Life is messy. Stories often lead us to believe that there will always be a neat, and tidy ending. They don’t have to be optimistic, but every character receives some sort of end. We are conditioned to accept this as the norm for storytelling, so it is refreshing when a filmmaker seeks to remind us that ‘Real Life’ would perhaps be the worst selling book of all time. No-one is good or bad. Love is not simple. Relationships are a dance between two individuals. And, sometimes, we are not saved at the last minute.
Rogers Park is a simple film. A close, intimate dance of entwined lives grounded in the Chicago neighbourhood of Rogers Park. Our four guides to life in this corner of the world are Deena (Christine Horn), her boyfriend Chris (Jonny Mars), his elder sister Grace (Sara Sevigny), and her husband Zeke (Antoine McKay). They appear happy and secure, but as the tale unfolds resentments, secrets, and relationship issues rise to the surface, threatening the life they’ve worked so hard to build. Deena and Charlie have forgotten how to love each other. Zeke and Grace are struggling with debt, stress, and fear of losing everything.
It seems fitting that a director with a documentary background would choose to portray life as they see it.
Neither of these parallel relationships are perfect, or even remotely happy, and it could be asked why they put such incompatible characters together. Deena is fierce, kind, and giving, whereas Charlie is so wrapped up in his own depression he cannot see that she needs companionship as much as he needs support. Jonny Mars as Chris comes across as a poor woman’s Heath Ledger, moping, and jumping at anyone’s attempts to help him. Whereas Christine Horn fills the screen with life and colour. This mismatched pairing is intentional, however the risk does not pay off and one hopes that she will pursue the tenured professor with whom she is having an affair.
Grace and Zeke appear more suited to one another, until the last 20 minutes or so. She attacks him and he crumbles under her onslaught. Sara Sevigny is irritating, her performance has more in common with evil principles from Disney Channel television shows than a wife and mother. While her whining and moaning is convincing, her tender moments are most certainly not. Director Kyle Henry makes an effort to position Zeke as a kind, loving, tender husband, but why he chose to marry someone so defensive and pathetic, the film does not tell us.
The film is just generally a bit confused. It takes some time to work out who is who and what their relation is. Perhaps this is intentional, but due to the fact that the film is so much about these four characters, it makes the plot hard to grasp. Especially when Zeke’s daughter is introduced, when Tasha – a nanny? an ex-wife? – has to return Ruby to her parents due to other commitments. There is uncertainty here as the film is rather ambiguous when it comes to the relations between Tasha, Ruby, Grace, and Zeke. The nature of her introduction suggests that she is not Grace’s child, as well as her irritation when Tasha returns Ruby early, but her concern when Ruby runs into trouble is that of a mother. Interpretation often makes art, but within the already muddled relations, adding another may just force a viewer to give up.
From a cinematography point of view there is not an immense amount of variation, Henry prefers handheld close ups that place the characters on top of one another over carefully composed shots. This forces the audience to get in, up close, in the heart of the arguments, tender moments, struggles. This is vital to the film. If we are following their lives, we need to be involved, invested in their story. Yet it still betrays an urgency and a desperation that follows all handheld, low budget films. Yes, it is a stylistic choice, but it does not mean that handheld, close cinematography automatically makes a film superior.
It is very clear what Henry is going for. That much the film does well. A snapshot of these people’s lives and hard decisions. But the execution is somewhat lacking. An audience needs more from the performances and the writing to be sure of exactly what is going on, otherwise it leaves them feeling very distant from what should be an intimate and enjoyable film.
The music, again, exemplifies this as it intrudes in moments, and works against the action rather than with it. There are moments which spawn out of nowhere and the last act feels very rushed as catastrophe strikes in the last 10 minutes. Arguments abound and recreational drug use is used as a trigger for family drama. The realism is obvious, but there is more to a film than how accurately it portrays life. None of these characters’ match each other, and that is the problem at the heart of the film. It is hard to believe that these couples chose each other and choose to live while so miserable.
Life is difficult, but if you seek to present that on film, strong, human performances are key. Characters that we empathise and relate to are even more so. Rogers Park is an earnest effort but ultimately fails to strike the right chord.
Rogers Park arrives on Amazon Prime on October 1st.
By Mia Garfield
Mia Garfield has just finished a degree in Film at Falmouth University. She has written about the female voice in cinema and negotiating the position of the female director. She has just finished her first short film ‘Sonder’, keep an eye out for it at festivals in the UK. A big lover of Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Mythology, her taste is varied and every time she is asked about her favourite film she gives a different answer. Today her favourite films include Howl’s Moving Castle, Memoirs of A Geisha, How to Train Your Dragon, and Big Hero 6. You can find her @miajulianna2864