Film Review: Brakes

Much Ado About Everything

On a scrap of paper ‘Brakes’ (2016) by first time director Mercedes Grower (who also wrote it) is a brilliant idea, and to the greater extent it really works. As the description goes, it’s an improv-based dark comedy set in London. It also happens to have some of the best off kilter contemporary UK comedians on board including the likes of Julian Barratt, Noel Fielding and the wondrous mirth magnificence who should be in absolutely EVERYTHING and immediately be given the key to the country, if not the world, Julia Davis.

There is much to really love in this film, whose topic initially seems to be about there being nothing to love at all, or indeed why we do as it doesn’t make sense to deliberately entice such self destruction, hysterical drama and heart ache into our lives on a regular basis, but of course we all do.

The stories unfold in reverse order, multiple separate strands dealing with various broken, distorted individuals and couples rather effectively not dealing with the dance and intricacies of relationships. It’s almost like the complete opposite of a mating ritual, the unmating dance, where we are in the final dying embers of apparent love and folk are standing round with emotional petrol bombs to try and refuel it, or just kill their target, Cupid has swapped his bow for a sniper rifle. It may sound a tad bleak, and it is, but in a very dark comedy way. If looked at in the cold light of day, there is a huge amount of bleak glee to be mined from the idiocy of our dressing up during courtship, as we desperately bust every move possible (physically and emotionally) to woo the individual we have just drunkenly convinced ourselves is indeed ‘The One’. Of course as often is the case, they turn out to be ‘The One’ we should have stayed away from, not started a family with, so I’m in great admiration of the levels of honesty that the various stories achieve.

Added to that is a stunning amount of emotional honesty by all the brilliant performances across the board. It’s often the case that comedy as an art form can bungee into the places of such poignant depth that other forms can’t. The security of the (hopeful) punch line and laugh at the end sugars the bitter medicine, so we happily line up to take it. As mostly seasoned comedians and basically functioning human beings, there are many moments of phenomenal heartbreaking truths and subtle vulnerabilities just glowing off the screen, as a common trait of relationships is profound loneliness, desperation, and nothing to do with what we’ve been conditioned to search for, and this work is beautifully aware of it. Improv it may be, but there is more pure truth than comedy pouring off the screen.

There’s a major and profoundly irritating flaw in it all though, not in the content nor performances, but in the ‘style’ of presentation. I’m a big fan of the Dogme 95 movement approach to filming where there is an inherent honesty in the process of capturing the moment, only natural lighting, on location, no props introduced, hand held camera to name a few, and it’s not that far from a guerrilla style of filming, often on the spur, without license to capture another honesty of the moment. All admirable qualities and aspirations that have notable goals, but ‘Brakes’ seems to have every single recording trick possible in it, and it’s devastatingly distracting. Interesting at first it quickly rises to be brutally annoying, as the complete disservice of the performances that are happening before us. I understand the reasoning for this approach, but I think it was a major misstep.

I could say that the standard of the acting knocks this constant distraction into the background, but it doesn’t, and it’s painful to see these performances captured this way.

Despite the dourness of the beginning, the second part cleverly shows us the initial moments of the various courtships, and even though we have seen the pain they ultimately produce, it’s clear to see why they all started dancing their merry moves as the flourish of excitement and wonder of possibility rushes like E through their bodies, and again even with the knowledge we have, we find ourselves fully supporting these doomed waltz, because we have all been there, and may one day be there again. But hopefully we’ll have a HD camera with auto focus and image stabilisation to capture it all.

7/10 ‘Brakes’ is out now.