On one hand, Americans are usually complete prudes when it comes to addressing vulgar adolescent behavior in film (Larry Clark movies not withstanding). On the other, Europeans seem to have no issue depicting teenagers in all manner of lude acts. When Blue Is the Warmest Color wasn’t busy being a great film, it was essentially a lesbian scissor-porno. And Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac saga, Alfonso Cuarón’sY tu mamá también and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers had enough teenage fucking to rival a sleepover party at R. Kelly’s house.
Foreign filmmakers also don’t shy away from adolescent violence. For every We Need to Talk About Kevin, one can easily counter with a handful of fantastic subtitled flicks. Amores Perros, La Haine and City of God immediately come to mind.
Most of these films take place in gritty, urban slums. So if Finding Forrester doesn’t really cut it for you as a coming-of-age classic, allow me to recommend two unfiltered and unforgettable Netflix Instant titles that make Spring Breakers look like High School Musical.
Like the brilliant 1995 French indie hit La Haine, Fish Tank depicts European slum life set to the beat of bass-heavy American hip-hop. I must admit it’s a bit comical to see a bunch of anglo Brits with their Britty tea-and-crumpets accents vicariously living life to the tune of Nas, Gang Starr and Yung Joc (not to mention some great non-hip-hop in the form of Gregory Isaacs and Bobby Womack).
Of course there’s nothing new about this—white Brits (like most whites) have a long tradition of appropriating black music and culture. Perhaps I just think Amy Winehouse came from a more sincere place than, say, a corner kid in Marc Ecko who looks like Eminem but talks like Harry Potter.
To be fair, our 15-year-old protagonist Mia (Katie Jarvis in a breakthrough performance) in no way comes across as a poser. In terms of being street-tough, she makes Drake look like Oliver Twist. (The film opens with a great scene where, in true British fashion, Mia breaks another girl’s nose with a football-hooligan-inspired headbutt.)
Mia is a b-girl who plays classic hip-hop on her cassette player and break dances in vacant tower apartments as a way to escape her shitty existence. She’s a loner and a bit of a tough cookie—or as her foul-mouthed, chain-smoking younger sister, Tyler, would describe her, a “cuntface.” As for Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), she’s terrific as the anti-Abigal Breslin—consider her “Little Miss Moonshine.”
If 10-year-olds dropping “C bombs” and drinking and smoking seem unnerving, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Mia and her sister live in a beatdown East London flat with their hot mess of a mom (Kierston Wareing). Mommy’s chief concerns seem to be nursing her hangovers, drinking, men and throwing white-trash reggae parties. The kids can pretty much fuck off.
One morning while gyrating in the kitchen to a Ja Rule video, Mia is walked in on by a handsome, shirtless Irishman. Mommy’s new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), is charming as all get out. “You dance like a black. that’s a compliment,” he says in his jovial brogue.
Connor takes the family on fishing trips. He introduces them to soul music (see an amazing use of Bobby Womack’s “California Dreamin'”). He’s essentially the first decent thing to walk into their life in a longtime. Or so it would seem.
But wait. Let’s talk about Fassbender for a minute. Fish Tank was made before he was Magneto; before he got an Oscar nod for 12 Years a Slave. It’s fun watching a great actor at work in the days before he hit the big-time, and Fassbender’s work here is right on par with what I’d consider his two best performances: a hunger-striking IRA man in Hunger and a sex-addict in Shame. Speaking of Shame (which I highly recommend), if you found that bleak, just wait till you get toward the end of Fish Tank…
As for the film’s drawbacks, there’s this slightly annoying, blunt metaphor in the form a sick horse that Mia finds in a desolate parking lot. I won’t even get into the heavy-handed symbolism—just consider it that magical fucking plastic bag that was flying around in American Beauty. Yeah, yeah, you’re artsy—we get it.
When it comes to strange scenarios involving horses in gritty, urban landscapes, personally I prefer whatever the fuck this music video has going on:
Fish Tank isn’t a perfect movie (the coming-of-age stuff gets a little sappy), but its view into slum life in East London is incredible in the most unsettling of ways. It’s also driven by two unforgettable performances (Jarvis, Fassbender), not to mention some strong side roles. And it’s a testament to the fact that a killer suspense flick can be made without much of anything in the way of action or bloodshed. Simply put, it’s just a brilliantly disturbing little film.
It’s not the bloodshed. The thing that makes Gomorrah (2008)—a nonfiction-based tale about the disastrous societal effects of feuding Neapolitan gangs—most difficult to watch is the undercurrent of doom that pervades the entire film. If there is a moment in Gomorrah where it looks like things are trending toward uplifting, I must have missed it.
The film opens with a page straight out of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher Trilogy. A group of gold-adorned, Speedo-clad gangsters bask in the neon glow of tanning beds as atmospheric Euro-pop thumps in the background. Then a bloodbath ensues.
Winding Refn’s work isn’t the only thing that comes to mind throughout the course of this deathfest. To say that director Matteo Garrone borrows heavily from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s pre-Birdman works (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) would be an understatement. Like much of Iñárritu’s résumé, Gomorrah is harrowingly bleak, and consists of a series of interwoven narratives following a cast of characters all playing out different roles in the same hellscape.
Perhaps the most poignant of these stories is the one of Marco and Sweet Pea, a pair of teenage gangster-wannabes. Deluded by what I referred to in a previous post as the “Scarface Effect,” Marco struts around in Hawaiian shirts yelling, “I’m number one. Tony Montana! … Shit Colombians. They’re everywhere!” Of course, all of this is taking place in the slums of Naples, where the closest Marco and Sweetpea come to Colombia is through the diluted cocaine they pilfer off a group of petty drug dealers.
As Marco and Sweetpea score a big bag of blow and stumble on a cache of machine guns and grenade launchers, their delusions of grandeur only become wilder. They have the tools of their fictional heroes, but they’re still just kids acting out a fantasy—and a very dangerous one at that. The most memorable scene in Gomorrah shows the pair blasting AKs and heavy artillery on the banks of a river, clad in tight, Euro underwear.
Other story lines in the film follow a masterful tailor who attempts to profit from covertly working for Chinese competitors; a grocery boy who gets caught in a blood war and must choose allegiances; a young man who works for a morally reprehensible businessman who disposes of toxic waste in deadly fashion; and a skittish, gangland accountant who distributes payoff cash to the slum-living families of incarcerated gangsters.
The prevailing theme is that each character in Gomorrah has a shot at monetary gain, but said monetary gain is always at the expense of bloodletting. For those who choose to profit, death is right around the corner. For those who don’t, hopeless poverty is the reward.
With all this bleak, unrewarding depression in mind, one might ask why in the hell I’m recommending this film. Fair enough.
Like Iñárritu’s Biutiful, Gomorrah isn’t exactly “fun” to watch. (Although, unlike Biutiful, viewing it does not induce one to seek out a Prozac prescription.) In the same vein as Amores Perros and City of God, Gomorrah portrays a brutally graphic and honest depiction of a drug-driven, gangland culture and its inherent casualties. Like those aforementioned gems, Gomorrah is the kind of cautionary tale that is realistic enough—and so unsettlingly bleak—that it reminds viewers why, just maybe, aspiring to be the next Scarface is a pretty stupid fucking idea.
Would this have been the same movie without the inspiration of Alejandro González Iñárritu and Nicolas Winding Refn? Probably not. But if you like the stark depravity those two directors seem bent on, Gomorrah is a welcome addition to the canon.
NOTE: Of the laundry list of titles referenced in this post, City of God, Amores Perros, Y tu mamá también, Blue Is the Warmest Color and Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II are all on Netflix Instant.
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