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Non-Review Review: Mickey and the Bear

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Mickey and the Bear marks a confident theatrical debut from director Annabella Attanasio.

Mickey and the Bear is a study of poverty in the Pacific Northwest, unfolding against the backdrop of a small Montana town. The opening scenes establish this quite effectively, introducing Mickey as a young woman living in a trailer that is literally falling apart with her father Hank. Hank is a veteran of the Iraq War, and the scars clearly linger. He has an opiod prescription to help with his leg wound, but adamantly refuses the psychological help that he clearly needs to come to terms with the trauma. The film is essentially a ticking time bomb in the form of a character study, a countdown to the point where Mickey’s world implodes.

Mickey and the Bear is bolstered by a set of strong performances. Mickey is played by relative newcomer Camila Morrone, who offers a complex and nuanced take on a character who has largely given up any real hope of outside intervention and so has retreated into herself. Hank is played by veteran James Badge Dale, with Hank’s dysfunction feeling of a piece with the psychological damage felt by Badge Dale’s characters in films like Flight or Echoes of War. The two play off one another well, layering their relationship with myriad emotions which suggest the full range of their complicated dynamic.

As writer and director, Attanasio infuses Mickey and the Bear with a palpable sense of quiet desperation. Dread and anxiety hang over the film, but even they are pressed beneath the weight of grim inevitability.

Attanasio populates the world of Mickey and the Bear with an impressive amount of detail, especially considering its relatively sleight runtime. Mickey and the Bear clocks in at just under ninety minutes, but its world feels no smaller for that fact. Part of this is down to the way in which Attanasio suggests the larger sense of smalltown community with efficiency and economy, from the police officer who already know Mickey because of her frequent trips to bail out her father through to the bizarrely intense local festivities that culminate in a grotesque pie-eating competition. (Hank, by his own account, “crushes it.”)

However, Mickey and the Bear works best in its smaller moments, capturing the smaller personal moments of this familial horror story. It’s there in Hank’s occasionally violent insistence that he “didn’t ask for help” to anybody who might extend a hand in friendship. It’s there in Hank’s efforts to hold even just the base of the glass of water in his fragile, shaking hand in an effort to afford himself some dignity as Mickey tilts the glass into his mouth. It’s also there in the way that Attanasio frames these moments of Hank’s vulnerability peering around corners or through doors, aware this is not how he would want to be seen.

This sense of desperation is infused throughout Mickey and the Bear, to the point that it is even reflected in the set decoration. There’s a reason that so much of the film’s wildlife is either mounted or caged; the deer heads on the wall at the taxidermist where Mickey works, the turtles in the tank at the local veterans’ office, even the lizard that Mickey herself keeps in a glass case. At one point, Hank takes Mickey and her new boyfriend Wyatt on a bear hunt into the wilderness. This is purely aspirational; there appear to be no bears roaming free through the forests Montana.

Mickey and the Bear suggests that both Mickey and Hank are trapped, unable to escape the cycles and traps that have worn them down. Hank is adamant that his daughter will leave one day and forget all about him, but Mickey herself doubts such an escape will be possible. Both Mickey and Hank maintain their shared prison. Hank works on their beat-up mobile home, while the film is bookended with sequences of Mickey collecting her father from custody. Mickey and Hank are each prisoner and jailer, hunter and prey. “Do you think he can get better?” Mickey asks a psychiatrist of his father. The answer is inevitable.

Mickey and the Bear suffers in places from a sense of familiarity. It falls into its own rhythms and traps just as easily as Mickey or Hank. Attanasio is building an American indie, and these sorts of indie movies have an internal rhythm that tends to undercut any attempt at naturalism and verisimilitude. Certain plot elements and narrative choices border of cliché, even within the relatively under-explored world of opioid addiction in the Pacific Northwest. There are plenty of films about children trying to escape the hell of their family life, and struggling with the gravity it exerts.

Many of the storytelling choices within Mickey and the Bear feel a little too staged and choreographed, cynically calculated and weighted. There is a sense that pieces are being moved around the board for maximum impact in the third act. Of course Mickey gets the scholarship that he wants, of course her father shows just enough chance of improving to give hope, of course Mickey meets a young man with a more sophisticated and more cosmopolitan frame of reference than her dead-end boyfriend. This is how these sorts of stories go, offering just enough hope that it might be snatched away for maximum impact.

The biggest problem with Mickey and the Bear is that none of these alternate prospects ever seem truly material. Even when Mickey books a ticket to San Diego, it just feels like the film is starting an invisible timer to the point when it all explodes. When Hank drunkenly and accidentally refers to Mickey using her mother’s name, that’s just a bit of narrative set-up for what happens at the denouement. None of these beats feel especially organic or reflective of the real world. Instead, they feel like dominoes being lined up for an inevitable chain reaction at the climax of its story.

Still, Mickey and the Bear is light enough on its feet, and charming enough in its execution, that this sense of maneuvering never distracts as much as it might.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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