One of the “perks of being a movie critic” is having a favorite genre, and I’m an absolute sucker for coming-of-age dramas. Jake Schreier’s Paper Towns (B) is a leisurely paced but fairly sensational adaptation of a young adult novel about losing yourself, finding yourself and savoring the moments in between. When a sensitive but by-the-books high school student, charmingly played by Nat Wolff, gives into a night of spontaneous prankster antics with the popular girl next door (an alluring and lived-in performance by Cara Delevingne), the teen discovers a bit of his roguish nature and unlocks the beginnings of a mystery; and the final weeks of high school become a series of unexpected breakthroughs. Romanticized with all applicable teen drama tenets – wise-beyond-her-years muse, prom plot line, road trip, scruffy sidekicks and the like – the film manages to layer in a mystery adventure that speaks to the very nature of love for oneself and others. It’s a tad overstuffed; but despite some over-the-top leaps of faith, the film contains believable characters and a prescient payoff. The selfie generation has another awesome movie about selflessness and a nice piece of summer movie counter-programming.
Poignant, inventive and altogether different from other summer movie offerings, Alfonzo Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (A-) deserves to be the sleeper hit of the summer. Anchored by Thomas Mann’s impressive acting as an anxiety-struck and self-effacing teen, this coming of age dramedy is laced with clever animations, amusing parodies of foreign films and spry dialogue that takes you into the mind of outsider teens finding connection. Olivia Cooke and Ronald Cyler are enjoyable in their roles inhabiting high school characters that haven’t been rendered this way before. Plot parallels to Fault in Our Stars don’t hinder this story from forging its own path. Nick Offerman and Molly Shannon also shine in small comedic roles. Cinephiles will adore the preciousness of some of the film techniques which recall both Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson because that’s just the way this movie rolls. It’s a delight from start to finish with only one act of narrative trickery threatening to derail the momentum. The movie promises to reward multiple viewings and is likely to achieve a bit of cult status.
Here’s a link to a review from a real teen on the Vox Atlanta staff.
Writer/director Richard Linklater has created the movie miracle of the year with Boyhood (A+), a powerfully stirring journey that rivals its extremely original high concept. This first-ever fiction experiment with newcomer actor Ellar Coltrane actually aging more than a decade in the role from childhood to high school graduation is matched by the emotional wallop and moving issues revealed in the human adventure. Surprisingly free of smugness or gimmickry, the auteur also plucks outstanding wounded performances from Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as the protagonist’s divorced parents. This basically redefines the coming of age movie; and in dinner table and campfire chats, it reveals glimpses of the meaning of life. Linklater’s penchant for smart dialogue and characters works alternately as a love letter to Texas and to rock and roll, as a veritable mix tape turned playlist unspools from shortly after 9/11 to present day. Boy, did they find a charmer in Coltrane who exudes not a single false note as he grows up right in front of our eyes. He’s a stand-in for what has become one of the preeminent voices in cinema, reflecting advice he receives from a community of dazed and occasionally confused elders who don’t really know their way either and looking for a way to express his singular art that puts an imprint on the world. The production values are uniformly superb, and parents in the viewing audience who can withstand some of the film’s salty language will be enriched and left with eyes full of glorious tears. Passionate and purposeful, this film joins another favorite of mine, Memento, in the category of films that should not work but do. It’s a tribute to masterful editing. Like all great movies, you’ll have a hard time not seeing a little of yourself in this one.
Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort are extraordinarily charming leads in an Josh Boone’s unconventional contemporary love story The Fault in Our Stars (A). Buoyed by crackling conversations about fate, mortality and making the most of every moment, this young adult drama defies genre limits and expectations to present well rounded characters of epic scope and scale. The film deals beautifully with cancer, disabilities and a bunch of hot button topics that are presented as part of the overall fabric of life. Laura Dern and Willem Dafoe are effective in supporting parts. Prepare to be moved throughout by the winning performances and chemistry.
Buoyant performances by Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley and impeccable period details in production design lift Walter Salles’ otherwise mixed bag of a coming of age travelogue On the Road (B-). Based on Jack Karouac’s classic novel about nonconformity, the film traces episodic encounters between friends and lovers, capturing the delirium that bonds young people in their quest for identity and escape. Hedlund is pretty magnetic in a role once earmarked for Brando. It’s a pretty intense mess but watchable. Good supporting cameos by Amy Adams and Steve Buscemi, and even (gulp) Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst are good.
James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now (B+) reminded me of the ’80s fave Lucas with a similar melancholy I found so affecting in Perks of Being a Wallflower, and lead actor Miles Teller as the effortless charmer harboring an alcohol addiction channels a sort of Say Anything era John Cusack, if he were on an endless bender while winning love with jambox held aloft. The theme is about intoxication, to alcohol and to first love: Shailene Woodley is devastating as the naive good girl heroine, filling her first boyfriend’s flask for him as he drunkenly drives her to a date he’s just dreamed up. It’s eerie how much this could have just been called the Lea Michele/Corey Monteith story. The take-away, that life and relationships are more enduring than the episodes between blackouts, rises above the potential afterschool special pitfalls.
Being a sucker for movies about lonely teens gaining new confidence, it’s no surprise that I adored Jim Rash and Nat Faxon’s The Way Way Back (A), a coming of age dramedy buoyed by a charming ensemble including Liam James as the troubled hero and Sam Rockwell as his unlikely role model. A beachside summer domicile and a classic water park become the East and West Egg of the action as the protagonist maneuvers life with his insecure mom (the always marvelous Toni Collette) and her slick suitor (a restrained Steve Carell) and his new set of secret friends. Allison Janey is also a delight as the sauced-up next door neighbor. Funny, moving and fun in all the right measures.
Writer/director Stephen Chbosky has expertly adapted his own novel into a cinematic masterpiece – The Perks of Being a Wallflower (A+) featuring fresh performances by Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and a splendid cast. A rhapsodic, often heartbreaking high school story about the friendships that define us, this one is up there with Breakfast Club, Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting and Stand By Me in terms of sheer emotional power.
Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games (B+) imagines a dystopian future in which territories of our modern land have to fight against each other on live television as sacrifice and bloodsport for the ruling political regime. Jennifer Lawrence, our archer heroine, is ready to break all the rules as she enters the arena. The film has an interesting vocabulary and fascinating details, plus there are nice supporting turns from Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz and others. It’s very high-concept, but I liked the way the protagonist handled the tablestakes.
Todd Graff’s Camp (B) is a joyous ode to growing up, making friends and finding your voice. Set at a summer camp for kids who want to be Broadway stars, there is enough backstage drama to fill the great white wilderness as the teens overcome their outcast status and find themselves center stage in their own follies, foibles and friendships. Graff draws out charming performances from newcomers Daniel Letterle, Robin de Jesus and Anna Kendrick, the latter belting out a very memorable and angry “Ladies Who Lunch.” The title’s play on words might imply a film high on kitsch, but it’s actually high on sweetness and coming of age. Showtune fans will rejoice at some unexpected songs and a star cameo. It’s Meatballs for maestros.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Mexican coming-of-age film Y Tu Mamá También (A) features Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna who take Maribel Verdú on a road trip that leads to a variety of surprising discoveries. Frank in its sexual content, bawdy and bold in its humor and choices and nostalgic in its glimpses at a nation in transition, it’s an amazing journey and a rejuvenating cinematic experience.
Related link: Learn about the deluxe DVD edition of this film at Criterion Blues.
Jeff Bridges and Scott Wolf headline a picturesque coming of age story in Ridley Scott’s White Squall (C). Despite navigating the young cast through a series of physical and emotional adventures, the makers fail to generate much central interest or momentum. it ultimately kinda looks like a cologne ad.