Tag Archives: coming of age

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.

diary-of-a-teenage-girlWhen 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)

tumblr_o0fuzsvO0d1uwza81o1_1280True, 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.

tumblr_ny87t6Ad4H1umc6njo2_1280Of 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)

tumblr_o0k4oyWtFi1v4tbjao1_1280Kristen 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

Advertisements

Respire (2014)

Respire is Mélanie Laurent’s second feature length film and although I still have to see her 2011 debut The Adopted, there’s no doubt that she’s an incredibly talented filmmaker. This coming of age film, adapted for screen by Julien Lambroschini and Laurent herself, may seem simple at first, considering it’s about a shy and introverted 17-year old who becomes friends with a wild, extroverted and rebellious new girl that transfers to her high school. However, the film quickly evolves into a compelling and multi-layered drama about a destructive and obsessive friendship that develops between the two teenage girls.

High school, teenagers and female friendships: this already sounds like a catastrophe that is bound to happen. Guys may not know how awful teenage girls can be (or they might, I don’t know), but I was a teenage girl not so long ago and I still remember those days all too vividly. I’m sure that guys have their own ways of expressing the confusion, anger and the overall awfulness of a particularly uneasy life stage called adolescence, but for girls it mostly means being manipulative and self-involved to the point of being insufferable. This is exactly how Sarah, who transfers to a new school in Paris after moving from Nigeria, acts and she immediately finds herself a new friend (or rather a victim of sorts) in an insecure, quiet and trusting Charlie. I was Charlie for so many times in my life that my head literally hurt when I was watching her being continuously manipulated by Sarah and getting isolated from the whole classroom when she finally managed to stand up for herself. Everything in this film was all too familiar: how she doesn’t say anything about it and quietly tortures herself, quite possibly even defending Sarah’s actions in her head (“she comes from a troubled family, she didn’t meant to do that, it’s probably all my fault” etc.). I liked how it remains unclear if Sarah’s really just a friend to somewhat awkward and inexperienced Charlie, or if their drunken kiss during the holidays actually results in her having romantic feelings towards her best friend. It’s obvious that Charlie’s deeply infatuated with Sarah, but the film leaves it to the viewer’s interpretation if she’s actually in love with her or if her obsession is just pure admiration, her wanting to be like Sarah in every aspect of her life.

You may say that the whole story is unbelievable or over the top, that Sarah is a complete psycho and that friends would never act like this. If you’re saying this, you’ve clearly never been a teenage girl. I’ve met my fair share of Sarah’s in my life – and it may not have ended so tragically as it does in the film, but it was certainly something that I won’t easily forget. This film was like watching my own life when I was 12 years old (slightly younger than Sarah and Charlie are) and while I didn’t like the memories it evoked, I loved the film and it’s realistic portrayal of how psychopathic and manipulative teenage girls can be.

This film consists of almost entirely female cast, which is an extremely rare and precious thing (there’s some male characters here and there, but none of them is really important for the plot: there’s Charlie’s mostly absent Croatian father, a high school teacher, Charlie’s mother’s new love interest and a couple of male classmates). It’s also unbelievably refreshing to see that Sarah and Charlie’s fallout isn’t because of a boy (which is usually the reason for women to fight on screen), but rather Sarah’s troubling secret being revealed, which results in Sarah declaring war to masochistic Charlie, who seems to think she deserves all the hell that comes her way. The film is also impressively multi-layered with details like Charlie’s treatment of her childhood friend Valerie, who is her closest friend up to the point when Sarah enters the picture. After that Valerie’s mostly ignored by Charlie, who for the first time in her life feels liberated and alive, all thanks to her being around the spontaneous Sarah. Her treatment of Valerie isn’t much different to how Sarah later treats Charlie herself. Some parallels can also be drawn between Charlie keeping quiet when being psychologically tortured in school, repeatedly forgiving Sarah for acting this way and her mother’s constant forgiveness to her father’s transgressions.

Laurent certainly proved that she’s more than a capable director and I’m looking forward to seeing more of her films. Relatively inexperienced lead actresses Joséphine Japy and Lou de Laâge also give strong performances, with Lou de Laâge’s portrayal of Sarah being particularly haunting and hard to forget.

I saw this film as a part of my Year of Female Filmmakers.

The Basics:
Directed by: Mélanie Laurent
Written by: Julien Lambroschini and Mélanie Laurent (based on a novel by Anne-Sophie Brasme)
Starring: Joséphine Japy, Lou de Laâge, Isabelle Carré, Claire Keim
Running Time: 91 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 8

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.

tumblr_ne9bms5xSz1t12pdio3_r1_1280

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.

tumblr_n9lb90pNj71sncbioo1_1280

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.

tumblr_ne9bms5xSz1t12pdio7_r1_1280

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

Boyhood (2014)

Richard Linklater may not be among the most famous American directors, but he certainly is one of the best and most innovative ones. He began his career in 1985 and gained wider recognition in 1990 with his independent debut film Slacker. He later continued to make cult films such as Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise (a film that is – together with it’s two sequels – considered as one of the best trilogies of all time) and it was with that trilogy that we  first encountered Linklater’s interest in the development of human relationships, emotions and mentality over the years. With Boyhood, his 16th feature film, he managed to capture the process of growing up as realistically as it is possible, for he followed a seven year old boy from his first grade to college, filming his childhood, adolescence and first steps into adulthood over the remarkable period of 12 years (from 2002 to 2013).

boyhood-2014-007-young-tussle-haired-mason-grinning-behind-hands

The crew met every year for a few days, with Linklater writing a screenplay each year as it came – sometimes only a night before they started filming. This is the reason why Boyhood brilliantly reflects all the most significant and defining political events (a war in Iraq, Obama’s 2008 campaign), pop-cultural references, technological advancements and the emergence of social networks, such as Facebook and how all of those things affected American people at the time.

The central character of Boyhood is extraordinary Ellar Coltrane as Mason Jr. who, portraying the character between the age of 7 and 19, grows up right before our eyes during film’s remarkable 165 minutes. The years of Mason’s childhood and adolescence pass by us in brisk and irregular chronological intervals (all thanks to Sandra Adair’s amazing editing skills), all while we’re watching the core family members during their ordinary daily tasks – eating lunch, doing the dishes, sorting the bills and driving to the school. Different haircuts and clothing styles are usually the only indicators that time has passed and that this particular segment of the film was shot a year later than a shot that appeared on screen just a few seconds. With the exception of a few alcohol-related family dramas, this film is mainly about the micro-details of everyday life and it’s unbelievably refreshing to see a film that doesn’t spend any time leading us to the big, clichéd »turning point« events (like the first kiss and awkward virginity loss) that are usually the main focus of the coming of age films; not only that, such events are even entirely skipped over . According to Linklater “it’s the subtle accrual details that defines a life, not the big moments” – and it is exactly those details that may seem minimal and unimportant at the time, but that turn out to be much more significant than some big, “life-defining” events when we look back at our life that prevail in his latest film – details like your mother tucking you in, reading you a Harry Potter book before you go to sleep or a cruelly enforced haircut from your alcoholic stepfather and a camping trip with your estranged father that ends with him giving you your first dating advice.

boyhood-2014-006-teen-mason-and-pals-on-back-of-truck

But even though the film is primarily about Mason Jr., we never get a feeling that any of the other (supporting) characters are less important (as it is so often the case with coming of age films). Patricia Arquette gives her best performance to date as a single mother Olivia that desperately tries to rebuild a nuclear family that fell apart all too soon to give her children a »normal« childhood (because that’s what society expects from single mothers), although it never quite works out. It is painful to see her two marriages fall apart; but it is also comforting to see her grow from a woman that was financially dependable from all these different men in her life, to a woman that goes to a night school, does her Master’s degree, gets a respectable job and becomes completely self sufficient and independent. Then there is always brilliant Ethan Hawke as a cool but distant Dad who slowly grows into a more responsible person and becomes increasingly involved in the lives of his children. His once-a-year visits, where he simply tries to buy his children’s love with gifts and fun afternoons, slowly turn into a more meaningful and more regular quality time that they spend together and just as we can see Mason Jr. slowly growing into a mature, artistic young man, we can also see the growth of Mason Sr. who eventually lands a reliable job, buys a car that is more suitable for children  and eventually even thanks Olivia for raising his children all by herself. Mason’s older sister, played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei Linklater, is the only one from the actors who seems to struggle a bit in some of the earliest scenes, but even she is very likeable as always-so-clever youngster who immensely likes to talk back to her mother.

This is probably the first film of this genre that gives as much importance to the parents as it does to the children. They all grow and affect one another with their presence and every character in the story is thus equally important (no matter how little screen time they get) because they are all important elements in Mason’s life, in him becoming who he is at the end of the film. This is therefore not so much a film about Mason’s boyhood as it is a study of family interactions, or rather of (family) life itself.

boyhood-2014-008-teen-mason-and-dad-laughing-with-beers

What I deem as another remarkable quality of this film is that even though Mason and Samantha’s childhood is far from idyllic (there is a lot of alpha-male alcoholic stepfathers and a lot of moving around the country) they both turn out to be smart and non-conforming young adults who able to think with their own head. Children from broken homes are too often shown as problematic and aggressive bullies with drinking and/or drug problems. But it is also possible for a child from such a family to escape from the hard reality into the world of art – like Mason does with his passion for photography. When a teacher tells him that he “views a world in a really unique way” it makes us wonder if he would still saw the world so very differently if he hadn’t had such a difficult childhood. Probably not.

You know, like, everyone’s saying ‘seize the moment’? I don’t know I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around. You know, like, ‘the moment seizes us’.

The Basics:
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater
Running Time: 165 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 10

Wadjda (2012)

Wadjda is the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, but even more importantly – it’s the first Saudi film made by a female director. And even though Haifaa al-Mansour had to be in a van for the larger part of film’s production when directing on the streets of Riyadh due to strict gender segregation and had to use walkie-talkies to communicate with the rest of the film crew, it is still an incredibly important achievement for a woman to be allowed to direct a film in this male dominated society.

Haifaa al-Mansour was born in Saudi Arabia, but hasn’t lived there since she left to attend the University – first to study comparative literature in Cairo and latter to attend film school in Sydney, Australia. It took her five years to find financial backing and getting permission to film Wadjda – a story supposedly inspired by her niece and her own childhood memories, although one could argue that the main theme of the film strongly resembles Iranian cinematic tradition, where stories about children are frequently used for subtle critiques of their society.

As we follow 11 years old Wadjda through her life we’re slowly introduced to a very straightforward criticism of the subordinate position of women in a country where everyday life is still very much dictated by religion. On many occasions we can see how much power the society has over the individuals – one of the stronger examples is probably the narrative shift when Wadjda’s dad (who is clearly very much in love with his first wife), submits to his parents wishes and marries another woman. Another similar event is when the (unmarried) school headmistress accuses her lover of breaking into her home and attacking her, so that she can avoid being publicly disgraced and discredited. And then there are those little details, that nonetheless tell us a great deal about Saudi society: how the schoolgirls must hide from the playground when construction men are working on a roof nearby and how Wadjda’s mother must have a driver because women are not allowed to drive a car. Any means of transport is actually prohibited for a woman to drive, including a bike, for they believe it causes infertility. But Wadjda doesn’t care about these rules – she’s determined to get a green bike from a local shop, even if it means that she must participate in a Quran recital competition to win a cash prize that would allow her to pay for the bike.

Even though the film includes women of many different generations, it is mainly focused on Wadjda who is still considered a child and doesn’t have a status of a woman yet. This is the only reason that she can get away with her rebelling against gender roles. She comes to the school without hijab, she wears black Converse shoes, walks around with cassette player in her backpack and listens to »Western« rock music – all of which infuriates the headmistress, who at one point even threatens her with expulsion. The character of headmistress is thus particularly interesting, because it is she, and not the men, who seems the most strict and fundamentalist in her religious beliefs – indicating that women are often not mere victims of the suffocating patriarchy, but can just as well perpetrate the system that is keeping them in the oppressed position.

As a young girl Wadjda can afford to be headstrong. But one can’t help but wonder what will happen to her in a couple of years when society starts to perceive her as a grown woman? The story also introduces us to her friendship with a boy named Abdullah who accepts her for who she is. But when he tells her that he means to marry her when they grow up it is hard not to wonder what will happen with their relationship when she’ll become his wife – will they still be equal, riding their bikes together or will he, as a man, gain power over her, a woman? Film doesn’t give any answers to the questions it raises, but it suggests (with the end scene, when Wadjda finally goes for a ride with her new bike – a scene that wonderfully resembles the ending of Truffaut’s French New Wave classic, The 400 Blows) that this is the time of a new generation that will quite possibly be able to overcome gender differences. Although we can also interpret it in a more pessimistic way, with her riding on a bike representing one of her last moments of freedom.

This is a wonderful coming-of-age story set in a country that we know almost nothing of. It is a great introduction to the Saudi culture (as well as to the Islamic culture in general) and thus a must-see film for all generations comfortably (and all too often ignorantly) living in their Eurocentric, Western bubble. In an age where fear of the unknown culture is yet again bringing up intolerance and hate all over Europe, films like this are the best kind of weapon to crush the stereotypes, to make us understand a different reality at least a bit better and to turn intolerance into something more positive: acceptance and permission to assimilate.

The Basics:
Directed by: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Written by: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Starring: Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Reem Abdullah, Sultan Al Assaf, Ahd
Running Time: 98 minutes
Year: 2012
Rating: 8