By Stephanie Zacharek
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Anna Stockard, the high school senior facing the abyss in Susan Skoog's Whatever, comes straight out of the dazed-and-confused school of anxiety that now dominates movies about adolescence. Anna's father has long since vanished. Her mother is a frowzy desperado who rolls home to their suburban split-level at 7 a.m. with a pink fur draped on her shoulder. Her little brother is a pest. Anna's best friend, Brenda, has stumbled onto a high wire of drugs, booze and casual sex. Her English teacher is a mean-spirited geek who wants to block her graduation. And her social life is a blur of zonked-out fellow sufferers full of empty bravado and devoted to self-destructive rituals.
So, will Anna get into Cooper Union, become a famous painter and live happily ever after? Or will she and Brenda hook up with a couple of hellbent drug dealers just out of the penitentiary and scorch what's left of their brain cells on the interstate to Florida? Talk about your major crossroads. Talk about grim familiarity.
This unsweetened, low-budget look at adolescence in the early 1980s (in other words, yesterday) lacks the Hollywood bells and whistles of, say, this summer's Disturbing Behavior, in which the well-mannered, overachieving teenagers in the town of Cradle Bay turn out to have been lobotomized by their scheming parents. It hasn't got the blood-curdling appeal of the popular Scream horror series or the sugary romance of Titanic. Instead, it's got guts and unstinting realism, and it declines to moralize about the extremes of teen behavior. Like Larry Clark's harrowing Kids and last year's The Ice Storm, Whatever shows us sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds torn loose from the old moorings of faith and family, struggling to survive in a hell of confusion.
To be fair, this new genre of teen movie--far more blunt and graphic than anything James Dean could have imagined in his day, or even Matt Dillon and Sean Penn in theirs--goes so far out of its way to be super-realistic as to invite suspicions of exploitation. Director Skoog, who learned her craft in the alphabet soup of MTV, VH-1, TNT and CBS, probably isn't trying to boost the box office with forced fellatio, rampant coke-snorting and incest. But the film's sheer accumulation of sensationalistic details is hard to ignore. Clearly, Skoog means to show us--all over again--how America (or at least New Jersey, where Whatever is set) has failed its children, how traumatized and vulnerable they are, how close to disaster. Okay. But she constantly runs the risk of overdoing it in the name of truth-telling. We've seen such strong stuff before, and it's starting to veer into cliche.
That said, here's highest praise for the terrific debut performance Liza Weil puts in as troubled Anna. It took versatility. This talented young actress (The Blue Room, A Cure for Serpents) had to be sullen and armored when confronting the movie's army of hopelessly stupid grownups. She had to take on Brenda's go-to-hell colorations when she was around Brenda (Chad Morgan). And, in the movie's most telling moments, she had to retrieve the real Anna from beneath the heap of poses and put-ons that are a teenager's defense mechanisms in a dangerous world.
Anna, unadorned, is good-hearted, adventurous and frightened--frightened most of all "of being ordinary." But the movie's burning question, never fully answered, is whether she'll wind up on her generation's long list of casualties. The movie's one sympathetic adult, a bohemian art teacher (Frederic Forrest) left over from Skoog's notion of the hippie Sixties, is trying to prevent it. All Mom can do is mirror her own disappointments: "Don't expect so much," she tells Anna. "It's a little easier that way."
The writer/director, who was born and raised in a New Jersey suburb much like Anna's, gets as close to the agonies and follies of growing up as Todd Solondz got with his bleak, bitterly funny portrait of an eleven-year-old suburban outcast in Welcome to the Dollhouse. Without resorting to sentimentality, Skoog tackles the traumas of virginity, peer pressure, loneliness and ambition from a distinctly female point of view, and her two protagonists--Anna and Brenda--come off as the real thing, as heartbreakingly human. Skoog also takes her comic potshots at youthful pretension and teenage vulgarity (how about a tube of lip balm stuffed with boogers?), but she doesn't have Solondz's malevolent wit. In this year's crop of teenagers in crisis, almost no one's laughing.
Written and directed by Susan Skoog. With Liza Weil, Chad Morgan and Frederic Forrest.
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