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.