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New Hampshire Film Festival: Sienna Miller’s Performance in ‘American Woman’ Steals the Spotlight From ‘The Lighthouse’

2019 NEW HAMPSHIRE FILM FESTIVAL: Day three at New Hampshire proved to be a bit more challenging than the first two fantastic days. While there are always pearls at any festival, there are usually a few empty oysters in the mix as well.

I began the day with Hilary Brougher’s “South Mountain,” a penetrating glimpse into the life of a family living in the Catskill Mountains of New York, whose summer is disrupted by the exposure of extramarital affairs. I sought out the film for the sole reason of its star, Talia Balsam, whom I’ve long admired for her performances in “Mad Men” and “Divorce.” Balsam stars as Lila, an artist and mother whose husband, Edgar (Scott Cohen), recently had a child with another woman. He comes clean about the newborn once their other children are off on summer excursions. This leaves Lila alone for the summer to grieve and rediscover herself.

Brougher’s film was one of the big discoveries for me at the festival. It is a sharp introspective on broken trust, the grace displayed in the face of loss, and the internal strength that seeks rebirth. While many marriages that dissolve with an affair are likely to result in yelling and screaming, Lila’s reaction is more concealed and absorbing. Notwithstanding her initial reaction — to poison Edgar (in one of the more hilarious scenes) — she is nevertheless prone to handle her situation with grace and dignity, and is left to rediscover some of the passions she once had long ago, before wife and mother were her primary responsibilities. Through her art and a momentary physical romance with one of her adopted daughter’s friends, Jonah (Michael Oberholtzer), Lila becomes whole once more.

I really adored watching Balsam shine in her terrific performance. She balances delicate vulnerability and bold dignity in the role that we have been waiting for. It isn’t too often we get a movie as authentic as “South Mountain,” nor do we see roles this good for lead actresses in their 60s. “South Mountain” is proof that there are great stories to tell for these women, and we should celebrate when they come to fruition.

“South Mountain” is currently seeking distribution.

GRADE: (★)

Next up was “Gutterbug,” an interesting debut by visionary director Andrew Gibson. Gibson also wrote, edited, and produced the film, which is clearly a passion project for the young auteur.

“Gutterbug” is a grungy, mid-90s based experimental drama that follows its protagonist, Steven “Bugs” Bugsy (Andrew Yackel), a young homeless man floating through life hooked on narcotics. With the help of his island of misfit friends, which include a speed-freak, Slim (Justin Pietropaolo), and a skinhead heroin addict, Jenny (Hannah Mosqueda), Bugs decides it is time for him to make his way home to his parents. The opening lets us in on the fact that his odyssey ends in a car wreck, leaving the troubled youth handcuffed to a hospital bed. The story then unfolds in flashbacks as the trio of outsiders work to get Bugs to his destination.

The first half of Gibson’s film is reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting,” David Fincher’s “Fight Club,” and other drug-induced rock ‘n’ roller flicks that came before it. But it is also singular and stylish. There is an electricity about Bugs and his junkie companions that really works, and you begin to root for him to pull himself out of the gutter and get his life back together.

Somewhere in the third act, unfortunately, the film loses the gritty edge that propelled it up to that point. It becomes a soft, Hallmark family film. What began as a cantankerous and provisional rush ends with a film that is trying to say too much.

While “Gutterbug” has its highs and lows, there is a lot to be excited about with Andrew Gibson. His handling of his set locales and investment into his characters let’s you know he is more than capable of big things. He is just scratching the surface with “Gutterbug,” and I am excited to see what comes next from the talented director.

“Gutterbug” is distributed by Glass House Distribution and is playing at several festival venues with a release date TBD.

GRADE: (½)

Every film festival I attend, I try to find at least one movie that few people are talking about that I can champion. At Sarasota, that was “The Third Wife.” At Nantucket, that was “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” and to a lesser extent, “Mickey and the Bear.” At New Hampshire, that film is Jake Scott’s “American Woman,” starring Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Will Sasso, Sky Ferreira, and Amy Madigan.

Sienna Miller plays Deb, a 32-year-old single mother raising her teenage daughter, Bridget (Ferreira), and her grandson in a small Pennsylvania town. Deb is a bawdy and hard-core woman, with a lewd sense of physical passion that has gotten her in trouble her whole life. She has created drama for herself on more than one occasion (she is dating a married man when we meet her), but nothing can prepare Deb for the emotional avalanche that descends upon her when Bridget never returns home one evening. The film unfolds as an episode of actual experience as Deb spends the next eleven years raising her grandson, weaving in and out of abusive relationships, and trying to rebuild a normal life as she never gives up the hope of finding her daughter. She is surrounded by loving family. Her sister (Hendricks) and brother-in-law (Sasso) live right next door, and her stringent mother’s (Madigan) presence is perpetual.

Sienna Miller, once crowned the “It Girl” of the moment, has delivered on the talent many of us had given up on. It had, after all, been over a decade since her sensational turn in “Factory Girl.” With “American Woman,” Miller more than capitalizes on the moment. Working with a bittersweet and ardent script by Brad Ingelsby, Miller delivers one of the best performances of the year. She is complex and tenacious as Deb. She’s authentic and heartbreaking. In a just world, Sienna Miller would be fast-tracked to an Oscar nomination for her first-rate performance.

This is the third feature film helmed by Jake Scott (son of the great Ridley Scott), who continues to grow as a filmmaker. His success with “Welcome to the Rileys” is now paired with “American Woman,” proving that Scott has the makings of a more than capable director.

“American Woman” is a heart-wrenching piece of scintillating cinema that left not a single dry eye in the theater. With her performance, Sienna Miller has proven to be an actress worthy of her craft, and her work here is easily among the best of the year.

“American Woman” is distributed by Roadside Attractions and Vertical Entertainment and is playing at several festival venues with a release date TBD.

GRADE: (½)

One of the main attractions at the New Hampshire Film Festival was Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse.” It was fitting that Eggers, a native of New Hampshire, bring his film home to the festival, and was one of the big reasons I was excited to attend in the first place. Having been a big fan of his directorial debut, “The Witch,” I was enthusiastic about his sophomore project. Perhaps I set my expectations a bit too high, however.

Audrey Fox covered the film for us at Toronto, so if you would like a full report for the film, I recommend her glowing four-star review. You won’t get as many stars from me, however, as I mostly felt the film was an incoherent mess with two powerhouse performances giving light to what is otherwise an arduous shipwreck.

Eggers’ film is shot in stark black and white, and its bleak themes of isolation and madness are amplified by Mark Korven’s harsh and menacing score and the dense mist that surrounds the island. An incessant blast of a foghorn looms ominously as two lighthouse keepers — or wickies — cover a four-week long shift that leads both men to eventually buckle to hysteria. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson play these characters very substantially, and manage to keep the film from crashing into the rocks.

While there will be many who are captivated by “The Lighthouse,” I felt the film was a bit unsettling and oftentimes found it hard to even follow what they were saying. Many will find brilliance and declare a method to the madness, and perhaps they are right. But I am left feeling there was hardly enough approach at all, and we are left with madness for madness sake.

“The Lighthouse” is distributed by A24 is currently playing in theaters.

GRADE: (½)


What do you think?

AC Fan

Written by Mark Johnson

Lover of all things film and Oscar. Fantasy sports’ equivalent of George Steinbrenner. Your very own Han Solo, making friends all over the movie-loving galaxy in spite of himself. When he’s not ranking just about everything or dominating boardgames, Mark is breaking down the Oscar race 24/7 with Rain Man-like stats and knowledge. In his downtime, you can find him commiserating with other Northeast Ohio sports fans because a hero isn’t complete without a little heartbreak. If Game of Thrones, Lost, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Survivor are your style, then congratulations, you have something in common with this inglourious basterd.

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