A Light Beneath Their Feet, the sophomore feature from director Valerie Weiss and first-time screenwriter Moira McMahon, could have been disastrously cliched, and at certain moments threatens to veer into Lifetime movie territory. Instead, the film proves emotionally resonant and honest, buoyed by two empathetic central performances and a nuanced approach to familiar beats.
College-bound Beth (Madison Davenport) should be exuberant as high school winds down and a new chapter of her life opens, but instead spends most of her time caring for her bipolar mom Gloria (Tarryn Manning, Orange is the New Black). Davenport movingly conveys Beth’s inner conflict, her desire for freedom and autonomy (represented by her private preference for UCLA over close-to-home Northwestern) and the pull of a responsibility she never asked for but can’t rightly dismiss.
One of many neat tricks A Light Beneath Their Feet, and Davenport especially, pulls off is to render this relationship entirely believable, not simply fodder for an overly broad mental illness tale. Mother and daughter are, by turns, the grown-up and the child (a theme sensitively, if repeatedly, rendered by cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron), and Gloria’s struggles never lapse into caricacture. Alongside the effects of her illness is something much more common — an empty-nest anxiety, exacerbated by the fact that Beth is her keeper, her charge, and her only friend all at once.
Meanwhile, there is a requisite, serviceable romance with a troubled boy (climaxing in a genuinely lovely prom scene), some mean-girl plot contrivances that don’t really land, and a rather convoluted back story to round things out. But A Light Beneath Their Feet is Beth and Gloria’s story, so those slightly undercooked narrative aspects can be forgiven. In the end, it’s a portrait of the complicated but enduring love between a mother and a daughter, each navigating what they need from each other and what they want for themselves.
If this all sounds a little Nicholas Sparks-y for your taste, that’s understandable. (The indie-rock musical cues don’t help matters.) But in context, that’s not quite fair. A Light Beneath Their Feet rings true, with two fully-drawn protagonists. There are no ludicrous final-act reveals, a la Sparks. Weiss and McMahon seek to tell their story from a resolutely female perspective, and they succeed where any number of similar coming-of-age dramas stumble.
Justin Timberlake & The Tennessee Kids: Also brand new to Netflix, and produced for the service, Jonathan Demme’s concert film is expectedly accomplished, entertaining, and revealing. Justin Timberlake (or JT, as it seems everyone in the world calls him) is this generation’s jack-of-all-trades superstar: singer, dancer, actor, all-around charming guy. In Demme’s film, he comes off like Gene Kelly crossed with Michael Jackson, and even if you don’t particularly care for his music (I don’t), the film is never less than engaging. This is, at least in part, due to Demme’s insistent focus on the mechanics of putting on a large stage show (sometimes the literal mechanics).
The film’s best moments are less show-stopping numbers than interstitial scenes, like watching JT wait in darkness on the hydraulic lift below the stage as the countdown to his appearance begins, drinking bottled water, strangely alone and isolated in the frame while tens of thousands cheer in the stadium seats above. Demme also goes out of his way to introduce us to the back-up dancers, singers, and musicians who constitute JT’s “Tennessee Kids”; as in Demme’s Stop Making Sense, the unqualified greatest concert film of all time, this generosity adds a lot to the scenes to follow, since we feel we know each of them a bit as the camera pans across the stage. This is, of course, no Stop Making Sense, but nothing else is either. However, it is an entirely fascinating look at the sweaty hard work of pop stardom, a must for JT fans and entirely worthwhile for everyone else, too.
Heathers: If the mean-girl subplot of A Light Beneath Their Feet is its weakest aspect and you’re looking for something darker along those lines, Heathers is always here for you. Winona Ryder’s’ strongest performance, Christian Slater at his arch Jack Nicholson-est, and pitch-black through and through, it’s high-school pathology played for laughs, a coming-of-age-through-violence genre tweak. It’s still fun as hell.
Quiz Show: The staid trappings of Robert Redford’s mannered, Old Hollywood take on scandal and a changing media landscape look more wily in retrospect. Featuring stand-out performances from John Turturro and Ralph Fiennes, Redford’s film deftly examines class bigotry, unstated but entirely evident anti-Semitism, and the desire for heroes in the Television Age. Rob Morrow’s investigation into game-show fixing uncovers all kinds of affinity and cross-purposes, and Quiz Show becomes a tragedy in the end. It’s compelling filmmaking, sometimes seemingly forgotten 22 years later. It shouldn’t be.
Meek’s Cutoff: Kelly Reichardt’s newest film Certain Women is a masterpiece of understatement and longing; no surprise, since understated masterpieces are Reichardt’s stock in trade. Meek’s Cutoff, for my money and many others’, finds her at her lyrical peak, painting a story of people caught between here and there on a wide, Western canvas. Michelle Williams has never been better, and the frontier tensions of home and elsewhere, self and other, are laid bare. It’s gorgeous to look at, and troubling to consider, but Reichardt has a knack for drawing out themes without crushing us with them. Meek’s Cutoff is a different kind of Western: poetic, contemplative, fraught with contradiction, sparsely sketched but set against impossibly expansive landscapes. In other words, the Kelly Reichardt kind.