Young Abe Lincoln's purported formative years are re-created in strikingly black-and-white images in "The Better Angels," but the technique doesn't necessarily help to create penetrating drama.
A first feature by longtime Terrence Malick protégé A.J. Edwards, "The Better Angels" paints Lincoln's poverty-stricken childhood in a log cabin deep in the woods of Indiana.
The director certainly creates an evocative mood combining stark natural imagery with natural ambient sounds, snatches of music and snippets of dialogue delivered by actors, including an effectively cast Braydon Denney in the title role, Diane Kruger as Lincoln's loving stepmother and Jason Clarke as his severe, distant father.
But even though the film takes its inspiration from a pair of books — Benjamin Thomas' "Abraham Lincoln" and Carl Sandburg's "The Prairie Years" — all that extensively researched authenticity and soul-stirring cinematography go only so far in establishing a compelling connection to a specific time and place.
In the absence of a more conventional storytelling approach, this series of brief, fragmented glimpses of the harsh challenges that shaped Lincoln's early life never allows you to get sufficiently close to its celebrated subject.
"The Better Angels"
MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements, brief smoking.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
Playing: Nuart, West Los Angeles.