A BETTER PLACE review *repost*

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Posted by Neil at on August 23, 2001 at 16:17:03:

First of all, I'm still thinking about it and not just occasionally. It creeps into my thoughts while I'm living. It's been a short time, I'm aware, but longer than I normally am and that counts for something more, in my opinion, than any minor points I may bring up here.

My first issue is more about the reaction I've seen than it is to the movie itself. It seems to me that a lot of people want to make this movie a statement on teen violence as a whole, which I think lessens what it actually is, a story about real people and where they are and how they got there. I think the truth it speaks is a much more complex and universal one than simply a statement on – or explanation of – teen violence.

I think that's a natural human reaction to being disturbed, though. I once wrote a throwaway short story for a creative writing class about a guy who invites a street musician to his house and then eats him, that the class seemed convinced had some message about how America deals with its homeless. First of all, as the author, I can say that story wasn't good enough to have that kind of meaning, and also, to the extent it was arguably about any theme larger than its story, it was something broader than that. However it's much easier to take a disturbing message and transfer the meaning to something away from ones self. That's what I learned from that experience and I think it applies well here.

The visuals and editing are expert. I'm quite frankly blown away. It's a $40,000 movie on 16mm and it's visuals carry the story and mood better than nearly any low budget 16mm movie I've ever seen – with the probable exception of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.

The story itself is quite compelling and believable, beyond the level of having a message. The characters and how they found themselves where they were progressed very naturally. The use of voice over and flashbacks – which cause many talented directors trouble – were very effective in moving the story forward in a measured manner without coming across openly crafted.

The acting… there are issues here.

The leads were fantastic. Eion Bailey, who played the disturbed Ryan, occasionally came across a little self-conscious, but it always passed quickly. Rob DiPatri, who played Barret, the lead, was amazingly natural and honest throughout.

Molly Castelloe was abysmal as Ryan's Aunt Meg. I'd like to be able to pull that back to something less pointed, but I just didn't think a thing about it worked. The scene at the beginning with Ryan and Meg arguing over the tub was already a challenge because of her performance. The look and feel of the scene were quite good and I felt positive on that level, but I found myself worrying that the movie would be one of those poorly acted low-budget efforts I've seen however many times. Then by the time of the scene where she explains the pictures to Barret and fights with Ryan, I had gotten into the movie overall and was interested in the characters, but was ripped out of it by that ridiculously over-the-top performance.

The rest of the cast… Carmen Llewellyn and Brian Lynch are terrific and the semi-outcasts who befriend Barret. Llewellyn is charming and beautiful in a way that allowed her to be a perfectly believable part of this world and yet something of a oasis from it as well. Lynch was funny and was good at providing the comic relief to keep the movie working with a certain amount of balance. I wasn't as sure of the more famous – and generally very good – Jason Lee in an pseudonymous performance as Dennis Pepper. His performance seemed forced at times. I don't know if it was the mood of the scenes or just me.

I occasionally stopped to think, "This is the most hirsute group of high school students ever!", but other than that the performances themselves from Joseph Cassese as the weak-spirited bully Todd to director Vincent Pereira, the director himself, as one of Todd's lackeys are solid and believable as high school students with Bryan Sproat stranding out as particularly natural – if particularly hirsute.

Listening to the commentary, I was able to gain an even stronger belief in Pereira's ability and instincts as a storyteller. The editing is fantastic, except for a couple of awkward jump cuts, and the story flows in a very natural fashion, which is especially interesting when you hear how out of sequence from its scr1pt it is. The film has a nice feeling of foreboding and drama at its lightest moments.

In the end, I understand why people need to move this into the realm of the afterschool special message kind of film, because that would be a much easier pill to swallow than what this film is, an exploration of and journey with two people as they slowly fall into a pit of ugliness that by the time it is completed feels inevitable.

No, it's not perfect. Sometimes the movie's budget and the inexperience of the director are visible to the viewer, but it's a strong and powerful first effort and I very much look forward to seeing what Pereira does in the future. He clearly has the talent and knowledge to make films that are worth paying attention to.

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