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At the movies

Film inspiration


With movie violence and sensationalism dragged in as pseudo-issues in the presidential campaign, Warner Brothers may reap an extra measure of favorable publicity by releasing Pay It Forward at this time. A lightweight inspirational film with a capable and attractive cast (Haley Joel Osment, Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey), the movie gets its title from the idea of “paying forward” to three others a kind act that someone has done for you.

Eleven-year-old Trevor (Osment), a middle-school student in Las Vegas, is seen at the outset passing through a metal detector at the same time as more trouble-prone classmates manage to get a knife through. “Paying forward” is Trevor’s idea, in response to a class assignment from his new social studies teacher, Eugene Simonet (Spacey), who wants his young charges to observe the world around them and think of something that might change it for the better. Simonet’s easy humor, and perhaps the lines on his ravaged face, make an impression on the boy. As he rides home on his bicycle, going past down-and-out areas of town, his project begins to take shape.

Things soon turn a little too cute when Trevor gives his teacher a reason to visit him at home: The boy is trying to play cupid for Trevor’s mother Arlene (Hunt) and Simonet.

“Pay It Forward” calls attention to the legacy of alcoholism, and there are reminders of the marginalization of the poor, but the film never grapples seriously with the complexities of “doing good.” Shouldn’t Simonet have related the idea of “paying forward” to the dangerous troublemakers at school? Isn’t the likelihood of their brutalized childhood as worthy of treatment as Simonet’s own story of his emotionally anguished childhood?

Idealistic audiences may be spurred to attempt acts of generosity by “Pay It Forward,” but it is important to help them see the difference between contrived and authentic emotions. The ending is even worse, using the song “Calling All Angels” and the candle-illuminated faces of a crowd of young people to coerce an emotion that has not been honestly earned.

Billy Elliot could also be considered an inspirational film: We identify with a young boy’s joy as he expresses himself in the liberating movements of dance. But director Stephen Daldry avoids the didactic impulse of “Pay It Forward,” preferring to show us how the passion of 11-year-old Billy (Jamie Bell), an English miner’s son in Durham, leads to a new life at the Royal Ballet School in London.

Billy’s mother is dead, and most of the action takes place during a bitter 1984 strike in the mines in which his father (Gary Lewis) and older brother Tony (James Draven) are deeply involved. Both strenuously oppose Billy’s involvement in ballet.

The strong if somewhat predictable showdown scenes between father and son are balanced by Daldry’s eye for comic elements in the material, including rough-edged family arguments, the mercurial relationship between Billy and Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), his chain-smoking dancing teacher, and Billy’s first glimpse of ballet -- in the gym where he sees little girls practicing in tutus.

There is a danger of sentimentality in Billy showing his teacher a farewell letter from his dead mother, but when Mrs. Wilkinson exclaims how wonderful his mother must have been, Billy protests: “She was just my mom.” In this film, the sentiment is earned.

The photography is meaningful as well as stylish. Daldry, a long-time theater director, cuts the story of Billy’s liberation through dance with the heightened tensions of the strike, with the massed line of police shields as a constantly oppressive image. In another sequence, father, older brother and Billy’s dotty but loving grandmother each move spontaneously and gracefully in separate rooms to the music from the brother’s record player, while Billy is secretly dancing for his teacher in the gym.

The movie gains additional credibility from the strong performances of Lewis and Waters, but it is the jug-eared Bell who makes it memorable. His facial expressions change from impish to sullen to thoughtful to ecstatic; he is totally convincing when he erupts into dance. When the screen is filled with an image of Fred Astaire and the boy gives vent to adolescent frustration in kicking against the brick walls that seem to enclose him, it’s hard to keep from cheering.

Yi Yi, the new Chinese-language film from Taiwan, isn’t trying to be inspirational at all, but with his sympathetic, rueful observation of an aspiring middle-class family in today’s Taipei, director Edward Wang has made the richest, most reflective movie of the season. If “Yi Yi” (also known as “A One and a Two”) doesn’t play in your area, wait a few months and look for it in your video store.

Commercially, it doesn’t help that “Yi Yi” is three hours long; Wang needs that time, however, to tell his story of the Jian family, which is slowly coming apart in an acquisitive society. The film begins with a noisy wedding that is disrupted by the arrival of the groom’s jilted girlfriend and the grandmother being rushed to the hospital in a coma. What follows encompasses a wide range of human experience, from the absurd to the near tragic.

When the family arrives at the hospital to check on the grandmother (Tang Ru-yun), the drunken brother-in-law (Chen Hsi-Sheng) rushes to reassure them: “Today is the luckiest day of the year. Nothing bad can happen.” At home, however, the father, the slight, rather depressed-looking N.J. (Wu Nien-Jen), discovers that his wife, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), is close to an emotional breakdown. There is a poignant moment as the camera observes husband and wife through a sheet of glass that picks up hundreds of reflections from the nearby expressway.

No one in the family makes a sustained effort to draw the grandmother out of her coma by talking to her. The naively romantic teenage daughter, Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), barely escapes a serious involvement with a dangerous boyfriend, the mother takes up with a religious cult, and her 8-year-old son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), harassed at school, is constantly taking pictures.

In a humorous sketch of the director as a young boy, Yang-Yang asks his father, “I can’t see what you can see, and you can’t see what I can see. So how can I know what you see?” There is no answer to his philosophical conundrum. Determined to show people what they can’t see, however, Yang-Yang makes a specialty of taking pictures of the back of people’s heads.

What makes it all work is that Wang, who also wrote the screenplay, likes his characters; he sees their weaknesses but never judges. He does not try to teach us anything, but the pattern of his story has been so intricately developed that we see the familiar with deep emotion.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is SCunn24219@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, October 27, 2000