Thursday, August 12, 2010

Flipped: Engaging points of view

Flipped (2010) • View trailer for Flipped
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for no particular reason
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.12.10
Buy DVD: Flipped • Buy Blu-Ray: Flipped [Blu-ray]

Girls know these things. 

A second-grade girl can meet a boy her own age and know it's love at first sight: deep, passionate, swooning love that, if properly nurtured, could stand the test of time. 

Second-grade boys, totally clueless, invariably miss getting struck by Cupid's bolts. 

More's the pity. 
After raising chickens as a classroom project, Juli (Madeline Carroll) discovers
she can make some extra money by selling eggs. She wouldn't think of
charging Bryce (Callan McAuliffe) and his family, though, because she has
been sweet on him for years. But this act of generosity becomes a catastrophe
when Bryce's father rather arbitrarily demands that the eggs be returned,
uneaten ... and the boy can't figure out how to obey that edict without hurting
Juli's feelings.

Director Rob Reiner's generally engaging adaptation of Wendelin Van Draanen's Flipped will be enjoyed by anybody with fond memories of television's The Wonder Years. Reiner's film  he also co-wrote the screenplay, with Andrew Scheinman  hearkens back to the sensitive touch he brought to 1986's Stand by Me, a different sort of coming-of-all saga. 

This new film evokes a similar time period: the transition from the Eisenhower '50s to the Kennedy '60s. Children still are polite to their elders, families customarily dress up for dinner in their own homes, fathers are the de facto heads of the household  even if they don't deserve the role  and rock 'n' roll hasn't yet moved beyond the innocence of bubble-gum boy bands and girl groups. 

And assertive girls are branded tomboys and regarded as "strange." 

That label certainly fits young Juli Baker, immediately struck by Bryce Loski's gorgeous eyes when his family moves into the house across the street, in the sort of bucolic neighborhood that seems to exist only in fading memories. Juli boldly insinuates herself into Bryce's life, much to the wary amusement of the boy's father, Steven (Anthony Edwards). 

Bryce wants nothing to do with this pushy girl, but his disinterest only emboldens her further. School life for a second-grade boy stalked by a girl becomes a living hell. 

The gimmick employed by this film is a classic "he said/she said" depiction of events: We first witness Bryce's point of view, accompanied by his voice-over. This continues through a series of encounters  sometimes lasting weeks and months, sometimes only hours and days  and then the clock is re-wound to allow Juli's version. 

Specific developments occur the same way  both kids are reliable narrators  but the emphasis shifts. Juli reads more into something Bryce regards as a casual comment; he perceives her constant attention as intrusive and freakish, whereas she believes herself merely devoted. Expressions and body language change, as well, depending on who's telling the story. 
The repetition doesn't become tiresome. For one thing, Reiner minimizes outright redundancies; we always tend to get a broader view of the same event the second time. Additionally, the tone of an incident or conversation can shift, as can our allegiance to one or both of these kids. It's a gentle riff on Akira Kurosawa's 1950 classic, Rashomon

Or, perhaps more appropriate to this story, Reiner's approach will be understood by any kid who recognizes the necessity of telling her version of events to Dad first. 

Time passes, and the bulk of the film becomes involved with Juli and Bryce's eighth-grade selves, the kids now played by Madeline Carroll and Callan McAuliffe. The far more poetic Juli, having been taught by her artistic father (Aidan Quinn, as Richard) to contemplate whether people are greater or less than the sum of their parts, begins to worry that Bryce's charms may not extend any further than his stunning eyes. 

She has ample room for doubt: Given several opportunities to step up, over the years  to do the right thing  Bryce repeatedly fails. 

Such situations evolve smoothly, as we get to know all these characters. These aren't really major crises, except in the minds of Juli and Bryce, and of course that makes perfect sense: Adolescents magnify everything. They also adhere to their roles and expectations, which makes it easier to forgive Bryce's lapses. Young boys in the late 1950s and early '60s simply didn't hang out with girls; their peers wouldn't permit it. 

And standing up to a parent? Unthinkable. 

But for Juli  raised to believe in her ability to stand outside any box of conformity  such rote behavior, on Bryce's part, becomes less tolerable. 

The various character dynamics are wholly credible. The middle-class-and-proud-of-it Steven Loski looks down on the working-class Bakers, because Richard never cares for the yard. 

Juli becomes devoted to the huge sycamore tree at their bus stop, because climbing its branches affords a view of their entire town: a romantic's impression of the universe that she cannot get Bryce to share. 

Tensions exist in both households. We eventually learn why the Bakers always seem so strapped for money, living a hand-me-down existence. Steven Loski's casually cruel remarks become more frequent, less forgivable. 

At which point, Reiner loses partial control of his film. 

When dealing with matters strictly related to Juli, Bryce and their school peers, Flipped remains on sure and certain ground. The interplay of (largely unrequited) young love is agonizing: painfully familiar, sometimes embarrassingly so. We groan, and frequently; it's hard to be reminded so persuasively of our own clumsy youthful missteps, the ways in which we innocently hurt people without intending to ... indeed, without even realizing it has happened. 

Reiner and Scheinman are merciless, and nothing is worse than an annual school activity concerning "basket boys," an exercise in jaw-droppingly ghastly humiliation that will send male viewers fleeing in terror for the exits. Gawdalmighty, could such a ritual ever really have taken place, at some actual junior high school? One can but shudder. 

On the other hand... 

No mention ever is made of Steven's increasingly troublesome alcoholism, particularly since  as the years pass  he becomes a progressively meaner drunk. This seems unfair, since we're allowed to share the equally "socially unacceptable" (for the time) secret that the Bakers conceal, concerning Juli's Uncle Daniel (Kevin Weisman, quite touching in his brief appearance). 

More troubling, though, is Edwards' acting ... or lack thereof. His performance as Bryce's father is stiff and wooden, his line readings flat and unconvincing. In a word, Edwards is terrible; his part of an argument with his wife (Rebecca De Mornay) wouldn't pass muster in a local community theater play. The film grinds to a halt every time Edwards opens his mouth. 

I don't understand this. Reiner is a skilled director, well able to coax credible performances from his actors; one therefore seeks a reason for this apparent lapse. Could it be, since this story is told from Juli and Bryce's point of view, that all the adults are deliberately stylized, their words and actions  particularly the unpleasant ones  heightened to reflect the way adolescents magnify everything out of proportion? 

But this seems a flimsy explanation, particularly given Quinn's nicely modulated performance as Juli's father, and John Mahoney's particularly sensitive role as Bryce's grandfather. Indeed, Mahoney's calm presence makes up for the oddly off-kilter work from most of the other adult actors. 

Ultimately, though  even if Edwards has been directed to act in this manner  he brings the movie to a crashing halt every time he appears. His clumsy performance and mean-spirited behavior do genuine damage to this otherwise quiet and thoughtfully sensitive film. 

The younger performers, fortunately, are far better. Carroll, well remembered as Kevin Costner's precocious daughter in Swing Vote, is a treasure. Even as Juli repeatedly crosses the invisible line that should separate young girls from boys  leaning forward in class, her eyes closed, to sniff Bryce's hair, is cringe-inducing  Carroll never loses our empathy. And she gets a lot of juice from minimal dialogue at times, all key emotions conveyed through her surprised and betrayed expressions. 

McAuliffe, a young Australian making his American feature debut, lacks Carroll's density, but that's mostly due to the nature of his character. Bryce is intended to be superficial  until self-awareness finally dawns  and McAuliffe actually has the more challenging assignment: We must understand why Bryce repeatedly fails, in Juli's eyes, else we'll come to loathe him. And we never do. 

The soundtrack is laden with dozens of period pop songs, often selected for the way their lyrics augment or convey irony regarding on-screen events. It's a nostalgia-laden trip down musical Memory Lane. 

I suspect, though, that this film will play far better to older viewers who remembering being a similar age in the late '50s; today's adolescents may find it difficult to relate to these buttoned-down characters, and their almost humorously tiny patch of what we know now to be a much greater and more diverse world. 

That'd be a shame, because this film's themes  the heartbreaking agonies of young love, the ease with which thoughtless behavior can become a habit  are timeless. And, at its best moments, Flipped is both poignant and instructive. 

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