Regular readers will roll their eyes as I once again make note of my long-standing antipathy towards the coming-of-age genre, which often strikes me as a lazy excuse for writer/directors to throw a patronising sequence of crowd-pleasing cliches together and call it a day. Most cinematic teenagers are as horribly boring as I was at that age, and no amount of comical lasciviousness, bad luck, and antagonistic authority figures are going to make that journey from innocence to worldliness any more interesting or relevant than the million others who have graced our screens. People may complain about The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for treating trivial teen anguish as if it was the end of the world, but at least John Hughes came up with some ways to make this pubescent angst wry enough for older viewers while treating adolescent worries with the same gravitas as those teens do. There are a few great coming-of-age movies that mean a whole lot to me, and are made with love by talented people, but they’re in the minority as far as I’m concerned. Most other movies about kids are just chaff: wank fantasies for self-absorbed, creatively-blocked phonies who know they don’t have to expend any real energy to generate a response in the viewer. There is not enough ill-tempered disdain in my body to properly convey my annoyance with the genre.
Perhaps Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s It’s Kind Of A Funny Story was doomed to fall foul of my ire, but even beyond my prejudices it is a shoddy movie, the kind of Sundance-audience-pandering tripe that personifies the worst of the US independent scene with an extra dose of insensitivity thanks to its romanticised view of mental illness. The tragedy is that in the midst of the rubble stands Zach Galafianakis, whose charismatic and thoughtful performance is entirely at odds with the depressing obviousness of Fleck and Boden’s storytelling. His presence is the one thing preventing this ingratiating failure from being consigned to the nearest memory hole.
IKoaFS concerns Craig (Keir Gilchrist), a teenager feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of his life and in love with the unobtainable hot girl, who checks himself into a psychiatric hospital after his suicidal feelings threaten to take over. Through a series of ridiculous contrivances he is admitted and made to stay in the adult wing of the hospital, meaning he is forced to interact with all kinds of charming and kooky patients whose wisdom and insight allow Craig to blossom and come out of his shell, as well as get the even hotter hot girl (Emma Roberts) who is in there because of some issues with self-harm but IT’S OKAY FOLKS it’s not too bad she cheers up thanks to her nerdy new boyfriend DON’T LET THE SCARS GET YOU DOWN!
Disclaimer: Though I liked Ryan Fleck’s work on In Treatment, his much-vaunted drug-PSA Half Nelson left me cold, despite a trio of exceptional performances. The main character’s arc — from teacher to drug addict living a depraved life in a tidy crack house — rang entirely false, the kind of cautionary tale written by someone whose most shocking experience with drugs is a few tokes on a spliff at college and too much ‘tussin that one time. It felt like a high-school drama production, extrapolating a situation out from knowledge learned third-hand, and therefore filled with unconvincing notes. At least it had terrific work from Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie and Shareeka Epps: IkoaFS wastes Lauren Graham, Jim Gaffigan, Viola Davis, Jeremy Davies (a Solaris reunion!) and especially Galafianakis, who deserves any of the awards I suspect he will win even if that success somehow validates the rest of the movie.
Not that most people will notice: Fleck/Boden do everything short of draw a bath for the audience to get them to like their movie. It’s based on a YA novel and so it’s likely a lot of the sharp edges of such a situation were absent from the source material (I haven’t read it, so I accept I could be wrong), but even so there is nothing daring or troubling or real here, just a fantasy where mental illness is just a way of looking at the world with fresh eyes, teenage pain is easily resolved with a kiss from the right person (and not that “slutty” girl he thought he loved because eww, right?), and anything really dark happens offscreen. For example, the ultimate fate of Galafianakis’ character Bobby is hinted at strongly but isn’t shown, because who wants to harsh the audience’s mellow? It’s the most craven directorial decision of the year, an insult to anyone who suffers from real mental illness, or who knows someone suffering. Yes, it’s commendable for anyone to point out that while mental illness is debilitating it is also not something to be scared of, and rehabilitation is possible with the correct care. However, nothing in IKofFS leads me to believe the choices made here were in order to illuminate the plight of mentally-ill people. They’re just kooky and a bit down, right? Yay fun times in the psych ward! I had to leave the screening as the credits rolled for fear of marring the subsequent Q&A with some choice words for Fleck.
The poor choices made here are legion. Beyond the “One Flew Over Sesame Street” tone of genial eccentricity, the wall-to-wall contrivance and the insulting lack of respect for the audience, the lowpoint of the movie is probably the Under Pressure karaoke scene, in which our hero is hectored by his fellow mental patients to participate in musical therapy, singing the lead vocal to Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie while the rest of the patients enthusiastically play out of tune around him. Rather than show the haphazard rendition, Fleck/Boden switches the soundtrack to the original recording and concocts a kitsch fantasia, a stage on which the characters cavort in Glam Rock gear, miming to an obnoxiously edited version of the song. Even worse, when it’s over he cuts back to the hospital and the ecstatic reaction of the patients to Craig’s vocal effort, which we didn’t get to see. It’s an act of sheer directorial cowardice to switch to a “dream sequence” at that moment – plus we don’t really get to experience Craig’s moment of catharsis – but it didn’t matter. The audience we saw it with were utterly delighted and responded with sheer joy. Job done, I suppose. ::kicks Rock Band microphone across the room::
But hey, what do you care, dear reader? I hate coming-of-age movies so I’m biased, right? Think on this: Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut, Submarine, is another coming-of-age movie where the protagonist pines for the hot girl and is overwhelmed by the stresses of adolescence, but is on the opposite end of the awesomeness-bogusness spectrum. Whereas Fleck/Boden’s bland fantasy mollycoddles the audience with empty emotion-calories, Ayoade’s adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s novel is spiky, unpredictable, and willing to test the audience’s sympathy for its characters. Also, Fleck/Boden’s washed-out and flat visuals don’t stand a chance next to Ayoade’s vibrant visual style, a mixture of retro and modern film styles that display an intuitive understanding of cinema. Fleck/Boden’s nearest visual comparison point is Grey’s Anatomy, except less adventurous, while Ayoade is comfortable throwing in a pitch-perfect reference to The 400 Blows as if it ain’t no thing. Game, set and match.
That makes it sound as if Submarine is some self-conscious exercise in film-school masturbation, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a vibrant and lovable debut, thoroughly entertaining yet slightly troubling. Perhaps that’s a subjective response: the tale of pretentious teen Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) and his love for Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige) chimed uncomfortably with memories of my own teenage years. Not to say I went through anything too similar: I didn’t have to watch as my parents flirted with the idea of divorce, and I certainly didn’t have an enemy as eccentric as Paddy Considine’s psychic charlatan Graham Purvis, but Ayoade’s feel for the era is spot on, as is his ability to portray the gulf between a teenager’s arrogant assumption that he or she knows best and the reality of his or her obliviousness to the complicated nature of the world.
His superb cast helps. Roberts and Paige are wonderful as the confused teenage couple, deftly handling the light and dark moments of a fraught relationship while not being afraid to be realistically unlikeable at times. Jordana in particular can be a real monster, but Oliver does awful things too, often for recognisably human reasons. Despite this I couldn’t help but root for them both to stay the course: I can’t remember the last time I felt so emotionally invested in an onscreen relationship, though again this could have been a subjective reaction stirred by Ayoade’s perfectly judged recreation of this youthful mind-set.
Or maybe it was his ability to capture powerful moments of ecstatic, innocent happiness. It’s Kind of a Funny Story featured obligatory scenes of teenagers running through the halls of a mental institution to denote their love and exuberance: a visual that didn’t really work as the cramped, pastel-coloured halls convey anything like joy, though they’re also not depressing enough to act as some kind of satirical counterpoint. Following the conventions of the genre, Ayoade has to give us the “Joy Run” as well, but his version plucked my heart from my chest and bounced it around like a basketball. It’s a Super-8 film of the young couple racing through an abandoned funfair, setting off fireworks and lighting their way with flares. It’s a show-stopping moment, one that made me ache for my younger days: an emotion I rarely feel.
Warp Films are on a roll this year. They produced Shane Meadows’ This is England ‘ 81 for Channel Four, as well as Chris Morris’ excellent Four Lions, and now they’ve generously set Ayoade on the road to directorial stardom. I happily admit much of my emotional reaction to Submarine was due to that very specific emotional response – a strange tightening in my chest, half angst and half glee, borne of recognition – that might not happen for anyone else. Still, Ayoade deserves praise for adding such sour and realistic notes to what otherwise could have been an exercise in stylised nostalgic frippery. Combine that with his unique visual style, his facility with young actors, and some superb musical choices, and it’s probable Submarine will appeal to more than just the odd blogger who was extremely pretentious in his youth. I’m even tempted to name it my favourite British film of the year so far. Despite all of that competition, obviously. [/sarcasm tag to denote sarcasm]