Kids have it hard in this week’s crop of movies, but they strive with extraordinary diligence to compensate for their parents’ absence or inadequacy—to take control of their lives much earlier than nature intends. The most affecting of the bunch is I Wish by the Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, whose 2004 drama Nobody Knows centered on four children abandoned by their single, half-wit slattern of a mother in a dreary apartment, where they demonstrated remarkable resilience—until the predictable tragedy. (I dreamed of putting out a hit on the mother the movie was based on.) Nobody Knows churned up my insides to the point where I’ve approached Koreeda’s subsequent films with defensive shields up. But it’s clear at once from its up-tempo rock score that I Wish will temper the bitter with the buoyant.
Divorce has separated its 12-year-old protagonist, Koichi (Koki Maeda), from his younger brother, Ryunosuke (Oshiro Maeda, Koki’s real sibling), the former living in the south with his flighty mother and her parents, the latter up north with his sloppy but talented musician father. A nearby erupting volcano leaves a daily layer of ash, which weighs on Koichi enough to qualify as a metaphor. He’s visibly heavy-hearted, talking often by phone to his more sanguine kid brother while dreaming of ways to escape and/or marry his school’s long-stemmed librarian.
A ways in (the film is a leisurely two hours and change), he and two friends hit on a means of liberation from their ash-dampened existence: travel to the exact spot where two bullet trains speeding in opposite directions (one on its maiden voyage) pass, and make a wish. It’s one of those whimsies you either go with and enjoy or dismiss and pickle in your cynicism—but it sounds entirely plausible for Japanese kids in a culture at once teeming with ancient spirits and infatuated by the latest technology. Pretty soon, little Ryunosuke has formed a posse of classmates wishing for their own, individually tailored miracles, and plans to meet his brother at the crossing. The fun is watching them all raise money for train tickets and plot their escape route from school—aided, surprisingly, by the odd amused adult and sundry grandparents. Koreeda’s sympathy extends to the elderly, who, slowed by age and relatively unyoked from carnal appetites, make themselves more available to the young and vulnerable. It’s from ages 20 to 60 (more or less) when grown-ups are too busy or self-indulgent to offer much in the way of quality attention.
Calling I Wish a paean to the imaginative resources of children makes the movie sound more mawkish than it is. Koreeda’s compositions have a sympathetic detachment that Americans rarely value but is, for many Japanese, the whole point of art. That means you can contemplate the wonder in these glowing young faces without feeling as if you’re on an intravenous drip of corn syrup. The message is un-American, too—that it’s wiser to make peace with the world into which you’ve been thrust than spend your time wishing for a better one.
For western, postmodern whimsy, there’s Patricia Riggen’s Girl in Progress, which is likely the first coming-of-age story centering on a girl who learns in class what a coming-of-age story is and meticulously designs her own. Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez) plans to wear black clothes with ripped stockings, befriend the mean girls, publicly dump her overweight best friend (but with a wink meant to mitigate the cruelty), and lose her virginity in the most degrading way possible to the school’s resident womanizer—then have an epiphany and get a bus out of town to her new life. This scheme, at once novel and cliché, is Ansiedad’s response to her mother, Grace (Eva Mendes), an oft-broke, promiscuous high-school dropout who moves her daughter around the country and spends nights in a motel with her married-doctor lover (Matthew Modine). Soon Ansiedad is decapitating her dolls and blandly defying her mom: “I’m out of control. Catch you later.”
The premise of Girl in Progress is a tad Juno-esque for comfort, but Ansiedad sounds like teen girls I know, bursting with theories and fundamentally clueless, and Ramirez is a strong enough actress to ensure that her character’s show of mastery is not to be confused with the real thing. Mendes might be too bent on being likable to convey the full measure of Grace’s insensitivity—she won’t go to that dark place where a mother isn’t a mother. So the movie goes soft. But it has the unpretentious energy and charm of a good YA girls’ novel.
Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson’s Small, Beautifully Moving Parts feels more like a young adult’s overeager memoir, but its protagonist is sufficiently irrational to keep you intrigued. Pregnant (in her second trimester) Sarah Sparks (Anna Margaret Hollyman) jets to California to visit her sister and father, and to track down her reclusive mom, from whom she has been estranged for many years and who has let it be known that she’s not up for a visit. Sarah persists, driving east into the Arizona desert, maintaining she wants advice from her abandoning mother on—get this—motherhood. The title has something to do with the fetus inside her as well as her fascination with modern gizmos meant to bring us closer to one another: cell phones, Skype, a talking GPS, video baby monitors. It’s not a surprise when she learns that no technology, no New Age mantra, not even an f2f can bridge the abyss between a hurting child and a terminally narcissistic parent. The film would be better if it were gentler. It’s broadly written and played, the actors too busy telegraphing their characters’ emotions to let us contemplate their faces in peace. All the world might be a stage, but onscreen it’s increasingly mumblecore.
The kids who have it hard in Bess Kargman’s documentary First Position have chosen (or been thrust into) one of civilization’s most unnatural modes of expression: ballet, in which bodies are wrenched and twisted and molded to do what bodies weren’t designed to do—and in the process enlarge our sense of possibilities. This is yet another competition doc in the unending legacy of Spellbound, but Kargman is light on her feet, and she has chosen to follow a fascinating group of kids preparing for the 2010 Youth America Grand Prix. There’s an 11-year-old Navy brat already so airy and precise that he has only a glancing acquaintance with gravity and an adorably nimble half-Japanese American girl who doesn’t mind a bit that her mother has rearranged her (and her family’s) life to make her training paramount. At the heart of the film is Michaela, a muscular black girl with vitiligo adopted from Sierra Leone after her biological parents died in a civil war—and who once saw a swan-necked ballerina on a magazine cover and thought she looked so “happy on her toes.” Her Jewish parents often hear that black girls aren’t built for classical ballet, and Michaela doesn’t, I have to say, seem a likely candidate in repose. But when you see her spin en pointe, you’ll find yourself believing that a child’s hopeful spirit can triumph over the physical world—and maybe even that passing bullet trains can make wishes come true.
Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda.
Girl in Progress
Directed by Patricia Riggen.
Small, Beautifully Moving Parts
Directed by Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson.
Long Shot Factory. NR.
Directed by Bess Kargman.
Sundance Selects. NR.