Finally, a Good Youth Film: David Williams' Gracious, Revelatory Thirteen

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:55

    Williams knows something of what great American artists from McCullers to Tennessee Williams and James Baldwin understood about American family life: that it can be both comforting and mystifying. Thirteen (showing for one week at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater) doesn't idealize adolescence like the movies and tv shows that are created to simply sell sneakers, cosmetics and automobiles. Williams recognizes that the way Nina, who just became a brand-new teenager, handles her adolescence as a crisis is the most common and evocative experience that Americans know. Funny thing is, American movie audiences have been trained to ignore that part of their souls. Thirteen won't likely be a hit on the scale of Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, American Pie, She's All That or Road Trip, but I can promise that the lucky few who go to it will be touched deeply, memorably.

    At first Nina is enigmatic. Her reddish complexion and quiet manner seem ageless, but she sucks her thumb, tipping off her youth. Williams watches her behavior in a placid tone consistent with the pace and habits of Nina's home life. Lillian, Nina's mother, is a dark-skinned, bulky woman who shows great patience despite being baffled by her own child. In one shot Lillian is featured sitting in front of a photograph of herself when young, avid, beautiful. Lillian now has a settled, matronly countenance, past sex and skeptical about love; she asserts wisdom as a show of her worth. The old/young contrast is breathtaking. Williams captures a lifetime in a single shot that a healthy film culture would have to prefer over the million-dollar f/x of Gladiator as a small moment of true genius. Thirteen is comprised of both documentary naturalism and fictional plangency. Williams has built his story around the observances of everyday life among common folk but never hypes it up. Although the plainness becomes a little wearing in the second half, Williams' integrity never lapses?and after sitting through a class-conscious trifle (closer to a debacle) like Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks, Williams' consistency becomes a cause for amazement.

    The Chicago Sun-Times is quoted in the Thirteen presskit as saying, "It uses actual lives as materials to be shaped into fiction." But perhaps not. Thirteen's beauty comes from its illusion of actual living?of personal feeling?through fictional perception. Without excessive exposition, Williams causes these realistically seen people to pass through the viewer's imagination. Dickens and Folley are not professional actors, yet they're certainly acting. They keep it simple and believable, inspiring the audience's belief and awe. Think Charles Burnett and Vittorio De Sica and you're not far off. Thirteen records the minutiae of average conversation, and negotiations between parent and child, teacher and parent, social workers and parent (after Nina briefly runs away) that can only be called peaceful tension. You get the sense that Southern rural life might be less fraught than what we usually see in urban-set films, but also that Williams conveys an essence of human interaction Hollywood can't touch. Conversations in Thirteen (such as the social workers asking Lillian if Nina is "a young 13 or an old 13") should be as evocative as some of the episodes in Burnett's Killer of Sheep?the greatest little-known American movie.

    Young Nina with her avoirdupois joins the ever-growing panoply of underappreciated African-American screen characters. She's like girls you see everywhere except on the big screen. (Not even the lovely Natalie Portman could fake this kind of credible charm in the atrocious Where the Heart Is.) It's refreshing that Williams never makes her a sociopathic case like the teen heroine of Alan Clarke's Elephant. He follows her tentative journey toward adulthood. Eager to earn money to eventually buy a car, Nina agrees to babysit children, pets and even pose for a neighbor who paints. This benevolent white man does a near-abstract portrait of Nina that captures her sad eyes. The picture is, like Williams' film, a transparently gracious gesture but also a revelation. Nina's idiosyncrasy comes clear?she's not damaged, just private. When she's bored, it's universal and familiar, thus fascinating. Her unannounced trip into the hills, encountering various helpful strangers, conveys an honest, modest American wonderment.

    To a child, the world doesn't have to be depraved to be baffling; to a cagey adult artist, kindness itself can also be a heartbreaking surprise (a legacy from such 70s road movies as Thieves Like Us or Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins). This paradox is conveyed through montages opposing distant landscapes to personal acts of goodwill. (Williams evokes something of the rural poetry that Terrence Malick accomplished in Badlands.) As his own cameraman, Williams shows a native's eye for highway mountain beauty, stretches of road, deep greenery and the ever-rising height of the horizon. The sequence of Nina's trip to a local carnival is summarized by a wide shot of her wandering behind a building with only the right top corner of the screen revealing the cars on a Ferris wheel as they churn by on their mechanical rotation. A better depiction of anomie could only be found in an Antonioni movie.

    Thirteen's simplicity is deceptive. Its title suggests a conscious homage to Seventeen, Jeff Kreines and Joel DeMott's classic documentary treatment of a teenage girl and the family and culture shaping her thoughts and future. To that end, Lillian's complex religiosity is treated with the same, sane toleration as the conviviality of Nina's older sister, or a gregarious neighbor who always has a handy anecdote (one about "nacho cheese" and another about school students who answer "I don't know" and "Me neither" on a test). Williams deepens his film by considering the stock Lillian puts in her own dreams, even one that surprises her (and us) by intuiting the effect of her daughter's passivity in the outside world. It demonstrates Williams' complicity in these portrayals as he typically balances artifice and documentary truth; this unusual mix of familial and communal love has appeared in only a few independent film such as Ruby Oliver's nearly artless homemade movie Love Your Mama.

    Like Oliver, Williams is right to reject the current Hollywood youth movie trend. And Nina can be seen to express his own skepticism about the way youth is portrayed when she tells her painter neighbor, "I don't want to learn how to do art, I don't like art." She's bothered by sophistication, contrived order, the unfamiliar. But Williams makes the familiar extraordinary. Thirteen is remarkable for the way its modest means yet give way to expressive, eloquent style. In a week that offers Peter Greenaway's hypersophisticated 8 1/2 Women, Williams' simplicity and guilelessness are encouraging.

    8 1/2 Women directed by Peter Greenaway Smart as Peter Greenaway shows himself to be, he's just made the dumbest mistake any filmmaker can by referring to a movie he can't possible equal. In 8 1/2 Women, Greenaway includes clips from Federico Fellini's 8 1/2. But Greenaway's conceit about a British father and son testing out their heritage of masculine aggression after the death of a sexually passive wife/mother isn't worthy of Fellini's landmark. By now it's well known that Greenaway is diametrically opposed to Fellini's humanist passions, but after this, critics will have to finally admit that Greenaway's filmmaking lacks visual richness. His flat tableaus are no competition for the sensuous black-and-white graphics Fellini achieved with the great cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo. And 8 1/2's sumptuousness was also part of an emotional richness Greenaway abhors and thus denies his audience. Every Greenaway movie is a game, like the one the bankers Storey Emmenthal (Matthew Delamere) and his father Philip Emmenthal (John Standing) play out with a series of women?a vixenish Polly Walker, a decrepit Amanda Plummer, an eccentric Vivian Wu, a maniacal Toni Collette and four and a half others. The women are treated like freaks, chess pieces manipulated with gruesome glee. Although Greenaway announces his bloodless themes with each laboriously outlined sequence, his analytic style is never evocative in the manner of dramatic art. In fact Greenaway seems contemptuous of conventional art methods (one character refers to Fellini as "just an old Italian pimp") even though he doesn't supply insights or pleasures at all compensatory. 8 1/2 Women not only looks shabby next to 8 1/2, but Greenaway's avant-gardisms are stodgy after Michael Almereyda's playful, postmodern update of Hamlet.

    While exploring "female stereotypes invented by men," Greenaway doesn't get far beyond them; his characters' discursiveness passes for intellectualism, but any Godard film on sexuality and political role-playing is more inquiring than this relentless theorizing. It's a male counterpart to the 1996 Female Perversions, replete with transgressive homosexual incest?a kind of Oedipal petit-mort about as antiseptic and challenging as cyberchat. It always seemed that Greenaway was working in the wrong medium?and museum installations never quite seemed the right fit either. Now that CD-ROMs are widely available, maybe he can leave moviemaking to real cinema practitioners and stop perverting the medium. The elder Emmenthal makes a sly reference to Mondrian's geometrical painting that includes a line, "Some people try to justify Mondrian's style by pointing out that he loved to tango." Surely Greenaway fancies himself a brainiac, but as a filmmaker he doesn't know how to dance.