Bernie is about one thing: the pleasures and eccentricities of small-town life. Is it a great film? It doesn’t matter. I can guarantee you’ll watch it again in the years ahead — because you enjoy every single minute. If it falls down in one way, it sometimes felt as if director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Before Sunset, School of Rock) veered a little too much toward mocking small-town types, as if the point was less to document the delights of that life than to collect those funny-looking butterflies and put them in a glossy case for big-city folk to look at.

I’ve been to this restaurant (in Bastrop, TX). The banana pudding is excellent. And yes, the entire place is lined with wood paneling and taxidermied animal heads.

Bernie tells the real-life story of assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a sweet and closeted gay man who’s pretty much the most beloved man in Carthage, TX. His cosmetic work preparing the recently deceased for their open-casket funerals is loving, careful, flattering. He sings like a bird in the church choir and has a way with all the L.O.L.s (little old ladies). He helps people with their taxes and directs (and stars in) all the musicals at the community theater. When he befriends the meanest and richest woman in town, Margie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), he does so because he’s such a people person. Margie is so entranced by his kindness and attention that she falls a little bit in love. And then she turns mean and possessive.

Why is he so loyal to her? Because he’s a really nice man, and because he’s trapped by the golden handcuffs of her wealth, which pays for an awful lot of expensive travel and pedicures.

My favorite part of the film isn’t the terrific acting by Black and MacLaine — both of whom are great — but the interviews with real-life Carthage residents who provide all the social context, character analysis, gossip, and local color about life in a town of less than 7,000 people. Perched on porches, or in feed warehouses and cafés, the locals offer up commentary that propels the narrative forward and reminds you where the story’s going.

At some point Bernie cracks after Margie berates him one too many times. He shoots her four times in the back with an armadillo gun, hides her body in a box freezer, and proceeds to spend a whole lot of her money helping out everyone he can.

These interviews (and the ways they’re staged) are just great — using local Texasisms and strong accents that flow so fast & furious that you’ll try to remember them for future use. Explaining how mean Margie was, one woman says, “Her nose was so high up she would drown in a rainstorm.” Another offers: “Honey, there were people in this town who’d have shot her for $5.” Describing his distrust of the bombastic, self-promoting local district attorney, one resident says, “I wouldn’t let him work on my car.” Best of all is the tirade spit out by one guy, during the film’s final credits, about the rubes who live in the next town over. Or the denial by another woman that Bernie possibly could have been gay: “Our Lord always wore sandals and never got married and had 12 male disciples … and nobody ever called them queer.”

But sometimes these interviews just feel, well, a little rehearsed — as if Linklater had seen some TV footage or an in-print interview with this resident, and asked them to reprise it for the film. Maybe it’s because I loved this commentary so much that those moments when it feels practiced detracted from my enjoyment so much.

Don’t get me wrong: it doesn’t ruin the film by any means. When Bernie enters regular rotation on one of those basic-cable channels, I’ll tune in every time. It’s a film made by someone who loves those accents, those Texasisms, those eccentric faces who hold forth with astute summaries of their neighbors’ characters.

But on those occasions when the film starts to feel as if Linklater had made it so his big-city friends could get a big guffaw out of those over-decorated dens with endless taxidermied animal heads … well, let’s just say, in the parlance of the state, that dog won’t hunt. 

And that’s my only objection.

Here’s the thing about teen films that I realized after seeing Easy A last year: there seems to be an unwritten rule that they be perverse. There always seems to be more eccentricity, more sex, more overwrought drama, more whipsmart dialogue, and more true love in teen films than in any actual high school. I’ve always loved this about this genre — who doesn’t want to imagine a world like that in Say Anything, in which John Cusack might be best friends with Lili Taylor, who gets drunk at parties and plays awful, maudlin songs about her ex on the guitar?

But after watching The Myth of the American Sleepover, I feel there’s a sorry predictability, even a pathetic idealism to all that. This movie, in contrast, feels real. I was blown away by its rejection of perversity. This movie, made by first-time director David Robert Mitchell, is kind of perfect.It’s structured like American Graffiti (1973) and Dazed and Confused (1993): it’s an ensemble tale of teenagers during one single night at the end of the summer, roaming the generic suburban streets of Detroit. Some are searching for idealized love; some for a kind of excitement that’ll re-chart their lives, their identities. And like those two other films, which are set in the 1950s and 1970s, respectively, this one seems to be set in some kind of nonspecific past during which none of the teens is distracted by cell phones, texting, and computers. They wander those leafy streets by foot, by bike, and sometimes in someone else’s car … in fact, without all the familiar teen dating technologies, the film almost seems nostalgic, even as it’s paced with great emo songs of our own time (including a song by Beirut called Elephant Gun that I’ve got to get).

It’s true that one of the film’s major themes is innocence and experience — familiar ground for fans of the teen film genre. Yet somehow each one of the kids make choices that surprise you. Those choices are especially refreshing because the girls in the film are so beautifully rendered and so elegantly fleshed out by these young actors.

Including the sweet-faced Maggie (Claire Sloma), whose facial piercings beg you to look past the baby fat and see her as a risk-taker. She drags her geeky, bespeckled friend Emma with her all over town as she tries desperately to find a bit of sexual excitement before their freshman year begins. But when she actually spends a little time with that handsome, older lifeguard from the pool, he says something surprising. “They trick you into giving up your childhood for all these promises of adventure,” he says thoughtfully. “By the time you realize what you’ve lost, it’s too late.” I found this film expressive of the kind of yearning I actually felt as a teen. Real teenagerhood is just like this — in love with the wrong people, yearning for the unknown for reasons you don’t understand, wanting to be someone different than you are, experiencing mini-moments of clarity, feeling awkward and doing stupid things you regret, even as you have that one thing you’re good at. Real teens aren’t just barreling forward toward adult joys and disappointments; they’re also pulled backward to innocence and childhood. As the lifeguard articulates, they feel acutely their own in-betweenness. Honestly, this is one of my favorite movies of 2011 — filed alongside the similarly sweet and magical filmic experiences like Midnight in Paris or Beginners or the wonderfully twisted A Somewhat Gentle Man.

Those shots of Maggie and Emma riding their bikes in the summer twilight, with the strains of Elephant Gun as their soundtrack — oh, how it makes me yearn. And I never feel nostalgic for my teenage years. What an accomplishment to have taken the teen film and figured out how to rewrite it. Readers, please: get it now while it’s streaming on Netflix.

Palate cleanser

10 April 2011

I have much more to say about the hullabaloo over funny women lately (the new Tina Fey book, the New Yorker essay about Anna Faris, and on and on) but mostly I’ve been inspired by the Self-Styled Siren and Glenn Kenny to post a palate cleanser. But unlike those esteemed critics’ choices, mine’s lowbrow: from Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, the brilliant Parker Posey as the high school senior all too eager to torture the new freshmen girls — mastering both physical and verbal humor.

Posey’s only one small part of this amazing ensemble cast (Matthew McConaughey has never been better, and he keeps his shirt on for the entire film!) but I wish she were more recognized for her genius. In fact, I want to watch this film all over again.

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