There’s something to be said for place names. Take the city of Anaconda in southwestern Montana, a real-world EPA Superfund site with a population of just over 9,000. “It’s a small town,” growls widowed father Hank Peck (Dale) at his 18-year-old daughter Mickey (Morrone, of Augustine Frizzell's Never Goin’ Back), “everyone knows everything that happens here.” And similar to that South American serpent, Hank and Mickey’s lives are caught in the constrictive clutch of bad, black fate. Hank’s a hulking, broken Iraq war veteran suffering, in equal, awful order, from PTSD, alcoholism, and a major dependence on the OxyContin he regularly receives from the VA. Mickey is his caregiver and near-constant companion. (Although it’s never expressly mentioned, apparently her mother died young, of cancer, another victim of the toxic legacy of the copper mining and smelting that had been Anaconda’s lifeblood since the late 1800s.) Like her father, Mickey’s both tender and headstrong, determined to look after her father even as he rages when circumstances cause his Oxy supply to run out and he passes out in bed surrounded by loaded sidearms. “You shoulda seen me in the second battle of Fallujah,” he swagger-brags at one semi-lucid point.
That boast is aimed at Mickey’s boyfriend Aron (Rosenfield), a jocky, domineering ne’er-do-well who comes across as Hank minus 20 years. Into this already volatile situation arrives the new kid in town, Wyatt (Demba), a soccer-playing English import whose mother grew up in Anaconda but who plans on leaving the town for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as soon as he graduates from Anaconda High. A direct counterpoint to the rough-and-tumble Aron, whose plans for the future are to marry Mickey and get her pregnant lickety-split, Wyatt is a studied, sweet kid who composes mellifluous piano arrangements when he’s not out on the pitch. Mickey’s naturally, romantically drawn to him, emboldened by his charismatic ambition and her own longing to shake the depressed and depressing Anacondan dust off of her life and enroll in college in San Diego. But the anxious issue of what to do about her father and their increasingly fractious life together has thus far kept her tethered to this, the only home she’s ever known.
This is writer/director Attanasio’s first feature film – she’s better known, for the moment at least, as Cable McCrory, the IT prodigy on the CBS drama Bull – and it’s a striking debut, filled with confidently nuanced performances across the board. Whereas other first-time filmmakers might have used a sledgehammer to drive home Mickey and the Bear’s borderline unmanageable familial circumstances, Attanasio instead goes for a lighter but no less harrowing touch, often focusing on Mickey’s preternaturally expressive face and body language. Morrone is superb in the part, exuding a sort of saintly solitude while caught up in the midst of turmoil from within and without. Even at its most dire, Mickey and the Bear is tinged with an almost holy hope for all involved, a rare and remarkable feat to pull off so well for a first-time director indeed.
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