Stories are building blocks; some stories turn into history, others into fables and myths, but in all instances they serve a purpose. Myths and fables are used to teach moral lessons, influence behavior, and explain the unexplainable. One of the great collections of myths is found in the bible, with or without the Apocrypha. Director Sarah Adina Smith’s ambitious and successful film, Buster’s Mal Heart reinterprets the story of Jonah and the whale.
Adina Smith is a young and dynamic director whose first feature, The Midnight Swim landed half a dozen awards around the festival circuit, including the American Film Institute Festival’s audience award. Buster’s Mal Heart opened at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. The film’s brilliant structure will leave audiences talking well after its end credits roll. Jonah’s story, as retold by Adina Smith, is about a hotel concierge on night shifts. Jonah, who’s also known as Buster, is played by Rami Malek, who delivers an exceptional performance in English and in Spanish. Buster is overworked, overtired, and stressed about his small family’s financial situation. He is a deeply flawed individual with a heart of gold whose love for his wife and toddler daughter is the meaning of his existence. When a stranger comes into Jonah’s world, he throws the already-precarious balance completely off. The character of the stranger (DJ Qualls) allows the filmmaker to take the plot and performance to the edge, and is the mechanism by which Jonah’s character can reveal the full spectrum of his personality, in particular the darker parts.
The Book of Jonah lends itself to retelling due to its narrative structure; other biblical books are collections of tales. Jonah is an ineluctable prophet who is tasked with delivering a message of doom and destruction but avoids the task. Unable to hide or escape, the Lord commands a big fish to swallow Jonah and take him back to his starting point after three days in the belly of the beast. Jonah eventually acquiesces to this prophetic duty but he finds himself resentful with the outcome. In Buster’s Mal Heart , the director does something unique, she presents three parallel narratives that flow at a nicely timed pace and are so well orchestrated that the entire story unfolds harmoniously. The unique part is not the three parallel story lines, but rather the way that they are executed. It’s as if Adina Smith deconstructs the character of Jonah in an effort to explore the journey of a broken heart and its relationship with God as it seeks forgiveness and illumination.
Adina Smith is able to deliver the story without ever giving it away, and more importantly, the parallel stories work towards a sustained emotional arc. Buster’s Mal Heart has some very sweet moments that ride a wave of distress that is palatable. When the wave finally crashes, the symbolism of brilliantly integrated details makes sense. The film straddles the line between absurdly comical and a building desperation that is tempered through compassion. At times it’s hard to tell which way the film will go, and this in and of itself is a treat these days. The director does such a good job that she can explore any possibility and audiences will gladly come along. The resolution to the storyline is magical and surreal, leaving viewers with some questions, which will answered through the existence of hope.
Monday 12, 5:30 pm