Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Two short reviews for openings this week. Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers opens in movie theaters (a wide release? huh), and Jeanne Leblanc’s Les Nôtres plays through the Grand Illusion’s streaming service.
The Sparks Brothers
It’s cool that Ron and Russell Mael have a famous and musically-inclined filmmaker to tell their story in documentary form. But you get the feeling that even without someone like Edgar Wright at the helm, their narrative would’ve been funny and stirring. The stuff of their uncompromising career has lots of color (and great source material in the music, of course), but the thread of artistic integrity makes it almost irresistible.
I can’t claim to be a hardcore Sparks fan, although I do have memories of getting interested in them when Propaganda came out, and occasionally checking in during the years following (but not for a while). In many ways the movie is for people like me rather than the devoted, because it’s basically a testimonial to what we’ve been missing all these years; a regular note in The Sparks Brothers is how frequently the Maels were almost going to break through to widespread public attention and then juuuust didn’t quite make it. Again.
Wright fills the movie with talking heads (bandmates and authors and comedians), who do go on a bit during the film’s 140 minutes; their enthusiasm is so sincere it doesn’t seem overdone, except in the final minutes. I would like to have heard more music, and a few lyrics printed on the screen wouldn’t have been a bad thing. There isn’t enough about how the songs actually get created, and other than seeing Ron and Russell sitting around the house poking at their keyboards and computers, and a comment about Ron going off to write lyrics at the last minute. I’m also still curious about the two-ness of longstanding creative partnerships; there does not seem to be any testiness between the Maels, and they don’t talk about any breakups. Descriptions of dust-ups between Lennon-McCartney or Jagger-Richards generally speak of the brotherly nature of their periodic fighting, but here we have two actual brothers, who seem to get along swimmingly.
There might be something interesting waiting there—on the other hand, it’s not in this movie’s brief, so forget it. These are fan’s notes about a beloved institution, and a well-executed, even inspiring, delight.
I was on a jury in 2020 for the Brooklyn Film Festival, and we gave our Best Narrative Feature award to Les Nôtres, and as I recall it was a pretty easy choice. Here’s our jury statement: “In this category’s strong competition, the jury found that this film distinguished itself with its unwavering gaze at difficult issues and its formal control. Director Jeanne Leblanc captures the disconnect between the apparently ordinary households of a suburban neighborhood and the ugliness beneath the surface, problems that extend well beyond the film’s original sin. Its admirable qualities include courageous performances and a refusal to resolve itself in a conventionally reassuring way.”
That sounds like festival-award-speak, and it is, but don’t let that keep you from this Canadian film, which works committed variations on the respectable-community-with-dirty-secrets scenario. At the center of its story is a 13-year-old girl, Magalie (Emilie Bierre), whose life in a Quebec suburb is rocked by her unexpected pregnancy. Given that her rapist is also a pillar of the community, and that the presence of a couple of adopted Mexican kids in the neighborhood leads to the eruption of some politely-throttled racism, it would have been easy enough for Leblanc and co-writer Judith Baribeau (who also acts a key role) to fashion a potent melodrama that ticks the correct boxes. But the characters do not always fit into easy outlines, and don’t always behave the way we wish they would, and all of this suggests Leblanc has an appreciation for the gray areas that have been becoming less popular, or at least acceptable, in the public discourse of late.
So, see it. There would’ve been a time when a movie exactly like this would’ve been a sure bet for arthouse success, and I hope Les Nôtres still finds that kind of welcome.
June 18, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.