As if you needed further evidence of my faulty judgment, in my previous column I said I was waiting “like everybody else” to see Mad Max: Fury Road. Now the box-office results are in, and it’s plain that only a minority of us had been impatient for kinesthetic delights to hurtle into the frame from every side and at all times, never as you’d expect, while dystopian horrors blast back out of the screen with an equally endless inventiveness, here clanking with a grotesquerie of jerry-rigged chains and motors, there roaring with the excess of a rock musician shooting flames from his guitar, as Tom Hardy in an iron mask is raised up on an armored dune buggy like a hood-ornament crucifix and a crew-cut Charlize Theron commands the churning desert with her cold blue gaze, glinting under a coat of crankcase grease, all so the film can incite women everywhere to rise up with her, our one-armed Imperator Furiosa, and overthrow war-loving, Earth-devouring, mechanistic patriarchy.
Other people wanted to see Pitch Perfect 2.
Without prejudice to that jaunty a cappella comedy, I will say that its commercial triumph over Mad Max: Fury Road shows that I’ve fallen onto the dark side of a generational divide. It’s not just that the plurality of the theatergoing audience cannot recall the glories of George Miller’s original Mad Max trilogy, the most recent of which was released 30 years ago. Research (meaning chats with my daughter and a random sample of her friends) demonstrates that kids today neither recognize nor desire a cinema like Miller’s, which does to the methods and imagery of pop movies what Jimi Hendrix did to the old-style electric blues, and to a similarly outrageous purpose. Despite the robust overseas ticket sales for Fury Road, the domestic appetite for this kind of filmmaking seems to have withered, leaving us with a young mainstream audience that wants to see genre conventions fulfilled, not exploded. Have I mentioned San Andreas?
No—I don’t want to talk about San Andreas. I’d rather dedicate two more paragraphs to Mad Max: Fury Road, knowing that few other films this year are likely to be as impressive. It’s like a simoom, a conquering Amazon, a burning bush. You don’t so much watch it as enter its presence—and once there, you find that it does not stoop to explain itself. After all of 30 seconds’ worth of introductory voice-over, which is not so much an exposition as a groan of despair from Max, the action starts and the guidance ends. Where do they come from, all these dead-white, half-naked, shave-skulled men? Why is it a form of blessing for them to have their mouths sprayed with aerosol paint, while their leader intones, “You will ride eternal, shiny and chrome”? How would you translate “He’s a crazy smig who eats schlanger”? What makes you think you’ve got time to ask? Unlike action directors of the plodding sort, George Miller doesn’t ask you to understand the deliriously strange world into which he throws you headlong. He just wants to change the parts you recognize.
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Mad Max: Fury Road has been skewing a little old in its audience—an inevitability, when a film is R-rated—but it’s got more rebellious energy than anything else around, even though its writer-director is a septuagenarian and its totally kick-ass heroine is played by an actress who is pushing 40, the age at which Hollywood wants to stamp Expired on a woman’s forehead. This is not to imply that Fury Road is an entry in the current cycle of geezerfests such as The Expendables and RED, which convene actors in middle age or beyond to prove that their stunt doubles can still blow things up. Miller and Theron have no time for such jokey self-congratulation. They’re too busy actually ripping up the screen.
Maybe action movies, like youth itself, are wasted on the young. I’m pretty sure movies about youth are wasted on them.
A case in point: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a much-touted high-school drama that emerged with two awards from the 2015 Sundance Festival and is now getting the full mini-major push from Fox Searchlight. Here, too, we’re dealing with a cycle: films made from young-adult novels about finding your way in life when you’re smart, quirky, tragic, and brave—like all other high-school kids, in other words, only more so. My daughter and her friends can tell you that The Fault in Our Stars is the best movie of this type ever made, and will remain so until Paper Towns is released later this summer. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is another competitor for the title. The problem is that it wasn’t really made for my daughter but for me, and I don’t like it.
Written by Jesse Andrews and based on his novel of the same title, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is narrated in flashback by a high-school senior who is pale, shaggy, gangling but otherwise nondescript (an appropriate choice by the actor, Thomas Mann, given the character’s determination never to draw attention to himself), living in an American city that seems aging and Northern but is left similarly blank (which is a less fitting decision, considering that the place is eventually revealed to be the historic and richly flavorful Pittsburgh). The Earl of the title is the narrator’s only friend (RJ Cyler), who is black. He therefore lives in the poor part of town and is more forthright and sexually advanced than the narrator and better with his fists. The dying girl, who has been diagnosed with leukemia, is a classmate named Rachel (Olivia Cooke), whose distinguishing traits (other than her disease) are an overwhelmingly yellow bedroom and Jewish birth. You may gauge the depth of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl merely by the circumstance that Rachel’s mother, Mrs. Kushner, is played by that yiddishe balabusta Molly Shannon.
What can you hold on to in this fog of halfhearted stereotypes and insubstantial settings? Only the confiding, self-deprecating tone of the narrator and the cleverness of the director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. A former protégé of filmmakers including Nora Ephron, Martin Scorsese, and Alejandro González Iñárritu, Gomez-Rejon is bursting with ideas for disrupting mere realism and opening up the movie’s style. He tosses off stop-motion animations, forced perspectives, jump cuts, mobile points of view, and even a Spike Lee–style actor-on-a-dolly shot. Above all, though, he makes the most of the shared cinephilia of the narrator and Earl, who since grammar school days have directed and starred in no-budget parodies of famous films.
Here’s where Me and Earl and the Dying Girl betrays its intention to address me and not my daughter. The films that Earl and the narrator have goofily remade include Breathless; Aguirre, the Wrath of God; The Seventh Seal; Midnight Cowboy; and Apocalypse Now. (What, no Andrei Rublev?) Let me stipulate that there really are high-school kids, rare ones, who know and love these pictures. That reality is irrelevant to a movie that skirts realism for the sake of showing off its director’s skills, while persistently flattering viewers (older ones, mostly) on their knowledge of film history.
It’s possible, I suppose, that moviegoers of the characters’ age will recognize themselves in this story and flock to see it. To them, the film parodies might be just a pleasant but cute blur in the background, while older viewers (of the sort who have been promoting the picture) will take them as proof that we have an innovative new talent in Gomez-Rejon. But talent, in this case, is little more than a disguise for a story that is too true to its title. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is not about Earl (who is never more than a sidekick) or the girl (who is a plot contrivance, and sometimes seems to know it) but only about “me,” the narrator. The film’s long season of melodrama and cinematic trickery has been organized for his benefit alone, so he can abandon his self-doubt and know at the end that he’s lovable, caring, and (as he’d always suspected) a little better than most people.
Perhaps Me and Earl and the Dying Girl will elicit some rueful understanding for the pain and folly of youth. Its deeper sympathies, though, lie with older viewers, the ones who may watch it in self-approval and say, “I turned out all right, didn’t I? Just like that kid.”
I suggest that for the sequel, Gomez-Rejon and his narrator do a funny remake of Ivan’s Childhood.
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Another film about movie-obsessed youth, and another Sundance winner, Crystal Moselle’s documentary The Wolfpack is a simultaneously fascinating and frustrating profile of the Angulo family: seven children brought up in a public-housing project on Manhattan’s Lower East Side by a Midwestern mother and a Peruvian father. The latter, animated by a mixture of homemade Hinduism, thwarted artistic ambition, political disaffection, and shock at the grunginess of New York City, gave the children the names of Indian gods, decreed that their hair would never be cut, insisted that they be homeschooled by the mother (for which the state paid her), and kept all seven kids locked in the family’s crumbling apartment. According to one son’s testimony, the siblings would venture outside only at long intervals, under chaperone. “One particular year, we never got out at all.”
But as much as the father disapproved of New York, he loved American movies and had the children watch them day and night. Here is Moselle’s irresistible hook for The Wolfpack. Not only did the children know about the world mostly through movies, but they began to videotape their own versions of films, using painstakingly copied scripts, scavenged costumes, and props and sets constructed from the stuff at hand: cereal boxes, gaffer’s tape, yoga mats. It was a way to give themselves a life—and it gives The Wolfpack life, too, from the moment you see Mukunda, Govinda, Bhagavan, and their siblings re-create Reservoir Dogs within a cramped hallway and a piss-colored bedroom.
Will these people, too, be able to look back someday and say, “I turned out all right”? It’s possible to give a tentative yes to the question. At a certain point, when they were in their teens, the boys began to defy their father and go outside, which led to police intervention and then a paternal abdication. Judging by the interviews, which Moselle conducted after the liberation, the brothers have become remarkably articulate, poised, and engaging young men, who are well in touch with their pain and anger. Still, it’s as hard to predict a future for the Angulos as it is to make heads or tails of Moselle’s film.
The Wolfpack will be instructive for anyone who thinks Grey Gardens was easy to make. It’s clear that the access Moselle gained to the Angulos was intimate but intermittent, and she couldn’t figure out how to work around the holes in her material. The chronology is fuzzy, when not baffling; brothers slip in and out (sometimes it seems as if there are five, then six); a sister is introduced and then overlooked; and with the parents, Moselle never establishes a consistent distance, seeming to function variously as confidante, field researcher, and accuser.
To Moselle’s credit, she avoids turning The Wolfpack into a freak show (just barely). And yet, as you sit there gaping, you long for more insight, about the people you’re watching but also about how Moselle made this film.
So let’s turn from movies that look at young people with a mixture of supposed immediacy and cinephilic obsession. It’s time to recommend two pictures that take the older-but-wiser view: Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy and Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden.
Eden is the second film (after Goodbye First Love) in which Hansen-Løve has followed a character from adolescence to adulthood, tracing the course of artistic aspirations, romantic entanglements, familial tensions, and the struggle to pay the rent. This time the protagonist is a young man named Paul (Félix de Givry), the art form is DJ’ing (with an emphasis on the French style of garage), and the enemy is time itself. Paul simply doesn’t want to grow up, even when tastes change in electronic dance music, his debts pile up, the lining of his nose burns out, and an ex-girlfriend leaves him for the second time. Hansen-Løve watches it all dispassionately and not without judgment, from 1992 until almost the present, but at the same time gives Paul his due. No wonder he wants the rave never to end. It feels as if half of this long film comprises extended shots of crowds immersed in colored lights and thrumming music, where time doesn’t exist.
As for Pohlad’s Love & Mercy—a period drama, redemption narrative, and authorized biography—it tells a story about the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson in two different decades, as played by two actors. The Wilson of the mid-1960s, shown at his moment of triumph and crack-up with Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations,” is brilliantly embodied by Paul Dano, who looks uncannily like Wilson, sings a bit like him too (no small feat), and puts his fingers on the right keys when playing the piano. The Wilson of the 1980s—a shambling figure, more or less a captive of his psychotherapist—is played by John Cusack with a repertoire of touching but familiar Rain Man tics and postures. The primary focus in the 1980s narrative, though, is on Melinda Ledbetter (the excellent Elizabeth Banks), a Los Angeles Cadillac dealer who met Wilson by chance, cut him loose from his therapist, and eventually married him.
The trick of Love & Mercy, a good one, is to show the two time periods together, rather than in sequence. The screenplay, by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, does not take full advantage of the contrapuntal structure, sometimes falling into standard biopic garrulousness. (I suspect there was a split vision in the writing, too, which wasn’t fully resolved.) But when the film works, which is often, its older Wilson makes you shudder for what’s happening to his younger self, while the younger one keeps you aware of the world of wonders locked inside his older self’s drooping head.