By BRUCE DENNILL
Maps To The Stars / Directed by David Cronenberg (18LNSV) 2
Mississippi Grind / Directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (13DL) 6
The Diary Of A Teenage Girl / Directed by Marielle Heller (18LNSD) 7
Ensemble dramas about what goes on behind the scenes in Hollywood are fairly common, though good ones are very rare indeed. The expectation in such pieces is that there will be some slow car crash as some has-it-all actor, director or producer struggles to match their material good fortune with the ennui that comes with experiencing the emptiness behind the façade. It’s perhaps too easy to make the characters in such projects more or less irredeemable – Hollywood is as easy to hate as it is to love – and by doing so presenting a challenge to viewers who are expected to form some kind of relationship with a film’s protagonists. In Maps To The Stars, director David Cronenberg gets the balance hopelessly wrong. Nobody is likeable, not even in a grudging, “it’s probably just a phase” way, so whether they have a good day, or a relationship works out or doesn’t is of no consequence whatsoever. Julianne Moore has explored this territory before, far more successfully, with Robert Altman behind the camera, and John Cusack can do intense character study as well as he does goofy love interest or blockbuster focal point. But their considerable skills are wasted, as Moore’s failed screen siren and Cusack’s sleazy therapist join Evan Bird’s hateful child star, Mia Wasikowska’s slightly creepy newcomer and Robert Pattinson’s bored limo diver as folks you’d cross the road to avoid. Not giving them life by pressing “play” requires considerably less energy.
Much has been made of the opportunity afforded to Ryan Reynolds, in Mississippi Grind, of being able to play a serious role that allowed scope beyond his patented charm and comic timing. To some degree, the film does give him that gap and, to some degree, he is successful in accepting the challenge. Ben Mendelsohn, canny and twitchy as poker addict Gerry, is an excellent foil for Reynold’s suave huckster, and the actors’ chemistry is excellent, which is just as well, as the piece is essentially a two-hander. The relationship between the men – both in pursuit of high-stakes payoffs, but for different reasons and favouring different routes to their goals – develops well as they enjoy or endure a range of experiences en route to New Orleans for the film’s climax. It’s a solid study of both the challenges of addiction and the hope that comes when challenges are shared, but it falls short of either completely convincing viewers that the trouble the protagonists land themselves in is worth it or that the characters deserve the compassion the script occasionally suggests they do. Worthwhile, but never entirely compelling.
If The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, which is based on the published diaries of Phoebe Gloeckner and tells the story of the sexual awakening of slightly gawky teenager Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), is anything to go by, the phrase “everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial” was tested more often in the Seventies than it is now. Minnie is the child of a hippie mother (Kristen Wiig), who seems unaware that the Summer Of Love is over. As her classmates become ever more sexually aggressive, Minnie feels pressured to keep up and, in the morally ambiguous atmosphere of her home, where her mother’s handsome but one-dimensional boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard) is a potential outlet for her frustrations, she takes a sudden leap forward into adulthood and many of its complications. Powley, an unknown before this film, is astonishing in the piece’s central role, easily carrying the movie as she appears in almost every scene. Wiig and Skarsgard are excellent in supporting roles, as are the hand-drawn illustrations by Sara Gunnarsdottir, which help fill out Minnie’s mindset (as was the case in Gloeckner’s original book, which also included drawings). Director Marielle Heller’s attention to detail is fantastic, and the only impediment to a more profound enjoyment of the good work of all involved is the fact that, real as Minnie’s obsessions and experiences may be, they’re not healthy, and watching the character head into experiences you know she’s going to regret sometime feels voyeuristic.