Monday, September 25, 2017


Josephine Livingstone's excellent review of "It" for the New Republic wisely zeroes in on the theme of trauma, which the film explores throughout its two-hours-plus running time. Livingstone notes: "Children are the powerless recipients of generation[al] trauma, the violence and perversion which haunt any human settlement, but which are denied and therefore left unaddressed." While she is right to point up the story's powerful parallels between supernatural and human-caused trauma, I'd go further and focus on a very specific kind of trauma: bullying.

Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the interdimensional being who likes to prey on children when they're at their most afraid, is a bully of legendary proportions. But underneath, or alongside, the Losers' terrifying battle with Pennywise are some less otherworldly trials that, in the moment, may feel just as harrowing. Ben has to endure the violent predations of Derry's premier pack of bullies, one of whom, Henry, carves the letter "H" into Ben's ample belly, as if marking his territory, or branding a bull. Fortunately, Ben escapes before Henry can form the other four letters with his knife.

Mike, one of Derry's few black residents, has to cope with bullying at home from his grandfather. The old man insists that Mike take up the family business, which requires him to stun sheep with a captive bolt pistol prior to their slaughter -- a nasty business that reliably leaves Mike queasy and drenched in sweat. He also has to put up with the same band of bullies who harass Ben and the other Losers, but who tell Mike to get outta town with a savagely racist flair. Never mind that Mike's family has lived there for generations -- the implication is clear: Black people will never belong in Derry, no matter how deep their roots. (Though Chosen Jacobs, who plays Mike, doesn't get as much screen time as the other Losers, I hope his adult stand-in has more to do in director Andy Muschietti's follow-up.) Derry is a small town, and one quickly gets the sense that if you're unlucky enough to become the target of bullies, there's almost literally nowhere to hide.

That's especially, horribly true for Beverly Marsh, whose father calls her "his girl," and not in a sweet, caring way. Worse, he becomes highly territorial upon discovering that she has same-age male friends. For me, Beverly's story of resilience, and eventual self-liberation, in the face of bullying was the film's most compelling. "It" reminds us chillingly -- and necessarily, in this age of the neo-Nazi next door -- that evil isn't out there somewhere. No, evil lives beneath, within, and among us, in our history and present, in our perceived safe spaces, in broad daylight.

In the film's opening scene, evil comes out of the dark and snatches little Georgie away from a perfectly normal street in a normal town on a normal day. As we were reminded so painfully by the recent shooting at Freeman High School, bullying has invaded our schools and our online lives. For some children dealt a particularly awful hand, it waits for them also at home each day, in the place that's supposed to be the safest of all. In "It," newcomer Sophia Lillis gives a wonderful performance as Beverly, capturing her strength, wit, and beauty as well as the fear and desperation she feels under her abusive father's roof. Many fans have advocated for Amy Adams or Jessica Chastain as the grown-up Beverly, and either would be a fine choice. When it matters most, Beverly summons her inner resources and is fearless. Her righteous vengeance is a sight to behold.

I was bullied as a kid. It's no picnic. Stephen King's work often deals with the horrors and consequences of bullying, perhaps most memorably in "Carrie." But "It" takes a broader view of the subject. Where "Carrie" provides a detailed exploration of one girl's response to severe bullying, on the part of both her insane mother and her cruel classmates, "It" examines many types of bullying -- including the harsh treatment Henry, himself a bully, gets from his father, who seems to delight in humiliating and demeaning him. I appreciate it when movie bullies aren't one-dimensional monsters (so to speak). Plenty of children who do unkind things to their weaker, gentler peers have been victims themselves -- bully-victims, as they're called in the counseling literature.

In a way, Henry, a classic bully-victim, is at the center of the film. He represents the link between cause and effect; he is a living embodiment of the uncomfortable fact that evils of the past don't stay buried, that suffering is intergenerational and persistent, not static and ahistorical. I haven't read the novel that inspired "It," though I'd like to do so before Muschietti's sequel comes out. But after seeing the topic of bullying treated more thoughtfully, and with more empathy, in "It" than it often is in pop culture, I look forward to seeing how Muschietti, his screenwriters, and another terrific cast explore the longer-term, and even lifelong, effects of childhood bullying.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

"Anne with an E" is Intense with a capital I

The new adaptation of "Anne of Green Gables" (a Netflix/CBC co-production) makes a case for the classic children's story, set on scenic Prince Edward Island, as one of Canada's great national narratives. Emotionally raw, in ways reminiscent of Cary Fukunaga's stellar 2011 "Jane Eyre," "Anne with an E" doesn't sugarcoat the abuse and trauma Anne suffers at the hands of the foster family she lived with (and worked for) before coming to stay with the awkward, emotionally constipated Cuthbert siblings. It also doesn't downplay the wrenching uncertainty of being a foster child, which too often means feeling like a person no one wants. If ever I've seen a compelling moral argument in favor of adoption, this show is it.

As suggested by the show's theme song, the gorgeous "Ahead by a Century" (by Canadian band the Tragically Hip), Anne is a de facto feminist in the frickin' 1870s, at which point the word feminism may not have existed. However, "Anne with an E" isn't just about exposing the horrors of the foster system or celebrating rebellion against rigid gender roles. It's also about the importance of the emotional self. The Cuthberts request a boy to help the aging Matthew work the farm. When they're sent Anne instead, Marilla sees her as a purely emotional creature, incapable of concrete usefulness, despite Marilla's own, obvious gender nonconformity. Anne, being Anne, cheekily points out Marilla's nontraditional femininity to Marilla in an effort to avoid getting shipped back to the foster home. 

Matthew senses early what it takes Marilla longer to recognize: Even if Anne were a physically weak little wisp of a girl, there's something to be said for opening one's life up to the wildness -- the uncontrolled emotionality -- of a child. To see such a modern idea expressed through this adaptation of a 109-year-old piece of literature is thrilling indeed.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Yet another reminder of why I love pop culture

I was recently introduced to "Rick and Morty," an adult-oriented animated show that most geeks worth their PS4s discovered years ago. I don't need to add yet another glowing review, or detailed analysis, to an internet swimming with both. However, one of the show's most-discussed moments reminded me, quite compellingly, why I love pop culture so much. So I figured I'd write about that.

At the end of an episode titled "Auto Erotic Assimilation," in which Rick visits an old flame who turns out to be a body-snatching hive mind, the mad scientist retreats, heartbroken, to his garage-based lab. (If you haven't seen this episode, get thee to Hulu and watch it right now! And then come back here and read the rest of this post.) He removes a small, blobby alien from cryogenic deep freeze and insta-thaws it. The little creature is clearly distressed, as it likely was the instant he froze it to begin with. In a rare, and unexpectedly moving, show of compassion, Rick gently pets the poor creature.

It quickly becomes apparent that he's soothing it because he's about to zap it out of existence with one of his laser-y contraptions. After doing so, he sets the machine up to zap him -- but before it can, he slumps onto his desk. The killer beam barely misses his head. As he sleeps off yet another hangover, night turns to day, and we see Rick's son-in-law, Jerry, merrily weed-whacking the driveway just outside the garage, without a care in the world.

The tonal shift of this scene from the madcap, raunchy antics that preceded it is remarkable. The sad, beautiful song "Do You Feel It?" by Seattle indie band Chaos Chaos soundtracks the entire scene, and it perfectly complements the existentialism and emotionality on display. Wordlessly, this stunning scene humanizes Rick, helping us empathize with his loss of love and the frustration he feels as a genius surrounded by lesser minds. It also shows that he isn't simply a madman with zero regard for the welfare of other living things.

Part of what makes the scene great is the ambiguity baked into it: Did Rick mean to save his own life, or did he simply pass out before the laser energized? Did he unfreeze and kill the creature to "set it free" (rather than continuing to keep it cooped up like a lab rat)? Did he kill it because he planned to end his own life as well and wouldn't be around to take care of it?

Whatever his motivation, his tenderness toward the seemingly simple being adds depth to the character of Rick and to the show as a whole. This scene makes it obvious that Rick and Morty's interdimensional adventures, while often wacky and fun, come at a price, at least for Rick. It turns out that dating outside your species, galaxy, and reality isn't any easier than sticking to OkCupid. And being possibly the smartest human ever isn't all wine and roses.

I love how pop culture, at its best, can draw us in, get an emotional hold on us, and then upend our expectations, taking us somewhere, emotionally and otherwise, we never thought we'd go. The ending of "Auto Erotic Assimilation" blindsides you in the best way. Even within the context of a show about infinite parallel realities, this masterful scene knocks us off-balance and makes us wonder what kind of show it is, exactly, that we're growing increasingly attached to.