Whatever gets you through the night
By Peter Keough
JULY 20, 1998: Any trace of nostalgia for high-school days and the early '80s dissipates within a few minutes of the opening-credit sequence of Susan Skoog's uncompromising (if drably titled) Whatever. As the Pretenders' "Mystery Achievement" plays on the soundtrack, the camera creeps through underbrush to find 18-year-old Brenda (Chad Morgan, bringing pathos and spunk to a tough role), wasted, half-dressed, and begging for a bottle from the half-dozen or so boys who have just had their way with her. For Brenda and her halfheartedly disapproving friend and fellow graduating senior Anna (Liza Weil), their bleak New Jersey suburban hometown offers little but crass males, fractured families, and the squalid oblivion of booze and rock and roll.
It's the dark side of Richard Linklater's Dazed & Confused -- and Skoog records the details of dead-end teenage partying of a decade and a half ago with rueful, sometimes wry authority, right down to the dimwit drinking a mug of sputum on a bet and the ranks of leather-clad, longhaired potheads on the nod. Skoog also gets the right note of cynicism and aspiration from her protagonist. Played by Weil with a mixture of coltishness and nascent grace, Anna is virginal and a dreamer. Encouraged by her art teacher Mr. Chaminsky (Frederic Forrest in the film's most stereotypical performance), she labors over still-lifes of empty wine bottles and full ashtrays, the detritus of her empty recreation, in hopes of gaining admission to Cooper Union in the real world of Manhattan.
Although grittily portrayed, the world of Whatever at first threatens to lapse into an agenda as generic and schematic as its title. The male characters in particular seem problematic; except for Forrest's inspirational mentor (he tends to make sincerity sound like simplemindedness), they're pigs. Not that the women are any bargains either: Anna's blowzy, defeated mom is no role model, and the cutting exchanges between the two are some of the film's most lacerating and funniest moments. But the guys seem a checklist of masculine pathology. Anna's younger brother is a brat, her single mother's boyfriend is a balding, bulbous boor, her English teacher is a petty, pretentious tyrant out to flunk her, and the seemingly idealistic boy she has a crush on has ulterior motives. "What are you most afraid of?" he asks Anna seductively. "Being ordinary," she replies.
At this point Whatever ceases to be ordinary itself and begins to unfold as a young woman's initiation into experience and a recognition of her potential and limitations, a rite of transition rarely seen on the screen, certainly not with such authenticity. Led by her bad-girl pal Brenda, Anna makes an exploratory jaunt downtown, where an upbeat tour of the art school is soured by an encounter with a pair of junior executives out to get laid. Contrary to expectations, they prove less than monsters, and Anna and Brenda are not exactly innocent victims. Similarly, a non-judgmental ambiguity prevails when the specter of incest arises, as Brenda's pas de deux with her unsavory stepfather shows that in this relationship she wields her share of power.
Perhaps Skoog's most effective reversal of expectations, however, involves the
pair's ride on the wild side with Zak (Dan Montano) and Woods (John G.
Connolly), a pair of ex-cons with coke habits and a spirit of misadventure. As
Woods sweet-talks the pliable Brenda and Anna ingenuously questions the surly,
volatile Zak about what it's like to be in jail, a catastrophe seems imminent.
Instead, Anna awakens naked on the beach, transformed, alone, and undaunted by
the prospect of shattered connections and looming independence. Skoog, too,
seems on the brink of bigger things. Although this first film is evidently
autobiographical, it demonstrates a verve, a creativity, and a raw stylishness
reminiscent of Kevin Smith -- and like Smith, Skoog brings fresh candor and
insight to her portrayals of both genders. Whatever she turns her talents to
next promises to be distinctive and provoking.
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