Berlinale Review: Hallam Foe
Had Hallam Foe played the Sundance festival, it probably would have been one of the more buzzed-about films; its edgy, teenage angst quirkiness doesn’t quite seem like it belongs in competition here in Berlin. However, that has not stopped it from pleasing a crowd desperate for a bit more entertainment — a bit more flavor — as the festival entered its final days. Following his full-of-life performance in Billy Elliot, Jamie Bell has subsequently gone on to become a warped festival actor — the kind of guy you get to play “fed up with his dysfunctional neighborhood” (The Chumscrubber) or, in this case, “cross-dressing teen obsessed with his dead mother.”
Young Hallam doesn’t have many talents; following the suicide of his mother, he spends most of his time camped out in a treehouse built high off the ground on the edges of his father’s massive estate. There, he’s created a bit of a shrine to mom; collecting her old clothes, pictures, make-up and whatever other memorabilia he could find in an attempt to keep her memory alive. It would appear Hallam only has one hobby: to occasionally smear his mother’s old lipstick across his body and spy on those closest to him (including the neighbors) with his binoculars. He’ll then frantically scribble his observations down in a diary; his only outlet for emotion.
There’s been a hatred brewing inside Hallam ever since his rich, architect father re-married his old secretary shortly after his mother’s death. Both Hallam and his older sister never took to their new stepmom, but Hallam has gone above and beyond normal behavior; he’s convinced the new mom killed the old mom so that she could be queen of the castle, so to speak. Things become even worse for Hallam when dad and stepmom insist the boy follow his sister and leave home — to get some work experience in before University — and learn what it’s like to be out on your own. But Hallam is content with his treehouse, his privacy and his hobby as a peeping tom. That is, until stepmom discovers his diaries, learns about Hallam’s secret spying and — in a bizarre send off — has sex with Hallam in his treehouse as a way of making peace with the teenager … and, I imagine, fulfilling her own deep, perverted fantasies.
Once off in the big city, Hallam disconnects from his family, literally (by ripping the chip from his cell phone and throwing it out the window of a train), and decides to start from scratch. When he spots a young woman, Kate (Sophia Myles), who bares a striking resemblance to his deceased mother, Hallam follows her — to her apartment, to the bar and to her work at a nearby hotel — where he stumbles in and asks for a job. It’s not about the money or the growth experience; Hallam simply wants to be as close as possible to this woman at all times. First, he finds a way into her apartment by picking the lock (his one other hobby), then onto her roof and, then, calculates an exact spot on the roof of the hotel where he can safely set up shop and spy on her with his binoculars. Eventually, the two bond over birthday drinks when Hallam turns 18, and following the drunken festivities, Hallam somehow winds up back at her place. He confesses to her the whole “dead mom thing,” but she kind of likes it; going so far as to dress up in mom’s old clothes for Hallam. Thus begins an on-again, off-again relationship between the two; one destined for failure when its foundation is built on, “Hey, you kind of look like my dead mom. Be my girlfriend!” Sure, it’s disturbing — but does it go anywhere?
That’s the main problem with Hallam Foe; as warped and edgy as the plot is, things never seem to dig below the surface. As straight-laced as Kate is, what is it about Hallam that turns her on? What’s in her past, what are her darkest secrets? Why should we have to just accept that this is how things are, without a better explanation? Obviously Hallam spies on the world around him because he’s lost touch with what it’s like to be a normal kid, but that’s never explored to its fullest potential. Instead, it’s how can we shock the audience? Sex with the stepmom? Great idea! Um, but why? Director David Mackenzie never truly delves deep inside his characters; he shows us what’s on the outside and hopes that’s good enough. And, just like the hip, pop soundtrack that follows Hallam’s every move, it’s all window treatment — interesting to look out with no real idea of how it works or what makes it tick.