films

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Heller, 2015)

There are so few films about teenage girls. The ones that do exist – and some, like Ghost World and My Summer of Love, are great – are almost entirely written and directed by men. Whilst teenage boys have countless stories about growing up, discovering their sexuality, becoming an adult, there are very few reflections on young womanhood that draw from actual experience, that are written by women, for women. So it’s great that we have The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a film that has a woman in every major role behind and in front of the camera, and as a result is a direct, honest and daring portraits of burgeoning adulthood, in either gender.

Set in the mid-70s, it concerns the 15-year-old Minnie (a fearless Bel Powley), whose recently awoken libido fixates upon her mother’s boyfriend, the 30-something Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), who is only happy to indulge her. He’s taking advantage of her, but this is less statutory rape than it is emotional manipulation –  but he’s also taking advantage of her mother (Kirsten Wiig), who is just as needy and vulnerable as she is. This is no cautionary tale. Minnie doesn’t fully grasp the toll that the Monroe is having on her, but she still has her own agency, and she’s still making her own decisions. It’s not even him that she’s infatuated with – she just wants to have sex, and Monroe, with his charm and his openly sexual manner, is the person who is most available to her. She falls for him not because of him, but to reassure herself that she is worth loving. As she says: “I want a body pressed up next to me, just to know that I’m really here.”

He’s only one thread of the tapestry, too – part of what sets Diary apart from its peers is that it’s not small or contained. This is no slice-of-life; it’s a chronicle, tracking her journey from scared, confused girl to young woman, and it moves through its moods and incidents with tremendous fluidity and confidence. Minnie’s journey goes to some genuinely dark places in the film’s final third, and the film doesn’t water down or excuse any of the poor decisions she makes. Minnie’s path to adulthood isn’t easy, Diary suggests, but it is necessary, and it does happen.

And even if it doesn’t happen to every girl, if most’s teenage years aren’t quite as extreme, her feelings and her actions will be recognisable and reassuring to myriads who are never told by the media that their libidos, their wants, and their fears are normal, that look and be a certain way þ one that appeals to men. It’s a film that’s destined to resonate with anyone who’s ever felt alienated by the lack of people like them in mainstream media. So it’s a true outrage that the BBFC deigned to give Diary an 18 certificate for scenes that they wouldn’t bat an eyelid at had the genders been reversed. So I implore you, young teenage girls: get fake IDs, sneak in the back exit, buy a ticket to Minions and go into the other screen, because this film is about you, and it’s for you.

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Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (Decker, 2014)

I was a huge fan of Josephine Decker’s first film, Butter on the Latch, when I caught it last year. It was a strange, hallucinatory reflection upon female friendship set in a Balkan folk music camp, and its radical style could easily be compared to Terence Malik or David Lynch, but had an intense, dark physicality of its own. Her second feature, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, employs that same style to such a similar extent as to consider the two films a diptych, but her sophomore feature improves on the promise of Butter on the Latch in almost every way, providing greater clarity in terms of plot without sacrificing any of the elliptical expressiveness that made her first feature so remarkable.

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely concerns Akin (Joe Swanberg), a young, married man who conceals this fact about himself when he goes to work at a farm set out of time and place. There he meets Sarah (Sophie Traub, in an absolutely fearless performance), the daughter of the hostile farm owner Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet), and begins a passionate affair. Sarah is wild and volatile, and Akin never feels fully at ease with either family member, even as he slowly becomes more engrossed in this little world. When his wife eventually comes to visit, things take a turn more explicitly into horror and the tensions that were brewing under the surface bubble up spectacularly.

The film’s key focus is on Sarah, who is a singular creation unlike anything I’ve seen before. She is defined by her raw, earthy sexuality, at once completely unguarded whilst somehow also being manipulative and scheming, sometimes startlingly direct and other times enigmatic and veiled. Speaking at a Q&A at the BFI last weekend, Decker spoke of how she was inspired by Cathy from East of Eden, and that writers in film and literature are often afraid to tap into the darker parts of female sexuality. Sarah spends large portions of the film writhing alone in animalistic sexual ecstasy with the landscape, but this isn’t as simple or reductive as a celebration of her feminine attunement to the natural world; there’s a real monstrousness to Sarah that provides us with no easy answers. In voiceover, she’s constantly referring to her lover, but she doesn’t mean Akin. She means death.

And if there’s darkness creeping around the edges of Decker’s film for the most part, they completely envelop it by its close. Decker’s style, as with Butter on the Latch, reduces its characters to body parts and physical movements throughout, and its rare for you to see a face clearly. But for a time towards the end of Mild and Lovely its characters are almost completely abstracted, reduced to breath and sensation. Its eventual closing shot – a panorama that feels like a huge breath of relief after the extreme close-ups that define the rest of the film – has to be one of the most striking we’ll see all year.

But for all its visceralness, what makes Thou Wast Mild and Lovely so unique is the questions it asks. For all of Decker’s sensuous style, she is first and foremost a thinker, and none of her radical expressiveness would be worth anything if there wasn’t a clear voice behind it, asking important questions. Decker will be considered a feminist filmmaker, and rightly so considering her keen engagement with female sexuality and women’s perspectives, but her themes are more universal than that, engaging directly with questions about our relationships with each other, with the natural world, and with our own selves. One can still see Decker developing in these films, still feeling out what works and what doesn’t, but even if moments fall flat, the overall impression is of a unique and powerful voice in independent cinema.

Song of the Sea (Moore, 2014)

The world may rightfully be in mourning for the end of Studio Ghibli, but it can rest assured that its demise won’t signal the end of groundbreaking 2-D animation. In what is becoming a landmark year for animation, Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea stands head and shoulders above its competitors, boasting design so gorgeous it’ll make your eyes water and some of the most charming storytelling you’ll see in a children’s film this year. I went into Song of the Sea expecting just this – one only need look at the trailer to realise that they’re in for a treat. What I didn’t expect was to be met with one of the very best films of the year, its beautiful design existing to serve storytelling equally as soulful and thoughtful.

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Beyond the Lights (Prince-Bythewood, 2014)

Beyond the Lights is released straight-to-DVD here in the UK this week, and this makes sense to a degree. On paper, it sounds exactly the kind of thing you’d expect to find in the bargain bin of a Matalan or appearing on one of the channels somewhere in the late 30s on the freeview listings. It’s a crying shame that it’s being judged on first impressions, though, because in spite of first appearances, it’s a passionate, emotionally intellgent film that transcends its clichéd concept through the sheer force of its writing and performances. It also helps that the film is committed to presenting its world as the same as our own: the places are real, the award ceremonies are real (the Billboards and BETs), the references to social media and other current pop songs don’t feel forced, and Chaka Khan even pops up at one point to compliment the protagonist’s hair.

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London Film Festival 2014: Round-up Part 2

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The Town that Dreaded Sundown (Gomez-Rejon, 2014)

Not quite a remake, reboot, or sequel to the 1976 original, The Town that Dreaded Sundown sets itself in the real town that was set upon by the unsolved “Phantom Killer” murders in the 40s that then formed the basis of the original film 30 years later. Everyone in the town of Texarcana on the border of Texas and Arkansas knows its legacy – there are screenings of the original film every Halloween at the drive-in – so when a copycat killer strikes and reignites a hysteria that has been laying dormant for decades it feels as though the whole town itself is culpable.

The original Town that Dreaded Sundown is a minor but interesting horror movie – basically a set of effective sequences strung together by some dull procedural and some head-smackingly dumb slapstick – so it’s surprising to see so many interesting ideas being flung around here. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
does well to focus on the survivor of this new phantom’s first attack, rooting his film in the genuine protagonist that the original film lacked. And though the actual horror plotline is as routine as they come, the specifics of the real-life setting provide enough underpinning context and colour to keep things engaging, particularly in town hall scenes that explore the difficulty of having a town on a state border (two mayors, two sheriffs), the impact that the original string of murders had on the town, and the way that the first movie meant that they could consign it to history – effectively turning the Phantom murders into a myth that they didn’t have to engage with.

Gomez-Rejon has some visual style, too, smartly intercutting his action with footage from the original, and instilling some haunting imagery into his set pieces. The result is striking, original horror film that manages to say something new from something old.

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London Film Festival 2014: Round-up Part 1

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Dear White People (Simien, 2014)

It’s hard to comment on the ideas being explored in Dear White People, as I’m so far removed from them. As a white Brit I can only listen to director Justin Simien and take him for his word, but suffice to say that this satire, cartoonish in style though it may be, rings very true about racism in the US, particularly amongst the middle classes. Its Ivy League campus setting proves to be a fantastic sounding board for myriad ideas, and its exploration of the black experience – particularly the performance of race and the various ways that black people find to survive and assimilate into a predominantly white world and the politics of this – feel illuminating and vital.

It’s also very funny, and Simien has a remarkable amount of visual flair and ambition for a first-time director. Spike Lee will inevitably the first point of comparison, but he also touches on Kubrick in his framing and Altman in the way he deftly handles his huge cast of characters – all of them broadly written but as clear as a bell. The cast are uniformly excellent, but Tessa Thompson as the righteous-but-vulnerable Samantha White emerges a true star. One can only hope that Hollywood will find more roles for women of colour so we can see her shine again.

 

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The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (Oreck, 2014)

This ravishing, poetic essay-film about the tension between the traditional and the modern in Eastern Europe, with its focus on mushroom foraging and folklore, is rendered all the more fascinating when you discover that its director, Jessica Oreck, is American, and this film is much more of an anthropological study than anything rooted in personal experience. Either way, it’s a hypnotic exploration of man’s interactions with nature and the traditions that keep a culture rooted in the land that it comes from, even in the wake of a century fraught with conflict.

The animated fairytale that she scatters in counterpoint throughout her film is lovingly rendered and has a clear purpose in illustrating the kinds of stories her subjects were raised upon, and her most powerful images, particularly those of the nearly abandoned, Chernobyl-adjacent Pripyat, with its overturned libraries and decaying ferris wheels, are indicative of a culture that had its heart ripped out attempting to rediscover its roots.

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White God (Mundruczó, 2014)

There was a lot of laughter in the screening of White God I attended, but I suspect that there were few moments of intentional comedy in the film itself. In fact, it may have been one of the most earnest films in the entire festival. The tale of a dog that gets put through the wringer after been separated from his loving owner  and emerges as the leader of a doggy uprising against humans, this Hungarian film by Kornél Mundruczó  somehow won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, despite being tonally baffling and ill-thought out in its internal logic.

The problem is that it tries to have it both ways when it comes to its canine protagonist, Hagen: he maintains his doggy instincts throughout but also seems to have the heart and mind of a human, meaning that we never feel on solid footing with our main character, who in one scene will be successfully conditioned into a snarling prize fighter, and in the next will seem so human you half expect him to start talking. Images of huge packs of dogs terrorising the populace are a lot of fun, but even in its satisfying third act the film is fraught with coincidences and ill-thought-out plot developments. Absolutely the best dog performance of the year, though.

 

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Amirpour, 2014)

Billed as “The first Iranian vampire western” (though mostly American in design) LA-based Ana Lily Amirpour’s truly distinctive debut feature has bags of style and poise. Set in the fictional Iranian town of Bad City and shot in moody black-and-white, it tells the story of a lonely vampire (Sheila Vand) slowly falling in love with the hapless Arash (Arash Marandi), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night spends most of its time skulking through dark, lamplit streets and dim, decaying apartment buildings, to great effect. Amirpour devotes most of her time to shooting her lead actress with all the attention her astonishing performance deserves, and the film’s best moments are the ones where little happens and the film’s pervasive, lonely-romantic mood is allowed to take over.

The problem is that Amirpour seems more concerned with cool than she is with story, so the film falls flat when things have to happen. Early scenes involving a pimp drug dealer are far too broad to fit into the rest of the film, and the film’s actual plot is so ineffectual that it drags the more powerful, plotless sequences down with it. This film is based on an earlier short of Amirpour’s, and one can’t help but feel that there wasn’t quite enough material here for a whole film. Nonetheless, it’s a striking, satisfyingly unusual film and a director to look out for in the future.

London Film Festival 2014: It Follows (Mitchell, 2014)

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Any child of the 90s will tell you that sex = death in the horror movie, that the moment the virgin (and we’re only talking women here) pops her cherry, she signs her own death warrant. It’s a trope that hasn’t yet borne much scrutiny: Scream highlighted it but did nothing to dismantle it; Cherry Falls attempted to flip the script on it but failed by not being very good. So, it’s a huge relief that we now have It Follows, one of the first horror movies to really examine the idea that teens need to be punished for having sex, and one of the best, scariest, and most visually ravishing horror movies in years.

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