In the movies, war is exciting and chaotic and inspiring, full of adventure and heroism and way-cool weapons.
Well, as Talia Lugacy’s film warns us right from the start, This Is Not a War Story.
Instead, this is a story about what happens after the war, when veterans come home. Many of them are wounded. Not all the wounds are obvious. And now that they’re off the battlefield, survival is going to require a different kind of heroism.
The New York movie – interestingly, if not always smoothly – mixes narrative and documentary.
In the dramatized parts, we’re introduced to Lugacy (who also stars) as an emotionally damaged veteran, alienated from her family, and Sam Adegoke as the guilt-ridden counselor who tries to help her heal.
In the real-life sections, we’re taken inside a fascinating project – part art, part therapy – where vets shred their old uniforms, transform them into pulp, then turn that material into prints and sculptures.
Once, their uniforms held everything in – blood and sweat and pain. Now, they become a way of getting everything out.
It’s extremely moving, particularly when we hear some of these soldiers talk about what they went through. What they’re still going through, in terms of physical pain, substance addiction, or psychological trauma. It’s both understated and devastating.
Less moving, not surprising, are the scripted parts, none of which can measure up to the rawness of real life, and real people.
Lugacy is a fierce and uncompromising filmmaker (her first feature, Descent, was a shockingly violent rape-revenge drama starring Rosario Dawson, who executive produces here). As a director, she has passion and style.
But as a performer, Lugacy’s all sharp angles and cold anger, flatly delivering lines like “I only feel comfortable around people who want to kill themselves.” It’s not just that her character wants to keep people at arms’ length. It’s that she drives the audience away, too.
Better is Adegoke, as the veteran struggling with his own issues, while trying to help his peers. Good, too, in a small role, is Frances Fisher, as Lugacy’s estranged mom.
But Fisher’s character is more of a device than a person – her coldness towards her daughter feels extreme – and once the story moves to Adegoke’s rural home in upstate New York, the drama begins to deflate.
There are some striking images here – sunbaked city streets, a clanking vintage printing press, paper lanterns memorializing fallen warriors. The soundtrack is full of painful and profane protest songs. Adegoke is sensitive and soulful.
But it’s hard not to wish that the film Lugacy chose to make out of this material was the documentary that was right in front of her all the time.