Dec 02

“The Edge of Seventeen”: We’ve Been There

This is a movie about a teen, first and foremost, rather than a “teen movie,” and that’s exactly what makes it feel like a peerless example for the genre. David Sims, The Atlanticregarding The Edge of Seventeen

The official description of The Edge of Seventeen may at least partly explain why many potential viewers haven’t been flocking to theaters to see it—it just sounds so, well, teen-movie-like:

Everyone knows that growing up is hard, and life is no easier for high school junior Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), who is already at peak awkwardness when her all-star older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) starts dating her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). All at once, Nadine feels more alone than ever, until the unexpected friendship of a thoughtful boy (Hayden Szeto) gives her a glimmer of hope that things just might not be so terrible after all.

The following excerpt, however, adds more depth and interest (Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times):

…Nadine has always resented Darian for his favored-child status with their mother (Kyra Sedgwick), a feeling that has only intensified since the sudden death of their father (Eric Keenleyside) a few years earlier…

Its verbal style informed by numerous interviews that [writer] Fremon Craig conducted with teenagers nationwide, ‘The Edge of Seventeen’ never descends into a ‘Juno’-esque quirkfest…

Critics, in fact, have generally heaped high praise, declaring Steinfeld to be a gem and the story uniquely told. A sampling of reviews:

  • The teen cult classic you’ve been waiting for (Nico Lang, Salon)
  • No one experiences self-loathing as intensely as a teenager, and I’ve never seen it so well-reflected in a movie before (Molly Eichel, Philly.com)
  • A deceptively funny depiction of teen anxiety and depression (Zach Schonfeld, Newsweek)
  • The rare coming-of-age picture that feels less like a retread than a renewal. It’s a disarmingly smart, funny and thoughtful piece of work, from end to beginning to end (Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times)
  • Thanks to its edgy sense of humor and achingly accurate poignancy, the flick will touch a nerve with anyone who has ever had to ride that tidal wave of teenage angst. By the way, that’s everybody (Maria Reinstein, Us Weekly)

The Trailer for The Edge of Seventeen

Nadine’s Character

David Sims, The Atlantic: “Nadine is prone to moments of cruelty or gracelessness, and proves at times to be incapable of self-awareness, despite her obvious intelligence.”

Katy Waldman, Slate: “…a beguiling blend of charisma, lancing intelligence, and hostile insecurity.”

Christy Lemire, rogerebert.com:

She’s capable of laughing at herself for her frequent follies, but her default mode is misanthropy, and she doesn’t suffer fools. She can be mean and impulsive and she’s often the victim of her own undoing. Steinfeld makes this intriguing jumble of contradictions feel real and alive. She doesn’t seem interested in making us like this girl who’s perched on the edge of womanhood. She just tries to make her feel true—and that’s what makes us love her.

Other Notable Characterizations in The Edge of Seventeen

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “If ‘The Edge of Seventeen’ were a run-of-the-mill high school melodrama, Krista would be revealed as a selfish, scheming vixen and Darian as an arrogant jerk. But they are smart, sensitive people who care about Nadine. Krista, with her sunny temperament and gentle disposition, has been the light of Nadine’s life since they were children, while Darian has assumed the role of a surrogate patriarch since the death of their father…”

David Sims, The Atlantic: “As the straight-arrow Erwin, who’s clearly interested in Nadine but has no idea how to snap her out of her various reveries, Szeto is a delight, as well as a refreshing choice for a romantic lead in a genre that usually relegates Asian performers to sidekick roles.”

Ella Taylor, NPR:

The life lessons, such as they are, flow from [teacher] Bruner [Woody Harrelson], but less from what he says than in the understanding he extends toward this floundering young bigmouth…All along this taciturn man has offered her what every teenager needs — acceptance, the gift of listening, and a sly nudge down a path along which she can take the reins.

Nov 29

“Hi, Anxiety”: Kat Kinsman’s “Nerves”

The author comes to the realization that there is no one method that works for everyone, and many can’t manage the fear well, but that these emotions come from an illness and shouldn’t be a source of shame. Kinsman encourages those suffering from the malady to acknowledge what is happening so that they can get the support they deserve. Terry Lamperski, Carnegie Library, Pittsburgh, PA, regarding Kat Kinsman’s Hi, Anxiety

Writer and commentator Kat Kinsman has a new book called Hi, Anxiety: Life With a Bad Case of Nerves. From her publisher:

Taking us back to her adolescence, when she was diagnosed with depression at fourteen, Kat speaks eloquently with pathos and humor about her skin picking, hand flapping, ‘nervousness’ that made her the recipient of many a harsh taunt. With her mother also gripped by depression and health issues throughout her life, Kat came to live in a constant state of unease—that she would fail, that she would never find love . . . that she would end up just like her mother.

Kinsman’s public admission started in January of 2014 via a blog post (CNN.com) that’s full of compelling quotes. A sampling:

Anxiety and panic have been my constant companions for as far back as my memory reaches.

Anxiety hurts. It’s the precise inverse of joy and blots out pleasure at its whim, leaving a dull, faded outline of the happiness that was supposed to happen. It’s also as sneaky as hell.

If depression is, as Winston Churchill famously described, a “black dog” that follows the sufferer around, anxiety is a feral cat that springs from nowhere, sinks its claws into skin and hisses invective until nothing else exists.

Anxiety is not easily explicable or rational — at least not to those who don’t suffer from it — and that only compounds the problem. If it were something concrete — a fear of clowns, birds, cheese or the music of Michael Bublé — there would no doubt be a definitive course of attack involving immersion therapy and a really weird party.

For me, it’s physically painful, from stomach, head and muscle aches to exhaustion from chronic insomnia to raw thumb skin that I’ve picked at until it bled — and kept picking some more.

It’s senseless and hurtful to people I love, and that more than anything is why I’ve been trying to get better.

Behavioral therapy has perhaps been my most effective weapon, but when panic bolts down and pins me, shivering to my bed in the wee, small hours, it’s hard to summon semi-steady breath, let alone any mantras or creative visualizations.

Unfortunately, certain common remedies haven’t been particularly helpful for Kinsman.

Anti-anxiety medications work beautifully for millions of people. The withdrawal from a particularly wicked one nearly ended me, and the brain zaps (those are sharp, horrifying electrical currents you can physically feel inside your head) and metabolic sluggishness increasingly outweighed any benefits while I was on it. Perhaps I will change my mind someday, but for now that’s not an option.
The gym can be useful, but it’s on the other side of that damned door. So are the much-vaunted yoga and meditation classes that inevitably make me feel as if I’ve failed for being insufficiently zen and relaxed.

While therapy has been good for her overall, she’s also had the misfortune of having to deal with the unexpected loss of her long-term therapist (due to the latter’s health crisis). As reported in the blog piece, however, Kinsman eventually did find someone else to see.

Nov 23

“Louder Than Bombs”: Deception in Grief

Louder Than Bombs is interested in the intersection between grief and memory, and how difficult it is to capture both either through photography or film. Brian Tallerico, rogerebert.com

Looking for an intense dysfunctional-family drama over your Thanksgiving break? I mean, besides at home? David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter, sets up the plot of Joachim Trier‘s 2015 Louder Than Bombs, seemingly overlooked in theaters but now available on DVD:

Three years after the death of celebrated war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert), a major exhibition is being planned and her longtime colleague Richard (David Strathairn) is writing a New York Times feature pegged to the opening. We learn via a quick montage of award speeches, interviews and news reports that Isabelle did her best work by remaining in conflict zones after the tanks pulled out, in order to capture the consequences of war. It’s also revealed that she died not in the field but shortly after retiring, in a road accident just a few miles from her home in Nyack, New York.

Richard respectfully informs Isabelle’s widower, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), that he intends to reveal the full circumstances of her death in the profile; it’s believed that she drove deliberately into an oncoming truck. Gene asks for time to tell his withdrawn youngest son Conrad (Devin Druid), who was just 12 when his mother died and has been spared any knowledge of her apparent suicide. Conrad’s older brother Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) takes a break from his wife, his new baby and his college professor job to come sort through Isabelle’s studio for material from her final trip to Syria to be included in the show.

Jesse Cataldo, Slant: “…(D)espite its status as the emotional and narrative center of the film, the exact nature of Isabelle’s death is never clarified. Possible scenarios are glimpsed via the daydreams of one character, and discussed obliquely by others, but precise explanations are avoided.”

The trailer:

Themes and Meaning

Bilge Ebiri, Village Voice: “A fractured film about a fractured family, Louder Than Bombs takes a potentially tired premise and reshapes it before our eyes…a story of parents and children in which we’re pulled by the currents and countercurrents of desperation, depression, and love.”

Sasha Stone, The Wrap: “…(W)hat are we obligated to tell our loved ones? What are we obligated to tell our wives to prevent their getting hurt by the things we do? What are the benefits of deception? What is the eventual harm?”

Oliver Lyttelton, The Playlist: “None of these characters are being entirely truthful to each other, or to those in their orbit. The three Reed men talk (or in Conrad’s case, don’t), but are incapable of communication, and their grief remains in stasis as a result.”

Selected Reviews

Michael O’Sullivan, Washington Post: “Along with his regular co-writer Eskil Vogt, Trier has crafted a profoundly beautiful and strange meditation on secrets, lies, dreams, memories and misunderstanding.”

Michael Rose, Huffington Post: “Some might fault Trier for tackling subjects about people who appear to have it all. In ‘Louder Than Bombs,’ the angst of the upper middle class becomes universal as Trier takes us into their struggle to find what it takes to hold a family together.”

Guy Lodge, Time Out :

This is the stuff of unapologetic melodrama, artfully structured in such a way that the rotating stories inform and enhance each other even when only one character is in focus: absence is a presence, and that doesn’t refer only to the missing mother in the family. Yet the emotional conclusions here can be a little pat, and catharsis too easily come by. It’s more cautiously sound-proofed than its title implies. Only when Huppert’s on screen does the film feel it could detonate at any moment.

Nov 21

Post-Election Thanksgiving: How Do We Deal?

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Post-election Thanksgiving for many may be fraught with fresh emotional baggage as people of differing opinions come together. How do we deal?

Within many families and groups the cards are already on the table. Some gatherings will be relatively homogeneous, participants sharing a general agreement on life, including political issues. Others, though, not so much—because this is often what family is.

It’s certainly true in mine. Most are Republican voters, while my partner/spouse and I are not, nor are my aunt and uncle. In advance of seeing my two other closest relatives, my brother and sister, I’ve chosen to stay in the dark about their presidential pick—no different, I might add, than any other past election.

Will we discuss it when we get together now? My brother in the past has encouraged us not to get into such sensitive topics as religion and politics. Averting conflict: what’s not to like? After all, we rarely see each other due to the geographical distance. There are other things to catch up on and talk about.

What about potential triggers, though? Can we avoid those? Just driving, for instance, into their large swing state that went red instead of the predicted blue could lead to shooting the elephant in the room. Not the GOP elephant—though, hey, don’t tempt me—and I mean that nothing but metaphorically—but that other symbolic elephant, the one that represents a Big Taboo Topic.

What if, on the other hand, no one gets triggered despite the energy it takes to oh so carefully suppress just-under-the-surface opinions and reactions? Who’ll be the first, then, to blow it with some off-handed-seeming humor, maybe Please pass me that lyin’ sack of Trumpian potatoes—just to gauge the room? (If you guessed me, you might be on the right track.)

I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? We’ll confront some issues, state our ideas, our fears, our disappointments—and no one will hear each other? So what? We’ve dealt with that when it was called the 2015-16 presidential campaign cycle.

Or we’ll yell, scream, cry, and throw things? Not a family trait, and a little drama could actually liven us up a bit. (I’m not saying my partner’s ever implied this, but…)

We could actually lose each other over it? If that hasn’t happened thus far, through Reagan’s dismissive AIDS attitude, George W.’s Iraq War, etcetera, never gonna happen.

There’s a chance, actually, that no one even conceived of voting Trumpian. But if they did there was a reason, empathy tells me, that made sense to them at the time. Something was desired on their end that conflicts with what’s desired on my end—my LGBT and women’s rights, for example, my concern for immigrants and racial minorities, my desire to end hypocrisy and sexual assault everywhere…

But let’s stop there and give some room to their rational and meaningful concerns—like…well…you know, those types of things important enough to cancel out Trump’s hateful rhetoric, actions, proposals…

I mean, what the hell were they thinking?!?

No. Wait. They might have rejected him after all. Maybe they saw a candidate who’s regularly mistreated others, who’s promised some awful things, who lies through his teeth, and who doesn’t have a coherent policy idea to his name. It wouldn’t be the first time some family members have reached across the divide.

It won’t be me, though. I shall remain unmoved, steadfast in my values. I simply cannot accept an alternative view of Trumpism than what’s been proven thus far. The past is prologue. The present is now. The future is us moving forward in unity.

This post-election Thanksgiving holiday I will be grateful for my sense of self-worth, my love of humanity, and having others in my life I can count on to share a common vision in the face of considerable struggles ahead. No matter how my family or anyone else voted, these will surely help.

Nov 18

“Moonlight”: Identity-Seeking Across Decades

This film is, without a doubt, the reason we go to the movies: to understand, to come closer, to ache, hopefully with another. Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out, giving Moonlight a 5-star review

Three different actors portray three distinct stages of one man’s life and identity search in Barry Jenkins‘s strongly reviewed Moonlight. Noted author Ta-Nehisi Coates has called it the “best take on black masculinity …ever” (Slate).

David Edelstein, Vulture:

…Jenkins puts you inside the head of a closemouthed, fatherless African-American protagonist, Chiron (pronounced Chy-rone), as he grows from a lonely boy to a lonely adult, with a single moment of connection in the middle of the middle section: a brief sexual encounter with a teenager named Kevin on a Florida beach. The movie’s first half builds to that moment, the last half falls away from it. But you can’t pin Moonlight down as a gay-awakening film — or a fear-of-coming-out film or anything centering on sex or love. It’s deeper than that. The title alludes to an idea about the moon: that in its light you realize that only you (not the gods, not other people) can decide who you want to be.

In Part One he’s a child: small, black, fatherless, possibly gay, and living in a poor area of Miami with a drug-addicted mom. Peter Debruge, Variety:

Even before Chiron is old enough to understand the notion of homosexuality, his classmates seem to have labeled him as such. The other kids openly torment the runt-like child (played by Alex Hibbert at this stage), whom they call ‘Little’ and dismiss as ‘soft,’ chasing him to a local crack den, where he’s discovered by a sympathetic drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali, breathing humanity into a stereotype). Since Little refuses to speak, Juan has no choice but to bring him back to the home he shares with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe, a doll-like beauty with remarkable inner strength) — and in so doing, takes his place as a sort of surrogate father and role model.

In the middle part, states Eric Kohn, Indiewire, “…Chiron is an alienated teen (Ashton Sanders)” whose despair and anger culminates in a tragic turning point. And by the finale:

…he has undergone a dramatic transition into young adulthood and taken on the nickname ‘Black’ (Trevante Rhodes). But he still hasn’t quite figured out how to express his deepest feelings, and therein lies the movie’s greatest source of intrigue. Jenkins and his extraordinary cast generate powerful suspense around questions of when, and how, the repressed character might find emotional liberation.

The trailer follows:

Selected Conclusions

David Edelstein, Vulture:

 Moonlight isn’t weighed down by psychologizing, but you can infer all sorts of things about the effect of an absent father on Chiron’s sense of self (the name evokes the centaur — half-man, half-horse) and the power of a culture given to crushing all manifestations of male sensitivity (let alone gayness). You can infer the dire impact on Chiron of a crack-addict mother — she does, tearfully, in later scenes, when the damage is done and his character formed. But it might be better just to think about the moon — and how all our choices of who to be might look in its pitiless light.

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “All the clichés of the coming-of-age movie have been peeled away, leaving something quite startling in its emotional directness. And though the movie is never sentimental, while watching you become aware how rarely we get to see black male characters onscreen in such an emotionally revealing light.”

Stephanie Zacharek, Time: “…leaves you feeling both stripped bare and restored, slightly better prepared to step out and face the world of people around you, with all the confounding challenges they present. There’s not much more you can ask from a movie.”