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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Canadian Film Review: Cloudburst (2011)

* * *

Director: Thom Fitzgerald
Starring: Olympia Dukakis, Brenda Fricker

Thom Fitzgerald's Cloudburst, based on his stage play of the same name, is a surprisingly daring movie. It's not daring because of its premise, which involves a long-term same-sex couple trying to get married so that they can avoid being separated and which almost seems quaint at this point, but it is kind of daring for the way that it depicts its characters and their relationship and, in particular, their sexuality. Typically the elderly are depicted in pop culture as being not just sexless, but desireless as well, but Cloudburst is pretty unapologetic in portraying its couple as sexual beings. That feels sort of revolutionary, even if the film's more overtly stated political message is slightly blunted by the fact that it relies on a straw man to make its point.

Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker star as Stella and Dotty, a couple who have been together for 31 years in what is apparently a small town in the US, though it never looks or feels like anything but the Maritimes. Despite the fact that they are obviously a couple, Dotty's granddaughter Molly (Kristin Booth) believes that they're just friends and roommates, with Stella acting as caretaker to Dotty ever since she lost her sight, and when Dotty is injured and hospitalized, Molly swoops in to start taking control, arranging for Dotty to be put into a care home and telling Stella that she's welcome to stay on at Dotty's house until she's able to make other arrangements. Though Stella puts up a battle (literally, getting physical with Molly's police officer husband), Dotty is taken off to the home after unwittingly giving Molly her power of attorney.

In the face of Molly's manipulation, Stella hatches a plan to break Dotty out of the home and go on the lam with her, eventually hitting on the idea that they could go to Canada and get married in order to protect their rights as a couple. Dotty is slightly hesitant about making it official - having already given three decades to the relationship, she thinks she might want to keep her options open for the next three - but allows herself to get talked into it, so they set off and en route Stella decides to pick up Prentice (Ryan Doucette), a hitchhiker trying to make his way back to Nova Scotia from New York, on the theory that if Molly had reported them missing and the police are looking for them, they'll be less conspicuous traveling with Prentice than they would be traveling alone together. With Prentice's help, they make it across the border (though just barely thanks to Stella's poorly timed sense of humor), but making it to the altar proves a little more difficult.

Like a lot of movies that were adapted from stage plays, Cloudburst doesn't always fully break away from the "staginess" built into it, though the stretch of the film that finds the characters on the road does open it up a bit, while the way that the story is broken down into a series of mini adventures results in some unevenness, as some stretches are much better than others. The segment which finds the main trio at the home of Prentice's family, for example, falls sort of flat and devolves into a some rather joyless slapstick that feels entirely out of place, and pretty much every scene involving Molly ends up feeling empty because she's such a broadly drawn caricature that you can't even take her seriously. On the other hand, the film's best segments are deeply touching, zeroing in on the nuances of Stella and Dotty's relationship in a way that brings a compelling level of specificity to the story. The film is on Stella and Dotty's side, but it doesn't pretend that their relationship is perfect or that either of them are saints (this is particularly true of foul-mouthed, sometimes aggressive Stella); its point is merely that they deserve to have their relationship and to have that relationship respected.

As the couple, Dukakis and Fricker deliver great performances that function to balance each other out. As the louder one prone to outbursts of profanity, the ostensibly tougher one who always seems to be courting trouble, Dukakis has the flashier role, but it's Fricker's quiet steadiness, her calm and patience, which hold down the center of the film and help it finds the resonance that it achieves even as its plot takes it in some predictable directions. At 84 and 70, respectively, Dukakis and Fricker don't get many opportunities to play leading roles in films but each is a powerful screen presence and given the opportunity here, they build something that's actually quite beautiful. Cloudburst isn't exactly a groundbreaking movie, but it's a lovely piece of work that has moments of true power.

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