Amber and Me 2020 ****


In an alternate universe 2020, perhaps a lot more attention would have been given to  World Down Syndrome day (March 21st), and to the release of Ian Davies’ documentary Amber and Me; events worldwide may mute the media attention garnered, but that’s not to say that the film’s impact will be negated in the long-term. Like children, films grow and thrive, often against adversity; Amber and Me will hopefully be around long after the current crisis has been averted.

A note accompanying the film highlights that at least 15 per cent of children have special needs or a disability; Amber is growing up with Down’s, but she also has an advantage that many children do not, a loving twin sister called Olivia, who takes part in her games, chums her along the road to school, and generally looks out for her sister. Being different from her peers is sometimes a heavy burden for Amber to bear, but Olivia does her best to make sure that Amber’s experience does not cause her to withdraw from a world she finds difficult to understand.

Amber and Me is not the kind of documentary that relies on talking heads or statistic-spouting experts; instead it offers the kind of tender, gently fragmented experience of growing up, filmed over a four year period. Admirers of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, or Nicholas Philibert’s Etre et Avoir, may find something they recognise in the lack of contrivance shown here, with Amber allowed to express herself to camera, overcharging customers in her shop, not always able to articulate her feelings directly. Over time, Amber and Olivia begin to realise their potential; at 59 minutes, there’s room for the film to be expanded on, but it’s an effective primer in what it might feel like to grow up with Down’s, or to care for someone who does.

Amber and Me makes a strong case for the need for inclusiveness in how children are taught; as we watch Amber and Olivia play out the special moments of their childhood, the film should spark memories of our own development, and remind us, as the current virus outbreak does, that the mark of a caring society is how we treat those who need our attention the most.

UK release from March 2020


Gifted 2017 ****

 Cat-rescuing is a noble profession; from Ripley in Alien onwards, it’s become such a cliché that there’s even a screenwriting manual named after the conceit. When Frank Adler (Chris Evans) rescues the cat belonging to his niece Mary (McKenna Grace) towards the end of Mark Webb’s Gifted, it’s a crucial plot-point and a feel-good moment in a slight but affecting film about children, education and family. Mary’s mother is dead by the start of Gifted’s narrative, and Frank has been raising her despite the antipathy of her grandmother Evelyn(Lindsay Duncan).  Once she starts at school, Mary’s gift for maths attracts the attention of her teacher (Jenny Slate), but Frank is reluctant to feed this particular fire, since Mary’s mother was a maths prodigy who ultimately killed herself. Gifted plays with a tug-of-war between Frank and Evelyn that’s settled in a very satisfactory way; throw in support from Octavia Spencer, and Gifted is a strong package of thoughtful entertainment for those seeking a restrained slice of drama.

Child’s Play 1972 ***


Sidney Lumet was a master of many genres, from thrillers (Serpico, Q & A) to courtroom procedurals (Twelve Angry Men, The Verdict), and seems to have been the go-to guy for theatrical adaptations (Death Trap). Marlon Brando dropped out of this adaptation of Robert Marasco’s Broadway hit, to be replaced by Music Man star Robert Preston. He plays Joseph Dobbs, a teacher at a boys school who clashes with weak-willed Latin teacher Jerome Malley (James Mason), with Paul (Beau Bridges) as the sporty young American teacher who gets caught in the crossfire. Lumet conjures up a sharp picture of the potential for cruel rivalry in the private-school world, aided by meaty work from Mason, Preston and Bridges. Brando had The Godfather instead; in a career littered by bad films, it’s a shame he had to chose between two good ones.