Quickly shifting sands of adolescence: The Never List

Teen melodrama often has been an effective cinematic metaphor for the human condition. When it’s done well – with pathos and wit – it can be transcendent: Clueless; Easy A; Booksmart; The Edge of Seventeen; Mean Girls; The Fault In Our Stars; Saved!; Love, Simon. There’s now one more to add to that auspicious collection of films: The Never List.

Deftly directed by Michelle Mower, from Ariadne Shaffer’s sensitive screenplay, The Never List details the challenges facing two tightly bonded childhood friends Liz (Brenna D’Amico) and Eva (Fivel Stewart) while navigating the slings and arrows of high school and what happens when tragedy befalls one of the pair.

Stewart and D’Amico are compelling, luminous presences, and their dynamic as lifelong friends is as engaging as it is ultimately heartbreaking. One of the key differentiators in this film versus comparable efforts is how believably teen life is depicted: messy, ugly, tempestuous, deep-feeling, loving, and, yes, kind. There is no shortage of bullying in the film, but it is authentically portrayed, notably in the light it shines on quickly shifting sands of adolescence (re: who doles out vs. who is victimized by bullying) … sometimes in the span of just one afternoon!

D’Amico and Stewart

The conceit of the film is that Liz and Eva, both straight-A over-achievers, have created impish, ill-behaved alter egos named “Vicky and Veronica” whose “never list” includes all the bad deeds they’d like to perform in real life but just … can’t. After the aforementioned tragedy, Eva, aided and abetted by neighborhood hooligans (with hearts of gold) Joey (Andrew Kai) and Taylor (Anna Grace Barlow), starts checking items off the list, spiraling to a point of no return that is at turns predictable and refreshingly dark.

Mower avoids the satirical light touch of, say, Mean Girls or Clueless, that might bring safe harbor to an audience, instead embracing the avant garde notion😉 that, well, nasty deeds hurt people and have consequences. Crazy that! Stewart turns in a nuanced performance, projecting beautifully the inscrutable and mercurial ways of a grieving teen.

Kai and Barlow offer a fresh take on the “bad influence” trope, revealing the sweetness at the core of the misunderstood and offering a nice redemption for those marginalized unfairly in the brutal gauntlet that is American high school.

Stewart, Barlow, and Kai

Mower has offered some fun “Easter eggs” in her casting as well for those who follow this genre. All of the aforementioned actors have cut their teeth in any number of Disney/CW/Netflix productions (e.g. The Descendants, Atypical, Supernatural), but the real surprises are Jonathan Bennett (AKA Mean Girls’ Aaron Samuels) and Keiko Agena (AKA Gilmore Girls’ Lane Kim) as, respectively, high school teacher Mr. Snyder and Eva’s mother Jennifer.

Bennett is a winsome presence, bringing brightness to his classroom scenes. Agena knocks it out of the park as Eva’s anxious, beleaguered helicopter-parent, bringing the rapid-fire spark she always had as Rory Gilmore’s bestie but with heartbreaking poignancy that only a few decades of real living can bring.

Bennett and Agena

Agena leaves it all on the field in her scenes and gives the film its emotional anchor, particularly in the film’s final act. Matt Corboy (from George Clooney’s – not Disney’s – The Descendants) is a great foil for Agena as her husband and Eva’s father, walking that fine line of sharing parental burdens while finding his own voice in the mix. Corboy and Agena have great chemistry, tracing realistically the trajectory of shared life through only a handful of scenes.

In addition to the exceptional ensemble, Mower has great fun using Eva’s pen and ink illustrations (she aspires to be a graphic novelist) to, literally, animate key moments in the film. Introduced about one-third of the way into The Never List, the cartoon versions of “Vicky and Veronica” offer silent commentary on the proceedings, adding some necessary comic relief without detracting from the film’s gravitas.

And the soundtrack is a pip too – angsty and poppy in all the right ways, consistent with the inner and outer lives of these rich characters.

Stewart and Kai

The film is in limited release and more info can be found here: https://www.neverlistmovie.com/. I do hope this challenging but fun, sweetly affirming film find its audience in these trying times. It’s a keeper and worth seeking out.

“More” from Dick Tracy

Want to join me in supporting a good cause? For my birthday this month (December 28 to be exact!), I’m raising money for Ronald McDonald House Charities Ann Arbor and your contribution will make an impact, whether you donate $5 or $500. Just click donate on this fundraising page: https://lnkd.in/eQ_NVZD

I’m a proud board member and have seen firsthand how every little bit helps. This little fundraiser is nearing the $2500 mark because of wonderful support from kind and generous friends like you!

Thanks to our donors-to-date: Gail Paul, Jan Anne Dubin, Tammy Zonker, Nathan Darling, Lauren Sargent, Zach and Lauren London, Deborah Farone, Kim Perret, Randi Lou Franklin, Megan Hill, Julie Flitz Maeder, Liz Doyle, Jon McHatton. Love you! ❤️

Thank you for your support.

#KeepingFamiliesClose

“How far I’ll go.” The Edge of Seventeen (2016) and Disney’s Moana

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I always cringe a bit when I hear the phrase “coming of age” applied to a cinematic or literary or televised narrative. It bespeaks an unwarranted nostalgia for an awkward, nauseating, hormonal epoch which we all share and which we all should forget. Forever. Thoroughly. 

(And people who gleefully remain stuck in their high school years, glorying in the minutiae of their pubescent lives can’t be trusted. Not one whit. They just ain’t right.)

I wonder if what really bothers me about the term is that the “coming of age” concept – let’s charitably upgrade it to the term “personal evolution,” shall we? – should not be limited to one’s teenage decade, when one generally has the perspective of a fruit-fly.  

Do any of us at any age really ever overcome the free-floating, rampant anxiety of peer pressure, isolation, and capriciousness caused by our fellow man on this Big Blue Marble? Nope.

Blessedly, two current films – one a perky animated musical fairy tale and the other … well … not – turn this tired formula on its head, giving us a pair of parables that stealthily inspire while tweaking the status quo.

The Edge of Seventeen, named after the Stevie Nicks’ ditty, which inexplicably never actually appears in the film, stars True Grit‘s Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine Franklin, a breath of fresh toxin for whom all the mores and conventions of American youth, public education, and “being cool” are utterly confounding. Unlike spiritual forebears Juno or Mean Girls or Easy A, Edge of Seventeen, directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, doesn’t hold teen life in contempt, as some abstract planet populated by satirical (though accurate) stereotypes. Rather, the film uses the petty disappointments and soul-sucking betrayals of high school days as metaphor and lens for our common, fallible humanity.

Nadine, whose beloved father has passed away, navigates (really poorly) a minefield of family and friends, including a sympathetically caustic Kyra Sedgwick as the mother hanging on by a thread, Glee‘s Blake Jenner in a sweetly understated turn as the golden boy brother whose “head is much too large” for his body, and a wry Woody Harrelson as Nadine’s bored/boring history teacher in another version of his now-trademark folksy sot-with-a-heart-mentor persona (see: Hunger Games‘ Haymitch Abernathy). Newcomer Hayden Szeto steals every scene as Nadine’s classmate and swooning suitor, his open-heart and sharp-wit sympatico with Nadine’s mind – the rare teenage cinematic male not depicted as some skeezy perv.

But the movie is Steinfeld’s. Capitalizing on the Oscar-nominated authenticity she exemplified in her film debut (True Grit) but jettisoning any Coen Bros-dictated pretense and quirk, Steinfeld gives us as pure a depiction of youth-in-revolt as any we may have seen on film (save James Dean in East of Eden – that one’s untouchable). And what makes it even better? Her performance is damn funny. Angst is awkward, and we all can relate to it, but, if you deftly mine the comic gems from emotional pratfalls, you’ll have the audience in the palm of your hand.

We are all just one bad day away from feeling like we are in adolescent hell all over again, and Edge of Seventeen, built so beautifully around Steinfeld’s layered, affecting portrayal of a young person continually at odds with the ever-shifting rules of a game she doesn’t much want to play, is a revelation.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Disney’s Moana is the sunny, show-tune-spewing, computer-generated yin to Edge of Seventeen’s yang. Based loosely on Polynesian mythology, the 56th animated offering from the Mouse House, relates the hero’s quest of a teenage girl (Moana, voiced with luminous empathy by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) as she seeks the aid of a mischievous but debilitated demigod (Maui, portrayed with smarmy sparkle by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) to prevent the destruction of her island home.

Moana isn’t a princess, a point made most emphatically throughout the film; she is the island chief’s daughter. Moana’s respected place as a leader in the hierarchy of rule is never in question, nor is she smitten with some princely suitor. (Of course, it’s a Disney flick so she has a couple of adorably merchandisable sidekicks – in this instance, a pig and a rooster.) The narrative tension is built on her transition to authority, on her solving the impending calamity that will destroy her people, and on her asserting her independence from the cultural norms. Bully for Disney.

I wonder if directors Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog) had in the back of their minds that the timing of this film, coupled with the potential election of America’s first female president, would have offered an impactful statement to young audience members about celebrating the power of equality (gender, race, ethnicity) and leadership therein.  Of course, now there is some unintended irony in the timing, but the message is more essential than ever.

The songs are all written by the inescapable Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) along with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina. This may be blasphemy in theatre circles, but, as talented as Miranda may be, his compositions (to my ear) suffer from a repetitiveness of style and form, bordering on monotony. Lucky for Moana, this tendency actually suits animated film (better than the stage), where familiarity speeds action and emotional connection.

That said, the music is all perfectly fine, with Moana’s anthemic “How Far I’ll Go” serving in glowing fashion as this film’s “Part of Your World” or “Belle,” sans any lingering strains of “Someday My Prince Will Come” passivity or longing.

Maui’s signature ditty “You’re Welcome” is catchy but underwritten. However, as delivered by consummate showman Johnson (why hasn’t he been cast in a full-blown, live musical yet?!), the number becomes a transcendent, careening take-down of male id and superego.

The standout song for this viewer, though, is “Shiny,” performed by Flight of the Conchords‘ Jermaine Clement as a mountainous crab (yep.), encrusted in gems and precious metals. Imagine if The Jungle Book‘s “Trust In Me” had been written and performed by David Bowie … on a deeply troubling acid trip. In fact, that entire sequence is one of the film’s trippiest (and there are a lot of surreal moments throughout), employing black light, disco ball flourishes, and a Busby Berkeley-choreographed cascade of tropical fish. Is an animator’s penchant toward psychedelia evidence of great inventive genius or of lazy time-filling? We’ll never know.

It’s hard to watch anything these days – movies, TV, cat videos on YouTube – without politicizing the moment. I think many of us, right now, share a palpable fear for the future of diversity in this nation, a nation that’s fundamental core should be tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion. That said, and at the risk of overstating my case, movies like Edge of Seventeen and Moana give me hope. We can be good. We can be better than we are. We can celebrate the oddballs, the misfits, and those among us yearning to breathe free. Let’s keep that up, ok?

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moana-pigReel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).  In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.