Feature Narrative Reviews

Coming Up for Air (2021) – 3.5 stars

Director: Robert Cicchini

Writers: Roger Rapoport & Deborah Cecsarini

Cast: Deborah Staples, Chase Yi, and Kate Thomsen

Running time:  2hrs

American exceptionalism. Almost all of the world’s polities have worked out that it is probably not a good idea for people with mental health issues to have easy access to automatic weaponry – except the USA. Although, after the latest bout of interminable massacres perpetrated by, invariably, young white males, the US Congress has taken some timorous steps toward curbing the ability of at least some people from reifying their psychic dilemmas by gunning down crowds of civilians.

Coming Up for Air, Robert Cicchini’s movie might be described as timely, though given the USA’s propensity for gun violence, it would be hard for it to be untimely. The story centres on a young man struggling with his mental health, and begins feeling tempted to shoot his way out of his problems. Ambitiously, Cicchini chooses to combine the central theme with an examination of the pressures faced by an elite athlete, in the arcane world of US university sport.

Cicchini introduces us to the two main protagonists – Stan (Chase Yi) and Anna, his mother (Deborah Staples). Stan is the star high diver at a Midwest university and his mother is a single-mum who is a potter and runs a pottery shop. In the introductory scenes, I got the impression the filmmakers got a little carried away with the cinematographic possibilities of high diving and of pottery. The introduction seems to last an age, with repeated shots of Stan performing impressive diving routines and of Anna throwing pots on a wheel. Matters are not helped by the footage being accompanied by a heavy-handed score (provided by Garth Neustadter) where massed strings swell to a crescendo whenever Stan or Anna approach the diving board or potter’s wheel. Or, possibly, the actors actually both had the skills of their characters (I could not spot any use of body doubles) and the director understandably felt compelled to show as much as possible.

Moving on, the movie settles down nicely post-intro, aided by a sharp and well-paced screenplay from Roger Rapoport and Deborah Cecsarini. The writing builds a compelling picture of how the pressures on a young athlete can have a serious detrimental impact on their mental health. The filmmakers skilfully portray how as Stan’s mental health problems mount, they are accompanied by a fixation with guns and the prospect of resolution and catharsis that use of firearms comes to represent in his psyche.

What the film does extremely well is capture the sheer oddity of sport as a human activity when shaped by capitalism. Most sports are pretty weird ways for humans to spend their time. For concentrating weirdness into a brief period of time, competitive high diving is hard to beat, and Cicchini shows us the intense pressure that Stan is under to perform – hours of practice to be judged on a performance that lasts less than three seconds.

Also well caught are the workings of the university sports scholarship system. Stan is shown as a rounded young person who wants to hone his Italian language skills and take a year abroad in Italy, but the university wants Stan to perform and win publicity and thus stymies his plan. The narrative charts the refusal as one of the key factors in Stan’s eventual spiral into mental disequilibrium. I thought that the filmmakers missed a trick as to Stan’s language skills. When Stan reaches the height of his despair he recites to us the audience, almost inevitably, several verses by Dante Alighieri in English translation. In translation, the recital comes across as a cartoon of the doomed young romantic – think a hack The Sorrows of Young Werther. It might have been more effective to have Stan speak the words in 14th century Florentine dialect and subtitle them – and that might have shown Stan’s progress as a scholar – but that would probably have also been a real pain to film…

We see Stan’s health deteriorate and his growing fascination with guns almost exclusively from the viewpoint of his mother – a good call from the director in several ways. Focusing on Anna’s actions allows Cicchini to use the conventions of the thriller / detective genre to set up a genuinely exciting tale of Anna’s discovery of her son’s burgeoning problems and a will she / won’t she questioning for the audience as to whether Anna can prevent a tragedy unfolding. Tracing Anna’s progress also gives the director the opportunity to show some of the absurdities that confront users of a mental health service based in its entirety on the profit motive. The decision also enables Cicchini to make full use of the talents of Staples, an extremely experienced actor, who puts in a towering lead performance.

Coming Up for Air was shot almost entirely on location in Michigan, USA and the camerawork certainly hits on a sense of place – we get a feel for the northern United States. Aside from the excellent diving footage, throughout the movie the editing and cinematography are first rate. One interior scene stood out for me – when Anna took food around to the aged mother of a friend – beautifully lit but there was something about the colours and the composition that was remarkable and resonated.

The ensemble playing in support of Staples is generally of a high standard. Yi, as Stan, puts in a strong performance – a talented young actor. I enjoyed his confident swagger near the beginning where he shoots a selfie for a young fan which sets a marker for a young person easy in their own skin to contrast with the psychic decline that we will chart during the course of the film. Kate Thomsen, whose performance in Pilot Error IFL reviewed last year, takes the role of Anna’s sister and confidant, and plays the part with an empathic engagement.

There were so many aspects of Coming Up for Air that impressed, yet for your reviewer, the movie also felt like it was a bit of an anachronism. It is very much in a world before Bowling Alone, and the collapse of social capital. Representatives of the state, the university and health services bureaucracy are unfailingly polite and helpful to Anna in her increasingly frantic quest. When Anna has to leave the pottery shop on an urgent mission to find Stan, she leaves the shop open with an honesty box on the counter – this in a decidedly high-end arts business where a ceramic mug sells for $38. Trust indeed. Cicchini paints a monochrome portrait of the 50s Hollywood dream – cohesive, small-town USA before the Fall. I half expected an avatar of Jimmy Stewart to come ambling into the final scene. The overpowering niceness of it all becomes strangely repellent – to such an extent that I almost found myself warming to the movie’s only morally ambivalent character, the Machiavellian diving coach who does their best to thwart Stan’s career plans.

For future projects, my advice to the director would be the following. Be more ruthless in cutting – coming in at just on two hours Coming Up for Air could be much tighter. Use more than one affective colour scheme – the movie would certainly have benefitted from a touch of humour or shades of more serious malevolence. Tell your musical collaborator to tone things down a bit. And maybe be a little more willing to show the nasty side of even a supposedly wholesome setting.

Then again, who knows? Maybe university towns in Michigan really are paradises of social cohesion and community values? However, in their director’s statement for the film’s submission, Cicchini states the intention of the makers of Coming Up for Air is to effect real change to the laws on gun control in the USA. I suspect that the fantastical vision of neighbourly small-town America is a device to encourage conservative voters to engage with the movie and take on board the idea of some of form of control on access to firearms for people with mental health issues. Well – good luck with that – any initiative that attempts to reduce the horrific cost in human suffering wreaked by gun violence in the USA has to be welcomed.

As for that concept of American exceptionalism, far be it from me as a decadent Limey to venture into the debate – but I had some thoughts on a way forward for US gun control a while back, and was encouraged to hear that similar ideas are part of the present discourse in the US. A possible way to go would be to accept the Right’s sacred notion of the Framers’ original intent on the Second Amendment but then argue that it was the right, indeed duty, to bear arms but only those originally available in the 1790s. So, any citizen would be able to own any number of flintlock pistols or muskets. As these weapons take a matter of minutes to load and fire, the effect in terms of harm reduction would be significant. Not a perfect solution but an eminently conservative one.

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