Sunday, January 20, 2013

How to do coming of age--female edition

Just one of the many awkward moments in MARGARET.
Two films released in the last couple of years represent object lessons-- positive and negative, respectively -- in the dramatization of the coming of age of a young woman.

Margaret (2011), written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) is not so much a narrative as a core sample, both of the life of its protagonist, Lisa Cohen and of a strata of urban life, and the upper middle class of the Upper West Side of Manhattan in particular.  (Margaret is merely an allusion to a Gerard Manley Hopkin poem.)  Although there is a strong dramatic core that invokes questions of death and the meaning of life without strain, the film loses interest in such things from time to time, letting the camera wander about the landscape in a seemingly aimless fashion, although what it is doing is placing Lisa in her context.

The coming-of-age aspects Margaret touches on include political passion, pretentious language, conflict with parents, awkward sex with contemporaries, inability to express real affection, inappropriate sexual attraction to adults, resistance of threatened step-parents, the desire to engage in a cause bigger than herself, and a need for self-expression greater than her need to understand others.  But the saving grace of Margaret is the way it sets its story against the tapestry of New York and its battered and brittle inhabitants.  No one listens to anyone else and Jeannie Berlin plays what might be the most impossibly irritating character in the history of film, constantly asking people to explain themselves, and continuing to shout over them as they try to answer her.  Nearly everything she hears is an insult or an affront.  By herself she virtually stands for an entire substrata of New York -- the Umbrage People.

(This is a movie so rich that Matthew Broderick can show up just to read the poem that provides the title of the film, Mark Ruffalo can be dealt with in two short scenes and Alison Janney is on hand solely for the purpose of being hit by a bus.  Seems like hard work to be Ken Lonergan's friend!)

 Cierra Ramirez (left). Remember her. Eva Mendes is in it, too.
Margaret seems more like a time capsule than a coming-of-age, whereas Girl in Progress (2012) seems to have been built from a literature class diagram of the bildungsroman.  The youngster in question even organizes her maturation around a checklist of to-dos.  Dye hair, go emo, lose virginity, learn to drive, yada, yada, yada.  Are you paying attention?  The film is actually announcing exactly how formulaic and robotic it intends to be. Girl in Progress and Margaret have virtually identical de-virginization scenes (they both deliberately pick heartless idiots as partners), but where Girl intends to be smart and funny and incorporates a twist meant to be satiric (she rejects the boy because he expresses tenderness), it falls into the trap of teenagers being a heartless pack of jackals.  Lisa's degradation is small and personal; Anciedad's becomes public in a way unfamiliar to people who live among human beings rather than endlessly recycled movie archetypes.  So sad to see a film toss away an opportunity for insight and character growth in favor of a very unpleasant and tired cliche.

There is life in Girl in Progress, which comes from the powerful dynamic between mother Eva Mendes and the whip-smart Cierra Ramirez.  One of the reasons I want to stay alive for another 20 years is to see this generation of brilliant young actresses -- Ellen Page, Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence, and add Ms. Ramirez to this list.   (I don't include Anna Paquin, star of Margaret to this list, because I suspect that she is so intelligent she may well have retired from acting in 20 years.)  Ramirez is consistently better than her material, real and precise; I am concerned that she has come from and has now returned to television, which relies on a lot of freeze-dried refried acting...I hope she will get away from that as soon as she can.  As soon as she comes of age.

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