I Killed My Mother (2009)

Written and directed by: Xavier Dolan 

IKilledMyMotherCoverFrom the bawdy world of Dazed and Confused to the pseudo-innocence of  Peggy Sue Got Married, there’s a common feel to high-school movies. The characters cruise around in their cars and live in a world of their own. Adults are often present and influential, but there is never any doubt that the central universe is that of the adolescents.

Then-debuting-auteur Xavier Dolan’s I Killed My Mother, is instantly seductive for a number of reasons. For one, in true arthouse fashion, it finds beauty in the mundane, swinging by school and house walls in its scenes, and accenting colorful objects in its stills. It also employs the ever enjoyable tropes of its protagonist,Hubert (Dolan), smoking and philosophizing in black and white.

The film’s chief appeal, however, is its effective framing of what it means to be an adolescent. The typical, free-running, high school movie protagonist is depicted as existing in the world as an adult, even as they still have the mind of a child. Hubert, by contrast, has quite the reflective mind, but, like many sixteen year-olds, he has nothing resembling an adult’s freedom. 

The film’s title refers to a subtler event that takes place early in its runtime. Overall, the story explores Hubert’s relationship to his mother (Anne Dorval). The relationship is obviously not a pleasant one, but its true nature is never quite made clear. Hubert is prone to bursts of yelling, whereas his mother is always unsettlingly calm. While audiences are never forced to doubt Hubert’s account of events (that his mother is unavailable, inconsistent and manipulative), we are encouraged not to trust them either. 

This ambiguity means that I Killed My Mother captures a nuance about parent-child relationships that many films often miss. As a smart, almost adult, Hubert is on the one hand, of course capable of intellectually and morally criticizing his mother’s methods. But on the other hand, the parent-child relationship is necessarily one of trust in the elder. Despite Hubert’s threats that he will cut off ties with his mother, viewers will understand that this cannot be true. 

While much of the conflict between Hubert and his mother is rooted either in specific, small instances or in their backstory, Hubert’s semi-closeted gayness is also an important dynamic in the relationship. Is Hubert’s mother homophobic, and to what degree? I Killed My Mother intentionally underexplores the question, because what matters is not whether the answer to question is yes, but simply that the spectre of the issue is alive in Hubert’s angsty conscience. 

I Killed My Mother is great for what it is not. It presents its titular teenager as a teenager, not an adult. It presents him as being able to be critical of his parents, without giving into the Hollywood trope of presenting children (much younger than Hubert) of being in a position to effectively lecture their parents on obvious moral shortcomings. But I Killed My Mother is also great for what it is: for its beautiful shots be they of a greasy spoon with a “special aura”, or paint-drenched romance; and its plot structure, which seems to come to resolution once and then finds satisfying drama again. Hubert’s relationship with his mother is hopefully not one shared by many, but I suspect the little bit of relatable truth in it will prove a present surprise for viewers of all kinds. 

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola 

Written by: Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner

Peggy_Sue_Got_MarriedPerhaps you’ve seen the 2004 film Thirteen Going on Thirty. It’s a comedy about a girl who strives for acceptance from her school’s popular clique, but cruelly pushes away her geeky best friend in the process. Magic happens, she’s suddenly a thirty-year old woman, and she’s made to learn life lessons in the process. For me at least, its an example of a film rooted in a fairly fun gimmick, that doesn’t know how to overcome its predictability.

Before Thirteen Going on Thirty, however there was 1986’s Peggy Sue Got Married. The film introduces Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) who attends her high school’s 25-year reunion while distraught over her impending divorce from Charlie (Nicolas Cage). Something about her mental state and location transports her back to the past. While Thirteen Going on Thirty derives its gags from a thirteen-year-old being in a thirty-year-old’s body, Peggy Sue Got Married goes for forty-three year old in a seventeen-year-old’s body. 

There’s another key difference between the two films, however. While Thirteen Going on Thirty uses two actors for the protagonist’s two ages, Peggy Sue Got Married sticks with Kathleen Turner. This is a choice that aligns the audience’s experience with that of Peggy Sue’s: at first it doesn’t quite make sense what’s going on, but gradually it become clear that she has gone back to another time, and appears, to the other characters, to be younger than she is.

While Thirteen Going on Thirty may have slightly more name recognition for those of my generation, I suspect Peggy Sue has the edge in terms of staying power. While both films traffic in clichés: jocks, popular girls and nerds, Peggy Sue’s characters are real enough to transcend their archetypes. While both films use age-changes to teach their protagonist’s a lesson, Peggy Sue does not start her movie as someone with an obvious moral flaw (ie denouncing your best friend for being uncool). Rather, she is someone who has gone through the understandable pain of a divorce and marital infidelity. The lesson she learns is not the simple idea of “be nice to those who are nice,” but is instead specific to her character’s situation.

Admittedly a significant part of Peggy Sue’s appeal, in addition to fifties nostalgia, is the presence of young Nicolas Cage and Jim Carrey (the pair were in their early twenties). Consistent with the film’s style, the pair play both their teenaged and middle-aged selves. Unlike Peggy Sue, however, their characters’ appearances in the two different time periods are made to reflect their supposed ages.  While Carrey is largely a funny-faced side-figure, Cage’s performance is a definitive part of the film’s nuance. In the film’s stereotype-filled universe, Cage’s character is meant to be understood as a bad-boy: more on the jock then nerd end of the spectrum. But the deeper reality of his character subverts the presentation and plays a key roll in Peggy Sue’s own character arc.

Focusing on Cage’s performance may not be the most conventional approach to understanding Peggy Sue Got Married. Indeed, Cage’s acting style almost got him fired from the film by his uncle, director Francis Ford Coppola. But regardless of what the film’s writer or director intended, I maintain that focusing on Charlie is the best way to appreciate Peggy Sue Got Married going forward. Peggy Sue  is a gimmicky, predictable movie, but there are a lot of gimmicky, predictable movies out there. Peggy Sue‘s quirk and character depth allow it to break the very mould that it fits so well. Thirteen Going on Thirty tells audiences what they know to be true about being grown up, but Peggy Sue Got Married reminds us of what we forgot about getting there. 

Spiderman: Homecoming (2017)

Directed by: Jon Watts

Written by: Watts, Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers

Spider-Man_Homecoming_posterWhen I was first introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s interpretation of Peter Parker/Spiderman (Tom Holland) I thought the character a funny gag, as that was indeed his role in Captain America: Civil War. When I next saw in in Avengers: Infinity War I was mildly annoyed . I was not properly attuned to the greater logic of the MCU at the time and did not understand why the brand’s most famous character came out as two-dimensional meme-fuel. A recent visit to my local library’s DVD section, however, finally introduced me to Spiderman: Homecoming the film that actually gave this Spiderman a story. This movie unsurprisingly enriched my perspective on a character who previously I’d seen as both a good and mediocre joke. 

Due to the volume of superhero movies it now puts out, Marvel is always burdened with the challenge of differentiating its characters.  In Spiderman: Homecoming, they absolutely lived up to that standard. Two of Spiderman’s defining traits are that his fights are laced with humor and that he acts out of duty (and not because he simply enjoys crime fighting). These are traits he shared with Iron Man and Captain America respectively. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) it so happens is a major character in Homecoming, while Captain America (Chris Evans) gets a fun cameo. The idea of the wisecracking-fighter has proliferated beyond Spiderman and Iron Man, making it a trope. What Homecoming’s presentation of Spiderman does differently than others from that tradition, however,  is that it allows its character to wisecrack without making him seem egotistical. Spidey’s comments are just as often as not expressions of his vulnerability as they are of his confidence. 

So Spiderman manages to be like Iron Man, while still feeling like a unique character (this is a point I will return to). What, however, about his similarities with Captain America? While the characters’ shared senses of duty may not be fundamentally distinguishable from one another, at very least it can be said that Spiderman’s sense is more specific. Captain  America is an “All-American” who hates bullies. He is a man from a propaganda poster (quite literally), albeit a relatively 3-D and likeable version of such a character. Spidey by contrast, does not subscribe to the vague, generic ideal of All-Americanism. He doesn’t have politics per se (one of his memorable high school friends does), you don’t get the sense that like Captain America he would rush to join the army. Instead, in line with the “with great power comes great responsibility” philosophy (which doesn’t make it into the film), he protects his community. And unlike other Marvel heroes, Spiderman has an explicit and consistent aversion to killing his enemies. Captain America may largely share this value, but its not one he prioritizes enough to say out loud.

Spiderman: Homecoming is an enjoyable movie largely due to the likability of its main character, but its main villain, The Vulture (Michael Keaton) is also an essential part of the film’s fabric. The Marvel Cinematic Universe  has been criticized for failing to produce memorable villains. though Loki, Killmonger and Thanos are now part of a respectable list of exceptions. What makes a villain complex? Do they need to be a borderline hero in their own right? Do they need a substantial backstory rife with tragedy? In most cases the answer is yes. But just as this Spiderman film avoids depicting Spidey’s (now well known) backstory, The Vulture also enters the film close-to-being if not already established as the figure he is at its climax. Interestingly, this does not keep him from being a compelling character. He is portrayed charismatically and the film shows us just enough of his behind the scenes life to make him likeable even if the rationale behind his actions is never fully substantiated.

Spiderman: Homecoming also has its shortcomings. One of the film’s defining traits is that it fully commits to Peter being a highschooler; being a kid. As such, he is surrounded by a cast of high-school-comedy style friends. Save for the afformentioned “character with politics,” none of these characters are really memorable as individuals, despite their essential presence (even if its fun to see the star of The Grand Budapest Hotel play a slightly-nerdified school-bully). 

The film’s more glaring flaw, however, is its hamfisted attempt to have Peter learn a lesson. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s version of Spiderman operates under the supervision of Iron Man and his assistant Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau); who contrary to my memory of him in the Iron Man films, is weirdly rude to the teenage Parker. One of the film’s key plotpoints is Iron Man essentially chastising Spiderman  for being immature. He goes so far as to acknowledge that he is a relatively immature figure himself, but that he expected better of Peter. This feels forced because its pretty clear that Spiderman is already “better.” He may not make the perfect decisions, but unlike Iron Man, these decisions are not motivated by ego. He is regularly forced to undermine high school friendships he cares deeply about, in order to live up to his sense of duty. 

The above two flaws leave Spiderman: Homecoming from being thematically and narratively memorable. Superhero movies, however, are works uniquely defined by their superpowered leads. Spiderman:Homecoming may have been a relatively late addition to the first era of the MCU, but it nonetheless ensured that Marvel’s best known hero is also the cinematic universe’s most likeable. 

 

Booksmart (2019)

Directed by: Olivia Wilde

Written by: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman

Booksmart_(2019_film_poster)Superbad counts as one of the iconic movies of my generation and I don’t get it. Well, I sort of get it. Seth Rogen makes for a good dopy cop, Christopher Mintz-Plasse shines as misfit who thinks he’s cool, and Jonah Hill and Mike Cera’s demeanours make them a likeable friendship-pairing. Nonetheless, the substance of Superbad didn’t do it for me. Its protagonists are supposedly high school misfits, yet their personalities lack any traits that would suggest they actually have reason to be outcasts: getting “laid” and getting “fucked-up” are, at times, the extent of their agendas. What’s so nerdy about that?

If Superbad lies at one end of the spectrum of nerd-depiction, The Big Bang Theory (at least initially) lies at the other. In my final year of high school I discovered the show and for a time became a huge Sheldon Cooper fan. Finally, TV had a character who was unapologetic about his eccentricities, and social awkwardness. Sheldon, for all his faults, was an actual nerd and not simply a wannabe-bro like Hill and Cera. The Big Bang Theory has problems of its own, however. Following the stereotype, the show’s writers depicted its central nerds as men. In season four the writers appeared to amend this by adding two women-nerds to the cast. These characters, however, despite having glasses and PhDs, did not share the nerd personalities of their cast-mates. The Big Bang Theory replaced the sexist approach of refusing to imagine women as nerds with the sexist-light approach of fake-introducing women-nerds, while in fact depriving them of the chance to be nerds by making the show a generic romantic-comedy.

Booksmart thus fills an important gap in nerd cinematic lore. Its protagonists Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) channel the relationship of Hill (Feldstein’s brother) and Cera in Superbad, while actually acting like nerds: as passionate about liberal-feminism and speaking Mandarin as they are about their romantic sides. And while the pair share the objective of the Superbad boys of going to a party, they do so with far more awkwardness and ambivalence. Early in Booksmart this relationship with Superbad is hinted at when Molly mentions that the pair have fake IDs (a key plot-point in Superbad), only for Amy to clarify that they are for getting into university libraries. Meanwhile, the film also challenges The Big Bang Theory‘s conception of hard-core nerds primarily being men. Not only are the film’s protagonist girls, but Amy is a lesbian, and the cast of sort-of-nerds around them comes from a range of backgrounds. The film offers hints of contemporary political consciousness that was not embodied in the Superbad and Big Bang Theory eras including a scene that takes place in a gender-neutral washroom.

If there’s one good trait that Superbad has that Booksmart doesn’t, it’s the presence of a third protagonist (McLovin). What Booksmart lacks in this regard, however, it makes up for through its supporting cast. The film begins near-chaotically, with highschool dynamics being explained and various characters bursting on the scene with comic interactions. Many of these characters proceed to jump in and out of the film’s plot. Occasionally this motif doesn’t work as well as its writers would have hoped. One character, for instance, shows up late in the film as a love interest in what is supposed to be a dramatic twist, however, her earlier appearance in the film was so brief it might as well not have happened. Overall, however, the vivacity of Booksmart’s supporting cast contributes to its Odyssey-feeling and allows for the comedy to stay on full blast for much of the film’s runtime. While the film is primarily buoyed on the shoulders of new-ish actors, Jason Sudeikis, The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams and, briefly, Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte all get to shine in their screentime.

Booksmart is full of high-school decadent scenes and acts: its visual ambition matches the wit of its screenplay. Despite its near fantastic qualities, however, the film really owes its success to its realness. Nerds are not (male) stereotypes, but that doesn’t mean we are not real either. Not everyone’s high school/college experience is defined by partying. At the same time, its possible not to party and still have an inner alter-ego that’s curious about the concept. This is not to say that Booksmart does covers the full nerd experience: there are real nerds who fall farther on the socially-awkward spectrum than do Molly and Amy. And furthermore, while, one of the film’s messages is that the “Book-Smart” and “Socially-Savvy” aren’t as different as one would assume, the film is, nonetheless, one in which the “Book-Smart” have never shone better.

Lady Bird (2017)

Written and directed by: Greta Gerwig

In my time watching film with a more critical eye, I’ve slowly developed the habit of Lady_Bird_posterobserving the relationship between film’s and their trailers. Many audiences will go into Lady Bird knowing it is highly acclaimed, and that its protagonist is a bad-girl of sorts who celebrates her 18th birthday by demanding “camel lights, a scratcher, and a playgirl” at her local convenience store. Lady Bird, however is not a simple comedy that entertains audiences through the hair-brained antics of its wild-child protagonist. Instead, the film is ambitious in its realism. Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) is charismatic and daring, perhaps a teenage (and human) version of Kevin Henkes’ children’s book character Lily, but she is not a rebel without a cause either.

            Lady Bird’s can almost be split into two halves to it. Each half features a best friend (Beanie Feldstein and Odeya Rush) and a boyfriend (Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalomet). Rather than having a plot and a subplot or two, the film simply has a main plot coupled with a number of subplots that are unafraid to peter out. For example, we meet Lady Bird’s older brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues). We see some of his quirks and struggles, and are exposed to the underlying tensions in his and Lady Bird’s sibling- relationship, yet he never fully crystallizes into a main character. While certainly not understated, Lady Bird’s plot structure draws on the pacing and emotional weight of everyday drama. In doing so it manages to be emotionally engaging in a way that feels somewhat novel for Hollywood.

            The success of Lady Bird’s realism perhaps can be tied to the screenwriter’s trust in our ability to take its character’s struggles seriously, even as the piece’s stakes are lowered. For instance, we know that Lady Bird struggles with math. The film clarifies that she is not at risk of failing, but rather in B- territory. This revelation does not take away from Lady Bird’s frustrations, it simply colors them. More importantly, the film’s main plot relies on an antagonistic relationship between Lady Bird and her strict, financially-anxious mother (Laurie Metcalf). Lady Bird, however, doesn’t do anything dramatic to get revenge on or sever her relationship with her mother: rather, she explicitly says on multiple occasions that she understands her mother’s thinking, and knows her mother loves her. This subtlety allows a broad range of viewers to identify with Lady Bird, and contrary to what one might assume, it does not make her story feel any less dramatic. Many of us live “boring” lives that inside our own heads are nonetheless compelling dramas. Lady Bird’s success comes from its committed attempt to bring that kind of drama to the big screen.

            Lady Bird has broken Toy Story 2’s record for number of critics’ reviews its received on Rotten Tomatoes without garnering a single negative submission. While it may not be a singularly great movie, it is notable for the lines it sits on: it straddles the fence between realistic and whimsical, between dramatic and understated. Whether its Kyle Scheivle’s performative idealism, Sister Sarah Joan’s (Lois Smith) piousness-with-a-sense-of humour, or Julianne Steffan’s nickname, chances are you will at very least find a character or two compelling in Lady Bird