A Place For Me & Broken

May 18, 2013
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Earlier this year I watched an old Hammer Horror called The Plague of the Zombies. As an alternative title for Josh Boone’s debut feature, A Place for Me, I’d respectfully suggest: The Plague of the Writers. It is a scenario worthy of any horror flick to find a family in which everyone – and their friends! – seems to be a writer.

There are already far too many writers in the world and this movie suggests they are breeding rapidly in middle-class America, partly because of the proliferation of creative writing courses.

A Place for Me conjures up novelist, Milan Kundera’s discussion of ‘graphomania’, which he defines as “a desire to write books (to have a public of unknown readers).” Kundera says that graphomania takes on the proportions of a mass epidemic when a society develops “a high enough degree of general well-being to enable people to devote their energies to useless activities.”

This movie provides a textbook case-study of such a condition. Bill Borgens (Greg Kinnear) is a celebrated novelist who claims not to have written a word since his wife, Erica (Jennifer Connelly) left him for another man. Bill sticks to his story even though his wife notes he has published two books since they split. He says he was only “finishing” them, which apparently doesn’t count as real writing.

Bill is still devoted to Erica, and sets a place for her at table over Thanksgiving. However, this doesn’t stop him having regular quickies with their sporty neighbour, Tricia (Kristen Bell). Presumably this doesn’t count as real sex.

Not content with his own graphomania, Bill is grooming both his teenage daughter, Samantha (Lilly Collins), and her younger brother, Rusty (Nat Wolff) to become writers. It should be noted that a “writer” in this context always means a novelist, as if only fiction can provide the depths of honesty, feeling and profundity that ‘writers’ must explore. Since every member of the family seems to own a car, and to spend their lives at parties and literary functions, they ably meet Kundera’s criteria for “a high enough level of general well-being.”

The story begins with Sam announcing that, even though she is still a student in a creative writing class, she has just had a first novel accepted by Scribner’s, no less. It’s not the novel her father helped revise, it’s an entirely new one knocked off over the summer holidays and submitted to the publisher under an assumed name. Dad is proud but a little hurt. Rusty is envious, as he is yet to publish any of his own Stephen King-inspired fantasy stories.

At this point the movie segues into a coming-of-age tale, as Rusty has his first serious love affair with the cute but deeply disturbed Kate (Liana Liberato), while Sam is forced to abandon her cynical policy of fast, loveless sexual encounters, after meeting Lou (Logan Lerman), a would-be writer of detective fiction. We last saw Logan Lerman in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), which was a far superior film, but he is still playing the role of the ingenuous nice guy.

For Bill, being a writer means opening oneself up to life’s experiences. This means he’s sanguine about Sam’s promiscuity, and actively encourages Rusty to get laid. It’s all good subject matter.

At the tender age of 34, Josh Boone has made a very slick film that is not quite ruined by virtue of being predictable and sentimental. The best part of the movie is the casting, which has Lily Collins playing Jennifer Connelly’s daughter because they share the same trademark eyebrows. The biggest problem, ironically, lies in the quality of the writing. When Sam wants to give Rusty some advice on his love life, she tells him that people divide into two categories: realists and hopeless romantics. Yes, it’s as dumb as that.

In a film full of writers nobody manages to say anything that transcends banality. The working title for this film was Writers ( duh..), while it is being released in the United States as Stuck in Love – both deeply expressive of a fundamental lack of inspiration.

All the characters seem to suffer from a persistent adolescent fixation with naming their favourite book, favourite story, favourite author, favourite song, and so on. When Bill recites a long quotation from his “favourite author”, Raymond Carver, we are more likely to cringe than to be moved. Through no fault of their own, writers such as Raymond Carver, James Salter, and dozens of their peers, have caused so many talentless narcissists to embrace the writer’s vocation their books should be issued with a warning sticker on the cover: “Caution. Some readers may be infected with the dangerous desire to become an author, even though they have nothing to say.”

To follow A Place for Me with a film such as Broken is to become aware of how shallow and uninvolving the former is, in comparison to Rufus Norris’s tale of life in a dysfunctional cul-de-sac in the London suburbs.

Broken is not simply engaging, it is immersive. The camera seems to float around, creeping up on the characters from behind or the side. We’re right in someone’s face or watching them from a doorway. We see the consequences of some violent action before we see the event itself, which happens in a kind of time delay.

This is another debut feature, but Norris comes to the movies with a high reputation as a theatre director. He shows his skill in getting excellent performances from a cast that includes Tim Roth, as a doting dad, instead of his usual small-time hood. Cillian Murphy, whom most viewers will remember as the Scarecrow in the Batman films, gets to play an idealistic school teacher.

The lead character is a 12 year-old girl called Skunk, an exceptional performance from first-timer, Eloise Laurence. Skunk and her older brother, Jed (Bill Milner), live with their father, Archie (Roth), and an au pair called Kasia (Zana Marjanovic). Their mother ran off a long time ago and hasn’t been sighted in years.

Across the road are the Buckleys, an elderly couple with a fully-grown, retarded son, Rick (Robert Emms). In between are Bob Oswald (Rory Kinnear) and his three teenage daughters. Since Mrs Oswald’s death, Bob has struggled to bring up his spoilt kids, who have become skilled in every form of petty vice and nastiness.

When one of the dreadful daughters falsely accuses Rick of molesting her, Bob goes beserk. He launches a violent assault on the boy, which Skunk watches with shocked incomprehension. This incident initiates a train of events that sets the story on its tragic course.

Broken paints a bleak portrait of lower-middle class life in Britain. Each of the film’s dysfunctional families carries a fearful burden of guilt, anger and anxiety. For the most part they are broken beyond all hope of repair. The list of casualties also includes Kasia’s relationship with the schoolteacher, Mike (Cillian Murphy), and Skunk’s own pubescent romance with a self-confident little brat named Dillon.

This may sound discouraging, but despite all the violence and pain, the story never laspes into bathos. On the contrary, there is a remarkable amount of humour and an infectious warmth between characters. This ability to tell a tragic story with a light touch is the trademark of a talented director. It shows that a film can be dark without being depressing.

Broken has many echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was the inspiration for Daniel Clay’s novel. Yet the characters are so strong and distinctive the reference never becomes intrusive. It simply reinforces the idea that a good story can always bear retelling, albeit in a different time and place.

One presumes that the families in Broken are meant to be seen as a microcosm of the broader dysfunctionality of British society at a time of recession and growing inequality. One thinks of the late Margaret Thatcher’s notorious line: “And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” What we see in Broken are the consequences of this every-man-for-himself attitude. The family home becomes a stronghold against the world with neighbours treated as threats or objects of contempt.

Bob Oswald is ready to bash anyone rather than face up to the fact that his daughters have gone completely off the rails. Mike can’t commit to Kasia until it’s too late. The Butlers don’t know whether to treat their son as an adult or a child. There is fear and paranoia on all sides as soon as one leaves the house.

The saving grace is Skunk, who is bewildered by the violence she witnesses, and finds it hard to accept that people can be bad. This story is about her own loss of innocence, but at the same time she manages to exert a powerful influence on the way characters relate to each other. Unlike the pampered kids in A Place for Me, her coming-of-age story will not turn Skunk into a writer. In this neighbourhood mere survival is sufficient.

 

A Place for Me, USA, rated MA, 15+, 93 mins

Broken, UK, rated MA 15+, 90 mins

 

Published by the Australian Financial Review, May 18, 2013