The Holiday watchlist, Part 4: Coming of Age films

My next set of year-end movies fall under the ‘coming of age’ category, which has yielded several great films and acting performances over the past few years. All three films mentioned here are earning huge awards buzz and are likely to be competing for major Oscar honors in a few weeks.

Lady Bird: Since 2010, Greta Gerwig has become the darling of critics as one of the bright young acting talents in America, appearing in indie films like Greenberg, Frances Ha and Mistress America which tell contemporary stories about young, single Americans and their urban lives. These movies don’t really run in international markets – Europeans already make very good films of this sort while most Asian audiences would struggle to appreciate the ‘first world problems’ that young westerners deal with. Frankly, I’ve found Ms. Gerwig’s on-screen personas to be too self-centered for my liking, sort of like a female version of the neurotic characters played by Woody Allen. So when I heard that she had directed a semi-autobiographical movie, Lady Bird (with Saoirse Ronan as the lead), I was already prepared to dislike the experience of watching it. True enough, in the first half hour, I was irritated with Ronan’s teenage angst, self-centered behavior, embarrassment about her family’s lack of affluence and never-ending arguments with her hyper-critical mother (played convincingly by Laurie Metcalf). The mother-daughter dynamic is brought to life when at one point during one of their arguments, the mother says “Of course, I love you”, and the daughter asks, “But do you like me?”.

But as the film progresses, Lady Bird’s experiences at the strict Catholic High School bring about a transformation and self-realization in her and at the end I found myself rooting for this fierce girl who is so full of life and the desire to thrive. One of the key turning points happens late in the movie while she is reviewing her end of term essay with her nun teacher Sister Sarah. The teacher praises the essay and observes that Lady Bird has written about her home town of Sacramento with so much love; Lady Bird is surprised (because she has always wanted to get out of this town) and responds that all she did was to pay attention to her surroundings. And Sister Sarah responds saying, “Isn’t it the same thing? ‘Love’ and ‘Attention’?” At that moment, it seems like Lady Bird has also realized that her mother does love her, in spite of their constant arguing. The script is filled with these sort of insightful, real conversations that reveal the hearts and souls of the people on screen. This is definitely worth watching and filled with talented young actors like Timothée Chalamet (more about him soon), Lucas Hedges (who received an Oscar nom last year for Manchester by the Sea) and Beanie Feldstein. Saoirse Ronan is brilliant as always. I finished the movie thinking that I didn’t mind so much that Greta Gerwig is like Woody Allen and that like with Allen’s movies, I prefer it when Gerwig is behind the camera and uses another actor to bring her persona to life on the screen!

Call Me By Your Name: Italian director Luca Guadagnino finishes off his so-called “Desire trilogy” with this coming-of-age drama about a teenage boy Elio (Timothée Chalamet) who falls in love with a young man Oliver (Armie Hammer), who is interning with Elio’s archeologist father at their sprawling house in northern Italy in 1983. I loved the first two movies in the trilogy, also set in Italy – I am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2015) – and was surprised that they had not had wider releases, especially considering they featured heavyweight names like Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes. It looks like this third film is the one that will get Guadagnino the widespread exposure and acclaim that he deserves. This one has even better credentials, as the screenplay is written by none other than James Ivory. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy this movie as much as the other two! Besides the slow pacing, I found it difficult to identify with the idyllic lives of Elio and his beautiful friends who live in the beautiful countryside eating, cycling, swimming, sunbathing, dancing, playing volleyball, all in a semi-bored, desultory fashion. They reminded me of the Eloi in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. And then there is Armie Hammer’s American graduate student Oliver, who comes across as brash and opaque, conscious of his Adonis-like looks and toying with 17-year-old Elio’s feelings. Eventually, after an hour of the movie has elapsed, the two get into a full blown relationship which lasts for a couple of weeks until Oliver has to return to the US. Elio is heart-broken and there is a beautiful moment when he returns home after saying goodbye to Oliver; his father, the professor (Michael Stuhlbarg, in a wonderful, understated performance) speaks to him, letting him know that he was aware of what was going on, letting him know that he has just experienced something special and encouraging him not to shut away his feelings or try to escape the pain. It is advise delivered with selfless love (in such contrast with the selfish love of Lady Bird’s mother in the other movie), with compassion, sensitivity and with the wisdom and experience of a father. Chalamet’s final scene (set a few months later in winter) as he contemplates the memory of this precious, one-off relationship is heartbreaking; Sufjan Stevens’ song Visions of Gideon, playing in the background with the lyrics “I have loved you for the last time…” makes it even more poignant. This last act is so beautifully rendered that I have resolved to watch the movie a second time and try to better appreciate the first hour. There is no doubt that the film will be an awards contender in the coming weeks. I would also strongly recommend watching I am Love and A Bigger Splash. Keep an eye out for swimming pools; they are a big part of all three films, especially the first two.

The Florida Project: The third of the coming-of-age films that is making waves this season, this film is set in a motel in Florida, close to Disneyland. It focuses on 6-year-old Moonee who lives in the motel with her young mother Halley. Moonee spends her days running wild and playing mischief along with her friends. With a poor role model as a mother, Moonee ends up trying to behave like an adult, doing scams to get free ice cream, using foul language and being generally unrepentant about any of her mischief. The only compassionate character in the movie is the motel manager Bobby, played by Willem Defoe. Bobby makes sure the residents follow the rules and keeps the motel in running condition but he also goes above and beyond the call of duty and keeps an eye out for the kids and tries to help the residents as best as he can (tenancy laws require that the residents cannot have long-term stays in the motel, so Bobby helps the tenants check out for a day, spend a day at another motel and then check back in under a fresh tenancy). There isn’t much of a plot in this film and all it does it to show the emotional poverty in the modern day American society; these families are surrounded by modern trappings and conveniences but live a hollow life with no soul and no future. I was shocked at the behaviour of Moonee and the other kids (and was equally shocked that child actors could have been made to act and speak in this way in a movie). I could not identify with these people at all. I disliked Moonee and her mother intensely and was so happy when childcare services eventually show up at their door to take Moonee away! I would not recommend watching this film except as a docu-drama to understand the sad reality of parts of American society.

In my final post, I will cover three 2017 movies which tell incredible true stories – Battle of the Sexes, The Disaster Artist and All the Money in the World.

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