Directors and screenwriters Bradley Rust Gray and So Yong Kim know how to make exceptional movies. Since 2003, the married filmmaking team has created some of the most poignant, understated and underappreciated independent films of the past decade – Salt (2003), In Between Days (2006), Treeless Mountain (2008), and most recently, The Exploding Girl (2009). The quality of their work stems from an appreciation for minimalist storytelling and outstanding character development. Long, extended takes where seemingly nothing significant happens and an eye for the slightest details creates scenes of poetic beauty unlike any other onscreen. Kim’s In Between Days and Gray’s The Exploding Girl are both films dependent on these techniques to tell moving coming of age stories about their young, female protagonists.
In The Exploding Girl, Zoe Kazan (Elia’ granddaughter) stars as Ivy, a 20-year-old college student returning home for her spring break. Her best friend Al (Mark Rendell) spends the week with her at her Brooklyn apartment. As Ivy’s relationship with her boyfriend Greg, who we never see, begins to crumble and Ivy spends more time with Al, she reevaluates her life and her relationship with Al.
The film’s title, The Exploding Girl, refers to Ivy’s little mentioned epilepsy, although the possibility of Ivy having a seizure causes some tension throughout the film. What the film effectively captures is not this literal explosion (so to speak) but rather the slow, gradual implosion of Ivy’s life and how it weighs on her mind and understanding of herself. And this realization is just stunning to watch.
For 79 minutes this very simple story of finding oneself and love unfolds on the screen. Ivy and Al attend parties, sit in the park, play cards, share meals; they just exist. These scenes are often shot in either tight close-ups, through door frames, or in long takes, where the action takes place in one single shot. This minimalist editing allows the viewer to focus on the subtlety of Kazan’s performance – the tone of her voice as she speaks to her off-screen boyfriend, the pain in her eyes as things slowly fall apart – and to recognize that director Gray is capturing the most banal yet significant moments of a life.
In some ways, Ivy is an extension of Aimee, the shy immigrant in So Yong Kim’s In Between Days. Ivy is an older, more refined version of Aimee, if Aimee had been dealt different cards in life and had she not been a young immigrant adrift in the world. Like Aimee, Ivy is on the verge of collapse although by the film’s conclusion Ivy reaches an understanding about her life that Aimee never finds.
Five years ago today the first video was uploaded to YouTube. “Me at the Zoo” is only 18 seconds long and is just that, YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim talking about elephants.
It is crazy to think that this 18 second video started a revolution. I don’t know where we would be without YouTube.
I use YouTube daily – on this blog, to share my films, and for my own entertainment. I even used YouTube during my Senior Symposium presentation last Friday to avoid an inevitable DVD failure. Without it, I don’t think I could function.
Yet as I write this I am reminded of when P. Sitney Adams visited my avant-garde cinema class last fall. As he said: “There is a special place in hell for YouTube.”
While YouTube has been an integral factor in the social media explosion of the last five years, it has also destroyed how we watch movies. Why go to the movies, if you know that you can just watch 10-minute sequences of a movie on your computer for free? Of course, like everyone else, I know this but that doesn’t stop me from watching a movie or television show on YouTube. It’s a messy cycle that we will probably never get out of.
There is one place I never envisioned myself on a Saturday night—sitting behind the Pioneer Valley Roller Derby team at a preview screening of Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It. That is because one, I didn’t even know that there was a Pioneer Valley Derby League and two, everything Drew Barrymore touches typically makes me cringe. But Whip It is an entertaining and refreshing coming-of-age comedy that has made this notorious film snob less cynical.
Whip It stars Ellen Page (Juno) as Bliss Cavendar, a Texas teen who is constantly pressured by her controlling mother, Brooke (played by Marcia Gay Harden) to participate in beauty pageants. Bliss, however, wants nothing to do with pageant life. By chance, she and her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development) attend a roller derby match and Bliss finds herself determined to join the Hurl Scouts, an Austin roller derby team. Suddenly Bliss finds herself embedded in the roller derby world, falling for the guitarist in a local band and lying to her parents about her newfound passion.
The roller derby world comes alive through the movie’s exceptional supporting actors. SNL’s Kristin Wiig plays Maggie Mayhem, Bliss’s mentor while Eve and Barrymore appear as Rosa Sparks and Smashley Simpson, Bliss’s teammates. Juliette Lewis plays Iron Maven, the trashtalking captain of a rival team. Andrew Wilson and Jimmy Fallon round out the supporting cast as the Hurl Scouts coach and the league’s bizarre emcee respectively. These characters provide the film with hilarious literal and figurative comedic punches.
At its heart Whip It is a teenage coming-of-age story. Yet it feels refreshingly real. That is in large part due to the focus paid to the heartfelt mother-daughter relationship. What on paper reads like a cliche—a daughter rebels from her strict upbringing only to find herself and to understand her mother along the way—feels much more than that. In one final scene, Brooke reads a sentimental note from Bliss. Rather than cut the scene, the camera lingers on Brooke’s expression longer than you would expect as both she and the audience realize how these two characters have grown. The inclusion of this particular scene shows how Whip It benefits from having a female vision behind the film.
Female directors rarely direct feature-length commercial Hollywood films. As someone who has been in the film industry since the age of five, Drew Barrymore is a logical person to transition from acting to directing. Her presence in the male-dominated directing field will certainly enliven Hollywood’s representations of women. Whip It is a reflection of this. The film’s sharp and sassy humor, focus on individuality and independence, and overall empowering message make Whip It a must-see movie of the fall.