Two new films—Never Let Me Go and Easy A—both incorrectly translate adolescence to the screen
By Armond White
As long as Never Let Me Go focuses on the adolescent yearnings of boarding school mates Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley), it seems a uniquely sensitive coming-of-age fable. The trio’s innocent confusion about everything—especially friendship, falling in love and sex—comes from being cocooned at Hailsham, a boarding school in a quiet English village. But something weird, depressive and Kubrickian is going on: They were deliberately left unprepared for adulthood and the outside world because they are human clones raised to have no future, only to donate their vital organs and then die. If you think that’s a spoiler, so’s the film.
This anecdotal premise, which critic Stuart Lee suggested would have been perfect in a 30-minute Twilight Zone episode, is given disproportionate solemnity. The Hailsham triangle are coddled as though they represented mankind’s fate. “We all feel as if we’ve hadn’t enough time,” says killjoy Kathy in a farewell speech. Watching teens who completely bow down to authority, apparently without a rebellious gene in their test tubes, could have provided an overdue satire of today’s consumerist youth as the ultimate capitalist clones. But Never Let Me Go is set in the 1970s, a distant, almost timeless period that abstracts the story, taking away any social context or emotional immediacy.
This somber approach to youth experience is almost welcome after the silly raunchiness of Easy A, which turns teenage life into idiotic hi-jinks. Easy A’s dramatic dilemma (should Olive compromise her reputation in exchange for money?) teases the moral bankruptcy of today’s consumerist youth. Olive seeks popularity by posing as a slut: She exploits the slanderous potential of the Internet to tarnish her own social standing and wears bustiers to school with a red “A” stitched over her left boob. She got that idea from her lit class reading assignment, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, although she only watches the movie (and not the stirring 1926 Lillian Gish-Lars Hanson version but the drab Colleen Moore version that’s in public domain).
Thus, Hawthorne’s great critique of both Puritanism and Hester Prynne’s egotism is turned upside down: Olive’s arch enemy is the evangelical Marianne (Amanda Bynes) whose Christianity is vilified while Olive’s spiritual emptiness is cutesified.
Will Gluck directs Easy A in the snarky manner of the 2007 musical version of Hairspray and Saved; apparently he didn’t read Hawthorne either. Ironically,Romanek directs Never Let Me Go with stultifying fidelity to the source novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Romanek, one of the truly great music video directors, reveals a solemn sensibility in the film’s stubborn avoidance of pop culture energy. This adaptation recalls the bad influence of Merchant-Ivory’s carefully rendered version of Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. Even the title song (from a cassette Tommy gives to Kathy that she keeps as a memento mori) ignores the teenage affinity for pop music that both seduces and inspires. All those pop collaborators Romanek has made dazzling should have taught him better than falling for Ishiguro’s overwrought depiction of adolescence. When the clone trio goes looking for its parents (“the originals”) it’s as if they stay quarantined in Ishiguro’s conceit. Never intrigued by the real world, they remain emotional hermits. These lifeless twerps lose nothing when they die. Instead of being a new doomed-youth classic, Never Let Me Go is, instead, a coming-of-age dirge.
But Easy A is now frontrunner for worst film of 2010. It betrays youth experience differently than Never Let Me Go by celebrating the screwed-up identity politics that make high school torturous but, if looked at seriously, promote self-destruction and psychosis. Olive begins her ruse at the request of a gay male student, adding her own dishonesty to his. She doesn’t provide acceptance or support, just pathology as friendship. This regression denies the struggle for self-acceptance that Edgar Wright vivified in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Gluck’s snarkiness panders to moral chaos. Fittingly, Emma Stone’s Olive suggests Jodie Foster doing a Lindsay Lohan impersonation. Even the adult characters are facetious (Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as Olive’s enabling parents; Lisa Kudrow shrieking a ridiculous monologue as a deceitful guidance counselor).
In Never Let Me Go’s best scene, the clone teens awkwardly watch a TV sitcom for the first time but do not laugh because they were never indoctrinated into trivial cultural habits or responses. That’s more insightful about cultural peer-pressure than all of Easy A. Romanek’s artistry is in the profundity of that insight. Unlike Gluck, Romanek has a genuine, acquired understanding of pop’s prevarications. He means to avoid triviality and bring emotional and visual gravity to the experience of youth, yet doesn’t seem to grasp that Ishiguro’s concept is daft. These sci-fi teens resemble the Pre-Cog characters in Spielberg’s Minority Report, but Romanek extracts the excitement from this film’s premise. Unfortunately, after a long, Kubrickian hospital corridor walk that winds up without a finish and several scenes that drift into melancholy oddness—like Romanek’s first film Static—all that’s left is sentimentality.
Never Let Me Go
Directed by Mark Romanek
Runtime: 103 min.
Directed by Will Gluck
Runtime: 92 min.
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