Quick Movie Reviews (Guest of Honour & The Short History of the Long Road)

Guest of Honour

What happened to Atom Egoyan? The filmmaker first came onto the scene in the ’80s and ‘90s and quickly became one of cinema’s finest filmmakers, with help from incredible films like Speaking Parts and The Sweet Hereafter. His new film, Guest of Honour, is yet another piece of evidence to add to the folder of the perplexing case of the Canadian filmmaker. Its been in the more recent years where Egoyan has hit something of a rut, often directing others’ scripts and taking on material of questionable quality. But, the thing is, Guest of Honour finds Egoyan writing again, its just that this time it falls somewhere between the two extremes. This film sees him return to his key obsessions (repressed trauma, the consuming effects of guilt, ambiguities of evidence) and an elegant, time-bending structure (layered flashbacks that tiptoe around big secrets). Yet its the core revelations that come off cheesy, failing the crucial tests of motivation.

guest of honour
Image via Kino Lorber

Guest of Honour begins with Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) visiting a priest (Luke Wilson) to prepare for the funeral of her father, Jim (David Thewlis), a health inspector who zealously held restaurants to the rules. Among other things, we learn that Jim took excellent care of Veronica’s pet rabbit while Veronica was in prison. (The rabbit ultimately serves multiple plot and symbolic purposes.) And even by the standards of Egoyan’s scripts, the reasons for Veronica’s incarceration prove uniquely self-destructive. With Guest of Honour, Egoyan remains uncommonly skilled at narrative navigation, and still knows just how long to delay revealing crucial details for maximum impact. What’s become and rusty and gotten the gears to start grinding is his penchant for taking a mundane emotional dynamic and rendering it mesmerizingly strange. Guest of Honour is at its strongest when it’s heavily focused on Jim’s professional life, watching him wield his petty power over restaurant owners like an adult-version of an overly dedicated high school hall monitor. The movie briefly finds a pulse when he starts to blackmail a proprietor of a restaurant for information about his daughter’s incarceration. But the entire convoluted melodrama involving Veronica fizzles over time, in part because it requires her to behave in ways that are hard to swallow or even somewhat comprehend once it’s made clear that she’s self-destructive. While Guest of Honour carries a strong David Thewlis performance and a seductive pervasiveness, the film ultimately crumbles under its strained, muddled murkiness and ludicrious narrative turns.

Grade: C+ 

Guest of Honour is available in Virtual Cinemas

The Short History of the Long Road

Nola, the protagonist in The Short History of the Long Road, has spent her entire young life on the road. And not just moving from town to town, but state to state, crisscrossing the country alongside her beloved father Clint, barely staying in one place long enough for a sit-down meal. A lifestyle done so long that Nola can’t even remember a home without wheels. Overall, it’s not a bad life, but Nola is beginning to expect that there might be more out there for her. In Ani Simon-Kennedy’s pleasant, if foreseeable The Short History of the Long Road, the cracks between what Nola (Sabrina Carpenter) and Clint (Steven Ogg) want are showing long before they’re blown wide open.

As a coming-of-age tale, The Short History of the Long Road has an appreciative meandering quality, yet it still doesn’t blaze any new trails — Simon-Kennedy does avoid making her characters clichés of the genre, but nothing about the film’s plotting surprises — but it does provide a platform for Carpenter’s evolving performance. In many regards the well-taught and self-sufficient Nola could be a spiritual sister of Thomasin McKenzie’s character in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, another unassuming cinematic ode to those who live on the high-stakes fringes of American civilization. Except Simon-Kennedy’s comparatively way more mainstream movie isn’t as profound as Granik’s philosophic exercise that challenged capitalistic institutions — neither is this film as good or as devastating as Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete, a similarly critical study of Americana seen through the eyes of a dignified homeless teen.

short history
Image via Filmrising

Still, The Short History of the Long Road does capably demonstrate a solid heart at its core, with some societal inquiries about class and financial insecurity and family built in. But what helps this all the most is the evolution of Carpenter’s central performance — while in some of her early scenes, Carpenter’s emoting doesn’t fully click, the actress grows into the character over time, even as Nola seems less capable of understanding herself than ever. With Clint moving out of the picture, Simon-Kennedy folds in a steady stream of new supporting stars to challenge Nola — including an accommodating mechanic, Miguel (Danny Trejo), and a nice churchgoer, Marcie (Rusty Schwimmer), both whom makeup just some of the film’s many oddly nice strangers; it’s not that darkness isn’t a part of the film, but The Short History of the Long Road approaches even the most tense interaction with a bent toward positivity towards every-single-person. But even with the meetings of those side characters, it’s never once a question that soon Nola will eventually seek out her biological mother, Cheryl (Maggie Siff), who left her and Clint over a decade prior (and who, we hear mentioned multiple times early on in the film). Yet when we do finally get to her, it feels like she might give this nomadic film a new sense of direction, except she doesn’t; doing very little to strengthen the story’s emotional power. Similarly, the film lacks something more from a random female friendship with a local girl, Blue (Jashaun St. John), who hangs out around Miguel’s garage. She’s yet another foil for Nola that still does little-to-nothing to ever push her (or the film) to explore much beyond what’s directly expected: she’ll have some stumbles, but she’ll eventually navigate herself to a world of her making. While starting in an interesting place, The Short History of the Long Road ultimately runs out of gas because of its derivativeness, preposterous amount of strangerly kindness, and foreseeable notions and plotting.

Grade: C+

The Short History of the Long Road is available on VOD

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