A stylistically diverse trio of perceptive films, all charged by searching male leads, made for an unusual thematic group in this year’s Telluride Film Festival.
The first of them is “Red Rocket,” Sean Baker’s shrewd, gritty, and unfailingly hilarious follow-up to 2017’s “The Florida Project,” that made a splash in Telluride following its Cannes debut earlier this summer. Baker proves once again that he knows how to approach stories about Americans on the fringes as a considerate outsider, immersing himself in the details of the world he depicts intimately, then transposing it onto the screen for all its tender, intricate realness. In his latest, he follows a washed-up former porn star named Mikey Saber, a calculating smooth-talker trying to figure out his next move in the Texan terrain, using everyone around him while he scopes out a desperate return to his glory days as an adult movie actor.
Demonstrating his knack for impeccable casting and finding talent in the most unusual places once again, Baker trusts his shameless charmer Saber in the hands of the former MTV VJ Simon Rex, a performer with immense magnetic quality and a sense of elegant ruggedness reminiscent of the household movie-stars of the ‘70s. Nailing Baker’s fast and furious dialogue lines—the script is co-written by Baker’s frequent collaborator Chris Bergoch—Rex delivers a star-making performance as an aged Dirk Diggler, a sometimes despicable but strangely enough, consistently unhate-able motormouth anti-hero who makes so many poor decisions throughout “Red Rocket” that you wonder if he walked out of a Coen Brothers movie. Penniless and homeless, Mikey knocks on the door of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod, terrific) at the start of the film, and settles in with her and her mom while the duo begrudgingly take him in.
With his signature compassion behind the camera and on the page, Baker allows us to see Mikey through a complex lens, one that succeeds in coddling him without justifying his behavior. In that regard, we follow Mikey with both laughter (again, “Red Rocket” is extremely funny) and a raised eyebrow as he makes his way from scheme to scheme while pursuing a barely 18-year-old girl named Strawberry (a wonderfully impish Suzanna Son, who does resemble a strawberry with her innocently freckled face and sunny performance). Is Strawberry a victim of constant grooming or, being a young woman of just consenting age, someone who should be seen as a grown-up with legitimate self-sufficiency? It’s miraculous how “Red Rocket” manages to acknowledge the situation’s inappropriateness without manipulating the audience into cheap judgment, or ever selling Strawberry’s smarts and autonomy short. And it does all this with a dependably sharp sense of humor. Freewheeling and kissed by the magic hour light like Baker’s previous movies, “Red Rocket” is among the filmmaker’s best works thanks in large part to this superb balancing act.
Elsewhere, Mike Mills’ lyrical “C’mon C’mon” had its world premiere in the mountains of Colorado, claiming a unique spot in the ever insightful filmmaker’s growing oeuvre. Following in the footsteps of his “Beginners” (which was inspired by the writer/director’s father) and “20th Century Women” (an ode to his mom and the matriarchal ecosystem in which he was raised), Mills puts forth another deeply personal movie with “C’mon C’mon,” this time, inspired by a conversation the filmmaker had with his son while giving him a bath (a heartwarming instance he recounted during an intro here in town). One of the most deeply reflective American filmmakers working today, Mills is a storyteller with a baring, raw sense of honesty, one so evidently in touch with his feelings and unafraid of abruptly burst emotions. It’s through this refreshingly unadulterated quality that he must have made “C’mon C’mon,” a profoundly rich film about his kid, our children, and everyone’s parents alike.
Shot in gleaming black and white and told in hybrid style with both fictional and documentary-based elements, his tale chiefly follows the lovably disheveled Johnny, a radio host touring the country and interviewing kids about their hopes, dreams and expectations of the future. Portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix (who is so invigorating to see in a sweetly loose-limbed role after “Joker”), Johnny agrees to care for his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman, an astonishing breakthrough) while his sister Viv (a terrific Gaby Hoffmann) tends to her husband’s flailing health. Eventually, Jesse and Johnny hit the road together for the latter’s work, bonding across New York City and New Orleans. A precocious kid—though thankfully not “Hollywood”-precocious: you know, unnaturally cutesy and saccharine—Jesse proves to be a deep observer at once, one minute acting up with unreasonable requests like any nine-year-old would, the next minute loudly savoring Mozart’s Requiem and taunting his uncle with unfiltered questions.
Phoenix and Norman have heart-wrenching chemistry throughout “C’mon C’mon,” dancing together around the philosophical depth of Mills’ script that unearths immense queries about children and adults: How do we honor our kids’ individuality? How can we acknowledge them as members of society, just as important and worthy as their adult counterparts? How do we hear them, and prepare them for a future in which we will be absent? The interviews Johnny records with kids from all walks of life offer some answers in both intimate and grandly political ways. And so does the increasingly strong alliance between Johnny and Jesse, often aided by an on-the-phone Viv, who supports Johnny in his quest to become a good surrogate dad. Everyone grows in the aftermath of “C’mon C’mon,” a heartwarmingly weighty movie about grief, familial love and youthful fears. And that everyone includes the audience who might shed a tear or two in the end.
Trust director Joe Wright to reinvent a timeless, beloved love story you’ve heard a million times before. Like he did with his scrumptious “Anna Karenina” and transfixing “Pride and Prejudice,” he approaches the timeless romance at the heart of Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” from his own unique lens in “Cyrano,” adapting a richly inventive screenplay by Erica Schmidt as a kaleidoscopic musical in the tradition of the old MGM.
The tragic story in the immensely original version by Schmidt—the scribe is married to Peter Dinklage (one of this year’s Telluride Film Festival tributes) and is on the record to have adapted Rostand’s play with her husband in mind—is mostly as you remember it. We are in the 17th century Paris, following the prevailing swordsman and brilliant poet Cyrano de Bergerac as he duels his way through and out of trouble, while harboring a deep secret he’s determined to take to his grave. Cyrano is madly in love with the sensitive intellectual Roxane (portrayed in a fiery performance by the glowing Haley Bennett), but because he’s convinced of his ugliness, can never confess his true feelings to her. Meanwhile Christian (the always exceptional Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a handsome nobleman lacking in expressive language instincts, falls in love with Roxane, using Cyrano’s words and poetry to woo her.
With his signature deep, caustic gaze and pretty much every sharp-edged muscle on his face, Dinklage will simply devastate you with this performance, one that telegraphs Cyrano’s gut-wrenching alienation with a cavernous sense of yearning. As you would expect from any period outing from Wright, the costumes of “Cyrano” are typically breathtaking against the backdrop of delectable production design—equal parts lavish and pastiche. In the role of the lovestruck Roxane, Bennett is especially memorable with her velvety singing voice– her hunger for meaning over beauty is beautiful to hear as it is gorgeous to take in visually. If only the original music composed by The National was as remarkably memorable as the rest of the production. While the songs are thoughtfully pensive with lovely lyrics (written by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser), the melodies often seem unexceptional, even forgettable. Still, this “Cyrano” is an old-school enchanter with an enormous heart, one that reinforces Dinklage as a dazzling talent that can lead and illuminate any genre.