The delightfully irascible W.C. Fields is famous for advising fellow actors never to work with children or animals. Once, when asked if he even liked children, Fields replied "I do -- if they're properly cooked."
With or without the proper spices and bake time, children are constantly used as plot devices in cinema. They may be portrayed as a hostage (Ransom), a wunderkind (Little Man Tate), or a genuine pain in the ass (Family Guy). The world can be seen through their eyes (The Sixth Sense), we can feel their pain (Lorenzo's Oil), or we can marvel at their ingenuity (Home Alone).
Children may be our link to an alien life form (E.T.), an ex-lover (Kramer vs. Kramer), or the truth behind maintaining an important cultural tradition (Keeping Up With The Steins). Meddling children can push us into new romances (Sleepless in Seattle), inherently dangerous situations (Weeds), or the adventure of a lifetime (Jurassic Park).
Three films seen this week looked at children struggling to cope with hostile environments. My initial interest in seeing Role Models was simply that I like its two male leads: the extremely handsome Seann William Scott (who became famous for his portrayal of the obnoxious Steve Stifler in the American Pie movies and is now starting to look like Neil Patrick Harris with baseball biceps) and the very talented actor/writer, Paul Rudd.
I didn't recognize either actor when I first saw the trailer for Role Models. But with Rudd sharing the writing honors with director David Wain, the film turned out to be much more likeable than I expected.
Scott and Rudd play a pair of losers who, as they tour suburban high schools, are supposedly warning kids about the evils of drugs. In truth, they are pushing a product called Minotaur, a highly-caffeinated energy drink similar to Red Bull. When things go horribly wrong for Wheeler (Scott) and Danny (Rudd), both men end up being appointed by the court to log 150 hours of community service at Sturdy Wings, where they will be paired with "little brothers" who are in need of mentoring.
Augie Farks (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is a nerdy adolescent computer gamer whose only sense of self-esteem comes from his adventures in the online fantasy role-playing world of a Dungeons & Dragons type of game called L.A.I.R.E.
Ronnie (Bobb'e J. Thompson), on the other hand, is a violent, horny, foul-mouthed little black brat with an unbeatable track record for terrorizing potential "big brothers." Factor in Jane Lynch's ball-busting performance as Gayle Sweeney (the recovering crack addict who manages this big brother/little brother type of nonprofit) and plenty of laughs await the audience. It takes a while for the plot to hone in on the redemption which will carry the film to its successful ending but, once it does, you'll find yourself surprised at how happily you're rooting for Augie, Ronnie, Danny, and Wheeler to succeed.
* * * * * * *Don't expect any comedic moments in The Fight (Le Ring), a French-Canadian film written by Renee Beaulieu and directed by Anais Barbeau Lavalette that is being presented by the San Francisco Film Society as part of its Quebec Film Week. In this grim look at a lonely 12-year-old's effort to carve out a life for himself, young Maxime Desjardins-Tremblay stars as Jessy, a resident of Montreal's rundown Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district.
Jessy, who has not been taking his Ritalin, comes from a family of obvious losers. His father is a petty criminal. His older brother (who is sent to a reform school after he totals the family car while letting Jessy drive it), keeps trying to recruit Jessy as a drug runner.
After Jessy sees his mother shooting up between her toes, she abandons her husband and four children to hit the streets, turning tricks in order to pay for her drug habit. When he finds her, she rejects her son, leaving Jessy and his confused sister (who is awakening to her own trampy sexuality) to fend for themselves in a bleak and sordidly grey world of despair, drugs and disillusionment. In one heart-rending scene Jessy leaps from the bathtub, and runs to the fire escape where he screams at his departing father that he's starving and needs to be fed.
Like many kids his age, Jessy (who is a big fan of a ring personality named Firestorm) has a passion for wrestling. Two of the few benevolent souls in his life are a strange homeless person who is paid to throw wrestling matches against Firestorm and the owner of a wrestling school. Other than a bicycle which can occasionally take him away from the misery of his home life, Jessy doesn't have much of a future.
In her debut as a film director, Lavalette scores a grim triumph thanks in large part to her father's (Philippe Lavalette) acutely sensitive cinematography. Capturing the dreariness of a rundown neighborhood during the grey weather which haunts Montreal, she follows Jessy around on his bicycle, constantly looking into his eyes as he tries to sort out the physical and emotional squalor he confronts on a daily basis.
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During the Frameline 32 Film Festival this past June, I was thrilled by Were The World Mine, Tom Gustafson's magnificent new film which draws its inspiration from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. With Tanner Cohen starring as Timothy and Wendy Robbie as Mrs. Tebbit (the drama teacher at an all-boys prep school who casts him as Puck), this movie remains a total delight. Recently released into theaters, Were The World Mine loses absolutely none of its strength on second viewing. It's a remarkably vivid and satisfying cinematic experience, a brash new movie musical which is all the more enjoyable for those members of the audience who really know their Shakespeare.