Although the Austin Film Festival organizes events year-round, the week of the festival conference is certainly the most exciting. This is the week when screenwriters exchange ideas with other like-minded individuals through panels and parties, and when big blockbusters are showcased side by side with smaller independent films. The Messenger, with a mid-November release date, and How I Got Lost, which is still negotiating distribution, are two films that provide a taste of this year’s selection.
Perhaps one of the most undesirable posts to occupy in the U.S. Army is the cadet casualty notification team. This team is in charge of notifying the next of kin when a relative has died, so when Sergeant Will Montgomery (played by Ben Foster) gets relocated from Iraq to the U.S. and is assigned to this team, he is visibly disturbed. These are his last three months of duty, during which he pairs up with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) to learn the procedures of delivering bad news.
Oren Moverman’s directorial debut shows these officers fronting pain and suffering from people who lose loved ones. The cadet casualty notification team knows that people are going to wish they were dead because by definition they are not a pair of officers anyone wants to see at their door. So if you’re wondering whether the film makes you feel uncomfortable, it does. Just as Montgomery starts practicing and talking to the next to kin, delivering the unexpected news, he is perplexed at the reactions he sees in people. But he is especially drawn to Olivia Pitterson (played by Samantha Morton) when he gives her the news that her husband died in action. Her empathic response, “I know how difficult this must be for you guys,” throws him off balance. All the people he had visited before had just shunned the pair away.
Montgomery develops a fixation on Pitterson that makes it eerily plausible he wishes to replace the man whose death he just announced. Or, at the very least, comfort the recently widowed woman, a mother of one. There’s a point where she asks him to come inside and give her his address but the invitation is undeniably something more intimate.
As the film progresses, Stone’s steely façade wears off completely, making him seem almost too human for comfort. The sergeant and captain let their guards down and go for a long night of drinking, which culminates into a likely catharsis after all the emotional buildup. The film depicts an aspect of going to war that isn’t discussed enough: How do veterans readjust to life at home after war? What about the trumpet player that plays the same sad tune at the same sad funerals every day? What about the people who are left behind? How do they cope? The raw, emotional acting on behalf of the two officers came through, and the engaging cinematography made the film’s message effective.
How I Got Lost
Can people make a fresh start? The Joe Leonard-directed film How I Got Lost illuminates situations in which people stop to wonder who they are—not who they dreamed they would be, not who they still dream of being, but who they are right now. When life in the city becomes overly stifling for two New Yorkers, Jake, a sportswriter (played by Jacob Fishel), and Andrew, a banker (played by Aaron Stanford), they take a leap of faith and leave the city, confronting their identities as they get out on the road. Jake wishes he were a fiction writer, and Andrew avoids his problems with alcohol. They run out of gas in the middle of nowhere, at which point Andrew confesses to Jake that his father has died and that he can’t go to the funeral alone.
At the funeral, Andrew acts like an estranged son, facing the question of how much control a person has in becoming who they want to be before they die. All this time Jake observes him, how he plays a fool, and the central themes running through the film are precisely the unexpected events, the people they meet, the way every interaction plays a role in shaping their destiny.
The question clearly posed by the film is whether people can make a fresh start. The tone remains optimistic throughout the film though the slow pace wears it down. In the end Andrew returns to his father’s town, where the director hints he’ll deal with his father’s death and perhaps with his alcoholism as well.
Jake is left wondering about the philosophies of life and what he’s learned as a sportswriter, reflecting on how a baseball pitcher never takes his eye off the ball. Jake now believes he can place his gaze elsewhere. Sometimes you just have to get lost to find your way.