Sunday, July 6, 2014

Female Bonding And Unbonding In Movies, And The New Digital Universe

Very Good Girls: Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen: Fempatico Friends Without Benefits

The digital age has no doubt expanded access to the media universe for masses of people on the planet, both as creators and consumers. But what about the more subtle side effects on cinema itself. Not so much the more readily available tools to produce movies, but rather the influence on content of gadget culture.

And where there was at one time in the last century the existence of a collective reality of people in a human bond, gathering in front of a radio or television - or in the case of the now progressively diminishing reign of the movie theater. Yet all that changed radically, when capitalism came up with a shrewd new idea of huge profit generating individual and strictly private devices, rather than just buying simply one per residence. Whether digital rather than home phones, and single viewer movie or music gadgets.

And in turn, the effect on human interaction - or the absence of it - on screen. Ad what may be termed The New Loneliness. With a trend in movies as seen in the examples below, more often than not with everything and everyone else pushed into the background - or not there at all. And more likely than not inevitably starring a trio of notoriously narcissistic characters - Me, Myself And I.

HEATSTROKE

Taking the bratty teen genre out of the sitcom and into the South African wilds doesn't seem to do either much good in the female action hero thriller, Heatstroke. Not that Maisie Williams and Stephen Dorff don't dramatically impress as the estranged offspring and resented divorced dad respectively.

But to equalize and thereby diminish the barely touched upon, real life, breaking news back story of the alarming extinction of threatened wildlife existence in remote Africa by profiteering poachers for bickering nuclear family faceoffs, leads to a case of the narrative in need of rescuing as well, and suffering as much as the endangered creatures. Not to mention an Africa minus Africans.

Nor the fact that the main source of conflict here and Dad's new love interest, is played by Russian actress Svetlana Metkina. An odd choice considering that she's a whole lot more accomplished at the facing up to the physicality of wilderness survival and delivering the ungrateful kid to safety, than delivering her lines with any emotional depth.

And while director Evelyn Purcell may or may not have been drawn to the project as a kind of dramatic closure regarding surviving herself as stepmom to actress Josephine Demme when she was married to her famous father, Jonathan, the same is not likely to be said vicariously. That is, for audiences not sharing that particular label in the real world.

Heatstroke: A feelgood fantasy for primarily harassed stepparents everywhere.

VERY GOOD GIRLS

The emotional intricacies of female teen friendship rarely receive authentic treatment on screen, mostly about female gazing as an object of desire from the male point of view. And though Naomi Foner's Very Good Girls does just that as well, this portrait of coming of age female bonding and unbonding has much more on its mind. And in uniquely probing, sensitively evocative ways.

And though much too old for the just graduated high school girls they play - Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen are 20 and 25 years old respectively - they get a pass here for the extraordinary depth, passion and complexity they bring to their coming of age characters.

Lily (Dakota Fanning) and Gerry (Elizabeth Olsen), best friends since childhood, are about to painfully part ways one emotionally turbulent summer, following high school graduation. Raised in an affluent New York City suburb, the inseparable pair have experienced little of the world, including sex, as uptight Lily prepares to go off to college while a more free spirited Gerry sets her sights on a folk singing career.

But following an encounter while biking around Brighton Beach - with a mysterious artist (Boyd Holbrook) making ends meet as an ice cream vendor - the best friends are drawn into a mutual infatuation with the not quite displeased seductive stud. Giving rise to competitive twin infatuations which threaten the female bond between them.

This potentially trite tale written and directed by Naomi Foner (Running on Empty, Losing Isaiah), is salvaged by dramatically stirring performances from its exceedingly charismatic crew. Including Ellen Barkin as Fanning's bitter mom, along with a far too little seen and heard from Demi Moore and Richard Dreyfuss as Olsen's offbeat, social activist parents.

Though you have to more than wonder about Dreyfuss as the combo capitalist patrician dad vocially championing the workers of the world as he barbeques at his upscale abode, regarding whom exactly in his sumptuous lily white world, he might be addressing this to. Not to mention. Foner's exceedingly peculiar decision to insert an erotically charged, impulsive sex scene between a panting Fanning and her summertime employer played by Peter Sarsgaard - who just happens to be Foner's son-in-law in real life, married to her daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal.

WAR STORY

The less said about this Mark Jackson directed post-battlefield psychological drama, the better. Which is likely what this less is in no way more style that filmmaker Mark Jackson may have had in mind anyway. Exemplary actress Catherine Keener, through seemingly no fault of her own, is stuck in this moody, one note melodrama as Lee. She's a US photojournalist and PTSD survivor, just returned from conflict in Libya where her partner was killed by her side.

Holed up at an Italian lodge on her way home to the States, Keener is burdened with the weight of both traumatic memories and this fractured script devoid of much substance, as she wanders sulking about in a perpetually grouchy silent mood. And dividing her time between snapping abrasively at strangers or stalking them with her prying camera, for the duration. At one point, she latches on to an irritated pregnant young Libyan refugee, butting into her business until the woman almost but never quite allows herself to be befriended.

As for the conflict in Libya, forget about it. The movie could have just as well been about clinical depression brought on by a bad hair day. End of story.

And regarding what all these recent hermetically internalized female bonding films may have in common, let's just say it's all about what you don't see. Namely, the world around them in this age of digital narcissism, that is best described here as Africa without Africans, the Libyan conflict without Libya, and a racially, ethnically and economically diverse New York City without a multi-cultural or economically deprived demographic presence in sight.

Prairie Miller

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