Parents can mess you up. Not always. They often don’t mean to. But just like you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, you can’t make a person without passing on a few things you probably wish you hadn’t. That’s life. It usually turns out okay. Some people though don’t have the right boundaries. To them, kids are an experiment, or an extension of themselves. In the service of the project, what happens to the kids is incidental, the banged up corners of a package in the post. Those knocks and bangs come back in funny ways, and the kids themselves are never the same. I saw two films at TIFF tackle this idea, very different films with very different problems to address. One was a comedy of sorts, Jason Bateman’s wistful and witty The Family Fang, about two adult siblings grappling with the repercussions of a childhood in the service of madcap situationist artists. The other was a tragedy, Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, following a young African child torn from his parents and conscripted to fight for the rebels under a harrowing personality cult. Both take an old story, presented in new ways, the sins of the father, ever haunting us again.
In The Family Fang, Jason Bateman is Baxter Fang, a novelist who got lost somewhere on the way to writing his third book. The first was good, the second not so much, and now he finds himself penning an article about veterans firing potato guns in the woods to work out their PTSD. It’s weird but it pays the bills, when you’re a writer living under the shadow of a block. The vets’ enthusiasm is infectious, as well as the beer, and before he knows it he’s egging them on for a little William Tell, letting them blow beer cans off the top of his head with their hurtling spuds. The next thing he knows, he’s in hospital, concussed with a perforated ear drum, but that’s the least of his worries. The staff went through his wallet and contacted his next of kin. Desperate to avoid facing his estranged parents, he calls his sister, Annie (Nicole Kidman), an actress struggling to hang onto her B-movie success. Her life’s on the verge of spiralling out of control, drinking too much and sleeping with the writer who’s doing a puff-piece to give her flagging career a boost. Even her agent suggests she’d better lie low. She comes out to be his buffer, and the two find themselves back with the parents at their childhood home. These aren’t your typical parents, not hardly at all. Caleb (Christopher Walken) and Camille (Maryann Plunkett) Fang are famous performance artists, the sort from the seventies renowned for their provocations of every day life. Their works are hilarious, inspired bits of derangement, as they take Child A and Child B and put them in situations both extreme and bizarre. A faux bank robbery opens the film, young Baxter stealing lollipops from a teller. Disguised as a security guard, seventies Caleb “accidentally guns down” an innocent bystander, Camille falling to the floor, young Annie consoling her. They try to hold in their laughter as the fake blood pools and young Baxter can’t resist its sweet reddish taste, onlookers horrified and uncomprehending. More tellingly, a later piece finds the young Baxter and Annie playing “their own” made-up song “Kill All Parents” to an enthusiastic crowd in Central Park. Their performance is terribly bad, the guitars out of tune, the singing just barely carrying the song. Caleb and Camille emerge from the crowd, strangers heckling the children and their tuneless art. An altercation boils over but Caleb is thrilled, the immediacy of the moment pulling people into an instant where life and art connect.
Returned to the family home, Baxter and Annie are very uncomfortable. Caleb and Camille want to re-enlist their kids and make some new fabulous art, but that’s the last thing either wants to take on. And Caleb’s openly hostile to the choices they’ve made in their own lives. The family’s picking at old scabs, but there’s still blood underneath. When their parents disappear under disturbing circumstances, their car found abandoned and bloodied by the side of the road, the story takes an intriguing turn. Are they dead, leaving Baxter and Annie to sort through the detritus of their parents’ stalled career in this cluttered old home? Or, as Annie believes with a fixity bordering on denial, is it just another art piece, a final provocation to cap their career? The journey that follows is fascinating, moving through both the past and the present. As a director, Bateman grows in leaps and bounds from his first feature Bad Words (2013). Moments in the film are broad, but for the most part it’s wonderfully underplayed. Kidman and Bateman are both excellent as people whose roles were always dictated, now struggling with the paths they’ve chosen for themselves. Walken is of course superb, with a meaty role revealing the cost of a pathological conviction for blurring art and life. And Maryann Plunkett shines as Caleb’s self-suppressed wife, suggesting volumes of emotion with the subtlest shifts of her face. The performance pieces are signalled by a shift to 8mm and 16mm film, their gauzy awkwardness capturing the immediacy and humour of the moments, and the slow-fraying relationships as each performance takes its toll.
The dysfunctional family is a mainstay of indie movies, one that easily falls into the trap of catalogue quirks and so much emotional gnashing. Working from Kevin Wilson’s comic novel, The Family Fang takes its time but finds an authentic heart. “They fuck you up, your mom and dad,” Caleb says, with a matter-of-factness that belies understanding. And yes, they do. But sometimes that revelation itself is enough to come out the other side. Their childhood may have been stolen by their parents’ all-consuming art, but this quixotic quest gives Baxter and Annie a way to take it back. The damage is done, but you can always make it your own.
Beasts of No Nation takes lost childhood to a far darker place. Cary Fukunaga, the shape-shifting director of Sin Nombre (2009), Jane Eyre (2011) and True Detective (Season 1—2014), transforms himself yet again with an unsparing exploration of the making of a child soldier. Agu (Abraham Attah) is a mischievous African boy, killing time in his village after the nearby war shuts down his school. He steals the shell of his father’s TV and tries to sell it to the locals, and then the UN peacekeepers when the locals turn him down. “Magic television,” he calls it, as he and his friends act out hammy kung fu scenes in the window of the TV’s empty frame. It’s funny, an idyllic moment, the way kids are supposed to be, killing time pranking parents and whatever adults cross their path. Agu’s father is a teacher, but with the school shut down he’s set-up a refugee camp on his family’s land. The country’s indeterminate but it really doesn’t matter. There’s far too many places like this, with nebulous wars between corrupt governments and just-as-corrupt rebels, pulverizing civilians in a senseless drive for profit and domination. The war spills over, breaking through the safe-zone, and people cower for safety as soldiers fire wantonly in the streets. Agu’s dad gets his mother and baby sister out, but the profiteering taxi driver won’t take Agu, so he’s stranded with his father and his older brother. When the government forces come crashing in, his family is killed in a few harrowing minutes. Agu is lucky to escape into the bush. He’s found by the rebels, but this is hardly a rescue. The Commandant (Idris Elba) takes him in, one of dozens of young soldiers he’s made into killers to help serve the cause. That first meeting is remarkable, as The Commandant expertly breaks down poor Agu’s palpable terror and turns it into anger, to fight the soldiers that killed his family. Each repeated call and response between the two drives the nail deeper, brain-washing the boy with his hypnotic measured words.
What follows is a journey into a childhood heart of darkness, as Agu is indoctrinated into the Commandant’s cultish battalion. Idris Elba is utterly convincing as a charismatic, contemptible man, while Abraham Attah, a first-timer found with a wide casting net, is heart-breaking but fearsome as Agu. The Commandant dismantles the young boy’s psyche. He tells Agu an initiation killing on the road will kill the murderer of his parents, a captured innocent engineer cowering before him and pleading for his life. Agu knows it’s a lie, but he’s lost, surrendering to the violence, and he brings his machete down on the stranger’s skull. The movie’s palpable horror is constantly grounded in reality, with the exception of an extraordinary battle passage where Agu fights while under the influence of drugs, the jungle leaves all turning a ruddy purple-pink. The dreadful circumstances that allow such atrocities to happen are easily grasped, as deeply discomfiting as they are. The Commandant needs soldiers who will follow him blindly. By taking the role of a father figure for so many so young, he offers a seductive path of vengeful righteousness. The film also hints at his sexual predilections, made more awfully clear in Uzodinma Iweala’s book, but keeps those disturbing dalliances at the level of implication only. The children themselves commit appalling acts, but fleeting instances of friendship offer at least moments of redemption.
The film is Netflix’s first original theatrical outing. It’s being released simultaneously for streaming on Netflix and in theatres on October 16, so it will be very interesting to see how that experiment plays out, especially with a film this challenging. Beasts of No Nation is a hard, uncompromising watch, but it never feels sensational, rooted in a deep humanism despite its agonizing content. Toward the end the movie does drag, it’s final act showing the Commandant’s necessary come-down but taking a meandering route to get there. Agu is rescued, but clearly, he’ll be haunted as long as he lives. Watching other orphaned kids play on a beach sanctuary, Agu’s eyes beg the question, how to survive a living nightmare? If you’re lucky, you wake up and search for the sun.