Tuesday, September 18, 2012

'Now is Good' (2012) directed by Ol Parker, 17th September 2012

‘Now is Good’ is a film about a teenage girl battling leukaemia.  By the halfway point I was rooting for the leukaemia. It’s a tragedy, but not because it’s about a dying girl, but because it fritters away a great concept and two good performances.  Seeing a bad film is one thing, but seeing a bad film that could quite easily have been something special is far more depressing.

Dakota Fanning plays Tessa, a 16 year old English girl slowly succumbing to leukaemia.  The film begins after she’s stopped her chemotherapy; she’s decided she’s going to let the disease run its course - a decision that will inevitably result in her death.  To make the most of the time she has left, she writes a list of things she wants to do before she dies.  Appropriately enough for a teenager, these are goals like “take illegal drugs”, “break the law” and “have sex”. One thing not on the list is “fall in love”.  But hello, who’s this boy that’s just moved in next door?  Why, it’s superhunk Jeremy Irvine!  The two fall in love, but how can they make the relationship work when Tessa’s death seems ever more imminent?

Dakota Fanning as Tessa and Paddy Considine as "Father" (that's how he's credited)
In supporting roles as Tessa’s divorced parents are Paddy Considine and Olivia Williams.  They’re the complete opposite of each other, almost to an unbelievable degree.  Considine is devoting his entire waking life to Tessa’s treatment, agonising over her illness and clutching at whatever straws he can.  Williams on the other hand is very much a ‘hands off’ parent, being late for medical conferences, and not showing any interest in the particulars of her daughter’s condition.  Rounding off the family is Tessa’s younger brother, Cal as played by Edgar Canham.

One of the reasons that this film is so disappointing is also one of the jewels in its crown.  Dakota Fanning’s performance as Tessa is pretty damn great.  She captures the character’s steely determination and acceptance of her condition while also looking more and more physically vulnerable as the cancer progresses (she looks a bit like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby sometimes).  Her appearance grows more pale and haggard over time, but she always has a fire burning within her.  Fanning has piercing bright blue eyes, and with her marble white skin and short, cropped light hair they seem to project from her head like laser beams. 

Throughout the film she takes pains to conceal her illness from people she meets.  Tessa desperately doesn’t want people to view her as a sick person to be lavished with sympathy.  But Tessa is extremely fragile, fainting on occasion, bruised, pockmarked with catheter holes and suffering violent nosebleeds.  This fragility is highlighted by her pale complexion, the effect being that she looks as if she’s made of porcelain.  Tessa is never less than interesting to watch, and Fanning doesn’t shy away from exposing her flaws.   In addition, Fanning’s English accent is pretty impressive stuff for a young American actor, and doesn’t lapse into caricature.

Dakota Fanning as Tessa
So with such a compelling central performance, how can this be a bad film?  Because (with the exception of Paddy Considine) everything else here is utterly dreadful on both an artistic and technical level. 

This film contains some truly awful performances; there are characters here that have the same effect on me as running nails down a blackboard.  In a way it’s quite impressively economical, there are characters in this film that only get a few lines, but I found myself whispering “dear god, no…” when they turn up on screen. 

The primary acting problem with the film is Jeremy Irvine, who once again is completely miscast. I've developed an instinctive dislike of this man – he radiates a smug self satisfaction every wooden moment he’s on screen.  Irvine literally plays the boy next door, the one person sensitive enough to love Tessa for who she really is, rather than feeling sorry for her because of her disease.  His backstory is that his father died in a car crash, and as a result he’s apparently emotionally crippled and won’t open up to anyone.  The problem with this is that if there’s one thing that Irvine clearly isn’t, it’s emotionally crippled.  There are emotional notes to hit later on in the film which he completely flubs, something made all too obvious by the fine job that Fanning’s doing opposite him.  Physically he just doesn’t work as a ‘boy next door’ either, standing out as far, far too handsome in what is generally a down to earth film.

That tree isn't the only wooden thing in this picture...
His presence in the film comes close to derailing it completely.  Prior to his entrance things are quite interesting, the character of Fanning is proactive and seemingly in control of her life.  But whenever Irvine’s character is onscreen, things devolve into a sludgy morass of romantic clichés.   Pretty much every other character in this film has obvious character flaws, but Irvine doesn’t.  He’s written as having a flaw: after his father’s death he’s afraid to emotionally connect with someone for fear of losing them.  This never translates to the performance, and in effect Irvine puts on the same  monotone ‘nice-guy’ act throughout the entirety of the film. 

While Irvine is undoubtedly awful, perhaps this is magnified by us spending so much time with him.  The bit characters with only a few lines on the other hand, manage to make us despise them with venom even with the few minutes they’re on screen.  The primary offender in this is Edgar Canham as Tessa’s little brother.  It seems unfair to criticise a child actor, but my god he is awful.  He over enunciates every single unfunny line he gets in exactly the same way.  Similarly flat and uninspired are pretty much all of the extended cast, even Olivia Williams never rises above mediocrity.  A cast being this consistently terrible seems unlikely to be the fault of these actors, blame here must lie with the director, Ol Parker.

Kaya Scodelario as Zoey and Jeremy Irvine as Adam 
As you’ll see below, I don’t think particularly highly of the choices that Parker made in directing this film, but there are some good sequences.  In particular, the nosebleed sequence is appropriately shocking, well edited and excellently acted.  In some ways, it’s more annoying having one great sequence in an otherwise pedestrian film, as it proves the director has talent, something that makes it all the more mysterious when damn near everything else is completely fumbled.

Parker frequently makes bizarre, amateurish directorial mistakes, both in tone and in various technical aspects.  The performances of everyone except Fanning and Considine have the feel of first-takes.  Dialogue frequently seems stilted, timing seems off, as if people are reading their lines from off-camera.  It’s a distancing effect, the exact thing you don’t want to happen in what should be an intimate, emotional drama powered by relatable characters.

These bizarre mistakes in tone also serve to derail our empathy.  One of Tessa’s goals is to break the law before she dies.  She decides to do this by stealing a guys bank card while he’s distracted at a cashpoint.  While Tessa is an explicitly flawed character, her preying on innocent bystanders seems a step too far.  This film can only work if we’re on Tessa’s side throughout, and her actions here seem a bit petty and cruel.  It’s hard not to shift our sympathies to the hapless nobody they rob, who chases them through the shopping centre to a terrible cover of ‘I Fought the Law’.  Soon after we see her engage in some shoplifting, which is far easier to frame as a victimless crime.  Why not just use that as her example  of breaking the law? 

 Another moment in which the film goes awry is a bizarrely shoehorned in anti-abortion subplot.  Tessa’s friend Zoey has gotten pregnant by mistake, and Tessa accompanies her to the abortion clinic.  Through a bit of weird emotional blackmailing, Tessa convinces her to keep the baby, with a line like “you wouldn’t have brought me here if you wanted to get rid of it”.  Now, I think I can see what the film is trying to do here.  It’s demonstrating how much Tessa appreciates life by showing how much she values Zoey’s unborn child.  But it’s plain to see that her friend is totally unready to become a parent, she’s 17 at most, single and her character is repeatedly defined as irresponsible and shortsighted.  As such, this subplot ends up feeling vaguely condemnatory of women that choose to go through with abortions – and feels utterly out of place.

There are also some frankly amateurish lighting and production errors too.  The fact that I even noticed the lighting at all is probably a criticism of the film in itself.  Surely a film with a gripping enough story would mean the way things are lit is the furthest thing from my mind?  But then you see scenes taking place on beaches in the middle of the night where the characters are essentially standing in a floodlight.  Similarly, there are scenes set on streets at night where we see Tessa and Adam walking down the street from a high crane shot.  The street stretches off behind them, darkly illuminated by the orange streetlights, but the section the characters are walking in is lit up from all sides by super bright floodlights.  There’s a clear delineation between where the lighting starts, and where it stops. In later night scenes someone seems to have taken the trouble to put lights in very strange places, like tucked behind a phonebox, illuminating it from behind.  The effect is that the film  begins to feel very artificial, which again detracts from the central drama.

Paddy Considine turns in a fine performance.  Nothing wrong here.
Another production aspect that stood out was a snowy scene late in the film.  Obviously, it’s not practical to wait for it to snow for real, so artificial snow is used.  One of the important rules in working with artificial snow like this is that under no account do you show it in closeup.  It looks perfectly natural even from a slight distance, but Parker repeatedly gives us full screen closeups and we see what looks like blobs of cotton wool landing on our leads. What rubs salt into the wound is when Adam lies down and makes a snow angel.  Fake snow just doesn’t move like the real thing.  This might seem like petty criticism but all of these mistakes add up. If an audience perceives the film as overtly stagey and artificial, even subconsciously, it becomes more difficult to emotionally connect with what’s going on.  And in a film like this that connection is the most important thing to maintain.

All of these flaws, coupled with stuff like an overly melodramatic score (they may as well have flashed up “THIS IS THE SAD BIT”), clichéd dialogue and occasionally poor soundtrack choice hurt the movie.  It’s death by a thousand cuts, and by the final scenes the film is lumbering along desperately trying to get by on pathos alone. 

Olivia Williams as "Mother"
Most of the reasons the film fails seem easily correctable.  A little more care in casting, more attention paid to directing the actors, maybe a bit of logical thinking applied to set design and lighting and the film would be drastically improved.  It’s frustrating because the central conceit, that of a teenage girl fighting against preconceived notions of what a cancer patient and and can't do has legs.  If the film had more of a focus on her list of things to do before she dies, rather than using it as a framework to bolt a sappy love story onto it’d be a far better film.  As it stands it’s a wasted opportunity, and worse, one which wastes a fine central performance from Fanning. It’s a testament to how much this film fails that even with such a good piece of acting at its centre, we find ourselves secretly wishing this leukaemia would hurry it up already so we don’t have to sit through anymore of this drivel.

If you want a good cancer film, check out 50/50.

‘Now is Good’ is on general release from 19th September 2012

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