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.
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.