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by Genevieve DeLaurier
February 18th, 2010


One of the finest fiction films we’ve ever shown at Rooftop is coming back to NYC on February 27–David Lowery’s St. Nick. The soft-spoken, thought-provoking director will be in town for the Q&A at the 92Y Tribeca. Rooftop fans can use the ticket code ADV to get $2 off the price.

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Here’s what Rooftop Artistic Director Mark Elijah Rosenberg wrote about the film when we screened it last summer:

David Lowery’s debut feature is a pre-teen Badlands, a lush and visceral young American drifter tragedy. Astonishing imagery, evocative soundscapes, heartbreakingly smart and subtle performances, and a story that reveals layer after layer of complexity form a masterpiece of introspection and exploration.

A brother and sister–they can’t be more than 10 years old–are living on their own. No explanation is ever given about what brought them to this lifestyle, and Rooftop alum David Lowery said he wanted to explore the “how” and “what” but wasn’t concerned with “why.” We know they once had a more sheltered life–the braces the boy painfully tries to remove belie a certain class status. Not explaining what happened is a brave choice to make in a film, in a culture that often wants the easy answers of a sensational backstory, a pat X caused Y morality. Instead, Lowery inspects the painful and shifting psychology of these kids, the landscape of their purgatory.

They find an empty, run-down house, and settle in. There’s no heat or running water, but they fix a stove so the smoke blows out the window, rig up a little kid’s favorite primitive defense mechanism, and make a secret bedroom with sheets strung from the walls like a canopy. It’s a sad and twisted fantasy home, a place they hope will not merely shelter them but save them, transform them. The most revealing metaphor from the house is the attic stairs, which when pulled down emit a horrifying howl, creating an ominous haunted quality to the space above them–the temporary physical roof and the tenuous idea of ascension and salvation. The detailed explorations of the house are crucial in the story because they mirror the kids’ attempt to build an armor of adulthood–attempts that fray and crack at the seams, revealing the vulnerable children inside.

“Why are you talking like that,” the girl asks. – “Like what?” – “Like you’re from Texas? – “I am from Texas.”

In these snippets of dialogue, the boy is trying on a subtle tough-guy front, but his sister innocently pierces it. In another scene, the girl gathers the bones of a tiny dog, reminded of their own former pet. She clings to the bones as a ghastly but quaint talisman of their former, sheltered domesticity, but her brother must try to keep her focused on their new reality, arguing with childish stubbornness that their old dog will have forgotten them by now.

And when a real adult shows up and kicks them out, the kids we’ve begun to see as mature–now with quivering lips and watery eyes, with shuffling “yessirs” and juvenile rock-throwing retaliation–they revert to their childhood status. The hopes they’ve built have been challenged; their bodies are weakened from the strain. You can’t say their dreams are dashed, because despite the dream-like quality of the film, these kids are too practical for much dreaming. Like all kids, they are trying on different incarnations of selfhood, and their long-term plans are still nascent. But unlike most kids, the harsh facts of their existence mean they can have only escape and survival as goals, and the daytime dreamlike quality of their lives–whale songs ringing from train yards, horses unnervingly coddling them–is not a comfort to retreat within, but a fog from which to wander forth.

Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children, but if he’s to be found in St. Nick, he’s probably the church thief who finds the kids, stares them down, and decides they’re not even worth his attention. The film, however, is worth everyone’s attention.

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About Rooftop Films

Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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