Liza, Liza, Skies Are Grey – Review

Written & Directed by Terry Sanders

Rating: 3 out of 5.

There’s an erroneous statement that life was easier in the past, just as much as it’s wrong to claim life is easier now. California in the sixties was far from the golden state some outside of America perceived it to be, with worries of war, austerity, and drugs. There’s, however, one growing expressive freedom, that of ‘free love’ and an opening up of the views concerning women and young people’s bodies and sexuality. In part a tribute to Romeo & Juliet, Terry Sanders‘ road-trip love story ‘Liza, Liza, Skies Are Gray’ (2015) may begin with a bumpy journey, but quickly finds a poetic speed-setting on the open roads.

Unsure of what the future may bring, high schoolers Liza and Brett come to the decision that before the draft for the Vietnam war they intend on being one another’s ‘first-time’. Whisking themselves on a cross-state tour to spend time together before separating, the pair hop aboard Brett’s motorcycle for the golden beaches, dense mountain terrain and endless dirt roads California offers. Encountering friendly locals, a few skirmishes and a sleazy motel owner, the trip quickly becomes a coming-of-age tale as the two evolve more than just in the physical way they had hoped for.

Steadily growing in charm, ‘Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey’ propels itself once the journey aspect of the film begins. Where the pacing has been problematic, suddenly time is taken to build the relationship and chemistry the pair share, which by the film’s end, is fully tangible and investing, more than first impressions would have suggested. Notably, this is down to Mikey Madison‘s accessible performance, which is devoid of cheap antics or thrills. Madison’s performance develops, and her character gains confidence as the film unfolds, and is a genuinely wholesome performance in its authenticity as a teenage girl struggling with new love, virginity and a society commodifying having sex young.

With a surprising core of sincerity, Sander’s writing breathes an extraordinary level of intrigue into this teen relationship, far more than one may feel in the film’s opening. It cannot be lessened that the opening of the film leaves a lot to be desired, with shocking pacing and scripting issues which plaster many characters as one-note, but this is all fodder before the main chunk of the film which at its heart centres on Liza and Brett.

Attempting to infuse elements of Shakespeare, Greek mythos and 60’s Road Movies, Sander’s litters the narrative with cutaways and road bumps the cast didn’t need to drive empathy. Sean H. Scully’s Brett suffers the most from this, as the frequent character turns he takes to bolster his growing aggression and irritation with the world don’t develop naturally, and instead are forced upon him.

The film works best when it openly demonstrates growth – the key example being when Liza and Brett are attacked, and the only person to stop is an older black-woman who merely asks that one day they ‘do the same for her one day’, a reference to the film’s setting of sixties America as segregation was (very) slowly unravelling.

Similarly, to this infusion of inspirations, Erik Daarstad’s cinematography takes and borrows from a variety of techniques – unfortunately, this doesn’t always blend well. Many of the up-close internal shots, particularly in vehicles, are achieved with what are presumably Go-Pros resulting in choppy framing. Where the film works best in a visual sense is in Jennifer Seeley’s art direction which demonstrates the location shots magnificently, greatly aided by the lighting and colour palette.

An eclectic mix of techniques and inspirations, ‘Liza, Liza, Skies Are Grey’ bloats itself despite having the necessary components for a superb film of its own volition. Sander’s script is more concerned with emulating a neo-Romeo & Juliet than forging a path for these characters under their autonomy, resulting in an engaging film which stumbles along the path where it should be gliding.

Review originally published for In Their Own League

Stray Dolls – Review

Directed by Sonejuhi Sinha

Written by Sonejuhi Sinha & Charlotte Rabate

One little crime, that’s all it takes. Someone may commit this out of greed or coercion, perhaps you just want to experience that thrill, or maybe you do it to survive in a cruel, unbalanced society. Sonejuhi Sinha’s directorial feature debut, ‘Stray Dolls’ (2019) cautions that one small deed can excessively spiral with disastrous, life-altering consequences.

Upon arriving in America, Riz finds herself in what she perceives as temporary accommodation with a live-in job at a motel run by Una, played by Cynthia Nixon. The motel dishevelled and visibly no five-star establishment houses a variety of secrets, seedy characters and allegories of the shattered perceptions many have with the States. Upon destroying her passport, Una at first establishes herself as an antagonist but has little part to play until the climax of the film. Tidying rooms, Riz is forced to share with a volatile, disenchanted young woman named Dallas, who coerces Riz into enacting one small theft in exchange for returning a stolen photograph.

Reflective of the inherently senseless pursuit of ideas or dreams, ‘Stray Dolls’ deflates the entitled sense of narcissism which is the ‘American Dream’, which only applies to those white, already with moderate income and of course, male. Sinha is bold in her venture into an indie feature-length, refusing to bow to the pressures one would expect from this narrative, but ‘Stray Dolls’ wanders rather than flows.

And herein is where the issues begin, as an indie thriller with potential stumbles. The film correctly hones onto the adolescence of the young cast as they come of age, love, lust and fight against those who take advantage, particularly the men. The difficulty emerges in motivation, which detaches us from our primary protagonist Riz, Geetanjali Thapa giving out a little too much of a ‘controlled’ façade. From a narrative standpoint, Riz’s ability as a lock-pick and personality alterations while surviving in America show promise, but there isn’t substance to Riz, rather there is depth to the scenarios surrounding her. Moving the plot forward, Riz’s actions aren’t character-driven, but instead story-driven, and as such, the audience’s focus shifts to the secondary protagonist, Dallas.

With props towards Olivia DeJonge, who offers dimension to Dallas, this unfortunately also elevates her to the audience’s principal interest. There are no victims in this film, despite the violent ends for a few characters, and sufferings of others, particularly Riz. An interesting dynamic, where the ends and actions do not justify the experiences. DeJonge comes the closest to ‘redemption’, or at the least a recognisable portrayal of empathy, the audience can get behind.  Fiesty, engaging but still wrought with troubles, DeJonge evolves the role as the film progresses, with natural chemistry developing with other characters. Enabling Dallas to be express an authentic display of emotions, there’s a profoundly personal touch to the character which feels accomplished, earned.

Illustrating the disconnection with ‘Stray Dolls’, narrative can’t align with actions or portrayals. The direction seems comparable to that of a short film, where decisions, actions and characterisation has less opportunity to reveal itself naturally. While the script is taut, with delicate touches of storytelling lingering throughout, the sudden drastic decisions, particularly surrounding drugs, stem less from a natural development and more a drive to inject a perception of grittiness, and while the trope of the well-behaved introvert taking a rebellious lurch, the pace in which Riz leaps feels forced.

While portrayed wonderfully by Nixon, the motivations behind Una and Jimmy are unfocused and waste potential for a more comprehensive narrative sub-plot. While Nixon brings earthy humour to the role and is a highlight for the film, Robert Aramayo’s false-machismo as the blustering, masculine-devoid Jimmy also secures the film’s darker humour and serves as a pivotal focal point where Riz and Dallas come together. But while his place in the text is that of the young man wishing to play with the big leagues, it feels superficial, with throwaway lines about his lack of education, and upbringing feeling tact on.

Striving for an indie, bordering art-noir styling, ‘Stray Dolls’ cinematography skirts with the notion, never excelling with the motif. Save for a few shots, one particularly gorgeous wide-angle lead following a school break-in, where the smoothness of the cinematography shudders in reflection to the anxiety, the muted colours emerging into a brightness unlike the rest of the film.

Flirting with ideas, Sonejuhi Sinha’s ‘Stray Dolls’ ensnares a great deal of interest, with the tremendous promise of the filmmakers future. As an outing into feature-length, ‘Stray Dolls’ has teeth and is a refreshing take on the ideals of supposed American prosperity. Particularly in its depiction of young women, not as victims, but as catalysts who accept their actions and refuse to make apologies or excuses. It fails to bite down hard enough, taking potential characterisation and pushing decisions early into the film, rather than allowing them to develop naturally.

Review originally published for In Their Own League:

Mickey and the Bear – Review

Wirrten & Directed by Annabelle Attanasio

The prospect of forging one’s path at the cost of leaving others behind is certainly far from an original narrative for the coming-of-age drama. For first-time writer & director Annabelle Attanasio however, what she achieves with Mickey and the Bear is a heart-wrenching, visceral piece on the pursuit of personal gratification, while attempting to balance perceived family obligation, as fiercely headstrong Michaela (Mickey) is the sole provider and carer for her addict, veteran father Hank.

A gifted young woman, Mickey is wholly a likeable, well-rounded character, without stripping an ounce of her humanity. She has flaws, she has emotions and her limits. Almost as if this coming-of-age narrative was written by a woman, for a woman. Camila Morrone’s method of characterisation is subdued, though sharing her on-screen father’s temper on occasion.

Mickey has pride, becoming aggressive at those taking pity or offering money. Desperately, she desires a further connection to her mother, to freedom, and finds this in the opportunity to study in a new state. What makes Attanasio’s film though is just how clear the affection between Mickey and Hank feels, in no small part with the writing, but everything is down to performance. Morrone establishes clear relationships with the men in the film, sharing genuine father-daughter chemistry with James Badge Dale, and light-hearted passionate moments with Calvin Demba’s Wyatt.

The only mediocre performance, down to the theme of the role rather than performance, is that of Mickey’s boyfriend Aron, played by Ben Rosenfield. His part in the narrative is clear, the representation of what her life will be, if Mickey stays. He’s a younger version of her father, encapsulating the rejection of potential, and a future of marriage, kids and ‘cleaning up his shit’. Aron is a pill-popper, disrespectful and physically driven, again though, this isn’t as simple as it may sound – Aron isn’t a vicious monster, he’s immature and discourteous. Symbolic conditioning of what the real beasts of Mickey’s life are, there’s only one instance of hunting bear in this film, and its deceptive placement in the story is a sublime piece of cinematic storytelling.

And, if the titular ‘bear’ allegory is lost on viewers, the film couldn’t be at fault, with Hank’s looming presence, at a moment’s notice aggressive, weaving throughout. With only one instance of hunting in the film, the beat of the wilderness is not the grizzly of the north, nor the taxidermy she works with, no, the beast of Mickey’s life is the man she shares a home with – and the underestimated experiences her father Hank has gone through.

The erroneous methods of black-and-white character development of Melodrama are vacant in Mickey and the Bear, instead, a focus is on the earthy tones of life. The palette is blurred, nothing vibrant and all the while coated in a dusty haze. As with its characters, this choice in lighting reflects that no-one is straight forward, there are no clear antagonists, even in the tactless boys who push Mickey for satisfaction, nor the father who could easily tip into an abusive scale. These are all fleshed out (excluding Aron) roles, with levels of understanding to their motivation, a key for audiences to fall behind a character.

Chiefly, Hank, Mickey’s father, and the true bear in her life. A veteran of Iraq, we do not require context to the trials Hank would face while serving. All the audience requires is the foreknowledge of his time on duty, his drug and substance dependency and the issues of struggling lucidity with growing delusion. He is playful, charismatic, and does genuinely have care for Mickey when he is sober. There is malice in our attitudes towards him, but more pity as he struggles with an intense addiction and displays uglier characteristics, namely virulent toxic masculinity when his life is saved by Mickey’s new love-interest Wyatt, a young black English student. No words of racism are uttered, but Dale’s performance and the film’s framing as to his expression communicate enough to the audience to show his discomfort.

Culminating in a distressing build to the film’s closing, the running technique of claustrophobic shots builds to a pay-off as the audience feels suffocated. A short scene, the costume design, performances and lighting are enough to lay out every connection to be made, without spelling it to the audience and ruining the impact. Attanasio’s canny writing ability here, as with Morrone and Dale’s performance, demonstrates that reason is never an acceptable excuse. We understand why Hank is like this, but the film never excuses his manner, and in the end, it forces Mickey’s decision on whether to support Hank, or to run.

Thankfully, in the interest of narrative tone and taste, these bleaker, though no less authentic moments stop short of gratuitous. They serve precisely the purpose intended, without drawing insulting lines for the audience. Meticulously well thought out and constructed, everything has layer and context, it’s a masterclass in understanding the human condition beneath the superficial, not only from a written level but from sturdy performances.

Nothing is overworked or suffers heavily from melodrama, a rare coming-of-age narrative for a woman, without the copious misunderstandings male directors impose. Everything feels natural, never fussy, but messy in a way only life can manage. Mickey and the Bear condenses such emotion into a ninety-minute runtime, without feeling too short or overarching, it’s a compacted, impressive piece of filmmaking which excels in its execution, performances and design.

Review originally pubished for In Their Own League: