Wednesday, August 26, 2015

New movie review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Bel Powley stars in writer-director Marielle Heller's new film The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Never have I been a teenage girl. It is a flaw of mine that cannot be corrected. That being true, I am not the target audience for The Diary of a Teenage Girl, nor am I probably in a position to gauge its reality and emotional honesty. I can say this about first-time writer-director Marielle Heller’s new film, based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Phoebe Gloeckner: It is beautifully acted and lovingly crafted, and it certainly feels real.

Relative newcomer Bel Powley plays Minnie, a 15-year-old girl growing up in ’70s San Francisco and exploring her burgeoning sexuality. Her mother is mostly absent from her life, her little sister is too young to understand her experiences, and her primary father figure no longer lives nearby. For all intents and purposes, she is alone, and the film does an expert job of depicting how Minnie conflates physical closeness with emotional connection.

At one point, she strips naked and looks herself over in her bedroom mirror. In voiceover, she says she desperately wants somebody to touch her body, but she fears no one will ever want to. The combination of desire, low self-esteem, and teenage hormones makes Minnie vulnerable, and the first person to pounce on that vulnerability is Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), her mother’s boyfriend.

There is no sugarcoating in the script, which opens with the line, “Today, I had sex for the first time. Holy shit.” Minnie loses her virginity to Monroe. They will have many more sexual liaisons, which are depicted explicitly but not luridly throughout the film. It is hard to say how a male director would have handled this material, but as forthright as Heller is with her lead’s sexuality, the scenes are photographed matter-of-factly, with little prurient interest.

We are not meant to be turned on by this love affair, but we should not be repulsed either. Like Minnie, the audience is on a journey of discovery. We have the benefit of distance and the knowledge that this relationship is damaging to her. Minnie does not have this benefit and must learn, as we all do, by trial and error.

Powley, who has appeared on a number of British television series and in one previous feature film, is the heart of the movie. Everything rests on her ability to convey the feeling of being aggressively sexual but too inexperienced to understand how that sexuality will affect her life and relationships. Powley carries this off with brightness and the kind of cock-eyed certainty youth affords.

Skarsgård is good enough as Monroe to make you almost forget the creepy, predatory nature of the character and feel sorry for this doofus who does only what is most convenient for him – almost. Kristen Wiig, who plays Minnie’s mom, is also solid in the mostly dramatic role of a woman whose life has not tuned out the way she hoped and which continues to spiral out of control.

Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgard also star.
The world needs more stories like this, preferably, as in this case, told by female storytellers. Heller, who spearheaded the effort to bring The Diary of a Teenage Girl to the screen, is a clearly gifted filmmaker. She and cinematographer Brandon Trost, known mostly for his work on action films, capture the gauzy feel of the early ’70s and deftly parallel that with the haze of being a teenager in a world for which you are not quite prepared.

Immediately after watching the film, I was troubled by the almost single-minded focus on Minnie’s sexuality. She has few other defining traits. She wants to be an artist and is often shown drawing. She has some correspondence with artist Aline Kominsky, who in the timeline of the film, is yet to become Robert Crumb’s wife but who is already a talented artist in her own right. That is about it, though. She is a wannabe artist who is obsessed with sex.

I wondered if this is a reductive view of teenagers in general and teenage girls in particular. Surely, teenage girls must have more on their minds than sex, having sex, and who will have sex with them. Minnie does not seem to think about anything more than sex and has conversations that always wrap back around to sex in some way. I initially considered this a failure on the part of the film, particularly as there are so few stories in theaters about teenage girls and their real lives – anyone living in a dystopian sci-fi future or who is in love with a vampire does not count.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I reconsidered this position. I made the mistake of asking Minnie to represent all teenage girls – again, due to their lack of representation in the marketplace, this was just my first instinct – but this is an unfair burden to place upon the film. Given the semi-autobiographical nature of the source material, it would be more fitting to view this as the story of one teenage girl. Minnie is a specific person. She is no one’s archetype, and her preoccupations are her own.

Seen in this light, the problem is less with the film and more with the Hollywood system that refuses to tell relatable stories about teenage girls. I promise teenage girls go to the movies just as much as teenage boys; however, it is doubtful the two demographics are served by the same films. The solution, then, is not to quibble over the story of Minnie, who has every right to be whomever she wants to be, but instead to push for more films about girls like Minnie but whose preoccupations may be different. That would be progress.

See it? Yes.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

New movie review: Grandma

Lily Tomlin plays Elle in the new independent comedy Grandma, from writer-director Paul Weitz.

In Grandma, Lily Tomlin plays an older lesbian who sets out to help her teenage granddaughter get the money she needs for an abortion. Some of you will have been offended by that simple plot description, and if you were, I promise this movie will do nothing to abate that offense. That is okay. Not all movies are for all people. For everyone else, filmmaker Paul Weitz has written and directed a riotously funny road movie with a ton of heart that also provides a wonderful showcase for Tomlin.

Elle (Tomlin) is a mostly retired poet living off the checks she receives for her past works. As the film opens, we see her and her girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer), breaking up. Elle says she knew the younger woman would eventually leave her, though it is debatable which of the two women truly instigates the breakup. Just as Olivia walks out of her life, granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up on her doorstep with a problem.

Sage is 11 weeks pregnant and looking to borrow money for an abortion. Elle does not have it as she is still waiting on her next check and cut up her credit cards to make a vague point to no one in particular. The nearby free clinic Elle remembers from her youth is now a coffee shop with terrible coffee, a fact Elle has no qualms about stating to anyone within ear shot, including the owner. So the pair hits the road in Elle’s 1955 Dodge Royal (Tomlin’s actual car) to see who might be able to loan them the money.

To say the two are comically mismatched is an understatement. Sage is a typically shy, painfully awkward 16-year-old who is all too happy to be walked over if it means keeping the peace. Elle is a brusque, second-wave feminist still clinging to her punk rock ideals. In this premise, there is easy comedy, and Weitz, of American Pie fame, among other things, is not shy about going for the obvious jokes and sometimes coasts on Tomlin and Garner’s chemistry and performances.

The vulgar, mean grandma, who occasionally has a heart of gold, is a comedy cliché going back a long way. Weitz and Tomlin spend the first half of the film embracing this characterization and the second half subverting it. In the opening half-hour, Elle curses, yells, makes a mess, and hits a teenage boy in the groin with a hockey stick. This is all very funny, but it grows tiresome, and as soon as it does, Weitz is smart enough to shift gears.

Clocking in at a breezy hour and 19 minutes, Weitz stuffs his screenplay with character turns and revelations that do not so much change who these people are as serve to explain why they are that way. Grandma is the rare film in which there is no villain. The past, filled as it is with old wounds and simmering grievances, is the enemy. The characters who fare best are those who can learn, grow, and move on with their lives.

The centerpiece of the film is an extended two-hander between Elle and an old lover, Karl (Sam Elliott). They have not seen each other in nearly 40 years, and it is clear things did not end well. Karl has strong feelings about Elle, but it is hard to tell if the candle he keeps burning for her is one of passion or one he has waited a long time to burn her with.

Tomlin and Elliott perform a wondrous pas de deux throughout this sequence, with Karl shifting almost imperceptibly from charm to smarm and Elle necessarily contrite until she flips the switch and can hold her tongue no longer. Without wanting to be reductive or patronizing about it, it is great to see two older actors still on top of their game and with solid material to sink their teeth into.

Marcia Gay Harden, Tomlin, and Julia Garner in Grandma.
For Tomlin, especially, the part is a welcome change. Her Emmy-nominated work in the Netflix series Grace and Frankie notwithstanding, it has been years since Tomlin has had a lead role with this much substance and depth. She does not waste a moment of her time on screen, and as shopworn as the character of Elle could be, Tomlin never plays into the stereotypes. She portrays Elle as a complex woman whose pride has gotten in the way of her personal relationships. She can be bitter, and she can be sweet, but what she is always is herself.

If Grandma is not exactly groundbreaking material, it is at least refreshing in its exploration of the multigenerational effects our choices have. This point becomes clear when we finally meet Judy (a stellar Marcia Gay Harden), Sage’s mother and Elle’s daughter. She is a successful businesswoman who seems to have achieved her success by emulating her mother’s worst qualities. She is another stereotype – the pushy female boss – but once again, Weitz bucks convention and almost immediately opens the character up to warmth and humanity.

At the end, we are left with three generations of women struggling to stay true to the better angels of their nature. Each has experienced some pain or trauma that has caused them to retreat – Elle into misery; Judy into work; Sage into herself – but by connecting and opening up to each other, they have a chance to slay the demons of the past and work toward a brighter future.

See it? Yes.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Ha! Judd Apatow and Sick in the Head

Writer-producer-director Judd Apatow's book Sick in the Head is an essential read.

When you’re always picked last, you always get the worst position, like right field in baseball. Then, since you are always in the worst position, the ball never comes your way, so you never get a chance to show anyone that you are, in fact, good at this sport. But the truth is, you are not good at this sport because you are never involved in a play, because you are always in the worst position. When it is time to step up to bat, you feel so much pressure to do something incredible, like hit a home run, that you usually whiff. If you somehow manage to get a hit, your accomplishment is ignored by your peers, who chalk it up to luck … Then the kid who is picked last never gets a girl to like him, because he has been labeled a loser. Therefore, what else is there to do except decide that everyone else is the loser and you are the cool one?
– Judd Apatow, Sick in the Head, “Introduction: Why Comedy?”

I have a short list of celebrity idols – the people on whose careers I wish to model my own, whose work ethic I admire, and whose approach to life and philosophy either lines up with mine or more likely has directly informed mine. Roger Ebert, Woody Allen, Sam Raimi, Albert Brooks, Dan Harmon. In ways both large and small, these people have made me the person I am and give me targets for the person I want to be.

Recently, another prominent figure has cropped up whose views on work and life I find intoxicating. Much to my surprise, he comes from the world of comedy: Judd Apatow. Now, I enjoy comedies (see above: Allen, Brooks, Harmon), but it is not really what I do. I am drawn to the dark, the serious, and the macabre, but seen in that light, maybe it is not so surprising. The old cliché often seems true: There are few people darker or angrier than comedians.

Apatow discusses this topic at length in his recent collection of interviews with comedians, Sick in the Head. He is fascinated by what drives comedians to do what they do and how a few performers – notably, Jerry Seinfeld – pull off the trick of being funny and being happy. It is among the many themes running through the book, a New York Times bestseller released earlier this year.

My copy of Sick in the Head, signed by Apatow.
The premise of the book is simply that Apatow has spent his life in comedy and talking to comedians about their craft. At its most basic, Sick in the Head is a collection of this accumulated knowledge related through interviews with famous comedians at various points in their careers. However, beneath the surface, it is much more than that. It is a guide for overcoming fears and anxieties, for putting our troubled pasts behind us, and for carving out a better future for us and ours.

My single biggest takeaway from the book – which is as revealing about Apatow as it is about his interview subjects – is, to paraphrase Nike, just to do it. We all have problems. We all have concerns. We all have excuses. In the end, none of that matters. There is either action or inaction. Admittedly, this is the kind of moral shared elsewhere countless times, but for me, to hear it articulated by people I admire so much while learning of their personal struggles, well, it is invaluable.

Fellow writers will attest to this: Writing often is easy; sitting down to write is one of the hardest things in the world. Sick in the Head inspires me to write. It makes me want to sit down and fill blank page after blank page with ideas, and I cannot convey how empowering it is simply to have the will to write.

I recently returned from Hollywood, where I was in town for three days to pitch movie ideas to studios, agents, and managers, which is a draining and dispiriting process even when it goes well. I packed only the essentials – a change of clothes, some toiletries, and an autographed copy of Sick in the Head. I read it the whole flight there and the whole flight back. I read it in my hotel room. I read it at the bar. There is something essential in those pages, something that got me through times when I felt bad or exhausted or like packing it in and going home.

I don’t know that I can ask for more from a book than the will to carry on. I don’t know that I can ask for more from anything. So, thanks, Judd Apatow, and thanks to everybody who inspires anybody to do better.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

New movie review: Phoenix

Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld star in writer-director Christian Petzold's magnificent Phoenix.

Simply by titling his new film Phoenix, German filmmaker Christian Petzold is clueing his audience in to the story he wants to tell. As with the tale of the mythical bird that is devoured by flames only to rise again from the ashes, this film promises a story of destruction and resurrection, death and rebirth. Since the audience knows the basic structure of what must happen, the intrigue must be found in the process by which these mutually exclusive states are achieved.

Petzold and co-writer Harun Farocki, working from a story by Hubert Monteilhet, prove adept at detailing the process of their heroine’s transformation, moving the plot along at a breakneck pace and not for one moment sacrificing depth or nuance. Phoenix tells of Nelly (Nina Hoss), a Holocaust survivor who wanders post-war Berlin searching for her husband. She has suffered such severe trauma that her face has had to be reconstructed by a plastic surgeon. She is herself but not quite.

Nelly is a stranger in this new world, sifting through the rubble of a broken country. Her journey, per the film’s title, is to build something else and recognize that what once was is gone and can never be again. To do so, she must cut ties with her past, starting with a husband whose motives only get murkier the more she learns.

There are many ways for this story to step wrong. Allegory such as this, when done badly, can come off as cheap and unearned. Nelly is a stand-in for all Holocaust survivors, and her wounds are the scars of a people nearly wiped out by genocide who must now find meaning in their survival. A lesser film would leave it at that, content to use the main character as a cipher through which the audience might come to understand a larger moral.

The strength of Phoenix is that it understands Nelly is both a symbol and an individual. As viewers, we are so drawn in by the nature of this one woman’s struggle that we cannot help but better comprehend the greater struggle. Where other filmmakers might fall into heavy-handedness and lose themselves in metaphor, Petzold and his collaborators tease out a stunning mystery while drawing a complex character portrait, incorporating the setting as a backdrop rather than a purpose unto itself.

Among those collaborators, none is more important than Hoss. The film lives and dies with her ability to convey a series of often-contradictory emotions in a single glance, and Hoss proves more than up to the task. Hoss is a master reactor, and she moves from optimism to devastation so quickly and so fully that the audience can do nothing but be swept along on her emotional roller coaster.

In particular, Nelly’s scenes with her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), play like a great high-wire act. Hoss and Zehrfeld are magnificent together, balancing the tension of a lifetime of shared history with the betrayals of the present while neither can speak directly of their pains and desires. Hoss makes Nelly totally malleable, willing to be whatever Johnny needs her to be, and Zehrfeld plays Johnny as a cold manipulator, molding Nelly into the form and function that suits him.

The tragic irony is that what they both need is Nelly to be herself. He cannot see who she is through the surgery, thinking her a stranger he can pass off as his wife – though as the story unfolds, it becomes a fair point to wonder if Johnny could ever really see the person she was. She cannot tell him who she is because the deeper he draws her into his web of deception, the less she is able to trust him.

Johnny believes Nelly died in the war. He is after her inheritance, so he enlists Nelly – again, thinking she is someone else – to pretend to be his deceased wife on the pretense that he will split the money with her if their fraud succeeds. She agrees to the charade because the war has left her without bearings. The facsimile of her marriage is the only way she can connect to her old life, so she willingly subjects herself to the indignity of helping her husband defraud her of her own money.

The film has been compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, to which there are certain plot similarities, and there is certainly a Hitchcockian vibe to the proceedings, but it runs deeper than that as Phoenix reminds of a number of classic thrillers. It is vintage, Golden Era Hollywood-style moviemaking, dripping with style and intensity, but informed by a modern sensibility.

Phoenix has the mechanics of an old-school mystery, but it is not overly concerned with solving that mystery. There are secrets and revelations, but Petzold is not interested in milking these for big “gotcha” moments. From the beginning, the movie already has us. Instead, Petzold explores how what we know and don’t know can destroy us but also provide the foundation for our rebirth.

See it? Yes.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Kindergarten Teacher: First poetry, then anything else

Avi Shnaidman (left) and Sarit Larry star in Nadav Lapid's excellent new film The Kindergarten Teacher.

Parents probably do not ask themselves enough what they hope their children get out of going to school each day. It seems a pretty significant question to ask. For the most part, we agree it is important for children to attend school from a fairly young age, but we rarely identify the specific good scholarship is intended to promote.

This question is intrinsically linked to the function of school teachers in our society. These people devote their lives to the education of children, and they ask little in return for their investment, yet the question of what they are investing in still stands. Israeli writer-director Nadav Lapid’s sophomore feature The Kindergarten Teacher is a stunning exploration of the role teachers play in our culture and the lengths to which one woman will go to fulfill her perceived duty.

Lapid was in New York last week for a screening of his film, followed by a question-and-answer session at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Lapid was chatty, witty, and engaging throughout a half-hour discussion in which he touched on the need for art in society, the essential function of educators, and the importance of contradictions.

“I think there’s something in this position of kindergarten teacher,” said Lapid. “On one hand, kindergarten teachers, as we know, are real persons, private persons who have their private life, etc. On the other hand, they are the ones who are in charge of the transmission of social values, of state values, of moral values. They are the ones who meet the future citizens in their earliest stage in order to prepare them, to make them appropriate to become a part of society. They are also an incarnation of right and wrong, bad and good in the eyes of society, and I think that this specific kindergarten teacher – she’s in a kind of permanent rebellion.”

Nira, brilliantly played by Sarit Larry, is a middle-aged kindergarten teacher whose life lacks excitement and inspiration. Her husband is a loving man but a dolt. Her job often seems like nothing more than glorified babysitting until one day when her world changes and a new light shines down on her. She overhears one of her students, a 5-year-old boy, Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), dictate a poem to his nanny. The verse is beautiful, and Nira obsesses over the prodigiously insightful mind of this child.

The first thing she does is repurpose two of Yoav’s poems to impress the teacher and students of her night school creative writing class, claiming she has written them. We seem to be headed for a narrative in which the teacher steals the child’s poems in order to procure some form of glory for herself, but Lapid’s script is smarter than that. The Kindergarten Teacher veers into entirely different territory, portraying Nira as a person so moved by the glory of Yoav’s poetry that she absolutely must share his gift with the world, regardless of what rules or cultural norms she has to violate to do so.

“She’s doubting this right and wrong, the social, the moral values, and I think in a way she’s inventing an alternative moral system, which to make things short, it claims something like: first, words of poetry, and then anything else,” said Lapid. “I try to imagine our world ruled by such a kindergarten teacher … First poetry, then anything else – imagine that. Since her life was totally shaken, changed, turned upside down after she hears a 5-year-old kid mumble two or three lines of poetry, she believes in a way that each time this kid opens his mouth, the world should stop turning around. People should stop anything and listen. Maybe it’s not such a bad belief.”

The film positions Nira as a radical warrior, fighting for art and beauty in a world more concerned with the shallow and prosaic. It may seem like an extreme stance on her part, but as we watch Yoav’s nanny use his gift for her gain and his father decry the art of poetry, it becomes easier for us to understand Nira’s desire to strike back at the culture. Yoav’s father, a wealthy restauranteur, explicitly tells Nira not to encourage the child’s gift, but she refuses to contribute to a society that will not stop to recognize greatness when confronted with it.

“She’s aiming not only to save this kid, not only to save herself, not only to save this kid’s words but in a way to change the course of history,” said Lapid. “She aims to change the universe in the way she declares war against what most of us see as triviality, as banality. She claims a war against the man who’s sitting right now in front of his TV watching a quite-stupid TV show, even if this man is her husband.”

Adding another layer to the proceedings, however, is Yoav himself. He is not some perspicacious movie child like other preternaturally gifted kids in lesser films. He is a child – shy, uncoordinated, and simple but paradoxically capable of producing intensely beautiful words of poetry. It is this paradox that intrigues Nira, said Lapid. It is a mystery at the center of the film that she must follow through to its end, whether it leads to her destruction or redemption.

“At a certain moment, we understood there is something in this age, 5 years old, that combines huge, verbal capacity – very powerful imagination on one hand – and something very basic in the physical gestures,” said Lapid. “That’s why, for example, you can see the kid doing his ritual, his poetic ritual, walking from left to right, right to left, reciting sometimes very complicated words, and almost falling while he’s walking because there’s something basic about him. There was a moment when I think we understood that this is the essence because the kid is a contradiction.”

If Lapid’s script makes this point, then his direction and the jaw-dropping camerawork of cinematographer Shai Goldman drive the point home. Whole scenes will play out from Nira or Yoav’s point of view before the audience even realizes it is looking through the eyes of one of the characters. There are no boundaries between the camera and the action, forcing viewers to become a part of the story but depriving them of any agency, much like the children in Nira’s class.

“If I decide to make a film called The Kindergarten Teacher, which takes place in a kindergarten and there are kids and that talks in a way also about childhood and adults, childhood … should be present on the screen,” said Lapid. “For me, present on the screen means that it’s like a child. The characters on the screen will have their own independent way of thinking, while the camera will have different way of thinking, my way of thinking.

“In part of the film, there will be sometimes a collision between the camera and the characters, between the borders of the frame and the character in the middle of the frame. For example, they don’t keep distance from the camera. They don’t respect the autonomy, the independence of the camera. They don’t respect the objectivity of the camera. They force the camera to be subjective, to take a position, so in a way, it’s a combination between order and concept and arbitrary things and freedom.”

The clash between order and freedom drives much of The Kindergarten Teacher and gives it power. Poetry is no parent’s idea of a stable career path, least of all Yoav’s father, but must that be a consideration? In Yoav’s words, Nira sees beauty, freedom, and expression, and she determines to encourage and nurture these traits. The society she lives in would rather she not. If she cannot transcend, she will be crushed, leaving us still with the question: If not the devotion and dedication of someone like Nira, what do we really want from our teachers?