SCREENINGS AND MEANINGS
By Gerald Schmitz
Death of a Superhero
Hollywood has been mining comic book superheroes as if they were a box-office necessity. Exceptionally, as in The Dark Knight Rises, this mega-budget obsession produces great art. But how often do we see stories about people who create comic book characters inside their heads? I don’t mean the legions of fanboys (and girls) crowding conventions like San Diego’s annual Comic-Con extravaganza. (For a cheeky look at that phenomenon check out Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Comic-Con IV: A Fan’s Hope.)
At last year’s Toronto film festival, Ian Fitzgibbon’s extraordinary Death of a Superhero slipped in under the radar. I didn’t discover it until Tribeca this spring, and what a revelation! Adapted by Andrew McCarten from his acclaimed 2006 young-adult novel of the same name, we meet Donald Clarke (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) as an intense 15-year-old battling leukemia. Donald has lost all his hair as a result of radiation and chemotherapy. He uses his raw talent for drawing to sketch a darkly imagined graphic universe in which a caped superhero-alter ego is confronted by an arch-villain called “the Glove” and an evil sexy “Nurse Worsey.” It’s his adolescent way of expressing the struggle with the demons of the disease afflicting body and soul. Donald’s attitude can be fatalistic to the point of devil-may-care suicidal. His concerned parents and family have tried everything when they turn to psychiatrist Dr. Adrian King (Andy Serkis), an expert in thanatology, the scientific study of death.
Ian Fitzgibbon, director of Death of a Superhero, at Tribeca April 26, 2012.
(Photo by Gerald Schmitz)
A first meeting seems anything but promising as Donald makes clear to “shrink No. 6” that he’s wasting his time. Gradually with a gentle yet firmly unsentimental manner, King, a widower overcoming his own deep sense of loss, begins to get through to the boy. As a rapport develops between therapist and patient, Fitzgibbon, a former actor, achieves a remarkable level of emotional honesty in the scenes between the two that are the movie’s strongest. Brodie-Sangster is simply awesome as Donald; Serkis (best known as “Gollum” in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) never better. In addition, among Donald’s few loyal school friends, Aislin Loftus is terrific as the girl Shelly who gives him a lasting first kiss.
Death of a Superhero was a challenge to bring to the screen. Fitzgibbon related to me in an interview how the project was “caught in development hell” and rewrites for several years. Eventually, backed by Bavaria Pictures, the location was moved from the New Zealand of the novel to Ireland and key cast members brought on board.
Integral to understanding Donald’s perception of the world are his rough hand-drawn visions, rendered realistically in classic 2D cell animation rather than computer-generated. Although Fitzgibbon admitted having to battle producers over the amount to include, his months of effort and complex editing pay off. These graphic sequences illuminate without ever overwhelming the story.
As importantly, this is not some weepie “cancer movie,” which he decidedly was not interested in making. It is, as he says, “a love story with time running out.” What could be more terrifying to the teenage male mind than the prospect of dying young, and a virgin? Yet Donald chooses something more important than a transient experience, and he leaves a legacy of love and a spirit that lives on in those he has touched, including the brooding Dr. King who emerges from the shadows that have haunted him.
As enormously affecting and powerfully affirmative as is Death of a Superhero, such movies struggle for screen space. Fortunately, acquired by Tribeca Film, it is available on Amazon instant video (in the U.S.) and iTunes, with a DVD release expected next month. Not to be missed.
Director and co-writer Cédric Kahn’s Une vie meilleure (A
Better Life) should not be confused with the equally excellent 2011 Mexican-American
drama of that name that garnered a best actor Oscar nomination for Demián
Bichir. What both share is a compelling father-son narrative conveyed
through exceptional performances set against a rough and tumble disadvantaged
milieu from which escape is never easy. I first saw the former at last
September’s Toronto film festival and again, prior to its U.S.
release, at Tribeca where I interviewed Kahn.
Cédric Kahn, director and co-writer of Une vie meilleure, at Tribeca April 22, 2012.
(Photo by Gerald Schmitz)
A coup was getting justly renowned actor-director Guillaume Canet to take on the central role of Yann, a hard-luck trained chef with big dreams who grew up in foster homes. He falls in love with the beautiful French-Lebanese single parent Nadia (Leïla Bekhti) of nine-year-old Slimane (Slimane Khettabi). Together they try to open an ambitious restaurant outside Paris but soon are in over their heads and threatened by extortionist debt. These are characters in search of family ties whose circumstances are strained by a recessionary climate of cutthroat competition. When Nadia sees no way out of the financial bind but to take a temporary job in Montreal, she must leave the boy in Yann’s care.
In a series of moving scenes, Yann does his best to be a good father to Slimane, a task made increasingly difficult after contact with Nadia is lost and his situation goes from bad to worse. Amid mounting troubles and anxiety, Yann can wait no longer, taking Slimane to Canada in a desperate hunt for his mother. What he finds, encountering Canada’s immigration and criminal justice system (partly shot in Ottawa and North Bay), is extremely disturbing. Yet, after an emotional reunion, the film ends on a hopeful note.
Why Canada? Because, Kahn told me, it is a place where a new life, a better life, seems possible. What is most important is how the family these three so want and need can be found, notwithstanding all the failures and setbacks they have suffered. As he and co-writer Catherine Paillé have observed: “The child is the key, the film’s secret hero. He allows the survival of an emotional bond when all social connections disintegrate . . . It’s through him that the adults save themselves and find a meaning to their lives. And it’s thanks to him that life can begin again.”
What makes A Better Life so effective as well as affecting is the gritty realism that gives it a semi-documentary feel. Kahn isn’t tempted by Hollywood and its commercial style of storytelling that tends to remove the raw edges. A critical and popular success in France after its release in Quebec late last year, the movie will doubtless have only limited distribution elsewhere in North America.
Such is the state of the film business. At the same time, the four movies highlighted in this and last week’s columns are worth making every effort to search out. They are about children, parents and families; about life and death struggles; about what might be called the everyday heroism of love. And they shine with the brilliance of the filmmakers and actors dedicated to their creation. Bravo!
Schmitz is currently attending the Toronto International Film Festival. Watch for coverage in future columns.