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— Muhammad Ali, When We Were Kings

MRQE Top Critic

Muscle Shoals

Even if the Muscle Shoals sound isn't on your iPod, you'll like seeing where it came from —Marty Mapes (review...)

Etta sings in Muscle Shoals

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St. Nick is the patron saint of children. You might say that he’s watching over the protagonists of this drama. You might also say that he’s as absent as the children’s parents, depending on your outlook.

If you’ve ever seen a film by the Dardenne brothers ( The Son, The Child, Lorna’s Silence), you’ll recognize the style of St. Nick. If not, imagine a drama that starts in media res (in the middle of things, with the action already happening), with a handheld camera anchored just behind the shoulder of the protagonist. You are thrown into the life of the character; you get an intimate sense of their activity. You don’t necessarily get to hear what they are thinking. St. Nick, as with the Dardenne’s films, does a lot of showing and not much telling.

Telltales

The patron saint of children is absent (or watching closely)
The patron saint of children is absent (or watching closely)

The protagonists are a boy and a girl, prepubescent but old enough to be self-sufficient; maybe they’re around 10 years old. The boy investigates an abandoned house, then goes back to a campsite to retrieve the girl. They move into the house, dumpster-dive for sandwich fixin’s, and continue to furnish the place with goodies found abandoned on the town’s curbs.

The film runs for 17 minutes before anybody says anything. For the first several scenes, you’re not even sure what nationality these kids are, much less why they are apparently on their own. Maybe this is all a game of “house.”

Little vignettes comprise the film, most of them with a telling hint about the children. The boy investigates the plumbing under the house and finds an animal skeleton. The fact that he’s curious about plumbing clues us in that he’s smart and practical. The animal skeleton leads to some dialogue about past pets.

In another scene, the boy tinkers with his braces. But what sort of child has braces in the first place? He must come from a family with money for an orthodontist. Or is he a foster kid? And for the really observant (or those with stylists in the family, like me), you might even remark that the girl’s unkempt hair looks professionally layered, and not bowl-cut by mom’s scissors.

It’s almost 40 minutes before the kids meet another person. Until then you might wonder whether they’re in some post-apocalyptic version of America (except for the cars and ambient town noise on the soundtrack). The adults they run into are not particularly concerned about them. Apparently they think the kids are somebody else’s problem — only we in the audience know better.

The kids sleep in all sorts of places and poses, and whenever the girl awakes, she coughs. Eventually that cough leads to the kids back to civilization as we know it. There’s a relatively eventful ending that answers some of your questions, with an interesting coda that will leave you asking more.

Faraway, So Close

If you’ve never seen a film in this style, you may find it perplexing or even frustrating. You’ll see a character do something, and you may not know why they’re doing it. But because it’s so intimate, you can’t help but engage. You’ll find yourself trying to get into the characters’ head to understand their motives.

There are many long takes, which sets a slow, but controlled pace. There is a definite rhythm to the movie that speeds up and gets more fractured toward the end. The photography is often functional, following the boy and the girl around through their environment. But occasionally the movie stops to capture a scene in long shot, showing off the cinematographer’s decent eye for composition.

You might call the film’s style “minimalist,” although it’s not as slavishly formal as the work of Bela Tarr. Maybe it’s more along the lines of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry or Elephant. Whatever you call the style, I like it. Some people find it boring, but open yourself to the film’s rhythm and ambiguity and you’ll be hooked. Then stick around and compare notes with a friend to see what you missed.

... And after the festival is over, check out the Dardenne brothers.