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The Mamas and the Papas’ 1966 debut album was titled If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears. Notoriously oblivious to both senses, rock critics created an absurdly wrongheaded myth about “Mama” Cass Elliott. Hailed for her “great talent” (Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia) and “big, warm voice” (Donald Clarke, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music), Elliott was, in truth, a very limited singer: childishly short-winded, a consequence of her excessive girth, and plagued by intonation problems. Roxon characterized her as a “majestic earth mother, like Everyqueen,” but less clouded eyes perceived the painful insecurity lurking just below the surface of Elliott’s hearty, clownish façade. Still, there was something irresistibly infectious about the chirpy pop singles Elliott made after the group’s 1968 breakup. With their addictive hooks and bubblegum arrangements, “It’s Getting Better,” “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” and “New World Coming” projected a world of cloudless possibility, an affirmation touchingly undercut by the singer’s vulnerability and contradicted by her death, at 30, in 1974.
Appropriately, screenwriter Jonathan Harvey and director Hettie Macdonald have chosen Mama Cass as the soundtrack voice and informing spirit of Beautiful Thing, a lively and skillfully crafted, if improbably optimistic, coming-of-age comedy-drama set in a Southeast London housing project. In this adaptation of his 1994 play, Harvey focuses on three teenagers. Sensitive Jamie (Glen Berry), bullied at school by his sports-loving classmates and entranced by old movies, lives with his brash, good-hearted mother, Sandra (Linda Henry), a 35-year-old pub manager involved with Tony (Ben Daniels), her younger, art school-dropout lover. To the right of their flat, Jamie’s athletic classmate Ste (Scott Neal) stoically struggles with the abuse of his alcoholic, ex-boxer father and drug-dealing brother. On the left, 16-year-old Leah (Tameka Empson), who has been thrown out of school and lacks maternal guidance, devotes her life to her idol, Mama Cass.
The characters in this summery mixture of realism and fantasy aren’t immune to hardship. At various points, most of them are verbally and/or physically attacked, and all experience moments of despair. (Ste confesses, “I think I’m a piece of shit,” and Leah, doped-up and costumed as Mama Cass, barely survives a drug freakout.) But from the outset, Macdonald and Harvey paste happy faces over these adversities. The film’s setting—it was shot on location in a Thamesmead housing estate—is bright and cheerful; the flats are not the dingy, forbidding cells one finds in working-class dramas, but comfortable and photogenic, decorated in bold primary colors. Chris Seager’s crisp, hard-edged cinematography complements the soundtrack in foreshadowing advantageous outcomes for the movie’s troubled but endearing characters.
The titular “beautiful thing” is that lonely, outcast Jamie and tormented Ste fall in love. Initially, Ste is embarrassed by Jamie’s timid advances; he’s conflicted about acknowledging his homosexuality and accepting tenderness after so much brutalizing. Following their first visit to a gay pub and lovemaking in a park, the boys have to confront the problem of coming out to Sandra, who has grown suspicious of their relationship. In the film’s giddy closing episode—which jettisons all traces of realism for a musical-comedy finale—all of the characters’ antagonisms are resolved in a public dance of acceptance and celebration.
Beautiful Thing has a clear propagandistic agenda: It is intended as an antidote to all the novels, plays, and films in which gay protagonists are disgraced and/or destroyed by the discovery and exposure of their sexual orientation. To the extent that the movie balances the scales for gay audiences by offering them the same escapist, feel-good romanticism that straights are constantly spoon-fed, its goal is successfully achieved. But what’s most memorable about Beautiful Thing has little to do with its role models. Henry’s robust Sandra is a star-making performance of remarkable depth and subtlety. Practical and idealistic, tough yet affectionate, burdened but hopeful, she transcends the screenplay’s hortative intentions to create the kind of multidimensional woman we seldom encounter in contemporary movies. Equally gratifying are the offbeat images and touches devised by first-time filmmakers Macdonald and Harvey—a poetic shot of a rainbow arching over the housing project, black Leah, in whiteface, lip-syncing to “The Grass is Greener,” Jamie and Ste making their first tentative sexual overtures while “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” ironically blares from a television broadcast of The Sound of Music, a blond drag queen’s basso rendition of “Hava Nagila” in a gay bar.
Like Mama Cass’ bouncy tunes, these little surprises are insidiously agreeable despite one’s recognition of the film’s cheerleader cheesiness. Although vastly inferior to My Beautiful Laundrette, which refused to sugarcoat the gay initiation theme and placed it in a far richer social and political context, Beautiful Thing is too good-natured to dismiss. Still, the characters’ implausibly effortless triumphs over the repressive forces of homophobia and class discrimination are awfully hard to swallow. One leaves the movie recalling Jake Barnes’ rueful exit line in The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
No fairy-tale fadeouts await the South Bronx adolescent boys in Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s Kids of Survival: The Art and Life of Tim Rollins & K.O.S. Their documentary chronicles artist Rollins’ 12-year effort to transform the lives of impoverished, at-risk youths through his innovative arts education workshop. Rollins and his small, select band of teenage boys collaborate on a series of large-scale paintings. Each canvas is initially covered with a grid consisting of pages of a literary classic—The Red Badge of Courage, The Scarlet Letter, Animal Farm—then decorated with images inspired by the text. These works are currently represented in major art collections, among them the Hirshhorn.
Geller and Goldfine, the husband-and-wife team who made 1993’s FROSH: Nine Months in a Freshman Dorm, spent three years filming Rollins and his cohorts, capturing triumphant and tragic moments. One student, previously written off as learning-disabled by the public education system, becomes the first member of his family to graduate from high school and enter college; another is wantonly murdered during a killing spree at his apartment house. The film’s theme—redeeming endangered youth through art—is inherently inspiring; only a callous viewer could be indifferent to the plight of these talented, disadvantaged kids. But Geller and Goldfine have made a botch of things by failing to deal artfully and honestly with Rollins and his charges.
Technically, Kids of Survival is embarrassingly incompetent. Although Geller’s catch-as-catch-can camerawork is acceptable for cinéma vérité, clumsy editing consistently muddles the film’s chronology. We have no idea how much time elapses between events or, indeed, how long a period the film covers. (Stilted voice-overs by Rollins and Goldfine do little to plug these gaps.) Far worse, Goldfine’s sound recording is so inept that subtitles are intermittently superimposed on the images in order for us to comprehend what is being said. Such cinematic illiteracy insults both subjects and viewers.
Even more disturbing is the filmmakers’ refusal to address questions concerning Rollins and his procedures. In their rush to deify the pie-faced, prissy-mouthed artist—a Charles Grodin look-alike—they fail to probe his motives and methods. Why does Rollins maintain top billing—both in gallery exhibitions of the paintings and in the film itself—when his group functions as an art collective? Why, given the vast pool of needy South Bronx kids to choose from, are all of his students Latino males? Why are the most intimate and potentially embarrassing details of the boys’ lives exposed, while we’re offered no shred of personal information about Rollins himself? Is the Kids of Survival project as selfless as the artist professes, a canny act of self-aggrandizement on Rollins’ part, or an unwitting manifestation of cultural colonialism? At times, the artist’s intensely paternalistic relationship with these teenagers uncomfortably reminded me of the obsessive protagonist of Gus Van Sant’s unsettling Mala Noche, a convenience-store clerk who exploits, and in turn is exploited by, Hispanic adolescents.
Had Geller and Goldfine disinterestedly and thoroughly examined Rollins and his school, such troublesome questions might not arise, or perhaps our darkest suspicions might be confirmed. The shallow, hagiographic approach they have taken barely scratches the surface, and leaves viewers wishing that more rigorous and technically proficient filmmakers had beaten them to Rollins’ workshop door.CP