American cinema often struggles when it comes to writing women, gay people and Christians, as they either tend to be reduced to crass stereotypes or are defined by that single character trait. It’s most obvious with women, where they may be portrayed as kick-ass heroines with daddy-issues, bland love interests whose only characteristic is their passion for the leading man or screaming harridans hell-bent on making things difficult for our poor male hero. It’s a generalisation, of course, but one that can sometimes feel uncomfortably true. Gay people in cinema tend to just be the sassy best friend who offers advice to the aforementioned bland love interest. Poorly written Christian characters, however, may be a bit harder to notice if you are not Christian yourself, or don’t view it is as something particularly important. Yet terribly clichéd Christian stereotypes are everywhere on film, mostly as blinkered bigots or law-abiding bores. Discussing faith in films is often either reduced to moralising or is placed in the centre of a conflict to exacerbate, not help, the situation. Meet an actual church going Christian, however, and you’ll soon realise that they are just normal people, most of the time.
One of the principle enjoyments of This Is Martin Bonner, an acutely observed drama from sophomore director Chad Hartigan, is simply observing people discussing faith as part of general conversation and not a forced attempt at expressing ‘THEMES’ in capital letters. For the characters, faith is a part of life for believers and unbelievers alike, and the subject drifts in and out of conversation as naturally as discussions about their families or jobs. Some of the protagonists are the dedicated, smiling, beardy types, whereas others – most notably the title character – are wrestling with the place of God in their lives. This naturalistic, non-judgemental approach to faith is characteristic of a film that, on the whole, truly values people of any background.
Martin Bonner used to lead a church but now he works for a charity that helps rehabilitate ex-cons, largely because they were the only people who would hire him. The film follows him as he gets used to his new life and charts his friendship with one of the former offenders, Travis. The title, however, is slightly misleading, as the film is as much about Travis as it is about Martin. Their two journeys mirror one another: both are trying to reconnect with distant family members; both are searching for a kind of connection with the opposite sex; neither are sure where they want to go in life. Martin and Travis are played beautifully by Paul Eenhoorn and Richmond Arquette respectively; the former, softly spoken but clearly strong in character, the latter expressing an awkward bewilderment when faced with a world he’s not been connected with for twelve years.
What’s so impressive about Bonner, however, is that every single one of the supporting characters – even if they only appear for one or two scenes – feels like a real human being. From Sam Buchanan as Travis’ nervous estranged daughter to Robert Longstreet as the jovial charity mentor who probably plays acoustic guitar with a rainbow shoulder-strap, the world of Martin Bonner is one full of faces we that recognise from our own lives. The warmth and compassion for the whole cast of characters is what makes This Is Martin Bonner such a remarkable, refreshing piece of American cinema. Not to be missed by anyone who likes people.
This Is Martin Bonner is playing at Edinburgh International Film Festival on 30 June