Emma Thompson Shines in a New Drama and Science Geeks Shine in a New Documentary

At the Movies

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The Children Act
Recently I reviewed a movie adaptation of “On Chesil Beach,” a tale by prominent English writer Ian McEwan. McEwan has been cinematically busy, for this month another of his novels, “The Children Act,” also appears on film with McEwan again the screenwriter. His script, along with the efforts of veteran director Richard Eyre, provides for one of the best roles actress Emma Thompson has had in years (the film, rated “R” for mature themes, is now in theaters and runs 105 mins.).

In contemporary London, Judge Fiona Maye (Thompson) is a stern but earnest justice in the city’s family court, driven in a job which entails some of the knottier problems of the day, including a Solomonic judgment she makes at the beginning of the film about conjoined twins. The pressures on her have turned her marriage with university lecturer Jack (Stanley Tucci) sour, so sour that he openly announces that he wants to have an affair with one of his students.

Still, she carries on, confronted with a thorny case involving the Henry family. They, as Jehovah’s Witnesses, object to a blood transfusion which doctors insist their teenage son Adam (Fionn Whitehead), suffering from leukemia, must have to save his life. The father (Ben Chaplin) insists that their religion forbids the transfer of fluids from another person, and Adam should be left in God’s hands. Judge Maye must decide to grant the family’s wishes or intervene to let the transfusion proceed. To help resolve this dilemma, she takes the unusual step of visiting the hospital to interview the boy, who forthrightly rejects the transfusion. Nevertheless, the judge, considering the “Children Act” of 1988 which states that “children’s welfare should be the paramount concern of the courts,” rules that Adam must undergo the procedure.

Here the film takes a troubling turnabout. Rejuvenated, almost reborn, by the transfusion, Adam contrives to look up, even stalk Maye, becoming infatuated with her, writing poems to her, and seeing her as a kind of savior in tune with his soul. Puzzled by, yet also touched by his attentions, Maye plays the adult and tries to bring the lad back down to earth, but when he shows up, rain-sodden, at a formal party she is attending outside London, something must be done.

The character of Jack Maye seems somewhat underwritten, but Tucci makes his distress with the marriage plausible and stays mostly stalwart in his concern for Fiona. Adam is most convincingly embodied by young Whitehead, who won plaudits last year as a young soldier in “Dunkirk.” Playing at first bristling defiance, he switches to earnest, fawning youth without breaking stride. His lively eyes and curled mouth remind this reviewer of the young Tom Courtenay some 55 years ago.

This is not the sweet, often comedic Emma Thompson we’ve seen before. Judge Maye is demanding with people, especially her downtrodden clerk Nigel (Jason Watkins), cynical about family life (she and Jack are childless), striving to achieve a kind of queenly serenity above the messy cases she faces. Thompson, with knitted brows (in court) and sympathetic gestures (in hospital), captures this woman’s balancing act brilliantly. For a person who above all wants to maintain control, she finds her defensive façade is cracking with the attentions of the swoony teenager as the movie moves to a disconcerting finale. This last adjective is an inadvertent pun, as the end of the picture has Judge Maye, stumbling, groping at a piano recital while playing the wistful Irish tune “Down by the Salley Gardens,” the theme song of this touching film.

Gabriel and Myllena are best friends and research partners from Ceara, one of Brazil’s poorest states, and aim to inhibit the Zika virus. Photo courtesy of Fusion Media.

Science Fair
In recent years, the documentary film has discovered an almost surefire subject: kids’ competitions. The compelling “Spellbound” (2002) was the first of these stories to warm filmgoers hearts, followed by the sweet “Mad Hot Ballroom” (2005) and last year’s stirring “Step.” You can now add to that list “Science Fair,” an inspiring and wonderful true-life Revenge of the Nerds (the film, rated “PG” and running 90 minutes, opened in the DC area on September 28th).

“Science Fair” follows nine high school students from around the world as they aim to compete in the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) sponsored by Intel. In total, this annual event in Los Angeles attracts some 1,700 of the brightest (and quirkiest) science scholars from 78 different countries seeking to become “Best in Fair.”

The kids the filmmakers select are a varied and fascinating batch. There is Robbie of West Virginia, who gets lousy algebra grades but is a natural math genius with a penchant for loud shirts. Kashifa is a shy, self-effacing Muslim girl who struggles for recognition at her large sports-minded school in South Dakota. Three lively guys from Kentucky’s top science school, Ryan, Harsha, and Abraham, collaborate to build an electronic 3-D stethoscope. Anjali, only 13 and a freshman, is a child prodigy at the same Louisville school as the trio and is fashioning an arsenic testing device that could save many lives.

Then there is Myllena and Gabriel, best friends and research partners from one of Brazil’s poorest states (Ceara) who are studying how to identify a protein that could stem the spread of the Zika virus. Finally, there is the gawky but brilliant Ivo, who lives near the Rhine River and looks to revive the long-forgotten single-wing aircraft as a viable airship. The film also has time to focus on one inspiring mentor, Dr. Serena McCalla, a research teacher from Long Island who has built a remarkable science fair team at Jericho High School that qualified nine students for the Fair.

Unlike the other competition films mentioned above, we are not allowed into the exhibition hall to see how the judges make their decisions on the projects, though we do get to experience the tension and uplift when the winners are announced in a convention hall and cheer along with the rapt crowd.

The co-directors and co-writers of “Science Fair,” Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, have pulled off a winner in their first documentary feature. The picture is a particular triumph for Costantini, who was herself a dweeby girl in a sports-obsessed Wisconsin school, where she “found my tribe” through Science Fair. It was her own experience at ISEF, which drove her to “make a documentary about this crazy little world. It had everything–an international cast of angsty teenagers and inspiring prodigies, all devoted to one very niche subculture, and all striving to make the world a better place.” Amen.

 

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com