Hollywood draws filmmakers from everywhere; all hope to reach the professional pinnacle. Mostly it’s a matter of resources, power and the prestige that acts as a springboard for the largest audience there is. But for some movie makers, the essence of the United States is the thing, and not only as the country that happens to house the capital of commercial cinema. America is the story they want to tell. The Australian twins Jonathan and Josh Baker have now joined the long chain of foreign directors who were just waiting for an opportunity to tell an American story through foreign eyes.
Born in Perth, Australia, the Baker brothers immigrated to the United States a decade ago and became in-demand directors of commercials. After working with corporations like Nike, four years ago they decided to make a short movie, “Bagman,” about a boy who finds a rifle and wastes bad guys. The film’s success at the SXSW festival of film, interactive media and music in Austin, Texas engendered a plan to expand it to feature length. Scripting was entrusted to Daniel Casey; he preserved the hero and the weapon he found at the heart of the story, but around it built a new world and several mutually clashing plots.
The storyline in “Kin” focuses on 14-year-old Eli (Myles Truitt), who grew up in a lower-class neighborhood of devastated Detroit. He’s a black kid who was raised by a tough, but loving, white adoptive father. Eli’s primary goal in life is to save up money to buy shoes, but because his father (Dennis Quaid) instills in him the values of hard work, money is a complicated business. Eli skips school, breaks into abandoned factories to steal copper, and encounters two mysterious bodies. They’re from outer space, or maybe from the future – it’s hard to know – but it’s obvious that they’re not from the here and now.
By their side he finds a rifle of equally unclear origin, which he appropriates. The plot thickens when his 28-year-old brother, Jimmy (Jack Raynor), his father’s biological son, shows up after a six-year absence. He has just been released from prison, but already owes tens of thousands of dollars to a crime boss (James Franco). Unable to reach a compromise with the gang, Jimmy makes a run for it and persuades Eli to accompany him.
The two brothers embark on a journey across America, heading for the lake they used to visit as children, when their mother was still alive. There are several stops along the way, during which they forge ties with a stripper (Zoe Kravitz), try their luck in a Nevada casino and in general get to know each other, as befits a by-the-book road movie. The only twist is the mysterious rifle, which is always at the ready and is used to settle every confrontation along the way.
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From family drama to sci-fi
“Bagman” was a short film that offered a simple fantasy: A boy who feels helpless in his home finds a weapon that accords him the self-confidence of a superhero. The attempt to broaden the scope generates a host of problems and internal contradictions, above all the feeling that the directors and the writer are moving in too many directions at once. It’s as though they weren’t able to decide on one clear path and ended up with a compromise along the lines of “all of the above.”
What starts as a family drama about a father and his son, and then about two brothers, shifts sharply rightward to become a crime film, with Franco as an unconvincing villain. That leads to another sharp turn, toward a road movie that coalesces the relationship between two very different brothers, while the rifle that crops up occasionally finally gets to center stage toward the end of the film.
Only then does “Kin” become a science fiction film inspired by 1980s pictures, notably “Terminator.” This is also the infuriating part – leaving the viewer with the sour feeling that the whole movie has only been a cynical, unnecessary prologue to a sequel in which the real plot unfolds. The transition between the genres isn’t smooth, and the movie slows down and creaks precisely at the moments that could have been most meaningful.
As the film’s title suggests, the Baker brothers, even if they are interested in too many themes, are most drawn to the family ties between Jimmy and Eli – two boys who don’t share DNA and who didn’t grow up together because of the age gap between them, but were brought up by the same father and mother. Blood is thicker than water, but this concept is no longer a necessary condition for a modern family, which can also encompass adoption, surrogacy, divorce and chapter 2. In the directors’ eyes, the family – whose definition shifts across the film – even without blood ties or mutual respect, proves itself the most socially durable unit.
Desolate Detroit, portrayed in post-apocalyptic mode, and the nondescript towns of the Rust Belt are presented in an overly romanticized, excessively stylistic fashion. The directors make no secret of their admiration for American culture, and they are also enchanted by the ugliness it contains. It’s a crude attempt to create a slice of Americana without understanding the raw materials that serve as its inspiration.
Roman Polanski, a French-Polish director, presented his version of the 1930s in “Chinatown,” and Sergio Leone, an Italian, paid respect to half of the 20th century in “Once Upon a Time in America.” The Australian-born Baker brothers are deeply nostalgic for the 1980s. Even though “Kin” is tailored for this, they’re not especially interested in a western or a mafia movie. Their America is drawn from 1980s films, such as “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the Netflix series “Stranger Things,” alongside a potpourri of independent American films that can be found at Sundance, SXSW and other festivals.
Almost without noticing, “Kin” hits a number of painful pressure points of American culture, but does so with the sensitivity of a semitrailer in a china shop. Detroit becomes exotic, poverty and race are exploited for empty aesthetic purposes, and the sex industry gets similar treatment via a goodhearted stripper. Above all is a super-weapon that fulfills an extremely problematic fantasy for a weak, helpless boy. Getting possession of the weapon infuses him with self-confidence, and shooting the people who are in his way mostly makes him feel good. A real but awkward love for American film, not the Hollywood kind, but the independent type, gives rise to an empty, hollow statement. It makes no difference whether you come to this movie looking for drama or science fiction or action or crime featuring James Franco – no one will emerge satisfied from “Kin.”