Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Case for Film Fest 2013 Weekend 2

My second filmfest weekend was heavy with teenage angst.

First off, on Friday evening at a sold out session at the Lighthouse in Petone, was What Richard Did., an acclaimed Irish film from 2012.  The story follows high school rugby team captain Richard, a good looking guy from a wealthy family with a holiday home by the sea, a huge amount of natural charm and a social nexus, able to easily interact with his parents, teachers, publicans, peers and juniors and become best friends with them all.

Things start to go slowly awry when he becomes infatuated with one of his rugby team mate’s girlfriends.  A few carefully orchestrated “accidental” meetings later, and Richard has wooed his love interest to his side, his life changing from one lived with the lads to one of couplehood and, with her ex boyfriend still in the social circle, one tinged with a touch of jealousy.

It takes a long time to get to this point, the dialogue natural to the point of being uninteresting, in that Richard’s charm provokes the interest that his actual words do not.  The focus narrows from Richard’s wider circle to his relationship with his girlfriend – and then, at a party, where the unthinkable happens, the focus goes extra tight on to Richard himself, and the character that initially seemed so likable and honourable turns into a bit of an arsehole.

It’s quite hard at this point to judge exactly what Richard is feeling, possibly the intent of the film or a failing on the part of the director and/or actor.  Is he upset about his actions or upset for himself?  Richard’s relationships don’t really help clarify what is going on either, with his male friends few and far between and his girlfriend a bit indecipherable as well.

Despite some of the ambiguity, the acting is pretty impressive, with Jack Reynor remarkable as the central character.  Lars Mikkelsen, playing Richard's Dad, also delivers a moving performance, and those in supporting roles (girlfriend, friends) are more than adequate, though not really given a lot of meaty material themselves.

Unfortunately for me, due to the rather slow pace of the film, I found my mind wandering to Heathers, a film with a similar (though not as earnest) kind of plot, so by the scene in church, I was almost tempted to yell out “ESKIMO!” and see if anyone had the same kind of reaction (I sincerely doubt it).

Nonetheless, the film was incredibly impressive and a tad touching, though in the end, Richard went from someone likable to someone that I kind of wanted to run over in a Humvee – which may have been the objective.

Verdict: What Richard Did is a very potent film, it not as “important” as what some of the publicity claims.  It’s too ambiguous for that (what is the message the film is trying to convey again?), but with an amazing performance by Raynor, it is an impressive film nonetheless.  8 beers out of 10.

The second teen-related film was a documentary called Valentine Road, about the shooting of an orphaned latino transgender boy by his budding neo Nazi fourteen year old classmate, all because Larry told Brandon that he had a crush on him, and in class, asked to be called Latoya.  Brandon shot Larry twice in the back of the head, having brought a gun to school a few days after Larry asked him to be his Valentine.

Ellen, the ultimate liberal social conscience in America since Oprah abdicated, said it all when, at the beginning of the film, she calls this a tragedy on all fronts.  The kids both had hard lives, we discover, and a lot of factors came into play to create the situation.

And then things got me mad,  First, the school did not offer counselling to any of the students at the school, including the kids in the room with the two boys when Brandon fired the shots.  Next, the teacher in the class, supportive/encouraging of Larry in his search for his identity, was let go.  And then… my blood boiled when a coven of jurors came to see Brandon as a victim of Larry’s abuse and (I kid you not) formed a “save Brandon” club to stop him from being tried as an adult, and being convicted at all.  Unsurprisingly, the District Attorney and the police representative we were shown were disgusted with the way the victim of the shooting was turned into the guilty party by women who, possibly if the victim were a straight white girl, would probably be out there baying for Brandon’s blood.  There is no indication that racism came into play here; the actual implication is that Larry’s orientation was what turned a small boy shot twice in the back of a head into someone who was “asking” for someone to premeditate a murder against him.  One teacher went so far to say that Nazi salutes in class were acceptable as “boys will be boys”, whereas of course, boys wearing makeup was just begging for trouble.

And worst of all: the town where all this occurred was a part of greater Los Angeles, not some small town in the Bible belt located next to a nuclear power plant.

Some people in the sparsely populated Film Archive theatre did start crying at one point.  The film had its favourites, evident in the use of a “threatening” still of Brandon when most of the video images of him showed that he was a pretty normal looking guy, but of course the film played to my liberal tendencies and some of my more “hanging judge” inclinations as well.  Not a perfect documentary, but considering how well it told the backstory of both Brandon as well as Larry, I think it did a great job.

Verdict: Valentine Road shows that people have a lot to learn from last year’s Bully.  And that the United States seems a pretty crazy place to live sometimes – I can only hope that New Zealand is a “nicer” place to live in reality as well as in the papers.  9 valentine’s day cards out of 10.

Finally, my evening movie at a mostly full Roxy Cinema was The Spectacular Now, a teenage romantic comedy, in publicity likened to Say Anything, but in reality not that much.  An impressive cast of well known faces (if not names) brings together another final year at high school, where Sutter (Miles Teller) is just dumped by his girlfriend but quickly encounters Aimee (Shailene Woodley from The Departed) who, despite his initial intentions, quickly worms her way into his heart.  She, in contrast, seems to have always had a crush on Sutter, and so quickly grabs the chance to be his girlfriend, and, apparently, to become an alcoholic.

Films like this confuse the heck out of me when it comes to American drinking laws.  I am sure the legal drinking age is 21, but these high school seniors have ready access to alcohol and though all the adults in their lives seem to be aware they are drunk, and some even buy them drinks, no one seems to think that this is a problem or actually illegal.

There is so much drinking in fact that it is sometimes distracting from what is meant to be going on.  Sutter finds his Dad (a very un-coach-like Kyle Chandler) and kind of tries to up his grades to graduate, but it’s a bit hard to see quite where this character is going.  His girlfriends get directions of their own, and the film seems to be saying that he needs one, but quite where his magnetic North actually points is never really made clear.  Friends fade in and out of existence as needed to push the plot, as do adults, but seem to be two dimensional stereotypes for whatever the main characters need at the time, rather than “real characters” with their own lives.

It’s fortunate then that the actors playing Sutter and Aimee are so likable as the leads.  They have an easy and sometimes quite believable teenager way about them that, while they are not necessarily convincing as a couple, they are quite believable as actual high school students.

The blurb for this film claimed it was "this generations" Say Anything and I came away completely unconvinced by this.  There was no real romance, no moral message, not much of anything really, except perhaps a "shock" moment that is becoming a fairly regular occurrence these days too.  However, while the film itself is fairly mediocre, the performances therein are really quite impressive.  But I hope there is no sequel.  Please.

Verdict: The Spectacular Now was a story with no surprises except perhaps the casual acceptance of teenage alcoholism.  However, what really lifts the film are the performances of the cast, who will hopefully move on to other, perhaps more impressive projects soon.  65% proof out of the maximum 100%.

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