All words: Toni Tileva
Ernest Hemingway once said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.” In Being Flynn, Jonathon Flynn says, “Life is gathering material.” There lies the absurdity of prose: it is both prosaic and profound, complex in its very simplicity. Being Flynn is a film about bleeding and writing, stumbling and surviving. Based on author-poet Nick Flynn’s memoir “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City,” it recounts Nick’s (Paul Dano) relationship with his estranged father Jonathan (Robert De Niro).
Nick grows up a latchkey kid, raised by a loving but terribly over-worked mother (Julianne Moore). His only sense of his father comes from the bombastic letters he receives from prison; they are filled with Jonathan’s proclamations that he should have a place in the pantheon of great American writers. While Jonathan manifests as an absence in his son’s life, his non-presence couldn’t be more momentous to Nick, not the least of which because Nick writes just as well. Such is the basic tension of their father-son relationship: he declares “I am *not* like my deadbeat Dad” while wondering “How much like my father am I really?” Jonathan’s absence has built up the mythos of him, yet their approach to writing couldn’t be more different. Jonathan is full of swagger, in contrast to Nick’s meek “I write, but I am not a writer.” And surely enough, it’s through this fraught relationship and struggle that Nick will come into his own.
Being Flynn is also a film about homelessness, literally and metaphorically. Director Paul Weitz uses his lens to show the brutal Bostonian winter landscape with a gut-wrenching intensity and poignancy. Long after Jonathon leaves prison and descends into alcoholism, Nick meets him at a homeless shelter. Snippets of Nick’s writing provide a literary backdrop to the film. His description of his father’s going to sleep on a Metro grate as “an invisible man in an invisible room in an invisible city,” is a trenchant metaphor for the blind eye toward homelessness. The shelter is a microcosm of the struggles of the outside world and a testament to how hard it is to stay changed. The way up is long but the way down quick and always lurking around the corner. When Nick takes on the job in the shelter, maybe subconsciously he’s hoping to see his father. As Nick says, “if both of you are lost, you both end up in the same place, waiting.”
Through their push-and-pull interaction, Nick and his father tumultuously find a way to reach other. Paul Dano plays Nick with a quiet vulnerability and just enough of the inherited-self-nihilism required. DeNiro plays Jonathan with borderline-insane megalomania, a seething intensity, and a tragi-comic flair (he calls his masterpiece The Memoirs of a Moron). He doesn’t want our pity; he insists he is a survivor. And so is Nick, who finds his own voice.
You can’t kill someone with words, Jonathan Flynn says, but it doesn’t mean the words are not heavy as stones.