Cherry – A stunning, intimate drama that burns with ferocious energy and complexity

Cherry is showing in selected theatres from February 26th, and premiere’s on Apple TV+ March 12th

“The drill sergeants were just pretending to be drill sergeants. We were pretending to be soldiers. The Army was pretending to be the Army.” – Nico Walker (Cherry)

How do you begin to describe an epic yet, intimate film that contains multiple and urgent social issues? This was my first thought as the credits came to a close on Cherry – my initial response was to go back for a second viewing just two hours after my first. To revisit a movie in such close succession is rare for me as a critic; still, Cherry demanded it, my second viewing only generating even more questions. Here I found myself asking whether Cherry was a war drama? A complex love story? An addiction drama? Or an acute dissection of post-traumatic stress disorder?

As I sat contemplating these questions, the haunting after-effects of the Russo Brothers movie were still with me before I finally concluded that Cherry is, in fact, all four of the above. Here, its soul is rooted in the interface between war, love, addiction, and trauma in an expertly crafted, violent, loving, traumatic, and urgent screenplay. Cherry reflects the turbulent decade post 9/11 – a decade that would result in Trump’s election, rising nationalism, ISIS, and ever-growing social inequality. Of course, Cherry is not the first film to reflect multiple social issues or the global dimensions behind them. So why does Cherry carries such dramatic clout?

Based on Nico Walker’s 2018 novel of the same name, the semi-autobiographical work centres on a young man and his life in Cleveland, Ohio. Here we are taken from his college days to his enlisting in the army before serving in Iraq and eventually returning to Cleveland. His post-army life, a whirlwind of PTSD and addiction, leading to several armed robberies followed by jail.

Walker wrote his novel on a typewriter in prison before his release on parole in 2019, his own journey firmly placed into the fictional hands of a young man known only as ‘Cherry.’ But Cherry’s journey is more than just a reflection of Walker; its the story of so many ex-soldiers who found themselves forgotten, discarded, and incarcerated post Iraq. Their experiences of war burned into their minds, hogging every waking minute, hour and day. For many of these ex-soldiers, the root out of the horrors that plagued them was found in drugs, some prescribed and some illicit. Here the brief freedom and escape the drugs offered was nothing but a route toward long-term addiction.

For many, the memories of blood, destruction and conflict would prove too much to bear; their lives ended by their own hands. Post the Vietnam War; this experience would find a voice through the phrase Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. However, in reality, the psychological after-effects of war had long been known by a range of titles, from ‘shell shock’ to ‘war neurosis’.

Tom Holland stars in Cherry ©️Apple TV+ and AGBO Films (2021)

Despite Government knowledge and understanding of this condition for decades, PTSD remained largely untreated and undiagnosed. The acceptance of the condition and its effects, too often held in a toxic veil of perceived weakness. Meanwhile, an Armed Forces quick to enlist were also slow to support those who gave their soul in service. However, the interface between PTSD, poverty, social status, and opportunity is less discussed, which brings me back to why Cherry is so profoundly affecting. Here, the Russo Brothers not only reflect the abject horror of war but lace this with much broader themes of place, purpose and belonging, in a film that bravely and boldly explores the socio-economic reality for many of those returning from war.

Cherry is at its strongest when exploring the failures of armed forces that promise protection while equally discarding soldiers with little concern after their service. Here the distribution of medals and commendations is no replacement for the mental damage done, the lack of employment opportunities available, or the financial pressures civilian life brings.

Meanwhile, those ex-servicemen and women visiting doctors find quick prescriptions for drugs handed out rather than meaningful discussion. Is it, therefore, any wonder that some ex-servicemen and women end up in rehabilitation, prison or homeless shelters? The hope of a future post-service held in the wealth, status and support structures they have, many of which may have been creaking at the seams long before they enrolled.

Cherry explores the devastation PTSD causes in relationships, with partners caught in the net of increasing anxiety, depression and addiction. While at the same time, Cherry treads similar ground to Kubrick’s masterpiece Full Metal Jacket. Here the futility of war is placed centre stage alongside the toxic attitudes inherent in training. Meanwhile, Cherry also understands the slippery slope of drug use over human talking therapies. But, Cherry finds its intimate and ferocious energy when each of these is wrapped in discussions on socio-economic status.

Holding this complexity together is Tom Holland (Cherry) and Ciara Bravo (Emily), and to say this is Tom Holland’s strongest performance to date is an understatement. Holland’s understated command of the screen is layered with fear, explosive emotion and a simmering sense of dread. This is a young actor genuinely coming into his own, bravely taking a role that stretches and expands his abilities while the Russo Brothers create a safe space for him to flourish. But when Holland’s masterful performance is coupled with Ciara Bravo’s intense and exceptional portrayal of Emily (a character who received little attention in Walker’s novel), Cherry indeed finds its voice.

Cherry is the Russo Brother’s first film since leaving the Avenger’s behind, and it could not be more different to the Marvel cinematic universe they helped to create. Here the big action set pieces of Endgame and Infinity War are replaced by something far more personal, intimate and emotional. In many ways, Cherry also feels deeply personal as the brothers explore the economic hardship that runs through their home city. Here, the Russo Brothers reflect the experience of people they have known and loved and, in turn, create a deeply personal movie in the process.

There are echoes of both Martin Scorsese and Sydney Lumet in the film that ensues, from the bank robbery scenes bathed in Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon to the conflicted criminal actions born from frustration, anger and defeat. Meanwhile, Henry Jackman’s sublime score ebbs and flows with the drama on-screen, creating a deep emotional attachment. Of course, whether Cherry gains the attention it deserves as a straight to streaming release is yet to be seen. But, make no mistake, Cherry deserves your attention, its sheer weight and power lingering long after the final scene.

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