Film reviews: The Gift | The Diary of a Teenage Girl

The Gift, directed by Joel Edgerton. Picture: Contributed
The Gift, directed by Joel Edgerton. Picture: Contributed
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JOEL Edgerton resurrects the stalker movie in a quietly creepy and admirably unsettling way

The Gift (15)

Directed by: Joel Edgerton

Starring: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton

****

The stalker movie entered the modern era with Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty For Me but came into its own almost 30 years later when Glenn Close’s bunny-boiling psycho inspired a slew of post-Fatal Attraction yuppies-in-peril films about sinister strangers ready to ruin the lives of middle class Americans for past transgressions, indiscretions or just plain oddball psychological issues of their own. The sheer deluge of movies like Single White Female, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Pacific Heights ensured this mini-genre reached saturation point pretty quickly, but Australian actor Joel Edgerton – making his directorial debut – resurrects it in a quietly creepy and admirably unsettling way with The Gift.

Casting himself as Gordo, a socially awkward loner who insinuates himself into the life of a former classmate newly returned to his leafy suburban California hometown, Edgerton is the proverbial bad penny, repeatedly showing up as tech company sales exec Simon (Jason Bateman) and his interior designer wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) try to settle into their new home. The swanky sleekness of the house itself – with its fishpond-lined entry, its open-plan living spaces and its large-windowed forest views – is designed to inspire just the right level of audience envy and loathing. As a filmmaker, however, Edgerton seems intent on delivering more than simple theatre-of-cruelty thrills. Simon and Robyn, for instance, aren’t presented in stereotypically hateful fashion just so we can enjoy watching them being put through the ringer. Their idyllic-on-the-outside lifestyle masks plausibly real marital tensions that Edgerton and his cast reveal via the coded language and gestures of long-term coupledom. Joke-veiled insults in front of work colleagues, subtle over-sharing at dinner parties, paper cut-like rejoinders that wound deeper than their public imperceptibility suggests… all of it points towards a couple who are struggling to cope with the daily realities of a life together that is starting to diverge from the one they dreamed of building.

The sudden arrival of Gordo, then, is merely the destabilising force that unsettles already rocky foundations – though Gordo does have an agenda of his own. With his goatee, earring and strangely shaded hair, he looks out of place even before we factor in the way he lingers in the background, fixating upon Simon and, especially, Robyn. After randomly running into them in a department store, he proceeds to leave them a series of increasingly lavish housewarming presents, parlaying their reluctant gratitude into dinner invitations and neighbourly house calls – a course of action that inspires the already barely tolerant Simon to resurrect his cruelly blunt high school nickname, “Gordo the Weirdo”, behind his back. In classic nightmarish fashion, Gordo’s interest in Simon is, as you might already have guessed, a product of the latter’s past misdeeds, and while it would be remiss to reveal any more, the film uses the escalating situation to explore whether or not people really change once they begin down a certain path in life, particularly when those paths are defined by lies.

The Gift isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel here – and it’s certainly not averse to deploying familiar genre tropes (let’s just say the appearance of a family pet once again functions as a down-payment on future anxiety). But to his credit, Edgerton uses such elements sparingly, partly as a way of paying sincere homage to the film’s 1980s and 1990s forebears and partly because, well, they still work when used properly.

Like all good horror films, The Gift also reflects wider fears about the world in which we live. In the era of data-mining, NSA intrusions and Google Timeline, a film about a stalker unwilling to let past transgressions go feels like a nifty way to metaphorically tap into apprehensions about our digital lives coming back to haunt us. Edgerton certainly seeds those ideas early in The Gift, dropping references to the NSA into an already uncomfortable dinner party conversation and having Simon’s job afford him similar means of abusing digitally stored private information.

Where Edgerton really succeeds in lifting this above standard genre fare, though, is in the attention he pays to his characters and the performances he gets out of Bateman, Hall and himself. 
More usually seen in comedies, Bateman has an appealing everyman quality, but he’s good here at letting Simon’s repressed ruthlessness seep through his nice guy exterior. Hall complements him well, bringing a vulnerability to Robyn without making her feel like a victim.

In some respects Edgerton sets himself the hardest task with Gordo, but he makes him sympathetic and, over the course of the film, invites us to empathise with all three characters, which makes the twist – when it comes – less predictable and more disturbing.

Intelligent, well-crafted, unpretentious thrillers like this don’t come along all that often any more. For fans of this sort of film, The Gift feels in tune with its title.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (18)

Directed by: Marielle Heller

Starring: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard, Kristen Wiig

****

British actress Bel Powley delivers a star-making performance in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a this brilliant, provocative, achingly honest and intimate comedy-drama about a 17-year-old girl’s sexual awakening amidst the soured free love dream of mid-1970s San Francisco. Adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographical graphic novel by first-time writer/director Marielle Heller, the film smartly uses the confessional aspect of its heroine’s audio journal – she speaks her thoughts directly into a tape recorder, hiding the cassettes in a shoebox under her bed – to provide us with unfiltered insights into her psyche as she processes her rapid transformation from arty schoolgirl to confused but increasingly self-aware young woman.

We join aspiring cartoonist Minnie (Powley) shortly after she’s lost her virginity. Her bewildered excitement in recounting this momentous event for her diary compared to the blasé way she describes it to her best friend later is typical of the way the film negotiates her interior and exterior life: this is a girl caught in the hormonal confusion of adolescence, naively determined to enter an adult world she hasn’t yet realised is destined to disappoint and betray her.

Her first time has already been complicated by the fact that it was with an older man who just happens to be the current boyfriend of her bohemian mother (played by a very good Kristen Wiig). What follows gets even messier as Minnie’s transgressive affair with Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard) sets her on a boundary-testing quest to find herself amidst the boundary-denying counterculture.

Shot in the hazy style of an old instamatic camera, the film does a good job of evoking these times without falling back on hippy clichés or nostalgia for a permissive era rife with addiction and exploitation. Like the Los Angeles of Inherent Vice, the San Francisco of The Diary of a Teenage Girl is dirty around the edges, the putrid smell of patchouli almost wafting off the screen as Minnie’s hormonally charged exploration of her own sexuality leads her into situations far seedier than she can really handle.

Where the film differs from most coming-of-age films is in its willingness to present an honest portrait of female sexuality: it doesn’t judge Minnie for liking sex; instead it presents what she’s going through as honestly as possible, illuminating in the process the minefield all girls have to negotiate as boys and men start to take an interest in them.

Heller plugs us further into her protagonist’s head by drawing on the graphic novel source material, augmenting Minnie’s diary entries with comic book illustrations. But her biggest asset remains Powley: with her Manga-wide eyes and instinctive ability to convey vulnerability, heartache and a hardening resolve about who Minnie is as a person, the actress grounds the film and makes it special.

Manglehorn (15)

Directed by: David Gordon Green

Starring: Al Pacino, Holly Hunter

***

Much as he did with Nicolas Cage in Joe last year, David Gordon Green’s new film Manglehorn sees the director taking another superstar in Al Pacino and dropping him into a cinematic world stripped free of mainstream gloss. That’s a good thing. Cast as a locksmith mourning the lost love of his life, Pacino is forced to dig a little deeper here than he did in recent outing Danny Collins, relying on more than legacy-riffing charisma to create his performance. Trudging through life with his head down (one marvellously surreal sequence sees him walk past a traffic accident oblivious to the surrounding chaos), the eponymous Manglehorn ekes out a living unlocking car doors and fire-damaged safes for his in-a-jam customers, yet he can’t – or won’t – unlock the prison of regret he’s constructed for himself. This has made him unable to connect properly with his grown-up son or the bank teller (Holly Hunter) with whom he’s struck up a flirtatious friendship. Instead he reserves most of his affection for his sick cat, which has swallowed a key and needs an expensive operation. If the symbolism feels a bit too on the nose here, Green compensates by giving Pacino the space to create a recognisably flawed human being whose foibles he captures on screen with unsparing honesty, but also real tenderness.

Marshland (15)

Directed by: Alberto Rodríguez

Starring: Javier Gutiérrez, Raúl Arévalo, María Varod

****

Set in Andalusia in 1980, this police procedural uses Spain’s post-Franco transition to democracy as a theme-enriching backdrop for an already gripping thriller about a pair of mismatched cops assigned to the titular backwater to investigate the disappearance of two sisters. The clashing ideologies of its detective protagonists – idealistic Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) and ex-Franco footsoldier Pedro

(Raúl Arévalo, pictured below with Gutiérrez) – subtly reflect the complexities of a country scarred by fascism as they’re forced to put aside their differences to work on a complicated case involving a suspected serial killer and a high-level conspiracy. Director Alberto Rodríguez builds up a pleasing air of ambiguity even as his characters are solving the expertly crafted mystery at its core – resulting in film that keeps asking questions right up until its final, haunting image. The night-time car chase is pretty great too.

52 Tuesdays (15)

Directed by: Sophie Hyde

Starring: Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Del Herbert-Jane, Beau Travis Williams

***

Though completed long before Boyhood came out, Australian director Sophie Hyde’s fiction debut was made with a similarly incremental, real-time approach to the production. Filming – as the title indicates – every Tuesday for a year, 52 Tuesdays tracks the changing relationship 16-year-old Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) has with her transgender lesbian mother (Del Herbert-Jane) who, as the film opens, informs Billie she needs a year to herself to make the physical transition from “Jane” to “James”. Shipping her daughter off to live with Billie’s understanding father (played by Beau Travis Williams), James nevertheless suggests a weekly meet-up in an effort to maintain their parent-child bond. It’s an intriguing idea for a mother-daughter drama, but in filtering James’s transition through the teen angst prism of the daughter – who starts going off the rails in a sexually provocative way; her video diaries work as a framing device – the film misses an opportunity to probe beneath the surface of the most interesting character. As a result, 52 Tuesdays feels gimmicky in a way that Boyhood never did. Still, there are interesting moments throughout and the performances of the non-professional cast, particularly Cobham-Hervey, are very good.