The Cruelty of Growing Up: Carrie

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As far as formative experiences go, high school is one of the big ones. There is nothing like the stress of trying to fit in, one of those age old stories that effectively describes humanity cruelty to one another and to the Other. You could argue that, from high school on, everything is the same, just perhaps more brutal and more overt in this enormous seeming microcosm with deadly fluorescent lights. But no one is deadlier than Carrie White, whose special powers render others to be lifted up or to be thrown into deep peril. In Kimberly Pierce’s adaptation of Stephen King’s breakout novel Carrie, the director and screenwriters Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Lawrence D. Cohen update high school Hell to contemporary times, offering a middling depiction of the bitch of growing up and finding empowerment.

Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz) does not fit in. Despite her desire to conform, her inherent awkwardness and her religious zealot of a mother prevent her from doing so. It does not help that she is essentially, or can be perceived to be, an innocent: as depicted in Pierces film, she knows nothing besides the internal confliction between religion and reality. Hence, she is terrified when she has her first period. After the popular girls terrorize her during this most traumatic of experiences, one girl, Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) has a guilty conscience and has her boyfriend, the hunky Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) bring Carrie to the prom; meanwhile, Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday), the girl who started it all, seeks vengeance. Prom night is going to be bloody good.

It seems that one of the purposes to make another film adaptation of Carrie, following Brian De Palma’s iconic 1976 film starring Sissy Spacek and a good 2002 television film directed by David Carlson, written by Pushing Daisies and Hannibal helmer/creator Bryan Fuller, and starring Angela Bettis (May), is to make relevant the themes of bullying within the story. The proliferation of social media has, by all means, made bullying and pushing peers over the edge easier. The anonymity of the internet certainly makes it an all too real desire for some. That paired with an even stronger mob mentality in public schools makes for some painful, traumatizing experience. But, it doesn’t seem like that really exists in Pierce’s Carrie. Carrie’s period mishap may have been uploaded to YouTube, and there may be constant sniggering, but beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be that much of a change in the environment. It isn’t as if the methodology of the film has actually shown evolution to fit the desired context. This may be me, but it didn’t actually seem as if Carrie was all that ostracized or tormented in the film. Could it be my personal desensitization to our contemporary society? I would think that with the contemporary setting, the bullying would be vicious beyond belief, and such portrayals of cruel bullying have been shown on the screen in much more convincing ways, even without the social networking. The YouTube video seems, primarily, more for texture than of real important. It does show up later in the film, but more to hammer in a symbolic idea that was better off as a subtle nod than an overt presentation. The world Carrie lives in, however unpleasant in may be, isn’t nearly as mad as it could be, or should be.

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Beyond the relationship between Carrie and her peers at school is a perverse relationship with her mother. Pierce’s film takes an interestingly soft approach to the way that Carrie and her mother (Julianne Moore) interact: there is love there. They touch one another, cuddle, and there is not as much condemnation of the Devil’s spawn as we’ve seen in the past. This softer, tender approach to the dynamic makes it unsettling in a different way, almost more perverse because Carrie still loves her mother through the verbal and mental abuse her mother causes her. In this way, it might be one of the more realistic elements of the film. You can see that old habits die hard, as both mother and daughter are prone to self-mutilation whenever they think impure thoughts or dare take the Lord’s name in vain. The blood is the life, and blood has always been a running theme in Carrie.

This Carrie isn’t the one your parents remember, though. Carrie takes control of her telekinesis early in the film, and starts utilizing it very quickly. That she is able to get a reign in on these powers so early in the story changes the meaning of the film compared to past interpretations: instead of a story that coaxes to audience to empathize with a truly pitiful main character, only to have them root with horror at the end, it becomes something more of an empowerment story. It could be read as a young woman taking control of her sexuality and feeling empowered by it fairly early, but the problem, regardless of how one reads it, is not necessarily the change in tone but the fact that, as aforementioned, there doesn’t seem to be enough horror to truly warrant it. Everyone should feel empowered by their unique abilities, I’m not arguing that: but Carrie’s unique ability is dangerous and, as shown in the film, does not have the nuance to serve for good or evil, rendering it too scary.

There is another problem with the story of empowerment as opposed to sympathy: Ms. Moretz. Having seen her in (500) Days of Summer, Kick Ass, Hugo, Hick, the handful of 30 Rock episodes she guested on, Let Me In, and, finally, this, I’ve come to the conclusion that Chloë Grace Moretz isn’t a very good actress. There’s a deadening lack of depth in every line she says, which almost always comes off as overwrought and/or kind of whiny. She may have an angelic face and cherubic lips, but the sympathy they inspire is brief and feels undeserved once she starts performing. And that’s the main problem: it is as if, especially in Carrie, like she is performing. She never escaped into the character, it always felt like, “Oh, I’m watching Moretz play Carrie.” And when Carrie must look socially anxious and awkward, you don’t feel she actually is; one gets the impression Moretz is playing awkward, not actually being it. The mannerisms are thin and obvious. It’s not actual anxiety or separation, as sitting alone at lunch does not a wallflower make. It’s a high school play performance. Her prettiness has only a little do with how miscast she is: yes, she’s attractive, so, one sort of assume she’d be lauded, but it’s her performance that weighs the film down. And when she’s performing telekinesis, her strained hand raising looks silly. Her hands outstretched, her head tilted: none of it looks scary. It’s a miracle the film survives without her.

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For a film that weighs so much on its lead character, it’s kind of stunning that the rest of the cast is able carry the film under her weight. Julianne Moore’s Margaret White is manic, fanatical and incredibly insane, spouting Bible verses (which should have, given the new context, be more detailed), she sounds crazy. Moore’s performance is painted with haggard hair and sunken eyes and cheekbones. She does seem like the sadomasochistic, deranged mother. Judy Greer, well known for her more comedic roles in 13 Going on 30 and Arrested Development, brings some tough love to the role of gym teacher Miss Desjardin. Powerful and strong, she balances these aspects without coming off as holier than thou. Her performance alone is spectacular. Portia Doubleday as Chris is truly spectacular in how bitchy she is. Certainly a highlight of the film, the ruthless performance is as memorable as Moore’s. But Gabriella Wilde’s Sue Snell makes an already obnoxious character a little more insufferable. Although the character is, to some extent, supposed to be a little self-righteous, Wilde makes this quality more than annoying, simply hard to handle. For the most part, though, the cast is good enough to make an unnecessary remake fairly entertaining.

There is, however, very little excuse for some of the film’s cinematography. Oblique angles, inconsistent tracking shots, and amateurish continuity errors make this feel like an episode of American Horror Story. The only thing it’s missing is the jump cuts. Although there are deliberate cinematographical homages to De Palma’s film in certain shots, it remains distinguished by some very off camera angle choices. They don’t present anxiety as explicitly or as easily as they want to; the underlying meaning to each shot is obfuscated by how strange the shots can be. Over a year ao, there were reports that the film would contain “found footage elements”. And… it sort of does? At the prom scene, there’s a guy holding a camera, and, throughout that scene, you get probably three or for shots from that camera’s point of view. That’s it. ot only is it completely unecessary, its inclusion is distracting as it’s such a drastic variation from the rest of the film’s style. The film is also so effects laden that it causes moments of empowerment to lose that meaning and to look really silly. The thing about telekinesis is that it is, to my understanding, pretty subtle. The elements are natural and are being manipulated with this mind. In that way, Carrie’s mother is right in that she seems more like a witch.

That the film was directed by Kimberly Pierce, an out lesbian and the director of Boys Don’t Cry, makes one wonder if that the desire to contemporize the film was to key into LGBT youth. If that the puritanical and fundamental mother is the religion against Carrie’s possible lesbianism (does she desire Tommy Ross or does she desire Sue Snell? That is the question.). I am sure there must be some essays on queer readings of past adaptations of Carrie, but this one could be the most overt about it.

Despite the film’s tremendous flaws, flaws that really should make one kind of hate the film, I still rather enjoyed it. It’s middling, no doubt, wholly unnecessary and superfluous, but I was interested anyways. I was intrigued by what was going to happen and how it was all going to go down, pig’s blood at all. It’s to Pierce’s credit that she can keep the audience watching, even when she’s throwing kind of trashy material at the audiences. It doesn’t excuse, however, that it’s a poor excuse for an empowering film for teens, or for inaccurately portraying the lack of limitations for bullying, or that the film’s titular character is so poorly performed. Let’s face it: growing up can be Hell.

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5 thoughts on “The Cruelty of Growing Up: Carrie

    sati said:
    October 22, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    Cheap shot at AHS there 🙂 It’s kinda the trademark with all that frantic camera work. i like it, but I know it pisses off people. I completely agree there was not enough bullying here especially to justify what she was doing during the prom – it’s the only version in which she is aware of what she is doing which was a bad idea, especially with all the violence in schools nowadays – to paint Carrie as a heroine taking her revenge at kids that really didn’t do that much to her. I didn’t like Moore, I thought it was a lazy, bad performance. Moretz tried but she was a clear miscast.

    Awesome write up!

      Kyle Turner responded:
      October 22, 2013 at 11:37 pm

      Haha, I’m sorry. I still think the show is strangely addictive.

      The attempt to illustrate Carrie as some hero was so seriously undermined by so many elements of the film that it felt weird.

      I think I would rather have Moretz not try, because when she tries, it feels really shallow and fake. I feel like her mind is always so focused on the role at hand, that she never lets go and becomes her characters, LET ME IN perhaps notwithstanding.

      Thanks so much! I wanted to like the film more, though. It kept sort of going downhill after a certain point.

    CMrok93 said:
    October 26, 2013 at 9:06 pm

    Nice review Kyle. This just felt like another Hollywood, cash-grab remake that doesn’t do much with the old story, except add a couple of modern-day twists to the sides. Like, for instance, the social media aspect? Didn’t really do much except let everybody know that this story was in fact taking place in the 21st Century.

      Kyle Turner responded:
      October 27, 2013 at 8:21 pm

      Thanks! I don’t think it was inherently a cash grab, just a lousy attempt to make some of the subject matter more relevant.

    My 13 Favorite Films of 2013 « The Movie Scene said:
    December 31, 2013 at 8:02 pm

    […] Carrie | Directed by Kimberly Pierce […]

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