Bullied (Rock Sugar)


Standing up for yourself, even when you’re terrified.

(2021) Drama (Gravitas) Jacinta Klassen, Olivia Sprague, Lulu Fitz, Saya Minami, Akira Matsumoto, Candice Leask, Kirar Mercy, Samuel Barton, Giustino Della Vedova, Edward Valent, Destiny Oung, Tobie Webster, Francine McAsey, Joshua Charles Dawe, Holly Dodd, Giovanni Piccolo, Isabel Mulrooney, Bianca Andreadis, Molly Fisher, Joanna Melo Howard, Justine Jones. Directed by Angela How

 

It is hard enough to grow up without someone deciding to make a victim of you for something that you have no control over, like the color of your skin, or your ethnic background. We are taught from an early age not to respond, but there comes a point where you feel you must sstand up for yourself or be a victim in reality.

Charlotte (Klassen) has a nice life; she lives in a beautiful home in a Melbourne suburb that looks onto what amounts to a private park for the neighborhood. While she has run-ins with her strict mother (Minami) and her father (Matsumoto) who is kind and more laid-back, but has a drinking problem. She’s pretty smart, although her mother feels her younger sister Isabelle (Mercy) has more potential.

As the film opens, Charlotte has been confronted by Brenda (Fitz) who has been bullying her unmercifully, largely because of her Asian heritage, but also because Brenda knows she can get away from it. She has curried favor with her teachers, is an outstanding gymnast and a “model student,” although I’m sure Charlotte would disagree. Charlotte’s most recent test has been an utter failure and Brenda wants to make sure everyone knows it, but when Charlotte reaches for the paper she ends up hitting Brenda. But the vice-principal, who calls Charlotte’s mortified parents into the office to discuss the incident, doesn’t believe Charlotte’s story about being bullied. She ends up suspended and grounded by her furious mom, although Dad suspects that his daughter isn’t lying.

However, it is the Christmas holidays and mom’s best friend Janice (Leask) who is pregnant, and her husband Mark (Della Vedova) are staying for the holidays. It ends up with excessive drinking (particularly on the part of the guys) and charlotte’s misery only deepens. Eventually, she goes out into the park while everyone is sleeping with a bottle, and you know that isn’t going to end well.

The next day the neighborhood is rocked with the news of Brenda’s disappearance. Charlotte knows more than she’s telling, even as Mark, Janice and her mom and dad aid in the search for the missing girl. At last, Charlotte uncovers some disturbing truths and must come to face her own role in all of this.

This is the first feature for Asian-Australian director How, and she has some nifty ideas, but I think she doesn’t have a clear idea on how to properly express them. The film takes a severe twist about 2/3 of the way through, a jarring turn that while you don’t expect to see it coming, turns the remainder of the film into a completely different movie than the one you were watching. The movie, already dark to begin with, turns pitch black. I think the film would have been better served dealing with Charlotte’s relationship with her mom, with Brenda and with her own ethnicity. Unfortunately, we are steered away from that as the movie goes off the rails. It’s a case of trying to do too much; the whole Mark storyline could have been a separate movie and should have been.

The acting here is, as is generally the case with micro-budget indies, fairly uneven. Klassen is solid as Charlotte, but not all of her juvenile acting peers are as comfortable in front of the camera as she is. The movie is technically proficient, and cinematographer Ben Milward-Bason comes up with some inventive camera angles from time to time. Most of the time though, it is an easy film on the eyes.

How has some really good ideas, and she needs to make sure that those go fully developed before charging off in another direction. She was on the way to making a powerful motion picture on a timely subject – Asian-Americans have been the target of an unprecedented spike in hate crimes as are Asians around the world, largely due to the rhetoric of a former American president and his supporters in regards to the recent pandemic. I’m not sure if all that was going on when How wrote the screenplay, but it is certainly a topic that requires further exploration. I just wish she had stuck to her guns and given it the focus it deserved.

REASONS TO SEE: How has some very good ideas.
REASONS TO AVOID: There were better ways to tell this story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and profanity and a scene of pre-teen drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature for How, who graduated from UCLA; it was titled Rock Sugar upon its Australian release but had its name changed for American distribution.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dirties
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Birthday Cake

Goodbye Honey


Dawn just keeps on truckin’.

(2020) Thriller (Freestyle) Pamela Jayne Morgan, Juliette Alice Gobin, Paul C. Kelly, Jake Laurence, Peyton Michelle Edwards, Rafe Soule, Aaron Mitchell, Stacey van Gorder, Keara Benton, J Bones. Directed by Max Strand

 

Truckers are unsung American heroes. They are sometimes portrayed as not too bright, or hellraisers, or rednecks (which some would see as a badge of honor), or corrupt (particularly when discussing the Teamsters Union of the Jimmy Hoffa era) and while there are instances of those things that have occurred and continue to occur. What is rarely discussed is the sacrifices that long-haul truckers make, moving goods and sometimes, our lives, across the country getting little sleep and being away from their families for extended periods. During the pandemic, they continued to work and a good many of them were rewarded with doses of COVID.

Dawn Miller (Morgan) is one such trucker and she owns her own company, Nate’s Haul and Go, named for her late husband who founded the company. After his recent passing, she took over his seat in the cab, and this night she is moving the belongings of one Cass Rodick (Kelly) who is one of those clients who has a tendency to micromanage. It is late at night and she can barely keep her eyes open, so she pulls off the road into the parking lot of a state park to get a few hours of shut-eye before finishing the job.

But her plans for a nap are interrupted by an insistent banging on the door to her cab. A pretty young woman, who introduces herself as Phoebe (Gobin), at first requests some water which Dawn is happy to share. Then, a request to use the phone to call the cops. You see, Phoebe has just escaped from being abducted and has spent the last four months in a guy’s basement. Just then, Dawn’s client calls and has a million bazillion questions, with Phoebe getting more nervous by the second. What if her captor comes along while Dawn is on the phone answering questions from this guy? She reaches for the phone and as you would expect, bad things happen. The phone falls and becomes an expensive paperweight. Although Dawn is a little skeptical about Phoebe’s far-fetched tale, she agrees to drive Phoebe to the nearest town to find a police station, but there’s just one problem – Dawn can’t find the keys to the ignition.

Strand shows a marvelous touch for thrillers, keeping the suspense at a high level throughout. He’s aided by the (necessarily) underlit cinematography that creates all sorts of shadows, perfect for those who would do these women harm to hide in. He is also aided by an electronic musical score (unfortunately uncredited) that is very reminiscent of the 70s work by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth. It gives the viewer a feeling of unease.

Also worth noting is the performances of the two leading ladies, particularly Morgan who gives Dawn a kind of rough-around-the-edges personality. Her suspicious nature may be hard for some to identify with, but then as the movie goes on it is revealed that she has good reason to be the way she is, and while the revelations aren’t mind-bending in any way, they do justify some of the action although not all of it.

And there’s the rub. Some of the writing here is not very good, to put it bluntly. There’s a whole section in which a couple of young men, looking to do some drugs in the park, decide to humiliate and torture Dawn in exchange for the use of their cell phone. The scene doesn’t play at all well, and Dawn, who comes off in every way as a strong, no-bullshit kind of gal during the rest of the film, gives in way too easily to the degrading requests of the boys. That part of the film feels like titillation for its own sake, an just a hair misogynistic.

That tone is at odds with the rest of the movie, in which Morgan comes off as a capable, strong woman who makes a wonderful lead character. It also calls forth the sad truth that few middle-aged women get roles like this; when they do, they are generally in supporting or even cameo roles. We need more movies with characters like Dawn in the forefront. It would have been nice if she could have been allowed to show that strength of character throughout.

REASONS TO SEE: The suspense level is kept at a nice boiling point.
REASONS TO AVOID: The storytelling can get muddled from time to time.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity in plentitude here as well as some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Strand previously directed a couple of short films. This marks his feature-length debut.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snatched
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
State Funeral

CRSHD


Digital girls in an internet world.

 (2019) Comedy (Lightyear/1091) Isabelle Barbier, Deeksha Ketkar, Sadie Scott, Ralph Fineberg, L.H. Gonzalez, Isabelle Kenet, Abdul Seidu, Will Janowitz, Jack Reynolds, Elliott Kreim, Brandon Halderman, Gabe Steller, Alyssa Mattocks, Joe Boyle, Zach Dahl, Brandon County, Brandon Richards, Dylan Rogers, Patricia Lawler Kenet, Wulfahrt Blankfield, Kim Rojas. Directed by Emily Cohn

 

At a particular phase in our lives, we become with sex and getting it – particularly if we haven’t had any yet. It can turn into an obsession if we’re not careful, which we often aren’t.

Izzy (Barbier) and her besties Anuka (Ketkar) and Fiona (Scott) all are finishing up their freshman year at a private liberal arts college in Ohio. The three hit it off from the get-go and have formed a deep bond in the course of their first year. While Izzy frets about an astronomy final that she needs to ace, Anuka and Fiona are more into winding down the year with parties – particularly the exclusive “crush party” that is taking place off-campus.

If you aren’t familiar with what a crush party is (and you can be forgiven if you haven’t because, as far as I can tell, it is an invention of this film), you submit the name of a person you have a crush on to the party organizers. They then send an invitation to that person. If someone turns in a crush request for you, then you get one. If nobody turns one in for you, no invite.

The somewhat socially awkward Izzy is looking for this party to be the occasion of the erasure of her virginity. All three girls had made a pact to end the year deflowered and Anuka and Fiona have thus far accomplished that. While Anuka is unaware that Izzy hasn’t, Fiona knows. So Izzy has to decide which crush she needs to invite; the super-cool DJ (Seidu), the barista who may or may not know she’s alive (Gonzalez) or the overeager astronomy student who she has already dismissed as too awkward (Fineberg).

But getting to the party will be a bit of an adventure as the girls decide to get blotto before the party to calm down their nerves and end up…well, let’s just say that stuff happens that isn’t on the agenda. Will Izzy lose her maidenhood? Will she pass astronomy? And who was the one who crushed on her and got her the sought-after invite?

This is a movie that is aimed squarely at Gen Z; Cohn, who also wrote the film, is very social media-conscious and while she has a tendency to mix her visual metaphors (modern app representations and 80s video game graphics?) she at least has a visual style. Unfortunately, that style will serve to make this movie seem dated in a matter of months, given the speed at which we switch from one media platform to another. Facebook? So 2004. Instagram? 2010.

While it is a bit refreshing to see a movie about college kids trying to lose their virginity from a female point of view, there are a lot of the clichés of the subgenre that serve to render the point of view less fresh. Why bother to have girls in a role that has generally been assigned to guys if you’re just going to have them do the same things guys do, and make the same mistakes they do. I suppose the director might be going for a “guys and girls are not really that different” message, but that really doesn’t fly. Cohn goes to the trouble of making Anuka, Fiona and Izzy pretty realistic – these aren’t 30-something super-hotties who nobody would believe for an instant would have any sort of difficulty getting laid. They are girls who are pretty but not spectacular, smart but not perfect, awkward but not buffoons.

We are entering an era in which women are becoming more of a voice in the industry, as creators and as industry executives. Cohn has a legitimate shot at becoming the John Hughes of Generation Z, but she needs to trust in her characters and instincts more and write these girls as if they aren’t Jonah Hill, Michael Cera and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. My intention was to write “This isn’t Superbad, it’s Superworse” but that would be snarky and unfair. There’s a lot here that is admirable, but like Izzy herself, Cohn needs a little more self-confidence to let the girls in her narrative be girls and not like other characters in other movies. That would be a movie I could crush on.

REASONS TO SEE: The lead girls are so much more real than what we usually see in this kind of movie.
REASONS TO AVOID: The app references and visuals are super-dated. The humor falls flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of sexual references, some profanity and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed entirely in the state of Ohio.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Superbad
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Starting at Zero

Finding Grace


The picture of teen petulence.

(2020) Faith-Based Drama (VisionParis Warner, Jasen Wade, Kisha Sharon Oglesby, David Keith, Bo Svenson, Erin Gray, Bethany Davenport, London Grace, Braden Balazik, Lucy Harselle, Warren Fast, Gage Maynard, Stacie Fast, Steve Norris, David Raizor, DeeJay Sturdivant, Israel Varela, Barbara Chevalier, Paige Fiser, Lacey Fiser, Avery E. King. Directed by Warren Fast

 

I will admit from the get-go that I’m not a big fan of faith-based films. It isn’t that I don’t believe, or that I don’t think that there isn’t a place for them; clearly there’s a market for them, and I don’t have a problem with Christianity in general. I have to say I’m averse to being preached to, however, and faith-based films have a tendency to be preachy – not all, but most. My biggest problem with Christian films in general, however, is that most of them are awful.

Take Finding Grace, for example. Alaska Rose (Warner) has been acting out ever since her mother left the family, leaving the hard-working Dad (Wade) to raise Alaska and her little brother (Balazik). Alaska is “out of control,” as the judge (Gray) in the film-opening courtroom scene remarks; she has been caught holding a fake I.D. and an alcoholic drink. As she is 18 years old, that means adult jail but the judge decides to be lenient, even though Alaska has enough attitude for ten teens. She ends up with 150 hours of community service. Note: how does one get sentenced to an adult jail for something that isn’t a crime for adults? I….err…umm…

Alaska is assigned to a residential care facility for the elderly. Alaska is assigned to the difficult Mrs. Foster (Oglesby) which works out about how you’d expect; she is also given charge of the talent show, which she is completely disinterested in. In the meantime, Dad’s business is failing and he is only barely holding his head above water; it would take only a small wave to drown the family. They haven’t been going to church recently, either, not since Mom left. Still, Alaska has a good heart and maybe something might click when she lets others in, particularly if she lets God in.

There are a few recognizable names here, mainly in blink and you missed them parts but the talent here is for the most part pretty unknown. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing; I’ve seen unknown casts deliver powerhouse movies in the past, but to do that you need a script that doesn’t feel like it was patched together from fifty other movies, and this one certainly has that feel.

The real issue for me is that the movie doesn’t go anywhere that hasn’t been gone before, many times. It doesn’t add anything particularly fresh, or new. I’ll be honest; I think that Christian audiences have been given short shrift by filmmakers in the genre; they can be just as discerning as secular audiences, and they deserve movies that are interesting and well-acted. This feels more like a sermon based on an Afterschool Special that lasts two hours, and even on my best days I couldn’t last two hours for a sermon. I believe – and maybe I’m wrong – but Christian audiences need more than a message in their movies. They need believable characters. They need actions that make sense. They need a plot that isn’t as predictable as Sunday falling the day after Saturday. I think the time has come to hold Christian filmmakers to higher standards.

REASONS TO SEE: Panama Beach looks like a pretty nice place.
REASONS TO AVOID: Predictable plot. Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and brief sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot entirely on location in Panama City, Florida; shortly after filming was completed, the town was devastated by a direct hit from Hurricane Michael, so reshoots were not possible.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Let There Be Light
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT:
If Beale Street Could Talk

Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben)


Mother comforts daughter.

(2018) Drama (Focus) Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darin, Eduard Fernandez, Bárbara Lennie, Inma Cuesta, Elvira Minguez, Ramón Barea, Carla Campra, Sara Sálamo, Roger Casamajor, Josė Ángel Egido, Sergio Castellanos, Iván Chavero, Tomás del Estal, Imma Sancho, Paco Pastor Gómez, Jaime Lorente, Mari Carmen Sánchez, Carla Campra. Directed by Asghar Farhadi

 

When a family gets together for an occasion (a wedding, a christening, a holiday etc.) it’s usually a joyful occasion. Oh sure, there may be some relatives you’re not keen on seeing like alcoholic Uncle Al, creepy cousin Wendell or Grandpa the conservative political troll but by and large you’re happy to be around those who have blood ties. Then again, they all know where the bodies are buried – sometimes literally.

Laura (Cruz) lives in Argentina now but she returns to her rural Spanish village to attend her sister Ana’s (Cuesta) wedding to Joan (Casamajor). She has brought with her teen daughter Irene (Campra) who is just getting into that rebellious age, her younger son Diego (Chavero) but not her successful husband Alejandro (Darin) who has a successful business to attend to. Also in attendance are bitter patriarch Antonio (Barea) who gambled and drank away most of the land the family once owned, son of a former servant Paco (Bardem) who bought part of that land and turned it into a thriving vineyard, and Paco’s wife Bea (Lennie) whose childlessness is a source of much village speculation.

The night of the reception is greeted with a violent thunderstorm which knocks out the power. As the evening begins to wind down, Laura goes upstairs to check on her children – and finds Irene missing with newspaper clippings of a local kidnapping that ended up tragically scattered on the bed. This is followed up with a texted ransom demand for an exorbitant amount of cash that as it turns out, Laura and Alejandro do not have – her husband being not quite as successful as the family was led to believe.

The fact that Paco and Laura were once lovers until Laura dumped him was no secret – everybody knows this, but not everybody knows…well, the real reason Irene was kidnapped and we won’t get into that here. The kidnappers are very clear that the police should not be called if Irene is to return home alive but they do consult with a retired detective (Egido) who suspects an inside job and in effect tells them to “trust no-one.”

On the surface it sounds like a standard potboiler but when you have a cast like this one and an Oscar-winning director as Farhadi is you can depend on good things happening. Cruz and Bardem are two of the best in the business and Cruz delivers a powerful emotional performance, alternately anguished over her child’s kidnapping and forlorn over what might have been with Paco. Bardem has a bit of a hangdog look but his inner decency stands out from the venality of much of the rest of the family.

Beautifully photographed in idyllic sepia tones, the movie manages to move at the same pace as the rhythms of country life which is a bit odd for a movie with so many thriller elements but works nonetheless. Some American viewers might find this maddeningly slow-paced but most avid cinephiles won’t have a problem with it. Yes, there are twists and turns and none of them are particularly remarkable but the thriller side is pretty effective. The reveal of the identity of the kidnappers though is a bit of a disappointment and never really makes much sense. Me, I liked the view of rural Spanish life more but that’s just the kind of guy I am.

Sometimes a movie can be forgiven its flaws because of the reputation of those behind the camera and the performances of those in front of it. This is such an occasion. Farhadi, who has some amazing films to his credit (including A Separation and The Salesman) didn’t deliver one of his best works here – and keep in mind this is his first Spanish-language film, a language he does not speak. This isn’t for everybody and that and it’s somewhat anti-climactic ending kept it from a perfect score but it’s still a worthwhile viewing for cinema lovers and casual movie fans alike.

REASONS TO SEE: Bardem and Cruz deliver outstanding performances. The film gives a nice glimpse at Spanish rural life. While the twists and turns don’t rewrite the book, they are nonetheless effective
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie drags a little bit in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bardem and Cruz, who play former lovers here, are actually married in real life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ransom
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Los Reyes

Audrie & Daisy


Daisy Coleman contemplates what happened to her.

Daisy Coleman contemplates what happened to her.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Daisy Coleman, Amanda Le, Delaney Henderson, Darren White, Paige Parkhurst, Charlie Coleman, Melinda Coleman, Jim Fall, Audrie Pott. Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk

 

There is no doubt that women have a lot to be upset about when it comes to the way they are treated compared to men, especially in matters of sex and rape. Many people were outraged at the way Stanford swimming champion Brock Turner was given a pass after brutally raping a nearly unconscious woman after a party. It turns out that’s just typical.

Daisy Coleman and Audrie Pott have very similar stories to tell. Both were young girls in high school; Daisy a 14-year-old freshman in Maryville, Missouri and Audrie a 15-year-old sophomore in Saratoga, California. Both girls went to a party and had too much to drink. Both were with friends that they trusted. In Audrie’s case, she was stripped and had all sorts of things written on her body with indelible markers, things of a sexual nature. Pictures were taken and video also taken of her being violated by two of her so-called friends. The next day her schoolmates had seen the evidence of what happened and rather than feel sympathy towards her they isolated her and shamed her, calling her a slut and that she had “asked for it.”

For high school students, their world is both large and small; large as the entire Internet, small as the crowd they hang out with at school. Reputation is everything and when that reputation is sullied the effects can be devastating. You can try to explain to someone victimized in that fashion that it is something that will not stay with them forever, that they will eventually move on to other places who won’t know what happened to them but teenage life is very much in the here and now. Audrie felt that her life was over and that she would be labeled a slut forever. She was not the kind of girl who wore provocative clothes or came on to guys; she was in fact fairly conservative from a sexual standpoint. All of that was beside the point however and she knew it; the perception of her had changed in her immediate circle and it broke her. She hung herself eight days after the events of her assault.

Daisy, who at 14 was a cheerleader and a dancer,  and her friend Paige were already inebriated at home when a friend of her brother Charlie’s texted her and asked if she and Paige wanted to hang out with them and chill. Charlie was already in bed, having celebrated a wrestling tournament win. Daisy agreed to go and almost immediately upon their arrival, the two girls were separated and then raped by the boys who were there. They were then returned home and left in the snow where Daisy’s mother found them.

Daisy was barely conscious and it was only when her mom put her in a warm tub that she realized that there were bruises near her genitalia. She brought her daughter to the ER where a rape kit confirmed she had been sexually assaulted. Both Charlie and Daisy were ostracized and rendered pariahs; the three boys at the party who had assaulted Daisy and Paige were football heroes. The town was divided, but most of the sympathy went not to the girls who had been raped but to the boys who had raped them. The girls were accused of making up the incident, that the sex was consensual which is absolutely outrageous; first of all there was physical evidence of rape. Secondly, they were both well over the legal limit that constitutes inebriation. There was no way they could have given consent to anything.

The physical assaults may have ended that night but the assaults continued on social media, especially towards Daisy who wanted to see justice done to those who had violated her. The town sheriff to the astonishment of most victim advocacy groups dropped all charges, explaining how he didn’t want to ruin the lives of the boys involved, conveniently neglecting that the girls who they had assaulted already had their lives negatively impacted for the rest of their lives. Personally I think any sheriff who doesn’t understand the consequences of rape to the victim should be recalled.

See, my blood is boiling again; as a critic, I should be talking about the documentary, how it gets its point across and the quality of the filmmaking and I promise I’ll get to that. However, I think that the movie is a devastating illustration of the attitudes towards rape that our prevalent in our society; how justice for rape victims is a rare thing, how social media is used to further punish those who undergo traumatic events and how those who stand up against their attackers will be targeted for hate; in the case of the Coleman family, their house was burned to the ground by those who supported the boys who hurt their daughter.

There are some flaws with the film; as important as both of the stories of Audrie and Daisy are, the filmmakers don’t link them well. They alternate the telling of them in an almost arbitrary fashion and as a result the narrative doesn’t flow as well as it could which robs the stories of their impact to a small extent.

Still, I believe that every high school in the country should show this movie to their student body every year without exception. It stands as a chilling reminder to young girls that even friends can turn on them and rape them, and that if they choose to drink they need to make sure that they are with someone who will stay sober and watch over them. Women shouldn’t have to take precautions like that but until attitudes change, it’s the prudent thing to do.

Men should also learn how devastating sexual assault is to the one assaulted; they should learn to respect women and appreciate them rather than treat them as objects who are there for their pleasure. There is an important message here that needs to be seen. In fact, it isn’t only high school students who should be watching Audrie & Daisy; their parents should as well. The leaders of communities where there are high schools. Law enforcement members in those communities. Basically, everyone.

REASONS TO GO: The film examines rape culture with clear eyes. The stories of Audrie and Daisy are heartbreaking and all too common. The rift between how young boys and girls are treated is starkly illustrated.
REASONS TO STAY: The stories of Audrie and Daisy are told alternately without any sort of narrative flow, robbing them of their effectiveness somewhat.
FAMILY VALUES: Very adult issues, vivid descriptions of sexual assaults, some sexuality and language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The directors are a husband-wife team whose previous film, The Island President, tackled climate change.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bully
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: UFO – It is Here

Bridgend


Deceptive beauty.

Deceptive beauty.

(2015) Drama (Kimstim) Hannah Murray, Josh O’Connor, Adrian Rawlins, Patricia Potter, Nia Roberts, Steven Washington, Scott Arthur, Aled Llyr Thomas, Elinor Cawley, Jamie Burch, Mark Charles Williams, Adam Byard, Natasha Denby, Leona Vaughan, Liam Dascombe, Josh Green, Rachel Isaac, Phil Howe, Martin Troakes, Jane Davies, Rob Page, Judith Lewis. Directed by Jeppe Rønde

Florida Film Festival 2016

When a teenager dies, it’s a tragedy. With their whole life ahead of them cut short, it’s devastating to their family and their friends. When a teen takes their own life, it can feel even more tragic. Those left behind can feel like they’ve failed somehow. But what happens when teens kill themselves in droves?

That’s what really happened in Bridgend County in Wales. Starting in 2009 and through 2013, more than 75 teens took their own lives – most by hanging – without leaving a suicide note. To this day, what prompted these mass suicides remains a mystery. There was an excellent documentary in 2013 about the case but this is a fictionalized look at the affair.

Sara (Murray – fans might recognize her from Game of Thrones) and her policeman dad Dave (Washington) who is widowed have moved from Bristol to Bridgend to start a new life. As a policeman, Dave is investigating a rash of teen suicides. At first, Sara doesn’t really feel like she fits in with the working class kids in town but her beauty and compassion catch the eye of Laurel (Cawley) who invites her to the local reservoir to hang out with a group of kids, led by co-alphas Jamie (O’Connor) and Thomas (Arthur).

As Sara gets more involved with the group, her father begins to get terrified. Sara is already at that age where she’s distancing herself from her dad, and drifts closer to the disaffected teens and further from her father. And as her friends begin to die off one by one, her romance with Jamie takes on a more intense tone.

Speaking of tone, that’s one thing this movie has plenty of. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck films things through a blue filter, underlighting interior shots to give things a more menacing and darker look. The blue serves to give the movie an overall depressing feel. That’s sight; as for sound, Mondkopf, an artist specializing in electronic trance, gives the score a dreary electro feel, instilling a sense of foreboding throughout.

There are two ways a movie like this can be made palatable; one is to give insight as to why a group of teenagers would all fall into lockstep and kill themselves. To be honest, Rønde doesn’t really address this. There are all sorts of theories as to why the real kids did this and to be fair, I can imagine that the filmmaker didn’t want to tread on the graves of the dead by putting motivations that weren’t necessarily there. You don’t get a sense that there was any peer pressure going on, only that these kids were essentially unhappy.

Secondly, the characters could be interesting people that you care about what happens to them, but again, that proves not to be the case here. These are kids who most adults wouldn’t want to spend even five minutes with. They come off as spoiled, whiny and full of angst and ennui. There is a melancholia sure, but with the rituals that these kids use to honor their dead it begins to come off as creepy posturing. The kids don’t come off as anything other than people who simply fell into line like sheep and gave up far too soon.

Rønde is a little self-indulgent with his direction, doing so many cutsie things that the audience is drawn out of the movie and paying more attention to the moviemaker. I call this “Look, Ma, I’m Directing syndrome” and Rønde has a nasty case of it. And the ending. Oy vey, the ending. I won’t go into details here, but it’s a colossal cop-out.

The events in Bridgend are apparently still taking place to this day, and quite frankly I think there is an important movie that could be made here. Certainly this is in many ways a cautionary tale for parents that their teens are at risk, but the filmmakers don’t say anything much beyond that. I found this to be a frustrating movie that at the end of the day, was enormously unsatisfying when it didn’t have to be.

REASONS TO GO: Some beautiful cinematography and along with the electronic score creates a foreboding mood.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much self-indulgence and spoiled behavior. Never really gets into the psyche of the “gang.” Too many scenes in which you’re conscious that the director is “directing.”
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, some violence, sexual content, nudity and profanity, all involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed entirely in Bridgend County, Wales where the events that inspired the film actually took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Towns
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Family Fang

The Other Kids


Even the other kids gotta blow-dry.

Even the other kids gotta blow-dry.

(2016) Drama (CB Films) Savannah Bailey, Hunter Gilmore, Kai Kellerman, Sienna Lampi, Natasha Lombardi, Joe McGee, Isaac Sanchez, Abby Stewart. Directed by Chris Brown

Florida Film Festival 2016

High school, according to Hollywood, is a party. Everyone is cool, or popular or both. Guys are studly, girls are gorgeous and everyone gets laid. We form deep friendships that last a lifetime and eventually graduate and move on to a great life.

For most of us, our high school experiences are a bit different. Sure, the popular kids exist and they seem to sail right through (and that in itself is a myth). Then there are the other kids.

You know the ones. The ones that don’t fit in. The ones that never get invited to parties. The ones who sit by themselves at lunch. The ones that are too busy working to socialize. These are the kids who caught filmmaker Chris Brown’s (Fanny, Annie and Danny) attention.

Brown took a handful of kids at a small Northern California town and convinced them to tell their stories. He let them develop their characters and gave them what essentially was a filmmaking crash course. The result was a mix of fact and fiction, what Brown has dubbed a “Fictumentary” which presents these teens in the manner in which they choose to be presented.

It’s a bold concept and tons of things could easily have gone wrong but happily, what has come to pass is a fascinating look into the lives of modern small town teens as they enter the final months of high school before graduation. Some have plans to continue their education; others are going right into the workplace. Some have relationships going, others are single, happily so or otherwise. Some have stable family homes, others do not.

The thing with teens is that they are not always easy to spend a lot of time with. They are learning as they go along, feeling things out; they will talk just for the sake of calling attention to themselves, making meaningless chatter rather than listening to what others might have to say. There is also the arrogance of youth, of knowing that you are young and strong, which in the eyes of youth gives you the idea that you know everything you need to already. This isn’t a dis of young people, incidentally; we all are guilty of the same mindset when we’re high school seniors and a little older. It isn’t until life has kicked us around a little bit more that we discover how ignorant we truly are.

The kids here are engaging and thankfully, interesting. There’s no doubt that they have a certain amount of screen confidence that allows them to hold your attention; none are camera shy and none are particularly awkward onscreen, although some of their native awkwardness is portrayed. Like with all teenagers, the hormones rage hard within them and the emotions can be overwhelming. Things become life and death with them, things that the gift of perspective not yet bestowed upon them might have diminished.

The big question I have here is whether or not that it would be as illuminating to simply spend time with teenagers of your acquaintance as opposed to watching this. The answer is I don’t think so; kids that age tend to be much more reserved around adults and you don’t really get the opportunity to know them as well in real life as you might here. Parents of teens or pre-teens might benefit from seeing this as it may give them insight into what their own kids are going through.

This isn’t a slam dunk by any means; anyone who has raised a teen will roll their eyes a little here at some of the things said and done. I know there were times that my own son had moments as he was growing up that affected me much the same way as nails on a chalkboard does. Those with a low tolerance for teen angst may also want to steer clear.

For everyone else, this is illuminating as much as it is entertaining. Even though we have survived our own teen years, the world of teens five, ten, twenty years removed is often as mysterious as the most remote parts of the Amazon. It’s not so much that we forget so much as we have changed. The things that made sense at 17 are no longer easily understood at 27, or 37, or 57 and the further away we drift through the years, the less it makes sense to us.

This serves as a reminder not just of who these kids are but who we were as well. I don’t think Brown, a fine filmmaker (and for the sake of transparency, a good personal friend) really expects that this will bring any sort of great understanding among the generations. What I think this film accomplishes extremely well is that it shows these young people dispassionately but also compassionately – it portrays them as real people, not just cardboard Hollywood cutouts. These are the kids who are walking past your house on the way to and from school, the ones hanging out at Mickey Ds, and the ones who are laughing at you behind your back. They’re the ones who are inheriting the world we are giving them, and at the very least we owe them some appreciation since we’ve messed it up so badly.

REASONS TO GO: Has a real documentary feel to it. A literal slice of life.
REASONS TO STAY: Spending time with teens can be aggravating.
FAMILY VALUES: Some teen sexuality and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film centers on teens attending Sonora High School in the Gold Rush country of Northern California.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Breakfast Club
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler

The Myth of the American Sleepover


Ships that pass in the night.

Ships that pass in the night.

(2010) Coming of Age (Sundance Selects) Jade Ramsey, Nikita Ramsey, Amy Seimetz, Amanda Bauer, Jean Louise O’Sullivan, Claire Sloma, Marlon Morton, Brett Jacobsen, Annette DeNoyer, Wyatt McCallum, Mary Wardell, Steven M. Francis III, Megan Boone, Madi Ortiz. Directed by David Robert Mitchell

The last day of summer is a bittersweet affair for a high schooler. The sweet freedom of summer vacation is at an end and the school year is about to begin. The latter of course is the grind of homework and classrooms but also the possibilities of being another year older, another year closer to adulthood with everything that entails, the good and the bad.

In a small town in Michigan, that can be especially poignant. Small towns have their hierarchy, their social strata when it comes to high school. And being a small town, everybody knows everybody, everybody knows their place and that place is mainly in a town where nothing much ever happens.

Rob (Morton) runs into a beautiful blonde (Ortiz) and spends the night chasing her all over town. Fiercely independent Maggie (Sloma) chooses not to go to the party she was invited to but wants to go to something far more adult because she has an eye for pool boy Cameron (Francis). New girl in town Claudia (Bauer) is a bit of an outcast among the other girls because she has the gall to have a boyfriend (trollop!) of her own. And college-age Scott (Jacobsen) drives back to town from Detroit in order to pursue his high school dream girls the Abbey twins – Ady (Nikita Ramsey) and Anna (Jade Ramsey), ending up spending an evening discussing who he loves most and which twin actually loves him.

This is not a Project X destruction of property drunkathon. Sure the alcohol flows liberally but the point here isn’t getting into a coma; it’s to get to a point of comfort and confession. There is a bit of a mellow feel that is a refreshing counterpoint to the usual frenetic coming of age teen sex comedies.

And don’t fool yourselves, sex is the central issue here although the focus is more on discussing it rather than doing it. Which if you think about it is pretty much true for most teens. First-time director Mitchell gives the movie a more or less authentic feel – although my teen years were spent in the suburbs and not a small town, the characters here seem pretty familiar and realistic to me.

The trouble might just lie in the familiarity. While most of the actors here are relatively inexperienced, Sloma stands out mostly because she radiates more personality and attitude than the other actors. From my standpoint she seems to be more developed and perhaps more natural than the other actors – none of whom disgrace themselves, I might add. But Sloma stood out as someone with potential for a pretty serious career. The rest of the cast looks so youthful that at times they look like children dressing up as adults which could serve as a definition of teenagers in some ways.

The trouble is that in making the teens realistic teens that we are treated to one of the main drawbacks to being a teen – the not really knowing what you want or how to get it. Because of that, the film lacks a certain amount of focus, wandering seemingly aimless through plot points. And with that teenage concern for being hip and happening and up-to-the-minute, there’s a sense here that the filmmakers are a bit too self-aware about their own film – I have a feeling that in 20 years this movie will be exceptionally dated.

As first efforts go I’ve seen worse. You have to give the filmmakers props for making a coming of age teen sex dramedy more thoughtful and less raunchy. It portrays kids as more than just their hormones, which is also a worthy achievement. With some better story-telling and fewer characters, this might have been an important film. As it is there are too many storylines to really get you time to get involved with any of the characters. While there were no parents anywhere in the film (and precious little adult presence), you get the sense that Mitchell had parents in mind when he made this because it seems to me that this is a teen coming of age movie aimed at their parents more than at the teens themselves.

WHY RENT THIS: A more sensitive, indie version of the teen sex comedy.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Meanders aimlessly in places. Sometimes too self-conscious.

FAMILY VALUES: Sex and lots of it; actually more accurately, discussions about sex more so than depictions of the act itself. Also a pretty liberal use of foul language and some teen drinking and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The trip from suburban Detroit to Ann Arbor that Scott undertakes is about 50 miles give or take.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $41,045 on an unknown production budget; although it’s production costs were certainly quite low, I’m reasonably sure that it lost money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dazed and Confused

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

Goats


 

Goats

This is what it looks like when David Duchovney loses a bet.

(2012) Drama (Image) David Duchovney, Vera Farmiga, Ty Burrell, Graham Phillips, Justin Kirk, Keri Russell, Anthony Anderson, Dakota Johnson, Adelaide Kane, Evan Boymel, Justin Wheelon, Timothy Gibbs, Olga Segura, Nicholas Lobue, Ricardo Andres, Caleb Dane Horst. Directed by Christopher Neil

 

As the saying goes, we can choose our friends but we don’t get to choose our family. We’re kind of stuck with them, regardless of how much (or how little) we like them. That can be a bad thing but it can be a good thing too.

Ellis (Phillips) would probably lean towards the former if you asked him. His parents are divorced, and are none too friendly with one another. His mom Wendy (Farmiga) is a trust fund hippie who never met a new age concept she didn’t become obsessed with. She’s self-centered and vindictive; not the best mom on Earth (as Ellis normally is the one who has to pay her bills because she’s so flighty) but she’s not the worst either.

How his dad (Burrell) wound up with her is something of a mystery. He went to an exclusive prep school in New England where he’s used his connections to get Ellis accepted into. Although a snooty prep school would seem to be a completely alien environment for Ellis, who’s used to the desert psychedelics of Arizona, he recognizes that it would be a boon for his future so he goes but not without much whining from his mother.

Ellis isn’t particularly upset at being separated by so many miles from his mom, but he does feel something for Goat Man (Duchovney) who goes by Javier but who’s real name is Steve. Goat Man is a herbologist and botanist who look like a cross between Jerry Garcia, Grizzly Adams and Moses with a Smith brother thrown in for good measure. He lives in the pool house with his goats, in exchange for tending the pool and landscape for Wendy. Their relationship is strictly platonic. Goat Man is most interested in botany so that he can grow some amazing marijuana, which he shares with Ellis. Goat Man takes Ellis on treks which are essentially walkabouts with no particular destination in mind – just an exploration of the land and its inhabitants.

Ellis is doing well in school but the pressure is getting to him. His roommate Barney (Lobue) is clearly not a good influence on him; his father is making overtures at reaching out and establishing a relationship with his estranged son. Goat Man, who promised to send Ellis weed hasn’t sent him anything and Wendy’s obnoxious lout of a boyfriend (Kirk) won’t let Ellis talk to his mother.

But Frank turns out to be a decent soul even though his impending marriage to Judy (Russell) is doing the fandango in Ellis’ brain, almost as much as the impending birth of his half-brother to the very pregnant Judy has. And he’s been coerced by the coach (Anderson) of the track team to run cross country, which he’s not really comfortable with at first. How can you run towards a future if you don’t even know which way you’re going?

Based on a novel by Mark Jude Poirier, this is one of those quirky indie movies that really wanders aimlessly through the plot the way a Deadhead might wander through a pot field, with a benevolent smile and a lack of purpose. Ellis doesn’t really have to much of a major crisis; sure he drinks too much for a15-year-old, and he does way too much pot, but he’s getting straight A’s and for the most part is a pretty well-adjusted kid given to bouts of douchebagness from time to time which is not out of line with the behavior of most real life 15-year-old boys.

Duchovney has always been a big draw for me. His easy-going laid-back charm meshes nicely with his intelligence. That the X-Files movies didn’t make him a major movie star has more to do with what was going on behind the camera rather than in front of it; both he and Gillian Anderson have all the tools to be big screen power players. In her case, I think it’s a choice not to go down that path; that also might be true of Duchovney.

I don’t think Farmiga really knew what to make of her character and in many ways that’s my main frustration with the movie. She’s quite the self-centered bitch throughout but there’s no doubt that Wendy really loves Ellis with all her heart and soul; Frank’s betrayal, whatever it might have been (and it’s not really explained why they split up, at least not that I can remember) really devastated her and has been in some ways the focal point of her life. She has certainly poisoned her son towards her father, making it impossible for Frank to see him. Early in the movie, Ellis believes his mother about the behavior of his dad, but as the movie progresses and he gets to know not just his dad but also his sweet-natured fiancé his attitude towards him changes.

There are no real epiphanies here other than that adults aren’t perfect and that there’s nothing wrong with life that a little toke can’t fix. Phillips plays Ellis like he’s living in an “Afterschool Special” and doesn’t do too bad a job of it, but I never really got to know Ellis all that well and found Goat Man far more interesting. Now, I’m wondering if there’s going to be a sequel all about Ellis’ discovery of peyote.

REASONS TO GO: Duchovney is interesting, even behind all that hair. Dynamic between Ellis and Frank works nicely.

REASONS TO STAY: Too quirky for its own good. Meanders quite a bit. A movie for stoners.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of drug use, including teen pot smokers and alcohol drinkers. There is also plenty of bad language, some sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers had to hire someone to teach Duchovney to roll a joint like an expert – the actor claims he’d never rolled one in his entire life..

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100. The reviews are pretty poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dead Poets Society

NEW MEXICO LOVERS: Several of the “trek” scenes are shot in the beautiful New Mexico highlights, doubling for Arizona.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King