That’s What I Am (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Andrew Nichol (Chase Ellison) was paired up by his English teacher, Mr. Simon (Ed Harris), with Stanley (Alexander Walters) to work on a final project. Andrew was embarrassed to work with Stanley because the latter was a social outcast. Stanley was known as Big G, G for ginger, due to his red hair, massive ears, and he stood at least a foot taller than everyone else. Andrew, like most middle school students, just wanted to get by and being paired up with a Frankenstein-like geek garnered a lot of negative attention. Mr. Simon wanted to teach Andrew that passively watching another get bullied didn’t free someone from taking responsibility. Written and directed by Michael Pavone, I wanted to like “That’s What I Am” for its intention but it wasn’t as strong as it could have been because there were plenty of instances when it lost its vision. Andy’s quest to finally go steady with Mary Clear (Mia Rose Frampton), a girl who had kissed every boy in their grade except for Andy, could have been somewhat cute in another movie but bullying is such a serious issue that the two forces didn’t belong in one project without the other feeling like a strange appendage that was better hacked off. The picture also gave us other scenes with elements of bullying like a boy (Camille E. Bourgeois III) inflicting deep cuts on a girl (Sarah Celano) using a metallic zipper on his jacket because he wanted to give her back her “cooties.” (They bumped into each other earlier that day.) If Pavone’s intention was to provide comic relief from intense moments in a form of puppy love, the work felt leaned toward mere silliness. Instead of continually highlighting the consequences of bullying, more relevant than ever with the rate of youth suicides nowadays, the issue was somewhat marginalized. I wasn’t sure how to feel about the writer-director feeling the need to introduce homophobia in the 1960s. Rumors went around the school that Mr. Simon was a homosexual. Since he wouldn’t deny it because he believed that one’s ability to teach should matter more than one’s private life, a boy’s parents’ threatened to create a controversy. On one hand, homophobia and bullying had prejudice and intolerance in common. It inspired the kids to ask questions about what homosexuality meant and some of them, like Andrew, learned how to be a little kinder. On the other hand, the issue of whether or not Mr. Simon was gay overshadowed the issue of bullying. I wondered why the school officials failed to take action if someone being robbed of their lunch or getting punched in the stomach happened every day. Surely it wasn’t just because it was the 1960s. Being bullied is not a rite of passage as a lot of people, to my surprise, tend to argue. The film was designed for children and I was surprised that it didn’t offer solutions that made sense. Kicking bullies in crotch may keep them at bay for about a day but they’re bound to retaliate with more hatred than ever. “That’s What I Am” was a missed opportunity. I can overlook the weak acting by some of the young supporting actors, but what I cannot overlook is when a serious topic is not given the attention it deserves.
Bad Teacher (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) was a gold-digger who taught middle school Language Arts. When she was dumped by her most recent rich boyfriend because she had been spending too much money, she started a quest to find another man who would be able to provide for her lavish desires. Her short-term goal: to get breast implants. She was convinced a new pair would help her seduce Scott (Justin Timberlake), the substitute teacher who happened to be romantically interested with Amy (Lucy Punch), the teacher across Elizabeth’s classroom. Written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, “Bad Teacher” was great fun because it was able to take stereotypes, bad habits, and unethical practices into more digestible small scenes with comedic punchlines. Once the joke was delivered, it was immediately onto the next scene to set up the next hilarious bit. It was fast-paced and smart. In its own way, it worked as a critique of an increasingly ineffective educational system and the educators who just couldn’t be bothered. I think it had a point: Elizabeth had needs. Her needs were not always be reasonable but they were needs nonetheless. Its inherent argument was, why should teachers be more motivated to go beyond expectations if they weren’t getting paid enough? Some could argue that teachers love their job and they’re very passionate. That very may well be, but in a practical sense, teachers are not rewarded, pocket-wise, as much as they should be, especially when teaching is, supposedly, considered one of the most important jobs in any nation. The material was elevated by the actors’ charm, particularly by the effervescent Diaz. Even though Elizabeth did drugs at the school parking lot, often went to class with a mean hangover, and only showed movies–some of which had no educational value–in her classroom instead of actively teaching, I ended up rooting for her and loving her for who she was. She knew she was bad and did it with a smile. I liked her frankness. For instance, when Russell (Jason Segel), the gym teacher, asked her out on a date, instead of playing games and stringing him along, she had the courage to just shut him down right away because he wasn’t rich enough. However, I did find some glaring plot holes in Elizabeth’s situation. For example, she had her eyes set on the vulnerable and sensitive Scott because of his last name. What bothered me was she didn’t make sure that he was 1) who he really claimed to be and 2) he was the only beneficiary of the family fortune. She put her faith in the fact that Scott wore a very expensive wristwatch. Later, it was proven to us that she was very resourceful. If I was in her shoes, I would plan to have all of my facts straight before I put in the effort to seduce someone. “Bad Teacher,” directed by Jake Kasdan, was often compared to Terry Zwigoff’s “Bad Santa,” which I don’t think is fair. Although both are comedies about people doing bad (but hilarious) things, “Bad Teacher” is a more commercial breed. It needn’t be as edgy as the latter in order to be considered successful because it found a solid footing in terms of how it wished to deliver its jokes. And with so many trite comedies where “mean” characters eventually change for the better, I was more than happy Elizabeth didn’t lose her thorns.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the books by Jeff Kinney, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” was seen through the eyes of plucky Greg Heffley (played wonderfully by Zachary Gordon) as we followed his often very funny misadventures in middle school. Even though Greg had a lot of attitude toward and opinion about the lameless of the constantly evolving social hierarchy of middle school, he kept looking for ways to fit in and be at the top (or near the top) of the food chain. His schemes that could potentially make him a cool kid overnight were often thwarted by his awkward and corpulent best friend Rowley (Robert Capron), but Greg couldn’t find it in himself to leave him because they’ve been BFFs for as long as he could remember. I loved the main character because I saw lot of myself in him. He was a bit vain but charming, weird but sensitive during the perfect moments, vulnerable yet capable of subterfuge when pushed toward a precipice (or social suicide). Despite his many flaws, I rooted for him because he knew that one day he would be able to look back in time and just laugh about the stupid decisions he made, the shallowness of social climbing, and the ones who took middle school so seriously. There were a number of scenes that stood out to me. One of my favorites was when he tried to persuade us that there was a subtle difference between a journal and diary–that the latter was geared more toward girls while the former was a bit more manly. Another scene I really liked was when he said that fashion was easy and if he wore a tie and a dress shirt to school, everybody would think he was cool. As a person who tried it before (we really did have a lot of similarities), I thought it was absolutely hilarious. However, what did not work for me was when it took the Disney Channel path somewhere around the middle. While I did like the Halloween scenes (like Greg’s, it’s also my favorite holiday), it became too sweet and uninteresting. I wanted more scenes of Greg’s relationship with his obnoxious older brother (Devon Bostick) and the smart seventh grader (Chloe Moretz) who took pictures for the school paper. Even the parents (Steve Zahn, Rachael Harris), as one-dimensional as they were, sometimes showed promise that there was something surprising about them. The symbolism regarding the moldy cheese was obvious but, ironically enough, I didn’t think it was cheesy because the film had a lot of things going for it. For instance, it was able to successfully integrate the characters’ insecurities and apply them to situations where the kids could learn something from their experiences. “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” directed by Thor Freudenthal, is one of the best non-animated children’s movies I’ve seen in a while. It was sassy, quirky, imaginative, funny and full of energy. Adults who are a kid-at-heart would most likely find it enjoyable because it was relatable. It’s one of those movies I must have in my collection.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Wendelin Van Draanen, “Flipped” was about two young adults who never were quite on the same page when it came to romance. Juli Baker (Madeline Carroll) had a crush on Bryce Loski (Callan McAuliffe) ever since his family moved into the neighborhood. She claimed it was because of his gorgeous eyes. She liked the way he looked at her so she tried to reciprocate. But Bryce was simply annoyed of her from the moment they met. Juli’s hugs in school and attempts at conversations while waiting for the school bus embarrassed him to the core. But their feelings toward each other started to change course in middle school. Directed by Rob Reiner, I found “Flipped” to be funny, heartbreaking, and adorable. It reminded me of television shows like “The Wonder Years” and “State of Grace” because of the plucky but flawed main characters and a different version of innocence of the 1960s. The film was essentially an exercise of perspectives yet it was refreshing to see and hear Juli and Bryce’s take on certain key events of their budding (but mostly dying) pupply love. Both characters were equally interesting. Juli came from a poor family (Aidan Quinn, Penelope Ann Miller) but she was smart. Her approach to winning Bryce’s heart was to shower him with affection that ranged from simple gestures such as giving his family free eggs (she raised chickens) to sniffing him when she sat behind him in class. She claimed he smelled like watermelon and it was her most recent obsession. Bryce’s approach couldn’t be any more different. He was raised in a relatively well-to-do family (Anthony Edwards, Rebecca De Mornay) so he was used to thinking that everything was about him. He constantly asked himself why everything had to happen to him, what he did to make Juli angry, and what he could do make Juli forgive him. It was uncommon for him to think outside of himself and consider the big picture. Yet I loved both in their own way because I found them completely relatable. In fact, I think all of us, one way or another, can see ourselves in both of them and laugh because we were all children at some point. There were some nicely executed subplots such as Bryce’s father being prejudiced toward the Bakers, the grandfather’s adoration for Juli but not for his own grandson, and Juli’s uncle (Kevin Weisman) who happened to have a mental disability. The film’s subject is budding adolescents but that does not mean that it sacrificed complexity for easy answers. It respected its subjects by allowing them to be flawed, self-conscious of their flaws, and eventually break out of their phases without the painfully typical grand gestures and overtures. Like in our childhood, the key moments are hidden in the uncomfortable silences and small details. They become memories we never forget because a specific moment in time, powerful and unstoppable, changed us. For better or worse, it doesn’t really matter as long as we are able to grow.
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Dawn (Heather Matarazzo) was a twelve-year-old in junior high school who everybody made fun of. People labeled her with names like “Weinerdog” or “lesbian” but she had no choice but to simply glare through her spectacles. Even the bullied bullied her which made her situation that much sadder and much more relatable. Her family was not very nice to her nor did they make an effort to. She only felt safe either by herself, in her clubhouse, or when she pined over an older boy (Eric Mabius) in her brother’s band. But since this film was written and directed by Todd Solondz, it was far from sugary and not everyone learned a valuable lesson in the end. In fact, some of the characters ended up worse than when the movie started. I particularly despised Dawn’s mother because she was unashamed about favoring one child over another. The film was more concerned about delivering the dark humor when the lead character was faced with desperate situations, such as when one of the boys in her class (Brendan Sexton III) threatened her with rape. I thought Matarazzo was perfectly cast as the geek because she looked very vulnerable but at the same time she had knowing in her eyes–which made her borderline creepy, like the kind of person who was capable of sneaking up in our room in the middle of the night and stabbing us in our sleep. The movie’s X Factor that made it better than most movies about bullying was its balance between delivering the laugh-out-loud one-liners and embracing the pain of being made fun of just because one is different. I think the chocolate cake scene during a family dinner was a prime example of how daring and bold the picture was willing to be. It reminded me of Michael Lehmann’s “Heathers” but was set in middle school although certainly not as depraved. In the end, the movie made me think of my middle school years and I was thankful that I did not go through the humiliating things that Dawn went through. I would have been scarred for life. And for those couple of people I knew that did go through those painful things, in high school, they ended up dealing with having low self-esteem and despite the fact that they were smart, they failed to shine. “Welcome to the Dollhouse” was an undoubtedly fearless independent film. It was unafraid to show how sadistic and desperate some of the characters were but they were far from one-dimensional. We can all relate when it comes to defining happiness in terms of our place within our peers. Some of us grow out of it but others remain stuck in that phase and they fail realize that as long as they stay in it, happiness remains far from their reach.