Feature Narrative Reviews

Questions and Comments (2020) – 4 stars

Director: Alexandra Alvarez

Writer: Ashleigh Mounser

Cast: Danny Leonard, Nathalie Galde, Natalie Brenes

Running time:  1hr 32mins

What good are progressivism and rationalism? Well, in my lifetime, these ways of informing how we might understand what it is to be human have driven a momentous shift in the way that ethnicity, gender, and personality are viewed within different societies across the world – with beneficial results for an incalculable number of people. OK – it’s certainly not plain sailing and there’s a hell of a way to go but here on the eve of 2022 we are getting there.

How differing personalities come to terms with the challenges of how to live a life is the subject of the young filmmaker, Alexandra Alvarez’s debut feature, Questions and Comments – shot in a short period of time on an amazingly small budget. The particular shade of personality that Alvarez examines is that categorised by contemporary medical science as the autism spectrum – a type of presentation of self where there is not the common human reciprocity of emotions and where there is a tendency to bind a life within a framework of repetitive tasks.

We meet Hal (Danny Leonard) living on his own in suburban America. Alvarez, aided by a sharp script from Ashleigh Mounser, cleverly sketches out a portrait of Hal as a recluse whose life revolves around phoning the customer service departments of various commercial companies to register complaints. Alvarez gives us a hint that Hal makes some kind of living from this activity, but the thought occurs that even in such a litigious society as the US that this would not be possible. Alvarez subtly gives us an insight into Hal’s way of coping with the world and how he constructs boundaries for his own behaviour and to guard against his having to feel emotion. The approach is subtle in that it feels organic – the script even manages to inform us as to how trauma in Hal’s childhood had shaped his adult behaviour patterns – it is tremendously well-achieved.

The director develops the central portrayal of Hal within a plot that moves from a true crime format to that of a courtroom drama with romcom atmospherics. Hal becomes fixated on his phone calls to a female operative, Natalie (Natalie Brenes) at a jams and spreads manufacturing firm. Natalie is a decent human being who fields Hal’s somewhat challenging queries with an almost saint-like patience. Natalie’s boss becomes aware of the phone calls and decides that Hal is trying to extort money from the firm. The firm takes Hal to court. Through his gentle and thoughtful interaction with the young boy next door, Hal meets his neighbour Amelia (Nathalie Galde), the boy’s mum, a recently divorced woman. Amelia has some paralegal experience, and she agrees to represent Hal in court. The plot development is efficiently worked, and the pacing finely judged.

Alvarez has given us a work that has the texture and feel of a movie with a far bigger budget – it looks good. The cinematography from Matthew Rubino is excellent. I loved the intro shots to each courthouse scene. The dazzling white wedding cake neo-classical façade of the building is shown, without any people to distract our gaze, framed against the vivid blue of the Florida skies – it almost hurts the eyes of the viewer. The final shot before the end credits is a triumph – two of the main characters standing on the lawn of Amelia’s house at night are framed then there is an ascending drone shot to a panorama of the strange electric lines and pulses emitted by modern suburbia against the black of the night sky – terrific cinema – it left me with a sense of wonderment.

Questions and Comments is a somewhat strange experience to watch –I felt as though I was viewing two movies that had been awkwardly spliced together. The three main characters, Hal, Amelia, and Natalie are beautifully drawn – Alvarez magics very strong performances from Leonard, Galde, and Brenes. Their scenes have nuance and engage the audience to think imaginatively about Hal’s world.

There are two high points here. Hal has to make a speech at a wedding – it teeters on the edge of disaster as Hal’s direct manner of addressing social reality disturbs his audience. Hal manages to save the day by depicting the dedicatee of the speech as a whole person it is left unsaid that Hal sees himself as less than whole. He wins the wedding audience and us the movie’s audience over whilst Alvarez has enabled us to understand something about Hal’s way of coping with social relations. Leonard does well throughout the movie but in this scene he is superb.  

Similarly, Galde plays Amelia’s attempts to represent Hal in the courtroom as teetering on the edge of disaster, but she copes – Galde skilfully portrays Amelia as someone able to conjure up a winning mixture of charm and self-deprecation. Brenes, as Natalie the decent person caught up in the bizarre rituals of the law, does a fine job at portraying the bafflement of someone merely trying to do the right thing.

But then there is the other movie. In contrast to the plausible, elegant depiction of the lead characters, Alvarez serves up a series of buffoons – cartoon caricatures that I assume the director inserted as some kind of counterpoint to the main theme. Whatever the intention, it all goes horribly wrong – the silliness of the buffoonery merely undermines the hard-won plausibility of the main characters.

We have a friend of Hal’s who has successfully gamed the system – a construction worker who has become fabulously wealthy after suing Subpar, a fast-food chain, for emotional distress after discovering their baguettes were less than the advertised twelve inches. The guy comes across as a one-dimensional, drunken oaf. Natalie’s boss is presented as an oleaginous pantomime villain with some woefully over the top acting. The corporation’s defence witness at the trial testifies to the number of job losses due to the damage to profits caused by Hal’s relentless series of complaints. The character is dressed and made up to look as though we are in a horror freakshow.

I enjoyed the Subpar joke – most of the audience will get which corporation that might be referencing. However, I found it strange, given the director’s accompanying notes on the production’s community values and the movie’s overall theme of inclusivity and celebration of diversity, that the subtext to the buffoonery was so reactionary. Message – give a working class person a windfall and they will simply spend it on SUVs and alcohol. Message – complaining about the system results in harm to the economy and job losses.

Viewing Questions and Comments, I got the impression that Alvarez did not have confidence in an audience’s capacity to enjoy the subtleties of a serious investigation into the reality of a life bounded by the autism and, therefore, they decided to lighten the load. The lightening-up is reflected in the choice of soundtrack.

The music, commissioned for the movie, from the Nails and Danny Henry is a series of soft Indy rock songs. The songs are well written and performed – I particularly enjoyed the opener Cereal Man. But, the songs, which have a generally uplifting intent, come to dictate the atmosphere of the movie – on occasion Questions and Comments teeters on the edge of becoming a musical. At one point, Hal is shown ineptly distributing leaflets about the trial across the neighbourhood, the camera tracks to follow him as a soft rock anthem provides a sonic halo – I half-expected Hal to burst into song.   

And finally, there’s the coda. Personally, I hate codas. The end really should be the end in my opinion, but for some inexplicable reason, after the final credits, Alvarez inserts a banal, inconsequential scene that lasts a couple of minutes and goes nowhere. The decision left me totally baffled – I was still marvelling at the beauty and the definitive finality of the movie’s end shot. Note to director – please cut before wider distribution.

Despite my carping, Alvarez has with Questions and Comments demonstrated a remarkable ability as a filmmaker – the movie is an astonishing achievement for such a young director starting to learn their craft. And maybe the director got it right and the proto-musical approach to interest a wider audience in a subject that is challenging to film was the right decision. Do watch the movie and make your own call.

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