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and Efram Potelle
Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are most tolerable when sporting their Project Greenlight production hats, sparing us their anemic big-screen presences. As nearly everyone with premium cable service knows, they have once more enlisted Miramax, HBO, LivePlanet, and Blockbuster, underwriters of last year’s much-maligned Stolen Summer, for The Battle of Shaker Heights. Although this new Greenlight feature is considerably better than their initial effort, it’s difficult to believe it was the result of a national competition involving upward of 7,200 aspiring writers and directors. Either the quality of wannabe American filmmakers has sunk to the level of national political candidates or Project Greenlight needs to enlist a new panel of judges.
Erica Beeney’s screenplay focuses on the tribulations of 17-year-old high-school senior Kelly Ernswiler. Although he’s triumphant in his hobbyre-enacting military battles with a local club of World War II addictshe’s a frustrated loser in everyday life. Unlike his cosseted Shaker Heights classmates, who lollygag in luxurious homes while awaiting departure for prestigious colleges, Kelly works as a night-shift grocery-store stock boy and dwells in a cramped house with his struggling parents, an apprehensive failed-artist mother and a recovering-drug-addict father who has squandered his son’s college fund. Bullied by the arrogant, pretty-boy spawn of a porky history teacher and hopelessly smitten
with the cashmere-blond, Sarah Lawrence-degreed sister of a school friend, Kelly is an outsider with a credo to match: “I never met a rule I didn’t want to break.”
After an opening that tricks us into believing that we’ve been plunged into the midst of an actual World War II film, subtitled pseudo-Nazis and all, co-directors Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle revert to that American-
indie staple, the coming-of-age saga. The early reels, propelled by lively young performers exchanging passages of Beeney’s breezy, surprisingly literate dialogue, are diverting, despite the distracting incongruity in the fact that the Los Angeles neighborhoods where the movie was shot look nothing like suburban Cleveland. But as Kelly’s plight grows more dire, the movie melts into a puddle of overfamiliar angst, including several sequences shamelessly pinched from The Graduate. By the fadeout, an oppressive sense of déjà vu has overcome the film’s more endearing qualities.
Among these is a uniformly impressive cast. Mop-topped Shia LaBeouf convincingly projects both the sarcastic and the pained dimensions of Kelly’s alienation. Amy Smart is sensitive and fetching as Tabby, the unobtainable object of Kelly’s crush, and Elden Henson gives a thoughtfully low-key performance as her father-dominated younger brother, who admires but lacks the spunk to emulate Kelly’s insubordination. Kathleen Quinlan and William Sadler artfully illuminate the underwritten roles of Kelly’s parents, and Shiri Appleby is wry and engaging as Kelly’s compassionate supermarket co-worker.
Running scarcely more than 75 minutes, The Battle of Shaker Heights betrays considerable post-production pruning, with several adult characters painstakingly introduced, then largely ignored. That won’t surprise anyone who’s followed the fractious 13-episode HBO series documenting the film’s creation. But even the most ardent Project Greenlight fan will be shocked by a final product this disappointingly conventional.
Youthful rebellion moves from suburbia’s pampered lawns to L.A.’s mean streets in Thirteen, an unsettling, excessively contrived neodocumentary shot in bleached-out color by jittery handheld cameras to simulate verisimilitude. As a media miniblitz has informed most moviegoers, Thirteen’s screenplay was co-written by director Catherine Hardwicke and her teenage protégée, Nikki Reed, and based on the latter’s experiences.
Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) is a 13-year-old Southern California school girl, a conscientious student and budding poet. Envious of popular junior-high hottie Evie Zamora (Reed), Tracy reinvents herself, emulating Evie’s provocative wardrobe, makeup, and hairstyle in hope of joining the nymphet’s exclusive clique. When she succeeds, she’s plunged into a girl-culture maelstrom of drugs, sex, burglary, and self-mutilation that alienates her from Melanie (Holly Hunter), her hairdresser mother. Because of their own drug-addled histories, Melanie and her boyfriend, Brady (Jeremy Sisto), lack sufficient moral authority to undermine Evie’s pernicious influence.
In her feature directorial debut, former production designer Hardwickewhose credits include Three Kings, Vanilla Sky, and Laurel Canyonelicits strong performances. In an art/reality reversal, first-time actress Reed, the model for the Tracy character, persuasively plays sluttish Evie, whose tough-as-nails persona masks a background of neglect and abuse. Wood, who has been acting in stage, television, and film productions since she was 5, is equally effective as Tracy. Hunter turns in one of her richest interpretations to date, exploring the emotional contours of a character struggling, with intermittent success, to balance her responsibilities as a wage-earner and parent with her own personal fulfillment. And Sisto, the nuttiest nutcase on HBO’s Six Feet Under, makes the most of his few scenes as Brady, whose recurrent substance abuse mirrors Tracy’s own problems.
Although Thirteen can’t be accused of the semipornographic pandering of Larry Clark’s notorious Kids, Hardwicke doesn’t shrink from exploiting the nubile bodies and reckless abandon of its teen temptresses. A protracted scene in which Tracy and Evie brazenly amuse themselves by attempting to seduce a neighboring lifeguard, for example, is more titillating than illuminating, adding little to what we already understand about the characters. But a larger problem is that Tracy’s downward spiral soon becomes repetitious, a predictable chain of transgressions that lead her to the brink of self-destruction. In a final-reel reversal, several unlikely events pull her back from the edge, forcing her to reopen communication with her concerned, exasperated mother.
Some reviewers have lauded Thirteen as a useful vehicle to engender dialogue between mothers and teenage daughters. However effective it might be as a therapeutic tool, it’s too downbeat to qualify as entertainment and too one-dimensional to impress as a substantial work of art. CP