Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Mar 04, 2009 5:50 am 
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The photographer and filmmaker Duwne Hopkins' Better things is rather ironically titled: its people are hardly moving toward improvement in their bleak lives, though they might like to. They live in a marginal community in the English Cotswolds that seems to be dominated by adolescents and old people. All of them are either depressed, or addicted to drugs, or just old, run down, idle, or lost. Most are desperately hoping for love, but unable to find it. Hopkins, who has made some celebrated short films on related topics, is a native of the area and is careful to use local people, including former drug addicts. Faces seem harshly real, light is sculpted, landscape panoramas are dark and painterly.

The shock here is that we're in the lovely English countryside, but it's full of urban problems: poverty, unemployment, drug addiction. There is no Hollywood glamor or Trainspotting wild style about these young addicts. The eye is poetic but the stories are sociological realism.

A young woman named Tess (Emma Cooper) dies of an overdose, and those who remain don't seem better off, with a few exceptions: an estranged old couple gradually becomes reconciled, a girl overcomes her fear of leaving her room, and the boyfriend screws up the courage to visit the dead girl's mother.

That boyfriend, Rob (Liam McIlfatrick), as well as David (Che Corr) and Jon (Freddie Cunliffe) all did heroin with Tess, although David, due to the influence of girlfriend Sarah (Tara Ballard), is half-heartedly trying to stop. Rob is struggling, not least with his inability to attend Tess's funeral because of his complicity in her death. Jon's grandfather (Frank Bench) is released from the hospital and when he returns home--in some of the bleakest scenes of marital shutdown ever filmed--avoids his poor old wife (Betty Bench). His anger is never explained, but he does eventually let it go. Tess's friend Gail (Rachel McIntyre) missed the funeral because she has become phobic about leaving her room. Her grandmother (Patricia Loveland) has a hard time getting her to get up in the morning. She is taking a new medication, a therapist or social worker makes a home visit, and she improves after a look at the stormy fields and trees outside with her failing "nan."

The plot lines include 18 characters. As one reviewer has noted, the three young male leads are hard to tell apart; and so are some of the names. The meandering sequences tend to seem random, even when artificially linked by sound or image.

Despite the integrity, something is missing--perhaps just stylistic restraint. Blue-tinted, carefully planned images of inertia are jarred awake by abrupt shock editing in which cross-cutting of similar moments and shifts from silence to noise are used a little too freely. I began to think the film would have worked better if the main stories had been followed through in separate sections instead of shuffled together--if, in short, Hopkins had worked in a simpler documentary style, let characters and scenes play out, and made space for more motivation and movement than simply waiting to score or racing at breakneck speed on a country road. The stylistically overwrought manner doesn't allow sequences and characters to breathe and detracts from the authenticity of the content, which, however mired in stasis, seems richly textured. There is a talent here that is at war with itself.

Screened for this review in March 2009 as part of the Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center, New York.

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