Your everyday, average teenager wakes up, every Monday through Friday, goes to school and comes home for supper. Mickey (Camila Morrone) wakes up to a leak in her roof and a cop knocking on her door. She is driven down to the local police station to bail her dad (James Badge Dale) out of another DUI, who has seemingly made friends with everyone at the precinct, having become a frequent nightly resident. Mickey usually calls her father by his first name, Hank, almost treating him like a little brother who can’t seem to stay out of trouble, incidentally, enabling his hurtful patterns.
“Mickey And The Bear” is sort of like a reverse-dynamic, gender-bent version of a coming of age movie like “The 400 Blows,” set in rural Montana, the relationship being flipped on its head so that the father figure, as opposed to the troubled adolescent, is the damaged rebel. Filmmaker Annabelle Attanasio’s debut picture is an honest and empathetic look at the toughest parts of one’s upbringing, the parts you wish you could simply run away from, but you’d surely still feel inside your beating heart if you abandoned. It’s the kind of realist domestic drama that might feel beaten to death in the hands of lesser talent, but a confident aesthetic approach (that sometimes evokes the recent work of Sebastián Lelio, with its use of color and claustrophobic textures), a pair of heart-wrenching and sympathetic performances, plus the emotional weight of the always-volatile state of its narrative make for a powerful viewing experience. The script can feel a bit bare, so far as story density is concerned; considering its short length, some scenes drag, and the movie starts to feel as if it may exhaust itself, before settling in on a phenomenal final shot.
Mickey Peck is about to turn 18-years-old and buy her first lottery ticket. When she isn’t busy trying to get Hank’s prescription pills refilled —or trying to convince her dude friend Aron (Ben Rosenfield) not to steal them— she works at a taxidermy shop, fitting skins over mannequin trophy displays. She cooks her dad breakfast and dinner, while he sits in a robe playing first-person shooters on a tiny TV. More than anything, Mickey wants to move on from her stasis pod that is being a permanent caretaker of an ex-Marine with PSTD and an addiction problem. She’s applied to college but worries she’ll never escape her Montana cage, and fears what would befall Hank without her around to support him.
After developing a crush on her school’s hot new track star, Wyatt (Calvin Demba), Mickey starts hanging out with him, beginning to see the possibilities of what liberty and happiness actually feel like. But her father only seems to be growing more unstable, downing more and more beer bottles before going out for target practice.
Needless to say, “Mickey and the Bear” goes to some grim places, setting up more and more selfish actions that slowly turn deplorable. It’s sort of like a cross between “The Squid and the Whale” and “Leave No Trace,” an examination of the harmful nature of a complex parent/offspring dichotomy. But some of the film’s melodramatic beats feel less earned than expected and the movie perhaps pushes its abusive subject matter a tad too far. If the screenplay was denser and had the room to work all its domestic drama themes into a bigger sandbox, ‘Mickey’ probably would feel less like it was reaching for conflict points at a few key junctions. The picture virtually takes place inside a vivarium, as a metaphor for self-imprisonment; the Peck’s have a pet lizard and small animals kept in confinement is a recurrent motif of the movie.
Both performances at the film’s center are just outstanding. James Badge Dale has long been one of the most reliable actors on the planet, and while the film will probably fly too under the radar for awards consideration, he gives a gutting performance that seethes with raw human need and disheveled desperation. Hank believes he’s been starved for the kind of care not afforded to him for so long that he could snap at any moment; his performance is enthralling and you never want to take your eyes off him, both out of genuine concern for his well-being and fear for what he might do. Morrone goes toe-to-toe with the veteran with the skill of a total pro. She makes a lot out of the quietest moments, such as rubbing one cheek on her shoulder, getting nervous in the presence of a boy that she’s realizing she likes; she has a sea of emotional range and likely a big career ahead of her.
After Hank brags about crushing a small child in a local pie-eating contest, a long take rotates around the characters as he plays one of his drunken games with Mickey and her new crush, aiming to intimidate. The constantly moving camera accomplishes multiple things at once, from both a stylistic and sensory standpoint; you feel the anxiety that’s present and the struggle to break free from the shackles of familial obligation, but also the desire to connect, deeply, something that both Hank and Mickey have been without for a long while: a relationship that is reciprocal, rooted not in pressure or guilt. [B]