Thursday, August 27, 2020


Now on Criterion Channel you can stream three films from one of America's finest working indie filmmakers. Chicago-based writer-director Stephen Cone draws intimate interpersonal dramas of our modern moment with the quiet specificity of people gently talking around big problems, perhaps broaching the subject with sensitivity or letting it steadily simmer unsaid. He tracks the subterranean desires of his characters, letting his performers surface them in flashes, or letting others go spelunking for them. These are wordy movies, flush with literate dialogue and studied silences, but they never feel less than real. Here's a filmmaker going for earnestness instead of cynicism, who understands his characters rather than cajoles them, who finds Big Ideas in Small Moments, casually, humanely, deeply felt. If you've missed out on his work thus far, it's high time to get caught up.

About his 2016 feature Henry Gamble's Birthday Party, a film set at a closeted Christian teen's eponymous gathering, I wrote:

Cone maps out the relationships amongst the characters with low-key Altman-esque flair...There’s some talk about politics and religion, fleeting and glancing references to sex, but it bubbles naturally out of softly coded conversations. Whether a closeted gay kid quietly wrestling with a crush, a student at a Christian college struggling with feelings of spiritual lapse, a middle-aged woman torn about the state of society (“You aren’t going Democrat on us, are you?”), or a mother softly nursing a strained marriage, these are real people subtly feeling out those around them, looking for likeminded compatriots. They just want someone to understand them, to connect with them without judgment. Cone treats cultural tensions and pressures as simply normal, and the tincture of gentle melodrama simmering underneath is humane.
His 2017 film Princess Cyd was one of my Top Ten of that year. I wrote:

Cone...crafts an intimate, sensitive dual portrait of these women [a teenager and her novelist aunt] as they enter into a dialogue, both spoken and unspoken, with each other over the course of their weeks together. His screenplay marries an open and engaged discourse – the sort of flowing, beautifully ordinary and rigorously intelligent language of a fine playwright – with a soft and supple eye for detail – the kind of attuned observation you’d find in the most perceptive and subtle of short stories. There’s a sense that these are real people in a film that never stoops to reduce them to easily digestible didactic drama...Cone holds this tension in the screenplay’s deft turns and in cinematographer Zoe White’s frames of sunny beauty, catching with deliberate off-handedness the features of their faces, bodies, clothes, neighborhood, friends and interests. There’s a touch of Rohmer in this beautifully contained, yet rich and full, meeting, of small ordinary shifts in perception, subtle moves between individuals pushing and pulling, closing gaps of empathy and opening new wounds. This is a movie so humane it’s full to the brim with compassion for its characters. It realizes a person is a work in progress, and watches lovingly as two very different women are changed in some small measure by their encounter with the other.

In re-reading my reviews, I find I was drawn to compare him to both Altman and Rohmer. Maybe add Demme to the list. He's an inheritor of the tradition of auteurs drawn to precisely detailed characterizations in films that flow as naturally as conversation. He's interested in who these people are, not only what his plots can tell us. He's interested in patiently drawn out scenes, not to showboat, but to study, empathize and emphasize. And he's generously able to let his cast inhabit the particulars with comfortable ease. The results are well worth discovering.

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