Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Feb 26, 2024 9:25 am 
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Tim Blake Nelson and his son collaborate on a wintry off-the-grid story set in Ohio

Here is a sweet little collaboration between well known actor Tim Blake Nelson and his son Henry Nelson, a fledgling director who helmed the film and penned its tale of a grizzled, bespectacled man and a teenage girl living off the grid in Ohio in the wintertime. Actually it's the vicinity of Oberlin, the elite liberal arts college where Henry was finishing up a fifth-year advanced arts degree, and Oberlin students provided some of the crew.

Sixteen-year-old Bethan (Chloê Kerwin) and her dad (Tim Blake Nelson), who suffers from PTSD following service in an unspecified war pre-Afghanistan, have been living off-the-grid for years. Soon a violent event will disrupt this world. So will Bethan's encounter with a girl student (Gus Birney), and her first kiss, which makes her question the strict limits of her life.

Nelson's F-bomb dialogue marks events as of our day. Dad tells Bethan a tongue-in-cheek version of the story of Chicken Little in this vein that starts things out well. "Once upon a time there was this kid known as Chicken Little". ("Okay."). He was basically the most adorable little chicken you've ever F--ing seen..." It seems a bit odd for a sixteen-year-old, but the world of off-the-grid makes its own rules.

The story, introducing father and daughter at ease together, is a good moment, bitter, sarcastic, yet goodnatured, and we wish there were more like it. A lot of the time Dad is tendentiously lecturing Bethan. He has taught her the term "Abrahamic religions," showing he distances himself from theism, and factoids like this take the place of formal schooling. He tells her the rest of the world is inauthentic: only they are real. And indeed the actors carry it off. Tim Blake Nelson is at home in this role. Chloê Kerwin has a soulful sadness that is very touching. Their chemistry is fine.

This is a far cry from my favorite off-the-grid movie, Matt Ross' Captain Fantastic, in which Viggo Mortensen runs a large brood of half a dozen offspring of various ages in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, teaching them outdoor survival in what appears, in good weather, like a leafy paradise. His dominance may begin to chafe for the older offspring, but along the way they have had fun and learned a lot. It's harder to see what Bethan gets out of her dad, except they only have each other. She's someone for him to talk to. The film nicely conveys the special intimacy and coziness of such a relationship. They are secure in each other - until they aren't when the essential fragility of their relationship is revealed.

Bethan and her dad are scrounging around on the Ohio flatlands on the edge of a town and a campus (whose class disjunction the filmmaker wants to highlight), making money by stealing bikes (easy to imagine a college student thinking of that one), which he delivers to a rough, nutty guy with a shaven head and a truck (Jared Abrahamson) who he doesn't get along with and who expects more from him than he is able to give. This guy''s unpredictability and obnoxiousness sum up all the aspects of the-rest-of-the-world this damaged vet lacks the tools to deal with comfortably. When he is away from Bethan, there's not much to like about him.

The off-the-grid dad's way of stealing bikes is laborious. Dad runs out through the snow, uses his metal cutters, and rides a bike away, then runs back. He and his cohort (Abrahamson) are surprisingly rough with the bikes, if they want to sell them. Poor bikes. (If they could but speak. The bike story needs to be told.)

Bethan's encounter with the pretty student (Gus Birney) is pivotal because it's a ray of light and hope, a dawning of sexuality, and a glimpse for us of another world for Bethan. This and the Chicken Little story are the highlights of this rather grim tale. The film is a nice beginning nonetheless for Henry Nelson, though his forte seems to lie more with intimate dialogue than with action.

DP Tatjana Krstevski makes the most of the dark wintry Oberlin settings and the blue-gray flatness of its surrounding landscape. The editing of Max Ethan Miller has earned praise. The score is something else by the writer-director, with Will Curry. A wistful, wintry tale to curl up with before spring comes.

Asleep in my Palm, 88 mins., had a limited opening in Mar., 2023, showing at Nashville and Woodstock in Sept., winning cinematography and narrative feature awards at Woodstock. Watched on a home screener for this review. New theatrical release scheduled in theaters March 1, 2024; on VOD March 19, and on streaming April 19. (New notice Mar. 12: "Coming back to theaters in NYC Mar. 15, on VOD Mar. 19, and streaming Apr. 19. Alamo Drafthouse in NYC!.").

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