American Animals (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Bart Layton tells the story of an actual crime planned and executed by four university students with such joie de vivre that I couldn’t help but feel electrified by the images, feelings, and psychology emanating from the screen. It is strange, incredible, and fascinating—that Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) actually managed to convince themselves that they could get away with stealing extremely rare and valuable books, some of which date back to the eighteenth century, in broad daylight… and then actually sell them without the authorities knowing about it.
The young men gambled their futures simply because they were bored with the present. And so there is undeniable power in putting the real people portrayed in the film in front of the camera to tell the viewers directly what they thought about at the time, how they felt while planning the heist, and learning about what happened to them following the inevitable prison time. There is delicious irony particularly in Spencer’s case, the artist who found himself uninspired or dispassionate toward the craft he had chosen while in university. In a way, a compelling argument can be made that it is almost poetic, or karmic, or destiny that the heist would fail just so he would find his calling.
Layton plays with the story’s form like an expert juggler, shuffling between reenactment and documentary with buttery ease. There is an engaging flow in his approach, always propulsive, even when the pacing slows down at times, but not once painting his subjects using sentimental brushes or colors. On the contrary, his approach touches upon darkly comic moments, but never cruel, especially when the writer-director highlights the thieves’ sheer stupidity. They talk big but their actions are desperate, messy. They learn first-hand that heists are not like the movies where robbers simply slip in and out, despite sudden left turns, after excellent planning. We are meant to feel tickled by watching the quartet squirm and struggle under the pressure of possibly getting caught.
Keoghan, Peters, Abrahamson, and Jenner do share chemistry but it is not the kind that is pleasant—which is the correct decision. They must not come across as friends but accomplices. Instead, each performer brings something different to the table. For instance, we are able to recognize with ease which one is the most intelligent, the most practical, the most uncertain, the one most willing to take risks just so the plan becomes reality. I found it interesting that although each character embodies a certain archetype, the writing, as with everything else, consistently leaves enough room for uncertainty. (At one point, I doubted whether the purported real figures were truly the actual people involved in the heist.) Thus, not one of them is ever boring or one-dimensional. Although they are criminals, we are reminded they are still people who care about the ramifications of their actions.
“American Animals” is a success for the most part because it dares to tell a truly bizarre story in a strange way—combining the dramatic genre with that of a documentary approach. Although some level of suspense is sacrificed due to the handful of interruptions between reenactment and recollection, the film, as a whole, offers a compelling experience nonetheless because it inspires those watching to create our own interpretation of the truth. Heist films usually just… are. This film, on the other hand, leaves enough room for curiosity.
Edge of Seventeen, The (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★
There is a profound sadness in the heroine of “The Edge of Seventeen,” sharply written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, which is only one of the many reasons why its story is worth telling. The film is head and shoulders above similar coming-of-age stories about socially awkward high school students because there is an authenticity in both script and performances. And while the target audience is likely to be smart and self-aware teenagers, twenty-somethings and above who remember those turbulent years will probably be able to relate to every character here since we have already gone through the seemingly interminable trials that come with being a young adult.
Hailee Steinfeld plays the central character named Nadine with electric energy and alluring vibrancy. Most interesting is that although Nadine is indeed our protagonist, there are numerous times when she comes across unlikable. I found the material to be honest in its portrayal of teenagers in that sometimes they mistake honesty for being purposefully hurtful. Steinfeld fits the role like a glove because she is able to communicate a number of thoughts and emotions all at once without ever losing the viewers’ empathy. She commands the role especially because she has the ability to evoke both nuances and broad strokes often within one scene. Steinfeld should aspire to take on more roles with this level of complexity since she is clearly more than capable. I am convinced we will see her on screen for a long time.
The picture is exciting due to its ability to surprise. Although most unsurprising is the trigger that sends Nadine over the edge—her best friend friend (Haley Lu Richardson) and her brother (Blake Jenner) sleeping together—what’s refreshing is in how the characters are painted after the fact. No one is a villain, only flawed people responding to their mistakes. As Nadine is forced to make connections when the bond between her and Krista is severed, sooner or later we realize that every person she comes across are worth exploring further. Lesser comedy-dramas tend use supporting characters as crutches or punchlines. Not here.
Particularly interesting are the history teacher and a classmate in history class. Woody Harrelson plays Mr. Bruner, a teacher who appears to be apathetic about his job, his students, and perhaps even his life. Although there is a lot of great humor in the exchanges between Mr. Bruner and Nadine, the dramatic payoff between the teacher and student later on is equally great—if not more—despite the former offering no words of wisdom about high school or life. They do not even share a hug or a look of approval.
I am particularly difficult to please when it comes to romantic interests in movies. A second fascinating supporting character is played by Hayden Szeto, a classmate who has a lot of talent and heart. Despite the fact that early on it becomes all too clear to us that Erwin and Nadine are a good fit for one another—whether it be through friendship or something more—the way their relationship as two teenagers simply trying to figure things out is a breath of fresh air. The high level of writing and performances overcomes the expected cutesy-ness.
High on emotional intelligence, pointed sense of humor, and entertainment value, “The Edge of Seventeen” belongs on the shelf among superior modern coming-of-age films such as Mark Waters’ “Mean Girls,” Jason Reitman’s “Juno,” James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now,” and Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Aspiring coming-of-age pictures about smart teenagers should look up to it as an example.