SXSW 2019: MICKEY AND THE BEAR Packs a Punch

A powerful coming of age drama

Mickey and the Bear writer/director Annabelle Attanacio’s work had been previously unknown to me. Perhaps that is because, despite a pretty active career thus far, she’s only 25 years old. Discovering Mickey and the Bear comes from the heart of a 25 year old gave me quite a bit of whiplash as the film is insightful and nuanced far beyond the perspective of most 25 year olds I know. (No offense, 25 year olds… this is about Ms. Attanacio, not about you).

James Badge Dale is what got me in the door to watch this movie. As much as I hate to admit it, sometimes having the right star attached is what gets me to see your movie at a film festival. One has to make their choices somehow. And if James Badge Dale is going to help me make a decision, I’m going to let him. Fortunately for me, “Badge” rarely steers me wrong, and this was no exception. And while it was JBD that got me in the door, Attanacio and the rest of her cast and crew caught me in their grasp and held onto me relentlessly.

Mickey (Never Goin’ Back’s Camila Marrone in a remarkable leading turn) turns 18 over the course of this film, and that changes things for her perhaps more than it changes things for most. Dale is her alcoholic, jobless, PTSD-ridden father whom she looks after on a daily basis. Ranging wildly from tender sweetness to threat of self harm on a dime, Dale’s Hank is obviously the titular bear, but more importantly manages to be a well-fleshed out human being instead of the caricature that this type of character could so easily become. Dale’s performance could’ve swung into showy territory, but instead it focuses on unpredictability, and Dale absolutely owns the part with a tragic ferocity. But even a top tier performer such as Dale couldn’t have sold this performance if the writing and filmmaking team hadn’t brought their best to the table, and ultimately his performance is bolstered by the team surrounding him.

And as phenomenal as Dale is… this isn’t Hank’s movie. Mickey has perhaps a slightly less volatile presence in the film, but this is absolutely her movie and she is a fantastically fully realized character who is massively shaped by her father but is working to try not to be defined by him. Mickey manages her father’s medications and cleans up his messes on the regular. She’s on a first name basis with the Anaconda, Montana sheriff, as well as her father’s psychologist. But there’s more to Mickey. She’s focused in school and tentatively dares to dream about going to college. She works for a taxidermist and cherishes that time away from the home. She’s got an asshole boyfriend and an intriguing new student at her school has eyes on her.

But things far outside of Mickey’s control, like the Iraq war and her mother’s premature passing, have placed her in a situation in which she finds herself hiding her father’s guns every night to head off any potential dangerous situations. Mickey and Hank are in a true co-dependent relationship… only Mickey didn’t choose this life. And she’s quietly torn about whether there is any future for her beyond caring for her own father and his increasingly erratic behavior.

Part coming of age tale, part character study, and part addiction/PTSD narrative, Attanacio taps into a messy and authentically human space with Mickey and the Bear. No easy redemption or pat melodrama is to be found here. Hank isn’t especially condemned by the script, despite behaving in many despicable and self-serving ways. He’s a live wire; a ticking bomb in Mickey’s life who also has his own story. Mickey also makes complicated decisions that the audience may not always understand or agree with. It’s her life, and her circumstances, and she’s a tough young woman who will make her own way. We just really hope she’ll stick up for herself and divorce herself from the only future available to her if she stays with her father.

Prominently featuring the gorgeous and foreboding landscape of Montana, Mickey and the Bear offers a regional tale and as such, along with the troubled father/daughter dynamic, has many comparison points to Debra Granik’s work and Leave No Trace more specifically. That it not only holds a candle to Leave No Trace but manages to explore similar territory less than a year after that film and still have something unique to say is quite something. Also featuring stellar cinematography that constantly finds us almost peeking into the troubled interactions our characters are having, there’s a firm vision guiding this film and it all comes together as a remarkably accomplished character piece from a wise-beyond-her years filmmaker whom we’ll all need to keep an eye on as she continues to create.

And I’m Out.

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