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by Jay Seaver

"Intriguing topic that never quite gets into focus."
3 stars

"Farming" is clearly a labor of love for filmmaker Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje - he's previous made it as a short and his name is all over the end credits - and you can see that he's got the ambition and drive to make a great film on a subject that is very important to him. Unfortunately, the story he uses to explore the broader subject may be a bit too much for an actor directing his first feature - between the sheer amount of what's going on and the main character who has difficulty communicating, the film never quite gets across everything that Akinnouye-Agabje wants to say.

The title comes from the practice where immigrants to the United Kingdom would place their children with white, working-class foster parents while they worked and studied (presumably in close quarters inhospitable to children). Enitan Bada was placed with Ingrid Carpenter (Kate Beckinsale) in 1967, when he was just six weeks old. By 1975, Enitan had half a dozen "siblings", and if he was a withdrawn, unusual child in the Carpenter household, he was utterly unprepared to return to Nigeria with his parents. He is sent back to Tilbury, and eight years later Enitan (Damson Idris) has so internalized the racism to which he's been subjected that he starts running with a group of skinheads, though leader Levi (John Dagleish) treats him more like a pet than a compatriot.

That "Eni" would wind up running with skinheads certainly seems like a great, powerful hook for the film - a similar story was Oscar-nominated in the Best Documentary Short category earlier this year - and Akinnouye-Agbaje plays that part of the film as raw as he can. He never lets the skinheads seem like people who ironically understand what it's like to be marginalized and ostracized in the same way that Eni does; they're monsters through and through, sometimes presented like zombies in the menacing way they surround their victims or how broken faces don't much faze them. Levi isn't charismatic in a way that is likely to attract the audience, but brutal enough to cow Eni, whom he regards the same way as his pet snake. John Dagleish captures that ridiculous and threatening sneer, and Damson Idris does a fine job of both showing Enitan imitating it and showing incoherent devastation as he is continually and inevitably rejected.

Unfortunately, Idris doesn't get to do a lot more than that; the audience is told that Enitan is good at his tests in school, which can mean a lot of things, and he's shown sketching a few times, but he's given little identity beyond the black skinhead. The intensity of his self-loathing is impressive, and though on principle you shouldn't need something specific to show how such a situation is tragic, Akinnouye-Agabje doesn't give the audience much more than his suffering. There are signs throughout the film that Entian has a rich and complicated internal life, from the imaginary friends he never outgrows to the extremely mixed messages he gets from both birth and foster parents to a possible learning disability, but that's given very little time in the foreground. Heck, there's a montage at the end of the movie, of Enitan having to study law in a special school despite his brain seemingly being wired in other ways, that I wouldn't mind seeing popped out and expanded into its own film.

One wouldn't necessarily want to see the same done for Kate Beckinsale's Ingrid - she's abrasive enough that a little of her can go a long way, especially playing off similar working-class gypsy friends - but she's a terrific supporting character, a casually-racist grifter who nevertheless becomes fond of her charges, with brief scenes muddying the waters over whether she can't have children of her own or can't bring herself to after having to settle for less than her one true love. She's really not up to the challenge of a kid like Enitan at any age, and because of her place in the story, she's allowed to not handle it well. Beckinsale is great in the part; Ingrid may be tricky to figure out in full but she's never just what the film needs at that moment. Gugu Mbatha-Raw doesn't get quite as much good material as Constance Dapo, the teacher who sees more in Enitan; she makes the audience believe in her kindness and empathy, but also feels like the person most likely to be a composite of multiple real people. She's better than fine, at least.

Akinnuoye-Agbaje, like many actors-turned-directors, is generous with his cast, and they do as well as they can with the material. As a writer and director, he often seems cognizant of the big moments and ideas but not the material that ties them together. That intriguing montage toward the end is an example; he knows that this is both a part of the true story what the audience wants and needs, but can't quite make it feel like it flows from the rest of Eni's life naturally. That said, he's not just recreating scenes; he's got an eye for how nobody understanding or properly handling Eni has left actual marks upon him, and cuts away from violent confrontations to keep the audience from feeling catharsis or relief from them ending with a victor - the viewer may look away from violence, but it doesn't actually end itself.

It's a frustrating thing that the movie does right, amid a fair number of frustrating things that probably should have been done differently. The things that work at least make "Farming" more interesting than a lot of actors' pet projects, even if Akinnuoye-Agbaje could certainly have done more with the general idea and the specific story.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33404&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/31/19 13:06:23
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