Tag Archives: Coming of Age

Movie Review: Armageddon Time (2022)

Now playing in select theatres from Focus Features.

Foisting an often unflattering, unremarkable personal memoir on the masses is a sure fire way to open oneself up to bruising judgment, especially when the memories intended to move or inspire simply feel dramatically inert. Writer/director James Gray’s Armageddon Time (C-) leverages his wistful recollections about being 12 years old in Queens, New York in the 1980s to moralize about the enduring state of affairs in the world. The retro atmosphere is all there, from toting metal lunchboxes, riding on the subway, touring the Guggenheim and playing in Flushing Meadows, but the film rarely gathers steam in any of its locales. Banks Repeta is the central boy learning retconned lessons about white privilege as he watches his Black friend played by Jaylin Webb get in trouble for mutual troublemaking. It feels like the protagonist isn’t really there; he’s just watching himself be an unsure tween, longing for better choices he could have made. Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway are believable but oddly written as the parents; the viewer will be unsure what to make of them exactly, and they have very little to do or say. Even a nice portrayal of the sage family grandfather by Anthony Hopkins feels perfunctory. There are indeed some life lessons lurking beneath the heavy handed plotting, but there are few revelations to draw viewers into this feature as essential viewing.

Movie Review: Where the Crawdads Sing (2022)

Sony Pictures Releasing – now in theatres.

Lead actress Daisy Edgar-Jones (DEJ) almost unilaterally redeems director Olivia Newman’s melodrama Where the Crawdads Sing (B-), rescuing the period piece film from one of the most poorly paced and acted first twenty minutes of a major Hollywood feature (a kind of reverse Saving Private Ryan) and helping draw viewers into what at times magically becomes rather riveting. The movie’s literary roots are showing, from the cloying first-person voice-over narration to the “life under a microscope” earthly allusions. DEJ’s protagonist “Kya” is an outsider loner and novice naturalist of the North Carolina marshes who becomes embroiled in two significant romances and one murder trial. She digs mussels and muscles and may or may not harbor secrets. The soapy plot would be the death Nell to the proceedings were it not for the impeccable work by DEJ as the magnetic central character. She’s surrounded by one of David Strathairn’s few humdrum performances (he’s the kindly lawyer) and even more confounding acting turns by Taylor John Smith and Harris Dickinson as tall glass of water “good” and “bad” suitors, respectively (Did original song writer Taylor Swift also cast the disappointing dudes from her jilted jukebox burn book?). Somewhere in the middle of it all, though, there’s DEJ’s fierce female performance: a smart, observant and evolving heroine with emotive eyes, piercing pathos and utterly believable physicality. She makes viewers hope and wince and cheer. The story is occasionally rich with bursts of Southern gothic atmosphere, and Newman ultimately gets a grip on the multiple plot threads to lend a sizable chunk of the overlong story a more cohesive vibe. This is all a bit of a guilty pleasure, quite watchable, but hardly revelatory. Except the lead actress: she’s a cinematic savior here and raises the stakes beyond the brays of the crayfish.

Movie Review: Turning Red (2022)

Disney/Pixar. Available on DVD and Disney+ streaming service.

Maneuvering the manic minefield of the female Chinese-Canadian tween growing up in early aughts Toronto can be a lot to handle: from flip phones to flipping out, juggling pimpled cuties and temple duties, hoarding both Tamogotchis and tampons and in general trying to find one’s way while on the brink of something new. Domee Shi’s Turning Red (B) leverages a fusion of anime stylings and daydreams with dollops of photo-realistic Pixar aesthetics to craft an animated adventure. But why simply chronicle the protagonist’s amusing and illuminating semi-autobiographical coming of age story when you can also foist an extra forced metaphor of turning into a giant red panda when emotions get heavy? It’s a balancing act for the filmmaking team ultimately working out the story kinks. Glimpses into the bonds of female friendship and some fascinating Cantonese cultural cues enliven the sillier moments, and the film works best when pursuing the genuine embarrassments of adolescence as opposed to plumbing the land grabs for plush merchandise sales. Rosalie Chiang gives a spry central voice performance, and Sandra Oh is effective as her demanding mom who thankfully can relate to her daughter’s strife with more haste that a recently frustrating animated Colombian abuela. Although this film is not a musical, the score and songs by Ludwig Göransson plus Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, respectively, keep proceedings lively, especially in some amusing boy band parody sequences. No doubt this will be the latest Disney endeavor to play on repeat for a good part of the upcoming season, so thankfully it’s a ritual with rewards.

Movie Review: Licorice Pizza (2021)

In theatres.

It’s a pretty platter party with a nostalgic ‘70s San Fernando Valley, California aesthetic and solid soundscape, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s meandering dramedy Licorice Pizza (C) is a bit too charmed with itself to ever figure out exactly what it is. For all practical purposes, it’s a coming of age movie in which neither principal character comes of age. Alana Haim plays an aimless twentysomething who befriends Cooper Hoffman’s fifteen year old child actor and sometimes entrepreneur and ostensibly has a near romantic relationship with him. It’s never clear which of this newcomer duo’s particular points of view the audience is intended to follow the most. Both characters are often sympathetic but after a long running time remain at arm’s length. The plot is an episodic series of escapades with little payoff; and like the oil embargo ripped out of headlines into the otherwise fantastical story, the movie itself actually runs out of gas. Celebrity cameos don’t much help matters with a feral character portrayed by Bradley Cooper at least generating more onscreen momentum than a smarmy bore played by Sean Penn. The bittersweet film ultimately isn’t funny enough, romantic enough or dramatic enough to take its place as a classic along with the likes of American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused. Hopefully other non-critics will find it funnier and sunnier than this writer did.

Movie Review: CODA (2021)

Available on Apple TV Plus and in limited release in theatres.

This film is speaking my love language. As the teenage daughter of deaf parents with her only sibling deaf as well, Ruby, played with sublime grace by Emilia Jones, seeks to be a standout in the field of choral music, which no one else in her rural New England family can actually hear, in the formulaic but feel-good dramedy of the summer, Sian Heder’s CODA (A-). Heder writes and directs the film with an admirable lack of sentiment and grounds the central family in a highly relatable milieu. The protagonist’s quest to pursue her art while also pulled into the mounting demands of the family fishing business (she’s their sole interpreter) provides ample material for conflict, but most everything comes back to love in an overall work that can best be described as heartwarming. Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur are outstanding as the parents, Daniel Durant charming as the brother and Eugenio Derbez is a delight as the music teacher. Ruby and her family feel real in their every interaction, and even when the story unfolds in pretty much the way a viewer would expect it to, it still does so in surprising ways because of the composition and cunning of this unconventional family. Viewers will be won over by the sweet-natured strengths of the ensemble, the unexpected representation and inclusion of the casting and the writer/director’s skills at quiet observation. Additionally the music sequences are wonderful. Far from a chore or a bore, this film is uplift from beginning to end.

Movie Review: Yes, God, Yes (2020)

A recent South by Southwest hit is now on demand.

This movie is quite observant about what it means to be an American teen, down to the chapter and verse. Director Karen Maine’s Yes, God, Yes (B) is a sensitive coming of age dramedy about reconciling church teachings and teenage urges with a breakout performance by Natalia Dyer of the sci-fi TV show Stranger Things. Dyer is the main attraction, astute and engaging and in nearly every sequence, as her innocent and precocious character traverses a ’90s landscape of AOL chat rooms, the emergence of cellphone culture, a punishing parochial school and an even more confusing Christian retreat. These secular land mines all threaten to thwart her steadfast beliefs. Timothy Simons is solid as an authoritarian adult, and the teen ensemble is largely believable even as they navigate provincial points of view. The dramatic stakes aren’t extremely high, and the laughs aren’t as plentiful as, say, Booksmart, but the film is a righteous glimpse into adolescence geared to viewers ready for its adult themes. These types of films often glide on a combination of heart and nostalgia, and Christina Aguilera and Mandy Moore tunes punctuate this enjoyable journey into wary womanhood.

Movie Review: Shithouse (2020)

Now on demand via Showtime.

The first year of college can feel like you’re on the verge of something amazing or the brink of tears, and for the homesick protagonist of the breakout 2020 South by Southwest film Shithouse (aka Freshman Year) (A-), it’s a vulnerable journey from mope to hope. Cooper Raif is writer, director and star of this DIY gem of a film with lived-in performances, droll dialogue and a generally appealing scrappiness portending a star being born. Dylan Gelula is excellent as the resident advisor and potential romantic partner who beguiles the confused frosh, and Logan Miller is the unreliable roommate who first tells our hero about the irreverent titular party headquarters where destinies could take a turn. There are undercurrents of Before Sunrise here in the talky travelogue of campus life but with characters who are sending very mixed signals. Raif is funny and fresh and doesn’t mind wearing his emotions on his sleeve and gives a great speech about those in a relationship at least needing to be on the same team. There are many creative conceits involving an encouraging childhood plush toy who communicates in subtitles, a wake for a reptile and a botched sex scene filmed as awkwardly as its confusing content. This is one of those movies the viewer simply chills with as opposed to being bombarded with constant jokes, and the hang is definitely worth it.

Movie Review: Giant Little Ones (2019)

This is the movie for the “no labels” generation. Keith Behrman’s Giant Little Ones (B+) eschews many typical coming of age conventions to chronicle a few weeks in the life of a teenage protagonist (Josh Wiggins, a thoughtful performer and dead ringer for a young Matt Damon) caught between a variety of impulses in the aftermath of a frisky birthday party. Marquee stars Maria Bello and Kyle MacLachlan are outstanding in supporting roles as the hero’s estranged parents in this contemplative Canadian production with lots of questions and few answers tied in easy bows. Darren Mann as the stoic swim team captain, Taylor Hickson as his distant sister and Niamh Wilson as a lovely female friend who may or may not be transgender are among the compelling characters whose story arcs don’t always travel in obvious directions. A brisk story and surprisingly tender dialogue give this drama additional distinction. It’s a sleeper film worth discovering buoyed by relatable characters and an optimistic outlook.

Movie Review: Little Women (2019)

An “A” rating for Sony Pictures’ Little Women, now in theatres.

Filled with autumnal beauty, radiant performances, fierce dialogue and timeless themes, writer/director Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (A) breaks through the barriers of the work’s familiarity to speak an empowering message to modern moviegoers about truly heeding one’s instincts. This is the eighth adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age novel written more than a century and a half ago, and Gerwig finds extraordinary resonance in the story for contemporary times. She re-invents the piece a bit with a non-linear format and even a meta interplay with the book’s author, and the playfulness with chronology helps the work echo even further with delight. A quartet of curious and talented sisters led by protagonist Jo March, played by Saoirse Ronan, experience the highs and lows of growing up and discovering their individual female powers in a changing America during the aftermath of the Civil War. A luminous Ronan anchors the film, with Florence Pugh, Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen each adding depth and appeal to the ensemble. Pugh in particular gets to shine. Laura Dern is splendid as the vulnerable mother holding down the family fort while father is away fighting, and Timothée Chalamet is a charismatic and ideal match for the sisters who are weighing the joys and costs of male companionship in both flash forwards and flashbacks. It’s telling how high quality every aspect of the film is that one can almost forget Meryl Streep is also in the movie and incidentally excellent as the misanthropic aunt. The film is sumptuous and idyllic in its depiction of the March family’s story and snappy in its defiant points of view. There is real and ribald sibling rivalry, sensational depiction of true sisterly bonds, genuine glass ceilings to smash and sheer delight to behold in every picturesque frame. Gerwig has made an essential version of this tale with a feminist vantage point which is inclusive and insightful. Her warm film is highly recommended to anyone looking to forge a path against the odds.

Movie Review: Blinded by the Light (2019)

Blinded by the Light: B

Some things that don’t seem to naturally go together can create nice harmony, like the frustrated Muslim teen in rural Thatcherite England and his newfound muse, working-class American rocker Bruce Springsteen. Having played in a similar milieu with a girl who wants to bend it like her soccer hero, Gurinder Chadha crafts her latest coming of age dramedy Blinded by the Light (B) with a gentle and loving touch that transcends her story’s sometimes color by number conceits. Casting her protagonist with the talented Viveik Kalra is the first win, and although some of the exposition is clunky and techniques labored, you can’t help but root for this spry hero. The handful of songs by “The Boss” provide a fantasy foil to both the teen’s mundane struggles with his parents, finding love and testing his mettle as a writer as well as a larger commentary on the xenophobia and class warfare of 1987 British politics as it plays out in a provincial community. The musical sequences feel as awkward and amateur as the tentative young man being inspired by them (this is in fact a compliment), and the sentiment generally pays off with an authentic supporting cast. It all works better than it should, given some head-scratching plot points which don’t all get resolved. The film is ultimately a marvelous family film and a giddy glimpse at how you should go about borrowing the best traits from your idols when endeavoring to find your own voice.

Movie Review: Eighth Grade

Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (B+) is so knowing it hurts. The comedian turned writer/director’s darker than expected feature debut is a canny you-are-there coming of age story. It follows a painfully shy middle schooler, magnificently played by Elsie Fisher, who struggles with the everyday challenges of her final days of classes on the precipice of a hopeful metamorphosis before high school arrives. A framing mechanism of the girl’s confident YouTube explainer videos pairs nicely with the awkward foibles of her altogether unremarkable real life. A highlight of her retreat into the social media void is a montage amusingly underscored with Enya’s “Sail Away.”  Josh Hamilton, a Gen X staple, helps make an endearing film even more human as her resilient single father, who delivers an encouraging fireside chat that may move some to tears. The astonishing young Fisher’s raw, un-glamorous turn as the protagonist anchors the film; and even when some of her character’s actions are head scratching, her every move is extraordinarily authentic. Burnham presents an assured filmmaking style with some brilliant point of view shots steeped in incredibly poignant milestones: trying to fit in at a pool party, holding “food court” with older kids, sitting through sex ed class and making small talk on a first date. It’s occasionally comic with an unsettling tone; few profound details evade Burnham’s candid camera. This is one of those low plot, high feel movies. It finds its heart as it finds its way.

Movie Review: How to Talk to Girls at Parties

It’s the ‘70s punk rock era Britain-set coming of age Kama Sutra alien infiltration cult curiosity you didn’t know you were looking for. The always imaginative auteur and champion of underground subcultures John Cameron Mitchell’s latest film merits a B rating. The movie has a video store friendly title, How to Talk to Girls at Parties, but that’s where the mainstream elements end. Alex Sharp, a spitting image of young Bob Geldof, is charming as a music scene denizen whose friends stumble upon a house party and an intriguing young woman, played convincingly and enjoyably by Elle Fanning, who may not be of this earth. The rules of her tribe provide a few complications for a burgeoning romance, but Mitchell’s electric kool-aid picture show plays by few expected rules in chronicling the young couple’s brief time together. This kaleidoscopic escapade is overstuffed with ideas; it’s telling when Nicole Kidman in a guise akin to Bowie’s Goblin King is one of the least strange things afoot. There’s a crazy cool music number, some of the strangest sexual goings-on this side of Planet Transylvania or Mitchell’s own Shortbus and some provocative but only lightly explored themes about what generations appropriate from each other to create a fresh scene. The film runs out of steampunk towards the end and doesn’t stack up as one of the director’s best. The romance is only ok, but the vibe is bonkers. Recalling the great philosopher who once said even bad pizza is still pretty good, it’s nice to have this new if wildly uneven work to enjoy. This new wonder from Mitchell will undoubtedly scratch an angsty itch and become a cult find for a certain adventurous crowd. Oi!