PFF: And Breathe Normally, Butterflies, and Little Woods
And Breathe Normally (dir. Isold Uggadottir)
The first feature from Uggadottir is the kind of well-meaning indie often seen in the United States, bringing social problems into a fixed point of a character or two, and exploring those issues using the characters as proxies (this is also true of Little Woods below). For this film, we have Lára (Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir), a mom struggling with poverty in the windy shadow of Keflavík International Airport (which functions as Reykjavik's airport). Lára is in recovery, and she is in training to be a border control agent at the airport in hopes that she will be able to keep her and her son housed and fed. Uggadottir, who also wrote the film, does a great job of bringing real emotion to situations dramatized many times before, especially seeing Lára “pass” for middle class. The little details like that really stand out, and along with Haraldsdóttir’s performance, give the film a lot of weight.
The other side of this film is the story of Adja (Babetida Sadjo) whose passport is denied at the border (thanks to Lára). Adja is only stopping over in Iceland on her way to declare asylum in Canada, but is now stuck. The two women eventually form a bond. It is touching, but Adja’s side of the film feels underdeveloped in comparison to Lára’s, and there’s no moment where the Adja’s situation (including separation from her daughter) is addressed between the characters. That may be a cultural Icelandic thing, the implicit forgiveness, but it doesn’t feel earned in this film. Beyond that one misstep, And Breathe Normally is an engaging and empathetic film with very good performances.
The other aspect of the film that needs mention is the cat adopted by Lára and her son. Músi is portrayed by a very fine feline actor (or actors), and the films’ treatment of rescue animals and how important pets are to a family is very heartfelt.
Butterflies (dir. Tolga Karaçelik)
This is a tough one to evaluate. Butterflies is equal parts absurd, witty comedy, and heartfelt reckoning with one’s family. Three siblings, brothers Cemal (Tolga Tekin) and Kanen (Bartu Küçükçaglayan), and their sister Suzi (Tugce Altug) return to their home village in Turkey at the behest of their father after 30 years of separation. Describing this as “Turkish Darjeeling Limited” wouldn’t be an unfair description, though Anderson manages to tackle both disparate aspects with the same tone. I often felt whiplash while watching Butterflies, unable to discern which particular path the scene was going to take. So while there are plenty of funny and emotional bits that work well overall, the experience watching it was very disjointed.
The cast is wonderful, with Tugce Altug as a standout especially. The character has a wonderful emotional arc over the course of the film, and Altug handles every shade of those emotions, from quiet sadness to explosive anger with a reality that is palpable. One of my favorite performances from the festival so far.
Little Woods (dir. Nia DaCosta)
A modern Western set in North Dakota, Little Woods is a different kind of story set on the US border. In this film, we are the illegals crossing the border for a chance at a better life (or just healthcare). One such crosser is Ollie (Tessa Thompson), only a few days away from parole, trying to keep her mother’s house and get her and her sister (Lily James) out of dire straits. Feeling like a mix of Certain Women and Hell or High Water, DaCosta brings a good balance of grounded characters and cinematic feel, keeping things engaging despite how much we can feel things stacked against this family.
Thompson and James both give great performances, and they have excellent chemistry as siblings clinging to each other out of a mix of affection, guilt, and the lack of any other stability in their lives. As neo-Westerns become ‘red state’ indies about the powerlessness of marginalized people, it is smart of DaCosta to keep the intentions good even when the road is not the lawful kind. While male criminals tend to get a pass on screen for doing what is needed, it’s about time women got the same lease to break bad.