“This was important to me and I’m trying to figure out why.” Heard there was an overlooked Laura Dern trauma drama this year, so obviously I’m all over it. Premiered in competition at Sundance, with Blaze, Blindspotting, and Sorry to Bother You. A quarter of my top twenty movies of the year played there, but it’s still a scattershot festival so it’s hard to trust it. Hard to trust this movie too, when we’re already seeing flashbacks to earlier in the movie at the 18 minute mark.

Present Jenny + Past Jenny = the poster image

Dern is as good as expected, and Elizabeth Debicki (lately of Widows) is perfect as her riding instructor/molester, with handsome rapist husband Jason Ritter (Jeb in Oliver Stone’s W.). Documentary filmmaker Jenny’s mom Ellen Burstyn finds a disturbing story Jenny wrote years ago, wants her to come home and figure some things out, so we hang with Young Jenny (Isabelle Nélisse of both Mama and Mother) for half the movie and watch how she got into a relationship with a sexy attractive couple, which would be cool if Jenny wasn’t 13 at the time. Ends with Present Jenny talking with Past Jenny (given away by the movie poster). This is based closely on the filmmaker’s life, but The Rider it ain’t – the writing is obvious, and despite all the professionalism on display, it feels like a TV movie that scored a great cast.

Lovely, wholesome molesters:

Indie-drama story of loss, as widow decides to live in hometown of her deceased husband. But then after rumors spread of her buying valuable property, her son is kidnapped for real estate money she doesn’t have, then he’s killed and we get a more traumatic story of loss and the indie-drama template goes off the rails. I wasn’t crazy about it but I appreciate its unique message – religion is crap and major trauma can’t be overcome in the span of a movie.

Do-yeon Jeon of the recent Housemaid remake won best actress at Cannes, and the great Kang-ho Song (the year after starring in The Host) plays a subdued local guy who’s interested in her, becomes a Christian when she starts attending church meetings and stays with the church even after it’s clear that she won’t be dating him and she turns against the church. It’s a good portrayal of despair, if that’s what you’re after.

D. Lim:

He has said that before he starts a movie, he always asks himself, “What is cinema for?” Secret Sunshine is a work of visceral emotions and abstract notions; a study of faith in all its power, strangeness, and cruelty; a look at the particularities of human nature and experience that account for the existence, perhaps even the inevitability, of religion — all of which is to say that it’s an attempt to depict the invisible in what is foremost a visual medium … Put simply, Secret Sunshine shows how religion uses us and how we use religion. A film about the lies we tell ourselves in order to live, it suggests that there may be no bigger lie than religion — but also acknowledges that sometimes lies are necessary.

“There’s only room for one genius in this family.”

Were I not charmed by the excellent black-and-white cinematography, the performances of Vincent Gallo (year before Essential Killing) and his girl Maribel Verdu (lead actress in Y Tu Mama Tambien) and the movie’s quick bursts of entertaining craziness, I might’ve found more time to be annoyed by the story of family rivalry and Alden Ehrenreich’s lead character of Bennie. And it’s a very annoying story, taking inspiration from Coppola’s own family and a million boring novels, of a family of rich geniuses and how they each deal with their gifts and emotional problems. Talented Uncle Alfie wastes away from regret while his brother Carlo (both of them Klaus Maria Brandauer, star of István Szabó’s Mephisto) becomes a famous composer/conductor and steals his own son’s pregnant girlfriend. Son Angelo (Tetro) escapes to Argentina, hiding the fact that young Bennie is his son and not his younger brother.

That at least explains why Tetro doesn’t kick out Bennie, who pretty much ruins everything while visiting for a few days, giving away Tetro’s true identity and stealing his life story then producing it as a play for a festival run by celebrity artist Alone (Carmen Maura, Cruz’s dead mother in Volver). It’s nice how artistic talent runs in the family, and with no training or practice, Tetro’s cruise-ship-waiter brother/son can adapt someone else’s writings into an award-winning play.

Maribel dances for Alden:

I appreciated the ending. Early in the movie Bennie finds Tetro’s gun in a desk drawer and, having seen movies before, I know it’ll reappear. But it doesn’t, and the expected blow-up fight between the “brothers” at Alone’s festival turns into a quick reconciliation, telling her to piss off so they can have some family time.

The movie is widescreen B&W and flashbacks (plus clips from Tales of Hoffmann) are cropped (or shrunk) in full-color. Supposedly a near-remake of Rumble Fish, which I also rented but didn’t find time to watch.

Tetro is a spotlight operator for the play Fausta:

A. Nayman in Cinema Scope: “Tetro is also Italian for ‘gloomy,’ and Gallo glowers accordingly. … If this sounds like an unlikely series of events (and I haven’t even mentioned Bennie’s hotel room hot tub deflowering at the hands of a gorgeous local girl and her aunt) that’s because Tetro doesn’t have any pretenses to verisimilitude: it’s more obviously an operatic fable, with Malaimare’s exquisitely shadowed cinematography sealing the characters within a hermetic, slightly unreal screen space.”