WHATEVER (1998) ** 1/4
It this is true, it is very sad, assuming that high school in the U.S.A, as seen on celluloid-- whether in Hollywood productions or, as in the case of "Whatever, " independent films-- is a time of no brains, no learning, and no interest beyond physical gratification and self-absorption.
There has to be more to school than that, but it is not evident in this first feature made by Susan Skoog, who was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, graduated from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in 1987, and has since had quite a bit of experience writing, directing and producing for TV.
"Whatever" is set in some anonymous town or suburb in New Jersey, in the early 1980s. The filming actually took place in Wheeling, West Virginia. In a low-budget way, it has the look of the times as well as its pop music (the Pretenders, Jam, the Ramones, Blondie, and so on), but it is not a piece of nostalgia. Far from that, it is a sad, dolorous variant of coming-of-age pictures, and feels, if not partly autobiographical, at least like first-hand knowledge of its subject.
The subject is young people who are at loose ends and come from families (mostly lower middle class) upon which the filmmaker casts a jaundiced eye. The focus is on Anna, who says "I'm almost eighteen, " which means 17. She's presumably bright, rather quiet and reserved, not a good student but interested in going to art school, specifically to New York City's Cooper Union. Her one "friend" on the school's staff is Mr. Chaminski, the art teacher. A former New Yorker whose past is none too clear, he may well be a failure as a painter and one of those cases of "those who can't, teach." In any case, he encourages Anna.
He is played by Frederic Forrest, the only familiar face in the crowd. Forrest has been in several indifferent movies as well in some major ones, notably Coppola's The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, One From the Heart, Tucker. He was also the lead in Wim Wenders's Hammett. The last time I saw him was in a colorful role in Falling Down (1993). In "Whatever" his role is undistinguished, yet, if you look closely, Forrest adds clever touches as someone who semi-consciously lusts after Anna.
Anna actively chain-smokes, semi-actively rebels against school, semi-passively attends backyard or al fresco booze-busts-cum-substance abuse. These are your familiar affairs, complete with gross-outs (for $20 would you drink beer with spit in it?), with the class nerd who wears glasses, with the fattish wallflower who is by herself, with raucous kids, seniors who philosophize sophomorically, and other cliches. Mercifully, the camera spends little time on those particular deja vu shots. It concentrates on Anna, who is dazed and confused.
With AIDS unknown though incubating around the corner, libido runs high, everyone is ready to copulate, many do. Not Anna. She is a virgin, Brenda is certainly not. She's Anna's slutty, overpainted, best friend Brenda. To a physiognomist, Brenda looks common and unintelligent, while Anna looks sensitive. To anybody, Brenda is a tramp, while Anna suggests some hidden depths. The pair is mismatched. What they do have in common is attitude and dysfunctional families.
"Whatever" does not have a "real" story. It is built episodically on tableaux and situations, realistic, grungy, but often vague too. The observation can be graphic and sharp but the factual, social and psychological backgrounds are fuzzy. The adults either are caricatures or verge on them.
Anna lives with her young brother and a mother. Why is there no father? Why does Ma drink, neglect her kids and the house, and date a succession of creeps, the current one being the affluent idiot "Fat Howard "? Why is Brenda defying her father? Or is he her father? (No, he is her stepfather and much younger than his wife). Is the English teacher a joke, a semi-joke, a sadist or what? Who are those people? It gets a bit clearer by the end, but some audience fatigue has preceded it.
In the meantime, Anna and Brenda have met two somewhat older guys that had done time for dealing dope; Anna loses her virginity to her best boyfriend Martin, who later proves unworthy; the two girls make a wide-eyed visit to the Big Apple and end up on some silly yuppies bed and sofa; they return to Jersey where Brenda is abused (beaten and most likely raped) by her stepfather; a group retaliation against the abuser ensues and is possible but improbable; a temporary escapade that has Anna returning home is both sad and inconclusive; the final scenes put a smile on Anna's face and a happy way of riding her bicycle, but this new found upbeat "balance" is neither explained, justified or convincing.
The film is overlong long and often gratuitous. It relies essentially
on the portrait of Anna. In spite of holes and loose ends, first-timer
Liza Weil's role, well-played and well-directed, can and ought to move
you. The best aspects of the movie deal with her reactions.The quiet scene,
un-graphic, un-shocking, unsensational (there is no frontal nudity with
Anna, anywhere) of her losing her virginity is striking for its observation
and sensitivity. In distant ways it reminds me a bit of the couple's visit
to a small island in the river in the 1930s film by Jean Renoir, Une Partie
de Campagne (A Day in the Country).