Cambodian-set adaptation of Loung Ung's memoir praised by critics

Angelina Jolie and the spirit of Winston Churchill have at least one thing in common: Films they had a hand in creating have each received enthusiastic standing ovations at the Telluride Film Festival.

Jolie’s latest directorial offering, First They Killed My Father, was greeted with warm praise after its world premiere screening at the awards-positioning, Colorado-based festival Saturday morning, and initial social media reactions have been largely positive for the adaptation of Loung Ung’s memoir of the same name, which follows a young girl’s struggle for survival throughout the oppressive Khmer Rouge regime, responsible for the class-driven murders of millions of Cambodians between 1975 to 1978.

“[The film is] a more focused, involving work than any of her earlier efforts, a taut wartime tale about surviving the Khmer Rouge that’s rooted in a child’s perspective rather than a simplistic, westernized gaze. Despite a few missteps, it’s the clearest illustration of her filmmaking talent to date,” IndieWire‘s Eric Kohn writes in his positive review, also singling out cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) and composer Marco Beltrami for their contributions to the film as well. “The result is relentless and involving even when it stumbles. Jolie may not be a full-fledged auteur yet, but she unquestionably possesses a singular aesthetic that courses through her work and exists complete apart from her high-profile acting career. Her movies unfold almost exclusively within the confines of claustrophobic circumstances, with characters overwhelmed by events spiraling out of control; in the process of battling through the confusion, they triumph simply by living through it.”

Tomris Laffly additionally writes that the film is “mostly dialogue free,” while its presentation of Ung’s real-life story, as told through the performance of newcomer Sareum Srey Moch and the screenplay adapted by Jolie and Ung, is “harrowing,” “at times very moving,” and “powerful.”

Jolie’s skills as a director have been met with critical disdain in recent years, as each of her three efforts behind the camera have registered mostly negative reviews. Still, Unbroken, her 2014 Louis Zamperini biopic, scored three Oscar nominations on top of grossing an impressive $115 million at the domestic box office.

Credit: Roland Neveu

That all will likely change with First They Killed My Father, a film that seemingly blends Jolie’s passion for humanitarian efforts (she has worked extensively with UNHCR as an advocate for refugees and founded two charitable organizations in Cambodia, where her son Maddox Jolie-Pitt was born) and her moviemaking intuitions for a satisfying product that could play far better than her past projects.

First They Killed My Father is Jolie’s best work,” Awards Circuit’s Mark Johnson tweeted shortly after Saturday’s premiere. “Brutal, grueling, and deeply personal. The film she was destined to make.”

The Hollywood Reporter‘s Scott Feinberg agrees, echoing the sentiment that Jolie has produced her crowning achievement as a director.

“Angelina Jolie’s best directorial effort yet. Might well be a contender beyond the foreign language category,” he says.

While this is Jolie’s fourth narrative film as a director, it is her first endeavor as a filmmaker to debut at Telluride, an act that, coupled with the film’s upcoming screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, indicates Netflix has faith in the film’s ability to perform better with critics than Jolie’s previous efforts.

Whether the film has prospects to generate Oscar attention remains to be seen, though the film will debut in theaters on Sept. 15, the same day it’s due to begin streaming on Netflix. If it can hold its grasp on audiences, it’s not difficult to see the film succeeding with awards voters on passion votes, as the film seems to be inspiring a strong emotional response from Telluride attendees.

First They Killed My Father is a powerful big scale Cambodian war drama from the POV of a girl,” Anne Thompson observes. “Not a dry eye in the house.”

Working in her favor, Jolie is already a well-respected member of the film community, as she’s one of the few remaining box office draws when it comes to studio productions (she launched Maleficent, her last major headlining role in a big-budget production, to a $69 million opening back in 2014) and her charitable efforts garnered her the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy three years ago. She’s also a competitive Oscar winner, having taken the Best Supporting Actress prize for her work in 1999’s Girl, Interrupted.

Also breaking into the Oscar conversation at Telluride this weekend so far are Annette Bening’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Gary Oldman’s Churchill biopic Darkest Hour, Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. With a Toronto presentation still on deck for First They Killed My Father, the film has already cleared the first hurdle on the fall festival circuit, landing safely atop sturdy legs before launching into the awards race at large in the weeks ahead.

First They Killed My Father
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