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Two of the finest films of 2018, Leave No Trace and Lean on Pete, captured the resilience and grace of teens being raised by troubled dads and awakening to their own sense of purpose. With its indelible portrait of the double-edged sword of filial love, Annabelle Attanasio’s first feature joins those movies’ ranks. Her intimate Montana-set drama, rich with lived-in detail, revolves around a tough and tender father-daughter relationship, an emotional prison that’s also a lifeline, compellingly rendered in the superb performances of Camila Morrone and James Badge Dale.
They play Mickey, about to turn 18, and the widowed Hank, an Iraq vet. Her part-time job at a taxidermy studio keeps them in groceries, and within the small confines of their remote double-wide, Mickey maintains the household — cooking, cleaning, organizing Hank’s meds, hiding his guns. Her role, growing disturbingly blurred for both of them, also involves calming her father when he’s in the grip of night terrors, and nursing him back to consciousness after he overdoes the oxycodone and booze. As his daughter enters adulthood, Hank, in his inebriated fog, has begun to mistake her for his late wife. Both the movie and an alarmed Mickey comprehend the perilous line he’s edging toward.
As written and portrayed, these two characters are never predictable or easily compartmentalized. Mickey is no put-upon shrinking violet; she’s strong-willed and sometimes exuberant. And though Hank’s hair-trigger belligerence is becoming his default mode, there are glimmers of megawatt charm. The comfort and ease between them is undeniable, but it’s limited by Hank’s volatility and his knee-jerk response to any topic that gets too real: He shuts it down and pushes it away. That includes the bereavement over Mickey’s mother that binds father and daughter; it’s something they have in common without being truly shared. In such subtly observed behavior as Mickey’s choosing to wear her mother’s dress on her own birthday, or being drawn to a rose perfume oil because it reminds her of Mom, the writer-director suggests the girl’s aloneness in grappling with her loss.
Mickey’s boyfriend, Aron (Ben Rosenfield), is in certain ways a lower-key variation on a theme — another needy and controlling male with an overconfident sense of his own magnetism. Just when you hope she’ll break up with him, she falls back into his arms and re-embraces the idea of staying in their small town forever. Aron dreams of their married-with-kids future; Mickey dreams of the Pacific Ocean. Though she’s applied to college in San Diego, it’s a prospect she considers distant at best. “I’m not going anywhere,” she insists, a fathomless ache burning in her eyes. It’s only when she gets to know new kid Wyatt (Calvin Demba, of Kingsman: The Golden Circle) that Mickey even acknowledges her tentative California scheme.
Wyatt is an aspiring musician with a fetching British accent and West Coast plans of his own. There’s no doubt about their mutual attraction or that he awakens something in Mickey, but Attanasio is interested in far more complex narrative twists than the pat solution of new romance. In a heart-stopping scene between Wyatt and Mickey, with just a few words, he reveals how hard-won his focus and compassion are. In another sequence, overhead footage of the couple winding their way through a summer fair is charged with a sense of discovery as well as the pull of inheritance and fate — especially striking evidence of the cinematic fluency that the director and DP Conor Murphy bring to the material.
As the increasingly conflicted Mickey gets closer to Wyatt, she’s in the disquieting position of having two emotionally unstable men in her life, Hank and Aron, who feel jealous and abandoned. Attanasio navigates the shifting alignments and growing dread in ways that are deeply unsettling, the tension heightened by Brian McOmber and Angel Deradoorian’s synth score, which varies from exquisitely spare and nerve-tingly to lush and soaring. A dynamic selection of songs on the soundtrack provides spirited counterpoint. The director uses silence, too, to powerful effect.
With outstanding contributions from cinematographer Murphy and production designer Katie Fleming, the Montana setting infuses the story with a poignant vibrancy — the sweep of nature surrounding the central duo’s trailer, the town’s vintage deco neon, the viscous green light of a barroom haunted by Hank. The movie is set in foot-of-the-mountains Anaconda, where it was also shot. A former mining center, it’s now home to a large community of military veterans, an aspect that initially drew Attanasio to the locale. For all her research, though, the film never lapses into a treatise or lecture. In Hank’s struggles and also in a brief, piercing scene with Wyatt’s aunt (Donna Davis) and Vietnam vet uncle (Ralph Villa), Mickey and the Bear transmutes its insights into fully fleshed drama.
The ill-advised bear-hunting excursion alluded to in the movie’s title is indeed disastrous, but not in ways that you’d expect. And when the story’s version of Chekhov’s gun — a hunting knife — reappears, many scenes after its ominous introduction, it’s wielded in a way that’s as powerful as it is unforeseen.
Herself an actress (Bull,The Knick), Attanasio draws involving work from her entire cast. As the VA psychiatrist who Mickey tries to bargain with, Rebecca Henderson is a potent mix of steeliness and encouragement, and her interactions with both Hank and Mickey are as expectation-defying as anything in the film.
Dale, who has ample experience in supporting roles, steps into center stage with a riveting performance, Hank’s menace and hurt pulsing in every glance. Morrone, a model turned actress whose credits include Never Goin’ Back, Death Wish and James Franco’s unreleased Bukowski, brings vitality to Mickey’s grounded strength, as well as to her newfound awareness and the uncertainty it sparks. Attanasio has made a sharp, affecting film that’s brimming with darkness and hope, every instant of it vividly alive.
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)
Production companies: Thick Media in association with Shorelight Pictures
Cast: Camila Morrone, James Badge Dale, Calvin Demba, Ben Rosenfield, Rebecca Henderson, Donna Davis, Ralph Villa
Director: Annabelle Attanasio
Screenwriter: Annabelle Attanasio
Producers: Lizzie Shapiro, Taylor Shung, Anja Murmann, Sabine Schenk
Executive producer: George Brock
Director of photography: Conor Murphy
Production designer: Katie Fleming
Costume designer: Lucy Hawkins
Editor: Henry Hayes
Music: Brian McOmber, Angel Deradoorian
Casting director: Avy Kaufman
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