Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Stone Angel

The titular angel in Kari Skogland's "The Stone Angel" refers to two things: one is an actual stone angel used atop the family plot of the Currie family, and the second is Hagar Currie herself, one of the strongest female protagonists in quite some time-played with fierce brilliance by both Ellen Burstyn in her golden years, and newcomer Christine Horne in her early ones. An occasionally over-heavy, yet well acted, drama, "The Stone Angel" premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September-and while at the festival I heard absolutely nothing negative or positive about it, which was surprising considering how fast word travels there. I had honestly forgotten that it even existed until the trailer revealed that it was a part of the festival's selection. I give credit to its release to Ellen Page, whose "Juno" success suddenly caused every one of her already existing pre-"Juno" indie films to be released, however awful (such as "The Tracey Fragments.") It's probably irony that Page isn't in this film very much, appearing in a few scenes towards the end, despite getting second billing in the trailer and quite a bit of space on the films poster.

Starting in the present, we meet Hagar Currie on her way to tour an assisted living facility with her son Marvin (Dylan Baker) and his wife Doris. From her very first line ("I have to go to the bathroom!") one can tell the fierce independence that she has, just in Burstyn's delivery. It's revealed in these early scenes that she is somewhat unstable, suffers fainting spells, and is often forgetful, but she resists going to the home. Through flashbacks a la last year's "Evening" (a film that I can easily compare this one too), we get a sense of who she was and is, showing us her separation from her father when she decides to marry Bram Shipley (Cole Hauser). Her father would rather her continue the family business of running a store. We see her relationships with her two sons-Marvin and John-and as she gets on in the years we see her make many mistakes, not even getting it fully right when she is close to death, making her more human than any movie character you'll see all year.

Burstyn is extremely good in this film, and this is her most mature role in a while (fresh off of "The Wicker Man" from two years ago). But the real soul of the film comes from young Christine Horne, who plays the young Hagar, does not only resemble and act like Burstyn would, but also acts with such experience that its hard to believe this was her first major role. A supporting role by character actor Dylan Baker is also very welcome-Baker is one those actors who appears in and out of many movies and whose name never sticks, but in one week he showed much range for me, making me laugh hard in 'Diminished Capacity" and almost breaking my heart here. And Ellen Page, however brief her performance, is good in the last performance from her pre-"Juno" burst of fame. Playing at interesting parellel to the Hagar character, Page's Arlene is a chance for Hagar to stop someone else from making the same mistakes that she did. Page does a good job at resisting Hagar's advice, just as Hagar did when everyone tried to advise her. Comparing this more human performance to "Juno," or even the film she made after that "Smart People," I personally think that "Juno" might have been the worst thing for her in terms of future typecast. Similar to Jon Heder never breaking the "Napolean Dynamite" image.

It really ends up being the acting that makes "The Stone Angel" easy to recommend. At times the screenplay does get a bit convoluted in terms of drama-eventually so much stuff happens to these characters that it got tedious and even a bit unbelievable, but thankfully the performances played it well enough where it did not become overbearing. And the only example I can possibly think of, a moment of real true beauty here, comes towards the end of the film. Hagar (in this case played by Burstyn) goes to see Bram after many many years of separation. We see what he has become-a sad and lonely drunk who needs whiskey instead of medicine-and the two of them share a look. A simple glance, that is acted so well where we can see their histories and their love and her ability to never give up on him, that almost brought a tear in my eye. Sadly the whole film couldn't deliver that kind of simple beauty, but its the moments like those, played so effortlessly by masters young and old, that made "The Stone Angel" worthwhile.

Final Rating:
*** of ****

This review can also be found here.

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