Tag Archives: Coming of Age

CAPSULE: ASTRAKAN (2022)

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Astrakan can be rented on-demand.

DIRECTED BY: David Depesseville

FEATURING: Mirko Giannini, Jehnny Beth, Théo Costa-Marini, Lorine Delin, Bastien Bouillon

PLOT: An orphan boy struggles to adapt to life with his foster family.

Still from Astrakan (2022)

COMMENTS: We never would have picked Astrakan, a French drama about a foster child, for coverage on a weird movie site if we hadn’t read that the ending took a sever swerve into the surreal. I hereby inform the reader that, if you stick out 90 minutes of ultra-realism, you will be rewarded at the end with an intoxicated 10 minute digestif. That ending, an aggressive montage of sometimes disturbing and reconfigured memories, presumably distorted under sketchy amateur hypnosis, provides a dreamlike nightcap to a litany of childhood sorrows. If you are strictly searching for a weird movie, you may want to abstain; but if you enjoy solemn, impressionistic art-house dramas with a tart finish of strangeness, Astrakan may be for you.

Astarkan delivers its drama matter-of-factly, as a series of slice-of-life scenes that often omit key context. Like many child actors, Samuul (Mirko Giannini) underplays most of his scenes, which in this case fortuitously serves his character. His blank face and slow, deliberate movements mask his inner thoughts, appropriate for a script that withholds information and forces us to draw our own conclusions. Samuel is psychologically, and physically, constipated. He writes down secrets and buries them in hidden places. Samuel’s abuse is clearly signaled, but not extensively detailed; we aren’t privy to its severity, although at one point we know his foster mother fears that the bruises on his thigh may get him taken away by the state. That mom, played by Jehnny Beth with a troubled sense of economic reality struggling with maternal instinct, does grow attached to Samuel—but not quite attached enough to provide him the minimal protection he would need to thrive. But his foster parents do provide him with a home, gymnastics lessons, a ski trip, a bit of dear pocket money, and occasional scraps of tenderness—and who will take care of Samuel, if not them? The foster system is an imperfect compromise, but what is the alternative?

Astrakan was shot on film in rural France; the bright blue skies and verdant fields of its pastoral setting contrast with the troubled darkness of Samuel’s existence. In keeping with the hardcore realism, the story is told with no non-diegetic music, until Bach’s “Agnus Dei” (“lamb of God”) comes in at the finale. Although it’s not explained within the movie, the movie’s title comes from the pelts of an exotic breed of black sheep, which must be killed when young, before their wool loses its dark color.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Having established his skills and careful competence over 90-odd minutes, Depesseville then elects to showcase different facets of his talent in what amounts to an extended, dreamlike, impressionistic coda…”–Neil young, Screen Daily (festival screening)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: LA TETA Y LA LUNA (1994)

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Teté and the Moon, The Tit and the Moon

DIRECTED BY: Bigas Luna

FEATURING: Mathilda May, Biel Durán, Gérard Darmon, Miguel Poveda

PLOT: Frustrated at losing access to his mother’s chest following the birth of his baby brother, young Teté becomes enraptured with Estrellita, a dancer who comes to town as part of a traveling show; he competes for her attentions with her husband as well as a lovestruck young man.

Still from Teta y La Launa (1994)

COMMENTS: Part of the charm – and also the frustration – of the coming-of-age film is that it relies on the point of view of someone too young to fully understand the world around them. An innocent, unburdened by years of maturity and perspective. We watch them with a combination of longing for their ignorance and sympathy for their embarrassment.

La Teta y La Luna doubles down on this by handing over the narration to its central character, Teté. Not a grown-up Teté looking back at his youthful folly with rueful hindsight, mind you, but the boy himself, speaking in the past tense but still deep in the thrall of his adolescent, unearned bravado. When he confidently tells us that he “devastated” a foe’s motorcycle, we can see for ourselves that he’s lamely kicking it to no effect. So he would seem to be an extremely unreliable narrator indeed. Except when it’s surely our eyes that deceive us. For when Teté informs us that every woman in a bodega is offering her breasts to him, what we see is exactly that. How could this possibly be? Surely this is wishful thinking to the greatest extreme.

For you see – to paraphrase Loudon Wainwright III –  Teté is a “tit man.” Ever since his newborn brother arrived, the pleasure of suckling at his mother’s teat has been denied to him, and he has been in search of a replacement. (The title pulls off a neat double meaning, referencing both the main character and his overriding obsession.) So the one thing we can trust absolutely is that he immediately settles upon Estrellita, the beautiful dancer who has just come to Teté’s small oceanfront village.

He’s hardly alone in being drawn to the comely ballerina, which complicates our understanding of the film’s point of view. Teté’s teenage rival, Miguel, is nearly sick with longing from the moment he encounters Estrellita and begins to sing to her with a voice that should earn him a gig fronting the Gipsy Kings. There’s nothing ironic or misleading about his pain. Meanwhile, Estrellita’s husband Maurice is given all the hallmarks of parody: despite looking like a grizzled and silver-maned biker, Maurice’s talent is as a modern-day successor to Le Petomane, and Estrellita makes love to him on their trailer waterbed and collects his tears in a jar while he makes her eat a baguette which he wields in place of his manhood. He’s ridiculous even as he cuts a dashing figure, but again we don’t doubt what we see. If we can take Miguel and Maurice at face value, who’s to say that Teté isn’t exactly what he presents to us?

So let us now turn to the object of all their affections. Mathilda May has already distinguished herself in these hallowed halls as a beautiful actress who is willing to put her full and uncovered beauty on display, and that reputation is certainly burnished here. If we are to believe Teté, she is ready and willing to provide him with access to a veritable firehose of milk from her bared breast. Luna’s camera is as in love with Estrellita’s chest as most of the male characters. But this objectification becomes extremely awkward in the face of Estrellita’s increasing discomfort. She dotes on her husband, and he responds with jealousy and resentment. She shows her unease with Miguel’s repeated declarations of love, but loses agency in the face of his increasing threats of self-harm. And we never even get to see what would logically be her concerns with Teté’s blunt and inappropriate requests. (For Teté, none of this appears to be sexual, but it surely is for her.) For the princess at the heart of this fairy tale, there’s a worrisome ignorance of her needs and fears. La Teta y La Luna is obsessed with Estrellita’s chest, but not much with the heart that beats underneath.

The film wraps up with a happy ending for everyone, most significantly for Teté, who gets to feed from both Estrellita and his own mother, a conclusion that bears no resemblance to anything approaching reality. The tone throughout is bright and charming, but it’s a strange and selfish lesson this tale delivers: “Persist and you’ll get what you want, fellas.” It’s a tale as old as time, but maybe it’s time for a rethink.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Completely perverted, totally surreal, but irresistibly charming.”– Henrik Sylow, DVD Beaver (DVD)\

(This movie was nominated for review by Wormhead, who called it “a surrealistic spanish/french film by Bigas Luna.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: BEAUTIFUL BEINGS (2022)

Berdreymi

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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)

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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: WYRM (2019)

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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)