The Better Angels

B+ Historical drama

  • Written and directed by A.J. Edwards

About half way through A.J. Edwards’ gentle exploration of our 16th president (and my namesake), it occurred to me that a native-born American who hadn’t paid much attention in history class might not realize that the film was about Abraham Lincoln. Names are seldom spoken, and if the very young protagonist was ever called Abe, Abraham, or Lincoln, I missed it.

This is the story of Abe’s childhood in the backwoods of Kentucky and Indiana; and his relationship with his mother (Brit Marling), his father (Jason Clarke), and the stepmother who came into his life a little more than a year after his mother’s death (Diane Kruger). It was these two women who recognized something special in Abe and made sure he got an education–a rare luxury for that time and place.

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Edwards finds an unusual way to tell the story. There’s little dialog, and almost no exposition. The artful, widescreen, black-and-white cinematography makes heavy use of  a Steadicam and some very short lens. The resulting, heavy atmosphere produces a distancing effect, as if we’re watching an old memory.

And that, in fact, is what the film is meant to be. What little exposition there is comes from narration spoken in the character of Abe’s older cousin, Dennis, as an old man. Cameron Mitchell Williams plays the young Dennis; I don’t know who spoke the narration.

Braydon Denney, a talented child actor who looks remarkably like a young Abraham Lincoln, plays Abe as a boy torn between the backwards life that is all he’s ever known and a larger world that pulls his curiosity. He works hard in the fields, and enjoys roughhouse play with other kids. But he has a thirst that can’t be slaked by what’s in the woods. He reads whenever he can, and that’s limited by the hard, physical work and the few books available.

More than anyone else, his stepmother sees something special in Abe, and helps him get an education. His rough-hewn father doesn’t quite understand. He’s a strict disciplinarian, quick with a switch, without enough reading to understand the value of an education. But he loves Abe and the rest of his family, and he comes to accept what is happening.

At times the aforementioned cinematography (by Matthew J. Lloyd) gets in the way of the story. Several panning and tracking shots made the distortions caused by the short lens just plain annoying. But most of the time, the technique worked, creating the sense of a distant but very personal memory, centering on a poverty-stricken but very intelligent young boy. Who he will become is almost irrelevant.

The film opens Friday.