Life is not paint-by-numbers.
Okay, maybe it is for you. Maybe your life has played out like some kiddie college connect-the-dots childhood game. Maybe everything in your life has happened exactly the way everyone expected it to happen.
But, I doubt it.
Life doesn't work that way for most of us and I love it when a filmmaker has the balls to fuzzy up the picture.
The Coen Brothers are known for it. Tarantino plays with it. Spike Jonze gets downright warped. Jim Jarmusch is a master of experimentation. There are others, some Hollywood success stories and others constantly living out their cinematic lives on the fringes of Hollywood and more devoted to artistic integrity than multiplex mastery.
Apparently, writer/director Phillip Jordan Brooks should be added to the list.
Ruby and the Dragon is a hard film. Ruby and the Dragon is an honest film. Ruby and the Dragon is a brutal film and a beautiful film and the kind of film that you will talk about when it's over and, despite flinching hard as it winds down, you'll want to see it again.
You should see it again.
Ruby and the Dragon isn't a paint-by-numbers film, because there's nothing in the life of Ruby (Leah Catherine Thompson, Nobody But Her) that has ever been paint-by-numbers. Her life is so traumatic that you almost feel like you're watching Bastard Out of Carolina, though the real brutality of her life is more suggested than made manifest. Ruby lives in a world where survival is enough and survival, quite honestly, would be a miracle grounded in divine intervention. Ruby is living in a family that seems to have been founded within the abusive cycle and one that is now drowning in a sea of grief after the death of her mother. Her father (Brooks), a man whose very presence screams out abuser, has been left in a state of near catatonia with Ruby left to fend for herself and her younger sister.
The dragon of the film's title is a reference to a puppet Ruby has made to entertain herself and, perhaps more importantly, her younger sister.
Ruby lives in a world that most adults couldn't survive, a world that quickly becomes dominated by more questions than answers and the expected slew of do-gooders who do more harm than good.
Ruby? She wants hope. She wants family. She wants the picture in her mind that she can't seem to grasp.
Shooting the film in pristine black-and-white, D.P. Bryan Stafford has crafted unforgettable imagery that somehow manages to capture the innocence of childhood plastered smack dab in the middle of a world that is about as far from innocent as one can get. Wade Marshall's original music is a sublime addition to the entire mix and captures the stark humanity of the story that's unfolding and the universality of what it all really means.
What does it all really mean?
I'm guessing that if you ask a dozen people this simple question you'll likely get a dozen different answers because, as was previously noted, life isn't a paint-by-numbers experience.
As Ruby, 11-year-old Leah Catherine Thompson is nothing short of mesmerizing. Thompson, a relative newcomer to acting, achingly embodies the body and soul of a young girl who has been wounded beyond what wounded looks like to most of us and who is willing to take whatever measures needed to bring about some semblance of wholeness or healing or family or whatever it's supposed to be. Thompson gives a transcendent performance that should, if there's any sense of justice, have Hollywood knocking on her door because this child can act.
Man, she was so good I found myself mumbling to myself "I hope this is acting."
As her father, Brooks has the task of turning a character who could have easily been one note and making him play like an entire symphony.
Brooks is haunting and horrendous and a little bit scary. It's a complex performance wonderfully brought to life from beginning to end.
The film centers around these two leading players, though the film's supporting cast is quite strong and important even for those players who are essentially playing system caricatures and mindless do-gooders. They serve up exactly what we exact because that's the way it works in real life.
With a starkness that may unnerve a wider audience, Ruby and the Dragon is likely to be the kind of film that attracts both fierce devotees and detractors.
That's okay. Sometimes, that's how life works.
Ruby and the Dragon is getting its start on the film fest circuit and it's hard to picture it not having tremendous success among the indie and underground scene. Filmed in Louisiana, it premiered at the Louisiana Film Prize Festival and one can only hope it continues to find success along the way.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic