On the night of her 18th birthday, Mickey Peck (Camila Morrone) and her PTSD-addled dad (James Badge Dale as Henry Peck) take a rare trip out of their trailer for a celebratory bite at a local diner. Things start off well enough, but then Mickey makes the mistake of casually mentioning her late mother. Like many drug addicts, Henry is too focused on what he needs right now to handle any talk about the past; perversely, however, he’s as sober-minded as it gets when it comes to the future. “The truth is that one day you’re going to forget about me,” he says to his daughter as she eats a cheap burger with a plastic tiara on her head. “That’s the way it is.” And he might be right. In fact, the most charitable moments of Annabelle Attanasio’s small but deeply felt “Mickey and the Bear” make that prediction seem like a prophecy that Henry is eager to fulfill — like something that he wants to come true for Mickey as soon as possible.
Attanasio’s debut might initially feel like a million other modern American indies (it premiered at SXSW earlier this year), but the film soon matures into a tender coming-of-age drama that sidesteps the usual genre tropes on its way towards exploring some questions that we never grow out of asking ourselves. Questions like “how much of our lives do we owe other people?” and “at what point do you have to give up on someone you love?”
There aren’t really any clear answers at the end of the road, but “Mickey and the Bear” is often moving for how sensitively it affirms the need to look for them anyway.
Attanasio, who some TV viewers with good memories and excellent taste might remember as an actress from her role on season two of “The Knick,” sets the scene with natural efficiency. It only takes a few expressive shots to appreciate the fabric of her characters’ lives. It’s never a good morning when Mickey is awakened by the light coming in through the ceiling window, and not the sounds of her dad playing video games or demanding his breakfast. And it only gets worse when the sheriff rolls up to her front door, and invites her into the squad car by name. At the station, she finds her dad regaling the cops with a joke or a funny war story, and they promise to let him go, so long as Mickey drives home — she tosses him the keys as soon as they’re out of sight.
That’s all it takes to understand the bond that exists between these two stranded people in Anaconda, Montana, which is a small place that’s as big as the world might ever get for them. Mickey — who Morrone embodies with the vulnerability and raw ambivalence of a real teenager — genuinely loves her dad, and feels a natural obligation to take care of (read: mother) Hank, but she can’t shake the feeling that everything good about her life so far exists in spite of him. When she catches her dad between one of his Oxy binges and insists that she’s not going anywhere, her words sound as much like a promise as they do a surrender.
Attanasio’s well-composed but naturalistic direction never belabors the point, and yet the writing in every scene helps cement the impression that Mickey is always cornered in one way or another. Her douchebag local boyfriend (Ben Rosenfield) is basically the most eligible bachelor in town, and his favorite topic of conversation is their future life together. Mickey’s only friend is three months pregnant, and already locked into the next generation of Anacondan purgatory. Also — and this is underplayed just enough not to rankle — she works at a taxidermy store that houses the titular bear. Even the animals in this town are stuck in place. Mickey has too much potential for the movie around her to fall into miserablism, but it’s telling that one of the most hopeful scenes is the typically expressive little moment when she turns 18 and buys a scratch-off lottery ticket.
“Mickey and the Bear” only accomplishes so much in its modest 82 minutes (like most films of its kind, it builds to nothing more than a nudge in the right direction), but Attanasio makes you believe in the reality of these characters and the place that binds them together. An intriguing new love interest (Calvin Demba) threatens to tip things into “Gilmore Girls” territory, but Attanasio defuses the situation in a way that makes the whole film hit that much harder. And while Hank is a character who could easily lapse into histrionics, Dale’s volatile performance locks him into the liminal space between a victim and a monster, and Attanasio’s camera frames in moments of simple beauty (like the scene where he and Mickey slow dance in an empty bar). So much of the movie’s tension is mined from a genuine uncertainty over whether or not Mickey should leave, and it’s only in the last scenes that Attanasio overplays her hand. It’s not that the ending isn’t plausible, but just that it too clearly points the way forward for a character who may spend the rest of her life wondering if she went in the right direction. But if “Mickey and the Bear” is most effective as a calling card (for both its young director and its even younger star), it never loses sight of the idea that giving up on someone can be the only way to avoid giving up on yourself.
“Mickey and the Bear” is now playing in theaters via Utopia.