For Third Coast Review, I’m covering a selection of films screening at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival, and it’s been fun to dig into this year’s overall line-up. This festival in particular has a reputation for bringing many of the season’s most anticipated films to local audiences, while highlighting a few undiscovered gems, too. Here’s what I’ve enjoyed through the festival’s first weekend; the event continues through October 22.
All Happy Families
The second feature film from writer/director Haroula Rose (Once Upon a River), All Happy Families takes its title from the well-known Leo Tolstoy quote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In other words, the drama is in the dysfunction, and Rose and co-writer Coburn Goss find plenty of it (and plenty of laughs, too) in this warm and authentic story of two adult sons, one a more successful actor than the other, and their old-fashioned parents juggling their own late-in-life transitions. Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) stars as Graham, a struggling actor and writer who’s taken on the old family two-flat (the film is proudly set in Chicago), trying to rent out one apartment while he lives in the other. It’s his older brother, Will (Rob Huebel), who owns the place, having bought it with proceeds from his fancy LA television series role. Their parents (Becky Ann Baker and John Ashton) have decamped to the suburbs; she’s newly retired from her longtime office job and he’s having a hard time picking up enough hours at the hardware store to make up the difference.
Like her debut feature film, Rose excels in All Happy Families at allowing her characters to live their lives, processing the highs and lows, the struggles and the wins in equal measure. Radnor is endearing as ever as an earnest but frustrated artist who’s got a glimmer of happiness in the latest potential tenant (Chandra Russell), an old friend he’s delighted to be reunited with. Will is home under the guise of family business, but there’s more to his LA exile we soon learn. It’s timely, and reasonably unspooled. Perhaps the most moving thread of this family tapestry is a small but powerful subplot about Will’s daughter, who’s recently come out as such (rather than his son). Witnessing this strained but solid family dynamic respond to this unexpected, new information resonates beautifully, likely because it’s so relatable.
It’s difficult to know exactly how to characterize a film as innovative, gripping and ultimately unforgettable as Four Daughters. It is essentially a documentary, but it is a creation so wholly unique, it—and I do not use this cliché lightly—defies the genre. Filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania guides us through the harrowing journey of Olfa, a mother to four daughters in Tunisia who, we soon discover, has been to hell and back with these four young women. At the jump, Ben Hania clarifies how she’s going to tell this story: wherever possible, Olfa and her two now-teenage daughters, Eya and Tayssir, will share their experiences in their own words—and reenact it, too. Actors (Nour Karoui and Ichrak Matar) will stand in for her older daughters, Rahma and Ghofrane, while Hind Sabri, another actor, is on hand to stand in for Olfa in the moments that are too difficult for her to relive. It’s understandable to be skeptical of this arrangement; it is entirely unwarranted.
Over the course of the film, Olfa and her daughters recount their lives from Olfa’s contentious wedding night to a man (the girls’ father) who Olfa didn’t love and never wanted to lay with, to the radicalization and disappearance of her two older daughters, young women who had been rebellious, independent spirits ultimately broken by extremism. As the scenes in their lives unfold, Ben Hania creates a full picture of a flawed woman, one who adores her daughters and wants the best for them while also, at times, abusing and vigorously chastising them for their “bad” behavior. When revolution comes for Tunisia, everything changes, and the five women experience that pivotal moment in incredibly harrowing, vastly different ways. Four Daughters is a powerful portrait of womanhood, motherhood and sisterhood on a backdrop of political and religious upheaval that is all too familiar in this region of the world.
The Teachers’ Lounge
Set entirely in a high school, its halls, classrooms and yes, teacher’s lounge, Ilker Çatak’s The Teachers’ Lounge creates as much on-screen tension and uncertainty as any gory thriller. Leonie Benesch is Carla Nowak, a new teacher who’s in her first semester at the school and is still finding her footing with her pupils and colleagues when she’s called into a meeting with a young student accused of stealing. The conversation does not go as planned, but even worse is the conversation with his parents, where they confirm he had the extra money in his wallet for a purchase they’d asked him to make. But the damage has been done, and everyone in the school is on alert for a thief; Carla even sets a sort of trap to see if these petty crimes are really happening. What she discovers causes a rift in the fragile society of the school that pits students against students, colleagues against colleagues and a whole slew of parents against Carla herself.
Benesch trembles throughout, sometimes with anger, sometimes with self-righteousness. Çatak and co-writer Johannes Duncker are wise to not draw lines that are too clear; Carla isn’t always in the right, but she is always seeking the truth. The Teachers’ Lounge is a stark example of what happens when we assume those with whom we coexist—at work, on community boards, on our intramural teams—live by the same principles as we do, and well…assuming, right? Though the stakes here are never higher than a few Euros, Çatak notches the anxiety up to a degree that it’s clear there’s much more on the line than that.
The Promised Land
Mads Mikkelsen re-teams with his A Royal Affair director Nikolaj Arcel for The Promised Land, a harrowing and sometimes overdramatic recounting of Dutch settler Ludvig von Kahlen’s (Mikkelsen) efforts to cultivate the country’s hinterlands in the 18th century. The bastard son of a housemaid, von Kahlen rose through the ranks in war, and afterwards, he approaches the King’s advisors for permission (and money) with an idea to build his fortune by settling the Jutland Heath, an area until then believed to be impossible to farm. What follows is two hours of incredible hardship as he and two runaway servants, Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin) and Johannes (Morten Hee Andersen) begin their against-the-odds work. It’s made all the more complicated when a local, villainous landowner, Frederik De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg) decides that land is not von Kahlen’s to settle.
Mikkelsen broods and grunts for two-plus hours, and honestly, it never gets old; he’s strong and determined, and he (per usual) holds our attention throughout. Which is especially important when De Shinkel (a sort of Matt Smith look-alike) devolves into something like a comic book villain with his torturous, over-the-top ways. Also enjoyable is the relationship forged between von Kahlen and Ann Barbara, who endures the hardest days alongside her employer and his new charge, a Romani orphan named Anmai Mus (Hagberg Melina). It’s all filmed with a lush, indulgent hand, a true big-budget period piece, it’s own sort of refreshing in a land of low-budget indies and franchise reboots.