BY Alex Gibson
We Are What We Are opens as a torrential downpour hits a small upstate New York town. Muddy water fills the street and people stay in their homes for the most part, except for Mrs. Parker, who ventures out to the general store. On the way home, she slips, hits her head and dies, sinking into dirty water beside the road. Upon learning of her mother’s demise, Rose Parker, the eldest of the family, is forced into her mother’s role of carrying out the family’s annual religious ceremony.
Their ritual: catching, killing, and eating a human being.
The Parkers’ cannibalism is no secret to the audience. It is alluded to throughout the film and trailer. However, contrary to what you might expect or think possible, in We Are What We Are, cannibalism takes a back seat to much more familiar themes of becoming an adult, family traditions, and rebellion. Therein lies its brilliance.
Like most girls their age, Rose and her little sister Iris take no pleasure in their once-a-year ritual. Yet Rose, now the matriarch of family, is thrust into the role of protector and leader, charged with the task of keeping the family together and its traditions alive. The film is more about Rose and Iris ‘s struggle to break their traditions than anything else.
We Are What We Are, starring Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner, Bill Sage, Michael Parks, and Kelly McGillis, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and screened at Cannes.
A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with director Jim Mickle to discuss the film, which is based on a Mexican film called Somos lo que hay. Mickle first came across the film in 2010 when it was making rounds on the festival circuit with Mickle’s short Stigma.
“Every time I would come to a screening…I would always ask people, ‘What did you see last night?’ They would say they liked this Mexican cannibal movie, it’s so cool – you gotta see it. I kind of loved the idea and I kept reading about it and hearing about it. By the time I saw it, I had a clear idea of what the movie probably was…And then I actually saw it, it was actually not what I had thought it was gonna be. I still really like[d] it, but it’s not what I had thought it was gonna be. It was cool — by the time they said, ‘Would you be interested in doing this?’ it felt like this whole other movie…So that’s what we tried to do — turn it upside down.”
Jorge Michel Grau’s original is set in a slum of Mexico City, and focuses on poverty and the plight of the sons of the family. At first, making a remake seemed like a bad idea to Mickle. Familiar with common Hollywood remakes for foreign films, he commented that he wanted to avoid simply making a dumbed-down copy of the original. “Having done two original movies before then and feeling like they succeeded because they were original and we put our personal stamp on it…I think the original felt very much like a movie that I wished that I had made. So I could sort of look at it as an admirer instead of looking at it and being like, I don’t really get this. I could look at it and say I really appreciate what this is doing. And I really think the things that he’s talking about are things I feel strongly about…I think there’s a way we can make a film that isn’t at all trying to replace the previous film but trying to find a new angle…”
When Mickle did decided to remake Somos lo que hay, he knew he and writing partner Nick Damici would have to make it their own and relevant to an American audience.
“The big thing is finding where it is gonna take place. I grew up in Pottstown not far from here and kept thinking like, maybe we set it in Philadelphia…But eventually, we just said…I have a place in upstate New York in the Catskills and I spend all my time there. In reality, we got hit by a really big storm. Hurricane Irene came through and wiped out this little town and we wanted to work it into the movie somehow… we set it in upstate New York, we use[d] the real flood, the real hurricane, as a backdrop for the story. And instead of focusing on…what this kind of burden does for the boys, lets see what it does for the girls of the family. And that, I think it opened up a lot more to say about religion and faith…”
The location wasn’t the only part of the film that sunk perfectly into place. The actors also melded seamlessly with their characters, exuding all the unease, psychosis, and tenacity of the people they played. I asked Mickle how he assembled such a perfect cast:
“I liked Julia Garner, the younger sister… I’d seen in Martha Marcy May Marlene and she’s amazing in that. She did another film called Electric Children, which she’s also amazing in. And so I’d seen her a couple of times be really good in roles that were similar to this, and almost was a little afraid ‘cause she’s done that type of role before but she’s so damn good at it that we cast her.
Ambyr was just audition tapes that we saw and were blown away by. And then in talking to her, she’d grown up in a Mormon household and had this…back story that really connected with the character. There were some really interesting overlaps there.
And then Bill Sage is an actor that I just love. It’s funny, he was in a film called Simple Men in ’92 or ’93 and that was one of the first independent movies I saw and fell in love with this movie…And then [we were] just fans of the other guys…[like] Michael Parks- I just loved his work, and sent him a fan boy letter…‘Will you please do this movie?’…And Kelly McGillis, we had worked with in Stake Land… She is a very fun-loving person. We felt bad that in Stake Land, we made her play this abused nun. We wanted to be able to give her a more fun character to play.”
All of these pieces – the cast, location, and outstanding writing and direction – make We Are What We Are an amazing film. Though not for the faint of heart or stomach, the experience is truly unlike anything you would expect. Nonetheless, I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
We Are What We Are is now playing at the Ritz at the Bourse.
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