Tag Archives: Coming of Age

CAPSULE: GIRL ASLEEP (2015)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rosemary Myers

FEATURING: , Harrison Feldman, Matthew Whittet, Amber McMahon, Imogen Archer, Eamon Farren, Maiah Stewardson

PLOT: A socially awkward girl falls asleep at her disastrous and unwanted 15th birthday party and enters a fantasy world.

Still from Girl Asleep (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Content to dawdle pleasantly through a merely quirky opening, Girl Asleep doesn’t make a mad dash for the weird until its midpoint. It’s an eccentric and worthy entry in the feminine coming-of-age subgenre, but not strange enough for the List.

COMMENTS: Girl Asleep is like what might result if you put Labyrinth, Napoleon Dynamite, and a random movie in a blender. Other critics have been quick to pick up on the last two influences, but not so much on the first one, which is crucial to us. Girl takes a radical turn at the midpoint, when Greta enters a blatantly allegorical dream world, which takes it in a direction Anderson probably would never have gone. ( might have, but he would not have kept it so sweet).

But let’s back up a bit. Girl starts off simply enough, with soon-to-be 15-year old Greta at a new school on the first day. (The fact that “new school: first day” is written on a basketball being thrown up in the air is our tip-off that this film will have a spry and offbeat sense of humor—look out for objects with informational titles spread throughout  the film). Queue Elliot, the movie’s indefatigably upbeat friendly nerd, who’s the first to strike up a friendship with the newcomer. Second to approach her are Jade, Sapphire and Amber, the school’s bitchy-cool girls, who “take a shine” to her like a team of Australian Heathers. Dad wears short-shorts and Mom wears denim pantsuits—this is the Seventies, after all, as the home’s gold-and-avocado color scheme should inform you. Older sis is aloof, but her smooth boyfriend’s plunging neckline and aquamarine party van stir some instincts inside of Greta. After a string of ordinary teenage humiliations, things get really embarrassing when Mom plans a fifteenth birthday bash for the wallflower so she can meet the neighbors in the most awkward way possible. A magical realist album cover from chain-smoking heart-throb Benoit Tremet and spontaneous disco numbers keep a weirder-than-average vibe going through the first forty minutes.

Fleeing to her bedroom mid-party, an electric shock from a nostalgic music box sends Greta into a dark Gothic woods seeking to retrieve her symbolic innocence from a bird puppet and a mucousy swamp thing with a porn stache. It never gets uncomfortably weird, but there are lots of strange sights in the woods, which persist when the girl returns to her party. The easy-to-grasp analogies between Greta’s real life and her dream world, strengthened by the fact that the same actors portray characters in the fantasy, will remind experienced travelers of familiar psychic terrains (from Mirrormask and the aforementioned Labyrinth). The simplified sub-Freudian symbolism is appropriate for the target age group, just frightening enough to hint at the challenges of adulthood without tossing Greta into the terrifying orgies of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. The plot’s zigs and offbeat jokes keep us on our toes, and despite the mild absurdism the kids are as likable, flawed and realistic as any John Hughes cast. Overall, it’s a fun movie that will serve a fine escalation of the possibilities of fantastic cinema for adolescents, while the quirky setting amuses adults.

Matthew Whittet, who also plays the dad, adapted Girl Asleep from his own play. Rosemary Myers directs. Although Whittet has an established career as an actor (appearing in Moulin Rogue! and The Great Gatsby), this is his first published screenplay. Girl is the first credit of any kind for Myers. Both have promising futures, as do  Bethany Whitmore and Harrison Feldman, the film’s two young leads.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…plays like the love child of Jane Campion and Guy Maddin, an otherworldly quinceañera that celebrates female rites of passage and the hallucinatory power of film.”–Serena Donadoni, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE FITS (2016)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Anna Rose Holmer

FEATURING: Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett

PLOT: A preteen tomboy finds herself drawn into the dance classes at her local recreation center, but soon after she joins the group the older girls begin suffering mysterious seizures.

The Fits (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While definitely of interest to aficionados of weirdness, and a highly recommended film overall, it just doesn’t reach the levels of  bizarre we aim for with the List.

COMMENTS: Toni (Royalty Hightower) is a quiet, athletic 11-year-old girl who spends her afternoons at the local rec center with her older brother, training in the boxing gym with a group of teen boys. She finds herself compelled to join the dance drill team that rehearses down the hall, feeling shy around the girls but determined to show off her moves. Though she doesn’t appear to be naturally gifted at dance, she sticks with it and befriends some of the other new recruits, observing the older girls who lead the troupe with the curiosity of a child and the growing understanding of a young adult. When the seizures start, Toni and her friends are more intrigued than scared, and they watch from afar as more and more of the older girls are affected by this unexplained malady. Toni begins to suspect that it’s intentional, that they want it, and it becomes a kind of calling card for a cool inner circle.

Based on plot alone, The Fits sounds like a fairly standard coming-of-age drama, and in some ways it is: a shy and intelligent girl finds community within a larger group, learns about new adult realities, maintains her independence, etc. The parallels between the girls’s seizures and female puberty are obvious, as Toni feels the kind of ostracization and curiosity that preteen girls might experience as their friends start getting (and discussing) their periods. Along with fear of the unknown there is a pride attached to the phenomenon, a feeling of special knowledge and maturity. Throughout the film, we see our tomboy protagonist slowly acquiring visual markers coded as “girly,” including glitter nail polish and pierced ears, which help her fit in with her friends. But she slowly sheds them all, retaining her sense of difference. Eventually, Toni (and the audience) senses that there is a kind of freedom attached to the seizures—the precise, fluid movements of the drill team are liberally flung out the window in the sudden and erratic fits the girls exhibit. There is a beauty to letting go, to giving in to being a girl, to finding acceptance in her changing, awkward preteen body.

With a keen observational eye and resourceful use of a single location (the town recreational center), first-time director Anna Rose Holmer fully engages with the perspective of her central character. We see everything through Toni’s eyes, and the subtle, powerful performance of Royalty Hightower communicates a world of experience with little expository dialogue. But the most intriguing stylistic element of The Fits is its sound. While one might realistically expect a soundtrack of dance music, specifically pop or hip hop, to go with the performances of the drill team, the music rarely matches the action onscreen. Instead we are treated to bizarre, somewhat abstract soundscapes that create a sense of intrinsic eeriness, hinting that something must be wrong here. The surreal music serves to pick apart the weirdness of adolescence, and to heighten the anxiety and uncertainty Toni feels every day behind her stony exterior as she maneuvers the muddy waters between childhood and adulthood. Without it, the events of the film would be dramatic, but not necessarily extraordinary. With it, we are left with a distinct but ambiguous sense of strangeness, an itch we can’t quite scratch, a mystery never to be solved. And yet, thanks to an exuberant final dance number, there’s a contentment that goes along with it, suggesting the power of sisterhood.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a beautiful, hauntingly precarious coming of age film that uses mystery and an at times dream-like atmosphere to create a mesmerizing tale.”–Rob Hunter, Film School Rejects (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, David Warner

PLOT: A young girl moves from the city to a big house in the country. Her dreams mirror her dissociation from her surroundings and family, and an examination of her development as a person (and as a girl becoming a woman) follows through increasingly odd studies of gender and of the notion of the werewolf.

Still from The Company of Wolves (1984)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Neil Jordan’s second film is co-written by the sadly deceased Angela Carter, and her literary tralents are on full display here in an extremely layered and artful examination of gender and sexuality set against traditional folk tales such as Red Riding Hood. Ostensibly a single narrative, Company of Wolves loses itself in stories within stories, all held together as one long dream sequence. This film is quite a feverish and nuanced experience that is a must for inclusion on the List.

COMMENTS: Angela Carter was a fine writer, and anyone who is a fan of the written as well as the cinematic weird who hasn’t yet discovered her would be advised to do so. Company of Wolves draws on the traditions of spoken word narrative and folktales seen through a modern lens. Its source material is Carter’s short story collection “The Bloody Chamber,” which she herself described as an attempt “not to do ‘versions’ or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories.” What the viewer gets is a modern retelling of Red Riding Hood with all the sexual connotations not only intact but made explicit for a modern switched-on audience. More than just a straight fantasy and horror, The Company of Wolves is a study of the feminine psyche and its attitudes toward desire and familial responsibility, told through a rich narrative web. Perhaps the most indelible image is “the red wedding,” which gives “Game of Thrones” a run for it’s money in regards of worst end to a wedding possible. Grandma’s inevitable fate in this film takes a visually distinctive and surreal twist on the standard “what big teeth you have” story. One of Carter’s few forays into script writing, this film makes you wish her unique talents were more widely adapted for the big screen; furthermore, it showed Neil Jordan would be a talent to watch out for.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie has an uncanny, hypnotic force; we always know what is happening, but we rarely know why, or how it connects with anything else, or how we can escape from it, or why it seems to correspond so deeply with our guilts and fears. That is, of course, almost a definition of a nightmare.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: STOKER (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Matthew Goode,

PLOT: A girl’s father dies on her 18th birthday; the uncle she never knew she had shows up soon thereafter and installs himself in the isolated house she lives in with her lonely mother.

Still from Stoker (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough, although Chan-wook Park fans should find enough perversion, violence and sublime cinematography to keep themselves engaged in it.

COMMENTS: From the long-lost uncle right out of Shadow of a Doubt to a subversive quotation to Psycho‘s shower scene, Stoker is Chan-wook Park’s Hitchcock tribute movie. But where Hitch was a master of plotting as well as suspense, Park substitutes high stylization and on-the-nose perversity for carefully shaded storytelling. The events of Stoker are highly implausible, and the characters act like dancers in a psychosexual ballet rather than three people mourning the loss of a beloved breadwinner. The triangular character structure draws you in, presenting sets of relations—mother/daughter, uncle/niece, and widow/brother-in-law—which shift throughout the tale. Allies will become enemies, buried family secrets will be uncovered, and Uncle Charlie, naturally, is not what he seems. Oh, and blood will flow when longings grow unchecked. Stoker unavoidably flirts with the Electra complex, as mother and daughter compete for the attentions of the surrogate father figure, the new Man of the house. Mysterious Uncle Charlie, whose very existence was unknown until he showed up at his brother’s funeral, is a figure of fear and desire to young India. The way he tries to win the 18-year old’s allegiance by waiting for her in his convertible parked next to the school bus would creep out Chris Hansen, and the way newly widowed and prematurely lonely mom Evelyn courts Uncle’s attention would boil Hamlet’s blood. There are a lot of naughty, nasty possibilities in a tale that teases a potential transformation into a taboo love triangle, but it has less transgressive sting because nothing onscreen bears much relationship to reality. Characters show up as if by magic when the script calls for it, ominous music plays for no obvious reason, and no one’s reactions are very believable. (You’ve got to call the police when you find that first body, folks!) The way India’s feelings for Charlie flow from disdain to prurient interest and back again, in particular, makes little outward sense; the vacillation only reflects her conflicted attitudes about sex and upcoming adulthood. Unannounced dream sequences further distance us from reality. A near-rape plays twice; the second time through, it’s unclear whether it’s meant to be a continuation of the previous scene, or a new version re-imagined as a sexual revenge fantasy. All of this is presented neither with a repressed Freudian subtlety (the way a Hitchcock would have handled it) or with a balls-to-the-wall operatic insanity (the way we might have expected a Chan-wook Park to treat such material). Stoker instead exists in the netherworld between the real and the surreal, the realm of melodrama. It’s like a too-logical dream that’s uncomfortable precisely because it’s not bizarre enough to meet our expectations. And although the script proffers the twists we’d expect in a thriller—secrets are revealed fast and furious in the third act—in the end, much of the plotting just seems lazy, particularly in a senseless, character-arc-erasing final scene that caps things off with a meaningless shock. On the plus side, the slow-paced Gothic tenor of the drama is refreshingly different from typical Hollywood “realism,” and Park grants us a couple of wonderful moments—a breathy erotic piano duet (of a Philip Glass composition made expressly for this movie) and a striking shot where Nicole Kidman’s hair transforms into a field of grain. In the end, Stoker is lurid, loopy, and occasionally lovely, no masterpiece but a passable guilty pleasure.

Korean director Park had to work with a translator on the set, and so the actors may have been largely left to direct themselves. This may be why some of the performances seem subdued, while Park’s camera is as vibrant as ever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Park’s skills for surreal subjectivity and the mischievously weird certainly don’t hurt, but they can’t quite banish Stoker’s narrative speed bumps and draughts of cold air as the film bluntly denotes the compulsive correspondence of orgasm and murder…”–Peter Canavese, Groucho Reviews (contemporaneous)

136. VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (1970)

Valerie a Týden Divu

“…one of those haunting, dream-like films that once seen is difficult to forget.”–Tanya Krzywinska

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jaroslava Schallerova, Petr Kopriva, Helena Anyzova, Jiri Prymek, 

PLOT: Young Valerie lives in a farmhouse on the edge of a small town with her Granny. She flirts with “Eagle,” a boy about her age who is either a neighbor or her brother, and they both fear a pale-faced bogeyman they call “the Weasel.” On the day she becomes a woman (symbolized by blood drops appearing on a daisy), Valerie’s life suddenly becomes a strange dream involving family betrayals, lusty priests, constantly shifting identities, and a vampire infestation.

Still from Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Vítězslav Nezval, which was written in 1935 but not published until 1945. Nezval was a co-founder of the Czech Surrealist group (one of the first Surrealist groups organized outside of France).
  • This is considered one of the last works in what was known as the , although that term more commonly refers to Czech movies made or released just before or during the Prague spring of 1968. In contrast to most of the New Wave canon, Valerie was released after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the installation of a hardline government who redoubled censorship efforts. Despite the fact that it’s a Surrealist work, equally offensive to the official aesthetic of Socialist Realism as a banned New Wave movie like 1967’s Daisies, Valerie appears to have evoked little objection from the censors. This may be because the film’s heavily anticlerical tone meshed with the Communist Party’s official stance on the Church.
  • A Philadelphia “freak folk” supergroup dubbed “The Valerie Project” wrote an alternate soundtrack to the film, and toured across the U.S. from 2006-2008 performing the score while the film screened as a silent movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Drops of blood on white daisy petals.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is often, and accurately, described as a Freudian version of Alice in Wonderland, with the confusion of new hormones surging through the young heroine’s body coloring her encounters with a dark and fearful tinge: Valerie faces vampires and rapist priests instead of Alice’s White Rabbits and Cheshire Cats. The plot makes no literal sense, because characters keep changing into different characters, the way they might in a dream; but overall Valerie’s welter of wonders hangs together as a mosaic of a girl’s anxieties about impending adutlhood and the enticing but scary world of sex.

Clip from Peter Hames Criterion Collection commentary Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

COMMENTS: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders opens with images of pretty young Valerie drinking from a waterspout, petting a dove, sniffing Continue reading 136. VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (1970)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: PALINDROMES (2004)

DIRECTED BY: Todd Solondz

FEATURING: , Richard Masur, , Sharon Wilkins

PLOT: A teenager falls in with a group of anti-abortionists in her quest to become pregnant.

Still from Palindromes (2004)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: As if the plot isn’t off-beat enough, Palindromes‘s teenage porotagonist is played by a variety of actors of different ages, sizes, races, and even genders.

COMMENTS: The standout feature of Palindromes is the unorthodox casting of a series of different actresses (and one actor) in the role of Aviva Victor. The variety of thespians allows Solondz to express the evolution of Aviva’s self-image, physically reflecting changes in her emotional state during the movie. When we first meet Aviva, she is played by a young African-American girl who wears her emotions on her sleeves and in her facial expressions. She is the only child to middle class parents (Barkin and Masur) living in an anonymous suburb in the Northeast United States. Horrified at the probable suicide of her cousin Dawn and alienated by the material nature of her mother’s love, Aviva becomes obsessed with the idea of having lots of babies to ensure she has someone to love her. Then, as a Caucasian brunette in her early teens, she has an ill-advised encounter with the son of a family friend, and gets pregnant. As a reedy, red-haired, slightly older girl, she strenuously resists but eventually accedes to getting an abortion. As a more confident and more attractive brunette, she runs away with the help of a truck driver, with whom she has sex in the hopes of once again getting pregnant. Abandoned by the truck driver, she wanders through wilderness in the shape of a teenage boy and then is discovered—now as a large, older African–American woman—by the driven and very Christian Mama Sunshine, who runs an orphanage for children with medical infirmities. Here Aviva is least like herself: in a completely alien environment, she has to lie about her name and her past to fit in, and her self-doubt and anxiety are apparent in her magnified size, awkward movement, and change in race. The plot unfolds from there involving more pedophilia, a quest to assassinate the doctor who aborted her fetus, and a shootout in room 11 of a seedy motel, with Aviva switching from shape to shape, becoming more assertive and mature. At the point where she feels most grown-up, she returns to her family as a world-weary, bedraggled 20-something waif (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She holds her own in an existential debate with her older cousin, Mark, and easily wins arguments with her parents. But, as the title of the movie suggests, things come around: Aviva meets up with the boy who got her pregnant to begin with, reverts mentally through the chain of actors who have portrayed her, until she is once again the vulnerable, out-of-place, emotionally needy little black girl. As seductive as the message is that everything eventually returns to its beginning state, palindrome-like, some things in the film are irreversible: death, certain operations, and murder among them. In the end, it’s these things that will eventually shape the person Aviva will eventually become, but she’s not yet become them yet.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What makes this strange story even stranger is Aviva is played by eight different performers… Solondz constructs a deadpan sheltering bubble around his film, thereby defusing most of the issues he raises. It’s all one Warholian shrug. Still, ‘Palindromes’ is unlike anything you’ve seen at the movies.”–Bob Longino, Atlanta Journal-Constitution (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LABYRINTH (1986)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: A dreamy teenage girl must rescue her kidnapped baby brother by journeying to the Goblin City at the center of a bizarre labyrinth.

Still from Labyrinth (1986)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite the MC Escher-inspired set-design, the unexpected sexual tension between teenaged Connelly and fruitily-dressed goblin king Bowie, and a devout cult following, Labryinth is ultimately just too close to a mainstream Muppet fantasy to place on a List of the 366 Weirdest movies. We’ve passed over slightly stranger movies in this genre—the visually similar Henson-directed The Dark Crystal and the thematically similar Henson-produced MirrorMask—and, although I think Labyrinth is a better film than either of those, it’s difficult to justify certifying this one when its companion films don’t even get to sniff the List.

COMMENTS: In The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland’s breasts were famously flattened out with tape so the 16-year old could play a pre-pubescent girl. Labyrinth takes a different strategy: 14-old Jennifer Connelly plays exactly her age, portraying a hormonally testy girl-woman caught at the stage where her attention starts to shift from stuffed animals to the well-stuffed pants of strutting rock stars. That shot of rising estrogen distinguishes Labyrinth from other Oz/Alice in Wonderland fairy tale variations, giving it a subtext that goes over the heads of the tots in the audience but leaves adults with additional nuggets to ponder (and no, that’s not another reference to Bowie’s stretch pants). There’s an impressive amount of imagination on display here, starting with Henson’s puppets, who reveal an almost limitless variety (each individual goblin looks like a representative of its own species) and a nearly human expressiveness (to be honest, the puppets out-act both Connelly and Bowie). The girl’s three companions—the cowardly dwarf Hoggle, the bestial Ludo, and Sir Didymus, the comic relief knight/terrier—are all worthy additions to Henson’s Muppet menagerie, and there is a zoo full of eccentric Wonderland-esque supporting creatures, including walking playing cards, Continue reading CAPSULE: LABYRINTH (1986)