Following his grandfather’s funeral, sensitive eighth-grader Jake (Theo Taplitz) arrives with his mother and father at the Brooklyn house the old man bequeathed them. Getting out of the car, he drops some of his drawings on the street. Tony (Michael Barbieri), also 13, raises his eyes to heaven when he sees this klutz – but then steps across the sidewalk to help Jake pick up his stuff. It’s the start of a beautiful friendship. Sadly, it’s imperiled by the feud that erupts between Jake’s dad and Tony’s mom when he raises the rent of the dress store she manages on the building’s first floor. Ira Sachs’ rueful drama empathizes with the boys. When will parents ever learn?
At a key moment in Andrea Arnold’s baggy novel of a road movie – unique in its empathy for underclass millennials – scrappy heroine Star (Sasha Lane) finds some starving kids living in trailer-park hell. Their mom, stoned or drunk, is catatonic; their fridge is empty. She leaves and quickly returns with food for them. She thus generates her own karma. The boy Star loves (Shia LaBeouf) seemingly returns her feelings but can’t commit to her, which propels her into a series of dangerous encounters. But when they hesitantly reconnect, he gives her a present – a tiny, vulnerable living thing. Ensuring its safety enables Star to resurrect herself as a whole person.
Criminals are as capable of helping others as paragons of virtue. In Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, pint-sized Chiron (Alex Hibbert, the first of three actors to play him) lives resentfully with his drug-addicted single mother Paula (Naomie Harris) in a sun-bleached Miami crime zone. Chased by bullies into an abandoned motel, he’s found there by the crack kingpin Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan is intrigued by Chiron’s timidity and drives him to his house, where his wise, warmhearted girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) feeds the boy and lets him sleep over. Juan later teaches Chiron to swim and tells him: “At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.” The words resonate with Chiron twenty-odd years later.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Esprit de corps goes deeper in Ang Lee’s unfairly maligned drama than it does in most films about combat veterans. When 19-year-old Billy (Joe Alwyn), a traumatized Iraq War hero, is sent with the other seven survivors of his unit to guest star in Destiny’s Child’s 2004 Thanksgiving Day game half-time show at the Dallas Cowboys stadium, he experiences memory flashes. He recalls, for instance, his mentor Sergeant “Shroom” (Vin Diesel) saying an unmanly three-words to each soldier seconds before insurgents opened fire. Once the Dallas fiasco is over, they pile into their limo. With redeployment looming, the boys look at Billy and repeat Shroom’s words. Sergeant Dime (Garrett Hedlund) isn’t comfortable mollycoddling his boys and suppresses a sign when it’s his turn. “What do you want me to say?” he grunts, and then, “I love you.”
A kindly, forgiving lawyer – what next? Laura (Laura Dern), a partner in a small-town Montana practice in Kelly Reichardt’s modern Western, has an unsmiling married lover, a problem client, and a dog that’s no problem at all. The client, Fuller (Jared Harris), doesn’t believe her when she tells him his tort case isn’t viable, but he immediately accepts the same opinion when it’s offered by a male attorney. That night, she has to don a bulletproof vest before coaxing Fuller to release the security guard he’s taken hostage in a legal records office. Months later, she visits Fuller – sane again – in prison. She brings milk shakes with her, knowing he likes them, and lets him choose the one he wants. He opts for vanilla, she has chocolate.
Though this Woody Allen period romance isn’t in the same league as The Purple Rose of Cairo, Bullets Over Broadway, or Sweet and Lowdown, the late 1930s tale of star-crossed lovers Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) and Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) slowly works its wistful charm. They’ve long since ceased to be Hollywood peons and have married other people when fate throws them together again on a blissful evening in Central Park. She leans forward to give him the kiss he craves, though it isn’t exactly charity. It sets up the haunting pair of shots that ends the movie and confirms that Café Society is Allen’s response to The Great Gatsby.
Ah, the kindness of strangers! In Jim Jarmusch’s meditative marvel, the bus driver and poet Paterson (Adam Driver) becomes despondent after suffering the loss of something he valued. His wife suggests he needs some solitude, so he walks to Paterson Great Falls National Park and looks at the tumbling water. He strikes up a tentative conversation there with a Japanese tourist, played by Masatoshi Nagase. A fellow poet on the trail of William Carlos Williams in New Jersey, he gives Paterson a token that immediately rekindles his hope. Turning up like a recurring character from a Balzac novel, the tourist is surely the same one (played by Nagase) who made a youthful pilgrimage to Memphis with his Elvis-obsessed girlfriend (Youki Kudoh) in Jarmusch’s 1989 Mystery Train. Paterson opens December 28th.
I, Daniel Blake
Widowed carpenter Daniel (Dave Johns), recently felled by a heart attack, is battling with the bureaucrats who are denying him his sickness benefits at his local Job Centre. A commotion alerts him to the plight of Katie (Hayley Squires), a young single mother of two whose benefits have been stopped because, as a stranger in Newcastle who was forced to relocate from London, she was late for her appointment. Daniel’s angry intervention on Katie’s behalf forges a friendship between them that becomes a selfless father-daughter relationship – Daniel using his skills to fix up her flat, Katie giving him the food off her plate. Ken Loach’s Cannes d’Or-winner, which opens on December 23rd, champions working-class solidarity in the face of calculated government obfuscation. Put more simply, it’s about loving your neighbor more than yourself.