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No Escape

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Gus (Ansel Elgort) and Hazel (Shailene Woodley) in The Fault in Our Stars

Gus (Ansel Elgort) and Hazel (Shailene Woodley) in The Fault in Our Stars

It’s no small praise to say that The Fault in Our Stars has not spoiled a literary property pre-sold to all the 12-year-old girls in America. These fans of John Green’s much-admired novel may be shorter and squeakier than the readers who awaited Gone With the Wind, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less demanding.

To succeed with them, The Fault in Our Stars needed its own Vivien Leigh. It got her in Shailene Woodley, who currently reigns as supreme princess of young-adult film. In a single year, she has starred as the bravely unsentimental, cancer-stricken protagonist of The Fault in Our Stars and also as the heroine of her own futuristic action franchise, the Divergent series. The feat suggests a range, and an abrupt rise, reminiscent of Jennifer Lawrence—although Woodley, who is all of one year younger than Lawrence by the calendar, seems on the screen to be her junior by a decade in terms of sexual experience and force of character. Not that I’d rush to put limits on Woodley’s talent, but so far directors have found it useful to play up the slightness of her physique—she persists, rather than prevails, in the fist fights in Divergent—and the somewhat gawky prettiness of her almond-eyed, chewy-lipped features. Woodley comes off as a watchfully intelligent young woman who doubts herself as much as she challenges others and is still quivering on the verge of her first real kiss—a figure, in short, in whom America’s 12-year-old girls can imagine themselves without strain as they dream about the movie’s Clark Gable equivalent.

As embodied in Ansel Elgort, he has the looks and cockiness of a high-school sports star and the allure of a leather-jacketed biker with a cigarette clenched in his teeth—but the cigarette is never lit, the manner is polite to the point of courtliness, and the athletic triumphs are all in the past, now that cancer has cost him a leg. Elgort’s character is, in short, the most tragically vulnerable hunk a girl ever imagined, even a girl who always has an oxygen tube stuck in her nose.

Following a practice as long established as it is effective, The Fault in Our Stars delivers its blows and softens them in a single gesture. It is a fable about daring to love intensely under cruel and hopeless circumstances, as well as a fantasy about winning a thrilling boyfriend who is completely unthreatening. Not to argue with success, but I think Josh Boone’s direction tilts a bit too much toward the second agenda. Moments of pain go unplumbed, as when the mother (played by Laura Dern) must deny her daughter a deeply held but expensive wish, and the scene stays single-mindedly focused on the girl’s disappointment. A better director would have paused to suggest the sense of failure that the mother must feel. A very good director, moving to the next beat, would also have shown the girl recognizing her mother’s emotions; but that’s too much trouble for Boone. If he can cue the audience to feel good, though, Boone will do it every time. When the young couple, on a trip to Amsterdam, visit the Anne Frank House, the girl struggles up flight after flight of stairs with a determination that is convincing and ultimately moving; and when she finally attains the attic, her fatigue, relief and awe at the surroundings push her at last into the boy’s arms. It’s a plausible, touching moment—or it would have been, if Boone hadn’t decided that all the other people in the attic ought to forget about Anne Frank and instead applaud the cute kids.

The fault for such hedging lies not in the stars, but in the director’s loss of nerve—a failure that can show up even in post-young-adult films that take pride in being forthright. Witness Obvious Child, a romantic comedy by Gillian Robespierre that has been earning praise, not unmerited, for depicting abortion as a routine medical procedure.

Unabashedly presenting itself as a woman-centered New York response to the Los Angeles boys’ world storytelling of Knocked Up, Obvious Child stars Jenny Slate as an impecunious bookstore clerk by day and aspiring stand-up comedian by night. Foul-mouthed, wisecracking, dubiously groomed, Jewish, quick to abuse recreational substances and slow to grow up, Slate’s character is, in effect, Seth Rogen with fallopian tubes and a Brooklyn apartment. The film’s counterpart to Katherine Heigl—to whom Rogen famously mumbled “You’re prettier than I am” before fumbling her into pregnancy—is a square-jawed, buttoned-down MBA student from New England (Jake Lacy) who puts Slate into an embarrassment identical to that in Knocked Up after one “nice to meet you” and two dozen drinks.

Slate’s character may be bleary, but Obvious Child looks with clear eyes at how she chooses to end the pregnancy. After asking herself whether she’ll have regrets, sounding out the people closest to her and fretting over the cost, she does not shrink from a solution that most other films won’t even consider to be possible. It doesn’t diminish the fundamental seriousness of the choice that Slate is always playing for laughs—this is the comedy of humiliation and desperation—nor does the film suffer from Robespierre’s repeatedly steering it toward the toilet. The cloacal obsession in Obvious Child contributes something better than the now-standard quota of gross-out humor: it establishes an appropriate tone for a story about biological functions, while also providing relief from popular cinema’s too-familiar emphasis on women’s bodies as sites for men’s desire, anxiety and mischief. (See Neighbors, if you must, in which Rogen milks a swollen-breasted Rose Byrne.)

Had Robespierre been consistently tough-minded, Obvious Child might have been just as funny but could also have risen to the level of a really good movie rather than a pretty good one. But like Josh Boone in The Fault in Our Stars, she won’t trust the audience. Robespierre surrounds Slate with characters who tell her how brave she is, and how beloved, for being so honest in her comedy act. Isn’t that for us to judge? Do we need to see a crowd smile and applaud when Slate performs a soul-baring but notably unfunny set? (Can the art of heckling have died in Brooklyn?) And even if Slate’s hunk of New England cheddar is ordained to keep worshipping her no matter how badly she behaves—this is, after all, a fairy tale—a movie concerned with the right to choose shouldn’t be so apt to constrain its viewers.

So, to prove that it’s possible to get the balance right, even in movies about the trials of very young women, I recommend that you seek out Lukas Moodysson’s entirely honest and entirely delightful We Are the Best! Based on a graphic novel by Coco Moodysson (the director’s wife), it’s the story of three 13-year-old girls in 1982 Stockholm who form an absolutely terrible punk-rock band. I know, punk aesthetics make “terrible” a dubious term. Still, two of the girls have never before touched a musical instrument, the third (being an evangelical Christian) refuses to curse—and, of course, punk is dead. No matter. The girls have a great time, when they’re not squabbling or being miserable; and as played by three sparkling newcomers (Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin and Liv LeMoyne) in scenes that rely heavily on improvisation, they burst with a vitality that can’t be faked—only allowed, encouraged and lovingly savored.

That, like the girls’ awful band, is the best.

* * *

By coincidence, June has brought us multiple films about situations from which there seems to be no escape—whether because horrible aliens have invaded Earth, bestial humans have obstinately destroyed their own planet, or corrupt, tyrannical regimes have their citizens in a trap. However much or little these films ground themselves in fact, it’s curious to see different filmmakers working with stories about closed systems and finding such different potentials in them for amusement, excitement, outrage or despair.

High on the amusement scale is the new Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow, a sci-fi thriller with a soap-opera title and video-game plot. The year is something-or-other, and scuttling, tentacled things from outer space have spread all over the cable news networks’ maps of Europe. Cruise, as a too-smooth US Army spokesman, drums up support for all-out war in brief scenes that make him look uncannily like Stephen Colbert. Then, to his alarm, he finds himself thrown into the battle he’d expected others to fight. There’s good fun in seeing Cruise sweat, squirm and clunk around ineptly in his huge sci-fi armor, and better fun in seeing him “reset” to the same date and time each time he dies. (It has something to do with his having been splashed by alien blood. Don’t ask.) Like Bill Murray in his Groundhog Day loop, Cruise improves himself through repetition, until he can kill aliens with the usual Tom Terrific panache. Unlike Murray, he gains these skills with the help of a love interest (the incomparable Emily Blunt) who is a professional soldier, and who coolly shoots him in the head whenever the story needs to start over. Doug Liman directed, making the most of every opportunity for a quick cut, a good laugh and a new surge of adrenaline.

Korea’s Bong Joon-ho, whose 2006 The Host is one of the best creature features of all time, returns with his first English-language film, Snowpiercer, in which the enemy is us. A technological fix for global warming has turned out to be more catastrophic than the problem itself, freezing Earth solid and killing everything except for the passengers on a self-sustaining train developed by a prescient tycoon. Now, in 2031, the train speeds endlessly and uselessly in a circuit around the world, while a private army enforces a strict social and spatial hierarchy: a beaten-down proletariat at the back of the train, and the tycoon himself in the Sacred Engine in front. Where there is hierarchy, of course, there must also be revolt. The proles, led by a thick-bearded Chris Evans, fight their way toward the front—which means the movie proceeds in two directions simultaneously, with the rebels pressing straight ahead while the train and the plot circle. As the fighters advance from car to car, they encounter increasingly satirical versions of pre-freeze society; meet Tilda Swinton, who pops up now and then in dentures and huge eyeglasses to bray hilariously as the tycoon’s prime minister; and find occasion for Evans to deliver a confessional speech that is at once preposterous and utterly absorbing. In just one scene of Snowpiercer, he gets to act more than in all his Captain America films combined.

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We move into an entirely different mode, of harsh realism and clandestine filmmaking methods, with the new film by Mohammad Rasoulof, Manuscripts Don’t Burn. You may recall that in 2010, the Iranian government arrested Rasoulof with his more famous colleague Jafar Panahi and banned him from filmmaking. Although the ban has now been lifted, Rasoulof made Manuscripts Don’t Burn without official permission and has not revealed the names of his cast and crew, for a compelling reason: this thriller is based on the Chain Murders of the 1990s, in which agents of the regime (at lower or higher levels, on their own or under orders) are said to have assassinated a series of writers and dissidents. Rasoulof concentrates his story on three aging writers expressing varying degrees of defiance, on a sleek newspaper editor who also serves in the secret police and, most of all, on the poor wretch who is paid to do the killing. Using a circular structure, the film begins and ends with this exhausted, sad-eyed man; it pauses repeatedly as he visits ATMs to see if his money has come through (it never has); and it listens closely to his desperation as he insists that he isn’t killing for money, but for God. For the murderer in Manuscripts Don’t Burn, no less than for the victims, there is no way out.

* * *

Manuscripts Don’t Burn is a strong, daring, haunting film, but I can’t leave you in such claustrophobic surroundings. Let me open things up again by recommending the most recent film by Marco Bellocchio, Dormant Beauty.

It, too, is based on a real event: the political and religious controversy in Italy in 2009 over a proposal to disconnect the life-support equipment of a woman in a vegetative state. Bellocchio does not focus on this situation so much as multiply it: he invents other women who are in a coma, literal or figurative, and the family members, lovers and medical staff who surround them, then glides from story to story with the elegance of a champion figure skater. The extraordinary cast includes Toni Servillo as a senator struggling with his party and his conscience, Isabelle Huppert as a famous actress who’d like to see God try to defy her, Alba Rohrwacher as a young right-to-life activist waylaid by romance, and Maya Sansa as a beautiful junkie who has the bad luck (or good) to run across a doctor who stubbornly won’t let her die. Bellocchio may sometimes shut these characters in their rooms, but his view of them all is as open in mind and spirit as a film can be.

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