Dir:- Jessica Sharzer
Starr:- Kristen Stewart, Michael Angarano, Hallee Hirsh, Steve Zahn, Elizabeth Perkins, D.B. Sweeney
Kristen Stewart really excels at creating portraits of damaged and introverted teens. Away from the hysteria of the Twilight saga she has managed to put together an interesting and varied CV that takes in stints as a tomboyish girl in The Safety of Objects, Jodie Foster’s wilful young daughter in Panic Room, a vulnerable young musician in Into the Wild and a girl who has all manner of problems relating to her family situation in the delightful comedy Adventureland. In this remarkable Showtime adaptation of Laurie Halse Anderson’s 1999 young adult novel about a freshman high school girl’s struggles with depression in the aftermath of a horrendous rape, Stewart, despite being only 14 at the time of filming, inhabits the lead role with a heartbreaking blend of confused melancholia, inarticulate rage and bruised stoicism. It is the kind of performance that points to a child star having the capacity to move seamlessly into more adult roles when the time comes, reminiscent of the aforementioned Foster’s early turns in Taxi Driver and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.
Halse’s novel was a New York Times bestseller at the turn of the new century and received strong critical praise for its powerful portrayal of the psychological suffering a rape victim has to endure, long after the physical effects of the assault have passed into memory. Sharzer on her debut, and to date only, feature goes to great lengths to remain true to the spirit of the novel, whilst fleshing out elements of the central character Melinda Sordino’s school existence to make the adaptation a more intensely visual experience. By and large Sharzer work is very successful, showing a real flair for poetic imagery, from the opening scene of Joyce Sordino (where has Elizabeth Perkins been hiding since Big) stumbling upon Melinda in her bedroom with a twisted and ghoulish array of stitchmarks painted around her mouth, to a marvellous sequence in a hospital ward that utilises shadows and half-glimpsed figures to elaborate Melinda’s intense feelings of alienation. Unlike many post-Clueless high school movies Sharzer resists painting the teenage landscape in a ‘wacky’ array of day-glo MTV hues, whilst simultaneously imbuing the film with an off-beat, hyperreal visual quality that feels similar to the deliberately dated feel Noah Baumbach applies to The Squid and the Whale.
Melinda’s ordeal is shown in snippets of flashback, that appear to work as if they were the resurfacing of suppressed memories. During the protracted and intensely claustrophobic rape sequence Melinda is awoken by her mother, who unwittingly assumes Melinda is merely having a nightmare. The relationship between mother and daughter appears to be a slightly awkward one, with Melinda seemingly unable to communicate her depressed state to Joyce. Her father Jack (D.B. Sweeney) has his own problems, yet he and Melinda seem to have a more immediate and direct bond, that on a number of occasions in the movie seems close to enabling that much-needed moment of communication to occur. Intriguingly, as would seem to often be the case, the parents don’t actually become actively concerned about their daughter’s behaviour until her grades begin to fall away in school. At the moment when their future ambitions for their daughter are put on the line, her parents become more involved in her day-to-day life, but by this point Melinda’s angst and pain have become so deep-rooted that only direct intervention seems likely to prompt a moment of catharsis.
Melinda’s reaction to the rape is at the core of the movie. In the immediate aftermath of the assault Melinda stumbles back into the party and calls the police, only to say nothing to the emergency call operator. As a result of this inability to verbalise Melinda becomes lost in the confusion of frantic teenage bodies trying to elude the police, who have responded to her call and are now breaking up the party. Amongst the group of friends she went to the party with, her closest buddy Rachel (a nicely snippy turn from Hallee Hirsh) ensures that everybody knows who has wrecked the party. Melinda walks home in a shoeless daze (a journey that is beautifully rendered in some glacial flashback sequences) to an empty house and says nothing more about it to anyone. In fact on starting high school in the fall, she finds herself ostracised from her friends and detested by the rest of her peers, with the exception of Heather (Allison Siko) who pals up with her mainly out of a lack of other available friend options. Amidst this atmosphere of cold and rather savage teenage disdain Melinda turns inwards, where she is constantly reminded of her pain, thus prompting her decision to remove herself from all non-essential conversation. This refusal to speak goes almost unnoticed by all but the bullish and bigoted social sciences teacher Mr. Neck (a suitably arrogant and conceited Robert John Burke).
Sharzer manages to transfer many of the novel’s astute observations about teachers into the film. The inevitably free-spirited turn from Steve Zahn as the art teacher Mr. Freeman (all in the name), is made to be everything that inspiring Hollywood mentor roles post-Dead Poet’s Society just shouldn’t be. Mr. Freeman is introduced into the film in a painfully embarrassing (and very funny) scene whereby he tries to enthuse the students into saying something, without having much to say himself. Throughout the film we see Zahn’s figure much more absorbed in his own trials and tribulations, just like most of the other figures in Melinda’s life, but at least he is able to offer her a partial outlet, a kind of refuge. The art classes he teaches become Melinda’s main mode of reconnecting with her damaged self and the project she constructs in a secret hidey-hole of a janitor’s closet, based on the one word ‘tree’, help her to develop a means of expressing the dread and anxiety that have virtually incapacitated her.
The slow, painful process of rebirth (which finds a wonderful metaphor in the planting of seeds, with all of their painful suggestiveness) is somewhat hindered by the daily presence of Melinda’s assailant within the school itself. The gangling frame of Andy Evans (Eric Lively) is used as an implicit physical threat throughout the movie, creating two particularly uncomfortable sequences in which he momentarily traps Melinda and imposes himself either physically or verbally upon her. The arrogance of this young man seems to know no limits and Lively’s performance has just the right mixture of cowardliness and exploitative aggression to make an unthinking audience aware of just how horrid an act rape really is. For Melinda the rape effectively consumes her life, yet for Andy it barely even registers as an event, particularly as he appears to have gotten away with it. The film really does pose the question as to how many such rapes go unreported, or unacknowledged. Andy’s hubris in dating Melinda’s former best friend Rachel, is ultimately the final provocation. Yet even the film’s big emotional reveal sequence, is expertly handled by Sharzer, with Melinda once again unable to verbalise her ordeal.
A small mention must be made of the sterling work by Michael Angarano (from Dear Wendy) in the role of Melinda’s outspoken classmate Dave Petrakis. It is his combative stance with the absurdly ignorant pronouncements upon immigration made by Mr. Neck, that first indicate to Melinda the need for her to find a voice. Petrakis serves as not only an entertaining character, but perhaps a coherent example of what is most frequently lacking within ‘civilised’ societies, namely the courage to stand up for one’s convictions, regardless of the oppressive tactics of the opposition. Where so many of the adults in the film seem defeated and impotent, it is Petrakis who gently offers up one way out of the morass Melinda has been dumped in. Although he might have helped her find her feet, in the end it is Melinda who walks back toward her life, fighting. Just as the harassed English teacher known as ‘Hairwoman’ (Leslie Lyles) on Valentines day rediscovers her poise, purpose and self-confidence. These quietly effective juxtapositions confirm Sharzer as a directorial talent worthy of further opportunities in the near future, as well as adding further emotional depth to an impressive feature.