Old MCN Blogs
David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Good 'God' and a Defense of 'Daley'

The Reeler had a fairly successful viewing tandem today, skipping from a packed screening of Christopher Quinn’s documentary God Grew Tired of Us to an almost-packed screening of Hilary Brougher’s drama Stephanie Daley. Both filmmakers came to Sundance from New York with films in competition and in search of distribution; audience and industry expectations surrounding their films seem to have only heightened as the festival inches to its conclusion.
God Grew Tired in partcular has earned some of this year’s most consistent acclaim, with all of its screenings so far leaving stranded wait listers by the dozens. I barely snuck in to the Holiday Village this morning, but I was grateful to check out Quinn’s four-years-in-the-making doc about the struggles of African refugees known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. Quinn follows three of the Lost Boys as they join a government program that relocates them to new lives in Pittsburgh and Syracuse. Of course, their lives are new in only a proscribed cultural sense; a permanent and painful displacement impels them to add second and third jobs as a means of supporting the refugees left behind in a bleak Kenyan camp.
Following the screening, Quinn acknowledged that recent years’ tumult in Rwanda and Sierra Leone inspired him to tell a story about the ongoing strife afflicting parts of Africa. Yet in bringing the Lost Boys to screen–and two of them, Daniel Abul Pach and Panther Bior (pictured above with Quinn), to Sundance–God Grew Tired skillfully reveals voices that eschew politics for a more dignified, humane commonness.
“When something happened to you, it will also happen to others,” Abul Pach told the audience in the Q&A. “The reason we’re letting people know is for the next generation to come. Number one is to survive in this world. The problems are not finished. In years to come, there might be problems, and this can help other people–not us. In this next generation to come, it will help people to survive. This is a difficult world to live (in), but the best way to do it is to know what this world is for and how to survive in it. …
“I feel it,” he continued. “When I look at it, I cry. I don’t want to watch it. At the time, when it was happening to me, I didn’t know how I managed it. The way I was represented is that when something hurts you, in the beginning, you don’t feel it. That it harms you. But after a while, you feel the pain. That’s how I feel about it, you know. It’s very tough. But I realize that God helps people through people, and that’s why these people came and found us in the camps.”

And now the film is moving beyond Sundance, with foreign distribution in place, three screenings this week for Salt Lake City high school students and another major screening Thursday night for 700 of the Salt Lake region’s Sudanese community. The doc features some formidable star power as well, including narration by Nicole Kidman and co-producers like Brad Pitt and Dermot Mulroney. It is a wonder the film has not been picked up for the U.S. yet, but with continually sold-out screenings and its status at or near the top of the competition totem pole, do not expect Quinn to return to Brooklyn without a deal.

Brougher Hour: Stephanie Daley filmmaker Hilary Brougher has a word with her audience (Photos: STV)

Hilary Brougher, however, might not be so lucky. Do not blame her, though; Brougher’s Stephanie Daley (profiled on The Reeler Jan. 17) is a dark, quiet drama whose challenging material has been alternately misread as pretentious, half-baked or both by festival critics. And before you slap my own judgement around for liking so much of what I’ve seen here, keep in mind that there is just not enough time in 10 days at Sundance to write at length about everything that I thought sucked (and I have seen some bad movies, from the Copeland-umentary Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out to the documentary musical Songbirds to the Crook Brothers’ painfully disappointing Salvage, for which I harbored some of my highest hopes of the festival). Instead, I am way more interested in phenomena like Stephanie Daley, a flawed but honorable chronicle of a teenaged girl (Amber Tamblyn, playing the title role) accused of killing her baby and the psychologist (Tilda Swinton) who gauges her competency to stand trial.
I had heard mixed things at best about this film, but for the life of me, I cannot figure out what is so objectionable. The performances are solid, Brougher’s script and direction are both confident without being showy, the story mostly makes sense (although an infidelity issue between Swinton and husband Timothy Hutton seems to pile on a little more drama than necessary) and David Morrison’s high-def cinematography looks great. So now, when I overhear this shit about a “hysterical” movie not suitable for the Lifetime Network, I feel my brain whirring with not only disagreement, but also irritation. There are critics out there dismissing Stephanie Daley as a bad women’s film, as though the intensity of the movie’s mother-daughter dynamic frustrates its quest for legitimacy (or at least for a wide, receptive audience). In comparison, the overwrought father-son dynamic that burdens portions of James Ponsoldt’s Off the Black has been perceived as a simple dramatic weakness. Critics have allowed it to sputter and stall in the context of the film, not in some abstract social climate.
Look: Realistically speaking, Tilda Swinton-Amber Tamblyn is not box-office catnip, and buyers and critics all know that. But that is not the point of the Sundance Film Festival; or maybe it is, and we should just face it and start calling it the Sundance Market in 2007. At risk of added stridency, I am fairly ashamed to even consider the salability of films like Stephanie Daley or the sublime In Between Days in the same intellectual breath that judges their aesthetic merits. That said, when did that proximity become an impediment to determining these films’ values in either case? I mean, Stephanie Daley works–not brilliantly, but it works. And in winnowing down its market before considering how it can either be improved or just simply enjoyed, the festival-buzz apparatus seems to have backfired somewhat destructively.
None of this is to say that Stephanie Daley‘s critics all come equipped with Y chromosomes, or that the film does not have its basis in Brougher’s own experience with pregnancy and motherhood. “It’s not that it changed the story,” Brougher said in the post-screening chat. “I think it changed the way the story felt. I don’t think I could have written this after having my kids. I would have wanted to immediately disassociate and forget about all of that fear once my kids were here safe. On the other side of that, having my kids here safe, it’s been a period of tremendous blessings and joy for me.”
Brougher added that she intended to scope out the “shadow and gray” of what it meant to be her title character, but also revisited the idea of fear, which seems universal enough. “It began with an interest in the idea of how you get the feeling that Stephanie has onscreen–of denial and lying. ‘Maybe I’m not. Oh no, I’m not. Maybe I am.’ That sort of highly sensitized looking for signs and meaning. How do you get all of that onscreen? It began with Stephanie; as I started working on her, I was looking around at dear friends who were going through pregnancy and thought, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of really interesting stuff going on.’ A lot that’s very hard to talk about, but is very profound: Coming up against the unknown, that which you can’t control, loss and gaining and changing of self that happens when you’re pregnant. I thought it was really interesting to see the adolescent experience of it–the frightened adolescent experience and the frightened grown-up experience–to see how they bounce off of each other.”
Swinton, whose short answer for why she joined the film was, “I wanted to see it,” also elaborated with her typically eloquent candor. “I think it just occurred to me how rare it was for anybody to make any work–particularly for the cinema–about how terrifying it is having babies,” she said. “Just that really. That idea. … It’s completely terrifying, and that’s part of the deal. In my experience, there’s a strange conspiracy of silence amongst women about how terrifying it is.”
Pregnancy’s terror notwithstanding, Stephanie Daley makes sense to me, and there is a pretty wicked cynicism at play if Brougher’s specific attempt to verbalize and/or visualize her themes attracts the pretentiousness card by default. That is the impression I get, anyway. Maybe it is the Sundance rookie in me, but shouldn’t we try a little harder instead of inhaling six screenings a day? Or at least know better?

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon