Sunday, November 20, 2016


Original caricature by Jeff York of Hailee Steinfeld in THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (copyright 2016)

Something curious happened while a couple of hugely high-profile movies opened this past weekend. One of 2016's finest opened at a Cineplex near you, even though you may not be aware of it due to the overwhelming attention being showered upon the new franchise FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM, Ang Lee’s angst-ridden Oscar contender BILLY FLYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK, and Tom Ford’s controversial psychological thriller NOCTURNAL ANIMALS. It's a small film called THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN and you should know that it is one of the year's very best films. It also is probably the finest coming-of-age comedy in a decade. 

Budgeted at a just nine million, THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig and stars Hailee Steinfeld, the Oscar nominated actress from 2010’s TRUE GRIT. It’s the story of a teenage girl named Nadine who’s experiencing a lot of turmoil concerning where she stands in the world. She is up to her eyeballs in the things most teens panic about - popularity, the opposite sex, and burgeoning adulthood. Nadine's plight is worse however due to the fact that her best friend has just started dating her hunky, older brother. Nadine’s two worlds collide and she decries that the world is out to get her. 

The film is about how she copes and it's both funny and sad, as she makes a lot of mistakes along the way, trying to figure out who she is and what she wants. Her journey will take her from hyper-reactive teen to a more assured young woman, and it's an extraordinary trip for the audience to take with her. I have very little in common with teenagers these days, let alone 17-year-old girls, but I related to every moment of her longing and frustrations and need to connect. She may be young, but her concerns are universal.  

And what makes Craig’s film so wonderful is that it captures such an angst-ridden world of teen panic without every condescending to or laughing at its protagonist. It's hilarious without ever resorting to glibness. It's tremendously moving without ever becoming maudlin. And it drives home truths about growing up without ever becoming heavy-handed. Not only that, but it's got an award-worthy turn by Steinfeld at its center. All that should enable it to join the ranks of the very best teenage-centered comedies in the history of cinema. It's right up there with RISKY BUSINESS, the best of John Hughes, and MEAN GIRLS.  

Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine in THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN
Steinfeld imbues Nadine with a complexity usually reserved for male characters in movie where there are bigger things at stake. She is one of the best actors of her generation, a nuanced talent who is capable of making every line she utters sound fresh and brash and if it just rolled directly out of her head. Some of her comedic instincts take your breath away, like when she emphasizes certain words in a sentence that 99 out of 100 actors wouldn't. But then, Steinfeld understands that Nadine is in her own world. It's almost a prison she's in, created mostly by her own rage and frustrations. And Steinfeld makes sure that we understand all of it. 

Nadine isn't just on the edge of 17, cresting into adulthood, but she's always on edge. You would be too if your road to graduation was filled with brutal potholes. Nadine lost her father a few years back when he died from a heart attack right in front of her. Her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) is so absorbed in her own grief that she doesn’t have much sympathy for any of Nadine’s needs. And her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) outshines her at school and at home. And now he's hot for her bestie. 

When he takes a sudden interest in Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), Nadine’s BFF since second grade, it shreds Nadine’s last sense of knowing where she stands in the world. If she can’t at least have her best friend, where does she stand? Her life is nothing but drama, but it makes for sublime comedy too. 

Nadine is propelled to find someone else to fill the hole in her heart and she sets her gaze towards the opposite sex. She should choose Erwin (Hayden Szeto), a classmate who clearly likes her, and they have a lot in common. They're both well-meaning but awkward, and they have a similar self-deprecation that is endearing. But being a teen girl, Nadine gravitates toward the moody dreamboat instead. That would be Nick Mossman (Alexander Calvert), whose profile folder is full of overly calculated headshots that Nadine all too easily falls for. She thinks he must be sensitive too because he works part-time at the local pet store, but of course, such Prince Charming's are never whom they appear to be in such films. 

Still, Nadine cannot help herself and in one of her weaker moments she writes a confessional text to him propositioning him and suggesting they get it on in the pet store's stock room. When she accidentally hits "Send", she panics and tells her teacher Mr. Bruner that she's going to kill herself. It's a credit to the movie that we don't know entirely if it's an idle threat or not. Nadine is just that close to the razor's edge. 

Bruner helps her deal with her mistake by talking her down off her metaphorical ledge, and it's one of the film's best conceits that he's not a touchy-feely, super sensitive sort. As played by Woody Harrelson, he's world weary and may be as forlorn as his most obtrusive pupil. Sure, he cares about Nadine, but warily so, as he cares more about the 32 minutes of free time to eat lunch that she continually disrupts. 

Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson in a scene from THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN.
 Perhaps he and Nadine have such a ‘frick and frack’ relationship because they’re both misanthropes. Still, he recognizes the genuine idealism within all her angst and she recognizes the attentive listener that he is despite his best attempts to play the curmudgeon. And Harrelson has always been equally superb at playing drama as comedy. This is one of his best roles to date, and he's superb in it.

It's great watching the two of them chide each other even though we are never told exactly how they got to this point in their relationship. Screenwriter Craig lets the audience fill in such blanks as she's careful to not spoon feed us every morsel of information. She also gives little backstory to mom Mona, and we never get too good of a grasp what she was like before her husband's untimely death. All we know is what we see in the movie and that is a woman who needs some parenting herself. It's understandable, but it creates a vacuum for Nadine. 

Blake Jenner and Haley Lu Richardson in THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN.
And even though Craig's film is about a girl flailing and failing, Nadine is actually a whole lot stronger than she, or even we, realize. In one of the film's most dramatic scenes, Nadine's potential make-out session with a curious Nick veers dangerously close to out-and-out sexual assault. He believes her text even though she attempts to treat their first evening together like a spontaneous date. When he makes his move, pulling down her underwear, she refuses his advances. He loses his cool but she tries to get beyond it with him. His wounded pride won't let him so he tosses her out of the car.

Now, this could be a shattering moment, and Nadine is upset by it. But she's also is learning how to cope better and the way she handles it is measured and shrewd on her part. She turns to Bruner, knowing that he will be able to help her the most, and it's one of the film's best moves in showing how Nadine is starting to learn out to better take care of herself. 

And when he takes her into his home to help calm her, she meets his wife and infant son, not knowing he had such a life outside of school. Suddenly, her view of his world expands. She sees a bigger picture of him and it allows her to gaze at her own world, and those in it, with a more worldly view as well. She may not have the perfect relationship with her brother or her mother or her longtime bestie, but they aren’t lost causes and she has the skill set to repair the damage. 

Craig and Steinfeld create one of the better teen heroines ever put onscreen. She's eccentric, mixed up and struggling, but we always laugh with her. And there are little touches that give us clues that Nadine is going to be alright. She may be a gawky, coltish clod at times, but she's self-aware enough to know she has good legs and enjoys making the most of them with her short skirts and dark hose. (It's a wonderful juxtaposition that Nadine still wears comfortable high-tops with them though rather than trendy boots.)  Nadine gets drunk and sick in one scene, but she it doesn't turn into a prat-falling comedic drunk scene. And her constant running monologue about her life never comes off as the words of a screenwriter trying to explain her creation. Instead, it's more of Nadine's better self nagging her worse self to be better. And it's one of the charms of the movie that Craig has Erwin do similar running commentary about his own shortcomings too. Of course, he and Nadine are perfect for each other - they each come with their own Greek chorus!

Steinfeld with Hayden Szeto in THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN.
And Steinfeld is such an accomplished actor that she aces the dramatic moments as fine as the sillier ones. In one scene she spits out vicious words to hurt Bruner and they cut like a knife. The intensity in Steinfeld's eyes is palpable and shocks the audience as much as Bruner's character is leveled by such a dig. Nadine may hurt, but she can inflict pain too, and Steinfeld doesn’t shy away from playing the uglier parts of the character. It’s a truly exceptional  performance, one that should garner serious awards attention in the coming months.

It will be interesting to see if this film gets such due. So many films that star actors under 18 do not, but this one deserves such accolades and more. Its comedy is always grounded in reality, as is its tragedies. It isn't just a teenage comedy, or a coming-of-age comedy. It is a fantastic film. Nadine's story should resonate with anyone who's 17, or 70 for that matter. Hers is a universal story about the desire to belong and be loved. And it packs a wallop.

Saturday, November 12, 2016


Original caricature by Jeff York of Amy Adams in ARRIVAL (copyright 2016)

Sometimes a film stands in tandem with the times, so prescient in its relevance to what’s going on in the world that it stops being mere entertainment and becomes something utterly profound. Such is the case with the film ARRIVAL that opened just this weekend. After a week that was one of the most dramatic and troubling in our nation’s history, ARRIVAL enters theaters as not just an elixir to soothe what ails us, but should be seen as a must-see essay about how words matter. And words in this post-election are hugely important. We cannot heal and we will not move forward without the right words.

ARRIVAL is one of those films where you don’t want to give away too much of the plot to those who’ve not seen it, thus I must be careful with my words here. Part of the thrill of this movie are its surprises, those twists and turns that await you during its hour and 56-minute running time. What I can tell you is that the film is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s award-winning 1998 novella “Story of Your Life.” His story concerns Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams in another Oscar worthy performance, and her efforts to help the world communicate with alien visitors. Banks is a professor of linguistics, an expert who has helped out the government before, so they come calling again during this great time of need. Indeed, 12 spaceships have entered the earth’s atmosphere and are now hovering over various parts of the planet. Why are they here? What do they want? We need to ask them, but we need to know how. After some early communication attempts lead nowhere, the military all but drafts her to help them find a way to reach common ground with the visitors.

Banks knows all sorts of languages and symbols but deciphering the aliens’ strange mix of smoky emulsions they emit, mixed in with a strange cacophony of noises, will demand her best. She needs to crack the alien code to prevent potential war as no one knows if they come in peace or intend to turn mankind into pieces. Helping her with all this are physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), as well as a few military types you’d expect to show up in science fiction movies. One is the tough and by-the-book Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). The other is CIA agent Halpern, a man whose motives seems ambiguous and vaguely sinister. It doesn’t help that Michael Stuhlberg is playing him. He’s a fine actor but he’s played an awful lot of nervous nellies in his career.

Louise and Ian meet the aliens by being transported through the long, narrow passageway into the body of their ship hovering over the plains of Montana. And when they meet them, they are hardly the cuddly E.T. types. Instead, they resemble those spindly, octopus-like creatures from Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake of WAR OF THE WORLDS. Looking at them, they don’t seem particularly cordial. Nor are their groans and gurgles warm, inviting sounds. Even their written 'words' seem utterly intimidating, shooting out of their alien paws at the observers like squid ink. They seem menacing, but are they?

One of the marvels of this movie, so carefully penned by screenwriter Eric Heisserer and shrewdly directed by Denis Villenueve (“Prisoners”, “Sicario”) is that for most of the film, we don’t know if they’re friend or foe. By coming here, and trying patiently to communicate with us, we assume they’re on our side, but until Louise can figure out just how to communicate with them, everyone in the film, as well as in the audience, remains in the dark.

It makes for a great and tense film experience, as we watch Louise and her crew keep putting themselves in harm's way as they try to engage the aliens in conversation. Eventually, their efforts start to make a difference and some of the pieces of the communications puzzle start to come together. But at every moment, it's pretty frightening as one wrong gesture, or a misinterpreted word could doom their efforts and possibly even start a war. That seems all too possible when the Chinese start to lose patience with the slow communications and develop an itchy trigger finger. Soon enough, other countries start to feel the same and their fears spread across the globe. Of course it isn’t long before America feels compelled to start saber rattling as well.  

As missiles and warships are moved into place from a number of countries and aimed at those huge, black egg-like alien vessels,  Louise faces what's known in the screenwriting industry as the ticking clock. Will she figure out what the aliens are trying to tell us in the nick of time and stave off war? Or will she communicate the wrong things to them and end up pushing them away and leaving our orbit forever? A missed opportunity to learn from them is as potentially catastrophic as a battle to the death. The words she will use to communicate now carry the weight of the world on them, and time is running out. Her words, any words, have never mattered more in the history of the planet in this film's story.

Watching it play out, one cannot help but think about how catastrophic words have been in this election. And seeing the purveyor of most of that horrendous verbiage win the White House has given many pause, here in the USA as well as throughout the world. Words matter, but for a candidate who delighted in being very loose with his words, as well as disparaging with them, it has now less half the electorate fearing how his words will turn into action. Half the country didn't vote for him, and he didn't secure the popular vote, but he took the electoral college. And now his words have everyone, even his supporters, wondering how true to them he will be. His words matter, and like Louise's words in the movie, they can now be used to create good or yes, create war. And not just on foreigners. Never have so many factions of the electorate felt like they were as despised as any enemy by our president-elect.

ARRIVAL has other themes it gets across dramatically and emphatically as well. In addition to the importance of words, it has a lot to say about globalization. Louise’s conversation with the aliens does not come to full fruition until she realizes that the aliens are speaking as a whole from the 12 vessels. Each spacecraft is important to their overall communication, an intrinsic part of the puzzle. And in order to respond properly to the aliens, Louise discovers that she must put together all that they are saying. It’s like a treasure map with missing pieces in the parchment. She really can’t find whatever 'gold' they've got unless the whole thing is read as a whole. 

Not only does Louise realize she needs to put all of the 12 together, but she also recognizes that she needs all of the communications being bandied about by the other countries in their communication efforts with the aliens to help string together her best messaging as well.  She has to get out of her bubble, her singular world of what they’re doing with the spaceship hovering over Montana, in order to see the bigger picture. The input from the other nations is vital as what she is doing, as is that collective messaging from all 12 spaceships. Thus, once again, ARRIVAL serves as a timely metaphor for what we've just gone through during this election cycle. Too many people are living in their bubble, be it Fox News,, or wherever they choose to get the information that best fits their world view. Accurate or not, too many who live in such bubbles think their reality is the right one. Often it isn't. ARRIVAL argues that a more thorough collection of data is needed to function. 

From a global economy to the Internet to preserving the planet, we are no longer isolated and cannot act like our small worlds are the only ones we have a vested interest in. Everything is connected. Louise must reach out to others and avidly seek their assistance to find the answers to her critical communications with alien life. And the film suggests to those watching it that we could all stand to get out of our heads more too.

And ultimately, what the aliens communicate to her when it all comes together is quite the doozy of a twist. It is incredibly profound and moving. And it forces us to reconsider much of what we've seen presented to us in the movie. We've accepted so much of it at face value. But that twists informs us that time, events and emotions are more fluid than at first imagined. It may appear to be linear, but that is not necessarily so. Again, the need for everything to be so tight and easy and selfish is discredited. The bigger picture, one that the aliens provide mankind on earth, needs to be looked upon with fresh eyes, an open mind and a willingness to step outside of ourselves, our comfort zones and yes indeed, our bubbles. It’s an intellectual space adventure, if you will, that invites comparisons to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. That's how smart it is.  I don’t want to say anything more about it. You’ll just have to see how mind-blowing it is for yourself if you haven't yet.

Still, its galvanizing message of learning to communicate better with no matter who you're trying to connect with cannot be missed. And in light of this week, it’s particularly relevant. Isolation and refusing to deal with a proper dialogue with whomever the “other” may be, is a way of conversing we cannot afford anymore. There are simply too many folks out in the nation of ours talking without thinking, and thinking without concern for what they're saying and how it may be affecting others. 

Hillary Clinton may very well have lost the election by living in the Democratic bubble and telling herself that all was well, that she'd win all those rust belt states because Democrats always do. But her losses to populist Bernie Sanders during the primary season in states like Wisconsin and Michigan should have been red flags to her campaign. Did the DNC ever consider spending time and money visiting those states? If they had before the last days of the election, HRC might've secured the votes of those working class constituents there rather than seeing them sit out or show up to vote for Trump.  

And those casting their ballots for Trump may think they were merely voting to “drain the swamp”, but their candidate’s incendiary language did a lot of damage. His voters are also living in a bubble if they think their vote was just about sticking it to the ruling class. Their vote stuck it to a lot of women, a lot of minorities, a lot of Muslims, and even the handicapped as Trump ridiculed all of them over and over again in his run with a relish of  vile language. If any Trump voter thinks such words are not connected to his endorsement from the KKK, then they are deep, deep inside a self-imposed, isolated bubble. 

It’s time to burst such bubbles, and Trump must now start using words to heal and bring the nation together. An apology or two, or a hundred for that matter, would be a very good start. If not, he may find that most of the nation doesn't want to go along with his efforts, just as most of them didn't vote for him, and he will accomplish a lot less than he could with bipartisanship. His words matter, as do his actions, especially how and if they link to his worst language.

 That’s why the film ARRIVAL strikes so powerfully. The film entertains yes, but it compels us to understand communication on a different level, a level where words can have real consequences. For good or bad. 

Perhaps our new leader will see this movie and be moved and enlightened. Or maybe he’ll just continuing his practice of tweeting hateful words about all his rivals on Twitter in the middle of the night. But make no mistake about the message of ARRIVAL - we’re all in this together. And important events demand well concerned language. That message couldn’t be any more obvious or more timely than it is this week.