Silver Dollar Road (dir. Raoul Peck):
Silver Dollar Road is a documentary that chronicles a family’s decades-long quest to hang on to their land in the face of hostile real estate developers and questionable legal decisions.
The Reels are an African American family that has lived in North Carolina for generations. Their land on Silver Dollar Road was a safe enclave free of racism, and provided invaluable water access for them to earn a living by fishing. But since the 1970s, they’ve been locked in legal conflict over who actually owns Silver Dollar Road. The family’s fight to keep their land has cost them thousands of dollars, destroyed important parts of their livelihood, and resulted in the incarceration of several family members.
Silver Dollar Road is a powerful watch, giving the Reel family plenty of space to share both their struggle to keep their home, but also why this fight is so important to them. Seeing the family out on the water and around the property, including at a cemetery where family members are buried, highlights just how deep their connection to this area is. Peck uses visual aids effectively to help track the geography of the area, and the expansive Reel family tree. I do wish a bit more time had been paid to explaining the legal mess that started this all. I left the film feeling quite sure the Reels had been screwed, but more than a little foggy on how, exactly.
Still, I understand the filmmaker’s decision to not get too bogged down in legalities. Silver Dollar Road serves as both an extremely personal story, and also an insightful primer into the struggle of many Black southern families facing similar challenges around land rights. In a story about a family that has been repeatedly jerked around by the legal system, I was pleased to hear from the family themselves rather than representatives of that system.
Chuck Chuck Baby (dir. Janis Pugh):
Helen’s having a tough go of it. Working overnights at a local chicken processing plant in North Wales, she comes home every morning to the house she shares with her ex-husband Gary. Despite the fact that Gary’s new girlfriend and their baby are living there too, Helen is sticking around to help care for her beloved mother-in-law, Gwen, who doesn’t seem to have much time left. In the interim, Helen isn’t doing much living, either.
This changes when Joanne, Helen’s high school crush, comes back to town to settle up affairs in the wake of her father’s death. When mutual friends push her and Helen into each other’s paths, neither can deny the spark between them. It’s a second chance at the high school romance they never had, if only Joanne can get past the adolescent trauma that pushed her out of town in the first place, and Helen can find the courage to start living for herself. Oh, and did I mention it’s sort of a musical?
I had big hopes for Chuck Chuck Baby. A queer second chance jukebox musical romance is a concept I can get behind! Unfortunately, the tone never quite clicked for me. It felt like the director couldn’t quite decide how far she wanted to go with the premise, and so it ended up settling in an unsatisfying in-between. The musical numbers weren’t really musicals numbers so much as cast members half-singing along with popular tracks, fading in and out with an emotional breathiness that was sometimes warranted but other times felt overplayed. Also, I wanted choreo! It would be one thing if that wasn’t at all the director’s intention. However, there were a few little moments of it that made me think we’d be getting more, but then it would just stop there. I felt musically gaslit!
The central romance in this movie is sweet. I’m never going to be mad at a queer romance, and I appreciate the way Helen and Joanne moved slowly, building a friendship before jumping into something. It made their connection feel more earned, like they had something real to root for. At the same time, some of the characters around them feel quite exaggerated in contrast. Joanne and Helen’s chicken plant friends are lovely, fun characters, but Gary and his girlfriend are just absolutely goofy. I don’t understand how someone like Gwen, who is portrayed as an open-minded and compassionate lady, could raise a son like Gary, who is a bigoted neanderthal. And I refuse to believe anyone earnestly does their eyebrows the way Gary’s girlfriend does. Chuck Chuck Baby is all good enough fun for an hour and half, but has neither the emotional heft nor the delightful campiness to help it linger much past that.
Wicked Little Letters (dir. Thea Sharrock)
This is a stranger-than-fiction story of scandal, sexism, and GOSSIP, based on a true story! In a small town in 1920s England, Edith Swan (Olivia Coleman) begins receiving profane, name-calling letters. When the time comes to point fingers, her neighbour – single mother Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley) – finds herself in the hot seat. As a spiritedly foul-mouthed Irish migrant, Rose has gained a reputation for unladylike behaviour, and has clashed with Edith’s uptight father more than once because of it. Still, she maintains her innocence, not the least because she has a young daughter to care for.
As more and more people receive letters, Rose suddenly finds herself at the centre of a national scandal. The town’s women, however, begin to suspect there’s more to the case. Aided by “Woman Police Officer” Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan), they begin their own investigation to clear Rose’s name before she’s put away for good.
Wicked Little Letters is a fun diversion that won’t rock your world, but will give you a few chuckles and then send you on your way before the premise gets stale. A true story like this is just begging to be adapted, and the production team hit the jackpot when they managed to land powerhouse actresses Jessie Buckley and Olivia Coleman for the main roles. Over the past few years, Olivia Coleman seems to have achieved “I would watch her watch paint dry” status. I talked to more than one person who was planning to see this film solely because she was in it. She seems like she’s having a lot of fun here, delivering a performance that is by turns simpering, scheming, and sympathetic. Still, it doesn’t quite rise to the level of her best work, perhaps due to the limitations of the script. It’s fun and witty but rarely truly hilarious, unless you think profane language is the height of comedy.
This film is at its best when it leans into absurdity, and the twists and turns of the story. The village women are a delightful troop of characters with some fun supporting performances; I’m always pleased to see Lolly Adefope show up anywhere. By contrast, pretty much every man in this town is a vile misogynist, with the exception of Rose’s boyfriend. The sexism could not be less subtle, but then again, this isn’t a particularly subtle film. Some films exist to break ground, and others exist so you can spend a pleasant evening at the movies when you go visit your family. I think Wicked Little Letters will find great success in the latter category.