To be young is to be foolish and make mistakes—hopefully none of them fatal. It’s also a time for trying on different guises and carving out a place in the world. Most of all it’s a time of crazy impulses, mad love affairs, and grandiose dreams. To be young is to be the main character of a great and powerful drama titled, My Life.
Hollywood has always been attracted to youth as a subject matter. From the flapper movies of the roaring 20s, to the rock and roll movies of the 50s, to the rebellious cinema of the 60s, Hollywood has defined and redefined what it means to be young.
Recently, I sampled a bunch of movies that are streaming on Netflix. Out of a dozen films I have chosen three—all indie, low-budget productions—that skillfully explore the vagaries of youth with visual verve and sharp psychological insights.
Short Term 12 (2013) Grace (Brie Larson) is the supervisor of a Los Angeles group home for troubled youth. A cross-section of kids who have, ahem, issues, are nimbly woven into the obligatory exposition. We think this is going to be some hyper-realistic descent into a snake pit of abuse. Instead, the film presents several finely etched portraits of tough but vulnerable kids who have been thrown away by their dysfunctional families.
However, the real subject of the film is Grace and her relationship with her long-term boyfriend and coworker, Mason, (the excellent John Gallagher, Jr.). Grace is just a few years older than the kids for whom she cares, but beneath her self-confident manner she’s still a damaged little girl trying to make sense of her life. Larson, a recent Oscar winner, gives a luminous performance as do all the other young actors in this deeply moving film. And the ending, which I won’t give away, is, well, transcendent.
6 Years (2015) We are introduced to a young couple, Melanie Clark (Taissa Farmiga) and Dan Mercer (Ben Rosenfield), as they are making love. This is, after all, a love story… of sorts. We learn that Melanie is about to become an elementary school teacher. Dan is interning at a hip—we know it’s hip because the men wear the obligatory pork-pie hat—Austin based record label. Melanie and Dan have been together for six years, high school sweethearts who have, essentially, grown up together. But fault lines appear in their relationship. Melanie gets drunk and drives. Dan finds out about it and shouts at her. She shoves him and he falls, causing a mild head injury. In retaliation, Dan starts a half-hearted affair with an older woman at the record company.
But the real test of Dan and Melanie’s relationship is when Dan is offered a paying job with the indie label in… Brooklyn. (Hey, Brooklyn is now hip!) Both understand that his moving east means the end of the relationship. Melanie wants him to stay. He wants to go. What to do?
The acting in 6 Years feels heavily improvised. And there’s more than a fair share of straight-up melodrama. But the exacting performances of Farmiga and Rosenfield elevate the paper-thin script to a higher level. Watching the young lovers self-destruct is painful, yet the emotions evoked are movingly accurate.
Fish Tank (2009) I fully expected to hate this British movie. Every year there comes along a production where the actors surrender technique for the so-called truth of cinéma vérité. John Cassavetes did it in a series of self-consciously artistic films in the 60s, and the kitchen-sink realism of British films plagued movie screens in the same period.
Mia Williams (Katie Jarvis) is a violent, foul mouthed 15-year-old who has dropped out of school and lives in a grim East London government flat with her single, slattern mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and younger sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). The mother’s mysterious new boyfriend, Conor, (Michael Fassbender) starts paying attention to Mia — the kind of attention for which a volatile teen unconsciously yearns.
Of course, nothing goes well in this dysfunctional family. Joanne parties and drinks with low-life friends. Tyler, a miniature Moll Flanders, quips: “I like you, I’ll kill you last.” And Mia, with a secret passion for hip-hop dancing, counts on an audition for a dancing gig to pull her out of her dead-end life.
Lead actress Kate Jarvis was discovered by the film’s casting agent when Jarvis was arguing with her boyfriend in public. You can tell that Jarvis is not a trained actress. She does not modulate her voice or her performance. She goes at every scene with fierce determination. It’s exhausting and yet shockingly effective because Mia is a relentless character with little impulse control. When Conor doubly betrays Mia her pain and confusion are palpable. Mia’s revenge is unsparingly documented in a set piece that is almost unbearable to watch.
The film is tightly focused from Mia’s perspective. We never see the world except through the lens of Mia’s limited point of view. This technique gives the film its power. Unlike the Marxist-soaked movies of kitchen-sink realism, Fish Tank is untouched by politics or ideology. Mia, and everyone in her life, is unmoored from family, community, church and country. Can Mia escape her fate? The resolution—an improvised hip-hop dance with Mia, her mother and sister—means to give hope. But actress Katie Jarvis went on to have a baby out of wedlock and has appeared in only one British TV series in a limited capacity since Fish Tank wrapped. And yet, in spite of this film’s grim imagery and message, I held out hope for Mia because of the sheer strength and determination of her character.
Viewing tip: Audiences have grown accustomed to the fine cadences brought to you by dreadfully cultured BBC productions where actors speak the King’s English. Fish Tank characters speak with an accent that is close to incomprehensible. Yours truly turned on the English captions.