Easy A

Remember when Superbad was released and everyone was freaking out about what a great teen film it was? Did you wonder why the story didn’t include the ways girls break the rules in high school? I did. But the film did have a minor yet interesting female role, Jules, who was made memorable by the candid humor of newcomer Emma Stone. In Easy A, Stone effortlessly tackles her first starring role, and presents a realistic story of teenage identity, friendship, and the challenges of self-discovery.

Olive is a smart and funny, albeit socially invisible, high school student. After being badgered for details about her weekend by her potty-mouthed best friend, Olive lies about losing her virginity to an imaginary guy. One lie leads to another and soon Olive is supposedly sleeping with half the school—mostly misfits and outcasts excluded for being gay, fat, or anything else that doesn’t align with the heteronormative high school experience. Emboldened by her reputation, Olive embraces martyrdom and actively plays into the role she’s inherited. She hypersexualizes her wardrobe and stitches a scarlet letter “A” to her chest. However, while the reputations of the fellas she claims to have provided favors to blossom from the fruits of imaginary intercourse, Olive’s life becomes more complicated and lonely.

Eschewing just enough raunch to earn a PG-13 rating, first-time screenwriter Burt V. Royal’s script subtly navigates the tenuous relationship between reputation and reality, while attempting to leave its protagonist with agency. One brief yet poignant scene calls into question teen dating violence, male privilege, and the commodification of the female body. The painful relevance of these moments is cushioned by the accessibility of the dialogue and Stone’s fearless goofiness.

Director Will Gluck could have easily relied on his leading lady’s searing wit and deadpan delivery to carry the film; instead, he enabled Stone’s performance with a dynamic supporting cast of positive, if flawed, role models. As Olive’s trusting yet concerned parents, Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci offer consistent comic relief, and Thomas Hayden Church and Lisa Kudrow make welcome returns to the big screen as faculty members battling their own deviant behavior.

Stone is also equally matched by her peers. Amanda Bynes’ ironically pious villain is a refreshing turn away from the predictable good girls of her past, and Gossip Girl’s Penn Badgley is an adorable reminder of the exciting innocence of first love.

The bottom line is you either like teen movies or you don’t. If you’re like me, or my friend Sabrina who sat next to me squealing every time John Hughes was referenced, you grew up with the teen classics of the eighties and spent your twenties believing that quirky outcasts, like Pretty in Pink’s Andie, transcend high school politics, and Mr. Right is a unique hybrid of Lloyd Dobbler, John Bender, and Happy Harry Hard-On. With Olive, Gluck and Royal have given a new generation of female viewers a different kind of teen fantasy: the girl they want to become instead of the boy they want to date. This makes Easy A a teen film representative of its time.

Cross-posted at Elevate Difference

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High Water

In his second full-length documentary, High Water, surf journalist Dana Brown composes a love letter to Hawaii’s North Shore by chronicling the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing big wave competition. Home to the largest rideable waves on the planet and nicknamed “The Seven Mile Miracle,” this stretch of sand is the place where legends are made; a natural Mecca for those who worship the sea and a place where one wave can change your life. The son of famed surf photographer and documentarian Bruce Brown, whose 1966 documentary The Endless Summer was the first to bring attention and awareness to surfing, Dana Brown grew up on beaches around the world, saturated in surf culture. Concerned that surfing has been eroded into a competitive sport and lucrative commodity, Brown was inspired to capture what he fears are the final glory days of a lifestyle choice rooted in love for the planet and a deep commitment to community.

Perhaps the most obvious difference in the changing surf landscape is the proliferation of female bodies on the North Shore, where the women’s pro-tour garners nearly as much attention as the men’s, both in sponsorship and spectators. Brown relates this point via the development of women’s surf clothes, currently a billion dollar industry that was nonexistent twenty years ago. There is a loyalty among surfers that is unique to a competitive sports environment, and an absence of traditional social markers like race and gender. Surprisingly, all of the men interviewed by Brown were receptive and supportive of the growing participation of women, though the sport has been historically male dominated and testosterone fueled.

Local legend and infamous badass Sunny Garcia grew up on the North Shore, where surfing is a private and personal relationship to your environment and your community with distinct places of belonging. If you’re not getting your ass kicked by the ocean, you have just as good a chance getting it kicked on shore. The contrast is that these hyper-masculine bodies who punch each other’s lights out over a wave are the same bodies that channel the energy of the sea and navigate the movement of the most powerful waves on the planet.

The submission to and respect for something much larger than humanity is what makes Brown’s film as inspirational as it is educational. Interviews with surfers, lifeguards, photographers, parents, and craftsman all with their own personal anecdotes, mythical stories, and life philosophies form a collective voice paying homage to the supreme authority of the ocean. The most powerful example of this is illustrated by the response to the death of competitor Malik Joyeux, one of the best big wave riders of his generation. Taking to the water, friends, family, and competitors sit on their boards in a giant circle, splashing laughing and crying out “Malik” as a helicopter rains flowers from above.

Whether you’re a surfer, an ocean lover, or neither of the two, High Water is an emotional tribute to “meaningful meaninglessness” and a reminder of what awesome beauty exists in our own backyard.

Cross-posted at Elevate Difference

Picture Me

There is a moment in Picture Me, a documentary about the fashion industry, where model Sara Ziff’s father recalls hearing his daughter’s look described as the girl next door. The camera closes up on Ziff in a two page Tommy Hilfiger ad. “I guess that depends where you live,” her father quips, flippantly alluding to the exclusive world of high fashion. Filmed largely by Ziff and then boyfriend Ole Schnell, Picture Me documents Ziff’s developing modeling career from her first trip to Paris at eighteen to her eventual burn out at twenty-three and, along the way, exposes the human side of an industry built on solely on image.

Picture Me began as a homemade video diary and it maintains that feeling throughout. Adorable, sometimes cynical, animation by The Boos punctuates the various themes of the film. The visuals of notebooks and grade-school graffiti offer a consistent reminder of disrupted youth and the choice to forgo education; many of these models are simply schoolgirls, invited into this world as young as twelve and aged out by their mid-twenties.

I commend Ziff’s bravery for sharing her personal experience; however, I was disappointed by the lack of attention given to the privileged position she was in, especially in regards to physical appearance. “Modeling just happened to me,” Ziff states as she recounts being approached on the street as she walked home from school on day. Yeah, it happened to you because you’re tall, skinny, and blonde and you were walking down the street in New York City. Turns out Ziff’s ambivalence is rooted in deeper emotional issues such as putting off college. She also struggles with the age-old dilemma of using her body as a commodity by comparing modeling to stripping and when shortly into her career she begins to out earn her father, a college professor, Ziff wonders why she should make so much money for being “pretty and on time.”

This film is rife with contemporary social issues, especially around work and women’s bodies. Most interesting were the admissions by the models who share everything from being sexually assaulted by photographers to being told they are fat in a host of different languages. The models interviewed are cognizant of the way they are being treated, like a “robot” or a “prop” but are unaware of how to resist or respond. Ziff offers many of the most poignant insights herself—“Skinny is power. And it’s the one thing you can control.”—and her relationships with the other models are refreshingly sincere and drama-free. Unfortunately, the filmmakers missed an opportunity to connect their story to a broader social context and the many feminist issues are either ignored or under-developed.

Nonetheless, Picture Me is an excellent platform for discussion and would serve well as an educational tool, especially for media entrenched teens.

Cross-posted at Elevate Difference

Going the Distance

When I first read about this film in the making, I was psyched. I’m a huge Drew Barrymore fan, and it appeared that finally, a romantic comedy was in the works that presented a more modern interpretation of male female relationships. It looked like it might actually include both sides of the story rather than just a fairy tale version of the woman’s desire to be desired.

Mission accomplished… sort of. A reflection of a modern day romance challenged by location, work, and common fears of intimacy, Going the Distance takes a small step on the road to diversifying the romantic comedy genre. But it’s a slippery slope, especially in the Hollywood Hills. I’m certain that many viewers will see themselves and their relationships reflected on screen; I know I did. However, both the plot and dialogue reinforce a dominant misconception of feminist thought—in order for women to heard, and in this case dateable, they have to join the boys club.

Going the Distance chronicles the courtship of Erin (Barrymore) and Garrett (Justin Long) as they meet, fall for each other, and struggle to maintain their relationship between NYC and San Francisco. Erin and Garret are introduced at a bar when he discovers she is ERL, the Centipede videogame high-scorer he has been working to beat. Flabbergasted that ERL is a girl, the rest of their evening follows suit as the beautiful Erin chugs beer, devours chicken wings, and trades crass jokes with the dudes. Apparently this behavior is just what it takes to get the commitment-phobic Garrett to fall in love. The reality of Long and Barrymore’s off-camera relationship is impossible to separate from that of the characters they play in the film, but it works. While many moments are contrived, the chemistry between the two is infectious, especially in the beginning when the cinematography fools you into thinking you’re watching a documentary.

Taking a cue from Knocked Up, Going the Distance offers the bulk of its humor via the supporting cast of men and fails in providing another interesting female character. Garrett’s overly-involved buddies Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis steal every scene they are in, whether by dj’ing the couple’s hook-up or convincing Garrett to grow a moustache in order to pick up older ladies. Erin’s support comes in the form of a cynical, disapproving sister, the always enjoyable Christina Applegate. Just like Leslie Mann in Knocked Up, Applegate’s character is dull and stereotypical forcing the usually hilarious actress to idle through meager screen time and meaningless dialogue.

Barrymore is one of the few ladies in Hollywood with some real power in her pocket and, flawed as it may be, does her part to shift the traditional perception of women in film in favor of a more realistic, multi-dimensional character. When a co-worker asks where she is going, Erin, a grad-student and aspiring reporter, who have just been through the wringer with her editor, retorts, “I’m thirty-one and I’m an intern. I’m getting wasted.” As a thirty-one-year-old aspiring writer who has recently applied for a few internships herself, I immediately resonated with this character. As the film develops we watch Erin struggle with building a career in a dying industry, falling in love and eventually, having to choose between the two.

Cross-posted at Elevate Difference

Despicable Me

A few years ago my eleven year old sister was writing an essay on violence in school. During our discussion of different types of violence she astutely pointed out that not all violence is physical, and that a mean comment can be just as violent as a punch in the face. This led to an involved conversation about bullies in which, at one point, my sister looked at me and said “I think bullies are mean to the kids at school because no one is nice to them at home. No one is giving them love.”

Despicable Me is the story Gruu (Steve Carell), a young boy whose dreams of traveling in space were thwarted by an uncaring mother resulting in a grown-up bully most proud of being the world’s greatest villain. That is until he is bested by the younger, sleeker Vector (Jason Segal) and must enlist three orphaned girls in his grand plan to steal the moon.  While the title suggests that this is a film about a villain and his despicable acts, it is truly a love story about the bonds of parenthood, and the many ways people become family.

Like many animated features Despicable Me appeals to both adults and children by providing timely social commentary amidst silly sights and situations. The beauty of animation is that it allows imaginary caricatures to perform acts that are very real, and very human.  The title alone is a reflection of the human condition, for any one of us can be the “me” in question, participating in any variety of despicable acts on a daily basis.  As the titular Me, Steve Carell adds another credit to his list of bumbling anti-heroes we love to see succeed. Though his accent is mildly distracting, audiences will recognize the same humble wit that endears us to him week after week on The Office. Segal is equally impressive as Vector, a geek turned villain in response to a consistently disappointed father. But it is the always awesome Kristen Wiig who is perhaps the most despicable of all. As orphanage headmistress Miss Hattie Wiig delivers her lines like glass of sweet tea with razor ice cubes – sugary sweet and viciously sharp all in the same mouthful. Clearly a jab at the adoption system, as well as gender and class privilege, she callously sends Margot, Edith and Elsie out the door with the despicable Gruu, who offers no credentials or identification but is simply disguised as a doctor.

While the film neglects one of my cardinal rules of feminist filmmaking – positive female role models, it did call into question traditional roles of masculinity, especially in response to parenthood. Margot, Edith, and Elsie were role models in their own right, emulating and each serving as a manifestation of responsibility (Margot), skepticism (Edith), and unquestioning affection (Elsie). In addition to having some of the funniest lines in the film, the sister’s camaraderie and confidence in their own relationship, as well as their unconditional love for each other and those around them, is what eventually turns Gruu from super bad, to Super Dad.

Cross-posted at Elevate Difference