Fall dramas. Films reviewed: The Swearing Jar, The Wonder, Armageddon Time

Posted in 1800s, 1980s, Canada, Catholicism, Coming of Age, Family, Feminism, Ireland, Kids, Music, New York City by CulturalMining.com on November 5, 2022

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Fall Festival Season continues in Toronto with Cinefranco showing the latest films from France, Belgium and Quebec, and Reelasian with movies from East and South Asia, and the Asian diaspora. 

But this week I’m looking at three great new movies, all worth seeing. There’s a phenomenon in Victorian Ireland, a pregnancy in Ontario, and a friendship in Flushing, Queens.

The Swearing Jar

Dir: Lindsay MacKay

(Wri: Kate Hewlett)

Carey and Simon (Adelaide Clemens, Patrick J. Adams) are a couple in their thirties living in Carey’s large childhood home in in an unnamed Canadian city. She’s a school teacher who would rather be a musician, and he’s a writer who loves Shakespeare. They enjoy drinking, cussing and having fun. But when, after years of trying, Carey is finally pregnant, they decide to change their lives for the better, to be good examples for their upcoming baby (hence the swearing jar of the title). But for some reason, communication is breaking down. And when Bev, Simon’s alcoholic mom (Kathleen Turner) drops by unannounced, the tension grows. She repeatedly tells Carey that Simon is just like his dad — he’s gonna leave you, she says, they always leave you. Later, Carey sees Simon’s novel in the window of a bookstore, and makes friends with the guy who works there. Owen (Douglas Smith) is a musician like Carey once was… maybe they can write and play music together? But would that amount to cheating on her husband? 

The Swearing Jar is a delightful musical-romance about a couple dealing with her pregnancy along with an unexpected twist (no spoilers here).  The story is told through a series of vignettes alternating with related songs performed on stage by Carey and Owen in honour of Simon’s 40th birthday. The music is great with some catchy tunes, and the script (originally a play) is generally engaging and funny. Adelaide Clemens has a lovely voice — she and Douglas Smith show real chemistry — and I had no idea she’s actually Australian! This is good one.

The Wonder

Dir: Sebastián Lelio (Based on the story by Emma Donoghue)

It’s rural Ireland in the 19th century, not long after the Great Famine. Lib (Florence Pugh) is a respected nurse from England who trained under Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War. She is hired to oversee an unusual patient. Her name is Anna, an 11-year-old girl who has stopped eating. She hasn’t taken a bite for months, but somehow she’s still alive. How is this possible? People arrive from all over, both penitents and tourists, to gawk at or be blessed by the saintly girl. So a local committee, headed by a doctor and a priest (Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds), appoints a nun and a nurse (Lib) to take turns watching over Anna, one to make sure it’s a miracle, and the other that she’s not in physical danger. But something smells fishy here. So she joins with an investigative journalist from London, William Byrne (Tom Burke). But will their snooping around put the girl’s life on the line? And if so, what can they do to save her?

The Wonder is a wonderful historical drama, beautifully made. Pugh plays Lib as a modern woman who is serious about her career, but also takes recreational drugs and has casual sex for the pleasure of it, probably not typical in the Victorian era. But it also exposes dark and hidden secrets, which gives the movie a serious and disturbing undertone. It’s directed by Chilean Sebastián Lelio, who brought us other great movies with dynamic female characters like Gloria (my review here) and A Fantastic Woman (my interview with Daniela Vega). The Wonder doesn’t quite reach that level of angsty, subversive excellence (it’s more conventional), but still very good.  

Armageddon Time

Wri/Dir: James Gray (my review of The Lost City of Z)

It’s Flushing, Queens, NY City in 1980. Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is a little guy with red hair and blue eyes who wants to be a famous artist when he grows up. He lives in a small house with his bullying brother, his plumber dad, (Jeremy Strong) and Home-Ec teacher mom (Anne Hathaway). Encouraged by her and his beloved Liverpool-born grandpa (Anthony Hopkins) Paul devotes himself to reading Jansen’s History of Art and drawing everything he sees. But he has a short attention span — often drifting into daydreams — and acts up at home. On his first day of sixth grade, Paul manages to get into trouble even before his teacher, Mr Turtletaub, finishes taking attendance. His crime? Accurately drawing his teacher’s face. He’s soon relegated to chalkboard-cleaning at the front of the class alongside perpetual trouble-maker Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb). Johnny, who lives with his grandmother, is into NASA, space ships, and Grandmaster Flash. He is repeating sixth grade for disobedience. They soon become best friends, with Johnny introducing Paul to hiphop and rockets, and the much shyer Paul standing up for his friend. Paul is white and Jewish, while Johnny is one of the only black kids in class.

They are both bright but are labelled as “slow”. Rejected by the school, they increasingly turn to rebelliousness to fight back. Soon the pre-teens are cutting class to smoke pot in the boys room. But when events escalate, Paul is sent to a strict, conservative prep school favoured by the Trump family, while Johnny finds himself homeless and on the run. Will their new situation make their friendship impossible?

Armageddon Time is an autobiographical, coming-of-age drama about a rebellious kid growing up in Flushing Queens, his family and his friends. It’s also a glimpse at the period, its music, attitudes and politics. Ronald Reagan is running for President, the subways are covered in graffiti and punk and hiphop are pushing disco away. Closely based on James Gray’s own childhood, it deals with racism, class, corporal punishment and loss, but also friendship, kinship and family. I can’t help comparing it to Stephen Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, coming out later this year, another great autobiographical movie about a future filmmaker’s childhood; but while Spielberg’s is cinematic and full of gushing music, Armageddon Time is much grittier, less idealized. This one is more about the not-so-nice aspects of growing up. Banks Repeta and Johnny Davis are both remarkable as the two kids — they don’t bother learning Flushing accents, concentrating instead on their performance. Hathaway, Hopkins and Strong were also excellent.

I was really moved by Armageddon Time.

The Wonder is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox;  The Swearing Jar and Armageddon Time also open this weekend; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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