Tusker is a respected novelist and Sam a recital pianist. They are a well-travelled, sophisticated couple who have been together for over twenty years. Taking to the road in an RV to travel across the north of England the couple establish their bond through humour and well-meaning bickering. The audience believes these men are beloved to each other. Tusker’s humour delights the staider Sam. Each moment between them is suffused with an intimacy that time has wrought and made strong.
The road trip appears to be at first a journey to Sam giving a recital, but it is much more. Along the way the couple stop at Sam’s family’s home where Tusker has organised a surprise party. Tusker is carefully setting up Sam for a life without him by ensuring he makes connections with others in their lives who can care for Sam once Tusker is gone. In a beautifully realised scene Tusker writes a speech which he is unable to read and it is Sam who takes on expressing Tusker’s heartfelt love and devotion to his friends, but especially his husband. Tucci’s expression of pride at his words mixed with a level of embarrassment for being unable to read them is just one of the perfect acting moments that the film has in plenitude. Indeed, the central performances of Tucci and Firth are what give the film gravity over sentimentality.
The subject of early onset dementia has been explored in films such as Julianne Moore’s best actress Oscar winning Still Alice. Unlike the aforementioned film Supernova doesn’t dwell as much on the diminishment of the person suffering from dementia. Tusker has moments where he loses words, or finds simple tasks like dressing difficult, yet he is still very much present mentally. For this reason Sam believes that they have more time to still be together as they were. It isn’t until he discovers Tusker’s writing box and the deterioration of his ability to harness the written word that he realises that there is an urgency to the diagnosis that he had been repressing in the hope of staying with the man he loves.
After so many excellent roles it would be difficult to call this a career-best for Firth, but it is certainly some of his finest work. In a lesser actor’s hands the emotional weight that Sam carries through his being could have been lost. Firth makes us believe the love between the couple is inviolable. Even when he finds something that shatters his world and breaks his heart he doesn’t overact and lead the script into a place of cliché. Tucci for his part is excellent as Tusker; a man who knows enough of himself to know what he is losing. It’s clear that he’s been the more social and outgoing partner in the relationship, but for all his extroversion he has relied on Sam to “sit there and hold up the universe.”
There is undeniable compassion for Sam and Tusker, but it is never overplayed to the point of schmaltz. Perhaps that restraint is built into the script, but it is mostly apparent through the measured performances of the leads. Intimacy is established through the everyday interactions; hands touching, the shared beds, the small jokes and needling. The smallest movements are grand gestures of love but never overplayed.
Writer/director Harry Macqueen has created an astoundingly mature work, especially given his relatively young age of only 36. In concert with the extraordinary cinematography of Dick Pope SUPERNOVA serves as a visual and aesthetic experience that gracefully captures the rural English countryside.
Despite the melancholy subject matter there is abundant warmth in SUPERNOVA and even as tragedy approaches the central message of the film is the enduring nature of love. Like the metaphor of the infinite universe that Macqueen employs, there is a never-ending nature in the capacity of the characters to belong to each other so completely. A heartbreaking yet love affirming film that delivers on every promise it sets up.
As the women prepare to reveal the truth to Madeleine’s now-adult children and move to Rome together, tragedy strikes: Madeleine suffers a stroke. With the unsuspecting family and a nosy live-in nurse suddenly omnipresent, Nina struggles to care for her partner and express her own fear and anxiety.
Much like Amour, TWO OF US relies on the dynamic between its central couple feeling authentic, a challenge which Sukowa and Chevallier are more than up for. There’s a rhythm and vivacity to their early back-and-forth that perfectly captures a sense of familiarity and comfort; I wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d embodied the cliche and finished each other’s sentences. Likewise, Meneghetti dedicates several scenes to the women simply dancing around their living rooms, beaming contentedly with no other characters in sight. Such overt affection often risks becoming saccharine, but the performances ensure it’s not the case here.
Sukowa and Chevallier manage to be equally captivating despite the vastly different challenges of their roles. The former is electrifying, with the difficulty of even being in the same room as her partner accelerating Nina’s journey through the stages of grief. For instance, her offers to help take care of her ‘friend’ are tinged with just enough desperation and insistence to make Madeleine’s nurse question her motives. Sukowa’s delivery is pitch-perfect and the quick, subtle changes to her expression after being turned down are heartbreaking.
Although Nina is the more outgoing and extroverted of the pair, Chevallier maintains a quiet dignity and wisdom as Madeleine that I found fascinating. Most impressively, once she begins recovering the performance never fades into the background to become merely something for others to discuss. Rather, Chevallier is alert, attentive (albeit unable to respond), and at times surprising; it’s an incredibly empathetic turn on par with Emmanuelle Riva’s much-loved work in Amour.
However, Chevallier is also brilliant before the stroke occurs as Madeleine attempts to tell her children the truth. The script subverts expectations by grounding her reluctance in a fear of disrupting her family’s status quo, instead of homophobia. This subtle distinction gives Chevallier powerful material to work with during her early scenes, indeed, we see the doubt slowly creep over her, and later her regret for not speaking up.
Beyond the two leads, the most striking thing about TWO OF US is just how gorgeous it looks. While memorable cinematography may not be a prerequisite to the success of films like this, DP Aurélien Marra encapsulates both the warmth of Nina and Madeleine’s romance, and the isolation brought about by their secrecy. My favourite example of this is an early scene of the women preparing for bed: the soft lights certainly convey the intimacy of the moment, yet the even greater darkness of the room is a reminder that they’re only able to drop their facade in private. Meneghetti undoubtedly deserves credit for this as well; shooting group scenes using a wide-angled, almost fly on the wall approach is an effective choice.
TWO OF US delivers on its emotional premise with a thoughtful, passionate depiction of lifelong relationships. This is a remarkably polished debut from Meneghetti bolstered by leads who flawlessly understand and epitomise its themes. Anyone looking for a good old-fashioned tearjerker need look no further.
That’s all well and good, but numbers don’t always reflect accurately on whether a film is any good or not. So, does HI, MOM deserve the accolades that those numbers suggest? In short, yes, but maybe not for the reasons you might think.
Jia Ling (the co-writer, director and star of the film) is one of China’s top comedians who came to fame doing celebrity impressions on a 2012 TV show called Your Face Sounds Familiar, and then worked her way through a variety of films and TV shows, ultimately creating her own production company. HI, MOM (I have to say, that overly Americanised English language title really grates on me) is based on her own experiences of grief and loss after her mother died when she was nineteen. In 2016, Jia Ling adapted those events into a comedy sketch called Hello Li Huanying (a much better title) for Comedy General Mobilization on Chinese TV and then, over the next three years worked with Bu Yu, Sun Jibin and Wang Yu to develop it into a screenplay. At first blush, it’s not the kind of subject matter that immediately screams out, ‘this story oughta be a comedy’ and, for me, the funny stuff she’s created is not what lingers in the thoughts and reflections after the credits roll. There’s something deeper and more profound going on here.
HI, MOM is the story of Jia Xiaoling aka Ling (Jia Ling) who is a constant disappointment to her mother, Li Huanying (Liu Jia). The opening scenes of the film drive this home as we watch the mother cope with endless disappointment and letdown as her daughter grows from toddler to adolescent. It’s not for want of trying on Ling’s part, but everything she does from pooping her pants to forging entry papers to a college leaves her feeling that she’s never done anything to make her mother proud and that this is a major part of what Ling perceives to be her mother’s unhappy life. But after Ling’s mother is critically injured in a cycling incident, Ling finds herself inexplicably transported back in time to 1981, well before she’s even born. Here, like Marty McFly in Back to the Future, she encounters and becomes friendly with her mother as a young woman (Zhang Xiaofel). But unlike Back to the Future, there is no pseudo-scientific explanation for the time travel (in fact there’s no real explanation at all – but that doesn’t matter in this story), and unlike Back to the Future, Ling is not trying to ensure that her future mother meets her future father so that the life she knows can be created. Quite the opposite, in fact. Ling sets about making a happier life for her mother by doing her best to see the younger Li Huanying make better choices that will lead to a more fulfilling and satisfying future life. This includes playing matchmaker between her mother and Shen Guanglin (Shen Teng) the hapless son of the boss of the factory where she works. Again, unlike Back to the Future, Ling seemingly has no concerns for what might happen to her own unborn self if she succeeds in pairing her future mother up with someone other than her own future father.
The comedy in HI, MOM (for me, at least) is more ‘smiling humour’ than laugh out loud gags, but that’s okay because what frames the funny stuff is an examination of a young woman who seizes the unlikely opportunity of changing the past to produce unselfish outcomes for someone who she feels deserves better in both life and the kind of daughter she has. It’s these themes that have, perhaps, struck a nerve with the rapidly growing audience; the idea that women who have not been well served by marriage or motherhood or opportunity deserve better and that the ‘better’ is much more effective in retrospect. Anecdotally, this has translated to much more than just mega ticket sales, with reports of increased focus in the media (both journalistic and social) on the relationships young people have with their mothers and the issues of satisfaction and happiness ion their lives.
There is much to like about this film. Others may find the funny stuff funnier than I did (although there are two set pieces – a volleyball match and a talent night – that are really well staged for both physical humour and some funny lines (as funny as English subtitles can be) but what elevates the film above the need to live or die by its humour is the depth and slow burn of its storytelling and the uniformly strong performances that Jai Ling has surrounded herself with, especially the work of Zhang Xiaofel and Shen Teng. The three of them are the core of this film and are each eminently watchable and relatable. To be honest. I was pleasantly carried along by Hi Mom for the bulk of its quite long (over two hours) running time which probably sounds like I’m damning the film with faint praise, but that isn’t my intention, because something happens in the third act that completely changes the pleasant experience to something more potent and emotionally powerful. I’m not going to say what it is, butmy admiration for Jia Ling rose considerably when I realised that she’d taken a calculated risk by playing the long game with this film, rather than going for the quick and easy laugh. And it’s a risk that pays off.
HI, MOM is a warm and thoughtful film that presents Jia Ling as not only an accomplished writer and a talented director, but also as a highly engaging actor able to underpin the comedic veneer of the film with a heartfelt and genuine sense of wanting to say something about the kinds of opportunities for the expression of love and respect that a sudden death steals away from us. Don’t go expecting a laugh out loud gag-fest – but do go. And afterwards, call your mother.
HI MOM is currently playing in selected cinemas.