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Entries in Teen Movies (3)

Thursday
Apr122018

TRUTH OR DARE

Stars: Lucy Hale, Tyler Posey, Violett Beane, Sophia Ali, Landon Liboiron, Nolan Gerard Funk, Sam Lerner, Brady Smith, Hayden Szeto, Morgan Lindholm, Aurora Perrineau and Tom Choi.
Writer: Jillian Jacobs, Michael Reisz, Christopher Roach and Jeff Wadlow
Director: Jeff Wadlow.

Rating: 2/5

A far more more ambitious narrative and punchy directorial approach was needed to carry off the high-concept horror tropes of the deadly dull thriller Truth or Dare, a college-kids-vs-malevolent-curse bore that clearly wants to be this generation’s Final Destination (or, at least, the better episodes of that hit-miss 00’s franchise).

Directed with professional indifference by journeyman Jeff Wadlow (Cry Wolf, 2005; Kick-Ass 2, 2013), Truth or Dare posits the notion, ‘What if the titular children’s game had real stakes?’, a potentially interesting premise that is then left in the hands of an insipid posse of one-dimensional characters to mull over.

The first half-hour of the film is Teen Horror 101; a group of demographically pleasing early 20-somethings (the do-gooder; the troubled party-girl; the hunky nice-guy; the jerk; the gay guy; the creep) head for a spring break in Mexico. Just how uninteresting are these kids? A boozy night at a beach dance party leads not to wildly unbridled hedonism, but instead a game of ‘truth or dare’, led by a handsome stranger who has latched on to the group.

After a moment of ‘what-just-happened?’ oddness, the group have resumed their well-off middle-class lives in College Town, USA. Our heroine, Olivia (an ok Lucy Hale, perkiness personified) begins to note the phrase ‘Truth or Dare’ everywhere she looks, until she responds in an embarrassingly public way, outing her friend Markie (Violett Beane) for being unfaithful to Lucas (Tyler Posey).

In the order in which they played the game in Mexico, each of the friends must face the challenge put to them by a temporarily possessed passer-by or acquaintance, whose wide-eyed, broadly grinning appearance resembles little more than that which can be accomplished by about a thousand different in-phone apps nowadays. Soon, it becomes clear that to defy the question means a painful death with the inevitability of everyone’s demise all but assured. Not that anyone’s passing seems to have any consequence at all on their friends or the community in which they live; nobody reacts with long-term grief or crippling shock at the string of deaths, even when video of one icky demise does the social media rounds.

The undoing of Truth or Dare as with many looked-good-on-paper concepts, is that it ultimately strays from its own logic and careens into preposterousness. Initially, Olivia gets three shots over the course of a day to answer the question, while other’s meet there doom within minutes; ‘the curse’ controls what you see and hear (even dabbling in street art to get its message across), yet at one point our heroine bounces between a dealing with the demon and chatting with her friends.

Wadlow kicks off Act 3 with an interminable scene involving a tongue-less ex-nun (don’t ask) and a bucketload of explanatory exposition that shuts down the story’s already meagre momentum. The ending, an underlit and shoddy sequence set in a dusty old Mexican convent, looks low-rent; the twist in the final reel proves to be both no twist at all and utterly indecipherable.

A propensity for characters to incessantly text and check Facebook may play believably with phone-gazing teens, but the device only serves to undercut the scares; ultimately, there are none. An adherence to PG-horror boundaries further hogties the chills, meaning the best that can be said for Truth or Dare is that the concept may transition into a passable SyFy/CW slot-filler. The only ones who convincingly suffer through a cursed existence are the paying audience members.

Friday
Apr072017

DANCE ACADEMY

Stars: Xenia Goodwin, Jordan Rodrigues, Thomas Lacey, Alicia Banit, Dena Kaplan, Keiynan Lonsdale, Nic Westaway, Tara Morce, Julia Blake and Miranda Otto.
Writer: Samantha Strauss
Director: Jeffery Walker.

Rating: 4/5

Balancing the expectations of small-screen fans and bigscreen newcomers as deftly as a well-executed arabesque, Dance Academy lovingly follows the cherub-faced teens of Australia’s internationally popular TV series (2010-2013) as they rite-of-passage into the realities of reconciling artistic dreams with the onset of young adulthood. Destined to be a slumber-party staple for years to come, the combination of an engaging young cast, moving and understated melodrama and sensationally staged dance sequences make for a commercially potent package.

In the 18 months since the class graduated from National Academy of Dance, fortunes have varied for the key characters. Tara (a terrific Xenia Goodwin) has struggled to recover physically and mentally from a crippling back injury; her bf Christian (Jordan Rodrigues) has channelled his passion into the next generation of dancers, tutoring a harbourside dance class; Abigail (Dena Kaplan) is determinedly sticking to her dreams of dancing lead for the National Ballet Company under ice-queen Madeline Moncure (Miranda Otto, playing to the back row as the film’s closest thing to a villain); and, bombshell Kat (Alicia Banit) has found stardom in the US.

Having knocked back a million dollar payout for her injuries, Tara gambles on her dream and heads to New York where she reconnects with Kat and fallen teen idol Ollie (Keiynan Lonsdale), whose been reduced to the same round of thankless chorus auditions as Tara must endure. It takes the reappearance of series’ favourite Ben (Thomas Lacey), whose own plight puts all other concerns in perspective and refocusses the chemistry and dynamic of the group, to help Tara redefine her goals and ambitions. Oz acting greats Julia Blake and, fittingly, Tara Morice, star of the iconic 1992 dance pic Strictly Ballroom, impact in support roles.


In the hands of alumni helmer Jeffery Walker (director of 8 episodes) and writer and co-creator Samantha Strauss (scribe of 23), this exercise in brand upsizing avoids any notion of ‘cynical cash-in’ by affectionately crafting warmly relatable characters and a (mostly) believable narrative. Australian cinema has a chequered past with TV-to-film reworkings. Michael Carson’s Police Rescue (1994) embraced the larger canvas, resulting in a pleasing if low-key actioner and the late Steve Irwin’s daft family adventure The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course (2002) was pleasing enough, but more often adaptations resemble stitched-together episodes (Number 96, 1974) or, worse yet, risible misfires that kill off any lingering goodwill (Kath and Kimderella, 2012).

While maintaining the heart that helped make it a small-screen hit, Dance Academy looks every bit the sumptuous bigscreen drama. The film is rich in tech assets, with the dance-friendly widescreen cinematography of 47-episode veteran Martin McGrath (Proof, 1991; Muriel’s Wedding, 1994; Swimming Upstream, 2003), original score by Oscar-nominated David Hirschfelder (Shine, 1996; Elizabeth, 1998) and the precise editing of Nikola Krulj and Geoffrey Lamb all strengthening the legitimate franchise potential. It is a clearly achievable goal, with every frame exhibiting the same crowd-pleasing qualities as profitable properties Pitch Perfect and Step Up.

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.