When Comedy Central canceled Larry Wilmore’s “The Nightly Show” this summer, the network president gave a brutal explanation: “It hasn’t resonated,” he said — rather candidly pointing out the currency that rules our pop-culture marketplace.
The current season in media has felt like a parade of noise machines built for maximum resonance, from the political conventions to the Olympics to “Suicide Squad” to the Kanye West-Taylor Swift feud. Such events generated an endless churn of controversies and memes, to the point where we weren’t sure whether they were legitimate news stories or pseudo-events that only deserve our ironic ridicule.
What to do in the face of such events when you’re merely a great movie? That’s the plight of “Hell or High Water,” “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and “Captain Fantastic,” three of the summer’s ignored mini-masterpieces.
Together they probably cost less to make than “Suicide Squad” spent on Margot Robbie’s hairstylist. Each is the kind of nuanced family dramedy that someone would describe to you and you’d nod your head and say, “That sounds interesting,” and intend to add to your Netflix queue later. Movies like that don’t make for catchy headlines — and yet, these three deserve our attention.
David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water,” written by Taylor Sheridan, is the most topical of the trio, and as a result has come the closest to breaking through the hubbub, although it has earned only $9.7 million so far. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play sibling bank robbers you can’t help liking, chased by a pair of Texas Rangers — Jeff Bridges as the chatty soon-to-be-retired one, and Gil Birmingham as his prickly partner.
The romantic lawlessness of the old West finds its contemporary analogue in the post-real-estate-crisis anger against the banks and the government among the rural poor, including the brothers and those complicit in their scheme. And Bridges’s character goes right up to the line of offensiveness as he jabs at his partner Alberto’s mixed Latino and Native American ancestry in the most affectionate way possible — a more subtle, human examination of political correctness than any discussion on CNN.
Taika Waititi’s “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is another film that uses a fugitive narrative to rope you into a subtle study of an atypical family. Through an odd sequence of events, troubled adolescent Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) and his reluctant foster dad, Uncle Hec (Sam Neill), end up running from the law while fighting to survive in the New Zealand woods, becoming folk heroes in the process.
Ricky bounces from hip-hop posturing to sweet naivete, naming his dog Tupac and expressing himself through haikus. When he’s plopped at this foster home at the beginning, you wonder how his sad life could possibly amount to anything, until his creative spirit shines through and you realize that he’ll be okay wherever he winds up. In the course of the film, as he warms Hec’s cold heart, he emerges as one of the most touching characters you’ll see this year.
But the best of this trio is “Captain Fantastic,” about another family living off the grid. Matt Ross’s film is about a dad (Viggo Mortensen) and his six home-schooled kids who live in their own Swiss Family Robinson-style compound in the Pacific Northwest, rarely interacting with the rest of the world — until one day they’re forced to take a road trip.
Like the other two films, “Captain Fantastic” mixes old and new to challenge the arbitrariness of today’s values. The kids can kill a deer with their bare hands for food, but their eyes are wide with fear as they watch their relatives play violent video games. One of the sons bristles at how every year the family eschews Christmas and celebrates “Noam Chomsky Day.” The dad asks him why they should worship a mythical figure instead of someone who’s alive today and trying to make the world better — and the son has no answer. Many scenes like these challenge our country’s predominant worldview so concisely, raising the question: Should we not only tolerate this bizarre family but consider what it might teach us?
Resonance and quality are not mutually exclusive. A couple of summer TV shows managed to have that fortunate combination of critical acclaim and elements that make you want to click play: “The Night Of,” a did-he-or-didn’t-he crime narrative in the vein of “Serial,” touching on incarceration and America’s treatment of Muslims; and Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” a sci-fi mystery that strikes the right notes of nostalgia.
But God knows, resonance isn’t based on merit. Olympian Usain Bolt has become known as much for his showboating as for his few minutes of sprinting, and thus resonated far more than, say, Ashton Eaton, who won gold for the second straight time in the 10-event decathlon, known to determine the best all-around athlete on the planet. America’s Olympics dominance is a narrative that “resonated,” ignoring that if you adjust the number of medals for the population of the country, the U.S. came in 43rd. For figures such as Kim Kardashian, Kanye West and even Donald Trump, resonating seems to be their single goal.
And yet as Jon Stewart said in an appearance on Wilmore’s final episode, “The Nightly Show” did resonate, “in a way that you don’t even realize yet.” Even if these three films didn’t make an impact in this summer’s Facebook echo chamber, maybe their impact will be more lasting, like a song whose tune returns to our consciousness again and again.