PFF26 Capsule Reviews: Thelma and Roman J. Israel Esq.

Our Philadelphia Film Festival coverage continues! We are excited to be able to bring you several reviews from this year’s festival. Follow us on Twitter to keep up with the latest!

Thelma (Dir. Joachim Trier)

I guess it is something like a banner year for coming of age stories as genre films. Earlier this year we had Raw, where a young french girl discovers her appetite for all kinds of human flesh experiences. And now we have the Norwegian film Thelma, where a college student from a repressed religious upbringing has to come to terms with the enormous powers that she holds. Not long after the film begins, we find the titular student (Eili Harboe) sitting next to an attractive girl in a packed library. Suddenly, Thelma starts shaking, and soon experiences what looks like a full on seizure. Yet without anyone really noticing, a murder of crows is spiraling outside, starting to crash into the windows one by one. The first taste of a sexual awakening has shaken her to her core- and the ripples are going to go very far.

Thelma’s crush is a girl named Anja (Kaya Wilkins), and Thelma soon discovers that she has the power to literally attract Anja. One night, the two wake up simultaneously as Thelma discovers Anja wandering outside her dorm. Whenever Thelma experiences intense emotions around Anja, weird things happen. Yet the most explosive and potentially harmful experiences come when Thelma tries to repress her feelings for Anja. Trier has brilliantly weaponized the power of emotional suppression, putting the film in line with his other great dramas (Reprise, Oslo August 31st) where his young characters have no idea what to do about their existential feelings.

This is all interesting stuff, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. For the first hour, it plays like an indie version of X-Men. As my friend pointed out, it wouldn’t be far off to see Thelma get approached by Professor X at the end of all of this. Yet when the film leans into Thelma’s family history, it becomes extraordinary. Some near Manchester By The Sea level story reveals put the whole story into a disturbing new context, as it turns into something that Stephen King might have written. By the end I realized this was really not the supernatural lesbian coming out story we had been sold- it is something much darker and more compelling.

A beautiful looking and sounding film is the absolute minimum of what we have come to expect from Joachim Trier. So it’s good news that he is trying new storytelling ideas, even if they don’t all completely land.

Roman J. Israel, Esq (Dir. Dan Gilroy)

Screenwriter Dan Gilroy came out of seemingly nowhere to surprise everyone with his directorial debut Nightcrawler, one of the best films of the decade. So it was more than a little unexpected when this follow up, a legal drama starring Denzel Washington(!), completely tanked with the audience at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Could it really be that bad? Since the film’s premiere, Gilroy and Washington returned to the editing room to work on it for three weeks, and ended up cutting off a good 15 minutes to tighten the pacing. Last night, we got to see the final version. So is it better than advertised? The answer is fortunately yes! It is better than I was led to believe, yet some of the film’s core issues probably remain.

Washington plays the titular character, a progressive lawyer in Los Angeles County who works in a two person criminal defense office that “runs more like a charity than a law firm.” Israel is all ideals, no practical skills. He’s the kind of lawyer who finds himself easily in contempt of the court and tells the truth even when it gets him (and his client) in lots of trouble.

When Israel’s law partner suffers a heart attack and is placed on life support, his firm gets swallowed up by the much larger, more business savvy firm of George Pierce (a pretty great Colin Farrell). The loss of his mentor cripples Israel into an existential crisis, and he begins re-evaluating all the steps that led him to where he is. He wears his integrity like a chip on his shoulder- and all he has to show for it are dirty old suits and crappy apartment in a gentrifying neighborhood, where he is soon to be priced out of. When the action gets going because of one questionable move, Israel has to face up to what he has done. He tries to do the right thing, which doesn’t always mean your problems are going to go away.

He also, strangely, has some kind of ritual/tic based mental disorder, either OCD or perhaps lying somewhere on the autism spectrum. This is supposed to explain his lack of social skills and clear cut commitment to nothing but the law, I guess, but the film doesn’t do much with it beyond that.

It also comes with a very 90’s flavor, for better or worse- the story is a little convoluted, a little too clean, and a little too drawn out. It feels like a really nice flight that never really gets off the runway to truly soar. On the plus side, the story falls in the lineage of Sidney Lumet, the iconic New York City director who made a mark with socially conscious films about powerful institutions (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network). If this film had been made 20 or 30 years ago, I guarantee that Al Pacino would have been a great candidate for the part as well.

Anyone who saw the film at TIFF should definitely give it another try when it comes out in November. It may still disappoint when compared to Nightcrawler, but I believe there is really no such thing as a bad movie starring Denzel Washington. It is worth checking out, even as you might be scratching your head at times.

PS- A sincere request to the Marvin Gaye estate to no longer approve of the use of “Trouble Man” in any story about a troubled man in a rough city, ever again please.

So that does it for my coverage of The 26th Philadelphia Film Festival! I won’t be able to make it to the next few days, but I saw plenty of great stuff. I hope you get to see some of the films I reviewed over the last several days. I am already looking forward to next year. 

Author: Andy Elijah

I am a musician and music therapist who loves movies too. Raised in Maryland, I have been proud to call Philadelphia home for five years. Sounds can be heard at Baker Man and Drew. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd

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