Tag Archives: adolescence

20th Century Women (2017): punk, feminism and pre-Reagan politics in 1979 California

Santa Barbara, 1979. The year of the Iranian revolution, the energy crisis, the beginning of the never-ending antagonisms between the West and the Middle East, and the beginning of an end of Detroit’s auto industry.

A car that dramatically bursts into flames in the opening scene symbolically represents an end to the industrial force that was once the USA, and on remains of which will soon emerge the new and irreversibly destructive neoliberal politics of Ronald Reagan. However, as this is not a film about American politics, the symbolism of the burning car hides two separate meanings. A car, universal symbol of masculine society and patriarchy, that is slowly disappearing in burning flames in the film’s opening shot, is also indicating an absence of a fatherly figure in our 15-years old protagonist’s life. “This was my husband’s Ford Galaxy,” explains Dorothea, Jamie’s enigmatic mother in a voice-over narration that is constantly reappearing throughout the film, helping us understand the unusual relationship between this chain-smoking single mother who is uncompromisingly bending all existing social “rules” of gender, sexual identity and nuclear family, and her rebellious teenage son who is just beginning to learn about life, love and late 70’s punk scene.

Dorothea (Annetre Bening) is an elderly mother who grew up with the music of Cole Porter and films of Humphrey Bogart during the Great Depression, and she finds herself disconnected from her adolescent son, whose teenage problems, music preferences and a subculture he identifies himself with, are too far away from what her generation could ever fully comprehend. This leads her to a conclusion that the generational gap between the two of them is far too big for her alone to be able to raise him. She turns for help to her tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig, charming as always) and to Jamie’s platonic love Julie (Elle Fanning), both of whom spend most of the days hanging out in Dorothea’s Victorian villa. Abbie, who draws most of her artistic inspiration from the intangible persona of David Bowie, is an aspiring photographer and a feminist who starts introducing Jamie to the vibrant life of underground punk scene, seduction of women and female sexuality as described in a cult feminist work, Our Bodies, Ourselves. Julie, although merely 16 years old, also has an incredible depth to her – she, just as Abbie, transcends all the stereotypes of women who strive towards stability, marriage, family and security. The two of them, together with Dorothea, form a unique matriarchy in which all taboos of what is an appropriate conversation to have at the dinner table, disappear: women’s sexuality, pregnancy tests, contraception, orgasms and giving birth is just a few of the topics that this film shamelessly touches upon. But where Mills, even if just for a second, becomes truly controversial at breaking the social taboos concentrated around women’s biological processes, is with Abbie’s monologue about (and a tribute to) menstruation – to something that’s absolutely natural, and yet is rarely talked about (let alone portrayed in the media, as recent controversy over Instagram picture showed), causing women to hide all the signs of menstruating, as if it is something disgusting and shameful.

Mike Mills broke into the film scene with his debut indie Thumbsucker in 2005. However, it wasn’t until his second feature, Beginners, that his visual style and with personal memories filled narrative voice fully came into being. 20th Century Women, his third feature, is undoubtedly the most logical follow-up to his previous film, as they perfectly complement each other. However, if he was trying to depict (and in the process of that, understand) his father’s coming out as a gay man at the age of 75 in the Beginners, he now focuses on the other parental half – his mother. It goes without saying that this is another deeply personal film, filled with real-life events and situations, through which Mills somewhat therapeutically analyses an enigmatic personality of his late mother, all while paying a tribute to her indescribable complexity, eccentricity and unquestionable uniqueness.

What Mills manages to bring to the screen is a wonderful story about motherhood and women’s friendship, revolving around three incredibly complex and interesting female characters. However, what he also creates with this timeless tribute to strong and empowering women that shaped his life, is a unique time capsule of what life was like in 1979.

“They don’t know this is the end of punk. They don’t know that Reagan’s coming,” Dorothea says at one point in a voice-over narration. But what they don’t know is that world as they know it will soon forever change with destructive neoliberal politics, a complete destruction of welfare state, endless austerity, and never-ending attacks on women’s (reproductive) rights.

The Edge of Seventeen (2016): teenage angst movie of the decade

The Edge of Seventeen seemed to have appeared out of nowhere when it premièred at last year’s TIFF, but it wasn’t long before it won over both critics and regular audiences alike. Still, with years of disappointment under the belt when it came to teen movies, I remained sceptical. These past years were overflown with either problematic, body shaming teen comedies such as The Duff, Glee spin-offs (Pitch Perfect) or adolescent dramas filled with overly eloquent and grown up characters (Paper Towns) that were nowhere near to what real teenagers are supposed to sound like, let alone go through. It was clear – the golden days of John Hughes’s teen movies were over and while there were some films over the years that somehow did the genre justice, none of them ever managed to reach the greatness and timelessness of the ultimate teen classic, The Breakfast Club (1985). The genre seemed exhausted and uninspired, with one film after another falling into a trap of good girl vs. bad girl logic, vicious catfights and “who is dating who” premises. And then along came The Edge of Seventeen – a fascinating directorial debut of Kelly Fremon Craig who depicts teenage angst and overall agony of adolescence with such accuracy that it instantly catapulted me back to my dreadful high school experience – even though it’s been almost a decade since I left those horrible, painful and confusing years behind.

Nadine (portrayed by Hailee Steinfeld who excels in the role) is a tomboyish, unpopular and self-absorbed seventeen-year-old who doesn’t quite belong and is yet to find her place under the sun. She doesn’t get along with her peers, nor does she find any refuge at home where she stubbornly fights with her widowed mother whenever she’s not shamelessly hating on her perfect and popular brother. The only person who gets to see the insecure, imperfect but charming Nadine that hides under the carefully constructed façade of uncompromising sarcasm and biting humour with which she keeps everyone else at bay, is her best (and only) friend Krista. That is at least until Krista starts to date Nadine’s brother. Already feeling misunderstood by the entire generation of “mouth-breathers who get a seizure if you take their phone away” and her family, she now starts to isolate herself even more, using sharp sarcasm to protect herself from the world around and self-sabotagingly hurting everyone around  – only to end up getting hurt the most herself.

Where this film really hits the right note is that it avoids going into a direction of high-school hardships and injustices. Nadine’s classmates are not treating her badly and she is never a victim of any kind of social exclusion. It is she herself that isolates her by rejecting the company of everyone around, looking down on her peers and on all they are supposed to represent. She feels like an old soul, wiser and maturer than anyone else around, but it is all just an act and it is sometimes hard to say if even she herself believes in her supposed superiority. She is simply arrogant (as most teenagers are) and deeply insecure, battling her own demons every step of the way. There hasn’t been quite enough films that would effectively explore the idea of how the biggest enemy of an adolescent girl is usually no one else but herself – but The Edge of Seventeen does just that. No matter what is her external situation, whether she runs with the cool crowd or is completely unknown to people at her school, being a teenage girl is exhausting and horrifying, which makes it quite easy for us to sometimes get overwhelmed by our mere existence. Self-doubt and self-questioning are with us every second of the day, no matter how we pretend to look like we have it all figured out, and while this may be what every youngster goes through, there is also constant observation, evaluation and judgement of others that is mostly reserved for girls – and that we at some point start to project onto ourselves. Or as John Berger smartly put it: “A woman is always accompanied, even when quite alone, by her own image of herself. From earliest childhood she is taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.” And indeed this is exactly what Nadine goes through and what causes her so much pain, even though she uses her brother dating her best friend as a catalyst for her angsty outbursts:

You know, ever since we were little, I would get this feeling like… Like I’m floating outside of my body, looking down at myself… And I hate what I see… How I’m acting, the way I sound. And I don’t know how to change it. And I’m so scared… That the feeling is never gonna go away.

What makes this character so authentic and relatable is her constant distress and inherent loneliness. Most of us went through a time when we felt completely and utterly alone, when we believed that nobody could possibly understand what we are feeling, what we are going through. And no party, no amount of alcohol, no sleepover with our best friend could make us feel better and fill the utter emptiness and despair that was slowly taking control of our body. Indeed, Nadine is sinking into a depression (just another thing that hit close to home for me, having been battling depression for a better part of high school myself), but the film smartly avoids lingering on her sad, distressed face or focusing on melancholy afternoons of her sinking into self-hating and damaging thoughts. The direction instead remains vibrant throughout the entire film, bringing to light just how invisible depression is to the world and people around us and how hard it sometimes is for us to get to terms with it; admitting to ourselves that it is really our negative mindset and outlook on life that is the cause of our problems and not our sibling dating the “wrong” person.

But even though there is a lot of depth and sadness running through the film, The Edge of Seventeen ultimately comes across as a thoroughly enjoyable and funny cinematic experience. This is mostly due to fantastic comedic chemistry between Nadine and her grumpy history teacher (Woody Harrelson) who seems to be the only one capable of decent comebacks to her sarcastic attacks and who ultimately becomes the only person she trusts and whom she seeks out when in need.

Although it can’t quite compare to the provocative brilliance of last year’s teen indie, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Edge of Seventeen, despite being a mainstream film, ends up being the best teenage angst movie that the past decade had to offer. And why it will probably appeal to generations to come with its timeless wisdom and relatability, is probably most evident in an emotional and cathartic ending when during final confrontation between Nadine and her brother, she finally realizes that she is far from being the only person whose life is filled with problems and who sometimes doesn’t know how to cope with everything that life throws at her. It is a definable moment – one that everyone of us had to go through – when she has to let go of her egotism, realizing that she is just one of many people in the world who feels trapped, burdened and inadequate. And indeed, this feeling may never go away, but as Nadine’s mother would say: “Everyone’s just as miserable and empty, they’re just better at pretending.”

The Basics:
Directed by: Kelly Fremon Craig
Written by: Kelly Fremon Craig
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, Woody Harrelson
Running Time: 104 minutes
Year: 2016
Rating: 8

Paper Towns (2015): teenage troubles and the (de)construction of Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Whatever happened to American teenagers? Where are all the fun, full of life, sometimes mean and self-obsessed, rebellious, anarchistic adolescents? Where are the teenagers of Dazed and Confused, The Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Animal House? Where are the teenagers who question authority, live their lives to the fullest and enjoy getting into trouble? These days of teenage angst seem to be over, since we now live in an era of John Green’s well-read, well-behaved, nerdy high school youngsters.

His latest creation, Paper Towns, is focused on a group of unbelievably eloquent and articulate teenagers, at the centre of which is Quentin (Nat Wolff). He is an introverted, nerdy kind of guy who gets along with his parents, has good grades and has his whole life, his whole future precisely planned out. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against introverted nerds – hell, I am one of them – but there is nothing, absolutely nothing about this guy to like. He doesn’t have any hobbies or interests in his life – with the exception of obsessing over the girl living next door, the mysterious Margo (Cara Delevingne), who hasn’t talked to him in 9 years. He skulks in his room, watches her from his window (creepy much?) and fantasizes about what’s she’s like.

But where this story really misses a step is with the depiction of Margo’s character. For she is yet another portrayal of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (a “bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imagination of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures”). And while I don’t doubt that Green’s true intention was to decipher this magical creature, I do not believe he was anywhere near successful at this – on the contrary, he produced the very thing he intended to criticise.

When after 9 years of quiet obsession over the girl next door, the wild, mysterious, adventurous, popular Margo shows at Quentin’s bedroom window and demands that he joins her on her silly and vengeful adventure, he for the first time ever lets his guard down and chooses to live a little. But just as he lets some excitement, fun and rebelliousness into his life, Margo disappears. And because he is as self-centred as teenagers come, he starts to believe that her spending time with him on the night of her disappearance was some kind of message; she wants him to find her! He becomes obsessed with this idea – so much that he is suddenly prepared to skip school, make a road trip across the country and leaving his future plans, his routine behind. Because the love of his life, his miracle (as he calls her) disappeared – and it’s on him, a guy, to save her.

The thing that happens after he finds her is quite possibly the only thing in this film that made some sense – for she is genuinely surprised, a bit creeped out even, that he tracked her down. And she is even more taken aback when he decides to profess his love to her. “But you don’t even know me! I don’t even know me…” Which leads our dear Quentin to a completely mind-blowing revelation:

The fundamental mistake I had always made—and that she had, in fairness, always led me to make—was this: Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.

I mean, really? To end a story with such a message is just pathetic – if anything, the story should begin with it. Do we really need a whole book (as well as a film) to explain to teenagers that girls are not some magical creatures? That they’re no less complex, no less troubled, no less awkward than guys? And if we really need books and movies that decipher our magical characteristics, why not tell the story from Margo’s perspective? Why do we need to watch a lifeless teenager obsess over the troubled popular girl if we could instead be introduced to her troubles up-close? If we could be let into her world, get introduced to her problems, frustrations, her aspirations?

Her character is by far the most interesting in this film, mostly due to the fact that she’s the only one who possesses at least a bit of teenage angst, who rebels against her parents and against the boring, privileged suburban life they live, who doesn’t yet know who she is or who she wants to become, who struggles to get her life on tracks and who is also fiercely independent and isn’t afraid to take action when someone hurts her feelings. She is how I remember being a teenager was – but she hardly gets any screen time. And when she finally reappears and gets her big finale, Green decides to ruin the edgy character he created – and with it, his whole deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Girl. Why does Margo, after she is (rightfully!) creeped out by Quentin’s stalker tendencies and after she ridicules him for the fact that he believes he loves a girl he barely knows, asks him to stay with her? Why does she kiss him, why does she wants her happy ending?

Even though Cara Delevingne does a surprisingly good job at portraying Margo, such a small role just isn’t enough to carry a whole movie through. And while I otherwise like Wolff, he really hadn’t had enough to work with here, since his character was a male equivalent to Kristen Stewart’s Bella Swan. What bothered me the most, however, was a poorly constructed story that would probably work much better with Margo at the centre.

The Basics:
Directed by: Jake Schreier
Written by: Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (adaptation of John Green’s novel)
Starring: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith
Running Time: 109 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 2