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Turning Red (2022)

It’s fair to start to wonder whether Disney has some kind of grudge against Pixar at this time. The last three Pixar movies have been pulled from theatrical release and made exclusively available as part of their streaming war chest with Disney Plus. You can blame COVID for Soul being pulled, and the theatrical market was still recovering by the time Luca was scheduled to be released during the middle of summer 2021, but this didn’t stop Disney from releasing both of its own in-house animated efforts to theaters. Both Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto played in theaters in 2021 and both under-performed at the box-office, which is clearly not close to where it was pre-pandemic. No animated movie has earned over $100 million at the U.S. box-office since COVID, and maybe that’s the reason that Turning Red has become the third Pixar movie to go directly to streaming. There are rumors that this trend has been demoralizing for Pixar employees, and explanations by Disney brass that these movies move valuable subscribers to their service, but I guess we’ll see when the Buzz Lightyear movie comes out summer 2022. Regardless, Turning Red is a high quality movie that made me feel warm and fuzzy all over.

Meilin Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) is a 12-year-old student trying to live her best life in Toronto circa 2002. That means she’s one way with her friends and one way with her domineering mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). Mei is an overachieving student, devoted daughter to her family’s business caring for a Chinese temple honoring their ancestors and red pandas, and a fangirl in the extreme for the popular boy band, 4-Town (even though there are five members). Mei’s mother does not approve of her devotion to this band, or the influence of her friends, and doesn’t understand the new person her daughter is turning into. However, Mei also happens to turn into a giant red panda whenever she feels any strong emotion. She has to keep herself in check, which is hard to do with mean students, an embarrassing mother, and the prospect of scrounging up enough money so she and her three besties can see their favorite boy band live.

I had to consider what about Turning Red worked for me and what about Luca did not. They’re both relatively smaller scale movies about characters who transform into fantastical creatures, who have to hide their secret, deal with parental disapproval, and come of age while pushing their personal boundaries and re-examining who they are and what they felt was important. There are several points of comparison but I found Luca to be broadly lackluster and low in stakes. With Turning Red, I found the movie to be much more engaging and poignant. So what’s the difference where one feels shallow and the other feels personal and resonant? I think the difference is that Turning Red’s relationships feel more realized and complex. The mother-daughter dynamic is fraught with tension, as trying to live up to the standards of the prior generation is often a surefire way to disappointment. That stuff is relatable, and the drama is potent, but the movie doesn’t lose sight of the generational love underneath all the headaches. Both movies are in essence about growing up and finding your identity, relishing different parts of you that stand out as unique, and coming to terms with differences in perception, but I felt with Turning Red that the film embraced these themes, integrated them better, and also built a sturdier foundation of enriched character relationships.

The animation is irrepressibly gorgeous but I really enjoyed the added style of Turning Red. It had a more tactile physical presence that reminded me of the Aardman models (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run). The color balance also emphasized bright colors that popped with subdued hues as a background. I especially enjoyed playful little touches from anime that emphasized the overly dramatic nature of the personal stakes, like when Mei is sweating over whether her mom will find her notebook filled with pictures of a crush that she felt compelled to draw. There’s a definite energy to this movie that’s missing from plenty of other Pixar movies. It follows the perspective of its heroine, so it’s joyfully excitable and goofy at points and definitely over-the-top, like when she’s calling out her besties and we flash to a rotating mountain they’re all triumphantly scaling. It’s adopted her perspective in a way that makes the movie feel more personable, and I appreciated Mei’s character even more. Special credit should go to whoever was in charge of designing the fur textures for the red panda. When she fully panda’s out, Mei resembles a wonderfully realized version of a Totoro-styled demigod.

It was the third act where Turning Red went from amusing to surprisingly poignant for me. The central conflict is between Mei trying to be herself and the version her mother thinks she should be, which is naturally more deferential and devoted to the family at the expense of independence. This isn’t the first story to explore the difference between traditional families and their children becoming more influenced by Western pop-culture. It’s also not the first story about finding your voice and making a stand, or about parents coming to terms with the realization that their little kid isn’t so little any more. That’s fine. The supernatural elements are also pretty straightforward to follow and in service of the central relationships and metaphors. It’s the personal details that make this movie feel specific to its voice while still being accessible and relatable. It’s easy to cringe when Mei’s mother shares Mei’s private drawings with her fleeting crush. While many of us might not have been diehard fans of a boy band, we all had some phase where we felt more mature, more grown up, and dramatically different because of what this interest meant for us. I found myself battling genuine tears by the end. The end comes down to a conflict between mother and daughter, itself an echo of past conflicts, of overbearing generations being less flexible. It’s also ultimately about acceptance, but the idea that the aspects about yourself that you feel embarrassed or insecure about do not need to be expunged from your identity I think is a worthwhile message about growing up. It’s not about shedding parts of yourself, killing off things you dislike. It’s more about transformation and acceptance of self.

Turning Red is a briskly paced comedy with a precise, charismatic lead character letting us in on the pressures of her world and of being a teenage girl in the early twentieth century. It’s colorful and frenetic at points but feels completely in keeping with the personality of our plucky protagonist. The combination of puberty and monster transformation has been a ripe area for films especially in the realm of horror. This also might be the horniest Pixar movie to date, and a climactic confrontation involves shaking one’s butt, as they kids are wont to do in leisure. It’s got the substance I felt was missing with Luca and the simplified and streamlined world building that I felt could have improved Soul. In short, Turning Red isn’t top-tier Pixar but it’s an irresistible urban fantasy that has plenty of heart and whimsy to enchant audiences no matter the age.

Nate’s Grade: B+

CODA (2021)

Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) falls under the category of CODA, a Child Of a Deaf Adult. Her mother (Marlee Matlin) and father (Tony Kotsur) and her older brother (Daniel Durant) are all deaf, and she is the only member of her household with the ability to hear. She’s balancing working for her family on their fishing trawler, maintaining good grades in school, and possibly pursuing scholarships to enroll at a music and fine arts college for singing. Ruby’s music teacher agrees to train her because he believes in her potential, but Ruby has to worry that her dream is something that cannot be shared with the people she loves most, and how would they all get on without her?

The framework of CODA is familiar to anyone who has watched a coming-of-age story or family drama, but it’s the conviction and strength of character and sheer force of empathy that makes this movie a standout film for 2021. It’s based upon a 2014 French film, The Family Beller, and follows many of the same beats from other sentimental family dramas about sticking out in your family and society, chasing your dream, often in conflict with your family’s expectations, gaining that sense of inner strength and resolve, and mending differences in perspective with hard-fought and well-earned wisdom. It’s familiar, but that doesn’t mean under the right set of hands that it cannot still be resonant and emotionally gratifying. I do not hold the familiar formula against CODA, even as the family’s goal and her personal goal come into direct conflict in sometimes forced manners. That’s because the movie does an excellent job of establishing these people as characters, establishing the family dynamic as fraught but loving, and establishing a conflict that is direct and clear as far a major point of separation.

Ruby isn’t just the only member of her family who can hear, she’s also their vital lifeline to the outside world. She’s looked upon as the family interpreter, a position they cannot afford to pay for someone else’s services so the duties and responsibilities fall upon her. That’s so much pressure to bear for one teenage girl, knowing that she’s the link between her family’s poverty-treading existence and possibly breaking free into a larger hearing community. She feels ostracized and awkward within her own family and outside of her own family. To the rest of the school, she’s that “deaf family girl,” and it’s remarked that when she began high school she had an accent reminiscent of what deaf people can sound like, a point that her peers cruelly imitate. She worries she will forever be defined by her family’s disability even if she doesn’t share it. However, within her family, she feels ostracized because she’s different. She wonders if her mother wishes that she too were deaf, and during a heartfelt late-night talk, mom actually admits that upon her daughter’s birth she did feel disappointment when Ruby had hearing. While she knows sign language and has grown up with these loving figures, she’ll still always be the one who’s different, the one who hears the insults her family cannot.

The film does a remarkable effort about contextualizing Ruby’s fears and frustrations of being held captive in two different worlds, neither feeling fully accepted or whole, and that’s why her embarking on a personal dream that her family can never fully appreciate feels so significant. Part of Ruby might feel that singing is selfish, especially if it means limiting her family’s upward mobility by eliminating their unpaid interpreter, but it’s the thing that makes her most happy, a special gift that her family will be excluded from. There’s a wonderful moment toward the end of the movie where Ruby’s father asks her to sing to him, and he puts his hands along her shoulders and neck to feel the vibrations, and his awed and tear-stricken face is so moving, as he so desperately wants to indulge too in the beauty of his daughter’s voice. While occasionally the film goes overboard pounding these two conflicting paths into forced collision (family vs. self), the movie is personal with its big problems and personal with its big triumphs, making it transcend the trappings of formula.

Writer/director Sian Heder got her start on Orange is the New Black, and that TV series’ hallmark has been its enormous sense of empathy for its diverse characters. This is evident in Heder’s screenplay and her observational, detail-rich simple storytelling that immerses you in this world, so even while you recognize more familiar made-for-TV plot turns, the genuine authenticity makes the movie feel like its own unique story. Heder’s direction is delicate and places the attention squarely on her performers. There is one stylistic move late in the film when Ruby’s family comes to her choir recital in support. They look around for cues when to applaud, and their minds wander as they sign about other menial topics like grocery lists, and you understand why once Heder drops you into their perspective. For a minute, the sound disappears, and you’re left studying facial expressions for cues like them. While we can imagine being deaf, it’s another matter to experience it and try and understand.

The acting is another laudable merit for CODA. I personally want three Oscar nominations for this clan, Jones (Locke & Key) for Best Actress, Matlin (Children of a Lesser God) for Best Supporting Actress, and Kotsur (Wild Prairie Rose) for Best Supporting Actor. Over the course of nine months, Jones learned American Sign Language and how to sing, which is surprising because I would have said she has a natural talent with singing. Her performance, as well as Matlin and Kotsur, feel so real, so nuanced, and so natural, like we’ve plucked these people from real life and given them this platform. It’s the best credit you can give an actor, when they seemingly disappear into the character, and the character feels like a fully breathing, flesh-and-blood person. Even the small supporting roles are well cast, well acted, and contribute to the overall authenticity of the movie. Unlike the 2014 French original movie, all of the deaf members of the family are portrayed by actual deaf actors as well.

CODA was a sensation at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, with Apple Films buying the rights for $25 million dollars, and it’s easy to see why because it’s such a satisfying, enriching crowd-pleaser and legit tear-jerker. There were several points that had me tearing up, and then fully crying, because I was so emotionally engaged with the family, their struggles, and their triumphs and outpouring of love. You might be able to see where the movie is headed because its template is familiar and formulaic, but it’s the execution, the attention to detail, and the level of observational attention that elevates CODA and makes it so winning and so heartwarming.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Hand of God (2021)

For writer/director Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning 2013 film The Great Beauty, of which I was a great fan, I wrote: “It’s a bawdy, beautiful, and entertaining film but one that also takes its time, luxuriates in atmosphere… The film is far more free-floating and meditative … I felt like I could celebrate the absurdities and joys of life along with the people onscreen. It’s existential without being laboriously pretentious, and the comedy and stylish flourishes help anchor the entertainment.” Most of those words still apply to 2021’s autobiographical coming-of-age drama, The Hand of God, so why does it feel less appealing this time? We follow a young man in 1980s Naples and his large, boisterous, very Italian family. It’s a movie of moments, several extended vignettes, and it sadly doesn’t add up to much for me. I think that’s because the young protagonist is too blank to care about. He’s a surrogate for the filmmaker, but you never get a sense of his passions or interests or even personality. It’s a movie of people talking to and at him, so it’s hard to work up much emotion for his triumphs and perseverence. There are some memorable parts, like his awkward deflowering to an older woman, and a tragic turn halfway through that sneaks up on you. The life lessons are familiar for the well-trod territory, and the personal details of the era, the community, the 1982 World Cup (where we get the title from) feel richly realized as Sorrentino’s gauzy nostalgia. It’s just that Sorrentino’s ratio of interesting to ponderous moments has tilted into the negative this time. The Hand of God is overlong, free-floating, occasionally beautiful and frustratingly inaccessible.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Petite Maman (2021)

There are two things to know about the deeply heartfelt new French movie, Petite Maman. The first is that it’s the follow-up by Celine Sciamma, the writer and director of one of 2019’s absolute best movies, the sumptuously romantic, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. That was reason enough to watch this relatively short movie. The next is a twist that I’ll save for the body of this review but that makes this childhood examination on loss, grief, and the future far more compelling and emotionally striking. It’s further proof to me that Sciamma is one of the best filmmakers out there and that her devotion to story and human emotion is paramount; just as I was enveloped in the romantic swell of Portrait, I was charmed and enchanted by this wholesome movie that’s so winsome that you could watch with the whole family, that is, if you can convince children to watch a 75-minute French drama with you, and if so, congrats.

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is mourning the recent loss of her grandmother. She and her mother and father have camped to grandma’s old home to pack it up. Everyone is sad and one day Nelly’s mother leaves without warning. She doesn’t know when mom is coming back. In the meantime, Nelly makes a friend with a neighbor girl, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz). She’s living with her mother and nervous about an upcoming operation to fix a genetic malady. However, in the meantime, these two little girls find solace in playing with one another, building a fort in the woods, and creating role play scenarios that allow each to hone their acting skills. Over the course of a few days, Nelly learns to understand her family more while learning to say goodbye on her own terms.

I’ll save the spoilers for the next paragraph because I feel like they are unavoidable to truly get at what makes this movie special. One non-spoiler merit of this movie is how persuasively it is told from the perspective of childhood. Our little eight-year-old heroine is the protagonist, and we see the world from her understanding. That doesn’t mean the movie ever leans on narration or a reality-bending imaginative framework; it’s simply told with the understanding of what it’s like to be a child with questions and emotions that you don’t quite know how to handle. There’s a beguiling innocence with the movie that makes it so wholesome and sweet. As an adult, it’s not too difficult to remember your understanding of the world as a child, let alone family relationships, especially in the aftermath of bereavement. Nelly is forlorn because she didn’t know her last exchange with her grandmother would be their final interaction, and that ache is relatable no matter the age. Nobody knows when their last interaction with a loved one could be, so it’s easy to feel that same lament that more wasn’t made to achieve a better sense of closure. There’s a sweet moment between Nelly and her mother where they role play what that final exchange could have been, and all Nelly wishes is to say goodbye one more time but with more forceful feelings behind the words, and it was a moment so pure and innocent. The entire movie is like this moment, a lingering earnest sensation that is universal and expertly delicate.

Here comes the spoilers, so dear reader be aware if you still want to remain as pure as this movie, although I would argue knowing this spoiler ahead of time will improve your movie-going experience by giving you a necessary part of the puzzle. Petite Maman translates to “Little Mother” and it’s more than simply little kids pretending to be adults. It turns out that Marion is actually the eight-year-old version of Nelly’s mother, and her house they retreat to after playing in the woods is an older version of Nelly’s grandmother’s home. There are clues early, like the same distinct wallpaper and interior design of the house, but you might be able to dismiss that as maybe there are just similar houses being built in this neighborhood. After a while, though, you start to realize there’s more going on here, and the movie doesn’t treat you like an idiot. Nelly flat out tells Marion that she is her child from a future. From there, the movie becomes a fully felt inter-generational bonding experience, where daughter gets to talk to her mother on her own level, answer questions for her curious young mother, and they talk about dealing with sadness as they know it. When Marion asks if Nelly was planned, she says yes, and Marion says, “That makes sense. I can’t stop thinking about you already,” and tears come to my eyes even typing the words. This twist brings so much more meaning to everyday activities; instead of Nelly staying one last night to make pancakes with her new friend, now it’s Nelly having only one more opportunity to bond with her mother when they’re both at the same age, saying goodbye while telling her how much she loves her, not knowing if when they part that she may even see her adult mother again. Wow, that is so much going on. Nelly even gets another shot to find that closure with her grandmother.

The two young actresses are twin sisters, and both are terrific. Given the gentle nature of the movie, neither is given any great moment where they tearfully break down, shout their feelings, or chew the scenery in general. These feel like real kids dealing with real emotions under some unique circumstances. Each of the Sanz sisters is a delight and realistically subdued and not just poor actors incapable of effectively showing emotion. When Nelly and Marion are play acting a scene, with one pretending to be an investigator interrogating the other as a suspect, they both have a twinkle to them as they admire each other’s acting ability, saying they should become an actress. It’s a nice moment for each of the Sanz sisters because they’re living their own dreams in the scene.

Petite Maman is a special movie and one that doesn’t feel like a frame is wasted. Even at only 75 minutes in length, its compassion and sweetness are eminently felt and appreciated. My only regret is that we could have had more time together with these two and to develop even more, but it almost seems like its own commentary on life and our relationships itself. We always are left wanting more, never knowing when one last hug or joke will be the last, and so savor the human experiences we have, the cherished memories earned, the gamut of emotions shared, and enjoy what we have.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Belfast (2021)

Kenneth Branagh returns to his boyhood home with Belfast, a coming of age story set during the Troubles in 1969 where Protestant mobs were targeting Irish Catholics. The movie is partly autobiographical as we follow young Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) and his parents (Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe) and grandparents (Cirian Hinds, Judi Dench) dealing with life as their neighborhood block more resembles a war zone. There are dangerous influences and dark intentions on the peripheral, but we’re mostly at kid level, where his days are preoccupied with sitting closer to his crush in school and wanting to impress his older cousin and be accepted. The parental perspective is kept to offhand whsipers and weighty conversations about moving away or staying behind. The black and white photography is gorgeous and exquisitely composed, looking like old family photos come to rich life. The actors are charming and heartfelt, and when called upon deliver emotional fury. The problem with Belfast, and it feels mean to even cite it as such, is that everything is just a little too nice, a little too clean, a little too safe. The childhood perspective doesn’t quite jibe with the political instability at hand. It’s not a Jojo Rabbit where that disconnect is the point for reflection. It’s clearly Branagh’s love letter to his family and native land. It feels like entire scenes have been plucked directly from Branagh’s nostalgic memories. It also feels like the characters are more sweet-smiling composites than real people. It’s all been romanticized with Branagh’s personal nostalgia, reshaping the odd angles and dangling conflicts into something more sentimentally safe, easy, and inoffensively digestible. Belfast is a perfectly enjoyable movie but it feels like a simple TV movie-of-the-week, crowd-pleasing version of a complex story worthy of greater nuance and scrutiny.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Tender Bar (2021)

When adapting a memoir into a movie, it’s important to ask whether the subject has lived an interesting life that people would want to see. With The Tender Bar, based on the 2006 memoir by journalist JR Moehringer, I think the filmmakers lost sight of this. Young JR has elements of an interesting personal experience; his father, a famous radio DJ, has been absent for his whole life yet JR still pines for him while listening to the radio (the father is simply referred to as “The Voice”); his mother goes through chemotherapy for cancer; his grandfather, whom he and his mother have been forced to move back home to live with, is suffering from dementia; his uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck) runs the local bar and pushes JR to read mountains of classic literature in order to become a better writer. Any of those elements could be further explored and mined for relatable human drama and bittersweet coming-of-age lessons. That’s not what The Tender Bar does. Strangely, it cavalierly jumps around these plot points, never really settling on one for long, only braiding them together in a way that feels fleeting and stalled for building momentum. The choice of mixing in non-linear flash forwards and flashbacks (as well as a narrator) complicates matters and feels like the adaptation was struggling to relay the info it needed. Too much of this movie dwells on the least interesting part of this story, namely JR falling in love with a girl in college who repeatedly dumps him. It’s so frustrating to watch especially when we have more interesting scenarios passed up just to watch this dumb kid get his heart broken by this same girl for the umpteenth time. I wish JR had just remained a youngster and we could have focused on his real father figure shaping him, his uncle, and their time spent running the local watering hole. Mysteriously, this movie is directed by George Clooney, who shows no real affinity for the story or its characters. The movie is generally warm and gauzy but bereft of significant personal details to make the drama more resonant. It’s like you took a coming-of-age story and melted it down to its most recognizable base components. The Tender Bar is assuredly a case where the appeal of the novel must have been from the voice of its author. The story, at least presented onscreen, is a wistful shrug of a movie with an above-average Affleck performance. It’s a nice but dull experience, which is likely an apt description of most ordinary people’s lives.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Luca (2021)

Pixar’s second straight direct-to-Disney-plus outing, Luca, is a decidedly lesser movie from the creative powerhouse. It’s more in keeping with the low stakes and minimal characterization of something like the Cars franchise or Monster’s University. It has its gentle charms and important themes about acceptance, accessibility, and identity, but Luca feels a bit too shallow and lacking in magic. Two sea monster boys want to feel the thrill and freedom of living on land, and it just so happens they transform into looking like humans as long as they don’t get wet. They must learn the ways of blending in, keep their secret, and win the local triathlon to achieve their dream of owning a Vespa scooter. Yes, ostensibly it’s about two kids, and a third once they become friends with a rambunctious redheaded girl in town, wanting to win a race to get a scooter, and you can see the larger theme about friendship and self-acceptance in the name of intolerance, but the movie feels like Ponyo meets The Little Mermaid with the setting of Call Me By Your Name (with maybe some of its coming-of-age queer coding?). The movie barely gets to 84 minutes long, pre-credits, and even that feels very lackadaisical and padded, stretching a thin storyline with minimal development. The animation is expectantly gorgeous and colorful, the lovely daubs of light are so soothing to watch, though I didn’t care for the Gravity Falls-style character designs. The stakes are low and personal but I didn’t really care about the broad characters. There are some fun farcical hijinks trying to hide their monster selves from being seen, and the conclusion has a sweet message without being overtly sentimental, but Luca is little more than a fitfully amusing yet slight seaside vacation for your hungry eyes.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Cuties (2020)

A new Netflix movie is tearing through the Internet, igniting accusations of glorifying child porn, accusing Netflix employees of pedophilia, and triggering some to even cancel their subscriptions. Even if you’ve never watched Cuties you have probably heard something about it through the controversy that has inflamed innumerable conversations and condemnation. Cuties is a French drama that follows a young 11-year-old Amy (Falthia Toussouf) as she embarks on a new school. Her religious Muslim family has set her up for one way of life, but the popular girls at her school look so much more free, fun, and wild. The “Cuties” dance team dreams of stardom, envies the older teen dance team, and emulates salacious dance moves from videos. It’s easy to see why the movie has generated its controversy and it’s understandable why many people would ever refuse to watch it based on subject matter alone. No matter the artistic merit, watching kids behaving this way, and the natural discomfort it produces, can be too much to endure. However, for those willing to give Cuties a chance, I do think it has some artistic merit as it tells, what is essentially, a familiar story of a youth going down a wayward path of temptation and rebellion.

There are three standout moments to me in Cuties that exemplify what writer/director Maïmouna Doucouré was going for as well as the commentary attached to the controversy. I’ll be going into spoilers to discuss these scenes and why I think it adds up to a whole that has more thoughtful intentions than exploiting children for cheap buzz and leering perversion.

1) Early on, like around the ten-minute mark, Amy is dancing and hides under her mother’s bed to not get in trouble. Her mother walks around with the Great Aunt and she overhears their conversation and learns some upsetting news. Her father, who is away and yet to move back with the family, will be marrying a second wife and bringing her home. The mother is trying to put on a brave face and play her part, calling relatives to dutifully inform them about the development, but she is clearly devastated and wracked with emotion. She feels replaced and inadequate and harmed by the man she loves, and Amy registers the pain and degradation her mother is going through on a deeply personal level, and this is what serves as motivation for her later actions. When she’s making new friends and wearing crop tops and pushing her boundaries, it’s not just a young Muslim girl who wants to escape the conservative trappings of her culture; it’s a young girl who is looking to rebel and stick it to her father. Her sense of a woman’s place in this family is to be subservient to the man and his authority, and she’s angry with him, angry at causing her mother pain, angry at viewing her as a collectible, and angry at what she views is a culture that restricts her to a life she does not want for herself but worries may not have a choice. Again, this isn’t a judgment on all Muslim families but merely the relationships within this one. This overheard phone call is such an immediately powerful scene with such an emotional wallop that I was tearing up. Amy’s motivation is more complex than simply wanting to dress provocatively. She’s rejecting a fate that could as easily befall her, and in doing so, a viewpoint on women.

2) There is a moment where the girl gang is just hanging out in the woods and laughing. One girl, Coumba (Esther Gohourou), finds a deflated condom on the ground. Not thinking anything of it, she blows it up like a balloon and the other girls freak out. They declare that their friend is now tainted, gross, and possibly exposed to AIDS. Coumba, who was the loudest and most outspoken joker among the group, is frozen in embarrassment. She didn’t know what it really was because she’s simply a child. She had no real conception, and now that reminder and the embarrassment and the hysteria from her friends is making her feel so small and humiliated. She’s desperate for her friends to excuse this misstep, to be accepted by her peer circle once again, and she meekly defends her ignorance. A single tear rolls down her cheek and this scene was a fitting reminder for me that the filmmakers have never forgotten that these girls, no matter how they dress and how they act, are still very much children. They talk about sex and porn but through an uninformed understanding of the larger meaning and context let alone sense of anatomical accuracy. It’s because they’re still children! This moment was further confirmation for me that the filmmakers had not forgotten that their subjects were to be presented thoughtfully. These 11-year-olds aren’t to be sexualized, just like teenagers shouldn’t be either, no matter how eager these young people are to jump ahead in maturity and be seen as desirous and incendiary.

3) The last scene of the movie involves the father’s wedding, a moment that mother and daughter have been dreading. Amy has run away from her dance team’s big show and made her choice, choosing to return to her family and as a support for her mother. She reminds Amy that she does not have to attend the wedding but Amy is determined to be there, knowing fully what it means for her mother and the larger implications for her family. Amy must decide what to wear for the festivity and stares down the traditional dress her Great Aunt had brought. Amy looks at her skimpy dance outfit, a guaranteed attention-seeking statement if she were to wear it to her father’s wedding ceremony. Instead, she chooses a middle path and simply wears a comfortable sweatshirt and some blue jeans. She rejects the restrictions of her family’s conservative culture, she rejects the extremes of the dance troupe, and she starts to form her own sense of self. She sidles into a game of jump rope and the camera pans up, and as the camera moves so too does Amy, locked into the camera shot, rising above the world, and she’s smiling so broad that her face seems to glow with happiness, a relief and joy she hasn’t felt in some time. By the end of this tale, our heroine has rebelled, overstepped, learned something about herself, and now seems a little surer of who she wants to be as a young woman charting her life in France. For me, this conclusion reaffirms the intentions of the filmmakers and commentary that those feelings of discomfort were on purpose.

With that being said, there were of course scenes that made me feel deeply uncomfortable, and I would question anyone who didn’t feel the same. The Cuties’ final dance is shockingly adult. Children should not be behaving in this manner but, and I again I stress this, that is the point of the movie. The audience at the dance competition does not approve of the tween twerking; they boo, they make disgusted faces, and one mother attempts to cover her baby’s eyes. “THIS IS TOTALLY NOT A GOOD THING,” Doucouré’s film is vociferously pronouncing. When the girls are simply dancing, her camera favors wide angles or framing that doesn’t ogle their bodies. Often dances will be seen as a whole or with shoulders-and-up framing. Whenever the girls film their dances, the camera adopts the intended lascivious emulation they seek, lingering more on butts in shorts and their attempt at sensual gazes they’ve adopted from Instagram influencers and aspiring models. It’s icky but it’s only a sampling compared to the in-your-face final dance performance. What I’m trying to articulate is that the portrayal of these young girls letting loose is more tasteful than the detractors have given Cuties credit for. I’ve seen scuzzy teen-centric movies (notably by Larry Clark) where the camera was continuously fetishizing its teenage subjects as a default setting. Cuties isn’t that until it really wants to grind its cautionary message into your horrified face as you try to shield your eyes.

I had a student ask why did it have to be 11-year-olds, why couldn’t the same message have been told through slightly older figures, maybe 15 or 16-year-olds, and I didn’t have an answer. Maybe because we’ve already seen “teens go bad” movies with 16 years-olds (Kids), or even presumably 13-year-olds (Thirteen), and maybe Doucouré felt she needed to go younger to be different, or push the envelope, or to grab attention from an increasingly blasé public. Maybe the filmmaker felt we needed to go to an age before puberty so it’s less a “becoming a woman” transition and more a constant of being acknowledged as a child. I cannot say. At its core, Cuties doesn’t have to be a story that is told from a particular age because it’s a formula that we’re familiar with and it embodies universal themes of acceptance, isolation, rebellion, and belonging. It’s a better movie than the alarmist defenders of childhood virtue claim (funny how these same defenders seem so quiet in supporting a president who literally bragged about spying on tween girls while they changed clothes, but that’s another discussion). I would also advise these same critics to look up how many season Toddlers and Tiaras ran for on TV. This is not the best movie. If you’ve seen enough teen movies you’ve likely seen this story already, but Cuties is a perfectly fine movie with enough artistic merit and social commentary to potentially make it worth sitting through the obvious discomfort. I can completely understand if any person would choose to pass on this movie but it would be better if more people actually gave it a chance before sharpening those pitchforks.

Nate’s Grade: B

Wendy (2020)

I was not a big fan of writer/director Benh Zeitlin’s first movie, 2012’s indie darling and surprise Oscar contender, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Some choice highlights from my mixed review include: “This movie is awash in all sorts of tones and storylines, failing to cohesively gel together or form some kind of meaningful message…. [it] offers half-formed ideas, strange, conflicting imagery, and characters that are rather thinly written and barely register… This is just a swampy mess of a movie, one that sinks under the weight of its own pretensions. It’s admirable from a technical standpoint but, as a movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an exercise in eclectic indie navel-gazing.” So as you can see, I wasn’t exactly heartbroken that Zeitlin took eight years for his follow-up, Wendy, a loose reinterpretation of the Peter Pan story. It has many of the same flaws as Beasts and not enough of its few virtues, which means Wendy is its own lost movie experience.

We follow a group of children from a working-class diner waitress in small-town Louisiana. They watch the trains speed by on the neighboring tracks and dream of far-off adventures. Wendy (Devin France) and her two younger twin brothers (Gage and Gavin Naqui) sneak off one night onto a passing train and meet Peter (Yashua Mack), a boy who promises to guide them to a magical island where they will never grow old as long as they believe in Mother, the spirit of the island and embodied as a giant glowing fish. Wendy enjoys the freedom but worries if she’ll ever see her mother again and if this extended excursion is worth that level of sacrifice.

Maybe I’m just going through Peter Pan fatigue or maybe this latest variation on the mythology of J.M. Barrie just failed to provide any really thorough message, theme, or entry point of interest for me. Wendy seems to be going for whimsy and flights of fancy, once again attaching its perspective to that of children escaping into the realm of fantasy as a means of avoiding the hardships of their impoverished lives and what it means to be a working stiff (one child in the opening runs away at the prospect of becoming “a mop and broom man”). It’s meant to be diverting but it’s never really that exciting or involving, tapping into a wellspring of awe. There’s a beautifully idyllic island and a volcano, and of course our magic fish, but there aren’t nearly enough genuine magical elements to convey that desired whimsy. The freedom of a life without adults seems less free when there’s less to do. Much of the movie feels closer to The Florida Project where a group of poor kids are playing around junk to keep from being bored. This Neverland universe feels very limited as far as what can be done. They run around, they pretend, there are even some decrepit buildings, but what else? There isn’t really a society here in concert with our lost children and former lost children. It’s a pretty empty island retreat.

Perhaps that was Zeitlin’s goal, to strip away the romanticized notions we attach to forever staying young, chasing the fleeting feeling of the past while ignoring the present and adulthood, but this more critical theme doesn’t come across thoroughly either. There is one interesting aspect of the island’s unexplained magic and that is the older adults are former lost boys and girls who lost faith in Mother, thus activating their advanced aging and expulsion from Peter’s posse. I like the idea that the future villainous pirates of a Neverland are former lost boys; it gives an interesting personal dynamic for Peter. These adults, though, want to go back to being young again and they are convinced that killing Mother will achieve this, and it doesn’t go as planned. The deconstruction of fantasy with real violence doesn’t work because the consequences aren’t at the same level of realism. A child, in an effort to avoid growing old, makes a drastic decision, but the brushed-off aftermath makes the insertion of the harsher violence feel perfunctory. Peter is portrayed as an idealist leader one moment and ignorant and selfish the next, even with Wendy scolding him that there’s nothing wrong with growing up and becoming an adult, despite the mixed message of the former lost boys. The movie concludes with a goofy sing-a-long for magic resolution purposes that is played so earnestly that it makes it hard for me to believe Zeitlin was intending to be too critical of his magical world.

Is Wendy about rejecting adulthood or the unavoidable perils of rejecting adulthood? I cannot say because the themes are so muddled with such a precious lack of significant storytelling content. Once again, a Zeitlin film feels like an improvised series of redundant scenes, where we watch kids play fight, we watch kids yell at one another, we watch kids run, we watch kids swim, all with headache-inducing handheld camerawork, but do we get to know these kids on a deeper level where they feel like people rather than figures? The plot of Wendy, written by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza, is very unclear about the rules of its magical world, which makes for a hard time to understand why anything is really happening. It also makes the movie less fun to experience because we don’t get to play along with the discovery of a fantasy world, its new parameters, and how we can develop and complicate them (not that there’s really much to discover; Neverland gets old quickly). This is definitely a movie that’s meant to convey more in feeling and inference, so the plot beats are very inconsequential outside of a few key movements. I didn’t find myself caring about any of the kids and their general well-being, even after they take it upon themselves to make some rash medical decisions. Wendy is our best realized character as she at least seems conflicted about the appeal and consequences of staying young indefinitely. The others are easily replaceable.

Wendy isn’t a bad movie and it’s clearly a very personally designed project from Zeitlin given the years of preparation. It has consistently gorgeous photography by Sturla Brandth Grovlen, the first film production shot on location on Montserrat island, and the score by Dan Romer (Maniac, Atypical) excels at the big swooning, churning melodies that crescendo into triumphant bliss. But even these positive technical qualities can only distract you momentarily from the missing center of Wendy, the story and characters and themes and discernible messages. I’m not asking for my entertainment to spoon-feed me what to think and feel from my art, but having a consistent message, or even an accessible entry point to decode and debate the art would help, as would engaging characters and a plot that felt more meaningful than just another disposable color to blend into a murky abstract mess of childhood whimsy, magic realism, and coming-of-age themes. A little of Wendy goes a long way, and two hours gets quite tedious. I just cannot foresee people falling under the spell of this movie. I wrote that Beasts had “half-formed ideas, strange, conflicting imagery, and characters that are rather thinly written and barely register,” and this much is also true with Wendy. I also wrote that Beasts was “an exercise in eclectic indie navel-gazing,” and this much is also true with Wendy. Maybe I’m just not the right fit for a Benh Zeitlin film. This is two hours of kids running around on an island without supervision and the occasional Peter Pan element thrown in. Maybe that sounds like a grand retreat as a viewer but it made me happy to be an adult and leave.

Nate’s Grade: C

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Writer/director Taika Waititi has played a vampire, an intergalactic rock monster, and now perhaps the most challenging role of his career, Adolf Hitler. Coming off his meteoric success with the MCU, Waititi is using the time in between mega-budget Thor sequels to write/direct/produce/co-star in a smaller daring indie comedy. Jojo Rabbit follows a young German boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Dais), during the last year of World War Two. He fantasizes about having an imaginary Hitler (Waititi) as the voice over his shoulder, reinforcing the teachings of adults and authority figures. His worldview is challenged when he discovers a teenager hiding in the family’s walls who just happens to be Jewish. Jojo doesn’t know what to make of Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), nor does she know what to make of him, and Jojo decides to keep her presence a secret to spare his doting and put-upon mother (Scarlet Johansson). Jojo tries interrogating this wily girl but ends up learning more than he ever imagined.

Given the subject matter, setting, and overall tone, it’s a wonder how well Jojo Rabbit works. I was worried about what kind of tone the movie would be striving for given the delicacy of its subject matter, not that other filmmakers have shied away from incorporating comedy into Holocaust settings. I don’t mean this to be overly flippant but for portions of the movie I felt like I was watching “Wes Anderson’s Nazi Germany.” The entire Act One camp sequence feels like a warped deleted scene from Moonrise Kingdom. I was genuinely surprised how often I was laughing with Jojo Rabbit. Waititi can be hysterical as a bratty, temperamental version of the Fuhrer, but there are moments where he gets caught up in the oratory of his hateful rhetoric that serve as a reminder that even for Jojo, he realizes this man isn’t exactly best friend material. The Hitler imaginary friend goes away for long stretches in the second half as the film emphasizes more drama, which is the right choice as Jojo is coming to doubt what he has been taught from that imaginary friend. The portrayal of Hitler might be offensive to some viewers but I feel like Waititi walks a fine line to root it from the perspective of childhood fantasy. It’s taking the figure on TV and adapting it to suit the needs of a lonely kid wanting to belong. Of course he’d want Hitler to select him as the best little young Aryan that Germany has going. It’s not dismissing the evil of the man but instead serving him up through a specific prism that allows laughter not necessarily even at Hitler himself but at a youthful and immature understanding of something far more complex.

I was also worried that the comedy might dampen some of the more dramatic turns coming, and this was so not the case. There are dramatic moments hiding under the surface thanks to seeing them from Jojo’s naïve perspective, but then there also big obvious dramatic moments of suffering that hit. As much as the whimsy prevails early, the dramatic moments are delivered in tasteful ways that do not detract from the feelings being felt by the characters as well as the willing viewers. There are a few gut punches that remind you that even with the whimsy of childhood naivete, real people are dying in awful ways because of those complicit in racist genocidal policies. The relationship between Jojo and his mother is the second most significant one, after he and Elsa, but it’s this central focus where we see the starting point of his character arc. His mother tries to shield her child from the larger terrors of their society but that’s increasingly difficult when people are being hanged in the street for helping Jews. She’s hoping to simply play her part in public, get through this terrible time, and finally have the son back that she knows, hoping he will eventually shake free from the propaganda. It’s a role that requires Johansson to play like another cartoonish adult, all bubbling energy and quirky nonchalance, while burying her increasing concern. Part of me almost wishes that she was a co-equal protagonist so we could get an even richer perspective to contrast more fully.

There’s a sprightly whimsy to the proceedings that comes from being locked into the perspective of an imaginative child. It’s not that the world is 100 percent his vision, it’s more that we know that the representation of what we’re seeing might not be a completely objective reflection of the reality Jojo is encountering. This especially includes the portrayal of many adults involved in various levels of the Nazi party. They play out like cartoons and buffoons but are still dangerous cartoons and buffoons. When Jojo’s childhood friend Yorki is talking about fighting on the front and we see him handling a rocket launcher, this is clearly an exaggeration of the desperation of the moment and a young boy’s eagerness to be involved. This creative approach allows Waititi to dabble in the fantastic and keep his audience alert, allowing them to second-guess what we’re seeing on screen and look for the reality in hiding. I laughed pretty consistently at the intended humor and incredulous nature of the adults trying to pass off wrongheaded insights and suggestions as scientific fact or common sense. It’s a movie where you laugh at the ridiculous idiots while hoping that the idiots won’t get the people we care about killed.

The acting is very strong overall. Newcomer Roman Griffin Davis is exuberant and relatable without coming across as overly cloying or mannered, which can be a rarity for child actors. He has a very difficult role to play from a tone and perspective standpoint, and he succeeds. Another great child actor is Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) as Elsa, a young girl in an extremely vulnerable position who looks upon this new boy with equal amounts fear, disdain, and pity. She cannot be herself and must choose her words and responses carefully, so it’s a guarded performance of restraint but McKenzie is fabulous in quieter, subtler shifts. The adults are all enjoyable as broadly comical cartoons, with Stephen Merchant (Logan) earning considerable unease as an S.S. officer leading a team sweeping for Jews in hiding. Johansson (Avengers: Endgame) seems a little too eager, a little too antic, but this may pertain to her character’s nerves and desperation, trying to overcompensate her anxiety. Rockwell (Vice) gets the biggest adult role as a disenchanted military vet who sees the writing on the wall. At first his detached nihilism is a source of dark comedy and later he becomes an unexpected father figure for Jojo. I don’t quite know if his hero moments have the desired impact but he’s still an amusing presence.

However, there are also some drawbacks to being a fable, namely a lack of larger specific substance beyond general lessons and general characterization. Jojo Rabbit is being billed as an “anti-hate satire” and I definitely think that summary fits the intent, but “anti-hate” sounds like such a nebulous buzzword that seems more meaningful at first glance and less upon reflection. I would assume every responsible story set during the era of the Holocaust would adopt an “anti-hate” sensibility, because the alternative would be championing the foundations of Nazism. It’s hard for me to imagine any movie desiring a public release being anything other than “anti-hate.” Essentially, we have a character coming to see through the propaganda of the era, judging people as people rather than scary caricatures, and start to reject the teachings of manipulative authority figures. This isn’t a new formula for coming-of-age stories or tales set during times of great strife. It’s a lesson in empathy and rejecting dogma on its face. When it comes to Nazism, that should be the easy part, facilitated by any prolonged exposure to anyone previously deemed an undesirable.

My nagging issue with Jojo Rabbit is that for all its impish whimsy with such a serious historical subject, it ultimately plays things pretty safe. That’s fine, it doesn’t have to a revolutionary film, but it does dull the message a bit when the ultimate lasting takeaway is “hate is bad, Jews are people too.” It’s a bit pat, a bit simple, and a bit too easy. The characterization can also be hampered by this same ethos. The characters are pretty much exactly what you see at first blush. The only character who changes or has room to explore is Jojo. Even Elsie feels more like a stagnant person despite her unique circumstances. This may be because she’s more change agent than character, a figure for Jojo to be horrified by, then entranced with, and finally see as a friend. I still felt moments of genuine emotion for characters onscreen and for Jojo’s journey of self. The movie still works well with its stated goals and direction, it’s just a bit limited because of the simplicity of its message and the lack of greater substance for its many characters.

The Jojo Rabbit novel was written before the rise of Donald Trump but Waititi has said that when they were filming that America’s current political climate was on his mind, and it’s not hard to make a few adaptations to apply this for the modern era. Perhaps a young boy sees Donald Trump as his imaginary friend and together they’re both all-in on trying to “make America great again” by first and foremost reporting any immigrant they see as illegal. Then later in the story he discovers his family is willfully hiding an undocumented child from being deported after they were stripped from their parents who were then deported. Now our naïve protagonist must reconcile the harsh rhetoric he has been taught with the growing empathy of connecting with another human being who doesn’t seem as dangerous or as sub-human as others claim. If you wanted to even make this parallel, it’s there, though I think that diminishes the setting. We shouldn’t need to tell movies during the Holocaust as metaphors for our modern struggles. I suppose this is another scenario where if you want to Inuit more of a relevant modern message, you can.

Jojo Rabbit (a nickname that seems forgotten after its christening) is a coming-of-age fable with equal parts charm and horror. Waititi takes a serious subject and doesn’t mitigate the evils of Nazism with his portrayal of a daffy imaginary Hitler. The production has an admirable swagger to it as it charts its own course, tackling serious subjects and young whimsy to portray a poignant story about childhood, loss, and growing up. It’s an amusing and heartfelt enterprise that I can’t help but feel could have done more than settling for some pretty safe messages and limited characterization. There wasn’t a moment with Jojo Rabbit where I wasn’t entertained, but I do wish the movie had more on its mind that reminding everyone that hate is bad.

Nate’s Grade: B

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