“Authenticity” is the holy grail for a certain type of narrative filmmaking. Specifically, films that make a virtue of depicting poor people and the “issues” they face. Quite often, an improvisational, doc-style aesthetic helps cement the idea that we’re just peering in. Gaining a privileged insight into “real lives.” But it bears stating that such films are artificial constructs too.
With my debut feature, “Lorelei,” I wanted to try something different. I grew up in a low-income family — my dad works in construction and neither of my parents graduated high school — so this is personal for me. My interior life, my imaginary life, allowed me do things that weren’t expected for someone from my background: get into my dream college, win a scholarship to attend film school and, now, direct a feature film.
I don’t fetishize verisimilitude, nor consider it a byword for truth. Growing up, it was the opposite, actually. Stories are what gave my life shape and meaning. Dense imaginings about where I came from and where I might end up. From my parents (who emigrated to the U.K. from Ireland and Italy), I inherited their family lore and memories of their homelands. Like many families without a strong history of formal education, mine has a strong and venerable history of oral storytelling. To this day, my mother can spin an hour-long yarn about something the neighbor’s cat did.
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Now, “Lorelei” doesn’t shy away from the hardships of having no money. One of my favorite moments in the film is 12-year-old Periwinkle’s disappointment when she doesn’t get the birthday present she’d longed for — and the look on her mother Dolores’ (Jena Malone’s) face when she realizes she’s let her down. And yet, the film also foregrounds the resilience of these characters. Their ability to dream big, even when life conspires to keep them small. Filmmaking is an art form fashioned off of the literal dreams we have at night – the myth, metaphor and symbolism they teach us should be part of any director’s toolkit. So, in “Lorelei,” I use water as a disruptive dream element that leaks through the narrative. Water relates to Dolores’ long-lost dreams of being a professional swimmer. And to the transformations brewing inside us all.
I’ve heard from some quarters that “Lorelei’s” fable-like elements provide an odd companion to the realism. To which I reply: Why shouldn’t working-class people have fables? Why this rigid insistence on literalism? Perhaps the Sex Pistols were onto something when they sang about taking a cheap holiday in other people’s misery.
If I lament the hollowing out of working-class characters, it’s not because I wish to prioritize individual agency over systemic change, which I believe is necessary and long overdue. But I do ask why so many contemporary blue-collar films balk at experimentation and play it safe with a mono-palette of drudgery. Many such films have sparse dialogue, as if the characters are too worn down to even speak. That’s nothing like the noisy, chaotic household I grew up in.
As someone who’s been on various selection panels choosing the next generation of filmmakers, I can attest to the fact that many of the working-class kids I see coming through have big, expansive imaginations. One filmmaker from an underrepresented background made a beautiful film about little girls blasting off into space. Meanwhile, many bleakly realist films originate from the top-down — from well-heeled filmmakers in search of an authentic story.
Some of the best movies about hard-up people center the imagination. Think of “The 400 Blows,” in which Antoine builds a shrine to Balzac. Or “Moonlight,” where the memory of love is sustained over many lonely years. Or Mati Diop’s “Atlantics,” in which a tragic migration tale morphs into a wildly inventive ghost story.
Truffaut said the question that tormented him from the age of 30 was: “Is cinema more important than life?” I’d argue that the cinema of our minds is fundamental to our humanity. To erase the dream lives of working-class characters is not only to condescend, but to miss out on some potent moments of movie myth-making. And that would be a loss for us all.
“Lorelei” is in select theaters and on VOD on July 30.
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