Outlier children and adolescents have their moment on the big screen

ScreenerBlog

Nobody thinks wee Shirley Temple, awash in ringlets, is adorable today. By contemporary standards, she’s a mutant. Not unlike Tiny Tim or, for that matter (speaking of Dickens), Little Nell. To quote Oscar Wilde, always way ahead of his time, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”

Outlier youngsters in films, not to mention the public response to them, have indeed evolved over the decades—from The Bad Seed to Lord of the Flies to The Children’s Hour to Paper Moon to Precious to Beasts of the Southern Wild—to most recently The Florida Project, Blame, Saturday ChurchI, Tonya, and, to a lesser extent, Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name.

Marginalized youth is thriving in movie land (ditto TV, theatre and novels), revealing as much about our collective views on childhood as it does about the filmmakers’ personal politics and cinematic vision. Clearly the quality of the films—Oscar nods and critical kudos notwithstanding—runs the gamut.

Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is at the high end, a disturbing and visually compelling tale of childhood at the edge. Set on the grounds of the seediest welfare motel, Magic Castle (a name that’s at once ironic commentary and heartfelt aspiration), the story unfolds on the outskirts of Disneyland on a flat stretch of Florida off the highway. The “Castle”’s walls are surfaced in garish lavender stucco and the oppressive heat is palpable. Baker knows something about people living on the peripheries. Check out his earlier films Starlet and Tangerine, the latter a film about transgender prostitutes on a romp, no less.

In broad strokes, Florida zeroes in on the children existing in this hellhole, untethered, uneducated and unsupervised. Specifically itrecounts the experiences of six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) living with her foul-mouthed single mom Halley (Bria Vinaite), a child-woman sporting blue-streaked hair, lip piercings and full chest tattoos who ekes out a living hawking perfume on the streets and/or engaging in petty con jobs and hooking. Mom and daughter have a grand time together, especially when grossing out everyone else. Halley encourages Moonee to do so—e.g., loudly ordering excessive amounts of food in a diner, stuffing their faces gluttonously and belching their heads off.

Most of the time Moonee hangs out with two other youngsters (Christopher Rivera and Valeria Cotto) residing on the premises with nothing to do short of creating havoc and entertaining themselves endlessly in the process. These are the 21st-century descendents of the Dead End kids.

No matter, at a recent screening a few audience members laughed with delight at the children’s antics as they ran amok, lying/begging for handouts and ultimately setting an abandoned house on fire, thrilled as the flames spread to other building shells (the image of detritus, coupled with ticky-tacky kitsch is pervasive throughout), leaving massive destruction in their wake. The titters of theatregoers seemed, at least to me, stunningly inappropriate in light of what was occurring onscreen.

But then again we’re in the midst of a child-fetish frenzy where virtually anything a child does is viewed as fetching and social-media post-worthy not just privately but on news and magazine shows across the networks that provide outlets for them. And who hasn’t been in a restaurant where children speaking in shrill voices skip up and down the aisles while their parents beam with pleasure believing that we all share their joy?

Critics reflect the zeitgeist. Consider this: A.O. Scott at The New York Times, who, while acknowledging The Florida Project film portrays “high-risk” youngsters, pointed to their “exuberance that adult viewers could only envy.” In fact, he compared the wretched children to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Useless to argue they bear no resemblance to any youngster out of Mark Twain’s imagination, even in his darkest moments.

Scott also described Halley’s relationship with her child as “sisterly” as opposed to “maternal.” Neither he nor any of the other reviewers that I read called out Mom for being the unfit mother that she is, her neglect and off-the-grid behavior bordering on abuse. Make no mistake, Moonee is a victim, clearly not in the same league as, say, the title character in the equally brilliant Precious, who is brutalized by her mother. Still, Moonee lives in unspeakable squalor, and contrary to what we might like to believe, she is not at all charming, (a far cry from the truly innocent Hushpuppy in Benh Zeitlin’s poetic film Beasts of the Southern Wild, which admittedly feels more like a fable than a slice of life).

Baker’s child is both underdog and delinquent. Tatum O’Neil’s character in Paper Moon shares similar traits, an obnoxious youngster we’re supposed to see as cute as she and her dad (Ryan O’Neil) travel across the South conning people during the Depression. Moonee is not a new type onscreen, but her universe and the prism through which she is viewed are altogether more complex.

The turning point for Moonee and Halley is the arrival of social workers who’ve been told by the motel’s manager (terrifically played by Willem Dafoe) that there is something terribly askew in the way Moonee is living. The social workers want to place Moonee with another family. In lesser hands they’d become small-minded bureaucrats, straw figures easy to deride. But here they’re benign and their assessment is spot-on. Still, Moonee’s response to being taken away from her mother is heart-wrenching.

Baker has created a world that is simultaneously real and surreal, literal and metaphorical. The motel so close and yet so far from Disneyland—an embodiment of Americana and every bit a destination spot for those with discretionary income—says it all; the scene is made all the more vivid as surveillance helicopters frequently fly across the sky, one assumes to protect Disneyland tourists from terrorists. But they’ve become an ominous presence for Moonee and especially Halley, who regularly gives the choppers the finger. It is a futile, repellent gesture and fully understandable in a place devoid of hope or palatable solutions, any solutions.

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I, Tonya is another splendid film that presents a dark, comic but ultimately sympathetic depiction of an outlier young woman, barely out of childhood; it’s the infamous champion ice-skater Tonya Harding (the much-too-pretty Margot Robbie), whose lowlife husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) hires a pal, Shawn (a great performance by Paul Walter Hauser), to injure Hardy’s competitor Nancy Kerrigan so that she cannot skate in the 1994 Olympics, thus paving the way for Harding to score gold. Harding has always denied complicity or even foreknowledge of the crime. Few believe that, and the film doesn’t resolve the question.

Biopics are tricky precisely because they’re talking about an actual person and dramatizing events that either happened or didn’t. The constant question—is this real or dramatic license?—becomes the intrusive elephant in the room throughout. Director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers fudge the issue by framing the story in a documentary format that gives all the characters (later in life) a platform to recall the central event from various perspectives. In fact, Tonya makes the trendy assertion that she is telling “her truth.” What pompous nonsense. It’s either a verifiable fact or an interpretation. But interpretations can be challenged. “Her truth” cannot. It’s inviolate.

That said, the creative team has forged a stunning portrait of Tonya’s unforgiving lower-class world—with all its stereotypical "redneck" trappings—that defined her in every way, whether she was attempting to run away from it and in so doing reinvent herself or defending it even as it destroyed her.

Living in near-poverty outside of Portland, Oregon, Harding grew up close to her dad (who jumped ship early on), learning how to hunt, drive a truck, fix a car and play pool. Her body was muscular and compact. Tonya couldn’t have been more distanced—physically, culturally, psychologically—from the world of svelte, balletic, well-heeled ice-skaters whose refined costumes were custom-made for them.

Still, her talents as a skater were evident early on and her chain-smoking monster-mom LaVona (Allison Janney in a towering performance), whose playbook could easily be Mommy, Dearest, had her hopes pinned on Tonya’s success. Incapable of encouragement or pleasure in her daughter’s achievements LaVona put Tonya down at every turn, beat her with a hairbrush, and at one point hurled a knife at her.

To escape her mom, Tonya married Jeff, who in turn battered her bloody as well. For Tonya, physical/emotional abuse was a way of life and, not surprisingly, like the wounded animal she was, she could dish it out too, telling the judges where to get off in the coarsest terms. She knew they viewed her as white trash and were turned off by her homemade costumes and her athleticism (as opposed to grace) on the ice, despite the fact that she was the first woman skater to land a triple axel.

I know many people who refuse to see the film because Kerrigan is barely acknowledged. Gillespie and Rogers are apologists for Tonya, presenting her as the true victim in stark contrast to the punch line—fodder for every alleged satirist out there—that she had increasingly become over the decades, not least during her post-skating years when she starred in a celebrity sex tape and later performed as a wrestler and boxer.

This movie was not without its challenges for the creative team. On the one hand, it’s all about Harding’s hardscrabble life and the predetermining effects of class and family. On the other hand, gallows humor is never far from the surface. (Think “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” or “Duck Dynasty” or “WrestleMania.” The old sitcoms “Green Acres” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” defanged yokels. “Shameless” has put the fangs back in. Black comedy is present in Faulkner.) How do you avoid eliciting a superior giggle from your audience, especially if the characters in question are an incompetent rube like Gillooly and his henchman Shawn, a morbidly obese, paranoid conspiracy theorist who still lives with his parents? Even the atrocious LaVona is laughable. She frequently appears with her pet bird perched on her shoulder.

Yet pathos is the defining motif, perhaps not for the two male morons or LaVona, but surely for Tonya, the lifelong punching bag of Mom (also a product of her class), who’s incapable of redemption. In the wake of the Kerrigan assault and at the height of the media circus that surrounded Tonya—celebrity that repelled and seduced her—LaVona approaches Tonya in a conciliatory manner, insisting she has loved her all along. Tonya, who has never stopped craving her mom’s affection, is eager to forgive her. It’s the abuse victim’s textbook response.

But reconciliation is not in the cards. Now an informer for the cops and wearing a wire, LaVona has arrived in sheep’s clothing, gently prodding her daughter with questions in order to entrap her into confessing her role in the crime. Mom is the ultimate betrayer, made all the more horrible because she’s the one you’re supposed to be able to trust when the chips are down. If ever there were an anti-feminist vision, this is it.

The movie also serves as a testimonial to lack of free will, making it clear that Tonya was fully shaped and informed by outside forces. Indeed, at one point Tonya faces the camera and scolds the audience for its complicity in creating her. After all, we’re the ones that embrace the cult of personality, no matter how degraded, and so does she.

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Children are the perfect vehicle for philosophical/psychological theories, and audiences lap it up. In 1956, Mervyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed brought to the screen Rhoda, a murderous little girl (Patty McCormack) who kills people because it’s in her genes to do so. She’s the descendant of a murderer. Rhoda has also mastered the art of sweetness and compliance.

The film, like the novel and Maxwell Anderson’s theatrical adaptation, argues for the predetermining impact of nature over nurture (a hot debate at the time), creating quite a stir and becoming a box-office smash. The film received a host of Oscar nominations, was remade as a TV movie in 1985, and there are now rumblings that Lifetime will remake it yet again with Rob Lowe at the helm. Biology as the central determinant has never lost its provocative appeal.

Six years later, William Wyler’s prescient and controversial The Children’s Hour (based on Lillian Hellman’s play) presented a vicious young teen emerging fully formed with neither lineage nor environment to blame. Like Rhoda mannerly and respectful, Mary (Karen Balkin) is an Iago in the making: a lying, manipulative child who boasts an uncanny ability to ferret out people’s vulnerabilities for the purpose of inflicting injury.

Her motivation-free wrath is targeted at two teachers (Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn) whose lives she destroys by spreading the rumor that they are having a lesbian affair. They are not, but what makes the story so unsettling—besides its pre-gay-liberation bigotry—is the fact that a homoerotic element is present in their relationship, and Mary intuitively gets it and exploits it.

In his 1963 film Lord of the Flies (adapted from William Golding’s groundbreaking novel,) Peter Brook brilliantly evoked the savagery of young boys marooned on an island and left to their own devices. The youngsters initially join forces for the common good, but within short order the alpha-males are competing with one another for power and brutally preying on the weakest. As time passes and rescue seems increasingly unlikely, they grow exponentially more treacherous until at the end, stripped of any remnants of civilization and its restraints, they revert to their most primitive, murderous natural selves. Golding’s unsentimental view defied the conventional wisdom among trendy pundits of the time that children were pure and good if they were only allowed to be themselves without constricting rules.

The book became a best-seller and was readapted as a film in 1990. Rumor has it that a new all-girl version is in the works. It sounds like a foolish and contrived idea that could either dramatize how fundamentally different girls are from boys and/or shed a satiric light on the original. Of course, there’s the possibility that the girls are ultimately as vicious as the boys.

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Horror flicks have always viewed children as victim (Halloween, Friday, the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street) or sources of terror (The Exorcist, The OmenAudrey Rose and Children of the Corn). In Carrie, the title character is both prey and predator. Remember, first she’s cruelly bullied and then all hell breaks loose as she releases her telekinetic powers on her tormenters.

I can’t help thinking—I know I’m going out on a limb here—that the scary marionettes, puppets, toys (e.g., Chucky) who are embodiments of evil and all the more terrifying because they’re inanimate may well be stand-ins for children too.

More usually, however, children, teenagers and young adults in films (of the realistic genre that is) are “alienated,” to use a dated word, and just plain misunderstood, the predecessors and heirs of Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield. Classics of the genre include Rebel Without a CauseA Clockwork OrangeThe GraduateFootloose and Rumble Fish.

Jason Reitman’s Oscar-winning Juno (2007)was an especially fine example of the breed and, at the same time, an original and contemporary departure in its 16-year-old pregnant protagonist (Ellen Page), a high-IQ, witty young woman who recognizes she has a real problem and, contrary to expectation, never grows sentimental or weepy-eyed over her unborn child.

Juno plans to abort (“I’d like to procure a hasty abortion,” she proclaims to the doctor’s receptionist), but ultimately decides to give the baby up for adoption. With her father’s help—this is a non-moralistic, new normal family—she meets with the well-heeled prospective parents who see her through her pregnancy. They pay her medical expenses and are all for an open adoption. These are the new normal adopters; they voice all the PC views and their home is right out of a home-decorating magazine.

Juno is simultaneously critical, envious and attached to them, becoming far too friendly with the future dad without understanding the implications. Despite everything, she’s an innocent and a romantic. She’s fallen in love with what and who the couple represents and experiences the most profound disappointment when she finds they are breaking up.

It’s not a pragmatic concern. She has no qualms about relinquishing her child to a single mom. It’s her need to believe in marriages that last and happy endings. Her responses are often startling and unexpected, yet fully credible. Most refreshingly counterintuitive, she has no regret at giving up the baby or her request that the adoption remain closed. Juno was a new type onscreen and deservedly won writer Diablo Cody the Oscar for best original screenplay.  

By contrast, this year’s quirky, outlier-girl-centric Oscar contender Lady Bird is predictable and, dare I say it, overrated. It’s generated heat in part because a young woman (Greta Gerwig) wrote and directed it, but short of that backstory, the material itself is not all that interesting, nicely acted and helmed though it may be.

An ambitious teenager (Saoirse Ronan) who feels disenfranchised from her working-class family and especially undervalued by her mom (Laurie Metcalf) comes to appreciate and embrace them. Along the way, she has her first sexual encounter, is disappointed in love, ditches her real pal for the cool girl (then sees the light) and is accepted into the college of her dreams despite the naysayers. Gosh, golly.

In all fairness, the competition this year is stiff. It’s hard not to pale in comparison to the out-of-the-box mavericks and fascinatingly twisted relationships rendered in such films as The Florida Project and I, Tonya.

And then there’s Call Me By Your Name, a truly lovely and visually sumptuous film that defies all expectations about the youthful outlier and his universe. Set in the vacation home of archaeology professor Samuel Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his family who are vacationing in Northern Italy, this movie—based on the lyrical novel of the same name by André Aciman—recounts an achingly beautiful love story between Perlman’s 17-year-old son Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and the attractive young doctoral student Oliver (Armie Hammer) who comes to work as Perlman’s intern.

This is one heady atmosphere where everyone is conversant in French and Italian and speaks knowledgeably about etymology and art, while Elio, bookish to the core, is an accomplished pianist who plays Bach and Liszt effortlessly.

It’s a culturally rich world that we rarely see onscreen, and while it’s easy to assume the family is liberal in its values and politics, nonetheless it’s 1983, when homosexuals were in the closet (or largely so) and, as such, Elio and Oliver’s evolving romance is clandestine and perhaps all the more erotic and intense because of it.

As told by screenwriter James Ivory (A Room with a View and Maurice) and director Luca Guadagnino, whose films (most notably I Am Love and A Bigger Splash) often deal with dangerous relationships, their attachment, destined to end, is devoid of self-pity, sensationalism or easy labeling.

An example: Elio has his first heterosexual encounter even as he’s clearly more drawn to Oliver, yet the viewer can’t say with assurance, “Oh, he’s bisexual,” or “Oh, he’s fighting his homosexuality.” It’s not that simple. Here love almost transcends sexuality, or they’re so intertwined that definitions are meaningless. None of this is to suggest that this story is universal. It celebrates its specificity. Also, it’s a consensual relationship—a hot-button issue today—with nothing exploitive about Elio’s experience. The seduction is mutual, even if Oliver is more mature and experienced.

But perhaps the most stunning element is Perlman’s discreet knowledge and acceptance of the affair. In the end, he gently talks to his son about his “special friendship” with Oliver, adding maybe it was more than friendship; he feigns ignorance to protect his son in the event Elio wants the relationship’s true nature to remain a secret. But either way Elio should have no regrets, says Perlman, admitting he came close to an experience of true love—he never uses the phrase “homosexual relationship”—but didn’t have the guts to follow through and has never stopped lamenting his loss. The father is as much an outlier as his son.

***

This could well be the beginning of a banner season for outliers, especially young ones. Buzz already surrounds Paul Dano’s Wildlife (a family disintegrating through the eyes of an adolescent boy); Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace (a teenage girl’s life with her dad off the grid); Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen (a suburbanite teen drawn to the skateboarding subculture); and Jennifer Fox’s timely The Tale (a mature woman’s memory of herself as a sexually molested child).

Sebastian Lelio’s Disobedience looks interesting as well. To judge by his earlier films, the provocative Gloria and even more envelope-pushing A Fantastic Woman, his latest—about a love affair between two young Hasidic women—should take gender and ethnic identity politics to a whole new level as it zeroes in on youthful outliers among one of the most fringe subcultures out there.

And finally there’s Craig William Macneill’s Lizzie. Yes, yet another spin on the infamous and endlessly fascinating “Lizzie Borden took an axe” tale in late 19th-century Massachusetts. Talk about an outlier!