How we cope with adversity is crucial to who we become. When should we fight? When should we gracefully accept that fighting is pointless? Each film that I see on day eight of the Milwaukee Film Festival explores this question in radically different ways. In one, a ballerina struggles to accept that her career must either end or enter a new phase. In another men gather together to process past traumas. In the third, characters do their best to avoid any kind of struggle, which usually leads to problems of an entirely different kind. But each try to cope as best as they can with what life throws their way.
Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
We all want to discover the love of our life. But afterwards we eventually must face the fact that we have to live without that love. For Wendy Whelan, her love is clearly dance. She may have a husband (andit’s telling that he appears in the moments when she isn’t dancing), but she has in actuality been in a passionate affair with the New York City Ballet for an astounding 30 years. But in 2014 at age 47, after decades as a principal dancer with the venerated arts company, Whelan found herself essentially forced into retirement by a body that had finally reached its limit.
The documentary Restless Creature describes how she finally reached this painful conclusion. Of course, she had long been familiar with how brutal and unforgiving the world of ballet could be, yet she not only survived, she thrived, overcoming the stigma associated with dancers over a certain age. She’d seen plenty of other people retire, but dancing is everything to her, even when her hopes of contining with the New York City Ballet are dashed.
However, the doc makes clear that although Whelan will not longer participate in the world of ballet, she has no intentions of retiring. After watching Restless Creature, I’m not even sure she could. She leaves the NYCB, then immediately decides to reinvent herself in the world of modern dance. And what could easily be a depressing experience becomes a joyous one, as Whelan finds her new world liberating rather than frustrating or stifling.
That’s not to say the dance world will now be kinder to its older devotees. Whelan may continually keep in touch with colleagues from her past, but when she actually dances, her partners are all much younger than her. You get the sense that she is only able to keep doing what she loves because the name she’s made for herself guarantees that she will always be a draw. That said, it is impossible not to root for this woman as she struggles to heal her body, go out on a high note, and discuss all the intimacies of her profession. Then there’s her warmth, her dedication, which shines through and draws you to her; there’s a reason this woman got to the top and stayed there.
It left me hungry for more of a retrospective on the rest of her career, and the relationships that allowed her to get there. Restless Creature doesn’t really try to ask why she is so driven. She not only wanted to be a dancer, she needed to be, and she always will.
Just what kind of group therapy takes place in a maximum security prison? The documentary The Work has your answer, as it mostly follows three men from the outside who volunteer for the program, which is presented as a form of prisoner rehabilitation. Guards are not allowed to observe. The trio have clearly come with a set of expectations and beliefs, as well as a desire to test themselves and get a vicarious thrill out of being so close to inmates. But none of these preconceived notions last very long, as one of the convicts experiences an emotional breakthrough (or maybe breakdown is more accurate) so intense the other men have to hold him down. Others soon follow.
Rather than an exploitative doc which glamorizes crime and prison life in America, The Work is an emotionally challenging film that forces us to take a look at masculinity, the prison system, and how we expect men to cope with trauma and difficulty, especially when it comes to paternal issues and fatherly rejection. Much has been written about the various roles women have to fulfill on-screen, but we tend to forget there are some ironclad rules for men too. And one of the most firm is that they cannot be vulnerable. But every single man on camera violates this rule sooner or later. Convicts and civilians alike cry, scream, and lay bare the many wounds others have inflicted and they themselves have caused.
Even in calmer moments, men from other groups can be heard crying out and screaming in the background. It’s deeply unsettling to see what results when all these guys actually follow through on their commitment to being authentic, rather than who they feel they must be when they’re either in the yard or on the street. But it’s also deeply uplifting to see people of various races and backgrounds sit down, talk, and actually listen to one another in an environment notorious for its racial segregation and violence.
However, putting so much focus on the therapy itself does leave a few questions unanswered. The program co-founders are briefly shown, but no attention is given to them. How did they come up with this idea? What exactly is the application process for this program like? Why do people who have every reason to keep their defenses up drop them? How exactly did director Jairus McLearly get access like this, on his first feature no less? And how were all his subjects so comfortable being filmed while going through such intense experiences?
It isn’t entirely surprising to have so many unanswered questions, since any interruptions of The Work’s minimalist approach would detract from its power. Its intensity remains unbroken and undiminished.
When we first meet Ben (Kieran Culkin), he seems like a typical man-child, stuck in neutral. He’s detached from life and its consequences, unable to commit to any of the women he dates, or stand up to his mother Hester (Megan Mullally), who takes an instant dislike to any girlfriend he introduces to her. This results in him breaking up with them as soon as they meet Hester, with little remorse or consideration for their feelings. But as Infinity Baby continues, we find out that Ben actually isn’t as bad as he seems. He’s much worse.
Part of the reason is Ben’s access to money he doesn’t really have to work for. He’s been enriched, or at least made comfortable, thanks to the company Infinity Baby, which provides homes for infants who don’t age, and is owned by his father and run by his his uncle Neo (a hilarious Nick Offerman). It’s the kind of situation that exacerbates all his worst aspects by further shielding him from those very ugly adult realities. But they tend to crop up anyway.
Only in Infinity Baby, the consequences don’t just crop up, they hit hard after a few of the company’s employees, Malcolm (Martin Starr) and Larry (Kevin Corrigan) see a chance to get, or rather, scam their share of the company’s profits by taking care of an unwanted infant. However, caring for her proves to be more than they bargained for. Their instinct is of course to take the easy way out, and it has drastic, potentially devastating consequences.
Make no mistake, Infinity Baby goes to some dark places and manages to pack quite a punch in its scant 70 minute runtime. It’s also hilarious as it takes down so many of its male characters’ entitled mindsets. The female characters are by no means saints themselves, but they don’t seem to suffer from such a complete and utter lack of regard for other people. By the end, not much has changed, but there are moments of growth and humanity that make the film an enjoyable watch, especially due to the film’s black and white cinematography and intelligent script. Infinity Baby isn’t interested in finding a solution to our modern aimlessness and isolation from each other, but it is able to make a pretty good case for the simple act of physically reaching out to each other. Not everyone will be able to enjoy the film’s journey and message, but for those whose tastes match director Bob Byington’s vision, it’s worth seeing.