Category Archives: Troubled Teens

Tour de France: Microbe and Gasoline ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 30, 2016)

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I guess I’m mellowing with age. The first sign was when I saw a Wes Anderson film…and actually liked it. As I wrote in my 2014 review of The Grand Budapest Hotel:

I have been somewhat immune to the charms of Wes Anderson. I have also developed a complex of sorts over my apparent inability to comprehend why the phrase “a Wes Anderson film” has become catnip to legions of hipster-garbed fanboys and swooning film critics […] Maybe there’s something wrong with me? Am I like the uptight brother-in-law in Field of Dreams who can’t see the baseball players? […] To me, “a Wes Anderson film” is the cinematic equivalent to Wonder Bread…bland product, whimsically wrapped.

Mr. Anderson isn’t the only director I’ve had this “problem” with. Enter Michel Gondry, who I’ve always viewed as Anderson’s French cousin (i.e. a purveyor of bland product, whimsically wrapped). As I lamented in my 2014 review of Gondry’s Mood Indigo:

Not that I haven’t come to expect a discombobulating mishmash of twee narrative and wanton obfuscation from the director of similarly baffling “Romcoms From the Id” like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, but…enough, already.

I seriously doubt that Gondry literally read my silly little review and took it to heart, but I’ll be damned if he hasn’t dropped the twee narrative and wanton obfuscation for once, and made a film that I really enjoyed (hey wait…when did those ball players get here?!).

Microbe and Gasoline is a straightforward coming-of-age/road dramedy about two nerdy 14 year-old school chums who embark on a decidedly offbeat summer adventure. With its socially awkward protagonists and gentle comedic observations on the emotional (and hormonal) turbulence of young adolescence, the film is a mélange of Small Change, Gregory’s Girl, My Bodyguard, and Breaking Away, with a just a hint of Weird Science.

Daniel (Ange Dargent) is a daydreamer and budding artist who sketches portraits of his classroom crush Laura (Diane Besnier) in lieu of paying attention to the teacher. Small for his age and slightly built (hence the nickname “Microbe”), he is frequently mistaken for a girl. This makes him a natural target for bullies. Theo (Theophile Baquet) is the new kid at school, which automatically makes him an outsider. Theo (dubbed “Gasoline”, because he helps out in his dad’s auto repair shop) is more boisterous than Daniel, but generally shunned by the other kids because of his caustic wit, which he uses as a shield.

Bonded by their shared insecurities and outsider status, Daniel and Theo become fast friends. Theo mentors Daniel on strategies to get Laura’s attention (although he’s obviously not speaking from experience) and how to handle the bullying (of which he undoubtedly does speak from experience). “Remember,” he sagely tells Daniel, “today’s bullies are tomorrow’s victims.” When school’s out for summer, the two decide to split Versailles and hit the road, Jacques. The only problem with that plan is that they are too young to hold driver’s licenses. So, combining Theo’s mechanical savvy with Daniel’s vivid imagination, they design and build their own vehicle…a wooden shack on wheels.

Best described as an outhouse set atop a go-cart (or perhaps a mini-version of Howl’s Moving Castle), the theory is that if they encounter any gendarmes on their journey, they simply pull over to the side of the road and, voila! It’s just a shack on the side of the road. This element of the narrative is Gondry’s sole acquiescence to his innate twee tendencies.

This is the director’s most accessible film, with great performances all around (although Audrey Tautou seems underutilized in her relatively small part as Daniel’s mom). Parents should be advised that the film has an ‘R’ rating (one scene in particular, in which Daniel wanders into a massage parlor for a haircut, assures that this one will never pop up on The Disney Channel). It’s a simple tale; but if you hit the right notes (as Gondry does here) there’s eloquence in simplicity. It may not win a prize for originality, but in the midst of a summer movie roster rife with murder and mayhem, it’s a breath of fresh air.

SIFF 2015: Rebel Without a Cause **** (Archival Presentation)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2015)

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60 years have passed since the day a 24 year-old rising star named James Dean put the pedal to the metal and “…bought it sight unseen” (as the song goes). At this point in time, the massive cult of personality surrounding him has arguably eclipsed the actual work, so it’s easy to forget that he only starred in three feature films. Two of those films were released posthumously, including this 1955 Nicholas Ray classic, which is being shown at SIFF via a newly restored print presented by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation. Resplendently attired in his now-iconic blue jeans and blood-red jacket, Dean mopes, mumbles and generally masticates all available scenery in an archetypal performance as a “troubled youth” desperately trying to fit in…somewhere. While they have been traditionally stiffed by Dean’s legend, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo deliver equally outstanding and touching performances. Modern audiences may snicker at the admittedly dated histrionics and soapy melodrama, but this was pretty powerful stuff for its era, and there’s no denying Dean’s charisma, or the genuine chemistry between the three leads. Ray’s direction is rock solid; Ernest Haller’s cinematography is truly striking, with inspired use of many L.A. locales.

The antisocial network: The Sisterhood of Night ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 11, 2015)

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Jeez…adolescence was traumatic enough before the internet and advent of cyber-bullying (yes, I’m that old). Unfortunately (and perversely), it’s become much easier for the perpetrators and that much tougher on the victims. Your tormentors no longer have to hang out after school, bundled up for inclement weather, waiting for you to finish with chess club so they can stomp on your glasses (or worse). Now, they can chill out in the comfort of their parent’s basement, cloaked in anonymity, as they harass, denigrate, flame, impersonate, or stalk ‘til the cows come home (with virtual impunity).

But hey, enough about our comment section (you know I’m a kidder).

They are certainly not kidding around about the darker side of social media in The Sisterhood of Night, the debut feature film from director Caryn Waechter. Adapted by Marilyn Fu from a short story by Steven Millhauser, it’s a sharply observed, contemporary take on the Salem witch trials. The “sisterhood” in question is comprised of an insular trio of high-school students (Georgie Henley, Willa Cuthrell-Tuttleman, and Olivia DeJonge), who make a pact to disengage from social media; opting instead for late-night gatherings in the woods.

What they “do” there (wouldn’t you like to know?) is a mystery; and in an era where people compulsively hit “send” to share too much information about what they’re up to every waking moment, this secretiveness naturally makes them suspect. For personal reasons (which I won’t reveal here) one of their classmates (Kara Hayward) starts her own nasty whisper campaign about the girls on her low-traffic blog, igniting a firestorm of small-town hysteria, which escalates into a media feeding frenzy.

This film blindsided me, going in some unexpected directions. It was also deeper and more emotionally resonant than I had anticipated (judge not a movie by its trailer, which suggested something along the lines of Heathers meets The Virgin Suicides). The performances are all quite good; especially from the four leads, with excellent support from Kal Penn (as a guidance counselor) and Laura Fraser (as the mother of one of the girls). Sensitive direction, atmospheric photography by DP Zak Mulligan (particularly for the night scenes) and a moody score from The Crystal Method rounds things off nicely.

Teenage rampage: Palo Alto (*1/2) & We Are the Best! (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June  14, 2014)

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School daze: Palo Alto

It’s tempting to call Gia Coppola’s directing debut, Palo Alto, a Hollywood home movie. Her mom (Jacqui Getty) is in the cast, as well as her cousin (Bailey Coppola) and her great aunt (Talia Shire). Another cousin (Robert Schwartzman, brother of Jason and son of Talia) is co-credited for the music. And her granddad (do I need to tell you who he is?) has a voice over cameo (unbilled). But I won’t do that; I will maintain professional integrity, and judge her film strictly on its own merits (are you buying this?). Okay, one more thing I should give you a heads up on. Coppola’s film revolves around the travails of bored, mopey, privileged teenagers, which puts her at risk being accused of riding aunt Sofia’s coattails. Again, I won’t go there.

While the film is an ensemble piece about a group of northern California high school students, there is a protagonist. Her name is April (Emma Roberts, daughter of Eric). Saddled with the mantle of “class virgin”, April is a sensitive and withdrawn senior who plays on the soccer team. As her hormones begin to burble and roil, exacerbated by peer pressure from her sexually active girlfriend Emily (Zoe Levin), April finds herself conflicted by a dual attraction to her coach (James Franco) and more age-appropriate classmate Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val…who plays April’s dad). Emily has already taken Teddy for a test drive, as well as his best bud Fred (Nat Wolff),  a surly James Dean type (we know this due to his tell-tale red jacket).

Coppola adapted her screenplay from cast member Franco’s book, Palo Alto: Stories. I haven’t read it, but a critic from Publisher’s Weekly certainly has. Here’s their conclusion:

The overall failure of this collection has nothing to do with its side project status and everything to do with its inability to grasp the same lesson lost on its gallery of high school reprobates: there is more to life than this.

Working from the assumption this is an accurate assessment of the source material, I can say that Coppola has made a film that is pretty faithful to the book (if you catch my drift). Roberts has a compelling presence, and Kilmer’s River Phoenix vibe will serve him well in future endeavors, but the narrative has been done to death, and with much more style and originality (try renting Foxes, Kids, Ghost World, Election, or River’s Edge instead).

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I was a teenage anarchist: We Are the Best!

It may seem counter-intuitive to ascertain that We Are the Best! (or any movie about punk rockers) is “endearing” but you’ve just got to love a rhyming couplet that matches up “morgue” with “Bjorn Borg”. That’s a line from “Hate the Sport”, written by 13 year-old friends Bobo (Mira Barkhammer) and Klara (Mira Grosin). The city is Stockholm, the time is the early 1980s, and Bobo and Klara really hate P.E. class, which has inspired the pair to sign up for time at their school’s rehearsal space on a whim, so they can compose their punk anthem. While the space comes equipped with a drum kit and bass guitar, there is one drawback…neither of the girls knows how to play an instrument. But they do have the ethos (besides, Klara already sports a Mohawk) so they’re already halfway there.

Ostracized by their classmates for their tomboyish looks and demeanor, Bobo and Klara have formed their own social club of two. While Bobo is brooding and introspective, Klara is the more brash and outspoken of the pair. Klara also attaches great importance to maintaining one’s punk cred (in one particularly amusing scene she laments about her older brother being a “sellout” because he’s started listening to Joy Division). Still, attitude and cred alone will only get you so far if you really want to actually start making music, so how should they go about learning a chord or two? Salvation arrives in the unlikely guise of classically trained guitarist Hedwig (Liv LeMoyne), whom they espy performing in their school’s talent show. She is a devout Christian…but nobody’s perfect.

Writer-director Lukas Moodysson (who adapted the screenplay from a comic book created by his writer-musician wife, Coco) has fashioned an entertaining dramedy that nicely encapsulates the  roller coaster of emotions that define the early teen years. The trio of young leads have wonderful chemistry, and are able to telegraph those vacillating jumps between vibrant exuberance and painful awkwardness in a very authentic manner. I should warn parents that while I refer to the film as “endearing”, and would definitely consider it “girl power-positive”, I wouldn’t call it “family friendly” (it’s labelled with the nebulous “NR”, but has plenty of R-rated dialog).

Quick take: A Letter to Momo **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 6, 2014)

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Here’s something you don’t see every day…a family-friendly anime fantasy from Japan that isn’t produced by Studio Ghibli. That being said, Hiroyuki Okiyura’s film plays a bit like a medley of Studio Ghibli’s greatest hits; sort of a “Stars on 45” conundrum (sure sounds like the real thing, yet makes you yearn to hear the original). It’s a simple tale about a teenage girl named Momo who moves to an isolated island village with her widowed mother. Insular and slow to make new friends, Momo spends her time daydreaming and flipping through a box full of strange, antique picture books (“From the Edo era,” her great aunt tells her after offering to let her to peruse the collection at her leisure). Well, I needn’t tell you what happens once you start flipping through strange antique picture books from the Edo era…next thing you know, you’ve got a trio of goblins in your attic. They’re creepy, but they’re kooky. More significantly, they may give Momo closure on an unresolved issue regarding her late father. The hand-drawn animation is lovely, but the story meanders and the mood vacillates too frequently between family melodrama and silly slapstick to sustain any kind of consistent tone. Still, there are some  touching moments; and younger kids might be more forgiving.

Blu-ray reissue: Repo Man ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 6, 2013)

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Repo Man – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

As off-the-wall as it is, this punk-rock/sci-fi black comedy version of Rebel without a Cause is actually one of the more coherent efforts from mercurial U.K. filmmaker Alex Cox. Emilio Estevez is suitably sullen as a disenfranchised L.A. punk named Otto, who stumbles into a gig as a “repo man” after losing his job, getting dumped by his girlfriend and deciding to disown his parents. As he is indoctrinated into the samurai-like “code” of the repo man by a sage veteran named Bud (Harry Dean Stanton, in another masterful deadpan performance) Otto begins to realize that he may have found his true calling. A subplot involving a mentally fried government scientist on the run, driving around with a mysterious, glowing “whatsit” in the trunk is an obvious homage to Robert Aldrich’s 1955 noir, Kiss Me Deadly. Cox also tosses a UFO conspiracy into the mix. Great use of L.A. locations. The fabulous punk rock soundtrack includes Iggy Pop, Black Flag, and The Circle Jerks. I suspect I’m not the only cult movie geek who was quite excited to learn that this gem was finally receiving the Criterion treatment, and they’ve done it proud.

Blu-ray reissue: Quadrophenia ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2012)

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Quadrophenia – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

The Who’s eponymous 1973 double-LP rock opera, Pete Towshend’s musical love letter to the band’s first g-g-generation of most rabid British fans (aka the “Mods”) inspired this memorable 1979 film from director Franc Roddam. With the 1964 “youth riots” that took place at the seaside resort town of Brighton as his catalyst, Roddam fires up a visceral character study in the tradition of the British “kitchen sink” dramas that flourished in the early 1960s.

Phil Daniels gives an explosive, James Dean-worthy performance as teenage “Mod” Jimmy. Bedecked in their trademark designer suits and Parka jackets, Jimmy and his Who (and ska)-loving compatriots cruise around London on their Vespa and Lambretta scooters, looking for pills to pop, parties to crash and “Rockers” to rumble with. The Rockers are identifiable by their greased-back hair, leathers, motorbikes, and their musical preference for likes of Elvis and Gene Vincent. Look for a very young (and much less beefier) Ray Winstone (as a Rocker) and Sting (as a Mod bell-boy, no less). Wonderfully acted by a spirited cast, it’s a heady mix of youthful angst and raging hormones, supercharged by the power chord-infused grandeur of the Who’s music.

I’m so happy that Criterion was able to get their hands on this one; previous editions suffered from beat-up prints and poorly equalized audio. With a meticulously restored hi-def transfer and a new 5.1 sound mix, the film looks and sounds fabulous. The director commentary track is quite enlightening.

Blu-ray reissue: Harold and Maude ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 30, 2012)

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Harold and Maude – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Harold loves Maude. And Maude loves Harold. It’s a match made in heaven-if only “society” would agree. Because Harold (Bud Cort) is a teenager, and Maude (Ruth Gordon) is about to turn 80. Falling in love with a woman old enough to be his great-grandmother is the least of Harold’s quirks. He’s a chronically depressed trustafarian who amuses himself by staging fake suicides to freak out his patrician mother (played by a  wonderfully droll Vivian Pickles). He also “enjoys” attending funerals-which is where they Meet Cute. The effervescent Maude is Harold’s diametric opposite; while he wallows in morbid speculation how any day could be your last, she seizes each day as if it actually were. Obviously, she has something to teach him. Despite dark undertones, this is one “midnight movie” that somehow manages to be life-affirming. The late Hal Ashby directed, and Colin Higgins wrote the screenplay. The memorable soundtrack is by Cat Stevens (the disc features a recent interview with the reclusive musician, who for the first time talks about how the songs came together). Criterion’s transfer is outstanding.

SIFF 2012: Fat Kid Rules the World **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 26, 2012)

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Fat Kid Rules the World marks the directorial debut for Matthew Lillard (who surprised many by revealing previously untapped depth as an actor in The Descendants last year). Lillard’s film, a sort of Gen Y take on Boudou Saved From Drowning (with a touch of Times Square) centers on a socially awkward high-school student named Troy (Jacob Wysocki) who lives in a cramped Seattle apartment with his ex-jarhead dad (Billy Campbell) and snotty younger brother.

One day, our glum hero is seized by a suicidal impulse and throws himself in front of a bus. He is saved by guitarist/street kid/Oxy junkie Marcus (Matt O’Leary), who demands $20 for the “service”. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship, with Marcus playing a punk rock Henry Higgins to the arrhythmic Troy’s Eliza Doolittle, encouraging him to locate his inner Cobain and learn to play the drums so they can storm the Seattle music scene. Marcus falls in love with a cute alternachick at school. He discovers rhythm. Life lessons are learned. Director and cast have their hearts in the right place, but it all sinks into a morass of After School Special clichés.

Lawyers, sons and money: Win Win ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 2, 2011)

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Back in my wintry Alaskan radio days (back in the 20th Century) there was a corny old one-liner that I wasn’t too proud to recycle once or twice as a weather forecast zinger:

In fact…it is SO cold, that as I drove past the courthouse this morning on my way to work…I spotted a lawyer who actually had his hands in his own pockets.” (SFX rim shot)

I don’t mean to insinuate that a “lawyer” is, by definition, an opportunistic, self-serving type;  what profession doesn’t have its “bad apples”? There are a lot of straight-shooting idealists out there practicing law. But I think we can all agree that that there are very few attorneys  who have never met a loophole or “gray area” they couldn’t eyeball from outer space-with their glasses cracked.

You get a vibe that attorney Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), the lumpy middle-aged protagonist of writer-director Thomas McCarthy’s new film Win Win, likely began his law career as one of those straight-shooting idealists. He’s an amiable fellow and a solid family man who devotes a good portion of his free time coaching the local high school wrestling team. There’s a noticeable deficit of statuettes in the trophy case, but Mike and his assistant coach (Jeffrey Tambor) try to keep up the positive reinforcement.

It’s too bad that Mike can’t turn some of that positive reinforcement back onto himself. While out for a morning jog with his friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale), he suffers a full-blown anxiety attack. Once the paramedics leave, Mike sheepishly opens up to his concerned pal (also an attorney) about the financial worries that have been keeping him up nights. Mike also confesses that he’s envious that Terry has amassed a relative fortune through his own successful law practice. Terry does his best to empathize, but as he is still reeling from a recent divorce, he’s anxious and depressed himself.

When one of his clients, an elderly man named Leo (Burt Young) is declared legally incapacitated, Mike comes up with a brainstorm for turning this “loss” into a “win win”. In order to pull it off, however, Mike will have to dive headfirst into one of those “gray areas” that I referenced earlier. After a brief wrestling match with his conscience, Mike offers himself to the court as Leo’s legal guardian. Leo can continue to live in his own house, and Mike will check in on him.

The judge raises an eyebrow, but grants him guardianship. So how does the “wrestling with his conscience” part figure in? Mike is fudging just a wee bit…and his wife (Amy Ryan). He actually intends to put Leo in an elder care center (a nice one, of course), so he won’t really be fussing with taking care of him, per se. Oh-and he’ll sort of “pocket” the monthly $1500 stipend Leo’s estate pays him for being a guardian. But, as long as Leo is content, and Mike is making some extra money to help support his own family, everybody wins-right?

Mike’s scheme runs like clockwork-until a potential spanner in the works named Kyle (Alex Shaffer) rolls into town. He’s Leo’s teenage grandson, who, despite his taciturn nature (quick to deflect any questions about his parental situation) ingratiates himself with Mike’s family-especially after he turns out to be a gifted wrestler. Mike can’t believe this streak of luck. But as they say-no good deed goes unpunished. Enter Kyle’s estranged mom (Melanie Lynskey), just out of drug rehab, armed with an attorney and looking for a steady income (like the $1500 a month she could get if the court appointed her as Dad’s legal guardian). Mike’s streak could be over.

In the hands of a lesser team (McCarthy co-wrote with Joe Tiboni), this narrative that could have descended into turgid family soap. But luckily, this is Thomas McCarthy, the actor/director who also helmed The Station Agent and The Visitor. A true “actor’s director”, McCarthy coaxes pitch-perfect performances from the entire cast.

It’s refreshing to see Giamatti underplay a role for a change; he’s a fine actor, but has been known to ham it up. It’s an outstanding turn, especially in his scenes with newcomer Shaffer (admirably holding his own with the seasoned players). The development of their relationship is central to the story, and neither of them hits a false note. Ryan is a wonder to behold as always; I think she remains a sorely underutilized talent and needs to be offered  a leading role immediately, if not sooner. Touching (but never maudlin), funny (without mugging) and genuinely heartwarming, this is a must-see.