"Art is a demon that drags you along," says 80-year-old visionary painter Ushio Shinohara in first-time director Zachary Heinzerling's delicate portrait "Cutie and the Boxer," but neither Shinohara nor his supportive wife and fellow artist Noriko are looking for a cure. Heinzerling's beautifully shot, painfully intimate look at the aging couple's struggle to survive amid personal and financial strain is both heartbreaking and intricately profound. This is a story about creative desire so strong it hurts.
Heinzerling has chosen the right subject to make that point. Shinohara, a resident of New York's fine art scene since the late sixties, primarily indulges in a practice known as "box painting," an aggressive technique that finds him hurtling paint-covered gloves across a massive canvas, churning out loud, stream-of-conscious abstractions in under three minutes. Heinzerling first shows us this phenomenal practice in an early long take that establishes the movie's engrossing style. The filmmaker brings this world to life with a mixture of realism and vivid imagery. Set to Yasuaki Shimizu's smooth jazz compositions, animations based off Noriko's drawings and subtle camerawork that explores the crevices of Shinohara and Noriko's lives, "Cutie and the Boxer" uses each frame in expressive ways on par with its subjects' work.
Beyond providing an overview of the under-appreciated Shinohara's career, Heinzerling explores the octogenarian artist's ongoing attempts to remain in the game against increasingly difficult odds. From the couple's cramped apartment in Lower Manhattan, he scrambles for new cash flow opportunities in an increasingly challenging marketplace. A seemingly promising visit from a Guggenheim museum rep leads nowhere, while Shinohara's trip abroad to sell his work yields a few measly hundred-dollar bills. In both cases he faces his partner's wrath: Noriko, a cartoonist whose talents linger in her husband's shadow, fell in love with Shinohara in her teens and weathered many family storms since then. She goads her husband onward while berating him for his waning motivation.
Avoiding a precise beginning, middle and end, "Cutie and the Boxer" instead adopts a collage-like approach. Edited to accentuate the rhythms of the family's daily existence, the movie rests on small moments, from Noriko bathing their cat to Shinohara lugging a suitcase full of artwork to the subway. Elsewhere, the very process of artistic creation comes alive with a cross-cutting strategy that shifts from close-ups of brushstrokes to Shinohara's emotionally involved reactions.
"Cutie and the Boxer" is as much about its participants as their work. As a non-fiction love story about a couple whose bond transcends their impediments, it echoes last year's breakout documentary "Planet of Snail," about a blind artist and his eternally supportive partner. Whereas that movie was predominantly an uplifting experience, however, "Cutie and the Boxer" contains a darker streak. Through Noriko's autobiographical drawings, she wrestles with her recovering alcoholic husband's indulgences over the course of their 40-year marriage — and later bemoans the manifestation of those traits in their grown son, Alex, whose vices Shinohara fails to address.
Unlike Alex, however, Shinohara can't get away with his indolence under his wife's watch. Noriko provides a candid guide to uphill battles with her husband over the years. "I was just following him," she says of their early years, in contrast to her current assertiveness, which turns "Cutie and the Boxer" into a soft-spoken survival tale. "We are the ones suffering the most from art," Shinohara tearfully confesses during one of his darker moments. Without a neat conclusion, "Cutie and the Boxer" implies an optimistic future by showing how the struggle continues.
Criticwire grade: A
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Acclaimed at Sundance, where it premiered in the U.S. competition, "Cutie and the Boxer" is bound to continue a healthy life on the festival circuit, particularly at documentary-specific gatherings. Its theatrical prospects are dicey, but enough strong reviews could lead to solid returns during a very limited release.