Telling a good story is key to a good movie. It’s obvious. However, when a good story is paired with good storytelling, then you have something special on your hands — especially when it’s designed to keep an audience engaged, entertained, and subvert expectations. Let’s be honest, most movies are pretty conventional, but a good filmmaker delivers those conventions in a new and unexpected way.
Written and directed by Australian Keir O’Donnell, in his feature film debut, Marmalade is a clever movie that features small town life in the south, a bat-out-of-hell love affair, and a smash-and-grab bank heist. The film follows Baron, played by Joe Keery (Stranger Things, Free Guy), a simple down-on-his-life sad sack, who only lives and works to take care of his dying mother.
But, when the southern-fried pink-haired Marmalade, played by Camila Morrone (Daisy Jones & the Six, Mickey and the Bear) drives into to turn, she, literally, turns his life upside down, while she wants more — namely money. Lots of money.
The film is told after the bank heist as a series of flashbacks, while Baron sits in prison with hopes of escape to reunite with his precious Marmalade. In the meantime, his prison bunkmate Otis, played by Aldis Hodge (Black Adam, Straight Out of Compton) devises a plan to break the both of them out of the joint.
Marmalade has flourishes of cinematic style with a dynamic camera and sharp editing, while its storytelling technique is smart and bright with a specific clarity in writing and structure. These elements are punctuated with keen acting from the film’s main cast of Keery, Morrone, and Hodge. They all have a certain level of pathos and gumption in their performances, most overall Kerry, who seems to be channeling Nicolas Cage during the early half of his career in movies, like in Raising Arizona and Con Air.
One of the most impressive things about Marmalade is Marmalade herself. The character is written in a certain way that is reminiscent of other “manic pixie dream girls” — a term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin — like Natalie Portman’s character Sam in Garden State, Zooey Deschanel’s character Summer in 100 Days of Summer, Kirsten Dunst’s character Claire in Elizabethtown, and others.
Simply put, the character Marmalade is designed to be desirable and a bit off, but only written to kick start the life of the humdrum lead Baron. But with the direction of the film overall, the character is a clever subversion of archetypes and a perceptive way to keep an audience engaged. It’s like Keir O’Donnell pulled a good magic trick with the conventions of modern day movies.
While Marmalade is an impressive debut feature, it has some low points and missteps, as well, like there’s no real antagonist, or driving force. There’s some innuendo and hints that point to larger character motivations, but that’s something to glean afterwards or during repeat viewings. It would’ve been more involved, if those elements were clearer throughout.
However, the overall filmmaking and performances in Marmalade paper-over those gaffes for this viewer, while there’s more to recommend than not with this movie. O’Donnell took something that could’ve been sour and bitter, but turned it into something sweet.
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