Growing Pains @ BFI Flare 2021: My First Summer

Dir: Katie Found
16-year-old Claudia (Markella Kavenagh) and her mother have lived Claudia’s whole life hidden in a cabin in the woods, away from the outside world. After her mother drowns herself, Claudia is surprised when Grace (Maiah Stewardson), who saw the incident, turns up at the cabin. The two develop a friendship that Grace doesn’t seem to have with other teens and that might help bring Claudia out of her hermetically sealed world just a little.

Much of Australian writer/director Katie Found’s feature debut has an almost fairytale feel about it. Claudia’s world, the one Grace first lets herself into and then is granted increasing access to by Claudia, is a place where they seem almost entirely insulated from the outside world. Free from adult influence, they can mess around, eat what they like, and discover themselves. Though both girls are sixteen, they seem younger, Claudia because she has been kept naive about the world by her mother and Grace in the way she dresses all in pink and friendship bracelets, and seems only to eat sweets and chocolate and drink strawberry milk.

The connection between the two girls is forged in stages, Grace’s friendship drawing Claudia out and helping her deal with her mother’s suicide. In one sweetly sad scene, Grace goes for a swim in a shallow part of the river and tries to coax Claudia in with her. When they go underwater, Claudia panics, but Grace—taking on the role Claudia’s mother should have played—holds her, comforts her and makes her feel safe. There is a tenderness in this moment that we see throughout their relationship and the film as a whole, and which makes the connection between the girls something palpable.

Katie Found’s direction also contributes to the tender and intimate feeling of the film. Many of the interactions between Grace and Claudia are observed primarily in close up, the world a hazy thing surrounding them but not really impacting on them. There are of course breaks from this; the aforementioned river scene, a scene of the two dyeing Claudia’s sheets, which turns into a water fight, but most of the time the focus is tightly on the girls and their ever closer bond. It’s a directorial choice that also focuses us on gaze, especially on the way that Grace looks at Claudia with increasing, sometimes thwarted, desire. An amusing example of this comes when, clearly trying to get Claudia to kiss her, Grace asks her to guess different flavours of lip balm and is subtly, but visibly, frustrated when Claudia initially guesses just from the smell. 

Markella Kavenagh and Maiah Stewardson bring the growing bond between the girls to life with playful performances that portray a great comfort in the connection that Grace and Claudia find in each other, which builds into a convincing romantic chemistry. There is always a little more edge in Stewardson’s performance; a sense that Claudia, naive thanks to her upbringing, could misread something from Grace, but Kavenagh’s gentle performance shows us how quickly Grace begins to understand this.

The real world looms throughout. Cops looking into Claudia’s mother’s suicide talk to Grace several times, but she keeps Claudia secret, first because the idea of leaving the house is terrifying for her (almost the first thing she says to Grace is “If they know I’m here they’ll take me away”) and because Grace wants to keep this little world, and the relationship growing within it, for herself. When the fairytale is punctured it’s traumatic, but it also brings the girls together in a lovely final moment that is at once uncertain and hopeful. 

I’ve been using words like tender, intimate and fairytale to describe My First Summer, but that’s not to say that it’s purely lightweight. There is darkness and emotional pull in Claudia’s shell-shocked response to her mother’s suicide. In one brief sequence, Claudia sees her mother, first as she remembers her and then as she last saw her; soaking wet and going to her death. This is one of a few moments that bring to the surface Maiah Stewardson’s portrayal of that initial emotional disconnect and a more enduring survivor's guilt.

Overall, this is a very promising debut from Katie Found, it has that hazy feel of a memory of a teenage summer, but the mixed emotions provoked by the story and performances always remain in focus.


Streaming Suggestion: The Karla Trilogy

Karla og Jonas

I am about to start a new series here at Growing Pains, looking at failed and unfinished YA franchise adaptations. This trilogy would definitely not count for that series. I wasn’t aware of the Karla series of novels by Danish writer, and former supermodel, Renée Toft Simonsen until the film adaptations dropped as part of a glut of Scandinavian content that has recently been added to UK Netflix (with plenty of interesting coming of age films in the mix). I accidentally ended up watching the series backwards, but for the record the three films—all directed by Charlotte Sachs Bostrup—are Karla’s Kabale [2007] (apparently literally a reference to Solitaire, but translated as Karla’s World), Karla og Katrine [2009] and Karla og Jonas [2010].

The series begins with ten-year-old Karla (played throughout the series by Elena Arndt-Jensen) living with her Mother, Rikke (Ellen Hillingsø), stepfather, Leif (Nicolaj Kopernikus) brother, Mads-Morten (Nikolaj Støvring Hansen) and half-brother, who is only ever called Lillebror (Jonathan Werner Juel). It’s almost Christmas and Karla is upset because her mother won’t let Karla and Mads-Morten’s father (Allan Olsen) come to Christmas dinner. After an argument, Karla runs away. The second film explores the relationship between Karla and her school friend Katrine (Nanna Koppel). They used to be best friends, but they’ve drifted apart a little and Karla wants to mend the rift, so she invites Katrine on a family holiday. There’s some tension between them when they meet Jonas (Joshua Berman), who is on holiday with a foster family, but usually lives in a children’s home. In the final film, Karla wants to get back in touch with Jonas, with whom she had her first kiss at the end of the last film, and they end up going on a mission to find his mother.

Something that is often said about the Harry Potter films is that they, as films, grew up with their characters. That’s true to a point, but it’s really more of a gear shift, from the bright and fairly kid-oriented first two entries to the darkness that encroached on Prisoner of Azkaban. I think the Karla series grows particularly well with its main character. Karla is 10 in the first film, 12 in the second and 13 in the third, and the screenplays never make her into a miniature adult. Sometimes this is done in ways that are very typical of movies for and about kids, for instance with a sequence in the first film when Karla’s mother is ill, and Karla struggles with being ‘the grown-up for the day’, failing to keep her brothers from wreaking havoc in the house, but at other times it’s more subtle. In each of the films, but especially the first and third, Karla strikes out without her family. When she runs away in Karla’s World it’s clear how naive and vulnerable she is right from the start, when she spends almost all of her money on an elaborate Christmas ornament, not really thinking about food or shelter. The series isn’t afraid to address adult problems, such as Karla’s dad’s alcoholism; being in a blended family, or why a child might be given up for adoption, from a child’s eye view, but Charlotte Sachs Bostrup pulls off something quietly remarkable. She deals with these themes without ever talking down to her audience (okay, there are a few toilet jokes in the first two films, but they feel quite separate from the more serious side), and she does so without ever making the world feel too dark. 
Karla Og Katrine

For my personal taste, the films get better as they go along, and the way each allows Karla to grow, by making us feel that the experiences of the last film have fed into how she responds to the situations she finds herself in in the next. This is especially clear in Karla and Jonas, where she is clearly more wary of asking for help when she and Jonas, searching for his mother, find themselves stranded in an unfamiliar town overnight, it’s clear that some of the experiences she had running away in Karla’s World influence how she behaves. We can also see this evolution in Elena Arndt-Jensen’s performance; she’s charming and energetic in the first film, but by the time of the third there’s clearly more going on behind what she’s doing, we can see more layers in Karla’s reactions to events.

I don’t want to go into great depth here, because this isn’t a review, just a recommendation. None of these films are great masterpieces of the genre, but they work as coming of age movies collectively as well as individually, and I find that’s rather rare in a series of films. Serious themes are addressed, but in a way that will be suitable for kids of the same age Karla is in each film (one caveat, if you’re especially sensitive about the language your kids hear, occasional S worlds give way to a fair few F bombs in Karla og Jonas). The performances, kids and adults, are excellent, and the family dynamic is so well written that it conjured a lot of memories for me of growing up with step-siblings around frequently. If you’re interested either in coming of age movies or in something intelligent to watch with older children, the Karla series is well worth a look.


Billie Eilish: The World's A Little Blurry [15]

Dir: RJ Cutler
Unless you’ve had your head in the sand for the past three or four years, you’ve heard of Billie Eilish. I was, as ever, a latecomer, only discovering her with the video for When The Party’s Over, but she had been building a dedicated and exponentially expanding fanbase online for some time before that. A key part of her appeal, perhaps especially to her own generation (she is still just 19), is her apparent openness and honesty. She’s been candid, in her music and interviews, about depression, anxiety, her Tourette syndrome, and much more, forging a strong connection with her fanbase. In The World’s A Little Blurry, director RJ Cutler (a prolific documentarian, perhaps best known for The September Issue) takes a long close-up look at Eilish and her family in the time between the writing of her first album and her triumph at her first Grammys.

Perhaps perversely for a film about a hugely successful musician, the parts of The World’s A Little Blurry that dwell on the music are often the least interesting passages of the film, or rather they’re only particularly interesting in how they contribute to what the film really strikes me as; a study of a sometimes vulnerable, ultimately very normal, teenager as she navigates extraordinary circumstances, and deals with the usual teenage bullshit. This is partly because her process with her brother and producer Finneas has been well documented, seeing them actually construct songs is instructive, as are the extensive concert sequences, and some of the behind the scenes looks at the struggles of touring, but these are the elements of the film that we already know and that feel like they could come from any documentary about a touring musician. They are also arguably where Cutler could reduce what is an overindulgent 140-minute running time. 

What’s more interesting is the picture the film builds of Eilish. She and Finneas are both clearly preternaturally talented and you would expect that to manifest in confidence in what they do, we definitely see that in Finneas, especially when he says he aims for every song they write to be the best song they’ve ever written, but it seems not to be the case for Billie, who we often see needing her brother’s encouragement and reassurance. Much of the footage just between Eilish and her family looks as though it was shot by them, or certainly with a very tiny crew, and while of course editing can radically alter perception in documentaries, each moment at least seems honest and unfiltered. Billie and Finneas’ parents emerge as interesting characters here. Many things, as when her Dad gives Billie a ‘be careful’ speech the first time she is about to take her car out on her own, then reminisces about the end of his daughter’s childhood, are very normal everyday parent moments, but obviously, the circumstances are also often almost surreal. Their mother and father are sometimes visibly astonished by what’s happening to their children’s lives, but also seeming to do a good job of taking it in stride and help their daughter process it. Only in one moment do they seem to sugarcoat something, saying “we let you down” when she is upset over negative feedback after a meet and greet she didn’t want to do with record company people, but again there’s insight here; a moment less of managing an artist and more of managing a teenager who had a moment where she was just sick of doing something.

The World’s A Little Blurry is a coming-of-age film of sorts. Not only does it mark milestone birthdays, it uses both Billie’s learning to drive and a relationship (which never seems all that healthy) as throughlines, charting important stages of each of them. The relationship in particular seems to see her grow up. Early on we overhear several cutesy conversations on the phone, later we find Eilish bemoaning the fact that her boyfriend won’t make more time for her and one troubling moment finds her telling her parents that, even though he hurt himself punching a wall, this guy would never hit a person. By the end of the film, we definitely see a person with more perspective and a greater understanding both of what she wants and why neither she nor her boyfriend was getting it in that relationship. It’s a real maturation. I would say we also see maturation in Eilish’s relationship with Justin Bieber. We hear a lot about how, when she was 12, she was so obsessed with him that her mother considered getting her therapy and, in one of the film’s most disarming moments, we see their first meeting, and Eilish very much back to being that little girl, sobbing while Bieber hugs her. By the end though, we find her much more assured and comfortable; touched but not overwhelmed when Bieber calls to congratulate her after the Grammys.

Much as they do in her music, I think Billie Eilish’s fanbase will find much to connect with in The World’s A Little Blurry. Eilish is open about her challenges and problems (an impactful moment shows us a page from her journal written when she was self-harming), and the end of the doesn’t find her having unlocked all the answers, but what her fans have always seemed to find in her is someone whose experiences reflect their own and who can articulate them in a way that speaks powerfully to them. This film, while it’s overlong and restates plenty of things we’ve already heard from and about Eilish, will also give them that.


Recent Viewing

The Craft: Legacy [2020]
Dir: Zoe Lister-Jones
Back in 1996 The Craft was the very first 15 certificate film I was able to get in to see. I remember liking it enough at the time, thinking it was a solidly acted, fairly fun, if eventually overblown teen horror. Years later, revisiting it as someone with a deeper interest in coming of age cinema, I appreciated its themes a little more, but its chief pleasure remained Fairuza Balk’s performance as Nancy; always dangerously, but deliciously, close to being completely over the top. All that is to say that The Craft, while it’s not aged badly, is hardly an unimpeachable classic which it was impossible to imagine a modern remake/reboot/sequel (all of which this film dips its toe in at times) either finding things it could add to the original or outright improving on it.

The film begins with Lily (Cailey Spaney) and her mother Helen (Michelle Monaghan) moving to a new town to live with Helen’s new partner Adam (David Duchovny) and his three sons. Initially an outsider, Lily soon falls in with Frankie (Gideon Adlon), Lourdes (Zoey Luna) and Tabby (Lovie Simone), becoming the long-awaited fourth in their group of witches, and Lily, in particular, sees her powers grow quickly and sometimes alarmingly.

While sticking fairly closely to the template of the original film, writer/director Zoe Lister-Jones clearly has ideas to expand the fairly basic ‘girl power’ subtext of the original. She begins by expanding the female circle that creates and exploits these powers to include a trans woman (trans actress Zoey Luna as Lourdes), but she also expands the film’s politics, dealing with questions of consent, sexuality, modern feminism, and toxic masculinity. This isn’t unique in recent horror remakes, and The Craft: Legacy does at least manage to explore its themes more organically than the recent version of Black Christmas did, and yet, a lot of the ideas remain undercooked. The one that works best is the moment that the girls cast a spell on the school’s jock bully Timmy (Nicholas Galitzine), to turn him into ‘his best self’. The studiedly politically correct guy he becomes, soon hanging out with the girls, does suffer from dialogue that seems built largely out of a woke twitter word cloud, but the point is well made and at least it shifts him from one solidly established set of character traits to another. The same can’t really be said about a later revelation about Timmy, nor about the fact that wider implications it should have on Lily’s family are never capitalized on.

This is the problem with much of the film. Ideas are suggested and either they aren’t fully developed enough (the toxicity of the masculinity in Adam’s home) or shifts in them don’t get properly developed. For instance, Helen is apparently established as a feminist, telling her daughter ‘your difference is your power’, but for me, this never squared with the sub-Stepfather tendencies the film always hints at in Adam, so I never bought into that relationship. The overall feeling is one of a film made, and particularly edited, in a rush and to a very specific set of demands. I would bet that one of those demands was an under 90-minute pre-credits running time. This was clearly a disastrous choice, as everything about The Craft: Legacy screams that there is a longer version which, even if it’s not a lot better, at least colours in some of the ideas the film as it exists simply allows to fall by the wayside, and therefore fills in a lot of the holes in the plotting and characters that make it such a frustrating watch.

While the characters could be more fully developed, Spaney, Adlon, Luna and Simone make for a watchable group of leads. Unfortunately, much of Lily’s early character development appears to have been sliced to ribbons and mixed up in an early magic montage. It’s Luna who makes the biggest impression, less because she has much more to work with than because she looks striking and Lourdes has perhaps the most forceful personality amongst the group. The group dynamic is about as well established as the truncated running time allows, and we do get a sense of their closeness, unfortunately, that doesn’t pay off quite as powerfully as it should in the film’s ending, which is another moment that seems to suffer from either budgetary or running time constraints, landing as a damp squib as a result.

It’s a pity that The Craft: Legacy isn’t a bit better. It has ideas that are timely and thoughtful, but it’s been robbed of the space to develop them into more than just vague signals of good intentions. Fans of the original are likely to find it a frustrating watch because it’s straining to give them a richer experience than the original but unfortunately falls at most of the hurdles along the way.

Psychobitch [2019]
Dir: Martin Lund
Marius (Jonas Tidemann), 15, is top of the class in his last year of lower secondary school. When the students are paired up to work on projects his teacher asks him to work with Frida (Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne, who reminded me more than a little of Fucking Amal’s Rebecka Liljeberg) a troubled, unpredictable, and often difficult to control girl who is an outcast among the class because of her behaviour. Slowly, the two grow closer, but Marius’ relationship with Lea (Saara Sipila-Kristoffersen) who, like him, is part of the in-crowd gets in the way.

Whatever the age of the protagonists, odd couples are the bread and butter of movies about relationships. It might be the very prevalence of this narrative that has led to the canard that ‘opposites attract’. The central couple of Psychobitch (an unfortunate title, but also something Marius yells at Frida after fights at the end of the film’s first and second acts) have moments when they might convince you of the truth of the cliché. These come in scenes of the two finding moments to bond, usually when Frida is able to pull the more straight-laced Marius along on her impulsive adventures, notably getting stuck in their school after hours. A sweet moment in which they look at books in the travel section of the library and say they should go to India together is one of the lighter moments of connection and happens in relatively close proximity to a much heavier conversation about why Frida recently tried to kill herself. 

Tidemann and Müller Osbourne both give us layers in their work. Frida is the less straightforward character, by dint of being so unpredictable. Müller Osbourne finds playfulness in a lot of these beats, but also suggests that that flippancy is masking something deeper and more painful. Much of Marius' conflict comes from trying to figure out whether he prefers the safety of his social circle and the nice, well-liked, very much into him Lea to the live wire that is Frida. This comes through well in the story between Marius and Lea, as the film’s second act puts as much focus on his relationship with her as his growing closeness and attraction to Frida. Most notable is a sequence, first at a party and then afterwards at a sleepover at a friend’s house, when their group tries to contrive a way for Marius and Lea to sleep together. The sex, when it happens, is entirely consensual, but the scene has a sadness and an awkwardness to it because we perceive from both of them that it’s not the way either wanted it to happen. 

It’s not, though, particularly easy to root for Marius and Frida’s relationship, however nice moments we see them growing closer are, and however well some of the more good-natured ribbing largely from Frida to Marius comes off. Ultimately, these two people seem much too different from each other; Frida’s problems are too pronounced and sometimes too destructive for both of them for me to fully buy into the idea that Marius is so drawn to her. One of the great strengths of Scandinavian coming of age cinema is often how true to life it feels, I think Psychobitch is trying for that and, some individual scenes aside (among them the conversation about Frida’s illness, Marius pushing his mother away when she’s trying to help and Marius trying to get Frida to talk to him after he’s upset her), director Martin Lund’s screenplay misses that target. 

This is by no means a bad film. Jonas Tidemann, Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne and Saara Sipila-Kristoffersen are all names worth watching in the next few years, and they all bring much more than the cardboard cutout teen clichés to the table in their performances. There are extremely engaging scenes and moments that do ring true scattered throughout the film. A lovely scene of Marius and Frida literally dancing to their own beat is a slightly on the nose metaphor, but also the moment they first seem to entirely get each other, and it echoes later on in a moment I couldn’t help but smile at. The group dynamics also convince, whether it’s the class being wary of Frida or the way that Marius and his friends take the mickey out of each other about their respective levels of sexual experience. It’s just a shame that these bits that work never quite knit together, and that the main element of the story never fully convinces, despite everyone’s best efforts.