Thursday, June 4, 2020

'Becky' (2020) Movie Review

If you’ve ever wanted to watch a young girl bludgeon, pummel, and otherwise dismantle a bunch of white supremacists, Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion, the directing duo behind Bushwick and Cooties, is here for you with their new film Becky. When it hits its stride, the film is a total blast and as much fun as watching a kid murder Nazis with neck-stabbing and flamethrowers sounds. Think an angsty tween Home Alone meets You’re Next. It also features a couple well-known actors doing things decidedly out of their wheelhouse. That said, despite what rules, major issues keep it from greatness.

The script from Nick Morris and Ruckus and Lane Skye follows a standard home invasion format. In the aftermath of her mother’s death, a troubled teen, Becky (Lulu Wilson, Anabelle: Creation), and her father, Jeff (Joel McHale, Community), go to a remote cabin with his new fiancĂ© (Amanda Brugel, The Handmaid’s Tale) and her young son. While there, a gang of violent, prison-escapee white supremacists, led by Dominick (Kevin James, Paul Blart: Mall Cop), descend upon them and Becky fights back. 

Here’s where it veers off the beaten path. As the template goes, circumstances push our protagonist to extreme measures. But she’s also something of a burgeoning psychopath. More than weird and sullen, she’s unbelievably pissed off from the jump. The Nazis just make her mad. Not satisfied simply with stopping the bad guys and saving the day, she relishes in the brutality, in hunting down, terrifying, and destroying her prey. 

This is where Becky is best. The heroine is akin to other pushed-too-far characters who snap and go kill crazy, only part of her loves it, and there’s the added creepiness of her being a child who is also a cold-blooded killer. Seriously, not to spoil anything, but this movie, and main character, get gleefully violent and bloody. As jaded as you may be, there are a few bug-eyed, holy shit moments as she eviscerates her enemies.

However, Becky takes a while to get where it wants to go. The first act plays rote and dull. The attempts at family drama are overly familiar and bland. You’ve seen this many times—one parent is gone, the other attempts to move on, the child acts out and broods. And even after that, it takes until roughly the mid-way point to really get going and pick up momentum. 

She may be 15, but Lulu Wilson is very good at what she does. Her pain and rage are palpable, and when given the chance to lash out, she savors the opportunity to savage a bunch of deplorable, hateful bigots. She’s wild and ferocious, but while her performance stands out—the case in most roles in Wilson’s young career—the script doesn’t do much with her character beyond use her as a blunt instrument of carnage or explore her pain.

There’s not much arc or development to Becky. We see glimpses of her before her mother’s death, as a precocious kid playing a ukulele in a flashback. But for the most part, she’s fully formed when we meet her. It’s not necessarily that circumstances force her to the breaking point as much as they provide the chance to fully embrace who she is, to wallow in her fire and explode. You get the definite impression this violence has been there all along.

There’s never an, “Oh god, what have I done?” moment, or a beat of hesitation on her part. She’s full-go on murder ASAP. That seems to be the point, and it’s an interesting choice to a degree—it’s certainly something we don’t often see—but aside from external circumstances, she’s the same person at the end as she was at the beginning. And watching a child who’s also a remorseless killer, is sure to cause friction for many viewers. From a certain point of view, this plays like a serial killer origin story. 

It’s heartening to see both Joel McHale and Kevin James play against type, radically in the latter case. While it doesn’t always work entirely on either end, both are solid and you have to appreciate the effort to stretch and do something outside of their comfort zones. 

McHale has built a career playing the charming, smarmy jag you love to hate and hate to love. Though here he plays Jeff entirely straight and earnest. He’s a concerned dad, worried about his daughter and her well-being, while also dealing with his own trauma. The issue isn’t with the performance, there simply isn’t any complexity or nuance to the character. He’s exactly what he appears to be. While functional from a storytelling perspective, it’s not particularly memorable or engaging.

James is a curious case, playing something completely opposite of the good-natured, well-meaning goof he’s so known for. Dominick is supposed to be this cold, calculating mastermind, the kind of person who, though speaking in a calm, even manner, chills the blood. And James almost gets there. Almost.

Part of where he falls short is that Becky never truly gives James the chance to convey this menace himself. He cuts an imposing figure, a big physical menace, and we see glimpses of what could have been. But rather than let James do work and sell it, the film repeatedly relies on cinematic shorthand to hammer home “this man is bad.” He has a giant swastika tattooed on his head, and in the first few minutes he kills a father in front of his kids then orders an underling to kill the kids. Right there, we pick up what the movie lays down. But that’s not nearly enough apparently. He’s also responsible for killing a dog (and there’s also a second dog who doesn’t have an easy, just FYI, animal lovers). And this is all in addition to being an unrepentant racist. Everything he does is so over-the-top and heavy-handed it loses impact and becomes repetitive.

Perhaps the most curious choice in Becky is the primary narrative plot element, which makes absolutely no sense. The Nazi gang has one goal, to find a key that’s in this cabin. What does it open? What are they after? We never find out. How did it get here? Same. It’s just there and the family has no idea it exists. It’s a total MacGuffin that means nothing, but that everyone in this movie is willing to kill and die for. Wanting mystery is understandable, but this is a completely empty, entirely puzzling approach. 

This is not a nice movie. At its core, it’s about despicable men trying to murder a young girl, and the filmmakers aren’t afraid to brutalize a child. But for all the hiccups, could-have-beens, head-scratching choices, and elements sure to turn off wide swaths of the audience, when Becky gets rolling, it’s a taut, entertaining as hell cat and mouse game. As described, it’s hard to call it fun—at least for most people—but it’s never boring. Not a subtle movie by any stretch, there’s still gory, mean pleasures to find. If nothing else, it showcases Lulu Wilson’s prodigious talent and gives her the chance to indulge a wild side. Grade: B-]

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