Your Weekly Roundup of Movies: “Emily,” a Biopic of Emily Brontë, Is a Risk-Taking Act of Imagination

What to see and what to skip.

Emily (IMDB)


*** From its opening, a question of selfishness pulses within this Emily Brontë biopic. How could Emily dare write a novel so rife with “selfish” characters as Wuthering Heights, her older sister Charlotte implores. Actor-turned-director Frances O’Connor’s debut film then flashes back to Emily’s teen years to consider the pain, passion and self-focus necessary for a young woman to pen an all-time-great novel in a culture deadening to her inspiration. Emma Mackey (star of Netflix’s Sex Education) plays Emily as a proverbial middle child, rebellious with a sly remove. She employs her senses as a sponge, soaking in the ghostly vigor of the West Yorkshire moors despite the Anglican influence of her father (Adrian Dunbar) and hunky new local preacher William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). O’Connor’s script largely invents a web of Brontë family dynamics, positing her path to becoming the lit-loving clan’s simultaneous North Star and black sheep. That’s a welcome alternative to depicting staunch Victorian manners and Emily glued to a writing desk. Still, one wonders if a slightly bloodier performance (think Keira Knightly, circa 2007), as opposed to Mackey’s inherently modern-feeling cool, could have elevated the sensuousness. But as an act of risk-taking imagination, Emily gives a legendary novelist and the power of selfishness their rightful flowers. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Living Room.


*** Comedians Clay Tatum and Whitmer Thomas have been best pals for 20 years, but their debut narrative feature imagines a fainter bond. Tatum (who directed the film) plays Clay, a broke Los Angeles photographer who runs into struggling actor Whit (Thomas) on the street. It appears Clay has more or less ghosted his old friend from Alabama—fitting, given that Whit claims to be an actual ghost (cause of death unknown) who is visible only to Clay. Looking for a lifeline, Whit vocalizes that this is an experimental Casper scenario: a benevolent spirit buddying up with a human. Tall premise aside, the film’s generative force is the duo’s meandering chemistry and the silly way they mumble in support of idiotically jagged haircuts and dance-karate kicks. The off-key relationship comedy recalls improv-driven Joe Swanberg and Lynn Shelton indies, but what complicates The Civil Dead is the surprisingly bad underlying vibes and the question of why Clay, a person with nothing going on, struggles to engage with a willing friend. Things that go bump in the night may be asking for a little bro time, but do self-focused young artists have it in them to heed the dead’s desperate call? NR. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. On demand.


*** Even at its best—with relatively kind peers, teachers and families—middle school is hell. Adolescent socialization starts and, immediately, it’s an irreversible cascade for Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav de Waele), two best friends from the Belgian countryside. We first see them at summer’s end, as gangly mirror images dashing joyfully through Léo’s family flower farm. Their childhood bond is so “close” that, any hint of burgeoning romance notwithstanding, they are indeed experiencing a kind of love. But a relationship this unself-conscious can’t repel schoolyard scrutiny and early teachings in masculine insecurity. Some of the ensuing change to Léo and Rémi’s friendship is sudden and frankly unbelievable, calling into question what story writer-director Lukas Dhont really wants to tell (precariously, he’s searching for a universal experience within a distinct trauma). Yet Close, an Oscar nominee for Best International Film that is clearly inspired by Celine Sciamma’s intimate coming-of-age portraits (Tomboy, Girlhood), remains involving and intimate throughout—and it’s arguably a playbook for how adults should treat children. Maybe they just do middle school better in Belgium. PG-13. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Cinema 21.


** While Fire of Love poeticized the quaking, deadly romance of Mother Earth, this Netflix documentary is more of an eruption anatomy. Minute by minute, The Volcano: Rescue From Whakaari chronicles the sudden, tragic bursting of New Zealand’s Whakaari (or White Island) in 2019 and the experiences of the dozens of tourists and guides who were trapped in an improbable nightmare. It’s a story worth telling, as most of director Rory Kennedy’s are (she made Downfall: The Case Against Boeing and Last Days in Vietnam), but perhaps not at feature length. The preeruption dread is as powerful as witnessing survivors’ scars, but the straightforward rescue mission marks a major slump, a series of “just the facts, ma’am” interviews with pilots, cops and volunteers who did what they could expediently, and explains only that much. Intermittently, the film verges on criticizing ineffective threat systems or unregulated eco-tourism, but The Volcano isn’t willing to explore controversial ramifications, even to illustrate how responsibility was eluded. The film honors lives lost and given, but a prime-time news special could do the same. PG-13. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Netflix.

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