Unfocused tonal changes from the Avengers: Endgame directors condemns this film
Blockbusters can prove to be a godsend for any director, getting abundant resources to work their vision, a healthy paycheck, and name recognition throughout the world. However, becoming too entrenched in big films can lead to a certain dilution and restraint; you have to create a mainstream product that doesn’t reward artistic experimentation. Thus, after completing the over $2 billion grosser Avengers: Endgame (2019), director brothers Joe and Anthony Russo have decided to follow it up with a midbudget drama for Apple.
Cherry (2021) is the semi-autobiographical film of Nico Walker, who wrote the book on which the film is based. In the film we follow a nameless protagonist (Tom Holland) only mentioned as Cherry in the closing credits. We see him at university in 2002, as he falls for a classmate Emily (Ciara Bravo). However, Cherry joins up with the US Army in an emotional decision and is sent and scarred in his time in Iraq. Coming back to the US in 2005 he suffers from the great trauma that he underwent overseas, and finds that medicating himself, first with prescription drugs and later with harder substances, is his only way to cope.
Cherry is one of the first reflections on screen of the opioid epidemic currently underway in the United States. This decades-in-the-making crisis has seen big pharmaceutical companies push forward their highly addictive drugs hooking customers to the point of them bankrupting themselves and resorting to crime to keep themselves medicated. Fines and sentences have already been passed to some pharmaceutical makers (the most famous being Purdue Pharma), but the tragedy of many lives affected remains. Cherry seems to be intent on telling the tragic story of how a specific set of circumstances roped in a young generation of middle-class Americans and has made them lose their entire youths, promise, and in some cases lives.
Cherry seems to be a film that is trying to dispel perceptions around the artists making it. Joe and Anthony Russo have been pegged throughout their career as filmmakers specializing in comedy, coming from the TV comedy scene (Arrested Development (2003-2019), Community (2009-2015)), and shifting into Marvel’s wise-cracking action. In Cherry, the dark subject matter seems to be ripe for the filmmakers to make a statement regarding their versatility. The same can be said for Disney Channel star Ciara Bravo, and Marvel superhero Tom Holland. Both directors and actors do well to dig into the gritty subject and definitely demonstrate range in their capabilities.
Cherry is essentially Tom Holland’s film to carry. He does a spectacular job at digging into a vulnerable and emotionally delicate place with his character. As his addiction gets a tighter grip of him, you see a sense of frustration in Holland’s eyes, as he internally recognizes the dangerous path he is embarking upon. Bravo was also impressive, especially coming of the glitzy wooden projects she was in on Disney Channel. Bravo definitely pushes to her limits in trying to get viewers to see her as a capable actress, and she is largely successful. Her character of Emily is underwritten, being only a romantic tool for Cherry’s character arc, but Bravo is able to enthuse charisma that aids in viewers’ appreciation of Emily as a real person.
Joe and Anthony Russo don’t lose their playfulness in Cherry. There is a heavy influx of stylistic choices and tricks, but the sibling directors may indulge themselves in these aspects too much. We have color tint changes, chapter sections bathed in a red tinge, focus effects to only show one character, names of brands and tags are comedically changed (Shitty Bank, Credit None, Dr. Whomever) woozy camera work to show passage of time, and fourth-wall breaking moments with Cherry’s character. At some points Cherry’s hectic style reminded me of The Big Short (2015), with veteran comedic director Adam McKay using his experience to help simplify and deliver a clearer understanding of his subject. Cherry, however, has a pretty straightforward story, and thus the toying of style and technique only makes for a flashy, shiny, and distracting outer layer. Once the sheen has worn off you begin to notice a barebones story that hasn’t been worked on enough. The Russo brothers seem to have lost themselves in trying to show off their capabilities, abandoning the core aspects of their story. It seems to be the classic example of style over substance.
Cherry is an incredibly relevant story to be seen and heard of today. However, the misguided focus of the direction seems to take away from the realism and grit that the story was demanding. The lead performances are impressive enough so that some semblance of a character-driven narrative remains, yet without a centered guidance, there is only so much you can do.