Frances Ha (2012)

Noah Baumbach | 81 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Brazil / English | 15 / R

Frances Ha

Being a ditzy twentysomething in New York, hanging out with friends and going to parties, having a job as a dancer and earning just enough to get by, and nothing quite going to plan but it all kinda being ok anyway — all in black & white? I see why some people love this film. It’s a kind of obvious fantasy life for certain Artsy people. Of course, there’s not much drama in that (not that that would stop some filmmakers), and so Frances’s messy life begins to get messier. It may stop being a fantasy, but it’s certainly relatable to any of us who’ve failed at the things we’d dreamed of doing.

While some viewers find the characters’ lives relatable or something to aim for, I’m not surprised to learn that other viewers just find them really annoying. The primary characters are all twentysomething art snobs, which is a definite phase some twentysomethings go through. Some grow out of it, some don’t. I don’t think the film is idolising them, which is part of what allowed me to enjoy it. If it had presented them as wonderful people living an ideal lifestyle, I might’ve hated them. Not that the film condemns them, but I think it takes them for what they are rather than outright celebrating it. That much is clear by how Frances ends up washing out of that lifestyle — it’s not even that she chooses to reject it; it’s that it’s unsustainable.

Having watched the film with the perspective of being older than Frances, where her life ultimately goes after she’s forced to reevaluate and make changes… well, I guess personal experience of whether your dreams were fulfilled, had to be tweaked, or were totally squandered is likely to colour whether you think the film ends up somewhere realistic or, in fact, with almost-stereotypical movieland optimism. As if that wording doesn’t give it away, I do err towards the latter.

Girls just wanna live in New York City in black & white

To dig deeper into that, I find it hard to process my reaction to the ending, because it’s not that I want Frances to suffer — indeed, in many ways I found it a relief that she got her life on track and seemed happy. I can’t say I was super-invested in her as a character, but co-writer/director Noah Baumbach and co-writer/star Greta Gerwig got me invested enough that, when things were truly shitty, I did feel bad for her, and when she turned it around I was glad. But I also felt like she was lucky. She doesn’t get her dream, but she gets something comfortably adjacent to it. To people who want to make films and are making films (like, y’know, the people who made this film) that probably seems like a “compromised (therefore realistic) happy ending” (as opposed to an “everything turns out exactly as hoped (therefore unrealistic) happy ending”). But to those of us who’ve had to make even greater compromises — who’ve had to abandon dreams entirely and settle for what’s achievable — which, I’d wager, is the majority of human beings — Frances’s fate doesn’t seem hugely realistic.

I suspect the filmmakers believe they’ve created an ending in which Frances didn’t win, but nor did she lose; that she did ok. I’m sure I can’t be alone in seeing it as Frances still winning — not a 100% victory, but whatever she has (85% maybe?) is nothing to be sniffed at. So that’s why I’m conflicted: I’m glad Frances got her 85%; but if you want realism — and, as this is a black & white indie movie, not a glossy Hollywood dream factory, I kinda do — she should’ve got, like, 20%. By that I don’t mean end up living on the street or whatever, but maybe she had to move back to boring old Sacramento, move in with her parents for a bit, get a run-of-the-mill job in an office or whatever — something like that. Depressing, but truthful.

Anyway, it’s still a nice little fantasy for indie kids, so:

4 out of 5

Yes, God, Yes (2019)

2020 #191
Karen Maine | 78 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Yes, God, Yes

It’s the early 2000s, and Alice (Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer) is a pupil at an ultra-Christian high school (“in America” goes without saying there, right?) But Alice is feeling conflicted. In morality class, she’s being taught about the wrongs of sex, while at home she likes to rewind the Titanic VHS to rewatch the sex scene. One day, a chat on AOL turns naughty, and Alice finds herself putting her hand down her skirt and… well… Of course, for a good indoctrinated little Christian girl, access to pleasure is not an instant revelation, and soon she’s off to her school’s weekend camp to learn to connect with Jesus, or something. Instead, she’ll learn a little something about the hypocrisy of those around her.

It would be easy to label Yes, God, Yes a “cumming of age movie” (such a pun is certainly not below my level of humour), but it would feel slightly inaccurate. Put another way, if you’ve come to see Nancy Wheeler cum, you’ll be disappointed. There is, perhaps, a whole analysis of the film to be written from the starting point that Alice doesn’t seem to reach orgasm — I mean, the film already (comically) touches on the difference between men and women in this regard; but also, Alice only needs to touch herself to feel sinful and transgressive, so how would she feel if she got ‘all the way’? But I am not necessarily best placed to write such an analysis of the depiction of female self-pleasure. It could be as simple as the fact the film has a female writer-director and didn’t want to show that moment on screen, for any number of reasons.

A touching moment

Indeed, despite it providing the plot hook and title, wanking is only one part of the film’s exposure of religious hypocrisy when it comes to sex. Alice’s desire to go to camp is as much provoked by a nasty rumour doing the rounds at school as it is by her personal discoveries. Said rumour is that, at a party, Alice “tossed the salad” of a classmate. She has no idea what this means; everyone else seems to know (if you don’t know either, don’t worry, the film has a dictionary definition at the start). Alice may go to an ultra-conservative school that teaches repressive values, but it’s clear her classmates are still learning about the wider world from elsewhere, while she believes everything she’s being taught and remains naïve. Ironically, the camp does teach her something about herself, just not what was intended. It’s the realisation of Christianity’s hypocrisy, more so than of the power of touching herself, that prompts Alice’s personal development by the end of the film.

Throughout all this personal revelation, the film leans heavily on Natalia Dyer’s ability to convey confused inner thoughts with just her face, and fortunately she’s up to the task. Indeed, it feels like overkill on the handful of occasions when it resorts to underlining a point via a kind of flashback-audio. We get what Alice is thinking when she looks at a microwave, we don’t need the soundtrack to repeat the Father’s microwave/oven analogy. Nonetheless, such moments are relatively rare, and instead we’re left to identify with the shy, wary, quiet Alice — something I’m sure a lot of us can relate to from our own adolescence. And if your own adolescence occurred around the turn of the millennium, boy does this film have you pinned down: playing Snake on a Nokia phone; AOL chatrooms… Small incidental details that very much specify the time (and place — AOL wasn’t such a thing here in the UK, but we had our alternatives).

Christian 'teaching'

I’m surprised I’ve managed to get this far in the review without calling up Saved!, a film to which Yes, God, Yes bears more than a passing resemblance. For those who’ve not seen it (why not? It was on my list of 100 Favourites over four years ago!), Saved is about a girl at an ultra-Christian high school in the early ’00s who discovers religious hypocrisy after a sex-related revelation. Both films criticise that hypocrisy through humour and satire. The main difference is that Saved is an outright comedy, whereas Yes, God, Yes is a comedy-drama, where its laughs come more from wry observations grounded in real-life rather than outright comedic bits, which is perhaps the result of it being semi-autobiographical by writer-director Karen Maine. Others have compared it to Lady Bird, another semi-autobiographical early-’00s-set coming-of-age drama about a girl at a Christian high school, including her first experiences with sex.

But let’s not lean too heavily on the fact there have been other films a bit like this, because Yes, God, Yes is still its own beast — more grounded than Saved; hornier than Lady Bird. If it seems more focused, or even niche, than some other coming-of-age movies, is that a bad thing? Part of the point about recent calls to enable more women and people of colour to make films is that we get to hear new stories and different perspectives, and Yes, God, Yes is an example of exactly that.

4 out of 5

Yes, God, Yes is available to rent and buy digitally in the UK as of yesterday.

Fandango (1985)

2017 #22
Kevin Reynolds | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / PG

Fandango

In this coming-of-age comedy drama, pitched as “celebrating the privilege of youth”, a group of college buddies — two of whom are about to be drafted into Vietnam — go on a final road trip to celebrate their graduation and defer the impending seriousness of adulthood.

Fandango began life as a student short made by writer-director Kevin Reynolds that just featured the skydiving sequence. That was seen by, of all people, Steven Spielberg, who liked it enough that he gave Reynolds the money to develop a feature film around the idea. But when he saw the finished result, Spielberg distanced himself from it — he even had his name taken off the credits. No idea why — it’s a super movie. If we’re being picky then its structure is a little episodic, but the scrapes the gang get into are linked by arcs that chart their characters’ development, which is where the film has its heart. It’s also resplendent with nice little touches, like well-composed shots (for a first timer, Reynolds clearly knew what he was doing), poignant character moments, and some occasionally profound dialogue, too. A sequence that sees the guys fighting with fireworks in a graveyard, foreshadowing the war several of them are about to head off to, is a particular standout.

Boys will be boys

Kevin Costner, tearing through Texas as a free-spirited college flunk-out wearing one-armed sunglasses, an increasingly grubby tailcoat, and a shit-eating grin, has never seemed cooler. That almost masks the fact that it’s also a very good performance, actually. It might’ve been forgotten under some of the blockbusters he did, and some of the crap in more recent years, but the guy can act. The lead cast surrounding him is equally as likeable — it genuinely feels like hanging out with a ragtag gang of college mates on their last hurrah. The final act stretches credibility pretty darn thin with what those guys are able to pull off, but it’s nonetheless a suitably emotive finale.

I’d never even heard of Fandango until the ghost of 82 recommended it to me last year, which is possibly the end result of Spielberg having disowned it. The history of cinema is no doubt littered with these little gems that, for whatever reason, only resonated with some people at the time. One of the real benefits of the blogging era is that we can recommend them on.

4 out of 5