Culver City Observer -

MOVIE REVIEW DOUBLE FEATURE:

THE CONFIRMATION ● MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN

 

March 17, 2016



THE CONFIRMATION

Clive Owen is always a welcome presence in any film, but particularly in one as smartly subtle and engaging as Bob Nelson’s THE CONFIRMATION, and in which Owen shares the screen with (and is often upstaged by) one of the greatest young talents of the next generation, Jaeden Lieberher.

THE CONFIRMATION is quietly moving, laced with the humor and pain inherent to life. A beautiful character study in the dynamics of a father and son, the chemistry between Owen and Lieberher is magical - and absolutely believable. Writer and first-time director Bob Nelson has crafted an emotionally nuanced script with a defining arc that, thanks to the religious aspect of "confirmation", sets the stage for decisions premised upon “The Golden Rule” and raises questions of right and wrong and little white lies as a young boy - and his father - not only find each other, but themselves.

8-year old Anthony is by all accounts, a perfect son. Living with his strict Catholic mom Bonnie and her husband Kyle, Anthony is quiet, well-mannered, he does what he is told when he is told. Do your homework, eat everything on your plate, don’t fight, go to confirmation class, say your prayers, go to confession, ask for forgiveness. But in Anthony’s case, he has nothing to confess; that is until he spends a weekend with his dad, Walt.

Divorced and down on his luck, Walt has more than his share of problems, starting with drinking too much. An exasperation and disappointment to ex-wife Bonnie, more often than not, Walt doesn’t get to spent time with Anthony. A self-employed carpenter, money is always tight and one senses that drinking binges play a large part in missed jobs, missed income and missed time with Anthony. While Bonnie hammers home “The Golden Rule” through the teachings of the church, Walt imparts the same messaging (if Bonnie would listen) through a more practical way of looking at the world. And this weekend, Anthony might just get the benefit of Walt’s insight as Bonnie and Kyle are heading out for a church retreat, leaving Anthony in Walt’s care.

As comes as no surprise, the weekend doesn’t start off to well for Walt as his car breaks down when he’s due to pick up Anthony. Not saying anything to Bonnie about the car lest it jeopardize his time with his son, Walt plays it off as easily as water slides off the back of a duck. As Walt and Anthony set off, things start to get interesting; and not in a good way.

Stopping at the local bar to talk to someone about a job, Walt leaves Anthony in the car. But when a few minutes turns into 30 or more, Anthony goes into the bar to look for his dad. In just those few minutes, Walt and Anthony go back outside to find all of Walt’s tools stolen from his truck. Now what? He needs those tools for work. Beyond that, those tools belonged to Walt’s dad, adding great sentimentality and attachment to them. Trying to figure out what to do, the situation goes from bad to worse as when Walt and Anthony get to Walt’s house, they find Walt has been evicted due to non-payment of rent and he is locked out of the house. Remember what I said about Anthony never having any sins to confess? That’s about to change as Anthony is called upon to break into the house by crawling through a window. And then the car completely dies, so the boys head to Anthony’s house where they spend the weekend while Walt drives Bonnie’s car (albeit non-driveable due to no brakes which results in his good deed by repairing the brakes) as they follow leads to find who stole Walt’s tools. And through it all, we witness the little boy in both and the man each becomes on this Tome Sawyer-Huck Finn adventure.

Jaeden Lieberher carries the emotional bulk of THE CONFIRMATION on his very capable young shoulders with the wisdom and ease of his very experienced co-stars. Thanks to deft direction by Nelson and beautiful lensing by Terry Stacey, we see the nuanced emotion that Lieberher conveys through facial expression. We feel Anthony grow closer to Walt and we see understanding beyond his youth in his eyes. There is no denying the talent of Jaeden Lieberher or his chemistry with Clive Owen.

As great as Lieberher is, Clive Owen is moreso; simply mesmerizing as he fully embodies Walt, a man suffering DTs and alcohol withdrawal. Walt's pain is palpable thanks to Owen’s performance, so much so that rather than judge Walt for his shortcomings in life, we feel sympathy, empathy and hope for Walt’s redemption. On the flip side, Owen makes Walt an emotionally layered and full body character; like most men, still a little boy, but also a man still trying to emulate his own father while his son is debating whether or not to emulate or look up to him. Fascinating dynamic that presents thanks to Owen’s nuance. Owen and Lieberher just feed off of each other. Outstanding is Nelson’s scripted dialogue and subtext regarding Walt's thoughts on life. Thanks to the character design by way of a man who has walked away from the church, and Owen’s matter-of-fact thoughtful delivery, makes it all the more powerful and resonant.

Populating the film with all kinds of characters is just plain fun - especially given that some of Walt's acquaintances are the complete opposite of the “holy rollers” that Maria Bello's Bonnie advocates. Although in limited scenes, Bello is equally perfect as a caring, albeit slightly overbearing, mother and disdainful ex-wife. As local con artist with a heart of gold and ear to the ground, Patton Oswalt is a kick in the ass. And with just one eyeroll, as Father Lyon, Stephen Tobolowsky will have you in hysterics. As one of the local good ol’ boys who is suspect in the theft chain of Walt’s tools, Michael Eklund adds a nice touch with engaging interplay with Owen. Not often impressed with Matthew Modine, here as Kyle, he is beyond tolerable. Welcome is the sage presence of Robert Forster as Walt’s best friend and seemingly surrogate father, Otto. Particularly poignant are some key exchanges between Forster and Lieberher.

Utterly charming is Spencer Drever as neighborhood boy Allen and his chemistry with Jaeden. The Huck Finn-Tom Sawyer aspect comes through loud and clear with the two of them, as well as with the escapades of Walt and Anthony.

Written and directed by Bob Nelson, THE CONFIRMATION belies the work of a first-time director (at age 60, as he liked to remind me in our recent interview). Calling on many of the same foundational principles of strength of character that Nelson delivered with the script for “Nebraska”, he again calls on his own roots and core philosophies of life, such as “The Golden Rule”, as a basis for each character and the story as a whole. Tapping into his years of experience with comedy writing, Nelson infuses lighter moments and laughter as being inherent to some of the foibles and fun of Walt and Anthony’s adventures. Nothing is over wrought or forced.

Smartly calling on cinematographer Terry Stacey, the two design a visual grammar that is beautifully cinematic. Stacey keeps the visual tone light, relying on natural light that has that somewhat diffused look to it with a winter sky. There is no super saturated heightened reality. The lensing and framing style is understated with simplicity and grace that allows scenes to breathe, fueling the cinematic feel. Lighting keeps things real and capture the downtrodden nature of Walt's predicament while still playing to the natural light, giving the film a hopeful note. Contrasting Walt and Anthony's escapades, we have a richness of texture and color with Robert Forster's Otto, both in Otto's home and in his clothing. Close-ups are used judiciously so when they pop up, they pack an emotional punch.

Not to be overlooked is Jeff Cardoni’s score. Softly understated, the score follows, buttressing the emotion of a scene, rather than force feed the audience.

Although THE CONFIRMATION starts a bit slow, as the story unfolds, the initial pacing makes sense as it lays the foundation for the engaging heartfelt father-son adventure and emotional growth of what comes thereafter. Superb performances punctuated by a thoughtful, warm story and cinematic texture confirm one thing this week - THE CONFIRMATION is a “must see” film.

MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN

In the heart of the Easter and Passover season, it’s only fitting to see the wealth of films opening in theatres that speak to the core ideals of faith, kindness, belief, forgiveness, redemption. One such film, based on a true story, is MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN. Many may have read the autobiographical book of the same name written by Christy Beam about her family and, in particular, the story of her daughter Anna, and her battle with an incurable - and deadly - motility disease. While the Beams’ story is founded in their great faith, it is the medical aspect of the situation that elevates the film, MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN, for the masses thanks to a doctor who cares and a mother who refuses to give up on her child.

9-year old Anna Beam is wise beyond her years. An exceptional, fun-loving little girl, she lives in Texas with her mother Christy, large animal veterinarian father Kevin and her two sisters, Abbie and Adelynn. A devout family, church and God are the cornerstones of their world. But then the unthinkable happens to this seemingly perfect middle-class American family. Anna becomes gravely ill. Dismissed by doctor after doctor with diagnoses of lactose intolerance (which, much to the chagrin of the Beam sisters, means no pizza), stomach flu or acid reflux, Anna only gets worse. It is only through the sheer almost histrionic will of Christy during a particularly volatile and dangerous night in the local emergency room that they finally find a doctor who does the necessary testing and makes a proper diagnosis - a life-threatening motility disease that precludes Anna from digesting any food. And it’s incurable.

While Anna undergoes arduous lifestyle changes, including feeding tubes, more than ten medications multiple times a day and living in constant pain, Christy battles to get an appointment with the country’s foremost expert in the disease; a pediatric specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital named Dr. Nurko. Ultimately succeeding in seeing Dr. Nurko and having him take over Anna’s care, the journey becomes even longer and more difficult for the family as treatments aren’t working, Anna’s condition is worsening and the family is facing severe financial hardship. And then the day every parent dreads arrives. There is nothing more to be done for Anna.

On what is now her final trip home, Anna is outside climbing the old cottonwood tree in the yard, something she has done a thousand times before and as her older sister realizes, may be one of her last climbs. But old trees have a tendency to be brittle and break, as this one does, plunging Anna 30 feet down into the rotted out core. And it’s what happens in that fall and during the hours Anna lay unconscious inside that give us the real MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN.

Jennifer Garner is a force of nature as Christy Beam. Undeterred and unwavering in her love for her daughter, you see Garner’s own maternal instincts at play here. So strong is Garner that she makes your heart break, grieve and rejoice. As Anna, Kylie Rogers steals your heart and the film with a strength of performance rare to see in young actors.

Welcome is a terrific, albeit abbreviated turn, by Queen Latifah as Angela, a woman in Boston who befriended the Beams on their first visit to Dr. Nurko. Latifah shines and never moreso than when on screen with Rogers. A pure joy is Eugenio Derbez as Dr. Nurko. And yes, like the Beams and Angela, Dr. Nurko is the real doctor who treated Anna. Derbez brings both a “Patch Adams” air to Nurko in his comic demeanor with young patients (which according to Derbez and Beam is really how the man is) while turning on a dime with a heartbreaking gravitas when speaking with a parent.

Directed by Patricia Riggen from a script by Randy Brown adapted from Christy Beam’s book, with MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN, Riggen creates a sense of spiritual wonder that takes a core element of Anna Beam’s “miracle” - a cottonwood tree - and expands on that to showcase nature. For Riggen, “Nature is by all means like a creation of God. It doesn’t fight the idea of God.” The visual grammar and use of light and color by Riggen and cinematographer Checco Varese is beautiful and in key moments, ethereal, most notably in scenes at the Atlanta Aquarium where the film was shot, and in a Monet-inspired garden. Striking a balance between the pain of Anna’s disease and the emotional pain of the situation, and the beauty and affirmation of life, it was important to Riggen “to have as many visual moments as I could with this movie. Again, for the reason of let’s let the audience have a good journey. It’s a very painful story. And if I don’t give them that breath of air and those visual moments, what am I gonna give them? Only pain. So that’s how I came up with all those moments to just really let the audience have good, beautiful, easy moments and then bring them back to the pain of the story, of the real story.”

Powerful, emotionally satisfying and uplifting, you’ll leave the theatre with a smile on your heart a belief in MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN.

 

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