In “Mickey and the Bear,” Mickey (Camila Morrone, “Never Goin’ Back”) is the kind of kid who’s had to grow up too fast. Looking after her father Hank (James Badge Dale) — who’s both a veteran showing signs of PTSD and an opioid addict — after her mom’s death from cancer has forced her to take on the duties of the house and to become her father’s caretaker.
She’s the one to make sure there’s dinner on the table, money to buy supplies, and that her dad’s prescriptions are filled. While other kids at her Montana school are wondering what they might do after graduation, Mickey’s halfheartedly resigned that this is her lot in life, to pick up her drunk dad from the local jail or hospital, to worry about him constantly or to watch out for his mood swings. But a series of events close to the end of her senior year cause Mickey to reevaluate her life and whether or not she should stay home and continue to weather her dad’s unpredictable behavior.
Mickey’s life may seem like a bleak picture, but writer and director Annabelle Attanasio does not leave her heroine in complete despair. Unlike Jennifer Lawrence’s star-making turn in Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone,” there are signs of hope in Mickey’s story, even as she gives everyone else in town surly looks and avoids talking about her future. Without her dad’s knowledge, she applies to college in California, a world away from her father’s abuses and neglect, but she’s unsure if she can make it work. Mickey’s internal tug-of-war between wanting to move on and reconciling with her ailing dad drives the narrative to its emotional conclusion.
The moving story also gives Morrone a chance to play a conflicted and heartfelt character. Mickey’s a teen trying to find her own way in life, but she’s saddled with an unfair burden of a dad who forgets her birthday, asks her for money, and occasionally loses control because of his drug dependency. In addition to the father-daughter drama, Mickey is also in the middle of relationship woes: Her longtime boyfriend, Aron (Ben Rosenfield, “Twin Peaks”), envisions a happy future together, but early on, he shows troubling behavior that causes her eyes to shift from looking happy to see him to reluctantly looking at the floor, maybe wondering why she’s in the same uncomfortable situation with him as with her dad.
As she draws away from Aron, Mickey meets the impossibly charming Wyatt (Calvin Demba, “Last Christmas”), a British transplant who’s almost too perfect an alternative. In this chaos, Mickey also butts heads against one of the doctors at the veterans’ hospital, Leslee (Rebecca Henderson, “Russian Doll”), who feels for Mickey and tries to help her out.
Through these complicated dynamics, Morrone navigates her character’s many highs and lows with a touching sense of authenticity, balancing Mickey’s need to be defensive against outsiders, her natural sense of playfulness, and her unending empathy and loyalty to those she cares about. Morrone’s performance is easily one of the movie’s core strengths.
Through cinematographer Conor Murphy’s lens, many of the scenes in Mickey’s world look slightly drained of color or underlit, as if surroundings have lost some of their brightness over the years. The movie’s rural settings often reflect Mickey’s isolation when she’s alone, biking past fields or the endless rows of trees. It’s gorgeous and sometimes idyllic, yet it’s impossible to ignore the thin layer of darkness clouding the experience.
The story’s conflict brings up important subjects, like lack of help for veterans and the opioid crisis, but seamlessly integrates them into the plot rather than going the route of a message movie. Ultimately, this is all about Mickey and how she’s dealing with all of this pressure to stay or go.
“Mickey and the Bear” is an impressive feature debut from Attanasio, one that shows a lot of promise in the way her movie explores characters and uncomfortable stories. When coupled with Morrone’s deft performance, Attanasio gives her lead character so much life and vibrancy. This is a raw, coming-of-age tale where who knows if there’s a happy ending. What matters for Mickey is survival.