The Religious Madness of ‘Saint Maud’ is Equal Parts Wrenching and Ecstatic

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Saint Maud (CREDIT: A24)

Starring: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Knight, Lily Frazer

Director: Rose Glass

Running Time: 83 Minutes

Rating: R for Disturbing Content, Often Sexually Themed

Release Date: January 29, 2021 (Theaters)/February 12, 2021 (On Demand)

Religiosity is a hell of a drug. That possibility for ecstasy is one of the reasons I’ve remained loyal to my own faith practices. But you can take it too far to the point that it gets a little dangerous, as demonstrated by Morfydd Clark as the titular caretaker of Saint Maud. Jennifer Ehle is also present to play Amanda, a ballet dancer in hospice care. Stage 4 lymphoma has done a number on her body, but it hasn’t taken away her caustic wit. So when new live-in nurse Maud struts in, it’s pretty clear she’s got a lot on her plate to handle.

Hospice care is surely demanding and highly stressful, even for people who are fully committed to the calling. Maud does her best to be fully committed, but how exactly does that commitment manifest? Bloody religious imagery suggests that she may just be falling into a possession. But is this a hellish spirit that is overtaking her, or a heavenly one? Or maybe this is some sort of placebo possession, in which she wants to be such a good little servant of God that she subliminally convinces herself that she’s’ been taken over. She’s got an active mind, and active minds can be quite fabulous when you are devoted to a lonely job and the subject of your devotion is much more distant than you’d like her to be.

By insisting that everyone follows her way of doing things, Maud comes off as a bit of a Pharisee, although she is quite a bit more tortured than that traditionalist biblical group. (Although maybe some Pharisees had agonizing internal lives that we never got to see?) Here’s the deal: Saint Maud starts off pretty straightforwardly, at least as straightforward as you can be when one main character is so close to death and the other one is so close to God. But from the beginning, there is also some bloody mystical business bubbling underneath the surface, and if  you think that is going to lead to some big expressive climax, then your cinematic viewing instincts are in proper working order.

While watching Saint Maud, I found it somewhat difficult to emotionally connect to as I had trouble figuring out just what sort of movie it wanted to be. But having had plenty of time to digest it now, I think that’s less a failing of the film itself and more a feature of its main character. Maud is pretty, pretty sure that she has a rather close relationship with God and that everyone else should as well. But doubt about her own spiritual bona fides is never far away. So she enjoys some indulgences, then she castigates herself, and the final climax enters into another transcendent dimension entirely, as a religiously minded movie like this one is wont to do. Ultimately, I believe Saint Maud wants to teach us that we should have our moments of ecstasy, because people are going to keep succumbing to cancers and other horrible fates and we might as well look skyward while we can.

Saint Maud is Recommended If You Like: The VVitch, Suspiria, Speaking in tongues

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Caretakers

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Vox Lux’ is a Traumatic and Entrancing Journey Through Pop Music Stardom

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CREDIT: NEON

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Willem Dafoe

Director: Brady Corbet

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: R for School Shooting Violence, Drug Use, and Staten Island Accented-Profanity

Release Date: December 7, 2018 (Limited)

There is a scene about midway through Vox Lux in which pop star Celeste Montgomery (Natalie Portman) is at a diner with her daughter Albertine (Raffey Cassidy, who also plays the teenage Celeste), expounding about how the press is always hounding her, and it turns into this incomprehensible rant about the misbegotten state of the world. She sounds like someone who watched Fight Club too many times as a teenager, specifically the scene in which Tyler Durden espouses his whole philosophy. But the causes of Celeste’s unique psychology can actually be traced to much more intense external forces. The armchair nihilist philosophizing is just gravy.

The adult Celeste is the product of two adolescent experiences that no teenager is naturally wired to perfectly handle. Both of these types of experiences on their own can, and have, resulted in long-term negative effects for many people. But together they produce … well, they produce Vox Lux. Celeste’s journey begins by surviving a shooting at her middle school, which is obviously traumatic enough to produce scars that last a lifetime. During her recovery, she writes a song to create some love out of the violence, and it ends up becoming a huge hit and leads into a full-on pop music career. But teenage stardom is not ideal for most people, and Celeste does not buck that trend. Fast-forward to the present day, in which at 31 years old she is emotionally still a child.

The culmination of Celeste’s story is hardly surprising, but director Brady Corbet makes it entrancing even at its most disturbing. This is a truly singular whirlwind of a person, and even knowing how messed up her personal life is, we can see how she remains compelling through and through to the public at large. The final 15 minutes or so take place at her new tour’s kickoff performance at her hometown of Staten Island. Considering the series of crises on the way to getting her to the stage in one piece, I thought that this moment was going to end with her collapsing or otherwise failing to finish the show. But instead, she is a wonder to behold, as bedazzling as any modern pop star at the top of her game. This triumph is even more stunning considering the struggle leading up to it. Celeste becomes more admirable while simultaneously remaining as much of a cautionary tale as ever. She remains a symbol by holding up the weight of circumstances that are so much heavier than any one person could possibly bear.

Vox Lux is Recommended If You Like: The Spectacle of Pop Music, Black Swan, Staten Island accents, Actors playing the same characters 20 years apart

Grade: 4 out of 5 Losses of Innocence

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’ is Sure of Itself, Almost Too Sure

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CREDIT: Jeong Park/FilmRise

This review was originally posted on News Cult in August 2018.

Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, John Gallagher Jr., Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Ehle

Director: Desiree Akhavan

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: Unrated, But It Would Probably Be R for Clear (Though Not-Entirely-Explicit) Sexuality

Release Date: August 3, 2018 (Limited)

There’s something fundamentally unsatisfying about the ending of The Miseducation of Cameron Post. But it would be unfair to be too angry at this lack of resolution, as it is justified both narratively and (I would imagine) by real-life verisimilitude. Chloë Grace Moretz plays the lesbian title character who gets sent by her aunt to God’s Promise, a camp that practices gay conversion therapy. Without spoiling too much, there is hope for her and a few other camp attendees by the conclusion, though there are also still plenty of reasons to be concerned about their future. That ambiguity is fine. But there is a larger impasse at play here that makes Cameron Post feel a little incomplete despite how astute and empathetic it is.

The issue is with the protagonist. To be entertaining, a movie does not require a dynamic, changing lead character, but it does require that if it wants to take us on a journey. Writer/director Desiree Akhavan does want to do that, but Cameron Post is rather static. Moretz does exactly what is asked of her. She is broken up over her family’s inability to embrace her true identity, but she will never believe any of the lies that God’s Promise feeds her. She recognizes emotional manipulation for what it is and is strong-willed enough to withstand it. She is like that when we meet her, and she remains so throughout. Her two closest friends (Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck) are similarly just as sure of themselves.

On the one hand, it would make more sense if Akhavan focused more on characters who are having a more difficult struggle. There would be no shortage of options, as multiple attendees attempt to buy into the camp’s teachings while ultimately unable to suppress their urges, some of them resorting to self-harm to deal with the conflict. But on the other hand, I appreciate that we get to spend more time with the kids who are defiantly certain about who they are. There is a low-key hangout vibe in what would otherwise be an emotional minefield. It’s a pleasant enough film, but it sometimes it takes unpleasant confrontation to make a difference.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is Recommended If You Like: Saved!, Hangout Sitcoms with Dark Undertones

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Icebergs