Social realism cinema survives and thrives. Two 2016 movies, “I, Daniel Blake” and “Captain Fantastic” offer US and British versions.
An American man tries to shield his children from society; but finds society, and children, are complicated.
A British man and woman try to make their way through life; but are tormented and defeated.
Social realism: Captain Fantastic
I recently saw two fine films. In “Captain Fantastic”, Viggo Mortensen plays a father trying to raise six children in a remote forest, according to his 1960s anti-capitalist views. A tragedy forces them to interact with the outside world. The father’s efforts to give the children what he considers the best possible upbringing face challenges. Something has to give.
Social realism: I, Daniel Blake
In I, Daniel Blake, David Johns and Hayley Squires play would-be benefit claimants unable to navigate the UK social security system. We see early on that this is unlikely to turn out well. As troubles gather, the kindnesses of friends and neighbours contrast with a cruel, implacable state.
Compare and contrast
Both films are worth watching, and comparing. Captain Fantastic looks, and feels, rich in colour and context. Despite tragedy and challenge, there is (mild spoiler alert) something resembling a happy ending. The sound-track is uplifting. Nearly everyone is good-looking. The eponymous title character is conflicted and ambiguous: maddening and arrogant; well-meaning; affectionate; and improbably omniscient. The story moves along at a good lick, with the main character finding a kind of redemption, in classic Hollywood narrative style, by changing and growing. Some moments pack emotional punch. I found the late rendition of Guns’N’Roses classic “Sweet Child of Mine” moving. But you always have a sense that nothing too bad will happen.
In I, Daniel Blake, nearly everything is colourless: people, buildings, an entire city. The narrative, apart from a few milliseconds of bleak, black comedy, is unremittingly gloomy. The story is crowded with performances so realistic you wonder if the performers are actors at all. Not many of the players look like film-stars. Few characters are ambiguous; they’re either plucky or evil. The narrative grinds forward so inexorably that tragedy seems inevitable throughout; when it occurs, it feels almost a release. The emotional key-points are so intense they’re difficult to watch. No-one shows finds redemption through change. The music is brilliant – notably the classic BBC radio theme The Shipping Forecast (“Sailing by”). But the narrative offers little hope.
Thought-provoking social drama.
Neither movie is perfect; but I’d recommend both if you fancy thought-provoking social drama.
Captain Fantastic 8/10: For: intelligent, entertaining, occasionally uplifting. Against: both conflict and narrative have saccharine moments, and the ending plays it safe.
I, Daniel Blake 8/10: For: gritty social criticism with outstanding acting and emotional heft. Against: some will find it too polemical; the story offers little by way of twists, surprises or cheer.
I hope you have enjoyed this review of two modern examples of social realism cinema. If you enjoy fresh, original writing, please subscribe to my newsletter (you can unsubscribe anytime you wish). Or I would be delighted if you would like to follow me on Facebook.
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