“Hate the disease, not the diseased.”
That’s a hard message to massage when you’re making a movie about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Movies about “psycho vets” oversimplify the illness and amplify its most dangerous and anti-social symptoms.
It’s hard not to hate Hank Peck in “Mickey and the Bear.” James Badge Dale plays this swaggering, hard-drinking, war-stories-to-tell bullying life of the party in Anaconda, Montana.
The cops don’t mind picking him up. He’ll tell them stories about his Marine Corps service, funny anecdotes and hairy moments from “the Second Battle of Fallujah.”
The bars still let him drink there. As much as he wants. He’s a veteran. Hell, he’s widowed, too.
No, he can’t hold a job. There seems no end to the things that trigger him. Any number of subjects are off limits — his late wife, happy family memories.
“I’m not having this conversation.”
And the person living at ground zero with this ticking time bomb is his smart, pretty and trapped caregiver, the one who picks him up after a bender, gets him dressed for bed after he’s passed out in the shower — his teenage daughter, Mickey.
How smart? Mickey’s doing well in school, considering college and holding down an after school job working with a taxidermist. Studying marine biology in San Diego is damned tempting.
How pretty? Her immature, hormonal high school beau (Ben Rosenberg) is already making plans, with that promotion at his daddy’s business letting him dream big — “a motorcycle” he can “put you and them babies on it.” He knows this is his peak moment, and he’d love her to believe it’s hers.
Camila Morrone gives a lovely, understated turn in this coming-of-age tale, a just-turned-18 daughter struggling to control her won’t-visit-his-doctor dad, to manage her impulsive doofus boyfriend who steals her daddy’s oxycontin, and embrace her own ambitions.
How pretty is Morrone? She’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest girlfriend-pretty. She hides that runway-ready look behind just enough bad hair and working-poor clothing choices to lose herself in this part.
Mickey is the one who cooks, cleans up and tends to her father. She’s the one who has to visit the clinic and convince the doctor (Rebecca Henderson) to renew his prescription, even if it’s against the law, even if it isn’t doing Hank any good over the long run.
“You think Hank off his oxy is a pretty sight?” the kid wants to know.
Veteran character actor Dale has played his share of soldiers, and he gives Hank’s mercurial personality the ominous menace that drives the picture. His idea of “charming” and “cute” is bullying his kid, leaning on her more than any man with any pride would chose to, teasing her when she doesn’t need it.
What’re you going to do with your life, Michaela?
“Get a bunch of tattoos,” she scowls. “Get a husband. Get fat.”
Her horizons expand ever so slightly when the “new kid” at school, Wyatt (Calvin Demba) bats his eyes at her. He’s biracial, and he milks that “I’m from the U.K.” accent for all it’s worth. She is, of course, intrigued.
The debut feature film of actress turned director Annabelle Attanasio lives on authentiticy — a real heartland story told in the heartland — but runs on forboding. Who will knock Mickey off the tightrope she’s walking on? Will it be Dad, all medicated and muscle-bound, a collection of tics, tattoos, nightmares and guns?
Will it be Aaron, pursuing sex with her like it has an expiration date?
Or will it be Wyatt?
The details here are rooted deep in Red State reality. Mickey recognizes her dad’s symptoms, even among the old men who served in earlier wars. The guys hurting are the first to blurt out “I didn’t ASK for your help.” A small town where “everybody gets cancer” has its virtues. People are inclined to look out for Hank, give him a pass on much of his misbehavior, which crosses into criminality.
But it’s a trap, and the script plays with our recognizing that to create instant empathy for Mickey’s plight.
No, it’s not surprising, although I was impressed by all the PTSD cliches Attanasio manages to avoid. We still know where it’s going once we see how it begins.
But “Mickey and the Bear” is to be relished for its performances and its gritty indie cinema sense of place. Movies like this, set in the America far beyond the over–filmed confines of Hollywood, are why I roll my eyes at every movie trade publication that laments “runaway production” — films NOT made in Tinseltown.
MPAA Rating: R for substance abuse, language throughout and some sexual material
Cast: Camilla Morrone, James Badge Dale, Calvin Demba, Ben Rosenfield, Rebecca Henderson.
Credits: Written and directed by Annabelle Attanasio. A Utopia release.
Running time: 1:28