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Entries in Coming-of-Age (4)

Saturday
Dec102016

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

Stars: Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Ly Richardson, Blake Jenner, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Hayden Szeto and Alexander Calvert.
Writer/director: Kelly Fremon Craig.

Rating: 4.5/5

The beautiful words and deceptively complex humans are entirely the creation of writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig, but it is undeniable that her remarkable debut feature The Edge of Seventeen has clearly been afforded the wise, guiding hand of producer, James L. Brooks.

On the rare occasion that contemporary mainstream cinema offers up smart, cool teen protagonists such as Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine Franklin, they are immediately aligned with the 80’s oeuvre of the late John Hughes, specifically Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles. But Nadine’s determination to inflict her defining personality traits upon those with whom she shares this world – general teen angst, profoundly ingrained grief and a fear of loss that manifests as caustic wit and social solitude – more accurately resembles the dark psyches of Brooks’ great anti-heroes, notably Jack Nicholson’s Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets and Shirley MacLaines’ Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment.

Fremon Craig sets that bittersweet tone from Scene 1; Nadine is in a heightened panic, unloading upon Woody Harrelson’s cool teach Mr Bruner some well-considered suicide options. Defying all the clichés of the flashback device, a wonderful montage establishes Nadine’s long-held outsider status and the importance of her soul mate friend, Krista (Ava Grace Cooper as a tot; a terrific Haley Lu Richardson through the awkward years). After tragedy reshapes the start of her train-wreck teen years, the dynamic she shares with her slowly unravelling mom, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) and stoic, beau-hunk brother, Darian (Blake Jenner) takes on a quite desperation, interspersed with high tension.

The 80s high school vibe is dragged kicking and screaming into the present-day when Nadine’s lustful fascination with brooding senior Nick (Alexander Calvert) is conveyed via an accidental tweet, leading to a tense night-time car park encounter. Fremon Craig and her leading lady subvert both the dramatic and comedic potential inherent in this achingly portrayed sequence; it is a razor-sharp piece of character development that foreshadows a revelatory cathartic Act 3. It is also a reminder that the edge of seventeen is a complex, often dangerous time when girls are faced with navigating their own path into young womanhood.

The Academy’s respect for the younger audience will be reflected in their willingness to reward Hailee Steinfeld with an Oscar nomination. James L Brooks guides his leading ladies to podium glory (three Best Actress trophies, to MacLaine, Holly Hunter for Broadcast News and Helen Hunt for As Good As It Gets), but ‘teen pics’ do not always survive award season vetting. Recent nominees who were under 20 include Quvenzhane Wallis (Beast of The Southern Wild, 2012), Gabourey Sidobe (Precious, 2009), Carey Mulligan (An Education, 2009) and Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider, 2003), all featuring in films that carried Oscar-friendly thematic add-ons. The only comparable films to find Oscar’s favour have been Juno (for which Ellen Page earned a 2007 nomination) and 1999’s Election (for which Reese Witherspoon did not; the film made the Best Screenplay shortlist).

Steinfeld must be a front-runner for a role that careens between brittle toughness, wordy bravado and heartbreaking sweetness. Also in contention must be Fremon Craig’s script, which plays to the teen audience with recognisable moments of anguish and glee (the romance subplot involving Hayden Szeto’s American/Korean student feels both fresh and warmly familiar) while exploring some very adult emotions; as with the best of the genre, it is a film about teenagers but not just for teenagers.

The teen movie beats ring true because Nadine inspires a faith that fate will cut her a break, despite her best efforts to derail destiny. We shouldn’t cheer, even care, for her, but all her flaws and idiosyncrasies are all ours, too; we adore her because we recognise her struggle. Every generation has a teen character that personifies the real and unreal of those horrible, wonderful years and whose struggles still resonate; Benjamin Braddock, Joel Goodsen, Lloyd Dobler, Cher Horowitz, Tracy Flick. For this generation (and many more to come), there is Nadine Franklin in The Edge of Seventeen, a coming of age journey as good as it gets.

Monday
May162016

RAW

Stars: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Marion Verneux, Jean-Louis Sbille and Joana Preis.
Writer/Director: Julia Ducournau

Screened in Semaine de la Critique selection at 69th Festival de Cannes; reviewed at Olympia Cinemas 2, Cannes.

Rating: 4/5

While filmmakers and audiences tend to gag at the thought of ‘the other C-word’ onscreen, writer/director Julia Ducournau and her fearless leading lady Garance Marillier launch themselves teeth first into their bloody and occasionally brilliant cannibal horror pic, Raw (aka Grave, to its homeland Euro auds).

Blood ties and the inflamed passion of a woman’s blossoming are central to the French director’s strikingly accomplished first feature, one of the most invigorating debuts in recent memory. A coming-of-age tale conveyed with deftly handled emotional complexity and chilling thematic subtext, Raw is above all else a gut twisting work of classic body horror. On one occasion, your seasoned scribe averted his eyes in anticipation of what was about to unfold; there were a couple of other times when he wished he had.

In almost every frame is teen actress Garance Marillier as Justine, a committed vegetarian(!) who we meet as she is being delivered by her parents (Laurent Lucas, Joana Preis) to veterinary college. From the first night, senior students haze and harass the newbies; Justine is cut no slack by her big sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), who so fervently adheres to university tradition she makes Justine eat raw rabbit kidney instead of being shamed before her peers.

Justine’s despair at eating flesh manifests in scaly, itchy skin; in one excrutiating but brilliantly sound-designed sequence, she works her nails deep into the red patches that have formed. Worse is yet to come, however, as the hunger for raw meat becomes an all-consuming need for Justine, her ravenous desires of every kind escalating to predatory proportions.

Such developments would be sufficient for many lesser works, but Ducornau taps a rich vein of sibling rivalry drama and familial intrigue that elevates the stakes and pits Marillier against the ferocity of Ella Rumpf’s Alexia. There are corpulent detours and the odd surreal touch along the way, but nothing derails the foreboding menace and driving dramatic pulse of the story; the denouement, a shocking sequence that plays like a real-world nightmare, and icky coda will induce a goosepimply bout of the cold sweats.

Raw is a film that both embraces and defies cinematic traditions. The sublime camerawork of DOP Ruben Impens (The Broken Circle Breakdown, 2013; The Sky Above Us, 2015) enhances the narrative while also subverting the genre; coming-of-age loveliness can turn to animalistic rage from one frame to the next. Other major assets include co-star Rabah Nait Oufella as coarse but caring gay roommate Adrien; the dizzying music score by Jim Williams (Sightseers, 2012; Kill List, 2011); and, of course, the precise and often sickening work done by the make-up effects units led by Olivier Alfonso and Laura Ozier. Julia Ducournau’s command of the production and assured guidance in the pursuit of her harrowing, unforgettable vision signifies the director as a new major talent. 

Tuesday
Oct202015

GIRL ASLEEP

Stars: Bethany Whitmore, Harrison Feldman, Imogen Archer, Eamon Farren, Matthew Whittet, Amber McMahon, Tilda Cobham-Hervey and Maiah Stewardson.
Writer: Matthew Whittet.
Director: Rosemary Myers.

Rating: 4.5/5

From Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Year My Voice Broke to Muriel’s Wedding and Somersault, Australian cinema has a prestigious tradition of vividly conveying that achingly beautiful, emotionally baffling divide between a young lady’s childhood and the mysteries of the adult world that lay before her. That legacy is strengthened further with director Rosemary Myers’ vibrant, fearless debut feature, Girl Asleep.

In fact, much about Myers’ adaptation of writer (and scene-stealing support player) Matthew Whittet’s play also shares its DNA with the best teen movie classics from beyond our shores. In addition to such influential charmers as John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles and Mark Waters’ Mean Girls, Girl Asleep could be cut from the same party-dress material as Katherine Dohan and Alanna Stewart’s 2012 non-pro no-budgeter What I Love About Concrete. Both share a giddy, free-for-all sensibility and delightfully idiosyncratic protagonists, who cope with the insanities of teen life by embracing the power of memory and imagination (similarities are purely coincidental, as both projects were long in development and the creative teams separated by half a planet).

The heart and soul of the just-quirky-enough narrative is nearly-15 year-old Greta, played with a meek but disarmingly charming innocence by the terrific Bethany Whitmore (Summer Coda, 2010; Mental, 2012). As she sits alone on a schoolyard bench, circa late 1970s, hilarious caricatures of high-school life swirl around her in a predominantly static long-take that announces Myers as a skilled craftsperson. Greta is befriended by fellow outsider Elliott, with boisterous ginge Harrison Feldman nailing that most crucial component of teen movie lore – the kooky bestie with a crush on our unknowing star.

Colouring Greta’s world various shades of awkward and embarrassed are saucy mum Janet (Amber McMahon), goofy dad Conrad (Whittet), big sister Genevieve (Imogen Archer) and her sexed-up boyfriend Adam (Eamon Farren). School is a nightmare, with queen-bee Jade (Maiah Stewardson) and her posse (twins Grace and Fiona Dawson) making Greta’s world hell. When Janet and Colin decide to make a big deal of Greta’s 15th and throw an all-or-nothing party (featuring a crowd-pleasing splash of music and dance that indicates a larger canvas would suit Myers’ eye for staging), the teetering narrative strands collide and threaten to implode Greta’s fragile emotional state. Such beats sound Teen Pic 101, which is also the point, as bracing originality enlivens the tropes with compelling pacing and comically precise scenarios.

The pic finds its raison d’etre when the production takes a fantastical third-act detour into Greta’s dark and dangerous subconscious. Featuring an imposing Tilda Cobham-Hervey (52 Tuesdays, 2013) as a woodland warrior/guardian angel type, these sequences are purely dreamlike and serve to guide Greta towards a core strength that will serve her as her adult self begins to form. They are inspiring flights of fantasy, employed with a lightness of touch yet convey the weight of a young woman’s maturation. These sequences alone will ensure Greta and her existential adventures should become not only a hot film festival item in the months ahead but also (and, perhaps, more importantly) a slumber-party staple for years to come.

As the Artistic Director of Adelaide’s Windmill Theatre Company, Rosemary Myers oversaw the initial stage production of Girl Asleep and her affinity towards and profound understanding of the material is evident. Wildly funny and deeply moving in equal measure, it is a work rich in larrikin character but universal in its themes and appeal. As Greta embraces her blossoming self, so to does Australian cinema welcome another memorable movie heroine.

Saturday
May022015

THE CROW'S EGG (KAAKKA MUTTAI)

Stars: Aishwarya Rajesh, Ramesh Thilaganathan, Ramesh and Vignesh.
Writer/Director:  M. Manikandan.

Watch the trailer here.

Reviewed at the Opening Night of the 2014 Brisbane Asia-Pacific Film Festival; the full details of the Sydney Film Festival programme are available here.

Rating: 3/5

M. Manikandan’s debut feature The Crow’s Egg is a child’s-eye tale of exuberance and kinship that only loses its focus when it wants to play grown-up.

Set against the dire conditions of Chennai’s slum metropolis (approximately a third of the population of the South Indian city live in crude shanty communities), The Crow’s Egg tells of the vibrant lives that two pre-teen brothers forge for themselves. Known only as ‘Big Crow’s Egg’ (Ramesh) and ‘Little Crow’s Egg’ (Ramesh Thilaganathan) due to their penchant for raiding bird’s nests for a quick snack, the pair indulges in good-hearted mischief as a means by which to procure a spare morsel of food or some meagre cash.

In their meanderings, they encounter glimpses of a middle-class life they realise they will never know. All this changes when corrupt developers level their only play area and build a ‘Pizza Stop’ fast-food outlet. Having nagged their harried but loving mother (Aishwarya Rajesh) into purchasing a well-worn television set, they glimpse ‘TV advertising’ for the first time and set about saving enough rupee to buy the cheapest menu item - a single slice of what is truly horrible looking pie.

Confidently embracing feature-length storytelling after his critically acclaimed 2010 short ‘Wind’, Manikandan finds joyous rapport amongst his key cast who soar in the film’s first half. The sense of family and the boy’s giddy interaction with the frantic city life in which they exist are two of The Crow’s Eggs strongest assets; the other is beautiful beige puppy that steals scenes with its very presence alone.

Less assured is a class-based subplot that boils to the surface after one of the boys has his dreams shattered with a swift, brutal slap from the pizza store owner. As phone-video footage of the incident goes viral, Manikandan’s sweet, rousing character-driven plotting becomes mired in boardroom bickering, as corporate suits and street-level franchisees argue as to how best handle the PR mess. These scenes are a miscalculation; a long section of the film jettisons the boy’s story altogether, recovering just in time for the fanciful if undeniably feel-good fadeout.  

Shooting in his native Tamil language, Manikandan shrewdly eschews the traditional Bollywood dance interludes in favour of a selection of swiftly-edited musical montages that achieve the required upbeat effect. Lazy marketing that posits the film as the Slumdog Millionaire sequel-of-sorts that apparently we have always wanted is doing Manikandan’s bittersweet gem a disservice; The Crow’s Egg lacks the polished veneer of Danny Boyle’s crowd-pleaser, but delivers a far more faithful and resonant depiction of the spirit and integrity of the Indian downtrodden than the Oscar winner ever gets close to.