DVD Review - The Better Angels

Braydon Denney plays Young Abraham Lincoln
It's difficult not to look at this film and not think that it's basically Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life but totally set in the early 19th century, totally in black-and-white and minus the dinosaurs and the amazing IMAX-like sequences of outer and inner space. Knowing that it was produced by Malick and knowing that it was written and directed by A.J. Edwards who worked in the art department for The Tree of Life and has been the editor for Malick's two most-recent films, Edwards' film could be seen as a homage to the style of his mentor, or it could seem as being derivative. What makes it intriguing is that its central figure is Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, but as a prepubescent boy.

Braydon Denney stars as Abraham Lincoln or Abe at the age of 8, growing up in Indiana in 1817. He lives with his parents. Jason Clarke co-stars as Tom Lincoln, the father. Side note: Jason Clarke has co-starred with Jessica Chastain twice, Lawless and Zero Dark Thirty. He didn't co-star in The Tree of Life of which Chastain played the mother, but I find it interesting that he's co-starring in this film patterned after that Malick movie, maintaining a connection between himself and Chastain.

The film opens with a quote from Abraham Lincoln. "All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother." Brit Marling plays Nancy Lincoln, the President's biological mother. Marling is certainly a Chastain-type, minus the red hair, but with blonde instead. Yet, Nancy dies when Abe is 9. Tom remarries, taking Sarah, played by Diane Kruger, as his second wife, along with her children. There's some tension at first but Sarah and Abe do come to bond. The question is if "angel mother" refers to his biological mom or his step-mom or perhaps both.

There's little to no dialogue. There's lots of low-angle shots, looking up at the characters and environment, which is typical of Malick's style. The camerawork is mostly handheld or else constantly moving and gliding about, as it follows the characters as they walk, work or play, relating almost everything through body language alone. Again, this is typical Malick. The only difference is the cinematography is all black-and-white.

In typical Malick-fashion, the film has voice-over narration. Like Sean Penn's narration in The Tree of Life, the voice-over here is one of an adult in the story reflecting back on childhood observations and thoughts. Hayes Blankenship is the narrator here, but, unlike Sean Penn, Blankenship doesn't physically appear on screen. We only hear his voice, though his character is Dennis, the orphaned cousin of Abraham Lincoln.

On screen, Cameron Williams plays Dennis as a 18-year-old teenager who comes to live with Abe and his family. The film floats along, as Dennis notices what the filmmaker and audience try to notice, and that's what's so special about this little boy who will eventually become President.

Edwards, however, never makes a convincing argument as to what's so special about this boy beyond some lip service. The opening quote isn't even all that justified or explored, beyond what a mother normally does.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated PG for thematic elements and brief smoking.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 35 mins.


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