The Shakespeare Sisters on Soundtrack to Sixteen

Almost a year ago, I kicked off this site with a review of a British coming of age film that I had been fortunate enough to see the first public screening of. Soundtrack to Sixteen, the debut from filmmakers Anna-Elizabeth and Hillary Shakespeare (they co-wrote the screenplay and Hillary directed the film) is a charming teen rom-com set in the early 2000s, with a lot of moments that rang very true for me as I was watching the film.

Back in January, I sat down with Anna and Hillary over drinks at a London cinema, and asked them a few questions about Soundtrack to Sixteen, teen movies and their next film, Much Ado.

At the end of this interview you'll also find MY Soundtrack to Sixteen playlist.
Hillary and Anna-Elizabeth Shakespeare on the set of Soundtrack to Sixteen.

24FPS: I tend to begin at the beginning so, how did you get into film, and was there a moment that you remember saying ‘alright, this is what I want to do’?

Anna: We did it together as a game. When we were growing up we made lots of silly films and when you’re young fantasy is always slightly blurry with [reality], so we always talked about ‘when this happens we’ll make a film company’, the same way you talk about all the other fantasy jobs you might do.

Hillary: We didn’t plan to do it full time until recently. Even with Soundtrack to Sixteen we weren’t really sure that was what we were going to do. I studied physics, and then after I finished I was thinking ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, maybe I want to do film’, and that’s when we made Soundtrack to Sixteen. Then we both went to uni during post-production, so we still weren’t sure. 

24FPS: So making the film was more the catalyst.

Hillary: Yeah, it was like testing it out.

24FPS: Was there something you can identify as the starting point for Soundtrack to Sixteen? What was the first scene you wrote, for example?

Hillary: I guess it was the bus scene. I didn’t actually write it first, but it was the catalyst for it. I was actually on a bus, and I thought that would be a cool title. I was thinking about how when I was little it was sort of my fantasy, because I went to an all girl’s school, that I would just happen on a boy, on a bus [laughs], so that was the first scene I thought of.

Anna: I remember when she came home “I have an idea for a film, it’s called Soundtrack to Sixteen” and I asked “what’s it about”? She was so vague.

Hillary:...Being sixteen

24FPS: Making a teen movie as your first, and to a degree your second film, is that something that came from an interest in the genre, or just where you were in your lives and the resources around you?

Anna: It was kind of the write what you know thing. It’s also a genre we like.

Hillary: Even if they’re bad I quite enjoy them. I guess with people who like horror they just like horror, and I kind of feel that way about coming of age films. So I guess it’s a bit of both, maybe they feed into each other. 

24FPS: Teen films or otherwise, were there any particular influences you felt on the screenplay or the visuals with Soundtrack to Sixteen?

Anna: The two things we were thinking of, that we were watching the most, were My So Called Life and Freaks and Geeks. Both series, but they were both quite influential.

Hillary: My So Called Life especially is quite realistic. She’s portrayed as an annoying teenager, but you’re on her side anyway, so it was that kind of vibe we were going for. In terms of the look, I suppose we did Juno and (500) Days of Summer type things, which we really liked at the time. 

24FPS: You started writing this a while ago, it’s fair to say. What was the writing process between the two of you then, and have you found that it’s shifted all these years later?

Anna: Yeah, it’s definitely different now. The way we did it then was that Hillary wrote everything.

Hillary: [Laughing] That makes it sound like you didn’t write it.

Anna: No, I was going to say and then I came in. We did the vague outline first, then Hillary would go away and write, then we’d talk about scenes, and she’d write them. I did some edits, I’m not sure I wrote any scenes straight off from start to finish, it was more specific lines where I’d say “get this in”. 
Hillary: Because Anna was at school, she was in her last year, and I was on a gap year. I had a whole year to do it, so we’d meet for lunch near her school, discuss what I’d done, and then we’d meet again later when I’d written it.

Anna: It’s quite different from now. We’ve never been able to do that thing where we write physically at the same time, it’s always one of us writes a scene and then swap.

24FPS: There are a couple of scenes in the film that particularly ring true of me at sixteen, which is sad, maybe? There’s the party and the nightbus. So particularly for you Anna, still being at school when you were writing, is there a scene that comes out of that or that feels like that for you?

Anna: Definitely, I think Ben’s story was pretty much what I was going through; thinking that you’re really smart and then suddenly realising that you’re not. I definitely in school, when I was around sixteen, thought I was the shit, basically [laughter]. And then you get cocky and think you don’t need to study. I thought I’m so clever I’ll do five AS Levels and I got… not terrible grades, but pretty bad, I almost failed maths. But my teachers were like ‘oh, we were wrong about you’, not in a mean way, but you know that look. So I was not actually having a rager in the toilets [as Ben does in one scene], but that more than Maisie, who was a bit more Hillary at that age.

Hillary: Yeah, the falling out with people at school and girls being mean, that was more my sixteen year old time and Anna’s was more like the school focused stuff. I think aspects of every scene were taken from reality, that’s kind of the way we write.  

Anna: I think that bullying scene though, that was especially intense on the day.

Hillary: Yeah, there were literally lines taken out of reality for that one. I remember one of the crew asking ‘don’t you think this is a bit unrealistically mean’? I was like, “No, it’s real”.  

24FPS: You’re both credited as writer but Hillary, you’re the credited director, so how did that writer/director dynamic work on set and is that something that’s shifted with Much Ado?

Anna: Back then, I think I had a lot more fun than Hilary actually, because I got to hang out with the actors more like, messing around, but I mostly gave her my notes if I had any, so everything would go through her. She was directing, but sometimes I would notice things. Especially when there was so much going on and the crew was so small it was good to have two pairs of eyes on things, but I would never talk to the actors about their performance.

Hillary: Partly then it was about Anna still being in school, she didn’t have the time commitment. It was both of our vision; we wrote it together and all the post-production we’ve both given all the same feedback, but on the actual shoot, I think you weren’t around as much, you were actually gone for some of it as well. So that’s why we decided I’d direct it, but Much Ado we co-directed all the way through.

24FPS: One thing I really like about the film is that you’ve got a good sense of all the social groups, so how did you manage to first find that in casting and then encourage it on set with the actors?

Anna: I think the first day with the boys was the football day, so that was really good for breaking the ice. There wasn’t much they had to do other than play football badly, which was quite fun as well because they asked if they were supposed to be good at it, but we said ‘no, it’s just average boys playing football badly’. It felt like there was enough time, when I compare it to Much Ado there was a lot less stress, at least for them.

Hillary: I think they just ended up hanging out a lot, the boys especially. The girls had less time together because they were two groups of girls so each individual group had less screen time together, so they had a bit less time to bond.

24FPS: Did you have rehearsal time at all?

Hillary: We only did rehearsals with Gino and Scarlett, the main two. 

Anna: We had Gino there, who plays Ben, to cast the others, so we did test them all against him, cause we cast the main two first and then cast the rest of the groups around them, so that definitely helped.

24FPS: The title has a literal meaning in the film, are the mix CDs something that you did, and what would be on your Soundtrack to Sixteen?

Anna: That’s quite fun. We didn’t do them, they just came up, I think it was Hillary’s idea.

Hillary: It was more like I wished we’d done them.

Anna: But our soundtrack to sixteen, and that’s definitely what we were writing it to, was a lot of Blink 182 and Sum 41 and those teenage bands. Hillary had those Minidiscs and she got, what was the one…?

Hillary: Yeah, I only ever used to listen to basic pop music, cause I didn’t really know how to find music. I used to swap Minidiscs with a friend and one day her brother’s disc got mixed up in them and it was this massive discovery of boys music.
24FPS: The film is set in the noughties, several years before it was shot. So what was it specifically you wanted to capture about that time?

Anna: We definitely wanted it to be set when we were sixteen, so that’s why it’s in the Noughties. We wanted to do it before social media, and there are no proper phones in it, they’re all brick phones.

Hillary: I think the experience of being sixteen must be really different now, and we haven’t really had that. Comparing it to Eighth Grade that's probably more like what it’s like for teenagers now with being constantly online, that wasn’t really part of our teenage experience. I think we wanted to set it in that time because the story we wanted to tell, hopefully it’s relevant, but it’s not exactly what people are going through now.  

24FPS: The film’s taken quite some time to get from shooting to screen. Looking at the good side of that, what do you think has been the most beneficial thing to come out of that extended process for you and for the film?

Anna: We were really good at being savage with it, I think, we knew what needed to go by the time we were cutting it, which was already a few years down the line.

Hillary: We were quite detached by the time we were editing. I think part of the reason it was so slow was that we were learning, it was our first film so every time we had to do something new we had to learn how to do it. That slowed things down, but it was good for us. Also we did degrees in the meantime.

24FPS: Does it play differently for you now?

Anna: It’s hard to tell because it changed so much. The first version… was a bit of a mess. I think I was more nervous about it. I still get nervous every time we watch it with people, I find it so nerve-wracking, watching people watch your thing. 

Hillary: There were a lot of storylines that got cut out. We had a lot more family life and the editor Ben suggested we took the focus off their families and then, it just got a lot better.

24FPS: Something you often notice in coming of age films, the parents just aren’t that important a lot of the time.

Anna: Yeah, we had a whole sub-plot about Ben and his Dad’s relationship. That was in the first edit and it just wasn’t really relevant. In theory, the idea was his Dad cared about him doing well at school, therefore the pressure meant something more, but it actually didn’t really build the pressure, so we just got rid of that whole sub-plot, and it was better.

24FPS: You’re obviously young, female, filmmakers and it’s a time when there’s a lot more focus on women behind the camera. What’s your experience been like in those terms, and would you have any advice for other young women who want to go out and make films?

Hillary: I think we’re in a really good time. For us, we’ve just come into it at the right time. But because I come from a science background, I did find it really hard. I was in a robotics lab where there were barely any girls. I feel like that’s a totally different world.

Anna: Just for context, after she did physics she did computer science, and then AI

Hillary: And those were really male-dominated worlds, where I felt it was really hard to be a girl in that world. By comparison, I think we’ve come into [filmmaking] at such a good time, it feels like a revelation that everyone wants to help. 

Anna: I feel like I need more advice than I can give advice. I guess using what’s available. There are definitely things open right now which are for women in film, so I feel like there’s a lot of opportunity. You might think ‘I don’t want to be sub-categorised into that’, when it becomes a genre - ‘Women in film’ - but then it becomes ‘I’ll just get over myself actually, I want help’. [Laughter].

24FPS: You’ve said there’s a lot of things you learned on Soundtrack to Sixteen, and I assume on Much Ado as well. Of all of those, what are the one or two you most want to carry forward into your next films.

Anna: With Soundtrack to Sixteen we were a lot slower, because I used to think you have to give people loads of time to get good stuff out of them, but then I realised that’s not actually true, you just have to be pushing it 24/7. Obviously we weren’t because we were doing degrees, but I just thought that’s how it would be anyway, and I was wrong there. When things slow down now I know there’s something I can do to push them along. That was quite a big lesson.

Hillary: We’ve learned quite a lot on the sales side, about how difficult it is to sell an indie film. I guess I’d want a higher budget for future films.
24FPS: So your next film, Much Ado, re-setting the play at university. First of all, why that play in that milieu?

Anna: We chose Much Ado because we just love that play so much. The Kenneth Branagh version was our favourite videotape.

Hillary: We had about four videotapes and that was one of them, so we knew it practically by heart by the time we wanted to make it.

Anna: We’d wanted to make it long before. When the Joss Whedon version came out, when we were really quite young, I thought ‘Damn it’, ‘cause I wanted to make the next one.

Hillary: When I was really little the RSC, their home base was the Barbican, and I used to go to all of their plays. Much Ado was the first one, I think, that I really understood. I loved it so much, I made my parents take me back, and my Grandma took me again.

Anna: We’ve been talking about how we’d do it for a long time. When Hillary quit her PHD and we decided we were going to do this, we obviously wanted to finish Soundtrack to Sixteen, but we’d done most of that and were waiting on other people, and we wanted to go into something right away. We’d almost adapted it already, by talking through what we wanted to do for so long, so we were ready to go.

24FPS: You’re keeping it in Shakespearean English?

Anna: Yeah, and it’s still set in the countryside, it’s a university rugby team at a house, so for example the scenes where Benedick is hiding, those are still in the vines, so those bits still have the same vibe. I think a lot of it makes sense, it being really young people because the behaviour is immature and it makes sense when you realise they’re 18 or 19, other than the marriage, which took some work to adapt. It felt like a natural step because it was a genre and a play we knew really well. 

24FPS: I always close interviews with the same question. Not counting your own, what’s the last great movie you saw?

Anna: Marriage Story is the last film we both loved. We saw that at the Austin Film Festival with a big audience, and I cried multiple times.

Hillary: We’ve watched a lot of films lately because we were doing a festival tour and I kind of remembered what it was like to watch films that I loved.

Anna: That seemed a bit obvious, because everyone loves it, so our rogue one… it’s called Jeune Juliette and it’s a French Canadian coming of age film about a girl, she’s overweight and her best friend who’s a girl has a crush on her, but she’s not a lesbian, and she likes a guy who’s a dick.

Hillary: I also liked this coming of age film we saw at Austin Film Festival called Yellow Rose, it’s about a girl whose mum gets deported and she’s trying to hide, but also she’s trying to become a country singer.

24FPS: I haven’t heard of either of those.

Hillary: That’s why we chose them, we wanted to have something you hadn’t heard of.

With that we wrapped up. Many thanks to Anna and Hillary for their time. You can see Soundtrack to Sixteen (which I still highly recommend) on its tour of UK cinemas, check out dates and book tickets at their website. It will be available on VOD soon after that tour concludes.

Finally, as a bonus, here is my Spotify playlist of my Soundtrack to Sixteen. I was that age in 1997 and this list, which is in no order but that in which I thought of the songs, is full of music that was part of the fabric of my life that year (whether I liked the tracks at the time, or indeed now, or not).


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.  


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.


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. 


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.

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.