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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Women at the center—coming of age, taking...

Screen Grabs: Women at the center—coming of age, taking revenge

'The Sky is Everywhere,' 'The Worst Person in the World,' and 'Catch the Fair One' unfold in very different ways.

It’s long been the norm that nearly all “coming of age” stories in any medium are male ones, with women sidelined as objects of desire and/or conflict. Of course there have always been exceptions, but they’ve tended to be memorable precisely because they offered something that readers or moviegoers otherwise generally weren’t getting. There’s no masculine equivalent to vaguely derogatory genre categories like “chick lit” simply because male-dominated narratives are standard, and half the world population is still somehow considered as representing a “niche market.”

You can be skeptical about just how much real change recent years’ diversity push within the film industry has made, or will make. But it is definitely encouraging that more movies by and about women are being made now than in decades, if ever. A clutch of notable new releases are, for all their stylistic/thematic differences, very much about female protagonists and perspectives—even if some of them were written and directed by dudes.

The Sky Is Everywhere
San Francisco-based author Jandy Nelson’s 2010 YA novel has been turned into a film by Josephine Decker, whose prior four features were all testaments to a distinctive, floridly poetical talent frequently on the cusp of magical realism. I particularly liked her last effort Shirley, which utilized some aspects of “The Lottery” author Shirley Jackson’s life to spin a sardonic fictive meditation on creativity, marriage, and manipulation. It was, like that writer’s imagination, witty, dyspeptic, and sinister.

But Sky is more like Decker’s prior Madeline’s Madeline, a sort of rhapsodic channeling of teenage emotionality that might strike you as entrancingly or exasperatingly over-the-top. A high schooler in redwood country, Lennie (Grace Kaufman) lives with her grandmother (Cherry Jones) and uncle (Jason Segal) in Eureka, or thereabouts. But a year prior she lost “the one person on Earth who understood me,” an older sister who died abruptly of heart arrythmia, just like their mother. (Their “father” was two anonymous sperm-bank donors.) This shakes the hopefully Juilliard-bound Lennie’s sense of self such that she finds she can no longer play the clarinet, or do much else for that matter. The mercurial expressions of her grief are further complicated when our hitherto romance-free (but Wuthering Heights-addicted) heroine suddenly has two rival prospects: A new classmate who’s also a musical prodigy (Jacques Colimon) and, awkwardly, her late sister’s equally despondent boyfriend (Pico Alexander).

This may sound like a typical YA dueling-Prince Charmings fantasy a la Twilight, and other elements (wacky BFF, bitchy blonde Mean Girl rival, etc.) are likewise close to formulaic cliche. Decker compensates with a deliberately gaga, overripe approach in which Lennie’s seesawing emotions (“Grief is a house that blows into the air at the slightest gust,” she trills) impulsively take the form of animation, a dance number, even levitation. Such hyperventilating whimsy can be a bit much, like a meal in which everything is “pumpkin spice.” I suspect Sky will play best to adolescent viewers—but still, it’s no Afterschool Special, and Decker’s excesses are her idiosyncratic own. The movie opens in limited theaters (including Berkeley’s Shattuck and Daly City’s Century 20) this Fri/11, when it premieres on AppleTV+.

The Worst Person in the World
Attention-catching title notwithstanding, there is nothing in particular wrong with young Oslo resident Julie (Renate Reinsve), beyond her not being sure what she wants from life—like just about every twentysomething. Should she be a doctor? A psychologist? Photographer? Applying a similar short attention span to relationships, she goes through a succession of boyfriends before moving in with underground comics creator Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), who is considerably older. “You seem to be waiting for something, I’m not sure what,” he tells her at one point. Perhaps that thing is Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), met at a wedding reception she impulsively crashes. Or maybe not. Frustration at her own rudderlessness can make Julie a not-very-nice person, particularly towards those she loves. Will she ever figure things out?

Divided into cutely-titled chapters—like way too many movies of late—Worst Person is the third piece in what Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier considers his “Oslo trilogy,” whose previous panels were the very good Reprise (2006) and exceptional Oslo, August 31 (2011). Both starred Danielsen Lie, a superb actor. He pretty much walks away with this movie, too, which is probably not what was intended: We’re meant to identify with Julie, who is pleasant and attractive enough if frequently kinda exasperating in a relatable way. But it’s Aksel who makes an indelible impression, particularly once he unexpectedly returns to the narrative he’d been pushed out of. Many people love this film, but for me it’s something good that only becomes great for the half hour or so that this subsidiary character gets to dominate it.

Otherwise, it’s a nice, sometimes attenuated, occasionally fussy and over-stylized stab at taking the full measure of a fairly ordinary life… a goal that sounds simple, yet is very difficult to do. I’m not sure Trier understands this female protagonist as well as he does his male ones. For instance, why do we spend two hours with Julie, yet never find out if she has any friends? That seems a major oversight, and she’s no recluse. Even if you’re not exhilarated by Person (as I wasn’t), however, it has ambition, ideas, some tremendous moments (thanks again to Anders), and notable use of Art Garfunkel’s atonal “Waters of March” cover, a sonic oddity I’m still not sure I like even though it’s earwigged me since 1975. Worst Person opens at theaters including the AMC Kabuki on Fri/11.

Catch the Fair One
The growing pains suffered by the protagonists above seem awfully bourgeoise-cozy alongside the absolute hellscape run by Kali Reis’ character in this fierce indie thriller. She plays Kaylee, a sidelined pro boxer who’s still in training—albeit now in order to survive going underground into the criminal world, where she hopes to find a younger sister presumed kidnapped by sex traffickers. Tough and prepared as she thinks she is, this quest soon goes off the rails, leaving Kaylee at the mercy of some people who don’t give a shit about her life, or her sister’s for that matter. On the other hand, they may come to rue the day that they find themselves at Kaylee’s rapidly-diminishing mercy.

In outline, Josef Kubota Wladyka’s feature (which he co-wrote with Reis) sounds like a gender-switched trot down the familiar pulp action lane of Taken and its imitations. But the grittily atmospheric story lands closer to films like Winter’s Bone and Wind River, violent dramas movies about perennially exploited underclasses.

An element of Native American cultural identity (Kaylee is biracial) doesn’t get integrated into the narrative as well as one would like. But otherwise considerable complexity of socioeconomic observation is handled deftly, while also delivering a lean-and-mean thriller. Reis, who makes her acting debut here, is an actual ex-pro boxer—and all apologies, but there is no getting around the bad-punny truth that her performance is a knockout. Catch the Fair One opens in limited theaters (including the Shattuck) Fri/11, simultaneous with release to Digital and On Demand platforms.

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