Friday July 17, 1998
Coming of age is too universal an experience for filmmakers ever to stop making movies about. Yet when this rite of passage occurs in a typical American high school you begin to wonder whether there's anything left to say.
The answer is yes, at least when the writer-director is as talented and keenly observant as Susan Skoog, who makes it clear that an important new filmmaker has arrived with her wonderful "Whatever," which is at once wrenching and funny.
Skoog proceeds, as all smart filmmakers do, as if her story has never been told before, and in a sense it hasn't, because her young people are so strongly individual. Indeed, her two stars, Liza Weil and Chad Morgan, make you sit up and take notice just as vividly as Skoog does. Surely, we'll be hearing and seeing a lot of these three, not to mention many others involved on both sides of the camera in the making of this impressively well-realized film.
Weil's Anna Stockard is the film's key figure. She lives in Red Bank, N.J., in a spacious old house with her pretty single mother (Kathryn Rossitter) and younger brother. The time is 1981. Anna, who has a grave beauty, radiates wit and intelligence, but she's also very bored. She feels impatient with lots of childish restrictions yet views the world with a decided wariness. She's too smart not to be scared and uncertain beneath a seemingly detached, quizzical personality.
Morgan's Brenda Talbot is a glamorous blond, her looks and sex appeal more obvious than those of Anna, but her good-time girl demeanor hides an unspeakable home life. Anna is the brighter of the two, but Brenda is more worldly, and the two 17-year-olds complement each other perfectly, making it understandable why they are best friends.
Anna is an uneven student, but she's applied for a scholarship to the Cooper Union. The bright spot in high school life is art class, where she has a splendid teacher (Frederic Forrest, in top form), who goes so far to tell her that she may be the most talented painter ever of all his pupils.
In the course of a fairly short yet crucial span of time in her final year, Anna arrives at a crossroads, requiring her to make choices that will affect the course of her life. She makes these decisions in an era that Skoog evokes with precision, not just through pop music--though there's lots of that--but with attitudes that reflect those of the very early '80s.
A series of events, embedded in everyday life, causes Anna to grow up very quickly, to discover the need for courage and determination and to understand her mother, whom she holds in scorn for considering a financially secure second marriage to an uncomely but otherwise seemingly decent man of 60.
Anna's self-discovery unfolds through a wealth of beautifully detailed incidents, alternately amusing and harrowing. Anna and Brenda take off for Manhattan, head for Bleecker Bob's landmark Greenwich Village record store, tour Cooper Union and look at a spacious loft for rent only to find it goes for $4,500 a month. They then let themselves be picked up by a couple of mid-20s men with less than thrilling results for Anna. Back home Brenda involves herself and Anna with more potentially dangerous encounters, while Anna is drawn to a young artist who has a glib line with women.
Skoog seems a natural screen storyteller, which means she's already skilled at the art that disguises itself. Everything in "Whatever" seems to unfold so effortlessly, free of false notes or anything forced. Everything seems exactly right--the dialogue, the luminous, nuanced portrayals of a large cast, the easy and lovely flow of images. "Whatever" is a pleasure regardless of what year you graduated from high school.
Whatever, 1998. R, for pervasive teen drug and alcohol use, language, including sexual dialogue and some violence. A Sony Pictures Classics presentation. Writer-director Susan Skoog. Producers Ellen Baumel, Michelle Yahn, Kevin Segalla. Executive producers Irwin Young (DuArt Film and Video) and Jim & Ted Pedas, Bill Durkin & George P. Pelcanos (Circle Films). Cinematographers Michael Barrows, Michael Mayers. Editor Sandi Guthrie. Production designer Dina Goldman. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. Liza Weil as Anna Stockard. Chad Morgan as Brenda Talbot. Frederic Forrest as Mr. Chaminski. Kathryn Rossitter as Carol Stockard.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun