When I was in high school, I was just trying to get by, doing my homework and trying to figure out what I wanted to see on television that night (hey, it was the 70’s and it was a Golden Age, so sue me). But for Gilles, the hero of the new coming of age (1971 to be specific) film Something in the Air, written and directed by Olivier Assayas (the wonderful French filmmaker of Irma Vep, Carlos and Summer Hours), he’s creating art work, traveling all over Europe, working for his father’s television production company, doing drugs, having intense romantic and meaningful sex with two different women and trying to decide whether he wants to become a filmmaker. But that’s not the kicker. Oh, no. To make matters worse, he’s an active member of the revolutionary movement of the time (you know, running away from riot police, selling newspapers, graffitting up his school and having to leave town for fear he might be arrested for assaulting a guard). And he’s not just a Communist. To not only insert the knife in my back, but to twist it around a few times, he’s been with the movement so long, he’s actually growing disillusioned with it. What happened to earning enough money to hire a limo to go to prom?
I was quite involved with Gilles and his journey. My friend found it somewhat boring and familiar. I do have to admit, it is a bit leisurely paced and it could use more tension at times. The story tends to meander around without a strong focus and Gilles himself, played by Clement Metayer with a lot of hair, is perhaps a bit too mopey and passive without the energy of the great coming of age heroes like Jim Stark, Antoine Doinel and Laurent Chivalier to really give the story the energy boost it could use. So it probably won’t make it to the top of my Assayas films. But I still found myself often mesmerized and deeply empathetic with everything going on on screen. It took me to a world that was so foreign to me, I just had to find out how it was all going to turn out.
Electrick Children is another coming of age film, but that’s where the similarity stops. The description of the movie states that the central character, fifteen year old Rachel, is Mormon. I could be wrong, of course. I’m not an expert on comparative religions. But by the time the movie was over, I felt she was about as Mormon as Mother Theresa.
In one way, I suppose that’s not writer/director Rebecca Thomas’s fault (she didn’t write the description after all—well, I don’t think). But what I do think is her fault is that this cult or whatever it is that Rachel belongs to never seemed that well thought out or was that convincing. Many people might call it nitpicking, but when Rachel takes a story her mother told her about a red mustang (which the mother calls a horse) and the isolated and culturally ignorant Rachel can instantly recognize a car as a mustang (something I can’t do, no derisive comments please) and when she and her brother use the phrase “immaculate conception” incorrectly, a phrase that it is unlikely she would ever have heard in her short life (whatever religion Rachel is, she sure ain’t Catholic), then one does have to wonder whether this world Thomas has created is a bit too haphazard and was made up as Thomas went along.
This feeling for me was extended to the plot as well. Rachel gets pregnant, but claims she has never had sex. This is not that unique an idea as some people might think (Quinceanera, Agnes of God, Hail Mary, Child of Darkness, Child of Light deal with similar ideas), but the method of impregnation is—she listens to a rock and roll cassette tape and believes the singer of a particular song somehow did the deed (no, I’m not making this up). Needless to say, no one believes her (though a quick trip to the gynecologist would have immediately proven her claim) and it causes some consternation in her small circle of religious. As a result, her parents force her into a marriage that would never be legally recognized (and could probably get said parents arrested on some sort of child sexual slavery charge). So she runs away along with her brother, Mr. Will, who the family is accusing of being the father.
And the movie quickly goes…well, not exactly haphazardly nowhere, but also not haphazardly anywhere either. Since Rachel has no real chance of ever finding the singer of the song on the tape, and since she has no real plan (or even any way of forming a plan) to do so, her journey has little choice but to become an episodic series of scenes driven by coincidence both poetic and Candide like. She and Mr. Will end up hanging with a group of musicians who spend their time drinking, doing drugs and skateboarding. In fact, Rachel has no real journey. She just goes from place to place to place, but it’s unclear how any of it really helps her realize anything.
The strongest aspect of the script is, oddly enough, Mr. Will, who quickly becomes seduced by skate boarding (a method of transportation he treats with all the awe of King Kong meeting Fay Wray and become the most touching moments in the film) and then by drugs and sex. His journey is solid and makes sense. One can follow his character arc. But Rachel’s always felt a bit vague, as if Thomas had a great idea of getting Rachel pregnant while a virgin, but then didn’t quite know what to do with it. Because of this, the ending is also feels a bit off. Based on the way the story has proceeded, the decisions made by Rachel and Mr. Will should have been filled with irony and been the total opposite, rather than what happens here.
Everyone works very hard in this movie and everyone takes it deathly serious (Billy Zane in the small role of Rachel’s father even grew hair for the occasion). And Thomas shows some nice directorial flourishes here and there. So as a visual stylist, she definitely shows promise. But as a writer, I’m not convinced that’s her forte.