Interview: Director Jeanie Finlay and Freddy McConnell of Seahorse

In Jeanie Finlay’s sublime, affecting documentary Seahorse, trans man Freddy McConnell embarks on a profound personal journey when he decides to become pregnant.  Freddy deals with all of the physical challenges of pregnancy plus the added stressors of gender dysphoria and other people’s reaction to an “unconventional” parent. I had the chance to sit down with both Finlay and McConnell on the eve of their world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.  As it turns out, McConnell provided the impetus for the film himself.


“I’m a journalist as well,” he explained, “[and] I knew I wanted to share this process, this journey.  It was sort of at my instigation.”  McConnell was particularly concerned with finding a trustworthy collaborator.  He wanted Seahorse “to be different from the way a lot of other trans stories are told, which is exploitative and sensationalized.  I never would have said yes to anyone who had just approached me.”  McConnell had witnessed friends’ bad experiences with producers and journalists who proved untrustworthy.  “The reason the film is the way it is, is because of the way it was made and the way it was envisaged right from the word go,” he stated.

Director Jeanie Finlay

Indeed, the film is artfully made and incredibly intimate.  Every step of the process is detailed, from the dysphoria that results after Freddy stops taking testosterone (so as not to interfere with the pregnancy) to the painful end of his relationship with partner CJ.  Finlay spoke with a lovely, soothing British accent as she explained her role in telling Freddy’s story: “I really want to think about the film and let the film emerge.  Like if you go in too tight with a plan, the film doesn’t grow.  The point is to grow like a baby.  One of the definitions of a documentary filmmaker is to be an emotional barometer; I’m really in tune with my feelings.”  Beautiful footage of Freddy’s hometown of Deal, England, as well as close-ups of real seahorses weave through and enhance the narrative.  “I’m very sensitive to how atmospheres and the situation make me feel and I really try to think deeply about, what could that look like in a film?” Finlay said.  “How can I create visuals that can help promote what I felt in the moment?”  This thought process led to some scenes that seem abstract but subtly support the themes of Seahorse.  “Because Deal is so beautiful I wanted that to be part of the film,” Finlay stated. “The idea that we’re sort of sitting on the edge of England, looking into an uncertain future.”

Was the more or less constant filming ever too much for Freddy?  “In the moment sometimes, but the reason it was happening was because I wanted it to happen,” McConnell pointed out.  “I wanted to go out and tell the story.” 


“It’s my job to make the film feel personal, intimate,” Finlay agreed.  “Sometimes my job is to gently push, because when I committed to the film, I said, ‘if I do this, I’m all in.  I give you all my heart.  I’m gonna do this, and it’s not gonna be easy.’  Sometimes my job is to ask the difficult questions.  ‘What is this like?  What is the answer that you haven’t said out loud before?’”


“It did get hard,” McConnell said, “but the way that it was put together and the way we worked meant that wasn’t a disaster and that didn’t mean it was the end of it.  It was just part of the process.” 

McConnell wanted to share his story, in part, to let other trans and queer people know that they have options: “The information isn’t made widely available and it’s seen as something unsafe or shameful.  Things that we’re told aren’t always in our best interests by people who are supposed to have our best interests at heart, like doctors.”  He also hoped the film would be enlightening for audiences unfamiliar with, or skeptical of, trans people.  “People whose minds are racing with those issues and questions they have, debates they want to have, can maybe just  park that when they see, ‘oh, it’s just about another person who has the same desires and struggles and emotions that I do.’”


“When I commit to making a film, I want people to come on a journey with me,” Finlay added.  “’Come on, let me hold your hand and I’m gonna take you on a little journey.’  I want people to see the ordinariness, the normalness, the smallness, the ecstasy of people’s lives.” 


“I just hope that anyone who watches it can relate to some tiny little thing, or maybe some huge thing, in a way that surprises them, that they didn’t expect coming in,” McConnell said. Added Finlay: “I just always want people to feel moved, in a small way or a big way.”  There’s little doubt that anyone who sees Seahorse won’t be.


Seahorse will continue to play film festivals throughout the summer and fall.  Visit seahorsefilm.com for more.

Review: Changing the Game

When the documentary Changing the Game played at the Tribeca Film Festival, journalists were invited to a roundtable discussion with the transgender athletes featured in the film.  At the cozy Battery Park offices of GLSEN, teens including wrestler Mack Beggs, skier Sarah Rose Huckman, and runner Terry Miller had a lively chat about transgender issues, their lives, and more.  I was moved and inspired by their intelligence and bravery, even more so after I saw the movie.


“The film shows that we’re not just transgender, that we live lives just like everybody else.  It shows us.”—Terry Miller

Mack Beggs (right) wrestling for the Texas girls State Championship.

Changing the Game is an engaging and intensely cinematic movie.  It centers primarily on three young trans athletes across three locations: Beggs in Texas, Huckman in New Hampshire, and Miller in Connecticut.  Beggs, who isn’t allowed to compete against males under state regulations, draws a ton of media attention, both positive and negative.  Critics rail that he’s “cheating” by using testosterone even as Beggs longs to wrestle other boys. Director Michael Barnett introduces us to Mack’s support system: his sweet, horseback riding girlfriend; his intensely driven, committed coach; and, most memorably, his gun toting, Republican, and unconditionally loving grandma.  These stalwarts come in handy as the quiet, reserved Mack struggles internally with the jeers he receives at wrestling events.


“I’m putting out a story that can be related to other trans people.  And it’s just amazing to be able to have a platform and use that to create good in this world.”—Sarah Rose Huckman

Sarah Rose Huckman

Huckman is perhaps the most articulate of the teens, and the most involved in activism.  From her popular YouTube channel to her impassioned speech before the House Judiciary Committee in support of the anti-gender identity discrimination law HB 1319, which was eventually passed, Huckman emerges as a champion for equality—as well as a good candidate to enter politics someday.  Like Beggs, Huckman has strong familial support in the form of her loving adoptive parents.


“They talk about fairness, but what about our fairness?  Is that not important, or does it not matter?  Everyone else wants fairness, so why can’t we have ours?”—Terry Miller


Terry Miller and her running colleague Andraya Yearwood , also a Black trans woman, encounter their share of outspoken critics at track events.  At one point a woman rants at the camera about how neither girl will know what it’s like to run while on their period, and eventually admits, “I forgot what the question is!”  Barnett allows her to hang herself, but he also makes a smart choice by giving screentime to the kids’ critics. These moments and the news clips interspersed throughout show exactly what the young athletes are up against—and underlines how brave they are to persevere in spite of such venom.


“I take pride in being able to say, ‘I’m a transgender woman of color.’  Because there’s so many people out there who are not able to come out and they’re afraid to.”—Sarah Rose Huckman


Changing the Game does a terrific job of depicting the sports the teens excel at.  Vivid slow motion sequences bring the training, matches, and meets to life.  There is exceptional cinematography of the locations, such as the icy terrain Huckman skis across.  Stark statistics about the realities of transgender life appear, simply and without comment, over overhead shots.

Beggs

“We just want to be known as who we are.  I’m Mack, I’m a guy.”—Mack Beggs


In a time when transgender rights are being threatened on a daily basis, the importance of Changing the Game cannot be overstated.  It’s a humanistic, beautiful character study that makes a powerful statement just by depicting the extraordinary/ordinary kids at its core.


Changing the Game will continue to play at film festivals throughout the summer and fall. 

Review: Charlie Says

Charles Manson’s crimes have long fascinated the American imagination, and this year’s fortieth anniversary of the murders has reignited interest.  But is there anything more to say at this point?  If anyone could add something new to the conversation, it’s director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) and writer Guinevere Turner (Go Fish, The L Word), who crafted the satiric masterpiece American Psycho nineteen years ago.  They achieve this goal by focusing not on the charismatic Manson (Matt Smith) but on the three young women whose lives he ruined.

From left: Bacon, Murray, and Rendon

We first meet “Manson girls” Leslie (Hannah Murray, Game of Thrones), Patricia (Sosie Bacon), and Susan (Marianne Rendon) in the isolation ward of a women’s prison.  Though an administrator (Annabeth Gish) is sympathetic to their plight, it’s not until teacher Karlene Faith (Meritt Weaver) arrives that they are able to truly connect with someone outside of Charlie’s sinister influence.  Through vivid flashbacks, we experience life on the Spahn Ranch, where Charlie reigned supreme and the trio lived a hippie lifestyle with dark, apocalyptic overtones.  Harron conveys a vivid sense of place and carefully renders period details, aided by terrific production design and costuming.  It’s to her and Turner’s credit that the movie both leans into the absurdity of the story—tales of elves and wings, a woman biting through an umbilical cord—and confronts its terror and misogyny.  Smith is terrific, but it’s the strength and humanity of the women’s performances that carry the day.  The writing, acting, and filmmaking bring us into the girls’ perspective as their dream of enlightenment curdles into a nightmare of violence.  Charlie Says is a thoughtful film that avoids exploitation and instead treats these sensational events with reverence and insight.

Charlie Says is in theaters now.

TFF 2019 Review: Circus of Books

It was a banner year for LGBT documentaries at the Tribeca Film Festival, but even amidst a crowded field, Circus of Books was a standout.  It takes a compellingly quirky story and presents it with grace, humor, and heart. 

Barry and Rachel in the basement with porn inventory

Multi-hyphenate artist/director Rachel Mason grew up in a fairly typical Jewish family, with a twist.  The business her parents ran for decades was an infamous gay porn shop in West Hollywood, a reality hidden from Rachel and her two brothers until they were in their teens.  When Barry, who did special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Star Trek series and invented a medical device, was forced out of work by steep insurance costs, his enterprising wife took notice of a newspaper ad from the notorious Larry Flynt.  They bought the failing Book Circus, rearranged the sign, and started selling both the controversial Hustler and, later, the gay titles the enterprising Flynt bought out.  They also became involved with gay porn production, though Karen ads “we never watched any of these movies.”  A certain amount of cognitive dissonance was exercised by Karen—who “wore the pants in the family” according to one former employee—to juggle her conservative Jewish faith and the realities of selling dirty magazines and sex toys.  Son Josh agonized over coming out to his parents, and though Karen struggled at first, she and her husband are now active and proud PFLAG members.

Karen at a sex toy convention, making wholesale orders

Mason delivers an intimate, touching, warts-and-all-portrait of her family, especially Karen.  The oft cranky matriarch is refreshingly honest and candid throughout, whether stressing over laying off employees or lugging boxes of material out to the dumpster.  All of the participants are revealing and frequently funny.  Josh recalls how the porn tape he hid away until he had a chance to play it alone turned out to be a Beta.  Former employee Alaska Thunderfuck bemoans the fact that he never knew about the store’s cruise-y attic.  Even gay film legend Jeff Stryker turns up to share his memories.  Mason skillfully weaves together a personal narrative and the larger picture of gay history to make a significant and extremely entertaining documentary.

Take Your Daughter to Work Day

Netflix will distribute Circus of Books later this year.

TFF 2019 Review: Gay Chorus Deep South

After an emotional performance in Charlotte, chorus members console each other

Early on in David Charles Rodrigues’ exquisite Gay Chorus Deep South, San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus artistic director Dr. Tim Seelig is working in his office. He explains that he keeps himself surrounded by “queens,” Queen Elizabeth and San Francisco legend—and gay hero—Harvey Milk among them.  So it’s fitting that the Chorus takes inspiration from Milk, who famously used a lavender pen to sign groundbreaking gay rights legislation into law, in naming their post Trump Lavender Pen Tour.  The men travel from Tennessee to Alabama to the Carolinas, looking to spread hope and ignite dialogue.  Interestingly enough, assumptions are challenged on both sides.  A queer historian complains that the concept reeks of condescension.  A Southern Baptist church, meanwhile, welcomes the group with open arms. 

Ashlé, the first trans individual accepted into a Gay Men’s Chorus, stands their ground in America’s most discriminatory states

Rodrigues shoots the film beautifully, with sweeping overhead shots, intimate access to the performances, and skillful editing.  The music is beautiful and accomplished, naturally, and it weaves in and out of sequences seamlessly.  A sequence in Selma, where the men hold a triumphant concert and walk across the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, is particularly striking.  We get to know a few of the men particularly well.  Seelig reveals his painful history with the Southern Baptist Church and the havoc wreaked on his family when he came out.  Jimmy White is fighting cancer and hoping for reconciliation with his staunchly conservative father.  Perhaps most compelling is
Ashlé , who struggles to come to terms with their gender identity and finds unwavering acceptance in the men of the Chorus.  Thus this film is one of several notable examples of trans stories being told at Tribeca this year; Jeanie Finlay’s beautiful Seahorse and Changing the Game being two others.


Gay Chorus Deep South takes a story that is compelling and of the moment and delivers it with precision and heart.


Gay Chorus Deep South screens this week as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. Visit tribecafilm.com for more.

TFF 2019 Review: Bliss

Dora Madison as Dezzy

I always consider it a point of pride when I see a film people walk out of.  At House of 1000 Corpses, a couple walked out as the woman loudly declared “let’s get the FUCK out of here!”; another pair fled Suspiria (2018) after a nasty bit of body contortion.  So it pleased me that a few folks just couldn’t sit through Bliss, writer/director Joe Begos’ hallucinogenic vampire flick playing the Midnight category at the Tribeca Film Festival.  Interestingly, they all left before any of the bloody mayhem even got started; the visceral intensity of the filmmaking seems to be what they couldn’t handle.


Bliss opens with a warning about strobe effects, which seems as much part of the exploitation tradition as a legitimate caveat.  After a day glo, rock and roll opening title sequence, we meet Dezzy (Dora Madison), a starving artist struggling to pay the bills while battling a pretty heavy drug problem.  She’s got a deadline looming for her latest piece, an appropriately eerie painting of souls writhing in fire, but she can’t seem to find the inspiration to finish it, despite the help of a well-meaning boyfriend Clive (Jeremy Gardner).  Maybe that’s because she’s too busy scoring drugs from her pal Hadrian (Graham Skipper) and partying with her girlfriend and sometime lover Courtney (Tru Collins, giving off trashy Lady Gaga vibes) and Courtney’s boyfriend Ronnie (Rhys Wakefield).  When Hadrian slips her a coke variant called Bliss, Dezzy’s instantly hooked, but the bad trip it sends her on is compounded by a simultaneous thirst for blood.  Dezzy’s life quickly spins out of control—to put it mildly.

Jeremy Gardner as Clive, Tru Collins as Courtney,and Rhys Wakefield as Ronnie

Bliss is an impressively crafted movie, with stunning cinematography and lighting and a hard driving metal soundtrack.  Madison is remarkable as Dezzy, a character that could easily come off as selfish and obnoxious, but who is vividly real and funny in the actress’ capable hands.  The screenplay is smart and pretty damn funny, and the intensity of the filmmaking makes Bliss a movie you experience more than watch.  There’s also outstanding use of locations—the various bars, Dezzy’s apartment, and Hadrian’s house are all vividly real places.  Where Bliss might be polarizing is with regards to the copious drug use and the extremely intense, bloody violence (thought to be fair, isn’t that exactly what a vampire movie should have in spades?).  The finale is so gruesomely over the top that I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it.  But this movie really goes for it, and Begos and his crew are undeniably talented.  However you feel about Bliss, you won’t soon forget it.


Bliss screens Wednesday at 9:45 as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.  Visit tribecafilm.com for more info.

TFF 2019 Review: You Don’t Nomi

Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi in Showgirls

For camp movie fans, the existence of a documentary about the Showgirls cult is both remarkable and unsurprising.  It’s unlikely subject matter in some ways, but if you saw Paul Verhoeven’s notorious 1995 flop for the first time with a date who did all the dance moves while watching—and then, later, with an adoring crowd led by the inimitable Hedda Lettuce—it’s no wonder someone got a whole ninety minutes out of this.  It’s a testament to writer/director Jeffrey McHale and his exceedingly witty, literate commentators that You Don’t Nomi exceeds expectations—it’s not just diverting but intensely imaginative and thoughtful, and it becomes a film not just about Showgirls but about movies and our love for them, too.

Gina Gershon (Cristal) and Berkley compare nails

Showgirls arrived twenty four years ago amidst a swirl of controversy: it was the first ever mainstream NC-17 movie, and it starred Saved by the Bell good girl Elizabeth Berkley in a potentially star making role as stripper Nomi Malone.  Nomi is running from a mysterious past—when friend Molly asks her where she’s from, she memorably blurts “DIFFERENT PLACES!!!!”—and is seeking stardom in the tawdry world of Las Vegas.  Her big break comes via Cristal Connors (a delightful, scenery chewing Gina Gershon), the star of the revue Goddess, and her entertainment director boyfriend Zack (heartthrob Kyle MacLachlan), who’s willing to help Nomi replace Cristal in the lead in exchange for some spastic swimming pool action.  Before you can say All About Eve, Nomi’s headlining at the Stardust, but at what price?


McHale forgoes “talking head” interviews in favor of a continuous montage approach. He deftly weaves together footage from Showgirls as well as Verhoeven’s other films, like Robocop and Basic Instinct, and other notable film favorites like Mommie Dearest.  All the while, we hear ruminations from an engaging cast of characters: Adam Nayman, film writer and author of It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls; April Kidwell, a theater performer who played Nomi in the Off-Broadway Showgirls musical (pictured above) and who’s touring this summer with a new prequel show, I, Nomi; and Jeffery Conway, a poet who wrote a book of sestinas (!) based on the film.  They and others offer their perspectives on Showgirls: for some, it’s an endlessly watchable piece of trash; for others, it’s a surprisingly underrated satire that brilliantly skewers cultural attitudes towards sex, entertainment, and other issues.  Kidwell used her roles as Berkley’s caffeine pill addicted Jessie Spano (in Saved by the Bell: The Musical) and Nomi to overcome her PTSD following a rape; while some deride the scene in which Nomi avenges Molly’s rape, for Kidwell, it was an especially empowering and resonant moment.  Another commentator points out that Nomi, in seeking success in the big city, freely using her sexuality, and building her own chosen family, is reflective of many queer people’s experience (to say nothing of the unsubtle lesbian “subtext” that pervades her interplay with Cristal). 

Star Berkley and director Paul Verhoeven

The movie also examines why Berkeley became the scapegoat, in many ways, for the movie’s box office and critical failure.  While You Don’t Nomi’s participants revel in her outlandish performance, they also take pains to demonstrate that Verhoeven directed her specifically to behave in an outsize way.  They also hint at the sexism that played a part in her torpedoed career: a clip shows Gene Siskel bluntly criticizing her appearance, and Verhoeven’s misogyny is detailed at length.  When Berkley is shown introducing a packed Hollywood screening of the movie in 2015—and receiving a standing ovation—her emotion is palpable.


You Don’t Nomi is a must see for fans of Showgirls, but more broadly, this is a movie about the profound ways film can impact and inspire the lives of audiences, particularly queer moviegoers. 


You Don’t Nomi screens Tuesday at 8:30 as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.  Visit tribecafilm.com for more.

Tribeca Film Festival Preview

The Tribeca Film Festival returns this week for its eighteenth edition.  Always inclusive, this year’s fest (running now through May 5) boasts films largely directed by women (40%), people of color (29%), and/or LGBTQIA folks (13%).  Here are some titles to look out for.

LGBT

Nick Borenstein in “Sweater”

            Queer-themed works this year include the documentary Seahorse, about a trans man who carries a baby to term; Gay Chorus Deep South, recounting the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’ post-Trump tour; N.O.W. Digital Showcase, featuring the hilarious quasi-musical “Sweater,” by local filmmaker Nick Borenstein, and the intriguing sexual awakening tale Kiss of the Rabbit God; and the first Tribeca Pride Day (May 4), boasting talks with legendary ACT UP founder and playwright Larry Kramer, Neil Patrick Harris, trailblazing non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon (Billions, John Wick 3: Parabellum), Pose creator Steve Canals and costar Angelica Ross, and the premiere of the Wigstock documentary Wig.

MIDNIGHT & MORE

            The always reliable Midnights category includes Come to Daddy, a twisted family horror show starring Elijah Wood; the buzzy, balls-to-the-wall vampire flick Bliss; and You Don’t Nomi, a documentary about the phenomenon that is ShowgirlsCharlie Says reunites American Psycho writer Guinevere Turner (Go Fish) and director Mary Harron in a look at the troubled disciples of Charles Manson (Matt Smith).  There will also be a free, family friendly Star Wars: A New Hope screening on the morning of May the Fourth.

You Don’t Nomi

TELEVISION

            Oscar winner Rami Malek and Christian Slater appear live to give a Farewell to Mr. Robot; Pilot Season includes Lady Liberty, starring Shea Miller as a young queer comedian; Seth Rogen premieres his new comics adaptation The Boys; and Yeardley “Lisa” Smith leads a Simpsons thirtieth anniversary panel with Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, Harry Shearer, and more. 

            TALKS

            Geeks OUT readers will be interested in a number of the Talks during Tribeca: Queen Latifah and director Dee Rees will discuss “gender and racial equality behind the camera”; Guillermo del Toro appears in conversation with Alec Baldwin; Questlove and filmmaker Boots Riley compare notes; and Michael J. Fox chats with pal Denis Leary.

            To learn more about Tribeca Film Festival, visit tribecafilm.com.  Watch this space for more coverage.

Review: Pet Sematary

Church the cat

Pet Sematary is probably Stephen King’s most notorious novel, famed for its dark and disturbing subject matter—especially child death— and its power to scare.  The 1989 film, scripted by King and directed by Mary Lambert, was fairly trashy but undeniably effective.  Do we need another one?

Jete Laurence is electrifying

            Probably not, although King’s renewed popularity explains why a studio would go ahead with one.  The new version, directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (who made the unnerving, pitch black Hollywood satire Starry Eyes), is intriguing both for that duo and for the intriguing choice to make 10 year old Ellie (an impressive Jete Laurence) the kid who dies rather than toddler Gage.  The setup is the same: the Creed family moves from Boston to rural Maine, with a busy highway looming just off their property.  Kindly old neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) befriends the clan, and when Ellie’s beloved cat gets run over, he shows dad Louis (Jason Clarke) a secret burial ground with the power to bring it back to life.  “Church” (played by five different cats) comes back wrong, and yet that isn’t enough to stop Louis from bringing Ellie there when tragedy strikes.  Meanwhile, mom Rachel (Amy Seimetz) is haunted by the memories of her dreaded, bedridden sister—a trauma soon weaponized against her.

Jason Clarke digs deep

            Pet Sematary has a solid cast.  Clarke is dependable as always, and acts rings around the original’s hunky but dull Dale Midkiff.  Seimetz is equally strong as Rachel, but the movie belongs to Laurence.  The preternaturally talented actress is equally vivid as the sweet, precocious “good” daughter and the sinister abomination she comes back as (the effect is aided by some outstanding makeup and a perfectly twisted use of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies”).  The biggest disappointment here, oddly, is Lithgow.  He’s solid, but his Jud just can’t hold a candle to the lovable, folksy, and compellingly haunted man Fred Gwynne played in the 1989 movie. 

            The script may be partially to blame.  Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler make plenty of good contributions—the masked funeral procession that opens the picture, a twisted set piece involving a dumb waiter, and the switch to Ellie among them.  But they skimp on characterization.  In the novel, Louis remarks that Jud should have been his father, but that bond doesn’t quite come off here.  The family shares some thoughtful scenes, like their debate over how to explain death to their daughter; but the aftermath of Ellie’s death is glossed over far too quickly.  We know that a resurrection is coming, of course—even those unfamiliar with the source material will be able to see the writing on the wall when Church transforms from cuddly to malevolent.  But the overwhelming experience of grief is what fuels that development, and that needs to be conveyed in more detail.  The other sticking point for me is the ending.  I won’t get into detail for obvious reasons, but I had difficulty reconciling myself with how thoroughly it deviates from the novel.

            Still, Pet Sematary has much to recommend it: vivid visuals (in spite of some dodgy CGI); unforgettable performances from Laurence and the cats (including breakout viral star Tonic as the “good” Church);  an appropriately sweeping score by legendary composer Christopher Young (Hellraiser, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2); and some fun Easter eggs for fans.  But perhaps Pet Sematary should have stayed buried.

Us – Review

Lupita Nyong’o, Evan Alex, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Winston Duke in Us

Us opened last weekend to a mammoth $70.2 million, becoming the highest opening original horror movie and biggest ever opening for a film with a black female lead.  What’s more,  Us, Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his Oscar winning instant classic Get Out, is just plain awesome.  It’s a fun, immersive, thoughtful spectacular that just happens to center on an African American family.  It’s as if Jordan Peele is shrugging, saying, “I make outstanding horror films with black leads, NBD” while his doppelganger is brandishing a pair of golden scissors and shrieking “it’s a very big deal.”


Us opens with a bizarre opening title sequence—Get Out composer Michael Abels provides an even better score here—that won’t make any sense until much later in the narrative.  Then there’s an excellent 1986 set sequence on the Santa Cruz boardwalk, wherein a little girl wanders away from her squabbling parents and encounters her mirror image in a spooky funhouse.   Flash forward to the present: the Wilsons are a middle class family headed to their vacation house.  Gabe (Winston Duke) is an endearingly goofy dad.  Jason (Evan Alex) is an oddball kid with an affinity for Halloween masks and magic tricks.  Sister Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) is a high school running star alternately amused and annoyed by most of her family, aka every teenage girl ever.  Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o, transcendent) is a fiercely protective mother who anchors the clan, but something’s bothering her.  That was her in the funhouse, and she’s intensely triggered by this return.  It doesn’t spoil anything to say that her doppelganger soon arrives with copies of the entire family in tow; mayhem ensues.  Anyone who gives away more than that deserves to dine on raw rabbit.

Nyong’o

The construction of Us is exquisite.  Portents of doom and symbolism abound, from the Biblical quote to the mirror imagery everywhere you look.  The Wilsons’ friends, the Tylers, are a parallel family.  Two parents, two kids: white/black, rich/not so rich, happy/deeply dysfunctional.  (As boozy mom Kitty, Elisabeth Moss gets to show off her acting chops—though no one can hold a candle to Lupita here.)  There are clues and winks saturating the movie, but Peele isn’t showing off.  He’s just inviting you to immerse yourself in his world.  He beckons the audience into his nightmare kingdom as surely as the characters are drawn into that funhouse.  At the risk of belaboring a point, Us truly is a funhouse; while Get Out was deadly serious, this movie is a thrill ride, leavened with humor and as enjoyable as it is creepy.

Alex and Alex

For the past week, I’ve been debating this movie with friends.  Does the mythology make sense?  Are there plot holes?  Is it overrated, poorly written, etc., etc.?  I’ve engaged with the conversations—it’s the kind of movie you should see with friends, and plan to talk about over coffee or cocktails immediately afterward.  But I remain unshaken in my conviction that this is an extremely well made, imaginative, and entertaining film that is destined to become a classic.  Peele displays such complete command of his craft, from script to camera to lighting to the inspired choice of songs: Janelle Monae and N.W.A. are among the standouts.  All of the performers turn in excellent work.  Everything you’ve heard about Nyong’o is true.  She is utterly remarkable as Adelaide and her scissors-loving “Tethered” counterpart, Red.  If there was any justice in the world, she would be nominated for an Oscar for this movie, but the Academy will probably snub her.  No matter.  She makes this movie, aptly supported by the entire cast.  Duke is endearing and truly outstanding in his own right.  He’s also one of the sexiest bears I’ve seen onscreen in a long while.  (Add unconventional body types to the Hollywood standards this movie casually upends.)  He and the kids are adept at vividly portraying their sinister “shadows,” too.


We already knew Jordan Peele was one to watch.  This terrific movie only serves to confirm it, and as a horror fan, I’m thrilled to have a new master to follow—especially one slicing through barriers.