Monday, January 11, 2010

The Lovely Bones and Youth in Revolt

By Elise Nakhnikian

Two movies in theaters now, The Lovely Bones and Youth in Revolt, have something to say about the perils and pleasures of being a teenager in America. One aims straight at its target and misses, while the other lands close to the bull’s eye by going for laughs.

The Lovely Bones is a saccharine ode to suburban bliss mashed up with a Gothic tale about the murderer next door. Its abiding image is Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) staring at or past the camera with a look of wounded innocence, her eerie blue eyes piercing through to our world from the limbo she’s stuck in.

Susie’s in limbo because she was murdered by a serial killer who lives across the street from her perfect family, and she can’t rest until – well, it’s not clear what. Until she can “let go” of life? Face the details of her own death? Both?

Like the novel it’s based on, the movie is narrated by Susie from beyond the grave, making the fact of her murder one of the first things we learn about her. That makes the murder itself seem less awful, since she is now in a peaceful place, her own “perfect world.” (It also helps that the killing, when it comes, is handled with merciful restraint, though scary details are flashed at intervals later.)

Susie’s death is mainly a device used to add intensity to every detail of her foreshortened life – and of her family’s life after she’s gone (the title refers to the relationships created or strengthened between people she has left behind). It works well enough at first to keep me from being too bothered by how trite most of those details are, as Susie watches her devoted father (Mark Wahlberg) unfurl a ship in a bottle, exchanges shy looks with a dreamy boy (Reece Ritchie), and fondles a snow globe, feeling sorry for the snowman inside because he’s trapped there, alone in (yup) “a perfect world.”

But when Susie and her relatives failed to ripen into anything more than archetypes, I started to feel not so much shielded from the pain of her murder as deadened to it. If a character doesn’t feel real, her death doesn’t matter much.

The killing really counts in Heavenly Creatures (1994), another movie about teenage girls and murder by Lovely Bones director Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh, who cowrote both scripts. The central characters in Creatures are fierce, their relationship is intense and vivid, and the world they conjure up together feels original and primal. Jackson and Walsh may just have picked the wrong source material this time – Heavenly Creatures was based on a real case, not a melodramatic novel – but even the imagery in The Lovely Bones often seems hackneyed.

Youth in Revolt was also based on a novel, but C.D. Payne’s Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp is as smart, ironic, and casually profane as The Lovely Bones is earnest and sentimental.

Our hero is played by Michael Cera, so needless to say he’s endearingly awkward, soulful, and smart. He’s also a 16-year-old virgin, obsessed with sex in general – and with one girl in particular, the equally smart, self-aware Sheeni (Portia Doubleday). When the two are separated after a summer romance, Nick invents a ruthless alter ego and morphs from nice boy to reluctant juvenile delinquent, committing a series of increasingly devious acts to get Sheeni back.

Nick describes Sheeni as smart and mischievous, and that’s a good description for this movie, which keeps finding new ways to amuse us. Nick and his friends speak in a clipped, semi-formal shorthand that sounds like something Nick Hornsby might have written (“Like John Muir, I enter the wilderness with nothing more than my journal and a childlike sense of wonder,” Nick assures Sheeni when she expresses doubt that he’s dressed for a hike.)

Director Miguel Arteta throws in some sly comic commentary in visual form, like when he cuts from Nick falling in love at first sight to his face in the shower, water droplets falling in extreme slow motion as sappy music swells. Arteta and his editors also have a knack for ending a scene at the height of its absurdity.

The parents in this movie are as caricatured as the ones in The Lovely Bones are idealized, and their romantic partners are even worse. Making the most of the adults’ flagrant flaws is an excellent cast of comic actors, which includes Jean Smart as Nick’s narcissistic mother, Ray Liotta as a sociopathic cop who briefly dates her, and Fred Willard as a softhearted and softheaded neighbor.

But what gives this movie its heart is Cera’s gobsmacked reaction to all the egregiously bad behavior – including his own. Nick is like Harold and Kumar rolled into one, doing something outrageous while scolding himself from the sidelines.

I guess being a nice guy with an irresponsible alter ego is a pretty good metaphor for how it feels to thrash your way through the terrifying and exhilarating, frustrating and freeing emotional mosh pit of American adolescence.

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