Friday, January 29, 2010

Teens In Turmoil

The terrible teens may be one of the most frustrating decades of a person's life. It's a period filled with screaming contradictions, raging hormones, and uncontrollable mood swings.
  • A teen's newfound rebelliousness can go a long way toward undermining family stability.
  • As puberty takes effect, a teen's physical and emotional insecurities can tear the soul to shreds.
  • While a teen may exude an air of bravado, it is often covering up for increased feelings of paranoia that no one understands him and everyone hates him.
  • A teen's sudden surges of anger often make it difficult to communicate with mentors, teachers, parents, and other people who would like to help -- if the teen would only let them.
  • With sudden spurts of growth in one's body, feelings of invincibility can often lead to incidents in which teens take dangerous risks as they test physical, emotional, behavioral, sexual, and psychological boundaries.
  • When a teenager starts to sulk, nothing an adult says can help to ease the child's emotional pain.
Many a teenager has grown up to understand that things might have been easier if he had let certain people guide him through the rabid rapids of alienation and discontent. Some have written about what it felt like to learn that their parents didn't have all the answers. Some have even been put on the receiving end of a teenager's sullen hostility when their own children start to ripen on the vine.

Several dramas about troubled teens are making their way to Bay area stages and movie screens. In each situation, the teen is cursed with a near-total lack of family support. What eventually separates the winner from the losers is the question of basic intelligence. Whether it is the result of genetics or nurturing, some pull through in better shape than others simply because their survival skills rest on a stronger foundation that includes their intellectual acuity.

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In Penance (a short film by Ryan Gould that will be screened as part of the 2009 San Francisco Indie Film Fest), the audience meets a bitter middle-aged man who owns a small landscaping business. Caleb (Michael Cullen) has just landed himself in a heap of trouble.

After spending time in jail for an incident that may have been related to his son's untimely death, Caleb has struggled to win back a place in the community. When an autistic youth named Dennis (Raymond McAnally) answers Caleb's want ad for someone with experience mowing lawns, Caleb must cope with the signs and symptoms of Asperger's syndrome that can quickly overpower the young man.

Caught between his own high levels of testosterone and Dennis's autistic behavior, Caleb tries to force Dennis to live up to his responsibilities. But it's not easy going for Caleb, who quickly loses his other assistant (Charles Socarides) and gets grief from a neighborhood woman (Margarite Hardy) whom Dennis has crudely insulted. When Jimmy (Khan Bakyal) -- a young man whom Caleb suspects is a bad influence on Dennis -- continues to push the older man's buttons, all hell breaks loose.

Penance offers Cullen and McAnally some prime acting opportunities, even if it never clarifies which is the bigger problem: the young man's autism or the older man's inability to manage his anger. The dramatic tension is immeasurably enhanced by Malcolm Kirby, Jr.'s original score. Here's a sampling of scenes:

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Also being screened at San Francisco Indie Film Fest is a short film named Life on Earth. Set in Los Angeles, the film stars Trinicea Moore-Pernell as Lea, an 18-year-old girl who is about to age out of the foster care system. Sullen, directionless, and filled with moments of self-doubt and anger, Lea's rebelliousness continually puts her on the wrong side of adult group home counselors like Tamika (Sonya Maddox) and Miriam (Lisa Goodman), who are trying to prepare teenage foster children for independent living.

Leah has no desire to follow rules and doesn't want to conform to the choices offered by her legal guardians. After sneaking out of the group home, she travels to the Los Angeles Botanical Gardens, where a kindly and much older volunteer (Joan Roberts) tells Lea about the potential of planting tomatoes.

When Lea gets kicked out of the group home, she ends up in a shelter where she must fend for herself. As the film ends, we see her tending to the tomato plants that are starting to grow from some soil she has put inside an abandoned rubber tire.

Life on Earth's Trinicea Moore-Pernell as Lea

Jeffrey A. Keith's drama (written by Kip Pastor and Courtney Stephens) captures the frustrations shared by Lea and the other girls about to age out of the system. Although intended to finish on an optimistic note, Lea's chances of surviving on the outside (as opposed to ending up in jail or dead) seem pretty bleak.

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While many critics have been gushing over Andrea Arnold's new movie, Fish Tank, the film suffers horribly from its excessive length. At 123 minutes it's way too long to tell a story that can barely fill 80 minutes.

Katie Jarvis stars as Mia, an angry 15-year-old girl living in a decaying housing project in the county of Essex, whose life is going nowhere fast. Mia's single mother (Kierston Wareing) is about as mature as her teenaged daughter. Joanne's latest boyfriend, the devilishly handsome Connor (Michael Fassbender), has some problems of his own.

Connor may have a steady job working at a warehouse that resembles Home Depot, but there's a lot more to his back story. While Connor seems to have a natural ease with Mia and her younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), he hasn't bothered to tell Joanne that he also has a wife and daughter on the other side of town.

When Joanne is too tired to have sex with Connor, her 15-year-old daughter starts to look like a pretty good alternative. As the old saying goes, a stiff dick knows no conscience.

Mia (Katie Jarvis) and Collin (Michael Fassbender)

Mia has also been focusing some of her attention on Billy (Harry Treadaway), a young man who lives in a nearby trailer on a lot where Mia has been drawn to the plight of an old horse that can't run free. While the horse embodies the sentiment that "The old gray mare, she ain't what she used to be," part of the problem with Arnold's film is its lack of forward propulsion and its reliance on nonactors. As the filmmaker explains:
“Katie had never done any acting or dancing before. She didn’t dance at all in fact, didn’t even like dancing. The first time I asked her to dance she was too shy and so we left the room and left the camera on so she could dance alone. When I watched the tape back I saw that even though she was not a dancer in any way, she was totally herself when she was dancing. There was no mask, no show. She was able to be herself totally, even though she didn’t like doing it. I thought I would take the risk. I wasn’t sure if it was going to work. Katie had never done any acting, but whatever happened I knew she would be herself and I wanted that the most.”
Mia (Katie Jarvis) tries to dance

It's surprisingly easy to admire Arnold's willingness to bet the bulk of her movie on nonactors while not really liking much of Fish Tank. Although Mia's anger is genuine and Collin is, indeed, an attractive lout, the film itself has long stretches that are intolerably boring.

There are times when a filmmaker's attempt to create a slice of life work of art falls short of its goal simply because the protagonist's life (though filled with trauma, doubt, anger, sex, and revenge) may not be particularly interesting. Especially when it gets dragged out past the two-hour mark. Here's the trailer:

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After the poverty of mind, social class, and soul on display in Fish Tank, Rajiv Joseph's new comedy, Animals Out of Paper, seems like a breath of fresh air. Currently receiving its West Coast premiere from the folks at SFPlayhouse (in a production directed by Amy Glazer), Joseph's drama focuses on three characters whose lives have all been touched by the Japanese art of origami:
  • Ilana (Lorri Holt) is an expert origamist who has written the second best-selling book on the subject. Despite her professional success, she is painfully aware that the book was heavily edited by her former boyfriend. Now severely depressed, she has been uninterested in folding paper following their breakup.
  • Andy (David Deblinger) is the treasurer and jack-of-all-trades behind an organization called American Origami. Keenly aware of his own lack of talent, he is nevertheless a compassionate high school teacher who, throughout his life, has made a habit of recording his many blessings in a pocket-sized diary.
  • Suresh (Aly Mawji) is one of Andy's troubled students. Before his mother was killed by a hit-and-run driver six months ago, Suresh was the pride and joy of the school's calculus club and one of the most gifted students Andy had ever met. A prodigious folder who fearlessly tackles complex polyhedrons without even planning his folds, Suresh's talent has been receding as the young man copes with feelings of abandonment, grief, and the added responsibility of running the family home.
Aly Mawji as Suresh (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

As the play opens, Andy has managed to track down Ilana. Even though he idolizes Ilana and, in some ways has a gigantic crush on her, he knows he has little to offer her.
    Once Ilana gets over her initial shock and rage (thinking that Andy was trying to intimidate her into renewing her dues), she learns that Andy's real goal is to get Ilana to mentor his student. As soon as Suresh appears on Ilana's threshold, it's apparent that there is going to be a generational conflict.

    Whereas Ilana thrives on clutter, and insists that origami must be pursued in a carefully ordered and logical series of steps, Suresh thrives on order and folds paper according to the rhythms that inspire him while he is listening to hip hop and rap.

    Aly Mawji and Lorri Holt (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

    It's always exciting to encounter a talented young playwright. Watch this video of a young actor auditioning for the role of Suresh -- it contains some of Joseph's best writing in Animals Out Of Paper:

    When Andy accidentally leaves his diary at Ilana's apartment, the depressed woman starts to read it -- working her way through the thousands of blessings Andy has recorded. Able to see his emotional pain more clearly than her own, she starts to feel compassion for him. The two adults begin dating.

    Whereas Ilana has been hired as a consultant who can develop an origami pattern that can meet the needs of a medical device manufacturer, Suresh has a greater natural talent for folding than Ilana could ever hope to possess. So when Ilana is invited to an origami conference in Nagasaki and informed that she can bring a guest, she chooses to invite Suresh instead of Andy.

    Lorri Holt and David Dehlinger (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

    While in Japan, two life-changing moments take place. At a ceremony in Nagasaki, where most of the origamists are creating doves out of white paper, Suresh folds two crows and manages to capture the essence of their hunger in his art. Onlookers are deeply moved by his work and, when Ilana tries to explain to Suresh what an impact he had on the people who watched him, he dismisses it as "being nothing" and "having no meaning."

    However, later that night, when Suresh begins to kiss Ilana (in what may be a romantic or a maternal attraction) and takes their friendship to a new level of intimacy that rocks his world. Upon returning to New York, Ilana has to explain to the teenager -- using the very same words he had previously spoken to her -- that the intimacy they shared meant nothing.

    Aly Mawji and Lorri Holt (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

    It is a beautifully crafted scene, played out before the confused Andy (who accuses his girlfriend of molesting his student while feeling betrayed by both Ilana and Suresh). Although Holt and Dehlinger shine as the two adults, I found Mawji's performance -- particularly a carefully choreographed segment in which he cleans up the mess in Ilana's apartment while listening to hip hop music -- particularly impressive.

    One might enter the theatre expecting a play about the art of origami. But one exits SFPlayhouse with a deeper understanding of how art inspires those who have lesser or no talent and how those who possess a natural talent (or freely bestow a gift of love) are often unaware of the impact of their generosity.

    Animals Out of Paper continues at SFPlayhouse through February 27. You can order tickets here.

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