Tag Archives: coming of age

Let Him Be a Basketball Player (2017)

Released just a week before Slovenia unexpectedly won EuroBasket championship, this film could hardly ever dream of a better timing. It was a dream come true for their already strong PR department, as the film is continuing to break this year’s viewing records and thus becoming a true sensation among our youngest population. But does this mean the film is actually good and worth seeing? Far from it.

It was merely two years ago that Boris Petkovič made his first jump into the genre of coming of age films with The Beat of Love – a film that for most parts felt deeply uninspired and hardly ever lifted above average. With his latest film, Let Him Be a Basketball Player, he decided to swim even deeper into the world of teens at the brink of puberty, but the result once again hasn’t been particularly successful. Adapted for screen from a 90’s children book written by Primož Suhodolčan, the story either didn’t translate well to the cinematic world, or the written material just wasn’t that good to begin with. Either/or, the end product seems stuck in time that no longer exists (if it ever truly did), has little to zero character development, suffers from a patronisingly black-and-white portrayal of the world and fails to give any kind of a (positive) message to the young audiences.

Despite not being this film’s target audience, I still remember those years all too vividly and enjoy an occasional nostalgic ride to the hormone-fulled years of recklessness, rebelliousness, bad decisions and unrequited loves. However, this is not John Hughes, Celine Sciamma or even The Edge of Seventeenthe latest outstanding discovery in the genre. In times when most teenage films deal with specific issues that should resonate with the young, still forming individuals and adults alike, this film instead feels outdated before it even properly hit the theatres. Teen films are supposed to be about children’s personal growth (and not literal, as this film would like to suggest), peer pressure, parent-child conflicts, about teens questioning their sexual (or even gender) identity. But none of that finds its way into this bland vanilla tasting movie.

The main protagonist is Ranta, the dullest, most uninteresting person whose only identifying characteristics are his height and inspiration to become a basketball player in order to impress a girl (is there ever any other reason?). As it goes, we also have a comedic side-kick – who doesn’t really have a character apart from being obnoxious and funny, and Metka, who could easily remain nameless and the effect of her being in a film would be the same. But the problems don’t stop at this unfortunate trio that is supposed to be the core of this film. There are also pure caricatures of Ranta’s parents, a mean owner of a basketball club who comes across like a cartoonish version of the mafia and a geography teacher that’s meant to be funny but comes across as the biggest bully of them all.

Not only the film fails at establishing at least one relatable, three-dimensional teen character, but it does an even poorer job with the adults – the exception being a basketball teacher, played by Marko Miladinović, who is the only one in Suhodolčan’s world of adults that doesn’t come across as a parody. However, no matter how poorly written the entire cast, I cannot ignore the way this film treats its women. Just as with a recent teenage film disaster, John Green’s Paper Towns, the entire premise of the film is built around a guy who wants to impress a girl – without ever bothering to give this girl any personality, any story arc that would exceed the obvious: she’s pretty. Even the dramatic peak of the film, when Metka accuses him of not knowing anything about her, doesn’t resonate well. First of, the argument comes across as too dramatic, as the scene is not built up to it, and it makes Metka look completely hysterical and irrational (not the only gender stereotyping scene in this film, though). And second of, for us to invest in her character we would need to know something about her, even if Ranta doesn’t. But we are left in the dark, even after she verbally expresses the wish to be “better seen”, as Petkovič is clearly not interesting in giving her any substance. The argument is thus resolved in the most pathetic tribute to Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything…, inclusion of which is again somewhat puzzling to me, as the majority of the audience will obviously be too young to get the reference.

What then is the message that this film gives to children? That they will excel at anything they want as long as they will work hard enough? Kids should learn that sometimes things don’t work out as we would expect or want them to; sometimes other circumstances, even if we have all the right genes for it, simply work against us. And even if things somehow work out, all the hard work we put into something usually has consequences either in our social, personal or romantic life, and it changes us as a person. Ranta, however, stays the same. The same dull, uninteresting character he was at the beginning, who now knows how to throw a ball. And who stays at the right track thanks to all the women in his life: his mother whose only reason to exist is her constant providing of food and other goods, and Metka, who sacrifices all her free time to help him with the grades. Two women sacrificing themselves for nurturing a boy who thinks him playing ball is the most important thing in the world. And who, despite all that, do not deserve any substance or character, as they exist for one and only reason: to help reach Ranta his goal, to help him reach his true potential.

Because apparently, despite being written in the 90’s, this story’s soul got stuck somewhere in the 1950’s.

Eye On Film 2016: International Film Festival for Children and Youth

We all too often forget what an important educational role films can have, how much we can learn from them, how they can shape our opinions and how they can sometimes even shatter the existing social, national and religious barriers, giving us a better and more emphatic understanding of the world outside of the cultural bubble we were born into. Of course films can also do the opposite: reinforce the Eurocentric world-views, stereotypes about marginalized groups, problematic ideologies and socially constructed gender roles. It is  precisely because of that that it is so wrong to view films as a simple form of entertainment; something that helps us to shut down our brain while watching meaningless action-infused CGI. Films always, even when we do not necessarily realize it, carry important social, cultural and/or political subtexts that often have an influence on our perception of the world. This why it is crucial to expose children and teenagers to good, informative, thought-provoking, although maybe not always easy to process cinematic experiences. And not only that: to also teach them of how to watch films, how to read cinematic codes, how to interpret the story and how to reflectively and critically discuss about the film medium. There is undoubtedly still a long and challenging journey ahead of us before we will succeed at making film studies a respected part of a school curriculum, but Eye On Film is indeed one of the first and very much important steps into the right direction.

This year’s, although even second edition of the festival has screened an impressive number of 43 films from 28 different countries; 15 feature length, 4 medium length and 24 short films, most of which also made their way to elementary and high school screenings, accompanied by short and educational film lectures.

The opening night began on a quite lighter note than the rest of the festival’s programme, with a somewhat romanticized portrayal of the Jasmine revolution and French immigrant youth in Ma révolution. More light-hearted coming-of-age films followed, such as the portrayal of difficult and emotionally charged high school years in contemporary Russia in 14+, a charming Norwegian documentary about three boys overcoming social stigma by relentlessly following their dreams in Ballet Boys and Venezuelan absurdist dark comedy 3 Beauties that in a funny and effective way addressed and criticized country’s obsession with beauty pageants, their constant objectification of women and ever-present patriarchal culture in which men shamelessly dictate how women should look and where women are only worth something as long as they are considered beautiful. But the film digs even deeper as it also shows a devastating effect that such a deep-rooted patriarchy has on women who, instead of joining powers in an attempt to overturn the system, ruthlessly compete among each other. It also quite playfully approaches the binary oppositions in which women are typically portrayed in literature and films, where they are seen as either innocent virgins or sinister whores; righteous, quiet and uptight or selfish, shameless and easy. The film is far from being perfect, but it is admiringly daring and not at all afraid of going to the most bizarre extremes, which ultimately makes up for all the film’s shortcomings.

Whereas every minute spent at this year’s festival was thoroughly enjoyable, I did have some reservations about 14+, a film that quite realistically captures the life of male teenagers in post-communist Russia, but fails to produce a good or at least somewhat interesting  female character. Most of the film is indeed filmed from a boy’s perspective and there are some elements of the girl’s mostly non-speaking role that could potentially work, as it is quite clear from the film’s narrative that Russia is, to this day, a very traditional and patriarchal country. Her non-speaking could therefore easily be interpreted as her not having a voice to express anything, for it is the men in her life (either her patriarch of a father or thugs from the neighbourhood, relentlessly harassing and terrorizing her), but that still cannot serve as an excuse for the voyeuristic way in which the camera moves around her throughout the film. The voyeuristic way in which she and her girlfriends are filmed and the fact that they barely pass as having speaking parts make it quite clear that they were never intended to be much more than objects to look at, for there is absolutely no subversive meaning in their passive and quiet presence. Ultimately this film fails at offering any critique of the patriarchal and misogynistic Russian society where a woman is constantly and mercilessly objectified and prayed upon – but even though these films fell somewhat short at times, they provided a much welcomed balance to the darker and heavier half of the festival’s programme that dealt with some of the most important social issues currently taking place around the world.

A more in-depth review of the second half of the festival, covering Latvian Mellow Mud, Canadian-Afghan Walking Mina and Kurdish documentary Life on the Border, is coming soon. Stay tuned.

Ma révolution (2016): growing pains of revolutionary Tunisian youngster

Marwann is a carefree teenager on the verge of turning 15 who spends his evenings running around the streets of Paris and unsuccessfully crashing parties of their fellow high-school students to which he never gets invited with his best and equally unpopular friend Felix. Not that they particularly care about being a part of their high-school elite; Marwann’s reason is quite more naive and innocent, for he is simply trying to catch the attention of his attractive classmate Sygrid, a somewhat distant and disinterested Parisian that runs with the “cool crowd” and seems to be completely out of his reach. But this all drastically changes when the Jasmine Revolution breaks out in Tunisia, opening Marwann a whole new world of possibilities for finally breaking out of the shadow by becoming an impressive young revolutionary, fighting for the cause of his homeland.

The film is set in late 2010 when Tunisian president of 23 years was ousted after numerous street demonstrations and other forms of civil resistance that eventually led to democratization of the country and inspired similar protests and attempts of revolution throughout the Arab countries. Marwann, who represents a second generation of Tunisian immigrants, initially does not seem to care much about his cultural roots, nor does he really know anything about Tunisia, its politics or the meaning of the revolt that took over the country. But then he almost by chance finds himself celebrating Tunisia’s uprising that takes place in his neighbourhood, although it is more than clear by that point that his participation is far from politically motivated. As a 15 year old boy, having a good time is mainly all that is on his mind and if this ended up being at the celebration of a Tunisian Revolution, so be it. But when a reporter catches him in a revolutionary pose that ends up being on a cover of a local newspaper, he almost overnight becomes the face of the revolution. And from all his previously failed attempts, it ends up being this event that secures him a spot among the “cool kids”, for he finally becomes a part of their weed-smoking after-school hangouts. But what is even more important; he also starts receiving an increasing amount of attention from Sygrid who seems to be intrigued by the cause and interested in participating in solidarity protests that seem to be taking over the streets of Paris. It is only natural then that he embraces his revolutionary persona, begins to learn about the cause of this political unrest and, for better effect, starts greatly exaggerating his involvement with Tunisian resistance.

While the revolution and Marwann’s gradual reconnection with his Tunisian roots are important parts of this delightful coming-of-age story, they never end up taking over the story completely, for this is first and foremost a story about first love and the revolutionary fight that every teenager eventually partakes in while trying to form their own identity. The revolution thus ends up being both a beautiful metaphor for the turbulent life stage called adolescence that Marwann needs to overcome, as well as an inspiring side-story that gives us some insight into how the idea of homeland changes from one generation of immigrants to another. Marwann, as most youngsters his age, is getting increasingly torn apart between trying to become someone his family expects him to be, while still fitting in with his Parisian peers – and the Jasmine Revolution ends up being just the right event that helps him at successfully navigating both sides of his adolescent life. Him starting to learn about Tunisian history and about the meaning and possible outcomes of protests currently taking place is making his parents immensely happy for they believe he is finally becoming genuinely interested in a country they consider their home, while his newly-obtained and greatly exaggerated involvement in the cause also seems to have a great impact on Sygrid who as a result starts to become ever more affectionate.

While he is mostly all talk and no actions, his parents seem to possess a more genuine revolutionary spirit and it is not long before the two decide to temporarily move back to Tunisia to support the revolution and participate at the increasingly intense civil resistance. Although Marwann initially fights against it, them moving seems to mark his journey towards manhood; him finally being away from the world previously known to him, living under a watchful eye and careful guidance of his uncle and starting to appreciate the country from which his mischievous grandfather once immigrated in search of a better life and future for his family, can be understood as an initiation ritual of sorts, marking his transition from an egoistical child who hardly ever worries about things that do not directly concern him, into a fully grown man who is starting to understand the complexity of the world.

His uncle Lotfi, although in a minor role, therefore ends up being a significant mediator between Marwann’s two lives – between his old life of a Parisian high-school student and his new life of discovering and gradually reconnecting with his Tunisian ancestry. As they are wandering through the streets of Tunis, we can feel the revolution in the air and by the time they find their way into an underground club where a local rapper is performing his infamous song about Tunisian police (that was at the time of shooting banned in the country, causing the mentioned rapper quite a few problems with the authorities), we almost feel like we ourselves are a part of the resistance, participating in their fight for a better future.

This feeling, however, soon gets pushed away as Marwann returns to Paris to be reunited with his love, but even though the ending felt somewhat unsatisfying, My Revolution ultimately ends up being a heart-warming coming-of-age story about the pains of growing up and learning to embrace one’s ancestry. And even though the film acknowledges the growing fear of terrorism that is leading to increased militarization of France, it refreshingly stays away from even mentioning the religion of Marwann’s family. It does not happen often enough to see a film about an Arab family where Islam is never even mentioned, let alone being presented as the core of their identity and family dynamics. This alone makes My Revolution a much-needed film about France’s Arab diaspora and even though the film is initially addressing teenage audience, its delightful and amusing story and endearing, naturalistic performances (even by the first-time actor Samuel Vincent) will make Silman’s debut feature a pleasant viewing experience for all generations.

I saw this film on the opening night of International Film Festival for Children and Youth “Eye on Film” in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

The Basics:
Directed by: Ramzi Ben Silman
Written by: Ramzi Ben Silman, Thomas Cailley and Nathalie Saugeon
Starring: Samuel Vincent, Anamaria Vartolomei, Lucien Le Guern, Nassim Haddouche, Lubna Azabal, Samir Guesmi
Running Time: 80 minutes
Year: 2016
Rating: 7

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015): awakening of female sexuality

“I had sex today… Holy shit.” That’s the first sentence we hear from Minnie, our 15-year old protagonist, who is coming-of-age in a 1976 San Francisco.  And just with that one simple sentence this film manages to completely shift the narrative we usually see in films about teenagers, placing girl’s sexual awakening, her thoughts and desires, at the centre of the story.

When we first see Minnie, she’s confidently walking through the park and she doesn’t have to say anything more than that one sentence. As the camera zooms close to her face, we know exactly what she’s thinking: “I became a woman today. I officially became an adult.” With a smile on her face and with her big, wandering eyes looking at the world as if she sees her surroundings for the very first time, we follow her home, into her room, where she sits down on her bed and starts recording her diary on a cassette player. It is she, and she alone, who is the narrator of this ground-breaking story about awakening sexuality of a teenage girl. Bel Powley, whose portrayal of Minnie is absolutely fantastic, carries the whole film with natural ease and confidence and ultimately gives one of the best (and certainly one of the most important) performances of this past year. It took us long enough, but the film that represents us as we really are, and not as we should or could be, is finally here. It probably goes without saying that it sparked its fair share of controversy – but considering it’s one of the first American films directed by a woman that unapologetically questions the carefully maintained status quo, this really isn’t all that surprising.

If we start to view women with agency – and with needs and desires that are as important as boys’ – it takes heterosexual men out of a position of power. Anytime we talk about women having agency or being the protagonist of a story, that’s threatening the status quo. (Marielle Heller, the director)

True, this film moves in a very greyish moral area, considering it’s about Minnie who starts an affair with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård’s best role to date) who is 20 years her senior. But there’s a special kind of beauty in this (however problematic) story, because it’s unapologetically honest, real and not at all concerned with how uncomfortable it makes the viewer feel. The film is based on autobiographical novel by Phoebe Glockner and is told entirely from Minnie’s point of view. It therefore doesn’t judge, it doesn’t moralize and it also doesn’t make Monroe a predator or Minnie his under-age victim. The film is set in a groovy, anything-goes 1976 San Francisco, in a household full of smoke, booze and occasional use of cocaine, and considering this social-historical context, it actually makes perfect sense that Monroe is not portrayed as someone who committed statutory rape (even though this obviously was the case). It’s also important to understand that however problematic his character may be, we only see him through Minnie’s big, dreamy eyes, still full of childish wonder about the world surrounding her; the world of sex, lust and love that she is just slowly beginning to understand. She’s smart, funny, honest, vulnerable, curious and flawed; the most real, three-dimensional teenage-girl character that ever graced our movie screens. But she’s also only 15 years old, and this makes her a ticking hormonal bomb, full of typical adolescent insecurities and feelings she doesn’t yet quite understand.

Of course she doesn’t know what she’s getting into when she decides to seduce Monroe. Just as she doesn’t completely comprehend how wrong it is what they’re doing – he, on the other hand, knows they crossed a line and soon starts avoiding her. However, some people can’t seem to get over their problematic age-difference and tend to moralize about how Monroe should be persecuted for having sex with a minor (but then it wouldn’t be Minnie’s story anymore, would it?) – and because of that, they tend to overlook the most revolutionary part of this ground-breaking indie. Things are far from being black and white and not only is she far too smart and complex to be an innocent victim of a sexual predator, she also actually likes sex. She likes it so much that she manages to scare off the boy with whom she hooks up after Monroe starts to keep his distance. Her passion and intensity, her knowing exactly what she wants and how she wants it, turns out to be too much for a teenage boy who was probably raised in a belief that girls don’t even like sex, let alone like it to the same extend as boys.

The narrative I was given as a teenage girl was that boys are going to be the ones who think about sex. Boys are going to be the ones who want to have sex. I think it’s damaging to both sexes that we don’t talk about sexuality as something we are both experiencing equally. (Marielle Heller, the director)

Kristen Wiig does an outstanding job playing Minnie’s boozy and inattentive mother Charlotte, a librarian by day and a tireless party animal by night, who recently divorced Minnie’s conservative step-father (Christopher Meloni) and started living her life as a “liberated woman” of the 70’s. Her narcissistic and hedonistic behaviour seems to be something straight out of Christopher Lasch’s 1979 best-selling book The Culture of Narcissism and while her remarks sometimes seem to be inspired by the ideas of second wave feminism, she doesn’t actually seem able to function without a man in her life. She also can’t seem to break her pattern of dating inappropriate men who bring nothing but chaos into her family life. Even though she doesn’t get much screen time, she comes across as a real, complex and confused human being, full of her own insecurities and inner contradictions – as someone who refuses to be someone’s housewife, but who’s also failing in her role of a mother. As Minnie smartly describes her at the end of the movie: “I always thought I wanted to be exactly like my mom. But she thinks she needs a man to be happy. I don’t. So maybe nobody loves me, maybe nobody will ever love me. But maybe it’s not about being loved by somebody else.” And it’s at that moment that we realize she’s all grown up. She has become a wise, mature and emotionally (although not yet economically) independent woman and a proud feminist who won’t ever allow herself of being defined by men in her life and who will always know that what matters most in life is loving yourself.

Another thing that deserves to be brought up is how smartly the writer/director Marielle Heller avoids portraying Minnie as a sexual object. Even though there is a fair share of nudity in this film, she is never a subject of a (male) gaze – not when it comes to Monroe, and not when it comes to the audience. The only time we see her fully nude is when she stands in front of a mirror, watching and judging herself, trying to figure out if she likes what she sees – she is thus a subject of her own gaze, and all the judging about her being pretty and/or fat is left entirely to her. She is owning every scene that she finds herself in, whether it’s about her lovable, but flawed personality, her hormonal outbursts, her body image or about her sexual experimentation, and she leaves us absolutely no choice but to join her on a crazy ride of adolescent troubles and confusion.

The Basics:
Directed by: Marielle Heller
Written by: Marielle Heller (based on a novel by Phoebe Gloeckner)
Starring: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Meloni
Running Time: 102 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 9

Palo Alto (2013)

Palo Alto is a directorial debut of Gia Coppola (Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter and Sofia Coppola’s niece), based on James Franco’s collection of short stories which Gia herself adapted for screen. Sofia, currently one of the most acclaimed and recognizable female directors, was clearly a great influence on her 27-years old niece, who decided to follow her aunt’s footsteps into the world of cinema. It is also clear that Gia has talent and that her debut is not merely a result of nepotism, but Palo Alto‘s main problem is that it’s too similar to Sofia’s cinematic style (and little details, like a poster of Kirsten Dunst from The Virgin Suicides in April’s room are not particularly helping with that). This is a solid film debut, but only time will show if Gia’s capable of finding her own, authentic film style and step out of a shadow of her aunt’s career.

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Gia Coppola is not the only one from Palo Alto crew who comes from an established Hollywood family. Film’s main characters, Teddy and April (teenagers who are deeply infatuated with each other, but are unable to communicate their feelings), are played by Jack Kilmer (Val Kilmer’s son) and Emma Roberts (Julia Robert’s niece). Jack Kilmer does a great job playing a high school stoner who doesn’t quite know what he wants to do with his life, and his inexperience in acting makes Teddy’s struggles only more believable and authentic. Emma Roberts also does a fantastic job playing April, a somewhat dreamy girl who is trying to process all the emotions bottling inside of her. But a great surprise were also the supporting actors – extraordinary Nat Wolff as an arrogant, sociopathic and self-destructive Fred and Zoe Levin as Emily, who’s “never been in love” and tries to compensate her inability to emotionally connect with promiscuous behaviour, which only deepens her self-loathing and shatters her already low self-esteem. Coppola’s camera frequently stops in close-ups of her eyes, on her empty and sad look, which is probably a highpoint of Levin’s acting. Her eyes tell us more about her disconnection from everything and everyone, about her feeling of emptiness, than any words could.

Fred, who is hating everything and everyone around him, including himself, is a typical teenager who acts problematic and self-destructive in hope that someone will acknowledge his personal struggles. But no one seems to see past the surface of an idiot who brings nothing but trouble to anyone who spends time with him. Teddy, otherwise a shy and artistic guy, who is somehow intrigued and fascinated by Fred’s fearless behaviour, is probably his closest (if not the only) friend. But all he gets out of this friendship with Fred (who likes to live on the edge and is constantly pushing everyone around him beyond the boundaries of moral and acceptable) are his constant manipulations and community service.

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And then there’s April who comes from a family of narcissistic “new age” parents, too involved with themselves to ever fully acknowledge her existence. Her stepfather (Val Kilmer) spends his days smoking hashish and playing video games, while her mother spends every waking hour on the phone with her personal guru. Despite all that, April seems like a stable person who somehow manages to balance her life of a good student and of an outgoing, social person who never misses the parties on the weekends. But her life gets shaken to the core when a grinning James Franco enters the picture. Franco (or rather her soccer coach Mr. B), who is also a dad for whom April frequently babysits, soon makes April weak in her knees with his straightforward affection.

Palo Alto is mainly a film about the difficult transition from childhood to adolescence; it’s about first sexual experiences, falling in love and attending decadent parties. It’s also about the time of unbearably heightened emotions, confusion and the inability of reflective thinking. As adolescents we don’t really have any other choice than to wait for the difficult period to pass – and this is exactly what Teddy and April are doing when they’re continually filmed in their rooms staring into the wall, lying on the bed, talking to themselves. Gia Coppola perfectly infiltrates this feeling of the adolescence into the film – probably because she’s still young enough to remember it realistically and not with romantic nostalgia, as so many people often do. But it is exactly this feeling, the melancholy and hedonism of young people, that strongly reminds us of Sofia Coppola’s work. Gia is, just like her aunt, using empty spaces (children’s rooms, playgrounds) to indicate the melancholy feeling of the teenagers and other minimalistic details (Barbie dolls, teddy bears, paper unicorns on the walls) to show the contrast of the childhood and adolescence and the dilemmas of the protagonists, already teenagers, who are still clinging to their childhood and are not yet ready to completely grow up.

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Palo Alto is a great presentation of a lost generation that grew up with permissive parenting of narcissistic baby-boomers. But the audience is too often reminded of the fact that our protagonists are somehow still children. Gia’s camera is constantly stopping on the little childish details of their rooms, on their clothes and girlishly painted nails; so much, that the message slowly starts to lose its meaning. Emily’s character is also somewhat underdeveloped. We never get to know anything personal about her or about the reason of her promiscuous behaviour and constant objectification of herself. There is this one sequence with Frank’s voice-over narration where we get to know that she was a victim of a gang-rape for which he was responsible – but the crime is only briefly mentioned and never problematized. Nevertheless, it is a convincing film debut that leaves us in an anticipation of what will the young artist do next.

The Basics:
Directed by: Gia Coppola
Written by: Gia Coppola (adaptation of James Franco’s short stories)
Starring: Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin, James Franco
Running Time: 100 minutes
Year: 2013
Rating: 7