We've reached the time of year when award contenders start flitting into art houses, many of them quickly flitting out again. This week I'm covering two noteworthy films that might be easy to miss, given that each opened in a sole theater in our area.
Border, Sweden's official Oscar submission, attracted a crowd at the Vermont International Film Festival and is now at the Savoy Theater. It's a film that's likely to provoke strong reactions, and the less you know about the plot going in, the better.
So I'll be brief and cagey: Eva Melander plays Tina, a soft-spoken customs agent with an unusual appearance and an unusual talent: She can smell people's emotions. At home, she's a nonentity to her moocher boyfriend (Jörgen Thorsson); at work, she helps police uncover a pedophile ring.
Then she meets Vore (Eero Milonoff), who physically resembles her. A search of his bag reveals maggots; a search of his person, something equally unexpected. The two of them embark on an unusual (I'm understating now) relationship that will lead Tina to revelations about herself and, finally, to a dilemma.
Border was based on a story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also wrote Let the Right One In. Fans of that book and movie will recognize this as a romance in a similar spirit, like a darker version of the kinds of stories Tim Burton used to tell. Director Ali Abbasi gives lush, gorgeous life to the forest where Tina frolics and swims with Vore, discovering parts of herself she's repressed. The film raises questions about "borders" of many kinds — including racial and sexual — that it doesn't resolve, but it's a memorable, provocative watch.
Lush landscapes also feature prominently in Beautiful Boy (at Merrill's Roxy Cinemas), a beautiful-looking movie about an ugly problem. Steve Carell plays journalist David Sheff, who has given his son Nic (Timothée Chalamet) a breathtaking Marin County home and seemingly boundless love and understanding. But when Nic gets hooked on crystal meth, all the love and understanding in the world fall short.
The film is a study in grief and frustration, with Carell's furrowed brow as its visual centerpiece. Though the script is based on two memoirs, one by Nic and one by David, the latter's perspective dominates, with the narrative weaving in and out of his memories of earlier, happier moments with his son.
Both actors do powerful, subtle work. When David learns that the recovery rate for addicts like Nic is in the single digits, we see his world crumbling. And each time Nic celebrates his sobriety after yet another rehab stay, Chalamet shows such a strong spark that we, like David, want to believe the fight is over. It's not. Beautiful Boy takes an uncompromising view of addiction as a disease and of the struggle as open-ended.
Director Felix van Groeningen arguably overcompensates for these grim realities with his glossy, moody visuals — lots of real estate and interior design porn — and a soundtrack to match. So many scenes get the dreamy music-video treatment that, at times, one may feel tempted to accuse him of aestheticizing the subject. One may also wonder about the stories of addicts who aren't as well off as the Sheffs — is there an Oscar-friendly way to tell them?
Then again, every "issue" movie is necessarily a case study, raising questions about whose story got the Hollywood treatment and why. And we're bound to keep debating those choices as we move into award season.