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Lullaby (review)

Stop Making Sense

Sometimes it takes a movie like Lullaby to highlight what kind of treasure a really, really good actor is. Take Melissa Leo, for instance. Sure, she was all fiery intensity in Homicide: Life on the Street a decade ago, and she’s still riveting us in films like Frozen River, for which she very justly was nominated for an Oscar. But those were profoundly well written works. I don’t mean to imply, of course, that just any actor could have taken her roles in those projects where Leo took them, but it doesn’t hurt to have to first boost up.
But Lullaby, just out on Region 1 DVD. It means well, I’m sure, this tale of motherly love and kickass momness and the lengths a mother will go to when her child is threatened, all of which is stuffed inside a burrito of gritty inner-city drug-fueled hellishness. But it’s ridiculous. Really. It starts out making no sense at all and then apparently decides to try to make us forget how preposterous the entire premise is by throwing over-the-top villains at us so they can cackle evilly and twirl their moustaches at us, and at Leo.

It’s only Leo’s refusal to be bowed by all the absurdity her character is being asked to carry that prevents the movie from collapsing under the weight of its own ludicrousness. She stands tall — as a character, but also as a performer — and faces the nonsense and says, “Fine. This is what I’m being asked to contend with? Then I shall face it like the professional that I am.”

Her Stephanie is a waitress in Tennessee, see, a woman who has to literally scrape pennies out of the bottom of her wallet so that she can wire a few bucks to her son, who is inexplicably in South Africa. The son, Steven (Renier Basson), gets kidnapped by druglord T-Boy (Joey Dedio), of whom the American has run afoul. Stephanie apparently continues to wire small amounts of money to her son, but how it’s being gathered at the Western Union office is a mystery — perhaps it’s Steven’s hooker girlfriend Tina (Lisa Marie Schneider) who is collecting it. Whatever the case, three months after Steven is kidnapped, T-Boy suddenly decides to call Mom and demand ransom. Which, of course, the dirt-poor waitress does not have.

This is where it really stops making sense.

Stephanie gets on a plane to Johannesburg. Now, I don’t know what kind of miracle worker Stephanie’s travel agent is, but a last-minute flight from Tennessee to Johannesburg at the moment is gonna set ya back somewhere in the vicinity of fifteen hundred bucks, minimum. This is the woman, recall, who was scraping the bottom of her wallet for pennies, but hey: let’s get on a plane to South Africa! Once in Johannesburg, she gets a hotel room and rents a car — nothing fancy, mind you, but still: that costs. And then she suddenly has an expensive watch she can pawn for ransom money.

Apparently director Darrell Roodt’s depiction of Johannesburg’s notorious Hillbrow section, which make the South Bronx of the 1970s look like Disneyland, is accurate: the film was actually shot there, which could only be accomplished under the watchful eyes of armed guards. But it seems almost cruel, in the sense that the creators of this fiction — which include screenwriters Donald A. Barton, Ivan Milborrow, and Michael D. Sellers — have the power to invent the world of their fiction, for Stephanie to be constantly assaulted by random muggers and wannabe carjackers and probable rapists. It seems like a bit much to pile onto a woman who just wants to rescue her son. T-Boy’s impossible demands — “Bring me $5,000 in two hours!” — only add to the cruelty and plot preposterousness.

It might have been nice to learn that stuff about Hillbrow and the armed guards and all on the DVD — maybe in a commentary track or a making-of featurette — but the only extra on the disc is the film’s trailer. I had to learn that from an article at the site of the indie film festival Method Fest, where the film screened almost a year ago, and where Leo won the 2008 Maverick Award.

And Leo deserves that award, if only for being able to keep a straight face through all this. Poor woman. At least the attempted kidnapping of her career by the film was thwarted… by her own unflappable tenacity.

MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

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drama | girls/women