Film Review: Liza, Liza, Skies Are Grey

Tender romance careens into 'Deliverance' territory and back again in the cloudy ‘60s-set drama 'Liza, Liza, Skies Are Grey.'
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A choice soundtrack goes a long way towards setting the mood for any halfway decent ’60s-set teenage movie romance. Credit is due then to Liza, Liza, Skies Are Grey music supervisor Susan Dolan and writer-director Terry Sanders, who, prompted perhaps as much by indie-sized budget constraints as by eclectic tastes, have assembled for this halfway decent movie romance a truly memorable soundtrack.

Featuring songs from admirably left-field artists like late rockabilly vocalist Donnie Brooks and activist-musician Buffy Sainte-Marie, this coming-of-age drama is underscored by a host of tunes (not all from the ‘60s) that evoke emotions, time and place without the aid of easy familiarity. Unfortunately, that air of originality does not extend far beyond the film’s playlist.

While Liza, Liza does offer a remarkably clear-eyed depiction of blossoming teenage sexuality, the film otherwise sticks squarely to the script in its tale of a pampered California princess who falls for a motorcycle-riding bad boy from back East. High schoolers Liza (Mikey Madison) and Brett (Sean H. Scully) meet in summer youth orchestra, and soon she’s ditched her cello to hop on the back of his Triumph and ride with him off into desert sunsets. They frolic and fight, run into some trouble along the road, discover real love, and…after that fateful summer, she’ll never be the same.

It’s not spoiling much to report that Liza’s vain, self-involved mother—played by Kristin Minter in a broadly sketched portrait of bourgeois ennui—doesn’t approve of the teens’ romance. Melodrama of this order needn’t deviate far from the expected in order to be effective as long as the atmosphere’s rich, the love and suffering’s heart-rending, and there’s some distinction in the details. One slightly distinguishing aspect of Liza and Brett’s ingenuous journey is the specter of the atomic bomb, which according to Sanders loomed toxically over every beam of hope harbored by good girls and bad boys in the summer of ’66. But another glaring detail, and one that diminishes this story’s effectiveness, is that, as written and cast, bad boy Brett is about as threatening as melted ice cream.

Despite his tousled hair, leather biker jacket and the fact that he dares in late-‘60s southern California to fraternize with one black friend, Brett seems the type of bright, respectful boy that Liza’s uptight mother (who refers to herself as “uptight”) might be inclined to invite over for iced tea around the pool. Instead, she forbids Liza to see him, a tired move signaling the woman’s pointless scorn for her rather well-behaved daughter. It also serves as a convenient plot device to jumpstart Liza and Brett’s runaway odyssey, which takes several strangely lewd turns before the kids end up back pretty much where they started.

In encounter after encounter, the film appears one ripped blouse away from devolving into a craven Last House on the Left clone, with 15-year old Liza and 16-year old Brett having to fight off vindictive hicks, lusty swingers and one extremely creepy motel manager. Drifting unsurely from scenes of the couple’s fairytale, lovestruck bliss to      moments of gritty, grindhouse suspense, Liza, Liza doesn’t cohere in tone or purpose.  And the two leads’ uninspiring performances have no galvanizing effect. For the most part, their line readings are as flat as cinematographer Erik Daarstad’s tightly framed, high-definition video compositions.

Writer-director Sanders, making his narrative feature debut after decades of directing Academy Award-winning nonfiction fare, crafts a few showcase bits for supporting actors like Sonya Eddy as a good samaritan whom our runaways meet along the lost highway. And John-Paul Lavoisier, as a character named Harold, nails the laid-back wolfishness of the guy who gets Liza home and makes a pass that turns into sexual assault with scary and convincing swiftness. It’s unclear who exactly Harold is supposed to be—Liza’s stepdad, her mother’s boyfriend, a predatory neighbor? Essentially, he’s just another device to hammer home the film’s bleak message: that even before the days of Snapchat and internet porn, unsupervised open highways were no place for innocent little rebels without a cause.

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