There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
With Valentín, writer-director Alejandro Agresti makes two things clear: He has a pretty high opinion of himself, and he doesn’t know when to stop piling on. The 8-year-old title character of Agresti’s autobiographical film is mop-topped and bird-legged. He dresses in little-old-man outfits and bickers with his tolerant grandmother about the tailoring of his pant legs. And not only does the raspy-voiced, wise-beyond-his-years kid wear big, thick-framed glasses, but he’s also cross-eyed. In other words, the wee fellow is like every protagonist of a crowd-pleasing coming-of-age movie times 10.
Still, the movie’s point isn’t so much the carefully mussed cuteness of its star, Rodrigo Noya, who convincingly rattles off his mouthfuls of dialogue with all the self-assurance of the sage his character is supposed to be. It’s what’s inside that adorable little noggin of his. Yes, that’s right: Valentín is not just a smart little whippersnapper—he’s also smarter than all the adults around him, and likely a step or two ahead of most people in the audience, as well. The success of the movie depends entirely on your willingness to believe it.
Valentín takes place in 1969 Argentina, where the boy is living with his sick but proud grandma (Pedro Almodóvar regular Carmen Maura), while his father (Agresti) chases skirts and his unseen mother, for reasons unknown, simply ignores him. Valentín dreams of being an astronaut and of Dad’s finally choosing one of his girlfriends, preferably a pretty blonde, to become his new mom. Though he disapproves of most of his father’s companions—in a flashback, he calls one, a stewardess, a “fatso” and asks, “Does she fly alone? In a Hercules?”—he has high hopes for Leticia (Julieta Cardinali), a 22-year-old who wins him over with pizza and a matinee.
Valentín realizes, though, that his father’s not exactly a catch—for one, he’s anti-Semitic and frequently disparages Valentín’s Jewish mother. He says in voice-over that the reason why most of Dad’s relationships don’t last “probably has to do with his character.” This insight isn’t all that Valentín has to share: He observes that some people “don’t seem to live,” that many don’t appreciate what they have, and that his recently departed grandfather would have been better off dying sooner, because Heaven is clearly a better place. In this conversation, which occurs with an uncle, Valentín cockily asks, “Am I right or am I wrong?” and then lets fly a “Don’t bullshit me.”
The grown-ups in Valentín, including Rufo (Mex Urtizberea), a sad-sack neighbor who teaches Valentín piano as he moans about his romantic problems, cut the sweetness slightly, though the manner in which Agresti’s script calls for them to be manipulated by the little shit is remarkable. (In the worst instance, Valentín persuades a doctor to run into his grandmother at the market in order to examine her. To thank him, Valentín goes out and buys the doc a piece of artwork that “cheers up the consultation room.”) The filmmaker does have a few vivid moments as Valentín’s volatile dad, but the cast’s women provide the strongest and most likable performances: Cardinali’s polished but warm Leticia is the only adult who seems to realize that Valentín is a child, while Maura gives the grandmother a gentle crustiness that melts away when she talks about her dead husband or marvels at hearing her granddaughter’s voice on a tape recorder.
Though Valentín doesn’t age in the film, the narration tells us that he becomes a writer—and that the events of his childhood supply him enough for this “little story.” Mind-boggling? Sure. Valentín’s hardest-to-swallow moment is when Leticia gushes to the wunderkind, “Who wouldn’t love you, sweetie?”
Stateside is also based on a true story, and it’s also rather unbelievable—though this has less to do with the plot than with the A-listers who agreed to do it. Well, more like A–. Maybe B+: Val Kilmer, Carrie Fisher, Ed Begley Jr., and Joe Mantegna all play supporting roles, while Rachael Leigh Cook and the relatively obscure Jonathan Tucker lead in writer-director Reverge Anselmo’s shoddy film about a couple of kids who are crazy in love.
Actually, just one is crazy. Wealthy high-school student Mark Deloach (Tucker) first meets Dori Lawrence (Cook) in a Connecticut mental hospital when he tries to visit another patient, Sue (Agnes Bruckner). Sue doesn’t seem to belong in the institution, but she was committed shortly after a car accident that has something to do with Mark and his friend Danny (Daniel Franzese) catching Sue and Danny’s brother (Michael Goduti) making out in a parking lot. The accident not only paralyzes school priest Father Concoff (Begley)—whose presence, no doubt, is meant to drive home how very, very bad the situation is—but bangs up Sue enough to land her in a hospital bed for a while, long enough for her puritanical mother (Fisher) to find a letter in which the seemingly prim Sue details the newfound joys of sex.
So Dirty Sue is shipped off to the loony bin, while Mark, who was driving the vehicle at fault, is shipped off to the Marines. But not before he glimpses Dori, who giggles and dithers after he accidentally splashes her with a water fountain at the hospital. Dori, who suffers from schizophrenia, gives him a false name, and it’s only later, during Mark’s first break from service, that he recognizes her as a famous actress/singer. (For the record, though Dori has thus far been shown in what looks like a school play and then performing at a hole-in-the-wall rock show, it’s the first we learn of her identity, too.)
Though Stateside is set in the early ’80s, the inclusion of songs such as “96 Tears” and its sluts-are-nuts message give the movie the feel of a much earlier time. But the setting hardly matters: Anselmo’s script has Mark acting like a soldier the minute he steps off the bus and later whupping his drill instructor (Kilmer) to no consequence, Dori and Sue conveniently being reassigned to a halfway house at the same time, and, worst of all, nearly unlistenable dialogue. Gems include the businesslike “This girl’s crazy! Mentally ill!” coming from the audience when Dori is shown talking nonsense onstage during her last concert, and Mark’s emphysemic father (Mantegna) advising his son to “keep going up the road. That’s all I can tell you. Bars are filled with people who will tell you different.”
Though Mark is stationed in South Carolina, he and Dori see an awful lot of each other, and most of their get-togethers are preceded by her bolting out of the hospital or a therapy session. (See, their dedication to each other despite the forces keeping them apart proves their Love.) At least Cook wisely underplays her girl, interrupted, though her scowling, hair-twisting, sometimes-temper-tantruming Dori is given little to do but look loopy in between gazes at the object of her affection. “If you love me,” she writes him in one overseas-bound letter, “we will make a beautiful kingdom out of our suckiness!” Too bad Anselmo couldn’t do the same. CP