2018 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: Oppressively sad cinema can bring about some incredibly strong emotions. Mainly when the filmmaker is depicting painful moments from their lives, that can be a moving experience. However, to do that, you need to give the audience something to grab on to. “Ray & Liz” fails miserably in that regard. Writer/director Richard Billingham had a tough childhood. Unfortunately, in trying to show that to us, he makes something pointlessly grim. Where it should be moving, instead it’s upsetting in the worst way. The New York Film Festival can look at this as an endurance test if nothing else. Making it to the end without throwing up your hands is a testament to quite a bit of patience.
“Ray & Liz” is actively one of the most punishing films I’ve sat through in some time. Not content to just be bleak, it’s 108 minutes of abuse, neglect, and sadness. To be fair, this could be a minority opinion. Previous festival reviews have been far kinder. Yours truly doesn’t see it. Bleak British cinema like “The War Zone” is phenomenal. This is an absolute chore.
The movie splits time between 1990, 1985, and 1980. These three periods represent a trio of moments in a family’s dysfunctional life. In 1990, we see Ray (Patrick Romer) as a barely functioning alcoholic. He spends his days in a fly-infested room, occasionally visited by a neighbor, or his wife Liz (Deirdre Kelly). They’re barely on speaking terms, though we don’t yet know why. This section is just watching Ray lay in bed, drink, look out the window, and repeat.
In 1980, we see things before all hell breaks loose, though this is perhaps the bleakest section. Ray (Justin Salinger) hasn’t succumbed to booze yet, though Liz (Ella Smith) is a monstrous and neglectful mother. They have two sons, the two sons, the pre-teen Richard (Jacob Tuton), as well as toddler Jason (Callum Slater). The family lives in squalor, with cigarettes more interesting to the parents than their children. This sequence also includes a neighbor in Will (Sam Gittins) abusing Ray’s simple brother Lol (Tony Way). Before it ends, the baby will be literally holding a knife, alone in a room. The cruelty on display is way more than necessary. A little bit goes a very long way.
Finishing in 1985, we see Jason (Joshua Millard-Lloyd) skipping school, while Richard (Sam Plant) clearly can’t wait to escape his parents. This is where we find out why things were even worse in 1990. Frankly though, by this point, you likely won’t care. When Child Services gets involved, it’ll come as little more than a relief.
There’s admittedly an impressive commitment on the part of everyone involved in “Ray & Liz,” especially regarding the cast. Their performances may not blow you away, but they’re certainly committed. Joshua Millard-Lloyd is best in show, though Ella Smith will remind you of Mo’Nique in “Precious,” just without the layers. It’s interesting to see how Billingham gives the version of himself the least screen time. He was more interested in his family. That comes across, though as seen above, he never makes it clear why we need to see their awfulness.
Photographer turned filmmaker Richard Billingham does, in fact, make nearly every shot here look like a photo. Credit to cinematographer Daniel Landin for that. Still, what’s the point of it all? The snapshot of awfulness gets the point across early, but then continues, and on, and on. It’s mostly a memoir. Why not just have done it in written form, where the reader could form the visuals in their mind? It’s a misfire, in this format. Billingham and Landin craft memorable visuals, but you’ll want to erase them from your brain immediately.
Frankly, it’s hard to know who “Ray & Liz” is for. Outside of the festival environment, who would sit through this? NYFF presents it to brave viewers, but other than that? Who knows? Repeated shots of bugs, insects, and squalor can only go so far. Unless you somehow find this to be an intriguing challenge, it’s one you can safely avoid.