Monday, December 27, 2010

Black Swan and The Fighter

Like two of director Darren Aronofsky’s other critical darlings, Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, Black Swan is about people – in this case, a driven diva struggling to master the part of the swan queen in a top-notch New York ballet company – who push their bodies to the limit in a search for transcendence. It’s also a horror-tinged melodrama, whose aural and visual head fakes and sometimes jittery handheld camera elicit visceral responses at regular intervals.

The Fighter is also about a man who uses his body as a path to transcendence. Until he broke free of the mother and brother who were mismanaging his career, Micky Ward was “a stepping stone,” someone other fighters walked over on their way to success, and he took some terrible beatings in the process. Aronofsky was preparing to direct The Fighter when he dropped out to make Black Swan, and you can bet this movie would have looked and felt very different if it had passed through his trippy lens. David O. Russell, who took over as The Fighter’s director, can do heart-pumping visuals with the best of them – I’d put Three Kings’ bullet’s-eye views of American soldiers getting shot in Iraq up against Requiem’s shooting-up montage any day. But Russell took his cue this time from his unshowily straight-arrow subject, mining The Fighter’s considerable drama primarily from the spectacle of Micky’s very large, very loud family, for whom fighting is the default mode (though the fight scenes can be brutal too).

Aronofsky’s movies feel as if they were made by an adolescent boy, with their naïve glorification of drug addicts and other outsiders, their simplified characters (especially the women) and plots, and their penchant for adrenaline-charged drama. In Black Swan, the company’s imperious impresario, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) seems to be speaking for Aronofsky when he announces that Swan Lake has been “done to death, I know, but not like this. We’ll strip it down, make it visceral and real!” While Natalie Portman’s Nina prepares for the role of her lifetime, rehearsing the moves and exploring her dark side like the good girl she is (one of Thomas’s homework assignments is to go home and masturbate), Aronofsky shows us more and more creepy or hallucinatory scenes that turn out to be inventions of Nina’s rapidly deteriorating mind. Apparently she is living out the story she is dancing: how very fashionably meta.

Aronofsky uses the ballet setting more voyeuristically (all those beautiful women in leotards or less) than artistically. He compensates for not having cast a professional dancer in his lead role by shooting almost all the dance from the waist up, with some close-ups of feet and legs thrown in (Nina’s more complicated moves are danced by two professionals). As a result, almost all the emotional power in the dance scenes come from Portman’s tormented facial expressions and fluttering arms, not from how the dancers’ bodies move through space or interact with one another.

But I could have done without great dancing – after all, this is a psychological horror movie set in the dance world, not really a dance movie – if the psychological part were not so tone-deaf. With its hamfisted attempts at profundity (“The only person standing in your way is you,” Thomas tells Nina) and voyeuristic attitude toward the main character, who the movie patronizes and typecasts as surely as her mother and her choreographer do, Black Swan is Showgirls in a tutu.

The women in The Fighter are also underdeveloped. Melissa Leo has gotten a lot of praise as Micky’s ferocious mother, but most people mention her heavily shellacked hairdo or omnipresent cigarette as part of their praise, and no wonder: Russell seems more interested in her wardrobe (one shot lingers on her high heels as she walks into her house) than her internal life. As a result, the film reduces her to a paper tiger, when I suspect she didn’t fold so easily in life. Micky’s girlfriend, Charlene, gets a little more back story to go with her backbone, but even with Amy Adams to bring her to solidly fleshy life, she comes out pretty one-dimensional too. And Micky’s six sisters are played strictly for giggles, a comic Greek chorus whose members never emerge as individuals.

It can feel a little patronizing, as if Hollywood is giving the working-class Massachusetts neighborhood where Micky grew up the exotic treatment. But The Fighter finds its feet when it stays with its main story: the true tale of how Micky (Mark Wahlberg) became a world champion, first by firing his trainer and half-brother, Dicky (Christian Bale), and then by letting him back in after Dicky had kicked the crack habit that was making him a walking disaster zone.

This is Dicky’s story as much as it is Micky’s, and the fast-talking, pop-eyed Bale nearly steals the film from Wahlberg, just as Dicky always stole the spotlight from his brother. A former boxer himself, Dicky is “the pride of Lowell,” as we often hear. The repetition doesn’t grate here as it does in Black Swan, though, since it’s done not to make sure we get a point but to tell us something important about the main characters. Dicky’s reputation is so big it permeates the neighborhood and the family, very nearly keeping Micky from making his own mark.

The actors are very good – when you see the real brothers at the end of the film, you appreciate the fact that Bale wasn’t overacting and see how well Wahlberg captured Micky’s quiet, self-effacing strength – and the story is moving, but I suspect some rough edges got sanded off to create what feels like a pretty predictable arc.

The Fighter didn’t quite knock me out, but it definitely got to me, its emotional acuity landing where Black Swan’s adolescent antics fell flat.

Written for TimeOFF

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Illusionist

Jacques Tati’s daughter (who was also the executor of his estate) sent her father’s unproduced script for The Illusionist to Sylvain Chomet after seeing some of the drawings that would grow into his 2003 masterpiece, The Triplets of Belleville. Good call. Chomet lends tender life to the script, which Tati considered too dark to develop for himself, doing justice to its slapstick humor and bemused affection for stupid human tricks while making sure that its wide streak of sentiment doesn’t degenerate into sentimentality.

Typical of both Tati and Chomet, The Illusionist is almost completely free of dialogue but alive with sound – naturalistic ambient sound, comically exaggerated sound effects, and aptly chosen music. Also typical is the funny business that’s often going on in the background and the animal that periodically bumps heads with the humans – and wins.

This time the alpha animal is a recalcitrant rabbit, the little white bunny the title character, an aging magician, pulls out of his top hat – assuming he’s managed to chase the thing down and stuff it in there to begin with. Their chases are one of the movie’s best sight gags, the rabbit always staying one hop ahead of the big, ungainly illusionist, who looks like Tati and moves like his Mr. Hulot, with his storklike walk, his self-effacing, slump-shouldered posture, and manic bursts of activity.

The magician is going nowhere fast when he lands on an island where, like Wendy Hiller’s character in I Know Where I’m Going! and Peter Riegert’s in Local Hero, he’s ambushed by a local resident who takes his life in a whole new direction. She’s a shy but headstrong servant who follows him off the island, adopting him as her surrogate father after becoming convinced that his magic is real. It’s not, of course, but she inspires him to pull off the impossible, giving her the girlhood she never had.

The backdrops are often only barely sketched in, the better to focus our attention on Chomet’s distinctive characters, with their richly expressive faces (those noses!) and body language. As in Belleville, his subject is partly the underbelly of show biz: faded vaudevillians (the story is set in the ‘50s or ‘60s) who band together in threadbare but homey surroundings. The boardinghouse where the illusionist and the girl wind up also houses a ventriloquist who looks way too much like his dummy and a cheery family of gymnasts, who cartwheel down the stairs every morning. What we glimpse of their private lives has the same poignantly comic tone as the illusionist’s tale.

Throughout it all, neon blinks on and off outside a window or the cold winter light hits a Scottish hillside as Chomet’s evocative use of light and sound condense time, place, and season into a concentrated essence.

Written for The L Magazine

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My 10 Favorite Movies from 2010

It’s time to write those final holiday cards (if you still do those), get those last gifts, and plow through the latest crop of Top 10 lists. So here are my 10 favorite movies from 2010, in no particular order.

White Material
Everyone loses in this tragic tale by the great French filmmaker Claire Denis, who went back to Africa, her girlhood home and the site of her first feature, for this collaboration with the lionhearted Isabelle Huppert. Denis developed the scenario (the script is by Marie N’Diaye) for Huppert, whose ropy body and blazing light-blue eyes make her convincing as a French coffee grower convinced that her country’s obsession with skin color doesn’t apply to her, even though white skin is now almost as big a liability as black skin was in colonial times. Huppert’s Maria is a compellingly repellent character, so sure of her own righteousness that she can’t see anything or anybody else. You can’t help but admire her courage and grit -- and yet, in a damning repudiation of the blindness to white privilege and the ruinous effects of colonialism that make characters like Maria and movies like Mugabe and the White African so infuriating, Denis and D’Diaye make it clear that her fight is doomed, destructive, and more than a little unhinged.

Last Train Home
Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Lixin Fan got amazing access to his subjects in this wrenching portrait of the human price of China’s rapid transition to a form of state-controlled capitalism. Focusing as crisply on the long view as the close-up, he hones in on one disrupted family without letting us forget the ocean of people that are in the same boat. Zhang Chanhua and Chen Suqin, a worn-out middle-aged couple from a rural area, support themselves and their family by doing factory work in the city of Guangzhou. But China’s migrants, who are treated like second-class citizens, are not allowed to bring their families with them to the overcrowded cities. The couple’s two children live in the country with their grandmother and see their parents only once a year, when they make the long trip home for the holidays. That distance inevitably turns into an emotional gulf filled with heartache and anger.

12th and Delaware
A report from inside a powerful campaign of domestic terrorism that may already have won, 12th and Delaware takes place almost entirely within or just outside two innocuous-looking one-story buildings on the sunny Florida street corner of the title. One is an abortion clinic and the other is a "pregnancy center" run by Christian foes of abortion, put there to confuse and divert the women who come to the clinic for abortions. Cutting back and forth between the two, this knockout documentary anatomizes anti-abortion zealots' relentless fight to end abortion by any means necessary. Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp, Freakonomics) switch back and forth between the two camps, penetrating equally deeply into both.

The Social Network
A 21st-century version of What Makes Sammy Run?, The Social Network is a portrait of a driven young man that’s interesting mainly because of what it implies about the rest of us. The movie doesn’t really get into how technology is degenerating our social networks: It's interested in Facebook as an idea Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) develops and a lot of other people fight about, not as a social phenomenon. But it opens the door to that idea by showing how we're making kings of people so socially inept that they actually believe an online "community" like Facebook is a way of "taking the entire social experience of college and putting it online," as the Zuckerberg character puts it. Director David Fincher creates a bracingly kinetic film about ideas, thanks in part to the fast talk that is the movie’s main engine. His cast does Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue justice, talking as if their tongues can barely keep up with the hard drives spinning away in their skulls.

The Kids Are All Right
If there were a cinematic equivalent of the Great American Novel, The Kids Are All Right would be a contender. Not that it's weighty or self-important (on the contrary, its self-aware humor is part of its charm), but it takes the temperature of family life in a particular place and time in American history as precisely as a John Updike novel. It is also – like all of director Lisa Cholodenko's films – an exploration of the blurry lines we try to draw around our sexuality but often fail to maintain. Cholodenko and her co-writer, Stuart Blumberg, make us fall half in love with an upper-middle-class California family whose only problem seems to be the inevitable tension between intimacy and autonomy. Then the two teenagers, whose lesbian mothers conceived them through artificial insemination, get in touch with their sperm donor “dad,” and his intrusion into the family circle brings some long-simmering conflicts to a boil.

Winter's Bone
Just about all the extras and some of the actors with speaking roles in this film are from the hardscrabble part of the Ozarks where it takes place, and it was filmed on location in some of the actors’ homes. That probably goes a long way toward explaining how director and co-writer Debra Granik made such an unpatronizingly authentic-feeling film of Daniel Woodrell’s novel. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a stoic 17-year-old who takes care of her younger siblings and her mentally ill mother, her grit and quiet competence just barely keeping the ramshackle roof over their heads. When her father skips out on a bond, leaving the house as collateral, Ree heads out to find him and save their home. Her grim odyssey turns up some horrible secrets, but the real subject of this beautifully shot, fiercely acted movie is the merciless code of behavior that has endured for generations in that part of the Ozarks. It's also about the meth that makes men like Ree's daddy even more dangerous than they already were.

No One Knows About Persian Cats
Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi specializes in documentary-style features, in which nonprofessional actors play themselves or people like themselves and the stories are, as a title at the start of Persian Cats informs us, "based on real events, locations, and people." But where his earlier films are about the struggles of rural Kurds, his latest is a thoroughly contemporary tour of the underground music scene in Tehran. Two young musicians, Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad), are trying to get to London to perform. Getting the gig was the easy part. What’s hard is piecing together a band to replace musicians who have fled the country, getting black market visas or passports for everyone, and buying one of the musicians out of his obligation to serve in the army. It's all very dangerous, very expensive, and very precarious, and they never know who they can trust. Ghobadi takes us through beautiful old streets and into secret rehearsals and performance spaces, giving us a clandestine tour of the city and what amounts to a series of underground music videos as Negar and Ashkan audition a wide variety of musicians. As we see these gentle souls forced into becoming outlaws, songs urging people to get past "the fences around your mind" take on deeper meaning.

Exit Through the Gift Shop
Layer upon layer unfolds in this “street art documentary” by street artist Banksy. The first is the dryly funny story of Thierry Guetta, an eccentric Frenchman who loves street art so much that he films it obsessively, following the artists with his omnipresent video camera. The second is a quick gloss on the art form with an emphasis on Banksy and Shepard Fairey, who play with iconic images to critique popular leftie targets like corporate control and consumer excess. The third is the commoditization of art and the hype-happy commercial art world, which is depicted as unable to distinguish between real art with a unique style and vision (like, well, Banksy’s stuff) and the derivative dreck Thierry hires minions to crank out when he puts down the camera to make his own street art. The fourth and deepest layer is the question that emerges about the story itself: Is Thierry for real or is he just another Banksy invention, dreamed up to tweak the status quo? By finding a new way to ask an old question – what is art? – this smart, funny film jolts us into thinking about what we’re looking at.

A fascinating trip down the rabbit hole of the human imagination that’s as carefully constructed as the 1/6-scale town it depicts, Marwencol is a portrait of an artist who doesn’t think of his work as art. In a way, it’s the flip side of Exit to the Gift Shop. Mark Hogancamp, this documentary’s subject, was beaten so badly in a bar fight that he was in a coma for days. Released from the hospital long before he was ready to function (his Medicaid payments ran out), he created his own form of physical and mental therapy, building a model town, Marwencol, that he populated with dolls representing himself and the people in his life. Like a real-life Lars from Lars and the Real Girl, Mark feels more comfortable with his dolls than with most of the humans around him, even bringing them along when he ventures out into the real world. Filmmaker Jeff Malmberg introduces Mark’s quirks gradually, letting us get to care about him as a person first, so they feel more like details than labels. Meanwhile, stop-motion photography and Mark’s own luminous photographs show us Marwencol as he sees it: irony-free and full of life. A photographer and editor who “discover” Mark get him a show in Greenwich village, 100 miles and several worlds away from his hometown of Kingston, New York, but he could care less about achieving fame or fortune as an artist. For him, his work is simply his lifeline, an essential part of “the process of finding out who I am.”

Please Give
Ever since her first feature dissected a pair of best friends who were pushing 30, writer/director Nicole Holofcener, now 50, has chronicled the internal lives of people like herself and her friends. With her latest comedy of bad manners, Please Give, she enters the sandwich generation, with an emphasis on Kate, a guiltily comfortable upper-middle-class Upper West Sider played by Holofcener muse Catherine Keener. Most movies with multigenerational casts favor one generation over the others, but Holofcener gives almost equal time to Kate's teenage daughter and two twenty-something sisters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet), and their 91-year-old grandmother (Ann Morgan Guilbert). They're all alternately unreasonable, ridiculous, and surprisingly sympathetic.

In case that’s not enough, here are the others that made it into my top 20 for The L Magazine A Film Unfinished, Mother, Carlos, 127 Hours, Toy Story 3, A Prophet, Let Me In, The Illusionist, The Strange Case of Angelica, and Winnebago Man.

Written for TimeOFF

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Rabbit Hole

Nicole Kidman aims a blow torch at her ice queen image with this one, obliterating it as deftly as her character, Becca, glazes a perfect crème brulee. Kidman produced Rabbit Hole too – and not just by using her name to attract funding or attending a few meetings. She bought the film rights when Rabbit Hole was still playing on Broadway (where it wound up winning a Pulitzer), enlisted the playwright, David Lindsay-Abaire, to adapt his script into a screenplay, and lined up director John Cameron Mitchell, the diva-director of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, another fiercely truthful tale about a character fighting for her emotional life. Along with costars Aaron Eckhart (who plays Becca’s husband, Howie) and Dianne Wiest (as her mother, Nat) and a uniformly excellent supporting cast, Kidman and her collaborators have created a tactfully but powerfully moving movie for grownups, which includes the best work the actress has done in years.

As a mother fighting to regain her emotional footing after the death of her four-year-old son, Kidman seems at first to be playing yet another too-tightly-buttoned control freak, making like Martha Stewart in an Architecture Digest-ready house on a hill overlooking the Hudson. But Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell pull you into Becca’s and Howie’s internal lives rather than pinning them under a magnifying glass and watching them squirm, as movies about tormented couples (Revolutionary Road, for example) so often do.

As we watch Becca go about her daily life, putting on her clothes like costumes and her expression like a mask, we start to see how hard she’s working just to get herself through the day – and how hard she’s trying to spare the people around her, even as her tightly suppressed grief and rage keeps leaking out, and, occasionally, exploding. The dialogue rarely feels like speechifying, and even when it does it sometimes works, as in a beautifully written monologue Nat delivers about how “the weight of it all” shifted over time as she learned to live with the death of her own son. Even that glazed, too-smooth look Kidman has acquired over the years works here, when Becca is hit by a wave of grief so unexpected it knocks down her defenses, leaving just that stunned, frozen face.

Lindsay-Abaire has a good feel for the rhythms of intimacy, both in Becca’s marriage and in her dealings with her mother and her rebellious younger sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard). There’s clearly a lot of love in all those relationships, but buttons can be pushed with frightening ease, so conversations and situations that start out quiet, even cosy, can blow up at a moment’s notice. Nobody is always right or always wrong, and people often fail to say the right thing even when they mean well. There’s also an inevitability that feels right in how everything always circles back to the hole left by the death of the boy, like water flowing down a drain.

Some of the plot devices feel a little too pat, like the conveniently created comic book that gives the movie its title and overarching metaphor, or the parallel secret relationships Becca and Howie develop, both of which come to a cathartic resolution on the same day in a breathlessly cross-cut scene. But there’s real life in this film and these characters, and real heartache and wit in the dialogue (when Howie denies that he’s trying to “rope” Becca into having sex, she stares at him stonily. “Al Green isn’t roping?” she says. “Al Green?”). And there’s enormous pent-up power in the acting, which lingers after the movie ends.

Written for The L Magazine

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tiny Furniture

A 24-year-old triple threat (writer, director and actress) with a sharply honed sense of humor, Lena Dunham makes films that land like a flurry of darts. It’s fun to watch her puncture deserving targets, like hipster poseurs who love the idea of being artists more than they love making art. In the best of her work, there’s also a warmth and maturity, a bemused acceptance of her characters’ flaws and insecurities, that softens us up and makes those darts land even harder. Because, unlike the snark that so often passes for wit these days, Dunham’s social satires don’t just make us snicker, they make us wince in recognition too.

A product of the New York art scene (she went to Brooklyn’s arty St. Ann’s school, which she describes as a creative haven, “like Hogwarts, basically,” and her mother, Laurie Simmons, is a fine-art photographer), Dunham knows a thing or two about both real and wannabe artists. In Tight Shots and Delusional Downtown Divas, the Web series she started out with, and now in her films, Dunham seems to be creating a satiric version of her own life, playing characters who presumably share her ambitions and insecurities but have little or none of her self-awareness and talent.

Tiny Furniture, her breakthrough second feature, was voted best narrative feature at this year’s South by Southwest film festival. Made soon after her graduation from Oberlin, it’s the tale of a 23-year-old young woman adrift in what she calls “a post-graduate delirium.” Dunham was 23 herself when she shot the micro-budget but beautifully photographed film, which is set mostly in her mother’s light-filled Tribeca loft and co-stars her own mother and sister (both very good) as the mother and sister of her character, Aura.

Dumped by her boyfriend, Aura goes back home to New York only to find herself feeling like an intruder in her mother’s and younger sister’s apartment. She gets a part-time job, picks up a sort-of boyfriend who turns out to be a leech, clashes with her high school supernova sister, fights and bonds with her mom, and subjects herself to one masochistic situation or relationship after another while trying to figure out where she fits in the world.

An average-looking young woman whose rounded limbs and pasty complexion don’t fit the standard definition of beauty, Dunham shows herself in a bracingly unflattering light. Aura can be very pretty, but Dunham generally uses low camera angles and too-tight clothes to make her look slightly pudgy and awkward. That physical humiliation is brought to a head in the YouTube video that gave Aura a taste of fame. She’s proud of the video, kind of, since it’s her first attempt at public art and it earns her some attention. But she’s embarrassed too, since nearly all the attention consists of snide comments about her looks (she’s wearing a painfully unflattering bathing suit).

There’s nothing new about the brutality of the judgments young women face in adolescence — in public, in their closest relationships, and especially in the mirror — but Dunham shows us how it feels to run that gauntlet in the age of Internet, which exposes young people to mob-think on a global scale.

At first Aura seems like a natural loser in a callous, winner-take-all world, but Dunham’s slyly witty script soon fleshes out that first impression. Aura’s relationships with two former best friends — a high-maintenance friend from high school who she props up emotionally and a loyal friend from college who she left stranded when she moved to New York — show Aura’s own capacity for insensitivity and remind us of how quickly loyalties can shift in adolescent female friendships. At the same time, Dunham keeps her comedy of manners upbeat by showing us how Aura’s stubborn strength, her basic decency, and her complex but close relationship with her mother anchor her even as she flounders what is surely one of the least grounded points in her life. Like the TV theme song said, about another fictional young woman who set out to find herself after her boyfriend dumped her: She might just make it after all.

Written for TimeOFF

Monday, December 6, 2010

Tell Them Anything You Want

A portrait of an artist by a group of fellow artists, Tell Them Anything You Want is an entertaining and inspirational documentary.

Film is an inherently collaborative medium, though you wouldn’t know that to listen to most big-name filmmakers or those who write about them, who tend to make it sound as if feature films spring full-blown from the head of a single man or woman. But not Spike Jonze, a joyful collaborator who has always found his creativity within the context of a clan of kindred spirits.

Jonze’s team for Where the Wild Things Are, a marvelous movie that captured the spirit of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book while taking the story in new directions, included screenwriter Dave Eggers and actress Catherine Keener, one of Jonze’s most frequent collaborators. While he was working on that film, Jonze enlisted the help of video documentarian Lance Bangs to shoot this 40-minute tribute to Sendak, a free spirit Jonze was getting to know and love while consulting with him about his book.

At a Q&A after a screening in New York City last February, moderator Mike Myers, a longtime friend of Jonze’s, noted that Jonze, Bangs, and Sendak are each “an odd combination of emotion, intellect, and imagination.” Was it that shared sensibility that attracted them to their subject? he asked.

“Maurice’s imagination is certainly inspiring, and that’s what initially drew me to him,” Jonze said. “But the thing that I find most deeply inspiring is his ferocious honesty and his fearlessness to be honest. He has no ability for small talk or chitchat. He is who he is and he doesn’t have the energy to pretend that he’s someone else.”

That winning directness infuses the film, which was shot over a couple of years, when Sendak was in his early 80s, in his Connecticut home. While Tony Kushner, Meryl Streep, and James Gandolfini – not exactly chopped liver – offer brief tributes to Sendak, what sticks in my memory these months later is Sendak’s impish presence and things he said to his friends Jonze, Bangs, and Keener, who we see now and then but who mostly stay off-camera.

Funny, frank, and charming, the self-described “spoiled brat” talks about his unhappy childhood, his obsession with death, and the “permanent dissatisfaction” that dogs him in a kind of running monologue that manages, like his books, to be profoundly life-affirming while acknowledging the scariest and worst life has to offer.

He speaks lovingly about his dog Herman, his live-in assistant, and Ursula Nordstrom, the great children’s book editor and writer who discovered him, but he barely mentions Eugene Glynn, his life partner of 50 years. That near-silence was Sendak’s choice, Jonze and Bangs explained in the Q&A—Glynn was dying while the film was being made, and Sendak wanted to keep that part of his life private. But he does recall the difficulty he had in coming to terms with being gay, and his need to keep his sexuality secret for years for fear that coming out would kill his career as a children’s book author.

He also talks about the seminal event of his life: the kidnapping and presumed killing of the Lindbergh baby. Sendak was just three years old when he saw the tabloid news photos and heard the talk, but they made an indelible impression, making him realize that even a child could die. All the elements that have obsessed him since were contained in that incident: death, the peril that lurks under the surface even of the most placid domestic environment, and the vulnerability and sensibilities of the very young. He thinks he may have gotten stuck in childhood, in a way, because of the intensity of that experience, which “certainly invested me in children forever.”

Even when he was a child himself, Sendak says, he always watched other kids and then retold their stories in the drawings he made. His close observation has taught him that children are a lot smarter and more observant than adults generally give them credit for. “I don’t believe in children. I don’t believe in childhood,” he says. “I don’t believe in ‘You mustn’t tell them this, you mustn’t tell them that.’ I tell the truth. Tell them anything you want.”

Two Friends

Jane Campion’s first feature (it was made for Australian TV in 1986) and one of her best, Two Friends is a quietly observant, deeply felt, and expertly acted study of female friendship and the thin line that separates the winners of the world from the outcasts.

It starts at a wake for a dead teenage girl, where Janet (Kris McQuade) wonders if her daughter Louise (Emma Coles) or Louise’s friend Kelly (Kris Bidenko) could also be at risk. “They’re all at risk, aren’t they?” says Jim, Janet’s estranged or former husband. The rest of the film is an unpreachy object lesson in how right he is about that, showing how wrong things can go when a bright, loving girl doesn’t get the nurturing she needs.

Two Friends scrupulously avoids exposition, so we pick up a lot by context or inference, and some things are left a little unclear. But there’s no doubt about the important things, like the fact that, while Louise’s mum and dad are no longer a couple, they’re still friendly to each other and excellent parents to her.

Kelly isn’t so lucky. She’s saddled with an absent father, a disapproving stepfather, and a mother too cowed to stick up for her. The main thing she has going for her is her best friend, Louise – and she loses her in the end. Or, more precisely, the beginning, since the story of their friendship is told in reverse order.

That backward unspooling of time, which was not in Helen Garner’s excellent script but was added by Campion, makes Kelly’s decline feel as inevitable as a Greek tragedy. The final shot of the two girls celebrating at the height of their closeness and innocence, brimming with potential, would have seemed merely joyful if it had been shown in chronological order. Instead, coming as it does after Kelly has gone off the rails, it’s powerfully poignant.

Campion had only made three shorts before filming Two Friends, but this feels like the work of a savvy old vet. Each scene is a self-contained unit and the connections between them are not always clear at first, but in the end they snap together as surely as a pile of Legos. By almost always filming her characters in pairs or in groups, Campion reinforces the film’s message about the power of our primary relationships. By relying almost exclusively on medium and long shots rather than close-ups, she pulls us into her main characters’ environments and lets us get to know them, yet maintains enough distance that they retain some of their mystery. She does the same with minor characters and extras, like Kelly’s Billy Idol-looking boyfriend, who never speak. These people, most of them teens or younger children, are often unobtrusively observed in the background as they go about their business, providing a social context for the girls’ story.

We see Kelly and Louise in their homes, at school, and out in public, and every environment feels as authentic as their interactions. We also see a lot of Louise with her mother, a relationship that’s entirely free of cliché and always believable, with its intimate blend of unconditional love, annoyance (mostly on Louise’s part), hurt feelings (mostly Janet’s), and domestic routine. Janet’s comfortable, easy friendship with her upstairs neighbor is also nicely calibrated. Not only does that relationship give us a window into Janet’s thoughts (this is essentially Kelly’s story, but it’s filtered through Janet and Louise), but it serves as a reminder us that the volatile, fast-shifting allegiances of adolescent girls are often just training wheels. Once they drop off, the girls will be free to launch the rich and grounded female friendships they’ll rely on as adults.

Written for The L Magazine