Monday, May 1, 2023

Puberty Blues: PETER PAN & WENDY and

When Disney wants a live-action version of an animated classic to have some weight and elegance and freshness, it turns out David Lowery is the writer-director on whom to call. His Pete’s Dragon was a lovely, low-key coming-of-age fantasy that turned its fantastical conceit into something shaggier—a boy-and-his-dragon tale. Lowery’s non-Disney work, like The Green Knight, also proves he’s a literate, sensitive filmmaker. He can dig into a classic text and draw out its deep, resonant inner life while making it his own. And with these skills, he can, in the case of Peter Pan & Wendy, hook into authentically Edwardian romanticism while cleverly adapting the mythos to make it resonant for his purposes. He doesn’t exactly revive J.M. Barrie’s original text, or Disney’s animated version, beat for beat, though there’s a flourish of “You Can Fly” in the score. Nor does he draw out everything that makes the work last, the work of a scholar who might capture it by pinning it down. But what he does do is provide it a sense of life and space with windswept verisimilitude—location photography that’s lush and vivid on grassy cliffs and verdant forests full of moss and shadow. And within this convincing locale captured with a filmic eye, he pulls on one simple lively thread from the classic story of a girl who’s given a glimpse of Neverland: the dread of growing older.

Perched on the precipice of puberty—Peter and Wendy are here cast in the last possible week they can be simultaneously the oldest children and youngest adolescents possible, depending on the angle—here’s a movie that pushes on the urgency of aging. They’re at an age where choices and fantasies mingle—and where growing up might be the biggest, bravest adventure. There’s the usual tangle of business with Lost Boys and Captain Hook and Tiger Lily, though all that’s done with a graceful shorthand. And the beautifully casual diversity of the Boys—some are even girls—and the melancholy backstory for Hook (Jude Law, with more real pain than sneering cartoon) feeds into the ideas of aging as a process by which you discover truths about yourself. To deny yourself, or others, that adventure, even through fantasy, is, after all, a kind of conflict that Lowery’s happy to explore outwards with some fairy tale logic and a bit of piratical swordplay. The film’s most moving moment finds Wendy, having walked off the plank, seeing her life flash before her eyes—but forward, not back. That’s a perfectly sentimental moment. And so, though the movie has swashbuckling with weight and peril, and a grand, old-fashioned Kids’ Adventure spirit, it falls back on that smaller, tremulous time where anything is possible, and the passage of time is just about to fall in with the limits of age and nothing can stay the same.

Much less metaphoric about growing older is Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, in which burgeoning young adulthood is a source of much literal curiosity and angst. Here’s a movie tenderly attentive to the tenderest of times in a girl’s life. Based on the classic Judy Blume book, it tells the story of Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson), a sixth grader whose life seems to be nothing but changes. Her parents (Rachel McAdams and Benny Safdie) have moved her from New York City to suburban New Jersey. She has a new school with new kids, and suddenly she’s getting crushes on cute boys and needs to ask her mom to go bra shopping for the first time, and her new friend group is made up of popular girls jealously testing their new ideas. Their gossipy preoccupations are starting to make Margaret nervous about when, exactly, she’ll be getting her period. Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig keeps the movie loose, light, and episodic, so casually specific about moments in this girl’s life that there’s a generosity of insight just in the act of watching it unfold. There’s a comforting normality to what feels like, to its lead character, the first time anyone’s ever gone through such outsized changes. I suppose it’s true that, though most women go through this, for every woman it’s a once-in-a-lifetime discovery. This movie respects that balance.

But, also true to life, Craig keeps the movie balanced on all manner of youthful preoccupations—grades, parties, holidays, family dynamics, friendships, gossip, and vacations. Here’s a movie about a year in a life that doesn’t hurry toward big climactic melodramas, but instead leans back into the usual ups and downs of young adolescent life. Craig, whose previous film was the sharp and unusually perceptive teen comedy The Edge of Seventeen, in which a high schooler’s life goes flailing after her brother starts dating her best friend, is a writer-director smartly able to balance the intensity of youthful emotions with the perspective to see them clearly in a more mature context. So here the girls’ fluttering of fears and fantasies is both intensely focused and cut with cute dramatic ironies. They don’t know what they don’t know, and it’s exciting and exasperating all at once for them, and their loved ones. The movie becomes a fully realized world for Margaret, a cozy 70s period piece that doesn’t condescend to its times or its characters. It simply lets them be.

Here’s a movie that knows life is a continual process of self-discovery. As such, it has the conviction to also dig plainly into thornier issues of family and spirituality, as our lead finds herself questioning whether she should be Christian like her mother or Jewish like her father. Neither parent particularly cares, but her loving paternal grandmother (Kathy Bates) and estranged maternal grandparents certainly do. The movie has a multi-generational generosity as it brings to life a story of mothers and daughters—especially in McAdams’ glowingly natural performance, built entirely out of lovely grace notes and simple gestures that communicate so much love and good intentions built out of an aging uncertainty. It ties Margaret and her mother together, as potential adolescent conflicts share space with an older vision of daily social struggles. Here’s a movie that says you’re never too old to feel awkward, and never too young to start discovering your confidence. You just have to find those who love you either way. Craig’s compassionate and clear approach is both respectful and honest—just the encouraging balance a young audience might need, and their parents can appreciate. This is a charming movie—so sweet and simple that it casts the gentlest of spells, and clears space for earning its characters’ learning.

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