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Toronto After Dark: “We Are What We Are”

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  • Written By: Nick Damici, Jim Mickle
  • Directed By: Jim Mickle
  • Starring: Julia Gardner, Ambyr Childers, Bill Sage, Jack Gore, Michael Parks, Kelly MgGillis

Toronto After Dark: “We Are What We Are”

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Director Jim Mickle continued his streak of having his films open the Toronto After Dark Film Festival last night. Mickle’s work (Mulberry Street, Stakeland) has been divisive among fans. While some praise it, others pass it by and they don’t reach mainstream audiences (unless the audience gets particularly click-happy on Netflix). But this all might change with his new film WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (based on a Mexican movie made in 2010). WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is gaining a lot of attention, not only for its bleak and violent aesthetics, but also because it’s received critical lauds getting into both The Sundance Film Festival and the Director’s Fortnight Programme at Cannes.

WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is the story of the Parker family who live in the outskirts of a small town in the Catskills. The area is about to be hit with several storms and while everyone is bracing for the effects of the storm no one can anticipate what the flood waters will dredge up. It’s a simple story of a family seeking solitude in the face of an encroaching world. The Parkers are simply the way they are and have always been. The film mainly follows young teen daughters, Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Gardner), who struggle to uphold the family’s decision as they begin to face the notion of their adulthood and their desire for a more normal life.

While the film wants to follow in a similar aesthetic to Sean Durkin’s MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (also featuring Gardner), the shots of the empty yet beautiful Catskills region of Upstate New York does little to fill the film with anything but beautiful images. The film teeters on falling into the world of student filmmaking where a director is more caught up in what they can do with a camera than relaying a story to their audience. While Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici are quick to try and blame right-wing extremism for the characters’ handicaps, the film never delves into that notion. It feels much more like a patch job to give characters sweeping motivation rather than explore the mentality of this corrupt and diseased family.

What does aid the film immensely is the performances. Both Childers and Gardner give nuanced performances that feel young but downtrodden. Bill Sage as the patriarch, Frank, is a suitably cold and un-comforting presence and works in great opposition to the helpful town doctor (Michael Parks) and their friendly neighbor (Kelly McGillis). The film generates a quiet heat which builds from scene to scene but quickly gets dropped for more panoramic shots of another field.

When the final act hits, characters begin to make brash and assertive decisions which seem to come out of nowhere. Quiet films ending in a hectic battle are not uncommon, but in this case it seems much more like shoehorning in plot devices that should have been plotted in carefully throughout the film. WE ARE WHAT WE ARE attempts explanations through flashbacks and overly significant props but none of them seem to phase the characters until everything phases the characters. It is a dull, confused effort but a stab at greatness. WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is a sloppy rehash hiding behind beautiful photography.

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