7 May 2012
She used to be friends with them, a long time ago, but they hardly think of her lately except to hurl a couple of those old accusations at her. It all fell apart when Veronica Mars’ best friend was murdered. Not long after, Veronica lost her place among the anointed super-rich of Neptune and she went back to being just another lower-middle-class kid – one of many who live in the shadow of (or who provide services to) those extravagantly arrogant one-percenters.
The fact that she’s had a foot on either side of that fence makes her the perfect observer of both worlds. Veronica is cynical, sure, but she’s still capable of being shocked by the depths of sordid ugliness she witnesses in her crepuscular investigations. Moving back and forth between those different worlds of social rank – and between the brilliant SoCal daylight and its nighttime neon crappiness — makes her a liminal figure, prickly and slightly nostalgic about the naïf she used to be, about the love she used to feel for her lock-jawed, troubled ex-boyfriend, Duncan Kane, and her murdered best friend (Duncan’s sister) Lilly.
What’s not to love about Veronica Mars, at least seasons 1 and 2? Its skewering of the 1%, the diminutive Kristen Bell in the lead role (and the excellent Enrico Colantoni as her gumshoe father, an actor who raises the quality of every scene), the wisecracking dialogue. But what I love best is the cross-cutting of genres between film noir with the high school teen dramedy. Veronica is a modern-day Sam Spade/ Philip Marlowe, whose hard nose is pretty hard, yet still allows for a few sensitive spots where she can still be offended, hurt, disgusted, or maybe swept off her feet. (I maintain that Rian Johnson’s Brick, which won the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, must’ve been indebted to Veronica Mars as an influence.)
It’s those California noir night scenes I love best – the ones in which she sits in her crappy car on a stakeout, or in her father’s private detective office with the glow of a computer screen. The cinematographer never missed an opportunity to give us more of that vivid noir texture: the nighttime ripples of an apartment-building swimming pool, the shadows and grime of the Camelot Motel under the harsh glow of streetlights. Those places where she’s alone and lets the melancholy move in, like coastal fog. Where she’s not performing those publicly-acceptable versions of herself. Where she’s allowed to think.
It’s such a good emotional escape — to hunt down one or two of those episodes at TheWB.com (despite all the ads; sorry ’bout that) and let yourself dive in. It’s a kind of noir you don’t get to see enough of, and which hits a wide range of pleasure centers. Why don’t any other teen shows opt for noir rather than melodrama?
If you had grown up in a rural town in the 1980s like I did, you’d have found teen sex comedies to be a rich fantasy world. Molly Ringwald, John Cusack, Winona Ryder … their characters were all cuter, funnier, and more apt to experience wacky hijinks in those suburban locales than anything us rural kids could imagine. It helped us fantasize that high school life could be a lot more exciting than it was. The only thing we had in common was that those movie characters all seemed to find their high schools boring, too. It was reassuring
This background gave me a special appreciation for Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s characters in her début narrative feature Turn Me On, Dammit! (Få meg på, for faen; she has previously made documentaries). At least in my town one or two of us had cars, so we could drive around. 15-yr-old Alma (Helene Bergsholm, looking a bit wicked in the photo above) and her friends, in contrast, are limited to the bus. Her mother works at the turnip factory. Otherwise, the boredom, limited boyfriend material, and stultified circles of girls … yup.
Crucial detail: Alma is horny. Really horny.
Most teen sex comedies mess around with the sex/love spectrum. Alma alone covers all those octaves, with special skill for sheer hormones. She dials the phone sex service Wild Wet Dreams on such a regular basis, racking up such a phone bill, that her favorite telephone operator there calls her with a monthly free bonus call. She’s willing to fantasize about virtually anyone, including one of her friend’s fathers. But mostly she fantasizes about her neighbor Artur (Matias Myren), daydreams more tender and romantic than her usual fare.
So imagine Alma’s delight when they attend one of those dismal dances at the youth center and, in a private moment, Artur takes his woody out of his pants and pokes her leg with it. “Artur poked me with his dick,” she announces excitedly to her friends Saralou and Ingrid when they’re back inside. Artur denies it, and soon the entire school shuns her as Pikke-Alma (Dick-Alma).
What all of this amounts to is a very different kind of teen sex comedy. Rather than wacky and exaggerated like the 1980s genre I know so well, it’s quiet and subdued. The subject that motivates the film is the simple fact of Alma’s horniness, but that fact never amounts to a real problem (except that it places a wall between her and her mother). If you get right down to it, I think the film’s real problem is the sense that rural kids feel confined and restricted by their isolated locale.
The film quietly contrasts Alma’s horniness with her poker-faced friend Saralou, who fears getting trapped in their awful tiny town by a baby or a husband. Instead (somewhat delightfully) Saralou wants to go to Texas to fight the death penalty . There’s also the usual glimpse of a world beyond: a friend’s older sister, Maria, who’s so happy at college in Oslo that she cuts short all her visits home.
Perhaps you can intuit from this that the stakes are low in Turn Me On, Dammit! but that doesn’t mean you won’t find it disarming and sweet. Even after all those years I still find teenagers mooning over one another to be a worthy object of my gaze for 90 minutes — and Systad Jacobsen’s characters are more sweet and believable than most. Especially when, on the bus home, they pass the road sign announcing that they’re entering their little nowhere town — at which point each of the teenagers flips it off. No wonder Alma goes home and dials up Wild Wet Dreams; isn’t masturbating, after all, the very best possible solution to rural boredom?
13 January 2012
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.