It’s rare, but not unprecedented, for a director to follow up their worst film with their best. Actor-turned-filmmaker Tom McCarthy went from the widely derided Adam Sandler vehicle The Cobbler to Oscar-winning glory with Spotlight, and now Angelina Jolie has pulled off a similar feat. Two years (and one divorce) since the misbegotten vanity project By the Sea, she recreates a child's-eye view of the Cambodian War with her deft adaptation of co-writer Loung Ung's 2000 memoir First They Killed My Father.
Five-year-old Loung (newcomer Sreymoch Sareum, unpolished, but affecting) enjoys a comfortable life in Phnom Penh in 1975. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, a favorite of Danny Boyle and Lars Von Trier, makes it look like an attractive place filled with light and color, but after the American imperialists split the scene, the communist Khmer Rouge begins a four-year campaign of forced relocation, property confiscation, re-education, and mass execution. Loung's dreams and memories provide sustenance as her world turns to shit.
Separated from her parents and most of her six siblings, she becomes a child soldier, planting incendiary devices and chanting anti-Vietnamese slogans until better days arrive. Jolie's selection of her 16-year-old Cambodia-born son, Maddox, as one of the three executive producers is a bit much, but it seems just as likely that the film wouldn't exist without him.
For more information about what might be Jolie's masterpiece, see Movie Times.