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.


The 90s: Drive Me Crazy and Drop Dead Gorgeous

At the moment and into August, the BFI are having a season of films from the 90s, and while it doesn't focus on them, there are teen movie screenings and a quiz being held by the excellent teen movie screening group Forever Young Film Club.

With that in mind, I thought I'd turn my focus on the teen movies of the decade I was a teenager myself, both so I can revise for the quiz, and so I can try to look at them from a fresh angle with at least two decades' distance.

Drive Me Crazy [1999]
Dir: John Schultz
There are worse films than Drive Me Crazy in the 90s cycle of US teen movies, but perhaps none more basic, less inspired, blander or less interesting.

Nicole (Melissa Joan Hart) and Chase (Adrian Grenier) have lived next door to each other for years, they used to be friends but now they run in different circles. Chase is a rebel, pulling pranks with anti-social friends, while Nicole is one of the more popular girls in school, head of the committee putting together the students' celebrations for the centenary of their school. However, when Chase is dumped by his socially conscious girlfriend (Ali Larter) and Nicole doesn't get the invite to the prom she expects from her crush Brad (Gabriel Carpenter), they decide to feign a relationship to make the respective objects of their affection jealous.

You may never have watched Drive Me Crazy (I wouldn't blame you), but you have seen this film before. As the summary above suggests, this is the most generic of teen rom coms. We know from the very first moment exactly how Nicole and Chase will end up, along with most of the beats that will get them there. Sadly, the experience of watching this all unfold is a dreary one. A film can get by being super generic if it's executed notably well (The DUFF is a good recent example), unfortunately, this one isn't. There's never any great clarity in the writing, Nicole is clearly supposed to be the nerdy type, super into school spirit and hyper organised, but that only ever comes across in the scenes where things like her having budget figures to hand or making over Chase by giving his hair a light trim are plot points, neither the script nor Melissa Joan Hart embed this in her character. The same is true for Grenier. In a better film, we might see the contrast between his own view of himself as a rebel and the fact he's actually something of an outcast, content to sit largely outside the high school experience with his friends (Kris Park and Mark Webber) who are much more outwardly geeky.

There are some bright spots in the film. While Grenier is a charisma vacuum, Melissa Joan Hart is well cast and brings the same lightness she did to Clarissa Explains It All (I was a bit too old for Sabrina). One interesting aspect of her casting is that the film, for all its other adherence to cliche, evades it by playing Nicole as neither the super hot queen bee of the school nor the dowdy bespectacled girl waiting for some guy to realise she's beautiful. It's unfortunate that, in falling between these stalls, the screenplay then forgets to give her a consistent personality. Some of the supporting cast and B stories work better than the very bland and entirely stakeless main narrative. Susan May Pratt has fun, essentially playing a bitchy variation on her best friend character from 10 Things I Hate About You, and the side story about Chase's friend Designated Dave (Webber), while a fairly obvious triumph of the nerd trope, works quite well.

Music was always a key part of 90s teen movies, here, while the presence of The Donnas on the soundtrack and in the film is welcome, the rest of the soundtrack is full of landfill indie and pop. The only otherwise notable aspect of the soundtrack is that, though it's in the film for roughly three seconds, the title was changed from Next to You (which sounds so much like a Nicholas Sparks movie I had to google to check if it was one) to tie in with Britney Spears' Crazy. 

Sadly it's the romance that is front and centre of the film that pulls it down. We've seen the conceit of two people pretending to be together and then 'unexpectedly' falling for each other many times, and whether it works all depends on the chemistry. I don't see it between Melissa Joan Hart and Adrian Grenier, their romance feels forced and yet that doesn't generate any tension in the story, even early on when the characters might be feeling conflicted about it. The background stories for each of them are standard issue and though we're told at one point that the death of his mother a few years before had a deep effect on Chase, this is another thing we don't feel from Grenier's performance.

The genre would hit several highs in 1999, but most of Drive Me Crazy feels like watching the post-Clueless teen movie cycle run out of inspiration in real time.

Drop Dead Gorgeous [1999]
Dir: Michael Patrick Jann
The mockumentary has been a staple comedy style in film and television for some time, but it's clear that all of them look, ultimately, to the same towering example: This is Spinal Tap. With Drop Dead Gorgeous, writer Lona Williams and director Michael Patrick Jann take the Tap style and turn the focus on a teen beauty pageant in Minnesota, where things turn deadly as rivalries develop between the girls and it becomes clear that someone will go as far as murder to make sure the 'right' person wins.

The main rivalry is between Kirsten Dunst as Amber, a sunny seventeen-year-old who idolises Diane Sawyer and lives in a trailer park with her mother (Ellen Barkin, who is hilarious) and Denise Richards as Becky, the daughter of Gladys (Kirstie Alley), who runs the pageant and won the year she was seventeen. Because of the style of the film, Lona Williams' screenplay largely gets away with being more a series of linked sketches than an overarching narrative, yes, there's the thread of several of the contestants being killed in 'accidents', but these are never dealt with as more than outrageous gags. Equally, while we know she wants to be like Diane Sawyer, there's not that much drive to Amber's newscasting ambitions, everything is ultimately fodder for gags. It works because the gags mostly stick.

Dunst's guileless performance underplays most of her jokes, which makes them funnier than they would be if Amber knew she was being amusing. Denise Richards' performance is almost the flipside of this; she's playing a girl whose mother has clearly trained her to sell herself at every opportunity, and she's always playing to the camera. Richards isn't the greatest actress in the world but despite being more than ten years older than Dunst she's well cast here; the fact she doesn't look seventeen works for how Becky wants to present herself. Beyond that, Richards commits, never more so than in the talent show aspect of the pageant, her act for which just has to be seen.

Several of the other girls in the pageant are worth noting. Looking back on her films from the late 90s and early 2000s, it's clear that we lost a terrific screen presence in Brittany Murphy, and she's good fun in a small part here. The same goes for Amy Adams, making her debut here in a role that might have seen her break out sooner, had the film been a hit. Not in the pageant, but stealing scenes as the anorexic girl who won last year, Alexandra Holden is very funny in what's clearly the film's most (perhaps only) pointed piece of satire. A couple of jokes revolving around the judging panel, one of whom is a bit TOO into the young girls and another who has to look after his brother with learning disabilities, haven't aged well, but most of the other gags still feel as fresh as they did 20 years ago.

The film builds quite quickly to the pageant itself, and this is where it goes off the rails a little. Once the big event the film has been building to is over, and the very funny aftermath of it seems to have wrapped up the various story strands, Williams and Jann flail a bit for the last fifteen or twenty minutes of the film. Most of the jokes still hit, but with all the characters we've been following except Amber and Alison Janney as her mother's neighbour from the trailer park now largely out of the film, it feels almost as if we're starting another abbreviated episode after a TV show's strong pilot.

Drop Dead Gorgeous isn't quite a lost classic, indeed it might be the weakest of Kirsten Dunst's three teen movies of 1999, but for the most part it is still fresh and funny and it's worth seeing for a cast who are not just having a ball here, but would largely go on to bigger and often better things.


From the Archives: Celine Sciamma's Coming of Age Trilogy

As a critic and as an obsessive film lover, I'm always on the lookout for new talent both in front of and behind the camera. While the past decade or so has thrown up many great new filmmakers, for my money one of the most interesting is Celine Sciamma. With her first three films as a director and two screenplays, Being 17 and My Life as a Courgette, directed by André Téchiné and Claude Barras respectively, she has stuck resolutely to coming of age themes, but always found something fresh to say with each film.

In this series I'll be republishing some of my old reviews (with edits or additions where I feel they're needed) and I thought, with Sciamma's newest film - a step away from coming of age cinema - now finished, it would be a good time to look back at her remarkable first three films.

Water Lilies
There is something about the way that Europe does films about teenagers, perhaps it's a lack of that quintessentially American optimism, but Europe's teen movies seem to be gritter, more downbeat, and for my money more reflective of what being a teenager tends to be like. Celine Sciamma's debut is a good example, it's a low key story about 14 year old Marie (Pauline Acquart) and her crush on Floriane (Adele Haenel), the star of the local synchronised swimming team. It's a film about unrequited feelings, and about the confusion and pain they provoke.

Sciamma's screenplay is smartly written; intimate and realistic, unafraid to deal with the shallowness and petty cruelties of which teenagers are capable, especially in the way Marie shuts out her awkward friend Anne (Louise Blachere) - whose own crush on Floriane's sometime boyfriend complicates the relationships further. The centre of the film is the relationship between Floriane and Marie, and the clear imbalance in it. It's obvious that Floriane knows how Marie feels about her, perhaps to a greater degree than Marie does, and she uses it to her perceived advantage. In one very difficult scene Floriane asks a very intimate favor of Marie, so that she can have sex with her boyfriend without him knowing that it is her first time.

While the LGBTQ representation is important and clearly makes the film more personal to Sciamma, that's not to say other audiences won't identify. The film is about the dynamics of this relationship and Marie's first painful experience of being, or thinking that she's, in love and those things are not about gender. If this were an American film I suspect it would have ended with Floriane seeing the error of her ways, going to find Marie, declaring her love and kissing her in the middle of some dancefloor. There is indeed a dance floor scene here, but that's not what it's about. In one of the film's best scenes, the girls go to a club and Floriane drags Marie on to the dancefloor, dancing close, drawing her in, almost kissing her, before pulling away in a palpably painful moment. Water Lilies isn't a film about the endings we may have wished for ourselves when we were this age, it's more consistent and more true than that, and the ending Sciamma actually finds is perfect, if more ambiguous.

Celine Sciamma's direction is sensitive, drawing performances of astonishing naturalism from her young cast. Acquart is especially good, and it's a terrible shame that she's done little since (a couple of shorts, a music video and just one feature). For her part, Haenel has built on the promise shown here and in the earlier Les Diables and built a career as one of the best young character actors in European cinema. The visuals have a similar tone to Andrea Arnold's, in that they vacillate between a kitchen sink approach and a more designed and dreamlike feel. A distinctive and promising debut, it left the question of whether Sciamma could deliver on its huge promise with her next film.

Celine Sciamma made a powerful impression on me with her outstanding feature debut Water Lilies. Ever since I came out of that movie I'd been cautiously anticipating her follow up. Whenever a new director makes something as good as Water Lilies there's the question of whether they can follow it up with something equally impressive. Thankfully Tomboy was a confident, convincing affirmative to that question, and a second feature that really put its director on the map.

Like Water Lilies, Tomboy concerns itself with a girl's coming of age. Here Sciamma follows Laure (Zoé Héran), a tomboyish ten-year-old who, when asked her name by her new neighbour Lisa (Jeanne Disson), introduces herself as Mikael. 'Mikael' and Lisa become friends, and even share a first kiss, but Laure struggles to keep her secret from her new friend and from her family.

It's refreshing to see a movie these days which, while its focus is on young people, is truly adult. That quality is not defined by swearing, sex and violence, but the way in which it deals with complex and challenging issues of identity, sexuality and the process of growing up. Sciamma never talks down to the audience or moralises about its characters thoughts, feelings or choices. The film sensitively approaches any confusion about Laure/Mikael's pre-teen examination of her gender identity without making an absolute determination about her being a cisgender or trans youth. Tomboy isn't in any way politicized on this point, rather its strength is as an intimate and insightful drama about a young person trying to define themselves.

As befits a film so focused on issues of the body and identity, Tomboy often lingers in close-ups. Shooting on an adapted digital stills camera, with a very shallow depth of field, Sciamma gets right in to the personal space of her characters, especially that of Laure, her six-year-old sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana), her neighbour, and a new, entirely male group of friends (cast from Zoé Héran's own real life group of friends).  Voyeuristic in its intimacy, intelligent compositions present a rather beautiful reality, and Sciamma squares a difficult circle in making a film that feels designed and directed, without allowing any of it to ring false or feel imposed on the actors.

As in Water Lilies, Sciamma's insight into young people coming of age through their interactions is spot on. She understands how to write kids who seem like kids. Even Laure's intelligent and somewhat wily sister (exploiting Laure's lie so that she can hang out with older kids) is written as a smart six-year-old, not as the precocious miniature adults of contemporary mainstream American cinema. Across the ensemble, there's never any sense of conscious performance, especially from the outstanding Zoé Héran and Malonn Lévana. Héran deals assuredly with a complex role, making you wonder as to how she and Sciamma talked about the character, and how her developing mind understood and approached Laure/Mikael's identity. The ease with which she shifts gears, going from unselfconsciously playing with her little sister and her parents, to being more outwardly controlled when she has to fit in with a group of boys, is remarkable. There's a great ease to the way the actors relate, a very real sense of family created between Héran, Lévana and Sophie Cattani and Mathieu Demy as their parents. The same dynamic also applies to the scenes between the children; be it the innocent first stirrings of attraction between Lisa and Mikael, or the games that the larger group of kids play. Always, there's a sense simply of Sciamma observing children being children.

Tomboy is full of memorable scenes and moments, be it the way that Jeanne visibly considers the decision of whether to expose her sister's lie when Lisa comes looking for Mikael, or the lovely scene when Jeanne cuts her sister's hair, completing her tomboy transformation. There's also much to admire in the organic growth of the friendship between Mikael and Lisa, with both charm and thematic interest in a scene in which Lisa puts make up on Mikael. 

Like Water Lilies, Tomboy packs real emotional punch, dealing in real and raw emotion. And though the performances are never overly demonstrative, you feel it all. Not quite as satisfying as her debut, Sciamma's follow-up remains one of 2011's best, that last moment of one to watch status that has since been earned and upgraded by equally insightful, well-acted coming of age movies both as a writer and a writer-director.

About half an hour into Girlhood, Céline Sciamma visualises the moment that 16-year-old protagonist Marieme (Karidja Touré) finds a temporary sense of belonging. Hanging out for a few weeks with a bad girl posse led by Lady (Assa Sylla), Marieme finds herself in the group but not quite one of the gang, always off to one side while being auditioned as the potential fourth member. In a hotel room, the girls have booked for a party, Marieme lies back as the others lipsync to Rhianna's 'Diamonds'. Halfway through the song, Marieme joins them. The lipsyncing stops and the girls, united, sing out loud. At that moment they're a group that Marieme is now fully part of. A moment that Marieme herself may not consciously recognise, but it's one of many that's powerfully and cinematically communicated in Girlhood.

The film's effective title is more striking than a direct translation of the French 'Bande De Filles', but coming so soon after Richard Linklater's Oscar-winning Boyhood, it somewhat mis-advertises Marieme's story as a feminised take on that film. Both are coming of age stories, but Marieme's experience couldn't be more different from Linklater's 12 years in the life of the suburban every boy. Set in the black community of the Paris banlieues, Marieme falls in with these troublesome teens, largely to get away from a troubled home life with her younger sisters, a single mother, and an abusive older brother. Some of the narrative incidents as she drifts towards and away from the gang, and a boyfriend she has to keep secret from her brother, are familiar, but Sciamma's perceptive screenplay has a sensitive and deep understanding of growing pains, beautifully borne out by the first-time performances of her cast.

This is Sciamma's third film, and it seems to mark a growth in confidence. It still finds the writer-director tackling the subject of a young woman coming of age, but here she engages with a different community and sets aside the LGBTQ issues confronted by characters in 2008's Water Lilies and 2011's Tomboy. Girlhood retains the intimacy of the previous films, but feels like a larger and more cinematic work, right from the opening sequence of an American football game between Marieme and her friends and another local team. It's a high energy beginning, powered by the ground level visuals and the choice of Light Asylum's 'Dark Allies' on the soundtrack. It also feels like the end of a chapter of Marieme's life - one we've not seen - as the lights go out in the stadium and the title appears against a black screen, signalling a new phase. 

This idea of phases beginning and ending is key to the film, which unfolds in five acts, each bracketed with a recurring motif. Sciamma ends the first three acts with a shot of Marieme's back, showing her literally turning it on a part of her past. The last two acts make subtle shifts in this pattern, but the lighting and framing is identifiably recurrent, with the camera always settled on Marieme's face in the first frame of each new act. These progressions feel like importantly demarcated chapters in Marieme's life, as Para One's score rises and a black screen marks a definitive act break, allowing a breather from the various anxieties of adolescence and a moment for the audience to reflect on the hard road of maturation for the life unfolding before them.

Marieme's experiences with Lady and their friends Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Mariétou Touré) form the bulk of the film. Not all are positive; the girls intimidate other pupils at Marieme's school for money and there are fights between gangs, but Sciamma refrains from judging, presenting these events as part of a complex social picture. Set almost entirely within the black communities of the banlieus, racism only occasionally rears its head, but there are notable incidents. As the girls browse in the mall, a white employee keeps a not too subtle eye on Marieme, assuming she might be out to steal. It's an uncomfortable scene, one the young cast have said rings true in their own lives. 

The girls are marginalised sexually as well as racially. Early on, the excited chatter of the group walking home from the American football game slows first to a murmur then to silence as they pass a group of boys. Much later, to survive in the male-oriented world of drug dealing, Marieme largely adopts an outwardly masculine swagger, unsmiling, she has a fierce appearance that presents a tough front. We can perhaps see the roots of this presentational tactic in the way Marieme is treated by her brother Djibril (Cyril Mendy). We get a sense of the fact she's scared of him and what he might do; when Marieme notices her younger sister's physical development and urges her to hide this from Djibril. The full implications of this are never dug into, but it sets a tense tone for any scenes in the household. That tension threatens to explode in one disturbing scene after Marieme returns home from her hotel party, when Djibril hugs his sister, only to tighten his grip and begin choking her. It's easy to see how Marieme's choice in how to present herself later is a way to defuse threats like this before they arise.

Despite going to some dark places, Girlhood does find moments of levity. The girls may appear fierce when facing down another gang in an argument across the platforms of a metro station, but they're also silly, funny, immature teenagers. As much as the Diamonds singalong is about Marieme becoming fully part of the group, it's also a pure moment of escape, of girls simply being girls together. In the lighter-hearted scenes, there are even flashes of broader comedy, such as when the girls go to play crazy golf and Fily gets upset when Adiatou does better than her. 

It's rare that these moments of escape have such an uncomplicated purity to them. Sciamma allows the real world to intrude frequently, most notably when the girls, minus Lady, run into an old member of their gang, now a parent to a small child. In this interaction we get a glimpse of the likely future; that the gang will break up and the girls will almost certainly end up in some sort of depressing domesticity, replaced by a younger generation. This is something seen beginning, when Marieme - now as much a leader of the pack as Lady - has to drag her sister away from a younger gang.

Like a mixed up teen, Girlhood has many mood swings, sulky one minute and jubilant the next, but these are knitted together in a way that feels like life itself by the completely natural performances of the four girls, all of them non-actors prior to shooting. Fily and Adiatou are less defined, but Lindsay Karamoh and Mariétou Touré each have their memorable moments. Assa Sylla as Lady and  Karidja Touré as Marieme make indelible impressions. Sylla is hugely charismatic, drawing the camera with just a hard stare, and a presence and attitude that marks her out as a natural leader. Initially all front, Lady is confrontational even when she invites Marieme to join the girls on an afternoon in town, but hidden behind that pose is a vulnerability that becomes visible, the more Marieme begins to understand and imitate Lady. 

Karidja Touré has the hardest job in the film, mapping Marieme's maturation in the way her persona changes through subtle shifts of confidence; none more so than when Lady renames her 'Vic' (for Victory). Slowly 'Vic' assumes some of Lady's dominance, even fighting battles for her. At other times those internal changes are signalled by external appearance, particularly Marieme's hair. At first, her long, childlike braids are removed and her hair straightened to make her seem womanly and chic before she starts dealing drugs and changing her hair to a harder look that enables her to cope better in that environment. Toure's performance is all the more moving for the emotional details she puts into her many changes of 'costume' that are worn like a girl trying on a new identity. 

Girlhood doesn't suggest that growing up is easy, and Sciamma never tries to assure the viewer that everything is going to work out for Marieme, leaving us to make up our own minds about the ending. Karidja Touré has said that she sees Marieme going off into a successful life, but even if one were to feel as hopeful about her future, it's clear that achieving this will be far from simple. Whatever the challenges, based on what we've already seen her go through, Marieme seems ready to step up and meet them, and it's through these experiences that, when the film goes to black for the last time, it feels like she's finally found an identity with which to do just that.


Streaming Suggestions: Cold November

For me, the renaissance in coming of age cinema - American coming of age cinema in particular - has been something that has largely happened outside the mainstream, and much of that content is now emerging less through traditional cinematic and physical home entertainment channels and more via various streaming sites. There are upsides and downsides to streaming. One of the bigger downsides is that, as with a traditional release model, there is a bias towards the mainstream. A film with a proven track record of success in cinemas or with big names in front of or behind the camera is always going to get put to the front of the line for your attention. What is good about streaming is that even if a film has a much lower profile, it IS still accessible - you don't have to drive for miles to the only cinema showing it. You do, however, have to do some digging and take some chances on films you won't know much, if anything, about going in. 

In this series, I'm aiming to do some of that digging for you, to find the little gold nuggets that you may have missed in the mass of available options and get you interested in watching them.

Cold November [2017]
Dir: Karl Jacob
Depending on what your family is like, rites of passage can come in many different forms. For 12 year old Florence (Bijou Abas), that comes in the form of the first time she's being allowed to go out solo on one of the deer hunts her family loves. That hunt happens to coincide with several other markers of growing up, from being gifted the gun her mother and aunt both learned to shoot with, to getting her first period.

Cold November deals with growing up as a series of jolts. Some, like the arrival of Florence's first period, are expected and others are shocks, like the aftermath of the death of her young cousin, now at least a few months ago, but still raw. Flo attempts to take all of these things and more in her stride. Sometimes, as in a touching scene in a car in the middle of the night as she comforts her aunt, she succeeds, but the reality is that she still only twelve. Self-assured as Flo is, we see her vulnerable moments - both those she hides and those she has to make more visible - in Bijou Abas' excellent performance.

With director Karl Jacob taking a supporting role as her uncle, the family dynamic ends up grounded and credible, which is hugely important in a film that is never driven by plot over character and the direction, while intimate, pulls back enough that we never feel manipulated by the filmmaking. It is worth noting that the film doesn't pull back from the realities of hunting, showing what appears to be real footage of deer being skinned and gutted, so consider that before you sit down to watch this one.

Like many of the better coming of age films, Cold November may be at some remove from its viewers lives in its details, but  in the broader themes I would imagine it's very familiar. I'd recommend it for adults who like the genre, but also for kids of Flo's age, who will likely find a lot to relate to here..

Cold November is available for free in the UK with an Amazon Prime subscription.


Review: Seventeen [2017]

Dir: Monja Art
The first fiction feature from Austrian writer/director Monja Art, following several shorts and documentary features, is a personal feeling coming of age film about 17 year old Paula (Elisabeth Wabitsch), in love with her friend Charlotte (Anaelle Dézsy) from afar. However, Charlotte is in a relationship with Michael and a frustrated Paula reaches out in the direction of other friends, looking for connection.

The coming of age film about unrequited feelings is a familiar trope - much as it’s a familiar theme in most of our teen years - but Seventeen stakes out slightly different territory for itself in the way it naturally folds that story into myriad other things going on for Paula and her friends. Clearly her feelings for Charlotte are on Paula’s mind a lot, but the film still finds time to develop friendships and stories that don’t always directly affect her between the other characters in Paula’s orbit. This can mean that the film feels bitty, but the throughline of Paula’s experiences remains strong. It definitely seems that Monja Art, if she’s not relating memories from her own teen years, strongly identifies with her lead. The comes across in the clarity of both her writing, which conjures moments that are both very specific and very easy to identify with, and her direction.

Most of the visuals here are functional, well captured, but not wildly individual. However, there are some moments in which the visual storytelling is excellent and shows that Art has an eye for sharp, clear, observation. There is some excellent use of close up detail. In one sequence we see Paula and Lilly both playing with rings on their fingers, fidgeting and passing time until one of them decides that enough time has passed and they can make up over a fleeting fight. A similar moment involves feet. Paula’s French teacher asks her to go to a competition and when he gives her the list of things she needs to practice we see his feet move too close, invading her space - she steps back, but he half re-asserts, moving in again, but not quite as close. Both of these moments, and others besides, use the economy of Art’s visual language to tell us a lot about her characters in moments that don’t need to be verbalised. This is also true of fleeting fantasy sequences, like the one in which Paula imagines the class laughing at her. These moments are just a little more colour saturated, both less ‘real’ and more vivid than life - in that case a fitting depiction of a flash of anxiety.

Art draws plenty from LGBTQ coming of age films that have gone before. Paula’s attempt to forge a relationship with a boy shares much with the storyline between Elin and Johan in Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Amal, while a party scene in which Paula and Charlotte almost kiss before Charlotte pulls away and makes out with her boyfriend is redolent of the club scene in Water Lilies. Seventeen manages to stand on its own though, often thanks to the extremely unactorly performances, particularly that of Elisabeth Wabitsch as Paula. Despite the fact there is plenty of dialogue, there’s also a lot that we have to read without Paula stating it outright. The only time this doesn’t entirely work is in her choice to date a boy. Contextually it’s clear that this is more a (brief) effort to fit in than an attraction, but that comes through less in the character. However, that’s the only stumble in Wabitsch’s performance and she has many excellent moments, building to a very down to earth and realistic picture of Paula.

There are some frustrations to Seventeen. The script could perhaps have used a little tightening, but even the characters we don’t get to know that well seem rich enough to have an offscreen life. Some people may find the many loose ends left dangling to be unsatisfying, but while that’s true to some degree I also thought it chimed with the structure and the emotional content of the film. In coming of age cinema it’s not so much the end point that matters as how the characters find their way, and so it’s okay that we don’t know how every relationship here resolves. All in all, this is a strong debut from Monja Art, it would be nice to see something a little more adventurous from her in the future, but I’ll be looking for whatever that film turns out to be.

Seventeen is now available on UK DVD from Matchbox Films.