Jojo Rabbit (2019): Taika Waititi’s Newest Coming-of-Age Story

Jojo_Rabbit_(2019)_poster.jpgWe must acknowledge the elephant or rather, the rabbit in the room. Grappling with the intersection of Nazis and humor has always been a loaded and controversial topic. But usually, it fosters conversation nonetheless so here’s an attempt to provide some meager context.

The Great Dictator (1940) and To Be or Not to Be (1942) are two of the most prescient films to come out of their era, years before we would get the campy buffoonery of Hogan’s Heroes (1965-71) or Mel Brooks’ irreverent breakout The Producers (1968). Even something more squarely dramatic like Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997) is still buoyed by laughs. Understandably, with each of these examples, there have been detractors who have called into question the ways in which they tackle the historical moment given the subject matter.

I am not here to tell anyone they are wrong. There’s also the reality that the issues being wrestled with are still very real, and even after 75 years, in many cases still very raw. All of this must be taken into account.

For instance, I recall the first time I learned about Alfons Heck, trained up from the age of 6 to be a loyal cog in the Nazi propaganda machine. Only years later, did he come to terms with all the lies he and his generation of German youth were being peddled. He subsequently toured the university circuit in the states with Holocaust survivor Helen Waterford denouncing the ills of ideological brainwashing, lest we forget it ever existed.

Or I was reminded of Hans Detlef Sierck (better known as renowned film director Douglas Sirk), who after marrying a Jewish woman, was blocked by his first wife, an ardent Nazi supporter, from seeing their son Klaus. The boy would become a child star in Nazi cinema, although he eventually died in combat in 1944. Sirk never saw him again.

These are stunning reminders of how virulent ideologies can tear lives apart and this is much of what Jojo Rabbit occupies itself with. But the difference is taking the negativity and making it positive. This is a tale about empathy, understanding, anti-hate if you will. If you accept the term leniently, it is a satire, but I tend to see that word coming with a bite or an irony (not unakin to Sirk or Billy Wilder).

However, this story is mostly full of warmth, good-humor, and because this is a Taika Waititi production, wackiness. Mind you, that’s generally a compliment. The opening refrains of “Komm, gib mir deine Hand,” known in the English-speaking free world known as “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” equates the nationalistic fervor to Beatlemania, recontextualizing the history but also giving it a raucous vibe. 

Consequently, some people will find Jojo Rabbit at best inane and inconsequential and at worst, offensive — as is the case when anything as sensitive as the Nazis is brought to the fore. In an age of political correctness, it’s a film trampling a danger zone where racial epithets and maledictions leave the tongues of oafish buffoons. One decidedly ironic line curses a “female, Jewish Jesse Owens.”

This is where the movie and Taika Waititi — as an emblematic supporting character — are able to succeed. It sings with a warm benevolence that proves unerringly sweet. Empathizing with those with whom we would do well to connect with and undermining the villains’ remnant of cultural clout.

It starts with our hero Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) a kind-hearted young boy. His is a bildungsroman story like we’ve seen time and time again (even from Waititi). Because he is a creature of innocence, despite what the culture leads him to believe about himself. Because the difference is he, like Heck or Sierck, is coming to age in the fanatical regime of the Nazis where he is being trained up to be a good little soldier.

He’s adorably inept and faint of heart like any young lad dealing with the peer pressure around him. As a 10-year-old he still can’t tie his shoelaces nor can he muster up the needed brutality to kill a bunny during the local war games. His only real friend is the rolly polly, bespectacled Yorki. He also has an invisible friend: the imaginary dopey incarnation of Adolf himself, portrayed by Waititi.

In a sense, taking this prominent role on, with his inherent slapstick and humor, allows the director to possess the man and deconstruct him, ridiculing him from within. It’s not elemental but like many of the Nazis portrayed in Hogan’s Heroes, Waititi has some Jewish heritage, further underlying his caricature.

Rebel Wilson is good for a few of her typical bawdy punchlines and Steve Merchant as the creepily skeletal, smiling Gestapo man manages to walk the film’s tightrope of humor and lingering menace quite well. Sam Rockwell is another walking joke waiting to go off, and yet even he is allowed moments of warmth and ultimate redemption.

Scarlett Johannson asserts herself in a maternal role as one of the legitimately decent people in the movie. Whether or not it’s one of her best performances, I’ve never seen her quite like this and that is compliment enough. She reminds us, through her affectionate devotion toward her son, the powerful, if monumental, undertaking parenting can be. How goodness and decency can cover a world of sins. How laughter and yes, even dance, can be a window to some small semblance of humanity.

One is also reminded Waititi is a genuine storyteller because it’s a tenuous line to balance humor with the bleakness, injecting the story with tension and tragedy in equal measures. You half expect the film to skimp on the ruthless nature of Nazism in favor of far easier put-downs. Instead, it searches out hope within the world and less fickle themes, without entirely dismissing reality.

Thomasin Mackenzie (the brilliant actress from Leave No Trace) goes part of the way in making this possible. Because she is the girl in the walls. She’s not a rat. As Jojo comes to realize, she’s a person. A victim certainly, but she’s also got strength and defiance. After all, her people have a history of wrestling with angels. She comes out of the same hardy tradition.

What she brings into the picture is a complexity to upend everything in Jojo’s fanciful mind. What first begins as a horror trope quickly evolves almost reluctantly into mutual understanding. If his relationship with his mother holds such a stake in his life, this curious new friendship is the crutch of the film, containing its message.

In the final moments, life is back to some form of normalcy. They stand out on the streets letting their bodies free for the first time set to David Bowie’s “Helden” (or “Heroes”). Instantly this feels like Perks of Being a Wallflower and yet somehow this kind of association doesn’t feel wrong because I think Waititi worked so hard to not make this just another WWII movie cut out of the same mold.

It has this universal feeling of adolescence while not totally disregarding history and yet it’s free and comfortable enough to pull it out of its context and flair it with colors and touches of humor. The joy is how heart and hope are the final building blocks even beyond the laughter. The key is how it’s never at the true expense of the victims. Somehow it’s more tender than I was ever expecting. It wants to continue the conversation. Whether or not you agree entirely with its methods, it does seem like a noble task to undertake.

3.5/5 Stars

Eighth Grade (2018)

Eighth_Grade.pngIt’s not exactly The Godfather but in its opening monologue, using the awkward tween, like-laden mouthpiece of Kayla, Bo Burnham re-exerts his creative voice on the media landscape. What is more, in a world becoming continually more obsessed with relevance, shareability, and trends, Eighth Grade promises something of actual substance.

Because it dares to do what few films have done (or done well), which is enter the perilous trenches of middle school plagued by all the anxiety, bodily changes, and nervous stuttering that goes with such turbulent territory.

Looking into Kayla’s face for as long as we do — every painful tick and averted gaze — we realize this message to “Be Yourself” on her channel is as much of a rallying cry for her than for anyone else. But that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? We live life for affirmation and to know we are not alone.

I can still recall when I was in middle school (10 years ago now), which must feel like eons for middle schoolers right now. But the big new gizmo was the iPhone. MySpace was just becoming a thing of the past as the Facebook storm began to creep in. By the time of my final year in high school, Instagram was on the scene.

Now people (even me) don’t really use Facebook. We’ve moved onto Instagram, Snap Chat, and new uncharted frontiers. In the social media age proliferating with Instagram stories, Youtube vlogs, podcasts, snap stories and whatever else that is new and novel, there is a hyper-awareness of technology, surpassing anything we have yet to see.

Our daily brand — how we showcase ourselves to the public — is so important as is second-guessing every text and emoji to make sure they make us come off in the right light. In fact, even by the movie’s conclusion, we feel saturated. But the truly sobering aspect is seeing how it so directly overlaps with my own life and the lives of friends as we navigate this age. It’s not too far removed from us.

Eighth Grade is also a film that greatens my resolve to go on a technology detox in some shape or form. Kayla, constantly scrolling, plugged in with earbuds, is not so much a bygone figure but a mild reflection of many of us — even those of us who are older.

But on the Middle School front, there are also instantly recognizable vignettes from rubber bands on braces to health class and superlatives within the student body. It is these relatable elements causing Eighth Grade to mirror Boyhood in how it capably recalls a certain time and place.

And like Edge of Seventeen, there’s a fascination in the bad boy who by any subjective standard is arguably the most uninteresting specimen of the opposite gender in the entire pack. It’s the way our adolescent brains function causing us to channel people through a very specific filter.

Initially, the movie feels more low key and less edgy than aspects of middle school I remember around the fringes. However, there also manages to be ample truth. Though everyone has diverse experiences, there are other elements proving themselves universal.

There’s the invitation to the pool party which is in itself ripe with so many potential humiliations. The over the shoulder slow track as Kayla plods along tentatively is one of Burnham’s favorite tricks to get inside her character — epitomizing just how much of an unconfident, introvert she is among her peers.

It turns out to be a bit like a three-ringed circus but not in some outrageous way — in the everyday idiosyncratic, cringe-worthy way we no doubt experienced in our own lives. We are allowed to observe the silly flirting rituals of the genders. How a girl’s mother invites her 50 “best friends” to the party thereby netting a veritable lode of presents.

Then we are reminded of how fledgling teenagers coexist (or don’t) with their parents. What follow are the well-established angsty, taciturn evasion tactics. It’s one of the strange mysteries of the universe. Everyone else’s parents are fine but the moment we hit a certain age our own parents find a way of wheedling under our skins and our own issues and insecurities meets head-on with these people who love us and often try our patience.

In the darkness, in front of a glowing screen — not only the circadian rhythms are thrown out of whack — but with technology literally when we wake up (phones as alarm clocks) and web surfing before bed, there’s room for concern. There is little space left over for quiet. We are never alone. Never allotted time to simply exist, undistracted.

In one moment Kayla utters the cutest prayer about the first day of her high school “audition.” If we were to take it seriously, her prayer is answered in the form of Olivia, a bubbly high schooler, who instantly puts her shadow at ease. But while Olivia is easy and kind and inclusive, her friends are a shoddy bunch.

Between them, we have the confrontation of this idea of micro generations — how quickly things change now — and how we are “wired differently” based on when we grew up. Middle schoolers versus high schoolers, then college students, and now an old fogey like me out of college.

An awkward interaction becomes progressively creepier in the darkened back seat of a car when she is getting driven home by a boy. In fact, it turns into a traumatic experience. No young woman should have to deal with something like that in an already harrowing world. It breaks the heart because we know there is a truth to it.

Kayla gratefully finds another worthy friend in Gabe — who is the dork to trump all dorks — but he’s also a person of quality because he’s never destructive or narcissistic. There is an authentic warmth to him which makes him worth having in your corner. When he asks Kayla if she believes in God, munching on fries and chicken nuggets it’s matter-of-fact, if not candid.

The conversation feels so forced and awkward but they are both on equal footing, worrying and concerned and so it makes every weird observation or odd behavior part of the new, accepted status quo. None of it matters. They are friends.

These moments trigger brief wisps of memories where I wish I could go back to those days armed with a few of the things I learned now. Being content in my own skin enough to take leaps of faith, being bold, and making an idiot of myself more often. It works when you have people in your circle who aren’t trying to play a superficial popularity contest with you. They’re the definition of what a friend actually is if you look it up in the dictionary, instead of a convenient social conception.

In the end, I couldn’t help wishing Eighth Grade was a television program instead of a film. I’m not sure if this is a negative conclusion to come true. All I can consider are my warm memories for The Wonder Years and then Freaks and Geeks, which both gave us such meaningful articulations of a certain time in life. Kevin Arnold’s voiceovers as his adult self are a thing of legend. And Kayla gives us a similar entry point through her vlog. But it doesn’t feel as visually cinematic as it does episodic.

Burnham’s finest scene is probably the pool party because like other films before it, he’s able to use that arena to give us something about our main character. To some degree though, the film is full of astute and highly personal insights, there is something tiring about montage, vacuous pop music paired with voiceover.

Then again, if there was anyone qualified to look at this material in this manner, it probably is Burnham who himself began as a YouTube personality. There is an instantaneous bit of truth he can inject into the movie and even if this was all it was, there is something to it. If it connects with some kid on a meaningful level, I would consider it to be an unequivocal success.

Elsie Fisher is a name I recall from Despicable Me but in this live-action performance, she brings the crucial unassuming charm to push the role into a believable world. A connection is made thanks to her and when the credits roll we want Kayla to be herself knowing full well how special she is. Mr. Rogers isn’t in vogue with middle schoolers or high schoolers and yet there is such lasting veracity in one of his most famous affirmations.

“You make each day a special day. You know how? By just your being you. There’s only one person in this whole world like you. And that’s you. And people can like you exactly as you are.”

I think we could all use more words like these in our lives. Replacing Twitter feuds with uplifting words of praise seems like a worthwhile tradeoff. It only takes one voice to start a movement.

4/5 Stars

 

Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

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Madeline’ Madeline takes the very individualistic nature of its title and boldly realizes it through POV and metaphor to begin digging around in the perplexing head-space of a teenager. The first words we hear are as follows, “The emotions you are having are not your own, they are someone else’s. You are not the cat. You are inside the cat.” We are in a hospital and then within a feline pawing and purring, followed by a turtle sliding its way out to the ocean into the depths of the sea.

In the midst of the movie, I had an epiphany that I would have difficulty being an actor if the part strayed away from human qualities. Because when I look at animals there is wonderment there but I never feel like I could bring anything to them. I cannot understand or comprehend them.

Likewise, it would be difficult for me to invest in the perspective of a turtle and a cat, not that they are not important but they do not seem to operate, think, and act in the same way that we do as human beings. Because Madeline (Helena Howard) is a character who is playing a part and the metaphor is extended across this entire film. One could say she is playing a version of herself — the version that she perceives and wants to exist as — while others have another version of her that they want.

In playing her part, she willingly sheds her skin and puts on the guise of other creatures and gives herself over to them completely. One of the inherent fascinations in the showing Howard gives is the meta nature of playing the role of someone else playing a role.

So, in theory, we have the layers and the complexities of this whole patchwork of theater people and normal everyday humans playing their parts both real and fabricated based on the world around them. A certain ubiquitous Shakespeare quote is overwrought I know but it is also quite pertinent. “All the world is a stage and the people merely players.” We can break this film down to these more basic components as well.

Madeline’s involvement in her theater troupe not only facilitates this layering of a part on top of a part but it creates a visual dichotomy between the two women in her life who carry weight over her adolescent years. Her nervously concerned mother Regina (Miranda July) is always worried about her behavior, if she’s eating, taking her medicine, being safe about sex — all sorts of things. Her high-strung nature is a result of a daughter she deems to be unpredictable.

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Then, there’s Evangeline (Molly Parker) the drama director and empowering free spirit who continually encourages Madeline in her physical expression and touts her in the devotion she gives to the stage. In this carefree communal environment, the girl feels truly herself and at ease with the beings existing around her.

They do some of the familiar improv, turning the story of an incarcerated man into literal expression. They do photo shoots and costume runs with giant pig heads and garish ensembles. When they sit in a circle together sharing their emotions and insights I could not help but feel the portrait epitomized the stereotypical acting experiences seen in a show such as Community. Needless to say, someone like me repressed and stunted as I am, looks on such a showing with a skeptical eye.

In one solitary scene, Evangeline even sits down with Madeline and starts expounding upon the philosophy of Jung. All is chaos in the cosmos. In the disorder, there is an order and the pendulum perpetually swings between sense and nonsense. While not necessarily reassuring, perhaps these words allow us to piece together a certain perspective to see the world. Maybe…

It becomes increasingly apparent — certainly beginning with the opening shot — this is meant to be a very intimate film. The camera hugs Madeline’s face and really provides close-ups for just about everyone while simultaneously blurring the screen artistically with exposure techniques to allow light to constantly seep into the frame. That’s when we’re not literally inside the camera’s viewpoint. Audio is often being funneled to us with dulled or hazed effects as if we are seeing the world through interference and distractions like others do.

At one point the stage performance is about prison and then it is a metaphor and then it morphs against into a piece on mental illness until Evangeline literally turns into a performance of Madeline’s most intimate details thinking they are all part of a character named Zia. Of course, the mask is only Madeline. She becomes a daughter regurgitating the words of her mother — imprinted on her brain — in a very public forum and it becomes a bit too real.

Then, Madeline winds up seeing a different side of Evangeline, not unlike her own mother, and once more we have drolling adults communicating on an altogether different wavelength than the teenagers.

The inevitable happens and Madeline and her troupe create a near funhouse of performance art all overtaken by an idea and rebelling against the forms their fearless leader imparted to them.

There is a unique voice and a vision that is unlike most anything else. But I’m not sure it even knows what it is striving for. There’s not necessarily an issue with this and yet it does lack what we would ascertain to be a central conceit for the rest of the film to orbit around.

If I had not just If I had not just recently seen A Bread Factory I would say this movie existed in a stratosphere totally its own. Regardless, it boasts a wholly original perspective from director Josephine Decker coupled with a mesmerizing performance by Helena Howard.

Whether we know what to make of it or not is up for contention. I still haven’t decided if this point is really worth dwelling on. The onus should not always be on a film to provide answers and if that is the case Madeline’s Madeline is a success because it arguably offers something more valuable — food for thought. For now, I am content ruminating over my multitude of questions.

3.5/5 Stars

Lady Bird (2017)

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Greta Gerwig has a deep connection with Sacramento that I failed to appreciate when I first saw her in Frances Ha (2012). In that film, she’s making a life for herself in New York but stops off in Paris and returns home to the west coast. Now with Gerwig directing in lieu of Noah Baumbach, we have the inverse and the affection on display is indisputable.

A young woman resides in Sacramento with dreams of the culture of the east coast, namely New York. It’s the old story. We rarely appreciate where we come from or who we have in our lives until we have to leave and say goodbye. There’s no place like home.

Although I lived in California most of my life, it’s a big place and I do not know Sacramento intimately and yet I can deeply admire someone who does and takes care in portraying it on screen. It’s hardly a touch-up job but Lady Bird exudes an agreeable rose-colored nostalgia.

We are reminded that this is the post 9/11 generation which barely had cell phones and was still listening to “Crash Into Me” and Justin Timberlake. I remember bits and pieces of that time and I certainly recall the aftermath which will never be wiped from my memory. However, I increasingly realize fewer of my generation remember this era and so for me it’s a type of period piece that I can appreciate first hand.

There’s something about the story that evokes Anne of Green Gables for me. It is a mother-daughter movie. Our heroine Christine (Saoirse Ronan) has a gripping personality and like her predecessor desires a name change, in this case, Lady Bird. It leads to heated conflict with her mother and yet there’s a father too who has an affable spirit to play peacekeeper. We grow to appreciate them all.

The opening conversation between Lady Bird and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is so very honest in capturing how as human beings we are so quick to cycle through emotions – bonding, loving, then arguing and instantly annoyed. I heard talk in an interview Gerwig gave about her writing process. It wasn’t so much about hitting all the right beats at first. She wrote so many pages and lived with the characters and let them take her where they would. In this regard, there’s a three-dimensional even lived in quality to each individual that cannot be fabricated. Far from being types, they overlap and interact in ways that feel refreshing and authentic.

The parents actually have an integral place in the lives of their children. They are not relegated to being killjoys or caricatures. There’s hard and fast truth to both Metcalf and Tracy Letts as they exquisitely inhabit their roles. There’s none of that leaving out a parent conveniently to make it easier to write for. Lady Bird pays respect to all of its characters much as it does its setting.

The best friend is another well-trod trope and you wonder if there’s any way to create something that has not already been done. Lady Bird and Julie’s (Beanie Feldstein) relationship sums it up precisely. As they quarrel, get involved in theater, and dance and daydream about all the things you’re supposed to. Eating unconsecrated communion wafers, feet in the air, backs on the floor chatting. It’s endearing and what we all craved in high school, whether we had that person or not.

Then, of course, there has to be the love interest. And yet again Lady Bird does something far more realistic. There’s not just one boy but two. The theatrical one, Danny (Lucas Hedges), from a big Irish family and then the hipster nonconformist one, Kyle (Timothy Chalamet), who can be found playing bass, smoking, and reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States at a cafe. And even by the end, we never know which one was better for her. That’s not the point.

They were all part of her discovering more of herself. You even have the cool girl who everyone tries to suck up to. She’s entitled and has a hunk boyfriend and her parents don’t care what she does but even she has some humanity and a moral code. She’s not the devil’s incarnate. None of these characters are. As one who has dabbled in writing coming-of-age fiction with varying degrees of success, I recognize the ability of someone who is able to balance the economy of the genre with something that feels so resonant. It captures that expanse of time that is high school colorfully and with a degree of variedness. There is little chaff.

Like some of its immersive and empathetic brethren — The 400 Blows (1959), American Graffiti (1973), and Boyhood (2014) spring to mind — Lady Bird is not simply a coming-of-age story from the female perspective but an eloquent articulation of the human experience.

It’s also a film of benevolent spirituality. It’s set at a Catholic high school with some of the hallmarks we might recognize — uniforms, mass, communion. But it never feels like a mere punchline and those in positions of authority are generally warm and understanding.

The bright-eyed sister (a venerable Lois Smith) shares her love of Aquinas, Augustine, and Kierkegaard. Later she’s the victim of Lady Bird’s practical joke to try to gain a new friend. She plasters a sign on the sister’s car reading “Just Married to Jesus.” At a later date, it gets brought up matter-of-factly, the sister smiling at the joke but noting it’s been at least 40 years.

She is the perfect embodiment of a spiritual leader, leading by example and a heavy dose of compassion. She nudges her students but there’s also enough sense to realize ultimately they will have to figure it out. I did have a momentary flash of how perfect it would have been to cast Dolores Hart in the role but that’s hardly a complaint mind you. I also felt compelled to quote Kierkegaard’s journalings right about now and so I will. He penned the following:

“Of what use would it be to me to be able to formulate the meaning of Christianity, to be able to explain many specific points–if it had no deeper meaning for me and for my life… I certainly do not deny that I still accept the imperative of knowledge and that through it men may be influenced, but then it must come alive in me, and this is what I now recognize as the most important of all.”

I’m not sure if I have anything to add to his words but they just feel applicable to all of us. And Christine gets somewhere in her personal journey. In one moment, she’s finally made the move to New York and like all good insecure college students, she’s having a drunken conversation with a dude about God. He asserts that he doesn’t believe that there is one. Then she mumbles to herself how people don’t think there’s a God and yet they so readily take on the arbitrary names their parents choose for them.

Eventually, she wanders by a church on a Sunday morning after a short stint in the hospital (nothing too serious) and stays to enjoy the choir. But in a moment of realization, she walks out and calls up her mom to reconcile because she recognizes how important that relationship is to her life. She’s willing to acknowledge her affection for her mom which is a step toward greater understanding and love.

Lady Bird paints in warmth and laughter, anger and tears, that all have deep abiding roots in the love of family and friends. That’s how a film about a red-haired teenager in Sacramento could manage to be for all of us. I want to see it again already as I know my esteem for it will only rise.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Way Way Back (2013)

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Kyrie Eleison along the road that I must travel…” ~ Mr. Mister

Liam James is undoubtedly a kindred spirit to many young men because he’s the epitome of awkward. His posture is terminally awful. He has no confidence, no presence, his hair could use a trim, and he’s pale and unassertive. He doesn’t even have a go-to dance move, heaven forbid. He’s the kind of kid who wears jeans to the beach in the throes of summer.

But that’s what we have at face value. The problem is he plays into the narrative that others have written for him and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Take Trent (Steve Carell), the man Duncan’s mother (Toni Colette) is seeing. He calls the boy out on his apparent lack of social skills and criticizes him for being a 3 on a scale from 1 to 10.

That’s what Ducan has to go up against as his makeshift family travels to the beachfront for summer vacation. It looks like a dead end, several months that Duncan will simply have to survive tagging along awkwardly with Trent’s self-absorbed teenage daughter or getting systematically belittled by Trent in small ways.

And yet this same summer that looks like a veritable disaster ends up becoming the most formative time in Duncan’s life because in the thick of all the bad stacked up against him he is introduced to a world of so much good. It’s one of those moments of sheer happenstance. He begins riding a pink bicycle around town to get away from the suffocation at home and finds himself crossing paths with everyone’s new favorite friend Owen (Sam Rockwell).

They meet over a Pac-Man game and it’s awkward. Because every conversation Duncan has is awkward (ie. He talks to his pretty next-door neighbor Susannah about the weather). But not about to give up on a kid in need of some camaraderie, Owen lets the lad into his life and offers him something remarkable: A job helping him at the water park Wizz World.

In itself cleaning up vomit and stacking chairs isn’t the image of a perfect summer. But by reaching out and giving Duncan something, Owen impacts someone else more than he will ever know. Because that park represents so much for Duncan. It’s the family he’s struggling to find. It’s his fountain of confidence. It provides him a much-needed platform where even he can be cool and be known by others. That’s what we all want, to be known and appreciated.

That’s why he returns again and again. In fact, it’s so apparent how often he rides off that Susannah (AnnaSophia Robb) follows him one day and the rest is history. This girl who is different than her peers begins to take an interest in his paradise because she sees a confidence and enthusiasm in him that never existed before and she too seeks an escape.

Meanwhile, Duncan’s home life is still a shambles. Things are shot to hell as Trent is cheating on his mother and their vacation gets quickly terminated. He’s unhappy with it all and there’s very little his mother can do about the situation. Forced to say goodbye to the best family he ever had, there’s still some satisfaction in one last trip to the water park.

He emblazons his name forever in the lore of Wizz World and he gets the joy of Owen facing down Trent. Perhaps most importantly, the ride in the way-back of the station wagon is a little less lonely on the return trip. His mother has made the concerted effort to be by his side which is a statement of her new resolve to hold their family unit together.

This film is a dream. No one would go so far as to say that this is the dream summer or the dream job but it is a bit of a fantasy and we wish it could be true. Because Wizz World much like Adventureland (2009) before it is an oasis from the worries and distractions of the world at large. It’s one of those places frozen in time year in and year out, in this case, stuck permanently in the 1980s. But this Neverland, far from stunting your growth, helps one teenager discover more of his confidence than he ever thought possible.

Likewise, Sam Rockwell is a cinematic creation, the voice we always wish we had, the cool guy we wish we had in our corner, the jokester who helps us become a better version of ourselves by bringing us out of our shells. In some ways, he’s Peter Pan. Because if he existed in reality, it would only be depressing, but here there’s a special aura about him that instantly makes him our favorite character.

Meanwhile, Steve Carell much to his credit shows another side of himself and even greater range as an actor as Trent, a man who can best be described as a Grade-A jerk. Still, there’s something tragic in the characterization. Everyone else from Maya Rudolph a fellow Wizz World manager, Allison Janney the uninhibited mom-next-door living life buzzed, or even writer/director partners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, all utilize their various quirks and qualities to stand out. Even Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet while playing a pair of obnoxious friends manage to leave their marks on those roles that feel surprisingly believable.

Faxon and Rash’s previous effort The Descendants (2011) is the kind of film that got award buzz and it’s a searing drama that’s almost brutal in impact. Whereas The Way Way Back is made for summer. It’s light, funny, full of life while still managing to be poignant. Coming-of-age nostalgia pieces are a personal weakness — a guilty pleasure even — and this film hits that sweet spot. Are there flaws? Yes, but why focus on those when there’s so much that’s refreshing like a summer vacation of old that you took with your family or ventures to the water park with your best friends? Sometimes we need films like this.

4/5 Stars

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

The_Edge_of_Seventeen_2016_film_poster.jpgThere’s a moment in Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen where Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) suffers the ultimate humiliation third wheeling with her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) and her (former) best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). Needless to say, the evening is less than stellar but it gets worse after Nadine feels like she’s been totally betrayed. She’s been hating her brother recently and her best friend is dead to her now. The fact that she sets up an ultimatum doesn’t make things any better.

It only gets worse when a fellow partygoer notes Nadine’s sibling relationship reminds her a little bit of the movie Twins — if Nadine was Danny Devito and Darian was Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s a perfect illustration of how she feels.

Growing up is never easy for anyone and it’s little different for Nadine. Mean girls at school. No friends. Until the fateful day when she got one but by the time high school hits everyone’s doomed. Hailee Steinfeld manages the tall order of portraying this maladjusted, histrionic, neurotic teen with a pitch-perfect pout.

She’s simultaneously our Lloyd Dobler and our Molly Ringwald in any of the John Hughes vehicles and yet none of those things because she’s come out of a different millennium. She must put voice to every thought and emotion that comes ricocheting through her head as much as she constantly yearns for the not so pretty boy on campus to notice her existence.

Her family life is little better. The death of her father still lingers with hurt. Her brother is the devil’s incarnate (at least to her) and her mom (Kyra Sedgwick) is a little ridiculous–not to be taken seriously in the least. Did we mention that her best friend is hooking up with her brother?

What the film grasps so impeccably is that the teenage years are often defined by one word: Awkwardness. This film is the creme de la creme of awkward and for a coming-of-age film that’s very much a compliment.

There so many awkward conversations to be had. Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson share some of the best because she comes like a hurricane of emotion and he gives her nothing — only the driest retorts as her smart-aleck history teacher. Equally enjoyable is the budding friendship between Nadine and fellow classmate Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto) who makes no attempt to hide his crush on her.

It’s easy to quickly assume Erwin is in the tradition of Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles but a particular Ferris Wheel conversation throws all those conventions out the window for good with a few self-aware lines of dialogue. It’s a pleasant surprise that this relationship is rife with laughs but not at the expense of the characters. Only in the sense that we have the age-old conundrum of the friend zone, still fretted about by teens to this day.

She thinks he’s nice but isn’t attracted. He thinks she’s the greatest girl in the world and dreams of making it into something. He takes all her signals to heart. She doesn’t. The Edge of Seventeen feels very genuine in these respects and the beauty of these themes are their universal quality. This isn’t just about a girl and a guy–one Caucasian the other Asian–they are two people just like us. It’s the universal unifier. We’re all human.

That’s one of the relationships modeled by Nadine in the film. But there’s another one that is far more unpleasant. The one involving her own crush on Nick a seemingly unextraordinary teen male that Nadine for some inexplicable reasons seems batty over. So much so she wants to get with him and sends him the longest, most explicit, and regrettable text message of her life. Still, it gets her some results–a ride in his car with some extra-curricular activities. Whether it’s exactly what she wanted is another thing entirely.

It’s sad really. Our culture is so saturated by sexual images teenagers think there is a need to play into those expectations, to use those same methods to get others to like them and be with them. When, in reality, that’s not right at all and the funny thing is that isn’t even what we want. It’s fairly clear Nadine finds this out firsthand. She doesn’t want just the sex in the first five minutes. She wants more. Conversation. Relationship. Intimacy. To be known. Anything would be nice. And that’s what we all want to some degree but we have an inherent ability to chase after the imposters and the imitations. They seem so nice and yet leave us with nothing.

We’ve been taught we need to lead with what’s on the outside — it’s our body that matters — as our hearts slowly die on the insides because we feel like no one understands us. Our family is made up of psychos and we have no friends. That’s part of what makes this film so revealing. But also the very fact Nadine, despite all her teenage drama, certainly has her moments.

Speaking into her mom’s life with certain candor at least on one occasion and actually opening up to Darian in a way she’s never been willing to do before. It’s the fact that she and Mr. Bruner can joust and yet by the film’s end you know full well they genuinely enjoy each other. It’s true that the acrimonious relationships with teachers somehow are the ones we remember and ultimately invest in most deeply. It’s those interactions that redeem Nadine and help her figure her life out, even if it’s only a little bit.

My only reservation is that although we greatly enjoy their characters, because of their economical amounts of screen time, it feels a little bit like Nadine’s dad and her best friend were used solely for the sake of the plot.

Still, the film’s ending makes no attempt to suddenly discover the meaning of life in some lightning rod of an epiphany. Instead, it contents itself in concluding its story not so much with endings but with the hint of new beginnings and that is oftentimes so much more rewarding. Can I simply end by saying Erwin’s quite the filmmaker?

4/5 Stars

20th Century Women (2016)

20th_Century_Women.pngIn his noted Crisis of Confidence Speech, incumbent president Jimmy Carter urged America that they were at a turning point in history: The path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest, down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom. It is a certain route to failure.

This also serves as a viable entry point into Mike Mills’ intimate, pensive eulogy, 20th Century Women. This is a film on the verge of so many things. It frames its story in the context of the time and the people that existed in one particular moment. Mills floods his canvas with natural light but also paints it with bold colors and plants us in this world that’s somehow tangible and present while still only being a memory to look back on.

It’s 1979. Nixon is slowly fading. Reagan is coming with his conservative boon. You have the Talking Heads. You have hardcore punk. Feminist novels and the woman’s movement. Skateboarding down the empty Santa Barbara roadways. It feels less like a time of change and more of a moment on the brink of something new.

But this very self-awareness in the era is provided by the characters who live within that context because this is their life, these are their memories, and they connect them together delving into the past and soaring forward to all that is yet to come. They recount the world they know through matter-of-fact voice-over to match the images that undoubtedly play in their own heads. This is for them. Namely a son and his mom, Dorthea and Jamie. There’s is a generational difference but not so much a divide.

Dorthea (Annette Bening) is an eccentric, dynamic, empathetic woman who cares deeply about life and others. She believes in each individual person’s rights and volition–you might even say she’s progressive in some ways. But she’s also a mom and a woman bred in a different age. Her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) makes a point of the fact that she’s from the Depression.

Giveaways include her chain smoking habit, a penchant for Bogart, and a predilection for show tunes. She was an aviator and draftswoman in a male-dominated world. But She came out of a time where the community was expected to look after everyone and she searches out the same framework for her son because he’s of a certain age.

If you were pressed to pick out the story’s inciting incident it might be the moment where Dorothea gathers the instrumental women in Jamie’s life around her kitchen table to enlist their help. Because the men around him either don’t resonate (Billy Crudup as William) or they only make their presence known on birthdays (namely Jamie’s father).

She takes a near death experience to mean he’s going through his adolescent phase and she doesn’t believe she can be all things for him anymore. As she notes later, they are better suited for the role because they get to see him in the world as a person. She will never get that. Oh, the heartaches of parenthood–being so invested–while simultaneously trying to be hands-off.

And so in some sense, her tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and their teenage neighbor Julie (Elle Fanning) make a concerted effort to press into his life. Julie is the one who sneaks up through his window sometimes, not to sleep with him, though they often share the same bed, for mere companionship, someone to feel safe around and to talk to. Because he’s someone she knows can be trusted amid the fray of highschoolers.

In one particular sequence, Elle sits on the bed her eyes looking sullenly at Jamie as she tries to talk through their relationship. She concludes, “I think I’m too close to you to have sex with you.” In one sense, it’s touching because it shows that their connection goes beyond this physical act that all the kids are doing, she holds too much respect for him, but it also points to the sorry state of affairs when something like sex is seen as dirty and degraded. That’s part of what she is wrestling with. That and the fact that her therapist mother tries to conveniently label her every action.

Elle Fanning leaves a startling impression casting herself in this film in a light that in one sense is the prototypical edgy, angsty teenager but there is also an undeniable vulnerability and genuine caring quality there that steeps her in unknown depth. That top layer is nothing new but that latter aspect is a testament to Mills’ characters.

Meanwhile, Gerwig provides her exorbitant supply of charismatic energy and panache that allows her to hold some of the most memorable scenes in the film in comedic terms and yet she also proves that there still is a certain tenderness in the red-haired, photography-loving, punk listening, new age modern woman, Abbie.

At the behest of Dorthea she tries to invest some of her artistic spirit into Jamie’s life, showing off the punk scene, introducing him to seminal feminist texts, and helping him to be comfortable around women but, of course, he’s more comfortable than most which is a sign of a certain amount of maturity. In fact, he impacts these women as much as they speak to him and that’s a testament to everyone involved, all flaws aside.

Even if Jamie is, in truth, our main character, perhaps a stand- in for Mills or for us, this film succeeds in crafting stalwart female characters with actual contours that are worth dissecting and with inherent worth denoted by their actions and what they care about.

I don’t know a great deal about Mike Mills but watching a film like 20th Century Women I feel like I know him better–not all of him certainly–but there are pieces here that are no doubt personal and give us a slight view into his experiences.

It’s intimate and there’s an unquestionable amount of vulnerability in his story that must be admired for its sheer honesty. It comes off as purely genuine and real. Because the bottom line is the fact that it never runs on agenda. It never tries to overtly get us to think something or feel something else. If it comes to any overarching conclusions at all it’s that life can be hard and confusing and the same goes for people.

Each one of us can come off as a complex enigma. Even the ones we know and love. It’s possible that we will never know and love them as much as we wish we could. It’s possible we cannot help them or guide them as much as we would like. Still, that’s okay.

For some, this will be a maddening, rudderless picture but to each his own. However, if I may be so bold, 20th Century Women is the kind of film I would want to make–a film wrapped up in its cultural moment in a way that feels so authentic–where the events playing out even if they’ve been made cinematic have real resonance for me as a human being.

Yes, it’s the kind of effort that won’t be received by everyone but a film so very personal rarely is. A film like this you don’t necessarily make for other people anyway. You make it for yourself and the ones you love and leave it at that. This is a love letter.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The 400 Blows (1959)

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Being a great believer in context,  it was a wonderful thing watching 400 Blows once more because I felt like I knew this man behind the camera so much better and I knew this character Antoine (Jean-Pierre Leaud) even better than he knew himself. After all, he was just coming into his own in this initial film.  I was also aware of some cameos including Francois Truffaut himself, Jean-Pierre Brialy and of course Jeanne Moreau, all important forces in the French New Wave movement.

However, one the most powerful things is the degree of foresight we gain about Antoine Doinel. All the things that make up his life at this juncture in time have repercussions later on that Truffaut continued to examine as he matured. We can see the gears turning as the boy develops as an adolescent. He skips out on class to go to the cinema and the carnival. He purloins a bottle of milk out of thirst, steals little trinkets from the ladies room and finally a typewriter from his father’s work. He receives the ire of his teacher and goes home to the cramped conditions and turbulence of his home life. His mother and step-father are constantly bickering. His mother is having an affair. It’s not a very happy life or a firm foundation for a boy to grow up in. And it shows.

In many of these moments, the autobiographical aspects come to the fore. Before Antoine’s story was simply a depiction of realism but as time goes on it becomes more obvious that Truffaut is being very transparent in showing bits and pieces of his own experiences. What’s striking is that this is hardly a bitter film. Somber and melancholy, yes, but it hardly ever seems to cast blame. It shows the brief moments of reverie along with the pain and that’s why I am a great admirer of Truffaut. He’s a deeply heartfelt and personal filmmaker, no more evident than in The 400 Blows.

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Antoine Doinel is a vagrant and pretty dismal kid, getting in all sorts of trouble and yet Truffaut makes us sympathize with him and to an extent we see the director’s point of view too. He’s the one trying to fall asleep while his parents bicker about what to do with him. He runs away from home and relies on the charity of a friend. He’s being locked up in a jail cell on his way to juvenile detention. He talks to a psychologist candidly about his parents never trusting him. All those moments have the power to move.

And the film is so easy to watch, so simple and wonderful and honest and unassuming, it’s almost hard to remember how influential this film was for not only jump-starting the French New Wave but for rejuvenating cinema in general. Hollywood didn’t make movies like this. That’s all I had ever seen for the longest time. But the likes of Truffaut, Godard and even Renoir, De Sica and Rossellini revealed to me that there are numerous ways to make an impassioned cinematic experience.

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As always, my mind returns to the climatic freeze frame of The 400 Blows. It remains with me and part of its iconic status is undoubtedly due to how it sums up this boy so perfectly. There’s a sadness in the eyes that without saying anything denotes all that we have already seen. It’s the perfect summation of his story thus far and with that look, it’s difficult to forget his hardships–his flaws too. Perhaps it allows us to extend grace to him because we can see firsthand that he’s in dire need of some. He has not been offered much his entire life with true love and affection being traded for punishment and biting remarks. True, his story does not end here but it’s a telling chapter of his life. Arguably the most formative years for the rest of his existence.

Within the storyline, Truffaut includes passing references for his love of the cinema and even suggests his promise with his writing composition though his teacher accuses him of plagiarism. But from these troubled roots came a man who loved movies to an extent that few others could claim. He was passionate both as a critic, champion, and creator.

Thus, it makes perfect sense that this film was dedicated to the memory of Andre Bazin, the noted founder of Cahiers du Cinema. Truffaut undoubtedly owed a tremendous debt to the magazine and its editor but he also elevated it with his own amount of passion. That same passion comes out in The 400 Blows and really all the subsequent films he made before his death. His movies are wonderful because each one shows that he genuinely cares about the material on its own individual merit. That is the kind of director that I want to watch.

5/5 Stars

Mustang (2015)

Mustang_posterThere’s something inherently striking about the title Mustang. It signifies something about the title girls, their free-spirits, billowing brown locks, continually running in a type of a herd, constantly full of life, movement, and motion. But with a mustang and any other creature full of life and vitality, there’s always an opposite force looking to impede, tame, and prod the spirit into some sort of submission. Because being free, being wild is constantly challenged in the world that we live in and this story is a prime example.

The film opens when what can be called little else except for a “tribe of girls” leave their school to go traipsing along the beach with a group of boys. In these moments we begin to understand quite well since frolicking, laughing and playing chicken are the same in every culture. But that’s not how their elders see this seemingly innocent act. Instead, it’s full of passion, lust and moral depravity.

In many ways, although it’s set in Turkey, Mustang plays with some of the same themes of Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides but it is a film that surges with vim and vigor rather than wistful detachment. And even though it has those aloof moments at times, they feel more personal because most of the time instead of being on the outside looking in, we’re constantly being shown the perspective of these girls, a far more frightening point of view.

Furthermore, this isn’t simply about one fundamentalist family that’s the outlier but an entire culture that holds women in a certain regard. There’s obviously something amiss in cultures that lack social mores and a sense of reality, but there’s something equally frightening in those cultures that are utterly repressed. Life is literally driven by fear and shame. Bringing dishonor and gaining the respect of your neighbors. A life like that can be nothing aside from taxing because you can never possibly measure up to the societal standards.

The television, the media, and everything else seems to reinforce exactly these points. Meanwhile, the girls go sneaking out to a football match only to miss the bus, only to hitch a ride with an unfortunate bystander who gets them there in time for the excitement.The images at the football match carry an almost infectious backbeat, hyperactive and frenetic with hair flying, hands flailing and bodies going every which way, but still, every action has a consequence. Every moment of freedom is met with an equal event of restraining power.

In this case, the girls are prepped and prepared for marriage, arranged between families like a shrewd business deal to save face. Their fearful grandmother and domineering uncle think it’s the best for everyone and the girls have little say in their fate.

The youngest girl, Lale, is a tomboy, a perpetual climber but she like the others feels trapped. And they are, as first one sister than another are hitched up in a marriage. But it’s when marriage no longer becomes a joyful union but a suffocating prison of unhappiness, something that it was never meant to be at all. True, one girl gets a bit lucky, the other is utterly unhappy. Still, two down and three to go. That’s the way grandmother thinks of it.

By this point, the three remaining girls are forced to find any little piece of rebellion they possibly can whether it be snickering at the dinner table or something altogether more audacious. Grandma and uncle are unrelenting in their matchmaking and finally, Lale and the only sister she has left are at a crossroads. They must take a plan of action or resign themselves to their impending fate. You can probably guess what their decision is but that doesn’t make executing it any easier.

Mustang is certainly a cultural commentary and you get the sense that it’s a very personal work by writer-director Deniz Gamze Erguven. However, within its portrait of youth, womanhood, and marriage there are also some universal truths to be gleaned. There’s something to be said for freedom — in youth and adulthood. To take it lightly is to commit a grave error

4/5 Stars

Tu dors Nicole (2014)

Tu_dors_Nicole_POSTER“Nicole, you’re sleeping…”

I admire a film that is able to linger and I’ve read enough scripts to know that there is a difference between filling up scenes with mindless dialogue and slowing the action down in a way that’s inherently more lifelike. In fact, I now have an increased fascination with the films that don’t rely so much on plot points at all but characters and the everyday situations that they encounter. Because, if I’m honest, everyday situations often make up most of my life and they are most relatable to me. They’re the stories that feel the most genuine.

Just looking at Stephane Lafleur’s Canadian drama, Tu dors Nicole, a little bit of the mundane is evident. Sorting racks in a clothing store. Lazy afternoon bike rides. Lifeless neighborhood streets. Long summer days with the sound of crickets outside the window. Hot nights where you can hardly keep your eyes clamped shut due to the miserable heat that keeps you tossing and turning.  It might all seem of little consequence and in many ways it is. But in the modern arena where every film must be the next big thing, the greatest spectacle imaginable and so on, it’s actually quite refreshing when someone dares to tone it down a notch.

There are some oddly weird moments throughout the film. Namely, Martin, a boy who has the vocal range of a 30-year-old man. And the traces of harp music whenever something especially enchanting comes to the fore. Then, there are the closing images of water spouting off into the atmosphere.

However, what’s at the core of Nicole is a story of adolescence coming into adulthood. It’s not so much a coming of age narrative as emblematic of that period of transition. And if Nicole had the fragments of a prototypical plotline it would be this.

The eponymous young woman (Julianne Cote) has recently graduated college and is working a menial job. Her parents have gone away for a little vacation leaving her behind with a list of tasks to complete in their absence. She would have the house to herself if it wasn’t for her older brother who is always jamming away with his bandmates in the living room and all throughout their house. Their backbeat is constantly reverberating through Nicole’s life. She hardly gets any peace and quiet.

And yet even in the tranquil moments, our protagonist still seems a bit melancholy. Mini golf isn’t as fun as it used to be. A trip to Iceland is more fun to plan for than it is to actually go through with. Nicole gets in a row with her best friend. She loses her job after taking a few articles of clothing home with her. But life continues like it always has.

In this case, black and white is not simply an aesthetic choice but an appropriate palette to reflect the underlying tone of this film. There is a listlessness, an apathy to Nicole’s life at the moment.  The thing is it’s due to nothing in particular, at least nothing spoken aloud or seen overtly onscreen, but like life, it just is.

Our main hint comes from the title itself. Could it be that Nicole is asleep? She cannot sleep at night, because, perhaps she does her sleeping during the day–going through the motions without a great deal of purpose — without a goal to drive her. We’ve all been there. Maybe even a few moments ago. Growing up in this fashion is not always all it’s cracked up to be.

The question to ask at the end of this particular narrative is this: Have things changed? Not really. But so it is with the vicissitude of life. There will be highs and lows. Moments of vibrant colors and grayish doldrums. Quarter life crises and galvanizing flashbulb moments. Still, we keep on living, latching onto what gives our confusions and doubts even a shard of meaning. We aren’t meant to live life asleep.

3.5/5 Stars