Stories We Tell, Svengali and The Bling Ring
Posted on Tuesday June 25, 2013, 10:16 by Stephen Carty in Edinburgh International Film Festival
One of the most well-received features from the first few days of the 67th Edinburgh International Film Festival was Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley’s autobiographical documentary that delves into her recent family history. Far more interesting than this broad description might suggest, Polley’s follow-up to Take This Waltz is amusing, warm and unusually candid, laying bare some personal and potentially painful family truths. Starting out as a profile-come-love-letter to her late mother, Diane (who died prior to Polley’s teenage years), it then morphs into a surprisingly frank portrait of her parents’ marriage (and accompanying sexytime), before veering off on a Partridge-like tangent to air some dirty family laundry. Like recent narrative docs The Imposter and Searching For Sugar Man, there are twists and surprises in store that are a crucial part of the overall experience, so to say any more would risk venturing into harmful spoiler territory. Suffice to say, this is one where you should go in as cold as possible.
What can be revealed, though, is that Stories We Tell is also about memory and the way it affects – yup, you guessed it – the stories we tell. To tell her particular story, Polley uses old home-movie footage, recent talking head interviews (some of which clash slightly…) and Super-8 reconstructions that are so credible you begin to wonder why this family kept a camcorder with them at all times. For the most part, Polley’s thoughts and feelings are pretty much absent, but it’s lovely to see her interacting with her Dad, Michael, who we see recording the narration in a sound studio while she prods him with the occasional instruction. “I will go on, I will go on”, he states towards the end – and the film does a bit, too. But while I wasn’t as blown-away by Polley’s festival favourite as many of the critics here, it’s often compelling and definitely worth seeing.
Less well-received was Svengali, the mod-rocker romantic comedy (mod-rock-rom-com?) that was expanded from a cult YouTube series. Following a nifty title sequence where old cassette tapes pulse up and down like sound levels on a stereo system, the plot centres on idealistic Welsh postman Dixie (Jonny Owen), who moves to London with his loyal girlfriend, Shell (Vicky McClure), so he can pursue his dream of managing a rock band. Slight and unchallenging fare, it’s not hard to see why the film prompted sniffy responses from a few of the critics here, with Dixie’s quest to sign said band – the perfectly named Premature Congratulations - both unrealistically easy (oh look, there’s former Oasis big-wig Alan McGee!) and unnecessarily convoluted.
But while it’s unlikely to win any awards, the film has a genuine trump-card in the form of writer-star Jonny Owen, whose toothy Welsh positivity is charming enough to win over anyone with an open mind. In terms of laughs, Svengali is more mildly amusing than it is laugh-out-loud funny, although The Mighty Boosh’s Matt Berry grabs a few genuine giggles as a no-nonsense record label boss who pops up for a few scene-pinching appearances. Vicky McClure, meanwhile, also gets a welcome semi-lead role as Dixie’s adoring (and long-suffering) girlfriend, while Martin Freeman and Michael Smiley feature in small, throwaway parts as a record-shop owner and a debt collector, respectively.
Next up was Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, which was far better than its lukewarm reaction in Cannes suggested. Lighter and more accessible than the likes of Lost In Translation, Coppola’s fifth feature is perceptive, funny and deceptively knowing, combining her usual recurring themes (privilege, celebrity culture, adolescent isolation, young girls trying to find their place in the world) to enjoyably entertaining effect. Though sold in some quarters as Emma Watson’s star vehicle, the film is actually best described as an ensemble piece, with her spoiled, club-hopping princess only part of the titular, fame-obsessed gang who break into celebrities’ homes in order to nab their expensive gear.
Considering that said gang constantly find unlocked star properties and aren’t concerned about leaving fingerprints, you’d probably write The Bling Ring off as too far-fetched if it weren’t based on real events. But based on real events it is, with Coppola using the true story to render an insightful portrait of today’s youth (making it an interesting, less surreal companion piece to Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers), perfectly encapsulating the way celebrities are currently celebrated and consumed. Following her against-type turn in The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, Miss Watson is impressive enough that you quickly forget you’re looking at a grown-up Hermione and accept her as a privileged party-girl gone wrong (her US accent is spot-on, too), while both Israel Broussard and Katie Chang are terrific as the gang’s ringleaders bling-leaders.