We Are Family: A Review Of "Roma" And "Ben Is Back"
Two films that deal with family from very different perspectives can now be viewed. So if you’re not in the mood for superheroes, or formulaic Christmas releases, seek them out, and reap the rewards. One streams on Netflix, the critically-acclaimed Roma from Alfonso Cuaron—tipped to sweep Best Foreign Film nods in all forthcoming awards shows. And the other one, now showing at the cinemas, is Ben Is Back—which stars Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges.
Yalitza Aparicio is Cleo, and this is her very first film appearance. She plays the indigenous all-around maid and nanny of an upper class Mexican family living in the gentrified district of Roma. In the course of the film, we get to know her life—her daily routine as a domestic, what she resorts to on her days off, an unwanted pregnancy followed by miscarriage and depression, the role she plays within the family dynamic as the father deserts his wife and four children, and the kind of bond she feels for the family, and the reciprocity given, if any.
“She was so intuitive. She quickly got who this character was. Without Yalitza, this film would fall apart.” - @AlfonsoCuaron on Yalitza Aparicio Fue tan intuitiva. Captó rápido la esencia del personaje. Sin Yalitza, la película se caería a pedazos”. - Alfonso Cuarón sobre Yalitza Aparicio
This is Cuaron’s very personal and intimate tribute to the woman who practically raised him; and I would think the critical appeal of the film stems from the gorgeous B&W cinematography, as well as the fact that this kind of service and devotion from the help is unique from an American and European viewpoint. In England it would be more the butler or valet as depicted in The Remains of the Day, and the romanticized or played for comedy nanny/governess of Mary Poppins or Nanny McPhee. Like here in the Philippines, Mexico has that all-around domestic who will stay with the family for decades, and its to honor this kind of person and service that Cuaron created Roma. As to whether that is compelling for you becomes the reason for finding this film enthralling or humdrum.
There’s wonderful ironic humor in how Cuaron portrays the Latin macho, as exemplified by the man who impregnates Cleo, and literally disappears from the movie theatre when she merely mentions she’s missed her period. Or how when she tracks him down later, this martial arts-loving para-military grunt reacts in a typical boorish manner. But above all, it’s how she ‘manages’ the children & household that becomes the object of Cuaron’s homage.
Ben Is Back
From a family perspective, Ben Is Back takes on the opioid epidemic that is still sweeping the United States. And the prism through which this is refracted is the nuclear family of Molly (Julia Roberts), who lives with her husband (Courtney Vance), daughter (Kathryn Newton), and two adopted kids. On the morning of Christmas Eve, she drives home from choir practice with the children and finds her drug addicted eldest son, Ben (Lucas Hedges), in the driveway. They were supposed to visit him at the rehab center the next day, but he’s arrived on his own, claiming it’s with his sponsor’s okay.
The movie then takes us on the harrowing journey of the next 24 hours. The first half of the film is a riveting study of inter-family relationships—the mother who still wants to see good in her addict son, the stepfather and sister who love Ben but have a more sober and realistic assessment of what his arrival means and portends, and of course, the swirling emotions inside Ben himself. Molly welcomes Ben back, gushing over how well he looks and must be doing, but immediately hides the prescribed drugs and cash lying around the house.
It’s when the second half attempts to paint a bigger picture, and turn crime thriller drama that the film falters in my opinion, biting off more than it can chew. You want to scream at Molly to call the cops at several points of this second half, and she becomes less credible or sympathetic. Peter Hedges, directing his son Lucas, also takes potshots at the doctors who prescribe, and the pharmaceuticals who produce, these drugs through Molly’s character; but this is done in a rather less than satisfying way—she makes pointed comments at a senile doctor, and a dispensing pharmacist. There’s much to like here, but it is uneven in its execution.
While Julia Roberts is always interesting to watch as her ‘holes get better with age’—referring to the NY publication typo error; it’s Roma that you should seek out, if only to make your own opinion about this film being hailed as one of the best in recent history, and Cuaron’s crowning film achievement. With certainty, it will figure prominently in the various film awards-giving shows of early 2019.
Lead images from @benisbackmovie and @romacuaron