Whatever

Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 19, 1998–Revisiting the territory of numerous American coming-of-age/ high-school movies, Susan Skoog's well-executed Whatever has the novelty of telling the story from a distinctly female point of view, centering on one girl (beautifully acted by Liza Weil) as she's about to cross the inevitably painful threshold from adolescent to adulthood. Pic lacks the gritty realism of Girls Town or the subtlety of All Over Me, two recent female-themed tales shown at Sundance, but its overtly melodramatic format, universal concerns, strong production values, and bouncy period music (by the Ramones, Iggy Pop, Blondie and others) should broaden its appeal among female viewers still in high school.

The picture's paradigm derives from youth mellers of the 1950s, specifically Rebel Without a Cause, but instead of centering on the James Dean character, the story revolves around a modern reincarnation of the Natalie Wood character. Helmer Skoog, who's also the scripter, shrewdly sets the story in a New Jersey suburb of the early 1980s, so that she can explore the subculture of sex-drugs-music without dealing with the lethal effects of AIDS. Written, directed, and edited by women, Whatever has the added advantage of a coherent POV, viewing all the events through the eyes and emerging awareness of Anna (Weil), its female protagonist.

In the first, expertly staged act, Skoog shows a sex scene in the woods, with the camera zeroing in on the reaction of its female participant, Brenda (Chad Morgan), Anna's best friend. With the kind of truthful approach that marks the entire film, Skoog doesn't shy away from showing the “unglamorous” details, often omitted from American movies, such as the one-sidedness and physical pain and lack of enjoyment that's often involved in the sexual act, Brenda's need for support right after it, and so on.

From this scene on, it becomes clear that the merit of Whatever is no so much in the kind of story it tells, but in the manner it is told. Indeed, most of the characters and events are rather familiar, beginning with Anna's domestic situation, living with her single mom (Kathryn Rossetter), a lonely and bitter divorcee, and her annoyingly sadistic kid brother. Alienated and misunderstood by her family, Anna is torn between her passion for art, cultivated by her teacher, Mr. Chaminsky (Frederic Forrest), a failed artist himself, and her curiosity and desire to fully “experience” a life of booze, courtship, and partying.

Anna's sacred ambition is to attend Cooper Union, the prestigious New York art school, but a rebellious streak keeps undermining her plans. Like many kids her age, she has a smart alleck attitude, and her socializing with Brenda, a vivacious party animal, results in an endless chain of failed deadlines, poor grades, detentions at school and at home. Anna also experiences serious doubts about her talent: how good is she as an artist, and, more importantly, how much is she willing to sacrifice to attain her goal.

Despite the fact that Skoog is dealing with basically formulaic situations and tensions, she brings a sensitive, uniquelly female slant to every interaction in the film. She handles well the scene in which Anna loses her virginity to the “wrong guy,” a slightly older would-be artist with whom she's been smitten since childhood. Rather admirably, helmer refuses to condemn or to judge Anna's mom who, out of despair, is dating a pathetically old wealthy man, hoping he'll rescue the family from poverty. There's a touching reconciliation scene between mother and daughter, when the former is dumped by her beau.

Problem is, pic piles up too many problems and crises for its own good, including the revelation that Brenda is a sexually abused daughter. The scene in which she breaks into her house to steal money and ends up beating and injuring her stepfather, may be cathartic for some viewers, but it also throws the story off balance, unnecessarily pushing it to the realm of TV-Movie-of-the-Week.

Weil and Morgan, the central female couple are utterly convincing, finding the right balance between projecting the typical adolescent facade of toughness and inner vulnerability. Their scenes together, which are undoubtedly the emotional highlights, demonstrate the rewards of an intimate friendship, but also the price entailed in unequivocal commitment. Anna's more positive and ambitious orientation spells a tragic end to her bond with Brenda, who's basically doomed.

Lensers Michael Barrow and Michael Mayers give the film a vibrantly crisp look, specifically in the nocturnal episodes, which are exquisitely shot. Sandi Guthrie's dynamic tempo is considerably helped by popular tunes of the era by the Pretenders, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, and Patti Smith.