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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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! ❤️
Increasingly, we seem like a society of hermits, coexisting in our own separate little digital bubbles – a self-enforced solitude sparked either by anxiety or exhaustion or a combination thereof. We interact with each other via screens and emojis and Snapchat filters and snarky GIFs … but we never truly connect.
Maybe I’m just a cranky old man, but I’m fascinated and annoyed by how many people I see grocery shopping, commuting, eating lunch, and so on without ever removing their ubiquitous iPhone earbuds, as if the most mundane activities must all be accompanied by one’s own personal soundtrack or as if to signify to any and all passers-by, “I am not someone who wants to speak to you, to interact with you, or to acknowledge your existence.”
And it is with this conceit that Baby Driver, the latest opus from gonzo director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, World’s End), turns the genres of both the movie musical and the car chase thriller on their respective ears. Literally.
In the titular role of “Baby,” Ansel Elgort (The Fault In Our Stars, Divergent, Carrie) takes full advantage of his pouty good looks – which veer from insolence to wonderment and back again – and of his overgrown puppy dog 6’4″ frame to portray a Millennial whose tortured childhood has led him to a life of a crime as the supremely gifted getaway driver for a smooth-talking, Teflon-coated Atlanta crime boss (a delightfully Yuppified Kevin Spacey).
You see, Baby suffers from tinnitus, acquired as a wee lad in a horrific car accident when his squabbling parents squabbled just a bit too much and neglected to see they were about to ram into the back of a semi. And music – as supplied by a suitcase full of old iPods – is the only thing that soothes his ringing ears (and aching heart).
Furthermore, his love of vintage pop, rock, and jazz helps him escape the personal horror that is chauffeuring Spacey’s gang of sociopaths, which includes a magnificently bonkers Jon Hamm (Million Dollar Arm, Mad Men) and a less magnificently/more annoyingly bonkers Jamie Foxx (Django Unchained, Annie), from heist to heist. Baby, as portrayed in a star-making turn by Elgort, is nearly mute (by choice) and rarely removes his headphones (nor his sunglasses) which irritates just about every Gen Xer/Baby Boomer in his immediate orbit.
What aggravates them even further is that, shielded as he is in his own little tune-filled universe, he is savvier, is a more skilled driver, and is more in command of the details in his environment than all of Spacey’s goons put together. It’s a sly commentary on the evolution/devolution we see generationally in America today.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Similar to Bjork’s Selma in Lars von Trier’s brilliant Dancer in the Dark, Baby’s world is a seamless auditory marvel as day-to-day sounds and movements morph into musical cues he hears through his headphones and vice versa. The car chases (aplenty) are all choreographed to the tunes in Baby’s head, often to the chagrin – and bodily harm – of his passengers. (Baby even turns on windshield wipers in time to the music, when there isn’t a drop of precipitation in the sky.)
The novelty of Baby Driver is in Wright’s direction and staging, if not so much in the plot itself. Perhaps predictably, Baby is a gangsta with a heart of gold, saving what cash he can from his jobs to care for his deaf foster father (portrayed with great affection by CJ Jones) who is confined to a wheelchair. As cloying as that plot detail sounds, it actually is quite affecting and grounds the movie nicely. Baby meets cute with a sunny waitress named Debora, portrayed by a luminous Lily James (Cinderella), and, in turn, Baby plots his (of course) doomed escape from a life of crime.
Things don’t go easily for Baby (nor should they), and the film’s final act gets a bit too bloody for its own good. As a Dolly Parton-quoting postal worker foreshadows to Baby when, unbeknownst to her, he is casing her workplace for an upcoming robbery, “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.”
Nonetheless, Baby Driver is a high-octane summer blast, with choreography that would make Gene Kelly swoon (albeit involving a rogues’ gallery of classic cars and rat-a-tat machine guns) and with a soundtrack to die for. Any film that manages to incorporate Blur’s quirky “Intermission” into an ominous set-piece, that can use Dave Brubek’s “Unsquare Dance” to make a routine coffee run seem Fosse-esque, and that can find a way of making Young MC seem hip again is ok in my book.
It’s only a shame that Wright didn’t just go ahead and have his thugs burst into outright song – I mean he has hammy-a$$ singers Spacey, Foxx, and Elgort, not to mention Paul Williams (!) in his cast. At times, Baby Driver seems like more of a musical than La La Land did. Maybe a movie mash-up of Guys and Dolls and The Fast and the Furious is next on Wright’s cinematic agenda. If so, I’ll be there.
Nina Kaur (thanks to fellow Farmington PlayerAmy Lauter for connecting us!) asked me to contribute a guest blog entry to her fun and interesting blog Thirty Something Years in Ninaland. Here’s what she wrote about me – “Every Monday I will have a guest blogger. Today I am featuring a wonderful Movie Reviewer named Roy Sexton. He is witty, charming and great critic! Enjoy reading about his journey!” Wow! Thanks, Nina! Click here for the original post on her blog.
By yours truly …
Movies have always been an important part of my life.
I like to read books (more accurately comic books these days, as I seem to now have the attention span of a tsetse fly), and I adore music. Television is fine, and I’ve spent many hours traipsing the boards of theatres across the Midwest. But movies transport me.
I love the fact that a film is an encapsulated medium. Whether 90 minutes or three hours, a movie tells one story – beginning, middle, and end – introducing you to new friends and enemies and locales in an efficiently designed delivery mechanism. With a good film, you get the experience of reading a novel (whether or not the film is in fact based on any work of literature) in a highly compressed fashion.
Your brain leaves your body for a bit, you take a mini-vacation to places you might not otherwise ever see, and you return to your regularly scheduled life a bit changed, perhaps enlightened, and hopefully re-energized.
I stop reading email, answering calls, or monitoring social media…and just blessedly check out…for a bit.
My parents cultivated appreciation for the arts by filling our home with movies and music and books and love. I’ve groused in the past about wanting, as a child, to play with my Star Wars action figures in the solitude of my toy-lined room and being forced instead to sit in our den with my parents and watch some creaky B&W classic movie on Fort Wayne’s Channel 55. And I am so grateful now for that.
My appreciation for classic cinema resulted from these years basking in the glow of our old RCA color TV. And when we could finally afford a VCR and could now watch any movie of our choosing, I was already hooked on the story-telling of vintage movies with their requisite arch wit, dramatic stakes, whimsical joys, and belief that anything was possible.
However, not everything was high art in our house. The advent of HBO in the early 80s and its repetitive showings of whatever junk Hollywood had most recently cranked out shaped my tastes for better or worse as well. I’m a sucker for the movie train wreck – the more star-studded, over-budget, under-written, and garish the better. Some of my most beloved films are among the most notoriously awful of all time: Xanadu, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Wiz, Popeye, Flash Gordon. The Black Hole, Raggedy Ann and Andy’s Musical Adventure, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Return to Oz, Battle Beyond the Stars, Krull, The Neverending Story, and so on.
If it was a flop and it was shown ad nauseum one mid-afternoon following another on HBO in the 1980s, then I fell in love with it. Like self-imposed water torture on my nascent aesthetic.
As time went by and I stomped through my high school and college know-it-all years (some might argue I’m still stuck in them), I learned from both my parents and some wonderful teachers the tools of critique and criticism. What is the intent of the piece? What is the context for its creation? How effective is its structure, composition, impact? Where did it go awry or where did it cross over into something classic?
It’s all highly subjective and a bit arrogant, I suppose, but I can’t help it. I’m entertained by the act of analysis.
In more recent years, Facebook gave me an outlet to connect with my inner-Ebert. I started posting status statements summarizing in glib, condensed fashion my take on whatever flick we had just enjoyed … or endured. My kind-hearted and patient partner John has suffered through a lot of movies over the years, many he enjoyed … and even more he did not.
At wonderful Jim and Lyn’s beautiful wedding
We still bicker about his departure from Moulin Rouge after twenty minutes with nary an explanation. I found him after the movie in the lobby reading a newspaper – I don’t know what is more telling: that he was too kind to want to ruin the movie for me by alerting me how much he hated it, or the fact that I stayed to the end without checking on his safety and security!
My friends and colleagues enjoyed these little “squibs” I posted on social media. I suppose I was aspiring to capture the grace and insight of Leonard Maltin’s “micro reviews” that I consumed voraciously as a child every January when we bought his latest edition. (The paper on those early volumes was always of some strange newspaper-esque stock prone to smudging and was pulpily aromatic. I will never forget that musty, fabulous smell.)
John always asks plaintively, “Didn’t they know this movie was bad when they were making it?!”
Perhaps I keep trying to solve that riddle, with the false confidence that my $10 movie ticket entitles me to a shot at armchair quarterbacking. Perhaps the failed actor in me is still trying to reclaim some artistic glory. Or perhaps I’m just a wise-ass with too many opinions and without the good sense to keep them respectfully to myself.
My pals told me, “Set up a blog. Capture these Facebook reviews for future reference. They’re great; they’re fun! Blah blah blah.” I have to admit that eventually my ego got the better of me, and, one late night, I explored the wonders that WordPress holds (albeit not that many) and set up ReelRoyReviews as a diary of sorts, detailing my adventures in the cinema.
Here’s the funny thing. Nobody read them. Nobody. At least for quite a while.
Well, that’s not entirely true. My mom was an avid reader and supporter and was always the first to offer an encouraging comment: “My son writes the best reviews and everyone should love them.” So there!
But you know what? Something interesting happened along the way. I stopped caring and just started writing for myself. And I started having fun. And people started reading.
Life is way too short (and exasperating) to get too intense about entertainment, so I try to take a light and conversational approach with my reviews. And I try to respect that (for the most part) these are show business professionals putting (ideally) their best feet forward and that they are human beings with hearts and souls and feelings. I hope I never seem cruel. I don’t mean to be. These writings are off-the-cuff and journal-style and come from as positive a place as I can muster.
Approach everything and everyone honestly and with positive intent and offer candid feedback with an open heart and as much kindness as possible.
Please check out my latest reviews here … Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Edge of Tomorrow, 22 Jump Street, The Fault in our Stars, and Tammy and more …
What has happened to me? Have I been taken to the dark side by young adult fiction? Or are the cinematic charms of Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort simply to blame? (Wow, those are some monikers – what is with every millennial having a kooky name? God love yuppie parents and their precious aspirations.)
First, I lavished praise on Divergent (see here) starring Woodley and featuring Elgort (as her brother). Now, I find myself equally enthused about The Fault in Our Stars, the film adaptation of John Green’s worldwide bestseller about young cancer patients finding love for the first time. This go-round, Woodley and Elgort aren’t siblings, but rather are the oncologically-challenged paramours in question. (That took a bit of getting used to after Divergent‘s familial dynamic. Just sayin’…)
Nothing about this movie, in the abstract, is something I should have liked. I don’t like sappy love stories (e.g. Nicholas Sparks!). I don’t like cancer dramas where illness becomes metaphor for tragic courage (e.g. Love Story!). I don’t like teen angst played out by beautiful people who’ve never had a zit in their lives and live in “middle class” homes that look like spreads in Better Homes & Gardens (e.g. pretty much any show that doesn’t feature superheroes or monsters on The CW and ABC Family … and even a few that do!).
However, I found The Fault in Our Stars quite remarkable. The film is too long by a good 20 minutes, and it has its fair share of After School Special stomach-turning goop. Yet, it also has a poignant spikiness and warm-hearted cynicism that I found refreshing.
Woodley is lovely as “Hazel,” the film’s narrator and protagonist – a young woman who has spent much of her young life in hospitals, who lugs around an oxygen tank, and who obsesses about “the only honest book about death” she’s ever read – An Imperial Affliction. She is sick of being sick, but she’s also up-to-here with well-meaning folks who push her to join prayer circles and support groups. (I don’t know if it’s happenstance or by design that the film is set in Indianapolis, but Hazel’s eyeball-rolling, scorched-earth reaction to a class held in a Hoosier church basement by a twee born-again sitting atop a latch-hook-rug depicting the “heart of Jesus” had me at “hello.”)
Woodley and Elgort (“Gus”) meet cute in the church parking lot, when he, also a cancer sufferer, offers her a cigarette. See, he carries a pack around at all times, never lighting them, both for shock value and because, after losing one leg to cancer, he likes to “keep death between his teeth,” one unlit cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips.
Never ooky, always honest, continually charming, Elgort and Woodley are a luminous screen couple. Yes, the specter of cancer is always near, but the film deftly skewers Camille-esque cliche by depicting the realities of the illness and the pharmacological insanity of modern healthcare without devolving (much) into maudlin soap opera.
People who know they are dying can be really sh*tty with the healthy and unhealthy folks around them, but they also can tap into an exuberance for living life that the rest of us can’t hope to touch. The movie captures both with subtlety and nuance, with much credit going to its talented young co-stars.
Laura Dern is her affecting, capable self as Hazel’s pragmatically optimistic mother, and Willem Dafoe is a quiet hoot as Hazel’s literary hero, the author of An Imperial Affliction, who, let’s just say, doesn’t feel one iota of condescending compassion for “Make-a-Wish” kids.
At one point, Dafoe hisses, “I refuse to pity you in the way to which you have become accustomed,” seemingly putting Hazel in her place for once and for all. What he fails to realize is that Hazel, full of a self-awareness few ever achieve, wants neither his pity nor his kinship. She simply wants truth and respect. That‘s a fine summer movie message in my book.