Film & Television

Portraits of Motherhood
in Two New Women-Led Films

How far would you go to secure your child’s future? 

In award-winning writer/director Ann Hu’s Confetti, concerned mother Lan travels all the way from rural China to New York City. The journey, a long distance regardless of circumstances, is particularly challenging. Lan and her husband are poor. Their daughter Meimei is dyslexic, and Lan fears that she will never be “normal.” Lan herself was forced to leave school when she couldn’t learn to read and has suffered with the shameful secret of illiteracy all her life. Her hope is that in New York, Meimei can get the support she needs and avoid her mother’s fate.

As the film starts, Meimei is a bright and adorable child. Her father is a tailor, and her mother works as a cleaner for the school where Meimei’s been hopefully enrolled. Quickly it becomes apparent to teachers and fellow students alike that Meimei can neither read nor write, although she excels in other areas. “Teacher Thomas,” a kind American, recognizes her condition and offers to help. However, an online search reveals that there aren’t any appropriate programs available in China. So Lan leaves her loving husband behind, hoping that a better future awaits Meimei in the U.S. They move in with Thomas’s friend Helen, a wheelchair-bound frustrated writer, who is at first resistant to the visitors but quickly adopts their quest as her own.

Hu, whose 2000 debut Shadow Magic won the Chinese Academy Award for Best Film, conceived Confetti based on her own real-life experience. “I became a mom fifteen years ago. My baby girl was such a little living wonder that she never failed to wow me. I can still remember the day when I left China for America, with an urgency to find a school that could teach children with dyslexia, a learning disability that was almost unheard of in China. Along my journey, I encountered many parents and children with similar struggles from all around America, China and the world. And I heard their stories. I was humbled by their experiences and determination, and shocked by how big the dyslexic population is (about 10 to 30 percent internationally), and how little the world understands dyslexia, and how amazingly gifted these people are, and how few, even today, of us know that we have the tools to overcome it with proper guidance at an early age! I learned this was a universal story. I began to write about what I saw, which became this film today.”

Confetti’s cast is marvelous. Luminous international star Zhu Zhu portrays Lan with sweetness and a humble but stalwart strength. Her daughter’s welfare is everything to her. Oscar-nominee Amy Irving puts Helen’s own grief aside as she begins to care for Lan and Meimei. And 11-year-old Harmonie He, already a screen veteran with an award from the Los Angeles Short Film Festival, is utterly lovable as Meimei.

In fact, “lovable” is probably the most apt description of Confetti. The film is quiet and warm; even conflicts, and there certainly are some, are resolved without much negativity. Confetti professes a faith in humanity; there’s a kindness inherent in unlikely individuals, from a Chinatown sweatshop owner to the director of an expensive specialized school to the five-thousand-dollar educational therapist-assessor who confirms Meimei’s dyslexia and lists for her incredulous mother the world-class artists and certified geniuses who shared that condition. 

Obstacles are removed almost as soon as they appear, and plot developments are as predictable (and pleasing) as the film’s optimistic ending. 

If Confetti is predictable, Rare Beasts is anything but.

Rare Beasts, written by, directed by, and starring Billie Piper, is billed as “An Unhinged Romantic Comedy,” and that’s a pretty fair assessment. Piper explains, “Mandy is a confused feminist; whenever she tries to take control and support the cause it’s always with a very confused approach. For example, in the opening scene Mandy addresses #MeToo in a clumsy, assertive way. This may shock the audience but further proves my point that we as women can’t say certain things any more that aren’t seen to be ‘cause appropriate,’ which to me feels oppressive.”

What I took away from that first scene was that it was the most painfully awkward date ever. However, it leaves Pete (Leo Bill), after expressing his love of God and overall disgust with women, vowing to marry Mandy within the year. Mandy, meanwhile, leaves the restaurant and vomits in the street.

The rest of Rare Beasts (which moves more quickly, if more chaotically, than Confetti) zigzags through Pete and Mandy’s courtship, weaving in and out of office scenes (they both work for a London film production company), abrupt and awkward conversations with extended dysfunctional families, and a painfully religious destination wedding (Lily James is the bride in a small but exuberant role). The couple’s near constant companion is Larch (Toby Woolf), Mandy’s 7-year-old “bastard child.” Larch’s behavior is erratic and includes tantrums, willful acts of defiance, and odd facial and body twitches. You might assume he’s “on the spectrum,” until Mandy’s chance encounter with an ex-lover makes a strong case for Larch’s having directly inherited his ticks.

Piper is endearingly human and messy as Mandy, and her film includes interesting and surreal touches — like a prolonged tap dance sequence, metaphorically representing her relationship with her family, and a Greek chorus of contemporary women who applaud her independence two minutes before condemning her for “needing … I mean, wanting” a man.

Piper claims that “The film is dedicated to ‘all my friends and all their woes’ because this film definitely deals with issues we’ve discussed as friends. I definitely think our generation can relate to the panic attack feeling of life and that many women my age can vouch for being confused by some of modern feminism.”

The choices are indeed confusing. And most relationships — mother, father, friends, coworkers and especially boyfriend Pete — are toxic. In the end, though, Mandy chooses Larch. “I love you,” she tells him again and again. “I love you too,” he finally answers.

Lan’s love for Meimei is front and center in Confetti. Mandy’s love for Larch is a bit more complicated in Rare Beasts. Yet, in both films, a mother’s love proves stronger than any challenge or even the most unhinged storyline.

Confetti opens in select theaters on August 20. Rare Beasts opens in select theaters and on demand August 20.

 

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