Disclosure: Tim League co-owns NEON and Birth.Movies.Death.
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There’s no single process to come of age. It’s an essential part of every person’s life, but there are as many ways to grow up as there are people on the planet. Everyone will reach adulthood in their own distinct, specific way. In storytelling, specificity in the tale told can lead to universal recognition. And the past two years have seen a genuine cornucopia of excellent movies about growing up. I’d like to shine a light on three of them: Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, Justin Tipping’s Kicks and Julia Ducournau’s Raw. They’re wildly different movies in almost every way: their tones, their levels of ‘realism,’ even their running times. But they’re united by their empathetic exploration of the fraught, joyous and terrifying search for self at the edge of adolescence.
Andrea Arnold’s Academy-ratio-shot epic road movie tells the story of Star (Sasha Lane), a young woman who joins up with a band of kids traveling the country and selling magazine subscriptions. She goes with them to escape from her horrid home life, to take a shot at making some real money and to pursue what might be an attraction to Jake (Shia LeBouf), the group’s magnetic, mercurial co-leader. The kids travel from town to city to suburb and back again, Star bonds with the crew. She grapples with the contempt of Krystal (Riley Keough), the group’s leader. And her perception of Jake, who waffles between adoring her, ignoring her and insisting that she has betrayed him by making her own decisions, evolves repeatedly. At the end, having taken all that she’s experience in, Star achieves a moment of catharsis and understanding.
American Honey is the most uneven of these three movies, but when it works it sings. Its storytelling is episodic, allowing it to move all across the tonal spectrum. Some of its episodes are superb pieces of cinema. My personal favorite comes near American Honey’s end, when Star and Krystal reach an understanding despite their mutual dislike of each other. Their tense conversation adds depth to both characters and beautifully complicates their earlier actions. But a fair few of the episodes also fall flat on their faces. When Star meets some children even worse off than she was, American Honey devolves into dire, smarmy poverty porn. Despite the wobbly movie around her, Lane consistently does very fine work as a young woman moving from enchantment to wisdom. When Star and her self-questioning are framed alongside the world of her crew and the nation they travel, American Honey is striking and beautiful.
Justin Tipping’s tightly told adventure introduces Brandon (Jahking Guillory), a young man even his buddies Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace) and Rico (Christopher Meyer) razz. He’s poor, short, skinny, and a favorite target of the local bullies. The girls he likes think of him as his friends’ sidekick, if they think of him at all. He dreams of being an astronaut, alone and at peace in the privacy of space. A pair of the legendary red and black Air Jordan 1s gives Brandon style, and thereby a way to break through his peers’ dismissal of him. But before he can turn things around, he’s beaten and robbed by Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), a local criminal and an infamous schmuck. Determined to reclaim his Jordans, Brandon sets out to track down Flaco, aided by his increasingly uncomfortable friends and a spectral astronaut. His search takes him to his thoughtful, professionally ruthless Uncle Marlon (Mahershala Ali)’s house, his first sexual encounter, and ultimately a climactic confrontation with Flaco, who he learns is both an utter creep and a loving dad.
Kicks was one of my favorite movies last year. Tipping directs both action and conversation elegantly, and his tonal balance is impressive. Brandon’s hunt takes him to very heavy places emotionally and morally, but heaviness is not the whole of his life. Even during Kicks’ last act, which is primarily devoted to Brandon’s showdown with Flaco, Brandon has dorky teen moments and Tipping has a few fantastic jokes. Guillory anchors the film, guiding its tone and its pace as Brandon’s determination to reclaim his shoes becomes increasingly relentless. He’s playing a very introspective character, but he never gets lost in himself. Indeed, Guillory crafts Brandon into such a strong presence that his influence defines even the scenes where he’s off-screen. Kicks is a thrilling character piece with striking filmmaking and, via the presence of Brandon’s astronaut companion, a perfect note of surreality.
Julia Ducournau’s grimy, wide-awake neon nightmare Raw follows Justine (Garance Marillier), a young vegetarian veterinarian-in-training, during her first semester of college. It’s the first time she’s ever lived away from her strict, controlling parents. Between the older students’ vicious hazing, the influence of her rambunctious, rebellious older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) and her own desires, Justine begins to push her boundaries. Chief among them? Her vegetarianism. After being forced to swallow raw rabbit kidney during a hazing ritual, Justine is struck with an insatiable craving for meat. She steals hamburgers at lunch. She gets shawarma with her roommate Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella). She tears into the raw chicken in her dorm’s fridge. She eats her sister’s finger after a terrible accident. She resists the urge to feed on Adrien when they’re having sex by chomping into her own arm. She cannot exercise the same restraint when locked in a room with an anonymous boy during a hazing ritual. And, as Justine’s craving for flesh grows, her rivalry with Alexia, herself a cannibal, grows ever more bitter.
Raw, as you may have gathered by its summary, is a brutal, terrifying film. I do not scare easily in movies, and Raw reduced me to a state of wide-eyed, open-mouthed horror, screaming silently at the screen. It’s also a damn fine look at a toxic sibling relationship and the difficult, necessary process of defining oneself outside of parents and siblings. Justine and Alexia are not polar opposites, but they differ sharply in their approaches to academia, socializing and their shared addiction to human flesh. They do love each other, and they do try to get along, but their love is unhealthy and their attempts to interact with each other almost invariably end with Alexia trying to assert her imagined superiority over Justine. Their relationship crumbles over the course of Raw, and by the picture’s end the only reason it is improving is that there’s absolutely nowhere else for it to go but up. This complicated, constantly degrading relationship reads as genuine because of Ducournau’s writing and Marillier and Rumpf’s performances. As rotted as the sisters’ relationship is, Alexia is one of the few reliable constants in Justine’s life, and in the midst of the massive upheavals she experiences during Raw, constants are welcome and necessary.