Monday, 10 August 2015

Confident, stylish and funny

Jenny on The Diary of a Teenage Girl 

The scene is a classroom on the first day of term in a college of further education where as a very young graduate many decades ago I have been hired to teach teenage students. I am bemused to be sent outside, along with all the girls in the class, while the head of the college addresses the boys. Why? One of the boys kindly explains a few days later. ‘It was about wanking, Miss, he says. ‘Sir told us we had to be polite and keep our hands out of our pockets.’

Ah, those were the days. Teenage boys were assumed to be in dire need of rules to rein them in, while girls were sweet little virginal persons with no sexual feelings who needed protection from the overheated male herd. As a teenage girl myself in the very recent past, I knew all too well how untrue this was, but assumed that I was somehow unique.

The Diary of Teenage Girl knows better. Minnie is a 15 year old who records her sexual adventures on a tape recorder in San Francisco, 1976. She gets into a highly inappropriate relationship with her mother’s layabout lover, she has jack-rabbiting sex with a boy from her school class, she experiments with drugs, she experiments with a girlfriend - and she is without shame or guilt. Minnie’s self-absorbed mother (Kirsten Wiig) has little time for proper parenting, her pompous stepfather is mostly absent and her father long gone, so Minnie longs for love, longs to be touched, longs to be noticed and to be special to someone. She aspires to be a cartoonist, and wonderfully authentic teenage-style hand drawn animations appear at frequent intervals in the film.

The most brilliant thing about this brilliant, confident, stylish and funny film is the way it captures the voice of a 15 year old girl. Minnie is not ‘mature’ or ‘old for her years’, she is exactly what so many 15 year old girls are: articulate but in a recognisably teenage way, full of bravado yet insecure, capable of massive misjudgements yet possessing a moral core that you know will never be compromised – and she has no idea how beautiful she is.

The contrast between this film and the smoothly sanitized teen films of Hollywood, some of whose trailers preceded our viewing, is comic indeed. Minnie is not well dressed – she wears terrible flares throughout. She badly needs a new haircut. But she is not a Lolita temptress-cum-victim. Nor is she the intense outsider of Blue is the Warmest Color or the Troubled Teen of Andrea Arnold’s excellent Fish Tank. The film does not condone or condemn. Somehow we know that Minnie’s passion is her drawing and that when her fan letter to a real life graphic artist (Aline Kominsky) is warmly answered, this is all the encouragement she needs. Although set safely in the past, the film is of course about contemporary themes and this may be mightily uncomfortable for some viewers.

The performances are terrific. Bel Powley, a British 23 year old plays Minnie with an intensity and naturalness that is electrifying. The Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård plays the boyfriend so flawlessly that you can see exactly why Minnie could be entranced by him, as well as exactly why she eventually realises that the guy is a creep. The film is shot in soft, sludgy tones that capture perfectly the foggy sun and shabby exteriors of 1970s San Francisco as well as the full-on ghastliness of 1970s fashion, smoking, make-up and décor – the decade that never knew it had not an iota of taste.

The movie has an 18 Certificate but I do hope that clever teenage girls exactly like our heroine will somehow find a way to see it. Its ultimate messages are: Girls, you need to love yourselves first. When you do this, everything else follows. And by the way, it’s OK to like sex. 

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Outwardly persuaded but inwardly unmoved

Joe on Inside Out

I sometimes think, Jenny, that I haven’t given animated films the attention they deserve. Not having children, I’ve missed out on classics such Chicken Run and Toy Story, which adult friends have praised for their wit, psychological subtlety and narrative sophistication. If I’d managed to achieve even the lowly status of weekend dad, I might have kept abreast of this burgeoning creative field. As it is I’m pretty much a cartoon virgin.

I’m afraid Inside Out didn’t do much to win me over. It gave me a lot to think about. It also gave me a lot of time to think about it in, while the ramshackle story rattled along. I realise I’m not the target audience, but I was left puzzled as to who the target audience might be.

It took me back to Everyman (which we reviewed last week). The anonymous author of that medieval allegory was interested only in moral issues, so the component parts of the human character are divided according to whether they’ll help him or not on his final journey to judgement. In the Inside Out version of the human psyche, all the internal characters are equally useful, equally valued. That certainly appealed to the secular humanist in me.

And how interesting that they are all emotions. It set me thinking about an Enlightenment version in which Reason would be precariously enthroned above rebellious characters such as Feeling and Fancy, who would be quelled only when it was revealed that they were secretly in league with Madness. The Romantic sequel would show Reason, quailing in the face of a tsunami of the Sublime, rescued by Imagination, her sails billowing triumphantly. By the mid-twentieth century, I suppose we’d have been watching poor battered Ego, squashed between a lordly Superego and a lewd and scabrous Id. That one would need an 18-certificate.

These thoughts left me more favourably inclined towards Inside Out, whose ideas of how the mind works are at least based on research, not guesswork or wishful thinking or patriarchal models passed down from antiquity. And so far as it has an ideology, it’s an ideology I can get behind, which values self-acceptance and suggests that bad feelings are better processed than punished. 

But allegory is a form with preachy tendencies. 150 years after Everyman, John Bunyan flagged up the message of Pilgrim’s Progress with characters called Timorous and Mr Worldly Wiseman. He didn’t want his readers to forget for a moment that the story was just there to sugar the pill. Pilgrim’s Progress isn’t the most exciting yarn, but it’s better than a sermon.

Inside Out is in this tradition. It’s better than a lecture. Bunyan showed us Pilgrim’s journey towards the Celestial City. Pixar takes us, in the company of Joy and Sadness and a half-forgotten imaginary friend, through the memory bank into the depths of the unconscious. It’s a story of danger and adventure and breath-taking escapes. But you’re never allowed to forget that this inside journey is just a metaphor for the day-to-day conflicts of family life. It struck me that, for a film that presents the human experience as a negotiation among emotions, Inside Out imposes on its viewers a surprisingly cognitive experience. 

Jenny’s heckle

No one can touch Pixar in their fabulous technical competence and their ability to tell a story. They can play to adults and to children simultaneously. Toy Story will appeal to any adult who remembers the pain of growing up and to any child who knows that their beloved toys are real. The characters are realised in depth and the plotting grips, whatever your age.

When I took my then seven year old granddaughter to WALL-E, she watched a touching love story. I watched a searing satire about our casual self-indulgence and the brutal destruction of our planet. Every time I see some tragically obese person sweatily trying to ease themselves into a seat on the bus I see those ranks of cheerfully fat people in WALL-E who can no longer walk and need to be transported everywhere by mechanical means on their new planet. I would put this movie on my top ten list of most brilliant ever.

But like you, I was disappointed with Inside Out. It’s ambitious. It reflects current neuroscience in basing the plot on evidence that the limbic system, the seat of our emotions, trumps the prefrontal cortex, the source of our self-flattering designation of our species as homo sapiens. It is accurate in plumping for one version of what these emotions are: anger, disgust, fear, joy and sadness. Iis sophisticated in showing that some sadness is inevitable (though odd in suggesting that rationality never prevails, in spite of the fact that in the story this is what eventually happens). 

Pixar maybe got gripped by the science and forgot the need to tell the story. Their homunculi—the five emotions—seem only superficially developed. The human characters seem notional. The plot droops in the middle. Technically, of course, it’s just brilliant. The best bit to me was the final credits, superbly handled, reminding those of us who are parents that the challenge is lifelong, you just cannot get it right, those darned kids will always be one step ahead of where you think they ought to be.