It’s fitting to start with Holland, as this is his show. A film about the life of a young adult, falling in and out of love, going to war, then falling apart from the horrors of PTSD and his own decisions. He’s in nearly every scene in the film, and it’s the best decision made by the Russos (the duo of Anthony and Joseph, notorious for their work in the Marvel universe). Known predominately for his role as Spider-Man, the most boyish of all superheroes, Holland beautifully manages the difficult role in Cherry with nuance and heartbreak.
At one point, Holland’s character says, “I got a lot of sadness in the face to make up for, so I gotta act like I’m crazy or people will think I’m a pussy.” He works hard to accomplish this. Through the many roads this film goes down, Holland’s naturally kind, soft face is fighting against darkness, his jaw protruding and eyes becoming sunken and hollow, wearing the trauma in real time as he ages far faster than he should.
And lord, is there trauma. Cherry — based on a novel by the same name by Nico Walker, who wrote and published it while incarcerated — is committed to showing a life in its full tragedy, never letting up for a second. Seriously, if you’re looking for some relief, maybe turn on the news. It would be far cheerier. Holland’s protagonist runs the full gauntlet of 21st century despair. And some of these ideas are interesting, and worthy of exploration.
Cherry grapples with the malaise of being in your early 20s. There’s a palpable detachment from everything around him. Holland’s character treats an argument with his girlfriend (a heartbreaking Ciara Bravo) with the same sense of dead-eyed nonchalance as he does when seeing someone’s guts being pulled out in war. None of it matters, they’re saying, he’s just another kid left in the dirt of a war he didn’t ask for and an economy he didn’t take part in ruining.
Throughout this movie’s runtime, we get lens flares, black and white scenes, flashbacks, sepia tones, and enough slow motion to power an entire army of Michael Bay movies. If the Russos had used this much slow motion on their Avengers movies, we’d still be waiting to find out what Thanos’ snap did. They’re kids in a candy store, but we’re the ones getting sick.
Maybe the most egregious of these sins, however, is their insistence on narration. Holland speaks to the audience almost constantly throughout the film. Narration has its place, but in this case, it’s too often used to substitute authentic emotions for spoon-fed ones. Cherry has everything, and nothing, to say at the same time because it doesn’t let the audience think for themselves. It cycles through so many different ideas — coming-of-age movie, war movie, substance-abuse movie, heist movie — that it doesn’t explore any of them fully, content to let Holland explain everything he’s feeling at the time to the audience.
Coming off of The Avengers, the most successful movie franchise of all time, the Russos clearly felt like they needed to show people they could be mature, serious filmmakers. But they forget that their previous movies were legitimately good, in part, because they knew what they were good at. Cherry wants to be too much, and is only grounded by Holland’s performance. There’s something to be said for a nuanced look at what’s happening to a generation of men growing up in a world collapsing around them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Cherry was the right film to say it.