There’s a moment early on in “Mickey and the Bear” where you know you’re in the presence of a movie star, as much as Camila Morrone attempts to downplay it for the part of Michaela, a high school senior in Anaconda, Montana. It’s when you see Mickey flash a million watt smile at her locker, just after leaving a home where her father Hank (James Badge Dale) struggles with PTSD after two tours in Iraq, and just before her boyfriend Aaron (Ben Rosenfield) greets her with lingerie, hoping she’ll wear it later in the evening. With her day mapped out for her, it’s the blissful in-between where you can see such pure joy, and though she’ll smirk and grin throughout Annabelle Attanasio’s compelling first feature, the wait to see Mickey be as happy again creates enough tension to last the entire film, even putting the job of the poor soul tasked with getting her yearbook photo at risk.
Morrone’s fierce performance as Mickey would be enough to drive “Mickey and the Bear” somewhere interesting, but Attanasio adds on the intrigue as she goes about showing all the pressure Mickey faces from all directions and does so with grace. Working for the local taxidermist, she’s been keeping a roof over herself and her father, albeit a leaky one, since the death of her mother years earlier and not only shoulders the financial burden from her after school job, but tending to Hank’s night terrors and tracking the OxyContin that keeps him on an even keel. Still, Hank is wily and world-weary, prone to punching the side of his track and firing off live rounds at beer cans in the plains, and it’s Mickey who begins to unravel, eyeing higher education in San Diego when it’s clear a future that involves either her father or Aaron, who have become jealous of the attention she gives to the other, has become unpalatable.
As dire a situation as Mickey finds herself in, there’s a real vibrancy to “Mickey and the Bear” as a lively turn from Morrone is ideal to reflect the mix of tones Attanasio balances in the film as impressively as Mickey does the demands made of her. A wry, survivalist’s humor is always hanging around to cut the tension in the air, but making the most of a small-town setting where many of the buildings light up the night sky with neon signs from the 1930s and ‘40s as if time stands still, the film will capture the quiet desperation that could emanate from an Edward Hopper painting in one scene and engage in the raw intimacy of a Cassavetes film the next, with a versatile, eclectic score from Brian McOmber and Angel Deradoorian pulling it all together. But while there are evident influences, Attanasio shows off a distinctive voice all her own, unusually empathetic without sentimentality and cinematically bold without being pretentious, and although Mickey has some difficult choices ahead of her, the writer/director makes all the right ones in this heartrending debut.
“Mickey and the Bear” will screen at SXSW on March 10th at 2:30 pm at the Alamo Lamar D and March 14th at 5 pm at the Alamo Lamar E.