Lady Bird (US, 2017)

Teen conventions

I’m getting slightly worried about my mental health as once again I’m finding my judgement on a film in the first few shots to be correct. Could it be that I’m allowing my first impressions to dominate the rest of the film? If my response is negative in the first 60 seconds should I leave the screening and ask for my money back? Lady Bird was trailing plaudits and promised a female perspective, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, so I was anticipating a good experience but…

I don’t believe Lady Bird is a bad film, unlike Phantom Thread, but it struggled to engage me in its modest 90 minute length. I’m struggling to understand why: it’s not the performances; the 22-year-old Saoirse Ronan is a convincing teenager. Gerwig’s direction is fine as is the script. Maybe it’s the autobiographical element; I just didn’t find the life portrayed as interesting. It’s not the female perspective that’s off-putting as I enjoyed The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

On the plus side it’s good to see Gerwig reaping success both in terms of awards and box office. It is the type of small film, budgeted at $10m, that struggles to get a hearing amongst the behemoths of Hollywood that absorb most budgets and screens. Parlaying $10m into $68m and counting worldwide is decent business and hopefully will encourage independent producers and audiences for small films.

 

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl (US, 2015)

Empowering the twisted sister

FilmFour, in the UK, are to be congratulated for putting on a season of female-directed films to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of (limited) votes for women. Marielle Heller directed and adapted Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel; she’d previously adapted it for stage and appeared in the titular role played in the film by British actor, Bel Powley.

This is an excellent test case study to investigate what a female perspective can bring because the narrative shows a 15-year-old seducing her mum’s boyfriend; in the wrong hands this would not get beyond ‘creepy’. Whilst there’s plenty of female nudity it is motivated by the narrative and Minnie’s issues with her body; the female direction means it doesn’t feel exploitative. (This is not to say that a female director cannot make a misogynist film or necessarily has to deal with ‘female’ issues). However, by ensuring the film is Minnie’s narrative, she gives us a commentary on her feeling via tape recordings and in dialogue with animated characters who appear from her imagination, we can feel confident that this is a female perspective.

Although set over 40 years ago in 1976, the issues of female anxiety about being validated only through being attractive haven’t changed. Heller captures the post-hippy, pre punk ambience very well reminding us it was a time of potential revolution. There had seemed to be a genuine possibility of change for the better in the post-Vietnam era. Reagan’s election at the end of the decade nailed that particular coffin.

Kristin Wiig plays Minnie’s mixed-up mother: she tells her daughter to get a boyfriend and then states that’s not a ‘feminist thing to say’. The portrayal of her is quite reactionary in that she is something of a hypocritical wastrel: the ‘hippies as hypocrites’ trope, most notoriously seen in Forrest Gump (1994), has some mileage but too often is used simply to dis counter culture. However, I guess the novel is autobiographical and Phoebe’s mum was just like that.

Satisfyingly Minnie becomes increasingly empowered through her experiences whilst the boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård) is shown for what he is. Gratifyingly Heller hasn’t had to wait too long for her second feature: Can You Ever Forgive Me?, starring Melissa McCarthy, is due later this year.

Girlhood (Bande de filles, France, 2014)

Group therapy

Whilst youth is hardly overlooked in cinema, female protagonists are a minority and if the colour of their skin fails to be white, then western cinema seems barely interested. Hence Girlhood is already a necessary watch given its focus on this double-minority. It’s also important, such is the burden of representation on films that focus on diversity, that they do not misrepresent. Given the writer-director is Céline Sciamma, who’s white and not from the banlieue setting, there might have been a question of authenticity. However, her first feature Water Lilies (Naissance des pieuvres, France, 2007), was also a (minority-gay) girls’ coming of age tale; her next film Tomboy (France, 2011) – which I haven’t seen – similarly focused on teenagers. The fact the film is more about being poor (financially and in education) and female than about ethnicity is appropriate as class and gender, as categories, can be at least as important than race .

That said, I’m not sure why the film didn’t grab me as much as I expected. It’s superbly done with convincing performances but maybe I wasn’t in the mood. Newcomer Karidja Touré, as Marieme, is particularly engaging as she forges her own identity through friendship under the shadow of patriarchy and an uncaring system. I found it difficult to shake La Haine (France, 1995) out of my head – a very different film from the same milieu – which is unfair to Girlhood as it wasn’t trying to be a ‘female’ version of the earlier classic.

Certainly a film worth seeing.

We Are the Best! (Vi är bäst!, Sweden, 2013)

They are!

They are!

Swede Moodysson’s last two films, Container (2005) and Mammoth (2009), both passed me by but I was mightily impressed by three of his first for directorial efforts. I was out of synch with most critics’ reaction to Together (2000), but loved his debut Show Me Love (aka Fucking Amal, 1998). His next films explored sex trafficking Lila 4-Ever (2002) and pornography, A Hole in My Heart (2004); both were suitably gruelling. He’s back on his debut’s territory with We Are the Best!, showing what a brilliant director of children he is, in this ‘coming of age’ pic about young girls in the early ’80s.

I’m struggling to think of the last film where I felt I was smiling for much of the running time. It’s not a comedy but the portrayal of the three friends is so affecting, and the characters’ rebellion so attractive, that there’s is just loads to like. The three debutants excel in their misfit roles and the narrative meanders nicely through several months when they attempt to form a punk band. They do this to annoy annoying lads and, of course, they cannot play any instruments (at least until the third, Hedvig, joins them).

The  ‘meandering’ of the narrative is perfect for it allows the gentle portrayal to unfold at a perfect pace. Even the narrative drive, to form a band, is fairly inconsequential. It is a snapshot of these girls lives in 1982 and is based on Coco Moodysson’s (wife of Lukas) graphic novel and this is no doubt where the film’s authenticity lies.

The film’s opening weekend box office was disappointing in the UK. Why?! Treat yourself to something different, and rewarding, before it disappears.

Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, Sweden, 2008)

Knowing your neighbour

Knowing your neighbour

It’s a while since an ‘arthouse’ film has received such universal praise (covers on Electric Sheep and Little White Lies) and it’s a relief that it lives up to its reputation. The imdb rating also indicates high audience satisfaction so it is a film that, simply, must be seen. It is a vampire movie, without knowledge of the  genre audiences would be puzzled as it assumes we know the generic tropes. The only one missing, I think, is using a crucifix to ‘fight off’ the beast. Except the vampire is not a beast but someone else who you don’t really know so, if you let them into your lives/hearts, you need to make sure you let the right one in.

The title refers to the ‘fact’ that vampires need to be invited across the threshold of your home. Without wanting to spoil the narrative point, there is a brilliant reversal of this in the film. There is much that is brilliant: the portrayal of a disturbed 12 year old lad who’s bullied; the wintry setting; the uncanny representation of the vampire Eli. The first time she appears, dressed for indoors but outside in the freezing cold, director Tomas Alfredson manages to make her look normal and spooky.

Much of the film is a teen pic, focusing on the difficult ‘coming of age’ of Oskar however, on a few occasions the vampire movie erupts onto the screen; particularly in its hallucinatory finale. It is a film that lives with you for several hours afterwards.

Paranoid Park (France-US, 2007)

They are not out to get us

They are not out to get us

I found it difficult to care for the characters in this film, usually a fatal problem for a movie unless it’s a popcorn roller-coaster pic. It’s Gus van Sant’s use of non-professionals, ranging for okay to terrible, that alienated me from the film; this isn’t a problem in itself as he did the same in the brilliant Elephant (2003). Chris Doyle’s cinematography is, as usual, fabulous and though Li Rain’s skateboarding camerawork is impressive, I got bored of it rapidly; clearly another problem for me.

I’m not sure what the point was of framing the ‘murder mystery’ narrative with the protagonist’s retelling. It seemed as if it were going to be some postmodern ‘cleverness’ but, if it was, I didn’t get it.

Show Me Love (Fucking Amal, Denmark-Sweden, 1998)

Love in a cold climate

Love in a cold climate

Director: Lukas Moodysson
Screenplay: Lukas Moodysson
Editors: Michal Leszczylowski & Bernhard Winkler
Music Mixer: Morten Holm
Producers: Lars Jonsson
Cinematographer: Ulf Brantas
Cast: Alexandra Dahlstrom, Rebecca Lijeberg, Erica Carlson & Mathias Rust

Naturalism began in the theatre as a form that tried to erase the obvious contrivance of the medium by constructing the ‘fourth wall’ and so rendering the audience invisible to the players. In addition, actors worked at becoming the characters they played, rather than representing them, and the narratives focused on slices ordinary people’s life.

The ‘fourth’ wall of cinema – in effect, the camera – has always been erased in ‘classical’ film style. To take this a step further naturalistic cinema usually adopts a documentary style, or approach, to filming. The use of handheld camera connotes realism, the soundtrack may be mixed to muffle some dialogue and the characters may not even be played by actors. Show Me Love is a teen pic that magnifies the banality of everyday life in small town Sweden with a lesbian ‘coming of age’ drama. A largely amateur cast play out everyday life:

The inaction reaches fever pitch: Agnes waits for a phone call; Elin abandons a party to hang off a motorway bridge spitting on passing traffic. (Spencer, 2000, p. 52c)

The very banality of the characters’ lives helps signify the film as realist because we are used to seeing glamorous or exciting lives represented in mainstream cinema. The (mildly) controversial subject matter (the degree of shock, if any, is likely to be determined by age and background) of the lesbian love story is typical of Naturalism. In the 19th century, women’s sexual feelings, sexually transmitted diseases and poverty were likely subjects for the form.

Despite its realist credentials Show Me Love is inevitably as constructed as any Hollywood fantasy. The only difference between this small budget Swedish film and, say Spider-Man (2002), which can also be seen as a teen pic, is the codes and conventions it uses.

The fact that, to most audiences in Britain, the film is showing us everyday life in a country they have never visited, and doesn’t get much coverage in the media, reinforces the sense of realism as the film takes on an ethnographic function. We may conclude, having seen the film, that young people are pretty much the same in Sweden.

Naturalism in theatre and literature had a fatalistic element, Show Me Love, however, portrays characters who transcend their social circumstance. The representation of young people is generally sympathetic and homosexuality is shown to be simply a sexuality and only a problem because of entrenched attitudes. A brief surf on the internet revealed a number of sites dedicated to the film (check out links on my site) suggesting that many young people found the film profoundly moving through their identification with the characters.

Moodysson’s follow up Together (Tillsammans, 2000) – using a similarly realistic style – poked gentle fun at a 1970s hippy commune and his most recent feature, Lilja 4-ever (2002), has received critical plaudits in the few places it has been released to date. He is obviously a talent to watch.

Liese Spencer (2000) ‘Show Me Love/Fucking Amal’ Sight and Sound vol.10, No. 3