Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Tribeca ’19: The Place of No Words

It is not exactly the case of a buried lede, but the Jim Henson Company’s creature design work for this labor-of-love family drama is definitely a hook that could pull in considerably more viewers. Indeed, who better to realize the fantastical beasts that inhabit a young child’s imagination? Unfortunately, Bodhi, the little lad with the Lord Fauntleroy coif, will have to face up to the very adult reality of his father’s impending mortality in Mark Webber’s The Place of No Words, which screens during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

Bodhi can be difficult, probably because he is often not totally present. He has a rich fantasy life, wherein his father is a knight, who protects the boy during their wanderings through a Seventh Sign-like fantasyscape. The father knows his time is short, but he has difficulty broaching the subject, partly out of a desire to enjoy the moment and partly due to the fear Bodhi simply will not understand.

No Words is achingly well-intentioned, but it also shuns fake sentimentality like the plague. Essentially, it is a “feel-good” movie without the expected weepy catharsis. However, the Henson Company’s creatures, particularly the beaked Frick-and-Frack duo, really bear the studio’s signature look.

They are cool, but Henson fans should still understand the fantasy realm of No Words is not like the lush worlds of Dark Crystal or Labyrinth. Instead, Bodhi’s imaginings mostly take place in a rocky, wind-slept environment, aside from the occasional fart swamps. This is some distinctive filmmaking, but there is surprisingly little genuine playfulness. That is a bit odd for a film so dedicated to a child’s perspective. That also makes it an exhausting cumulative viewing experience.

As the father, Mark Webber looks like he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders and also has it pressing down on his chest. It is a rigorously stripped-down, painfully earnest performance. Likewise, his son Bodhi Palmer is totally unaffected and utterly natural as his namesake, but there is an ambiguousness to his screen presence that raises questions that are never addressed. Theresa Palmer’s mother character is not as sharply written, but she earns the audience’s respect by literally fighting for screen time and attention during the third act.

It is important to bear in mind No Words is not a sappy tearjerker. It is an emotional ride, but Webber scrupulously eschews cheap manipulation. On the other hand, calling it a fantasy rather overstates matters, so calibrate your expectations carefully. Recommended for fans of Oliver Sacks and the Henson Studio, The Place of No Words screens again this afternoon (4/30) and Saturday (5/4), as part of this year’s Tribeca.