Of all the sub-genres still being explored by filmmakers, the coming-of-age tale is the one that interests me the least. Far too often we see the worst kind of growing-pains tale, a personal vision that substitutes insight with universalities and sentimentality. When such a tale hews closely to the standard coming-of-age template, I tend to tune out, with extra indifference if it’s obvious the tale is autobiographical. Sometimes, though, it feels as if critics and audiences are unable to resist the lure of those rose-tinted glasses, leading to some baffling praise. Earlier this year I watched with confusion as An Education was showered with plaudits for pushing an electrifying yet wasted Carey Mulligan along a pre-set track of moral quandaries and difficult life choices before we got to a final scene that would only have been worse if she had turned to the camera and said, “So you can see, my experiences with that fey and needy art thief, and those terrible choices I once made were certainly… An Education!” This is the kind of clanging nonsense that passes for quality drama these days? Dearie me…
Pretty much every coming-of-age tale I’ve seen has rubbed me up the wrong way, possibly because my childhood was infinitely tedious to a degree that makes romanticising an impossibility. Films like The Secret Life of Bees, Cinema Paradiso, or My Life as a Dog might pretend there was something precious about crossing a line from innocence to adult rapture, with golden photography and swelling music, but my own memories of childhood were of listening to a lot of terrible music on Radio 1, riding my bike into very hard objects, repeatedly re-reading issues of 2000AD and Star Wars Weekly (featuring StarLord, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Adam Warlock!), avoiding punches thrown by bullies of both genders, and waiting for Battle of the Planets to start. What is there to reminisce about? Being a kid was the worst.
Which is not to say I’m completely immune to the genre’s charms, when it’s done right and the urge to romanticise the past is resisted. Gregory’s Girl is as unambitious a film as you can imagine, but Bill Forsyth’s superb comic timing, and the excellent casting, make it a classic of the sub-genre. Last year’s Adventureland was another beautifully judged example, with writer/director Greg Mottola keeping things low-key, even managing to keep Ryan Reynolds’ japery in check so that he could deliver his best and most winning performance, even though he was ostensibly playing the “villain” of the piece. Usually, though, my ADHD brain can only cope with this semi-autobiographical, navel-gazing genre when things are amped up past the point of universal recognition. Previous favourites include Alexander Mackendrick’s A High Wind in Jamaica (coming-of-age on a pirate ship), Heavenly Creatures (coming-of-age with added murder), and Léon (coming-of-age while working as an assassin’s apprentice).
To this list I can happily add Drew Barrymore’s lovable Whip It, and Matthew Vaughn’s frankly astonishing Kick-Ass. Whip It is a film you have to try hard not to like. Its ambling pace, low-key crises and endearing cast make it a joy to watch, helped by a performance of such easy charm from Ellen Page that her cooler-than-thou shenanigans in Juno are easily eradicated from memory. Playing frustrated teen Bliss Cavendar, Page’s quiet sadness, resigned as she is to a life living out her mother’s dreams of a good life, and her eventual triumphant rebirth as roller derby champ Babe Ruthless are beautifully layered, her transition between the two states done with such delicacy and charisma that any reservations I’ve had about her in the past have been blown away.
She’s not alone. Director Barrymore knows enough about acting to give her excellent cast room to breathe, which means the quirks of each character seem to have grown out of smart acting choices, not the contrivances of some fourth-draft script-polisher jamming jokes in to liven up the script (which was solely written by roller derby athlete Shauna Cross, aka Maggie Mayhem). It reminded me of Peter Berg’s Welcome To The Jungle, where stock characters were played by character actors who knew enough about the craft to play around on set, bringing things to life in a way no amount of on-set revisions or post-production reshoots can ever do. It’s hard to single out anyone for extra credit on Whip It: from Daniel Stern as Bliss’ content but attentive father, to Alia Shawkat as her confident best friend, to the rollergirls including the superb Kristin Wiig, bad-ass Zoe Bell, Barrymore herself, and a wonderfully vicious Juliette Lewis. They’re all great.
Among the many things Barrymore does right is finding out how to use Andrew Wilson and Jimmy Fallon. Wilson’s stoner dude should lapse into parody, but his canny sense of tactics, belief in his team, and focus on the game save him from being some loser with long hair, and Wilson plays his frustration and eventual elation just right. Even more surprising is Fallon, a performer who usually seems unable to focus on what he is supposed to be doing, staring off into the distance or barely suppressing giggles (a recent rewatch of Taxi was rendered unbearable by his hapless mugging). Here he manages to make the lamest sporting cliches or come-ons funny by playing them absolutely straight, while somehow twisting them. Augh! It’s impossible to accurately describe what he brings to the table here: you just have to see it.
Even better than that is the ever-reliable Marcia Gay Harden, cast as the mother figure that Bliss rebels against. It’s a part that could so easily devolve into cartoonish unsubtlety, which Harden can play about as well as it can be done, as shown in Frank Darabont’s The Mist. Here she dials it back, in keeping with the genial tone, and manages to make her character frustrating, believable, and ultimately admirable, as she comes to realise that the small town pleasures she once had will not suffice for her restless daughter. As someone who could not wait to get out of my own hometown, and was supported by a mother who found my departure painful but necessary, this hit me hard in the gut. Tears were shed at several points.
Perhaps the most heartening thing about Whip It is the feminist tone, which is reinforced by truly inclusive sisterhood, strong independent women, supportive men who mostly take a back seat, and zero tolerance for bullshit from anyone. Many happy reviews have already pointed this out (at Feministing, fbomb, Equal Writes, and Yoruba Girl Dancing for a start), so I won’t go into it much, other than to say it was refreshing to see a movie get on with broadcasting this message with no hesitations or caveats. Women rock, they do what they want, they get a kick out of all of it, and they can compete with each other on a professional level without it being about impressing the hot guy. It’s pretty simple. How depressing that Whip It feels more like a happy accident than the normal state of affairs.
Most of the praise Barrymore deserves is for making a movie that is paced in such a peculiar and unique way. Despite the inclusion of hipster songs from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Jens Lekman, much of the film outside the game is quiet and reflective, meandering and unforced. Stephanie Zacharek and Scott Tobias liked the movie but felt Barrymore could have made the movie cohere more, but the pace struck me as dreamlike rather than accidentally slack. Lovely scenes like the underwater seduction scene or the chaotic party felt unforced, which is a godsend as Cross’ screenplay bangs on the coming-of-age buttons with all of its force. Finally I can see this as a plus: the blend of cozy familiarity and off-beat execution make the movie more than the sum of its parts. It should be a slight diversion, but its positive energy, quirky atmosphere and committed performances transform it into a triumph.
Much as I loved Whip It (and I did love it a whole heck-of-a-lot), it was inevitable that Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of the comic by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. was going to elicit an even more visceral response. Whip It managed to triumph over my apathy towards both coming-of-age movies and sports movies, and thus deserves praise, but Kick-Ass was already cross-breeding the first of those genres with superheroics, which automatically raises the stakes for someone who has lived with comics all his life. Riding on a wave of praise, Kick-Ass was nevertheless hobbled by my frustrations with Millar’s obsession with base wish-fulfilment fantasies, and my equal disdain for Vaughn’s lifeless directorial style. Layer Cake and Stardust were both professionally made films that generated not a single erg of emotional electricity, and the previous Millar adaptation – Wanted – was an annoying failure hiding behind shiny visuals. I was either going to be impressed by Kick-Ass, or left to futilely point out the nakedness of the Emperor.
It never occurred to me that I could be turned into a shaking, sobbing, ecstatic mess, eagerly and breathlessly proselytising about this movie to all and sundry, so desperate to see it again that I almost walked out of the cinema to buy a ticket for the next performance. Not since The Matrix has a film hit every single crowd-pleasing beat with such confidence and such good humour, resulting in a final act of such joyous, rousing energy that it took every bit of strength to not give the movie a round of applause as the credits rolled. How did Vaughn get it so right? Or his co-screenwriter Jane Goldman? It’s as if he sucked some of the life out of their previous collaboration Stardust, and injected it into this film. It’s like a rocket going off in your face, it’s so vibrant.
Those wish-fulfilment buttons are pushed with even less subtlety than in Whip It, and again the film is better for it. Protagonist Dave Lizewski is a loser who decides to become a superhero after being mugged one time too many, but it’s not revenge that powers him: it’s an urge to do some good in the world. While critics and moralisers froth at the mouth about the violence in Kick-Ass, they miss that the film is a clarion call to citizens to take more care of each other, to endeavour to do some good for our fellow man. Regular readers will know that heroes who never even seem to be interested in doing anything heroic, preferring instead to just obsess over their antagonist, often drive me into steaming rages.
And yes, Kick-Ass is coming under attack by those who fret about the effect this terrible, immoral piece of trash will have on the behaviour of an infinite league of Hypothetical Idiots, those imaginary dullards who are unfortunately primed by nature to respond to violent visual stimuli with an orgy of terrifying horror unleashed upon all of the village greens and duck ponds in all of mighty Albion (or baseball diamonds and apple pies in all of the U.S. of A.). We hear over and over again about how arms and legs are lopped off in the movie, how childhood has been perverted for cheap and easy laughs, how black humour has now progressed to a point where empathy has all but evaporated and society is on the brink of catastrophe just because a little girl says the C-word, but the beating heart of this movie is not lying on the floor in a pool of blood: it’s inside the chest of an inspirational person who seems as happy to look for lost cats as he is willing to risk his life for complete strangers. Every movie I love has a moment that makes me realise I’ve fallen for it, and Kick-Ass’ speech to three muggers – dissuading them from attacking him and the man he is trying to protect – is that moment. I did the little clapping thing I do when I get excited.
Roger Ebert’s disappointing, judgemental review (WARNING: BIG SPOILERS!) seems to be written from the point of view of someone so desperate to point a finger of horror at the film and scream at it for crimes against childhood that he has decided against even paying attention to the film: the worst kind of moralistic, thought-lite thinking imaginable. You expect it from a lemon-sucking, addle-brained twit like Christopher Tookey, but I expected more from Ebert. His sneering dismissal of the motivations of all the major characters, as well as one of the most important plot-threads in the film (the battle for Hit-Girl’s soul, painted with light touches that nevertheless do not render that battle trivial), show him up as someone who just could not be bothered to give the movie a chance, or to see if there was a message there at all.
Even if there wasn’t one, the plotting and character work is airtight. The motivations of every character are believable and human while also recognisable as the beats of the action and superhero genres. Much of the joy of the film is seeing the old made new again by looking at it from this slightly skewed perspective. The final act reckoning between the “good” guys and the “bad” guys is such a perfect homage-to and joke-at-the-expense-of the action genre that somewhere in Hollywood Shane Black’s heart grew three sizes. It helps that wonderful performances and an excellent grasp of the adolescent mindset make the characters so likeable, even the villains. These are humans in a cartoon world, and every choice and mistake and desire is recognisable and tragic.
Much of the last hour was excruciating to watch, as you fear for the safety of everyone involved in the misunderstandings and unfortunate betrayals of the clockwork plot, especially as many of the characters are utterly incompetent. Kick-Ass himself is no fighter. He has good intentions and no way of acting out on them. Watching him come to understand this is painful for him and the viewer. More than anything else, this makes you empathise with him, because no matter what he gets hit with, he keeps coming back for more, powered by righteousness and the desire to do better. Also great is how all of these characters are saved by each other, with loneliness being the worst threat to their sanity. It’s thrilling to see a movie embrace the insane concept that maybe, just maybe, kids today are equally at home using social media AND actually socialising with their friends, and are actually quite healthy and empowered by these twin modes of companionship.
None of this matters to our moral guardians. If Ebert’s review is a disappointment, Tookey’s is an abomination. Though it’s not unexpected that he not only dislikes all of the icky violence and “uncalled-for” profanity, or that he assumes the movie is a satire on comics and thus judges it a failure for not being one (which is, of course, easily explained away as the movie isn’t a satire and never ever sets out to be), his disgust at the character of Hit-Girl is extravagantly hyperbolic even for him. Railing against what he sees as the “sexualisation” of the character, he claims she is “sexually aggressive”, “sexy, like an even younger version of the baby- faced Oriental assassin in Tarantino’s Kill Bill 1”, “made to look as seductive as possible”, “shown in a classic schoolgirl pose, in a short plaid-skirt with her hair in bunches, but carrying a big gun”, and “one of the male teenage characters acknowledges that he’s attracted to her”. Awful big accusations from the Mail’s “film critic”.
Well, yes, she does dress like a schoolgirl at one point, but this is not a sexualised image, as she is meant to be playing innocent to fool some bad guys (in fact, if she were to play a “sexy schoolgirl” at this point, her plan would fail utterly, so from a plot and character standpoint, there is absolutely no reason to do this). And yes, a character claims to be attracted to her, though it’s more because she is a badass than because she is a sex object, as revealed in the exchange that follows in which his claim is ridiculed by his friend because of her young age. As to her sexualised image, let’s just say that the formless costume she wears looks more like ill-fitting body armour than some fetish-gear fantasy. Her comments about “sex” are mere swearwords divorced from any sexualised context, spoken as if she doesn’t truly know what she’s saying.
As with Ebert, Tookey has brought his own preconceptions into the cinema with him, seeing Hit-Girl as sexually attractive even though there is nothing onscreen to suggest anything of the sort. Not that I’m saying Tookey found an eleven-year-old actress sexually attractive, of course, or that he’s projecting all of his confused feelings about schoolgirls onto this character. That would be a terrible misunderstanding on my part. It’s obvious that he’s thinking of the Hypothetical Idiots out there who don’t have his moral fiber. To paraphrase Chris Morris, Tookey is thinking of those less stable, less educated, less middle-class than him. He, of course, was too busy tutting at the depravity onscreen to pay any real attention to the goings-on.
Anyway, enough about the hand-wringing. I need to praise everyone involved, especially Chloe Moretz, whose turn as Hit-Girl might make our moral guardians weep into their roast dinners, but will ensure her position as an icon and cult figure for years to come. Moretz is simply amazing, playing both the invincible bad-ass and the doting daughter, brainwashed into operating as a killing machine and only vaguely aware that there is a normal life out there if she is willing to go for it. Everyone else in the film is terrific, especially the brilliant Nicolas Cage (A proper Full-On Cage Experience even though he’s not in the film much) and an impressive Christopher Mintz-Plasse, but it’s Moretz’ show. Her work here is the real deal.
As for Vaughn, I can only hold my head in shame for doubting him. His control of the movie is masterful, wringing every drop of emotional charge out of every moment, playing to our memories of childhood hopelessness, dashed dreams, and eagerness to make the world a better place in order to make the final act play out with clockwork precision. Not only does he get the tone exactly right, and treat the subject matter with the correct amount of seriousness, he also makes it incredibly fun. Part of that is his inspired music choices. Many of the pieces included are familiar or populist (Morricone’s scores for Leone, Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy, Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation), but the context they are used in is always perfect. Even better are the choices you don’t expect, including Elvis’ American Trilogy (a moment that nearly made me dance around the room with sheer joy) and best of all, the wonderful cover version of the Banana Splits theme by The Dickies. It comes in at exactly the right moment, and totally fits the scene.
Vaughn’s direction of action is also exemplary, editing clearly, using geography cleverly, and adding enough little tricks and jokes to make it more than just another John Woo pastiche. His imaginative staging offers up two highlights: a first-person-shooter moment in a darkened room that becomes a strobe-lit nightmare of suspense, and a methodical takedown of numerous goons by Big Daddy that looks like it was filmed in one shot and then, perversely, edited into a staccato series of time-slices. It’s less weird than it sounds, but the effect is dizzying. Vaughn also knows enough about the iconography of the superhero genre, and some of the finest moments come from his subversion of those, none of which ever make fun of the subject matter. It’s a fine line he walks between parody and realistic reinvention, and he gets it just right all of the time.
I think I just used up all of the hyperbole. Just go see these two wonderful films. They do one thing that all coming-of-age movies should aspire to: they made me want to go back to my childhood and experience it again. For that, I am oddly grateful. And glad that I don’t actually have to.