THE UNITED STATES VS BILLIE HOLIDAY: Lee Daniels makes a trifle out of strange fruit.

Lee Daniels insists on keeping the wardrobe from all his films.

There are a lot of race issue films set in mid-century America getting our attention this season. Whether presented with detailed historical accuracy or stylized as stage plays, they seek to educate on the Black American experience during these decades, not just how awful it was, but how and why it got that way and continues to stay that way. 

For Lee Daniels, this is all too high-minded. Movies aren’t supposed to be watched in a lecture hall. They’re meant to be enjoyed with bite-sized foods covered in cheese. And so, with messy snacks in mind, Daniels has made The United States vs Billie Holiday.

We open with a gruesome vintage image of a lynched Black man being burned by a white crowd, then cut directly to Andra Day over-styled to the hilt as Billie Holiday. She stands frozen, facing us directly, a red stage curtain behind her, immense white orchids in her hair, and a dress that barely hints at the time period. As a one-two punch, this intro seems designed for people who channel surf between true crime stories and RuPaul’s Drag Race. And other than when I sit my 90-year-old dad, nobody does that.

But Daniels digs right into to this formula, cutting stock footage from the era into his film in a clumsy attempt to lend a Ken Burns authenticity to his nighttime soap histrionics. 

Day, a lauded recording artist, easily nails Holiday’s singing voice, and translates that into a plausible version of the woman offstage. She makes a valiant effort to hold up Holiday’s dignity, but Daniels prefers his actresses going at it like a Real Housewife after three daiquiris, so most of what we see of Day’s Billie is needle in arm, fighting and degrading sex. 

To add insult to injury, Day is given no help steering this runaway train, because Daniels has surrounded her with a stunt cast that is far less successful at finding something to do with their poorly written parts. Mariah Carey worked in Precious because she didn’t play a woman concerned solely with showing side boob. Here, though, Daniels’ stunt players are written to type, and they aren’t the right type. 

First up is that shady gay munchkin (Karen’s language, not mine) from Will&Grace. He’s in old lady drag as an interviewer grilling Holiday for flashbacks, and how are we supposed to focus on Holiday when Leslie Jordan is on the other side of the frame looking like when Drew Barrymore put lipstick and a wig on E.T.? Maybe this character is based on someone real, but it’s so silly and distracting that it’s not worth Googling. 

And while I’m usually all in for Daniels’ male harems, giving Trevante Rhodes (the hottest of all the hot guys in Moonlight) an anal sex scene doesn’t quite compensate for giving him such a useless character. It’s a close call, though, considering the screen time his glutes get. For the vanilla flavor we have Garrett Hedlund, who can handle a CGI dragon fine, but a character that’s representing the whole of systemic racism in Jim Crow-era American law enforcement is above his pay grade. And he never takes his clothes off.

The most stunted of the casting is Natasha Lyonne as Tallulah Bankhead, an actress known to publicly flaunt exaggerated mannerisms whom Lyonne chooses to downplay even when everyone else is behaving like a room full of ADD kids off their meds.

This episode in Holiday’s tumultuous life sounds compelling, but maybe Daniels thought there wasn’t enough to it. Even at the time, Holiday was an admitted drug user, so the FBI’s attempt to catch her at it may have seemed anti-climactic. And the premise that the government wanted to lock her up just to keep her from performing Strange Fruit may have been true, but there were other ways for people to listen to the controversial song than going to see her live. 

So Daniels sensationalizes her drug habit, her relationships, her quirks, even her wardrobe, which must have emptied the silk flower aisle in every Michaels in the greater LA area. He throws in side characters simply to frame an overworked narrative structure or fill a circus tent of woke representations. And the sex, come on. Do we need to have it suggested that this abused woman preferred rough (and often anal) sex in order to understand her better? That she lusted after every threatening male presence that came into her life? Or does this degrade the real Billie Holiday for no purpose other than a shocking scene? 

Who knows how Andra Day justified taking this role, but she does commit to it, and though one can cringe at the director’s choices, she manages to create a Billie Holiday that is visceral and memorable.

The most frustrating thing is what a disservice this is to Billie Holiday. Daniels leaves us with the image of a screwed-up junkie, putting this image over the Holiday we knew prior to his opportunistic rendering – the one-of-a-kind voice who immortalized Strange Fruit as a devastating epic poem carrying the pain of an entire race. Why not structure the film around that, solidify Holiday’s place as an iconic American diva, rather than dragging her through the gutter like she’s a story arc on Empire?

Billie Holiday’s legacy made it through Jim Crow racism intact. Daniels just laid her out again for the crows to pluck.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League: The Pepsi of superhero films.

You’d be pissed too if you’d been raised from the dead just to find that Ben Affleck is still playing Batman.

The DC vs Marvel thing has been with us since superhero comics took off in the 60s. Some fans gravitated toward the more straightforward, earnest leanings of DC, others to the edgier personality Marvel developed. Taste is subjective (you say tomato, I say Batfleck…) so arguments as to which body of work is superior are futile. But when it comes to committing their respective properties to a filmed treatment, comparisons between the studios are inevitable, especially when plots parallel to the degree that Zack Snyder’s Justice League and the Avengers two-part finale Infinity War and Endgame do.

It’s understandable that when Zack Snyder set out to fix the mess that was made of his 2017 Justice League he brought the weight of his personal tragedy. His hand had already been getting heavier with each of his projects, though, and given unlimited control – and running time – to redo Justice League, he’s delivered a 4-hour trudge through the valley of darkness.

That kind of journey isn’t necessarily boring. But with this particular one, once you realize that there’ll be no twists on this path, that it’s just a straight slab of newly-laid asphalt through a dark landscape over which something shiny will occasionally fly, you wonder why you’ve been forced to walk so slowly. It’s not about the indulgent run time – Marvel took 5½ hours to tell their version – it’s about how the writers and filmmakers use the time. The end result here obviously won’t bother DC devotees, as again, they prefer more straightforward presentations and champion their heroes no matter how compromised the depiction. For the rest of us, well, it’s hard to get excited about a 4-hour movie led by Ben Affleck’s Batman when something like WandaVision, which was also themed around the grief-induced resurrection of a beloved hero, managed to pack so much more cleverness, surprise and delight into each 40-minute episode.

ZSJL and the Avengers finale(s) both center around characters with near identical backstories and super-abilities – Batman and Ironman. That Robert Downey Jr created a more memorable version of his character than Affleck did of Batman is well-accepted on both sides of the aisle, so we’ll move on from that. Like Ironman in Infinity War, Batman has to bring together a team of superheroes, some of them reluctant, to form a super-team because Only United Can We Defeat the Villain.

Both stories sport a planet-destroying baddie searching for a set of magical objects that when brought together will make him all-powerful. Which heroes and villains and narratives came first in their respective comics isn’t the point here. It’s which studio built a more robust cinematic universe around their superteam and super-villain, and thus allowed fans, both established and new, to become more deeply invested in the eventually outcome.

Marvel was laser-focused on their MCU from 2008’s Ironman. Over the next 10 years, the studio spent 11 films just on the three core superteam members – Ironman, Captain America and Thor – and Avengers team-ups before arriving at Infinity War. These and the several other properties brought to cinematic life in the same time period included origin story films and sequels that seeded and began to weave together narrative elements that would come together spectacularly in Infinity War and Endgame. That’s something like 50 hours of back-story going into the finale.

As for origin stories and any seeding of ZSJL narrative elements, DC was so focused on stand-alone movies over the past decade that they left almost no crumbs for viewers to follow to a big event that brings big characters together. You have to give Snyder credit for trying to get so much done in 4 hours, but each time he has to step to the side to tell an origin story, we lose investment in the main narrative, which is already less complex (and thus less compelling) than its Marvel parallel.

Most of the origin asides are satisfying in themselves, notably Cyborg’s, which had been minimized in the 2017 version. By increasing Cyborg’s presence, Snyder has added much-needed dimension to the narrative: Cyborg is the only POC character on the (movie version) core team of the Justice League or the Avengers; he has a more emotional backstory; and he was created using one of the magical boxes the villain is after. Snyder’s cut has also helped right the behind-the-scenes controversy over Josh Whedon’s alleged harassment of Cyborg actor Ray Fisher.

Along with the stop-and-start pace, we get the full impact of Snyderstyle, which has soaring, beautifully-executed action scenes land with thuddingly flat character development (Cyborg an exception). Wonder Woman is in school-trip tour director mode, making sure no detail is missed, no matter how obvious. She’s not alone in this task, either. Most of the lines are delivered as if explaining plot points to an 8-year-old. Example: Batfleck spends the first two hours unsuccessfully trying to repair a fancy helicopter he designed. When, in a dire moment near the end, Cyborg shows up in the helicopter to rescue the team, Batfleck exclaims “He fixed it!”. Ya think? If I had been watching this in a theater, I’d have assumed some kid in the audience yelled that instead of the dark-souled character on screen that usually speaks in a barely audible growl. This style of writing and line delivery is a taste I know, and intended to be more like a filmed comic book, but it doesn’t do the actors any favors. 

When there are sparks of personality to be had, Snyder chooses either to wet towel them (out of fairness to the less nimble actors, maybe?) or load them all onto a couple characters. In the case of the Justice League, those would be the young, fast-talking Flash and ornery iconoclast Aquaman. Yet few of Flash’s quips land, and Jason Mamoa seems so fed up with being presented as man-candy (“let’s do one more, Jason, and pull that shirt off even slooower…”) that he comes across more petulant than feisty. And speaking of Jason stripping, why if Aquaman has to de-shirt to go back into the sea, does he not have to de-pant? More logic and man ass would help any movie, would it not?

And let’s not get into how Superman is (not) used. Well, let’s get into the fact that he’s bare-chested half his short screen time, but otherwise, it’s a surprising waste of their biggest character. When the team uses one of the magic cubes to resurrect him, he appears hovering above Metropolis in the same outfit Aquaman uses to go back to the sea, and he’s pissed off. “He’s confused, he doesn’t know who he is!” Wonder Woman explains to everyone younger than eight. Evil Superman starts eye-lasering everything and everyone in sight, and as usual it’s well-executed, but this time it’s also a rare moment in the film that’s freed from formulaic character drudgery. Bad Superman even picks up the huge head of his own toppled statue and throws it at Batman, which shows that his dark side has a sorely needed sense of humor. The whole time we’re thinking, yes, goddammit finally, Zack, fuck with this character but good! 

Alas, the underlying wholesomeness of Snyder and DC is not going to allow for that. Up steps Lois Lane, who quickly deploys Lesson 1 from the manual So You Have a Superhero Boyfriend. She calms the monster by welling up her eyes and whispering his name. He ceases the hostility, floats down and takes her to brunch.

As for twists, that’s all, folks! The team thwarts the villain and we get our poster shot of the restored Justice League (characters and franchise). The studio has deemed this a satisfactory conclusion for this one-movie series, as it announced there are no plans for the sequel hinted at in the epilogue.

This is a pretty telling indication of DC’s lack of faith in the universe they’ve cobbled together. You know they brought in every screenwriter from Dark Knight to Shazam! to try to get even 90 minutes of story out of Darkseid’s return to claim the Anti-life Equation, and there just isn’t enough there.

What’s to become of our beloved characters? Will Batman survive yet another recasting? Where will Wonder Woman go now that Snyder and Patty Jenkins ruined her most interesting nemesis in WW84? Will anyone follow Aquaman to another film if he won’t drop trou? Can we bear another second of Jared Leto’s Joker?

DC, if you really are interested in elevating your brand, in bringing more gravity to your universe, you have to push your boundaries. Limiting edginess to villains or corralling it into artsy one-offs isn’t going to do it. Evil Superman is your savior. Embrace his bare-chested badness.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is on HBOMax. 

I Care a Lot: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels II: Dirty Rotten Lesbians

“You wanna know how nasty a lesbian I am, punk? On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m an Ellen.”

There are lots of reasons you can not care for a movie: a premise done a million times; a screenplay full of clichés; hacky acting; ugly, clumsy camera work.

I Care a Lot has none of those issues. It’s an original story idea based in a part of our culture we rarely see in movies. The writing is clever and cracking. The acting committed beyond what many performers would feel comfortable adding to their resume. The direction is sly and cinematography stylish as hell. Even the music is wisely restrained.

Technically, it’s terrific. Why this can still be a ‘bad’ film to me comes down to its tonal hollowness. Granted, I watched it the night after I saw Nomadland, so the 180 really threw me. And there are ‘pitch black comedy/thrillers’ (the kind of labored description used for films like this) that I’ve enjoyed. 

But I Care a Lot takes a genuinely disturbing issue – the systemic, physical and psychological abuse of the elderly –  and says “there’s nothing we can do about it, so let’s just use it as set-up for a crazy thriller.” Some will argue that the lead’s exaggerated cruelty serves to highlight just how evil the system can be, but the film keeps undermining this conceit by trying to give us reasons to root for that lead. 

Warning: spoilers ahead. But then this is a movie gleefully wallowing in its spoil, so…

The film opens soberly, in a court hearing where a son argues that he’s being denied access to his mother, who’s being interred against her will by her court-appointed guardian. We feel for the guy and his unseen mother, which makes us question whether this can really happen or if it’s exaggerated for the plot. A little digging says it is accurate. Courts can indeed give legal guardians a shocking amount of power over an elderly person’s life, without ever hearing direct witness from that elderly person. Family can appear – or be made to appear – either naïve or opportunistic about the diminished condition of an elderly relative, with the impartial courts as the only way to insure their safety. It’s a tragic situation, and we enter the story with disgust for the villainous protagonist taking advantage of it.

Marla Grayson, played by Rosemund Pike with the commitment mentioned earlier, is that villain. Introduced in a form-fitting red dress and a blonde bob so severe she could cut your throat just by turning her head, she is clearly the devil in Nikita disguise. Why does someone who cares for the elderly have to look dowdy, this movie challenges us. OK, cool, we say, because it’s Rosemund Pike in great accessories. And why wouldn’t the Black male judge be such putty in the hands of this gorgeous white woman, the movie challenges us. Ok, cool, we say, because…actually not cool at all, but let’s move on.

Marla has built a successful business out of her guardianship con, with doctors and elderly care facilities and gullible Black male judges complicit. As Marla returns from her court triumph over the distraught son, we meet a young woman who appears to be her assistant, and secretly hope there’s more to the relationship because this actress is haw-haw-haw-hawttt

Our hopes are realized! Marla and Fran (Eiza Gonzales) are doin’ it, and Fran is a partner in the scamming. They get their crooked lady doctor friend – who is also hot though we don’t know her sexual preferences – to pass them one of her patients, a prime target referred to as a ‘cherry’. Pop! go our devious duo. 

Jennifer (Diane Wiest) is a wealthy retiree with no family, who has recently shown some minimal memory loss, which the doctor can exaggerate to recommend guardianship. We then get to see Marla’s process unfold. It is ugly, involving psychological abuse that turns physical later.

She immediately sequesters Jennifer in a care facility run by an accomplice, who drugs the old woman into compliance. While clearing out Jennifer’s assets for auction, the proceeds of which will go mostly into her own pockets, Marla discovers a fortune in undocumented loose diamonds hidden in a safe deposit box. Jennifer has a secret, and it shows up in the form of Russian mobster Roman (Peter Dinklage, thankfully sans Russian accent).

The story gets briefly shadowed by The Good Liar, in which Helen Mirren plays a seemingly helpless older woman who proves to be duplicitous. I Care a Lot quickly dodges, though, putting Jennifer under further abuse as Marla uses her in a battle of wills with Roman. 

The bleak, cynical tone shifts to dark comedy/thriller. Despicable as they are, Marla and Fran are devoted to each other, and so, so hot, that maybe we’ll root for them. They’re aided by the depiction of the mobsters, who aren’t the ruthless, efficient Russian mob we get in movies like Eastern Promises, but more like the crew from Barry, so hapless that Marla can easily beat them. 

Marla is supposed to be an irredeemable villain, but a great actress can’t help but to nuance a character. Pike lets barely perceptible flashes of concern cross her rigid features when threatened, and suggests a genuine love in her exchanges with Fran. As movie-goers, our demand for justice, for an evil character to get their comeuppance, is ingrained. Pike taunts us with this, her performance trying to unbalance our righteous indignation. As in Gone Girl, she challenges the way we see unflattering female characters.

After convenient escapes from the jaws of death/defeat, Marla and Fran manage to incapacitate Roman, who, being a mobster, has wiped out ways for the system to trace him. He is left a John Doe, and what does the system do with incapacitated John Does? It assigns them a legal guardian. Cut to Marla’s fabulous, knife-sharp stilettoes propped up on Roman’s hospital bed. This sounds like just the right ending for a movie like this. But it’s not. 

Marla and Roman make a deal, and she turns her scam global, upping her clientele of abused elderlies and their families from a few dozen to thousands. Her evil is swollen to hideous proportions as a seeming comment on rabid capitalism. How are we supposed to react to this?

Imagine how this gonzo, farcical tone would play if instead of elderly abuse, Marla was running a scam involving caging immigrants at the border with the complicity of local authorities and ICE. Both tragedies are all too real, so why is one of them ok as fodder for this style of filmic treatment but the other not?

Does a well-written plot and committed performance keep you watching? Yes. But as we’ve seen so much lately with tech billionaires and teflon politicians, you can admire the cleverness of something and still find it gross.

I Care a Lotis streaming on Netflix.

Nomadland: A road trip is just what we need right now, and Frances McDormand is driving.

She always knows something we don’t.

This New Age of Realism (Nouvelle Verite?) Hollywood is getting into lately – where documentary-style techniques and non-actors are woven into traditional story arcs played by trained actors – is as tricky as it sounds. The goal is to remove the artifice as much as possible, but if your lead is too polished, the light reflected on everything else ruins the effect.

When movie people say about an actress “the camera loves her”, they’re typically referring to that light. It’s both technical – the way movie light plays on the planes of her face – and the intangible light from within. For a female movie star, especially one as lauded as Frances McDormand, the ability to switch that off is crucial for this mash-up to work.

The opening titles of Nomadland tell us of a real mining town in Nevada, ironically called Empire, that literally disappeared off the map (its Zip Code was cancelled) after the U.S. Gypsum mine there closed in 2011. McDormand’s fictional character, Fern, is from this real dead town, forced out alone onto the harsh plains of the American West after the loss of her husband, company-owned house and steady income. She becomes a nomad, living in her van, driving great distances for itinerant work and refusing every anchor offered her. She has no goal or lofty dreams, no destination other than the next gig that will keep her in gas and food. She’s resigned to be a ghost chained to the earthly plane by manual labor.

To make this film, director Chloe Zhao brought McDormand into the world of real houseless nomads of the American West, whom the director had met and interviewed prior. All the characters Fern meets on the road – except for one which I’ll get to – are non-actors playing versions of themselves. We anticipate a documentary-ish mood piece, where the actress herself, as much as her character, drifts among these people, listening to their stories along with us. ‘Making’ herself one of them works because of McDormand’s unmatched flexibility as an actor, and would be just enough of a layer for this experiment to become transcendent. We get these transcendent moments, but we do also get a scripted storyline that requires scenes in which McDormand has to act, has to show her movie star light, rather than just be.

I’m not saying it spoils anything. Watching McDormand act is a distinct pleasure. But it takes us out of the realism in those moments. Like I said, it’s a tricky mix.

Zhao focuses the narrative on three nomads, all playing themselves. We first meet Linda May, who befriends Fern and introduces her to the larger nomad community. Another woman, Swankie, became a nomad when she learned she was dying of cancer, and mesmerizes Fern with anecdotes about her experiences with nature. A man named Bob Wells leads a regular gathering in Arizona called the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, where nomads support each other by passing along work opportunities, trading essential tools and knowledge, and providing camaraderie that, no matter how desirous of isolation, every soul needs. 

Then we meet a fictional nomad played by David Strathairn. He’s here for the more scripted storyline, to try to pull Fern toward that which she resists, which is settling down. The problem isn’t so much that he’s a recognizable actor thrown into a group of non-actors, it’s that we don’t need his character to understand Fern’s reasons for ghosting herself. What there is to be told she slowly relates to the characters we’re more drawn to, characters we never see in movies – real people living this kind of life. Nothing McDormand and Strathairn do together tears your heart out like an exchange between Fern and Bob Wells where they each open up about loss. 

It’s these scenes, Fern amongst the real nomads, that make the movie unique and unforgettable. The tales related feel as natural and eternal as the stunning landscapes they’re set against, even though some must have been practiced. Zhao likely heard stories in her initial interviews she felt were particularly beautiful or poetic, and asked the person to retell it when they shot the film. This actually makes the words resonate more, to have a careful director lightly fan them up into the starry South Dakota sky along with the embers from a campfire.

Many of the nomads point to the 2008 recession as what drove them into this lifestyle, but the way Zhao frames their world makes it more mythical. Using a dried-up mining town in the Old West to introduce the story, and then the endless horizons of the plains and deserts and badlands as a backdrop, she sets a nostalgic, ‘lost America’ tone that lingers over everything. It lends nobility to the characters that comes from our own nostalgia for unspoiled places and simpler times when people didn’t care so much about money and success. Zhao also goes to pains to avoid any sense that she’s exploiting the inherent oddness of these cultural outsiders, or turning them into victims.

This, in the end, is the biggest deal of this movie. It is not trying to roil indignation in us at what the cruelties of capitalism have done to these people, the way the world ignores them. It is not trying to make us feel guilty that our lives are more comfortable and safe. It does not let us laugh at them or pity them.

It simply and respectfully shows us the world they’ve created out of both necessity and desire, and what about that world brings them contentment. Maybe all this movie wants is for each of us to look at the world we’ve created for ourselves, remember what about it makes us content, and embrace that.

Nomadlandis currently streaming on Hulu.

Pieces of a Woman: Vanessa Kirby has a midwife crisis.

“I want pickles, ice cream, and a better director.”

Childbirth is one of the only depictions in movies that female actors can claim as their own (Billy Crystal, put your hand down). When we get a labor scene, the ladies can mug and cuss and chew scenery in whatever way they want and no male viewer has the right to question whether it feels authentic. So, as a male, watching Vanessa Kirby go through labor in the opening scene of Pieces of a Woman and actually feeling it, relating to it, is a pretty unique experience.

Kirby is Martha, who is way over-pregnant when she and her partner Sean (Shia LeBeouf in a beard you do not want to smell) get home with the new SUV her mother bought them. We already know something’s amiss because they are way too excited over a Toyota. They live in a nice Boston brownstone full of Design Within Reach furniture, she has a corner office in a sleek glass tower downtown, he’s a construction foreman on a major bridge project in the last union-run town on earth, and they have to have the mother buy them a $35,000 car? Somebody’s hiding something, and I’m guessing that something is logic and the screenwriter is the culprit.

But wow does Kirby give us a childbirthin’! Her belches and farts are totally realistic (they sound like Chipotle to me, but could be Taco Bell) as she contorts in every way imaginable to find a bearable position to settle her swollen belly. The sequence is done in a single take, the camera stumbling through hallways and rooms as it follows Sean doing Martha’s erratic bidding then running back to check on Martha moaning and farting.

Martha committed to having her first child at home using a midwife, but the one she’s been practicing with for months is right in the middle of another client’s labor. Martha demands she leave the other client immediately, because every woman in labor gets to turn into a Real Housewife whenever she wants. Instead of going to the hospital, the couple agree to use a substitute midwife recommended by the original one. If you’ve ever had a substitute teacher in school who has no idea of the lesson plan so just lets you read the whole period, you know what’s coming.

It’s awful to watch. Martha and Sean get to hold their newborn daughter for two minutes before the baby starts turning blue, the midwife unable to revive her. By the time the breathtaking and heartbreaking sequence is over, you’re ready to award this film Best Narrative Short. Too bad it’s a feature length movie.

Now the logic gaps start appearing like potholes on a dreary stretch of road. First and foremost, this coupling makes no sense in any world. Yes, opposites can attract, but LeBeouf, committed actor that he is, has been goaded too much lately by inexperienced directors to go down a rabbit hole of erratically violent characterizations. In the right movie, fine. But here, where you need to see something in him that the erudite, self-aware Martha would be attracted to, it’s bad casting and directing. When things get to the point where LeBeouf, loaded as he is with his off-screen behavior, is made to channel Sean’s grief by raping Martha, my annoyance tilted to disgust. There was absolutely no need for the narrative to go there, and you can just picture producer Martin Scorsese nodding approvingly on set. And LeBeouf being escorted back to rehab for the fourth time right afterward.

Then the plot turns to Martha’s overbearing mother, played by the brilliant but also miscast Ellen Burstyn. Kirby looks to be in her early 30s, while Burstyn is clearly pushing 80. And just when we agree to stretch for the movie’s sake and believe she could be late 60s, they dash that by giving her character a Holocaust Backstory™! And we get it through another display of the director’s inexperience, when he stops the narrative in its tracks to give Burstyn her Best Supporting Actress Monologue™.

The incongruities keep stumbling along. It seems the baby’s death is a set-up for a competing plot, itself a mash-up of B story lines from House and CSI. Martha’s mother and Sean orchestrate a wrongful death lawsuit against the substitute midwife, which Martha wants no part of. The lawyer, played by Sarah Snook from Succession (or maybe it’s Biden’s new press secretary?), is expensive, though, and mother’s pockets are only Toyota deep. So how do they pay her? No guess would be more idiotic than what we actually get: the lawyer agrees to take the case after sucking Sean’s cock. We saw Sean’s cock in the rape scene, and take it from an expert, it is not worth $300 an hour. How desperate are Boston women?

This movie goes through such machinations to say ‘Look at me, I’m serious filmmaking!” that it too often sidelines the simple, devastating narrative of a mother’s journey through the loss of a child.

Thank god we have Kirby to watch. It takes a lot of talent for a subtle, nuanced performance to pull our attention from all the dramatic showboating and belabored plot-making, and she feels like she’s in a different, much better, film. The acclaim she’s getting comes not just from the virtuoso performance in the opening, but from the novel way she navigates through the bereaved mother trope we’ve seen so many times. Refusing to play sympathetic without crossing over into unlikeable is tricky, and the breakthrough she saves for the climax feels genuinely cathartic instead of Screenwriting 101.

Will the filmmakers leave us with Kirby’s beautifully-paced and satisfying arc through grief? Nope! Someone told them Americans need their movies wrapped up with a happy bow, so we get a BS ending that nearly spoils the work Kirby has done.

The amateurishness of the production shows even in the editing, where repetitive close-ups of female body parts – literally pieces of a woman – are used as scene transitions. 

Maybe they’d have had a better result if they’d titled this Pieces of a Good Movie.

Pieces of a Woman is currently streaming on Netflix.