Like most teenage girls, Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey) feels powerless. Suffocated by the tedium of her prim and proper girls’ school, all she wants to do is write stories. With her untamed, curly black hair, her hunched stance, and her downturned mouth, she’s like a storm cloud. Her life is irrevocably changed by the arrival of the new girl, Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet, in her first feature film role). Glamorous, well-spoken, and confident, she’s already travelled the world with her parents. But Juliet, choosing the name “Antoinette” and smugly correcting her French teacher’s grammar, immediately marks herself as a rebel with a romantic streak. Pauline and Juliet’s friendship will both liberate and entrap them, empower and destroy them.
A dripping tap, laundry suspended on a clothes line, soapy water rushing along paving stone, a dog barking from behind a gate. In Gravity, Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuarón took us into the heavens. In Roma, everyday domestic routines are shot with the same reverence. The ordinary is extraordinary.
Plot-wise, the film is slight. Inspired by his real-life nanny, Cuarón follows young housemaid Cleo, played by first time actress Yalitza Aparicio, who lives with an upper middle class family in 1970s Mexico City. Cracks begin to form in Cleo’s life whilst the stability of the family is threatened, culminating in a heartrending climax. But to focus on the narrative events seems superficial. By reframing his own childhood memories from Cleo’s perspective, Cuarón has crafted a deeply personal film that elevates the unheard voices of domestic servants. It’s moment-to-moment storytelling that makes realism spectacular.
Cuarón, acting as both cinematographer and director here, portrays his world with extraordinary care. Every scene simultaneously feels meticulously designed and yet totally natural, with every shot possessing an effortless elegance that frames its subject beautifully but never shouts for attention. The film is shot in black and white and there’s no handheld camera here attempting to convince us of documentary realism. And yet everything he shows us feels naturalistic, from children bickering at the dinner table, to the strange, ritualistic drama of a forest fire, to violence breaking out in the streets. All sound is diegetic, bringing this world to life before our eyes and ears.
Roma manages to be both intimate, as emotion simmers beneath the veneer of the everyday, and epic, as a few striking set-pieces give a sense of grandeur. Centred on Yalitza Aparicio’s moving performance, it’s a film in which the mundane is quietly miraculous.
Like any good romantic comedy, The Breaker Upperers ends with a couple reunited. But in this film, co-directors, writers, and stars Jackie van Beek and Madeline Sami ditch romance altogether, and it’s their alter-egos and best friends, Jen (van Beek) and Mel (Sami), who realise how much they love each other.
When you think New Zealand comedy, you think Flight of the Conchords and you think Taika Waititi. Both have achieved international fame, with the comedians-cum-musicians the Conchords recently reuniting on a sold-out tour across the UK and Waititi becoming an unlikely Marvel darling having directed Thor: Ragnorok. The presence of both are felt in The Breaker Upperers, as it’s executive produced by Waititi and the Conchords’ Jermaine Clement makes a cameo appearance. But despite the poster declaring “From Taika Waititi,” The Breaker Upperers has a distinctly female Kiwi voice and marks van Beek and Sami as a brilliant double act in their own right.