Friday, March 18, 2016

The Confirmation (2016)

Director: Bob Nelson
Writer: Bob Nelson
DP: Terry Stacey
Editor: Steven Rasch
Score: Jeff Cardoni
Producer: Bob Nelson, Todd Hoffman
Starring: Clive Owen, Jaeden Lieberher, Robert Forster, Spencer Drever, Tim Blake Nelson, Patton Oswalt, Maria Bello, Matthew Modine
Distribution: Saban Films
Length: 1 hr. 30 min.

The Confirmation takes place in a town shared between the working class and the middle class.  These groups take different approaches to the questions of spiritual morality suggested by the film's title, and Anthony, one of the film's two main characters, finds himself caught between those approaches.

Anthony is a young boy who lives with his middle class mother and stepfather, but spends the film in the company of Walt, his working class father.  At first, Anthony makes moral decisions based on the lessons of the church he attends with his mother, but it quickly becomes clear that those lessons were not intended for everyone; Anthony finds that providing emotional support to Walt, a recovering alcoholic, demands a different kind of moral consideration.  In The Confirmation, Walt, and people in positions similar to his, spend time working or looking for work in a way that keeps them from going to church consistently, and rarely can afford to put others before themselves.

There are many ideas at play in The Confirmation, and Anthony's introduction to moral ambiguity is probably the most prominent. Even so, he remains mostly innocent throughout, enough that his presence causes others to check themselves: a lot of conflicts between Walt and others are resolved because they have sympathy for Anthony, and choose not to cause trouble in front of a child. Ultimately, this compassion is at the root of the film's sense of morality. The ambiguity always remains, but the characters try to leave behind whatever positive impressions on the world they can.

Walt embodies this more than anyone, waxing lyrical about his work as a carpenter and spending time touching up broken things he sees. He describes people who don't appreciate carpentry as "philistines," and when Anthony asks him what that means, he says it's a religion. Though the structure of Catholicism may be absent from Walt's life, there are still quasi-biblical elements to his values, and they help him maintain his conscience.

The film's free camerawork, detailed locales, and low-key colors add up to visual naturalism, though the dialogue and plot aren't entirely naturalistic. The script uses humor and surprising turns of plot to brighten a would-be depressing story, which is fitting for the film's take on morality, but doesn't jell with its imagery. I probably wouldn't have a problem with this if the film was more engaged with the social context its visuals represent, rather than moral questions. Also, Walt is set apart from other characters by his devotion to Anthony and relative lack of awkward quirks (not to mention his accent - he's played by Clive Owen, after all); few of the other working class characters are portrayed as positively. Though the film is not quite judgmental of the characters besides him, this removes him from his social context and undercuts the film's use of that context as a framework for its central themes.

This is perhaps ironic, since the film's plot and its naturalism are both lifted from Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves, one of the most uncompromisingly despondent portrayals of the struggles of the working class (note that the main role in Bicycle Thieves was played by a non-professional actor, while Walt is played by a celebrity). Of course, it's always risky to compare one film to another when trying to discern why it has the effect it has, so I'll try not to. The Confirmation doesn't completely lack conviction, but it feels slight. The film's treatment of the many ideas at play is saccharine - not a word I like to use negatively, but in this case, the best word. If "saccharine" means "excessively sweet," then the problem is the excess, not the sweetness; in the end, the extent of the film's sweetness doesn't quite add up.

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