Friday, December 30, 2011

Review: "Weekend"

Two people meet. They talk, frivolously at first, as if the encounter could dissolve in a matter of minutes under the right circumstances. But something happens. There's a spark between them, and it pulls them both in deeper and deeper, through the good and the bad, all through their words and reactions. This is a set-up that has been used in any number of films, from Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset to this year's Certified Copy.

These are films that, despite their narrative simplicity, perhaps even narrative non-existence, draw us in time and time again. They allow two people, often with just enough similarities and difference to create an engaging push-pull (without verging into Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? territory) dynamic that can be humorous, charming, unsettling, and powerful. But in keeping with the necessity of opposites, all of these films have always centered on male/female pairings. It would seem to be a requirement: it is, after all the biggest dividing line among our species. Surely it would be necessary for such a film to succeed. Enter Andrew Haigh's Weekend, the latest entry in the two-people-talking sub-genre, centered on two British men.

One night at a local gay club, Russell (Tom Cullen) hooks up with Glen (Chris New). The following morning, as the two are getting dressed, Russell goes through on a promise he made the night before: to participate in Glen's audio art project on sex (specifically, gay sex). And even in this first interaction, which merely involves Glen holding a recorder for Russell to speak to, Weekend makes its mark. Russell and Glen have barely been established as characters (especially the latter, who doesn't speak until the morning-after scene), yet Haigh and his actors manage to create a sense of chemistry with incredible immediacy, and it all feels completely natural. And as the pair's interactions - which, in a break from tradition, involve several quick periods of separation - move from the clinical distance of the interview to themselves and their lives, the richness of Weekend only deepens.

Perhaps its greatest asset is that it refuses to box Russell and Glen into types. Yes, the former believes in the possibility of relationships while the latter is hesitant about the idea, but the two have enough about them that's similar to avoid feeling like we're dealing with cartoonish opposites. Haigh has created two very full characters, and he allows them to act like characters. As such, the film's weakest moments come when the pair address social issues directly, instead of ruminating on their more centralized, specific perspectives. It's in those moments that Weekend feels like it might become a "gay movie" instead of just, well, a movie. Cullen and New's performances, thankfully, transcend these little bumps along the way. Reception has tilted in favor of Cullen (the film is oriented around his character), but I'm going to have to cast my vote for New. The actor possesses a quiet fire in him that clashes with Cullen's more mellow, downcast looks, which sometimes (and by "sometimes" I mean once or twice...) come across as unintentionally dopey rather than withdrawn or shy.

The only major issue I have to take with Weekend is that it actually picks one of the two men to fixate on. Russell is the first and last person we see in the film, and despite Glen's near-equal screen time, this aspect leaves him feeling more like a passerby in Russell's life, when the two ought to be equals under the narrative. It's this that perhaps makes Weekend fail to completely instill the level of heartbreak it's aiming for. Glen is an equal for so much of the film, but when the ending comes back around to being all about Russell, he starts to feel more like a device. It makes it feel like Russell is the only one who's truly changed by the encounter, and that he had less to give Glen than Glen had to give him, even though both affect each other equally.

Still, it's hard not to be impressed by the vast majority of Haigh's sophomore effort (regarding full length films; his first three films were shorts). Whatever my qualms with the film's resolution (though the very last scene is lovely), this is an impressive effort from an obviously talented writer/director. Despite the small budget, Haigh makes impressive use of the surroundings, working with DP Urzsula Pontikos to create oddly compelling imagery out of mundane architecture and landscapes. Haigh's sense of pacing is also quite refined, never allowing the story to ramble or drag. Ultimately, though, Weekend's success rests on the shoulders of the screenplay and the actors, and they carry it all as if it were light as air. In a year when frustrating sequels landed at the multiplex week after week, Weekend actually creates a set-up where one longs to see more of the main characters together. Like Jesse and Celine in Sunrise/Sunset, this is one pair that's more than earned a second chance at their relationship, as well as a second film.

Grade: B+

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