Noah Baumbach’s hysterical The Squid and the Whale will be called many things. Creepy will be one of them, not least of which because it casts Anna Paquin as a tarty college student with the hots for a teacher played by Jeff Daniels. Paquin played Daniels’s daughter in the lovely 1996 film Fly Away Home, the story of a little girl, her geese, and her deceased mother. Fans of Carroll Ballard’s film may have a hard time coping with Paquin’s relationship to Daniels in Squid and the Whale, but such is the power of Ballard’s films: his aesthetic has an enshrining affect so remarkably strong it’s as if his actors are trapped in amber. To see Squid and the Whale, then, becomes disconcerting, because it’s as if Paquin and Daniels have managed to break free of Fly Away Home‘s trapped-in-time aura. Ballard’s new film Duma not only scales much of the same terrain as Fly Away Home and The Black Stallion but it also exudes their humanist power. Campbell Scott and Hope Davis, last seen together in The Secret Lives of Dentists, are enshrined in the story as the parents of a young boy, Xan (Alexander Michaletos), with an impracticable relationship to a cheetah, which he must return into the wild once the animal grows up. Every bit as impressive as Ballard’s refusal to milk the adorableness of the baby cheetah (and, later, a bush baby that joins Xan on his spiritual journey) for cheap sentiment is the almost matter-of-fact treatment of the death of Xan’s father’s; indeed, everything that transpires in the film evokes a powerful sense of life in irrevocable motion. Next to Terrence Malick, no other living director besides Ballard pays such careful attention to the way shadow and light touches the human skin and the world around us, and this obsession with the way intangible energy sifts through our physical realm is what gives a film like Duma such a mythical, nurturing resonance; for generously cultivating relationships with the people and animals around them, the people in his films are thankfully cradled by its maker’s breathtaking images. This generous synthesis of human spirit and aesthetic mannerism is never contrived but still gives off an otherworldly appeal, as if Ballard means to posit through the fantasy of his stories the way the world could but refuses to be like.
- Carroll Ballard
- Mark St. Germain, Karen Janszen
- Alexander Michaletos, Eamonn Walker, Campbell Scott, Hope Davis
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