DECLARATION OF WAR
The warm, engaging sick-kid film "Declaration of War" plays like a lost gem from the French New Wave. It's a well written, sensitively acted and surprisingly pleasurable look at the experiences of a young couple who learn that their young son is gravely ill.
The gifted and lovely Valerie Donzelli, who wrote, directed and stars, based the story on her own experience. She plays Juliette; her real-life parenting partner, Jeremie Elkaim, plays Romeo, and they re-create their life rearing a toddler with a brain tumor in vivid detail. The strain on these attractive, sympathetic lovers is the subplot of the disease drama. They grapple with good news/bad news diagnoses and struggle to manage the expectations of their sprawling extended family (this is one of those character-rich films where every walk-on player feels as if they have a life story all their own).
The subject matter is as serious as can be, yet the style is vibrant, energetic and engaging -- often tense, but without a trace of woe-is-me. Even when the parents are fretting in a hospital waiting room, you feel happy to share their company. When they break into nervous laughter, the power of their performances is such that you laugh along without feeling guilty. The juxtaposition of laughter and sadness makes the important dramatic point that life is not predictable, fair or easily categorized. Donzelli recognizes that even when there's a happy ending, survivors of a battle campaign like this carry emotional scars.
The film was a huge hit in its home country and France's official 2012 Oscars submission. Puzzlingly, it did not make the shortlist. It belongs on yours.
"Margaret," starring Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno and Olivia Thirlby, was the second outing as writer/director for acclaimed screenwriter and playwright Kenneth Lonergan. It wrapped filming in 2005, but Lonergan was unable to shape his sprawling footage into a film acceptable to his producers (including the late, legendary Sydney Pollack), triggering years of lawsuits.
The version now available (reportedly re-edited by Martin Scorsese) is a mess. But it's a passionate, fascinating mess, like its abrasive main character.
Paquin plays Lisa, a spoiled, self-dramatizing Manhattan high-schooler who is consumed with guilt yet unable to acknowledge her role in causing a bus accident that kills a pedestrian. There is a subtext of 9/11 survivor's guilt underpinning Lisa's campaign to assign all the blame to the driver (Ruffalo) she thoughtlessly distracted. Lonergan and his wife, J. Smith-Cameron, play the girl's self-involved parents, with Damon and Broderick as ineffectual schoolteachers.
The dialogue is all miscommunication delivered mostly as fever-pitch shouting matches, a reflection of Lonergan's vision of the mutual misunderstanding between the United States and the rest of the world. Lisa's goal shifts from the pursuit of justice to outright persecution as her ownership of the tragedy is diluted by cops, lawyers and the victim's friends and distant relations. She thinks she's being morally uncompromising when all she's doing is driving everyone around her mental. Spending 2 1/2 hours with these quarrelsome characters is a bruising ordeal. Lonergan writes lines that crack like lightning. Who hasn't wanted to tell an ego-drunk teen "we are not all supporting characters to the drama of your amazing life!" and who has been able to put it so well? If the story doesn't cohere in a satisfying shape, well, you can't have everything. "Margaret" is far from a pleasant experience, but it is an unforgettably pungent one.