Anime pals take an eventful walk in the woods

Trying to scare off an angry beast they meet in the forest are (from left): Drop (Ayumu Murase), Roma (Natsuki Hanae) and Toto (Yuki Kaji). (Photos courtesy of Studio Madhouse).

By Richard Ades

The opening of Goodbye, Don Glees! finds teens Roma and Toto (Natsuki Hanae and Yuki Kaji) racing their bikes down a dark, twisty road. A near-collision with an oncoming motorist sends Roma flying into the nearby woods, with Toto following behind. After getting their bearings, the two find themselves looking out over the magical place they see as their gateway to the world beyond their tiny village: an airport.

We have to wait to learn what happens next, as the Japanese anime film then flashes back to the events that led up to this moment. They include a fireworks display, a forest fire and a difficult journey the boys undertake along with their new friend, Drop (Ayumu Murase). The ostensible purpose of the trip is to prove the trio didn’t start the fire, but that’s really just the “MacGuffin” that launches a trek filled with danger, beauty, self-discovery and a touch of supernatural mystery.

Goodbye, Don Glees! was directed by Atsuko Ishizuka, who’s previously worked only in television and on 2017’s No Game, No Life: Zero, a big-screen prequel to a TV series. So this is her first completely original work, made more so by the fact that she also wrote the script. It’s an impressive debut, filled with awe-inspiring images and indelible characters, each experiencing a private version of teenage angst that isn’t always clear to the others.

Roma, embarrassed by the odor he picks up shoveling manure on his uncle’s farm, suffers from low self-esteem and is too shy to admit his feelings for Tivoli, a classmate he idolizes. Toto struggles to keep up his grades in order to fulfill his parents’ lofty plans for him. And Drop, the newcomer, carries a burden that will be obvious to viewers long before it is to his companions.

The teens’ inner struggles often cause them to lash out at each other. It’s probably predictable that they eventually learn to appreciate each other more thanks to the shared travails the journey puts them through, but the plot also leaves viewers with some unexpected developments—including one that defies rational explanation.

Filled with impassioned speeches about finding one’s “treasure” and tinged with a sense of mortality, Goodbye, Don Glees! may be too difficult for young children. In fact, the original Japanese version may challenge some English-speaking adults, especially when it divides the screen between subtitles and the characters’ social-media posts. Fortunately for slow readers, a dubbed English version is available, though seeing it would deprive you of hearing the masterful work of original voice artists Hanae, Kaji and Murase.

In case you’re wondering, “Don Glees” is the name of a club Roma and Toto founded. As we learn late in the film, the moniker was inspired by their pessimistic attitude toward life.

Rest assured that if you enter the theater feeling the same way, you’ll leave on a more buoyant note.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Goodbye, Don Glees! (PG) will be screened Sept. 14 and 20 (original Japanese version), and Sept. 18 (English version) in theaters nationwide, including Central Ohio’s Marcus Crosswoods Cinema 17 (all three dates) and AMC Dine-in Easton Town Center (Sept. 18 and 20 only).  

Kaepernick’s career-ending act of conscience

Colin Kaepernick (center) takes a knee during a pre-game rendition of the national anthem in 2016. Flanking him are teammates Eli Harold (58) and Eric Reid (35). (Photo: Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group/TNS/Alamy Live News)

By Richard Ades

Kaepernick & America, a new documentary on blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick, points up an ironic fact: When the then-San Francisco 49er began taking a knee during the national anthem in 2016, he saw it as a way of protesting America’s racial injustice without disrespecting its flag.

Earlier, Kaepernick had simply remained seated during the anthem to speak out against incidents of police violence against Black men. But then Nate Boyer—a 49ers fan who’d served as a Green Beret—sent Kaepernick an open letter saying he considered this a hurtful act. The two met, and Boyer suggested taking a knee as a more respectful way of getting his point across.

So Kaepernick began dropping to one knee, only to be booed by fans—and by a presidential candidate who never missed a chance to foment anger, particularly against people of color. The quarterback’s career soon came to an end.

Directors Tommy Walker and Ross Hockrow interview several people who speak about Kaepernick on several levels: as a star quarterback who felt called upon to risk censure for the sake of his beliefs; as a person of mixed race and cultures, with all the additional pressures that entailed; and as the perfect foil for Donald Trump, who riled up supporters by saying team owners should fire any player who refused to stand for the flag.

Among the interviewees are CNN news anchor Don Lemon; Hue Jackson, one of the few Black men who’ve coached NFL teams; and DeRay Mckesson, a Black Lives Matter activist. Others include April Dinwoodie, an authority on transracial adoption, who theorizes about how Kaepernick might have been shaped by his personal history as a mixed-race child who was adopted and raised by White parents.

One person who isn’t interviewed is Kaepernick himself, who no longer seems interested in commenting on the controversy he inspired. It’s therefore understandable that he appears only in archival footage, but it’s also disappointing. His absence may leave viewers feeling they don’t really know the man who was willing to pay such a high price simply for exercising his right to free speech.

On the other hand, viewers will be all too familiar with the picture of America the film presents: one in which angry White men with guns use Kaepernick’s No. 7 jersey for target practice. We recognize this picture because it bears such a close resemblance to the America we still live in.

One commentator predicts that Kaepernick eventually will be seen as someone who—like the late Muhammad Ali—took an unpopular stance that ultimately was seen to be the right one. That note of optimism seems particularly justified following the 2020 police murder of George Floyd, with its new and lethal twist on “taking a knee.”

If that reconciliation ever happens, it may be of some consolation to Kaepernick, but it still won’t bring back his career.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Kaepernick & America will be available through streaming outlets beginning Sept. 2.

New baseball series atones for classic flick’s omissions

Carson (Abbi Jacobson, left) gets acquainted with Max (Chante Adams) in a scene from A League of Their Own. (Photos courtesy of Amazon Prime Video)

By Richard Ades

There’s a moment in the 1992 film A League of Their Own when a ball gets away from a member of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. A Black passerby palms the ball and throws it back with power and skill, after which both women smile at each other in recognition of their mutual love of the game.

The scene, lasting mere seconds, is the flick’s sole acknowledgement of the fact that some Black women played baseball back in 1943 and would have tried out for the then-new league if they’d been allowed to. But they weren’t, as the women’s league was just as segregated as its male counterpart was until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers some four years later.

Prime Video’s new A League of Their Own series, like its big-screen predecessor, revolves around the real-life women’s baseball teams that were formed to give fans something to watch while male players went off to fight World War II. But it’s hardly the same story. The series institutes changes designed to make up for elements of the film that now seem dated at best, insensitive at worst—starting with the short shrift it gives to 1940s racial discrimination.

The character at the center of much of the plot is still a married White woman who tries out for the league while her soldier-husband is serving overseas. Here, she’s named Carson Shaw and is played by Abbi Jacobson, who co-created the series with Will Graham. But playing just as big a role is Max (Chante Adams), a Black hair stylist who lives for baseball and is determined to join the league despite its color bar.

There are other differences, too. While the movie shows men such as an alcoholic coach (Tom Hanks) playing leadership roles in the women’s league, the series is a study in female empowerment. Even when Carson’s Illinois-based team is given a former pro player (Nick Offerman) as a coach, he shows little interest in fulfilling his duties. In this version of reality, there’s no male savior in sight.

The new series also delves into the possibility that some of the league’s players are more than just friends off the field. In fact, the challenges of being queer in the 1940s becomes a major theme.

Members of Carson’s team, the Rockford Peaches, gather in the locker room.

The eight-episode first season surrounds both Carson and Max with a host of colorful friends and colleagues. Carson, of course, has her teammates, starting with the free-thinking Greta (D’Arcy Carden), who surprises her early on with a kiss that forces her to re-examine everything she thought she knew about herself. For her part, Max has a fearsome mother and a supportive father, but primarily she has best friend Clance (Gbemisola Ikumelo), a would-be artist who’s as devoted to the world of comic books as Max is to baseball.

Everyone, from the leads to supporting players and guest stars, is portrayed with as much style as a curve ball and as much gusto as a triple play. Even so, the series takes a while to hit its stride.

In the first episode, the dialogue is filled with enough raunchy language to undermine its sense of time and place. (It doesn’t help that a 1960s Janis Joplin anthem is heard over the closing credits.) Later, some of Max’s scenes take her so far from baseball that they seem part of another series altogether. Especially superfluous is an episode in which she and Clance search for crabs to serve at an important party.

Eventually, though, things begin to coalesce. We learn that Carson and Max are on similar life paths, in more ways than one, and we come to care about them and about those around them.

By the end of its first-season arc, A League of Their Own still seems like two related stories rather than a cohesive whole, but at least they’re interesting stories. Besides, maybe that’s the price the series pays for correcting one of its popular predecessor’s chief shortcomings.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

A League of Their Own premieres Aug. 12 on Amazon Prime Video.

Polish prostitutes find danger in exotic surroundings

Prospective prostitutes recruited by Emi (Paulina Galazka) board a plane to entertain wealthy clients.

By Richard Ades

Women who seek success in a way that’s both sexy and shady are courting disaster, and they inevitably find it. That’s the usual message of movies about such exploits.

One of the latest is the Polish film Girls to Buy, based on the true story of a young woman who was seduced into the world of high-class prostitution. Directed in a flashy style by Maria Sadowska, the flick delivers its cautionary tale with lots of eye candy and ear candy, even if its dramatic appeal is diluted by its lack of relatable characters.

The protagonist is Emi (Paulina Galazka), who lives in a small town with her hard-working single mom. Frustrated by their poverty, Emi has adapted by using sex appeal to get what she wants. Then she meets Dorota and Marianna (Katarzyna Figura and Katazyna Sawczuk), a mother and daughter who introduce her to the seemingly glamourous life of a call girl.

It’s not really selling yourself, the two assure her. It’s just getting paid for something you’d be doing anyway.

Emi (Paulina Galazka, right) plays a poker game with high stakes. At her side is Marianna (Katazyna Sawczuk).

Emi catches on and soon surpasses her tutors in ambition and smarts. Things really take off after she forms a strategic alliance with Sam (Giulio Berruti), who procures women to entertain wealthy Arab businessmen and royalty. Soon it’s Emi who’s recruiting women who are willing to use sex appeal to get ahead, though she isn’t always forthcoming about what they’ll be expected to do for the money.

Eventually, even Emi finds herself in over her head when Sam introduces her and her band of prostitutes to increasingly powerful men and increasingly dangerous situations.

As portrayed by Galazka and screenwriters Mitja Okorn, Lucas Coleman, Peter Pasyk, Emi earns admiration for her intelligence and determination but none for her scruples, which are nearly nonexistent. It’s easier to feel pity for her recruits, especially the naïve Kamila (Olga Kalicka). On the other hand, it’s hard to relate to most of these women, who often come off as starry-eyed children in the midst of opulence that they hope will rub off on them.

Emi (Paulina Galazka) forms a precarious alliance with Sam (Giulio Berruti).

As Dorota, Figura exudes classlessness and excessive confidence in her charm and guile. As Sam, Berruti is a puzzle. He seems to genuinely like Emi, but he’s willing to complicate her life when she unwittingly disappoints his employers.

Though Girls to Buy has an exuberant style all its own, it’s hard not to compare it to previous flicks with similar themes. It’s better than Molly’s Game (2017), Aaron Sorkin’s drab tale of a woman who hosts high-stakes card games, but not as interesting as Hustlers (2019), starring Jennifer Lawrence as a stripper who drugs and fleeces well-to-do customers. Best of all is 2020’s Zola, the scary and bracingly original account of a dancer who stumbles into a prostitution ring.

Girls to Buy could use a little more heart and a little less predictability, but it gets its message across, and it does so with glitz and energy.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Girls to Buy (not yet rated; contains nudity and sexual content) opens July 15 in select theaters and through VOD outlets.

Determination trumps inexperience in fun fairway tale

Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance) is a golf novice when he lands a chance to play in the 1976 British Open.

By Richard Ades

Maurice (Mark Rylance) seems unphased when he learns he’s finished dead last in the qualifying round at the British Open. After all, he explains cheerfully, it’s the first round of golf he’s ever played.

The Phantom of the Open, which tells the story of a rank amateur’s participation in the prestigious golf tournament, would seem far-fetched if it weren’t based on fact. In 1976, a working-class Brit named Maurice Flitcroft really did stumble into the tournament, where he played so abominably that officials realized he never should have been allowed on the fairway.  

How did he get there in the first place? And why?

Actor Rylance, working under Craig Roberts’s direction, depicts Maurice as a naive shipyard worker who fails to recognize his own limitations. After learning his job might not last forever, he happens upon a news story about the Open’s 1975 winner and the hefty purse he took home. Thinking this is a sign that golf will be his new career, Maurice decides to enter the 1976 tournament despite the fact that he’s never even picked up a club.

Simon Farnaby’s script, based on a book by Scott Murray, tells the seemingly tall tale in a homey, funny and good-natured way. Flashbacks explain that Maurice married single mom Jean (Sally Hawkins) and provided the fatherly support that helped her son Michael (Jake Davies) grow up to be a successful professional. He also supported the couple’s twin sons James and Gene (Jonah and Christian Lees) in their decidedly less-practical quest to become world-class disco dancers.

Indeed, “support” could be the family’s watchword, which is why no one questions Maurice’s decision to enter a major golf tournament despite his lack of experience. Eventually, though, the more worldly Michael pushes back against his stepdad’s pie-in-the-sky ideas, leading to a father-son argument that threatens their happy home.

Committed performances by Rylance, Hawkins and others help to sell characters defined not only by their decency but by absurd levels of optimism and naivete. Along with Roberts’s savvy direction, they also help to sell a script that sometime slices into predictable territory in service of its upbeat sentimentality.  

Once the hazards are crossed and the scorecards are added up, the flick emerges as an irresistible tribute to a real-life Brit who became a hero simply by refusing to take “no” for an answer.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

The Phantom of the Open (PG-13) opens June 24 in select theaters.

Otherworldly trip through a futuristic Africa

Cheryl Isheja as a transformed Neptune in Neptune Frost (Photos courtesy of Kino Lorber)

By Richard Ades

Neptune Frost may be the most mesmerizing film of recent years. It’s also one of the most beautiful. And, frustratingly, one of the most puzzling.

Set in a futuristic version of Rwanda, the sci-fi musical introduces us to Neptune (Elvis Nagabo), who cryptically announces through a narrator, “I was born in my 23rd year.” Then, while we’re still pondering that bit of information, the film switches its attention to Matalusa (Bertrand “Kaya Free” Ninteretse), who works in the local coltan mine. (Coltan is a mineral used in high-tech products, a fact whose significance soon becomes clear.)

After each of their lives is waylaid by an act of violence, Neptune and Matalusa separately take to the road and begin wandering through a countryside damaged by war and oppressed by authoritarianism. Eventually, they cross paths in an enclave of technologically minded rebels, but not before Neptune undergoes a transformation that leaves the masculine-looking individual looking decidedly more feminine (and played by a different actor, Cheryl Isheja).

The script by Saul Williams, who also composed the beautiful score, is obscure and sometimes blatantly symbolic. Characters with names such as “Memory” and “Psychology” discuss mysterious topics such as “binary crime theory” and make statements along the lines of “The motherboard is bleeding.” Furthermore, the standard greeting is “Unanimous goldmine,” and the standard answer to the everyday question “How are you?” is “Shining!”

All of this creates an eccentric world that might have been a chore for viewers to navigate if co-directors Williams and Anisia Uzeyman hadn’t filled the screen with hauntingly surreal and dreamlike images—and if composer Williams hadn’t punctuated the action with music that ranges from infectious rhythmic chants to ethereal ballads. Imaginative makeup, costumes and sets add to the otherworldly atmosphere.

Despite the ambiguities, it eventually becomes clear that the film has two overarching themes: It opposes the colonial-type exploitation that continues to plague Africa now that natural resources such as coltan have made it indispensable to modern technology. And it supports the freedom of every individual—including unconventional individuals such as the intersexual Neptune—to live the life they were meant to lead.

These themes add up to a moral structure that helps to ground the flick despite the fact that it doesn’t fit into any recognizable pattern.

As intriguing as it is, Neptune Frost is almost the definition of a film that’s not for everyone. For some, its refusal to explain itself makes it a frustrating challenge. But for those who are content to lose themselves in its unfamiliar world of images and sounds, it’s a fascinating journey.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Neptune Frost opens June 3 in New York and expands to other selected theaters June 10.

Vintage doc tells sad tale of pioneering labor struggle

Poster for The Wobblies

By Richard Ades

“There is power, there is power in a band of working men…” (Lyrics from “There Is Power in a Union” by Joe Hill)

Though unions have had a few recent victories in their efforts to unionize companies such as Amazon and Starbucks, they’ve long since passed their heyday. So maybe it’s the right time to re-release The Wobblies, a 1979 documentary about one of the labor movement’s early champions.

The homespun flick tells the story of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a union that sought to unite and represent unskilled workers in the early 20th century. Such laborers made up an increasingly important segment of the work force in an American economy that was once agrarian but was fast becoming industrialized.

Whether they were installing bolts on an assembly line or sawing down trees in the Pacific Northwest, the doc states, they were prime targets for exploitation from corporations whose only loyalty was to their stockholders. That is, until the IWW (nicknamed “the Wobblies”) began organizing and fighting back.

Directors Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer recount the union’s struggles with the help of vintage film footage and interviews with a host of aging former members. Supplying the musical accompaniment are a variety of folksy protest songs, by Joe Hill and others, that IWW members sang to keep their spirits up when things got tough.

And make no mistake about it. Things did get tough, as corporations fought back against the IWW with propaganda, arrests and even outright violence. But the union also got tough, responding not only with strikes but with sabotage and, occasionally, with violence of its own.

Spoiler alert: This old film about an even older struggle does not have a happy ending. Even so, many will find The Wobblies educational and inspiring, as it shows what a few determined people can accomplish when they refuse to kowtow to threats, public opinion or the status quo. It’s a lesson that bears repeating—often.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

The Wobblies (no MPAA rating) is available through VOD outlets beginning May 31.  

COVID-19 drives the plot in Indian-American romcom

The COVID pandemic turns Rita (Geraldine Viswanathan, left) and Ravi (Karan Soni) into unwilling housemates in 7 Days.

By Richard Ades

“Meeting cute” is a time-honored romcom tradition. Set in the early days of the pandemic, 7 Days offers a new variation in the form of “meeting COVID.”

When Indian-Americans Ravi and Rita (Karan Soni and Geraldine Viswanathan) hold their first date, we’re informed that it takes place in March 2020. Viewers will instantly know why that’s significant: March 2020 was the month that Everything Stopped.

Actually, their date takes place about five minutes before Everything Stopped. The two are taking precautions such as wearing masks (a historical inaccuracy, as the average person didn’t have access to masks until months later), but they’re still able to travel and meet other people. However, that soon changes.

By the time the date comes to its awkward end and they return to Rita’s nearby home, they learn that Ravi is stuck there because the agency that was to supply his rental car has shut down. Reluctantly, Rita offers to let him spend the night on her couch. As you might surmise from the flick’s title, that night stretches into a week’s worth of sheltering in place.

The first directorial effort of Roshan Sethi, who co-wrote the script with Soni, 7 Days is set firmly in the world of Indian-American courtship. Like many stories involving the children of immigrants, it involves a clash between the traditional and the modern.

Ravi belongs to the traditional camp, eschewing meat, alcohol and premarital fooling around, and he assumes Rita is the same. After all, he met her through a traditional dating website. Soon after becoming her houseguest, though, he learns she was only putting on an act to satisfy her mother, who pays her rent. In fact, Rita is the exact opposite of the kind of wife he’s looking for.

At times, 7 Days is like a romcom version of The Odd Couple, pitting the neat mama’s boy Ravi against the sloppy, rebellious Rita. (When he first sees Rita’s messy home, Ravi assumes she has roommates, only to learn she lives alone.) But as the story progresses and the two are forced to face an unexpected challenge, such easy humor is replaced by something deeper and more subtle. At the same time, the two leads—particularly Suni—add nuance to their comedic portrayals.

Do opposites attract? That happens a lot in run-of-the-mill romcoms, but 7 Days may have something else in mind. With the help of brief interviews of actual married couples that are shown in the early moments, it examines the possibility that love is something that’s built with the help of empathy and familiarity rather than being a magical force that appears out of thin air.

If that’s true, then just maybe the conservative Ravi and the free-thinking Rita have a chance to become a couple in spite of themselves.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

7 Days (no MPAA rating) is available through VOD outlets beginning April 26.

The ‘hippie millionaire’ who (briefly) took the country by storm

This poster depicts Michael Brody Jr. and his wife, Renee, as they appeared in 1970.

By Richard Ades

Dear Mr. Brody documents the story of a wealthy young man who captured the country’s attention in 1970 by promising to give away cash to all who needed it.

Michael Brody Jr. was the little-known heir to a margarine dynasty when he suddenly appeared on the national scene with his young bride, Renee, in tow. With his guitar, long hair and talk of peace and love, he made an immediate impression as the “hippie millionaire.” He even landed a recording contract and was invited to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show.

More importantly, he inspired thousands of people to queue up outside his Scarsdale home and Manhattan office in search of the promised handouts. Thousands of others simply wrote to him of their needs, which were often dire.

Then, as suddenly as it started, the phenomenon ended due to Brody’s increasingly bizarre behavior and apparent inability to follow through on his promises. The new documentary, written and directed by Keith Maitland, tries to figure out just what happened and what it all means.

It is not a happy story, for multiple reasons.

Due to tragic circumstances mentioned late in the film, Michael Brody himself does not appear except in vintage footage. But the present-day version of Renee does appear, coming across as someone who’s no more together than the lonely 20-year-old who agreed to marry Michael just one day after they met.

Also appearing is Michael and Renee’s grownup son, Michael James Brody III, who seems equally lost. Grossly obese, he lives his life surrounded by memorabilia from his dad’s 15 minutes of fame, including box after box of letters from folks begging the “hippie millionaire” for help.

Those folks, by the way, become as central to the story as the Brody family itself. In fact, it was producer Melissa Robyn Glassman’s discovery of a stash of their unopened letters that led to the film’s being made in the first place.

Many of those letters tell tales of desperation caused by lost jobs, health problems and growing debts. Others mention related problems such as domestic abuse, while still others are from individuals who are simply lonely and want someone to talk to.

Maitland and Glassman bring several of their stories up to date by tracking down the writers and asking them to comment on what they wrote all those decades ago. In one case, a woman is surprised to learn that at the same time she wrote to Brody, her mother also was asking him for help.

Dear Mr. Brody, then, is a devastatingly sad tale with no real villains but with countless victims. Brody himself was the first one, being a well-meaning idealist whose efforts were undermined by his own demons. Renee was another, being led by loneliness into a fraught relationship that still seems to haunt her.

And then there were the thousands of desperate people who begged Brody for help. The fact that they were forced to seek salvation from a complete stranger says much about the society they lived in—which, of course, we still live in today.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Dear Mr. Brody is available from sources such as Apple iTunes, Google Play and Vudu and can be seen beginning April 28 on Discovery+.

Seeing life through the eyes of a dairy cow

An English cow named Luma is at the center of Andrea Arnold’s Cow, an IFC Films release. (Photos courtesy of Kate Kirkwood)

By Richard Ades

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t suffer vegans gladly, join the club. After being harangued by a one at a party—and by Joaquin Phoenix at the 2020 Academy Awards—I decided to avoid them at all costs.

But my feelings have softened a bit after seeing Cow, Andrea Arnold’s documentary about the life of a British bovine. I’m still not ready to give up cheese or other milk-based products, but it’s convinced me that dairy farming is not as benign as I’d believed.

Made over a period of four years on what appears to be a good-sized English farm, the film introduces us to Luma, a black-and-white cow with soulful eyes. Luma leads a monotonous existence: Eat, sleep and get milked, all of which occur in a huge, dank barn shared with dozens of other cows. And, whenever necessary, she’s impregnated so that she can give birth and continue to produce milk.

Does Luma realize what a boring, limiting existence she leads? She often appears to, as when she pauses before joining the other cows as they trudge dutifully toward their twice-daily milking. Or are we simply seeing our own thoughts reflected in her luminous eyes? Cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk’s intimate and sensitive photography makes it so easy to identify with her plight that it’s hard to tell.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to misinterpret Luma’s feelings toward calves, particularly her own. Dairy farming requires cows to be separated from their offspring so that most of their milk can be processed and sold. But Luma doesn’t understand market forces; all she knows is that what’s happening is an attack on her maternal instincts. When her calf is taken away shortly after its birth, she responds by bellowing loudly and repeatedly.

As brilliantly photographed as Arnold’s documentary is, it may be hard for some to watch due not only to its enveloping sadness but to its slow, cow-like pace. One of the few times the somber routine of eating, sleeping and milking is interrupted occurs when good weather allows the cows to be released into the surrounding fields. There they kick up their heels in excitement before settling down to the rare pleasure of grazing on grass and sleeping under the stars.  

Spoiler alert: It must be noted that Luma’s routine also is interrupted in the final moments of the film, when her life is suddenly ended. Why, it’s not clear, though it’s obvious that her udders have become swollen and possibly infected. Is she being put down because she’s ill and in pain, or because she’s outlived her usefulness? The film doesn’t reveal the reason, leaving us to reach our own conclusions.  

Some activists will see Cow as evidence that legislation is needed to protect the welfare of farm animals. Vegans, of course, will see it as proof that they were right all along.

As for average viewers—if they can get past the film’s deliberate pace and final ambiguity—they’ll find Cow a consciousness-raising experience and a chance to see the world through the eyes of an animal that is familiar, and yet a stranger.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Cow opens April 8 in select theaters and on demand.