The Sweet Bird of Youth

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The bittersweet journey of growing up is filled with breathtaking moments in three breakthrough films of 2014


By Alvin Bulaong Cruz


There is a clear and distinct voice that resonates in last year’s most remarkable achievements in film: The voice of a troubled but impassioned young generation.


Indeed, the voice of the young and the restless cannot be ignored as it interestingly becomes the leitmotif in what many critics consider the most notable films of 2014.


This voice comes in many tones and undertones and in varying texts and subtexts. Hence, in this film expect the unpredictable, which is quite typical of the wide-ranging gamut of emotions young people are vulnerable to experience all at once.


For instance, it is rebellious, free-spirited, and reckless in the Canadian, French-language film, Mommy. In the unnerving and edgy film Whiplash, the voice becomes competitive, passionate, and self-destructive. Finally, in another coming-of-age film, Boyhood, made over a period of 12 years to capture the actual transformation of a boy growing up in a dysfunctional home, the voice turns philosophical, introspective, and hopeful.


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Unlikely alliance


Canadian writer-director Xavier Dolan (I Killed My Mother and Lawrence Anyways) returns to his favorite, familiar theme but with a refreshingly original take in Mommy, winner of the Cannes Jury Prize last year and Canada’s official entry to this year’s Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film.


A single mom in her 50s, Diana “Die” Despres (Anne Dorval) takes back her 15-year-old son with ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder) Steve (Antoine Oiivier Pilon) in her custody after Steve had spent time in an institution under the S-14 law in Quebec. This law allows the state to put “problem children” in institutionalized care.


But this mother-son reunion is just the beginning of a bumpy, turbulent family journey, and the whole film takes us on a labyrinth of ins and outs, ups and downs, all the while wondering whether there’s really a way out for both, or if it’s a dead end from the start. And then, a third wheel comes along: Kyla (Suzanne Clement), a lonely, stuttering neighbor who ends up mentoring the temperamental but sentimental Steve.
What makes this film extraordinary is the presence of not two but three “extremes” that bond together, forming an unlikely alliance borne of shared loneliness and isolation. A hippish single mom, a juvenile delinquent, and a speech-impaired teacher together weave a character-driven tale of unconditional love and the unconventional ways of expressing it.


In fact, the movie is unconventional and brave in many ways. For one, it tries to explore the boundaries of an unusual mother-son relationship, which the director handles with meticulous subtlety and honesty. Also, it gives a realistic and balanced portrayal of a person with ADHD, showing Steve in endless and seemingly senseless motions.


This is powerfully and metaphorically captured in a parking lot scene where he spins with a grocery cart as the song “Colorbind” by Counting Crows plays in the background. Other equally gripping scenes in the movie include Kyla giving Steve a lesson on respect, a turning point in Steve’s irreverent life. Finally, who can forget the final scene showing Steve in his last-ditch attempt to find a way out by literally escaping and breaking free? For this and its brave, uncanny portrayal of the proverbial angst of youth, Mommy is simply unforgettable.


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All that jazz


How far does one go to achieve greatness? Such is the fundamental question that lies at the heart of Whiplash, a film based on the actual experiences of its writer/director Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) as a drum student.


From the opening scene, the heart-pounding beat of the drums creates an eerie and mysterious mood that builds up all the way to the end. Nope, this is not your feel-good kind of film where an aspiring and gifted jazz drummer goes to an elite music conservatory, learns his craft, struggles to succeed, falls in love, and becomes famous. Rather, if you enjoy sitting on the edge of your seat for some electrifying mind games, then you’ll never be disappointed with this cutting-edge, spellbinding movie with all that jazz.


For Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), failure is not an option. He’s a first year student in one of the country’s top music schools. When he decides to join the school’s elite jazz band as a drummer, his dream of greatness crashes as terror instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) makes Neyman’s life a living hell. And indeed, all hell breaks loose between master and student, driving Neyman to an obsessive-compulsive, maniacal point of madness.


For the most part, the movie leaves the audience breathless and blown away with the intensity of the emotionally-charged scenes that highlight the two characters’ ferocious demons: obsession with perfection and self-glorification. Imagine a pair of hands continually beating the drums until they bleed. Or if that’s not enough to blow you away, how about seeing Neyman play the drums on stage while writhing in excruciating pain after getting hurt in a car accident just few seconds earlier?


But without the mind-blowing performances of its two lead actors, the film seems unlikely to strike a chord. In fact, a less talented actor would have made the whole film just one big clanging cymbal, all noise and no soul. Miles Teller as the obsessed student is a young actor of immense depth and substance. And J.K. Simmons as the ruthless mentor intensifies the screen with every line he delivers. He is so good in his role he makes even obscenities (His character punctuates almost every sentence with invectives!) sound so good. Simmons’ compelling performance in Whiplash won for him the Best Supporting Actor Award from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics. I can almost hear the beating of the drums and the crashing of cymbals at the Oscars to hail a modern masterpiece that has already reaped major awards at Sundance Film Festival last year.


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Rites of passage


Rarely in our lifetime comes a film that makes you feel you’re not merely watching it, but as if you were looking at the same world with the same eyes. This is exactly what the widely acclaimed film Boyhood has made me feel while watching it. Perhaps that is the point of the movie’s poster that shows a boy lying on the grass and looking up with eyes wide open. What he is looking at is immaterial. It’s an invitation to see whatever it is he’s seeing from his point of view.


As its title aptly says, Boyhood (named Best Picture by the New York Film Critics Circle) tells the story of a young boy’s coming- of-age as he goes through the many milestones in his life. In fact, we see the same boy literally grow up right before our eyes. The film was shot over a 12-year period, starting when the boy (Ellar Coltrane as Mason) was only six years old, and capturing his transformation— physically, emotionally, and intellectually—until he reaches the age of 18, technically the start of adulthood.


The story of Boyhood may be plain and simple from the start: Six-year-old Mason is a typical American boy from a middle-class but broken family. Together with his older sister Sam (Lorelei Linklater) and his separated parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette), he slowly sees the real world around him through his young eyes. But the world is not as simple as it seems, and the more he grows up, the more confused he becomes about his existence.


With Boyhood, director Richard Linklater (Slacker and School of Rock) himself seems to have matured with his craft. In a film that runs for almost three hours, Linklater, who won Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival last year, has dissected modern American family and society without being judgmental and preachy.


In the film, he touched on America’s relevant social and political issues (teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, and the Gulf war) without losing his focus on establishing the film’s central theme and character. His approach to this film is introspective and philosophical, an examination of the complexity of the human condition. For though it’s about growing up, Boyhood is also about the process of change and the passage of time, facts of life we all have to face sooner or later.


The beauty of this film is its power to make the complex look so simple and the profound sound so casual. Many times in the film, many things become so familiar. We listen to the casual family conversations between father and son, mother and daughter, brother and sister, and we get to understand that we are going on the same complicated, bittersweet journey filled with random moments that capture us. As Mason’s college friend muses in the final scene: “Everybody is saying seize the moment. But maybe it’s the other way around—the moment seizes us.”


February 2015 Health and Lifestyle

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