Thursday, January 5, 2017

WeirdMovieFan Reviews: Manchester by the Sea

Movie Review: Manchester by the Sea
Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
Released: 2016
Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams

Kenneth Lonergan doesn’t make movies very often, so when he’s got one coming out it’s cause for celebration. Those unfamiliar with his work, or who only know about his troubled production history with the eventually-released-in-2011 Margaret, might find this confusing. Anyone who’s seen You Can Count on Me, without question one of my favorite indie films of last decade, will be more than willing to believe the hype. While his movies don’t sound all that exciting on paper, the truth is that what makes Lonergan an extraordinary director is his power to capture the minutiae of everyday life—down to the smallest details that often go unobserved in film. There are a million movies out there exactly like Manchester by the Sea, and at the same time there are none. If you’re a Lonergan fan but found the “uplifting indie drama” vibes of the trailer a bit on the repellent side, your worries are in vain.

This advice is quadrupled if the biggest problem you had with the commercials was the “uplifting” factor.

A pretty poster, a bit of clever cherry-picking in the trailer room, and generic movie commercial music might be able to disguise it, but Manchester by the Sea is definitely not the sort of amiable indie flick you might take your parents to. It’s two and a quarter hours of beautifully wrought heartbreak. Our protagonist endures trauma that would break nearly anyone, depicted in such a bleak manner that a subset of the population wooed by its awards buzz will probably find too much to bear. It’s downright frigid compared to the warmth of You Can Count on Me, and I haven’t seen a great many American independent films with the same focus on utter emotional desolation. (Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure the only foreign films I’ve seen post-1990 with the same unrelenting focus on a character’s bleak prospects were directed by the Dardenne Brothers.) Does it sound like a slog now? Well, it’s not—despite all of the pain, there is a warm current of humor underneath the majority of the film. One of its most wrenching moments is followed up almost immediately with a very quietly-played bit of visual humor that is quintessential Lonergan, and which could very plausibly have happened in a real life situation. The humor isn’t mocking or mean-spirited and tasteless, it’s just intertwined with all the sadness in a way that makes both elements more palatable than either one would’ve been on its own. It arises from the details of everyday life—ever been to an extraordinarily awkward dinner with a relative you haven’t seen in forever, or forgot to turn your phone off during a funeral?

Casey Affleck is on screen for the majority of the film, and he owns it. If you for some reason needed a reminder of which Affleck brother was the better actor, look no further. I’ve known he could play a good miserable sad sack since the days of the mostly-forgotten Lonesome Jim, but this? This is a revelation. Lee Chandler is a character who (excepting flashbacks) has an emotional range that could be bested by a particularly lively bowl of Jell-O, but somehow this man who is mostly dead inside is one of the most fully alive characters of 2016 cinema. Rarely are we reminded that this is Gigli’s younger brother giving a performance. It helps that he's got some great supporting performances alongside him, of course. Newcomer Lucas Hedges takes a character who could easily be one-note and turns him into the most realistic teenage boy in recent film memory, a boy who might be seeming to hold it together but isn't much better off than his uncle. And while Michelle Williams’ character isn't in that many scenes, she sells each one that she's in so damn well, with such nuanced pain (and a little bit of showiness towards the end that never feels fake) that I wouldn't be surprised if the Supporting Actress Oscar is hers already. These actors and the majority of the other big-names in the cast (though they're in smaller parts) are so compelling that it makes the movie’s less-talented minor players (namely the children) easier to bear.

Taking its seemingly innocent poster imagery from one of its most moving scenes (good luck looking at it the same way ever again), Manchester by the Sea is a truly “adult” movie in that it deals with real issues in a wholly realistic way. We get a few thousand “adult is forced to care for a child after their parent(s) dies” movie every year, but none show the reality of what an arrangement might entail or make the circumstances of their characters quite so bleak. Instead of drawing its powers from artifice and tried-and-true Hollywood storytelling beats, it makes a lasting impression by putting its characters in their own emotional hell and allowing them to help each other find at least a little emotional peace. You'll probably need a day or two to recover from this one, but it's well worth it. If any movie is finally going to put Kenneth Lonergan’s name on the tongues of all film lovers, this is it.

Score: ****½ out of 5 stars.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

WeirdMovieFan Reviews: The Jungle Book (2016)

Movie Review: The Jungle Book
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Released: 2016
Starring:  Neel Sethi, the voices of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Walken

The review:

I don’t really know who it is that’s requesting all these live action Disney remakes, but it sure ain’t me. I enjoyed Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, but only with the massive caveat that they were deeply flawed in the script department, and I avoided Cinderella and plan to avoid Beauty and the Beast as well. I’m not anti-remake on principle since nearly every movie is basically a remake of some other story if you really break it down; I just don’t find these movies all that interesting. I grew up with the originals, and if something’s not broken I don’t see the need to fix it. Of course, many people would argue that The Jungle Book wasn’t one of Disney’s best movies. I haven’t seen it in ages so I can’t argue for or against it. What I do know is that this remake of The Jungle Book is… certainly something that exists. Yup. It is a series of film clips arranged to tell a story. Frankly, I’m amazed that this movie has done as well critically as it has; it’s perfectly fine, sure, but nothing to get excited about. But it is gorgeous, don’t get me wrong, so it at least has that going for it.

On that note: would you look at the CGI in this thing?!? I honestly thought those were real animals edited with CGI throughout the movie (with the obvious exception of the gargantuan King Louie), but no: those animals were all-CGI. Far be it from me to praise movies that are CGI fests (cartoons notwithstanding), but I was seriously impressed with the work the effects department did. The cinematography is also beautiful throughout; there’s never a shot that looks anything less than stunning. Overall, it’s a feast for the eyes. Other organs, the brain and heart in particular, may be left disappointed.

First thing’s first here: I don’t know why you’d be coming to this blog of all places to find out whether or not a movie’s appropriate for your kids, but if you’re wondering, no, this is not the family-friendly romp the trailers and commercials made it out to be. It’s significantly darker and more violent than the original film was; if you’re not interested in seeing a movie where a child is in genuine life-threatening peril for the vast majority of the run time, go see Zootopia to get your animal kicks. This makes it considerably more realistic than its predecessor, but a lot less fun. There’s also a lot of non-cute animal-on-animal violence, and a climactic scene that will be nothing short of distressing for the under-ten set if they’re not used to violence in movies yet. This is not a reason to ding it, since it doesn’t do that tone poorly most of the time (though the moments when it’s suddenly light-hearted occasionally create a tonal whiplash I didn’t particularly enjoy), but it something to keep in mind.

As with so many movies these days, the big problem here is the pacing. Everything simply happens too fast here. Mowgli’s relationship with Baloo here is too fast and, by the time the big lug of a bear is trying to shoo Mowgli away, it’s supposed to be a Big Emotional Moment. This happens in roughly five minutes of movie time. Bagheera also comes to trust Baloo too quickly, the whole ordeal with Kaa is only about a minute long and completely irrelevant to the rest of the movie (a criticism of the old movie, yes, but still), and it feels as if there’s rarely a moment to breathe and grow attached to these characters.

So, the performances? What you’d expect, no more or less. First, the voice actors: Ben Kingsley does a good job in Bagheera’s role, though the character doesn’t do a whole lot. Bill Murray creates a charming Baloo, with a little bit more of an edge than the old Baloo we know and love. Scarlett Johansson does her usual thing as Kaa, and despite the short screen time of the character her voice work is memorably menacing. Christopher Walken is the highlight of the voice cast in his role as King Louie, and not just because his rendition of “I Wan’na Be Like You” is easily the best thing in the movie. He’s a great mix of scary and just plain weird, in the tradition of many a great Walken performance. Idris Elba, fresh off his small Zootopia role, Basically, the whole cast is at the top of their game using just their voices; if that doesn’t convince you of the importance of voice work to creating real characters, nothing will.

So what of our Mowgli? He’s… perfectly fine. This is Neel Sethi’s first movie, and unfortunately he suffers from Child Actor’s First Movie Syndrome too many times—there are a number of moments where his line delivery either falls flat or he goes for too cute. But honestly? The kid’s acting next to basically nothing and he never once fails to convince that there are actual animals right next to him. Most adult actors can’t even pull that off, so I’ll just chalk up his missteps to inexperience. Or it might be Favreau’s fault. Most directors don’t know how to work with kids very well, after all; let’s just talk about the good the kid did do. Also: they actually got a non-white kid to play a non-white character? Awesome. (I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Lupita Nyong'o's voice work as his mother wolf and Giancarlo Esposito’s brief work as the leader of the wolf pack… really, this movie is more racially diverse in casting than many other films and it’s a shame they were mostly on off-screen roles, but that’s still huge.) Everybody here’s fine; it’s just that there are so many characters and events that it’s impossible for anything to stand out.

I rarely ask for big movies to be any longer than they are because they tend to suck and take too long to finish sucking as it is, but The Jungle Book would’ve benefitted from a two-hour running time. Fourteen more minutes would’ve made a lot of difference in this case. This is a perfectly enjoyable movie that has a hard time lingering in the memory; it’s undeniably well-made in all areas except the writing. A decent but unremarkable remake of a decent but unremarkable movie. Not bad, but still missing one of the bare necessities: a little patience.

Score: *** out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

WeirdMovieFan Reviews: Midnight Special

Movie Review: Midnight Special
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Released: 2016
Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver

Midnight Special is a lovely choice for a filmgoer who is sick to death of modern blockbusters, but regrettably I can’t tell you much about why it is so refreshing without spoiling too much of it. (Yes, folks, this is gonna be a shorter review.) All I can say is this: it’s billed as a sci-fi thriller, but it doesn’t go deep into science at all; if you’re expecting a trainwreck of bad science a la Transcendence or Lucy, you won’t find it here, but if you’re expecting something a bit more complex along the lines of Splice or Ex Machina (which, admittedly, I haven’t seen), you won’t find that here either. So, how do you describe it? I don’t know, really. It’s a subtle, slow, complicated film with achingly beautiful cinematography and a mystery at its center that will probably win over and infuriate equal numbers of people. Me, I’m a fan of what it did; I expected an enigma and I got one, thoroughly, in ways that I’m still not sure that I understand or ever will even with repeat viewings. I don’t think we’re meant to, truly. But I was really into what was going on onscreen, whatever it was.

The movie opens at exactly the right point; we know almost nothing about what is going on except that these two men, relationship undetermined, have a child in their possession. The movie gives us a bit more after that: the kid was kidnapped by his dad and a dad’s friend, there was a cult involved, and then… lasers? Did I see that right? In another movie, this might be annoying, especially when the pieces we get don’t come explicitly full circle. But what works here is that being kept in the dark continues the atmosphere of tension: What is Roy going to do next? Is he doing the right thing? What is Alton? (On that note, to the movie’s immense credit, it never once plays the kid’s strangeness as a bait-and-switch faux-tism as others of its ilk do—don’t be fooled by the noise-canceling headphones in the beginning.) The sci-fi angle isn’t overdone in the slightest; you’d be surprised what can be accomplished by some practical effects and a little bit of CGI (more pronounced in the ending). The focus is more on Roy and Lucas getting this kid to his destination, whatever the reason for it, and the numerous people trying to get in the way. There also seems to be a strong religious thread about unexplainable things, faith, and people misinterpreting the will of otherworldly beings, but this isn’t a Religious Movie and those inclined can easily overlook that in favor of the thread about the cult exploiting Alton.

The cast is pretty much centered only on four main players and the kid, and they all do well. Michael Shannon, generally an unsettling screen presence (to me, at least, blame repeat childhood viewings of Kangaroo Jack for this viewpoint), is a particular high note; as Roy he brings the right amount of gravitas, menace, and fatherly devotion. Roy’s not a perfect guy, and Shannon shows his darker side beautifully. Joel Edgerton, always a reliable screen presence, is good as Lucas, whose characterization goes beyond audience stand-in in his devotion to his friend. Kirsten Dunst’s character is underwritten, but she’s fine in the role; she’s a good actress and I wish the movie gave her just a bit more to do, but she’s no mere placeholder doing a thankless job. My favorite part of the movie was Adam Driver as Paul; he gave just the right amount of comedic relief to break up the movie’s relentlessly tense atmosphere without ruining it. (Also, Adam Driver in glasses is a wonderful sight to this reviewer.) But this is a movie wherein a child plays a major part, and frankly it would probably suck if they hadn’t found the mythical Talented Child Actor. Jaeden Lieberher, a young actor primarily known for his work in St. Vincent, is perfectly good in the role; he doesn’t say much, but he conveys the utter weirdness of Alton without resorting to odd tics or mannerisms, and whenever he does speak, it’s definitely not like a child should, but it’s thoroughly believable. It’s not the greatest child actor performance I’ve ever seen, but it’s competent, and this kid could be going places.

Viewers who long for the days of early Spielberg movies will likely enjoy Midnight Special. It’s not exactly an exciting movie—it’s mostly slow-paced with occasional bursts of activity to up the tension—but it’s smart and it assumes its viewers will be as well. Its strongest moments are in all the things that aren’t said by any of the characters: looks exchanged between them, acts committed for one another, a blink-and-you-miss-it glimmer of something in the final scene, or was that really there…? If you hate movies that don’t explain themselves at the end, you might want to look elsewhere; if you want a movie that contains more than meets the eye and mandates careful viewing—which it actually earns; my ADHD-riddled brain was at full-attention the whole timeplease seek it out. I can imagine coming back to this one time and again in the years to come, but first I’m going to check out the rest of Jeff Nichols’ filmography. By all accounts he’s a true original, and after seeing his latest work I’m inclined to agree with that.

Score: ****½ out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

WeirdMovieFan Reviews: Zootopia

Movie Review: Zootopia
Directed by: Byron Howard and Rich Moore
Released: 2016
Starring: The voices of Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba

It should not surprise anybody that I am firmly in the pro-Zootopia camp. Its directors have been at the helms of my three favorite Disney Animation Studios flicks of the CGI era: Bolt, Tangled, and Wreck-It Ralph. Frankly, it would’ve been more noteworthy if it hadn’t turned out to be at least a decent movie. What I didn’t expect, however, was something as charming as what we got. I’m not going to join the crowd of people saying this movie is “extremely deep and profound for a children’s movie” because, frankly, the message its pushing isn’t remotely a revelation (more on the message later), but who cares? It’s bright and colorful and hilarious, and it takes a lot of familiar tropes and packages them in a way that still feels fresh and original. Plus, who doesn’t love animals in human situations? People who are dead inside, that’s who.

Visually, this is one of the most impressive animated films I’ve ever seen, and well above even most of Disney’s best efforts. The first thing to note is that it’s very dense—there are more sight gags than one can reasonably point out with just one viewing (cursory searches of Reddit and Tumblr indicate that fans who’ve seen the movie multiple times are still finding new ones). The worldbuilding here is impeccable; there is so much detail in every area of the eponymous city that people who are so inclined could create intricate fan-fiction set in this universe. Nothing about the animation is lazy, either; just watch the way the animals’ ears, noses, and tails move. Very humanized, but at the same time true to their species.

If you’re not absolutely in love with the standard Disney/Pixar formula that pops up in nearly every one of the studios’ releases (that is, two beings who don’t like each other are forced to work together until they eventually do like each other or even fall in love), you might look at the dynamic between Nick and Judy and think, “welp, here we go again.” In a sense, you’re right—there isn’t much about this dynamic that can’t be traced back to, say, Toy Story. However, it’s far less egregious here; Zootopia is very much a buddy cop movie, and if you’ve seen any buddy cop movie you’ll recognize a lot of the gags here. Beyond that, there’s just a lot more chemistry between these two than there was between, say, Joy and Sadness in Inside Out (which I say barely qualifies as an example of this, honestly), or Anna and Kristoff in Frozen. Not that those weren’t both delightful movies with an enjoyable bickering duo at their core, but the characters here feel more true-to-life and their enemies-to-friends transition feels not obligatory but earned.

You know what else is cool? The characters are of different genders, but there’s no explicit romance between the two. This is likely because the different species of the characters might lead to tots asking their parents very uncomfortable questions (or, more likely, to bored people thinking too much about the potential consequences of a rabbit-fox romance), but whatever the reason for it, we have a Disney movie wherein the protagonist is a young woman and her story isn’t about romance at all. The relationship between Nick and Judy could be read as leading to romance, sure, but it’s not on the page and the friendship can also be read as purely platonic. Even a hopeless romantic like myself who always enjoys those plots can appreciate that change of pace. (If you’re asking me whether or not I like the characters paired romantically, the answer to that question will be quite different; regardless, the way the movie handles their friendship is perfect as-is.)

Much has been made of the movie’s thematic relevance to this day and age, which is something that, frankly, anybody could pick up on if they know anything about prejudice whatsoever. We’ve got a heroic protagonist who wants to make the world a better place, but has prejudices she needs to work on. We have characters who are stuck in their lot in life because of misconceptions held about them. It’s very timely, of course (I doubt I need to give a refresher of the current American political climate), and a very optimistic view on the way the world can change if people acknowledge their own flaws and work together for the benefit of everyone. I also appreciate how the protagonist is a character who has faced her own marginalization and yet still has to recognize that other groups have it worse than her, which makes this an especially potent allegory for certain types of liberal idealists that fail to recognize their own prejudice (look up the issue of "white feminism" for more info). As an allegory for racial prejudice, it falters in that the principal voice cast is mostly white, the crew of the movie is mostly white, and the depiction of the prejudice against predators falls into the numerous pitfalls that usually trip up allegories for racism (in that issues can easily get conflated, especially since in this case we’re dealing with animals). Long story short, viewing the movie through an allegorical lens has both pros and cons, and I suggest not thinking too deeply about the real world parallels unless you want to wreck the movie for yourself. From my point of view, it works best as a story about tolerance; beyond that, it’s hard to look at the allegories without finding them a little muddled.

But honestly? The movie is way too much fun and too well-characterized that, issues when reading it too closely aside, I can’t not recommend it. Disney Animation Studios has been on a roll for their past few movies (okay, Big Hero 6 was slightly lacking, but it was still fun), and Zootopia is easily one of the best movies to come out of the House of Mouse all decade. I rarely call movies instant classics, but considering how much it has resonated with audiences already, it’s safe to say that it’s earned that title. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be writing some police serial-style fanfiction while I wait for the sequel...

Score: ****½ out of 5 stars

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

WeirdMovieFan Reviews: The Good Dinosaur

Movie Review: The Good Dinosaur
Directed by: Peter Sohn
Released: 2015
Starring: The voices of Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Sam Elliott

The review:

I am not entirely convinced that The Good Dinosaur is an actual Pixar movie and not just something that DreamWorks (or a lesser studio) created and released under the Pixar label in an attempt to sabotage the beloved studio. Obviously, I know this is not the case; this movie’s been in production for years, and ran into numerous snags along the way. But this movie doesn’t feel remotely like the Pixar I’ve known and loved since my youth. What happened? Have I grown immune to the usage of the standard Disney-Pixar emotional beats after seeing them in so many movies? Do I have some sort of deep-seated prejudice against dinosaur movies between this, Godzilla, and Jurassic World? Or did the troubled production of the film ultimately lead to it becoming an undercooked, thoroughly average film not even close to high quality of the past few Pixar offerings? Yes, I’m willing to defend both Brave and Monsters University as being much better movies than this. Whatever their faults, and I’ve heard a litany of arguments against both films, they still had a beating heart at their core. The Good Dinosaur, in comparison, is nothing but a reconstruction of fossils. It has a lot going for it, but so much going against it that what initially looks good ends up being woefully unimpressive at the end of the day, because it’s not anything we haven’t seen before.

Let me start with the good: This movie looks utterly gorgeous, as is to be expected of any Pixar offering. It looks even better than Inside Out, and though it lacks many of that movie’s more creative visual elements (barring one delightful scene which can be likened to a really weird acid trip), it makes up for it with gorgeous scenery. Visually, Pixar only gets better and better, but their ability to hit you in the emotions isn’t completely absent here: the opening sequence is so endearing that it brought tears to my eyes, and a scene where Arlo encounters an eccentric collector was a masterpiece of smart deadpan humor. These are the moments where The Good Dinosaur shines, and when you can see flashes of genius that could’ve been. Unfortunately, these hints of sweetness make everything else just taste so bitter.

This movie suffers incredibly in comparison to the complexity of Pixar’s previous offering this year. Inside Out was a movie about embracing sadness as a natural part of living and growing up. I’m not exactly going to say that’s a revolutionary topic for a children’s movie, but it was a far cry from the relentless hammering down of Necessary Happiness as the ultimate coping mechanism. It was an emotionally astute and healthy film for kids and adults alike. The Good Dinosaur, by comparison, is a movie about how overcoming anxiety is something that can more or less be done overnight if you bond with someone else enough, and then you’ll never really have to worry about being afraid again because you did it! That irked me beyond belief. Is that a projection? Somewhat. I’ll admit that, as a person with severe anxiety, I’m inclined to see worrywart heroes as not unlike myself. But this is how I read the movie: Arlo is definitely reminiscent of an anxious child. He’s not courageous whatsoever. And it bothers the people around him how he can’t just be what they want him to be, why he can’t be the ideal son like his brother is. There are numerous places the film could’ve taken that sort of rich, fertile subject matter, yet they took it to the same places that children’s movies always do: of course he toughens up by the end, fights off the movie’s bad guys, and makes his deceased father proud (and, of course, saves his family since… the female dinosaurs in the family aren’t strong enough to do it on their own). Is there anything wrong with that? Not entirely—showing that an anxious kid can do awesome stuff too is perfectly fine. My issue is that Arlo’s turnaround is so fast that it’s truly unbelievable; a pep-talk from a badass cowboy (cow...dinosaur?) and seeing his friend/pet in danger are all he needs to toughen up. As a hero’s journey story, this didn’t work, and as an exploration of fear (rational or otherwise) as a complicated emotion, it really didn’t work. Did I want Arlo to end up on dinosaur Xanax to solve his problems? No. But I wanted a bit more acknowledgment of the complicated nature of fear than just “you’ll be scared, you just have to live with it.”

As a story in general, it didn’t work, if only because all of the characters besides Arlo and Spot are so thin, so cliche, so devoid of screen time and development, that they barely register. The movie’s villains are only onscreen for two scenes; Arlo’s family, allegedly so important to him, have no personality because they’re only on-screen for a few quick moments. As for the bond between Arlo and Spot, it barely exists; Arlo goes from hating him to loving him in the span of a montage, which makes little sense because, if you recall, Spot got Arlo’s dad killed. It’s hard to buy that Arlo would stop hating him so quickly after something like that. Things just sort of happen here; characters appear and make minimal impact on the plot, which barely exists to begin with (he’s trying to get home, that’s it). It's hard to care because, even though the stakes are allegedly high for his family, the movie never treats things like they are. When I should've been on the verge of tears, I found myself wondering when the movie was going to end.

It doesn’t feel right to pick on a movie with such a troubled production history; its director was canned halfway through production, and the whole cast was replaced as well. Of course a movie like that is going to suffer for it; Brave, as much as I like it, definitely suffered from similar production issues. Frankly, it’s amazing something halfway okay came out of the mess that resulted here. But goodness, once you’ve been in Development Hell that long, can’t a bit of script-polishing get done before you get to the friggin’ animation department? I’m never, ever going to go on record as saying that Pixar is past their prime unless they completely drop the ball; Inside Out is proof that they’re still capable of doing incredible work. But The Good Dinosaur is the first of their films to make me sympathize with the people who find themselves frustrated with the company. Call me when Finding Dory comes out and we’ll try again, Pixar. I still love you.

Score: **½ out of 5 stars.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

WeirdMovieFan Reviews: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Movie Review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Directed by: Marielle Heller
Released: 2015
Starring: Bel Powley, Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgard

The review:

Teenage girls are rarely depicted with any sort of sensitivity in film. At best, we get adaptations of super-popular books aimed at that demographic, but too often those best sellers become popular because the girls in them are a fair bit more romanticized than their real-life counterparts. At worst, teenage girls are treated as lust objects in movies aimed at older men, or things to be feared/shamed in movies aimed at older women. In either case, they’re mocked significantly, treated as shallow idiots with no greater care than boys or cars or shiny phones. A movie like The Diary of a Teenage Girl could never come straight out of Hollywood. It’s got a clear-eyed look at what it’s really like to be a fifteen-year-old girl in a really screwed up situation, one who’s trying to figure stuff out while also being consumed by hormones. And while the hormones take up a lot of time--and her exploration of them is shown in detail, honestly but never exploitatively--it’s just as much about a girl learning who she is and finding empowerment in her own way.

So yes, let’s get it out of the way: This movie is about sex, and there’s a lot of sex in this movie, pretty much all of which involves teenagers (played by older actors, yes, but several of the characters involved are teenagers). Some of it is a little on the graphic side, though no more so than you can see on Cinemax past a certain time at night. Still, it’s young people. So what separates this movie from, say, a Larry Clark skeeve-fest? Well, there’s a complete lack of sensationalism. This is due in part to the movie taking place in the 1970s, where this sort of thing was treated a bit less sensationally than it is now. Despite this, the scenes with Minnie and Monroe are never treated with romanticism or as if they’re supposed to be titillating to the viewer. Though a fifteen-year-old girl may not think much of it to become sexually active with a guy much older than she is (and hell, she might think it’s cool if she finds the guy attractive), anybody who lived past teen years can see that such a relationship is never fully consensual. Monroe may be a bit emotionally stunted and have the maturity level of a much younger man, but he’s still in a position of power over Minnie, even if she doesn’t know it. (This arguably makes Monroe one of the more upsetting offenders in film history, significantly more realistic than the deliberately creepy pedophiles in other films.) Realistically, Minnie never becomes entirely aware of just how screwed up her relationship with him is, and she likely won’t until she’s much older. But the movie never treats her like a victim, and it never treats her like she’s in any way ruined by what happens to her. Seeing a deliberately uncomfortable situation in complex shades of grey like this is nothing short of revolutionary; seeing Minnie save herself from it is even more so.

Minnie is one of the most fully alive characters you’ll see on screen this year, brimming with energy and curiosity and smarts but still vulnerable and naive and desperate to be loved. Bel Powley’s exuberant performance is responsible for half of this, with nary a false note (or trace of her British accent). Though she’s 22, she comes off as a real fifteen-year-old girl in her every scene, which is disquieting in the film’s most uncomfortable moments and completely endearing in its lighter moments. Even in the rare moments where the story slows (and a patience will be required, as the movie is deliberately paced), she makes it impossible to be bored, impossible for one to take their eyes off the screen. As she’s carrying the majority of the film and is on screen for nearly all of it, she’s far and away the best member of the cast; however, Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgard both deliver performances that feel completely real. Skarsgard gets more screentime of the two, and he brings a lot of charm and youthfulness to Monroe that gradually slithers away until we can see just what sort of a loser he is. It’s an excellent performance that could’ve turn into a caricature at any moment, but never once does. I’d have liked more of Wiig, but she’s terrific as usual, and her role as Minnie’s mother shows just how complicated it was to be a woman in the 70s, desiring feminism and open-mindedness but still vulnerable to society’s dictation that male companionship is needed for happiness.

A delightful addition to the film, more gravy than a necessary component that keeps it going, are the moments of animation that pop up now and then. They’re bizarre, often weirdly sexual, and totally vibrant, reminiscent of the bizarre comics that came about in the 1970s. Minnie’s desire to be a comic artist is carried out most successfully in the hybrid novel that this film is based on, but this utilization of animation is a colorful and creative way to convey the same thing. If you like avant-garde animation, these sequences will likely be some of your favorite parts of the movie.

Though the movie’s sexual content has gotten a lot of press (to the point where I was surprised when it ended up being much less explicit than I thought it would, thankfully), The Diary of a Teenage Girl has much more to offer than just a look at a fifteen-year-old’s awakening in that department. There are plenty of poignant moments where Minnie learns about what’s expected of women in American society (sexually or otherwise), and a bright thread of hope that shows that despite all the crazy things that teenage girls can go through, if they learn to love themselves they can overcome pretty much anything life throws at them. While many people will find the content too objectionable to show to actual teen girls, and it’s hard to say how many of them would respond to the movie positively, it’s definitely one of the most loving and generous depictions of teenage girlhood to ever come out of American independent cinema. Young women who made it through their disastrous teenage years will likely find a lot to appreciate about this wholly unique film, regardless of whether or not their adolescence was anything like Minnie Goetze’s. It's an incredible debut film for Marielle Heller, and it'll be great to see what this bold new voice in independent film does next.

Highly recommended, if you can handle it. (And it’s not always easy to take. The truth is sometimes very uncomfortable.)

Score: ****½ out of 5 stars