2021 Oscar Reviews: Better Days

For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed, and I started reviewing before nominations were announced, giving me a decent chance at wide coverage. Today we cover…

Better Days

[one nomination for Best International Feature]

The fun thing about this film is that it’s the only nominee to feature my beloved sport, volleyball! The less fun thing is that the volleyballs are being pelted at the head of a fragile schoolgirl by a group of bullies. So there you go, fun complete. Here’s yet another super depressing nominee, this time focusing on the terror of bullying. And in this case, we mean some serious, serious bullies.

The tone is set almost immediately with what I consider the most effective scene of the entire film, when a bullied student jumps to her death and our protagonist, Chen Nian, covers up her body with her jacket to protect her from one final bit of teen mocking. With her classmate out of the way and the whole school’s attention on her, Chen Nian becomes the new lightning rod for all the cruelty and terror that a bunch of psychopathic teens can bestow. She goes on to form an unlikely attachment with a tough street kid, who does his best to protect her from her abusers. Of course, her classmates aren’t the only abusers in this situation. A school system that pushes for perfection, an absentee mother, and a crippled police department all lead to a system ripe for attacks both physical and emotional. Struggling to face the cruel world together leads our unlikely pair through a crazy series of twists and turns, especially towards the end of the film.

At least, that’s what I think is happening. I admit, I had a hard time understanding what, exactly, was going on at many points throughout the film. For example, Chen Nian’s mom is involved in some sort of criminal goods enterprise that brings aggressive creditors to their door, keeps the mom out of town, and results in some sort of super humiliation. I have no clue what was actually happening there, but I assumed this was more a failure on my part than on the part of the filmmakers. But there were other, less glaring examples, such as trying to assign motive to certain characters in certain scenes (why is this guy pushing this girl against a wall?), understanding what was happening in the school (why is this teacher getting fired?), figuring out why the bullies have a box of mice, and finally, piecing together what the hell the timeline is at the ending. Some of my confusion about the ending winds up being intentional (we get a series of big reveals), but not all of it.

I also felt like this movie just went on for forever. Maybe it’s just movie fatigue, or maybe it’s the fact that I’m bouncing to heavy international fare after all the kids’ flicks. On the other hand, I watched a pair of other heavy international before and after this one and did not have the same reaction at all. So much of this film is really spot-on. We really feel the grit and despair of our characters’ lives, and the bits of the plot that we can follow are gripping. But for me personally, the confusion interfered a lot with my interest in the film. I still think it was a good movie, but it’s competing in a very competitive category, and just doesn’t stack up to its opponents.

2 thoughts on “2021 Oscar Reviews: Better Days

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