The Messenger & Girls on the Wall – Movie Reviews (CMJ ’09)

CMJ, the College Music Journalism festival, has been a staple of New York City for years. One of the largest music festivals in the country, its love affair with the city predates Youtube, Myspace and even the internet as a whole. Originally a venue for college radio and publications to discover new music, the festival has recently expanded to include the cinema. Previous lineups have included everything from music documentaries to Jean Claude Van Damme films, so you can imagine any celluloid would be in some very exclusive company. While attendance and critical reception of the musical side of things has waned in recent years, I’m happy to report that the film selections this year were better than ever. At the top of the list are two of the best films I’ve seen this fall, the documentary Girls on the Wall and the darkly humorous drama The Messenger.

"Girls on the Wall?" More like "Girls in the Good Movie!"

Girls on the Wall is a documentary about a correctional facility for teenage girls in Illinois who wrote and performed a musical about their lives. Director Heather Ross does what more documentarians should do and gets out of the way to allow the girls to tell their stories as well how their future weaves in and out of their creative endeavor. I’m usually pretty critical of documentaries centered around prisons or at-risk youth, mainly because they prey on sensationalism or an attempt at shock value to prove a point. This is not the case here. The girls are honest, slowly open up and show a self-awareness usually missing from this type of film.

It’s tempting to call Girls on the Wall minimalist in its approach. It isn’t over-edited or stylized to reflect some desire for an “urban” genre-ficiation. It’s several stories and a chain of events that happen when those stories converge. Brave for a documentary in 2009? Perhaps, but Ross knows what works. Truly one-of-a-kind.

"The Messenger?" more like "The Bestenger!"

The Messenger, which closed the festival, really took the audience by surprise. The story of a war hero serving his final months as death messenger to the families of fallen soldiers, the marketing for the film can’t seem to help but make it appear to be a bleak uncomfortable character study. While this is true, and I can imagine the challenge to convey otherwise within a two minute coming attraction, it’s comic relief is among the hardest I’ve laughed at a movie this year. Ben Foster (“Angel” from X-Men – The Last Stand) stars as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, a mid-20s decorated war hero whose life follows all the war movie conventions – he left a girl behind, he lost friends and he’s fortunate to be away from the turmoil he was once in. However, the genre similarities end there. The girl he left behind is about to marry another man, he’s slowly going blind from his heroism, and he has to return to a world that kept spinning after he left it.

On film, with the exception of character development for the “Crazy Nam vets” in film, we rarely get a glimpse into the stress of a soldier’s life outside of combat. As a result, The Messenger offers a refreshingly original story. With an unflinching honesty that would make historical critic and perpetual buzzkill Howard Zinn blush, Montgomery’s tragically human portrayal pours on the empathy. His by-the-books good ol’ boy superior and partner Captain Tony Stone (an Oscar-worthy performance by Zombieland’s Woody Harrelson) seems straight-laced and always on the verge of collapsing at the same time.

The film takes an interesting turn when Montgomery falls for a twenty-something next-of-kin (Academy Award nominee Samantha Morton) that he had to break the news to. Contrived as that might read, the performances from Foster and Morton are nothing short of spellbinding. An emotionally charged film, it only begins to drag in the final reel as the perpetual tension is alleviated. Until then, Montgomery speaks volumes about his life both with what he does and in what he doesn’t do. While Harrelson keeps the atmosphere from being soul-crushingly depressing, it remains a powerful film that I recommend even for those not partial to the war genre.

We give Girls on the Wall a 5 out of 5.

We give The Messenger a 4 out of 5.

Until next time, let’s agree to agree!

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