With teen movies of the ‘10s consigned largely to YA-based romances, it’s only natural that more varied portraits of young people would have to retreat to independent cinema (and when audiences ignore a strong mainstream coming-of-age movie like last fall’s The Edge of Seventeen, they do their part to hasten that retreat). The Tribeca Film Festival, ongoing now in its 16th iteration, usually has at least one if not multiple coming-of-age movies; this year, it’s a little unnerving to see how many of them turn on sexual relationships, some consummated and some not, between teenagers and adults—like the genre is acting out, trying to get your attention. There are three such movies in narrative competition, all trading on the sexuality of teenage girls. It’s both refreshing and a little queasy.
The most would-be provocative of a trio of sexed-up adolescent dramas is Max Winkler’s Flower, starring the big screen’s latest perma-teen, Zoey Deutch (she’s already spent four years toggling between playing high school students, college students, and, occasionally, adults). As Erica, the antihero of Flower, her visual and vocal resemblance to Ellen Page comes into the fore, because her character’s hobby is basically a kind of diet Hard Candy situation. Erica and her two buddies, in between riding mini-bikes to Dairy Queen or the mall, bait sleazeball men into illegal sexual activity, then blackmail them. Far moreso than a stylized but heartfelt character like Page’s Juno, Deutch’s Erica is a screenwriter’s construction: She enjoys her blackmail gig because she genuinely enjoys giving blowjobs and (major dude screenwriter tell) doesn’t mind telling you about it.
Yet as a whole, powered in large part by how funny Deutch is with her dismissive, offhand teenspeak dialogue (on bowling: “I thought this was Skee-Ball for losers. Why do people play this?”), Flower has a strange, often appealing mix of contrivance and looseness. The dialogue, as mentioned, is often very funny, and there’s real, human tenderness in the relationship between Erica and her mother (the invaluable Kathryn Hahn). When her mother’s beau (Tim Heidecker, playing a character the movie treats with such derision that it casts Heidecker to do pathetic-lame-guy shtick) introduces Erica to her would-be step-sibling Luke (Joey Morgan), they hatch a plan for revenge on a local creeper (Adam Scott). The movie’s shift in intensity in its final stretch is also where it gets more predictable, but for an hour or so, it’s genuinely freewheeling and unexpectedly affecting.
The girls of One Percent More Humid are less troubled, in that they are over 21 and don’t use blowjobs as currency, but moreso, in that they’re haunted by their tragic, initially obscured backstory. Humid picks up with childhood friends Iris (Juno Temple) and Catherine (Julia Garner) spending the summer together in the vicinity of their hometown. Iris also goes to college locally—she self-identifies as a townie—and strikes up a relationship with her thesis advisor (Alessandro Nivola), while Catherine’s home-for-the-summer hookup is seedier, and connected to a traumatic event from the girls’ shared recent past.
The writer-director, Liz W. Garcia, has already spent time luxuriating in townie heat and discomfort. Her previous film, The Lifeguard, starred Kristen Bell as a twentysomething fuck-up returning to her hometown, getting a go-nowhere lifeguard job, and fucking a teenage boy. One Percent More Humid is a better movie: It feels more detailed and fully felt, with some evocative if showy use of shallow and selective focus in Andreas Burgees’s cinematography. But a lot about the movie is still overfamiliar, and it doesn’t all fit together, in large part because Temple’s side of the story dominates despite (or maybe because of) the fact that it has less to do with the big backstory reveal. But it’s a good showcase for Temple, who, with her curly hair and sometimes feral look in her eyes, is well-suited to a movie about stifling humidity. As such, her scenes opposite Nivola aren’t as queasy as they might have been. It’s not that the movie denies that queasiness, but that this student/teacher hookup continually feels just barely in the wrong. They’re both adults, they seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company, and they both puncture the weirdness with jokes. But it’s still not quite right, and Garcia manages to convey that without getting moralistic (or, for that matter, apologizing for or demonizing her characters).
Blame goes even further into teacher-student inappropriateness cliché, throwing in high school mean girls and the mean girls’ nicer friend who has second thoughts. It would like to think that it’s riffing on The Crucible, an abridged performance of which figures into the movie’s story, but it owes just as much (probably more) to Carrie, minus the supernatural. What makes the movie so interesting is its creative force: Quinn Shephard, a former child star who plays misfit Abigail, wrote, directed, edited, and produced it when she was all of 21 (she’s now a wizened 22). She also co-wrote several songs for the film’s soundtrack.
Having a filmmaker not so far removed from her teenage years make this type of movie is an interesting idea, although Shephard sometimes does her best to act the clueless adult. Why, for example, would Abigail’s classmates fixate on the old book and movie Sybil as a derisive nickname for her? (It’s sort of explained away as part of a psychology course, but it still doesn’t feel very 2017.) Why are all the mean girls in the movie cheerleaders even though they don’t seem to spend much time practicing or have any interest in cheerleading beyond the outfits? And how in holy hell would a teacher, even a substitute with a theater background (played by Chris Messina), get the idea that if a student flaked on performing a big scene from The Crucible opposite Abigail, it would make sense for him to step in and play the scene instead? And Melissa (Nadia Alexander), the most antagonistic mean girl, is treated a little scoldingly (at least regarding her dress and preferred music), even/especially after the movie reveals some crucial details about her life.
Shephard herself, though, has written a fascinating character in Abigail, a gifted young actress whose social withdrawal may at least partially be a form of method commitment. She and Melissa form a rivalry that starts in simple bullying but metastasizes for reasons neither of them can fully explain, or care to. The movie ends a little too abruptly to explore this relationship (it does some abrupt shading before slamming the sketchbook shut), but it makes for compelling melodrama as its subjects twist in the wind. Sometimes a movie will be laudable because its complexity allows for no real bad guys. To Shephard’s credit, that’s sort of true about Blame, but it’s probably more accurate to say that it has no real good guys. Or girls.
Outside of the narrative competition, all of Permission’s sex is between consenting adults—in this case, a committed and recently engaged couple (Rebecca Hall and Dan Stevens, with matching fake American accents) who agree, after much nervous discussion, to sleep with other people just for the experience. There have been countless indies about a straitlaced couple attempting to become more sexually adventurous, and few if any that I’ve seen have cracked it. Permission is crisply assembled, particularly in its cross-cutting between Hall and Stevens, but it doesn’t get there either, despite the extremely empathetic Hall and Stevens. It’s a little too cutesy to work as comedy of manners, and as a drama, romantic or not, it’s something of a slog. It also spends a lot of time on the characters of Hall’s brother and his own long-term boyfriend, and as nice as it is to see a gay couple given such weight in a movie with relatively few characters, the boyfriend, played by Morgan Spector, is a singularly unpleasant character whose primary function is to be unaccountably angry with all the other characters. Permission avoids the conservative moralizing that often follows movies about open relationships, yet it does kind of make them seem like vaguely doomy, depressing situations. I think it’s supposed to be bittersweet, but I mostly felt bitter, like I’d just been lectured on what real happiness looks like. Complicated and inappropriate as many of the festival’s inappropriate young people may be, they at least sometimes look like they’re having fun.
Flower, One Percent More Humid, and Blame all screen again on Monday night. One Percent More Humid screens again on Tuesday, and Blame screens again on Saturday. Permission screens on Tuesday and Thursday.