Tag Archives: Coming of Age

CAPSULE: BEAUTIFUL BEINGS (2022)

Berdreymi

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson

FEATURING: Birgir Dagur Bjarkason, Áskell Einar Pálmason, Viktor Benóný Benediktsson, Anita Briem, Snorri Rafn Frímannsson

PLOT: A pack of violent misfits take a bullied boy into their gang on the rough streets of Reykjavik.

Still from Beautiful Beings (2022)

COMMENTS: When you grow old and think back on your childhood bullies, you realize that they were bullied themselves, most likely by their own parents or siblings. The hate and scorn was nothing personal; they were only transferring their own pain onto someone conveniently weaker than them. Of course, that idea never crosses your mind when you’re a victim of bullying, and wouldn’t comfort you if it did. Because the foursome in Beautiful Beings are, for the most part, both bullies and victims, we can sympathize with them and forgive them as they indulge in childish cruelties.

Iceland consistently ranks in the top ten in the World Happiness Report, but even paradise has an underclass. Violence is ever-present in the lives of these working-class children from broken families. The film begins by following the misadventures of pimply 14-year old Balli, much-abused by his peers and living with neglectful single mom in a what his friend calls “a bum house.” But the story soon changes focus to Addi, who has a modestly better life. He’s a member of a three-member gang under the erratic but benevolent leadership of Konni, nicknamed “the Animal” due to his fighting prowess and uncontrolled ferocity. Although he’s also from a single parent home, Addi’s mother is caring and stable, if a little embarrassing in her devotion to mystical rituals, yoga, and dream-interpretation. After Balli is beaten so badly he makes a local hand-wringing news broadcast about teen violence, Addi’s empathy is slowly and slyly roused. He convinces the others to let Balli into their clique—helped by the fact that they can use Balli’s half-abandoned home as a club house when the boy’s mother is away for days on end. The others gradually come to accept Balli, but their individual troubles start to pile up, all brought to a boil by the reappearances of absent (and unwanted) family members.

As the film progresses it flirts with the supernatural. Addi discovers that his mother’s precognitive gifts may not be all in her head—and that he’s inherited them as well. At about the midpoint of the film (with a push from magic mushrooms) his powers manifest themselves: he sees demonic shadows, finds his fingers drilling holes in his torso, and dreams of racing down a skyscraper with Konni. The visions are scarce, but set up the idea that Addi can see into the future, creating third act suspense whenever he gets a “bad feeling.” His precognitive abilities symbolize his superior intuition, setting him apart as the character who is in this world but not of it… the one who’s able to see what’s wrong with this picture and thus, perhaps, able to glimpse a different path. That’s not much to grasp onto as far as the film’s weird credentials go, but it’s just enough to get it into 366’s sights. (The movie also flirts with teenage homoeroticism—e.g. some casual sensuous hair caressing—without really exploring those feelings, making it  LGBTQ-adjacent as well as weird-adjacent).

Other critics have pointed out—and I can’t really argue—that Beautiful Beings breaks no new ground in the “coming of age” genre, and that its visionary aspect is mostly just window dressing. Nevertheless, I think the movie’s ample strengths outweigh a certain lack of originality. Technically, it’s nearly flawless. (It was Iceland’s submission to this year’s Oscars, although it was not shortlisted.) All the performances, especially from the young central quartet but including the extended families and the surrounding teenagers, are excellent. The cinematography plays with yellow sunlight and sepia shadows; perversely, the camera focuses on dirty fingernails, the dusty corners of Balli’s hovel, or an industrially bleak warehouse rooftop overlooking the harbor, only occasionally emerging onto a majestic beach to remind us of the beauty of the wider world these boys rarely have the chance to appreciate. The bottom line is I found myself engaged with these characters and empathizing with them through their travails, which is all you ask of a film of this sort.

Beautiful Beings is currently in theaters; we’ll update you when it’s more widely available.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Here, with a combination of drifty realism and jolts of the fantastic — Addi has strange dreams and visions, which add unfruitful mystery to the narrative — he persuasively conveys the feverish intimacy of adolescent friendship, with its vulnerabilities and inchoate desires.”–Manohla Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE (1995)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

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: WYRM (2019)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Wyrm is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Winterbauer

FEATURING: Theo Taplitz, Azure Brandi, Tommy Dewey, Lulu Wilson

PLOT: A geeky young boy must kiss a girl to pass his required Sexuality 101 course and “pop his collar.”

Still from Wyrm (2019)

COMMENTS: The basic scenario is like a tween version of The Lobster. The themes and characters resemble a much lighter Welcome to the Dollhouse or a much darker Napoleon Dynamite, with more than a  dash of thrown into the stew. Wyrm doesn’t shy away from such comparisons; its IMDB synopsis describes it as “equal parts Yorgos Lanthimos and (but gentler).” Yet, despite wearing its influences on its sleeve, and despite covering the well-trod awkward-teen-coming-to-grips-with-his/her-place-in-society terrain, Wyrm never feels derivative; it confidently inhabits its own world.

The first-kiss collar is obviously the strangest element to this world, but the movie’s first half is filled with off-kilter comedy sketches: a pair of girls practice kissing by pecking at each other mechanically on a bus stop bench, Uncle Chet cooks the family nachos for dinner every night and serves them with tongs, and Wyrm’s twin sister warns him not to watch her practice her dance routine because “it’s provocative.” For obscure reasons, the story is also set at the dawn of the Internet, and reverent references to the Web weave throughout the narrative (“it’s like… everything,” whispers the school guidance counselor, his eyes glued to his screen.) The film’s second half is a maturity arc, as Wyrm stops focusing solely on his own troubles and instead explores and appreciates the feelings and struggles of those around him: his acerbic twin sister whose nasty demeanor hides the fact that she’s dealing with her own insecurities; Uncle Chet, who appears goofy but is ultimately a stand-up guy; Chet’s paramour Flor, a sexy senorita whose lack of English skills doesn’t mean she doesn’t see what’s going on in the family; his distant parents, a perpetually-constipated father and a mother who fled the homestead for an epic months-long trek; and a sarcastic wheelchair-bound older girl whose subdued hostility to Wyrm comes from a painful place. They are an economically-sketched society of characters who work on multiple levels, both comic foils and participants in an emotional journey.

Part absurdist farce and part earnest bildungsroman, the movie’s two agendas seem like they should work at cross purposes—but while you can sometimes see the seams, it all comes together as a charming addition to the quirky teen outcast genre. As it nears the finish line, the eccentricity and comedy start to fall away, replaced by an honest reckoning of the emotionally real effects of the film’s central tragedy. The two halves might feel like completely different movies—an offbeat teen comedy welded onto a sincere teen drama—but the transition isn’t jarring. It feels like a natural journey. The imaginary coping mechanisms of childhood drop away like Wyrm’s discarded dinosaur shirts, or a popped collar.

You can see the original 20-minute short film on Christopher Winterbauer’s Vimeo channel. Many scenes were recreated almost verbatim.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film is consistently funny, drawing a fine line between a classic coming-of-age comedy and a bonkers absurdist farce, but it shines in the amount of tenderness it brings to the screen. Balancing such strange humor with genuinely heartfelt moments is a tricky thing, and Winterbauer navigates these waters with relative ease.”–Adam Patterson, Film Pulse (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PENDA’S FEN (1974)

AKA “Play for Today: Penda’s Fen”

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Spencer Banks, John Atkinson, Georgine Anderson, Ian Hogg

PLOT: Shortly before his eighteenth birthday, Stephen Franklin must come to terms with his emergent homosexuality, lineage, and theological outlook.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Strange visions and societal upheaval get the BBC treatment in Alan Clarke’s adaptation of David Rudkin’s densely packed narrative. While it is littered with theologically-leaning surrealism throughout (including a charming chat with a wry Edward Elgar), Penda’s Fen earns its recommendation from how its many layers, each differently profound, integrate, as Manichaeism, paganism, deep history, military corporatism, labor crises, and sexual awakening un-peel and reincorporate into this philosophical coming-of-age drama.

COMMENTS: Profundity comes crashing right out of the gate in Penda’s Fen, and never lets up. A young man’s voice intones a prayer, of sorts, in the opening minutes as the title card appears over various pastoral scenes: “Oh my country, I say over and over, I am one of your sons…” The protagonist is the seventeen-year-old son of a parson; the era is England at its nadir; and the classical references fly left, right, and center. Simultaneously, Penda’s Fen feels familiar: the story of a boy on the cusp of manhood, coming to terms with himself and his surroundings. The relatability of this awkward character, and the complaisant manner in which the story is told, are a testament to the talents of the leading actor, Spencer Banks, and the story crafters, Alan Clarke and David Rudkin. The gravity of the whole experience strikes deeply into our consciousness, simultaneously opening channels of fascination.

Stephen Franklin (Spencer Banks) is the quintessential goody-two-shoes. He excels in his studies; he enthusiastically partakes in military volunteer training; and he leads debates at school while attending municipal debates after hours. He loves the works of Sir Edward Elgar, particularly “The Dream of Gerontius,” a meditation on death and salvation. Stephen also has feelings for the young milkman, though is not quite aware of their nature. His parents, however, have sussed their son’s leanings for some time, and are accepting thereof—though the father can’t hide his amusement at the well-worn typicality of the recipient of his son’s affection.

As a back-drop to the sexual awakening, there is a local labor agitator who is also a playwright (and also, probably, a homosexual); a secret military installation being built under a nearby field; and ecclesiastical visions. This endless string of semi-colons and splashes of back- and side-story doubtless convey the difficulty in attempting to dissect Penda’s Fen in any brief-but-meaningful way. Discussing the father, with perhaps half an hour of shared screen-time, could fill a slender volume. A profound thinker, his erudite remarks hover along the believable side of esoteric, and coupled with his deeply human understanding of himself and his son, along with an awareness of England’s, and the world’s, pagan antecedents, make him both an unlikely parson, and an unlikely source of love and stability in his son’s life.

And there I go again, listing elements. Let’s change tack. Penda’s Fen was made for television (I shudder to think what appeared on United States television at the time), but this is no detriment. It shows a concise craft: brisk pacing that is never hasty; perfect accompanying music from Elgar; and a sense that the limitations of the screen and budget forced the filmmakers to convey their many (and complicated) messages in as simple, and distilled, a form as possible.

Alas, more semi-colons, more parentheses, more commas. Penda’s Fen is unlike anything I’ve seen before it, and its sprightly ninety minutes deeply explore more concepts and experiences than some of the artiest art-house meditations I’ve been forced to endure for hours on end.

Penda’s Fen is available on a single Region B Blu-ray (which won’t play on most North American Blu-ray players). It is one of the keystone films in Severin’s massive “All the Haunts Be Ours” folk-horror compilation. Another option for American viewers is to sign up for a BritBox subscription (free trial available).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A highly popular play from the reliably weird David Rudkin, with a younger audience than Play for Today was used to, mainly due to its fantasy elements, it has since acquired a reputation as a cult piece of ‘telefantasy’ which, deserved though it is, belies its sophistication.”–TV Cream (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Chris Reynolds, who described it as a “metaphysical journey of a young boy in rural England [wjo] encounters symbolic figures representing Britishness who begin to disrupt his notions of identity..” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: RAW (2016)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Julia Ducournau

FEATURING: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella

PLOT: A vegetarian girl develops an insatiable craving for meat after she eats a rabbit kidney as part of a veterinary school hazing ritual.

Still from Raw (2016)

COMMENTS: As Justine, a veterinary whiz-kid, Garance Marillier seems to grow up before our eyes. She begins the film as a timid girl looking younger than her eighteen years, submissive to her parent’s cult-like adherence to a stern vegetarian creed (Mom raises holy hell when she finds a cafeteria worker has accidentally ladled a chunk of sausage into her daughters’ mashed potatoes). Later in the movie, after Justine has tasted organ meat and experienced college life, we see her gyrating drunkenly in front of a mirror in too much lipstick and a slutty dress, listening to a distaff rap about a gal who likes to “bang the dead.” A lot of people indulge in pleasures of the flesh when they go away to college, but Raw gets ridiculous.

Raw is rich with coming-of-age subtexts—sibling conflicts, youthful irresponsibility, conformity, social and intellectual insecurity, bullying, bodily changes, bulimia—all of them given an unnerving horror spin. Naturally, sex is the dominant subtext. Under peer pressure, Justine betrays her abstinence and, now conflicted, finds herself drawn towards her new carnal/carnivore nature, and the appetites and danger that comes with it.

The veterinary school setting allows Ducournau to include a lot of animalistic symbolism, which verges from the poetically frightening (a horse chained to a treadmill) to the disgusting (a cow rectum cleaned by hand). Raw‘s focus is on bodily functions—eating, puking, excreting, arousal—all of it serving to remind Justine that she, too, is an animal. There are even hints of bestiality, and at one point Justine roleplays as a dog.

Raw‘s story is told with more abstraction than is strictly necessary, making it into a somewhat dreamlike impression of the anxieties of experiencing adult freedom for the first time. The hazing rituals at veterinary college are exaggerated to a ridiculous degree: masked upperclassmen burst into freshman dorms like the secret police rounding up dissidents. The inductees are compliant, and a ritual that seems like victims being led to the gas chamber segues seamlessly into a kegger. The faculty allows students to attend class while soaked with blood. People react to severed fingers with less consternation that one might expect. A Lynchian old man playing with his dentures in the emergency room waiting area seems to be the only one in the movie who understand that something odd is going on. But you will notice. Raw is a thoroughly disturbing parable about discovering your own true nature.

After originally being released on a bare-bones DVD only, Shout! Factory gave Raw the deluxe Blu-ray treatment in 2021, complete with a director’s commentary track, interviews and Q&As, deleted scenes, and more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I’ll spare you the graphic details, which is more than this fearlessly bizarre film does, but ‘Raw’ takes on the politically incorrect subject of devouring females, and lends new meaning to giving someone the finger.”–Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Sam Smith. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)