Review: Dark family secrets drive the stylish and moody 'We Are What We Are' at Sundance midnights
Nick Damici and Jim Mickle have been working together for several films now, co-writing the films that Mickle directs, and they seem to be honing their aesthetic from film to film. Sometimes you see a filmmaker arrive fully formed and sometimes you see a filmmaker grow from movie to movie. In those cases, sometimes even if you don't love the movies, the growth is what's interesting, and "We Are What We Are" represents the best thing they've done together so far, no doubt about it.
From "Mulberry Street" to "Stake Land" to this latest effort, what's obvious is that they take genre seriously, and they ground the outlandish elements with an emphasis on character that one might argue is a requirement of a low budget, but that these filmmakers embrace as a virtue. They like the slow fuse, and they are happy to save up the most shocking things in their films for a few moments instead of trying to just wear the audience down with non-stop sensation.
I haven't seen the original Mexican film, "Somos Lo Que Hay," which was released in 2010, but as I understand it, the films take the same basic idea and dramatize it in very different ways. The Mexican film was about the father of a family who drops dead, leaving the teenage children of the family to carry on the primary responsibility of their particular family, the capture and preparation of a very particular kind of meat. Jorge Michel Grau's film was set in the city, evidently, and that was a big part of the tension of the film.
The new film is set in a rural area, and the Parker family does indeed lose a parent in the opening scenes, but it's the mother who is suddenly and unexpectedly lost in the film's opening moments, leaving Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) to not only help raise their young brother Rory (Jack Gore), but also take over the job of preparing a special meal to celebrate Lamb's Day, a once-a-year religious celebration that is key to who they are, a tradition of the Parker family stretching back to when the land was first settled.
Religion plays a big role in the motivations of the Parker clan, but this isn't a movie that suggests that religion is the problem. It's more of an excuse than anything, a justification for something that has become a medical emergency and a genetic necessity. Bill Sage finds the right voice for his character, Frank, the head of the Parker family, and the way he plays the symptoms of whatever disease he and his family suffer from is subtle and technically remarkable. And as someone who intensely disliked Kevin Smith's "Red State," I love that Michael Parks is here at Sundance with another story of an extremist and his family doing terrible things in the name of religion, but on the other side of the situation. Parks plays Doc Barrow, a local doctor who is hung up about his daughter who vanished a few years back, and he's the person who keeps digging, unaware that it's the Parker clan he's looking for. There's a local sheriff's deputy, Anders, who is hung up on Iris, and Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn) is terrific in the role, appealing and charming, and it would not shock me to see Hollywood suddenly start trying to cast him in superhero roles.
The film is stunningly beautiful, and Ryan Samul's work here as cinematographer is impressive and overwhelming throughout. I think it would have worked just as well if they'd made this as a short film. Narratively, it's very thin, and that allows Mickle to build up mood over the course of the film. I admire the movie, and I think it's an important step for Mickle as well. He and Wyatt Russell should get together so when they get their Golden Tickets and make a ton of movies together. For now, it's good to see them wrap up 2012 on a high note. The Library has been home to all sorts of amazing Midnight titles over the years, and "We Are What We Are" is a lovely addition to that list.
"We Are What We Are" is currently screening and hoping for distribution at the 2013 Sundance Film Festial.