“It gets tiring. Trying so hard all the time, doesn’t it?”
Having spent several years raving about writer-director Kelly Fremont Craig’s debut, The Edge of Seventeen, her name drew me to this film more than the Judy Bloom book on which it is based. The source material is evidently beloved by many and, whilst some consider it strange that it has taken 50 years to receive a film adaptation, the regrettable reason is likely its refreshingly frank approach to female puberty. Craig sets the film in the 1970s, when the novel was published, a move that serves to highlight the story’s lasting relevance. Margaret is dragged from New York to New Jersey, forced to find a new clique of friends who, on the cusp of adolescence, are desperate for their first period in order to be perceived by their peers as mature. The adult cast features a host of big names — particularly Rachel McAdams in an expanded, sympathetic portrayal of Margaret’s mother as a woman dealing with her own issues of identity — but Craig casts relative newcomers as the children. Abby Fortson and Elle Graham stand out, the former through wry comedic sensibility and the latter through bold charm and energy. Despite the title, religion plays a limited role — Margaret’s parents have sought to escape their Jewish and Christian heritage, resenting interference from the grandparents. In making another coming of age film, Are You There God? falls squarely within Craig’s proven abilities and she again writes a likeable but flawed protagonist and deftly examines the positive and negative aspects of the friendships and familial relationships around Margaret whilst limiting melodrama.
“And all that damage we leave behind. All those lives. All those empty rooms. What were they even for? You have asked yourself that question? Why we do what we do?”
Adapted from a John le Carré novel inspired by the abduction and rendition from Germany of the innocent Murat Kurnaz, this is an old-fashioned slow burn thriller that could be criticised for its meandering nature were its explosive conclusion not so purposive and memorable. A Most Wanted Man is obliquely critical of American foreign policy and overreach, whilst exploring the moral conflicts on a personal level for both those in the intelligence services and those who cooperate with them. One of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final films, released shortly after his death, he delivers a powerful central performance as an agent doggedly pursuing a terrorist financier whilst trying to protect his investigation from intervention by the local police or the USA. The focal point is a Chechnian fugutive who might be a refugee or a terrorist, an angle that remains relevant a decade later as refugees continue to be treated with suspicion. Rachel McAdams provides the counterpoint as a lawyer aiding the dispossessed, with Willem Dafoe the neutral banker caught unwillingly in the middle, though the film’s coldly clinical perspective limits our connection with any of the characters. A Most Wanted Man lacks the flair and intrigue of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — for me the quintessential Le Carré adaptation — but it asks more pressing political questions.
“So, what is this thing? Man? Woman? It is a being with the power to disobey. Alone among all the creatures we have free will. We hang suspended between the clarity of the angels and the desires of the beasts.”
Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s thoughtful drama, adapted from a novel by Naomi Alderman, follows Ronit as she returns to an Orthodox Jewish community in London after her estranged father’s death, stirring emotions when reunited with her childhood best friend. Ronit’s past emerges naturally from the narrative which is as much about losing a community as it is about religion and temptation. Food plays a central cultural role and we see in Rachel Weisz’s face the transportive flavours conjuring childhood memories. Disobedience takes a nuanced and restrained approach to religious trauma, directly challenging the denial of choice and freedom to those raised within rigid belief systems whilst avoiding the temptation to vilify the community itself. Alessandro Nivola is striking in his gentle supportiveness, a faithful disciple of Ronit’s father who has become a respected rabbi, yet he bristles with anger when his authority is challenged. Indeed restraint is evident throughout Disobedience, the film’s muted colour palette fitting an environment in which conflicts are rarely voiced directly. Returning to London reinforces the cost of Ronit’s escape which is losing an entire community and particularly her friend Esti. Diegetic use of The Cure’s Lovesong during a pivotal scene serves a dual purpose with the lyric “You make me feel like I am home again.” Although we experience events largely through Ronit’s perspective, it is Esti who provides the story arc as Ronit’s return forces her to grapple with her own decision to remain in the community. Disobedience may not offer the cathartic relief that some former believers might desire, but it is more meaningful as a result — it ventures beyond mere escapism to underscore the cost of that escape.
Although this is ostensibly the first time I have watched Mean Girls, as a child of the Internet I have been exposed essentially to the entire movie in memefied form. Rooted firmly in the early 2000s, with a high school experience likely unreconisable to teens now — from three-way calls on landlines to the complete absence of social media — its satire of high school cliques and the elevation of shallow idiocy has aged surprisingly well. The best visual moments are Cady’s visions of her peers acting like prehistoric primates in a way that shows human adolescence in its truest form — chattering chimps, fearful and desperate to fit in. Meanwhile, the film’s continuing quotability comes from Tina Fey’s ear for teenage dialogue that is simultaneously ridiculous but believeable. What nearly undermines Mean Girls entirely is its denouement, which abandons comedy in favour of tritely traditional teen movie resolution through a handful of speeches. Tina Fey’s script wants us not only to empathise with, but to like these characters, despite minimal consequence or growth from the pain each has caused. That, like ‘fetch’, is not going to happen. Ironically it is this failure to treat her characters sufficiently meanly which almost torpedos Mean Girls in its final act, though it is not enough to undo all that precedes it.
Political thriller State of Play deserves credit foremost for successfully trimming down a five-hour BBC miniseries into a coherent two-hour film. The result is dense with exposition and can feel rushed, but that also adds to a sense of urgency. The investigative journalist perspective now feels almost nostalgic, reminiscent of All The President’s Men. A high calibre cast compensates for a lack of character development, and I wish Helen Mirren’s editor had more screen time. Whilst the interplay between The Globe’s ailing print edition and rising online presence is already antiquated a decade on, the lucrative domestic expansion of military contractors remains just as relevant.