Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Thu Mar 17, 2016 5:28 am 
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JAEDEN LEIBERHER AND CLIVE OWEN IN THE CONFIRMATION

A man getting back his tools and teaching his son

The Confirmation is the independent-minded directorial debut of Bob Nelson, writer of Alexander Payne's superb Nebraska, and he wrote this too. It has quiet charm and good characters, without being the rich ensemble piece that is Nebraka. While Nebraska's droll yokels are meanies, The Confirmation looks kindly on its grab bag of strivers, scroungers, and crooks because it sees their economic realities.

We begin with the eight-year-old Anthony (the preternaturally poised and very talented Jaeden Lieberher), whose mother (Maria Bello), not altogether confidently, leaves him off for the weekend in the care of her ex, Walt (Clive Owen, humbly scruffy, in American accent), while she and her new husband go away on a marriage workshop given by the church. They seem to have turned very religious. Anthony, though scheduled for his first communion and confirmation next week, really isn't. "Have you thought about your sins?" his mother asks him. "I think I've thought about them enough," he replies. He's harsh in the confessional. "I'm not your son," he tells the priest. "You're God's son." "You're not God." "I'm God's representative." "I thought Jesus was God's son." Anthony might be more ready for skeptics' class than confirmation class. By the sound of it, the Catholic church may be no match for him. A whole movie might be built around Anthony's exchanges with church authorities, which young Lieberher's deadpan delivery makes witty.

But the confirmation theme (though it introduces the movie's very real concern with religion and morality) is only the bookend for the adventures Anthony has roaming the town with Walt, a carpenter too fond of the bottle and down on his luck. Early on in their time together Walt's fine tools are stolen from the back of his truck, just when he's received news of a good job for which he'll need them, so they must spend the weekend on a frantic search. As Alan Scherstuhl notes in LA Weekly, this is pretty much the premise of De Sica's Bicycle Thieves. This is a recession tale that takes small time economic hardships quite seriously. Their search for the tools takes father and son into some very dubious parts of town and into some equally dubious behavior, but also is a powerful bonding experience in which Walt emerges as a good and honest father, whatever his other failings.

In contrast Bonnie's new mate Kyle (Matthew Modine, the Christian real estate magnate of "Weeds") is a clueless yuppie, and her brag to Walt that Kyle doesn't have to do home repairs because he can pay to have them done is an abandonment of good old pioneer values. Nelson is looking at what "good" is.

The location and main character bring to mind Robert Benton's 1994 Nobody's Fool, from Richard Russo's novel, where Paul Newman plays Sully, a seedy character in a small town like this, though that's a tough act to follow on many counts. Owen's alcoholic carpenter down on his luck is trying hard to prove himself -- not a process as enjoyable to watch as the salty reprobate Newman strutting his stuff. In fact, Walt has a serious problem, and at attack of DT's is a bit of a shocker that derails the sequence of quirky portraits delivered by Robert Forster, Tim Blake Nelson, Patton Oswalt, and others.

But Nelson has a lesson to present. When Anthony saw the priest in the first scene, he couldn't come up with any sins. Now he has committed some, and seen others, and the message is that this sinning is better than saintliness or confirmation classes for turning a boy into a man. Anthony is only eight, though, and this message can't be taken too seriously; nor does Walt discourage his son from going ahead with the confirmation. He can decide what "good" is for himself later, when he's considered all the angles. I enjoyed The Confirmation and found its American hard times true and its moral message and look at religion worth studying. It's a solid directorial debut for Nelson that represents a more sweet and humane outlook than Payne's. It's an indie kind of film that eschews all indie convention and cuteness. It's downbeat but it's accurate about America and it cares. It's acting is fine. But I'd have liked a bit more salt: more edge to Walt; more of Anthony's deadpan wit; some of Nebraska yokel meanness.

The Confirmation, 90 mins., enters US theaters 18 March 2016.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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