66th BFI London Film Festival Diary – Day Four – Women Talking, Emily the Criminal, I Love My Dad

It’s LFF day four and Sarah Polley shows us some Women Talking, in her gripping character driven drama, Aubrey Plaza employs some desperate measures to make ends meet in Emily the Criminal, and Patton Oswalt gets involved in a bizarre love triangle in I Love My Dad.

Women Talking (dir. Sarah Polley)

In a feminist response to 12 Angry Men, Sarah Polley presents a brilliantly acted, emotionally gripping film about the sexism and misogyny baked into our social structures. Providing a microcosm of the #MeToo movement through the eyes and experiences of an isolated religious group, which makes the issues women are still confronting today clearer and the need to find some resolution to these issues even more important than ever.

After a spate of vicious sexual assaults take place within a Mennonite community, the targeted women are forced to confront the realities of their existence within a patriarchal structure. For they have been attacked by their own men, who believe it is their right to take advantage of their bodies. So, the women must make a decision; they do nothing, they stay and fight the men for more control of their lives, or they leave to start a new community elsewhere. They gather in a hay loft to discuss their fate and talk through how they reconcile their fundamental belief in God with the hell they have been put through by the men to whom they have surrendered their power.

A film taking place almost entirely in a single location and told primarily through back-and-forth dialogue is a difficult feat to pull off, as there is a danger the proceedings can feel stagey and a little stiff. But Polley handles the limited scope brilliantly, employing character blocking with strong camera set ups to draw every inch of drama from the story. She is also helped by working with a stacked cast of some of the most talented actors working today including Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, and Ben Wishaw. Frances McDormand (also one of the film’s producers) even pops by for a cameo.

Using a set up akin to 12 Angry Men, Polley’s script (adapting Miriam Toews’s novel) makes one notable and important deviation. In the courtroom drama, the conflict arises from a question over guilt or innocence, and a decision that could change the defendant’s life forever. In Women Talking there is no question of guilt, these women have been attacked and it is their own lives on the precipice of change. The conflict is then drawn from how the women can find their agency, to take control from their oppressors and make a stand. That their society is not even equipped to deal with something like this speaks volumes to the way patriarchies ignore issues or purposefully design structures to reduce the choices and the voices of women.

Women Talking is a powerful, intense drama from a filmmaker at the top of her game. Polley’s experience as an actor allows her to attract top tier talent and draw out incredible performances that bolsters the minimal production and bring to life these characters whose life experience, while tragic, is sadly all too relatable. Focusing the drama on a religious sect feels overly specific but the fact they appear from another era but exist in contemporary times makes it all too clear no matter how far we feel society has progressed, it is built upon a foundation of pain and trauma we dare not acknowledge. Maybe now is the time we finally confront our demons, rather than just pay lip service to them.

Emily the Criminal (dir. John Patton Ford)

As the world suffers from a cost-of-living crisis with rising energy prices and food banks find their queues getting longer, Emily the Criminal cuts close to the bone to anyone worrying about how they are going to make ends meet. The film takes place in a post-capitalist America where stable employment is a privilege, not a right, and side hustles only offer small respite from the continuous threat of financial ruin.

Emily (Aubrey Plaza) is drowning in student loans and a felony conviction on her record makes it next to impossible to apply for steady employment. While working as a “sub-contractor” for a food delivery company, Emily gets the opportunity to make some quick cash buying televisions using fake credit cards for a mysterious organisation managed by Youcef (Theo Rossi). When she proves to have a hidden talent for financial fraud, Emily gets more lucrative gigs, while she and Youcef grow closer together. But they soon draw the attention of Youcef’s bosses, who don’t look kindly on the two star-crossed entrepreneurs making moves on their own.

Emily the Criminal smartly marries social realist and thriller elements with a captivating central performance from Plaza. She brings an understated strength to the role of Emily that she develops brilliantly from a put-upon zero hours contractor to a fully-fledged bad ass over the course of the film. Writer/director John Patton Ford cleverly portrays Emily’s motivation to accept the illegal opportunities presented to her as perfectly reasonable choices. Once the money starts rolling in, her decision to go deeper into the fraud scheme makes perfect sense for her, and once it is revealed she can take care of herself in a fight, the audience is right there alongside her, cheering for her success.

Apart from some notable exceptions (Gina Gershon makes an appearance as a snobby advertising executive), there are no real villains in Emily the Criminal, just people struggling to survive in a system that has stacked the deck against them. What differentiates the characters living on the fringes of society is the choices they make. Do you steal money to survive or just to get rich? Through Plaza’s well-mannered performance and Ford’s assured direction, Emily is very much motivated by the former and so in turn becomes a sort of folk hero, fighting back against all comers to claim her own small slice of the American dream. 

I Love My Dad (dir. James Morosini)

Parents will do anything for their kids. But how far would a father be willing to go to re-connect with their estranged son? The answer is: pretty far, if you are the paterfamilias in James Morosini’s feature debut I Love My Dad. Based on actual events in Morosini’s life, the comedy chronicles the shocking lengths his father went to in order to be involved in his life, while also being a slight satire on the social media age.

Chuck (Patton Oswalt) is a deadbeat dad trying to stay connected with his son Franklin (James Morosini) who, fed up with his behaviour, has been screening his calls and blocked him on social media. On the advice of a co-worker, Chuck creates a phoney profile based on a waitress at his local diner, Becca (Claudia Sulewski). As Becca, Chuck begins an online relationship with Franklin, who falls in love with the imaginary woman. Needless-to-say, awkward hijinks ensue.

I Love My Dad is an efficient comedy of escalating awkwardness, buoyed by a terrific collar-clutching performance by Patton Oswalt and a hilarious supporting cast including Rachel Dratch and Lil Rel Howerey. Writer/director/co-star Morosini acquits himself well as Franklin, knowing the key to success is to let his comedic cast do what they do best. The funniest moments come when Franklin chats with “Becca” online and imagines she is right there in person, as it intercuts with Chuck typing the responses, digging himself deeper and deeper into his situation with no obvious way out. When Franklin asks Chuck to take him to see “Becca” in person, Chuck is forced to double down and events spiral out of his control, to the point where even sexting with his own son becomes an inevitability.

Morosini and Oswalt claim in the press that this situation is based on what actually happened between Morosini and his own father. If half of what happens in the film is true, truth is indeed stranger than fiction and actually lessens the impact of the film slightly. The objectively funny but subjectively mortifying aspects of the scenario would benefit from some real-world grounding to the events (such as letting the audience know the messages were lifted verbatim) which would have elevated the comedy even more. Although perhaps focusing on the actual events would tip the film into darker territory, a tone the film actively avoids.

I Love My Dad is a vibrant comedy with a very strange origin story, played to the rafters by its ensemble of very funny people. Its commentary on honesty and “catfishing” in the social media age gets touched on a little here and there, but its focus is squarely on the very odd circumstances between father and son. The film ultimately comes off a little too much like a skit drawn out to feature length (its final moments don’t hit hard as much as they just peter out) but when it focuses on the bizarre love triangle, the film is excruciatingly funny.

Liam Dunn

Liam Dunn is an Australian writer living in London since 2013 where he has written film criticism for many different British outlets, including Little White Lies. Liam loves all kinds of cinema, particularly world cinema, but it is with horror, sci-fi and Westerns where you can find his heart. He reckons Werner Herzog is the world’s greatest living filmmaker and will fight anyone who says otherwise.

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