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Reflections on Masculinity

Storyhouse Cinema Assistant Jordan King writes about the second season of Storyhouse Gems.

In the first season of Storyhouse Gems, our Cinema Team explored stories of surprise, disruption, and chance from a strong female perspective. In the latest selection of hand-picked Gems screenings, audiences are invited to join us as we explore subversive meditations on manhood, all filtered through a distinctive genre lens. From an indie drama to a cutting work of brutal British social realism, and from a disarmingly sensitive superhero animation to a ghost story that haunts in unexpected ways, these films challenge your expectations at every turn, reminding us all that masculinity isn’t a monolith.

Our second season of Storyhouse Gems kicks off with Debra Granik’s deeply affecting 2018 drama, Leave No Trace.

All of us have a choice in life between integration and isolation, and whilst consensus seems to tell us that it is better to be a part of something bigger than just ourselves, experience all too often reminds us why many would sooner choose the lonely forest over the sprawling cityscape. Debra Granik’s searing Leave No Trace sensitively pitches these two ways of living as the lines of conflict and connection between father Will (Ben Foster), and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie).

Having lived off-grid in the Oregonian wilderness for years, Will and Tom’s idyllic existence is shattered by an incident that forces the pair apart and into the modern world, where both are left re-evaluating their path in life. Ben Foster is tremendous as a PTSD-stricken man navigating a maelstrom of emotions, deconstructing traditional conceptions of masculinity with a wrenching performance, whilst a pre-Jojo Rabbit Thomasin McKenzie shines as a young woman whose survivor instinct comes into conflict with a dawning realisation that maybe forest living for so long has been stopping her from seeing the woods through the trees

Leave No Trace, dir. Debra Granik (2018).

For the second screening of the season, discover the superhero genre at its best with the stylish 1993 animated feature Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year — the same year we lost the iconic voice actor Kevin Conroy — Batman: Mask of the Phantasm endures as the Dark Knight’s greatest screen outing to date. Equal parts comic book movie, film noir, and character study, this feature animation explores the dichotomy of man in the form of Bruce Wayne trying to give up Batman. Through a lens of superheroism, we observe a striking visualisation of masculinity shattered, the primal directive to vengeance destabilised by the prospect of closure, of self-forgiveness. It’s a visual marvel, and the definitive rebuttal to any arguments that comic book cinema in any way represents a lesser or lower art.

Set in the 1940s, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm sees the troubled yet heroic Batman (Kevin Conroy) pitted against an enigmatic figure who has been targeting Gotham City’s most dangerous criminals, a phantasmagorical vigilante many believe is the caped crusader himself. Elsewhere, Batman’s alter ego, billionaire orphan-turned-playboy Bruce Wayne, is about to get married to Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany), a similarly traumatised centring presence in his life who helps him recover from his need to avenge his parents’ murder. With a normal life finally within reach, the Dark Knight is left to face the possibility that his crime-fighting days may be over.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, dir. Eric Radomski, Kevin Altieri, Boyd Kirkland (1993).

Next up is a gothic horror fit for Halloween with Guillermo Del Toro’s spine-chilling classic The Devil’s Backbone.

Set during the dying days of the Spanish Civil War, del Toro’s third feature – which he describes as Pan’s Labyrinth’s “masculine brother” – is at once an achingly gorgeous Gothic romance and a potent political allegory. Taking place in an orphanage with an unexploded bomb in its courtyard, secrets buried within its walls, and a spectral child trapped at its centre, his characteristically poetic take on a ghost story starts and ends with a simple question; “What is a ghost?”

Though quiet moans and distorted faces present us with familiar signifiers of the restless dead, as young orphan Carlo (Fernando Tielve) uncovers his new home’s dark past, we’re invited to consider whether ghosts are just the dead that still appear to be living, or whether perhaps any tragedy “doomed to repeat itself time and again”—war, abuse, fascism—has the capacity to make ghosts of us all. Blending atmospheric genre elements with a sensitively handled coming-of-age narrative, the Mexican maestro—here at the peak of his powers—takes a keen-eyed look at boyhood that’s incredibly spirited… in more ways than one.

The Devil's Backbone, dir. Guillermo Del Toro (2001).

Finally, November’s pick, Starred Up, is an instant classic of British prison cinema from director David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water).

Possibly best described as a brutal, British alternative to Good Will Hunting, David Mackenzie’s Starred Up, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, is a sucker punch of a prison drama that explores how the sins of the father become the cross to bear of the son. A lacerating look at generational trauma and the cycle of violence as it exists between fathers and sons bound by figurative and literal incarceration, Mackenzie’s film, featuring a breakout big-screen turn from Jack O’Connell and an incendiary Ben Mendelsohn, is an extraordinary, underappreciated British modern classic.

Based on the experiences of former HMP Wandsworth voluntary therapist Jonathan Asser, Starred Up stars Eric (O’Connell) as a young criminal who has been “starred up”. In layman’s terms, he’s been transferred from a juvenile prison to a high-security adult prison due to his violent nature. There he meets his father, Neville (Mendelsohn), who is serving a life sentence at this prison and working as a lieutenant for the crime boss running the clink from the inside. He also meets Oliver (Rupert Friend), a volunteer prison therapist who convinces him to join his therapy group. For all three men, their lives will never be the same again.

Starred Up, dir. David Mackenzie (2013).

Storyhouse Gems is a new monthly strand of hand-picked, one-off cinema screenings featuring cult, classic, and contemporary film favourites with a focus on the unique and unusual, specially curated by a member of your Storyhouse Cinema Team.

Tickets are £5 for YSC Members. Explore the season page here.

Story written by Jordan King.