White Boy Rick (2018)

The opening shot of White Boy Rick is of a child plunging their hand into a popcorn maker for a snack, then running onto a gun show floor room to lead the audience to a character whose life’s dream is to sell enough guns to open a VHS rental store. Everything you need to know about the film’s balance between thematic daringness & easy entertainment value is contained in that introduction. Based on the true story of a white teenager in 1980s Detroit who was recruited as an FBI informant before transforming into a kingpin drug dealer on his own, White Boy Rick is extremely well-behaved in its style & structure as a biopic, approximating what Good Time might have felt like if it were a mid-90s VHS rental at Blockbuster instead of a modern stylistic freak-out. This is the kind of movie your aunts & uncles are asking for when they say they just want “a good story” without all the artsy-fartsy stuff getting in the way, the kind best enjoyed on the couch with a bowl of microwave popcorn. The story it tells lends itself to potentially complex, challenging themes of legal corruption, the failed War on Drugs, white privilege, and the cycles of poverty, but the movie is much less interested in slowing down to pick apart those topics than it is in repeatedly asking “Isn’t this crazy?” as it crams in every possible detail from its (admittedly crazy) true-life story. Director Yann Demange & his team of three credited screenwriters seemingly decided that the real “White Boy” Rick Wershe’s life story was entertainingly absurd enough on its own to need no further embellishment or thematic examination beyond being presented as-is in dramatization, that the movie practically makes itself. They’re not wrong.

Like with most well-behaved biopics, White Boy Rick’s greatest faults result from the compulsion to cram every possible real-life detail into a rigid two-hour structure that can barely contain it all. It’s understandable why the film’s small screenwriter army would indulge in that compulsion here, as Rick Wershe’s life between the ages of 14 to 17 in mid-80s Detroit was wild to the point of incredulity. In just three years, he embodied a range of functions within the “Just Say No” Reagan crack epidemic era as varied as arms dealer, drug kingpin, undercover narc, and convicted criminal – all before becoming a legal adult. It’s the kind of life story that makes for a great journalism piece (and has in this 2014 Atavist Magazine profile) but is overwhelming to tackle in full in under two hours of screen-time. The result of that information-compression is a drama too rushed to make an emotional impact, one that must rely on archetypes like The Stoic Drug Dealer With A Hidden Temper & The Tragic Cold-Turkey Junkie to move its story along at a manageable pace. Anyone looking for White Boy Rick to examine the corruption & deep-seated racism of a legal system that would elevate & protect a white teenager in order to take down a network of poor black people operating in a drug market they helped foster will leave the movie deeply disappointed; it simply doesn’t have the time. Instead, White Boy Rick chases capturing each beyond-belief beat of Rick’s short biography as a big-name hustler, focusing on telling “a good story” instead of a meaningful one. Its thematic material sticks with you about as along as it would take to read a mid-length profile of Ricky over your morning coffee. You only have time to say, “Whoa, that’s crazy” before the movie ushers you along.

What White Boy Rick lacks in thematic complexity it more than makes up for in the humor & specificity of its character work. Newcomer Richie Merritt plays the titular hustler as a sweet, hapless idiot too naïve to fully grasp the severity of the game he’s playing. There’s a quiet tragedy to the way he looks to his older junkie sister for wisdom & life advice, but Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) plays her as such a feral, inhuman goblin that the character takes on a Jerri Blank-esque humor, however dark. Matthew McConaughey, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie, and RJ Cyler (Power Rangers) all match those siblings’ sweetly pathetic energy in a way that finds intensely uncomfortable comedy in the daily tragedies of urban poverty. White Boy Rick works best when it functions as a Seinfeldian absurdist farce, with self-absorbed, delusional characters yelling at each other over minor grievances like pancakes, dead rats, frozen custard, and Footloose while the world crumbles around them. It’s only through that disarming humor that the drama makes any impact, since the swift brutality of the violence that disrupts it is in harsh juxtaposition. The film plays like a less challenging, non-meta I, Tonya in that way, reveling in the discomfort of finding dark humor in poverty’s violence & absurdity. There’s also an easy beauty to its recreation of mid-80s Detroit sounds & fashion, especially when it gawks at the fur coats, gold chains, and neon lights of the social scene at the local roller rink while Detroit soul & early hip-hop breaks cheerfully blare in the background. The clash of those indulgences against the medically accurate fallout of a gunshot wound or the grim step-by-step process of making & distributing crack is almost jarring enough for White Boy Rick to masquerade as an Important Drama, when it’s truly a character-driven farce.

It’s important to find balance in your movie-going habits. While I understand the urge to champion challenging art like I, Tonya, Good Time, and You Were Never Really Here over the more pedestrian payoffs of this Based On A True Story drama, there’s room in your diet for both. A few eccentric, character-based performances & “a good story” are more than enough to entertain as for-their-own-sake indulgences and there’s something adorably old-fashioned in White Boy Rick’s contentment to not reach any further than that. You can practically smell the popcorn popping & hear the VCR whirring in the background, as it’s incredible this movie wasn’t made in the Blockbuster Video era – both because of its simplistic artistic ambitions and because it’s absurd that Wershe’s life rights weren’t optioned decades sooner.

-Brandon Ledet

Equals (2016)

fourstar

Is it all transgressive or radical anymore to point out that Kristen Stewart is a divinely talented actor? Have her Twilight days been sufficiently been wiped out by the ever-expanding wealth of killer onscreen work she’s put in outside that franchise? I hope so, because it’s becoming tiresome starting reviews like this (my third defensive preamble for her talents after American Ultra & The Clouds of Sils Maria). Kristen Stewart’s main problem, if she has one at all, is that the film industry often seems confused about exactly how to utilize her detached onscreen cool, a visible lack of urgency that lands her presence somewhere between James Dean & Lauren Bacall in its smooth, smoky, effortless charm. Although it nearly approaches the YA romance territory that has threatened to pigeonhole her career, the dystopian sci-fi drama Equals does know what to do with Stewart’s detached cool. Besides indulging in an always-welcome, heartachingly sincere story of sci-fi romance, Equals presents a future where emotion has been outlawed, a perfect platform for Stewart’s own emotive talents, which are typically communicated through subtle body language & small shifts in tone. It’s not my favorite Stewart performance by any stretch, but it might serve as a convincing argument on her behalf for those still on the fence in regards to her immense, underappreciated talent.

As much as I’m rambling on about the many merits of Kristen Stewart here, the true protagonist of Equals is a man named Silas, played by Nicholas Hoult. Silas navigates a cold, clinical world in which war has been eradicated by outlawing human emotion. As a member of the emotionless Collective, Silas lives & works in a society of Spocks. Everything is bland, uniform, and designed for logical, streamlined function, the entire world an Apple Store. Silas’s peaceful life as an illustrator of “speculative non-ficiton” is threatened when an outbreak of the disease S.O.S. (or “switched on syndrome”) starts to trigger “behavioral defects” (emotions) in members of The Collective, including our protagonist. Silas dutifully takes his prescribed pills, but continues to feel anyway (likely a comment on the effectiveness of anti-depressants), and eventually finds himself dangerously infatuated with a coworker, played by Stewart. His love interest is dealing with her own rapidly-progressing S.O.S., however undiagnosed & unmedicated, and initially treats his advances like the unwanted attentions of any other workplace creep. Their attraction is inevitable, though, and sets up an achingly sincere, doomed-to-fail romance full of secretive, tender sexual encounters that put both Hoult’s & Stewart’s characters at risk for correctional “defective emotional therapy” at the hands of The Collective’s governing elite, a “treatment” that often ends in encouraged suicide.

Equals is mostly a slow, sensual drift through a cold, calculated future defined by its clean lines & blue lighting. Its romanceless dystopia most closely resembles the surrealist fantasy of this year’s The Lobster, but it approaches the subject from a more sincere, open-hearted place that recalls the sci-fi romance of titles like Her & Upside Down. There’s a metaphor to be found in the way this future society values “productive” lives over genuine mental health, but its true bread & butter is in the nervous, trembling touches Hoult & Stewart share as two young lovers unaccustomed to intimate human contact. The film finds its own visual language in the way it zooms in on actors’ bodies & faces in search of the tiniest of emotive responses, shrinking even the subtle bodily flirtation of Carol to a more microscopic stature (until, you know, it becomes full-on boning). There’s a little dose of subtle comic relief mixed in with this chest-heaving sensuality in the emotionless delivery of lines like, “You’re going to live, pal,” and [upon witnessing a coworker’s suicide] “That’s unfortunate,” but the film works best for those easily won over by sincere romance juxtaposed with a clinical sci-fi setting, an aesthetic I’ll admit I’m a huge sucker for.

Nicholas Hoult does a great job of selling the heartbreaking sincerity of this futuristic love connection (and, speaking of underappreciated actors, The Diary of a Teenage Girl‘s Bel Powley shows up to support the main cast), but Equals is Stewart’s show, not only because it fits the detached cool of her already established persona so well. As much as I appreciate the cold, clinical future presented here, it mostly makes me wish for a not-too-distant future where Stewart’s recognized for the full scope of her talent, not for being the girl from Twilight. Equals is a welcome step in that direction as well as a great, self-contained love story heightened by an oppressive air of emotional restraint.

-Brandon Ledet

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

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fourhalfstar

There was something about the laughter in the audience I saw The Diary of a Teenage Girl with that really freaked me out. Yes, the movie is funny, but it’s funny in an uncomfortable way that recalls difficult works from Todd Solondz like Welcome to the Dollhouse & Happiness moreso than any laugh-a-minute yuck ’em ups. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a rare picture that manages to incorporate effective black comedy into its beautiful visual artistry & the brutal, unmitigated honesty suggested by its confessional title. Adapted from a graphic novel by the same name, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is the story of a vulnerably naive 15 year old comic book artist who gets wrapped up in a sexual affair with her mother’s much older boyfriend in 1970s San Francisco. It’s a difficult film to stomach at times, but it’s one told with an intense attention to verisimilitude & vivid incorporations of top notch comic book art, all held together by a career-making performance from Bel Powley, who plays the exceedingly endearing, but deeply troubled protagonist Millie. I’m willing to chalk up a good bit of the laughter from the theater where I watched the film to discomfort with the subject matter, something I’m more than sure was intended by first-time writer/director Marielle Heller, but I often found my own reactions to what was happening onscreen to be far more complicated than mere ribald laughs. It almost felt transgressive to watch the movie with a large group of vocal strangers, as if I were actually hearing the private diary of a complete stranger being read aloud in public. It’s a starkly intimate work.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl opens with a leering shot of Millie’s denim-clad butt as she struts through a public park populated with 70s San Fransiscan hippies, weirdos, bellbottoms, and mustaches. Amidst this time warp fashion show, Millie proudly declares, “I had sex today. Holy shit.” We soon learn that her newfound sexual exploration isn’t quite as positive of a development as she believes. Not knowing the full extent of what she was getting herself into (how could she?), Millie intentionally seduces her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), initiating a longterm affair that eventually drives some irrevocable wedges between her & her mother (Kristen Wiig). Her reasoning for acting out on her lust for Monroe? “I was afraid to pass up the chance because I may never get another.” Millie is full of these self-deprecating, sadly funny “truisms”. After sleeping with Monroe, she asks “Is this the way it feels for someone to love you?” She later yearns, “I want someone to be so in love with me that they would feel like they would die if I were gone,” and makes ridiculous declarations like “I want to be an artist so school actually doesn’t matter that much for me,” & “Hookers have all the power. Everybody knows that.” Her naiveté can be amusing when she gets teen-deep in her sexual philosophizing, but it also indicates a terrifying vulnerability that Monroe was a monster to take advantage of.

While Millie pines over Monroe in a typical “he loves me, he loves me not” fashion, he treats her more like a younger sister, incorporating an uncomfortable amount of childish horseplay in their flirtation. She’s a shameful fling in Monroe’s mind. She’s also, according to him at least, completely to blame for the affair. The movie does little to sugarcoat the realities of its mid-70s setting, establishing a very specific cultural mindset with references to the Patty Hearst kidnapping controversy (which Wiig’s flower child mother refers to as fascist misogynistic bullshit”), the rise of sexually androgynous milestones like Iggy Pop & The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the omnipresence of Fruedian psychology (represented onscreen by Christopher Meloni), depictions of teens freely ordering drinks in barrooms, the drugged out loopiness of H.R. Pufnstuf, and era-honest inclusions of casual racism & homophobia. It’s tempting to say that an affair with a 15 year old in that context would not have been as big of a deal as it is now, it being “different times” & all, but c’mon . . . Monroe feels intense guilt for the affair, because he knows it is wrong. Still, he blames Millie for his own transgression, as does every other person who learns of the affair (another indication of the times). When Monroe becomes increasingly frustrated with Millie’s adolescent behavior, he explodes “You’re a fucking child!” Well, he’s not wrong there, which is a large part of why he should’ve known better & why he’s so much at war with his own conscious.

To her credit, Millie is often blissfully unaware of just how detrimental her affair with Monroe actually is. Convinced that Monroe is only continuing to sleep with her mother to avoid suspicion, Millie mostly worries about whether or not he loves her back, not how much longterm damage he’s causing her psyche. In a lot of ways, Monroe is just one part of Millie’s coming of age story, which also involves experimentation with ditching class, hard drug use, bisexuality, self body image, skinny-dipping, prostitution, running away from home, and attempts to connect with her favorite comic book artist, Aline Kominsky (a real life talent & real life wife of Robert Crumb). Stuck halfway between an older man who can’t keep up with her overactive libido & her teen sexual partners who aren’t nearly as good in bed (not to mention often freaked out by her pursuit of her own orgasms), Millie is alone in a crowd. She both makes intentionally provocative statements like “I hate men, but I fuck them hard, hard, hard, and thoughtlessly because I hate them so much,” & hypocritically shames friends who are struggling with the same pursuits of sexual & personal autonomy.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl pulls no emotional punches as Millie perilously navigates these deeply troubled waters, often lightening the mood both with its protagonist’s endearing sense of humor & teen-specific lack of self-awareness, but never letting its characters off the hook for their often-cruel transgressions. All of this heft is backed up by a vivid visual collage format that allows ink drawings to come to life, wallpaper to transform into a jungle, and a bathtub to suddenly expand to an ocean, making great use of that concession without it ever outwearing its welcome. What results is an incredibly adept debut feature for Marielle Heller & an remarkable display of range for actress Bel Powley. I’m just as excited to see where their careers are headed in the future as I am to revisit this film as soon as I can get my hands on the novel (and experience it with a more intimate, on-my-wavelength audience).

-Brandon Ledet