Everything Everywhere All at Once

Multiverses collide to gobsmacking effect in Daniels’ mind-blowing superhero fantasy. Everything Everywhere All at Once is a faulty firework of a film, a deranged zigzagging rocket shooting out sparks of oddball brilliance. While it gleefully nods to many other films (2001, The Matrix, Ratatouille and more), it is unlike anything you have seen before.  Imagine a live action family therapy version of The Incredibles on LSD.

The film lives up to its name: sometimes it feels like too much. A running time of more than 2 and a half hours suggests Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert were deliberately stretching things out to match one of Marvel’s overblown blockbusters. But Everything Everywhere All at Once is a dizzying cinematic experience. It puts your brain in a blender and you walk out feeling all shook up.

Like the best fantasies, the film is rooted in normal life and relationships. The Wang family are struggling to keep their laundromat business profitable. Evelyn (Michele Yeoh) and Waymond’s (Ke Huy Kwan) marriage is shaky and their teenaged daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) resents her mother for not accepting her girlfriend.

A visit to the auditors becomes the unlikely launchpad to madcap adventures in parallel worlds and selves. Frustrated and dissatisfied in normal life, Evelyn is taught to ‘verse jump’ by a superhero version of her husband and discovers many different Evelyns exist out there: the brilliant woman, the kung fu fighter, the lesbian with wobbly frankfurter fingers or the talking rock with googly eyes.

She is told that ‘a great evil’ is threatening every world in the multiverse and Evelyn is the only one who can ‘take things back to how they’re supposed to be.’ This involves confronting Joy’s alter-ego, Jobu Tupaki, a nihilistic fashion monster who threatens to suck all life into her bagel hole of oblivion. How will Evelyn, who believes herself to be ‘bad at everything’, fix the world?

A neat and tidy ending seems unlikely, given the wild genre-hopping ride the filmmakers take us on. Amidst the scattershot possibilities of multiple lives in multiverses, we are left with pick ‘n’ mix nuggets of wisdom imparted by the film’s various characters. In what is perhaps its keynote speech, we are told: “It’s a cruel world and we’re all running round in circles … the one thing I do know is we have to be kind. Please be kind.”

Then again, there’s also Jobu Tupaki’s alternative take: “this is all a useless, swirling bucket of bullshit.” A bit harsh, though the audience will probably nod along to: “there are only a few specks of time when anything makes sense”.

What saves Everything Everywhere All at Once from over-reaching self-indulgence is, paradoxically, a down-to-earth quality. Amidst the visual splendour, it has a charming home-made quality, an engaging sensibility shared with more ‘ramshackle’ films such as Son of Rambo and Be Kind: Rewind.

Among the film’s many weird and wonderful visual delights are the crazy and outrageous succession of costumes worn by Jobu Tupaki – from pink Elvis with pet piglet accessory to office robot (wearing keyboards and printers etc). And you’re unlikely to forget Jamie Lee Curtis in tight mustard rollneck as kickass auditor, Deirdre Beaubeirdre.

Great Freedom (Grosse Freiheit)

This powerful prison drama won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2021 and it’s easy to see why. Great Freedom (Grosse Freiheit) is a beautifully acted love story with two compelling performances from its leads, Franz Rogowski and Georg Friedrich. It is also an important piece of queer history, documenting the human cost of ‘Paragraph 175’, the German law that criminalised gay love until 1969.

When World War II ends Hans (Rogowski) is released from a concentration camp and put straight into prison to finish his sentence. His crime? Being a practicing homosexual. Austrian director Sebastian Meise’s camera follows Hans doing time in the same grim institution, going backwards and forwards between 1945, 1957 and 1968/9. The décor doesn’t change much; it is only the inmates’ hairstyles and ‘taches that give us a clue what decade we’re in.

Whenever Hans returns to prison, one prisoner is always there. At first Viktor (Friedrich) is violently hostile towards him, reluctant to share a cell with a ‘175-er’. But the two men gradually become friends. Viktor offers to tattoo Hans’s arm to cover his Camp number. Although ‘not that way,’ inclined he eventually learns to take comfort from the other man. Hans has other younger lovers in prison but the heart of the film is the moving relationship between him and Viktor, which becomes a kind of marriage.

As the fearless and long-suffering Hans, Rogowski is quietly mesmerizing. He is thrown into ‘the hole’ time and again for transgressing and emerges like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, bowed but unbeaten. Rogowski has a loose-limbed charisma that seems completely natural; it’s like he’s hardly acting at all. While Hans has always been himself, Friedrich’s ‘straight’ Viktor goes on more of a journey, changing and adapting to survive. Inventive and resourceful, he has made his own ukulele and backgammon set; his DIY tattoo kit is cobbled together from stolen bits and pieces.

Viktor is often the source of the film’s humour, which flickers like Hans’s matches in the darkness. The inmates watch the 1969 moon landings on tv. ‘I thought it would be more exciting,’ says the disappointed Viktor. ‘With aliens and that?’ says Hans. ‘Why not?’ replies Viktor.

In the company of these men we somehow escape from the claustrophobia of prison life. We are stuck with them, but they take us out of ourselves. Apart from the exercise yard and Super 8 flashbacks to a blissful countryside scene, there are very few outside sequences in Great Freedom. In the yard we often hear the sound of screaming swifts. Are these birds of summer exalting in their freedom or are they in pain? Probably both, as poet Ted Hughes would have it: ‘screaming as if speed-burned’.

Meise wants us to absorb these ambiguous sounds of freedom. Moving towards the film’s clever ending, he also wants us to think about ‘the irony of fate’, a phrase used by Viktor when explaining why he has been in prison for so long. When Hans becomes ‘legal’ and gets out he discovers freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

On the way out of the cinema a church noticeboard seemed to echo Great Freedom’s core message: THE LIGHT SHINETH IN THE DARKNESS AND THE DARKNESS HAS NOT OVERCOME IT (John 1.5).

Or, as Morrissey put it, there is a light that never goes out.

The Prodigal Child by Irène Némirovsky

This novella, written in 1923 when the author was twenty, offers a fascinating glimpse of Némirovsky’s emerging literary talents. The Prodigal Child begins and ends like a biblical parable, but also has a dark fairytale quality: a boy from the ghetto discovers he has a gift for creating songs that move both vagabonds and princesses. But he becomes imprisoned by his own powers, which seem to vanish when he reaches adolescence.

Artwork courtesy of Kales Press

Despite its bleak ending, Sandra Smith’s elegant translation of L’Enfant Génial makes Némirovsky’s words fly off the page, with her frequently sensuous and lyrical prose echoing the poetic flights of its main character. The book also offers enjoyably down-to-earth descriptions of life in a Russian port at the start of the twentieth century. Némirovsky is concerned here with the nature of artistic inspiration, the dark side of being a child genius and adult reactions to it, which can begin to look a lot like child abuse.

10 year-old Ishmael Baruch is one of a large Jewish family living in a large trading port on the Black Sea in southern Russia. Life in the ghetto is hard but Ishmael loves the town and port, with its smells of fish and fruit and its exotic mix of people. He is drawn to “the unclassifiable riffraff that swarmed into the port, people from the Middle East who smelled of garlic, the tide and spices, swept up by the sea from every corner of the world and thrust there like the foam on the waves.”

Asked to sing by one of these tavern-goers, Ishmael finds that he is a natural: “the music worked like wine on all these coarse, dazed men; they listened, astonished by the new song.” The words and music he conjures up “come to life in him like mysterious birds to whom he only needed to give a little nudge.” As his fame grows Ishmael begins to make money, stops going to school, and becomes ‘lost’ to his parents.

By the age of thirteen Ishmael has already been taught how to make love by older women. He has got drunk on every sort of alcoholic drink, from Russian vodka to Turkish raki. He has been denied a normal childhood.

When he meets a rich nobleman and his ‘Princess’, they take him under their wing. She wants to ‘adopt’ him and have him sing to her alone. At first Ishmael resists “this woman who wanted to impose her will on his freedom.” But she is like a fairytale enchantress, with eyes ‘like a bird of prey,’ and he falls hopelessly under her spell.

Artwork courtesy of Kales Press

Soon he is living in luxury in an ancient mansion, “steeped in alcohol and money.” The Princess and nobleman often kiss and canoodle in front of Ishmael. “He seemed to breathe in their passionate love as if it were a poisonous flower,” and his own feverish love for her is making him ill. She even kisses him “on the lips, wickedly, tenderly, the way you bite into the pink flesh of fruit.”

When the Princess travels abroad Ishmael moves to a chateau in the countryside and grows to love nature. But the damage has been done. He has lost his artistic mojo. Now, when he tries to write he feels “a profound numbness, a sensation of emptiness … a kind of painful weariness.”

Reading his way through the books in the chateau’s library doesn’t help. He tries to copy the styles of other writers, then looks for answers in scholarly works of criticism and analysis. Students and blocked writers will nod in agreement as they read Némirovsky’s darkly comic description of Ishmael’s despair: “he was lost in the inextricable forest of literary criticism; he completely lost his mind.”

By the end Ishmael feels that there is no way out except death. The Prodigal Child’s ending seems to offer little in the way of hope, foreshadowing Némirovsky’s own terrible end in Auschwitz. But her own genius lives on, thanks in large part to the work of Sandra Smith, who has translated all the author’s work into English, including Suite Francaise, the WWII masterpiece that brought her to the world’s attention. Kudos to Kales Press, who have honoured Némirovsky’s memory here with a beautifully-produced new edition of one of her first works.

http://kalespress.com/home/the-prodigal-child-irene-nemirovsky-translated-from-the-french-by-sandra-smith/

The French Dispatch

I really enjoyed Wes Anderson’s last two films, Isle of Dogs and Grand Budapest Hotel. But sitting through The French Dispatch felt like an ordeal and if there had been another story in this portmanteau collection I would have walked out of the cinema. By the end I felt queasy, as if I had eaten a smorgasbord of dainty snacks. It was too much. De trop, as they say in France.

Anderson’s visual style is always busy and inventive, charming and humourous. It usually matches his narratives in a coherent way. But here he throws the kitchen sink at us: we are bombarded by images, text, sounds and (he hopes) smells, randomly moving from monochrome to colour. We are asked to assimilate the stories of myriad characters in five different sections (if we include the intro and conclusion). It is the cinematic equivalent of trying to read a book written in different cases and fonts, with footnotes, doodles, diversions, instructions and cartoons. Fun for a while, but ultimately tiresome.

The French Dispatch starts with a wonderful tableau vivant of French town Ennui-sur-Blasé waking up for the day, its inhabitants going about their business. A beret-wearing Owen Wilson pedals around on his racing bike, giving us a guided tour of this quirky place. Anderson seems to be nodding his hat to the films of Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle; Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday) or Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, Amelie).

But this refreshing aperitif is soon replaced by a more indigestible main course. Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), editor of The French Dispatch, an ex-pat edition of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, has just been found dead in his office. His eclectic team of journalists gather to discuss how best to honour his memory. In tribute, they decide to write stories full of the ingredients that he loved – art, politics, crime and food.

Story 1: The Concrete Masterpiece, in which a mad criminal painter (Benicio Del Toro) produces a series of abstract portraits of his guard (Lea Seydoux), who poses naked for him. These cause a stir in the art world and also inspire a prison riot.

More riots are on the menu in the second story, Revisions to a Manifesto, set during les évènements of Paris in 1968. A deadpan Timothee Chalamet, unruly hair à la Charlie Chaplin, sits in a bath smoking Gauloises, editing his list of youthful demands. He also sits in bed with an equally po-faced Frances McDormand.

Then we have The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner, in which a police chief’s (Jeffrey Wright) life is turned upside-down when his son is kidnapped. Half way through this story Anderson switches to cartoonish animation for the chase scenes, which adds more visual flair to the proceedings. Unfortunately, the score, with its annoying and relentless 2-note oompah organ riff made me feel sick.

Wes Anderson afficionados will no doubt return to The French Dispatch to discover things they missed first time around. The auteur has said that his film was “inspired by The New Yorker and the kind of writers they’re famous for publishing” (see the end credits for a list, including the likes of James Thurber). As a tribute to French cinema it is a bit hit and miss.

There is a speech by one character at the end in which Anderson tries to give meaning to what we have just watched. Something about life’s rich tapestry and inclusivity, the joy of writing about different people and places. But by then my brain was fried. I was all Wessed-out.

The Sparks Brothers

Music fans of a certain age will have Sparks’ electrifying 1974 Top of the Pops debut seared into their memories. This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us was unlike any pop song we had heard before – operatic, cinematic, hypnotic and odd. But it was the keyboard player who was the talk of the school playground the next day. Ron Mael looked like a creepy android Hitler and the camera loved him.

This indelible memory is shared by many of the talking heads in Edgar Wright’s wonderful Sparks doc. Apparently John Lennon was so freaked out by what he’d witnessed that he rang Ringo and told him to turn on his TV: “Marc Bolan is playing a song with Adolf Hitler.”

In the film this mischievous anecdote is brought to life by animated puppets. Elsewhere Wright matches the Sparks brothers’ visual flair by using a variety of film media to illustrate their story. Apart from the monochrome talking heads and film clips from their long career there is a creative mash-up of cartoons, cut-and-paste and clay animation.

After nearly 50 years and 25 albums, the music of Ron and Russell Mael remains vital and relevant. Other musicians queue up to pay homage to their provocative outsider sensibility, their creativity and dedication to their art. Sparks are engaging company: playful, wise, funny and human. Wright’s camera follows them as they go about their daily lives and we warm to them even more when we learn about the hard times (“6 years of rainy days”) and the film projects with Jacques Tati and Tim Burton that got shelved.

At nearly two and a half hours The Sparks Brothers might challenge the stamina of non-believers. But Wright’s chronological doc has a lot to fit in. By covering each of their records he aspires to the daredevil and dogged spirit of a band who decided to play every one of their albums, one after the other, on consecutive nights in London in 2008 (with B-sides for the encores).

The Mael Brothers had an idyllic childhood in sunny California, clouded only by the death of their father, an artist who introduced them to “cool music” and took them to Saturday matinees. From the photos, his Clark Gable pencil moustache might explain Ron’s life-long homage. Sparks’ “jagged sense of narrative in their songs” perhaps came from often arriving at the cinema half-way through a film and trying to make up the rest.

They also had a cool mom who took them to see the Beatles twice. There they are looking fresh-faced and excited in audience footage taken from a concert in Las Vegas. Many years later Paul McCartney returned the compliment by playing Ron, alongside his other musical idols, in his video for Coming Up.

When trying to sum up what makes Sparks special some fans mention their unusual closeness as brothers, “some kind of magical combination of brother blood.” In contrast to other brothers-in-pop (Kinks, Oasis, Bros) they enjoy a unique symbiotic relationship, united by a singular vision and passion for music.

I once saw Russell Mael while on holiday in California in 1981. We were driving through Beverly Hills gawping at the film star mansions. A man who looked like Jim Morrison’s sister drove past in a beautiful lime green convertible. “Look! It’s that guy from Sparks!” Russell gave us a genuine full-beam smile. Another indelible memory.

Summer of Soul

This documentary features exhilarating ‘lost’ performances from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival: Stevie Wonder dazzles on drums and keyboards; Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples take it to church; Nina Simone presides like a radical African princess; Sly & the Family Stone steal the show and leave us on a high. The cameras capture the party atmosphere, the excited faces of a joyous multi-aged crowd embracing Black culture.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is an uplifting treat for music fans and a fascinating piece of Black history. But why has it taken 50 years for this treasure-trove to see the light of day? It seems baffling that original producer Hal Tulchin was unable to sell his work to American TV networks. Instead, over 40 hours of videotape languished in a basement until Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson was approached to take on the responsibility of ‘correcting history.’

Commentators point to this so-called ‘Black Woodstock’ being overshadowed by its bigger, whiter upstate rival in the summer of 69. Perhaps Woodstock caught the mainstream hippy counter-culture zeitgeist in a way that Harlem, with its ‘older’ gospel, Motown and pop acts failed to do. For this reason, it might have been less marketable. Or perhaps political conservatism and racism informed this rejection. Either way, Summer of Soul makes for more compelling and eclectic viewing than much of the tedious Woodstock.

Director Questlove interweaves the music with late 60s American news footage, together with eyewitness accounts and the thoughts of cultural historians to give it context. In the summer of 1969 Harlem was the place to be, a‘safe and happy creative forest,’ in which 300,000 locals attended the free Festival. But it also had a heroin epidemic and a problem with the white establishment (‘it felt like the system had let us down’). The moon landings that amazed the world were not universally celebrated here: some felt the money could have been better spent getting rid of poverty.

As heralded here by a militant Nina Simone (‘Are you ready to smash white things?) and the ‘freedom music’ of African artists such as Hugh Masekela, a revolution in Black consciousness was coming: ‘1969 was the year when the negro died and Black was born.’

Times might have been a-changin’, but in Summer of Soul gospel continues to provide release and catharsis, the ‘therapy for being Black in America.’ Some of the most memorable performances and crowd reactions are inspired by gospel singers such as Clara Walker and Dorothy Moore. A duet between Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples erupts into a volcano of passion, as each tries to outdo the other in raw-throated testifying.

Image-conscious viewers will contrast gap-toothed Jackson’s make-up with the perfect teeth and sheen of a modern-day Gladys Knight looking back on her own contribution. Elsewhere hot pink gowns and dayglo orange-yellow suits and ruffled shirts brighten the stage. ‘We were suit and tie guys,’ says someone. ‘Then we saw Sly.’

The threads and funk of Sly & the Family Stone take us into psychedelic colour. They get the loudest crowd reaction, providing melting pot good vibes with Everyday People and Higher. The sound is excellent – crisp and integrated, with irresistible drumming (‘The white guy is the drummer? He’s not supposed to be able to do that’). Proto-Prince Sly leaves us on a high, after post-gig monochrome pics of a litter-strewn Park.

‘Nobody was interested in a Black show,’ says one of the film’s talking heads. ‘It felt like they threw it away.’ With Summer of Soul Questlove has reclaimed and restored a remarkable piece of history and given it back to the people.

Volunteering at CoFarm Cambridge

On a sweltering afternoon in July 2021 I was amongst the new volunteers welcomed to CoFarm Cambridge by Pete Wrapson. He is one of the two horticultural experts who have worked wonders to create the city’s first community farm – a ‘magic pop-up allotment’ near my workplace (Barnwell Road). Pete told us how, over the past year, this exciting co-operative enterprise had transformed bare land into a farm that provided a cornucopia of fresh veg to Cambridge’s 9 foodbank hubs. It is a rare Covid good news story, one that has given food, community work and hope to hundreds of local people.

I mucked in with the other volunteers, working on a variety of tasks: harvesting courgettes of all shapes and sizes (“you might find a zeppelin,” said Pete); hoeing weeds and thistles in the sweetcorn patch; loosening and picking beetroot, which is strangely satisfying. I had no idea that there were orange beetroots and ones that had pink spirals when you cut them open, like psychedelic lollipops. These were Chioggia, explained Pete.

We were advised to take it slowly on a sweltering July afternoon, so there were many opportunities to pause and marvel at the variety of crops, flowers and insect life. A buzzard patrolled the treeline. Green woodpeckers yaffled nearby. Dragonflies and bees buzzed past a row of thriving sunflowers. It was hard to believe that this oasis was only a stone’s throw away from the ring-road, or that it had only existed a few months.

I noticed a couple of fishing rods resting on the perimeter fence. Pete explained that they had kites on the end to deter scavenger pigeons. There was also a regular evening visitor who helped with this task – a fox who liked to lurk behind the potatoes and leap out to snare the more dozy birds.

CoFarm Cambridge has been such a huge success that Pete and his team are being encouraged to use their experience and knowledge to mentor similar groups and projects elsewhere in the UK. They also have plans to create an orchard and café on the Cambridge site, where invited groups will be able to cook recipes which include the veg they have just picked.

For further info, see their website: https://www.cofarm.co/cambridge

Minari

Lee Isaac Chung’s quirky and charming drama follows a Korean family’s attempts to make their home in rural Arkansas in 1983. Based on his own childhood experience, Minari is a beautifully-acted and nuanced portrayal of the pursuit of the American Dream, one that gently moves, amuses and uplifts us, but never sugar-coats the realities of immigrants trying to find their place in a foreign land.

Minari is a Korean herb, also called ‘Japanese parsley’ and ‘Chinese celery’. In the film grandma plants it in a nearby creek and, with the right loving care and attention, it eventually flourishes. We hope that the Yi family can do likewise, but there are many obstacles in the way.

They have travelled from California in search of a better life. Jakob (Steven Yeun) is excited by how much land they now have and quality of the soil (“this is the best dirt!”) but his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is unhappy about their new trailer house-on-wheels (“this isn’t what you promised”). Their two children take things in their stride. When their parents have a row they write ‘don’t fight’ on paper planes and throw them into the room.

Jakob and Monica have jobs at a hatchery, sorting chicks by sex, but the work is tedious and soul-destroying. Jakob enlists the help of eccentric neighbour Paul (Will Paton) to plough their land and plant Korean vegetables. He dreams of supplying the 30,000 Koreans who emigrate to the US every year.

One of these is the wonderful grandma Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), whose arrival creates new family tensions, but also brings delightful Korean traditions (and ‘smells’). She arrives bearing gifts but is not averse to swearing, cheating at cards or stealing dollar notes from the collection plate when it is passed round in church.

At the heart of the film is the relationship between David and his grandma. Initially shy of her, the boy is baffled that she can’t read or cook (“she isn’t like a real grandma”), and plays a nasty trick on her. Soon, though, they form a strong bond. As a fun-loving old rascal, Soon-ja treats David as an equal. She teaches him cards and encourages him to push himself, despite his serious heart condition.

When I first heard about Minari, I thought of Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbour Totoro. They are, of course, very different films, but they both feature the transforming influence of a mischievous free spirit, who brings fun and magic into the kids’ lives. They are both unhurried evocations of childhood summers in the shadow of illness. And Emile Mosseri’s yearning score evokes the widescreen wonder of Joe Hisaishi’s greatest hits.

Grandma is the comic star of the show (Youn Yuh-jung won an Oscar). She is sometimes like a Korean yoda, imparting homespun wisdom and funny phrases. “Pretty boy,” she tells David, as if he was a parrot. “I’m not pretty,” he replies. “I’m good-looking.” Helping break the ice, or just being insensitive (take your pick), she diagnoses his bed-wetting problem: “penis broken”. “It’s not called a penis,” says David, “it’s called a ding-dong.”

Jakob and Soon-ja offer their own ways of coping with the immigrant experience and family life in general. Both give us hope that, like them, we can cultivate our own gardens.

Nomadland

Nomadland is not your average Oscar-winner. This is a quietly poetic character study, an impressionistic road-movie with cumulative power that shines a light on a different kind of America – one in which friendship and community thrive away from the “tyranny of the dollar”. Writer-Director Chloé Zhao nudges us to see her nomads as part of an American tradition going back to the pioneers.

The film is based on a nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder (Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century) about the phenomenon of older Americans who adopted transient lifestyles travelling around the United States in search of seasonal work after the Great Recession (2007-2009).

One such outsider is Fern (Frances McDormand), forced to uproot home from company town Empire, Nevada, after the local plant closes and her husband dies. She packs what she needs into her customised white van, which she calls ‘Vanguard,’ and drives into an uncertain future.

Fern used to work as a substitute teacher and in HR. Now she temps as a packer at Amazon, a fast-food chef and a sugar-beet picker. Wherever she goes she makes lasting friendships and enjoys the great outdoors in Arizona, the Badlands of South Dakota, Nebraska and California, with its giant redwoods and rugged Pacific coast.

Nature and community are shown here to be the medicine for troubled souls, the things that make us more human. Freedom comes with the open road and not being a wage-slave saddled with a paralysing mortgage. “I’m not homeless,” Fern tells a friend, “but house-less. Home is something we carry within us.”

For all her independence and DIY skills there are times when Fern needs to ask for help, whether it’s with a flat tyre or to borrow money to pay for van repairs. It is almost a shock when she stays in her sister Dolly’s ‘normal’ home, where we get an insight into both her character and the downside of taking off – the people left behind: “you were braver and more honest than everyone else,” Dolly (Melissa Smith) tells her. “You left a big hole by leaving.”

Fern’s character is a long way from McDormand’s previous Oscar-winning role, Mildred in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, though both roles are powered by grief. The nearest Fern comes to losing her temper is when her friend Dave (David Strathairn) accidently breaks a family heirloom. Dave clearly wants more than friendship, but Fern is not yet over the death of her husband and follows her dad’s homespun wisdom: “what’s remembered, lives,” conceding that “maybe I’ve spent too long remembering Beau.”

All the film’s drama is played out on the surface of Frances McDormand’s expressive face. Her crags and fissures take on a mythic Mount Rushmore quality; its long-suffering soulfulness bring to mind Dorothea Lange’s famous photo of a migrant mother taken during the Great Depression. “When you get old, you get personality”, says Fern’s friend Linda May.

Like its nomadic characters Zhao’s screenplay is peripatetic. We never know how long Fern spends in any given place. This restlessness keeps the audience on its toes and means that, like Fern, we take away a travelog of memorable images: the silhouette of a cactus as night falls; wild swimming in a mountain pool; stargazing in the desert.

We also take away the film’s message of hope. Nomadland is full of wonderful real people, nomads such as Swanky, Linda May and Bob Wells, and their humanity shines like a beacon in our troubled times.

County Lines

This powerful and moving debut from writer-director Henry Blake punches above its weight and hits its target. Sometimes County Lines is a tough watch, but it is an important film – one that shines a light on the murky and terrifying world of child exploitation by criminal drugs gangs in the UK. Last year it was shown in the House of Lords; hopefully these educational screenings will spark positive change and help safeguard potential victims in the future.

The term ‘county lines’ refers to the phone numbers, or lines, used by gangs trafficking drugs away from big cities. The film opens with a buzzing mobile. It belongs to 14 year old Tyler (Conrad Khan) who, we learn, is in trouble: “Do you know what acceptable loss is for your business?” asks his counsellor. “You are! You’re the acceptable loss.”

Six months earlier: in a London school canteen the camera locates Tyler in the corner of the frame. He is quiet amidst the hubbub, on the margins of things, the victim of bullying. At home he looks after his younger sister while his mum (Ashley Madekwe) works as a cleaner. They are a loving family, but money is tight.

After a man in a chip shop saves him from being jumped by a gang from school, Tyler sees him the next day sitting in a parked car. Simon (Harris Dickinson) persuades him to skip school. He buys him new trainers and food. “What do you do?” Tyler asks him. “Self-employed,” he replies. As ‘the man’ of his own house Tyler thinks this sounds like a good idea: he will be able to provide for his family.

The reality of what follows is squalid and depressing, involving trips out of town to drug-dealing ‘trap-houses’, running errands for strangers, seeing things that no 14-year old should have to witness.

The gathering gloom is reinforced by the film’s palette: dingy interiors in which only the orange glow of lamps offer any cheer. Even daylight feels as if it has been turned down by a dimmer switch. When Tyler sits by the sea watching the sun go down it should be an uplifting and poetic moment of escape. But we know it’s only a brief respite from his awful situation.

County Lines is elevated by naturalistic performances from its leads. Both Conrad Khan and Ashley Madekwe have been nominated for BAFTA awards (Rising Star and Supporting Actress, respectively). Khan imbues Tyler with a kind of invisible charisma, one that enables him to seem vulnerable, yet cool under pressure. He looks like a cross between Rami Malek and Thomas Brodie-Sangster.

As a former youth worker in East London, writer-director Henry Blake drew on his own experiences to create the film. During a Q&A conducted by the Cambridge Film Festival Youth Lab, he explained: “I felt compelled to try to author a story which showed the damage and the stakes of what could happen when a family and a young person become ensnared in county lines criminal networks.”

A caption before the credits spells out the reality: “Up to 10,000 children as young as 11 are involved in county lines across the UK.” So what can be done about this?

“From a safeguarding perspective … it’s important not to ignore the context of their vulnerabilities, to try to identify those vulnerabilities in whatever form they take, whether they be socio-economic, ethnic, physical, psychological or educational … they need to be identified as early as possible in order to create a larger picture … in order to created a more holistic support system.”

Politically, “punitive measures are not working … you need a political groundswell to bring in a harm-reduction approach – quite simply, that you’re not arresting drug addicts, you’re going to set up clinics to help them. For a lot of people that’s a problem to hear. We live in very conservative times … we’re becoming even more conservative in our mindsets and I think that’s a great shame. For me, the goal of County Lines is to take the sting out of the tail. The sting is the violence. And violence comes from the need to control the street markets.”