by Elliot Davies
Writer-Director Debbie Tucker Green’s debut is a stunning blend of kitchen sink drama and magic realism. Second Coming gets a UK preview at the 2015 Derby Film Festival.
Is there a specific reason why Steven Spielberg’s 70s and 80s films have stood the test of time?
It’s likely because he’s an expert when it comes to capturing the tender chaos of family life. Before we witness the close encounters and the alien visitations, we get up close and personal to families who feel like real families, and to homes that feel lived in. When your actors don’t feel like actors, and when your settings don’t feel like sets, you can be as outlandish as you like, and your story will still have the necessary grounding to make it timeless and relatable.
Very few film makers come close to Spielberg when it comes to capturing the essence of family life. J.J. Abrams nearly got there with Super 8, whilst Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life found ample room for close relationship ruminations amongst the time, space, and dinosaurs.
But in her cinematic debut, playwright Debbie Tucker Green has already proved herself a master of wresting a truly intimate performance from her actors. Second Coming is a languid film, with the vast majority of its run-time dedicated to exploring the daily life of a modern family.
In a long series of well-observed, precisely directed scenes, we slowly come to feel like a part of our focus family, with all their petty bickering, in-jokes, and lazy weekend mornings spent watching films, in bed, with toast. There’s a meal with the extended family, in which an entire history of sisterly rivalry is revealed in a couple of barbed exchanges. Granddad snores on the couch, and indignantly denies that he’s been snoring when he’s woken up. You want to be there.
Beyond family life is the working life, and Green is equally skilled at capturing the tedium of the nine-to-five. It’s all here – the clueless bosses who become the focus of everyone’s jokes and rage. The infuriating yet strangely comforting daily rituals – like the guy who asks “who’s watching the doors”, even though it’s he who undertakes this task every day, without fail. And the cake. Cake is vital to any workplace.
Second Coming is about 75% kitchen sink, yet I’d happily spend an entire film in the company of these people. It’s so cosy, so meticulously constructed yet effortlessly reflected, that there’s genuine pleasure to be found in immersing yourself in their lives.
But there’s more, of course. A moment’s reflection on the film’s title, plus a reading of any of the many elevator pitches out there, will give you a good idea of what’s going on: In spite of a long period of bed death with her husband Mark, Jax is, for some terrifying reason, pregnant.
Jax is played by Nadine Marshall, who might be the single best actor to not currently have a photo on her IMDb profile. Her performance of a woman whose world is shattered by the inexplicable is nothing short of spellbinding. Amidst her body horror, and her disquieting hallucinations, she’s all quiet rage. There’s an overarching air of defiance to her performance, and a deep resentment that nobody – least of all herself – is able to provide any answers or guidance.
Her husband, Mark, is played by Idris Elba. This screening of Second Coming was preceded by an introduction from BBC Radio Derby’s Devon Daley. He quipped that most of the women in the audience were probably only there to see Elba – and let’s face it, he is a major draw. But anyone who shows up expecting to bear witness to his star power might be surprised to see him play a role that’s so driven by frustration and exhaustion.
Mark (over)works at the railroad. Returning home, he wants food, his wife, and his son. When presented by the inexplicable, he reacts in…exactly the way you might expect him to react.
And it’s here that mention must be made of Kai Francis Lewis, who plays the son, JJ. When Mark finally unleashes, it’s terrible. And like all feuding parents, he makes the unforgivable decision to involve his children in his arguments.
Second Coming is full of bold directorial decisions, but here comes the most daring of all: In a continuous shot that lasts for nearly three minutes – but which feels like much longer – we see nothing of Mark and Jax’s argument. Instead, the camera is trained solely on JJ’s face – unflinchingly brave, but so obviously traumatised.
To make such a young actor the focus of such a pivotal scene is a huge risk, but here it more than pays off. You can just tell that this is a moment that JJ will never forget – his is a face that knows that he’ll be coming back to this moment throughout his life – and with that, Kai Francis Lewis is immediately identified as one of British cinema’s now and future greats.
Up to this point, JJ has seemed more concerned with nature than the situation at home. Walking through the woods with a friend from school, he accidentally breaks a bird’s wing. This scene was so upsetting that I made a point of sitting through the credits, waiting to see the customary “no animals were harmed” message. It was there alright, so I wonder how they made a bird behave so convincingly wounded?
JJ puts the bird in a box with some leaves and twigs, and commits to an overnight vigil. The bird doesn’t make it, and is buried in the back garden.
It’s a sad moment, and another life-affirming experience for JJ, but it’s much more than that. This is Green sowing the seeds for an ending so graceful, so magnificent, that I found myself shaking my head in wonder.
At once a meticulously observed family drama and an elegant modern fable with a refreshing lack of obvious symbolism, Second Coming is a truly stunning debut for Debbie Tucker Green. May she go on to do even greater.
Second Coming is released in the UK on June 5, 2015.