DVD and download reviews: A Ghost Story; I Am Not a Witch; It; Dina; The Rehearsal

A man in a white sheet goes cosmic, a Welsh-Zambian newcomer blazes a witchy trail, and a Stephen King adaptation provides scary comforts

When any film names itself plainly after a particular genre, chances are it’s not going to do exactly what it says on the tin. So it proves with A Ghost Story (Lionsgate, 12), David Lowery’s beautiful, confounding, time and space-bending tale of romantic devotion and longing – a casually inventive American indie that gradually belies its humble mumblecore beginnings. On the one hand, it delivers on the promise of its title to almost goofily literal effect: not only does leading man Casey Affleck play an actual ghost for the bulk of its running time, but one clad in the old-school white sheet of a million last-minute Halloween getups.

It’s a nod to tradition that only underlines how far the film spirals from expectations in all other senses. After outlining a brittle living-world romance between Affleck and Rooney Mara’s midwestern hipsters, the film first jolts us with the former’s sudden death, before springing into an aching study of mutual mourning and loneliness in the dead and living parties alike. (Aptly, it all looks like a forgotten, sun-faded family album: the corners of the frame bevelled throughout, the colours restfully muted.) Lest you start expecting Whoopi Goldberg and Unchained Melody from this setup, all that is a mere prelude to something more elastic and cosmic in scope: a visual and sonic ode to the relentless passage of time. If that sounds affectedly fey, trust in the clear, clean, transporting nature of Lowery’s film-making.

Watch a trailer for I Am Not a Witch.

When Bafta announced its film award nominations this week, they were hailed as representing a banner year for British cinema, thanks to hefty coups for the big, brash likes of Dunkirk and Darkest Hour. Largely sidelined, however, were fresher voices from the independent fringes, among them Welsh-Zambian newcomer Rungano Nyoni, whose strange, sly, startling debut, I Am Not a Witch (Curzon Artificial Eye, 12), flashes as brazenly singular an aesthetic and storytelling style as Britfilm has seen in several years. Following the fortunes of an eight-year-old Zambian girl persecuted and exiled by her community for alleged witchcraft, it’s a heightened, surrealist fable, styled with sleek afropunk flair and streaked with blood-dark comedy, beneath which throbs a raw, very real anger over institutional corruption and socially embedded misogyny in modern-day Africa.

After these richly idiosyncratic visions, there’s a certain curl-on-the-couch comfort to be had from the classical genre construction of It (Warner, 15), a surprisingly crisp, efficient adaptation of the first half of Stephen King’s dense horror opus. Delivering the expected killer-clown chills at a rattling rate, with a more sinuous psychological-creep factor than you’d expect from Hollywood’s current horror factory, Andy Muschietti’s film effectively milks much the same resource of 80s nightmare nostalgia as Stranger Things. You know what you’re getting, even as you shudder with uncertainty over what immediate scare lurks around the corner.

Dina (Dogwoof, 15) was the documentary toast of last year’s Sundance film festival, but was never quite so warmly embraced elsewhere. That may be because Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini’s patient, affectionate suburban character study shifts tone with disquieting fluidity. Positioning itself as a heart-coddling triumph-over-adversity crowdpleaser, the film intimately follows a sprightly fortysomething woman with Asperger’s as she plans her wedding to her doting, likewise autistic boyfriend, before taking a sharp left into deeper, more anxious realms of abuse and trauma.

Finally, to Netflix, where the first film in a far-too-long 18 years from Alison Maclean – director of the hangdog slacker gem Jesus’ Son – is now streaming after bypassing UK cinemas. The Rehearsal is a low-key but snakily intriguing comeback, returning Maclean to her native New Zealand: freely adapted from an early novel by Booker prize winner Eleanor Catton, it’s a life-versus-art psychodrama centred on a naive drama student (a fine James Rolleston) whose personal affairs become awkwardly entangled in the stage exploits of his peers and opportunistic teacher (Kerry Fox). The payoff to its tangy, simmering setup is deliberately, disconcertingly abrupt in a way that leaves the film more an amuse-bouche than a full meal, but it’s a thrill to have Maclean belatedly back, and on still playful form.

Watch a trailer for Dina.

Contributor

Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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