THE KINGS OF SUMMER and THE BLING RING



The Kings of Summer is the new coming of age film by writer Chris Galetta and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts.  It’s very sincere and heartfelt in the tradition of such movies as Stand by Me and The Breakfast Club.   But in the end, how you feel about it all will probably depend on how you feel about the central teenage characters.  Personally, I thought they were a pair of drama queens and ungrateful little shits who didn’t know how well off they were.  So I guess you know where I stand.
Both Joe and Patrick, the aforementioned teens, act like they’re from homes headed by Joan Crawford.  Patrick (Gabriel Basso) is stuck with the nightmare of parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) whose worst crime is that they would fit right in on any network sit com.  They give him hives (just like most network sit coms give me).  Joe (Nick  Robinson, late of Mud) has a father,  Frank, (played by Nick Offerman) who is portrayed with a bit more depth—he’s still recovering from the death of his wife.  Joe helps him through it by taking hour long showers and, when his father complains, standing nude in front of him.   Frank’s biggest sin is wanting to have a family game night so Joe can meet the new woman Frank is dating.  Well, all I can say, folks, is call child welfare services before any of them get out the wire coat hangers.   
So, beset by the slings and arrows of, etc., that they believe they are receiving from their parents, the two callow youths run off to live in the woods where they can be their own boss.  But they do it in the manner of Henry David Thoreau who made sure he was close enough to civilization to receive a constant barrage of visitors and near enough to his brother so his sister-in-law could do his laundry once a week (in The Kings of Summer, the pair have people over for game night and are within walking distance of a Boston Market).
The only aspect of the screenplay that seems to support the boys’ view of their horrible childhood is how little effort the parents put into trying to find them.   I would think that this lack of interest would be even more upsetting than the hives Patrick gets.  At the same time, it must be said that this section of the screenplay isn’t that believable, both that the authorities don’t put a lot more effort into it and that the kids couldn’t be found very easily (this all might have made more sense if the parents knew exactly where their sons were and decided to just let them work out their issues on their own). 
But nothing in the film is really that believable.  It all seems a bit pushed, a bit forced, a bit too romanticized, from the house that’s built in the woods (in less time than it takes most people to build a doghouse); to the third musketeer in their band of merry-men—to mix literary references (this is Biaggio, played by the Al Jolson-eyed Moises Arias who is unsure of his sexual orientation and is therefore used as comic relief—he’s actually the only one I sympathized with since his father didn’t even seem to know he had taken off); to the parents who are written with the attitude that they were never the confused, young, alienated kids their children are (there is almost always a whiff of hypocrisy in these films where the adults are ridiculed and made fun because they don’t love or understand their kids; but the writers, former kids all, don’t feel they have to do the same for the parents, and who probably now act more like the parents they write about than the kid;  at the same time, credit must be given where credit is due—Offerman, Mullally and Jackson are excellent).   
In the end, character arcs are fulfilled and life lessons are learned (especially never play Monopoly with either Joe or Patrick, who, apparently, are the sorest losers in the world), with formula being the real king here.  But the whole thing is done with so little tension and conflict that the filmmakers have to force an ending by bringing in a deux ex machina in the form of a cotton head since nothing the characters are doing are ever going to resolve anything.  Vogt-Roberts even seems to instinctively understand how little drama there really is here; he uses all sort of directorial flourishes like slo-mo shots, montages and constantly cutting away to nature to cover up what seems to be lacking at the core of it all.
The Bling Ring, the other coming of age film to come out this year, this one written and directed by Sofia Coppola (based on a Vanity Fair Article by Nancy Jo Sales), is filled with drama queens and little shits just like The Kings of Summer.  But the difference is that that’s the point.  Where The Kings of Summer is a romantic fantasy, The Bling Ring is a dark comedy that, as all good dark comedies do, becomes more real than reality.
The Bling Ring is another of Coppola’s dissection of the idea of celebrity (all of her films, except for her first, The Virgin Suicides, has some connection to this idea—even in Marie Antoinette the tragic queen isn’t looked at from a political point of view as much as if she was an 18th century version of Lindsay Lohan).   The movie chronicles the true story of a group of entitled kids who break into the homes of and steal from various celebrities who are out of town on film and modeling shoots (some of the biggest revelations here are that celebrities are some of the worst when it comes to locking their doors; none of them seem to have live in help or very large families; and one of them wears high heels large enough to fit the male lead, though which of the celebrities has man feet, that I will not tell you).   This is a group of psychopathic Bugsy Malones whose chutzpah is only overshadowed by their sheer stupidity; they upload pictures of their booty on Facebook, as if it never entered their head that adults even know what social media is.
The story begins in the same way that so many of these teenage tragedies do: a depressive with issues of self loathing (Marc, a gay teen who is school attendance challenged, played by Isarael Broussard with a series of hang dog looks) meets a sociopath (Rebecca, played by steely eyed Katie Chang).  As happens in any self respecting film noir, an innocent is seduced by a femme fatale; think Double Indemnity with a lot more acne.
If nothing else, The Bling Ring is highly entertaining.  It never lets go once it grabs you.  The story seems too ridiculous to be believable, but like a train wreck, you just can’t look away.   Coppola has gathered a first rate cast of young people to play her jackal-like pack of juvenile delinquents.  I am even not ashamed to say that I didn’t recognize Harry Potters’ sweet Hermione, Emma Watson, as a self-absorbed teen with a messianic complex with delusions of grandeur.    She steals the show with as much ease as she steals Paris Hilton’s purse. 
The biggest criticism I’ve heard about this film is that Coppola doesn’t explain or pass judgment on her characters (this was also a criticism I remember at the time Martin Scorcese released Goodfellows).  I have to admit I don’t quite get this.  If you have to have Coppola tell you that these people are morally reprehensible and what they are doing is wrong, then the problem probably isn’t with Coppola, it’s probably with you.

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER



Oh, if only my painful and agonizing years in high school were as painful and agonizing as Charlie’s, the hero of the new coming of age film The Perks of Being a Wildflower.   There’s something so beautiful and rhapsodic about Charlie’s freshman year that serves as the plot of this movie, that one not just envies him, one feels robbed of a true right of passage to pre-adulthood.   Why does he get to have all these horrible things happen to him?  Why is he so blessed?  What’s wrong with me?
The movie is pure nostalgia with all the depressing sweetness that description implies.  This also means it’s not a realistic depiction of what happened, but a heightened romantic view of that period of time (it has moments with the same feeling as the opening scenes of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited—a look at college life so hauntingly beautiful that it’s too excruciating to experience a second time).  And the writer/director Stephen Chbosky (who also wrote the book the screenplay is based on) does something well nigh impossible—he’s made a coming of age film that is not only worth seeing, but actually gives coming of age films a good name. 
Charlie (played by the waiflike Logan Lerman, who is heartbreaking from the moment he appears on screen) is a wallflower, but for good reason.  It’s not long before it’s revealed that something awful has recently happened to him that is preventing him from connecting with people (what that is, is soon revealed, but in such a casual and off the cuff way that it socks you in the gut).   It’s not much longer before you realize that there’s something even deeper than that going on.  Everyone hints at it (they mention him seeing things, black outs, he has mysterious flashbacks to an aunt he deeply loves, etc.), but it’s not until the end of the movie that the whole story comes together. 
But Charlie’s determined not to let his past become his future, so he goes to a football game (an experience he obviously has no essential interest in; he just as obviously has no idea what is going on on field), and there he takes a chance and talks to another misfit like himself, Patrick (the excellent Ezra Miller, who played the sociopathic son in We Need to Talk About Kevin), and through Patrick, Charlie meets Sam (the spot on and refreshing Emma Watson, doing perhaps an even more successful job of making one forget that she was in the Harry Potter films than Daniel Radcliffe did in The Woman in Black)—the next thing you know, Charlie’s going to parties; eating pot brownies and taking LSD; and attending midnight shows of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (yes, Virginia, the story takes place in the 1980’s).   And he slowly sees the end of the tunnel approaching until…well, see the movie and find out.
Charlie is what in screenplay parlance is called a reactive character, a character that doesn’t have a clear and strong goal (other than trying to survive or get though a difficult situation), but whose story is told in his reactions to everything going on around him.  If you read any books on screenwriting, they almost invariably state that such a character is anathema to the essence of successful story telling.  This, of course, as movies like …Wallflower show, is “malarkey”, to quote a recent Vice Presidential debate (a “whopper” to quote a Presidential one). 
But it’s pertinent in many ways to the theme of the movie here.  At one point, Patrick points out the “perks” of Charlie’s reactivity—he is the only one who can interpret everything going on around him because he is not actively involved; he is the one who is the stand in for the audience, who tips us off as to what the real meaning of the events he and everyone experiences are; he is the one who can see things no one else can because he is the Observer (complete with that capital O).  It’s his reactivity that drives the story and gives him the ability to have insight where no one else does.   It gives him his place in the world.  Characters like Charlie are just as indispensable to art as active characters like Indiana Jones and James Bond.  They may even be more indispensable—characters like Jones and Bond tells us almost nothing about life except that it isn’t remotely like it is in the movies; characters like Charlie do almost nothing but tell us about life.
The movie is not perfect.  There is so much tragedy at times that it almost threatens to bring to mind Birdie Coonan’s line in All Above Eve: “What a story!  Everything but the bloodhounds nippin’ at her rear end”.   Chbosky’s dialog is witty and strong, but at times he lacks a deft hand at directing actors so that some lines roll a bit clunkily off the tongue.  And some of the adult characters feel wasted (especially Dylan McDermott as Charlie’s father who feels cast below his pay grade).  But I also feel like I’m kind of carping here.
…Wallflower may be full of tragedy, but Chblosky is essentially an optimist.   He does not take the nihilist view of Gregg Araki and Larry Clark that describe American youth as a generation of sociopaths and lost souls on the eve of self-destruction.   For him, the kids are not exactly all right, but they are not lost.  They have a future and the inner strength to go for it, but it’s not an easy road.
The movie’s also pretty swell.