Well-acted and well-meaning, but the elements don't quite fuse
[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 Tribeca Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of Future Weather.]
Sometimes you see a movie that blends several elements that are seemingly disparate. In Future Weather, there is a generational family story, and also a coming of age story, and also a bit of global warming awareness, and maybe even a call for more involvement in the sciences from young people.
Ideally you want all of these disparate elements to play off each other, creating this network of greater meaning and enhanced significance. By the end, you should see some comingling and connection that enlarges each element. Future Weather doesn't quite connect the links, and they hover as their own separate points of interest. It feels striated rather than emulsified, a parfait of personal drama and social advocacy.
It's not that Future Weather doesn't try to tease out connections and create greater webs of meaning, but when a story of any kind juggles separate compelling elements, I usually wonder how essential each element is to the other or if an element is an impediment to others. It's about the thematic glue, essential to big stories and small ones. I'm using all these metaphors for connectivity and stickiness because in tight stories, the removal of a single element will result in the rest of the work being diminished. Think of novels you enjoyed or your favorite films and you'll notice the amount of deliberation behind even the smallest decisions, from wardrobe accessories to little ticks of speech.
In the case of Future Weather, you have Lauduree (Perla Haney-Jardine), a science obsessed middle schooler with a bad family life. She's evangelical about global warming most times, and has apparently been doing research into trees and and their ability to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. Her mother Tanya (Marin Ireland) abandons her, which forces Lauduree to live with her grandmother Greta (Amy Madigan). Uneasy relationships ensue, though she does strike up a friendship with a teacher (Lili Taylor) and an awkward boy at school.
The family story in Future Weather is the most well-developed, and there's a sense of sympathy for everyone involved. There's a real care and craft to each of the performances, particularly from Madigan and Haney-Jardine. Madigan has the smoking/drinking granny act down -- it's all tough love from her, and she softens only just. Haney-Jardine (she was B.B. from Kill Bill) could be breaking through, so it'll be interesting to see her career progress over the next few years. There's an honesty to Lauduree, and just the right meekness and squeak of voice to her mannerisms and delivery.
Getting back to the idea of the network of meaning, to me it felt as if the global warming and science issues weren't essential to the coming of age story and generational family story. The talk about biodiversity and carbon dioxide enhanced each other, but not necessarily everything else. The closest we get is Lauduree's uprooting her tree and having to plant it elsewhere, but that's a thematic tie that's non-scientific and not necessarily global warming-related. It's not even botany related. It's a symbol that exists as its own point of personal significance and doesn't necessarily need to be invested with greater social weight.
And that does get to another thing about the global warming component of the film. The idea of Lauduree doing research into trees processing carbon dioxide is fascinating. If there's one thing I like in movies, it's eccentric and precocious kid geniuses. But how exactly was she compiling and measuring the data? What is the scientific methodology involved? You probably need some kind of sophisticated equipment to conduct that type of research, and I don't know if it's within the means of her and her mother.
Think of it this way: Lauduree and her mom were living out in a rural trailer, and Lauduree's mom had a way of squandering money and boozing. When she leaves her daughter, she only leaves her $50 to make it on her own. It takes a few hundred dollars to get equipment that would measure CO2 emissions, and I'd imagine a similar amount of cash is required to access equipment to measure the oxygen output of trees.
To some extent I wonder if the global warming component was an add-on of some kind, something that writer/director Jenny Deller felt personally important and wanted to express. It's those sorts of thematic leaps that are daring -- to link those micro-level stories of family and loneliness to the macro-level concerns about the environment and the planet. But again, the daring doesn't ensure success, and it just isn't quite integrated enough for me to see these as inextricably linked. There's a layer between these different concerns. Perhaps it's a membrane as thin as onion skin, but it's still noticeable.
There's one point in the film where Lauduree, in a fit of confusion and frustration, rants at passing cars for destroying the planet and damning the future. It's her personal expression of a private rage, but she's using the language of global warming and climate change to express it publicly. I think it works there, but I wondered how it works elsewhere.
It's one of those questions that I kept wondering about as the film progressed, and it's something that's been nagging me as I've been thinking about the movie. There are plenty of ways to address and explore major social issues and personal issues, and there are ways to bring them together. But Future Weather felt like a sincere experiment that needed a more refined hypothesis.