Film Fest 919: Devotion, The Quiet Girl, and Women Talking

[L-R] Jonathan Majors as JESSE BROWN, Glen Powell as TOM HUDNER in DEVOTION

Devotion, directed by JD Dillard

The 2022 Film Fest 919 kicked off the week with a screening of Devotion, directed by J.D. Dillard and starring Jonathan Majors, Glen Powell, and Daisy Brown. Based on a best-selling book with the same title by Adam Makos, with screenplay by Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart, Devotion is the true story of Jesse Brown (Majors), the first Black aviator, and his relationship with his wingman, Tom Hudner (Powell).

While it would be an understandable mistake to assume Devotion is just latching onto the tailwinds of this year's box office smash, Top Gun: Maverick, the two movies have a totally different feel and DNA.  Let's remember that Devotion is the true story of a war hero who experienced subtle and overt forms of racism, while the Top Gun franchise celebrates the "need for speed" and competitive bromanship. But because the trailers and marketing trailers include the terms wingman, plane, and mission, the film is bound to interest fans of that movie. And that's not a bad thing. What could've been a feel-good, high five military hero story spins a more nuanced and thoughtful picture under the direction of Dillard, himself the son of the 2nd Black aviator to fly as a Blue Angel. The true story of Ensign Jesse Brown and his wingman, Tom Hurd, will draw in viewers who enjoyed Top Gun: Maverick and want another "dad movie," but they will also discover surprising meatiness without being treated to a heavy-handed didactic lesson. This movie speaks to our times and the current level of conversation about race now while still functioning as a period piece and war drama. 

Devotion was the perfect crowd-pleasing film to kick off the festival. Audiences are always drawn to war stories and military heroes. Yes, we've got aerial footage, action scenes, military bros on day leave, and romantic subplots, but Devotion offers a more nuanced portrait of systemic racism that would normally be portrayed in a blockbuster film. Brown endures different forms of bigotry and injustice while in the forces, and even when his white brothers-in-arms try, they lean towards white savior behavior. Hudner and Brown's interactions depict how allyship doesn't always form smoothly. Devotion is a period peace that speaks to issues in these times, without beating viewers over the head. At one point Brown says, "Forget about the life preserver and get in the water. Please, Tom." Viewers will have to wrestle with what that means for them.

But Dillard's true goal in making Devotion is honoring the legacy of Brown -- amplified by Dillard's own personal connection to the Blue Angels -- and his friendship with Hudner. Dillard hopes to pay tribute both to Brown and his father, who was the 2nd Blue Angel, according to a Vanity Fair article: "It’s rare when the thing that you’re working on so deeply reaches into your own life, your own history, your own family."

Set during the Korean War, a war not often depicted on screen, Devotion shows a story of humility and service and demonstrates the kind of grit it takes to be the first of your people to do anything. Hudner and Majors project serious chemistry, and the mirror scene in the middle of the film makes Majors a definite contender for a best actor award this year. Film Fest 919 awarded Dillard the Horizon Award, a movie given to a director with a breakthrough achievement. My short interview with JD Dillard
Final score: 3.5 out of 5

[L-R] Catherine Clinch as CAIT, Carrie Crowley as EIBHLIN in THE QUIET GIRL

The Quiet Girl [An Cailín Ciúin], directed by Colm Bairéad

Ireland's official entry for this year's Academy Awards, The Quiet Girl sneaks up on you with its emotional resonance. Adapted from the story "Foster," written by Claire Keegan, Colm Bairéad directs his first cinematic feature film. Gentle and meditative, The Quiet Girl celebrates the power in silence, of wells that run deep, and of words that don't always need to be said.

Young Cáit (Catherine Clinch) is one of many neglected children in a dysfunctional household. She is considered the troublemaker because she likes to wander off in a world of her own and wets the bed sometimes, too. When her mother's cousin offers to take her for the summer, she is treated with a level of tenderness and consideration unimagined by the couple, Eibhlín Cinnsealach (Carrie Crowley), and her husband Seán (Andrew Bennett). Her relationship with Eibhlin forms easily enough from the start; Eibhlín has a caregiver's heart. But it's Cáit's bond with fellow introvert Seán that will break your heart. Underneath Seán's gruff and standoffish manner lies a gentle protector with a complex interior world.

The Quiet Girl takes care with the details, the little things one does to show tenderness and consideration for another human being: the sensory pleasure of having your hair brushed, the kindness of a cookie left as an offering, and the gift of silence and emotional space. Cinematographer Kate McCullough uses the camera to show Cáit's perspective, lingering on the sky as the rides in the car or the covered lane of trees as she runs to the mailbox. And all of this lingering and lyrical imagery is accompanied by the lush score of Stephen Rennicks (Normal People, Room).

There's a long heritage of stories featuring neglected young people who begin to thrive in the healing balm of nature, such as The Secret Garden and Heidi. The Quiet Girl can live in that space, and Heidi even shows up prominently as a book that Cáit and Seán read together. This gentle Irish language film can be enjoyed by almost any age and was one of two film that tied for audience favorite at Film Fest 919, along with The Banshees of Inisherin.

Final score: 5 out of 5

[L-R] Judith Ivey as AGATA, Claire Foy as SALOME in WOMEN TALKING

Women Talking, directed by Sarah Polley, based on a novel by Miriam Toews

Scathing without being scandalous, Women Talking keeps the gaze on the titular women and avoids any attention to the men who have victimized them. The women of a small enclosed religious community are the victims of repeated sexual assaults, while the men who commit these crimes go unpunished. A quorum of said women come together to decide if they will do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. There's much at stake -- to do nothing seems no longer bearable, to stay and fight means risking God's vengeance for not turning the other cheek, and to leave means separation from the people and parts of life they love. 

It's a taut 24 hour story that mostly takes place in one hayloft. In a place where women have no voice, this group finds strength in communion with one another. They don't always agree on the right thing to do, but they are fiercely devoted to one another and to their God. Intermittent montage scenes break up the dialogue and offer glimpses into the idyllic and pastoral life this commune offers. These scenes function to give us moments of reprieve and also offer insight into how difficult leaving would be.

An unidentified narrator, who turns out to be one of the young girls in attendance, quickly shares the events that lead up to the gathering. What occurs feels much like a courtroom drama, where they lay out the evidence and examine all sides. Everyone is allowed a voice and the right to be heard. Director Sarah Polley has gathered an ensemble cast of powerhouse women for the task, with most of the heavy lifting handled by Rooney Mara as the gentle and intelligent Ona, Jessie Buckley as the spikey and outspoken Mariche, and Claire Foy as Salome, the one who most wants to fight. But each member of the ensemble cast has a moment to shine, whether it's a monologue or a moment of clarity. Each of the women has dealt with their oppression with various coping mechanisms, offering a glimpse into the different ways trauma manifests itself. We see brief flashbacks to their respective assaults but no gratuitous rape scenes occur on screen. The one man allowed to attend is schoolteacher August (Ben Whishaw), who takes the minutes since none of the women have been taught to write.

Women Talking functions as a spiritual sequel to last year's Mass, directed by Fran Kranz, which depicted a complicated conversation with no easy answers and themes of faith at the center. At the end of the day, it's not the outcome that matters as much as the process. A group of women hear each other out and have the right to think, speak, and breathe without hindrance. When words fail, they can sing and find comfort in their combined voices crying out to God.  

Final score: 4 out of 5