Edinburgh International Film Festival: Mary And Max, White Lightnin’ and A Boy Called Dad reviews

Daniel reviews three more films screening in Edinburgh. And he's not been having a bad day...

White Lightnin'

My second day in Edinburgh is the day where everything kicks off – camera crews are milling about, the red carpet is being hoovered and the three screenings of Away We Go tonight are sold out. The only thing that’s threatening to dampen the mood here is the weather, which has been dismal for the most part, but there’s always a good way to avoid the rain: go see films as much as possible!

It was this mentality that got me in for a 9am screening of Mary And Max, the feature-length debut of Adam Elliott, the man behind Oscar-winning short Harvie Krumpet (you can find it here on YouTube if you wish to watch it).

Based on a true story, Mary And Max details a lifelong relationship between two unlikely penpals: Australian schoolgirl Mary and obese New Yorker Max. Mary is teased at school, unhappy at home and hates the way she looks, especially her “poo brown” birthmark; Max suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, suffers frequent panic attacks and works a succession of jobs that never seem to satisfy. There possibly couldn’t be any connection between these two characters, but together they form a lifelong friendship.

Elliott’s film is lovingly animated, and the claymation detail is something that will probably be underappreciated on the first viewing, probably because Elliott consistently makes it look so easy. Structurally Mary And Max is a deceptively simple film – girl writes letter, man writes back, repeat –  but with the parameters set, visual flourishes abound: switches between full Technicolour and dreary grey, traditional 2D animation, for example. The story is stronger when it’s focused on the  anecdotal, purely because it gets you familiar with the characters whilst knocking your socks off, and when the communication between the characters breaks down in the third act, the film begins to overrun its welcome. But as a visually exciting and hilariously cruel (yet sweet) animation, Elliott’s film pretty much hits the spot.

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Now, I had no idea what to expect from White Lightnin’, the debut of ad director Dominic Murphy and written by Vice magazine founders Shane Smith and Eddy Moretti. The EIFF catalogue calls it a “fantasy biopic” inspired by the life of Appalachian mountain dancer Jesco White – stick with me here – with the forests of Croatia doubling for backwoods Virginia. Jesco (Brothers Of The Head‘s Edward Hogg) gets himself into all sorts of scrapes as a child, and by “scrapes” I mean ‘addiction to sniffing gasoline and lighter fluid and knifing young offenders’. To save his soul, he follows in his father’s footsteps as a mountain dancer and shacks up with an married older woman by the name of Cilla (Carrie Fisher, seriously), but the devil is always around the corner…

White Lightnin’ has already split critics and audiences alike at Berlin and Sundance earlier this year, and I can see why: on one hand, it’s a fever-dream musical biopic that abandons the genre’s limitations to freely follow its grimy muse, and on another, it’s an incoherent resurrection of a whole trope of hillbilly stereotypes. Quite frankly, I’m split between both sides. For better or worse, the film is certainly by the hands of Moretti and Smith, and the problems I have with Vicemagazine are here: a hipper-than-thou attitude, gratuitous use of self-aware irony (Jesco to Cilla: “You look like some sort of mooovie staaaar“) and the fetishisation of poverty. Still, the film’s extreme tonal switches never feel forced, and the soundtrack turns uptempo rockabilly into funeral dirges, making a perfect match for the grainy yet beautiful images on display. Oh, and Edward Hogg is – pardon my French – intense as fuck throughout. I’ll be very surprised if he doesn’t come up as a serious contender for the festival’s PPG Award for best performance. An absolutely bonkers Southern Gothic grindhouse biopic – I’ll be severely disappointed if I see anything during the remainder of the festival that even mirrors White Lightnin‘. Which, let’s face it, isn’t going to happen.

My buzz, carried over from the White Lightnin’ screening, was squandered by Brian Percival’s A Boy Called Dad, a social-realist film with ripped-from-the-headlines relevance: 14-year-old Robbie (Kyle Ward) becomes a father even while his own relationship with his father is fractured at best. Unsure of where to start, Percival’s film shows us the birth of the child, then Robbie’s chance meeting with his father (Ian Hart), then some quality father-son bonding via the power of montage. What the film lacks in originality or, well, subtlety, it makes up for in heart, with Hart and Ward’s performances compensating for the script’s failings. For a while at least. And then a gun comes out, shattering any concept of realism, and Robbie runs off with the baby.

A Boy Called Dad asks us to trust too much in it – trust in it to trudge up the same clichés of, hell, the British New Wave (dilapidated cities, children older than they deserve to be, ‘women are doing everything wrong’ frames of mind), trust in it to insult our intelligence (Robbie, who comes from a stable background, must be the only teenager in Britain without a mobile phone on him), trust in it to flesh out a series of generational failings between a series of fathers that, quite frankly, isn’t up to pat. By the ridiculous climax (with armed police present and a cliff-edge jump!), it’s enough to make you lose some faith in the British take on cinematic realism. It’s not awful – newcomers Ward and Charlene McKenna show promise, and Percival knows how to frame a pretty shot – but this  ‘realistic’ film has suddenly made me very cautious for tomorrow’s screening of Fish Tank.

On a lighter note, I’m pretty certain that The Hurt Locker‘s Jeremy Renner is in the delegate centre bar, so I’m off to act like a fanboy. The Away We Go premiere is tonight – you’ll either be reading something on that from either me or fellow DOG writer Carl – so come back tomorrow for some thoughts on the opening night, as well as Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, the digitally restored print of Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes and the very, very intriguing Van Diemen’s Land.

Remember, you can follow me on twitter.com/sitartattoo – click and get to chatting! I love to chat.

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