EEFF: The Better Angels

Directed by A. J. Edwards
Starring Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Brit Marling and Wes Bentley

The best film Loose Lips caught at the 2015 East End Film Festival was The Better Angels, an earnestly Malickian coming-of-age tale. ‘Malickian’ is in this instance no lazy shorthand, director A.J. Edwards having cut his teeth editing several post-Tree of Life pictures, and Malick himself actually serving as exec producer. Sure enough, the film kicks off like a frenetic frame of Terence Bingo, all fragments of trees, insects on hands, dawns and dusks, snatches of dialogue, before it’s back to the trees.

Crucially however this is a formal approach well-suited to memory and myth: no one’s adolescent recollections feature lengthy exchanges of carefully plotted dialogue or shot/reverse shot exchanges. What sticks in the mind are snippets, snapshots, soundbites – standing on a rock midstream; a mother’s song; twisting ribbons of a midsummer maypole – adding up to something greater than the sum of its parts. Malick and those in his wake have long since become a marmite affair and there will be no converts here, but the confidence in Edwards’s mimickry and the successful deployment of so many familiar tropes is almost refreshing given the level of self-parody Malick himself has drifted towards, post-wilderness.

The sparse narrative centres on a pre-adolescent boy’s gradual awakening to the world around him in rural Indiana, early C19th. While notionally framed by the two most important women of the boy’s life (Brit Marling, irritating, and Diane Kruger, aloof) the defining relationship is that with his father. Jason Clarke’s performance as the stern paterfamilias is thankfully robust enough to survive the editing suite, his internal conflict in the face of his son’s quietly intellectual curiosity the film’s real driving force.

OK, so: the boy, it should almost certainly be pointed out, is Abraham Lincoln, POTUS #16, four score and seven years ago, etc… but don’t let that put you off. Aside from mildly risible voiceover’d bookends this is neither Oscar-baiting hagiography nor vampire-hunting slash fiction. Yes, we hear a lot about Abe ‘liking books’ and his honesty is underlined to a fault, but the temptation to turn the whole thing into an end-of-term history lesson cop-out is resisted, his sole brush with slavery a mere fleeting encounter, as throwaway as a game of tag.

You would hardly call it original but The Better Angels ultimately beguiles on its own terms, as both a beautifully rendered coming-of-age tale about a boy who lives in the woods, and a simple, cinematic palette-cleanser for America’s most enduring legend.

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