By Gary M. Kramer.
Funny Face may require some work on the viewer’s part to put the pieces together, but for those willing to make the effort, Sutton’s striking drama is ultimately rewarding.”
Tim Sutton makes ambitious, hypnotic cinema. His latest effort, Funny Face is another brilliantly shot mood piece – not unlike the writer/director’s first two films, Pavilion and Memphis (and nothing like his last feature, the narrative-driven Donnybrook).
Set in contemporary Brooklyn, the film is consistently dazzling to watch. Sutton features long tracking shots that follow his characters, Zama (Dela Meskienyar), a young Muslim woman, and Saul (Cosmo Jarvis from Lady Macbeth) walking through the streets. These two youths meet cute in a deli when Zama tries to steal something and Saul comes to her rescue. Both are troubled; she is rebelling against her strict aunt and uncle (her father has died), and he is raging at the reality of his grandparents (Rhea Perlman and Dan Hedaya) being evicted. A man known only as The Developer (Jonny Lee Miller), is planning to “change the skyline.”
Funny Face operates more on atmosphere than plot, which makes this fascinating, but Sutton’s approach can be frustrating for viewers not attuned to the filmmaker’s style. For much of the first act, Zama and Saul hang out. She gets a new pair of sneakers, they share a slice, there is some dialogue, but more is conveyed through what is not said than what is. Sutton frames the characters from above walking across a triangle-shaped park, or in silhouette against illuminated storefronts. Every shot is capital-G Gorgeous – a hallmark of the director’s unique brand of cinema.
Reflections in car windows are stunning. The shimmer of a body of water is luminous. The sunsets are spectacular. There is a fantastic scene of a mask that Saul wears throughout the film – he imagines he is a superhero – that floats down to him from the sky. As it sinks past a building under construction, the imagery can be read as surreal, comic, or haunting. Sutton just lets viewers absorb the emotion.
This strategy sometimes confounds. One sequence has Saul visiting what can best be described as a shrine to James Dean. (He is seen reading a bio of the actor right before he meets Zama). It is a curious episode, and perhaps it does not reveal much about the character, but it is oddly compelling.
Much of Funny Face is like this, and may have viewers determining is it profound? Or is it empty? A scene of the Developer watching a trio of scantily-clad women kiss and touch each other on the floor in front of him is mesmerizing. If viewers want to ascribe meanings of power, masculinity, wealth, and exploitation, Sutton is certainly encouraging that. Likewise, a static shot of Saul getting Zama a bag of pistachios, filmed entirely through a car window, yields little – even if viewers can’t take their eyes off it.
Funny Face almost breaks its spell when the characters do have impassioned speeches. Saul is a Knicks fan, and his meltdown in the car, when Zama suggests he follow the Nets, is extraordinary. Jarvis gives an intense, frequently internal performance, carrying his shoulders in a James Dean-fashion, but this outburst is downright staggering. Likewise, Jonny Lee Miller has the veins in his forehead throbbing during a discussion he has with a funder he needs to help finance his project. His subsequent discussion with his father (Victor Garber) is equally fraught. However, Miller’s performance is too mannered to not make it come across as a caricature.
The thin storyline does involve Saul aiming to get revenge on The Developer, and while there are a few moments that gives Saul an opportunity to express his anger and emotions, these scenes do not overwhelm the narrative. Sutton’s restraint here is admirable. What does emerge, however, is how these three characters each don masks to hide who they are as they grapple with issues of family and home. They are all isolated (the framing clearly conveys that), and they all have anger that cannot be easily resolved. The film is best expressing these inchoate emotions.
Funny Face may require some work on the viewer’s part to put the pieces together, but for those willing to make the effort, Sutton’s striking drama is ultimately rewarding.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.