Suffer the Little Children: Sebastian Silva’s “Nasty Baby”
Written on the surface of Sebastian Silva’s Nasty Baby is a bunch of tenuously cohesive themes and ideas – the fear of fatherhood, the adolescence of adulthood, the struggles of being an artist, gentrification – that are smudged around with red ink thrown on them for good measure to a point where those things are barely discernible at all. To some degree, there’s an admiration to be had for its audacity inasmuch as a drastic tonal shift, but its main selling point and shock value feels rather unearned at the end of the day. Read the rest of this entry »
My Favorite Opening Scene: Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman
Sometime during the early to mid-1990s, Ang Lee, who had not yet won either of his two Academy Awards for Best director, made food about film. Or film about food? Actually, though, the three films that were included in the delicious thematic trilogy were about the role of the father. Loosely known as the “Father Knows Best” Trilogy, the films were Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993), and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). The films illustrate the clash between traditionalism and modernism in regard to ‘family values”. (It might be fair to say, if a little mean, that Ang Lee has as many daddy issues as Steven Spielberg.) This last entry of the film, however, contains one of the most mesmerizing scenes not only in films about food or Asian cinema, but cinema itself. Its ability to make the audience salivate alone is reason to watch the scene on a loop, as well as its insight into one of the main characters of Lee’s film.
The film begins with a cavalcade of people on their motor bikes and in their cars making their way to work in the noisy city of Taipei. But off in a more serene area is our Father of the film, Mr. Chu. In this short scene, almost everything you would ever need to know about Chu and his daughters is somehow displayed, even if his daughters are never on screen. But what makes it so enticing is how simple it all seems. Lee’s direction is a notched into a high gear that is beautifully subtle, high gear in the way that Mr. Chu’s character appears on screen and, without saying a word, seems fully formed from the very first frame he is in.
Mr. Chu, portrayed by Kuei-Mei Yang, is preparing for Sunday dinner, which for his family is a weekly tradition. His experience as a master chef is portrayed in the deftness of his movements. There’s no trace of unsureness or even struggle. For him, this is all part of the routine. There are barely any hints of fatigue or worry, despite the film’s subsequent storyline. Cooking is what he has put his heart into, and you can see it with every movement. It is cooking that brings him joy, as the audience sees a smile rise on his face and a jaunty movement of the knife as he minces meat on the cutting board.
What else is it that makes this scene so transfixing? Is it the food itself and its representation of lost tradition? How the food will come to be the much needed bridge between the traditionalism of Mr. Chu’s upbringing and the modernism of his daughters, now going off to live their own lives? Or is it because it looks so damn tasty? Actually, I believe it is not only both of these things but a third element: Ang Lee’s direction. Lee, who also wrote the screenplay, is most assured here, watching as Mr. Chu prepares dinner. It is when he is observing food and its function that he works best, as evidenced by the film itself (which utilizes film as a passing metaphor for aforementioned clashes ‘taste’), as well as his countless other films that use food as a focal point of communication and connection. From the Thanksgiving dinners in The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain to the titular Wedding Banquet, Ang Lee exerts his filmmaking expertise most often through food. This scene in Eat Drink Man Woman thus resonates so deeply with viewers because the preparation means something to Mr. Chu.
Sunday dinner is essentially the only time that Mr. Chu gets to talk to his daughters: the eldest is a religious school teacher nursing a broken heart; the middle is a savvy airline executive, and the youngest works at Wendy’s. Throughout the film, the girls are illustrated by their inability to really communicate their thoughts through words. The only way they can truly articulate themselves is the best way and the way they learned how to do that; through food. And even though they hate Sunday dinner, where ideas and ideals of the girls must be deferred to that of their father, it is their chance to awkwardly establish that they are grown up and must move on. (Note the juxtaposition of the kind of food that Mr. Chu makes and his youngest daughter makes. How much different could you get?)
Such is the precision that this scene is directed that even the knives give insight to both Mr. Chu and the culture he is so married to, out of tradition. My Chinese teacher at school noted that Asian cooks, particular of Chinese cuisine, are known for having entire walls of knifes, each with used with specificity. That Mr. Chu can be so precise with food is an interesting aspect of he and his family: food is his language, but when it comes to grilling his daughters about their lives, he doesn’t know which way is up. Yet, the sound, the sight, and, yes, even the smell of his work at hand is proof that he can communicate to his daughters. Perhaps the over smoked food might be less of an indication of his age and more an allusion to how weary he is as a father, not as a chef. Smoking food is, like cooking in general, often serves a precise function in terms of taste, which in itself relates to the soul and to the emotion. With food so structurally integrated into the narrative as a representation of language and emotion, the connotations of smoked or overcooked are thus indicative of Mr. Chu’s character and the secret he is carrying.
Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman is one of my very favorite films and yet I hear no one ever talk about it, not even on best of decade lists. It is in this film that Lee grasps how food serves meaning in life, and it is executed with simplicity and beauty in the opening scene: an example of mastery in two professions.
Girls, Interrupting: The Guns, Girls, and Gender Dynamics of Spring Breakers
There may be guns, girls, and pink balaclavas, but beneath the veneer of the naughtiness of spring break in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is an interesting look at women who are able to be empowered despite the oppressive patriarchal environment around them. Spring Break itself cultivates this oppression. This sense of feminism is so strong that the lead girls, played by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine, are able to subvert the very notion of the patriarchal environment and take a hold of it with a bang. And by bang, I mean with guns.
From the moment the film begins and Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” blares non-diegetically over bodies slathered in booze, it is clear that we are encountering the New American Dream from the male perspective. Spring Break is not only a very “white” thing, but a very “male thing”. As aforementioned, there are tons of women in these Malick-esque Girls Gone Wild montages , but these women are subscribing to a very male oriented fantasy. Who really holds the power here? Who really is dictating these fantastic images, both from the point of view of the camera as well as culturally? Guys. Modern Spring Break is essentially created for the modern male. Who else would even come up with a title like Girls Gone Wild?
So, in this male driven fantasy, the images of girls are purposely being objectified to present a very specific view and perspective: the Male Gaze. Women fellating popsicles, close-ups of twerking and jumping up and down; this is what people my age (apparently) dream of doing. The subservience of the women, though, is obvious by the above examples: the women are not exactly exerting power in these; they’re performing for a male audience. While one could argue that the performativity of this could be power in itself, it’s the unknowingness and apathy with which the women perform that suggests their submission.
However, this dynamic of the conventional Male Gaze objectifying its minor characters, as naked as the day is young, changes once we finally meet our main characters. The ogling does not stop, per se, but it takes on a different power and a different message. It isn’t ogling; it turns into staring with wonder, shock, and possibly horror, suggesting that the Male Persona that inhabits the camera, that is the camera might have underestimated the women in the film.
One of the first indications of a power shift, a subtle one in the film, doesn’t even seem like it. Towards the beginning of the film, Ashley Benson fills a squirt gun with water and pulls the trigger while aiming the barrel into her mouth. While snickering, she puts her mouth around the barrel and continues to squirt water into her mouth. Obviously simulating oral sex on the gun, it seems like something more similar to the montage that was seen moments ago in the film. But that it is a gun changes the dynamic. They have not even arrived in Florida yet, and Hudgens is testing out how wild and powerful she can be.
Many examples follow later, at least in terms of the girls interacting with guns, but they all seem to suggest the same thing: the girls finding empowerment where men usually would. Guns in and of themselves represent a very masculine ideal. They’re created to kill, which is, culturally, a very masculine thing. But the Freudian motivations behind this are shown in the phallic nature of the weapons. Weaponry in general takes on very male-centric images, resembling phalluses and testes, but when women hold guns, there’s generally a sexualiation of it. The women are made to be sexy, as opposed to embracing their own agency and power. This seems most indicative of the scene with Hudgens and the gun.
Their rampage begins, however, with the simple robbery of a chicken joint. These scary monsters who parade as nice sprites unleash a very masculine rage inside the chicken joint, using weapons, and even using sexist terms like “bitch.” Even something as seemingly tame as that term presents the characters as transcending their nubile façade, taking charge of the location. But they laugh at their rage, brush it off, and willingly admit that they used squirt guns. They basically got away with impersonating the “typical male,” one that exudes violence, power, and a strong sexual drive to dominate. This impersonation, however, becomes much more real later.
There are more guns down in Florida when the girls meet the human manifestation of their original alienation from society: James Franco’s Alien. His masculinity also showcases in how much power he has in the Spring Break habitat. Although he embodies the “get rich or die tryin’” archetype of rappers, his masculinity is embodied in the gun show that exhibited in his bedroom. Walls upon walls of firearms! Guns, guns, guns! And, as Franco says, his teeth gilded, “Look at all my shit!” This is further epitomized by Alien’s obsession with Brian De Palma’s remake of Scarface. He’s got the film “on re-peat”, as he says several times. This idolatry of one of the most villainous anti-heroes of film is telling; what’s the most memorable moment of that film? When Al Pacino shouts “Say ‘Hello’ to my little frien’!” of course. He bursts through with an M-16 with a grenade launcher, which explodes, again representing the phallic nature of the gun. Burst, load, the barrel. All of these terms aresexualized, and all of them are staples of power, dominance, and masculinity.
This scene is the most disturbing of all. When we are presented with Franco’s Alien, it’s clear that he’s the ringleader of his gang. But a critical change occurs when he’s showing off his belongings. Benson and Hudgens pick up a pistol and an automatic pistol, both fitted with silencers. Franco shows his fear, telling both to stop pointing at them and that they’re loaded and that they’re dangerous. But that, for the girls, is what intrigues them. It’s a shift in paradigm for the culture, not just the two of them, and how the culture, dominated by men, perceive this scene. The girls press Franco against the wall of his bed and shove the silencers in his mouth, whispering that they may have used him to get where they are now. There’s a carnal, animalistic sense to this scene. It is not exactly that the girls are letting out their wild side, not like they were in the parties and montage scenes, but they seem to be revealing their true nature. Now, these girls have the power, even over Franco.
What’s frightening about this sequence is that after Franco gets over his fear, he buys into this shift. This subversion of expectation is surprising, but the fact that Fraco accepts this also is. I suppose that it is a reflection of myself as a viewer that I was surprised by the power, or frightened rather, that these girls exerted over Franco. He has become the submissive archetype, and he becomes “turned on” by this shift. He seems to willingly accept this, and begins fellating the silencers. Together, almost unified, they’ve come to a silent agreement: Franco may still be the front for this gang, but now it’s all about the girls.
I was struck by this scene in particular and its resemblance to a scene in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, which is based on the play by Tracey Letts. In the film, there is a similarly disturbing scene, and one that garnered the film an NC-17. The amoral cop-slash-hit man Joe (Matthew McConaughey) carries out his retribution by having the wife of his client (Gina Gershon) fellate a chicken wing from KFC. It’s a violent scene, that is also rather gross, but entirely commonplace in terms of BDSM dynamics. You have an archetypal dominant character who is male and you have an archetypal submissive person who is female. Spring Breakers turns this on its head and switches those roles, basically to subvert the expectations of audiences who think they’re familiar with BDSM scenarios. But even when the roles are switched in terms of male/female dominant/submissive scenarios, in mainstream media, this switch is often used to sexualize the dominant archetype. So, in most cases, the female, regardless of role, is sexualized and objectified. If my recollection serves me correctly, the scene in Spring Breakers is not sexy. Its eroticism may lie in how dangerous it all feels (which is part of the appeal to Alien and the audience), but the Male Gaze is fearful, as is the audience, and looks at these girls with awe and wonder. (Also, I think there’s a lot of time that the camera spends on Franco with his mouth full.)
Is there a double standard here, in terms of the NC-17 rating versus the R rating? I don’t know. You would expect (or I would) that the sexualisation of the woman in Killer Joe, regardless of how violent it is, would garner the R, as the MPAA has a tendency to let more conventional and archetypal “male-as-dominant” scenarios get away with things, and not subversive or transgressive scenarios. So, I don’t know.
This transition of power is also evident in the balletic sequence featuring the timeless track “Everytime” by Britney Spears. Undoubtedly the most elegant and show-stopping scene in the film, the women exert as much power as any man in the situation, toting their guns and pink balaclavas with fervor. Though, as they stand by the piano, they circle around with their guns, acting like typical young girls listening to their favorite song. This transition and change in personality only proves that the women truly embrace their power and agency in their ability to oscillate between the masculine and the feminine.
Their feminism and embracing of power comes to a climax with the raid of Gucci Mane’s mansion. Gucci Mane, too, represents a certain male archetype, just as invested in hedonism as Franco. But his dynasty of masculinity (with more sex and drugs than even Franco) comes crumbling down. Franco “leads” the remaining girls, Hudgens and Benson, to the assault, and only moments after they take a step on the neon lit dock, their dominant position in the gangsta hierarchy is solidified with Franco’s death. Still dressed in only a bikini, the somewhat cartoonish and unbelievable battle is in the girls’ favors. This weird, inconceivable battle depicts the girls being totally invincible. This invincibility may be a metaphor for their true empowerment, their true upheaval of the patriarchal standard in that society. It may be them finding “their true selves”.
As the girls drive away back home, on their journey to forget what’s happened, they still have that slick car to remind them that they’ve found power like no one else: by inhabiting a male persona and subverting that persona to its very core.
Korine’s film might have similar origins to Zack Snyder’s detestable pseudo-feminist videogame Sucker Punch, but where Korine succeeds is granting his characters legitimate power without being preachy, subverting the very Male Gaze that drives the society and culture it deconstructs, and creating characters that are nuanced and can oscillate between masculine and feminine personas. As I said, the girls get away with it all, and with a bang.
Singers in the Dark: Les Misérables
Despite practically growing up on musicals, a) I never got to see Les Misérables live and b) the televised/filmed productions of the seminal musical have never really struck me as deeply as, say, The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, Company, Chicago, Cabaret, etc. Les Misérables is great, I am certainly not denying that, but it never cracked my list of “favorites”. That said, I am truly a sucker for some of the music, “On My Own” probably being my favorite. The 10th Anniversary “Dream Cast” Concert is quite lovely to behold, and thus, hearing of an actual film adaptation of the musical intrigued me. The original story, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, had been adapted to the screen a handful of times (including one with Liam Neeson), but Tom Hooper’s period spectacle would mark the first time the musical would make it to the big screen. And, because I love musicals, I was excited. Instead of getting in line for the tickets, I should have gotten in line for the guillotines.
Les Misérables tells the sad, sad tale of a bunch of people prior and during the French Student Rebellion (June 1832), and not the French Revolution (1789-1799). Included in this group of the afflicted is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who spent over a decade in prison for stealing bread to feed his family; Javert (Russell Crowe), the dutiful officer; and Fantine (Anne Hathaway), the poor single mother who goes to certain extremes in order to allocate money to send to the couple taking care of her daughter, Cosette (later played by Amanda Seyfried). As Jean Valjean moves up in the world under a pseudonym, the presiding officer holds a grudge and the animosity between the two ends up involving pretty much everyone else somehow or another.
The implications of a theatrical adaptation of a stage show, whether it is an actual play (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Rabbit Hole, etc.) or a musical (Cabaret, Chicago, Sweeney Todd) is to not merely paste the songs in a film like setting, but to fill in some of the holes by utilizing everything that film as a medium has to offer. Expand on character relationships, elaborate on character goals and motivations; effectively explain plot holes or context. With a musical (and its source material) that is so often incorrectly assumed to be about the French Revolution, you would think that the film adaptation would give the perfect opportunity to give more context to the time and setting of the darn thing. Alas, no. Tom Hooper, who can do period detail very well (see: Elizabeth I and John Adams from HBO), instead seems to concentrate on just seemingly cutting and pasting the singing of the stage show to a well-dressed back lot. Without that context or background, the stakes are not nearly as high and the audience, including myself, has less of a reason to care about a) the characters involved and b) the situations they are stuck in. There is no primer as to the Student Rebellion and the most we are offered are a couple lyrics sung by a dirty, if cherubic blond kid in a thick Manchester accent. He sings about the lack of change and the remaining bourgeoisie reign, but so what? That alone isn’t enough to make me care. Give me higher stakes and give me more reason. A couple lines from “ABC Café” are hardly reason enough to make us care about a Student Rebellion (who, by the way, seem too well dressed to really seem like they care about the upper class).
Part of the problem is the streamlining of the material. On stage, you have more time because you have an intermission, and those going to a musical have, generally, educated themselves enough to get the gist of things. If not, then the book or the lyrics do some of the heavy work for you. There is not as much an issue in terms of time and linearity because of the sparseness of sets and locations, but in a film, you must deal with time as a concept. Which means that as Valjean contemplates his existential identity crisis in “Who Am I?/The Trial”, in the space of three cuts, he goes from his little house to riding on horseback to the courthouse. Those three cuts take less than three seconds altogether. There is no actual travel, unless you count the split second, blink and you miss it ride on horseback. This is not limited to that one scene, but several scenes. The love story in the second half of the film looks entirely moronic because there isn’t enough time to develop Cosette and Marius’ attraction to one another. Star crossed love is romantic when the characters are allowed to revel in what they have just experienced, however brief it may be; but when it is reduced to literally ten seconds and no less than ten reverse, point of view shots, the rest of the stakes for love are dwarfed and just look stupid. In an attempt to quicken things up and make an already deathly long and poorly paced film seem shorter, some plot points are either dropped or obscured by and buried under the “let’s get through all the songs first”.
This, I suppose, is in itself a mixed bag. You have seen the ad more time than Sascha Baren Cohen’s ratty Thenardier has stolen gold pieces, and it has been something the Les Misérables have been pushing really hard: the live singing. Marketed as “the first time it’s ever been done before” is not actually true. The 1995 television adaptation of Gypsy (starring Bette Midler) featured live singing; Susan Stroman’s ill-fated screen adaptation of the Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers had live singing; and Julie Taymor’s experimental Beatles musical Across the Universe had “live singing 80% of the time” (this according to the director’s commentary on the DVD). Les Misérables only stands apart from the first two in that the live singing isn’t so much singing (not in the performing way that most musicals employ) as it is giving life to the songs. When it’s done well in the film, it can be truly visceral and moving (Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks, for instance, nail you in the soul). When it does not work, it just seems sort of sad. While it is no surprise that Hathaway stuns with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”, the songs that seemed to work best were those that featured most of the company. “At the End of the Day”, “Lovely Ladies”, “One More Day”, and “Red and Black” all had verve and life to them, which several of the other solo/character focused songs did not.
Which brings me to this – Newsflash, I don’t like Hugh Jackman’s voice. I never have. He is a lovely actor, and his voice is technically fine. But, that’s what I don’t like about it. Jackman, as much soul as he tries to put into “Valjean’s Soliloquy” and “Who Am I?” seems to be so focused on technique and placed in a situation where he has to move and where the vocals will come out imperfect, he loses the essence of the tune. It sounds professional, sure, but the wealth of vibrato works against him in a way. Russell Crowe, for all of his unpolished singing abilities, in a way, surpasses Jackman vocally because you can hear the tune. The gravelly, maybe somewhat nasally quality gives more life to the character than Crowe actually provides when he is acting. (Much like Gerard Butler in Phantom, but worse.) It probably was not the best idea to hire Crowe, due to the complexity of the music and the range it requires.
With that laborious focus on singing and period detail by Hooper (whom I still, probably unfairly, resent for winning Best Director of The King’s Speech), the story, as I said, gets left behind. Which makes it feel like the intentions were to just see the famous people performing the songs one after the other. There are maybe 10 lines of dialogue total in the film, which, for most mainstream audiences, is not anywhere near enough. Again, with the medium of film, you have the opportunity to a) make a musical more accessible to other audiences and b) expound on story, characters, etc. There was zero attempt to do this; just song after song after song. It’s not this cycle that is inherently the problem; it’s the missed opportunity to make the story more enjoyable.
Aside from singing and famous people, some very strange focus (hah) was put on the film’s cinematography. Mostly, my time was spent scoffing in the theater, writing furiously on my notepad. If you’ve heard anyone complain about the camerawork, listen to them: it is pretty much the most abhorrent work I’ve seen this year. (As random as Killing Them Softly was, at least it was nice to look at and properly framed.) There should be a meme that says “FRAME A DAMN SCENE RIGHT, HOOPER!” I’m pretty sure his logic went as follows: “Okay, you go over there and act and I’m going to have my camera right up in your face. And then I’m going to turn it on a 135-degree angle.” While I’m sure the logic behind this was to provide an intimacy in the performance that the stage inherently cannot give, it does not explain why so many of his frames were off balance. That just looks like some of the half-assed pictures some of the slackers in my photography class take, except more expensive. Also, one can certainly utilize more than one camera angle to achieve intimacy. A musical, shot in all close-ups! There’s a reason why Fred Astaire was never shot in close up: so you could still get the essence of his performance.
When Hooper is not placing cameras six inches away from his actors’ faces, he is editing like he stepped into the editing room while on cocaine. I seriously wondered while I was sitting in the film if the people from Glee were editing the film. What few nice moments and nice frames there are on screen are snatched from us with a splice. This, again, affects linearity, but the constant CUT, CUT, CUT is so uninspired and useless. It works as an antithesis to the artistic desire to achieve more intimacy in the performances. The camera work itself does not work. Shakier than some of my own camera work on my short films, there seems to be no evidence of any SteadiCam used. Just tripods and someone seemingly drunk walking around with a camera. This is not supposed to be a poor man’s Dogme 95 inspired musical! You are no Anthony Dod Mantle! The action scenes don’t work either. If there isn’t a random Dutch angle (which, as far as I can tell, has absolutely no reason to be in there), there’s a fly, swoop, and a lot of cutting involved. I guess Michael Bay would be proud.
The film’s two saving graces are Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks. I would like to think that Hathaway ignored Hooper’s direction altogether and that her transcendent portrayal of Fantine, however short it is (not a spoiler because of the source material), was pure instinct. She gives power, emotion, and passion to a film where there is none. Her heart shattering performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is the film’s highlight. It’s close enough to get every look of Fantine’s but far away enough so that there is distance. It’s not the camera that should destroy the distance between audience member and character; it’s the character themselves and their power. And Hathaway succeeds in spades (a little reminiscent, it has been said, of Renee Falconetti in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc). Samantha Barks, a newbie to the film world, has portrayed the gloomy, heartbroken Eponine before on stage and in the 25th Anniversary Concert of Les Misérables. Despite that, she still brings something entirely new and fresh to the film, her performance of “On My Own” absolutely splendid. I suppose, if you’re going to spend your money on the film, do it for these two girls, one of whom I wouldn’t be too mad should she win the Academy Award. Eddie Redmayne, whom I didn’t know could sing, is actually quite good as well, but the film’s inability to really dig deeper into his character and his motivations leave a lot to be desired and mar the experience.
Les Misérables is a trifle; a film that could have easily avoided its problems by reeling back its eagerness and giving the story a chance. The singing might be cool, but what’s a song without a story behind it? Les Misérables is also probably the first film whose cinematography made me actively angry in the theater. Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks are the film’s saviors. So, while you sit in the theater for what was, for me, a nearly unbearable two and a half hours, I’m going to sing these words:
“I had a dream this film would be,
So different from this Hell I’m watching,
So different now from what it seemed.
Now Hooper’s killed the dream I dreamed.”
Teenage Dreams: The Perks of Being a Wallflower
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a teenager who is fairly introverted will go through a lengthy awkward phase when transitioning from middle school to high school, and thus must be in want of some friends. From personal experience, the transition is hardly easy, but for Charlie in the novel and film adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it was even worse. Written by Stephen Chbosky and published in 1999, I fell in love with the young adult novel, told in a delicate epistolary form, in my freshman year of high school and a friend told me the protagonist reminded her of me. Its author went on to write the screenplay and direct the feature film adaptation, and what he presents is a satisfying adaptation that is nuanced enough to make a difference in the plethora of teen films, changing the story a little bit. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a different teen film because of its refreshing approach to the pains of adolescence.
Perks tells the story of a young man who enters his freshman year of high school and has, well, a lot to deal with. Charlie (Logan Lerman) has spent some time in a mental institution after his best friend committed suicide, and his introverted nature makes the transition far harder. He stands by the side and observes. He “doesn’t think anybody noticed” him. The focus here is not finding him the perfect girlfriend, but finding him a perfect band of misfits; people who will be there for him. Because, unlike the myriad of films in the teen canon, high school is not all about finding the perfect girlfriend or boyfriend: it’s about finding the people who help you find who you are. Perks, as trite as it can be, presents this very aspect of learning well.
As someone who was deeply attached to the novel, I, of course, was hesitant as to the film adaptation’s treatment of the material, both from a standpoint in terms of accuracy as well as to framework and content. So, I was naturally surprised to learn that the man behind the novel wrote and directed the film. If he’s happy with this, then it will be his vision. But rather than spend my time comparing the book and the film constantly, I’ll only go over a few things and their translation onto the screen.
Part of the uniqueness of the book, I suppose, is its epistolary format, with Charlie writing to someone we never meet. This is retained to some extent as the initial framework, but, more importantly, the narration is not a constant. This gives the film a slightly more objective look than the book, but completely. Much of the film’s events and experiences are still presented subjectively, one particular scene almost reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
One of the highlights of the films is its occasional subtlety. Although the film may at times feel heavy handed, which may partly be responsible due to both the general “genre” the film falls in as well as the current atmosphere amongst teenagers. The novel handled certain questionable and dramatic subject matter and content very well, and its translation to the screen often thrives fluidly. The issues that Charlie has dealt with, as well as the subject of Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his sexuality, are handled almost in an elegant manner. Charlie’s problems are never dressed so directly that they seem redundant, and Patrick is never overtly mentioned as gay. Both character are as they are.
That said, some of the subtlety, as brisk and well allocated as it may be, over compensates for itself in certain moments. Character development is sometimes sacrificed at trying to either be subtle or completely avoid subjects. Thus, for novel loyalists, certain scenes involving Charlie and Patrick are mentioned one moment, but never exactly elaborated upon. It is almost as if the thought was incomplete. These mistakes seem somewhat infantile, almost as much as some of the heavy handedness of certain scenes, but I suppose they are forgivable for a first time director.
The choices made, though, manage to be wise. The cinematography in the film, in particular, is one of the small beauties of the film. Soft focus and soft lighting make the film look almost misty and romantic, and fits at moments because the image will become as misty as your eyes. This small beauty of the film manages to accentuate much of the emotion in the film, perhaps setting it apart from many teen films. There is, therefore, equal balance and focus on the look of the film (which is distinctly 1990s) and the story of the film.
That said, the way the film portrays its story is, for the most part, successful. Aside from the strides of too much subtlety or too much heavy handedness (You have to admit that Chbosky’s dialogue hasn’t exactly aged well), the film nicely takes a different route regarding adolescent angst. There is far more reliance on Charlie being able to find a support system in the form of honest to God, true friends. His romantic fixation on Sam (Emma Watson) or with anyone else is not nearly as important as his ability to make friends with people.
The performances are one of the best things the film has to offer, with Lerman, Watson, and Miller giving extraordinary performances. Lerman presents himself as awkward and self-conscious without giving way to becoming Michael Cera or Jesse Eisenberg. There’s a beautiful vulnerability and lucidity that Lerman gives that makes him Charlie. More than I could have imagined (I was a skeptic early on), Lerman renders one of the best performances in this kind of film, looking like a more sympathetic Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows. And in a lot of ways, the best parts of the film owe a lot to Francois Truffaut’s angsty masterpiece. It may be the 400 Blows for “my generation” (as much as I hate using that phrase). Emma Watson continues to expand her repertoire as Sam, also providing a lovely vulnerability. (A note on her accent: It’s convincing and merely sounds like she’s been living in the United States for a few years.) Everyone is lauding Miller for his role, and, sure, he was great. I was not as mesmerized as everyone else (I was more satisfied with Lerman’s performance), but Miller was undoubtedly good.
Stephen Chbosky’s successful young adult novel translates to the screen as a successful teen film. Its uniqueness in approach, concentrating on the protagonist’s issues with acquiring a support system, and does so well enough that it deserves to sit next to any John Hughes film on the teen canon. Its refined look and subtlety make it, in some respects, a Truffaut-esque film (perhaps similar to the also lovely, if underseen Submarine). What Perks does best is simply be itself, much like its characters. Subtle and sweeping, Perks observes the innocuous anomalies in teen life without to succumbing to too much trite material. To be completely reductive and a little corny, somewhat like the film, Perks works.