Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Review: Adoration

Adoration (2008, Atom Egoyan)

Egoyan is not a director who shies away from controversial, touchy subjects, such as the Armenian genocide during the first world war (Ararat), the mourning of an entire town after everyone’s children dies in a school bus accident (The Sweet Hereafter) and the sick mind of a serial killer (Felicia’s Journey). His films are sometimes quite meditative, subtle and intelligently done, as is the case in both The Sweet Hereafter and Felicia’s Journey. Other times, such as in Ararat, the result leaves to be desired, with certain ideas and arguments feeling far too forced (even though, as a whole, I personally really don’t mind Ararat). But those films were all focused on discernable, overarching themes. Whether Egoyan succeeded in dramatizing the emotions involved in each of those stories is up for debate if you so desire, but they all had a focus, a particular mindset, both with regards to the narrative and the themes. With his most recent film, Adoration, Egoyan may have stretched himself a bit too much, not to mention that I wasn’t convinced that the themes in the film needed all that much stretching to begin with.

Simon, played nicely by Devon Bostick, is a high school student who is encouraged by his French teacher Sabine (ArsinĂ©e Khanjian, always reliable) to prepare a presentation for class about his late father, who passed away many years ago along with his mother. Simon does so, telling his classmates how his father of Middle Eastern descent was a terrorist who had used his mother to have a bomb explode on a plane. The truth of the matter however is that…there’s no truth whatsoever in this presentation. The classmates don’t realize this and Simon’s fabricated story elicits some intense reactions, many of which are shared on a nightly basis in the internet chat rooms. Even some adults, after some word to mouth, get in on the act and begin spewing their own two cents on the subject of terrorism in the post 9/11 world.

This is but one of the many elements of Sabine’s plan to get to see Simon’s uncle Tom, played by Scott Speedman. Tom, who tows cars for a living, took over parenting duties for the boy ever since Simon’s parents died, but has been running short on money for quite some time already and, by and large, isn’t the most sociable or communicative of people. Why would Sabine want to meet and discuss with this lonely and shy man? In proper Egoyan fashion it seems, the plot is weaved with so many threads that if I went any deeper into its complexities, I pretty much wouldn’t have any other choice than to give everything away, or most of it anyways. I do like it when Egoyan constructs his films in which the heart of the story is revealed little by little, with interesting and tantalizing hints offered along the way. For the most part he handles this storytelling technique admirably. A great example of this method is in the film Exotica, a film that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves. However, in order for this strategy truly to bear fruit, the heart of the story must be worth it, the reveals and themes at the center of the movie must be able to capture the viewer’s attention. As I walked out of the cinema on that rainy night, I realized that even Atom Agoyan can’t strike gold every time.

In Adoration, it would seem as if the ideas are too many, with a decidedly sub-par and not particularly clever back-story available to support them. The first half of the film pertains mostly to the phenomenon of information wildly circulating on the internet. Very shortly after delivering his presentation, Simon witnesses the debates about death, love, and forgiveness that rage on the internet blogs and live video chat sessions. Some of the dialogue and arguments shared is poignant, although not a whole lot of it. Things get especially disappointing when some of the adults, who you would think would bring some intelligent remarks to the discussion, actually start behaving worse than some of the teens. One of them even goes on this diatribe about all the ‘fucking terrorists.’ And here begin my issues with Adoration. False information taken for granted and spread across the internet is in fact an interesting topic, a reality with which you and I have to deal with on an almost daily basis (unless you don’t use the internet, don’t blog or don’t chat). It just isn’t handled in any worthwhile way with this film. In fact, probably one of the reasons this topic feels half baked in the story is that the second half of the film essentially jettisons this theme and focuses primarily on the dynamic between the French teacher Sabine and Tom, Simon’s uncle. There isn’t anything terribly wrong with switching storylines in a single film, as long as it's handled properly. Here however, it really feels like young Simon is abandoned for a good 30 or 40 minutes before the ‘climax’ occurs. The film had begun with Simon in search of the his parents’ real history, not what he deems to be the rubbish his dying grandfather told him, in essence, that his father had in fact wanted to kill his mother because he was another crazy, fanatical bloke from the insane Middle East. The real story about Simon’s parents is basically revealed as Sabine continues to press Tom for a meeting, and to discuss delicate issues, something the incredibly introverted Tom is less than willing to do. When Tom finally opens up and reveals his feelings, thoughts and recollections about Simon’s mother and father, it all…feels kind of flat.

There’s nothing provocative, nothing new happening here, certainly not for a 21st century audience member with a degree of familiarity with the catch all ‘multiculturalism’ phenomenon that characterizes Canada, the United States, and plenty of other countries across the globe. By the time the more dramatic, revealing flashback scenes transpired, my immediate reaction was, I’m sad to report, ‘Huh, so that’s what the fuss was about?’ So here we have an Atom Egoyan film about misinformation over the internet and multiculturalism (or something of that nature) and neither theme really works. Granted, just like in any other film, there are other things going on, the movie isn’t strictly about those two themes, but they seem to be what mainly drive the current and past stories of all the characters involved. Sabine, who at first approaches Tom in traditional Islamic garb, tries to elicit reactions out of him by speaking ill about Jews. Really? That was part of your plan? Okay…

Seeing as I’m a forgiving movie goer, I usually see the good in most films, and Adoration is no exception. ArsinĂ©e Khanjian, who has appeared in many of Atom Egoyan’s films in the past, is her usual reliable self. There is an earnestness in her performances that I find attractive and she doesn’t disappoint, except with the fact that I don’t think her dialogue is very sharp. The same can be said for Scott Speedman, a solid actor who doesn’t seem to get the work an actor of his character deserves (no, I don’t think Underworld counts). Tom isn’t necessarily an easy role to play. His character is shy, but must open up at least a little bit by the end, otherwise the entire purpose of Sabine’s weird plan is lost. Speedman handles this well, scruffy beard and all. Even young Devon Bostick, whom I had never heard of up until now, delivers a solid performance as the teen ‘acting out’ a lie to his class, but also genuinely curious for the truth behind the death of his parents. It’s nothing to shout about, but he’s a more than competent actor. The film also looks very good. There is a rather poetic and sometimes dreamy look and feel to the proceedings, something not unheard of in an Egoyan film. Many of his previous efforts share this same strange but effective quality. I don’t quite know how to explain it. It’s all in the shot setups, editing, score and cinematography. Each scene is given a somewhat ‘soft’ touch, despite how many of his films deal with deadly serious and dramatic manners.

There is this one line of dialogue, which I don’t recall word for word and therefore will paraphrase, that Sabine delivers late in the movie, when all has been revealed and discussed. It pertains to her connection with Simon’s father, and while I was hoping for something dramatic and intriguing, she literally explains that she ‘doesn’t know why it happened.’ She ‘cannot explain it.’ That’s unfortunately what I felt when the film ended. Where did things go wrong and why? The film always seems unsure of what it wants to do with its characters and their storylines. By the time Simon experiences his cathartic climax, the moment hasn’t been earned. It would be tempting to applaud Egoyan for tackling these fascinating issues raised in the movie, but for someone who has handled delicate material in far better manner with previous efforts, one can’t help but feel that this is a missed opportunity. Despite all this, I still didn’t hate the film. It has solid moments, mostly due to the acting, which is solid throughout. Even though they aren’t given the best possible treatment, I did like some of the ideas the movie played with (minus the ridiculous racism scenes). It’s simply too unfocused and loses its way the deeper into the story we get. You can’t strike gold every time indeed.

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