The Hate U Give -Film Review

The three main children in The Hate U Give are named Starr (Amandla Stenberg), Seven (Lamar Johnson) and Sekani (TJ Wright).

I’ve often wondered where these seemingly less traditional names come from – particularly names where the meaning is the name and the name the meaning. As a white person, perhaps I am accustomed to Anglo names where their origins are less obvious. Names like Elizabeth (meaning my God is my oath), John (meaning Yahweh is gracious), Harry (meaning home ruler), Jessica (meaning to behold), Robert (meaning bright fame), Hannah (meaning grace) and so forth.

When I have taught students named Goodness, Charity, Wisdom, Prince and others where the meaning of the name explains itself immediately, I had presumed their parents, often African (in the case of this film African American), had torn a random selection of words from a dictionary and pulled one out of a hat. But upon watching The Hate U Give it became clear to me these names, which are often values, traits or flattering abstract nouns, are allocated with deliberation. More so than the randomness of say Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s fruit-based Apple or Kim Kardashian and Kanye’s compass-orientated North.

The children’s father Maverick ‘Mav’ Carter (Russell Hornsby) explains:

“You know not everybody got super-powers like you. Shine your light. I didn’t name you Starr by accident.

“I gave each of you power in your names. Seven – perfection, Starr – light, Sekani – joy. Use it so when you ready to talk, you talk. Don’t you ever let nobody make you quiet.”

And Starr does talk. The film talks. And we all need to talk.

Police shootings and deaths in custody have been the trigger for riots. In my living memory I recall two vividly: The first was the 2004 Redfern riots sparked by the death of Thomas Hickey. The second was upon my arrival in London when the 2011 London riots were triggered by the death of Mark Duggan.

Both years apart, yet still an ongoing issue. It’s not one I’ve experienced firsthand. I hope not to. But this film and the teen novel it is based on, by Angie Thomas, are valuable commentary on the privilege divide and the misplaced government resources that firstly lead to cases of police racism.

At times The Hate U Give seems to approach the subject with a certain superficial washed-out Hollywood glossiness. I suppose after all it is a teen drama, so can’t afford to get too gritty. Yet it raises the questions that need to be asked. It doesn’t shy away from biases on both sides, like when Starr brings home her white boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa), leading to her father’s attempt to give him a tip, assuming the boyfriend is the cheauffer, then declaring, “That boy is white…Chris? What kind of plain-ass name is that?”

And indeed, what’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would it smell as ‘plain-ass’? If we call a ‘spade’ a ‘shovel’ instead of a ‘spade’, should we call a ‘Harry’ a ‘Home ruler’ and call a ‘Hannah’ a ‘Grace’? If we mix our metaphors, should we avoid name-calling to realise we’ve confused verbs and idioms?

(For the record, ‘Chris’ can be etymologised to ‘Christ’. Draw your own biblical conclusions between Starr and Chris.)

The imagery of Starr being a beacon of light is ever present as her voice cuts through the rhetoric on both sides of this race issue to lead toward a stronger future. Her given name and ‘super-power’ had been granted in hope for her generation that they can achieve where others have failed (which reminds me, I also had a student called Hope – it makes sense to me now).

 

 

The Florida Project – Film Review

I love Disney as much as the next person. In fact, it verges on obsession. I’ve collected the animated films. I’ve read Walt Disney’s biography. I’ve dragged my cousin through the Disney Family Museum. I noticed Jenny’s bear in The Rescuers has a striking resemblance to Winnie the Pooh and that the tea set in Tarzan looks like the same one from Beauty and the Beast before the teapot was anthropomorphised into Mrs Potts. I’ve been to two of the Disney theme parks (granted a proper obsessive would have been to all of them – I’ve not been to the parks in Florida).

However, The Florida Project was an eye-opening, juxtaposing jolt of the disparity between the rich and poor surrounding the consumerist culture lying in the wake of the Disney parks and, for that matter, the entire company. The desperation and depravation of the young protagonists was enough to put you off your discontinued Kellogg’s Buzz Blasts cereal. The discount outlet selling knockoff Disney merchandise across from the dilapidated motel where Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) live, may well motivate you to run your plush Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear through the garden shredder.

Moonee is barely school-age and is running around the motel like an anti-Disney Mowgli. Instead of being raised by wolves, she’s being raised by the fringe dwellers of the Disney World who are foul-mouths, prostitutes, drug takers, drug dealers, petty criminals and drop-kicks. It’s truly the seedy underbelly of the Disney experience and a sad reality of how far things are from the EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) concept, which Walt dreamed up for the purpose of avoiding the usual pollution and dangers of an urban city. The land allocated for EPCOT inevitably became the hedonistic sanctuary of multiple Disney theme parks and resorts.

The Florida Project is highlighting this. But it’s equally a cry for help and portrait of strong humans fighting against the adversity that is struck down upon them. Moonee’s mother is a child herself. The desperation from these characters is too real. It reflects too many children inhabiting our cities and schools. These sorts of pressures should not be put upon them. Their childhoods are being stolen. They are being judged by adults (like when other parents in the precinct refuse to let their children associate with Moonee). Where is their adult compassion? There are adults who appear to actually hate kids (proper hate – unlike the author of this ironically titled blog). The sole adult who shows protectiveness and care is the manager (Willem Dafoe) of The Magic Castle Motel. Even he reaches breaking point when he discovers Halley servicing clients in her room and nicking their park passes to hawk off in carparks. He digs deep to find empathy. They are kids after all. They should not be cast out to survive alone. We must nurture and keep them. This film should remind us, not shock us. The inevitable end potentially reminds us of the escapist value of a world such as Disney’s. It is only that the real and the fantasy worlds should not be so far apart.

Training Teachers to Kill – Film Review

People argue the teacher is having to adapt and become counsellor, surrogate parent, nutritionist, advisor, baby-sitter and so forth. Now add to the mix security officer – or at least that’s the way Ohio county sheriff (and loyal Trump supporter) Richard K Jones would have it in Channel 4’s documentary Teachers Training To Kill.

In the wake of a shooting in one of the local schools, Sheriff Jones decides it would be best to provide gun training for teachers and arm a number of staff members in each of the schools. Thankfully, by the end of the documentary there is only one school which takes up the scheme of arming teaching staff with guns. Regrettably, that’s one school too many.

In the process many schools run training sessions for their staff at local shooting ranges and simulate school shootings to prepare teachers.

For the majority of the profession, teachers have sat through dull training sessions at work finding out about the latest curriculum developments. Team building sessions have perhaps been spent doing trust exercises or coming up with school values made from acronym-ising the school name. But running a shooting session at the gun club seems an extreme step for jazzing up a professional development session. Surely, they could have just got a glitter cannon for the guest speaker or put the budget towards a few extra curried-egg sandwiches.

There are many concerning aspects to this situation and gun use in general. I will just touch upon one aspect in this very complex issue.

I want to focus on the thought process of staff who agree to carrying guns around the school. I find it hard enough to swallow being given an extra yard duty shift, let alone if I were asked to start wearing a gun under my jacket.

Has the brainwashing of the state become so strong that people wouldn’t even question the conflicting ethics of protecting children, by carrying a gun to massacre other children?

The staff who were filmed taking part in the staff training days, appeared to be treating the whole thing with the same light-heartedness most of us take to a work social at the bowls club.

They were being trained to be killers and seemed ok with that. How does one go from being an idealist who wants to teach youngsters Pythagoras’ theorem to a vigilante who is prepared to shoot down the very same students?

It’s just not in the job description. I would have become a security guard, armed soldier or police officer if I thought I wanted a career that may require me to shoot someone dead. I just don’t have it in me. I get squeamish doing rat dissections.

It’s rare that I find myself floored by someone’s logic. Usually I can do the old, “Well, I suppose if I was in their situation, I’d maybe do (insert x, y and z)”.

But to think that I might spend my working day photocopying, sharpening pencils and marking books, yet every once in a while, I may need to shoot down a child point blank, I would not be able to do that. I don’t know who these people are who think that they can. And I doubt that they will be able to.

The main thing I took away, from watching this documentary, was that I am thankful I do not work in a part of the world where this happens.

Night School – Film Review

Tiffany Haddish’s character is a high school teacher earning an extra buck running the night school classes for grown-ups trying to pass their leaving exams. Kevin Hart, one of her adult students, storms in on her at one point, when she is in the middle of giving additional help to a struggling young student.

It is not an uncommon situation to find the giving teacher providing additional support, homework or counsel to a young child. Sure, teachers can clock on and clock off when the bell tolls, but many don’t. They are thinking about their young proteges most of the time.

That’s not to say Haddish is playing a self-sacrificing  character like Hilary Swank in Freedom Boys. She’s not that type of teacher. In fact, despite the broader slapstick elements of Night School, Haddish embodies a more balanced approach with a matter-of-fact approach to education. She’s not overly invested. If she sees a problem, she fixes it. When Hart’s character thinks she’s emotionally invested, she cuts him down a few pegs and tells him to get over himself.

She sees teaching as a job, and she does a good job. She goes beyond the call of duty, where there is a need, but she doesn’t let it tangle up with her personal life.

If we could all take a piece of pedagogical style from this film, we’d have injected a well needed counter-weight to the molly-coddling sentiment of some of the currently fashionable teaching trends, without of course losing our humanity.

Mary Poppins Returns – Film Review

It’s striking how Mary Poppins exists solely for the purpose of child-minding yet has no children of her own. In fact I find an immense pathos in her character. It was there in the first film and it is present in Mary Poppins Returns. There is a longing for more in her eyes.

Where school teachers, babysitters, au pairs and nanny’s metaphorically swoop in to educate and care for children, Mary Poppins does it literally, first with an umbrella and then more recently off the back of a kite. Then as quickly as she arrives, she disappears again. She only appears in sequences where she is dispensing advice, medicinal spoons of sugar or reprimands. She doesn’t appear to eat, consuming little more than the odd cup of tea. She doesn’t appear to leisurely read any books. She may not even sleep, as she’s too busy singing everyone else to sleep and we never see her retiring to her own bedroom. She plays directly into the preconception many children have of their daytime educators and carers that they live either in the broom cupboard or simply materialise at the times they are needed. A student of mine was once dumbfounded to have bumped into me at the local cinema, then asked why I wasn’t at school.

This is where I find the pathos. She seems to live solely for the children. She doesn’t appear to have her own family. She is the sad epitome of the teacher who is so invested in their students that it has been at the cost of all other facets of their life. Even when the opportunity of finding a companion presents in chimney sweep Bert, she is too preoccupied by her duty to be “practically perfect in every way”. By the time she flies in on the kite in Mary Poppins Returns Bert has presumably put down his brush and been hauled up in a depression-era nursing home. Mary, on the other hand, hasn’t aged a day. Any attempt by her to befriend Bert would be weird, though equally it would seem inappropriate for her to begin flirting with young lamp lighter Jack.

No. It seems Mary is destined to be an old maid. Far from being the banner waving champion of the suffragette movement as Mrs Banks was or the flyer distributing voice of the labour party as Jane Banks is, Mary Poppins is so preoccupied with perfection it verges on being a diagnosable case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. She is so flustered by things being out of place that it’s hard to imagine she’d cope with the imperfection of most human relationships.

So, I find myself wondering how much I am like her. I found myself in a great moment of empathy near the films end when she is handed a balloon by Angela Lansbury and declares “it’s time” then floats away. I know that feeling too well from leaving classes of children behind me. She knows her job is done but still appears saddened to return the children to their circumstances for better or worse. Those children are not hers. She has invested in them as though they were her own, but they are not hers. And where Mary Poppins gets to return to her lonely single bed apartment in the sky, many teachers and nannies probably return to their single bed apartment on the wrong side of town too exhausted from picking up the pieces of other people’s messes to tidy up their own mess. When Mary pauses a short moment before re-ascending, I couldn’t help but think this was a gut-wrenching moment for her. I couldn’t help but think the Banks’ life was a life she wished she had.

Is she forever destined to pick up the pieces of people’s own mismanaged attempts at child rearing? Will she be perpetually running her gloved finger along the infinitely dusty mantel of childhood emotional neglect? Shall she be shackled eternally to her talking parrot umbrella as sole confident and companion?

For all the singing and dancing, Mary Poppins epitomises the lonely path professional child minders must often tread, with one foot in the adult world and one in childhood. As Emily Blunt sings, we are perhaps left looking for ‘The Place Where the Lost Things Go’ in a vain attempt to recapture our own childhood while forgetting to live our adult life.

Girl Asleep – Film Review

If there’s anything more horrifying than a sweet sixteenth birthday party, it’s the horrifying thought of a forgettable fifteenth birthday party. So, it’s no surprise that Greta Driscoll would prefer to be a Girl Asleep when she enters the school corridor to find her mother has invited every single pubescent fool to her birthday party.

The thought of being fifteen again is so harrowing, that it’s easy to see why Molly Ringwall demanded that sixteenth candle be placed on her cake – just so she could move things right along.

Not in the case of protagonist Greta, whose mother is looking for her own excuse to dance, father is wanting to hang a cheesy birthday banner and sister is just wanting a party to invite her boyfriend to.

Set in the 1970s, Girl Asleep is a bizarre mix of the ocker humour of Muriel’s Wedding and the fantastical dark whimsy of Maurice Sendak’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are. It’s a film in two parts, in that it’s grounded in the banality of Australian suburban life (albeit an overblown surreal representation), while later transcending into a parallel world inhabited by mystical creatures.

It’s hard to pin down what makes this such an enjoyable film. Perhaps it is the familiarity in the nostalgic portrait of seventies’ Australia; Certainly there’s a disarming enthusiasm from Harrison Feldman’s performance (much like his character Oscar in Upper Middle Bogan) that makes it hard to look away. Most of all it is likely to be we’re empathising with young Greta’s quest to escape back into her innocence of youth, as many of us often try/want to do.

Tale of Tales – Film Review

It’s that age old story; woman (Salma Hayek) can’t get pregnant, she and her husband (John C Reilly) get a visit from a magical old man, magical old man tells them to retrieve the heart of a magical underwater dragon and eat it raw.

It’s the sort of thing that makes In vitro fertilisation look like a swim in the lake. In this case it was a swim in the lake, but it was a more difficult swim in the lake because the king had to slaughter the dragon so his wife could eat the heart.

It’s enjoyable how this film taps into the human condition and vulnerabilities, despite its fanciful fairytale setting. Most specifically the story above deals with all the complexities surrounding the desire for parenthood.

Where modern stories would see a barren character head to the fertility clinic, Tale of Tales heads to the magical dragon. Perhaps this is a story as old as time. Both Into the Woods and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, are based on fairy tales dealing with parents who can’t produce offspring.

The themes of youth and childrearing don’t end there. Hayek’s albino son leaves her abandoned in a maze at one point – a mean trick to play on anyone’s mother; another king (Toby Jones) becomes more obsessed doting on his pet flea than his teenage daughter (Bebe Cave); and an old woman (Hayley Carmichael) convinces a witch to turn her into an younger and extremely pretty version of herself (Stacey Martin).

Adults wanting kids to love, kids wanting adults to love them, and adults wanting to be kids so adults love them. It’s a complex playing out of an inherent want for acceptance and purpose.

The film transcends its fairy tale environment to spin some of the oldest fairy tales, in the world (they are from The Pentamerone), into a cinematic masterpiece of fantasy that trumps similar fare like Stardust, Ella Enchanted and dare I say it The Princess Bride.

It Follows – Film Review

The wonderful thing about It Follows, is the realism for the non-supernatural elements of the film. It is free of the melodramatic over-acting present in many of its predecessors such as I know what you did last summer or Scream.

In fact the opening scenes involving Jay (Maika Monroe) appear to be reminiscent of most independent features about small American towns.

A group of youths, spending their summers together hanging out playing board games, watching movies and swimming in an above-ground pool. The general comradery and jest is present when Jay exits the pool and shakes her wet hair over her sister while her friend lets out a fart. This is all happening while they sit on the couch reading e-books, eating Cheetos and watching Killers from Space.

Then, as with all good horror films, the picture-perfect slice of American pie begins crumbling around the central characters as ‘It’ begins to follow.

I have no intention of spoiling what ‘It’ is; you must see ‘It’ for yourself.

What must briefly be discussed is a sequence that happens during the calm before the storm.

Jay is swimming in her above ground swimming pool. It’s suburban America at its finest. The entire atmosphere is reminiscent of my Australian childhood summers spent playing shark attack games with my cousins in their above ground swimming pool. The difference here is there’s no tomfoolery. Just one lone person floating on her back.

Then all of a sudden you realise she’s being watched. Is it by some evil pervert, a monstrous beast or a masked serial killer? No, it’s a couple of ten year old boys – neither looking like children of the corn, but more like Tom Sayer and Huckleberry Finn.

In this case, it seems Tom and Huck have just discovered girls. But more importantly, I ask, where are their parents?

It Follows 2

Have they not had the birds and bees talk so these two kids hiding in the bushes can realise they’re batting out of their league. This young lady is almost twice their age, and she has a date lined up for the evening. Both those kids should be down the park batting with an actual baseball bat, instead of whatever batting it is they’re trying to do at this moment.

Plus it’s rude to stare. No manners at all.

Poor Jay realises the boys are there and tells them as much. She laughs them off. But she still feels the need to get out of her own swimming pool and head inside, just because these vernal voyeurs couldn’t keep their eye balls to themselves.

Peeping Tom and Huck have proven that objectification of women can start at a young age.

Perhaps I am not unlike these two lads, in that I’ve been watching this film gazing at the female form as she is terrorised by ‘It’ who follows.

While We’re Young – Film Review

Ben Stiller’s character in While We’re Young has been having trouble with his wife Naomi Watts and finds himself on his best mate’s (Adam Horovitz) couch. He’s feeling a bit sheepish about this, having recently shafted his friend (who has a new baby), in preference for hanging out with indie kids Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried.

In a vulnerable moment, unfolding linen for the fold-out couch, Stiller declares to his host that he could have been jealous of his friend having a kid.

His friend responds with the following:

“You know before you have a kid everyone tells you it’s the best thing you’ll ever do. And as soon as you get the baby back from the hospital those same people are like ‘don’t worry it gets better’. Well, like, what the f*** was all that before?”

Indeed.

We are fed this idea from our older relatives, society, friends, Huggies commercials, films, wives and husbands. The idea that birthing a child into our home will be a life-changing experience. One that will wipe away the doubt about our self-worth during our twenties; conceal our worries about ageing in our thirties; or validate us that we weren’t too late in our forties. We always worry that we’re behind the eight ball and all our friends are already married and having kids. We forget people ten years older, even twenty years older are having the same feeling. It happens at different times for different people. Still, there’s this expectation that any concerns we had about our esteem before the baby will be washed clean, because there will be no time left for naval-gazing.

It will be ‘baby-time’ and the only thing that will matter is that little bundle of joy. It will become the soul-focus of our attentions. Nothing else will matter. Everyone will want a piece of baby, and there will no longer be pressure on our own successes or failures, because no one will be looking. They’ll just be drooling and gawking at baby, looking into baby’s big glossy blue eyes.

I’ve not got a baby, so I’m not sure how much of this is true or untrue. My ramblings above are mere conjecture. But I’m sure of one thing, and that’s Ben Stiller’s friend was right having a go at all the people saying ‘it’s the best thing you’ll ever do’. He’s right. That’s what people do.

They pressure you into situations they drowned in. They rose-tint glass everything, as much for their own sake as yours. They’ve blocked from their mind the memories of the twenty hour labor, sleepless nights, aching bodies and projectile vomited milk products. Sure now their life may have changed for the better and have direction, but Stiller’s mate is right. One glance at a urine sodden nappy sagging from your own infant’s crutch and their quite happy to remind you ‘it gets better’, while they inch towards the door to return to their own offspring who are can now hold a conversation and an Xbox controller simultaneously.

And what of the existential level of this trickery and life-altering occasion. Should childbirth being ‘the best thing’ be reason enough for putting a bun in the oven. What about all our own unresolved life dilemmas, misspent youth and broken dreams? Shouldn’t we solve, spend and repair some of these, respectively, before shelving them in the top drawer to make emotional space for a child? How can we push the next generation, to live life to the full, when we still feel incomplete? Or is that the answer? Perhaps it is a chicken before the egg scenario, where we’re destined to have children to complete our puzzle. It certainly makes sense in terms of sustaining the human race.

The film doesn’t answer these questions, but we certainly see Watts and Stiller grappling with their childfree lifestyle to find completion in other spaces and places. The situations unfolding in the film, certainly suggest there are times in our lives when a child would probably be better left out of the picture.

As a close friend once told me, “I can barely look after myself, how could I look after a child?”

I didn’t understand at the time, his fear of placing all his own insecurities on another human being. But having taught children now, I can see that there are certainly some states of mind that are more beneficial to the healthy development of a small person. And, I would suggest, some people would be better spent being more cautious like my friend.

Yet I’m also an old romantic (when I’m not being a cynic) and still believe, perhaps ignorantly, there is an innate and instinctual part of our human condition that is maternal or paternal. And so whether or not we are glad to have children or are glad to not have children, it will be the urge towards parenthood that leads us to these decisions. If it wasn’t there, we’d not make a decision either way.

While We’re Young explores all these dilemmas deftly. It follows the complexities of parenting and being childless, from both sides of the fence. It at times treats both states as self-satisfying, while at others points both out to be selfless. It’s a trundle through the lives of baby boomers, generation x and generation y. Each generation self-reflecting their obsessions through different mediums of traditional documentary, social media and then viral video. The older generations turning their nose up at the new; a ‘documentarian’ is more credible than a ‘YouTuber’. But then again maybe not. But then again probably yes. The subplot becomes the main plot. Was this film about babies and youth? Or was it about narcissism and self-worth? I’m confused. You’re confused reading this.

The film appears a jumble of ideas at times, trying to intertwine all these things, raising as many questions as it answers. But all the while we see ourselves in it. These are the decisions we can’t make and the paths we can’t take without consequence While We’re Young.

 

 

 

The Falling – Film Review

Set in an all-girls school in the late 1960s, The Falling is a teacher’s worst nightmare.

In short one of the girls Abbie (Florence Pugh) becomes pregnant; then as if that’s not bad enough she dies before giving birth; and then if both those things aren’t bad enough the majority of the student population begin having fainting spells.

The wondrous element of this film is guessing whether the fainting spells are being caused by a higher magical power that may have killed Abbie, or whether it is a case of mass hysteria. Conversely, there may have been a gas leak in the main cafeteria.

It’s hard enough managing a class of thirty students at the best of times. But when the mob-mentality starts and students beginning mimicking the ‘class fool’, it becomes very difficult to contain. The closest I’ve come to mass hysteria is when a child asks to go to the toilet and then ten other children also want to go. You suspect they’re just avoiding their work and causing trouble, but you can’t take the risk of having twenty or so ten-year-olds sympathetically pooping their pants because you were sceptical it was a run-of-the-mill case of mass hysteria.

Likewise stern-faced head teacher Miss Alvaro (Monica Dollan) is loath to admit there may be something wrong with schoolgirl Lydia (Maisie Williams) and her entourage of fainting peers. But she’s already got one corpse on her hands and can’t risk having a procession of neatly dressed private school girls being wheeled through the doors of the town morgue for inspection. Instead she does the sensible thing, involving the medical experts and … the rest you’ll have to watch for yourself, as I’ve already said too much.

And while mass hysteria in school children may draw the ire of suspicious people, like myself and the fictional Miss Alvaro, real-life occurrences caused by real-life traumas have unravelled as recently as October 2011, when an outbreak of symptoms, similar to Tourette’s Syndrome, appeared in a number of teenage girls in the town of LeRoy, New York.

Again there were those who thought it was a bunch of attention-seeking teenagers making a secret pact to outwit adults, while others were seriously concerned for the girls’ well-being and had them sectioned off so a remedy could be found. The unfolding of events are documented in the television documentary The Town That Caught Tourrette’s.

So while I won’t be showing The Falling or any other footage concerning mass hysteria to my students, for fear of a revolution; I highly recommend the adult population begin making their way en masse to their DVD player or VOD service to watch an amazing film showing the vulnerabilities and pressures of youth. Just don’t pass out halfway through, or you’ll miss the good bits – Is it really mass hysteria or is it something more sinister?