My week in film: Trainwreck, The Diary of a Teenage Girl and more…

It’s been over a year since I updated my weekly film journal here on Cinematic Investigations and in that time I’ve worked for three festivals, visited four more (including IFFR and Alchemy in Hawick) and seen a host of fantastic films. Working for festivals means that any writing I do is mainly of the brochure copy kind, so it’s time now to catch up on viewing and share some thoughts on the latest cinema releases, my neglected stack of DVDs and the ever-increasing ‘to watch’ list of old and new classics.
6One I missed at EIFF was The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller’s adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel starring Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgård. Powley plays Minnie, a fifteen year old living with her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) and younger sister, Gretel (Abby Wait) in 1976 San Francisco. Minnie becomes involved with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Skarsgård) and this first sexual experience awakens for her, a torrent of feelings about sexuality, power and responsibility. Powley’s performance is remarkable, portraying acutely Minnie’s potent teenage combination of naivety and self-awareness. Minnie is at once defiant in her desire for Monroe, whilst struggling with the feelings of vulnerability that such passion creates. Heller handles her directorial debut with confidence, always maintaining the perspective of her enthralling central character. Sara Gunnarsdottir’s animation perfectly incorporates Minnie’s inner world and the creativity that she’s just learning to harness, enhancing the narrative by opening up possibilities for the character beyond what she sees and hears.

The Diary of a Teenage girl is successful in presenting a female character unafraid of her sexuality, Minnie learns that her self-esteem has to come from accepting herself, rather than approval from men around her, as her mother has tried to teach her. It was interesting to compare it to Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, which also presents a female character apparently content with their sexuality and autonomy within a male-oriented world (the office of a men’s lifestyle mag). Written by the very talented and funny Schumer, and directed by Judd Apatow (who I would only really give credit to for producing Girls), Trainwreck fails to support the independence of its central character – but what was I expecting from a film with such a judgemental title?
14-trainwreck.w529.h352.2xAmy is introduced as having been trained to reject monogamy by her father since childhood, now comfortably living alone and working as a writer for a magazine (Tilda Swinton is hilarious and almost unrecognisable as her editor, Dianna) and enjoying regular one-night-only sex with various men, and dates with sort-of boyfriend Steven (John Cena). Not an unusual lifestyle you might think, though perhaps one not represented in mainstream cinema so much, and yet despite Amy Schumer’s reliably feminist output in her TV show Inside Amy Schumer, Trainwreck seeks to delegitimise is protagonist’s choices. Amy’s refusal to ‘settle down’ is attributed to a fear of rejection and her ultimate lesson [sigh] proposes that her life until she falls in love with a nice doctor (Bill Hader) has just been training for ‘the main event.’ It’s a disappointing descent into romantic comedy cliché, where Amy is presented as just another immature Apatow-type rogue, one that must conform to marriage and children to be truly ‘happy.’ Where Schumer regularly critiques a culture that infantalises women and makes them complicit in attempting to attain sexual desirability – and certainly Trainwreck’s Amy is presented as the product of such hypocritical messages – it’s the resolution for the character that’s problematic here. How radical it would have been if Amy had instead learned to love herself, and maybe started her own magazine.
mistress-americaAnother, more effective and charming portrayal of female lives is Mistress America, the second collaboration between writer/actor Greta Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach following the brilliant Frances Ha. Gerwig plays Brooke, a self-proclaimed autodidact who tumbles into the life of soon-to-be stepsister Tracy (Lola Kirke) who is trying to navigate the awkwardness of college for the first time. Tracy becomes fascinated with Brooke’s life, which encompasses various jobs including maths tutoring, spin class instructing, interior decorating and her latest enterprise, opening a restaurant. Unbeknownst to Brooke, Tracy uses her as subject of new short stories, her whirlwind of costume changes, appointments, confident declarations of advice and apparent self-awareness giving Tracy the impression of someone maintaining the illusion of togetherness. This fast-paced screwball comedy doesn’t require its characters to learn anything though they are given plenty of opportunities to do so. Rather that Tracy and Brooke are in altered circumstances by the end of the film feels entirely convincing as having come from the characters themselves. Tracy looks at Brooke and thinks that, as a person twelve years her senior, she should have life ‘figured out’ by now and both judges and admires her. Whereas in Brooke’s mind her experience tells her that the years she has on Tracy are irrelevant.

Also watched:

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, dir John Cameron Mitchell, 2001. Sing-a-long screening at Filmhouse.
Inside Out, dir Pete Doctor, co-directed by Ronnie del Carmen

EIFF 2012 in retrospect: Never Too Late

Having worked steadily making music videos, television advertisements and short films, director Ido Fluk here makes his feature film debut in a carefully crafted drama about about a 30-year old man returning to Israel , after eight years spent traveling in South America.

In the opening scenes, we see Herzl (Nony Geffen) applying for a job hanging posters, his hair chopped but hardly tidy. Later, he eats dinner with his mother who berates him for taking employment that will have him on the road so soon after arriving back in the country. Unable to resolve his decision not to attend his father’s funeral, Herzl is emotionally in limbo. Foregoing the usual flashback, Fluk opts to portray Herzl’s paternal memories in the present, having the genial, but assertive patriarch (Ami Weinberg) accompany his son as a passenger on his journey. Visiting old friends, Herzl is withdrawn and awkward , as though unsure of his surroundings. His return to his homeland was born of necessity rather than choice; this is a man out of touch with the world, struggling to accept his current time and place.

The themes of being adrift and unsettled are played out beautifully, not only with literary references (Herzl reads Robinson Crusoe), but also in the long takes shot from the front seat of the car looking out of the windscreen. Framed tightly from Herzl’s perspective, these scenes show the landscape passing him by, putting his past out of sight. Favouring the soft glow of sunrise and dusk, Fluk and cinematographer Itay Marom further accentuate their aimless protagonist’s fragile sense of place by blurring the distinction between sky and earth. Perfectly attuned to Herzl’s melancholy journey, Asher Goldschmidt’s haunting original score conveys the the sadness of his efforts to regain an identity lost, whilst subtly introducing hopeful notes as out protagonist gradually comes to terms with the weight of his father’s judgement and hid own decision to leave.

Never Too Late marks a further exploration of the subject of mourning, following Fluk’s short film Cooking for Richard, which was about a woman hopelessly grasping at the last remnant of her husband who died “of too much liver pâté”. Here, too, Fluk demonstrates enormous sympathy for his central character , and he does so with a confidence and sensitivity as a director that marks him as a talent to watch.


This text first appeared in the EIFF catalogue, published in June 2012.