Youth in Revolt
There’s lately been a resurgence of films centered on teens, but these features don’t quite resemble either John Hughes’ watershed films of the 1980s or the light comedies and slashers of the late 1990s that used the late director’s work as a templates. The individual films of this latest crop could hardly be seen as treading common ground. Instead they tend to spring from their makers’ unique creative visions and experiences, while generally eschewing the genre’s tried-and-true narrative setups. Although films exploring pubescent anxieties have hardly been a rarity at any time in the past century, these new films are finding a fresh way to use coming-of-age stories to explore the shared anxieties of contemporary America and its subcultures.
The year 2018 has yielded an interesting and varied array of teen films that could be included in this mini-movement. Coming-out story Love, Simon was a saccharine-sweet studio film that actually did use a Hughes schematic, albeit with queer characters at the fore – while also managing some modest box-office success. While that fim tended towards generalizing queer life, comedian Bo Burnham’s debut feature Eighth Grade was so exacting in creating a young woman’s experience in contemporary times, he made one of the most precise (and cringe-worthy) portraits of living in the social-media era. Likewise, the sublimely off-kilter indie Madeline’s Madeline centers on another young “woman under the influence,” here a theater-troupe member whose fractured psyche is manifested not only in the show in which she’s performing but also in the film itself. On the other end of the cinematic spectrum, two recent documentaries about skateboarding kids, Skate Kitchen and Minding the Gap, mine the world of the sport to explore gender politics in contemporary times.
In current release, the narrative feature Mid90s, the directorial debut of actor Jonah Hill, shares the skatepark setting of the aforementioned docs. While monumentally breezier, it also contains some common threads concerning race and toxic masculinity that tie if to yet another – albeit much more overtly political – film currently in theaters, the YA adaptation The Hate U Give.
The Hate U Give
2018 / USA / 133 min. / Dir. by George Tillman Jr. / Opened in wide release on Oct. 12, 2018
The Hate U Give borrows its title from THUGLIFE, an acronym coined by the late West Coast hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur. Its original meaning – The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everything – is as blunt and jejune as the film itself. The feature centers on Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a young black woman who straddles life between her predominantly black and fatally dangerous neighborhood, the fictional Garden Heights, and the largely white private school she attends in the suburbs. This double life is one of weekdays with her upper-middle-class schoolmates and weekends with her less privileged neighbors and distant family members. One fateful night in Garden Heights finds Starr as the sole witness to the murder of her lifelong friend, Khalil (Algee Smith), at the hands of a white policeman.
Her struggle with how to deal with her black-culture-appropriating white friends – including her white boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa) – are just the first moves the film makes to establish a microcosm of life for people of color in the United States. The feature is thuddingly obvious about ideas more sneakily woven into the texture of another, and much better, recent film with racial politics on its mind, Support the Girls, However, director George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give morphs into astoundingly resonant melodrama, a form that couldn’t be further from Andrew Bujalski’s low-key comedy-of-manners. (The two films also share the sublime Regina Hall as their mother figures.) The microaggressions start to take on (appropriately) monumental weight for both the viewer and Starr after the film’s inciting incident, creating a holistic and vital portrait of the systemic oppression against black Americans.
By depicting an all-too-real narrative with an achingly earnest mode of expression, Tillman straddles a line between audience involvement and abandonment. The director nearly falls off this tightrope in the film’s climax, which literalizes Shakur’s acronym. However, when the surrounding film also contains startlingly moving scenes of Starr’s increasing involvement in a Black Lives Matter-like movement, the misstep is easily forgiven. The seemingly conflicting tones are largely balanced by an excellent cast, including Hall as Starr’s conflicted mother, Russell Hornsby as Starr’s ex-con-turned-entrepreneur father, Common as a black cop torn between protecting his niece and what he sees as his duties, and Anthony Mackie as Garden Heights’ violent drug kingpin. They satellite the superb Stenberg, who capably handles the tasks given to her in performing one young woman’s coming of age, a transformation rooted in her realization of the gross injustices facing her and her community.
2018 / USA / 95 min. / Dir. by Jonah Hill / Opened in select cities on Oct. 19, 2018; locally on Oct. 26, 2018
Placed dead-center in Mid90s’ squarish Academy-ratio frame, Stevie (Sunny Suljic) glides down the middle of a sunny, busy interstate on his skateboard, lagging slightly behind his new, more experienced and older skateboarding friends. Soundtracked to the anachronistic the Mamas & the Papas’ hit cover of “Dedicated to the One I Love,” the shot is a choreographed expression of newfound passion and belonging. Director Hill mirrors this shot again after one member of that group, the particularly talented Ray (Na-kel Smith), provides the 13-year-old Stevie with a shot of much-needed reality regarding the world he’s just entered. Sans the autumnal harmonies of the ’60s pop group and now at sparsely populated dusk, the setup reflects the melancholy underlying teenage years when the world begins to present itself more clearly.
The film is sparingly decorated with small-scale miracles like these – a foreshadowing crane shot showing the journey Stevie will take when he fails a jump across roofs is another – but their purposeful infrequency demonstrates that Mid90s is not some grand announcement of a new directoral talent in actor-turned-director Hill. Instead, this low-key and sun-drenched portrait of identity formation coasts on the smallest of gestures and movements. Stevie lives with his single mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterston), a woman split between providing for and caring for of Stevie and his older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges). The two boys’ fraught relationship is further widened by their macho posturing, which frequently erupts into violence. That masculine toxicity ripples outward into the film in the form of Stevie’s self-harm – a means of feeling something, anything – and the competition and jealousy that nearly destroy his new group of friends before the film’s climax coheres it back together.
These are ideas more explicitly explored in Bing Liu’s years-long self-portrait of himself and his skater friends, Minding the Gap – there’s even a character parallel to Gap’s Lui who is documenting Stevie and the gang in Mid90s. At a scant 85 minutes, Hill’s debut as a director is as minor as its diminutive protagonist, but its most graceful moments prove there’s still reasons to make yet another teen movie. This one is sure to be compared to Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird (2017) due to its similar pedigree, but that director's supreme wit and precisely drawn characters easily ushered her feature debut into the pantheon of great movies about youth. Mid90s, however, is such a light affair that it merely piques interest in seeing what the capable director Hill will do next.