Under the Silver Lake (15) ***
Benjamin (15) *
Ray & Liz (15) ***
Ben is Back (15) **
Girl (15) ***
Falling somewhere between the maddening brilliance of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice and the staggering badness of Richard Kelly’s still-not-aging-well cult wannabe Southland Tales, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows follow-up Under the Silver Lake is the sort of self-consciously indulgent meta-movie that elates and infuriates in almost equal measure. Set in the hipster LA neighbourhood that provides the movie with the second half of its title, it’s a neo-noir detective story, steeped in the mythos of old Hollywood yet constructed from the sometimes-kitschy/sometimes-cool pop culture ephemera that has defined the life of its deadbeat protagonist, trapping him in an adolescent purgatory where everything feels like a scene from movie.
This is Andrew Garfield’s Sam, a tousle-haired slacker with no discernible job and no real drive to get one, even with eviction notices pinned to his door. Good-looking enough to get away with the air of creepiness he emits – although not the literal stench that follows him wherever he goes (he’s forever blaming LA’s skunk population) – he lives in a low-rent apartment complex occupied by aspiring starlets who still buy into the romanticism of Marilyn Monroe. One such girl is Sarah (Riley Keough), a beautiful blonde bombshell Sam first spies from his balcony while perving on his older neighbour as she (the neighbour) parades around naked while feeding her parrots. Sarah’s the sort of girl who only really exists in movies and the film treats her as such, presenting her (and all the women in the film) through the leering yet idealised gaze of the frequently horny Sam – a filmmaking choice that might have provided a more forceful critique of the historically icky excesses of the male gaze if the film didn’t also indulge in them.
Nevertheless, Sarah, having quickly become an object of fascination for Sam, just as quickly disappears from his life when she moves out of her apartment in the middle of the night. With nothing meaningful in his own life, Sam becomes obsessed with the idea of finding her, convincing himself that her abrupt departure has sinister undercurrents tied up with the disappearance of a billionaire philanthropist, a spate of canine killings, underground bunkers, end-of-the-world cults and the rise of a Jesus-themed rock band that might be encoding satanic messages in their irony-laced rebellious anthems.
Mitchell certainly has fun riffing on movie history here with a lush 1950s-pastiching score and explicit nods to Hitchcock, Janet Gaynor, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and even himself (at one point Sam stumbles across a screening of Mitchell’s debut film, The Myth of the American Sleepover, and becomes involved with one of its stars). But he also infuses the shaggy-dog plotting with an undercurrent of conspiracy theory madness that he smartly transforms into a surprisingly bleak critique of the failings of Generation X, the self-defining slacker generation of which Mitchell is himself a part (he was born in the mid-1970s) and who now find themselves caught between the capitalist-minded hippy sellouts of the 1960s and the technocratic millennials who have thoroughly usurped them. Though Garfield is technically almost a decade too young to be playing someone who saw Nirvana as a 15 year-old, the former Spider-Man star certainly has the right man-boy persona to pull off the dark side of a character whose fetishistic, generational retreat into his own childhood has condemned him to a permanent state of arrested development, leaving him ill-equipped to confront the chaos of real life. It’s this self-lacerating realisation that pop culture won’t save you but devour you that ultimately makes Under the Silver Lake a more intriguing prospect than the studied strangeness of its myriad mysteries initially suggests.
Pop culture eats itself again in Benjamin, Simon Amstell’s tediously self-reflexive sophomore feature about a filmmaker (played by Colin Morgan) who’s just made his own tediously self-reflexive sophomore feature. Though it would be an audacious formalistic conceit to make a film this rubbish about the making of a rubbish film, Amstell’s apparently sincere attempt to make something with genuine insight ensures that Benjamin – with its sitcom-ready characters and boring dilemmas – is all the more painful to endure.
Painful to endure for more artistically satisfying reasons is Ray & Liz, the debut feature from former YBA Richard Billingham, who here builds on past photographic works and video installations about his eponymous parents to create a grim memoir charting his and his brother’s neglect in Thatcher’s Britain. Framed as series of extended flashbacks from his home brew-ravaged father, it’s almost too difficult to watch in one sitting. Nevertheless, its evocative conjuring of the past functions as a stark warning about viewing it with rose-tinted glasses.
Like the recent Timothée Chalamet-starring Beautiful Boy, addiction drama Ben is Back works best as an acting showcase for another up-and-coming young star, Lucas Hedges. Alas, as a junkie who repeatedly breaks his mother’s (Julia Roberts) heart, he can’t save this faux gritty film from its melodramatic plotting or its public-service-announcement-style moralising.
Finally this week, Belgian drama Girl serves up a sensitive coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old transgender ballet student (Victor Polster), with Flemmish director Lukas Dhont paying tribute to the Dardenne brothers by presenting
this world entirely from its introspective protagonist’s point of view. Admittedly, the harshness of the ending feels a little unearned,
but this is a promising debut nonetheless. ■