Now is Good wallows in all the clichés that we’ve come to expect in these stories of young lives cut tragically short. There are long sequences without dialogue, scored to music designed to cue our emotions, inviting the audience to contemplate the profundity of everything going on. There’s care not to dwell on this as a bleak or depressing story with an inevitable downer ending. However, despite the awkward and trite direction, the script itself is surprisingly sturdy. While it seems to check off all the items on the list – not that set down by our protagonist, but the one codified by other recent stories of child mortality – it does have a hint of humanity that shines through from time to time. “Life is a series of moments,” the narration is prone to remind us, and there are some nice moments to be found in Now is Good, slotted between the plotting and structure dictated by the genre.
Tessa Scott has a “bucket list.” It’s full of zany and unconventional things that the young girl wants to do before she succumbs to the leukemia poisoning her body. Naturally, it’s full of naughty items like “sex” and “drugs”, which might have served to give the film a slightly harder edge – after all, a teenager struggling to live a life society won’t let her have before she dies might make for an interesting and controversial topic. However, the movie only fleetingly touches on these ideas. It opens with Tessa considering casual sex, and she does do mushrooms later on – but both subjects are only briefly suggested. Instead, despite all Tessa’s posturing, they end up footnotes in a rather conventional story.
The movie runs through the playbook for these sorts of films with a practised ease. There’s lots of forlorn staring, and lots of anger, and a family that seems to be falling apart only to solidify once again to provide the audience with something resembling an uplifting dramatic arc. Tessa claims to be trying to do “as much as [she] can as fast as [she] can”, but the film is settled into a fairly relaxed pattern. Tessa meets a nice boy, flirts and falls in love. The list is mentioned once or twice briefly, but the thrust of the narrative is in the shared inevitable attraction between Tessa and Adam. Adam, of course, comes with his own co-dependence issues.
There’s sharing, there’s caring, there’s intimacy and grand romantic gestures. There’s sight-seeing trips and all manner of other romantic clichés deployed before things take a turn that they must take in a film like this. It’s all set to Dustin O’Halloran’s overwhelming score, that doesn’t really trust us to determine how we should be feeling at a given moment. It’s more a series of overstated emotional cues than a soundtrack, as director Ol Parker seems to scream a particular state of mind down the camera at us. “Sad! Optimistic! Scared! Triumphant!” It would be more subtle had Parker used old-fashioned cue cards.
The plot rushes to check off all the possible clichés to make sure that we know that Tessa is losing out on a lot of potential life. Driving her out to the country, Adam makes sure to pick the most thematically appropriate street ever. There’s a young couple in love, an old man at a bus stop and even a mother saying goodbye to her child. Later, Adam’s mother makes a faux pas when she outlines her hopes Adam will go to college next year. “I don’t want him to waste another year,” she says to the girl who has months left at best. Now is Goodcould never be accused of being subtle, and it’s almost suffocating at times.
There’s even a rather ham-fisted attempt to tie the end of Tessa’s life into the start of something new – a forced symbolic attempt to link death and birth as a means of avoiding the rather grim inevitability of Tessa’s illness. It all feels ridiculously contrived, and just a little bit forced – as if the story was afraid of being “too sad” for the audience in question. (In fact, the same sequence actually serves to underline a rather conservative morality to the whole thing, in marked contrast to Tessa’s “flout the law” list. I can’t discuss too much for fear of spoiling it, but the film shies away from endorsing anything that might be considered “risky.” Given the harrowing subject matter, that feels like a cheat.)
And yet, despite this, there are rare glimpses of humanity to be found in the movie, between the inescapable plot beats that a drama like this must hit. Certainly, Tessa and the people around her feel much more real than the cast of My Sister’s Keeper or Death of a Superhero, even if the emotional response isn’t quite raw enough. Tessa acts like a spoilt brat throughout, her existential rage channelled into the emotional manipulation of those around her. Caught trying to shoplift, Tessa plays her illness for sympathy to get off the hook. When she wants to make her father feel guilty, she knows where to strike. These moments seem genuine, but they’re buried amid a wealth of stereotypical sequences that chart a familiar course.
Ol Parker’s script is helped by two strong performances from Paddy Considine and Olivia Williams, as Tessa’s two parents. They are both struggling with their daughter’s condition in their own ways. There’s nothing too new or startling here, but Considine and Williams both manage to flesh out characters who would otherwise seem one-note at best. Indeed, the two manage to construct characters who seem much more “real” than Dakota Fanning’s Tessa, although I suspect that Fanning’s performance isn’t the problem.
Fanning does a terrible English accent. I’m not sure why they opted not to cast an English actress in the role, but it might have also worked to simply have Fanning use her regular speaking voice. Instead, we get a weird sing-song accent that sounds like Fanning got into character watching Blackadder, only nobody told her that British people don’t actually sound like Miranda Richardson’s “Queenie.”It distracts from what is actually a fairly decent performance, but it’s hard to concentrate on what Fanning is actually doing in the role when every word sounds like it came from an American pastiche of a British accent.
Now is Good won’t convert any cynics in the audience, but there’s just enough genuine human feeling to be gleaned from the script and two superb performances that it makes for a sentimental success. Certainly, at the screening I attended, the final reel was met with the sound of stifled sniffling. My inner sceptic suggests that those might have been responding to Parker’s suffocating direction, but there’s no denying that the vast majority of it came from response to the film itself.
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