Human beings have the unique ability to turn miscommunication and misunderstanding into an art form, especially when it comes to the complicated nature of relationships. Fittingly, this year's AFI Fest was in no short supply of challenging narratives dealing with the brutal consequences of emotional entanglements gone sour. The most gripping example has to be Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's brilliant mosaic A Separation, a staggeringly sharp drama that charts the collective downfall of many different couplings after a seemingly small disagreement is made exponentially worse by denial, judgment, and guilt. To get an idea of A Separation's thematic scope, imagine a slow moving avalanche that starts with a single bad decision, then spirals out of control, consuming everyone in sight. Even as Farhadi slowly unveils more narrative information, the consequences of each character's actions and reactions have an ambiguous, real-world feel that resonates deeply.
A Separation immediately establishes Farhadi's vital handheld camera as an active observer, one that's obscenely close to the participants involved. The opening sequence set inside a small courtroom finds Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and his wife Simin (Leila Hatami) peering directly into the lens pleading their respective cases to an off-screen judge (we only hear his voice). The hot topic is an irreconcilable marital disagreement that inevitably dissolves their family unit. Yet this separation is merely the first narrative domino of so many more to fall. Simin's absence forces Nader to hire a maid, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to take care of his invalid father and teenage daughter, Termeh (Sarin Farhadi). From here, A Separation expands its focus to Razieh's family, including their economic duress and emotional fragility. Farhadi develops these early scenes with an emphasis on small sacrifices of time, compromises of duty that many of us experience on a daily basis. When A Separation has its "moment" that changes everything, we've already experienced how each character experiences varying levels of pressure, making the film's expansion and escalation of these themes even more impressive.
A Separation 's mastery of narrative progression doesn't need specific detailing here, but its arc continuously surprises and devastates in equal measure. The incendiary political issues concerning Iran's current repressive state are referenced slyly through the subtle clues in the story as opposed to grand symbolism or metaphor. In turn, themes of suffocating bureaucracy, gender division, and communal distrust aren't politicized, but humanized, woven into the fabric of each spoken promise and unspoken betrayal. A Separation is ultimately a film of masterful reaction shots; its character's faces speak volumes of subtext between the heated arguments and accusations often structuring the film's most scathing moments. We see the longing stare of a lonely daughter, the panic of a woman spinning out of control, and the painful confession of man caught in a lie. The language of Farhadi's film is caught in these deceptively small everyday moments, where resentment and reconciliation rest side-by-side.
Shot in ultra-grainy black and white, Alex Ross Perry's The Color Wheel is both an obnoxious deconstruction of the classic road film and a fascinating oddity that contemplates another slow-motion dive into one strange emotional rabbit hole. Grown siblings Colin (Perry) and JR (Carlen Altman) don't get along, and their estrangement is made perfectly clear in the film's abrasive first act. Racist jokes, casual dismissals, and plenty of shit-talking make up the brunt of their relentless banter as the pair traverses cross-country to move JR's belongings out of her ex-boyfriend's house. During their trip, the siblings make fun of a hillbilly motel clerk, mock JR's pretentious ex (who says things like "your stuff is taking up psychic energy"), and, during the film's revelatory denouement, attend a house party with old high school acquaintances. But plot points such as these are merely a ruse to get these two characters into the same space for lengthy amounts of time. While incredibly tedious on the surface, their conversations are mired in densely layered dialogue that foreshadows darker and more uncomfortable intentions to come.
In this sense, The Color Wheel is all about what is repressed and unspoken. As the film finds a breezy groove all its own, something shocking happens; Colin and JR begin to enjoy each other's company, and so do we. It's a small miracle you don't end up hating these people considering the vapid first impression they make. They're far more nuanced than they originally suggest, thanks in large part to the illuminating performances by Perry and Altman. All the hipster angst and verbal diarrhea is a façade for lost souls trying to deal with some truly uncomfortable emotions and doubts about the future. The Color Wheel comes to a disturbing boil in an audacious single take where JR and Colin express themselves truthfully for the first time, only to enter another dark moral void. It's a cinematic achievement that's most striking in hindsight, after the ramifications of one life-changing decision filters outward to a grander realization: that laws of desire aren't always rational.
Much more sinister than The Color Wheel but equally obsessed with confused young people in motion, Sophia Takal's unnerving Green turns the classic "couple on vacation" narrative completely topsy turvy. Genevieve (Kate Lyn Sheil) and her pretentious boyfriend, Sebastian (Lawrence Michael Levine), arrive at a pristine country house for a six-month stay with the hopes of documenting the details of organic farming for a newspaper article. After only one day "roughing it," the couple meets local wanderer Robin (Takal), who becomes a permanent fixture in their daily routine. The triangle of personalities mesh and slash in small ways until the tension is too much to bear for them. Green strategically juxtaposes Sebastian's arrogance against Robin's bumpkin perspective, leaving Genevieve as a kind of ideological mediator defending both sides. Takal's static compositions of dense tree lines, high grass, and open fields instill a sense of menace that ultimately spills over into the relationships themselves. Jealousy, passive aggression, and compromise are all core themes in Green, adding emotional texture to an incredibly thin narrative that jettisons between dream sequences and awkward pauses liberally. The sudden tonal shift toward the end may rub some viewers the wrong way, but it proves Takal has much more on her mind than the simple character study of young jerks in love.
AFI Fest ran from November 3—10. For more information, click here.