Oct 6, 2019

24FPs @ LFF 2019: Lunana, A Yak In The Classroom / Babyteeth

Lunana - A Yak in the Classroom
Dir: Pawo Choying Dorji
Sometimes, all it takes for a film to feel a little different is a change of context. There are more than a few movies about teachers in an unfamiliar environment, from comedic takes like Kindergarten Cop to more dramatic pieces like Dangerous Minds. In most of them, the teacher will find their class or environment something they don’t initially warm to, but eventually will be turned around, learning something about themselves. Lunana, a Yak in the Classroom doesn’t do these broad strokes any differently, but the setting and cultural specificity of it make it feel a bit different.

Ugyen Dorji (Sherab Dorji) is in his last of five years of service as a teacher, following his training, and he’s fallen out of love with it. He’s lazy, marking time before he can leave Bhutan for Australia. Ugyen’s boss, sick of his attitude, dispatches him to Lunana and the most remote school in the world, eight days hike across the Himalayas from the nearest town. When he arrives, Ugyen immediately wants to leave, but the villagers and the kids he’s teaching win him round.

There isn’t much unexpected here. Ugyen is slowly inspired by the kids, notably adorable class captain Pem Zam (all the kids use their own names) and sets about doing up the school, for instance having the villagers helping him mix charcoal paint to make a blackboard. A city resident and a modern person, he also has his head turned by traditional culture, notably the songs sung by yak herder Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung). This is where the film marks itself out from the many others like it. Music is a major throughline, Ugyen wants to be a singer when he gets to Australia, and we see him spending much of his time trying to learn a traditional song he hears Saldon singing. The music is soothing, and unlike much we regularly her in the UK.

As well as a beautiful soundtrack, the film makes use of its stunning location to mark itself out. Shot on solar powered cameras 5000 metres up in the Himalayas, Lunana looks like few other films, taking place among the clouds not because it is set in some fantastical realm, but simply because that is where its characters live. The vistas are unbelievable and almost worth the price of admission on their own.

While it never goes anywhere unexpected, Lunana is executed with great charm. The dynamic between Ugyen, the villagers and the kids feels natural and has a warmth that permeates the whole film, in contrast to the mountain weather. This is especially the case in the friendships that develop between Ugyen and his escorts and the potential budding romance between Ugyen and  Saldon.

A sweet natured film about the importance of community and tradition, as well as that of following your calling, whatever that may mean, Lunana is perhaps a bit different to the rest of LFF’s Family programme, in that it doesn’t seem as much aimed at children as suitable for them, just as much as it will be for their parents. It should charm the whole family.

Dir: Shannon Murphy
The teen cancer romance has, weirdly, become prevalent enough to be a subgenre all of its own. Generally speaking, I can’t stand them. Most feel like tragedy porn, content to let their characters be defined solely through illness and essentially acting as a big stick, designed to poke you until you cry. The genre’s miserable low is without doubt the vomitously saccharine The Fault in Our Stars. I’m not sure it had a high point until now.

Babyteeth begins with 16 year old Milla (Eliza Scanlen) meeting and falling for Moses (Toby Wallace), he’s older, tattooed, jobless, a small time drug addict and dealer. Milla’s parents, Anna and Henry (Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn), understandably, do not approve. It’s only later that we learn that Milla’s cancer has returned. In the throes of first love with Moses, she wants to spend as much time with him as possible, to the point that he ends up living with Milla and her parents as she gets sicker.

There are many things that set Babyteeth apart from the herd of teen cancer movies, most notably the fact that it is not defined by Milla’s illness. This is largely a comedy drama about a dysfunctional family and cancer is only a part of that dysfunction. It’s also only a part of the film. It lurks in the background of the first half, becoming more present over time, much like the progress of the disease. For much of the first hour, writer Rita Kalnejais and director Shannon Murphy push comedy to the fore, with Essie Davis especially priceless as Milla’s anxiety riddled mother, who spends much of her time in a Zoloft induced haze, drugs prescribed by her psychiatrist husband. The scene in which Milla first brings Moses home and there is an excruciatingly awkward family dinner is particularly priceless. What many films about tragic things forget is that, even in the midst of it, not every moment is tragic. By remembering this, the sometimes irreverent humour of Babyteeth conveys more emotional honesty than any of the manipulative set pieces in a more typical teen cancer pic.

Milla’s first romance is obviously unsuitable, but we understand it from all sides, whether it’s Milla's romantic sense of being with the bad boy who’ll annoy her parents or the rather deeper thought that it’s Moses’ fearlessness that first draws her in, perhaps a quality she wants more in herself as her cancer gets worse. Eliza Scanlen is excellent in the part. For a long time we can see her playing Milla as a kid who simply wants to ignore her illness; she hasn’t got any hair, so she’ll wear fun wigs, and she’ll go out and she’ll fall in love with this guy, like a normal kid. We also see and feel the moments that bring that crashing down to Earth, but Scanlen never overplays them. For Moses’ part, there’s a recognition that he too, more experienced if not that much wiser at 23, realises that this crush Milla has on him isn’t entirely healthy, and that he at once has some feeling for her that goes beyond sympathy and yet he’s not immune to exploiting her feelings. Moses, in particular, is a more complex character than we usually see in these films and his shifts in motivation and feeling are given great weight in a deceptively light performance from Toby Wallace.

Initially, Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis have broader roles, essentially doing something close to comic relief duty (their first scene, an appointment for sex in Henry’s office, is a good example of this tone), but this recedes as the film goes on and their performances become heartbreaking. Mendelsohn, one of the best actors in movies right now, is especially brilliant when his daughter asks him to smile for a picture; “gimme a second” he says, and the weight of everything in the film is felt in those three words.

Director Shannon Murphy, making her feature debut after several shorts and plenty of TV work, balances the film’s tone beautifully and draws terrific work from her cast, allowing supporting players like Emily Barclay, as Anna and Henry’s heavily pregnant neighbour, to steal a few scenes, but never the focus. I’m not a fan, though, of her aggressive chaptering. The many, many title cards add little and sometimes give the film a bitty feel that undermines an otherwise strong emotional throughline. The nadir of this technique comes when a title card introduces the song a sequence is set to, making that sequence resemble a music video even more, slightly deflating its impact for that.

On the whole though, Babyteeth is a refreshing addition to a genre that has so far given us little to enjoy. The balance of humour and heart is more honest here than in any of its peers, and Eliza Scanlen and Toby Wallace both impress, marking themselves out as names to watch for the future.

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