Girl in Progress

This movie kind of pissed me off because it put me in a bind that I often find myself in: Story about a teenage girl – awesome! And her relationship with her single, working mom – yes! Directed by a woman – boom! Unfortunately, just like my last relationship, everything looks great on paper but once you’re in it you realize it’s just a big ol’ mess.

This is the story of Aniesdad (Cierra Ramirez) a 15 year old girl and the only child of Grace (Eva Mendes). Grace is a self-absorbed waitress who favors time with a married man (Matthew Modine) over spending time with her daughter – or paying bills, grocery shopping, doing laundry.  In order to detach from her mother completely, Aniesdad is trying to execute her own initiation into adulthood and does so by staging her own coming of age story through culturally significant yet destructive rites of passage.

Ramirez is a refreshing newcomer whose detachment from/desire for her mother’s love is one of the only genuine elements of this film. The actress herself is an actual teenager so maybe this has something to do with the honesty behind her performance. Girl also follows the traditional pattern in young adult female driven stories of the protagonist being disconnected,  or somehow estranged, from her mother. While I recognize that struggling against authority and, more or less, hating your Mom is part of the process of being a teenager, I wish there were more films with positive Mom characters. Mom’s who daughters look up to. Mom’s whom daughters admire, despite their flaws. Mom’s who become better because of their relationship to their children. Save for her 5-minute makeover at the end of the film (which I totally didn’t buy!), Grace is continually selfish and unlikable. Mendes is usually someone I like to watch but here her charm reads as falseness and Grace remains unsympathetic and distant. Writer Hiram Martinez’s attempts to give her some sense of humanity through her struggles at work and fleeting moments of motherly affection don’t translate. This is a film about a struggling single mom the way Bad Teacher was a film about a struggling high school teacher.  Not really. At all. Moments like these make me wonder if it is possible for men to write honest female characters. It doesn’t happen often and certainly didn’t here.

Something I found to be really careless about the film was its attitude towards dating violence. Rated PG-13, and billed as a Comedy/Drama, the target audience for this film is clearly high school girls. Considering that approximately 1 in 5 female high school students report being physically and/or sexually abused by a dating partner, and these numbers are even higher in Latina populations, I think Martinez could’ve opted out of lines like “Becky can’t come to work; she had a fight with a flight of stairs” when referring to one of the waitresses at the restaurant where Grace works. Certainly, director Patricia Riggin could’ve made a different choice. More disturbing than the careless dialogue are the interactions between Tavita (Raini Rodriguez), Aniesdad’s best friend, and the boy who tells her “I’m not your boyfriend no matter what we do in your basement.” He shoves her at one point and grabs Aniesdad at another. It happens so casually and it is just accepted by both the characters. If it’s a subversive choice by the filmmakers, I missed. I just found it upsetting.

Girl In Progress does manage to usurp the tradition of providing young female characters with male role models. Aniesdad seeks guidance from her English teacher; a surprising appearance by Patricia Arquette and Grace is treated with dignity by the wife of the man with whom she’s having an affair. The woman politely and privately lets her know she’s fired yet still acts with empathy towards Aniesdad. This was a refreshing choice even if it was totally unbelievable that Matthew Modine, his character or the real him, would ever end up with either of these women.  And, even though there was very little attention given to heritage or cultural experiences, it was nice to watch a film with some non-white faces.

Overall, the film was much more mature than the creators were prepared for.  It raises the question of some serious issues facing teenagers that can affect the type of adults they become. The film was released on Mother’s Day and I only hope that the mothers who saw this film with their daughters are also having conversations about the realities of coming of age. Telling them that you can’t create or even choose the experiences that make you an adult; it happens when you least expect it and in ways that are harsh, scary, and beautiful. I hope those same mothers, unlike Grace, are allowing their daughters to see their vulnerabilities and their strengths because as we grown-ups know, this life isn’t so easy. And the line between childhood and adulthood isn’t so clearly defined.

Cross posted at LoveYALit

Mirror Mirror

                                “She wins who calls herself beautiful and
                          challenges the world to change to truly see her.”
                                     Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth

There have been countless retellings of the Snow White story over the years. American’s are most familiar with Disneys 1937 animated version based on the Grimm Brothers’ story of Little Snow White.  Snow White was Walt Disney’s first motion picture hence marks the birth of the original Disney Princess. The Snow White story is my favorite of the all the princess tales because it explores a fascinating aspect of female gender privilege and power: beauty. It also is a classic mean girl tale ever so relevant considering the incidence of bullying in our nation’s schools. Mirror Mirror is Disney’s updated version of the classic tale and might be the studio’s first successful attempt at creating a feminist fairy tale.

The basic premise of the story is the same but with a few modernized plot lines: the Queen (Julia Roberts) has manipulated her way into power and is taxing her citizens into poverty in order to maintain her lifestyle. Her obsession with her own vanity and jealousy over the beauty of her step-daughter, Snow White (Lily Collins) drive her to order that the girl be taken to the forest and killed.  Snow White is set free by the huntsman ordered to kill her and left in the woods where she befriends a crew of dwarf bandits. 7 to be exact.  On is the smart one. One is the mean one. One thinks he’s a wolf. And then there’s the creepy one. Seriously, one of the dwarfs hits on her the whole time and it gets a little weird.  Snow White realizes the conditions of her kingdom and enlists the bandits to help return the money to the people. It’s all very Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Oh yeah, and there is a Prince (Armie Hammer – who is just about as cute as his name). Plus, a beast that lives in the woods.

Director Tarsem Singh creates a handful of visually enticing moments but everything evokes the feeling of something we’ve already seen.  Guests of the Queen resemble residents of The Hunger Games’ Capitol. In Singh’s version The Queen walks through her mirror into this odd other world where she enters an igloo made out of straw and converses with her own reflection – which looks like an Austen character painted white. It’s very Alice in Wonderland meets Lord of the Rings. The effect of it distracts from the poignancy of the message – that vanity is our greatest weakness. The evil of Roberts’ Queen is less sinister more jovial heartlessness rooted in sincere delusion – a cross between Meryl Streep in the Devil Wears Prada and any one of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

The best part of Singh’s re-visioning is Snow White herself. Reintroducing the original Disney Princess in the image of what an actual princess might look like – a political figure, heir to a throne, fighting for her country – is a welcome change to the traditional character who had very little personality beyond beauty. In fact, Snow White 2012 is immediately introduced as curious and thoughtful, if not a little naïve. On her 18th birthday she sneaks off castle grounds into the town and returns with opinions and accusations about how the Queen is ruling the kingdom. It marks a significant identity shift, a coming of age moment when she steps into the skin of the woman she is to become: a leader.

Similar to Katniss Everdeen, another brave teen girl on the silver screen right now, this Snow White is not a helpless child or a detached beauty queen. She doesn’t frolic around the woods singing and chatting up woodland animals until her Prince comes to rescue her. For both of these girls, beauty, as well as romance, is a luxury.  It’s just a distraction from the reality of their lives – survival, protection and helping their country. It is a powerful message for both girls and women; a reminder that we can easily become our own Evil Queen so committed to our vanity that we have less time, confidence and energy to do what’s really important in our lives.

Cross posted at Sadie Magazine.

Note: If you are interested in another unique perspective on Snow White try author Gregory Maguire’s adaptation,  Mirror Mirror.

Katniss Everdeen: Girl

Adrienne Rich died today. I saw the news as I was editing and preparing to post this article. The following quote informs exactly what I was exploring when writing this piece and what I seek to communicate to all the girls out there on the verge of losing themselves and those who may never find out.

“No woman is really an insider in the institutions fathered by masculine consciousness. When we allow ourselves to believe we are, we lose touch with parts of ourselves defined as unacceptable by that consciousness.”

The Hunger Games debuted the first of the trilogy’s film adaptations last weekend to record-breaking success. It had the highest grossing opening weekend for a film that wasn’t a sequel. The top two are Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and The Dark Knight, which makes THG the highest grossing opening weekend for a film with a female protagonist! I have been doing a lot of thinking, talking and reading about THG and I am writing this because I am disappointed in the lack of discussion around gender. Many are celebrating Katniss for being a gender-neutral character and the conversation seems to be defining gender-neutral as meaning boys like her, too. In order for this character to be gender-neutral it would have to not matter that she is a girl. And, to the citizens of Panem, or in the Arena, maybe it doesn’t. But, for American audiences, it does. And here’s why.

1. Female protagonists are few and far between

In both literature and film males vastly outnumber female protagonists. Studies have shown that, while females regularly view movies with male leads, males are less likely to view films with a female lead. From personal experience, as someone who seeks out female driven stories, I can say I have read way more books with interesting female characters than seen films, especially in the teen genre.  Considering the harmful effect media images have on girls specifically, it is extra important that Katniss has become a film character accessible to girl viewers.

2. Katniss is a girl created by a girl

Just as it is for characters, gender disparity is present in the creation of these characters. Men out number women in all areas of publishing as well as producing, directing and writing films. This has resulted in what researchers have coined the “male gaze” meaning all characters, whether male or female, are created from the male point of view and satisfy a heteronormative masculine desire. Men and women have different experiences in the world that are directly related to their gender and this makes their perspective vastly different. A hero is defined as an ordinary person in extraordinary situation. When creating a hero Suzanne Collins chose a girl to be that extraordinary person and in doing so created an entirely different narrative. A girl’s story.  The more these stories are told the more our ideas about gender and gender roles change and then maybe it really won’t matter that she’s a girl.

Note: Suzanne Collins also wrote the screenplay – double bonus for Hollywood!

3. Katniss redefines “girl”

The cultural standard of human behavior is defined by the behavior of men. This is something feminist scholars, activists and others work to disrupt however we still exist in a reality where woman is defined as “other” and “different.” It is usually these differentiating characteristics that we devalue. Because Katniss is a girl every time she operates outside a traditional female assigned behavior she challenges a stereotype and every time she participates it adds value to the female experience. It also fully reflects one of the primary tenets of feminism: the freedom to choose. When we put a girl like Katniss on the screen – one who is tough, resilient, strong, caring, loyal, loving, protective, responsible, focused – she creates a new image in which girls can see themselves. She also presents a new image in which boys see girls –as individuals worthy of being friends with rather than sexual objects for them to play with.

4. Katniss is a fighter

I am a big believer in teaching girls to fight (and NOT WITH OTHER GIRLS!) Now, you may hear this and think of a physical response. And you know what, sometimes that is part of it. What I am really talking about is inspiring the fight inside a girl to be brave, to be strong, and to persevere. As a culture, we teach that to boys but we teach girls to depend on someone else, to let someone else fight for them. Or we teach them not to care. We distract them with things like clothes, make-up, and boyfriends. Katniss learned to fight out of necessity but she never compromises her integrity when doing so. In fact, being a girl, influences not only how she fights (with her head and her heart) but also what she is fighting for (ultimately, freedom for Panem and all its citizens).

5. Katniss is motivated by love

An essay by Mary Borsellino had me thinking about Katniss as a character who is motivated by love and the political implications of those choices. Because love has traditionally been assigned as a female emotion, a female character has more agency to act with love then a male character. When they do, it activates a non-traditional power source to which women have access and thus the potential to instigate change. This translates to the real world as well but, as history has shown us, women are often afforded more opportunity when following the dominant pattern of success (if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em). This is usually because female associated behaviors such as love, compassion, relationships are also seen as weaknesses. However, successful leaders who usurp this model have often been male such as Ghandi and MLK Jr.  Because she is driven by love – supporting her family, honoring Rue’s death, saving Peeta’s life – Katniss emulates a new way of doing that disrupts the culture of competition that measures success by individual achievement rather than what is good for the whole. Because she succeeds, her story tells us that it’s OK love and, on another level, that it is OK to be a girl. Both strong messages that we could all stand to be reminded of more often.

The thing is, Katniss Everdeen is a unique representation of girlhood that is far more common than Hollywood would have you believe.  Her presence in the pop cultural landscape is important, especially in a medium that legions of teens have access to, because she is changing the way we view youth, culture and gender.

And, yes, it matters that she’s a girl.

5 YA novels that need to be (good) films

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli – An adorable and touching tale about a unique teen with an open heart, who is fearless of being herself, and the uncertain boy who is charmed by her. Apparently Nickelodeon bought the rights and Paul Feig of Freaks and Geeks notoriety was enlisted to adapt the script. Where is it?

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’engle – A socially awkward teen and her precocious four year old brother travel through time, with the help of three witches, to rescue their scientist father who is trapped in another dimension. There was a Disney TV movie but the characters were way too young and it was kind of lame. I’d like to see an indie version or even a Hollywood crack at it.

Flush by Carl Hiaasen – Set in South Florida, like most of Hiaasen’s stories, the son and daughter of a activist/political vigilante boating Captain take on their father’s quest to expose a casino boat that’s dumping sewage into local waters.

My Earth, My Butt and Other Big, Round Things by Carolyn Mackler – A less then physically perfect teen who feels like an outcast in her cookie cutter family discovers her voice and the key to her own redemption when her brother is accused of date-rape.

Beautiful Girls by Beth Ann Bauman – This collection of short stories beautifully depicts coming-of-age through an array of female characters. Would be great as a series of vignettes or flushing out one of the stories for a full-length feature.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story

It’s not very often that people take the time to explore the mind of a teenager and it’s even less frequent that this exploration takes place on the Silver Screen. In the current cultural climate, teenagers are nearly an endangered species; 1.6 million are homeless, and those fortunate enough to have a roof over their heads face daily struggles with bullying, body image, sexual predators, and the intense stress of a failing educational system. Even, or maybe especially, those of privilege, who come from stable homes and elite educational institutions are crippled by an overwhelming expectation to succeed.

In It’s Kind of a Funny Story Craig (Keir Gilchrist) is one of the latter: a white, upper class, sixteen-year-old whose anxiety level is so unbearable that he checks himself into a psychiatric ward out of fear that he may commit suicide. Merely moments after being committed, Craig is faced with the reality of his decision—a schizophrenic wanders the halls shouting, his roommate hasn’t left his bed for weeks, and hospital policy requires Craig stay for a minimum of five days. Except for the presence another young patient, Noelle (played by the charming Emma Roberts), Craig is certain he doesn’t belong there. Yet, over the course of a school week, Craig receives an alternate education in life, love, and self-discovery. And believe it or not, it is kind of a funny story.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who co-wrote and co-directed the film, have an exceptional ability for constructing emotionally vibrant stories that focus on what are often perceived to be deviant relationships. In 2006’s award-winning Half Nelson, the duo chronicled the cathartic friendship between a meth-addicted middle school teacher and his adolescent student. It’s Kind of a Funny Story also utilizes this dynamic to further explore the invisible barrier between youth and adults when Craig befriends Bobby (Zack Galifianakis), a fellow patient more than twice his age. And just as Half Nelson created a space for the unheard voices of addicts and inner city youth, It’s Kind of a Funny Story breaks the silence of another pair of marginalized groups: teenagers and the mentally ill.

Gilchrist is effectively genuine in portraying Craig’s awareness of his inner turmoil while lacking the ability to articulate it. Instead of weighing down the script with gratuitous dialogue, the film journeys into Craig’s mind through the use of flashback, animation, and one kick-ass rock ‘n roll fantasy. Though his role in The Hangover has practically guaranteed Galifianakis a career as the peculiar yet hilarious sidekick, It’s Kind of a Funny Story offers the North Carolina School of the Arts alum an opportunity to transcend typecasting and delve into a more nuanced and dimensional character. Galifianakis nails it. Without saying a word, he has the ability to be both hilarious and touching while offering Craig a chance to do what he was unable to on the outside: just live. Free from confines of parental expectations and a highly competitive peer group, Craig liberates not only himself, but those around him.

Ultimately, the lesson in this film is one of perspective. It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a heartfelt reminder that even flawed adults can be role models and the minds of the youth are worth inhabiting.

Cross-posted at Elevate Difference