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The Weight of History

Ben Barnes and Jessica Biel in Easy Virtue

A few years ago, film historian David Thomson wrote of the Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, “A masterpiece from Egoyan would come as no surprise.” It’s not difficult to imagine that Egoyan sometimes feels that way himself. There’s a thick pall of seriousness that hangs over many of the scenes in his films, and a feeling of important purposes at work. They’re discernible in his latest, Adoration.

The writer-director has fashioned what’s intended as an examination of the post-9/11 North American social climate, as depicted through the frame of one Canadian youth’s conflicted and tragic personal and family history. Simon (Devon Bostick) is a high school student who has a mind-altering experience during an exercise in French class as his teacher (Arsinée Khanjian, Egoyan’s wife) dictates an English-language article about a Jordanian jihadist who put his unsuspecting pregnant girlfriend on an airliner after secreting a bomb in her luggage. Simon is suddenly inspired to rewrite this story, turning the couple into his parents and offering lurid literary estimations of his “father’s” vile, pathological motivations. Rather than being disturbed by his odd response, the teacher encourages him and even has him read it to the class.

The shocked, contentious reactions of his classmates quickly spread through the internet and Simon is fielding and virtually hosting online discussions and arguments by the sympathetic, the angry and the politically deluded. Conveniently, his parents died years ago in an auto accident and he’s under the care of his mother’s brother (Scott Speedman). Things get weirder when his teacher begins making contact with this unsuspecting relative for initially undisclosed, possibly very questionable purposes.

Egoyan is dealing with a couple of themes he’s long ruminated over onscreen: the enhanced technological potential for both communication and embittering alienation, and the aftermaths of wrenching change and disaster. But Adoration too much resembles an awkward assembly of these and other ideas, with too little vitality or sense of human insight. The film’s situations come off as contrived; they’re played out in a flattened, often affectless tone, as if Egoyan was afraid to be crudely emotional. Dialogue is frequently stilted, or clumsily florid.

Implicit through much of Adoration are the consequences of something like the argument of conservative scholar Samuel Huntington that the West and Islam are engaged in an inevitable “clash of civilizations.” Egoyan wants to repudiate this stance, but his film’s narrative isn’t carefully enough worked out. There are too many undeveloped and inconsistent elements, even in the basic storytelling. For instance, while Simon’s “confession” electrifies people all over the net and causes serious problems at his school, no news media seem to pick up his story, and his uncle remains oblivious to what’s happening. Nor is it quite clear if Simon ever fails to distinguish his fabricated persona from his life.

The boy does have an actual backstory that has made both him and his uncle walking wounded, and that might help make a bright adolescent spin a kind of narcissistic fantastication, but Egoyan doesn’t really pursue this idea until near the end of the film, which is uncharacteristically generous and hopeful.

Some of the material in Adoration held promise but it isn’t developed coherently and compellingly. The film is at once too schematic and half-baked.

Watch the trailer for Adoration

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