15.11.19

Let It Snow

Dir: Luke Snellin
It’s Christmas Eve in small-town middle America and there’s a snowstorm. A group of teenagers are each going through their own relationship troubles, before coming together at a Christmas party at the local Waffle Town.

Let it Snow is a simple film. On the surface, it resembles nothing more than Garry Marshall’s saccharine multi-stranded holiday movies, Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day, recast almost entirely with teens. Happily, it’s a bit better than that outward similarity might suggest.

The various storylines break little new ground. There’s Tobin (Mitchell Hope) the nice guy who has realised he’s in love with Angie (Kiernan Shipka), the girl who has been his best friend since they were little kids, but she might be into JP (Matthew Noszka). Julie (Isabela Merced) has got into Columbia, but can’t decide whether to go because her mother (Andrea de Oliveira) is very sick, she winds up meeting and hanging out with Stuart (Shamiek Moore), a pop star passing through town. Dorrie (Liv Hewson) is working at the Waffle Town when the girl she’s been trying to message (Anna Akana as Tegan) comes in, but brushes Dorrie off in front of her friends. Dorrie’s old friend Addie (Odeya Rush) is paranoid that her boyfriend is cheating on her, which causes an argument between her and Dorrie, and leads Addie to find help in the form of an odd local character (Joan Cusack). Keon (Jacob Batalon) is just hoping that a prominent DJ will drop in on his set at the party. These stories all go much the way you’d expect. That said, there are some welcome elements here.

The young cast is full of talented and charismatic players. Isabela Merced (previously known as Isabela Moner, she changed her name a few months ago) has had a great year already, bringing unexpected heart to Instant Family and turning in a wonderfully high energy performance as Dora the Explorer, in what is still one of the most pleasant surprises of the year in movies. She has less to work with as Julie, but she makes the cliché dilemma her characters is in play and her connection with Shamiek Moore works well, especially in the scene when Stuart offers her help, and it doesn’t go the way he expects. In that moment, Merced does manage to square the circle of showing that Julie likes this guy, in the same moment that she’s a little insulted by his offer. 

The other main story is even more by the numbers. There are some charming moments between Tobin and The Duke (Angie’s nickname, because she was always ‘one of the guys’ as a kid), few more so than when they, along with JP, are in a church, Tobin starts playing the organ, and he and Angie sing The Whole of the Moon together. Kiernan Shipka and Matthew Noszka are both obviously having fun, and they have a dynamic you can easily buy as longtime friends. Yet, despite this, it’s hard to deny what Tobin appears to see: The Duke has much more chemistry with JP. It’s a nice touch that the film never undermines JP’s status as a very decent dude, but this also makes the inevitable ending of their storyline even harder to swallow.

Perhaps the most effective strand belongs to Dorrie. It’s refreshing to see an LGBT love story represented in a mainstream Christmas movie and simply treated as part of the fabric of the characters lives, rather than something novel or, worse, shameful. Liv Hewson’s earnest but open performance is winning in its awkwardness, especially when Dorrie presents Tegan with a ‘Quaffle waffle’. They’re soon going to be seen in Bombshell and on this basis I’m looking forward to seeing them in what’s sure to be a very different register.

Other characters are inevitably a bit short-changed, given that the film has to pack everything into just 93 minutes including the credits. While it’s nice to see one of the strands revolving more around friendship than romance, Odeya Rush’s storyline feels marooned in the more interesting and novel story between Dorrie and Tegan. Jacob Batalon doesn’t stray far from the persona he’s established in his two Spider-Man films, but he’s still got nice comic timing.

Beyond the romance between Dorrie and Tegan, Let it Snow is refreshing in its diversity. The group of friends includes White, Black and Latinx characters as well as a non-binary actor in Hewson. The film doesn’t force this as a message, instead it simply looks to reflect what the modern world looks like. Unfortunately not much else about it is particularly novel. This is particularly disappointing given that British comedian Laura Solon is on the writing team. Solon’s Radio 4 character based sketch show, Talking and Not Talking was at times gloriously weird, and I wish more of that sheer strangeness had been translated here. Only Joan Cusack’s recurring cameo as a snowplough driver who dresses in tinfoil and refuses to say why captures any of Solon’s more off the wall tendencies. It gets a couple of laughs, but it’s these unexpected moments the picture could use more of.

There are charming moments here, and the inclusiveness is welcome and commendable, but the talented cast are underutilised and that means there is a pervasive feeling of unfulfilled promise to Let it Snow, passingly fun as it is.  
★★½

3.11.19

Mary Jane's Not A Virgin Anymore

Dir: Sarah Jacobson
Coming of age cinema is rich and wide in the variety of stories it tells and the way it interprets them, but it can’t be denied that it has a preoccupation with certain kinds of story. One of the most prevalent of these is following teens on the way to the rite of passage that is the loss of their virginity. From the title, you might expect Sarah Jacobson’s only feature film to be one of these, but in this and many other respects, it is more interested in subverting the cliches of coming of age films.

Jacobson’s film skirts expectations from the beginning, as it opens with Jane (Lisa Gerstein) losing her virginity. What the rest of the film is about is something more sophisticated than the many almost quest-based narratives that follow (mostly) boys efforts to have sex for the first time, but a young woman who, while she has now had sex, doesn’t really understand it. 

Much of the film takes place at a local art cinema where Jane and her friends work. We see her trying to sort through her feelings for various male friends, especially Tom (Chris Enright), who is handsome and seems more mature than most of the others, and Ryan (Bwana Spoons), who is nerdy and seems genuinely nice, but somewhat oblivious to Jane’s mild crush on him. 

Jacobson’s writing has a very matter of fact tone to it. This comes through strongly as Jane listens to her friends’ stories of losing their virginity, including one involving a rape. In this case in particular, the frankness is almost disconcerting, these are issues seldom confronted in teen cinema and which as a society we’re still coming to grips with dealing with at all, in media or in law. To see Jacobson and her characters deal with it head on in 1996, and to realise that this scene still feels anomalous, is a real indictment of the cultural conversation and a powerful statement about how viscerally real Mary Jane’s Not A Virgin Anymore can feel. 

This is very much an underground film, shot on Super 8 with largely non-professional actors, and the look and performances can be variable. Many scenes look very dark and the sets underdressed, the budget and the limitations of the film stock showing through. Other scenes are lent an immediacy and intimacy by the limits of Jacobson’s resources, especially a very close up back seat sex scene between Jane and Tom, which brilliantly captures the awkwardness and the desire between them and a montage of Jane and Ryan on a day out together, which has the warmth and carefree feel of a couple of friends messing about for the camera. 

The acting captures the dynamic between late teens/early 20s friends well, with Gerstein and Beth Allen (a punk singer in her only film role) the standouts. The scene in which Allen’s Ericka talks to Jane about masturbation is another notable moment in the film’s dedication to representing sexuality from a female point of view.  For the first hour, the writing captures the aimlessness and alienation the characters sometimes feel, without it weighing heavily on the film. It’s in the third act, when Jacobson injects a plot point that feels designed solely to draw things together with a big, dramatic, event that the writing rings a little false and the main performances falter a bit.

Though it has its flaws, Mary Jane’s Not A Virgin Anymore is not just a very good film, it’s something rarer than that; a film that matters. 23 years after it was made it still feels different within the genre, it remains fierce and defiant, the sound of a clearly identifiable voice who knows exactly what she wants to say and to whom. The tools may not always work in the film’s favour, but the vision is always clear and compelling. This is just one of many reasons that it’s tragic that Sarah Jacobson is no longer with us. Jacobson died of uterine cancer in 2004, aged just 32. Her body of work is sadly small: this sole feature, the short I Was A Teenage Serial Killer, a handful of music videos and a retrospective making of for Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (a film whose influence is felt throughout Mary Jane). I don’t doubt that there was much more to come from this vital and fascinating voice and it’s great to see that Mary Jane’s Not A Virgin Anymore has now been preserved on a new Blu Ray release, also including I Was A Teenage Serial Killer.
★★★★

23.9.19

Growing Pains @ LFF 2019: System Crasher

While most of my London Film Festival coverage will be at my other film blog 24FPS, I will be posting my reviews of the wide variety of teen and coming of age films playing at the festival here at Growing Pains. This film was viewed on LFF's digital press library. The festival runs from October 2nd - 13th. You'll find a ticket link for System Crasher at the end of this post.

System Crasher
Dir: Nora Fingscheidt
Nine-year-old Benni (Helena Zengel) is a troubled little girl. With a history of abuse, she’s been unmanageable since she was very young and has been through many group homes and foster families, leaving the system with little ability to cope with her abusive and often violent acting out. 

I’ve often remarked on how European films tend to have a harder and more realistic edge than their Hollywood counterparts. I can see the mainstream American version of System Crasher now, it would almost certainly soften Benni’s hard edges and if not an entirely happy ending, then hand her one that at least felt certain. That’s not the route that Nora Fingscheidt takes here, she recognises that Benni is a complex young girl, that her problems aren’t going to be solved with a little bit of hugging and learning. System Crasher is bleak, intense and searingly emotional stuff.

The whole film rests on the shoulders of Helena Zengel as Benni, and her performance is a triumph. To call it subtle might be a stretch, but that’s down to a screenplay that has her almost constantly at boiling point, screaming in people’s faces or kicking out at whatever happens to be within reach at the time. Nothing in her performance feels forced, or even really acted. In her quieter moments, Zengel lets us glimpse Benni’s other sides and we can see that her violence and anger hide a girl crying out for a family, or to be loved by the one she has, but isn’t allowed to live with. 

This comes home especially strongly in her interactions with Micah (Albrecht Schuch), her school escort who, when the other adults in her life have run out of ideas, takes Benni out into the woods for several weeks. The bond that grows there feels genuine and sweet, but the fragility of it, and of any possibility of Benni behaving responsibly, is always present and often strikes a note of tension in the film. Fingscheidt deploys this tension especially well in a late scene when Benni turns up at Micah’s house. In the morning we find her playing with his baby daughter, and here the film brought me to tears twice within a minute, first with its most tender moment and then by performing a 180-degree turn. 

At first glance, it seem difficult to imagine empathising with Benni but we do, though Fingscheidt tests that empathy throughout. What she brings home, without making it feel like she’s pummelling you with emotional cues, is the way that Benni has been in some sense abandoned by every adult in her life, from the mother who keeps her other children to the many foster homes and parents that have given up on her (likely with good reason, but still) and expects it to happen over and over again. It’s a level of emotional complexity we don’t usually see in films like this; not crying out that Benni’s only problem is being misunderstood, but trying to understand her nevertheless.

While the film belongs to Helena Zengel, the adults around her also do beautifully nuanced work. Especially effective is the way we see Albrecht Schuch’s Micah wrestling with his own growing empathy for Benni, and how it is unprofessional, but probably at some level exactly what she needs. Of course, credit for the performances, Zengel’s in particular, should also go to Nora Fingscheidt, whose screenplay and direction provide the roadmap.

At two hours, System Crasher does feel long, and as it enters its third act there is a sense that it is casting around in search of an ending. This is the one thing Fingscheidt never really finds. The mirroring of the dynamic opening title card at the end is neat enough, but it’s less an end than a stop. Still, this is worth seeing purely for an astonishing central performance and it has many more rewards besides. 
★★★★

18.9.19

Growing Pains @ London Film Festival 2019

For the ninth year in a row, I will be attending the London Film Festival as press, while most of the coverage will be at my other film blog 24FPS, I will be posting my reviews of the wide variety of teen and coming of age films playing at the festival here at Growing Pains. These reviews are of LFF titles viewed on the digital press library. The festival runs from October 2nd - 13th. You'll find ticket links for each film at the end of this post.

My Extraordinary Summer With Tess
Dir: Steven Wouterlood
My Extraordinary Summer With Tess is about a big week in the life of ten-year-old Sam (Sonny Coops Van Utteren). On holiday with his family, he meets the eccentric Tess (Josephine Arendsen) and the two strike up a fast friendship, with Tess asking for Sam’s help when Hugo (Johannes Kienast) and Elise (Terence Schreurs) arrive to stay in the holiday cottage her mother owns. Initially, Sam thinks Tess has a crush on Hugo, but it turns out that she believes he’s the father she’s never met.

For an 81 minute film, My Extraordinary Summer With Tess is busy. As well as the main plot between Sam and Tess there is a focus on Sam’s fatalistic outlook on life - he’s trying to fit practice at being alone in every day, because as the youngest of his family he feels he needs to prepare for when his mother, father and brother are no longer around. This, along with the familial themes of the main story, sounds fairly heavy, but the film is determinedly pitched at an audience the same age as Sam and Tess. In that way, it captures rather well the particular stage many kids are at ten and eleven; grasping the basic concepts of issues like relationships between adults, the challenges of being a parent and the fact their family may not be around forever, but with only a limited understanding of what those things truly mean. This lack of nuance is felt in the characters, but crucially not in the film itself, and that rings true of who these kids are.

Sonny Coops Van Utteren and Josephine Arendsen are both excellent. He as the more serious and melancholy kid, she as a ball of sunshine that, as is often the case, is masking some of her own melancholy. They play off each other well, capturing the way that kids can have their petty disagreements but make up almost instantly (the way Tess plays off the idea of apologising for abandoning Sam on the first day they hung out is especially well written and played). The characterisations are fairly broad - which also extends to the adults - but for the audience this is aimed at, they will work. Kids will likely be charmed by Sam and Tess, but the deeper themes of family, friendship and how both are to some degree chosen and both are to be cherished will resonate, because they are pitched at the right level.

On the whole, the film is energetic, sweet and bright. What it does lack is context, we get little sense of who Sam and Tess are outside this very contained space of the week in which they are hanging out, and the film is a little simplistic when it comes to the complexity of the issues surrounding Hugo, which it could probably have unfolded in more detail while still being suitable for a young audience. Overall though, this is a charmer and another argument that LFF’s Family programme should get more coverage.
★★★½

Adolescents
Dir: Sébastien Lifshitz
Being a teenager is an experience that is at once commonplace and singular. That seems to be what Sébastien Lifshitz is trying to explore with Adolescents, which follows Anaïs and Emma from the ages of 13 to 18. Though from different backgrounds Anaïs very working class and Emma clearly more upper middle class, the two are initially close friends. We follow them as they take different routes, Anaïs vocational high school and Emma a more academic track. Across 135 minutes, Lifshitz’ camera observes as they go through the regular trials and tribulations of their teen years, among them boys, exams and difficult relationships with family.

Initially, the film is very engaging. Lifshitz seems to take a Fred Wiseman type approach, documenting without (at least as far as we hear) asking questions or providing contextualising narration or captions. The things we see are very normal but extremely vivid; the girls chatting about which boys they like, sulky teen girls arguing with their parents, kids horsing around in class. It’s all very familiar. If you can cast your mind back to being a teenager, there’s every likelihood that you’ll find yourself cast back to a similar moment in your own life.

There is some attempt to structure the film around political events (Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan and the election between Marine LePen and Emmanuel Macron are all seen), but only the election draws much from either Anaïs or Emma and because Lifshitz isn’t engaging from behind the camera, what discussion there is ends up brief and surface level. This gets to the larger problem with the film. After the first act, we’ve already been through most of the types of scene we’ll see, and much of the last 100 or so minutes of the film feels repetitious. Yes, events intervene, especially in Anaïs’ life, but again, because the director doesn’t discuss anything with his subjects and, left to their own devices, they’re not expressing much in our direction, the insight feels lacking.

There are powerful moments in the second half of the film, many of them centering on Anaïs’ relationship with her sickly mother, but equally there is so  much we hear about (notably six weeks in which Anaïs had to take care of her younger siblings after her mother had a breakdown), which promise to be much more compelling and insightful than yet another scene of Emma being stroppy with her mother over homework. Looking at this film next to the great documentary about teenagers coming of age - Hoop Dreams - Adolescents’ flaws become crystal clear. While Hoop Dreams managed to explore its protagonists lives while also crystallising issues of class and family, this film always feels hazy. It has the ambition to delve into those same themes, but by stepping back so much it never makes them a strong throughline.

The film’s final scenes raise one last issue. For the second half of the film, we have never seen Anaïs and Emma interact. This makes sense; they move in different groups, they have different ambitions, people grow apart. The last moments see them together, seemingly as warm and close as ever. Is this their first meeting for years or have they remained friends off camera? We never know, because when they aren’t together they never mention each other and here that is never clarified, either by the film or by them. This raises the spectre of a much more contrived narrative than Lifshitz seems to want to suggest he’s constructing here, and for me that undermines the film even further.

I can see, and would likely love, the film Adolescents wants to be, but for me the collection of footage never coalesced into anything as thoughtful or insightful as its ambitions. 
★★


23.7.19

Streaming Suggetions: Malibu Rescue

Dir: Savage Steve Holland
Tyler (Ricardo Hurtado) is continuously in trouble at school and his stepfather (Jeff Meacham) is so sick of it that he makes Tyler spend the summer taking a course to become a junior rescuer down at Malibu beach. After a while, Tyler discovers that the head of the programme (Ian Ziering) doesn’t want him or the rest of his team there, because they don’t live near the beach. Along with their scatty instructor Dylan (Jackie R. Jacobson), Tyler and his new friends decide that they are going to beat the top team of recruits in the final test.

Technically a pilot for a new Netflix series, but uploaded there as a movie separate from the series as a whole, Malibu Rescue wouldn’t be something I’d have addressed (or probably even watched) but for the fact it’s directed by Savage Steve Holland, who is one of the true lost talents of 80s cinema. Holland’s three teen movies of the 80s: Better Off Dead, One Crazy Summer and How I Got Into College are all anarchic comedies that, though they fit perfectly into the decade’s cycle of teen cinema, have a very particular tone and humour. For 30 years now, Holland has been largely lost to TV, working on series like Lizzie McGurie, Zoey 101 and Fairly Odd Parents, his only non TV project since the early 90s has been the direct to video Legally Blondes, the Reese Witherspoonless third in the series. I didn’t see any of those projects (they clearly weren’t aimed at me), but Malibu Rescue suggests that the spirit of his features has never quite left Holland.

Like Holland’s other recent projects, Malibu Rescue is definitely targeted at children. It’s simplistic, with stereotypically sneering bad guys (Ziering, and JT Neal as Brody, the leader of the elite team, the Dogfish), simple morals about family of various stripes and a very much expected ending in which everyone who deserves it gets their comeuppance and each of the misfits on Tyler’s team gets to show how what makes them weird is also one of their strengths. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just the nature of the film, and I suspect that this one will appeal to adults a bit more than most projects of its ilk because of the weirdness that Holland brings to it.

Fans will recognise some signature aspects of Holland’s work here, albeit somewhat watered down. The Momhacks vlogs that we see Tyler’s mother (Catia Ojeda) making call to mind a significantly less crazy, but still pretty funny, version of Kim Darby’s comepletely spaced out turn as Lane’s mom in Better Off Dead. Some of the running gags also hit on this tone, a little boy called Jeffy (Michael Mourra) who keeps bothering Tyler always turns up a laugh and even if the gags are simple slapstick, Holland’s timing keeps them fresh. Also straight out of Holland’s earlier work is a running gag with a deliberately poorly animated stop motion crab.

At just 69 minutes, the film never has time to let the pace flag, and it would definitely benefit from developing its characters more. The villains get very little to do, I don’t think Brody’s two assistants even get a line between them and even for a film like this, Brody himself is underwritten (though JT Neal plays the dumb jock stereotype well and gets a few good laughs out of some fairly obvious gags). Tyler’s team, the Flounders, get a bit more development, but everything feels as though it’s on fast forward, with Tyler’s shift from trying to get thrown out of the programme to embracing it coming very quickly. The Flounders basically get one or two personality traits each, with Dylan being a klutz because she’s lacking confidence, Lizzie (Abby Donnelly) being obsessed with first aid, Gina (Brianna Yde) being the serious one, but also obviously hiding something and Eric (Alkoya Bruson) being enthusiastic, supportive of his new friends, and a little bit needy. 

The cast commits and brings energy and warmth to their performances, you buy them as a group and hopefully that dynamic will develop in the series that follows this film, because there is plenty of room to open these characters up. For me, Abby Donnelly is a standout, nailing one particularly offbeat and surprisingly dark gag, while Jackie R. Jacobson has fun with a cliche character and, happily, isn’t paired off with anyone, allowing her to be defined by her journey to finding her confidence in training these kids (who are only a few years her junior). It’s a pleasure to see Curtis Armstrong, something of a trademark for Holland, pop up as a weirdly cheerful janitor. They don’t share a name, but there’s still a part of me that could see this being his Better Off Dead character later in life. On a similar note, Vooch (Jeremy Howard), the bus driver who gets the kids to the beach each day, is basically the character Armstrong would have been in his younger days.

Malibu Rescue is no masterpiece, and while because of the age of its characters it counts as a teen movie, the rushed running time means that it touches only lightly on coming of age themes. It's also not quite a fully formed work from Savage Steve Holland, but it’s always amiable and enjoyable, and the bits of Holland’s personality that slip through made me smile and laugh more than many Hollywood comedies of late. I hope this film and the series take off on Netflix, not just because I enjoyed it, but because its success would make, after 30 years, a new feature with Savage Steve Holland at full strength, a real possibility.
★★★☆☆