The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
On their last night of summer, hormonal adolescents, ranging from fourteen to twenty-one, attended their friends’ sleepovers and parties. There was Rob (Marlon Morton), a lonely guy who encountered a girl in the supermarket but failed to find the courage to speak to her. He spent the rest of the night hoping that their paths would cross. Claudia (Amanda Bauer) was a new girl in town. She didn’t have many friends, so when she was invited by Janelle (Shayla Curran) to attend a sleepover, she happily accepted, unaware that Janelle was her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. Scott (Brett Jacobsen) was having second thoughts about finishing college. His sister, Jen (Mary Wardell), told him that twins Ady (Nikita Ramsey) and Anna (Jade Ramsey) had a crush on him in high school. Hoping that his fantasy of being intimate with twins would finally come true, he drove up to the girls’ freshman orientation. Lastly, while at a party with upperclassmen, Maggie tried to get to know the pool boy she had been eyeing all summer. “The Myth of the American Sleepover,” written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, wanted to have its cake and eat it, too. On one hand, it wanted to deliver a realistic portrayal of teens: their attitudes about friendship, blooming sexualities, and coming to terms with missed opportunities. On the other hand, none of the parents ever showed up on screen. The most common excuse was the adults were out of town. Did all of the parents plan to leave their kids at home at the same time? I understood that it was a conceit that we just had to accept. I wouldn’t have had an issue with it if the teens eventually managed to express their thoughts and emotions to one another with a certain level of clarity. Instead, they lumbered from one place to another without much purpose. It was somewhat frustrating to watch them because there was a lack of fluidity between their respective struggles. For instance, how was Claudia’s loneliness related to Rob’s? There was no bridge. The parents, during wisely chosen scenes, could have acted as the conduit to their children’s confusion, frustration, and apathy as well as the past and present. After all, the parents used to be young and careless, too. Some things never change. Some things inevitably do. Furthermore, the teens could have used more diversity and executed in a direct manner. Rob’s storyline was most interesting because an African-American girl, his sister’s friend, had a crush on him but he didn’t seem to notice. Rob’s best friend, a guy, had feelings for him, too. I didn’t like how both were handled. Although set in suburban Detroit, the world the teens inhabited didn’t really feel like it was set in a modern age. The potential interracial couple’s scenes felt too syrupy to the point where they actually ended up watching shooting stars. The relationship between Rob and his best friend, as friends, didn’t ring true because of the way the director softened the latter’s homosexuality. I felt like the kid was shoved back into the closet every time he felt like he could finally tell Rob about who he really was. I was saddened, sometimes angered, due the way the script and the camera shied away from certain necessary realities. “The Myth of the American Sleepover” would possibly have been a great movie if it was released in the early 1980s. But as a movie of today, it feels like a masturbartory fantasy of the past.
Small Change (1976)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“L’argent de poche” or “Small Change,” written and directed by François Truffaut (“The 400 Blows”), did not have a defined story but it never failed to impress because the vignettes it featured ranged from disarmingly funny to downright heartbreaking. The film followed two-year-old children to fourteen-year-old young adults as they tried to roleplay and find their identities. I originally saw this picture in my third year of French class in high school but I failed realize how brilliant it was. Watching it again four to five years later, I couldn’t help but enjoy it that much more because I’ve had more experience with films and acquired a deeper understanding of childhood psychology. Watching the scenes which involved children giving their friends haircuts (and ending up disastrous), sneaking into the cinema, preparing breakfast with a sibling as their parents sleep, and others really took me back on how fun and easy life was back then when I didn’t have yet carry certain responsibilities. It also tackled topics such as securely and insecurely attached children, attachments to certain objects, and their inabilities to not act upon the first thought of action that would come up in their minds. While the humor was certainly there, I admired that the film also showed the darker side of childhood which dealt with abuse and childhood depression. That bit reminded me of a girl in my fourth grade class. Although at the time I didn’t quite grasp the idea of parents abusing their children in the home, there were definitely signs that would most likely lead to the a conclusion, such as her bruises on her arm and when she would come to school either crying or restless. (Most of us thought she was just really emotional and stayed away from her.) That delicate balance was definitely Truffaut’s greatest strength. Lastly, I enjoyed the teacher’s (Jean-François Stévenin) insight on childhood and growing up. I found his speech to have a certain resonance because it had undeniable truth without ever having to be melodramatic. “Pocket Money” is one of those pictures that reminds me why I love watching coming-of-age films.
Whisper of the Heart (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, this animated film showcases a charming tale of a girl named Shizuku (Youko Honna) and her passion for writing. I liked the fact that as the picture went on, we got to see how the lead character evolved from a girl who spent most of her time reading books (and not studying for her high school entrance exams) to a girl who wanted to do something with her talents so decided to pursue writing a book. Of course, side stories were expected such as her relationship with her best friend, the boy from the same grade who likes her, and the mysterious guy who checks out the same books as her named Seiji Amasawa (Kazuo Takahashi). I also enjoyed watching another layer to the story by showing us the dynamics in her home–an overbearing sister, a literary father, and a mother who is going to school–because it explains why Shizuku is such a self-starter, naturally curious regarding her surroundings, and has a natural taste for adventure. Since it was written by Miyazaki, I have to admit that I thought there was going to be more fantastic elements to the story. There were some of that, such as the strange coincidences and when the audiences had a chance to see what the lead character was imagining. But I was glad that this was grounded in reality and it really showed how it was like to make that transition from being a child to being an adolescent. Questions such as what she wanted to do in her life began popping up in her head when she met Seiji, who knows exactly wanted to do with his life. I admired her persistence in turning her insecurities into achievements. There were definitely times when I was inspired. My one problem with it, however, was it did, in fact, run a little too long. Perhaps if twenty minutes were cut off, it would have been much more focused and powerful. Regardless, I am giving this a recommendation because it made me think about where I am in life. It was sweet but not sugary; though it had its sad moments, it was never melodramatic.
Water Lilies (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, “Naissance des pieuvres” was about three fifteen-year-old girls–Marie (Pauline Acquart), Anne (Louise Blachère) and Floriane (Adele Haenel)–in the middle of adolescence swimming, hanging out, and laying about in the middle of summer. Marie wants Anne but Anne initially doesn’t even consider Marie to be on her level. Marie is best friends with Floriane and Floriane is interested in Anne’s crush/boytoy (Warren Jacquin). This leaves Marie in an awkward position because the other two are too cooped up into their own worlds to notice that Marie is suffering on the inside. I really felt for Acquart’s character because she can’t quite express who she really is both because of her own insecurities and expectations from other people. She’s a complex character because I felt like she doesn’t really try to hide who she really is; she’ll actually quite easy to open up as long as someone bothers to show interest. I can relate to her the most because her shyness and calculating nature sometimes gets the best of her. And better yet, she knows it but can’t quite do anything about it. I thought her relationship with Anne was very interesting to watch because I wasn’t exactly sure how it would turn out. Just when I think it’s going to go one way, it takes the opposite direction so I constantly had to reevaluate my expectations. However, the whole thing remains fluid and poetic instead of feeling forced. The biggest weakness I could find was that the film did not spend much time developing Floriane. I felt like she should have had more layers instead of merely crushing on a guy. There were times when I thought, “What about the third girl? What’s her role in the bigger scheme of things?” And those questions were not sufficiently answered. I think the defining scene of this picture was when Marie was watching Anne and her team practicing for a competitive synchronized swimming. We see elegance and beauty above the water but we see quick constant kicking underwater. I think it reflected what the characters were going through at the time of their respective challenges. This is a coming-of-age story that is astute, observant, sensitive and sometimes downright sexy.
Wild Reeds (1994)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Wild Reeds,” directed by André Téchiné impressed me in every way. In under two hours, the film was able to efficiently describe the complexity of four characters in the middle of adolescence. While all of them attend the same boarding school, they cannot be any more different. François Forestier (Gaël Morel) realizes that he’s gay due to his attraction to Serge Bartolo (Stéphane Rideau), a working-class French-Italian whose brother died in a war. François’ worst enemy is himself: he doesn’t know what to do with his recent realization so he constantly tries to look for support because not even his closest friend Maïté Alvarez (Élodie Bouchez from “Alias”) can help him out due to her initial attraction to him. Even though François and Serge slept together once, Stéphane is not gay and this bothered François to his core. Things get even more complicated when Henri Mariani (Frédéric Gorny) comes into the picture; being a French-Algerian, his passion toward his support for France’ colonization of Algeria created tension among his teachers, classmates, and even himself. Being an outcast, François sees something in him, the two become friends, yet their relationship does not become predictable. All those elements made the story fascinating and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.
This is no doubt a coming-of-age film but it’s more organic than American films of the same subgenre. Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t watching a movie at all. It felt like a story that could’ve happened back in the 1960’s because of how affected the characters are by the war. Not one of them is not affected by the politics and it was interesting to explore their psychologies. Although I was particularly touched by François’ struggles when it comes to self-acceptance versus self-rejection (that mirror scene was both brilliant and heartbreaking), I was very interested in Maïté’s mother (Michèle Moretti), who happens to be the three boys’ teacher. She felt so guilty about not helping Serge’s brother evade the war, she pretty much went crazy after his death. That one scene when she was at the hospital was so haunting, it gave me serious goosebumps. Just one small scene of less than three minutes was enough to truly paint how tortured she was by her guilt so I was very impressed. Moreover, I was satisfied with how Téchiné divided the time between the four lead characters. When each of them was under the spotlight, we truly get to know why they ended up the way they were because they talk about their past and their current thoughts on the matter. Yet at the same time, it does not result to the usual melodrama where they cry so that the audiences will feel sorry for them. In fact, they do the opposite: they try to be so strong but an outsider can (or should be able to) tell that they’re on the verge of breaking down. I was highly impressed with the acting from the four leads because I felt like they had subtlety and they always had something going on behind their eyes. In a nutshell, these are the type of characters I’d like to be friends with because they do not thrive on superficiality.
“Wild Reeds” is truly one of the best coming-of-age films I’ve seen. The characters have a certain emotional intelligence that one rarely sees in such a subgenre, especially in American coming-of-age pictures. Being released in 1994, it goes to show that a thoughtful coming-of-age movie does not need to feature excesses of alcohol, sex and loud music. It sets up an argument that self-discovery can happen right in our own small towns with people who we care about, the books that we love rereading and the current politics that we hear in the radio. This is the kind of movie that I want to add to my collection because of its many underlying themes that require multiple viewings. In my opinion, both fans of character studies and cinéphiles should not miss this gem.
Buenos Aires 100 kilómetros (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
I really enjoyed watching this small Argentinean film written and directed by Pablo José Meza. At times it reminded me slightly of “Stand by Me” because it explores a group of friends’ dymanics: the elements that keep them together and the elements that keep them apart. Just like most group of friends, I liked that some individuals are closer than others such as Juan Ignacio Perez Roca (as Esteban) and Juan Pablo Bazzini’s (as Damian) characters. The two of them stand out because their personal battles are explored in a thorough manner. Esteban is forced by his father to take drawing classes so he can one day become an engineer and rebuild the small town where they reside. However, his real passion is to be a writer but no one really supports him except Damian and the girl he has a crush on. I thought the film’s strength lies in the silence whenever the camera just lingers on Esteban’s inner struggle to meet his father’s expectations as well as putting his imagination down onto the pages of his notebook. I could identify with him because my mom forced me to focus on school when I was younger instead of playing outside with the other kids. (Don’t get me wrong–she did let me have fun once I’ve done my part.) Although I immensely thank her now that she did that, when I look back on it, sometimes I feel like I did miss some of my childhood because the idea of responsibility was introduced to me very early on. As for Damian, he’s so obsessed about one of the members of their clique as being adopted. Eventually, he finds out that he’s the one adopted and he doesn’t take it too well. He claims that his adoptive parents didn’t really love him because he feels like they babied him to make up for not telling him the truth. I liked that his way of thinking is a bit skewed because, in reality, that’s how young adolescents think. When the two talk to each other, the film becomes alive because the audiences know why they have certain point of views and their motivations. We understand that, beneath their silliness when they hang out as a group, they are intelligent kids who can flourish as adults if they continue to apply themselves. Unfortunately, the other three friends weren’t fully explored and that’s ultimately the film’s weakness. In my opinion, it could’ve been better if it had an extra thirty minutes or so. Otherwise, this character-driven coming-of-age film is impressive in many respects considering that it didn’t have a big budget. Instead, it relies on its good script, interesting performances and careful observations on how friendships are like in real life.