Brakes, the new feature film by Mercedes Grower, enjoyed its world premier at the Edinburgh Film Festival last weekend.
For anyone who’s missed its recent buzz, Brakes is an new indie film with an impressive cast of TVO-connected faces and British acting talent. It’s often dark, and sometimes funny (hilariously so in Julian Barratt and Oliver Maltman’s scenes), and it’s structured into two halves: Part 1 depicts the bleak final moments of a series of different relationships, and Part 2 explores the magical first sparks of the same couplings. It’s a simple construct and an original one: in turning the traditional structure of relationships back to front, the film provides us with a welcome, fresh perspective on a well-trodden cinematic subject.
Showing the break-ups first also provides the viewer with a unique opportunity to get intellectually involved – our brains can’t help but start creating the narrative leading up to these moments. It makes for a far more engaging experience than being hand fed what’s happened and being told what to think about it, as most films do. Instead, here we naturally join the dots ourselves, constructing assumed back stories for each couple to make sense of the unravelling we see on screen. So we start post-rationalising for each couple: It’s because they’ve been married too long…because he’s in denial…because she never loved him…etc.
But later, when we’re shown the beginning of each pair’s story in the second part of the film, what we see is often more subtle and nuanced than that, avoiding the one-dimensional Hollywood relationship cliches – and it’s much more believable as a result. The start of real relationships isn’t accompanied by violins and fireworks, and real break ups rarely feature tears and histrionics (although there are a few in Noel Fielding and Mercedes Grower‘s break up).
The moment that “we’re together” becomes “we’re not together” (and vice versa) doesn’t arrive heavily signposted and orchestrally scored for most of us – there’s simply an indecipherable line between one state and the other. In Brakes the changed status of a relationship might look like an ordinary conversation or argument; but there’s a point when everything pivots. We don’t often get to witness these authentic, unscripted relationship shifts – the kind that happen in the shadows at the edge of life. Films usually only show us the ones that ham it up on the main stage under the bright lights. It’s fascinating and strangely quiet – even when people are shouting.
The premise of the film and the naturalistic approach land perfectly, thanks to a talented cast who balance credible, low-key performances with improvised dialogue – and make it look effortless. Credit should be given too to Grower’s directorial style, which gifts the viewer the coveted fly on the wall perspective without ever feeling contrived or intrusive.
Beyond the partnering of the end and beginning of each relationship, there’s no narrative arc; Brakes is a collection of unconnected moments. For a while this bothered me – film makers like Alejandro González Iñárritu have led us to expect that stories should intertwine, because it’s neat and clever. But real life isn’t neat and clever, and one person’s life usually has nothing to do with another’s. This, then, is what Brakes is – it’s less of a film about relationships, more of a study of them. A lens on different couples. Once you get your head around this, it’s easier to sit back and go with it.
Other reviews of the film have called out the pared-back visual style of the film (a budget-driven necessity), but for me, it fits perfectly with the subject matter and overall naturalistic approach. Yes, it’s a bit rough around the edges, but isn’t life? The absence of a stylistic ‘Insta-filter’ and occasional edit jumps has the effect of bringing the viewer closer to the rawness of relationships, the disjointed memories of what really happened, and the messiness of the emotions involved. I felt like I was observing real people just being, not actors acting.
The relationships played out in Brakes offer up a wide spectrum of different dynamics – from the abusive (the petulant, sociopathic Daniel with Layla – Noel and Mercedes), to the bored (a miserably faded Rhys with Brinie – Roland Gift with Kerry Fox) and the needy (a gloriously un-self aware Livy with Alan – Julia Davis with Peter Wight). The stories are sufficiently distinctive to present us with a rich tapestry of different emotional colours, whilst being universal enough to relate to. You watch these people and it makes you wonder if we’re as fucked up as they are, but you still hope they’ll find happiness one day. As an aside, witnessing someone saying “Don’t touch me” to Julian Barratt is worth the ticket price alone (I suspect most of you will know why)!
Kudos then to Mercedes Grower for creating something raw, unique, and 100% from the heart with Brakes. And credit too to the cast for delivering her vision in spades. We should applaud those who dare to give us something a little bit different.