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Indie Snapshot: <i>The Iron Lady</i>, <i>Pariah</i> and <i>A Separation</i>

For the love of God, skip The Devil Inside this weekend and check out some of these independent and foreign releases instead.

The Iron Lady
Much like My Week With Marilyn, The Iron Lady feels like the art-house equivalent of a studio pitch for a high-concept blockbuster. Only instead of marketable phrases like, "It's Aliens meets Halloween" or "It's Inception meets Harry Potter" the taglines for these movies seem to be "It's Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe" and "It's Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher." Beyond that, not a whole lot of thought seems to be put into what these films will actually be about -- they're both casting concepts in search of a story. At least Marilyn kept its scope small, focusing on a brief period in the '50s screen siren's life. The Iron Lady commits the same error that ends up sinking so many biopics in that it strains to cover virtually every major event in its subject's life and, as a result, winds up presenting a portrait of that person that's often superficial at best.

To be fair, screenwriter Abi Morgan and director Phyllida Llloyd do try to come up with an interesting conceit for their tour through Thatcher's life, from her humble origins as a shopkeep's daughter to her rise through England's Conservative Party ranks that eventually deposited her in the Prime Minister's seat. The movie actually opens with an extended sequence of the elderly Thatcher living alone in an assisted care facility and wrestling with the onset of dementia (a condition that she's said to suffer from in real life, although it's not a subject her family -- apart from her daughter Carol -- or former colleagues openly discuss). As she strains to distinguish the past from the present and the real from the imaginary, Thatcher becomes unstuck in time and space, imagining herself at various points in her illustrious career and seeing the ghosts of people who have long since departed, most notably her deceased husband Denis (played by Jim Broadbent). It's a narrative gimmick that comes dangerously close to exploiting a serious medical condition, but Streep's committed, sensitive performance manages to overcome any potential offense. At this point, this legendary actress's range and skill at mimicry should come as no surprise to anyone; nevertheless, it's still impressive just how completely she inhabits Thatcher's skin. Just like her celebrated turn as Julia Childs in Julie & Julia, her performance begins as impersonation, but very quickly becomes something more lived-in.

Unfortunately, as with Julie & Julia, the movie itself isn't half as interesting as its leading lady. Lloyd and Morgan make sure to hit all the highs (and lows) of Thatcher's time in office, but they don't contextualize the events in a way that makes them resonate for contemporary audiences. Indeed, if you don't walk into the theater already armed with a basic knowledge of British history in the '70s and '80s, the movie's depiction of that era won't make a whole lot of sense. And while the film doesn't romanticize England's Iron Lady as a virtuous leader with zero personal flaws, it also doesn't fully explain why her approach to politics -- as well as her specific policies -- proved so controversial at the time and today. All we get is a swirl of news reports about violence and unrest in Britain in between scenes of Thatcher making big speeches and bossing the members of her cabinet around. As a feature-length acting workshop, The Iron Lady has merit, but if you're looking for something more historically substantive, you're better off reading one of Thatcher's numerous biographies.
The Iron Lady is currently playing in limited release and expands to more theaters on January 13.

Pariah
A modest, but heartfelt debut film from writer/director Dee Rees, Pariah introduces viewers to a community that isn't often granted big-screen exposure, specifically African-American lesbians. Set in Brooklyn, the movie follows one teenager, Alike (Adepero Oduye), who is taking her first steps out of the closet as her family and straight friends try pointedly to look the other way. With her older and openly gay confidant, Laura (Pernell Walker), by her side, Alike visits a local LGBT nightclub to take in the scene and learn to talk to potential girlfriends. Meanwhile, back at home, Mom and Dad suspect that something's going on with their eldest child, but aren't quite sure how to deal with it. Her father (Charles Parnell) responds by pretending everything's fine, while her mother (Kim Wayans) strong-arms Alike into hanging around with the supposedly straight-laced daughter of a family friend in the hopes that a positive influence will chase the gay away. As it turns out though, that "good girl" has a bi-curious side as well...

In terms of its narrative, Pariah isn't significantly different from other coming-out stories we've seen in the past. But the world it takes place in does make it unique and Rees -- who originally hails from Nashville, rather than Brooklyn -- depicts Alike's specific situation with great understanding and sensitivity. And while the movie is packed with emotion (and emoting), it rarely feels overwrought. Rees finds her most compelling material in the charged scenes between mother and daughter, which culminates in a teary confessional that carries a surprising (and heartbreaking) final beat. It's almost a shame that Rees doesn't end the movie there, instead tacking on an ending that strains a little too hard to provide some "It Gets Better"-style uplift. At the same time, it's completely understandable that she can't bring herself to leave her character in such a dark place. If Pariah inspires hope in any real-life Alike's out there, that's something Rees can be proud of.
Pariah is currently playing in limited release. Visit the official site to find upcoming playdates.

A Separation
Since it hit the festival circuit earlier this year, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi's domestic drama/legal procedural has picked up virtually every end-of-the-year "Best Foreign Language Film" award in sight (and found a place in our own Top Ten list) and seems all but certain to take home the Oscar in that category as well. There's a good reason for that: it's a fantastic film. Set in present-day Tehran, the movie begins with an estranged husband and wife Nader and Simin (Peyman Maadi and Leila Hatami) sitting before a judge arguing over the dissolution of their marriage (he's against it, she's for it). That conversation sets in motion a series of increasingly unfortunate events that brings them back to the courthouse facing even more serious charges. With his wife no longer living in their apartment, Nader has to hire an inexperienced young woman (Sareh Bayat) with an out-of-work husband, one young daughter and a baby on the way to care for his elderly father, who suffers from Alzheimer's Disease. When the novice nurse seemingly commits an infraction too serious to be overlooked, Nader forcibly ejects her from his home and -- perhaps accidentally, perhaps not -- she falls down the stairs and is rushed to the hospital, where she suffers a miscarriage.

What really happened and, more importantly, who is to blame, dominates the rest of the movie's runtime. Farhadi masterfully parcels out plot wrinkles and revelations, all of which constantly require the characters (and the audience) to re-evaluate what we thought we knew about the case. (In addition to Best Foreign Language Film, A Separation should be a serious contender for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar as well.) And while it succeeds superbly on a dramatic level, the film is almost more valuable as an unvarnished portrait of a country that's too often discussed in extremist terms. While not blind to some of the social limitations placed on Iran's citizens (particularly women), Farhadi presents us with characters who have the same hopes, fears and responsibilities that audiences around the world can recognize and share. It's a beautifully human -- and humane -- piece of storytelling.

A Separation is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles and expands to more theaters throughout January. Visit the official site to find upcoming playdates.

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