By Deborah Young
It takes time to get a handle on this arresting meditation on the documentary filmmaking process because it throws out feelers in so many directions. Milcho Manchevski’s lively, thought-provoking Bikini Moon edges in and out of the experimental category, peopled by a cynical indie filmmaker, a bleeding heart liberal and an unpredictable bag lady with a hidden treasure waiting back home. The film is smart with a cool New York irony that is easy to get into, but it owes its principal fascination to the enigmatic Condola Rashad, the stage actress seen in Showtime’s Billions and Joshua Marston’s recent Come Sunday, and her multi-layered performance as a charismatic but mentally disturbed Iraq war vet.
The Macedonian-born Manchevski, who is now based in New York, burst onto the film scene in 1994 with his directing debut Before the Rain, which won a Golden Lion in Venice. Though nothing he has made since (Dust, Shadows, Mothers) has made the splash of that memorable bow, Bikini Moon is an easy pick for second-favorite; in some ways, like the use of actors, it is more accomplished than his milestone. Using a touch sometimes light, sometimes heavy, alternately poignant, faux-cynical and bawdy, the director and co-writer (with W. P. Rosenthal) is fully in control of the complex material. After bowing at Sao Paulo and Cinequest, this entertaining film should tour world festivals and find some art house engagements.
How the media affects what it shows is a favorite topic in film and journalism school, and this is a textbook example of what happens when a clumsy filmmaker interferes with his subject in highly unethical ways. The film also explores the nature of truth and our perceptions of reality, capturing a feeling of cinema verite in its seemingly casual structure, gaps in the narrative, temporal leaps and rough sound and image.
The opening scene in a New York drop-in center for street people plunges the viewer into a very uncomfortable situation. Trevor (Will Janowitz) and his small crew of documakers from hell are invasively shooting the interactions of the homeless with the center’s staff, which includes Trevor’s big-hearted girlfriend Kate (Sarah Goldberg). Not only is he incredibly awkward and voyeuristic, but he pretentiously insists on putting his cameras, mics and crew in the frame to “demystify reality.” Ho hum.
The filmmakers soon focus on a photogenic young black woman (Rashad) who gives her name as Bikini. Though she refuses to tell all, she admits to having been in the Army and claims to have operated a forklift in Iraq — “bringing freedom to the poor bastards,” she says with scornful irony. She urgently needs a place to stay, she tells the interviewer, because she’s determined to get her one-year-old daughter back from foster care.
An understandable goal, but it becomes increasingly obvious that she is delusional and potentially violent — hardly stable mother material. Kate informs them that she had a nervous breakdown, and in the next scene we find her sleeping on the street.
Eventually, Kate — who is a born missionary oozing white middle-class guilt — insists that they bring Bikini home with them to help her get back on her feet. The quiet, anxious-eyed Kate, who at first seemed so mousy, could persuade a stone to do her bidding (“It’s only for a week!”) and Trevor has to bow to her plan. After all, it’s her house.
It seems a little like bringing the uncouth Boudu home in the Jean Renoir film, but the audience’s expectation of disastrous misbehavior on Bikini’s part is not quite what happens. It’s more a collision of trauma and neurosis between the visitor and her hosts, who are also intent on exploiting her for their film (Trevor fantasizes sending it to Sundance).
For her part, Bikini is a master of manipulation. Whether she’s being obsessive, impulsive, frightening or seductive, she’s the one archly calling the shots. It’s rather delightful seeing her maneuver the terrible Trevor and misguided Kate, whose sex toy she plays with in a delirious scene. But her mind keeps slipping out of control, erupting into the kind of anti-social behavior that keeps her from getting her daughter back.
Rashad is a multitude of women in this open-ended role and demonstrates her forceful screen presence. As her counterpoint Kate, Goldberg undergoes her own metamorphosis into a much more self-assured person. Janowitz raises hackles as the perfectly irritating Trevor.