Two documentaries opening this weekend are unlike any that you've probably seen before. The first, Manakamana, distributed by Cinema Guild, comes from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab which had also brought you the docs Sweetgrass and Leviathan. Both of those were fly-on-the-wall docs with no narration or a clear-cut narrative for that matter. The same can be said for the breataking and transcendent Manakamana as it merely shows tourists and local villagers riding up and down on a cable car that takes them to and from the Manakamana temple in Nepal. What are co-directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez trying to say? What's the point of watching close to 2 hours of people riding a cable car? Those questions you must answer for yourself while watching Manakamana because the answers aren't provided explicitly. At the very least, this doc serves as travelogue as well as an observation of human nature (and in one segment animal nature--yes goats do ride cable cars too!). You won't learn anything new about the Manakamana temple, but if you're open-minded, chances are you'll be tempted to read more about it after the film. Could 2 or 3 of the segments of the cable car rides have been omitted without making the doc any less effective? Probably, because tedium does begin to occasionally set in around the hour mark. Perhaps to reward you for being so patient, the co-directors wisely include a segment of two older ladies eating ice cream quickly as it melts which becomes much-needed comic relief----yes, human nature can be funny, too! Manakamana opens at the IFC Center.
18-year-old Freddy Klein (Devon Bostick) lives with his mother, Barbara (Bridget Moynahan), and stepfather, Chick (Xander Berkeley). Upon graduating from high school, he announces that he would rather work for and move in with his father, Al (Christopher Meloni), rather than go off to college. Al co-owns a used-car dealership with his partner, Ash (Dean Norris). As Freddy learns the tricks of the car-selling trade, he also bonds with his father despite his mother and stepfather's disapproval.
Writer/director Joel Surnow takes a old-fashioned story of father-and-son and weaves it into a heartwarming and compelling narrative with likable and true-to-life characters. Surnow has a knack for avoiding schmaltz and melodrama. He should also be commended for including just the right amount of exposition and moments of comedy without going over-the-top or resulting in unevenness. The surprises here aren't in terms of its plot; they're in terms of the organic, old-fashioned way that the plot is told. Casting director Marcia Ross and Erin Toner deserve kudos for choosing just the right cast for these roles. The talented, underrated Devon Bostick shows versatility as he effectively tackles both the comedic and dramatic scenes with aplomb. He carries the film quite well, but, most importantly, he and Christoher Meloni actually feel like father and son which is a testament to both the sensitive screenplay and their natural performances.
At its core, Small Time remains grounded in realism and its father-son story can be easily related to. If it were to open in the 80's or 90's, it would probably opened in wide release, but given that we live in a culture inundated with overlong, loud, shallow films that can be easily turned into video games, down-to-earth dramas like these are rare to find. The fact that it boasts rare elements like character arcs, depth of emotion and charisma makes it all the more refreshing, extraordinary and one of the best family dramas in years. It's powerful, wise, uplifting, and makes for a perfect Father's Day movie. Bravo to everyone involved with Small Time for taking on a film about humans and for humans for a change.
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