‘Hugo’ Bossless: The Wayward Youths Of 2011

(Films discussed in this post: Hugo, Hesher, Terri, and Win Win.)

It’s a hard-knock life for kids in the movies.

Whereas actual kids these days have it comparably easy, their on-screen counterparts tend to get tricked instead of treated, kicked instead of kissed. Unlike most kids you’ll meet in real life, the majority of youths you’ll encounter in movies not only come from broken homes; but chances are, one or both of their parents are dead.

Morbid much, Hollywood? Jeez.

Yes, being orphaned allows our young heroes to be their own bosses. Masters of their own fates. And that tends to get them in trouble…

See, when it comes to drama, a child’s relationship with his actual birth parent tends to be not-that-interesting — unless, as I stated above, the other parent is dead. Even family films tend to play the deceased parent card, or at least the absentee mother/father whose disappearance is never really explained. (Leaving us to assume that they’re dead.)

Why?

Because this leaves room for kids to do one of two things: A) find an adult role model they can look up to, bond with, and have a quirky friendship with; or B) bond with each other, in order to fight aliens.

(I’ll write more about that second group in another post.)

Terri falls into that first category. Directed by Azazel Jacobs, it centers on the titular orphan, played by Jason Wysocki in a noteworthy understated performance. Terri is being raised by his Uncle James (Creed Bratton), a kind and wise man sometimes; other times, he barely knows who he himself is, let alone his nephew. (Movies about orphans often have a looney old person around to serve as some kind of guardian or authority figure, leaving the kid to mostly figure shit out for himself.)

Terri is overweight. That’s enough to make him an outcast at school. Unfortunately, he has also taken to wearing pajamas every day, which gains the attention of Principal Fitzgerald, (John C. Reilly). Fitzgerald takes it upon himself to straighten Terri out, as he does with a number of “problematic” kids. He has a system in which he divides students into two groups: the “good-hearted” kids and the “bad-hearted” kids. Terri is good-hearted, we and Mr. Fitzgerald know, but certainly in need of some guidance. (An episode involving a lot of dead mice provides some incentive for that.)

Terri’s relationship with Fitzgerald is somewhat unconventional — Fitzgerald asks Terri to attend his secretary’s funeral with him. But what his weekly meetings with Mr. Fitzgerald really do for Terri is introduce him to two other key characters — Chad, played by Bridger Zadina, potentially a very bad-hearted kid; and Heather, played by Olivia Crocicchia, who was likely somewhat popular until she let a boy named Dirty Jack finger her during home economics. Now, she’s the Hester Prynn of this high school, and Terri is the only person willing to be her friend.

Terri is what you might call a minor movie. It’s rather realistic for a movie dealing with teen characters, attuned to the insecurities and contradictions within its characters. The movie doesn’t come to any grand conclusion or give Terri a false happy ending; for a film about a fat kid, Terri refreshingly sidesteps the issue of popularity. Obviously, Terri is unpopular, but that’s not what his life (or this movie) is about. Jacobs is more interested in allowing Terri to find a certain quiet self-confidence; a voice for himself, however small. The unlikely trio of Chad, Heather, and Terri decides to get drunk and take some of Uncle James’ medication (what it is, we don’t know — and neither do they). This is the “climax” of the movie, and it shows us what kind of character Terri truly is.

If the film rings a false note at all, it’s actually the starry presence of John C. Reilly — their scenes are a little broad to be believable, a little too movie-convenient — and they shake a little Hollywood dust over what otherwise might have felt like a more honest, earnest film. But as an interesting dynamic between a former outcast and a current one, it works, resulting in a low-key indie dramedy with a sizable good heart. Is “feel good” too strong a word to apply to indie dramedies like Terri? The very term “feel good” conjures up images of whales leaping over rock walls while an orphan pumps his fist in the air. In my opinion, no film should ever make you feel that good. But these are, on the whole, optimistic films, highlighting some of life’s troubles but leaving you feeling okay  in the end. Call them “feel decent” movies. They’re in the same vein as Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, though not quite as calculated.

Regardless, you can imagine the good-natured Terri getting along with young Kyle in Win Win, the latest film from Thomas McCarthy — another story about a “good-hearted” kid from an unstable home. In this one, Kyle isn’t technically an orphan; his mother may or may not be in rehab in Ohio when Kyle shows up in New Jersey to visit his grandfather (Burt Young). The problem is, lawyer Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) has recently moved the old man into a nursing home while pocketing the money he’s supposed to get for taking care of him.Mike isn’t a bad guy, though. He’s just having some financial difficulties. And who isn’t these days? He keeps the secret from his wife (Amy Ryan) and best friend (Bobby Cannavale), even as he offers to let the boy stay with him for a night or two. Ever the opportunist, however, once Mike learns that Kyle was a wrestling superstar at his old school, he enrolls Kyle in the high school wrestling team he coaches with Jeffrey Tambor, hoping to make magic happen. It doesn’t go down quite like that. Along the way, Mike spars with Kyle’s mom Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), trying to find a situation that works for both Kyle and the Flaherty family. Win win, you see?

Alex Schaffer wasn’t much of an actor prior to being cast in Win Win, and you can tell; but it works in the film’s favor, bringing an aura of authenticity the character would have lacked had a more polished actor been cast. Kyle is an independent kid, flawed and occasionally misguided, but always with his heart in the right place. As in Terri, it’s the adult male role model that gives the film its biggest whiff of Hollywood self-consciousness (though Giamatti is never less than great in the part). It’s not Giamatti’s fault that characters in feel good (and even “feel decent”) movies are always called upon to do the Right Thing, but Win Win might have been a tad more interesting had it explored things more from Kyle’s point of view, fleshing out his relationships with other supporting characters. McCarthy doesn’t take us quite as deeply into the heart and mind of a misfit as Terri does; he’s more concerned about seeing things from grown-up Mike’s perspective. Which is fine.Even more troubled than Terri and Kyle combined is Hesher‘s young hero, T.J. Like Kyle, he’s got only one parent left, and that parent is virtually useless; like Terri, he’s also got a dotty old person supposedly taking care of him. Hesher‘s child protagonist is younger than the teens at the center of Win Win and Terri, but no less of a misfit — following the death of his mother, his father (Rainn Wilson, thankfully not doing his Office schtick) is a total deadbeat. (Whether he was also a deadbeat before, we don’t know — but he’d outrank the likes of Brad Pitt, Clive Owen, and George Clooney as one of the year’s worst deadbeat dads. Find more on them here.) It’s only through extremely negligent parenting that the events in Hesher are allowed to happen.

Many films about misbegotten youths feature a bully (often, an even more troubled kid than the misfit in question). Hesher is unique in that the boy’s adult “role model” is also a bully. Kind of. There’s another bully that T.J. goes to school with — he beats T.J. up, demands that T.J. suck his cock, shoves his face into a urinal, and other such teen bully hallmarks. But it’s Hesher himself who’s the real menace — a misfit himself. Hesher and T.J. meet by chance when T.J. angrily throws a rock through a window, in one of many destructive acts in this movie (pretty much every male displays his anger through such acts of aggression). From there, Hesher sees it as T.J.’s obligation to house him — and in order to achieve this, he is not above threatening, hitting, or running over our young protagonist. It does not speak well of the boy’s guardians that they are only-half-alarmed to find Hesher lounging about in his underwear with their young son, smoking and swearing and watching porn. Hesher’s got to be at least ten years older than T.J. There’s no way to put this delicately: Hesher, you see, is an asshole. For a long stretch of the movie, he shows almost no redeeming qualities. He’s the sort of character you feel uncomfortable spending two hours watching a movie about; you wouldn’t be able to spend more than five minutes in his company in real life. Hesher is covered in juvenile tattoos, like a big ol’ flipping of the bird on his back. To say he’s crass is an understatement. He’ll turn on porn in a stranger’s home in front of children, and he’ll give a eulogy about his nuts at an old lady’s funeral. He shows no signs of recognition that T.J. is a minor. He listens to heavy metal, which makes us realize this character might have easily been another ten or twenty years older than T.J. At times, it’s obvious that Hesher is trying to be provocative, but he probably knows no other way to behave.

This isn’t Hesher’s story, though. We are given only a cursory glimpse of his psychology, and while he does have a character arc (and the movie’s named after him, after all), we see the world through T.J.’s eyes. Hesher isn’t an easy guy to like, either for the audience or the people in this movie. They merely accept him because their lives are chaotic and the presence of this messy, self-serving sociopath can’t really make things any worse. Hesher makes us uneasy; we’re never completely sure to what extremes he’ll go (sometimes, he goes further than we think). Hesher is unpredictable and just this side of dangerous; he does a few good deeds, but never without a high risk factor.

Here’s a thought: Hesher might also be interpreted as T.J.’s id, a la Tyler Durden in Fight Club. Yes, everyone in the movie speaks to Hesher as if he’s a real person, so he’s not just a figment of imagination; but he’s like a manifestation of all the turmoil and disorder happening within T.J. since his mother’s death. Hesher acts out in all the ways T.J. would like to act out — and in some ways T.J. hasn’t even thought of yet.

Working from a script he co-wrote with David Michod (writer/director of last year’s stellar Animal Kingdom), director Spencer Susser has assembled a talented roster of talent in Hesher. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has shown himself to be a fearless actor time and time again, and one of his generation’s best and least self-conscious. He’s equally at home in offbeat indies like Hesher and Mysterious Skin and mainstream-friendly fare a la Inception and 50/50. He doesn’t care if we like Hesher, so we’re free not to, and that’s nice, for a change. Natalie Portman has a supporting role as a flat-broke grocery checker; Hesher assumes T.J. has a crush on her, but we get the feeling she’s more of a surrogate mother figure. The part is small, but Portman makes her mark on the film. And a near-unrecognizable Piper Laurie has a significant role as T.J.’s spacey grandma, who at one point smokes from a bong with Hesher. For my money, she might be the film’s most intriguing character; it’s no accident that she is the catalyst for the resolution of this story.

As T.J., Devin Brochu also holds his own — even if Susser resorts to at least one too many scenes of T.J. pitching a fit and screaming at Hesher: “What the fuck is wrong with you?” (It’s a valid question, at least.) Previously, Susser directed the spectacular short film I Love Sarah Jane, and you can see its influence on this production — especially in the above-average stuntwork, much of it involving the child protagonist.

Hesher is not a feel good movie. It’s not even really a “feel decent” movie. It’s a “feel… hmm” movie. It ends on a somewhat uplifting note (promptly followed by a giant middle finger signaling the end credits), resolving T.J.’s unhealthy attachment to the car his mother was killed in. Ultimately, though, Hesher bucks the conventions of the misfit-meets-role-model formula while still adhering to the redemptive structure; it’s an odd, memorable, and slightly off-putting result. Perhaps by design.On the more fanciful end of the spectrum is one of the year’s most-acclaimed movies (it was the National Board of Review’s pick for Best Film, and is landing on a number of critics’ year-end lists already). It comes from one of the greatest living American filmmakers, no stranger to films about misfits. (Raging Bull and Taxi Driver come to mind.) Martin Scorsese is, however, rather a stranger to family-friendly films, which is why there’s so much buzz surrounding Hugo.

First it must be said: saddled with a terrible release date over Thanksgiving weekend, Hugo did not perform spectacularly. Why, oh why, did Paramount decide to slot this difficult-to-market film against holiday weekend heavy-hitters like The Muppets and Arthur Christmas? It really never had a chance. Like the superb box office flop Babe: Pig In The City, which chose heavy-handed high art over kiddie-friendly shenanigans and toilet humor, this is a family film that children won’t necessarily enjoy or appreciate. It’s a kid movie for grown-ups, particularly those with a fondness for cinema.It begins as a fanciful fable about a young boy who lives inside the walls of a Paris train station, fixing clocks. Orphaned when his father (Jude Law) is killed in a fire, Hugo Cabret is his own boss now, left to his own devices. He lives in constant fear that the moppet-hating Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, wonderfully weird) will snatch him up and toss him into an orphanage. Meanwhile, he gets by through petty theft, trying to find the right pieces to fix the eerie-looking automaton his father left him shortly before he died.

An encounter with a toymaker named Georges (Ben Kingsley) changes everything. Georges’ niece Isabelle (a very plucky Chloe Moretz) and Hugo become, as they say in stories like this, “fast friends,” and together set out to solve the mystery surrounding the automaton, eventually leading them to discover a secret about Georges. I’m just going to tell you: he is Georges Melies, the now-legendary filmmaker, living in hiding because he was unappreciated in his day. (Discussion of this film is nearly impossible without that “spoiler.”) Georges now wants nothing to do with movies. Hugo, Isabelle, and film historian Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) seek to change that.

Asa Butterfield is pretty remarkable as Hugo, tasked with carrying the entire picture. He is an orphan, unsure of his place in the world; unlike in Terri, Win Win, and Hesher, it is not the role model who seeks him out, but Hugo who pursues Melies; rather than be taught, Hugo is active in his learning process, a thirsty seeker of knowledge. Ben Kingsley is delightful as the cranky old Melies (and even moreso as his younger self), but as his wife Jeanne, Helen McCrory does the heaviest lifting, playing several conflicting emotions at once — and she nails it. Her pained and overjoyed expressions tell us everything we need to know, things the script need not state.

There are a host of supporting characters too, played by Christopher Lee and Emily Mortimer, amongst others, with varying degrees of success. The film takes place in 1930’s Paris and you can tell Scorsese had fun zooming through the train station at a breakneck pace; some characters seem to exist in vignettes that might have been snipped out of Paris Je T’Aime (particularly the charming romance between Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths, reunited from The History Boys).

Storywise, Hugo flounders a bit before finding its footing. Most who see the film will already know the “mystery” surrounding Georges, and it takes Hugo and Isabelle quite a long time to catch up to us. The script states its themes obviously and often (for the kids, I guess), but just when you wish a side character or scene might have been excised to save time, there’s the message of the movie — about how the world, like a clock or an automaton, has a use for every one of its parts. And so does this movie. Everything comes together rather beautifully; if, perhaps, a bit too leisurely-paced.Overall, Hugo is a mixed bag filled with mostly wonderful things. The 3D is supposedly breathtaking, but I elected to see it in 2D (stupid surcharge, stupid glasses), which may account for some of why the movie felt a bit slower-paced than it needed to be. (It is a kid-unfriendly 2+ hours.) But Scorsese directs this picture with the same whimsy and spirit Melies did back in the day (as depicted here in flashback), so it’s easy to forgive Hugo its excess weight. Certainly the esteemed director shows his film geek roots. Sitting through Hugo is like being back in film school. Not only are we treated to glimpses of some of Melies’ work, like A Trip To The Moon, but we also catch a reenactment of the legendary Train Arriving At A Station and winks at old movies such as Safety Last! (better known as “that hanging-by-the-clock movie”). And this is supposed to be for kids?

Maybe Scorsese is too optimistic about the attention spans of today’s youths, and how rapt they might be at learning the history of motion pictures. Primarily, Hugo is a movie made by a cineaste, for cineastes. And at that, it succeeds with flying colors.

Misfits all, the boys in Terri, Win Win, Hesher, and Hugo find their way with influence from an outsider, rather than their (mostly dead) parents. So here’s to the wayward youths of 2011, a cinematic staple. Please, sir, can we have some more?

Hugo: An enchanting lecture on the history of cinema, with a hefty dusting of old movie magic mixed with cutting edge special effects.

Terri: A good-hearted movie about a good-hearted kid.

Win Win: Sure, see it. What have you got to lose?

Hesher: I just wouldn’t recommend spending any more than two hours with this guy.

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