Weighty matters, light work

HEAVY James Mangold (15) THE WHITE BALLOON Jafar Panahi (U)
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The Independent Culture
Fed up with Christmas? The week's two new films are not quite calculated to make you forget the horrors of the holiday season. Heavy, as the title indicates, is guaranteed to stir deep pangs of guilt in festive bingers: its hero, Victor, a pizza chef at a run-down diner in rural upstate New York, tips the scales at a trim 250lbs. Ads for the slimming food he is taking, without much enthusiasm, appear at every turn to taunt him. But there's fat chance of his losing weight while his mother, for whom he devotedly fries up a calorific breakfast every morning, is there to boss him around.

Nor will he fulfil his secret dream of going to college to become a proper cook. Repressed, innocent and child-like almost (but not quite) to the point of being retarded, his little world is circumscribed by the cafe, its hard-bitten waitress and handful of regulars. Then his life is upended by two events - the arrival of a pretty college drop-out as the diner's second waitress, and his mother's sudden death - both of which nudge him slowly, clumsily towards the possibility (nothing more) of self-renewal.

We're somewhere adjacent to Mike Leigh territory here: Heavy - which is a comedy - dwells on the poignant humour of struggling, vaguely dissatisfied people failing to connect with each other. It's a film of looks and silences rather than speech, depending less on its almost event-free narrative than on impressionistic moments and the ability to make us care about the characters.

The net result is a shade slow but driven by a performance of great sweetness by Pruitt Taylor Vince as the lovelorn pizza man, and an interesting supporting cast which includes Liv Tyler as the girl he has a crush on and Deborah Harry and Shelley Winters as, respectively, the older waitress and Victor's mother, two alarming manifestations of beauty gone spectacularly to seed.

The White Balloon is (like Heavy) a first feature, and reveals that in Iran, too, national holidays are dominated by shrill-voiced little horrors making endless demands on their parents' time, energy and pocketbooks. Razieh, aged seven, wants a goldfish (a traditional New Year accessory), but not any old goldfish from the pond in her own back garden. She wants a big fat goldfish from the market that will cost her mother the last bank note in her purse.

When she loses the money at the beginning of her mission, it's the pretext to introduce a series of colourful snapshots of local street life: a pair of shady snake charmers, a tailor contending loudly with a disgruntled client, a soldier who can't afford the bus fare to join his family for the festivities, a lonely Afghan refugee.

The White Balloon looks simple, naive even, but it's driven by a director, Jafar Panahi, who knows exactly what he wants: note, for instance, the elegantly choreographed long opening shot and stylish, primary-coloured production design. Cast loosely in the neo-realist tradition, it bangs no political drums, but does hint at some of the problems on the fringes of Iranian society, especially in the bittersweet closing scene.

And it makes it clear that, whether for Razieh, whose adventures on the almost entirely male-populated streets of Tehran are stalked by a vague sense of menace, or for her mother, who is hectored by an unseen husband railing at her from the bathroom, being female in that country is not a whole lot of fun. As screen kids go, Razieh herself is a clever fictional creation: she's more than annoying enough not to be cute, but you end up inwardly applauding her pluck.

n On release from tomorrow