There may not be many points in common between a wistful account of life in rural Scotland circa 1915 and a brash comedy about hip-hop stardom. The likely viewers of Sunset Song won't buy tickets to Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, and fans of Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island may not go out of their way to see the latest film of a renowned 70-year-old British director whose works are known for their severity. Yet the two films, though far from perfect, illustrate the wide range of our cinematic present. Though it might seem anachronistic, the distance between Sunset Song and Popstar, and the pleasures both provide, bring to mind something that Francois Truffaut wrote in the introduction to his 1975 book The Films in My Life (he was quoting a friend): "It's good to have something to see, isn't it?"
Terence Davies' Sunset Song, based on the 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, is set in a rural farm community in northern Scotland where Chris Guthrie (an astounding performance by former fashion model Agyness Deyn) grows up under the tyrannical rule of a fierce, self-righteous father (Peter Mullan). Though she dreams of leaving home and becoming a teacher, she gradually faces the knowledge that she has no means of escaping the family farm. Her submissive, depressed mother dies early in the film, and when her older brother, the target of most of their father's rage, finally works up the strength to leave, you can see in Chris' face the burden landing.
Like much of Davies' work, the film moves at a slow, deliberate pace, spanning several years and mirroring Chris' long path to liberation. Much of the film takes place in confined spaces, with the characters framed tightly in the center. When they step outside, however, the camera moves freely, passing over the landscape in awe, recording clouds and wheat fields that look like no person has ever walked through them. Sunset Song rests on a balance of the cruel and the idyllic.
It's also, perhaps surprisingly, the story of a young woman developing her own identity in a time and place that could easily overwhelm her. Sexuality is a threatening source of confusion and mistrust, and Chris learns early in the film that it can also be a violent tool for keeping women submissive. But she also becomes aware of a different form of sexuality. In one scene, explicitly linked to a clumsy assault by a farmworker, Davies shows Chris staring at her naked body in a mirror. It seems to be some kind of private ritual, as if she's seeing her real self for the first time. The viewer gets the sense that her individuality is something she keeps secret, something separating herself from the burdens of family and society.
Despite everything Chris suffers, she radiates an inner spirit that is never defeated. Davies links this, unsteadily, to history and the timelessness of nature, but it's her strength — and Deyn's performance — that dominate.
Popstar, separated from Sunset Song by a century of history and an immeasurable gap in sensibility, is the first feature film by the comedy/music trio the Lonely Island, best known for its comic videos about Narnia, pirates, sailing and inappropriate Christmas gifts. The group's lesser-known two-thirds, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, share directing credit and take supporting roles, while Saturday Night Live veteran Andy Samberg holds the center as floundering rap artist Conner4Real, an overnight superstar whose career is plummeting due to poor business choices (a deal with an appliance company to have his songs playing out of refrigerators across the country), unstable egos (he's trying to shake his boy-band past) and self-indulgent new songs (one endorses gay marriage while asserting his own heterosexuality in every line; another disses the Mona Lisa).
Samberg and company have set their sights on pop culture in small doses before, but this is a more wide-ranging piece, requiring character development and at least a hint of a plot (think This Is Spinal Tap with a little less bite) to hold the celebrity interviews and mock documentary sections together. Popstar meets the minimum requirement to keep from falling apart, but it's the film's sharp understanding of the excess and narcissism of the current pop scene — from award shows and pop music cliches to online marketing and gossip culture (including a wickedly goofy parody of the odious TMZ) — that keeps it alive. It's a surprisingly good-natured film, even at its raunchiest, covering its cruder moments with a kind of "did-I-really-do-that?" feigned innocence. It's not really a satire of celebrity culture; it's more like a brotherly fist bump.
If Sunset Song offers a sense of history and timeless forces, Popstar wants nothing more than to be of-the-minute; you get the sense that the filmmakers secretly wish they could release it on Snapchat. Will it still seem funny in five years when the world has moved on to next next big thing, or will it seem as puzzling and outdated as a MySpace page or a Farmville invitation? It's hard to tell, but for right now, it's just fine.