Tag Archives: Adolescence

CAPSULE: WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE (1995)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Heather Matarazzo, , Matthew Faber

PLOT: The trials and tribulations of Dawn Wiener, the least popular girl in her middle school (and in her own family).

COMMENTS: With it’s unflinching depiction of junior high social dynamics—including a bully who angrily promises to “rape” his twelve-year-old schoolmate, treating it as the male-female equivalent of an afterschool fight—Welcome to the Dollhouse was a shocker in 1995. Most previous Hollywood coming-of-age movies were nostalgic comedies where the even nerdiest outcasts had their moments to shine (a la The Breakfast Club). Classics like Zéro de conduite (1933) and If…. (1968) focused on the dark side of schoolboy fascism, but operated more as surreal political allegories than slice-of-life character studies. Although one probably exists, I can’t think of a pre-Dollhouse movie that focused so masochistically on its protagonist’s fatal unpopularity. The 400 Blows comes close, but it still features a charismatic antihero who triumphs through rebellion. Solondz allows Dawn Wiener no triumphs, symbolic or otherwise.

The courage to take on such on a then-unusual subject as teenage bullying and abuse made Dollhouse seem like a work of startling realism to many. Many of the episodes seem taken from real life: the outcast kid’s anxiety over finding a place to sit in the lunchroom, for example, or a group of cheerleaders asking the nerdy kid if she’s a lesbian and not taking no for an answer. But most of the story is only emotionally true. Do you remember when you were a kid and your parents took some home videos and you did something mildly embarrassing like stumbling in the pool, and when they played it back you were sure everyone was pointing and laughing at you? In Welcome to the Dollhouse, the whole family is actually pointing and laughing at you when they play it back, calling you out by name, actively enjoying your humiliation. And can we actually believe that Dawn could run away from her middle-class home—in the midst of a separate family tragedy—and her disappearance go virtually unnoticed? We see these events through Dawn Weiner’s paranoid preteen eyes, and while she’s perfect at conveying her own feelings of alienation, she’s an unreliable narrator as to external events.

This ironic tone—the light-hearted world of childhood, with its secret clubs and garage bands and first kisses that we expect from these kinds of coming-of-age movies, coupled with the far more realistic scenes of kids being mean to each other and being psychologically and neglected abused by their elders—may strike some as “weird.” To be honest, I find that while Dollhouse was a revelation in its day, its not the landmark many feel it to be. It isn’t nearly the gut-punch that much darker and more bizarre followup, Happiness, was. And, though far be it for me to recommend realist movies, I found Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018), a straightforward drama hopskotching across approximately the same pavement, to be a better and more moving treatment of similar subject matter. This material calls for unflinching truthfulness, it needs no varnishing. Middle school is awkward and horrible for everyone, and for kids at the status-poor end of the social spectrum, it’s truly hellish. Though frequently called a “black comedy,” there’s precious little to actually raise a smile in Welcome to the Dollhouse, and its mixture of painful realism and morbid exaggeration doesn’t feel revolutionary anymore. The sadness of Dawn’s plight still comes through as jaggedly as ever, however. Thank goodness middle school only last three years (and that Dollhouse only lasts 90 minutes).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Solondz] shows the kind of unrelenting attention to detail that is the key to satire… If you can see this movie without making a mental hit list of the kids who made your 11th year a torment, then you are kinder, or luckier, than me.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Frank, who called it “Uncomfortable to watch at times, but watched it several times since it came out in the mid-90s.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA (1976)

DIRECTED BY: Lewis John Carlino

FEATURING: Jonathan Kahn, Sarah Miles, , Earl Rhodes

PLOT: A young boy growing up in a seaside English town with his widowed mother is involved in a cultlike group of juvenile delinquents, but idolizes a passing sailor who woos his mom… for a while.

Still from The Sailor Who Eell from Grace with the Sea (1976)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is one of the all-time great titles, but definitely not one of the all-time weirdest movies. What little weirdness it has is more of a function of its unfashionable (some might say “clumsy”) use of symbolic narrative than anything else.

COMMENTS: Lewis John Carlino (screenwriter of Seconds) adapted The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea from a novel by oddball nationalist Japanese writer . Some critics argue that, in changing the location from Japan to Wales, the movie fails to achieve greatness because it can’t translate Mishima’s specifically Japanese cultural concerns to screen.

I disagree. I think The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea fails to achieve greatness on its own merits. Specifically, the movie is poorly paced, losing rather than gaining steam as it goes on, and the acting is flat and uninspired. Sarah Miles does best as the young widow hiding her simmering sexuality under the cover of prim country Victorianism (although her mournful masturbation scene in front of her dead husband’s portrait is risible). Kris Kristofferson is mainly there as a manly prop for the sex scenes, a duty he performs well enough. The main acting issue is one that brings down many coming-of-age films: the reliance on young, untrained actors in crucial roles. Star Jonathan Kahn, whose only other credits were literary parts in BBC juvenile television adaptations, is just serviceable: he has the look of a conflicted adolescent, but he can’t channel the surging hormonal rage needed here. Earl Rhodes, as “Chief,” is more of an obstacle to success. He gives theatrical speeches that sound like a schoolboy’s self-serving impressions of Nietzsche (“morality is nothing more than a set of rules adults have invented to protect themselves.”) He always sounds like he’s reading from a script and never develops the sinister charisma necessary for us to buy him as a mini-Manson; and if we can’t believe he seduces his schoolboy chums into bizarre acts of anti-adult rebellion (like a ritual involving a poor kitty), the delicate credibility of the plot falls apart.

Hints of perversity and sex can’t overcome the movie’s over-solemnity (the tone they were going for was “haunting,” but it’s a near miss). Sailor‘s lack of spark is a shame, because the film raises a multitude of interesting topics: youthful rebellion, missing father figures, Oedipal desire, the foundations of morality, the lure of romanticism, the tension between pure ideology and real life. While there is a certain fateful irony in the conclusion (optimistically promoted as “startling” in the tagline), it’s deliberately telegraphed so that there is no suspense. A few indicia of derangement–dissonant baroque music played on prepared piano during the boy’s memory of seeing his nude mother, a stuttering montage as the boys prepare their final act–give the movie the slightest touch of formal strangeness.

There is one major support for the interpretation that the film is a failure of translation. Mishima likely intended the novel as an allegory for Japan’s postwar situation, and viewed the boys as the upcoming generation of heroes and patriots who would overthrow Western domination of “pure” Japanese culture. In Carlino’s hands, these brats are misguided monsters, Lords of the Flies refugees, who make the parents into tragic victims of their misguided fanaticism. Obviously, that’s a seismic thematic shift—but again, I don’t think that’s the reason the movie fails to hit its mark. With more vital direction, they could have pulled the reversal off.

At the moment The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is free to watch on Tubi.tv (no way to know if that will still be true by the time you read this, naturally).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has an intriguing effect by virtue of its very strangeness, with its uneasy combination of a sex-starved widow and twisted kids making for, at the very least, a memorable experience, if not entirely for the right reasons.”–Graem Clark, The Spinning Image

(This movie was nominated for review by “Mina.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE PIT (1981)

DIRECTED BY: Lew Lehman

FEATURING: Sammy Snyders, Jeannie Elias

PLOT: A psychotic, outcast 12-year old boy talks to his teddy bear and feeds his enemies to creatures who live in a pit in the woods.

Still from The Pit (1981)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Pit is a mish-mash of eerie/weird ideas and frustratingly bad directorial decisions; unfortunately, the latter dominate the former.

COMMENTS: It’s called The Pit, but most viewers would call it “the pits.” If you’re a regular at this website, however, you’re probably not one of them. After all, any movie that has both a creepy kid who talks to his teddy bear (that talks back) and a pit full of flesh-eating monsters (which the psycho-moppet calls “trollogs,” a bastardization of “troglodytes”) has something going for it. That said, The Pit is a big mess, sporadically interesting, but mostly a big tease of the weird movie it could have been in more competent hands. It’s torn between its high-concept psychodrama and its longing to be a drive-in creature feature. It rushes around trying to be all things to all people: it starts out confusingly with an out-of-context killing, inserts gratuitous nude scenes that are often ridiculous (besides peeping on his babysitter, Jamie uses a bizarre and improbable scheme to get a local mom to strip), shoehorns in barnyard comedy, sends out a bunch of guys in furry monster suits to run around in the woods chased by a posse of shotgun-wielding yokels, and epilogues with a nonsensical “twist.” It’s reasonably inept B-movie fun, but it’s not as deranged as it needs to be to earn classic bad movie status. Instead, it’s almost endearingly clumsy, like a lesser effort.

We get that Jamie is ostracized for being a weird kid, but the script goes way too far out of its way to hammer that point home. It’s one thing when his fellow snot-nosed tykes make fun of him, but having little old ladies in wheelchairs loudly insult him when he’s standing in earshot (“just not right, that boy!”) is laying it on too thick. Still, with his bowl haircut cut and a nose that’s growing just slightly faster than the rest of his face, Sammy Snyders is effectively creepy, without being an exceptionally good actor (taking into account his age and the extraordinary demands of the role). He’s in that awkward stage of early adolescence: you can still see fading traces of the cute kid he once was, but he hasn’t yet developed into a young man. He has good facial expressions; his eyes simmer and his lips tremble when he gets frustrated, which happens often. His line readings are a different matter, although it is a challenge for a 12-year old kid to convincingly deliver monologues like “she’s not like the others, Teddy, she’s pretty” to his teddy bear. The awkwardness arguably works in his favor; this is a bad B-movie version of a schizo kid, so a performance that’s a little unconvincing adds an unnerving edge: more evidence that this boy’s “just not right.” And if you’ve got a phobia about creepy, psychotic kids, this one could haunt your nightmares.

This is director Lew Lehman’s only feature. Screenwriter Ian A. Stuart complained that he made a hash out of the story, which was written as a serious thriller about a disturbed kid (everything was supposed to be all in Jamie’s head).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… there’s no argument that I can perceive that makes The Pit a legitimately effective motion picture. Its deranged tone, bizarre characters, and a loopy structure that makes the 97-minute running time seem every bit of 20 minutes longer than the filmmakers were ready for all contribute to make certain of that.”–Tim Brayton, Alternate Ending (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Patrick,” who called it “[a]n utterly bizarre 80s horror film .” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE FALLING (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Carol Morley

FEATURING: Maisie Williams, Maxine Peake, Florence Pugh

PLOT: The students at an all-girls school experience a collective mass hysteria after one of their group unexpectedly passes away. But what is really causing this strange illness, and can its spell be broken?

Still from The Falling (2014)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The Falling is a symphony of opposites, a nauseating yet excessively beautiful film, one that simultaneously rejects and then accepts the extremes of female sexuality. Purposefully instilled with a sense of obscurity, it could be viewed as an extended analogy or a horror film without a monster, depending on how weird you want it to be.

COMMENTS: Following in the footsteps of more familiar New Weird British directors and , Carol Morely has crafted a film full of plausible deniability. Actions and reactions seem to offer explanations, before wrenching them away from you at the last moment. Like its recent predecessors, The Falling is impressive in that it can be so disturbing in direct opposition to its visual presentation: stark and quiet, empty but beautiful, each frame uncluttered, the pace perfectly languid. Not many films can find stability between intellectual stimulation and visceral distraction, but The Falling manages it more often than not, primarily due to its dedication to the autumnal, timeless setting and lack of any exposition.

This lack of exposition could be mistaken for general weirdness in any other film but, a lot like ’s Innocence (another brilliant film set in an all-girls school), The Falling isn’t obfuscating for the sake of obfuscation. Morley has written extensively on her obsession with mass hysteria among teenage girls (a more common occurrence than you would think) along with the total lack of explanation for these mysterious events. Seeing the phenomenon presented on screen is a chilling, confusing experience. It is also an immediately arresting concept, and Morley runs with it, from the humble beginnings of an eerie teenage friendship through to sexual awakening, identity issues, and even suggestions of witchcraft. Whilst there is never an overt explanation for the fainting spells, facial tics and personality changes that the girls go through, the sexual awakenings of many characters seem to be a starting point for their sudden transformations. At some points, the film is a satire of Catholicism’s fear of sexuality: the idea that if just one teenage girl were to become sexually active and pregnant then it would sweep through their ranks like an epidemic, stealing their individuality away from them and creating beings who act impulsively, flustered by their sexual desires. At other times, it’s character-driven, a study of youthful diversion and identity crisis for our young protagonist Lydia.

The films provocation would not be as powerful without the stirring performances of the girls that inhabit the pristine surroundings of the school. Maisie Williams, better known as “Game of Thrones”‘s Arya Stark, sheds her more famous character with immense maturity, willing her character forward despite challenging scenes of incest, abuse and supposed insanity. In fact, credit should go to Morley and all her actresses for working together to eek out impressively subtle performances, especially in a film with such difficult content. The constant musical dream-pop interludes are a little excessive and redundant, and the conclusion isn’t quite worth the set-up, but if this is the future of British film, we should have a lot to look forward to because of the continually expressive and experimental efforts that Morley should certainly be a part of in the future.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There are shades here of Joseph Losey and Ken Russell, albeit with a staunch feminist perspective. The storytelling may waver in conviction after a woozily riveting setup, but not enough to impede healthy domestic arthouse prospects…” – Guy Lodge, Variety

CAPSULE: AIMY IN A CAGE (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Hooroo Jackson

FEATURING: Allisyn Ashley Arm, Michael William Hunter, Sara Murphy, Terry Moore,

PLOT: While a mysterious virus ravages the outside world, a quirky teenage girl is forced to undergo brain surgery to become “normal,” then imprisoned by her family. Still from Aimy in a Cage (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Weird? Yes, indeed. But this stylish debut, while pretty, doesn’t quite pull all its ribbons together into the tidiest of bows.

COMMENTS: Allisyn Ashley Arm may headline, and Crispin Glover’s name may sell tickets, but the real star of Aimy in a Cage is Chloe Barcelou, the production and costume designer. She creates an arresting world that looks like a post-apocalyptic “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” Set in a single sprawling flat that recalls visual icons like , , and even or a wacked-out at times, the movie looks like a trippy graphic novel come to life. In Terry Moore’s first scene, she wears improvised beer can rollers in her hair. Aimy earns herself headgear that looks like added several extra feet of ductwork on top of the Robot Monster‘s helmet. I adored the faerie mushrooms embossed on the outside of Aimy’s door. The barrage of stylistic techniques—Fleischer brothers cartoons, mad pans and angles, circular masking, fisheye lenses, paint dripping over the lens—can be a little much, but they are all well executed and add to the film’s ramshackle, cluttered charm.

Unfortunately, the story does not engage us nearly as much as the film’s visual milieu does. The problem is with Aimy herself. Not with the performance of Arm, an ex-Disney Channel star who seems like she would be lovable in another project. She does exactly what she is asked to do here, which is to act bratty and scream a lot. Aimy is totally narcissistic, in that bright teenage girl way; she’s the kind of character who complains, “why can’t you all just accept me for who I am?” while doing an interpretive dance and throwing fistfuls of candy into the face of her long-suffering boyfriend. The movie starts out with misunderstood Aimy breaking her grandmother’s treasured vintage doll and getting into a shrieking contest with the old bat, and it just gets more and more shrill as it goes on. Aimy is abused, its true, but in the opening reels she gives as good as she gets, and we can totally understand and sympathize with the family’s decision to tie her to a chair and gag her. When the girl taunts her grandmother, hateful though the old harridan may be, about her fiancé’s recent abandonment and laughs that the old woman will die alone, are we really supposed to take her side? It’s as if the script simply assumes we will side with the young against the old and the artist against the conformist, and so doesn’t feel the need to make Aimy likable in any way.

Does that mean the girl earns the torture that is heaped on her in the later reels, which ranges from psychological abuse to lobotomy to being tied in a chair and force-fed while begging to die? Of course not. But successful antiheroes, from Alex deLarge to the Comedian of Entertainment, have two things Aimy doesn’t: they are given some redeeming, humanizing characteristic for the audience to latch on to, and their suffering is treated seriously, as something real, no matter how unreal their surroundings may otherwise be. Aimy’s chaotic character is closer to abrasive roles in ‘ early comedies, but she doesn’t have the drag queen’s perversely lovable outrageousness.

Glover’s character, a sort of southern gentleman gigolo in a fur coat, is decent, but the role’s subdued nature means his casting takes more advantage of the actor’s weirdo cred than his gonzo energy. For Glover, however, not spazzing out all over the screen is stretching as an actor, and it’s interesting to see him take on a subtler weird role. is prominently billed, but her appearance amounts to a forgettable cameo that makes no difference in the story.

In Aimy‘s defense, it does effectively capture a budding teenager’s sense of self-absorption and paranoia; that alone does not, however, make for a pleasant or rewarding moviegoing experience. Still, there will be those who will want to uncage Aimy for the visuals alone, and I won’t dissuade you: as long as you have a high tolerance for abrasive adolescent antics, it may be worth a VOD rental. Aimy in a Cage does not have an official release set yet, although a Blu-ray is listed with the possibly specious date of April 1, 2016.

There is one additional weird point to make about Aimy in a Cage, but it relates to the film’s funding rather than its content. Writer Hooroo Jackson invested almost everything he had in Bitcoin in 2012, when the price of a digital coin stood at $10, and cashed out when the virtual currency rose to $650. He used the proceeds to fund a movie version of his own graphic novel. I can’t think of any nobler way to dissipate a lightning-in-a-bottle windfall than that.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s not just that the always quirky Crispin Glover is featured in Aimy in a Cage that makes it weird… Fans of twisted independent cinema might celebrate Aimy in the Cage (it won the Director’s Prize at the Portland (Oregon) Film Festival), and it is a beautiful film to behold, but the damn thing is madder than Alice’s Hatter!”–Elias Savada, Film International (contemporaneous)

210. HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994)

“We realized why Debora and I have such extraordinary telepathy, and why people treat us and look at us the way they do. It is because we are mad—we are both stark raving mad!”–Pauline Parker, diary entry

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Melanie Lynskey, , Sarah Peirse

PLOT: Pauline, a socially awkward young teen, finds a friend in Juliet, a new arrival at her girls’ school in 1950s Christchurch, New Zealand. Juliet is witty and has traveled the world, and together she and Pauline invent a rich epic about the royal family of the fictional kingdom Borovnia, complete with stories chronicling the dynasty’s adventures and clay figurines Juliet molds to represent the main characters. As their relationship grows closer and develops a sexual component, the girls shut out the rest of the world, living out a fantasy of shared hallucinations and referring to each other by invented names, until their parents grow concerned and try to separate them.

Still from Heavenly Creatures (1994)
BACKGROUND:

  • The story is based on a real-life murder that shocked New Zealand in the 1950s. The film’s voiceovers are direct quotes from Pauline Parker’s diaries.
  • After being released from prison, Juliet Hulme became a successful writer of mysteries working under her new name, Anne Perry. She publicly revealed her identity as Heavenly Creatures was being produced. Pauline Parker did not wish to be found, but was later discovered working with handicapped children.
  • After the film was released Perry stated that the two girls had never had a lesbian relationship, as had been commonly supposed, although this denial was not public information when Heavenly Creatures‘ script was written. Pauline’s diary entries clearly hinted at a sexual relationship, but these could have been a young girl’s confused fantasies.
  • Heavenly Creatures was a totally unexpected arthouse outing from New Zealand director Peter Jackson, whose previous works had all been outrageous exploitation films: the gory Bad Taste, the transgressive puppet show Meet the Feebles, and the zombie comedy Dead-Alive [AKA Brain Dead].
  • Nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar (where it lost, understandably, to Pulp Fiction).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The plasticine Borovnians, particularly the homicidal Diello, who decapitates a homophobic psychiatrist, among his other crimes.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The Fourth World; deflowering hallucination; hideous Orson Welles.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Adolescent melodrama blossoms into mature tragedy in the delirious Heavenly Creatures. Odd, overdramatic lighting schemes and a flighty camera track two young girls’ trajectory from obsessive daydreaming to outright madness. Peter Jackson’s stunning, surreal realizations of the girls’ fantasies about celebrity heartthrobs and a kingdom of killers sculpted from clay put the film over the top.


Trailer for heavenly Creatures

COMMENTS: In 1994, if you imagined Peter Jackson directing a Continue reading 210. HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994)