Reviews: Frozen River, Man on Wire, American Teen
We don’t need Norma Desmond to tell us that Hollywood isn’t kind to aging actresses. When an industry that prizes beauty above brains plants a virtual expiration tag on the rear end of its female stars, and cigar-chomping movie producers proclaim a talent “over the hill” at age 30, who can blame silver-screen starlets who resign themselves to “Steel Magnolias” or bland, menopausal dramas on Oxygen? These days, celebrity actors of both genders are openly mocked in the tabloids for the slightest signs of physical imperfection, but historically, women have taken the lion’s share of abuse. Greta Garbo “gave good face,” as Madonna once put it in a song, but she also hid hers for the last five decades of her life, as publicity shy as ever but afraid, too, of vanquishing the memory of her exotic, almost surreally androgynous beauty. Watch the evolution of Nicole Kidman or Meg Ryan’s surgically enhanced visages over the past few years, and you can see just how deeply and cruelly that anxiety still cuts (forgive the pun).
Given the constraints and limited choices for female actors of a certain vintage, it’s refreshing to find 48-year-old Melissa Leo (“21 Grams”), a longtime favorite of mine, finally getting to strut her stuff in a substantial, albeit unglamorous, starring role. Way back when, the veteran actress had a choice part on the TV series “Homicide” as a tough-as-nails detective, but she’s never had the kind of leading role (or classically pretty looks) that would help her break out in front of a larger film audience. Yet from the opening shot of her haggard, tear-stained face in Courtney Hunt’s “Frozen River” (Sony Pictures Classics), a tense thriller encased in a hard-luck social melodrama, you know Leo’s a star player, as talented and gutsy as they come. Here she plays Ray Eddy, an exhausted wage earner and impoverished mother of two in upstate New York whose no-good gamblin’ hubby just made off with all her savings. With her dream of owning a double-wide trailer in jeopardy, Ray resorts to desperate measures, teaming up with an affectless, slightly belligerent Mohawk woman, Lila (Misty Upham), in a dangerous scheme to smuggle illegal immigrants from Canada across the icy St. Lawrence River.
The equally strong-willed gals get off on the wrong foot, but soon find common ground: their dire need for easy money. Before long, their nerve-racking efforts at human trafficking have landed them in a very tight spot on both sides of the water. At times a bit heavy on pathos, and despite the occasionally schematic characterizations of border culture, Hunt’s precisely paced film still impresses, especially as it attempts to dramatize certain truths about working motherhood, racial bias, and the debate around illegal immigration. And for much of the film, Hunt expertly sustains the suspense. Maybe it’s no “Thelma & Louise,” but it’s not “Fried Green Tomatoes” either, even with its too conveniently comforting resolve. But the real reason to catch “Frozen River,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year (not always a good thing), is to watch a dynamite, underused actress tackle a gritty part with convincing honesty. In a studio picture, this role probably would have gone to a young, lovely, probably English/Scottish/Australian actress looking for a “challenging” part to take on—the kind Oscar might take notice of. Sorry Charlize, sorry Hilary. When it comes to inhabiting the weathered skin of a chain-smoking outlaw mom, you’ve been outclassed: Leo’s the Man.
A thriller of a different order is on tap in James Marsh’s dreamy, enthralling “Man on Wire” (Magnolia Pictures), the story of French acrobat Philippe Petit’s daring early-morning tightrope dance between the Twin Towers on August 7, 1974. While Nixon was being booted from the White House with the ugly stain of Watergate on his felonious résumé, Petit and a few loyal followers—accomplices, rather—were engaged in their own malfeasance, stringing a thick wire between the WTC towers under cover of the night, and realizing a foolhardy, potentially deadly plan that had taken the better part of a year to plan and engineer. The scheme involved fake IDs, insider help, illegal entry, narrow escapes from security guards, and nerves of industrial-grade steel. Needless to say, not everyone involved made it out unscathed by the experience, but all of the interviewees—none more so than the charmingly egomaniacal Petit himself—surge with pride at the accomplishment. Marsh renders the events with artfully atmospheric reenactments as well as a trove of archival materials, and he builds up to the walk itself, Petit’s staggeringly beautiful gift to a benighted city, with plot tension equal to that of any classic suspense film. Not once is the ultimate fate of the Twin Towers specifically alluded to (though the resonance is there for those who wish to see it), nor would shouldering the weight of that catastrophic event have in any way benefited the film. Instead, “Man on Wire” transports us back to a time when the eyes of this city’s storied masses could be born aloft and transfixed by the gravity-defying determination of a faery-like manchild, long before they’d come crashing to rest on a pitted wound in the earth. The Dance of Life is both a potent metaphor and a practical philosophy for the puckish subject of “Man on Wire,” a poetically told, agreeably nostalgic New York film that’s truly a treasure to behold.
Speaking of nostalgia, remember high school? Most of us try to forget those fragile years, but for many filmmakers, the teen psyche is a perennial fascination. Just ask Larry Clark. Or the elder Frederick Wiseman, whose classic 1968 film “High School” he revisited nearly 30 years later. From “Rebel Without a Cause” to “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Bully” to “Superbad,” the adolescent years have provided grist for all kinds of movies, most attending to the alienation and insecurities that make young people at the cusp of adulthood so confused and miserable—and hopeful too. Yet something about Nanette Burstein’s “American Teen,” another buzzed-about Sundance flick that Sony Pictures Classics opened last weekend, made me fidget with annoyance, then irritable bad humor, when I caught the Park City premiere. Burstein, an Oscar-nominated director, spent hundreds of hours in a suburban Indiana high school, documenting the very social and not-so-very-private lives of a handful of kids who agreed to divulge their hopes and hangups to her camera. But the “Seven Up” series this ain’t. Diving headlong into their everyday milieu, Burstein zeroes in on a roster of classic archetypes: there’s the Geek, the Rebel, the Popular Girl, and the Jock. As these life aspirants struggle with identity crises, break-ups, peer pressure, ill-advised text messages, and all the other awkward contours of modern adolescence, updated for the Too Much Information Age, a number of all-too-familiar narrative scenarios begin to surface. The mean-spirited blonde at the top of the pecking order is actually grieving over a family tragedy. The rebel girl is an artist-dreamer who feels hemmed in by her red-state environment and certifiably loony mom. The band geek is a sweet, lonely kid (surprise!) who just wants (what else?) a date. And the athlete, of course, struggles with academics. Hey, have we stumbled onto the set of a John Hughes film, circa 1986? No, kids, this is “The Real World”!
Like so many legions of reality-TV producers, Burstein doesn’t seem to trust her subjects enough to leave them in charge of their own stories. Hence the cheeky “roles” they are assigned to play. Perhaps they’re a bit too eager to share, one can’t help thinking, a bit too comfortable in front of the cameras. But instead of digging in and finding a way to break through the dull shell of Facebook-era self-promotion – you want to make my life into a movie? cool! – Burstein tricks out her footage with video-game avatars (representing each senior’s idealized self) and an MTV-friendly aesthetic. It isn’t a question of what’s an appropriate style for documentary—that debate was settled ages ago, or at least it should have been, thanks to Michael Moore. It’s a question of how “American Teen” positions itself in relation to its audience: how much stage-managed “reality,” as opposed to insightful inquiry, can you handle? Perhaps Burstein made an honest attempt to capture these kids in unguarded moments. Hannah Bailey, the artist rebel, is certainly a charmer and the film’s most soul-baring performer, especially when her heart is trounced by a handsome jock-o who bails when his friends start to freeze him out for dating the “weirdo.” But most of the time, it doesn’t feel like anything much is happening in front of the cameras that Burstein and her cohorts don’t want to happen on cue. And it’s all packaged just so, for the comfort and delight of those (presumably younger viewers) who are happy consumers of “Room Raiders” and “Survivor” re-runs. Reality programs aren’t interested in examining social stereotypes; they’re in the business of reinforcing them, and that, more than anything, is why I recoil from “American Teen,” a slick, commercial exercise in adapting market-tested MTV-style programming for the big screen.