Sunday 19 November 2017

Thorny subject matter becomes inspired triumph in family affair

Padraic McKiernan

The Thorn in the Heart

Cert 18

It's understating the situation to suggest that the opening to French director Michel Gondry's highly personal documentary, The Thorn in the Heart, is not exactly replete with wow factor. An elderly, silver-haired woman named Suzette is holding court at a gathering of her extended family. She's regaling them with a tale that centres on her late husband's relationship with sauerkraut and, while her intermittent hysterics attest to her faith in the story's comedy content, she's the only the person laughing.

As the camera pans across the faces of her nearest and dearest, embarrassment and bemusement are the predominant reactions. The realisation that the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director has chosen Suzette, his aunt, as the primary focus of this documentary does little to lighten the sense of foreboring, sorry foreboding.

The good news to report about this endearing piece, however, is that Gondry's choice of subject matter proves to be inspired as a spectacle that threatens tedium is gradually transformed into a triumph of sorts.

Suzette worked as a school-teacher in the Cevennes region of France and the documentary follows this force of nature as she revisits the various school buildings she taught at in a career spanning three decades from the Fifties.

Some are now abandoned, others still functional, but through interviews with former pupils and neighbours a consummate portrait of this "avant garde" teacher is drawn.

A case of so far, so what, you could be forgiven for thinking. What elevates this feature into the realm of the memorable, however, is the treatment of Suzette's difficult relationship with her son, Jean-Yves. The thorn in the heart of the title, Jean-Yves had a fascination with Super 8 film as a child and his real-time footage of the various milestones that punctuated their family life together, along with their contemporary reflections, add greatly to the poignancy of the finished product.

The musical input from French hip-hop artist Spleen adds greatly to the emotional resonance of the piece.

Opens in selected cinemas on Friday

Easier with Practice

Cert 16

ONE of the more bizarre revelations at the conclusion of twist-dependent indie flick Easier with Practice is that it's based on a "true story". This may well be so but it's worth observing that the manner in which the twist is depicted in this soulful, Kyle Patrick Alvarez-directed affair blurs the line between fact and fabrication.

Brian Geraghty caught the eye as the nervous blond soldier in The Hurt Locker, and he's equally convincing here as Davy Mitchel, an insecure young writer whose life is about to take a turn for the psychologically fraught. The epic beauty of the American southwest supplies the setting for the opening scenes as Davy is joined by his brother Sean (Kel O'Neill) on a "Kerouacian" road trip aimed at boosting sales of the former's self-published book of short stories.

Badly attended book-readings in no-horse towns are followed by boozy nights spent in rundown motels. Think Crazy Heart for hipsters and you've pretty much put yourself in the picture so far. A random call from a highly sexed stranger called Nicole during one of these stopovers kick-starts an intimate phone-sex connection that eventually leads Davy to the cusp of emotional collapse.

His increasingly desperate requests for a face-to-face with Nicole are refused, but she eventually relents. In case you haven't noticed, it's a case of expect the unexpected.

For reasons best not divulged here, the premise is flawed but it's testimony to the quality of Alvarez's direction that the end product manages to come across as credible.

Geraghty brings strong depth and presence to his portrayal while the soundtrack adds another quality dimension to a spectacle that will be best appreciated by indie fans who don't place too high a premium on plausibility.

Opens on Friday

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