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Folie à Deux

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Stefannie Lucan in The Order of Myths.  

In the telling, The Order of Myths sounds obvious, and its underlying racial politics might be. But Brown is scrutinizing the surface, the tension between individuals and their ways. You try to read their faces, and it’s as if they’re wearing Mardi Gras masks, held in place by… what? Fear? It’s no wonder. Without the order of myths, what’s left?

American Teen is the antithesis of The Order of Myths: It overtly ridicules the status quo—then reaffirms it. Maybe this will be the big crossover doc, the hit that’s a hit because it reinforces everything we knew going in. The director, Nanette Burstein, has chosen five teens in Warsaw, Indiana, to illustrate the high-school caste system and the general callousness of teens (big news—when The Breakfast Club came out). You get the geek, the nerdy (but pretty) misfit girl, the jock hobbled by parental expectations, the hunk, and the rich blonde bitch. The blonde bitch turns out to be more human than we thought—but still a bitch. Everyone else is just what they seem. The movie does get under your skin (the tremulous misfit girl, Hannah, might be a breakout role model), but the way it has been put together reminds me of those animal shows where the crew nudges the gazelles in the direction of the lions with multiple cameras standing by.

Maybe the most inapt name I’ve heard for an aesthetic movement is “mumblecore,” the tag applied to films by twentysomething white directors like Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation). I’m not sure who came up with the label, but the style in which these youngish characters struggle to frame their chaotic feelings has nothing to do with volume or intelligibility and everything to do with attack—or the wishy-washy lack of it. They speak up; they’re just not sure before they open their mouths what will pop out. If anything, the name should be fumblecore. Running with my new label (which popped out), I dub Baghead the first fumblecore horror movie, or what passes in the indefinite fumblecore universe for a horror movie. Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass, it’s very broad, but the satire—and its attendant babble—actually heightens the scares. The monstrous maniac with the bagged head is like an extension of the characters’ own self-indulgence.

The movie centers on four unsuccessful actors—the dweeby guy (Steve Zissis) in love with the cute girl (Greta Gerwig) who strings him along to boost her ego and keeps everything—yes—indefinite; and his more rugged pal (Ross Partridge), who has an on-again-off-again (indefinite) relationship with a longtime girlfriend (Elise Muller). After watching a bad low-budget movie, the four decide to drive out to a remote cabin to write a relationship movie for themselves—something to get them noticed and maybe (this is only implicit) help define their own mixed-up connections. After lots of alcohol, the cute girl either sees or dreams a man in the dark woods with a bag over his head. Maybe, they think, they should write a horror movie about a maniac with a bag over his head. Or maybe (it’s all very Blair Witch, indefinite) there is a maniac with a bag over his head.

Gerwig played the lead in Hannah Takes the Stairs, which turned Bujalski-type fumbling into shtick. She’s better here—a child-woman whose giddiness turns out to be self-serving. Actually, all four of these people are children; they don’t need a low-rent Jason Voorhees because they punish one another enough. Too bad the movies collapses at the end when we find out what’s really going on. Baghead is so much more vivid when it’s indefinite.

Boy A has a shocking subject and revolves around it artfully—perhaps too artfully, given the rawness of its premise. The deliberateness makes it easier to keep your guard up. The title is what the protagonist was labeled (to protect his identity) after he and a friend committed a horrific—and notorious—crime as minors. Now, at age 24, the young man (Andrew Garfield) is out, with a new name, a new home (Manchester, England), and a counselor (Peter Mullan) posing as his uncle to help him navigate his new world. The tabloids would like to know where (and who) he is; there’s also a bounty on his head. But “Jack Burridge” wants to live a normal life with true friends and a loving mate. Which is hard when he can’t share the most momentous experience of his life.

The novel by Jonathan Trigell has a punchy matter-of-factness—the kind of manly one-thing-after-another tone in which the emotion slowly bubbles up from under the surface. John Crowley’s movie has the same coolness, but it’s self-consciously stark; Jack’s Expressionistic attic bedroom (slanted wall, angled shaft of light) is a howl. Garfield gives an amazingly vivid performance that strikes me as wrong. He’s a simpleton, an innocent—more childish in his affect than the kid (Alfie Owen) who plays him in flashbacks. Boy A comes down to whether Jack is the embodiment of evil—as the tabloids portray him—or someone who did something bad but wasn’t innately bad. In the movie, it’s a nonissue; he’s sweet and befuddled. This is another of those dead-kid dramas in which the terrible event is handled like a striptease—tantalizing flashes until the climax. But when that climax comes, Boy A turns out not to be especially malevolent. He’s the child murderer as sacrificial lamb.

Man on Wire
Directed by James Marsh.
Discovery Films. PG-13.

The Order of Myths
Directed by Margaret Brown.
The Cinema Guild. NR.

American Teen
Directed by Nanette Burstein.
Paramount Vantage. PG-13.

Baghead
Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass.
Sony Pictures Classics. R.

Boy A
Directed by John Crowley.
The Weinstein Company. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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