There's the now-cliché saying that nostalgia ain't what it used to be. Well,
I found myself getting nostalgic over my high school days when I saw Susan
Skoog's feature WHATEVER. While the film is set in the early 1980s, slightly
after my era, it contained archetypal characters with whom I could identify. Who
hasn't found waiting to find out whether you got into college (especially your
first choice) an agony? Who hasn't clashed with their parents over curfew or use
of the car? Skoog has crafted a fascinating (although flawed) debut feature that
spotlights the immense talents of two young actresses, Liza Weil and Chad
WHATEVER follows Anna Stockard (Liza Weil), a wanna-be artist going
through typical teenage stuff. She lives with her overworked, divorced mother
(who is keeping company with a wealthy older man in a bid for financial
security) and her bratty younger brother. Anna is hardly depicted as a saint —
she drinks, occasionally smokes marijuana and hangs out with the troubled "bad
girl" Brenda (Chad Morgan). In an inventive and disturbing choice, Skoog opens
her film with a drunk Brenda having sex in what today we would call a gang
rape. Reliable Anna comes to her rescue and the bond between these two
friends quickly becomes clear. The reckless Brenda gets into scrapes and it falls
to Anna to help clean up the mess. Over the course of the film, these two will
come to a final parting. In some ways WHATEVER is a relative of Jim McKay's
superior GIRLS' TOWN; both of these Sundance films focused on the fragility of
female friendships — particularly those of high school seniors.
In an interview I conducted with Susan Skoog, she explained that the script
grew out of an idea she had about kids breaking in and robbing their parents.
"That was something I saw a few times when I was in high school," she
explained, "and I thought that was a kind of interesting, twisted thing — that
they could be so angry that they would let their friends rob their parents."
Skoog added, "I wanted to make a film that was a realistic look at being a
teenager." That she has mostly succeeded is a tribute to her capabilities.
Perhaps the biggest flaw of this film is that it's too ambitious. Skoog overstuffs
the story with too many subplots that eventually destroy the film's tempo.
Some judicious editing no doubt would have helped. Nevertheless, there are
pleasures to be gleaned from WHATEVER.
It is easy to identify with Anna who dreams of escaping from the
anonymity of her small town. She displays a knack for painting and with the
encouragement of a hippie art teacher (Frederic Forrest in the film's weakest
performance) dreams of attending Cooper Union in New York City. Daily, she
check for word from the school while engaging in petty squabbles with her
mother and brother. At school, the intelligent Anna slacks off, believing she's
set. At Brenda's urgings, she embarks on an ill-fated venture to lose her
virginity to an older guy who has always had a crush on her. In this particular
sequence, Skoog displays her ingenuity. In stark contrast to other coming-of-
age tales, this film shows the discomfort and disappointment many experience in
their first sexual experimentation. When Anna recounts the events to the more
worldly Brenda, she is told, that one gets used to the pain.
An ill-fated day trip to Manhattan begins to point up the differences
between the girls. Anna and Brenda visit Cooper Union and are taken on a tour.
When they enter an art class, Brenda breaks into peals of laughter because the
artists are nude. Anna is clearly mortified and begins to see that she and
Brenda have different expectations. Further pointing this up is a sequence
in which they go on dates with Wall Street types in the city. Brenda falls into
bed. Anna ineptly engages in other activities that end with the pair out on the
street. This is in marked contrast to another duo with whom Brenda hooks up:
Zak and Woods, two older, fast-driving hoods (played by Dan Montano and John
G. Connelly). Again Skoog upends expectations and has Zak, the older ex-con,
display a surprising protectiveness towards Anna. After a shocking scene of
violence, the four set off for Florida. In a drug-induced state, Anna experiences
a transformation that marks the final break with her lifelong friend.
Skoog trained as an actor and demonstrates a care and keen sympathy
with her leading ladies. Liza Weil is the heart and soul of WHATEVER and this
attractive, intelligent actress skillfully negotiates the various moods of Anna.
She is natural and believable and offers a star-making turn in the role. Matching
her is Chad Morgan as Brenda. In the hands of a less talented actress, this role
could become a cliché bad girl. Morgan makes Brenda's actions understandable,
layering her performance with the appropriate pain and anger. These two
talented performers make WHATEVER a worthwhile experience and I expect
audiences will be hearing from them for many years to come. Similarly. Susan
Skoog exhibits a talent for creating a rarity — finely drawn, three-dimensional
women. Hopefully in her next effort, she will scale back her ambitions a bit and
really create a masterpiece. Like Anna, she is an artist still in formation.
Rating: B +
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive teen drug and alcohol use,
language including sexual dialogue,
sexuality and some violence
Running time: 112 mins.
|© 1998-2010 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.