By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance Review: We Are What We Are

Spoiler alert: This review contains a significant spoiler. If you don’t already know (or want to know) what it’s about, move along.

As heavy rains and flooding hit a small town in the Catskills, a middle-aged woman collapses, spewing up blood, and drowns in a ditch. Thus Jim Mickle’s stunningly shot We Are What We Are, a re-imagining of Mexican director Jorge Michael Grau’s 2010 film of the same name, sets in motion its tale of the Parker family, headed by patriarch Frank (Bill Sage), a fierce, controlling, humorless man who rules over his three children with religious fervor and a devotion to maintaining a macabre family tradition.

Given that this is a reinvention of the earlier film, it’s not really much of a spoiler to say that the Parker’s skeleton in the closet involves the annual ritual “sacrifice” and eating of human flesh. With Mother Parker dead, the burden of prepping the main course for the family’s “Lamb’s Day” dinner passes to Frank’s older daughter, 17-year-old Iris (Ambyr Childers). Iris bravely steps into the role of family matriarch, but her younger sister, 14-year-old Rose (Julia Garner), obedient to her father’s will on the surface, inwardly struggles with wishing their family could just be normal and rebels in subtle ways, sneaking her brother food during the fast and wearing her curly looks unbraided.

Being forced to kill and prep the family’s meal using their mother’s handy-dandy cannibal cookbook forces the two sisters to come to terms with just what their family really is. While much younger brother Rory (Jack Gore) is innocent and blissfully unaware of the family’s ritual of sacrifice as anything other than a holiday that forces him to fast for two days in preparation, their mother’s death forces the girls to face who they really are and what their family history and mythology requires of them. It’s a bit like how it might feel to be a kid coming of age on a rural farm who’s forced for the first time to to slaughter and butcher an animal, rather than having it set on the table already prepared.

Further complicating matters for the Parkers is the torrential downpour that’s causing flooding in and around the town, consequently eroding the ground and unearthing bits and pieces of the family’s secret. The town doctor and medical examiner, Doc Barrow (Michael Parks), whose own young daughter has been missing for some years, uncovers evidence in a creek bed that makes him suspect what may have happened to her, and cross-cutting between the scenes of Lamb’s Day prep and the good doctor getting ever closer to learning the truth effectively build tension as the film progresses. Meanwhile, handsome young deputy Anders (Wyatt Russell) keeps poking around to see the lovely Iris and finds himself drawn into the doctor’s hunt for more evidence, and kind-hearted but nosy neighbor Marge (Kelly McGillis) can’t seem to stop snooping around at inopportune times. With the family’s long-held secret on the verge of undoing everything, Frank, who’s own mental condition isn’t on what you might call solid ground, starts to unravel even more.

In spite of its rather macabre subject matter, We Are What We Are isn’t so much a horror story as it is a coming-of-age tale about these two sisters whose circumstances require them to either accept the role put upon them upbringing, or betray their father and dead mother. It’s gross to be a cannibal, sure, but if that’s all you’ve ever known, and your crazy-ass, controlling father wraps it all up in a neat package of deep paternal love, religious fervor and the belief that the sacrifice of another is necessary to preserve your own life, you might also find it a little complicated to unravel the moral dilemma once you were old enough to question your parents and desire to make your own choices.

There are some terrific performances in this film, most notably from Childers and Garner, who move seamlessly from wide-eyed naivete to fierce protectiveness. And man, is this a gorgeous, well-put together film, with frame after carefully composed frame of black and blue color palette sumptuously filling the screen, light and shadow effectively evoking mood, some nicely literary use of metaphor, and a score that moves things along without being heavy-handed or manipulative. The contrast of the beauty with which the film is shot and its macabre subject matter creates its own sort of tension that quite effectively serves the story.

In some ways, We Are What We Are reminded me a bit of Giorgos Lanthimos’ 2009 twisted family tale Dogtooth; while it doesn’t quite hit that film’s watermark for shocking originality, it does explore similar ideas of what happens when children raised in religious isolation, with bizarre family rules replacing normalcy, the coming-of-age and teenage rebellion of children threatening the domination of the parents. Much as the siblings in Dogtooth were hopelessly warped by their bizarre upbringing, so too have Iris and Rose been shaped by theirs. Tonally different though the two films may be, at their core they say this: There is human nature, and there is human nurture, and the impact of the latter may be the harder of the two to overcome. Understanding this makes the film’s conclusion, which could arguably be said to be a bit of a misstep at odds with the rest of the film, make its own weird kind of sense.

2 Responses to “Sundance Review: We Are What We Are”

  1. Samson says:

    Nice review. It was very helpful to my research. Thanks and keep up the good work.

  2. Bellami Watson says:

    This is a well-done review. It is thoughtful and engaging. I especially appreciate your mention of color palette and location, and delving into the overarching theme of the movie–coming of age. Good work.

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“A shot is a story. A shot on its own should be a piece of a story. Which is why I talk a lot about watching films, even the films we’re working on, with the sound off. Just to analyze how the film works, because a film should work for an audience without any sound. The biggest problem I see is that someone may have a superficial understanding of what a shot is propositionally, but they don’t have an understanding of how all of these shots are part of a family that needs to connect, and so you’ll get something that’s like a sentence arranged poorly with six nouns in a row. That surprises me, because I think that’s something that can be learned. Some things can’t be, but that can. It’s a grammar. In a classroom I could walk somebody through the difference between a sequence in which the filmmaker has a deep understanding of how images connect, and someone who doesn’t. It’s not really an intellectual process. Some people are just born with it and are just sort of savants at that deep mathematical understanding of shot construction.  I’m better than I used to be, but there are some people I’m just never going to catch. Spielberg. His staging ability. I’m never going to catch him. But when you’re trying to figure out how to get better—I’m not competitive in the sense of looking around at other filmmakers and comparing myself to them. What I do have to think about in trying to navigate myself through a career is: what can I get better at, and what do I have that I can enhance that somebody else doesn’t have?”
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“It’s not going to be huge. He and I had been corresponding for a while. When I finally met him, he said, ‘We should collaborate.’ When John Ashbery says that to you, you don’t say when, you just say yes. It has not been easy to conjure this out of nothing. Sean Price Williams and I spent time with him, and it will appear on FilmStruck before the year is out…. I have figured out how to streamline things. I still have dreams of making movies with bigger budgets, and they might be considered to have more of a voice in pop culture. I don’t want to let go of that. I also realize that you grow up a lot of your life with wishful thinking and waiting. I have figured out ways to avoid doing that. I am working on a bigger movie about Nikola Tesla, set in the past, so it is not an easy film to make. I am also working on an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s ‘White Noise.’ That seems more likely to catch fire.”
Michael Almereyda Steps It Up