“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.

“I guess there are no more rules about what a person can do to another person” – Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

Mockingjay_Part_2_Poster

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

What passes for entertainment these days, it could be argued, shows a glib disregard for humanity, grace, and life itself. It’s a bit ironic, given that Hollywood tends to be first to get in line for humanitarian causes, yet the chief blockbuster product rolling from the City of Dreams on a quarterly basis is awash in cinematic bloodletting. I don’t know what to make of that.

I’ve long struggled with my distaste for The Hunger Games saga for this very reason. People tell me to lighten up, but often they are the same people who celebrate photos in their local paper of young girls and boys, bow in hand, grinning madly over their latest “trophy kill.” Violence begets violence, and when does it stop?

Surely, Hollywood doesn’t influence behavior – it’s just a movie, right? But, then, why did Chrysler partner with Lionsgate on this latest installment to cross-promote cars (which just seemed to be odd synergy, regardless)? Sorry, folks, you don’t get to pick and choose what people will emulate (rampant consumerism) or won’t (rampant disregard for life).

Not only did I already have this predisposition going into Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, but the world has spent the better part of a week trying to reconcile the senseless violence in Paris, France and wagging hundreds of politicized fingers at governments or refugees or religions in a misplaced, manic desire to place blame on anyone but the actual perpetrators … and, for that matter, to shift focus away from our own collective collusion in this endless stream of mind-numbing violence, real and fictional, that dances across myriad screens.

It’s funny, and a bit sad then, that this final Hunger Games installment actually clarifies what it’s all about, Alfie, and what it’s been about, all along: a cautionary tale (albeit a simplistic, pubescent soap opera one) about the very world we have become – a world where violence is used for theatrical purposes to divide and conquer, to prop up the 1% and their self-selected preening dictators, and to oppress any and all of those dumb enough to allow mindless fear to curdle into unbridled hate.

Perhaps, the fact that this fourth film has opened with the smallest box office total of any in the series (albeit still exceeding $100M) suggests that the world sees less entertainment in its own follies than it once did? This film is a tough pill to swallow right now in the midst of the real-life tragedies facing us all.

Mockingjay – Part 2 suffers from the excesses of its immediate predecessor – or said more plainly, the greed of Lionsgate to attenuate the final book’s narrative into two films. Part 2 is just much too long, mopey, and meandering, after a Part 1 that was all of those things and a bore.

That said, this movie finally delivers what stands as the series’ punchline and thesis: absolute power – in a media-saturated age – not only corrupts absolutely, but does so with a rationalizing, self-obsessed, materialistic, nihilistic glee. Like the ubiquitous reality shows that Suzanne Collins’ literary creation ostensibly lampoons, the prize – in this case control of all humanity – must be won at any cost, and, if one freely jettisons their own humanity along their path to the crown, well, so be it.

In a line that practically made me stand up and applaud, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss hisses – as she begins to see the shameless willingness of “on/off again” boyfriend Gale (played with less and less gusto by otherwise charming Liam Hemsworth) to sacrifice morality for victory – “I guess there are no more rules about what a person can do to another person.” Darn tootin’.

This is not groundbreaking insight, of course. Shakespeare covered this idea in just about every play, comedy or tragedy … but it is potentially heady stuff for today’s masses if delivered in a smart, playful, and authentic way. Unfortunately, for me, this film series seemed perpetually torn between the Ray Bradbury/Kurt Vonnegut/Clockwork Orange-esque battery acid allegory it could have been (should have been) and the escapist PG-13 Subway-sandwich selling, middle America revenge fantasy it actually was.

For those following the films – and (gulp) loving them – Mockingjay Part 2 won’t disappoint. Jennifer Lawrence continues her emotionless, robotic hero quest as Katniss. This actor shows so much spark anywhere else that I’m just baffled by what a dud she is here. Regardless, Lawrence is still the glue holding this enterprise together. When she discovers the [spoiler alert] big reveal that the dictator she hopes to unseat (Donald Sutherland’s President Snow) will be replaced by one conceivably even more ruthlessly cavalier (Julianne Moore’s President Coin), Lawrence does yeoman’s work quietly selling the point to all of us in the cheap seats: “Look, bloodlust gets you nowhere. People are evil, duplictious sh*ts. They don’t care about each other, and those desperately seeking power are exactly the people who should. not. ever. get. it.” (Maybe Lawrence could moderate the next GOP presidential debate? Bow and arrow in hand?)

The film has an ample amount of political intrigue, some fun twists, a couple of seat-jumping scares, and a sparkling supporting cast (largely wasted). It’s a bit of a Hunger Games greatest hits: Stanley Tucci’s TV huckster Caesar Flickerman for a hot second spewing some Fox News-style bile; Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch Abernathy looking even more bedraggled and annoyed with all of it, but still saddled with life-coaching that makes Yoda look like a Quentin Tarantino character; Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket now completely de-fanged but again fabulously bewigged as her chief role seems to be serving as Katniss’ valet; Sam Claflin’s vainglorious Finnick Odair and Natalie Dormer’s caustically pragmatic Cressida now reduced to cannon fodder.

Jena Malone fares best as Katniss’ frenemy Johanna Mason, chewing the cardboard scenery and reaching through the screen and grabbing us by the collective lapels. She seems to say, “You know this is kinda nuts right? That this series made so much money? Now, stop whining and moping and pay attention to the nuggets buried way deep in this thing and start giving a crap about your own lives and about each other.” Or maybe I’m projecting a bit.

Best part of Hunger Games – Mockingjay Part 2 – for me?  That it’s over.

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12208463_10206963059693889_4367987464574781874_nReel 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 Bookbound, Common 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.