Sunday, September 15, 2013

Things Never Said

Well, I didn't figure on two days of surprise cast-member appearances this weekend. Though one of the guys from a 1985 Hong Kong kung fu breakdancing romantic comedy just happening to be in the Boston area and coming around to greet people at Friday night's Films at the Gate screening was probably the more unlikely one, having the volume go down during the credits for Things Never Said and having one of the co-stars stand up from his seat and say hi was probably the bigger one:

Elimu Nelson at "Things Never Said"

Yep, we're using the horrible photography tag today; movie theater auditoriums just aren't built for people snapping pictures with phones. Anyway, that's Elimu Nelson, who plays the protagonist's husband Ronnie. He grew up in Milton, MA, and I gather he was in town when the movie played the Roxbury Film Festival as well. Him being there seemed to take most, if not all, of the audience by surprise; I wouldn't be shocked if you had to be on a mailing list to find out about it, since AMC theaters don't exactly have the sort of websites that alert audiences to this.

I've got no idea how much longer Nelson's going to hang around; he may already have gone elsewhere, or might plan to be there through Thursday. It's worth a visit just for being a good movie, that he's there to tell you that Omari Hardwick wrote his own poem and writer/director Charles Murray didn't hear it until shooting started is gravy.

Anyway, the rest of what he said (and the rest of my thoughts) are kind of spoilery, so they're at the bottom, after the EFC linkage.

Things Never Said

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 September 2013 in AMC Boston Common #11 (first-run, DCP)

Things Never Said, while it spends a lot of time on spoken word performances, enough for it to be a major focus of the film and the way most people recommending it will describe it to others, isn't necessarily about poetry, and the last few scenes tell that to the audience in no uncertain terms. It's at that point that it becomes clear that writer/director Charles Murray has done something quite clever - he's made a movie about something that can unfairly define a person that presents everyone involved as well-rounded characters. That is not something you see every day, and worth checking out.

It does start with spoken word, though, specifically that of Kalindra Stepney (Shanola Hampton), a young woman in Los Angeles who has only been writing and orating for about a year, but is making plans to go to New York for a month, work as a waitress at the famous New Yorican Café and learn from all the great poets who frequent it. Her best friend Daphne (Tamala Jones) encourages it; her husband Ronnie (Elimu Nelson), not so much. Things get more complicated when she meets Curtis (Omari Hardwick), a non-performing poetry lover who appreciates that part of her life a lot more than Ronnie does. And he's handsome, too.

There's a montage near the start of the movie that wordlessly summarizes Kalindra's and Ronnie's life together up until that point, and just for doing that, and doing it well, rather than having the characters tell each other things they already know or awkwardly work those details into conversation, it's a nice move by Murray. That something eyebrow-raising grabs a couple of seconds but doesn't quite dominate makes it an interesting sign of things to come, and that it's not referenced immediately afterward lets it be part of a more complex situation than it might otherwise be. That's a neat trick; while Murray doesn't claim there's a moral gray area for reprehensible acts, but he doesn't allow them to wholly define these people, and it carries through the film and applies to multiple characters.

Full review at EFC.


It's a bit odd to use the spoiler alerts for a movie that's not really about late-act plot twisting, but like I said, a great deal of what impressed me about this movie was how it handled domestic violence. By which I mean, stealthily for much of the runtime. As much as the movie seems to be advertised as being about writing poetry and performing spoken word and not giving up your dreams, there seems to be little enough mention of how men hitting women is one of the primary means by which dreams are potentially crushed, even though the movie's coda spells out pretty damn clearly that this is a big part of what Murray wants audiences to take away from it.

And while this is the sort of thing that can seem like a bait-and-switch, or a filmmaker trying to attach an important social message to a movie that was about something else, I approve of it here in large part because you almost have to handle it this way to talk about it intelligently. Spousal abuse is something that right-thinking people tend to treat with a zero-tolerance attitude - which they should! And while I don't have too much trouble with treating a man who hits his wife or girlfriend as a social leper who is going to have to do something so great I can't even conceive of it before I treat him like a human being again, it also tars the victims, if only because it becomes a label, where they're someone's punching bag first rather their own people with a lot more going on than that. And that sucks.

So I appreciate that about Things Never Said - at no point did I think of Kalindra primarily as a victim. She's a poet, she's someone who married too young, she's someone who saw what happened with her parents and who, despite being quite smart, isn't able to extricate herself from the same situation cleanly. I like her, disagree with her, and never have to settle for pitying her. That pleases me no end.

I am, at times, a little queasy about the characters on the other end of the act. As one of the folks in the audience told Mr. Nelson, she really liked him until he hit Kalindra. That's a reminder of the lazy way many films will use domestic violence - a cheap way to make sure you don't like character X. Murray does seem to do better than that - there's still something likable about Ronnie afterward, and the storyline with Kalindra's father does raise the question of whether an abuser can reform enough not to be hated. I wonder about that - it's the sort of violence that we exempt from forgiveness, but is being unforgiving itself a virtue? And does the fact that the writer and director is a man play into it.

The ambiguity isn't a bad thing, though - we should wrestle with this, and that's what makes Things Never Said more impressive than the standard "chasing your dreams" movie.


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