Home and abroad
Two fine films—one regional, one international—at the art house
The Last Black Man in San Francisco has an exceptional and perhaps surprising emotional richness to it. As the title suggests, racial issues and nearby elements of regional perspective are key parts of it, but a complex, deeply ingrained friendship is at the heart of it and deep attachments of several sorts figure prominently in the overall drama.
Jimmie (Jimmie Fails, playing a version of himself in a story that he co-authored with childhood friend Joe Talbot, who directs) and one Montgomery Allen (known as “Mont” and played by Jonathan Majors) are longtime buddies who move into a temporarily unoccupied Victorian in the Fillmore district. The place was once the residence of Jimmie’s family, and the two young men see themselves not as squatters but as fastidious and respectful caretakers of a monument to family history and cultural diversity.
Quirky diversity of character makes itself felt in a variety of ways in the film. Jimmie works as a retirement home caregiver, and a skateboard is his favored mode of transportation. Mont has a job in a fish market and works around the clock on notes and sketches for a play about the everyday life around him (a performance of the play is part of the film’s climactic scenes). The increasingly fraught interplay of myth and reality in the young men’s lives eventually pushes the story toward a vividly contemporary kind of tragicomedy.
Fails (untrained as an actor) and Majors give strong, unique performances. Danny Glover is jovial and iconic as Mont’s blind grandfather. Standouts in secondary roles include Willie Hen as an activist street preacher, Jamal Truelove as a doomed neighborhood friend of Jimmie and Mont, and Finn Wittrock as a too-smooth real estate agent who’s also from the neighborhood.
Writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is a fascinating puzzle of a film that centers, more or less, on a young woman who aspires to writing and directing films and a well-dressed young swell who takes a sidelong interest in her. A kind of love story develops between them, but it’s a tale told unconventionally through a somewhat mystifying array of fragments.
Stylishly edited in terms that suggest a somewhat unhinged stream-of-consciousness approach, the film’s shape-shifting narrative foregrounds an oddball romance that defies easy explanation. But as The Souvenir’s more enthusiastic reviews note, it might also be taken as a convoluted evocation of the creative process, or as a paradoxical set of reflections on upper-middle-class Britain in the late 20th century.
Honor Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda Swinton, who also appears in the film) and Tom Burke play the central couple, and both are very good in their contrastingly ambiguous roles. Brilliant editing of sound and image combine with those performances in ways that let The Souvenir flourish as a kind of cubistic character study in which two oddly interesting people fight a perhaps losing battle with how little they understand themselves and each other.