WESTAF Shoebox Arts

FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Wicked Little Letters,’ ‘Girls State,’ and TAG! Queer Shorts

An obscenity-filled period comedy pits Olivia Colman against Jessie Buckley as friends-turned-archrivals whose feud stirs up controversy in a sleepy English village.

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Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley in “Wicked Little Letters.” The smiles don’t last.

A few years back, Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley each delivered Oscar-worthy performances as the same character at different ages in The Lost Daughter. The memory of that film provides a certain frisson to their confrontations in Wicked Little Letters that buoys this moderately clever comedy more than it probably deserves.

Set just after World War I in the Sussex village of Littlehampton, and purportedly inspired by a true story, it follows the provincial controversy that erupts when prim middle-aged spinster Edith Swan (Colman), who still lives with her even primmer parents (Timothy Spall and Gemma Jones), receives a series of anonymous, creatively vulgar poison pen letters.

Upon receipt of the nineteenth such missive, the Swans convince the local constabulary to arrest their Irish neighbor, Rose Gooding (Buckley), a recent arrival in town who’s not only a free-spirited single mother (gasp) but an unapologetic and frequent public curser. Rose and Edith, it emerges, had become, despite their differences, friendly, until Rose created a disturbance at Mr. Swan’s birthday party. Then the troubles began.

Just about the only one who isn’t ready to throw Rose in gaol on libel charges, forcing her to lose custody of her daughter, is Woman Police Officer (the first such in the county) Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan). Noting the lack of actual evidence tying Rose to the letters, she digs in and eventually discovers the not-so-surprising truth of the matter.

Colman and Buckley are effortlessly watchable, of course, with the latter in particular seeming to enjoy the opportunity to flamboyantly launch improprieties and generally disturb the pious, whist-obsessed local culture. There are moments when Jonny Sweet’s screenplay (his first produced feature) relies too much on the one-joke premise of phrases like “foxy old whore,” “sack of chicken piss,” and other insults I’ll not replicate. Spall, an eternally underrated treasure, spews patriarchal venom as Edith’s domineering father, and Vasan provides a welcome dose of patient rationality as an audience surrogate.

Wicked Little Letters is, however, a rare instance where color-blind casting, despite its admirable intention, serves more to distract than to edify. Clearly, the first female police officer in Sussex is very unlikely to have been, as Vasan is, of Indian heritage. And it seems odd that Rose’s Black boyfriend Bill (Malachi Kirby) doesn’t draw any attention based on his skin color in this historically monoracial context, especially considering the movie’s emphasis on casual ethnic discrimination.

But that’s a minor quibble compared to the general predictability of what becomes a pretty obvious lesson about hypocrisy and repressed anger. Eminently watchable, and laugh-out-loud funny at times, Wicked Little Letters’ uneasy mixture of ribald comedy and moral messaging still never quite gels. (Regal Fox Tower, Lloyd Center, and other locations)

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Seattle Opera Barber of Seville

Female rivalries of a far healthier sort take center stage in Girls State, the documentary follow-up to 2020’s Boys State. Like that film, this one captures an annual event (in Missouri, not Texas, this time) wherein hundreds of high schoolers come together to form a hypothetical government. Now, however, it’s the other half of the defined gender binary in the spotlight. (It’ll likely be a while before either Texas or Missouri starts hosting “Trans State” events.)

It’s a fascinating crucible for these carefully selected, highly motivated teens, depressing and inspiring at different times. The participants invariably describe themselves as either “liberal” or “conservative,” but there’s no discussion of which qualities or opinions correlate to each descriptor, or whether any of them are contradictory. There’s also the assumption that every political stance is mere opinion, and using objective evidence to demonstrate that a statement is simply wrong is somehow rude.

As the intensive campaigns for Supreme Court positions and Governor (the highest office) gear up, however, one thing that nearly all can agree upon is that the organizers’ emphasis on dress codes and buddy systems is markedly different from what the dudes at Boys State, held simultaneously on the same campus, are experiencing. “I’m sick of the fluff,” one says.

As they did in Boys State, directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss capture countless unguarded moments, some of which don’t reflect glowingly on the program. Adding heat to the political climate, the conference takes place in the spring of 2022, after the leaked Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has made it evident that Roe v. Wade is living on borrowed time. The most fascinating narrative thread follows one girl’s failed attempt at a Supreme Court appointment, followed by her decision as a lower-court judge to invalidate a Missouri law requiring women to receive counseling before undergoing an abortion. Her decision is appealed to the Girls State Supreme Court, where the level of advocacy and deliberation exceeds that seen on some days at the real thing.

In Boys State, a montage depicted various adolescent delegates from decades past who had gone on to achieve national political prominence. In its stead, the opening credits of Girls State include several photographs of White House administrations, each of which has a single woman in the frame. That discrepancy is reason enough for this program to exist, and makes you root for every girl on screen, (almost) no matter their side of the aisle. (Streaming on Apple TV+)

TAG! Queer Shorts Festival: Back for its eleventh iteration, this two-day event offers the opportunity to sample a wide variety of work by queer and trans filmmakers from around the world and right here at home. The dozens of titles are curated in loosely thematic blocks and represent a panoply of styles and moods, from animated fairy tales like The Prince’s Dilemma to dramatic realism in House of Whoreship, which is set in an Australian brothel. And viewers in search of endearing penis-shaped puppets need look no further than the Spanish Gilipollas. My favorites, of the small selection available for preview, were a pair of Portland-made efforts. Nick Boxwell’s artfully animated The Tin Woods provides an ironic alternate origin story for the Tin Woodsman of Oz, while JT Seaton’s clever The Haunted Baby Carriage from Hell tweaks horror movie tropes. (Saturday and Sunday, Hollywood Theatre)

ALSO OPENING

Baghead: Way back in 2008, one of the Duplass Brothers’ first triumphs was Baghead, a mumblecore horror spoof that co-starred Greta Gerwig. Now, 15 years later, some geniuses have recycled the title for a creepy-grandma-in-the-basement flick that seems to have nothing to do with its predecessor. Weird. (streaming on Shudder)

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Seattle Opera Barber of Seville

Carol Doda Topless at the Condor: This documentary profiles the woman who, in San Francisco on the eve of the 1964 Republican National Convention, began her career as the first public topless dancer.

Dogman: Caleb Landry Jones reportedly gives a powerhouse performance in this change-of-pace from veteran French filmmaker Luc Besson about a man who deals with past trauma by befriending packs of dogs and also performing as an Édith Piaf impersonator. (Regal Fox Tower)

Femme: After a Black drag performer (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) is subjected to a brutal homophobic assault from a closeted white guy (George Mackay, soon to be seen in Challengers), he initiates a transgressive plan for revenge. (Regal Fox Tower)

The First Omen: Okay, this is definitely NOT the first Omen. But it is a potentially invigorating prequel to the sage of little Damien, the world’s cutest Antichrist. An American nun-to-be arrives in Italy in 1971 to join her convent and discovers all sorts of presumably nasty business. Yes, this is the same basic plot as Immaculate. The cast does include Bill Nighy, Sonia Braga, and Charles Dance, which is promising. So is the fact that the Hollywood Theatre will be screening it in 35mm. (wide release)

Le Samouraï: You know those memes that go “You may be cool, but you’ll never be [fill in the blank] cool”? Well, nothing that has ever filled in that blank will be as cool as Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s impeccably stylized noir, which perfected a template that others, including John Woo and Quentin Tarantino, have spent decades trying to replicate. You know what’s not cool? Never having seen this film. New 4k restoration. (Cinema 21)

Limbo: Simon Baker (of TV’s The Mentalist) takes the lead in this moody, black-and-white Australian crime drama about a cop sent into the Outback to solve a twenty-year-old cold case about a missing First Nations girl. (Salem Cinema)

Monkey Man: Dev Patel directs and stars in this blood-soaked, Mumbai-set revenge thriller in which his character, known only as Kid, goes after the folks (including Sharlto Copley’s mob boss) who murdered his parents. (wide release)

Sponsor

WESTAF Shoebox Arts

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus: For this final opportunity to experience the aura of genius that emanated from the Japanese composer, his son filmed him giving one last performance, encompassing selections from his entire career, on solo piano as he knew he was dying. (Saturday and Sunday, Cinema 21)

REVIVALS

THURSDAY

  • Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse [2013] (Clinton St.)

FRIDAY

  • Star Trek: First Contact [1996] (Hollywood)
  • Trancers [1984] (Cinemagic, on VHS)

SATURDAY

  • After Hours [1983] (Cinema 21)
  • Blood and Black Lace [1964] (Hollywood, also Sunday)
  • The Raid [2011] (Cinemagic, also Wednesday)
  • The Raid 2 [2014] (Cinemagic, also Thursday)
  • Spellbound [1945] (Hollywood, also Sunday)
  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit? [1988] (Clinton St.)

SUNDAY

  • Tampopo [1985] (Hollywood)
  • Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit [2005] (Clinton St.)

TUESDAY

  • Hundreds of Beavers [2023] (Clinton St.)
  • The One-Armed Boxer [1972] (Hollywood, on 35mm)

WEDNESDAY

Sponsor

MYS Oregon to Iberia

  • Bubble Bath [1979] (Clinton St.)
  • Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story [2007] (Hollywood)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Vérité Law Company and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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