June 2024

Cherry (2021)

DIRECTOR: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

CAST: Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo


After becoming two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s primary recurring directors, helming Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, The Avengers: Infinity War, and The Avengers: Endgame, the sibling directing duo of Anthony and Joe Russo have switched gears to something completely different, taking a lower-profile more indie movie detour from CGI-heavy star-studded special effects and action extravaganzas. To this end, they’ve brought along their sister Angela Russo, who gets a screenwriting credit, and reunited with Marvel star Tom Holland, going far away from Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Nico Walker, Cherry is a bit of a mess whose social commentary tries to tackle too many societal ills and is sometimes lost amid the Russos’ excessive directorial flourishes, but it’s still an engaging and compelling docudrama that has something to say.

Nico Walker’s semi-fictionalized movie stand-in’s name is never revealed onscreen, but he’s known only as Cherry (Tom Holland). After a bookending prologue in 2007, we skip back to Cherry’s romance with the love of his life, fellow university student Emily (Ciara Bravo), in 2002 Cleveland. When Emily abruptly announces she’s leaving to attend college in Montreal, a heartbroken and unmotivated Cherry makes the dubious decision to join the Army. Though he and Emily reconcile and have an impulsive wedding before his deployment, it’s too late to stop it, and after basic training, he’s shipped overseas to Iraq, where he survives multiple combat missions and receives the Medal of Honor but returns home with deep psychological scars. He and Emily move into their new home, but Cherry is tormented by PTSD and unable to adapt back to civilian life and slips into drug abuse, eventually dragging Emily down the rabbit hole of addiction with him. When the young couple is increasingly desperate for money to support their escalating habit, Cherry resorts to robbing a bank and, when it goes easier than he expected, he commits a spree of brazen broad daylight bank robberies. But his fledgling criminal career and his self-destructive lifestyle ultimately catches up with him.

Ilyet is tudnak a Bosszúállók: Végjáték rendezői

It’s obvious that this is a passion project for the Russo brothers, Cleveland natives who have a lot of things to say. Cherry tackles a lot of issues, including the way aimless youth facing few job prospects join the Army out of a lack of options (this is one of the most unflattering portrayals of the Army outside of an Oliver Stone movie), the way society expects soldiers to casually return to “normal life” and shows little regard or understanding for their psychological scars (after witnessing the gruesome demise of fellow medics and dragging their charred corpses out of an exploded Humvee, Cherry is welcomed home to a cluelessly cheery celebration with the obliviously inappropriate song choice of “Disco Inferno” and its repeated lyrics “burn baby burn” and given a medal which means nothing to him), and the opioid epidemic (Cherry seeks help for his PTSD from a doctor whose only solution is prescribing him Oxycontin). The movie is as unflinching about graphic violence in the war portion as it is in later scenes of Cherry and Emily descending into the depths of drug addiction, where we see them shooting up needles multiple times, vomiting in the bathroom, and suffering effects of withdrawals before getting their hands on more dope. Tom Holland went on a grueling diet and exercise regimen that involved losing thirty pounds, along with going through military basic training and working with former drug addicts. In fact, such was the filmmakers’ strive for authenticity that real needles were used for the drug abuse scenes (needless to say, not containing actual drugs).

The bleak and dark subject matter is infused with an undercurrent of dark humor in the way it depicts some of Cherry’s bumbling criminal shenanigans, and a healthy (sometimes excessive) helping of stylization. Tom Holland continuously narrates and at times speaks directly to the camera, we get black-and-white or red-toned sequences, odd camera angles, and at one point, in one of various excessive directorial flourishes, we get a simulated inside shot of Cherry’s rectum during a prostate exam. There’s also a running joke about the names of the banks Cherry robs; presumably the filmmakers lacked the rights to use the names of real banks, so we get parodies with names like “Shitty Bank” (as opposed to City Bank) and “Capital None”. Ironically, the most admirable thing about Cherry is also it’s biggest problem. It’s clearly bursting with things it wants to say about the varied societal ills it touches on, but tries to tackle too many of them and in too fleeting a fashion to develop them properly. It’s essentially multiple genres—a love story, a war movie, a drug addiction docudrama, even a dark crime comedy—mashed up into one movie, and while it’s certainly ambitious, it’s not always entirely successful. Despite a formidable nearly two and a half hour runtime, a slow pace isn’t a problem; the stylization and flair that the Russos bring to the proceedings gives things a restless, kinetic verve and events chug along at a fast clip, but in fact deeper character moments sometimes threaten to get lost amid the stylization and aspects of Cherry might have been more powerful if it’d been allowed to breathe a little more.

The biggest single aspect holding Cherry together—insofar as it does hold together—is the central performance by Tom Holland, who follows up the recent likewise dark and disturbing The Devil All the Time with another intense, edgy role clearly aimed at proving beyond any doubt that he is capable of playing more than Peter Parker/Spider-Man (some of Holland’s teenage fanbase from his Spider-Man movies wouldn’t even be allowed into Cherry‘s R rating). Holland’s performance is fully committed and physically and emotionally grueling as he runs a gamut from a bookish college student to a raw recruit to a PTSD-afflicted war veteran, to an emaciated and wild-eyed heroin addict. Holland doesn’t shy away from the depths into which Cherry sinks under the weight of the torment of his PTSD and a desperate heroin addiction, and there’s times when his performance is raw enough that it’s almost painful to watch. Apart from Holland, Cherry‘s cast is low-profile. Some viewers might recognize Michael Gandolfini (son of the late James Gandolfini), or Forrest Goodluck (Leonardo DiCaprio’s son in The Revenant). As expected by its title, and reinforced by his continuous narration, Cherry is firmly from the lead character’s perspective, and no one else gets much in the way of character development. Ciara Bravo gives as strong of a performance as she can with an underwritten character, but we never see much of her side of the story. Emily appears through Cherry’s not necessarily objective eyes, making her motivations and actions sometimes murky and underdeveloped. Everyone else appears too fleetingly to make much of an impression, except perhaps Jack Reynor as an outwardly affable drug dealer.

Cherry covers a lot of ground, but there’s times when it bites off more than it can chew, often feeling like a mashup of other better movies we’ve seen before. I also take issue with an ultimate “happy ending” denouement that feels a little too neat and tidy. But while Cherry is a bit of a mess, it’s not a boring mess. The Russos striving to address so many contemporary societal ills and weaving them all into a digestible two and a half hours is admirable, as is the level of grueling commitment in Tom Holland’s performance, but Cherry tries to cover too many genres to truly excel at any of them.

* * 1/2