Directed by Carlos Puga
Screenplay by Carlos Puga
Christopher Abbott, Kelly AuCoin, Dan Bittner
How long is Burma? 82 minutes.
What is Burma rated? Film has not yet been rated.
A rare family drama that captures real language and emotion.
One of the most prevalent genre films in cinema is the family drama. These films focus on characters who are in one another’s lives not by choice, but because they had the (mis)fortune of being born into their circumstances. We watch as the characters try – or fail – to make connections, mend broken relationships or find acceptance. Burma, written and directed by first-time filmmaker Carlos Puga, stands out from amongst its peers like a homing beacon in a sea of white noise. While using the basic construct of this well-worn journey, Burma injects a sense of truth and honesty that is rare in this type of film.
In many ways, Christian (Christopher Abbott) is the spiritual descendant of the protagonist in Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City. He uses drugs as both an escape from and excuse for his problems; his sense of responsibility is virtually nil; and his self-worth is measured only by his success in comparison to others, especially his younger brother, Win (Dan Bittner). Christian is a writer who has yet to write anything of substance. He spends his time partying with girls much younger than him and snorting cocaine to escape the pressures he inflicts on himself. Win, on the other hand, is trying to downplay that he has just won a prestigious award for the children’s book he wrote because he fears it will crush Christian.
Christian, Win and their older sister, Susan (Gaby Hoffman), have been alone most of their adult lives. Their father, Dr. Lynn (Christopher McCann), abandoned his children while their mother was slowly and painfully dying of cancer. The three have come to rely only on each other, though their relationships are strained to say the least. Their one familial tradition, however, is to come together once a year at Susan’s house to trade presents and remember their mother.
On the eve of this year’s pilgrimage, Christian is stunned to find their father appear on his doorstep after being absent for nearly a decade. Dr. Lynn, with his unkempt beard and demeanor, begs Christian to take him along for the weekend so that he can explain to all three of them why he disappeared. Christian reluctantly acquiesces only to see his trip become more surreal when he finds out Susan invited his ex-girlfriend, Kate (Emily Fleischer), to the family gathering. En route to Susan’s house, Christian tries to wrap his head around what is happening and how he is going to explain their dad’s presence to his older sister.
Puga has written a beautifully emotional story that is elevated by the fantastic actors who inhabit the world of the film. Burma has its world premiere at South By Southwest this year and went on to win the Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast; this accolade is well-deserved. Puga has selected actors that neither underplay their roles nor try to outshine their co-stars. Abbott – who is best known from HBO’s Girls but gave an equally impressive performance in last year’s indie Hello, I Must Be Going – is especially good, playing Christian as a self-centered manchild who uses his father’s abandonment as a crutch for his own misdeeds.
As Dr. Lynn, McCann is superb. With a background in theatre one might expect his on-screen performance to be too grandiose, but this is not true. Dr. Lynn is a flawed and conflicted human being and his only wish is to justify to his children why he would do such a cruel and unforgivable thing. Dr. Lynn’s backstory and explanation is both heartbreaking and heartwarming, demonstrating Puga’s talent as a writer who understands the complexities of life and love.
As a director, Puga stays out of the way. His previous work includes episodes of the MTV series True Life which explains his hands-off, documentary style approach to his script and actors. Using mostly natural light, Burma has a very organic and natural feel that works to keep the story and the characters front and center. Hoffman and Abbott have several intense exchanges that reveal as much about their current relationship as they do about their sibling rivalry growing up. This would be less engrossing had Puga staged the scenes more cinematically and with greater flourishes.
Puga’s other great success is the choice of music that flows through the film. The original music by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans fits perfectly with the film’s overall tone. At times the music is light and unobtrusive, like during the mini-road movie interlude on the way to Susan’s home. Other times, it is more frenetic and strained as Christian and his siblings wrestle with the reappearance of the man who brought so much misery into their lives.
Engaging and emotional, Burma is the type of film that reminds us there are truly gifted filmmakers who still desire to tell unique and original stories. Puga demonstrates his skills as both a writer and director, while at the same time proving his ability to perfectly cast his characters. Few filmmakers working today can say the same.