Revisiting the election that broke the mold

James Fletcher’s documentary looks at what Donald Trump did right in 2016—and what Hillary Clinton did wrong.

By Richard Ades

The Accidental President is worth seeing, but the timing of its theatrical release is less than ideal. Does anyone want to see a documentary that rehashes the 2016 presidential race when we’re still trying to put the 2020 election behind us?

But for those willing to give it a try, James Fletcher’s flick is a lively and surprisingly even-handed history lesson that’s sure to provide nuggets of new understanding. Though it mainly relies on talking heads to examine the past, those heads belong to an eclectic and thoughtful group of journalists, commentators, political operatives, a prominent screenwriter (Aaron Sorkin) and even a cartoonist (Dilbert’s Scott Adams).

Writer/director Fletcher begins his look back with the 2016 primary season, which saw a record number of prominent Republicans vying for the top spot. The sheer volume made it hard for any candidate to stand out—any traditional candidate, that is. While his politically experienced opponents focused on ideas, Trump gained traction by becoming, as former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci puts it, a “human wrecking ball.”

During the GOP debates, Trump targeted other hopefuls with a steady stream of insults and name-calling that kept his face front and center throughout the 24-hour news cycle. In short, the former reality TV star showed he knew how to work the media. While conservatives often claim news outlets have a liberal bias, one interviewee notes that they actually have a “conflict bias.” Thus, the political neophyte was able to garner millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity by creating one juicy kerfuffle after another.

At the same time that he was slaking the media’s thirst for conflict, Trump was stoking the anger many Americans felt over the perception that they’d been left behind by the modern economy. The documentary notes that Sen. Bernie Sanders benefited from some of this same dissatisfaction in his bid for the Democratic nomination, fueling an early lead over Hillary Clinton. It also notes that his fans’ anger was exacerbated when the party’s establishment was suspected of using “super delegates” to give Clinton an unfair advantage in the race.  

Time correspondent Molly Ball is one of several political observers featured in The Accidental President.

Speaking of Clinton, her diehard supporters probably won’t appreciate the section of the film that focuses on what she did wrong after becoming the Democratic candidate. Despite being vastly more qualified than Trump, she hobbled herself by avoiding the press and mostly ignoring the so-called “blue wall” states where Trump ultimately carved out slim leads. (One of them, Wisconsin, was snubbed altogether.) She also made verbal gaffes such as referring to Trump supporters as “deplorables,” thus alienating voters who felt looked down upon by the “coastal elite.”

Of course, Clinton also was handicapped by FBI director James Comey and his controversial decision to raise the issue of her emails yet again during the campaign’s final days. On the other hand, as Time political correspondent Molly Ball suggests, Clinton should have been so far ahead of her inexperienced opponent by that point that such a setback wouldn’t have mattered. In the end, she won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College, which was the only vote that mattered.

The Accidental President also brings up other issues that played a role in 2016 and still bear consideration today: Why were Twitter and Trump such a perfect match? Do emotions beat out ideas on the campaign trail? And how was Trump able to weather the “October surprise” that was the Entertainment Tonight tape?

The 2016 race may be long over and Donald Trump may be out of office, but the forces that led to his surprising victory will continue to play a role in politics because they obviously worked. That makes The Accidental President a useful history lesson.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

The Accidental President (no MPAA rating) is available through VOD outlets and will screen in limited U.S. theaters beginning June 21. It will soon be available on Starz.

Mysterious pregnancy reveals hateful prejudice

Magalie (Emilie Bierre) is hiding a difficult problem in Les Notres.

By Richard Ades

Thirteen-year-old Magalie (Emilie Bierre) is pregnant but hides the fact for as long as she can. When her condition is finally discovered, she resolutely refuses to talk about it, even with her mother. In particular, she refuses to reveal who the father is.

That’s the setup for Les Notres, a French-Canadian film set in the close-knit Quebec town of Sainte-Adeline. Eventually, Maglie’s reticence leads to the spread of dangerous suspicions and rumors fed by nationalistic prejudice.

Directed by Jeanne Leblanc from a script she co-wrote with Marianne Farley, Les Notres (English translation: Ours) dives into provocative and sometimes creepy territory. At its core, though, it’s the story of a girl who finds herself in trouble and is determined to deal with it on her own—even though she’s clearly not up to the task.

That makes it tempting to draw comparisons to 2020’s searing Never Rarely Sometimes Always, in which an older teen named Autumn is similarly close-mouthed about her unwanted pregnancy. In each case, we learn (or surmise) that the girl is keeping the truth to herself for reasons that seem vitally important to her, at least.  

There’s one big difference between the two flicks, though. Autumn has the support of a helpful cousin, while Magalie is failed by one adult after another, including her caring but insufficiently strict mother (Marianne Farley). The result is a festering situation that hurts not only her but others around her.

From the viewer’s perspective, there’s another difference that’s even more important. Never Rarely Sometimes Always ends with a touching moment that perfectly crystalizes the gravity of Autumn’s situation. In contrast, Les Notres teases us with the possibility that things will come to a head, then hops months ahead to reveal a development that many will find inconsequential and profoundly unsatisfying.

One final comparison: Like Never Rarely star Sidney Flanigan, actor Bierre is adept at playing a girl who keeps her emotions to herself. Perhaps too adept, as at key moments we have no idea why she does what she does or how it affects her. But the real blame for this belongs to director/co-writer Leblanc, who seems more interested in advancing her cynical plot than in making Magalie a fully realized character.

Speaking of the plot, Les Notres does make important political points. It just feels like it does so by arbitrarily turning its heroine into a powerless victim.

All this leaves me hoping that the next time I see a film with a young female protagonist, she has some modicum of agency. It would be a nice change.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Les Notres (no MPAA rating) can be seen beginning June 18 at select theaters (including Columbus’s Gateway Film Center) and through VOD outlets.

Growing up poor and desperate in small-town Ohio

Ruth (Jessica Barden) and her brother, Blaze (Gus Halper), struggle to stay afloat in the Ohio-made drama Holler. (Photos courtesy of IFC Films)

By Richard Ades

Some have compared Holler to Winter’s Bone, as both depict a desperate life as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl. Then again, lots of flicks have been influenced by that 2010 classic. The flick that Holler most reminds me of is Annie Silverstein’s modest 2020 release, Bull.

In both cases, the young heroine has been left with heavy responsibilities because her mother is in jail. And in each, she finds herself attracted to a man who’s eager to lead her into a life of crime.

Made and set in small-town Ohio, the new film centers on Ruth (Jessica Barden), who lives with older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) in a house without running water because they can’t afford to pay the utility bills. Ruth is on the brink of high school graduation, and Blaze is determined to give her a chance at a brighter future by pushing her off to college. Ruth refuses, however, being unwilling to leave her brother when he has few prospects for employment.

Then the two are offered a job by Hark (Austin Amelio), who runs a shady recycling business. The job pays well, but it involves the illegal and potentially dangerous task of collecting aluminum, copper and other scrap materials from factories that have closed down.

Much to her protective brother’s chagrin, Ruth seems to take to the work and, worse yet, shows signs of taking to Hark. Is her future doomed before it has a chance to get started?

HOLLER Still 2

Holler is the feature debut of writer/director Nicole Riegel, who sets the unsentimental (and reportedly semi-autographical) tale in her hometown of Jackson, Ohio. The picture it paints of daily life is not likely to turn Jackson into a tourist destination.

Like rural areas all over the Midwest and Appalachia, the town is cursed by a lack of work and a rampant drug problem—the latter being represented by Ruth’s mom, Rhonda (Pamela Adlon), who ran afoul of the law after becoming addicted to pain killers. Ruth is fortunate to have the support of her brother and a kind family friend, Linda (Becky Ann Baker), but the clear message is that her only hope for a happy future is to escape.

British actor Barden leads the competent cast with her scrappy portrayal of Ruth, and director of photography Dustin Lane captures the drama of the girl’s life with gritty (if sometimes frustratingly dark) images. That helps to compensate for a script that is a bit predictable and more than a bit vague on a key question: Namely, how can college even be an option for Ruth when she has no way of paying the costs that routinely leave middle-class kids in debt?

Like Bull, Holler also has an ending that will dissatisfy some viewers, though for different reasons. While the earlier film left things largely unsettled, this one tries too hard to tie up loose ends. Still, it’s an impressive debut with an important message, even if that message is delivered imperfectly.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Holler (rated R) opens June 11 at select theaters and VOD outlets.

Trans athletes fight for the right to compete

Andraya Yearwood is a trans female athlete from Connecticut whose success in track and field events has been cited as evidence by backers of efforts to ban trans girls and women from competing.

By Richard Ades

Mack Beggs has a problem. The Texas teen is an accomplished wrestler, but the state forces him to wrestle girls. That’s because Mack was born a female, and though he’s begun transitioning to male, Texas law requires young athletes to compete in the gender they were assigned at birth.

Mack is one of three teenagers portrayed in Changing the Game, a documentary directed by Mark Barnett that examines the controversial issue of trans athletes in a way that’s compassionate, thoughtful and evenhanded. It’s also comprehensive, as each of the youths lives in a different state, and each state has a different way of dealing with the issue. Also featured are:

• Sarah Rose Huckman, a competitive skier who lives in New Hampshire, which allows trans athletes to compete in their chosen gender, but only if they’ve undergone reassignment surgery.

• Andraya Yearwood, a track athlete who lives in Connecticut, which allows all athletes to compete in their preferred gender regardless of where they are in the reassignment process.

On the surface, Andraya is the most fortunate of the three since her state takes the most liberal attitude. However, the film reveals that law and public opinion don’t always jibe. When the tall and muscular Andraya wins a track victory, her success is marred by critics who feel she has an unfair advantage over her competitors. (In fact, backers of recent Ohio efforts to ban trans female athletes from competing have cited as evidence the success of Andraya and another trans Connecticut track star who also appears in the film.)

Mack Beggs is a trans male wrestler who’s forced to compete with girls due to restrictive Texas laws.

Like the states they live in, the three featured athletes are a study in contrast. Mack is shy and soft-spoken, while Sarah is an outgoing blogger who challenges her state’s trans rules. Finally, Andraya is a fierce competitor on the track but is uncomfortable over the criticism she receives, especially since she has a double-minority status as someone who’s both trans and African American.

Just as fascinating as the athletes themselves are the glimpses we’re given of the family members and friends who surround them. Many of them upend stereotypical expectations.

A case in point: Texas wrestler Mack is being raised by Southern Baptist grandparents who claim they’re as conservative as they come. In fact, grandmother Nancy is a deputy sheriff who owns several guns—and is prepared to use them to defend her grandson against anyone upset by his success on the mat. Meanwhile, grandfather Roy struggles to remember which pronouns to use with his grandson, but he apparently has a firm grasp of why Mack is who he is. “You gotta feel good about yourself,” Roy says.

The lesson seems to be that when someone has a personal connection to a trans person, political dogma and prejudice can’t help giving way to love and acceptance.

Just as impressive as the documentary’s portrayal of the athletes and their families is its depiction of their critics. While some deal in hateful stereotypes, others are more measured and logic-minded.

Those who think Mack shouldn’t be wrestling girls—something with which Mack himself agrees, of course—say his use of testosterone supplements makes it unfair. And people who argue that Andraya shouldn’t be competing with cisgender girls say it makes a mockery of Title IX rules that were designed to level the playing field for female athletes.  

Such criticisms can’t be dismissed as groundless, showing that the issue is far from black and white. Then again, no one who believes in equality can dismiss these trans athletes’ right to be true to who they are and to pursue their dreams just like their cisgender counterparts.

Far from being a clinical study of a hot-button sports issue, Changing the Game is illuminating, heartwarming and inspiring. It deserves a gold medal.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Changing the Game is available on Hulu beginning June 1.