27 September 2008

NYFF #2: Wendy and Lucy

One of the highlights of this year's main program is Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy, the follow-up to her justly acclaimed 2006 indie Old Joy. Michelle Williams plays Wendy, a twentysomething drifter passing through rural Oregon on her way to seek work in Alaska. Her sole companion is her dog Lucy, but the two become separated after Wendy is pointlessly arrested following a pathetic attempt to shoplift a few pieces of food. Most of the film's remainder is devoted to Wendy's efforts to find her dog.

If this scenario sounds unbearably sentimental, it doesn't play that way onscreen, thanks both to Reichardt's laid-back, assured direction and Williams's singular performance; beaten down by the world and constantly on the defensive, her Wendy is simultaneously aloof and sympathetic. Reichardt once again demonstrates a good eye for the landscapes of small-town America, but the setting is hardly romanticized. In some ways, Wendy and Lucy is less overtly political than Old Joy—there's no equivalent here to the earlier film's brilliant use of liberal talk radio as purveyor of both consolation and deeper alienation—but the many references to homelessness and unemployment are impossible to miss.

26 September 2008

New York Film Festival: The Class

We may or may not have our first presidential debate tonight, and we may or may not still have a functional banking system, but one thing that appears certain is that the 46th New York Film Festival will begin tonight at Lincoln Center. I'll be blogging about some of the selections over the coming days and weeks.

This year's NYFF opens with tonight's screening of French director Laurent Cantet's The Class, winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes festival. Set at a high school in Paris's 20th arrondissement, The Class is built around the interactions between François, a teacher played by François Bégaudeau, who also wrote the film's script as well as the book on which it's based, drawing from his own real-life teaching experience. The bulk of the movie consists of a series of tightly framed, briskly edited classroom scenes that capture the rhythm of the relentless back-and-forth between François and his students. The initial takes of these classroom scenes were shot with three cameras running concurrently, one on François and two on his students, and Cantet frequently built scenes around material improvised by his cast of nonprofessionals during these first takes.

It's an effective method, with the semi-improv'd acting largely keeping it real, even as the film isn't above the occasional plot contrivance to move the story along. The Class has a lot to say about the nature of rules, specifically about how excessive reliance on rigid principles and policies can escalate situations to the ultimate detriment of all concerned. And it has what may be the best summary of Plato's Republic I've ever heard.

I'll have another post later today or early tomorrow about a few of the other films showing this weekend.