‘Flesh and Blood’: Film Review | SXSW 2017
Mark Webber enlisted his mother and brother to play versions of themselves in his fourth film, a fiction-nonfiction hybrid that draws upon his unconventional family history.
Actor-turned-director Mark Webber continues to mine his rough beginnings, and his real-life relationships, in the aptly titled, quietly searing Flesh and Blood. With the key exception of a wordless cameo by Teresa Palmer, Webber’s offscreen partner and one of the film’s producers, nearly everyone plays themselves, or a version of themselves, in the well-observed drama. They include his single mom, Cheri Honkala, who has channeled her difficult experiences into advocacy for the homeless and poor, and who ran for vice president on the 2012 Green Party ticket. She's currently running in a special election for the office of Pennsylvania state representative.
Political outrage courses through the film. Without an ounce of self-congratulatory fanfare, Webber places front and center a range of people who are usually relegated to the margins — the strugglers who mainstream politicians like to invoke but rarely engage with. Those characters, and the filmmaker’s embrace of them, get under the skin in this slice-of-life feature. Rather than a plot-driven narrative, it’s a collection of keenly observed scenes, and the lack of hyped-up drama, intrigue or sentimentality is one of the strengths of the low-key but visually expressive movie.
The story kicks off as Webber’s character, Mark, is released from prison after five years; his crime is never discussed, but a quick jab of a flashback reveals a beating he inflicted while under the influence. (As writer and helmer, Webber uses flashbacks with notable restraint and effectiveness.) Back in Philadelphia with his activist mother and teenage half-brother (Guillermo Santos), he’s sober, has learned to meditate and maintains a studied, hopeful calm, though sounds of prison disturb his sleep and temptation is never far.
Mark has a lifetime of issues to hash out with Cheri, but his affection toward 13-year-old Guillermo is pure and uncomplicated in its protectiveness. Hyperintelligent, witty and a self-described nerd, the teen is coming to terms with his recent diagnosis of Asperger’s, after withstanding years of other kids’ bullying, some of it violent. When he explains Plato’s Cave to his older brother, Mark beams with understated delight. When Mark buys the aspiring filmmaker a camera, Guillermo gets busy interviewing his brother and mother, as well as the raspy-voiced father (also named Guillermo) whose charm is as evident as his troubles. Guillermo Sr. missed most of his son’s childhood because of addiction and incarceration.
As an instrument of self-expression and self-assertion, the camera is an extension of Guillermo’s cheerfully geeky resilience. He turns it on himself to record thoughts and commentary for his documentary-in-the-making. To call it a running gag would be overstating the matter, but the pleasure he takes in saying “Cut!” is a prime example of the unforced humor in Flesh and Blood.
Addressing Guillermo’s camera, Cheri sugarcoats nothing about her difficult history — no surprise, given the litany of social and political challenges with which she greets Mark upon his return from prison. Webber and editor Sven Pape deftly intercut her interview for Guillermo’s doc with Mark’s awkward navigation of a welcome-home party thrown by his friends. She details the domestic abuse of her childhood, her difficult relationship with Mark’s heroin-addicted dad, her homelessness as a single parent. Mark confides in the stripper (Victoria Cheatom) who's “gifted” to him by his friends that he might still be in love with Maddy (Madeline Brewer), who didn’t wait for him.
A later scene between the former lovers has an unfussy poignancy, alive with regret and searching silences while Maddy’s baby squirms on her lap and a house cat sidles up to Mark. But it’s another encounter, followed by a crucial ellipsis and epilogue, that gives the story its dramatic shape: Mark’s reunion with his father. Webber’s real-life dad plays himself, in a screen sequence that was, according to press notes, only their second meeting in more than 30 years. The man who was a baseball-bat-wielding monster in Cheri’s recollections is now a soft-spoken man of 60, living in the suburbs and seriously ill. As he does throughout the film (and as he did with his 2-year-old son in The End of Love), Webber harnesses the natural dynamics of offscreen bonds, however strong or frayed they may be.
Without undue emphasis, he lets the yearning, optimism and disappointment of Mark’s post-prison days accumulate. The disconnect between Mark and some of his old friends plays out with dry, matter-of-fact humor, but estrangement in many forms clearly is weighing on him. As Webber’s onscreen persona watches the people around him, seeing the generational patterns and cycles with new clarity, he gradually becomes charged with a hunger or discontent that could morph into purpose — a shift that the film doesn’t reduce to neat lessons.
Working with his regular cinematographer, Patrice Lucien Cochet, Webber grounds the film in the urban setting while capturing a sense of political and personal churn. The deserted night streets have an eerie beauty, the daytime demonstrations have a robust but fractured energy, and aerial camerawork (by Dustin Hughes) casts siblings Mark and Guillermo in a spirited, kinetic light. With Webber serving as DIY production designer, the lived-in, character-defining interiors deepen the impact of every interaction, as characters who otherwise rarely get close-ups quite readily hold the screen.
Production companies: Poor Rich Kids in association with Wide Awake Cinema
Cast: Mark Webber, Guillermo Santos, Cheri Honkala, Madeline Brewer, Antoine Williams, Galen Tyler, Victoria Cheatom, Asadullah al-Khidr, Sister Mary McKenna, Temperance Surgest
Director-screenwriter-production designer: Mark Webber
Producers: Teresa Palmer, Dustin Hughes, Tim Dowlin, Jason Tseng, David Rogers, Mark Webber
Executive producers: Glenn Rigberg, Chris Blair, David Rogers
Director of photography: Patrice Lucien Cochet
Editor: Sven Pape
Composer: Daniel Ahearn
Venue: South by Southwest (Visions)