother, Brie Larson, is raising her five-year old son, Jack, in a locked room. They are held captive by a disturbed man who, seven years ago, kidnapped Larson when she was just a teenager. The 11′ by 11′ room is the only world the child knows and the film makes the most of the young child’s restricted POV. Jack has no idea what “outside” and “world” means. Ma and Jack spend ever minute of every day with each other
Room takes several narrative twists that I did not see coming when Ma finally decides to explain to Jack the truth of their circumstances. Brie Larson deservedly won the Best Actress Oscar for her deft and understated performance. But keep an eye on young Jacob Tremblay. His performance is just magical as a child who has to cope with the abstract notion of a world outside. The fine script is by Emma Donoghue based on her own novel. Irish director Lenny Abrahamson is precise and sensitive, always placing his camera in just the right spot to catch the essential emotions. This is an exquisitely small film that handles big emotions with understated elegance. As I’ve written on numerous occasions, all great films are, in the end, love stories, and “Room” is unique in displaying the love of mother and child. Amazon Prime.
Baba Joon, Israel 2015. A refreshing and finely observed Israeli film from writer-director Yuval Delshad is set in a Persian-immigrant moshav in the Negev during the early 1980s. Baba Joon depicts a community hardly ever seen in Israeli much less American movies.
Three generations of the Morgian family struggle to make a living on a grim turkey farm in a community of Persian immigrants There’s the uncompromising patriarch grandfather (Rafael Faraj Eliasi); Yitzhak, (Navid Negahban), his son, furiously resigned to running the dusty, patchwork farm; and our main character 13-year-old Motti (Asher Avrahami, a wonderful and natural non-professional), who has a genius for resurrecting dead cars and turning them into clever working vehicles. Motti loathes the work forced upon him in the turkey barn and resists his father’s tyranny with touching courage. The parents speak to their son in Farsi and he answers in Hebrew—a familiar immigrant pattern. The film lovingly charts the minefield of familial love: a young man caught between family expectations and the desire to chart his own way in life. Netflix.
Mustang, Turkish-French co-production, 2015 We approach most movies with a certain set of expectations: Word of mouth, critical appraisal, star power. They all add a subconscious dimension when screening a film. I clicked on Mustang because… well, I have no idea why. But from the very first image I was hooked on this tender and heartrending drama.
Mustang is a French/Turkish production that takes place in a remote Turkish village along the Black Sea where five beautiful and spirited orphan sisters live with their overbearing grandmother and tyrannical uncle, both conservative and pious Muslims. The five sisters are brimming with life, laughter, and hope for the future. One day they are seen flirting with some boys. Horrified that their modesty has been publicly compromised Grandmother and Uncle yank all five girls out of school, and lock them in the family house, a fortress against modernity and men.
The five sisters are like fairy tale princess prisoners behind walls and gates, but more than anything they are prisoners of a homicidal honor-shame culture. Mustang’s central POV is mediated through the eyes and voice-over narration of the youngest sister, Lale (Güneş Şensoy). She watches in disbelief as her older sisters are forcefully married off to a succession of awkward and unworthy young men. Lale’s voice is touchingly innocent but increasingly bitter as she comes to understand that her sisters lives are being crushed by a religious tradition so deeply entrenched that even the village women collaborate against their own daughters “for their own good.”
Mustang was co-written (with Alice Winocour) and directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven a Turkish filmmaker who lives and works in France. The film has a distinctive rhythm that feels almost casual, but its narrative power moves with great subtlety and then builds into an almost unbearably tense climax. This is one of the few films that is both beautiful and deeply frightening. Netflix.