Film Fest 919 Day 4: Jonas Carpignano's 'A Chiara' and Sean Baker's 'Red Rocket'

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A Chiara, directed by Jonas Carpignano (Lucky Red)

Swamy Rotolo as CHIARA in A CHIARA

The Italian language family drama, A Chiara, takes its time telling a story of a girl's growing awareness that her family is less average than she believes. The first segment of the movie presents itself as a domestic portrait of a large and loving family. Our lead, Chiara (Swamy Rotolo) is surrounded by a strong and stable network of warmth and stability. Her view of life alters significantly, however, when a bomb explodes outside her house and her father disappears from their home in Calabria. Chiara wants answers that no one wants to give. Her stubborn nature refuses to give up until she knows everything. The story's sudden shift from slice-of-life to a dive into the mafia underworld disorients the audience and puts us in Chiara's shoes.

The movie takes a tip from other gritty and disturbing movies like The Godfather and The Deer Hunter and spends an extended amount of time at a joyous celebration. In this case, the celebration is the 15th birthday party of Chiara's sister, Giulia (Gracia Rotolo). The family dines, drinks, gives toasts, cries, and gives us a sense of community and comfort. The bomb exploding outside the street disrupts that feeling and throw us into the nightmare along with Chiara. Supplemented by a stunning sound design and touches of surrealism, Chiara begins to view the world differently, and the camera captures her sense that she is in a waking hallucination. Can she trust anyone or anything going forward? Her family members now look like enemies and barriers to getting the clarity she wants.  Mother, sister, and uncle try to slap her – sometimes literally – into submission.

As the story progresses, you, along with Chiara begin to question what you saw in the beginning. In one disturbing scene, Chiara and her friends gather at the beach to smoke and gossip. They see a blonde girl, and the group bullies her and tells her she needs to leave because it's their spot. Even if the girls didn't know their family's ties to illegal activity, this display of power and territory shows that they have absorbed their family's toxic attributes subconsciously.

A Chiara takes a bit to get the story going, but once viewers get a peek behind the curtain, the story engrosses the viewer into Chiara's search for answers. Also, the fact that many of the actors are related lends an extra air of authenticity.

Final score: 3.5 out of 5

Red Rocket, directed by Sean Baker (A24)

Simon Rex as MIKEY in RED ROCKET

Sean Baker, along with screenwriter Chris Bergoch, stole my heart with their 2017 picture The Florida Project, about a precocious little girl named Moonee holed up in a budget motel near Walt Disney World with her mother, Halley. Baker and Bergoch have a knack for writing stories about people in the margins and exposing them to light. This formula rings particularly true for Red Rocket, starring a washed-out adult film actor, biding his time in the gulf coast region of Texas and looking for his next lucky break.

Mikey (Simon Rex) shows up at his estranged wife's house with his tale between his legs, promising he'll only stay a few days. He's broke and needs a hand up. Lexi (Bree Elrod) is holding a grudge towards Mikey, but somehow, he worms his way into the house with promises of helping out and paying rent. Mikey embodies the perfect portrait of a narcissist, full of charm and promises that never come to fruition. In what most be counted as one of the most unlikable characters ever brought to the big screen, Mikey's opportunism knows no bounds. He can suck any person dry, and once there is nothing left, he's ready to find his next target. He finds his next ticket to ride in Strawberry (an adorable and kittenish Suzanna Son), a red headed girl who works at the local donut shop. Mikey plies her with compliments, drugs, and sexual attention, making her the object of the moment. But getting out of Dodge may not be as easy as he plans. The wheels of justice sometimes move slow but eventually they do turn, and people like Mikey are never prepared.

Full disclosure: Red Rocket is one of the most uncomfortable movies I've ever seen. Although Suzanna Son is of age, she plays a 17-year old whom the 47-year-old Mikey grooms to be a porno actress. The whole thing is quite icky. And yet, it's memorable. You can't deny the story writing, strong sense of place, and the intriguing characters. Baker and Bergoch nail the local color. And despite my discomfort, the next morning, I found myself laughing at the memory of Mikey riding his bike down the street on cloud nine because he escaped from a sticky situation unscathed.

But at the end of the day, there were no characters I could root for – my personal must-have. The only person that earned my sympathy was Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), the type of loyal friend that narcissists target as easy pickings. Lonnie becomes the victim of a Mikey like no one else in the film, and I wanted to treat him to a donut by the end of it all.

While I didn't enjoy Red Rocket and would have a hard time knowing who to recommend it to, Baker and Bergoch hold a special place in my heart and their unique vision as filmmakers is a gift to American filmmaking.   

Final score: 2.5 out of 5