“The Better Angels” is an arty, poetic rendering of Abraham Lincoln’s youth of hardscrabble farming, near poverty and tragedy, the childhood, in essence, that made the man.
It’s about the parents who raised him, the stern, hard-working father Tom (Jason Clarke),whom he somewhat disdained later in life, and the two women he called mother — his adoring birth mother Nancy (Brit Marling) and his indulgent champion stepmom, Sarah (Diane Kruger).
Of them, he said, “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel Mother.”
Writer-director A.J. Edwards tells this story in the style of his producer and mentor, Terrence Malick. It’s a “Tree of Life” Lincoln biography, austere, pretty, filmed in black and white and narrated by a drawling Kentucky cousin, Dennis (Cameron Williams) who grew up with young Abe. There’s far more voice-over narration than dialogue and only the occasional hint of the orator, master of rhetoric and witty yarn-spinner that the kid would grow into. The Tweenage Abe, played by screen newcomer Brayoden Denney, was quiet, bookish, not so much avoiding hard farm work as simply preferring the company of books.
“He asks questions I can’t answer,” the illiterate Nancy tells Tom. “He’s got a gift.”
That doesn’t stop “Pappy” from switching the boy when he does wrong, or yanking him away from the dinner table for daydreaming. Edwards keeps the movie so quiet that the little violence that’s here — hunting in the silent woods, whippings or merely grabbing the kid — is amplified in volume and importance. This is what Abe remembers of his father.
The actresses cast as his “Angel” are understated beauties, and both have a reserved quiet here that turns them into the very visual of “angelic.” But they’re barely sketched in, hazy memories of what a barely-recalled mother must have been like. Wes Bentley plays another angel, a teacher who sees Abe’s potential.
Edwards has essentially made a Terrence Malick film with less pretension, a simpler story and more coherent boundaries. His frontier world is vividly recreated, and our knowledge of the future Lincoln — the orator, statesman, human rights advocate (he sees his first slaves in his tweens) — allows us to read more into this Edenic farm life than any one character says. We taste the horror of illness in that medically primitive era, the terror that it must have struck in people with no hope of a doctor’s care.
The story boosts the father’s role in Lincoln’s life — one magic scene has Tom hoist the kid in the air in pride at Abe mastering a wrestling move — and wonderfully recreates the limited universe this very curious man grew up in. It’s a bit too spare and Malik-like for its own good. But the incessant voice-over, another Malick trademark, here makes the whole enterprise feel overheard, a story constructed from memory where the words are just ways of underlining what we would come to know about Lincoln the man based on Lincoln the boy.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and brief smoking
Cast: Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Brit Marling, Wes Bentley, Brayoden Denney.
Credits: Written and directed by A.J. Edwards. An Amplify Media release.
Running time: 1:34