Sixteen is already a difficult age, with lots of challenges to navigate, but Sophie Jones has just lost her mother, so the regular rhythms of adolescence are tinged with grief and loss, which somehow makes normal rites of passage seem more trivial, yet each holds the potential power to make her forget, even for a moment, her deep sadness. Sophie (Jessica Barr) is throwing herself rather recklessly from one milestone to another, hoping to pierce through the numbness of grief and feel something, feel anything.
Sophie’s nervous giggle belies the fact that she’s still a young girl, lacking the maturity to handle all that life has dumped in her lap, not that she’s got a choice. Barr herself is still a young woman, a convincing teenager, playing the role with a natural authenticity. She and cousin Jessie Barr co-wrote the script, and Jessie Barr directs, informed by their own experiences with grief.
Sophie’s primary means of coping is boys, of course, who mostly offer comfort mostly of a physical sort. Trying her best to wear a brave face at school and at home, grief sneaks out in unpredictable ways, heightening emotions that are already fully charged. We float through time as if in a fog; the film is mostly muted, visually and emotionally, enveloping us in a very specific, highly intimate universe.
Some may find Sophie Jones to be a slow watch, maybe not the most exciting, but it’s honest in its portrayal of mourning, raw in its loss of innocence, in more ways than one. The Barr cousins prove themselves to be immensely talented, and if you don’t mind a slow-burn character study, this is a very good one.
Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill debuted their brilliant documentary, Cusp, at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
In a Texas military town, three teenage girls go about their summer break as if no one’s watching. Drinks, drugs, guns, and toxic masculinity – a terrible combination mostly shrugged off by the girls who don’t know any better way to be. Autumn, Brittney, and Aaloni are so cavalier about their perceived helplessness that it’ll make you sick to your stomach. And yet these girls are representative of so many more that it’s both illuminating and deeply disturbing to hear their thoughts on freedom, consent, and ubiquitous sexual violence.
With a vérité approach, Bethencourt and Hill chronicle the lives of 15 year old girls with sensitivity and truth. Mimicking their lazy, unstructured lives, the camera is merely a witness to the intimate moments within their family homes and their social circles. In some ways Autumn, Brittney, and Aalani are dealing with more adult problems than I encountered in my own youth, yet they seem so much less mature, less equipped to survive these formative years on the cusp of adulthood.
Bethencourt and Hill manage to observe unobtrusively while eliciting organic, surprisingly nonchalant confessions from their subjects. It’s an eye-opening documentary that all parents should see, and take away at least one valuable lesson: to teach your daughters to say no, and your sons to hear and respect it.
Growing up in Creekville, South Carolina in the 1970s, Beth (Sophia Lillis) has always felt like an outsider, even especially in her own family. The only relative to whom she relates is Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), who seldom attends the various family functions meant to bring them all together. She feels surrounded by small minds and limited experience, and she’s not wrong. Which is why she eagerly follows in Uncle Frank’s foot steps to Manhattan as soon as she graduates.
Between college and the big city, Beth is growing up and expanding her world view, but nothing hits home like finding out that Uncle Frank is gay and that his roommate Wally (Peter Macdissi) is his lover and partner of many years. She’s never known anyone gay before. No; she never knew she knew anyone gay before. As if this wasn’t milestone enough, Frank’s father (and Beth’s grandfather) Daddy Mac (Stephen Root) has died, leaving uncle and niece to get reacquainted in the context of this new information during their road trip home for the funeral. On the one hand, it’s kind of a nice opportunity to meet each other’s authentic selves, but on other hand, they’re driving toward utter disaster and they don’t even know it.
South Carolina wasn’t the happiest place to be a gay kid growing up, and if Frank isn’t exactly choked up by his father’s death, going home does stir up quite a few traumatic memories, threatening his sobriety, his relationship, and even his life. Uncle Frank is both a coming out story of sorts for Frank, and a coming of age for Beth, two misfits from the same people and place finding out whether you can go home again or if you should have stayed in NYC where you belong. Writer-director Alan Ball seasons the script with achingly realistic family dysfunction, layers of hatred as well as opportunities for healing. Young Sophia Lillis has really hit the ground running in her career, starting out already on top with several leading lady roles in a row. She’s fantastic in this, but this movie belongs to Uncle Frank, and it’s Paul Bethany’s stoic and grounded performances that really see us through. Frank has navigated his life with careful precision but his father’s death is the one iceberg he couldn’t avoid. It feels like we’d tread uncomfortably close to melodrama, but Bettany’s performance is quiet, calm, and convincing, with not one shred of over-acting in a career-defining turn.
Uncle Frank has something to say about how things were in the past, but it also implies a lot about us now, 50 years in the future, and yet somehow still living in a world full of prejudice, where in some places and for some people, Frank’s experience is still the norm. For an unspoken statement, it’s pretty profound.
Radha was a promising playwright; she took home a 30 under 30 award, but she’s rounding the corner to 40 now, and instead of producing the play of her dreams, she’s teaching ambivalent students at a college and stalling out on all that promise. Welcome to Radha’s midlife crisis.
With that milestone birthday looming over her shoulder, Radha is desperate for a breakthrough and knows she has to shake things up to achieve it, but if it were that easy, she would have done it already. Exploring her contacts and the compromises it would take, she dabbles in hip hop, straddling the world of both hip hop and theatre to find her lost voice.
This movie succeeds on one woman alone: Radha Blank, who writes for and directs herself in a tour de force performance. Her writing is strong and incisive, she manages to be wild and free, fierce and determined, while also seeing her character’s evolution through some uncertain and confusing times. If Radha is a little mature for a coming of age, this is perhaps her second age, one in which her wisdom and lived experience have inspired her to create her own space and define the ways she fills it.
If Radha the character is finding her voice, Radha the multi-hyphenate talent responsible for the film has found hers, and found a bold, radical, brilliant way to display it.
Sean is a Tall Boy. He is 6’6. Yes he played basketball. And rugby. And volleyball. And he swam, actually. All the things a lean tall boy should do, including nearly eating his poor mother out of house and home – his poor, moderately sized mother had 3 Tall Sons actually, and it seems a testament to her budgeting that she never had to take out a second mortgage to feed them. He expected to date a tall woman. Preferred to date a tall woman. I am not tall. Well, horizontally tall, maybe. Vertically: certainly not. I tap out at 5’3 when at my most erect. My littleyounger youngest sister likes to poke fun at my littleness by calling me “funsize” like the bullshit tiny Halloween chocolate bars. She is half an inch taller but it burns me and she knows it.
Anyway. Sean is tall. Jay is not. That’s a 15 inch difference between us. Yikes. But I made my peace with my height a long time ago. I’ve had plenty of time; I stopped growing in the fifth grade. I can’t reach the tall shelf and in most chairs my feet dangle without touching the floor but I clear a lot of tree branches without ducking and fit into all the sports cars that Sean has only seen the outside of (I did cram him into a Mazda Miata once but couldn’t bear to pull the trigger and sentence him to 5-7 years of Sean-origami. Sean deals with the back pain that leaning down to kiss me induces and I deal with the fact that my eyes are inconveniently located exactly at elbow height for him (“the danger zone” I call it). He lies diagonally on the bed and I fit in the triangle space on either side quite neatly. My shopping expertise means for the first time he has the right inseams and size 14 shoes that don’t suck.
Being a Tall Boy is actually a very nice thing, I take it. Like in the movie, people often ask him “How’s the weather up there?” (mostly old men) to which Sean gamely replies “Terrific!” But being a Tall Girl is a lot harder, especially a Tall Teenage Girl. Jodi is only 6’1 but fears her height defines her. She feels all too visible. Even boys her own height are intimated, but those who are shorter, who make up the majority, have zero interest. So whether or not the weather “up there” is nice, it’s awfully lonely. Which makes me feel a tiny bit guilty for taking a Tall Boy off the market when technically speaking a dude who is 5’7 is Tall Boy to me.
Of course Jodi (Ava Michelle) is also a bit oblivious because her best friend Jack (Griffin Gluck) has always been interested, if only she had cast her gaze slightly downward. Instead she looks only up, and eventually meets the eyes of the handsome (and tall, needless to say) exchange student Stig (Luke Eisner), who is sort of already taken. But with expert advice from her beauty queen sister Harper (Sabrina Carpenter), Jodi hopes to achieve Tall Couple status. Anyway, it’s easy to find sympathy for Jodi, who is indeed Going Through Something (and it’s not a growth spurt) (and so what if it was?) even when she’s not being her best self. It’s less easy to find forgiveness in your heart for some pretty lazy mean girl tropes and some random and unnecessary shaming.
For some reason boy-girl couples are supposed to have a height differential that only works in one direction. It’s arbitrary and nonsensical and yet deeply culturally ingrained. But you guys: it’s bullshit! It’s as stupid and useless as those teeny tiny chocolate bars. We don’t need to abide by rules that don’t make sense: reject that shit. Kiss people because they’re nice and smart and do good things in the world. My grandmother was (is) taller than my grandfather, and yeah they’re miserable but they’ve been married for 67 years and there’s every chance that at least the first 5 were crazysexycool (he had a motorcycle!).
Tall Girl makes tall girls feel seen, even if that’s the last thing they want. It’s not a great movie, but since it streams on Netflix there’s little investment and little to lose, in inches or dignity or any other measure.
I first came to know Caitlin Moran when her publisher sent me a copy of her book, How To Be A Woman, to review (Jay trivia: I did in fact review books before movies – scandalous!). That’s all it takes to be a Moran convert. She’s so…I mean, likable is both the right and wrong word. She does not asked to be liked. She does not write to be liked. But her don’t-give-a-fuck-edness is extremely likable. She is the role model we deserve: bold, brash, body-positive, full of piss and vinegar. She isn’t someone else’s shitty idea of a woman, she is a REAL woman, no apologies given and none necessary. She may have been new to me then but she was already a well-respected journalist and popular TV personality in England. But over here we’ve mostly had to make due with her books.
Lately she has embarked on a semi-autobiographical trilogy, the first of which is How To Build A Girl. It follows Johanna Morrigan, an educationally-uninspired, council-estate-abiding, overlooked teenage daughter in Wolverhampton who one day just decides that the best ticket out of there is one she writes herself. So she reinvents herself as the fast-talking, confident Dolly Wilde, music journalist extraordinaire. With a top hat and some swagger, Dolly trips through life, interviewing Britpop’s biggest bands at the beginning of their journey to fame, and swashbuckling through bedrooms as a Lady Sex Pirate (Moran’s words, but god I wish they were mine). Is it easy? Fuck no. The music industry is notoriously sexist, and Johanna/Dolly is, after all, still a teenage girl.
The movie has a lot going for it, but I’m going to start with its star, Beanie Feldstein, whom you might already love from Booksmart or Lady Bird, and with whom you will fall certainly and mightily and madly head over heels in this. Johanna Morrigan is the kind of character every actor wants and few will ever find; the personal grown charted on screen is nearly immeasurable. Johanna is every kind of dichotomy you could hope for in a character study of a young woman: brave and nervous, self-conscious and audacious. We see every attempt to ‘build’ her up by the men in her life – father, boss, boyfriend, brother. But then we get to see her break away from all that bullshit and start to build herself. And the ingredients for building a self-possessed girl are all here. It is glorious.
Caitlin Moran’s signature style is all over this film, which she helped adapt to screen. The humour is self-effacing, witty, rude, clever. It is amazing and liberating and just such a relief to see a young woman’s actual sexual awakening be told (though I think it may be slightly watered down from the book, if you can imagine). And that’s what will punch you right in the face: director Coky Giedroyc has given Johanna permission to be a real person, whose inner life and outer trappings are just as full and fully-realized as any man’s. Yes, she’s ambitious. Her peers find her intimidating and confusing. Her life isn’t perfect. She swears like a sailor. She likes her body. She likes sex. She wants more. Have we ever seen a better representation of a female character, ever? EVER??? Everything I like about this movie makes me dislike every other movie just a little bit. How To Build a Girls is vital and necessary – easy to fall in love with, because it’ll make you fall in love with yourself.
It’s the last day of school, and best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are ready to bid high school goodbye. They’ve been serious students, buttoned down and focused, and their hard work has paid off: they’re off to Yale and Columbia respectively. But their pride is tamped down a little when they learn that that many of their classmates are also headed for the Ivies – this despite the fact that they rarely seemed studious, and made lots of time for parties and fun. “I’m incredible at hand-jobs but I also got a 1560 on the SATs,” says one.
Molly is particularly devastated; sure she’s the valedictorian, but did she sacrifice fun for nothing? She doesn’t want to show up at college in the fall a party virgin. Her whole worldview is sliding down a crap chute, and her instinct is to dive in after it. Luckily, they have one last night before graduation, and Amy’s departure for a summer of volunteering in Botswana. One night to make up for 4 years of skipping parties and feeling left out of the in-crowd. They set their sights on Nick’s party – the most effortlessly popular kid in school (played by Mason Gooding, son of Cuba Gooding Jr).
The ladies do not get from point A to point B without boatloads (and sometimes they are literal boatloads) of shenanigans. This is Superbad, only because it’s girls, it’s much smarter. And it seems like this one night of trying to party teaches them more about themselves than the previous four years of high school. That sounds about right, doesn’t it?
The movie gets so much right even as we learn how much the girls have gotten wrong. Molly always assumed she was purposely excluded, but it turns out these kids are all too happy to greet her socially; her exile was self-imposed. How maddening, isn’t it, to discover that too late – and a good reminder for us all to check in with ourselves. How often do we impose our own limitations? Amy tackles her fears while Molly checks her ego, and her assumptions. The two women in the lead have amazing chemistry and it’s a lot of fun to witness the particular dynamic of their friendship. You and I know that college will test the bonds of their friendship, and inevitably change it if not crush it outright. They’re starting to have inklings that this might be so. So this last night out has some tangible pressure to it. Beanie Feldstein is a cinematic lantern, lighting up every screen she’s on, and lighting the way for others. Kaitlyn Dever is an excelling pairing for her, able to play off her energy in a more conservative and subdued way, while still holding her own.
Olivia Wilde tries out the director’s chair and seems to find it a pretty comfortable fit. She’s got an eye for letting actors do their thing; so much of the best bits feel spontaneous and are the best kind of weird. She’s also got an amazing feel for music – she introduces characters and themes with pop songs, and it really took me back. I bet most of us can come up with a soundtrack of our own high school experience. Music is such an important part of that time in our lives. I still surround myself by music constantly, but I will never again spend the day on my bedroom floor inhaling lyric booklets, or spend hours recording stuff off MTV like I did then. I know which songs I kissed to, slow-danced to, had sex to. Which ones we played on repeat as we drove recklessly and restlessly around parking lots doing donuts, which ones played at the diner as we split an order of fries, which ones we cried to when boys were mean to us, which ones accompanies us down the aisle at our own graduations and commencements. Wilde seems to have an intuitive sense of that, and I caught it.
There’s a theme in Booksmart that is hinted at but never spoken of: class. As in economic and social class. Molly points out the school’s 1% (Billie Lourd and Skyler Gisondo, whom Sean finds uproariously funny), but it’s clear that the Los Angeles high school as affluent as heck. Everyone, it seems, except for Molly. Not a single thing is ever said about it, but we see that she lives in an apartment building while everyone else has a McMansion, and her parents are absent from the film. So when Molly discovers that all her other classmates also got into good schools, she berates herself for having skipped the fun when she didn’t have to. But you and I know that she probably did: that kids like Molly have to earn their way in, but kids from rich families do not. They have legacy status, they know alumni who can pull strings. Their families donate money to schools. And, as we’ve seen in the news recently, they pay money to fake their way in on a little-used athletic scholarship or some other fraudulent means. College admissions are not the meritocracy we want to believe they are. There are very valid reasons why Molly worked so hard and others did not, even if the film never states them. So maybe Molly’s takeaway was to loosen up a bit, and experience life, which are not bad lessons. But for us, it’s a little bit more than that.
Even with these subtle layers, Booksmart never stops being fun. The cast is lively and diverse, the tropes are thankfully on the unexpected side, and the movie has a great pace. Plus it has an exception friendship at its centre. Just when you think we’ve said all there is to say about high school, Boomsmart is a charming, genuine and clever addition to the field.
Virus Tropical is a black and white animated film celebrating the coming of age of a young Colombian-Ecuadorian girl in a close-knit family.
Paola’s conception is near-miraculous; her mother had her tubes tied and her pregnancy was initially diagnosed as a tropical virus of some sort. Nine months later, a third daughter was added to the family. Paola’s oldest sister is adoring and the middle sister is instantly jealous, having been so firmly bumped out of the baby position. Paola’s father is a former Catholic priest with many of the religious tendencies still intact, and her mother is a domino-reading fortune teller favoured by the president. It’s a mystical-sounding childhood that in fact turns out to be quite ordinary.
Paola is a kid like any other, struggling to be accepted by her peer group, finding her place among her sisters, rebelling against her parents. The film, based on Paola Gaviria’s (aka Power Paola’s) graphic novel of the same name, belongs in the bosom of the family, and rarely looks out toward larger social or cultural contexts. But even the mundane events are recounted with such attention to detail that they’re fully absorbing, the story rich and brimming with life.
The black and white line drawings are surprisingly effective, and director Santiago Caicedo has a knack for drawing in the eye with relatively simple art. The story itself is rather episodic, and the transitions between them aren’t always smooth, but I was pleasantly surprised by how watchable it felt, and how connected I felt to Paola and her family of strong-willed women. The film doesn’t aspire to make larger connections so you’ll have to be content with diary-style recounting rather than introspection; Virus Tropical is pleasant and interesting, but it isn’t particularly deep.
Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is a 13 year old kid living with his single mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston) and his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). It’s the 90s, so we don’t have helicopter parents yet, no crazy attachment hyper-parenting bullshit. Just kids roaming the streets until it’s dark, which they more or less survived.
Stevie has good reason to want to flee his home. His mother has apparently curb-tailed her wildest instincts, but still unburdens her romantic woes on her tween son. Ian poses the more straight-forward threat, frequently beating up his little brother for little or no reason. But Stevie may be his own worst enemy, self-harming in alarming ways. It’s not until he begins to ingratiate himself with a skate group that he comes out of his shell. Ray is the undisputed leader of the group. He’s effortlessly cool, and everyone looks up to him. Fuckshit skateboards equally well, but seems more interested in partying and getting fucked up. Reuben and Fourth Grade fill obligatory minion roles within the group, and Stevie, henceforth known as Sunburn, is the newest, youngest, and greenest of the bunch. And he’s just so happy to be there.
Mid90s does a very good job making a time capsule out of 90s-era L.A. It gives us a gritty, accurate, insider look at skater culture, though it also feels quite sweet and quite intimate at times. We get a rare glimpse of masculine vulnerability, and the age-old attempt to swallow it up.
This is Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, and he’s quite a confident director right out of the gates. He’s got a very laid-back, observational style that almost mimics skate movies that kids were putting together at the time, just footage of their buddies daring to do new tricks. Hill’s favourite trick, and perhaps his greatest asset, is the minimalism with which he shoots. I just wish the script didn’t follow the same route. The skateboard metaphor, along with the unsubtle tag line ‘Fall. Get back up.’ are pretty heavy-handed, but the rest is a little…not superficial exactly, but undercooked, in that we don’t really get underneath the feelings. Hill picks at some scabs but allows very little bloodshed. Mid90s feels a bit more like a character sketch than a whole movie, with subplots thin enough to necessitate questions of existence, but the parts that are on screen look cool and feel authentic, and it’s a promising new direction for Jonah Hill.
I suppose it’s inevitable that I’ve failed to relate to this coming of age comedy about a young girl in high school who’s utterly obsessed with snogging. More alienating than the age difference is my absolute distaste for the word snogging, which is repeated so often in the film that my stomach acid has stripped away the mucus lining of my throat after throwing up in my mouth so frequently.
In fact, I do not care at all for kissing in films because I really cannot abide the sound effects attributed to it. You can hear the spit. It’s all spit. It’s slurpy and damp and you can just hear the strings of saliva between open, bacteria-ridden mouths. It grosses me the fuck out. Which is weird because I don’t really mind it in person. But as in many things, real-life kissing is almost nothing like movie kissing, and if done reasonably well, and with the avoidance of too much tooth contact, it’s never nearly as noisy. So I already know that I hate kissing scenes in movies. And poor Georgia wants nothing more than kissing all the time. Scratch that. She wants snogging, because she’s British and therefore had to come up with a gross word for it that ruins it for the rest of us. I mean, first of all, snogging has always sounded to me like rather more than just kissing. In fact, it pretty much sounds like the whole enchilada. The whole kit and caboodle. But no, snogging is what twerpy little teenage girls do to the backs of their hands at sleepovers and such. Georgia is sadly snog-free at this stage in her life, but she’s devoted herself (at the expense of school, friends, and family, naturally) to correcting this void. And wouldn’t you know it: the eminently dreamy Robbie moves to town, and is the perfect target for all her lusty fantasies (which mostly involve running uphill???).
Angus is just about the only thing that I don’t despise in the film. Angus is Georgia’s long-suffering cat. Normally I don’t go in for cats, but Angus tolerates dog-levels of indignity – tea parties, costumes, even getting pretend-lost so that Georgia and cat-loving Robbie can share a moment or two searching for him.
The other thing that director Gurinder Chadha gets right is casting a very young, very floppy-haired Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who of course isn’t going by that yet) as dreamboat Robbie. It is quite arresting to see him so young and smooth-faced in this film after so recently having seen him waggle his penis about in A Million Little Pieces, and bare the madness of his soul in Outlaw King. I know I complained about all the brutal horse murder in the latter, but it turns out that the slaughter of innocent animals is easier for me to cope with than the sound of perfect snogging.