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If the success of La La Land helped to demonstrate the durability of the movie musical, perhaps there will be an audience for Becks, which had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Certainly this appealing character-driven musical deserves to find an audience. The lesbian central character should ensure exposure on the LGBT festival circuit, but the cast and the music are so engaging that the film could resonate beyond that niche market.
The filmmakers said that the life of singer and songwriter Alyssa Robbins helped to inspire the project, and Robbins provided many of the songs in the film. Her surrogate, Becks (short for Rebecca), is played by gifted singer Lena Hall, who won a Tony award for her performance in the Broadway revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
The script by directors Liz Rohrbaugh and Daniel Powell, along with co-writer Rebecca Drysdale, reportedly re-examines a crisis in Robbins’ life. After a breakup with a girlfriend, the desperate Becks moves in with her religious mother (Christine Lahti) in her hometown of St. Louis. The opening scenes are actually the weakest in the movie. Frantic editing fills in Becks’ life in New York City, her decision to follow her girlfriend to California, followed by a rude awakening that upends her plans. This all takes place in about three minutes of rapid cross-cutting, which has the advantage of being economical but is also way too frenzied to register.
The film calms down and finds its rhythm when Becks arrives in St. Louis. Although her mother, a former nun, is not exactly enamored of her lifestyle, she’s trying to be supportive. Becks decides to do a little singing at a local bar, and eventually her audiences grow. She also meets a married woman, Elyse (Mena Suvari), who seems to have more than a professional interest in Becks.
The extraordinary cast helps to sock this slight story home. Hall radiates warmth and no-nonsense earthiness, and her musical performances are tangy. Suvari has not had too many opportunities to demonstrate her chops since the American Pie movies and the very different American Beauty. She looks the same as she did 15 years ago, acts with unforced charm, and even sings effectively in a duet with Hall. Lahti also gives her strongest screen performance in years, drawing a character of considerable complexity. Dan Fogler is winning as the bar owner who once had a fling with Becks and now remains a wisecracking supporter.
There are some problems with the script that occasionally undermine these actors’ sterling contributions. Considering that Lahti’s character gave up her vows as a nun to marry and have children, her puritanism seems a bit exaggerated. An episode in which she walks in during a very graphic sex scene between her daughter and Elyse seems contrived as a means to push the film toward its denouement. And the third-act appearance of Becks’ brother (Michael Zegen) adds very little to the narrative.
Nevertheless, the film is very well designed by directors Rohrbaugh and Powell, the musical interludes really sing and the actors make for scintillating company. The open-ended conclusion revives the fractured editing of the film’s opening, but this works far more satisfyingly at the conclusion because we have become deeply involved with these flawed but fascinating people.
Cast: Lena Hall, Mena Suvari, Christine Lahti, Dan Fogler, Michael Zegen, Hayley Kiyoko
Directors: Liz Rohrbaugh, Daniel Powell
Screenwriters: Liz Rohrbaugh, Daniel Powell, Rebecca Drysdale
Producers: Alex Bach, Liz Rohrbaugh, Daniel Powell
Director of photography: Kat Westergaard
Production designer: Kirsten Earl
Costume designer: Cristina Spiridakis
Editor: Jim Isler
Music: Alyssa Robbins, Steve Salett
No rating, 92 minutes
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