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Thursday, February 22, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Can't we all just grow up a...

Screen Grabs: Can’t we all just grow up a little?

Young people in crisis in 'Amanda,' 'Afire,' 'War Pony,' and, of course, 'Dude Bro Massacre III'

A friend the other day was relating her latest extended-family dramas, most of them involving niece and nephew types who are “failing to launch”… or in some cases even failing to leave their apartments to make the connections that might lead to an actual job or career or something. To an extent, you can’t blame them: The future looks bleak on so many levels, growing up glued to devices hobbled their interpersonal skills, and COVID threw another roadblock onto that developmental path. Still, it’s hard to resist occasionally getting ye olde “grandpa shaking fist at cloud” twinge of generational exasperation at times, thinking “Can’t you just get on with it? At your age I expected to be run over several times by life!”

Illustratively handling the supposed “best years of their lives” very badly are protagonists in several interesting new movies. All three are ultimately, cautiously optimistic—but the young adults they depict aren’t about to evolve without a lot of kicking and screaming.

The titular figure played by Benedetta Porcaroli (from Netflix series Baby) in writer-director Carolina Cavalli’s debut feature is very good-looking, whether she knows it or not. She’s from a well-off family who live in an impressive villa in some picturesque corner of Italia, having recently moved back from Paris. In other words, her rating on the privilege scale is pretty close to 10.

Yet Amanda carries herself like the most woeful, resentful Geek Girl in middle school. When she blames that forced move for her friendlessness, her fed-up mother snaps “You’re 25, not 12,” and points out that she didn’t have any friends in France, either. Indeed, everybody is fed up with Amanda, save one 8-year-old niece, who may be already be more mature than her aunt will ever be.

Our sullen heroine tries to find confidantes in chat rooms where strangers only want to get off; she attends raves alone and can’t bring herself to talk to anyone, let alone dance. She doesn’t work, doesn’t have to, yet complains endlessly that others are somehow blocking her windows of opportunity. When mom bars her from hanging out with the housekeeper—hoping she’ll instead find non-employees to befriend—Amanda eventually decides she’ll lay siege to a fellow fortress of solitude. Onetime childhood acquaintance Rebecca (Galatea Bellugi), the daughter of a neighbor, is even more withdrawn: She’s currently refusing to even leave her room.

This is the kind of cringe comedy in which self-protectively off-putting personalities with zero social skills try to connect with one another, ineptly. Still, there is some light at the end of their mutual tunnel. I wished at times Amanda would lighten up a bit; it’s stylish, but the humor is of an affectedly deadpan type that wears a bit thin over 90-odd minutes’ course. Still, it’s a confident debut that promises Cavalli’s future work will be worth watching. It opens this Fri/28 at the Opera Plaza Cinemas in SF.

Somewhat more functional—albeit not by a lot—is Leon (Thomas Schubert), the main character in this latest from German writer-director Christian Petzold. A bit the stereotypical moody creative already, Leon is just starting out, really: He’s published one novel, and is nervous about finishing a second he seems much less than confident about. To do so, he’s traveled from Berlin to a country vacation house near the sea with friend Felix (Langston Uibel), a contrastingly cheerful aspiring photographer. After a problematic-enough journey (their car breaks down), the duo are unpleasantly surprised upon arrival to discover a tenant already in residence—Felix’s mother forgot to tell him they’ll be sharing the space with seasonal worker Nadja (Paula Beer).

They don’t actually meet her for a couple days, though they certainly do hear the sounds of her noisy sexcapades through thin walls. As in nearly all things, this strikes Leon as intolerable, while bemused, easygoing Felix is willing to go with the flow. Worse, Felix soon becomes besties with Nadja and her lifeguard/fuck-buddy Devid (Enno Trebs), which only heightens Leon’s alienated ill temper. Things do not improve when his publisher Helmut (Matthias Brandt) shows up for a less-than-reassuring meeting—and even he seems to prefer the company of the housemates Leon is by now barely speaking to.

This too is a sort of cringe comedy, forcing us to occupy Leon’s resentful headspace, in which everyone around him is more attractive, less neurotic, and seems determined to humiliate him. But are they really? Or is he just a bad sport, greeting their olive branches with defensive accusations?

Mercifully abandoning the ill-suited whimsy of his last film, mermaid-adjacent romance Undine, without fully returning to the dramatic seriousness of his prior films (Transit, Phoenix, Barbara etc.) either, Petzold here has constructed an unpredictable ensemble piece. It manages to traverse a lot of terrain—from comedy of manners to conspiracy paranoia to tragedy and redemption, plus a metaphorical hint of climate-change apocalypse—while remaining resolutely lower-case in tone. I’m not sure it’s among his best, but it is an accomplished, distinctive exercise whose many ambiguities linger in the mind afterward. Afire opens this Fri/4 at the Roxie Theater.

War Pony
Whatever their largely self-inflicted personal burdens, the protagonists in Amanda and Afire live in very comfortable circumstances as compared to those in this first feature by directors Gina Gammell and actress Riley Keough (who was sensational in last year’s Zola). They co-wrote the script with Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy for this uncompromising slice of life shot and set on Oglala Lakota tribal homelands.

Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) has barely commenced his twenties, yet without a job or any prospects he’s already sired children by two separate women who are understandably ticked off at him. Pre-teen Matho (Ladainian Crazy Thunder) is running even wilder in a pack of delinquent kids whose parental supervision is minimal at best and threatening at worst.

They’re too young to have gotten into serious trouble yet, but also too young to grasp how easily their luck could run out—if, for instance, they stupidly sell drugs stolen from Matho’s violent, oft-absent father. His mother is nowhere in the picture, like Bill’s, while the latter’s mother is has just been thrown in jail. Her need for bail money motivates his fateful seeking work from a rich white local (Sprague Hollander) who regularly cheats on his much-younger wife with Native women.

While both live on North Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, Bill and Matho don’t know each other, nor do their paths cross until very late in the going here. When they do, the film achieves a balming closure after much strife you don’t necessarily expect these characters to survive.

War Pony is bleak, with figures hewing to the straight and narrow just on the periphery of our beleaguered protagonists’ consciousness. Their lives may be desperately unstable, but then no one has modeled any improved alternatives for them. Yet a lot of humor, and moments of casual surrealism, are present here, alongside the considerable beauty in David Gallego’s cinematography.

Both lyrical and gritty, a kind of docudrama whose loose assembly of seriocomic incidents nonetheless never feel slack, this is an imperfect but very impressive indie feature. It seems to be bypassing Bay Area theatrical playdates, alas, but was also released by Momentum Pictures to On Demand platforms last week.

Dude Bro Party Massacre III
The displays of masculine bravado that come off as hollow compensation for institutionalized powerlessness in War Pony serve a more satirical purpose in this 2015 feature-length horror spoof from online comedy troupe 5-Second Films. Pretending to be a “lost” exploitation flick from the original slasher heyday of the 1980s, it’s an Airplane!-like pileup of absurdist gags, non sequiturs, and comedic riffing hung from the plot thread of a fraternity’s stalking by a serial killer. The Room’s Greg Sestero has an actual role, but the other “names” (including Andrew W.K., Larry King, Patton Oswalt, and Nina Hartley) pretty much just make cameo appearances. You guessed it: There was no prior Dude Bro Party Massacre I or II.

This sort of thing is frequently so terrible, you’d be forgiven for fully expecting a hail of fart jokes and other stupidities a la Disaster Movie and its sorry ilk. I mean, how could this movie be good if (almost) no one’s heard of it? Beating all odds, however, DBPM3 is pretty freaking hilarious—I mean, after seeing it once I actually bought a DVD—and god only knows why it hasn’t acquired a bigger cult following by now. Perhaps the filmmakers can explain: Some of them will be present for a live Q&A at the Alamo Drafthouse’s screening this Sat/5 at 9:30 pm. More info here.

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