White Tank Top Movie Review: Ana’s Playground and Looking for Eric

"I am not a man, I am Cantona."

Check your calendars – it’s officially football season (note, American readers: I am referring to what we call in this country “soccer”).

The English Premier League season has begun and, given the continuing struggles of my chosen club, Liverpool, I turn to the cinema for solace.

I'll begin with the short film Ana’s Playground. While I think director Eric Howell is trying to make a big point about child soldiers, it’s essentially the story of a soccer ball lost by an errant free kick. Ana (Raven Bellefleur) lives in a violent future (or present!), that resembles a Children of Men-themed J. Crew catalogue. She’s selected by her young pals to retrieve the ball from a park guarded by a sniper (in a moment of great subtlety, she hides behind a statue of Christ and he takes a bullet for her).

Without giving anything away, I can say she gets the ball back while contributing her share to the film with the highest rate of solemn-salutes-per-minute of any I’ve seen.

It’s sad – but not surprising – that the only feature length soccer film in theatres now features a Manchester United legend: the Frenchman Eric Cantona.

Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric is sort of like Bend It Like Beckham if you replaced all the good-looking young people in the latter with middle-aged postal workers who wear unflattering fleece vests and can distinguish between different lagers at a glance.

Read the rest of the review after the jump.

Looking for Eric opens with a discombobulating shot for us Yanks: a man is driving a roundabout on the right side and everyone is honking and swerving around him – but wait! He’s in England, so he’s actually going against traffic. The result is a predictable accident for our bedraggled protagonist (Steve Evets), who crackerjack screenwriter Paul Laverty decided should also be named Eric, just like Cantona.

Regular Eric is depressed because the love of his life, and primary guardian of his grandson, will not exchange more than few curt words with him. He seems like a nice enough guy and flashbacks show his bad behavior is some combination of a) uncontrollable panic attacks and b) being a drunk a lot. He lives now in a house with no shortage of (probably stolen) TVs, Man U paraphernalia and surly teenage children of indeterminate origin. 

When long-time hero Cantona appears in his room (while, coincidentally, Eric is staring at a life-size poster of the strong-browed striker and sampling some marijuana), our protagonist makes sure he’s not an imposter: “Say something in French.”

With charming succinctness, the footballer replies, “Je suis Eric Cantona.”

As the two Erics get to know each other, there’s a flow of gratuitous, but unavoidable, highlight reel clips of Cantona (one affords your chance to see baby Becks wearing an unfamiliar 24 shirt and my fifth grade haircut). Their obligatory fitness frolic through a park brings back fond memories of Ren and Willard’s similar romp in Footloose. Overall, Cantona favors aphorisms on passion, creativity (he’s an amateur trumpeter) and, above all, trusting one’s teammates.

Unfortunately, Looking for Eric is caught between two modes. It begins as a broad male-bonding comedy, with the guys making a mockery of self-help book exercises. But just when I was convinced we were headed straight into Full Monty territory, the second act darkens as Eric’s son’s friends make him an accessory to a shooting (given all the hysterics about a single pistol, I gather that England has more restrictive gun laws than the U.S.). I suspected the jarring shift to seriousness would come – Loach mostly directs intense dramas like The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Sweet Sixteen.

Still the segue is ill-advised because it takes Cantona out of the picture for a half hour or so, and we miss him. His commentary, both light and insightful, carries the film. The seminal line, “I am not a man, I am Cantona,” points to both his phantasmal presence in the film and the demigod status he enjoyed as a real life athlete.

I can only hope that an aspiring Liverpudlian filmmaker is even now concocting a film starring Reds talisman Steven Gerrard, to pass a slow day in some future offseason.

Read more White Tank Top cultural commentary at whitetanktop.blogspot.com.