The New York Film Festival opens its 54 year on September 30th with Ava DuVernay’s “13th.” More than a week earlier, on September 19th, the press and industry screenings began. Happily, I was fortunate enough to be there, seated in the Walter Reade Theater as the first two movies being screened for the press unspooled (or whatever the appropriate term when discussing digital projection). Although the films I watched were incredibly different from one another, they were both quite touching; quite affecting.
First up was Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake,” which is due to be released in the U.S. by Sundance Selects (and has a screenplay by Paul Laverty). Starring Dave Johns as Daniel Blake, the movie centers itself on an aging carpenter who, following a heart attack, has been ordered by his doctors not to return to work and also ordered by the British government’s benefits program to do exactly the opposite. Yup, a “healthcare professional,” who is neither a nurse nor a doctor nor, seemingly, medically trained in anyway, determines that Daniel is not eligible for disability insurance and over the course of the film the audience watches as the ramifications of that ill-informed decision play out.
Not content to solely have Daniel be subjected to the logic gaps of the system, he soon meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a mother with two kids who also finds herself at odds with the government’s benefits program. The two help prop one another up, sharing each other’s happiness and misfortunes.
For me the big question with such a film is how it approaches the evil of the government bureaucracy. If Loach were to make the government a flat, monolithic, untouchable, pure evil, “I, Daniel Blake” would lose something. Katie and Daniel are both incredibly human characters. They live in the real world and the movie takes place in the real world; an unrealistic representation of the government would only harm that real world sensibility.
Loach does not, quite, go that far. The government benefits office he offers has one good person in it; one person who is willing to attempt to stem the tide of blank-faced stonewalling. It is, only slightly, too much. What sticks with the viewer after the credits is, presumably, exactly what Loach wants to stick – the notion that there are people who through no fault of their own, and from many different walks of life, find themselves needing help, and that all too often governmental offices setup to provide support for exactly these people fail to do their job. Attempts to weed out people who don’t deserve benefits end up cutting out too many who do. It is sort of like restrictive voter ID laws here in the States that stop eligible voters from being allowed to cast a ballot.
An English movie, looking at the English system of benefits, one can still easily imagine “I, Daniel Blake” taking place here in the United States (even outside the above analogy), bureaucrats being bureaucrats the world over. I am not sure that it will get anyone to stand up and fight for change, but it certainly will elicit tears from some and gain a sympathetic response from all. Johns and Squires are both wonderful and the film deftly mixes the sadness with a fair amount of humor.
The second film of the day was based here in the States, although it too deals with a world that many may never encounter. “Moonlight,” which is being released by A24, is directed by Barry Jenkins (who also wrote the screenplay based on a story by Tarell McCraney). It is the tale of Chiron, a poor African American boy growing up in Miami. Divided into three sections, we see Chiron at age 9, 16, and then again in his 20s. Chiron’s mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is a drug addict and consequently he has to struggle to find his own way.
On top of everything, Chiron is trying to come to grips with his own sexuality. Everyone around him thinks Chiron is gay, and most of those people aren’t comfortable with that (Chiron, at least at the youngest we see him, seems unsure of his orientation).
Jenkins and three different actors who play Chiron (in age order: Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) make the tale wholly accessible. Watching the movie, we can all start to understand what it is to be Chiron, even if we will never have to face the things he does.
One of the most striking things about “Moonlight” is Chiron’s silence at every age. The movie is full of people talking to Chiron, whether it’s bullies at school; or a drug dealer and friend (Mahershala Ali); or the dealer’s girlfriend (Janelle Monáe); or Chiron’s friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, André Holland). The camera regularly watches the way the words hit Chiron, and his response, no matter the age and the actor, is visceral; it leaps through the screen at the audience.
The greatness of the movie goes beyond the acting and the tale being told. Blake’s camera is a thing of wonder in and of itself. It is as restless as Chiron. The camera is regularly moving, dancing around, spinning and bobbing up and down. The movements add to the audience’s sense of discomfort—sense of unease—thereby helping to put us all in Chiron’s situation.
Not everything at this year’s New York Film Festival is as affecting and powerful as “I, Daniel Blake” and “Moonlight” (stay tuned for more reviews), but sitting there watching the two back-to-back in a single day is just about as big a one-two punch as a double feature can offer.
I, Daniel Blake
photo credit: A24/Sundance Selects