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Thursday, January 27, 2022

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Young people seized by mysterious drives in...

Screen Grabs: Young people seized by mysterious drives in ‘Novice’ and ‘Tender Bar’

A varsity rowing tale heaves with sweat, while George Clooney's latest lands on the mushy side.

The world seemed pretty fraught 50 years ago, as it does now, but the way the movies reacted to that reality couldn’t have been more different. As 2021 draws to a close, the principal presents Hollywood has left under our tree are fantasy franchise sequels (Spider-ManThe Matrix etc.), plus a smattering of sentimentally inspirational comedy-dramas.

Whereas in 1971, a couple Disney releases aside, cinemas offered a cold slap rather than comfort food. Among late December releases then were A Clockwork OrangeThe Last Picture ShowDirty Harry, Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, and Polanski’s Macbeth, with the reassuringly cartoonish high kill count of 007 in Diamonds Are Forever passing as traditional escapism in that harsh company. There was also Harold and Maude, but that feel-good cult favorite was initially criticized as being in questionable taste, and didn’t find its audience until it became a staple on the midnight movie and college-repertory circuits.

At the time, there were worries that screen “permissiveness” had gone “too far” with the sex and violence that censorship had barred until quite recently. Little did those critics suspect that future generations’ tastes would regress such that 21st-century adults would be queueing up primarily for comic-book adaptations and big-screen approximations of video games.

In a different key from those smash-bang extravaganzas, two new films at least offer a young adult perspective: They’re both about college students striving to better themselves. As relatively serious dramas released at year’s end, they’re inevitably surfacing in awards discussions, though I’d call each a very mixed bag.

The Novice

No, this is not another nunsploitation exercise a la the recent Benedetta, but rather the Whiplash of college rowing-team movies. That comparison has been raised by others, and it’s apt in several ways, writer-director Lauren Hadway’s debut feature recalling Damien Chazelle’s 2014 one in both its very showy style and focus on a fiercely, masochistically competitive protagonist.

At an unnamed Eastern university, Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) enters her freshman year with the fervor of a graduate student playing musical chairs for a department position. She’s already a physics major, for no obvious reason beyond that subject being the most difficult for her. Nor do we know exactly why she tries out for women’s rowing, beyond guessing that it, too, is something she’s drawn toward simply because it affords the biggest challenge. She has no prior training, and demonstrates no particular aptitude, but those factors only make her grind harder. That grueling hard work pays off when she’s promoted way ahead of schedule to the varsity squad, though they do not welcome her—Alex has already made it plain that while she may play on a team, she’s no team player. Her sole focus is being “the best,” and she is willing to alienate everyone else to achieve that, as little satisfaction as she’ll allow herself for it.

I disliked Whiplash, dynamic and impressive in many ways as it was, because it ultimately seemed to celebrate such “winning at any cost” mindsets, and was directed in an equally self-conscious, pummeling way. (Plus it seemed fundamentally fraudulent: Playing instrumental-combo jazz, like rowing, is very much a “team sport,” thriving on cooperation rather than antagonism.) The Novice doesn’t present its protagonist with sadistically goading mentor/tormentor, as that film did in J.K. Simmons’ ruthless instructor; instead, Alex’s own inner demons assume that role. Which would be interesting in a film that actually explored those demons, rather than simply observing their (literally) bruising external impact. But we never find out what made Alex the never-satisfied monster of compulsive drive whose own coaches encourage her, in vain, to relax a bit.

Furhman, hitherto best known as the homicidal adult posing as a child in the outlandish horror hit Orphan twelve years ago, throws herself into the part with the intensity one might expect. She is fine, but given nothing to work with below the physically exhausting surface; it’s the performance of the year if your standard of measurement is the amount of sweat visibly pouring out. We don’t know why Alex’s TA (Dilone) has an affair with this humorless, prematurely old teenager, a choice that’s questionable both emotionally and professionally.

There are good supporting turns by Amy Forsyth, Jonathan Cherry, Kate Drummond, and Jeni Ross, and Hadaway directs the shit outta her movie—the soundtrack alone is so highly worked, it seems to be going for its own Olympic gold. But a character study focused entirely on drive needs to make that character’s drive about something to be meaningful, and Alex here remains a hard-muscled cipher. She is her own cautionary tale, so it seems hollow when the film insists on viewing her increasingly self-isolating quest as some kind of triumph, however bitter. The Novice is currently playing US theaters, and available on digital streaming platforms.

The Tender Bar

By contrast all mushy heart when it needs to be tougher is this adaptation of J.R. Moehringer’s memoir, which has been both admired and criticized for its fond sentimentalizing of the Long Island barstool denizens he found companionship with in his fatherless youth. He’s introduced here to the sounds of Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” as an 11-year-old (Daniel Ranieri) in 1973, dragged back to grandpa’s (Christopher Lloyd) house by his mother (Lily Rabe) after their Western sojourn has gone bust—like her relationship to his father, a radio DJ (Max Martini) and consummate deadbeat dad.

Every man in this clan is a gushing fountain of child-inappropriate b.s. “wisdom,” in particular Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), your classic bartender-philosopher. (He even maintains shelves of the classics behind the liquor stock for quotation purposes.) Though alone among them JR (played later on by Tye Sheridan) seems destined for something beyond working-class toil, he still leans heavily on this wobbly support system of blood-relation yellers and dreamers.

George Clooney, not acting here, made a terrific first couple directorial features (Confessions of a Dangerous MindGood Night and Good Luck) but has himself done some wobbling on that front since. Affleck (offering another solid supporting performance after The Last Duel) might have been a better choice, given his proven affinity for East Coast roughnecks in Gone Baby Gone and The TownThe Tender Bar is well-cast and crafted, but illustrates the problems of dramatizing a memoir—real life, however romanticized by nostalgia, tends to lack narrative definition.

JR’s path to the almost painfully cliched realization “That’s the moment I knew I was a writer” is pleasant but vague, even evasive, mostly pushed along by a mixtape-full of vintage radio hits (Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Pablo Cruise, “Dancing in the Moonlight,” etc.). When he realizes his mother’s dream of being accepted by Yale, much is made of his arrival—then we blink and he’s in his senior year. Even the “colorful regulars” of Uncle Charlie’s bar are barely sketched out beyond familiar smiling faces, always gladdened by our hero’s return. He falls in love with a rich girl (Briana Middleton as Sidney) who predictably breaks his heart. But we never glimpse what they see in each other—unless it’s simply that he envies her confidence, and she values the ease with which he can be strung along. Even the drinking problem many characters seem to have goes almost entirely unaddressed.

The one sequence that cuts through the insistent triviality is a late one, when JR tracks down the biological father he scarcely knows, paying him a visit that almost immediately turns out to be a huge mistake. (“Dad” refers to the woman he’s currently living with as “the new poontang,” for starters.) It’s a passage that enrages both viewer and hero, through also providing him with a certain cathartic severance of all paternal expectations at last. For a few minutes, The Tender Bar acknowledges that some people are just awful, beyond redemptive value—even if you’re related to them. The rest of the movie seems so hellbent on making manifestly flawed, argumentative, bad-decision-making people cute and funny, you can’t help wondering if it (and Moehringer) aren’t hiding a less-comforting but surely more insightful truth because they just want to be liked. It opens in theaters this Wed/22, then begins streaming on Amazon Prime January 7.

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