Last night I decided to go to the movies for the simple reason that after a week of relentless breaking news stories about Donald Trump, two hours in a dark room with my phone turned off sounded like some kind of paradise. I decided to go to an opening night screening of Alien: Covenant. It was a pretty film, and Michael Fassbender turns in an excellent performance, but the movie was ultimately pretty bad — it was a horror movie that forgot to be scary, a philosophical movie that wasn't very smart to begin with, a space exploration movie with no joy to it.
I can absolutely recommend shutting your phone off for two hours, but I cannot recommend doing so for Alien: Covenant.
Luckily for us, SIFF starts tonight, offering plenty of opportunities to get away from the world and into hushed theaters. Today at 1:30 p.m. and Sunday at noon, the animated film Ethel & Ernest is playing at SIFF, and it just might be the perfect anecdote for a loud and dumb world.
Based on a comic book biography by Raymond Briggs (the British cartoonist behind The Snowman, who I wrote about last month), Ethel & Ernest is the story of Briggs's parents, from their first meeting to their deaths. Like the comic, the story is episodic, spanning decades encompassing World War II, the Korean War, and the moon launch. Through it all, Ethel and Ernest live their quiet middle-class lives, raising their son and worrying about society going all to hell because of the kids these days and marveling at technological progress like televisions and freeways.
The film begins with Briggs himself explaining why he wanted to tell the story of his parents, and then it cuts to an animated style that hews closely to Briggs's own illustration. Most notably, Ethel & Ernest features gorgeous backgrounds — what appears to be watercolor portraits of British urban life, with red brick rowhouses and beautiful emerald countrysides. Occasionally, the figure animation looks a tad awkward — sometimes, a movement will stutter, or a character will float in space in an unmoored fashion — but the excellent voice acting more than makes up for those flaws.
It should be clear that Ethel & Ernest is not a film for everyone. Just because it's an animated film does not mean it's for children — the film gets fairly dark — and just because it's a story of a long and relatively happy marriage doesn't mean it's a romantic comedy. Instead, it's a loving and honest portrait of a pair of decent people. Ethel and Ernest may have their prejudices and their failures to empathize with others outside their economic class, but they're always trying their best.
In a summer full of garish sequels that nobody asked for and comic book adaptations that are all starting to feel the same, Ethel & Ernest is a quiet, gently funny labor of love. It's just the thing to take your mind off whatever clownish news is blowing up your phone.