When learning of yet another film tackling the life of the distinguished American president Abraham Lincoln, you’d be excused for reacting with a mere rolling of the eyes. However, despite becoming a somewhat tired cinematic stomping ground, first-time filmmaker A.J. Edwards, presents his debut feature with a little more ingenuity, tackling the early years of the renowned head of state. Every inspiring historical figure was once a child, and this conveys that notion with a brooding style, and elusive beauty, working as an antidote to Steven Spielberg’s recent endeavour.
Played as a young boy by Braydon Denney with a subtle, yet infectious vitality, we explore his upbringing in the uncompromising Indiana wilderness, with his parents Nancy (Brit Marling) and Tom (Jason Clarke), with the latter a fair authoritarian, to balance out the former’s more progressive, equitable approach. As we attempt to comprehend what shaped this child into becoming one of the most influential people of all time, a pivotal moment was when his mother died young, and his father remarried, to the angelical Sarah (Diane Kruger).
To learn of Lincoln’s upbringing, when we know full well how much of an impact he went on to have later in life, is an absorbing premise, and it’s one delicately handled by Edwards. It’s an intriguing decision to have our entry point as Lincoln’s cousin Dennis Hanks (Cameron Mitchell Williams), representative of a film that’s understated and subtle in its approach. Edwards ensures this film deals in the subtext, exploring what happens in the mind, with no ceremonious, patriotic monologues. To see how much of an inspiration Nancy and Sarah were isn’t particularly palpable, and you have to look deep within to find it.
Though potentially pretentious, to present this tale in black and white monochrome is effective, as given the Lincoln we all know is that of the president and not the child, the film feels almost like a flashback of sorts, aiding the ethereal ambiance of the piece. As such it’s very easy to zone out in this film, but not in a detrimental manner, as the calming atmosphere elevates this picture beyond your typical drama. The striking aesthetic bears similarities to his previous project (as editor) on Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, with a series of close-ups, often from below, with a persistently active camera. Given it shares the same composer as the aforementioned piece – Hanan Townshend – at times the films can feel frustratingly interchangeable.
Such comparisons to the work of Malick, who himself was a producer on this feature, are ultimately the film’s very undoing, as despite the ineffable beauty and capturing of Malick’s fervour, the resemblance is counterproductive, as this comes with little identity of its own, as a film so heavily influenced by the likes of The Tree of Life (not just visually, but in the father-son dynamic). For your debut production you should be showing us what you can bring, what’s unique about you, rather than merely making it clear who most inspires you. Nonetheless, there’s enough discernible talent to suggest that when Edwards does find his feet, we could have a quite special filmmaker on our hands.