The Movie Waffler New to VOD - STEPHEN | The Movie Waffler


recovering addict from a deprived Liverpool estate attempts to realise his dream of becoming an actor.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Melanie Manchot

Starring: Stephen Giddings, Michelle Collins, Michael Starke, Kent Riley, Paislie Reid, Thomas Sweeney

Stephen poster

Couldn't have been more than five minutes ago I was scrolling Twitter and up came a post from @ScrtDrugAddict asking "Is life just switching addictions until we die?" Now, I don't follow the account - the tweet appeared on the "for you" feed -  but it turns out that perhaps there is something in the pernicious algorithms of the platform, as the plaintive rhetoric of the question certainly struck a chord with me - a person of, if not addiction, then certainly obsession. What is existence without mania? What is life without an abstract to devote it to? A void, I reckon. Although you do begin to worry, don't you, about the point where benignly doing something you like a lot curdles into a habit: a pursuit that is joyless but an intrinsic aspect of your being. The knife edge where perfecting the vodka martini becomes alcoholic dependency; when a relationship becomes toxic; of what happens a week after people begin smoking cigarettes. Or, accordingly, the most addictive pursuit of all: gambling.

Stephen review

It is easy to understand why gambling is so enthralling. So much going on with the buzz of the risk, the cruel hope, the sense that the odds can be overcome. There no such thing as a sure bet and so the rush is in the process. Unlike the repetitive impulse of drugs, the experience of gambling is always dangerously fresh and exciting, and even worse, tied into potential answers for the same dire situations which the addiction has caused. Drugs may be a release, but the big score can be a solution... (I'm saying all this having hardly ever gambled in my life and only then on Eurovision, but there is a disastrous history of it in my family, so I have thought about it a lot over the years if that counts). It is disingenuous that mainstream cinematic depictions of gambling are often constructed within glamourous contexts (Vegas, etc), with attendant iconography of poker tables, chips, big wodges of cash: the inherent risk of the process is a Todorovian structure within itself, too (I knocked Molly's Game on last night - where big game poker is a backdrop for Jess Chastain's Hollywood actualisation). A representation far removed from the lived experience, which is scarcely presented within narrative cinema.

Melanie Manchot and co-writer Leigh Campbell's fiercely original Stephen is however a profoundly intelligent, effective and challenging portrayal of gambling, along with the social ills inevitably associated with the addiction. The film eschews typical narrative structures, and instead affects a montage of historical footage, documentary style and re-enactment to retell the story of Stephen Giddings (the actor) as he auditions for the part of Thomas Goudie, the subject of the very first filmed crime reconstruction. A Brechtian rug is first pulled in the post title sequence wherein we painstakingly follow Stephen (a Merseyside Will Arnett) through the council estate where he lives to the local dive bar to watch him compulsively deposit coins into a fruit machine. After a set-to with another character, the camera turns to reveal a panel of filmmakers, who comment on his performance – "What you did earlier with the fruit machine was brilliant." The character-within-the-story becomes the character-of-actor-within-the-enveloping-narrative: a mimetic overture compounded by the filmmakers' use of amateur performers and real-life addicts.

Stephen review

Manchot is careful in her presentation of this sensitive material, never sensationalising her ersatz cast and instead creating a platform for these voices, including professional actors such as Thomas Sweeney (who also shares his experience of alcoholism within the filmed group sessions - when you're an alcoholic a bar is "like a Christmas tree"). The switches between documentary verisimilitude and constructed narrative are deliberately disorientating,  especially so as the sequences with Stephen as character are so emotively involving (I'm thinking of a horribly convincing fight over a fruit machine...). During Stephen we find ourselves dramatically gripped as Stephen slips further and further into hot water, yet also challenged by the otherwise objective portrayals and their purposeful lack of easy sentiment.

Stephen review

It is a heady mix, and one which thrills with its bravura creativity. An artist by profession, Manchot's film has the multi-media mien of an installation piece, where the meta lens is a cracked mirror, reflecting the complex and frustrating experiences of those at the hard end of addiction. At times there are certain flourishes that detract from its overall impact, such as cutaways to superfluous interpretive street dance, but beneath Stephen's shifting layers of fact and fiction beats a deeply compassionate heart.

Stephen is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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