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.
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.
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.
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!
Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon (B) is quietly revolutionary as a first mainstream teen coming of age movie featuring a gay protagonist, but the struggle with identity extends beyond its titular character to a somewhat milquetoast story and screenplay topped with a dollop of vanilla tone. The film is largely fun and occasionally quite moving, and its buoyant charm lies primarily on the shoulders of Nick Robinson, extremely likable and in almost every frame of the film as Simon. There’s a bit of mystery about the email pen pal at the center of the plot, but mostly the story centers on Simon and his group of friends coming to grips with teen romantic entanglements. Some characters are drawn too large and others underdeveloped in a movie that wants to be John Hughes-ian but rarely yields to its inner mania. It’s all a glorious first step for Hollywood movies but could have been made more memorable in the hands of a more creative filmmaker. Much like Philadelphia received some flack for sugarcoating its story in the first mainstream trailblazer to address the AIDS crisis, Berlanti’s film stays mostly in a safe lane to showcase coming out in the modern age. Expect the film to spark some changes of heart even as it clings to a pretty by the book formula.
The coming of age musical fantasy Saturday Church (B), written and directed by Damon Cardasis, is a balm for modern times as well as a bit of a love offering, with tender and affecting performances set to soaring music punctuating a meaningful meditation on what makes a family. Luka Kain is magnetic as the teenage protagonist exploring his sexual and gender identity against the backdrop of a home befallen by tragedy and mixed signals. Margot Bingham is superb as his absentee but well-meaning mom, and Regina Taylor plays effectively against type as a judgmental guardian aunt, but it’s the gender fluid ensemble providing their own brand of sassy youth fellowship at the real-life NYC haven of the film’s title who are acolytes for the movie’s inclusive glory. MJ Rodriguez is the film’s heart as the teen protagonist’s big-sisterly companion, and Marquis Rodriguez is a winning delight as a friend and love interest. Interior monologues become bursts into songs (it’s hard not to think of some of it as a mini-Rent without the artsy angst); and although many of the sequences overreach, the film is a minor miracle, unflinching in its depiction of runaways and discarded outcasts who cannot always live up to the “Conditions of Love” described in one of the standout songs of Nathan Larson’s score. The film felt like it was evolving into the Billy Elliot of drag, what with our hero finding new ways to express himself, but stops short of striking a penultimate pose. It’s a generous, entertaining and important film.
A love that dare not speak its name gets its most magnificent due in an uncommonly affecting and breathtaking new film. Director Luca Guadagnino’s idyllic, romantic coming of age drama Call Me by Your Name (A) transports viewers to 1983 Northern Italy and, despite its foreign film aesthetic and slow burn pacing, presents a truly accessible story of summer love and its lifelong consequences. The character peculiarities and specificity of the time and place breathe a special life force into the proceedings. The likability, charm, intelligence and wit of the movie’s protagonists, the preternaturally talented Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, who has never been better, anchor and uplift the film. And Michael Stuhlbarg gives a final act speech that sums up the movie’s themes of personal acceptance with astonishing flourish. James Ivory deftly adapted this André Aciman novel about a fleeting love that burns bright, and Sufjan Stevens provides much of the film’s memorable music. Guadagnino blends joy and pathos into a true wanderlust of emotions in a film of picturesque physical and emotional splendor. It’s one of the great films of this or any year.
Writer/director Greta Gerwig’s coming of age dramedy Lady Bird (A) is witty and wise and recognizes the nuances and power of mini revolutions afoot in the life of a teenager. Saoirse Ronan is sensational as the titular protagonist, a high schooler who feels trapped in the first world problems of life in Sacramento. The plot centers largely on the pivotal final two semesters of Lady Bird’s senior year as she tests her wry, unconventional outlook against the backdrop of cliques and friendships, parochial rules, drama club, college applications, counseling and school dances. The rhythm of fights with her tough mom, played masterfully by Laurie Metcalf, anchors many of the film’s most poignant moments. These actresses are spectacular at depicting the tempestuous mother/daughter dynamic. Lucas Hedges is also fantastic as Lady’s first love. Gerwig nails the tone and observational humor of episodes that build up to unexpected life lessons. Filled with a blissful Jon Brion score and subtle reference checks to Steinbeck and Sondheim, the film represents an auspicious debut for a talented actress trying her hand behind the camera. Gerwig and her uncanny muse Ronan have created a funny and tender work of utter joy. Moviegoers will enjoy watching this Bird fly.
Oh, coming-of-age ensemble dramedies: let me count the ways I love them! Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical 20th Century Women (A) is a blissful slice of life as characters on the cusp of change in freewheeling 1979 Santa Barbara craft an unconventional family. Central to the film is the relationship between never-been-better Annette Bening as an eccentric divorced chain-smoking single mother and her only son, played with perception by Lucas Jade Zumann. Buoyed by before-their-time left coast sensibilities, Bening’s character enlists three kindred iconoclasts as spiritual guardians of her son’s angsty adolescence. Elle Fanning is brittle brilliance, Greta Gerwig a luminous and tender spirit and a weathered Billy Crudup an unlikely boon companion. Mills intersperses flashbacks, flash-forwards, historical archives and literary snippets, coloring the story in lovely context. There are sequences of majestic intimacy between characters as they tumble, stumble, dance and glance through life’s foibles. The film is a tribute to the mother-son bond, anchored by resplendent female performances and a lens into the many portraits of womanhood. Bening centers the film with a marvelous mix of misanthropy and repartee; she is perfection in the role. Roger Neill’s spry music, plus songs showcasing the rise of an emerging West coast punk scene, accent this love letter to shifting mores and the enduring power of familial love.
There are three reasons to see Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen (C+): the continually wondrous Hailee Steinfeld doing her darnedest with the film’s frustrating and frumpy front-woman role, Woody Harrelson in an understated supporting part as her high school teacher and part-time consigliere to her darkest impulses and newcomer Hayden Szeto as her awkward admirer. Much of the film’s content feels like a ho-hum homage to Sixteen Candles minus most of the comedy; in the pantheon of cinema, however, Edge does correct a blemish of Sixteen by casting Asian-American actor Szeto as an attractive and full-developed love interest. Steinfeld’s character’s central conflict involves her brother (Blake Jenner, playing his usual milquetoast Golden boy) starting to date her one best friend (an amenable Haley Lu Richardson). Most of the movie feels like a series of unfortunate first-world problems for a central character who purports to be an old soul. Her disdain for fellow millennials just seems like an excuse for the screenwriter to write wittier zingers for her character than her classmates. Compared to John Hughes classics or even turn-of-the-millennium high school comedies such as Clueless, Ghost World or Mean Girls, this entry just doesn’t deliver many revelations or comedy gems. Steinfeld gives it all’s she’s got, but she’s filling awkward shoes.
Written and directed with poignancy and grace, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (A) is urgent in telling a three-chapter coming of age story of a young African-American man named Chiron and how his experiences growing up in America (largely in a surreal pastel drenched Miami) shape his identity. Rather than tackle only the physical violence associated with most inner-city dramas, the perceptive Jenkins traverses the emotional landscapes of self-worth, racial identity and sexuality and how Chiron learns to find traces of comfort in his own skin. The writer/director has fashioned a very dynamic narrative around a shy and withdrawn protagonist; as embodied by three supremely talented actors – Alex Hibbert (child), Ashton Sanders (teen) and Trevante Rhodes (young man), viewers will ache for him to come to answers. Naomie Harris is devastating as Chiron’s emotionally abusive addict mother, and Mahershala Ali is magnificent as a drug dealer who takes on a role as a near-spiritual guide. The film explores the games people play with each other and with themselves in their quest for acceptance. The clues aren’t easy to discover as the film employs an overall tone of heartache punctuated with bursts of uplift, but the journey is consistently gripping. Based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film is splendid and assured cinema with an austere and stunning score by Nicholas Britell and a dreamlike color palette created by cinematographer James Laxton and colorist Alex Bickel (first chapter emulates Fuji film stock to emphasize skin tones followed by Afga film stock adding cyan and the final chapter in Kodak form). This is a must-see for cinephiles and is moving indeed as it pinpoints exactly why this black life matters, expanding consciousness and empathy, and how the people who come into our lives shape our evolving selves.
Somewhere on the cinematic patriarchs continuum between Captain von Trapp and the Great Santini, Viggo Mortensen gives a sensitive, soulful and indelible portrayal of a flawed but well-meaning dad in Matt Ross’ incredibly engaging Captain Fantastic (A-). Mortensen is the draw here, summoning a rugged loner charisma that at this point can just be called “Mortensenesque” as a man raising his six children off the grid in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest with unconventional techniques to teach them self-sufficiency, critical thinking, peak physical performance and a global worldview. His headstrong homeschooling, an ongoing ropes course and debate society in the woods, wins him no favor with his in-laws (well played by Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) but makes him a hero in the eyes of his neo-hippie children, all beautifully played. George MacKay is an earnest delight as the oldest of the offspring, incredibly moving as he experiences a date for the first time after being shrouded in the wilderness. Ross makes an assured directorial and writing debut, showcasing the central family’s confrontations with society in a way that keeps you guessing of whether or not it will all work out. There was a melancholy moment I thought would be a pensive ending, but I liked the extended epilogue – including an unforgettable family jam session – even more. The film is a cult sensation challenging American mores in the tradition of Easy Rider and Into the Wild and highly recommended.