Justine (Garance Marilliier, looking like a Gallic Rooney Mara) comes from a family of vegetarians and veterinarians. She’s entering a famed veterinary college as a legacy and her big sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), is already established among the school hierarchy. The incoming students are mercilessly hazed and Justine is forced to eat meat against her will. This moment unlocks a secret craving within her that consumes her. She starts looking at her fellow students less as dinner dates and more as dinner.
For the first half of Raw I thought I was watching a French nouveau version of Carrie. The first half of the movie is dominated by the pressures, and in particular, the cruel hazing from the upperclassmen at the college. The hazing is extreme, rampant, and omnipresent, with every older classmate throwing around his or her sense of privilege and bullying the freshmen candidates. It’s the kind of harassment and abuse we’ve seen in other stories relating to fraternities and sororities where institutions of power abuse others because they were abused and so on and so on, normalizing the cruelty. However, those are organizations that are elective and enclaves among a larger campus. With Raw, it appears that every upperclassman is part of this system of hazing, meaning there is no escape if the young candidates want to continue their education. The professors seem complicit in their negligence, and Justine even has one professor who hilariously criticizes her for doing too well in class. He says her good scores are depressing the other students, possibly making them become worse doctors. The overall impression of this scholarly environment is one of sickness and exploitation. There’s even a culminating “class picture” where they are bathed in buckets of (pig?) blood. With this sort of build-up, I was anticipating that when Justine got her crazy cravings that the movie was going to set up some tasty just desserts for these sadistic upperclassmen. I was looking forward to these mean people getting killed and eaten to service Justine. Perhaps that’s the American version of what this movie would become, or my own preferred version with the established first half, but that’s not the movie Raw ends up becoming.
Stuck somewhere between body horror and weird compulsion, Raw falters trying to stake its own territory. It’s definitely structured like a coming-of-age/sexual awakening story except said awakening is connected with cannibalism. That’s an excellent starting point for some cringe horror but Raw gets too lost in its dreamlike atmospherics. We explore rave-like revelries, hedonistic escapades, and the allure of the unknown. The best part of the film is the deterioration of Justine’s inhibitions as she gives in to her inner carnivore. There’s an obvious carnality metaphor here (college is a time for experimentation) and there’s a clear entertainment factor in watching a meek character assert herself. Her character gets lost in the oblique mystery that leaves a lot of unanswered questions and unclear motivations. One minute our heroine is rejecting the pressure of her peers and the next she’s nibbling on a severed finger. Her downward spiral doesn’t feel adequately developed as she’s immediately caught in the swirl of campus hazing. The progression feels phony. Outrageous things happen without a tonal grounding, and so it feels more like David Lynch dream logic. I could better accept this drifting quality if the movie had more plot to offer. At the halfway mark, once big sis makes her major personal reveal, the movie generally stalls. The plot doesn’t advance, the characters don’t really deepen, and we’re getting variations on the same things from before. The body horror elements don’t fully feel integrated as well. Justine has breakouts of hives and rashes, presumably from eating meat, though this comes and goes. She doesn’t ever seem too fraught over what she may be becoming, but maybe that’s just being French.
Writer/director Julia Ducournau certainly has talent and a natural way of handling her actors, but her film debut is just trying too hard. The constant crimson color scheme is heavy-handed to convey the protagonist’s frayed state of mind. The symbolism is also just as obvious. The suppression of darker, more animalistic desires is an intriguing concept, except several of the jumps in character development, or debasement, happen while Justine is unconscious. This provides a “what did we do last night?” air of mystery but it also hinders the character growth on screen. It’s like the movie is trying to have Justine sleep through her character development. It’s too bad because there are fascinating pieces and ideas that emerge like flotsam in the wake of Ducournau’s tale. The second half has the potential to become a bizarre sisterly bonding story. How far is each sister willing to go to help the other and to cover up for her actions? Will there be a rivalry when they target the same man? These kinds of questions could have further explored their relationship, but alas it was not to be. You’ll never know how the sisters are supposed to feel for one another throughout the movie. The characters are pretty thin to begin with and then Ducournau introduces a new element to provide added dimension and then lets it slip away. Back to shock value and obvious metaphors.
Here’s an example how Raw gets too caught up in the sensations of the moment, the allure of its images, which admittedly are a key part to horror. There’s a scene where Justine is dancing in front of a mirror. She’s wearing her sister’s clubbing dress, an article of clothing she had earlier been disdainful over. Now she sways to the beats of a rap song and applies lipstick to her pert lips. She then gazes lustfully at her reflection and leans into the mirror, kissing it and herself. And then she does this for another minute, going in for like four more kisses, as if one wasn’t sufficient. We get the idea pretty early, about Justine’s emerging new self, her carnal cravings, and yet Ducournau keeps going, convinced that redundancy is required to satisfactorily convey obsession.
Raw is also somewhat notorious on the festival circuit for its shock value. Reportedly people were fainting or leaving in droves from the content of the movie. I think this hyperbolic response is overblown. There is a fair bit of gore in the movie but it’s almost all animal related. If you’re an animal lover, watching corpse after corpse might be too much. I certainly averted my eyes more than once during a dog carcass autopsy. The human gore is surprisingly minimal though bloody. By far the most squirm-inducing part of Raw didn’t involve cannibalism at all but a homemade Brazilian wax that gets a little too close for comfort for all involved. At least I now know what my tolerance level will be like for the eventual European coming-of-age horror film set at a waxing station.
While watching Raw with my friend Ben Bailey, we would occasionally turn to each other after a shocking or gratuitously exploitative scene and say, “It is a French movie.” When characters strip for casual nudity, or start chowing down on human remains, or frolic in blood-soaked clothing, we’d say, “It is a French movie.” This turned into a game, ultimately with us imagining a climax involving a cannibalistic ménage à trios. “That,” we remarked, “would be the ultimate French movie.” Raw is a seductive and intriguing movie that has enough surface-level pleasures for devoted horror hounds. Unfortunately, it feels like the least interesting version of this story and premise. There are interesting pieces here to be certain. I just wish someone else had assembled them.
Nate’s Grade: C+
What Moonlight achieves is both something different and familiar and amounts to nothing less than watching the birth of human identity on screen. The film chronicles three formative experiences at three different times of a man’s life, each serving as its own one-act play examining our protagonist and his tortured sense of self. The results are breathtaking and deeply immersive, allowing the formation of a human being to take place before your eyes in such magnificent artistic strokes. This is a sensitive, sincere, beautiful movie that serves as an indie coming-of-age tale sliced into three significant parts. I was completely under its sway within ten minutes, finding its perceptive perspective and nuances to be convincingly naturalistic. I felt like I was watching a documentary of a young black man’s life told with ferocious realism, or at least a loosely fictionalized version of a life informed by fully authentic personal experiences. It’s a somewhat ineffable quality for slice-of-life movies but they live or die on whether the film carries an unforced sense of realism, telling larger truths with small details, each piece coming together to make the world and the character feel fully formed. Moonlight pulls you immediately into its orbit thanks to its authentic drama and observations.
The three segments compliment one another as they build toward a young black man’s understanding of his homosexuality. We’ve seen movies before where characters undergo sexual awakenings and from gay perspectives; it’s practically a cottage industry unto itself in independent film. However, rarely have we seen this story from people of color. The expectations of accepted masculinity are entrenched at a young age, where “Little” (Alex Hibbert) is chided by, among others, his own mother Paula (Naomie Harris) for the “swishy” way he walks. It goes without saying that being gay is not exactly widely accepted in the Miami projects of the 1980s. This conflict of what makes a man is wonderfully symbolized with Juan (Mahershala Ali), an unexpected father figure that takes “Little” under his wing along with his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae). The kid wants to know how he can know if he’s gay because it’s certainly something he doesn’t want. Juan doesn’t pressure the boy or make big speeches about what it means to be a young black man in America. Instead, he tries teaching him to accept himself and provides an alternative home that serves as a refuge during his mother’s long absences and crack-withdrawal tirades. There’s a lovely moment where Juan teaches “Little” how to swim, and it’s touching in how recognizably father/son the activity is, how much trust is involved and vulnerability, and how the film doesn’t need to oversell the subtext. Juan definitely becomes the father figure that Chiron lives up to for the rest of his life. This first segment is dominated by their relationship but also Juan’s sense of responsibility. He’s making a living through selling drugs, including to “Little”’s own mother. In a very memorable and heated moment, Paula angrily calls out Juan for thinking he would make a better parent given the moral culpability of his own actions to her habit.
The second segment zooms ahead to when Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is a teenager in high school and subjected to hostile bullying. The schoolyard taunts from his youth have morphed into something more ferocious and toxic, as a collection of bullies torments Chiron and looks to rob him of his personal connections to others. The central focus on the middle segment is about the growing relationship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), the childhood friend who Chrion crushes on. Their closeness takes a leap one fateful night that Chrion will always remember. It’s an awakening and a confirmation of self, and it’s only after having this fulfilling outlet cruelly taken from him that Chiron finally lashes out, with lifelong repercussions. It’s an explosion we can see coming and one that feels fully set up. The second segment feels more familiar because of the age range and it’s the one with the dawning of sexual realization, a story situation we’ve seen before. What elevates it is that it’s a fairly direct carryover from the beginning segment, which means the personal issues have magnified for Chiron. His relationship with his mother has become even more frayed as he’s grown, and what once was name-calling and questions over his maturation has become confirmed. Her addiction has become even stronger and she’s harassing her own son for whatever meager money he’s given from Teresa, his surrogate mother figure. Chiron is struggling to make sense of his feelings in an upbringing lacking support and clarity. You could examine the conclusion of this segment as an empathetic cautionary tale, as we see the years of abuse and measured choices that lead to that confrontation.
The final segment is where Moonlight transforms into a late blooming unrequited romance that should steal your heart if it’s still functioning. “Black” (Trevanta Rhodes) is a fully-grown adult that has seemingly followed in the footsteps of Juan in a life of low-level crime. He’s hardened both emotionally and physically. The muscles will provide an intimidation factor missing during his youth if anyone questions his sexual leanings. He’s burrowed into himself and the role he feels he must accept, but all of that changes the instant he gets an apologetic and searching phone call from Kevin (Andre Holland). Now working as a chef at a diner, Kevin reaches out to his old friend though even he can’t fully explain why. This reawakens “Black”’s longing and he works up the courage to travel back to Miami to surprise the friend who meant so much to him. Their reunion is treated like the culmination of a romance that you may not have realized had you completely. After two segments of setup and years apart, you may find yourself projecting your thoughts to the screen, trying to compel these two men together. It’s an extended sequence that moves at a gradual pace, a fitting tempo for a character racked by insecurities and suppression. By going forward he’s taking a big risk, putting himself out there, and we desperately hope “Black” finds a sense of support. It’s the segment where “Black” finds resolution with the major conflicts that have defined his life, and the climax of the movie is a deeply tender moment where an emotionally reserved man reaches out to another and lets his firmly fixed guard down in the process.
I don’t usually go into such a detailed plot synopsis with my reviews because I like to hit the basics and let the readers experience the story for themselves, but the pleasures and artistic triumphs of Moonlight are in how fully immersed and felt the movie becomes. By telling the story in three noteworthy sections, Moonlight provides an impressionistic statement about the formation of personal identity, specifically a young man growing up black and gay in a hostile environment to both. The movie also blows apart the argument made for 2014’s Boyhood about how truly necessary it was to watch one young actor play the same part for 14 years. Here we have six different actors playing two different characters at three different points in time and the impact is no less great. Here is a movie that doesn’t need a gimmick to have a larger emotional impact on its audience.
Director/co-writer Barry Jenkins has a marvelously fluid and natural feel for his camera, swinging around the parameters of a scene to make the world feel more charged with energy. Jenkins is a born filmmaker and knows how to squeeze the most out of his scenes with gorgeous cinematography and an eclectic musical score that feels traditional with classical orchestration like churning strings layered and rearranged into something arrestingly new and yet still personal. There aren’t many overly stylized choices, rather Jenkins tells his story with uncommon poise and treats one man’s life like an opera, like the greatest story never told on film, like a life of complexity worth the deep dive. There’s a classical lyricism to the presentation that reminded me of the works of Todd Haynes (Carol). There’s one scene where Paula is strung out on crack and finds her son in the middle of a joyous high. Her face fills the frame, absorbing all of Chiron’s world, and her euphoria is inter-spliced with jarring speed ramps in editing, meant to convey the mania and peace that pumps through her veins in this fleeting moment. It’s a stylistic device that isn’t overplayed and has genuine purpose. Jenkins is restrained from self-indulgences and keeps every aspect focused on reflecting the inner life of his lead.
The very talented company of performers makes the movie even more powerful. Ali (Hidden Figures, Luke Cage) is creating serious awards buzz and it’s deserving, though every actor in this movie is deserving of notoriety. Ali plays a man trying to do right by his own sense and he lets you see the troubles that wash over him. Should he insert himself into this young boy’s life? Is he in a position to set an example? Ali has such paternal strength and tenderness while still displaying doubts and regret, hardly deifying this found father figure. Harris (Spectre) is wonderfully horrifying and heartbreaking in her role and has some big moments that convey her given completely into desperation. She’s offended that others would deign replace her but does little to reclaim her title of mother and provider. Holland (Selma) has a world-weary smooth sense of wisdom to him, and his unassuming charisma helps unlock his friend’s true feelings. The three actors who portray “Little”/Chiron/”Black” are each exceptional, giving different performances and interpretations, further supporting Jenkins’ artistic thesis.
Moonlight is a beautiful film told with such delicate care and a resounding sense of authenticity and personal detail. It swallows you whole and leaves you with the impression of a human life observed with tenderness, intimacy, empathy, and grace. It’s about the people and experiences that help guide us onto the paths we take, and while there’s a sense of heartache as we think of what might have been, there’s also the serenity of accepting what has been and what can still be. Jenkins proves himself a superb talent who doesn’t lose sight of his artistic goals with extraneous artifice. There’s a lilting, lovely lyricism to the movie that elevates Chiron’s life into feeling like poetry. This is a life we so rarely get to see given such an artistic and honest examination without condemnation or judgment. It’s the story of a man embracing his identity and overcoming isolation and suppression. This disadvantaged young man is worth your emotions, your sympathies, and your attention. Moonlight is an alluring and heartrending film that manages to be deeply personal and universal at the same time. It’s sublime.
Nate’s Grade: A
In 1976 San Francisco, Minnie (Bel Powley) is trying to navigate the world of boys and her teenage feelings. She’s 15 years old and wants to be an artist. She lives with her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), and her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), and her little sister. Minnie has always exhibited a desire to be touched, and the accidental touches of Monroe are exciting her mind. One night, their sense of play crosses a line and the two kiss, and from there Minnie and Monroe carry on a secret tryst.
Refreshingly, The Diary of a Teenage Girl may be one of the few coming-of-age films about a teen woman discovering her sense of sexuality without extolling an overpowering sense of moral judgment. The movie is frank and honest and allows its characters to make mistakes but also learn from them, and the kind of activities others might deem as mistakes or pitfalls might not be deemed as such by our characters, at least at their current point in time. Minnie is such a starkly interesting character, cheerfully independent and naively romantic. Her very first words in the film are, “I just had sex today.” Minnie is a character that enjoys sex and the movie does not punish her for her hormonal impulses. It’s encouraging to see a portrait of a woman who takes agency over her own sexuality. Once she’s discovered sex, it’s like a new world for Minnie. She feels like she’s discovered the secret handshake to being an adult. The world looks different to her. There’s a funny scene where she’s in a record shop and eyeing some of the varying male patrons, imagining what their respective penises might look like, which are depicted with colorful onscreen animation. It’s a nice change of pace to have a movie adopt a female point of view and the Female Gaze, if you will. We see the world as Minnie does, bursting with possibility, pleasure, and excitement. And yet, at the corners, we can sense the contours of doubt, the life lessons that will eventually present themselves to our restless heroine (the audio diary of her sexual escapades with Monroe is a time bomb waiting to happen). These lessons are not one of punishment but one of experience and understanding reminiscent of 2009’s An Education.
Its bracing sense of honesty and its finely attuned perspective also help elevate the film. Minnie’s voice is all over this movie, and not simply because she provides narration. She’s not over precocious or hyper literate; she speaks like an average teenager bursting with feelings and ideas that she has trouble putting into words. There is a sprightly sense of humor that runs throughout, a sense of comedy that get can get naughty while still feeling wonderfully immature. Minnie’s point of view and the way she processes the world, aided with often-animated fantasy and dream sequences, provides plenty of entertainment. Some of the humor is derived from her naiveté and how brashly straightforward she can be about her wishes, but even these moments are free of judgment. Minnie is allowed to be the funny, flawed, and complex creature she is.
Teenage Girl is also a remarkable spotlight for two artists, Powley and debut director Marielle Heller (wife to Lonely Island Boy Jorma Taccone). Powley is a terrific lead and gives Minnie an appealing mixture of curiosity, angst, attitude, and humor. She’s thrown into a different world and trying to adjust as she goes, which leads to plenty of vulnerability and honest reflection. She’s looking for more than sex but doesn’t quite know how to find the companion she desires yet in a culture that values her most as a figure of desire. Powley, it should also be noted, is British (though you’d never know) and 22 at the time of filming. There are several sex scenes and nude sequences for Minnie that can be uncomfortable to watch given the age of the character. I never felt the movie was being exploitative with its lead actress and character. There’s a moment when Minnie stands naked before a mirror, touching her body, and openly hoping for someone who will love her as a whole. These moments are meant to be awkward and raw and they achieve that power without feeling exploitative. Powley’s performance is such a natural and cutting teenage performance with touches of Maggie Gyllenhaal in her voice. This is the kind of character that a young actress desperately hopes for and luckily Powley was gifted the right director.
Heller, who also adapted the script based upon the semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, has a definite feel for the material and keeps the tone controlled. It would be very easy for this story to veer into tawdry with its sensationalist elements, and yet it feels far more grounded in the reality of a teenage girl discovering how to interact with men and the power she has within her. There are some cringe-worthy moments between Minnie and Monroe but the movie doesn’t tell us how to feel and instead challenges the audience. Monroe isn’t presented as some leering and lascivious pederast. He is presented as yet another flawed individual who is wrestling with conflicted feelings; he knows what he’s doing with Minnie is wrong but he can’t quite quit her. There’s a level of sympathy toward his character that doesn’t excuse his actions and weaknesses. Charlotte, in contrast, is a character that speaks the language of the 1970s enlightened feminist but has shackled her subconsciously, setting up reoccurring failures for herself because she has difficulty taking responsibility for herself. When she gets a big check from her concerned ex-boyfriend (Christopher Meloni), she frivolously spends it on drugs. By the end of the movie, Minnie acknowledges that her mother will always think she needs a man, a provider, to simply get by in this life. Heller’s feel for these characters is sharp and the ambiguity she affixes is appreciated.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a coming-of-age drama that sits unique amongst the burgeoning subgenre of teen angst and broken hearts mostly because it is female-focused and free of judgment or moral castigation. Our heroine learns about the world, learns the power and pitfalls of sex and the potential enjoyment, and yet she still gets to be herself, free of long-term scarring punishment usually befit a Lifetime original movie on the sordid subject. Even better, Minnie is an intensely interesting and entertaining character that freely shares her frank perspective. The film adopts her perspective and Teenage Girl comes across and far more honest about its characters and about growing up. Powely is a standout and destined for further great things, and the supporting cast all perform ably. There isn’t a bad or misplaced actor in a beautiful looking film. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (man do my fingers really confuse this title with the name of that cheesy ABC Family TV show starring a young Shailene Woodley) is a smart, funny, provocative yet mature and welcomed slice-of-life story that feels painfully honest and praiseworthy. It’s a story that doesn’t excuse or condemn the actions of any of its characters. It’s a film that takes chances and reaps rewards from its risk-taking. It can feel like watching a slow-moving car slide into a ditch, but you’ll be glued to the screen throughout.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Last year, Starz aired a reality TV series called The Chair. Produced by actor Zachary Quinto and Project Greenlight breakout Chris Moore, the aim was to give two different directors the same script, the same budget, the same shooting city, and the same access to resources to see what kind of movies they would create. The public would vote on a winner and the winning filmmaker would earn a $250,000 prize. Film is a director’s medium, and both of the chosen participants, Shane Dawson and Anna Martemucci, were allowed to rewrite the script, likely to the dismay of screenwriter Dan Schoffer. Dawson has built a following of millions making comedy shorts on his YouTube channel. Martemucci has written one other film and has professional ties to Quinto. Over the course of one winter in Pittsburgh, both Dawson and Martmeucci shot their films under the extra scrutiny of the reality show cameras. Whatever their TV portraits may have been, the work stands on its own. Dawson made the sex comedy Not Cool and Martemucci made the coming-of-age drama, Hollidaysburg. They are two quite different films, but are they any good and should The Chair be considered a success?
Scott (Dawson) is home for Thanksgiving break from his first year at college. In high school he was prom king and a big deal. Life since hasn’t been that easy. His girlfriend, Heather (Jorie Kosel), dumps him after a spontaneous hookup in a public bathroom. His father is closing the family’s record store. His sister, Janie (Michelle Veintimilla), might not graduate on time from high school. And then Tori (Cherami Leigh) accidentally hits him with her car. The two have history: Scott was responsible for Tori’s cruel nickname, “Tori the Whore-y.” Not having any of it, she lays in to him and unleashes years of anger, and then the two of them have sex. They try and pass it off as a one-time deal but they both can’t stop thinking of the other person. Tori’s pal Joel (Drew Monson) is determined to have sex with his high school crush, Janie. He agrees to help her with her schoolwork for a prime opportunity to make her fall in love with him. As Joel and Scott chase after their resistant love interests, they have to decide how far to go.
I was completely unfamiliar with Dawson and his YouTube fame before seeing his film, and after watching Not Cool I wish I had remained in blissful ignorance. To call Not Cool unfunny is too kind. It is aggressively unfunny, going above and beyond to shock and appall. By no means am I a prude when it comes to crass comedy, but you have to put effort into it just like any other style of telling and developing jokes. You don’t just blurt out something vulgar repeatedly and confuse that for comedy construction. I knew I was in trouble when the movie resorted to projectile vomit within two minutes. Dawson’s direction consists of telling his actors to go as broad as possible; they feel like over-the-top cartoons engaging in shouting matches. A Thanksgiving dinner with Scott’s family feels like an insane asylum was evacuated. It’s fine that Not Cool doesn’t approach a relatable reality, but it needs to have some internal grounding that makes sense. It also needs to be funny. Much, much funnier. After ten minutes I had to stop the movie and gather pen and paper to start noting the unfunny and off-putting misogynist jokes on display. Let me make this clear: characters can be unlikeable and have non-P.C. POVs, but when the film itself seems to be adopting a tone and perspective that allies with ignorance and intolerance, that’s when a movie can become increasingly uncomfortable. Dawson’s interpretation of the script is rife with jokes that are homophobic, xenophobic, slut shaming and in general anti-women, and, I repeat, they just aren’t funny:
In response to dad’s new girlfriend (who is never mentioned again) being named Anastasia: “With that name she’s either a Disney princess or a stripper.” Fresh.
Janie relates how her sexist teacher is flunking her, which Joel responds with, “I’m surprised he didn’t give you an ‘A’ for those tit-ays.” Ugh. Just ugh.
“Tori the Whore-y? You look kinda good now. You know that nick-name might not be ironic anymore.” Because Scott is the arbitrator of what is acceptable attraction, therefore Tori should now have a sense of self-worth because he has deigned to find her of interest. This is later reiterated when Scott tells her, “You’re beautiful. You always were.” Thanks, now that you said it Scott it must actually be true.
Joel: “The only thing hotter than Leonardo DiCaprio is a retarded Leonardo DiCaprio in a sexy diaper.” What? I don’t think he ever wore a diaper in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?. And Janie’s response is equally baffling: “That shit makes me so wet.” Huh? Watching an actor play a mentally handicapped child makes you sexually aroused?
To quickly wrap up this detour, let me highlight the most egregious stab at humor in the entire movie. During the film’s climax, his horny ex-girlfriend sexually assaults Scott. Tori sees this and, oh no, miscommunication. Scott explains he was raped and it was not consensual. The party’s host quietly walks over to a dry erase marker board that says, “Rapes at this Party.” He erases the zero and writes a “one” on the board, then goes back to partying. Let that sink in. The board was prepared for some sense of inevitable rape, and yet once it happens, the host carries on. That’s offensive on a number of issues.
These scenes and lines are merely par for the course in what is ultimately a coarse and misguided comedy that is stocked with vile characters. Scott is served up as a figure that needs to get past his hubris, but the movie treats him more of a hero who the other characters just can’t help but love. It’s hard not to feel like the film is made to flatter Dawson as an actor. Within minutes of meeting Scott again, Tori says, “Would I have sex with you? Probably.” No one can resist his appeal, certainly not Tori’s family. Tori’s mother is practically begging to jump on top of him. When the character’s defining moment of humility and growth is cutting his Justin Beiber-like hair, it’s a failure. Tori is written in such an inconsistent fashion. She’s supposed to be all about negativity and hates everything in the world, but then she transforms into a Manic Pixie Dream Girl for Scott’s cutesy scavenger hunt. Leigh does a credible job with the character but she’s a half-formed assortment of quirks and messages meant to push Scott along. Dawson errs considerably by casting himself as the romantic lead. It further exacerbates Scott’s flattering portrayal, but really Dawson is just not a good enough actor to carry a film. But a lead role wasn’t enough, and Dawson appears as several female supporting characters in drag. The appearances stop the movie dead in its tracks. The characters are also just lame mouthpieces to blurt lazy inappropriate comments, especially a popular girl who just keeps calling people names at the top of her lungs. It is deeply unpleasant.
The worst character in the entire film is Joel. This guy is obsessed with having sex with his high school crush, who is still in high school while he’s in college, by the way. She has clearly and consistently stated that she does not have feelings for him, but what’s a woman stating her decisions going to matter to this guy? Joel’s pursuit of Janie is just insanely creepy. He mimes preforming cunnilingus on her. He stalks her online profiles to mine useful personal information. He enlargers and decreases a picture of her face on his phone and narrates the experience like she is giving him oral sex. At every point he treats her as a sex object. Even after a night out, where she wears a dress he picked out for her after trying it on himself and fondling himself in expectation (!), she tells him she doesn’t feel the same way, and he still forces the situation. It’s gross and at no point is Joel and his behavior held up to criticism. He’s rewarded for his “virtue” by having Janie pimp out all her promiscuous friends onto him. What makes the character even more repulsive is just how annoying Monson’s performance comes across; he’s going for faux bluster but it’s more like misplaced entitlement. If this storyline had ended with Joel murdering her while weeping and slow dancing with her corpse, you wouldn’t be that surprised.
As the previous two paragraphs should indicate, there is certainly a point of view that emerges from the movie, one that trumps the heterosexual white male at the top and looks with derision on anybody that falls outside that definition. It feels like every joke is at someone’s expense. In the opening minute, an overweight woman tweets a picture of herself as a skinny model. I suppose it’s funny because she’s misrepresenting herself but it feels like the joke amounts to, “Ha, she’s ugly and fat.” But those who are conventionally attractive still don’t get off easy. Tori is slut shamed as a whore in high school, lead by Scott, and this is merely excused as the behavior of a loveable scamp. Janie’s friends are treated like idiotic sluts. Tori’s gay friend is defined by his flamboyance and obsession with sex. Disabled people are apparently hilarious just because they’re disabled and different. Tori’s older sister is blind and it’s funny because she accomplishes things… but she’s blind. I suppose the joke is that she shouldn’t have a successful life. There’s a woman at a party in a wheelchair (confession: I know this actress) and the joke is she’s doing normal activity. There’s one black character in the movie that is a homeless man who devours his own feces. At one point, his genitals are also used as a laugh. There’s also the characters’ flagrant and casual use of the word “retarded” to describe anything repulsive. The hoary stereotypes and unfunny portraits blend together, creating a mosaic of intolerance masked as comedy. Dawson’s sense of comedy is fairly puerile but it’s also offputtingly mean-spirited and denigrating.
Dawson makes too many fatal mistakes as a director for Not Cool to survive. Casting himself in the lead was a mistake. Appearing as female supporting characters was also a mistake. Excusing the bad behavior of his male characters, and rewarding them, was a mistake. Catering the humor to make fun of anyone that doesn’t classify as a heterosexual white male was a mistake. Relying solely on gross-out gags without better comic development was a mistake. Trying to earn a heart late into the film was also a mistake. After watching jerks behave like creeps with their inflated sense of entitlement, I don’t care if they maybe have feelings. Directing his actors to be heightened caricatures was a mistake. In short, Not Cool is a comedy graveyard of mistakes and bad decisions. I’m sure there will be people that find something to enjoy here, who laugh at the easy juvenile humor. I even laughed a couple times. There was a visual gag with a smuggled watermelon that was simply inspired. I think Dawson didn’t want to stray too far from his YouTube persona and the tone of his videos, lest he upset his fan base of millions, but what works as a three-minute YouTube short doesn’t translate to a feature film. Not Cool is proof enough that an overabundance of energy and cheap vulgarity does not compensate for a deficit in storytelling and execution. Not Cool is just not good.
Going far in the other direction is Hollidaysburg, a modest coming-of-age drama that patterns itself after the mumblecore movement of indie cinema. Director Anna Martemucci definitely takes a more restrained approach to her interpretation of Dan Schoffer’s screenplay. She has some problems of her own but on a whole Hollidaysburg is the more promising and well-executed movie. It’s more sophisticated, better articulated, heartfelt, and comes far closer to achieving something worthwhile.
Right away you can tell a difference. We begin once more with Scott (Tobin Mitnick) and his girlfriend, Heather (Claire Chapelli), breaking up in the middle of sex, but they keep at it. It’s not exaggerated for extra laughs; the situation itself naturally draws them. The character isn’t made the butt of the joke either. It’s a much more encouraging opening than projectile vomit. Scott is also dumbstruck when he discovers his family home is days away from being emptied and sold. He reconnects with high school acquaintance Tori (Rachel Keller) and the two sleep together impulsively. As they’re trying to make sense of possible feelings, Heather is seeking out some company, anybody, and settles on her pot dealer, Petroff (Tristan Erwin), who happens to be buds with Scott. He’s wary of stepping over some kind of friend code, but in his efforts to get Heather out of her funk, Petroff starts to form a romantic interest he can’t help.
The focus is on our foursome of young, curious, and emotionally free-falling characters stumbling for some sense of personal identity. The theme of the film is about stasis versus change. Heather reasons that their long-distance relationship is not meant to be, and that it’s better to check out early. She’s also disillusioned by college, an experience that she had hoped would be remarkable at pointing her life in the right direction. Scott is quite literally saying goodbye to his childhood and his prior sense of who he was. His task for the holiday weekend is to pack the last of his childhood things in his old room so they can be sent to Florida. He won’t be returning to Pennsylvania likely, which is what Tori is also wrestling with. How far does she let herself get attached to something that could never happen? The two of them dance around their attraction and unconventional courtship. There’s real uncertainty about their possibility as a couple that’s palpable. Then there’s Heather’s sense of ennui that might just be a symptom of depression. She feels like she’s in a fog and that college is not the gateway others perceive it to be. Petroff is trying to juggle his role as friend and potential more-than-friend, and even though he has no real obligation to Scott on this one, he is trying to be deferential and sensitive. Before the breakup, he didn’t even consider Heather a friend. Now they’re getting to know one another on a much more personal level. The foursome is likeable, complicated, flawed, and pleasant to be around, enough to excuse some of the movie’s genial pacing.
There are assorting supporting characters, notably siblings to Scott and Tori, but they are complimentary and better inform the story. Scott’s older brother spends the entire film trying to recreate his father’s recipe for pumpkin pie. It’s just the sort of concept that is slight enough to be fun but also lead into a dramatic character payoff. The dialogue feels attuned to the natural speech rhythms of human beings while still being entertaining. Scott and Tori’s initial reunion revolves around her keeping watch to make sure he doesn’t have a concussion after she hit him with her car. It’s a cute scenario that’s played with the right flirty tone that nicely sells the emergence of their romance. The humor isn’t as loud and underlined as Not Cool, and that’s to its benefit.
Your enjoyment of Hollidaysburg (named after a city in Pennsylvania) will depend mightily on your personal tolerance for the observational, delicate human comedies of the mumblecore genre. Sometimes derided as affluent navel-gazing, the often-DIY subgenre can have its own hardscrabble charm and touch upon relatable themes and conflicts that transcend their often self-indulgent characters. There’s also a stronger sense of realism in how fleshed out these worlds feel, and so I have enjoyed mumblecore primarily because of the combination of well-developed characters, emotional truths, and sincerity. I acknowledge a movie about a bunch of teenagers sitting around, mingling, smoking pot, and making life decisions is a harder sell than, say, sex comedy shenanigans. The difference is that you feel the care put in by Martemucci. She cares about these people and makes you start to care as well, or at least be interested. But if you’re not on the same wavelengths, one person’s observational is another person’s doddering.
While technically better on just about every level, Hollidaysburg has its own issues. The character arcs for Scott and Tori are rather nebulous. I’ll credit Dawson with this, in Not Cool the characters’ arcs were front and center and there was a progression. With Hollidaysburg, Scott is vaguely defined by his past but he doesn’t go into many details, failing to indicate how he’s undergoing some sort of high school hangover as he adjusts to a bigger pond. He’s uncomfortable with the discovery of how close Heather and Petroff have gotten, but this character turn doesn’t get developed enough to matter, instead coming across as a somewhat manufactured conflict break. Likewise Tori is looking to redefine herself in college but finding it harder than she anticipated. By the end of the film, her closing voice over quotes John Updike about being reborn every day, and how reassuring she finds this reflection. You could make the argument that through her romantic tryst with Scott, she’s better accepted the notion that she will define herself as she pleases, but I don’t even know if that approaches the conclusion. The two characters with the more clearly defined arcs are Heather and Petroff, and they’re on a relatively straightforward path where their biggest obstacle is hiding their emerging feelings from their mutual friend who would be hurt.
I don’t necessarily know if I’d call The Chair a success. The fascinating premise has given birth to very different movies, but in the end one of them is an aggressively unfunny comedy and the other is an acceptable coming-of-age mumblecore entry. It’s hard to call either a rousing success. Not Cool is an abysmal comedy that is overly reliant on witless shock humor to substitute for storytelling basics. Dawson makes a slew of bad decisions, mostly playing to ego or his built-in audience, but I’ll say at least he goes for it. Martemucci certainly comes across as the more promising filmmaker; her film is better on a technical level and her handling of actors is far defter. At the same time, her aim is lower with her goals and her character arcs less defined. I suppose you could argue the hazy arcs tap into the characters trying to better find themselves but I won’t. Hollidaysburg is clearly the better film but Dawson’s legions of fans came to his service, and in the fall of 2014, Dawson was declared the victor by a majority of public voting. I purposely wanted to watch the finished movies before delving into the TV show so my feelings toward the filmmakers would not influence my reviews. Usually Project Greenlight was at its best when things were falling apart for its fledgling filmmakers, and I imagine the same level of entertainment will be had with The Chair. My foreknowledge will create a delicious dose of dramatic irony, as I know what all these efforts will lead toward. In my head I’ll likely be thinking, “Not worth it.”
I’ll add to this double-review after watching the series for any additional thoughts on Dawson and Martemucci as filmmakers and human beings.
Update: After having watched all ten episodes of The Chair, I can say neither director comes off terribly well. Martemucci is indecisive, poor with time management, and loses the big picture, but she’s far more open to collaboration and criticism. Dawson knows what he wants, is decisive, but is also quite thin-skinned and defensive and hard-headed to criticism. He seems incapable of thinking outside the bubble of his fanbase. He also has a far higher opinion of many elements of his film that I found awful, but that isn’t surprising. What’s surprising to me is that established producers could read Dawson’s script and watch the final movie and say, “Yeah, this is good.” Not everyone did though, as I discovered Quinto and another producer were so appalled by Not Cool that they elected to take their names off of it. they did not want to be associated with that material, which Dawson has trouble seeing as more ugly than standard “raunchy teen sex comedy” stuff (it is uglier, Shane). The funniest part for me was a tattoo parlor owner who discovers Dawson’s YouTube resume after she agreed to let him film in her parlor. She doesn’t want her shop’s name visible and associated with what she feels is racist, sexist unfunny jokes. She even chastises Chris Moore about it. It’s like this one tattoo shop owner spoke as the prophet of me and all other home viewers and those who endured the awfulness of Not Cool. Congratulations for telling it like it is, Pittsburgh small business owner.
Not Cool: D
A throwback to the youthful summer movies of the 80s, The Way, Way Back is a delightful coming-of-age film that manages to excel at both comedy and drama. Oscar-winners Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (co-writers of 2011’s The Descendants) graduate to directors, guiding the famous cast with ease yet squeezing enough satisfying emotional truth into the formula of a screwy, Meatballs-style comedy. We follow 13-year-old Duncan (Liam James) as he spends the summer with his mother (Toni Collette) and her bully of a boyfriend (Steve Carell). My one gripe is that the film spends far more time than it needs to establish just how unequivocally awkward Duncan is. You will likely cringe. When Sam Rockwell enters the picture as a charming goofball water park employee who takes Duncan under his wing is when the movie ascends to a new level of comedy. The Way, Way Back hums along with its own sense of charm, presenting familiar characters/scenes but giving them added texture and relatability. You will be surprised at how much you feel for these characters, you may get a bit misty at points, especially when they behave like people and not zany cartoons. Carell as a bad guy is a real eye-opener; he’s a passive aggressive bully rarely seen in movies. James is an authentically awkward teen but you also buy every step of his journey. It’s just such a sweet, enjoyable, and cute movie, exuding charm and sincerity. Here is a movie that just makes you smile. You’ll leave The Way, Way Back feeling warm and fuzzy, and Rash and Faxon have another winner on their hands.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Working part-time at a movie theater in the summers, I come across, let’s say, an interesting selection of customers with… interesting opinions. One middle-aged woman openly opined, while looking at the poster for the coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer, that she’s had enough with movies told from a teenage male perspective. While this same woman had very specific and narrow demands for an acceptable movie, she got me thinking. Why do we get so many coming-of-age movies from a male perspective? Let’s forget the easy answer that Hollywood has a lot more male filmmakers than female. There’s always that sense of romance with coming-of-age films, a nostalgic look back at a supposedly simpler time that now seems better appreciated. Maybe men are just more prone to romanticizing the past while women look forward to the future. Or maybe there are really just more men calling the shots about films get made. Whatever the reason, the woman didn’t go see The Kings of Summer, and judging by her attitude, I don’t think she missed out.
Joe (Nick Robinson) has just finished his freshman year in high school. He has a long summer ahead butting heads with his no-nonsense father (Nick Offerman). Then Joe gets the brilliant idea. He and his pal Patrick (Gabriel Basso), who is also sick of his annoying parents, will build their own home in the woods, a sanctuary where they can set the rules. Joe and Patrick pack up their belongings, find a quiet spot in the woods, and build that dream home. Biaggio (Moises Arias), a weird and gangly kid, takes an interest in the youthful declaration of independence and joins in. The guys invite girls over, explore the wilderness, grow patchy wisps of facial hair, and live out their fantasies of roughing it like real men. Of course it helps when a Boston Market is just down the road.
From start to finish, The Kings of Summer kept me laughing. I did not expect the comedy to be as consistent and thorough as it was, but writer Chris Galletta has a sure handed way of making the comedy derive from the situations and characters. Even with some outsized elements, notably Biaggio and the fact that the boys home-away-from-home is way too advanced for a kid who blundered through shop class, the humor never feels forced. That is an accomplishment, though the script also overly relies on Biaggio to say outlandish or weird lines. I especially enjoyed his one-scene pep talk with his father late in the movie. That confidant sense of humor goes a long way to relax an audience, allowing us to attune to the mellow waves of the film. It’s fun to watch the guys try to forage a life out in the woods, slowly learning how hard this whole survivalist lifestyle may actually be. The adults are viewed as blithe buffoons or hardasses, though they don’t come across as caricatures. Credit the attention paid to Offerman’s (TV’s Parks and Recreation) character as Joe’s father and credit Offerman’s uncanny ability to make gruff parenting endearing. This is an easy film to like, to go along with the flow, and to enjoy. It never really falters in entertainment and routinely has another joke at the ready to make you smile. It’s a sweet movie that does enough to keep you charmed.
While pleasant, I had to stop and reflect that there was absolutely very little to these characters. The boys all kind of blend together in their youthful romanticism of freedom and rebellion of lame parents, but you’d be hard-pressed to describe them beyond core physical descriptions. The moments that do supply character development are mostly broadly comedic or somewhat generic in their coming-of-age tropes, notably the broken heart administered by a guy’s crush. Example: Biaggio is essentially little more than a walking punchline machine. While quite funny and well acted, every line of his dialogue feels like a punchline. He comes from nowhere. At one point, Joe advises Biaggio that a girl may be interested in him, but Biaggio demurs and says that won’t work out. All right, here we go. Here’s where the movie sheds some light on him. Biaggio admits to being gay. The very next line involves him confusing gay with cystic fibrosis. It’s a funny joke but it turns a moment where a character was getting added dimension and just manufactures another punchline. Again, The Kings of Summer is a very pleasant film going experience, and one that made me laugh consistently, but objectively, the impact is too limited because of the lack of proper characterization.
And I suppose this leads into a bigger question of whether this lack of substantial characterization even matters. Coming-of-age movies, like any subgenre in film, have their own expectations and conventions. We all have our different tolerance levels for narrative familiarity, and depending upon the genre, familiarity may be a necessity. Fans of coming-of-age films want to see those familiar elements. They want to see the bonds of friendship, the neglectful parents, the first crushes that lead to first heartaches. It’s just like fans of romantic comedies finding comfort in the two leads hating one another until, inevitably, they love each other, or the public sing-alongs. I think many coming-of-age films at some level tend to be somewhat broad or generic to make them more relatable. Perhaps I’m just being too generous to formulaic pictures. If you’re a fan of coming-of-age movies then you’ll probably be quite forgiving of the shortcomings in The Kings of Summer. Me, I prefer Jeff Nichols’ Mud and its more textured, empathetic look at adolescence in a working poor Missouri riverbed community.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (TV’s Mash Up, Funny or Die Presents…) makes the film look beautiful. The romanticism of the youth running away to live in nature is improved with some spectacular looking natural settings and compositions. The film was primarily filmed in Cleveland and northern Ohio, and as a native Ohioan, I have to puff my chest. Vogt-Roberts is also skilled at handling his actors and balancing tone; while I criticize the over reliance on comedy at the expense of fleshing out characters, the tone is not divergent. It plays within the same cohesive wavelength throughout. If there is a breakout actor from this movie, it would have to be Arias (TV’s Hannah Montana, The Middle). The kid has a tremendous ability to tap into an oddball character, making him quirky rather than insufferable. He also has a unique look to him, and that’s got to be a plus for a working actor. Just ask Steve Buscemi.
Genial and undemanding, The Kings of Summer isn’t anything close to royalty in the coming-of-age genre but it’s consistently funny and enjoyable. The acting is good, the jokes work, and the movie’s out after 90 minutes. It’s a nice summer diversion but doesn’t contain the resonance to be considered more than that. The weak characterization and broad humor, while opening its wide appeal, also makes the film less substantial. It’s sweet and funny but little to distinguish it from other sweet and funny coming-of-age entries. If you’re a fan of the genre or looking for a mellow and pleasant evening at the movies, think of The Kings of Summer. Just don’t think it’s going to be anything more.
Nate’s Grade: B
Noah Baumbach is a filmmaker I generally don’t care for. I quite enjoyed his first feature, the college comedy Kicking and Screaming, and his co-authorship of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was a worthy venture. But I normally associate such unrepentant misery with this guy’s movies, chiefly because they’re generally about miserable people being miserable (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg). I was surprised then when his new movie Frances Ha got ringing endorsements from several of my trusted female friends, the kind who would not cotton to Baumbach’s usual pedigree of filmmaking. I took the plunge and was captivated by the shrewd, funny, and surprisingly affectionate portrayal of a twenty-something woman finding herself late (ish) in life.
Frances (Greta Gerwig) is an apprentice for a dance company in New York City waiting her turn at much in life. She’s waiting for her post-college life to fall into place; however, her world gets shaken up when her roommate and best friend since college, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), moves out. The distance grows beyond physical proximity and Frances feels like she’s drifting away from her closest friend. In the meantime, she sputters trying to become an adult herself, swapping roommates and living conditions, and getting into trouble with guys, money, and Sophie.
While a bit freeform in its plot momentum, Frances Ha is a perceptive and ultimately poignant film exploring female friendship dynamics and the perils of growing up. Frances is something of an adorable mess but she’s been treading water for some time, bouncing around, but her window for avoiding the adult world is coming to a close and she knows it, which is why she feels the anxiety that she does. There’s something completely relatable about the anxiety of entering into the “adult world,” and yet it’s a transition we must all endure. Frances, now 27, has put it off as long as she could but even her “other half,” Sophie, is making the transition, and with it growing apart from her BFF. Frances may be living in New York City but she hasn’t had a charmed existence, the kind of hipster nouveau rich experience we see detailed in Lena Dunham’s Girls (a show I genuinely enjoy, though the second season was a bit iffy). When Frances is out on a date, an event she engineered because she just got her tax return, she discovers she has to pay in cash. She then runs several blocks looking for an ATM. When she finds one she stands in great deliberation at the screen. She’ll incur a $3 fee for withdrawing. When she returns, she apologizes to her date, saying, “I’m sorry. I’m not a real person yet.” Despite these economic bearings, she makes impulsive decisions but pays for them. A spontaneous weekend getaway to Paris, which she spends most of it sleeping or moping, results in Frances working back at her alma mater in a menial fashion.
There’s also Baumbach’s signature dark humor that follows Frances like a dark cloud, her life regularly a series of more downs than ups. However, Baumbach’s caustic sensibilities have been sanded down, perhaps thanks to co-writer/girlfriend Gerwig’s involvement, and the movie adopts a tone less scabrous and more knowing. It doesn’t position us to laugh at Frances as a self-involved moron who makes poor decisions; we’re laughing from the standpoint of perspective. I noticed little judgment (when she says “my friends make fun of me because I can’t explain where my bruises come from,” I thought of a few female friends in my life who could relate). Not much goes right for Frances through the duration of the movie, but by the end she appears to have come out the stronger. She’s got the beginnings of her entrance into the adult world and the movie leaves the impression that she’s going to be okay. I appreciated that she didn’t abandon her passion with dance as if becoming a grown-up meant stepping away from what you care about. That concluding uplift provides a reward for the audience and Frances after so many missteps and struggles. There’s a tenderness here that’s refreshing for Baumbach.
I also thought Frances Ha was a very insightful and interesting look at female dynamics, something that rarely gets such a thoughtful and high profile examination. Friendships, especially those between women, can function like romantic relationships when it comes to intimacy, minus the sex. Frances and Sophie comment that their relationship is like an old lesbian couple that has stopped having sex. They are each other’s other half, attuned perfectly to one another’s peculiar sensibilities. When Frances tries to recreate these sensibilities with another woman, she responds in annoyance. At the very beginning, Frances gets into a fight and breaks up with her boyfriend all because he wanted her to move in with him and thus away from Sophie. We feel her grief then when this important person, this long-standing friend that Frances has defined her own sense of identity with, is moving on and moving out. We’ve all had those people in our lives whose personal successes force us to reflect upon our own life trajectories, and we may grimace. It’s an unavoidable part of growing up but our relationships will alter and the people important in our lives will fluctuate, many times through no fault to either party. Frances and Sophie are at that crossroads as Sophie settles down with a career and an emerging and serious relationship, while Frances is sputtering and trying to hold onto the past. The end even borrows a literal nod from 2011 Bridesmaids, one of my favorite films of that year. Frances yearns for a love that is so powerful so transcendent, that all it needs is a look, a silent nod of communication that both parties share, invisible to all others. It doesn’t take a genius to infer that this look will be between Frances and Sophie by film’s end.
Gerwig (Arthur, To Rome with Love) has been an up-and-coming It Girl for some time in Hollywood, rising in the ranks of mumblecore cinema and becoming a muse for Baumbach. Frances Ha is tailor-made to her amiable strengths; the woman is easy to fall in love with. Watch her skip and dance through the streets of New York, set to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” and try not to smile. Gerwig has a natural, easy-going charisma and a screen presence that grabs you. Her cheerful, unmannered dorkiness grounds Frances’ vanity, making her far more relatable and worthy of our rooting. France sis no mere Manic Pixie Dream Girl sketch of a woman; here is a three-dimensional figure for the taking. Gerwig also has fantastic chemistry with Sumner (TV’s The Borgias), daughter of Sting. You instantly get a feel for the history these two have shared with their relaxed interactions. And speaking of HBO’s Girls, Adam Driver, a.k.a. Adam, has a substantial supporting role and another Frances Ha actor, Michael Zegen (TV’s Boardwalk Empire), will appear in season 3. Small world.
Frances Ha owes as much to the French New Wave as it does to the observational mumblecore movies of Gerwig’s early roots. Here is a film that’s perceptive, dryly funny, poignant, and relatively lovely in its quieter moments of everyday life and relationships, rich with feeling. It’s angst and ennui without overpowering self-absorption. Your ultimate judgment is going to rest on your opinion of Gerwig and the Frances character, but I found both to be charming and easy to relate with. We want this woman to land on her feet, find her place in the world so to speak, but the movie refrains from casting condescension. Frances isn’t stupid; she’s a bit naïve and a bit impulsive and oblivious, but this woman is also hopeful, passionate, persistent, and a good person at heart. Losing her closest female friend is akin to the worst breakup of her life. She’s sputtering to redefine herself, to find traction with the adult world she knows she cannot hold off any longer. In that sense, Frances Ha is also a winning look at late-bloomers. It’s Baumbach’s best film since Kicking and Screaming and one of the best films of 2013 thus far.
Nate’s Grade: A-
If you aren’t familiar with writer/director Jeff Nichols, do yourself a favor and get acquainted and fast because this guy is headed for indie stardom. Nichols’ last movie, the somber and unbearably tense thriller Take Shelter, was my top film of 2011. Mud, in contrast, is a harder sell, something akin to a modern-day Mark Twain fable about romantic outsiders, fugitives, friendship, and boys coming of age. Matthew McConaughey plays the titular character, a wanted man hiding out on a small island along the Mississippi River. He befriends two teens that help him rebuild a boat so that Mud can escape with his lady (Reese Witherspoon) and evade a team of dangerous bounty hunters seeking vengeance. Nichols is truly gifted at his ability to craft wholly believable characters regardless of circumstance. There is a great sense of setting here, without nary a judgment to the lower class moorings and difficulties, just as Nichols expertly showcased rural Midwestern life and day-to-day anxieties in Take Shelter. His new film is admittedly slow and takes a while to rev up, but the performances are just so good and richly delivered, from top to bottom, that you’re happy to go along with the somewhat loping ride. It’s such a pleasure to witness McConaughey fully engaged with a role, pushing him to utilize new and exciting acting muscles. Nichols also doesn’t soft-pedal the hardships of his characters. While it’s poignant and satisfying how the various plot threads come together for a thrilling conclusion, Mud also has the grace to leave several storylines absent tidy bows. There’s real heartbreak, real disappointment, and recognizable people of all walks trying to do good and find their place in this complicated world. If Mud is playing near you, it should shoot to the top of your must-see list.
Nate’s Grade: A-
After months of rapturous praise from Sundance and Cannes, allow me to be the wet blanket of the critical community, because Beasts of the Southern Wild is one big helping of “meh.” I didn’t enjoy this movie at all and its mixture of strange fantasy elements and a hellish childhood reminded me of another misfire, 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are.
Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) lives on a spit of land off New Orleans and below the levy. This tucked-away land is nicknamed by its colorful, besotted residents as the Bathtub. Hushpuppy lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in large shacks elevated high off the ground. This comes in handy because after a disastrous flood, Hushpuppy and her father have to navigate the waters to find others and scramble for some return to their life and culture. The residents must also make sure to be cautious because the U.S. government, which is evacuating all flood-devastated areas, is looking for survivors to forcibly remove. Wink is sick and has to impart the ways of his family and culture to young Hushpuppy, who sees herself as one piece in a big puzzle.
This movie is awash in all sorts of tones and storylines, failing to cohesively gel together or form some kind of meaningful message. I could have sworn that the fantasy elements, namely the giant thundering pack of large boars, were just going to be a visual metaphor for Hushpuppy’s journey. And then they actually show up and every person can see them. So, now what? The boars are one of many ideas that the movie just sort of toys around with before losing interest. This is not a film of magic realism. This is not a film about the escapes from a hard reality. In a way, this movie plays out like if Terrence Malick had made Gummo, and if you know me, you know I loathe both Gummo and Terrence Malick movies. Beasts constantly flirts with pseudo-intellectual pabulum, trying to reach something profound but instead settling for confounding. Hushpuppy’s curlicue unnatural narration talks about being a little piece in a big universe and the interconnectedness of all things, but by film’s end you get no dynamic sense of this. What I got was a little kid’s poor life getting worse, and that’s about it. If the film has anything larger to say about the world, Katrina, human connection, then I’m at a loss as to explain what that may be. Beasts offers half-formed ideas, strange, conflicting imagery, and characters that are rather thinly written and barely register. I never found Hushpuppy an engaging protagonist and felt like her very age and the heavy burdens she is forced to carry were manipulative substitutes for actual characterization. I cannot understand the love here.
The movie is something of a wild stew of Southern folklore and coming-of-age tropes and plenty of indie trappings, like weak political allegory, roaming handheld camerawork, and sacrificing story to the altar of realism. So much of this movie feels like it was made to give a sense of how an overlooked life in poverty is lived. From that standpoint the film does a commendable job of showing everyday life and the struggle to feed and survive. There’s a certain sense of ingenuity at work. But all of these setting details do not take the place of an involving story and characters we should care about. I felt sorry for the various residents of the Bathtub and their lot in life, but I never felt attached to any of them. That’s because, as mentioned before, they’re bland and simplistically drawn, but also because Beasts doesn’t bother to do anything else other than create its rich, tragic, harsh world. It’s authentic all right, but what does all that authenticity have to add to genuine character work? Artistic authenticity is not always synonymous with telling a good story. The Bathtub feels real, got it. So now what?
Hushpuppy lives in squalor and the movie has a disquieting romanticism of abject poverty. To the residents of the Bathtub, they are living in some forgotten paradise away from the concerns of the mainland. They refuse to leave their homes and their lives, even though there isn’t much of a home to call one’s own. We wade in this horrible existence and are meant to pretend like it’s an idyllic lifestyle, you know, with all the creature comforts of child abuse thrown in for extra measure. While Beasts looks entirely authentic with its impoverished, junkyard-esque production design, the overall mood and atmosphere hardly seems worth celebrating. Now, I’m not saying that characters can’t make the most of whatever life has given them and meet the implacable with fearless optimism. These characters would likely shun our pity; they reject any government assistance after the great flood and just want to sneak back to their simpler lives. This is not an enviable life, and the fact that the movie tries to romanticize it feels deeply irresponsible. At least with a film like Winter’s Bone, where you felt the crushing existence of systemic poverty, the filmmakers didn’t try and put a smile on all the drudgery. In that movie, you felt the trappings of poverty and how it can sink into your soul. On some level perseverance in the face of adversity is noble, but so would escaping poverty. Regardless, this is not worthy of romanticizing or fetishizing.
Little Wallis is certainly getting her fair share of attention for anchoring the film. She’s six years old so it’s hard to assess her full acting potential, but the kid looks to have some fire in her. However, it is not a performance that leaves a lasting impression. I realized that much of her performance was long reaction shots and that ponderous voiceover narration. True, she does get some dramatic sequences and lets loose a few tears, but it feels like the movie didn’t want to push her too far and settled on a barrage of shots of Hushpuppy being stoic. I was more impressed with Henry, he too an acting novice making his debut. His character is more complex than an innocent naïf we have as our protagonist. He’s clearly dying and trying to quickly get his daughter prepared for a life of independence. He’s also quick to anger and you can feel the heavy weight of his life and his fledgling mission. In fact, I think Beasts would have been better if it had been told from the father’s perspective rather than our child trying to understand the great big scary world. There’s certainly a lot more drama and an easier route for sympathy, even if he could be accused of being cruel and neglectful.
I’ll admit that Beasts of the Southern Wild is different, daring, and fitfully imaginative, as well as benefiting from strong production design and special effects work. But “different” and “daring” doesn’t always mean good. I cannot in good faith say I enjoyed this movie, especially with its freeform plot, messages, tones, and occasional garish imagery. The plot seems desperate for some form of greater meaning, defaulting to ponderous poetry rather than supply a workable narrative and characters that are developed. Then there’s the whole romanticizing of systemic poverty that I find off-putting and wrongheaded. 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 navel-gazing.
Nate’s Grade: C+