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The Battle of Shaker Heights and Thirteen (review)

Growing Up Is Hell

Well, what did you expect? Put together a team designed not to make a good film but to make for good reality-TV ratings, and this is what you get. The Battle of Shaker Heights is a neither-here-nor-there mess that plays like everybody involved was more interested in playing games of oneupsmanship — hey, she got better perqs than we did! — and acting like bigshot Hollywood players than in actually doing the job they were ostensibly hired to do.

Of course, the job Project Greenlight’s Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin won the privilege of doing was not, in fact, to run a smooth set as the codirectors of Erica Beeney’s winning script. Where would the made-for-TV humiliation be found in competent people doing a professional job? Where would you put the “Kick Me” sign on green newbies who recognize their limitations and inexperience and are humble enough to ask for help instead of thinking they can insist on doing everything themselves? Sets run by veterans generate plenty of theatrics, and the forced teamwork of diverse, opinionated, creative personalities is inherently dramatic — see, for instance, Lost in La Mancha, about how Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote film fell apart amidst much screaming and head-butting. But HBO’s series Project Greenlight 2 was never meant to be a making-of documentary about The Battle of Shaker Heights — the film itself is nothing but an afterthought, a footnote. The first Project Greenlight may have been a well enough intentioned attempt to get worthy unknown filmmakers an outlet for their work, but this one seems deliberately constructed as a smackdown of low-budget (relatively) independent filmmaking. For Ben (or was it Matt?) to suggest to Potelle and Rankin that if Shaker Heights were to fail, it would mean that there really was no talent outside Hollywood is at best disingenuous and at worst outrageous: They were set up to fail.

And so they failed. Beeney’s script is hardly the best basis to have begun with. Full of hollow, plasticine characters who toss off glib, detached observations about life, the universe, and everything, it’s the kind of script that wins screenwriting contests for its off-the-cuff cleverness. But it’s a cleverness that’s never smart, never has any genuine heart. That her protagonist, high school senior Kelly Ernswiler, garners any of our sympathy at all is down to Shia LaBeouf (Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Holes), who is a treasure. Like a younger John Cusack — and not just physically, though there is a bit of a resemblance — LeBeouf generates the seemingly contradictory illusion of being both down-to-earth and a little more knowing than everyone else around him. He commands the screen with his real-guy charm. But he can’t do much about the way his character is written. Kelly is too self-aware, too in control of himself for a teenager, and particular for a teenager in a story that’s supposed to be about discovering himself.

And the film is too easy in that task, too: in how Kelly navigates a puppy-love crush on the older sister (Amy Smart: Scotland, PA, Starship Troopers) of a friend, in how he keeps his former-junkie father (William Sadler: The Green Mile) at a distance, in how he learns to accept the interpersonal untidiness of relationships not operating as smoothly as Kelly — or anyone — would want. And maybe it wasn’t as easy in Beeney’s script as she wrote it, but the drama has been eviscerated here in the attempt to make the film more comedic. That failed, too — the few dramatic moments come out of nowhere and retreat again, forgotten, and the facile artifice of snappy one-liners is not enough to serve as comedy.

Project Greenlight may have been a success as reality TV; it’s no test of the talents of Potelle and Rankin, and you can see that for yourself: Their short film “They Came to Attack Us” is available for viewing online, and it packs far more humor and verve into its 7 minute runtime than the entirety of Shaker Heights. Go watch it, and give The Battle of Shaker Heights a pass.

First-time filmmakers are responsible for Thirteen, too, a far more masterful movie about the ordinary nightmare of being a teenager today. Director Catherine Hardwicke, who’s previously worked as a production designer on films like Laurel Canyon, Antitrust, and Three Kings, collaborated with actor Nikki Reed, who was only 14 years old when she helped assemble, based on her own experiences, this exhausting and borderline exploitive look at contemporary teendom.

I suspect that today’s actual 13-year-olds would find nothing shocking or surprising here, not in the drugs or the alcohol or the sex or the self-mutilation or the petty crime, or in any of the catalog of what parents and other concerned adults would surely consider horrors depicted here. Instantly recognizable to any woman who was once a teenager, though, are the forces that drive seventh-grader Tracy (based upon Reed, played by Evan Rachel Wood [Simone, Practical Magic]) to morph, in a matter of months, from a pigtail-wearing owner of Barbie dolls into an overly sexualized parody — yet a true one — of American girlhood, obsessed with fashion and alienated from everyone in her life but her friends. The desire to be popular, to be attractive to boys, to be our own selves and not who our mothers want us to be is nothing new… but the shape this desire is taking in today’s girl culture is like nothing today’s grownups had to deal with as kids.

We see these girls in the mall, say, wearing too much makeup and not enough clothes, and we wonder at what childhood has come to, and to where it’s disappeared, and here’s one inside story. Tracy’s a sweet kid who’s been driven a little bit crazy by the instability of her mother’s (Holly Hunter: Levity, Moonlight Mile) life, the uncertain employment and the ex-junkie boyfriend (Jeremy Sisto), and she finds a new place to anchor herself in the popular crowd when Evie (Reed), considered the coolest girl in school, takes a shine to her. Getting in with the group is one thing, however — staying there requires an escalating cascade of popping pills and sniffing accelerants, giving blow jobs to the right boys, shoplifting and skipping school. Whether any of it is actually fun for Tracy is debatable — she cuts herself, in anguish, and quickly learns how inconstant even her “best friend” Evie can be. Wood’s performance is devastating, Tracy’s downward spiral of self-hatred a crying out for help that is its own testament to the truth of what we’re seeing — for Wood, only 14 herself when the film was shot, to imbue such aggression and confusion into Tracy, it must come from some undercurrent of anger in today teenagers.

The most frightening thing about Thirteen, in fact, is its stark, almost documentary flavor, and that it uses that baldness to demonstrate that there’s not much parents can do to protect their daughters from this poisonous new girl culture, short of actually locking their daughters up and restricting their contact with the outside world. Because girls like Evie and Tracy aren’t the “bad” girls we all knew existed on the periphery of teendom years ago: they’re every-girl. Though some girls may be able to resist it, all of them are immersed in a environment like we never had to deal with, one that demands they grow up too fast. It makes me feel old, at 34, to realize that I can’t really conceive of the world these girls live in, and to realize that these girls are, in some ways, older than me.

The Battle of Shaker Heights
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG-13 for language and some drug references
official site | IMDB

Thirteen
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated R for drug use, self-destructive violence, language and sexuality, all involving young teens
official site | IMDB


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