Lovesick Teenagers

The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone, 2014)

Hollywood’s romance with Young Adult novels, which have remained plot-focused while the grown-up kinds have gotten more abstruse, produced this faithful adaptation of (I’m told) the defining millennial non-vampire love story. It aims for tear-jerking, and does not miss. Hazel (Shailene Woodley, so hot right now) is a cancer survivor whose lungs were partially collapsed in a near-death experience, and who knows her sexless life can end at any moment. Gus (Ansel Elgort) is in the same leaky boat, minus the oxygen tank — he lost a leg to a youthful malady. They meet cute at a therapy circle held at a church (Mike Birbiglia is very funny as the youth leader), and I’m not spoiling anything if I say that they fall in love before one of them dies.

The movie is engineered to make you cry, and it goddamn sure will. Hazel and Gus are larger-than life soulmates in the Montague/Capulet vein, wordier and smarter than any kids you know. A sample piece of dialogue that will make your eyelids damp if you’ve seen the movie: “You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I am eternally grateful.” Who talks like that? Maybe smart kids who are aware that they need to have a eulogy on hand, maybe they do. The world treats them differently; the movie has a lot of fun with the Make a Wish Foundation, and in one weird scene, a friend whose cancerous eyes were amputated (Nat Wolff) gets away with egging his ex-girlfriend’s car even after the ex’s mom catches him. Why not? Why make his hard life any harder? (The viral WaPo essay that accused this movie of making sick teens too glamorous really papered over the whole amputated-eyes thing.)

I’m 33, so my touchstone romantic movies are Say Anything and Before Sunrise, both about healthy people who clearly are going to stay together without any thought of mortality or aging or ending. (In Before Sunrise, we have proof in the form of sequels.) The direction of The Fault in Our Stars is a little rote, and little is left unexpressed by monologues, but it’s hard not to be affected by a story about love with no future. There is nothing to aspire to, or copy, or be jealous of. Sidebar: “Boom Clap,” the onomatopoeiac love song by Charli XCX, is wasted on a short shot of a plane landing. It should be to this movie what “In Your Eyes” was to Say Anything. (It’s not lost on me that “a Peter Gabriel song” as a romantic side dish is an in-joke of this movie.)

Palo Alto (Gia Coppola, 2014)

It’s hard to discuss this without getting into the casting. Here we go: This is a movie by the granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola, whose wineries are only a short drive away from the Bay Area setting. It stars Emma Roberts, daughter of Eric and niece of Julia, as a sullen and searching teenager named April who resists an emotional connection to Teddy, played by Jack Kilmer, son of Val. (Val Kilmer plays April’s stepfather, an intellectual burnout who rewrites one of her history papers as “Alexander the Dubious” and clearly spends the rest his time hitting bongs and killing XBox characters.) They’re both fine actors, though Roberts is downright compelling where Kilmer is sort of promising. Both of their solidly upper-middle-class characters are spending their high school years making bad decisions, which is realistic enough for me.

Realistic but nothing special. Coppola’s visual style is just like her aunt Sophia’s, bleary yet focused on her actors’ faces as they conceal their emotions. The plot, based on a short story collection by James Franco, is all about people creating mediocre fates for themselves. A girlish conversation about how the soccer coach (Franco, taking one for the team) probably has a crush on April is followed by an affair between April and the coach. The ominous interactions between Teddy and Fred (Nat Wolff, arresting and unrecognizable from his TFIOS performance) lead to trouble for both of them. There are memorable shots — April daydreaming in a car after a successful sexual conquest, Fred’s car careening through the middle lane of a freeway, going the wrong direction. But what’s the point? Wealthy boys and girls with big, soulful eyes are meant for each other? Hell, I could’ve told you that.

Messages in a Bottle

Locke (Stephen Knight, 2014)

Not quite sure what all the fuss is about. Locke is a “bottle” movie, set almost entirely inside the car of the eponymous Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), as he drives from Birmingham to London and conducts phone calls with his in-auto bluetooth. We learn quickly that Ivan is 1) a talented construction site manager on the verge of a career breakthrough, 2) married, and 3) throwing all of this away, because he’s driving to be present for the birth of an illegitimate daughter. Over 80-odd real time minutes, Locke walks a stressed-out and cider-loving assistant through the job he can no longer be present for, gets fired, gets kicked out of his house, and conducts cold medicine-fueled “conversations” with his absent father, whose own awfulness inspired Locke to take responsibility for his mistake.

Hardy is unsurprisingly fantastic, making some strange decisions — like an accent modeled off Sir Richard Burton’s — that give us a full sense of a character we will never see interact physically with anybody else. I liked in particular how Locke refused to say anything untrue when the hospital was on the line, reiterating “I am the father” instead of making things easier and saying “yes, I’m a relation, patch me in.” It’s compelling, and that’s enough for a rental, but in sum it’s a modest story about a guy who made some bad calls — literally! [Rimshot sound effect or gif to be inserted here.]

Coherence (James Ward Byrkit, 2014)

Another bottle movie, set in and around the director’s home, which doubles for a Bay Area yuppie pad that’s hosting a dinner party on the night that a comest is coming close to Earth. Emily (Emily Baldoni), a struggling dancer with a movie-approriate expository knowledge of comets, notices that her iPhone has shattered without dropping. A few other strangenesses plague the party, including a freak power outage, which sends two of the yuppies outside to find that… holy fucking shit, the only other house on the block is a mirror version of their house. Same people. Slightly different decisions, like the color of glowsticks they use to explore after the blackout. Most importantly, for dramatic purposes, the Earth 1 Emily ruined her career by backing out of a dance show she’d designed. The Earth 2 Emily went ahead with the show and became a star.

There are surface similarities between this movie and Another Earth, a strange but memorable indie melodrama which made a semi-star out of screenwriter/willowy screen presence Brit Marling. (Baldoni even looks a little like Marling.) Coherence is in some ways more predictable, complete with characters who know exactly what knowledge to drop in order to advance the plot, and how to react dramatically to MacGuffins. But it’s tense as all hell, thanks to little tricks like the improvised dialogue and Byrkit’s edits that chop up dinner party patter and rattle your confidence in the narrative. If I didn’t like the movie I’d describe it as jayvee Shane Carruth, as it’s much easier to follow and less visually striking than the Primer director’s work. It’s just a good, sticky suspense film that takes familiar-seeming people into the penumbras of their consciences.