The Better Angels

“All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother,” Abe Lincoln is said to have said. Technically that was his stepmother, Sarah, who’s played in writer-director A.J. Edwards’ artfully oblique film by Diane Kruger; his natural mother, Nancy, played by Brit Marling, died when Abe was 9, but Edwards makes her seem pretty angelic too. With the above quotation for an epigraph, The Better Angels opens in earnest by gazing devoutly at the towering chiaroscuro columns of the Lincoln Memorial. We don’t see the statue, presumably because our story transpires long before the man was set in stone. This goes even further back, in fact, than Young Mr. Lincoln, that quintessential John Ford-Henry Fonda collaboration, still the serene pre-monument pastoral Lincoln lyricism of record. But Edwards, with a game young Braydon Denny in the role of our proto-hero, seems to want to get out from under capital-H history entirely. This behind-every-great-man narrative, which glimpses younger mister Lincoln’s hardscrabble Indiana childhood, isn’t even much of a narrative. “Wanna know what kinda boy he was?” says a voice in the first minute, and there’s a sense of: Well, stranger, sounds like you’re going to tell us. The thing to know about Edwards is that he’s a protégé of Terrence Malick: The voiceover continues, and, see, before those columns there were trees, lots of trees. A dreamy, whispery reverie isn’t the wrong way to go, per se; after all, how exactly does one dramatize the developing conscience of democracy? “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun,” Jean-Luc Godard is said to have said, but what if all you need is a log cabin and a Steadicam?