Kat Candler (Hellion) Talks János Szász’s The Notebook

Kat Candler's been very busy with her film recently, but her husband's been needling her about not writing for Talkhouse Film, so she wrote this, OK?

I’ve been evading the request to write a piece for the Talkhouse for a little while now because I’m really, really lame. First, I was super busy releasing my film Hellion (totally legitimate excuse), and while going through the roller-coaster ride of putting it out into the world — that rite of passage where everyone can love, hate, rip apart, embrace or not give a shit about your film — the thought of critiquing someone else’s work felt really, really wrong. Making movies is fucking hard and when you spend two or three years of your life on something and then someone spends an hour explaining why they did or didn’t like it… I don’t know. It’s weird, right? Joe Swanberg wrote in his piece on Tammy, “I feel uneasy writing publicly about other filmmakers and their work, especially if I’m being critical, because really, who am I?” I feel the same.

This is how I feel being asked to write a piece on someone else’s film. I’m the guy in white, John Turturro’s character in Millers Crossing.


My husband, who used to write criticism and is an encyclopedia of all things cinema, kept pressuring me: “I don’t understand why it’s such a big deal — David Lowery already wrote three!” But, of course, my husband used to write these stunning pieces on movies filled with richly nuanced insights. And it seemed so effortless. Pauline Kael was and is his hero, and he’s that nerd singlehandedly keeping Vulcan Video’s doors open and waiting by our mailbox every two months for his crisp new issue of Film Comment.

And then there’s the lingering “Junior High Kat.” I was the girl who never raised her hand in class. I went to a super academic elite school with all of these kids who would go on to get full-ride scholarships to Harvard. That wasn’t me. My mom gently forced me to go to this prep school because my brother was there and she wanted to keep us together. But I’m getting off topic. Back to my point… I always felt intellectually inferior to all these smarty-pants types. And that’s not to say that I wasn’t a smart kid… I was, but I had this inferiority complex. Once in eighth grade, I took an F because I didn’t want to debate another kid on foreign politics in front of the entire class. I was so utterly terrified in a public forum that I settled for failing the assignment. So instead of immersing myself in calculus or AP physics in high school, I took drama. I fell in love with the make-believe, with hiding behind characters. I didn’t have to be myself, which was awesome. And that’s why the idea of writing this took me back to junior high… having to put my analytical thoughts out into the world and feel like a dummy.

When it comes to movies, I either connect with the story or I don’t. I find humanity in the characters and their struggles or I don’t. We all respond to films and art for very different reasons because we come from very different places and have very different histories. And that’s what makes our experiences with stories so unique.

I saw the trailer for János Szász’s The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier) before Land Ho! at the Embarcadero while I was in San Francisco and I thought, “That looks right up my alley: kids, struggling, bleak, depressing,” just like Hellion. I’m a big fan of depressing movies and good kids making bad decisions. That’s at the heart of so many stories I’ve told.

The Notebook is about twin boys at the end of WWII. Their mother leaves them to live with their abusive grandmother, a woman feared by the community as a witch. The boys learn to survive her punishing hands, the brutality of war, and sexual and physical abuse by members of the community by hardening their bodies and their minds. Basically they start abusing themselves and each other. All in all, it’s a brutal and unrelenting film. Up until the very end.

Szász’s beautifully crafted film creates a thick sense of horror through a percussion-laden score and unnerving performances. And you’ve gotta admit, twins can be kind of creepy and these boys take it to a whole new level. Without much dialogue, you’re never quite sure what lengths they’ll go to… without remorse and without conscience. And that unknowing, unsettling feeling never wavers.

Ultimately, though, it was a little too much for me. Too bleak. Too depressing. Too punishing. Szász puts these boys through the wringer. I needed just an ounce of hope, a little kindness, a little humanity, in order to swallow all the evil. But here’s the thing, I have friends who will probably love this film and advocate for it. Maybe even my husband when he gets to see it. And that’s cool. But for me, I just couldn’t connect.

I’m sorry, I really suck at these things. I need to stick to being the weirdo in a hotel room, walls plastered with crazy pictures and notecards, eating lime and chili-flavored almonds, trying to write about heavy metal dudes. I’m much better at that.


Kat Candler‘s award-winning short films Hellion and Black Metal have screened at Sundance, SXSW, Los Angeles Film Festival, and many more. Her feature film, Hellion starring Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis, premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and was released theatrically by IFC Films. Hellion was a Sundance Creative Producing Lab participant and San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation Grant recipient, and Candler received the same grant for her upcoming Untitled Metal Feature script.