Movies We Like
Todd Solondz is, without a doubt, one of the best living American directors. His two works from the '90s, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, served as groundbreaking material in terms of dark comedy and a ruthless exploitation of sorts. Some regard them as his best work with the knowledge that the films that follow only get harder to swallow. But it isn't just the steadfast exposure to topics such as backyard abortion and pedophilia that unsettles his audiences, but rather his approach. Through bright colors and jovial songs, Solondz mocks suburbia and the tortured souls of those suffering with mediocrity and mental illness to the point that it is hilarious. And while you feel bad, or perhaps uncomfortable with the development of each film, there is something about them that keeps you focused and satisfied. Storytelling is wedged in between Solondz's nastiest and most complex work, Palindromes, and those aforementioned ones that made him big. Being in the middle means that it is not as easy-going and lighthearted as the first two (if you could even call them that), nor is it as nuanced and off-the-walls as Palindromes. However, this is the movie in which no one is spared as he attacks the hidden comedy within racial taboos, servants, rich Jewish families, and our education system. To add to this lineup of targets was a fresh approach; the movie is split into two unrelated character developments, one called Fiction, and the other Non-fiction. The separation of these two storytelling methods was not only interesting in a way that pars with anthology Horror films, but gave meaning to such methods for anyone who fancies themselves a storyteller.
FICTION: In this segment we find Vi (Selma Blair), a pink-haired college student looking for substance in all the wrong places. She and her handicapped boyfriend Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) have a writing course with a professor of great prestige. Vi is just short of obsessed with him, though not because he's won the Pulitzer Prize for his literature, nor because he's a brutally honest teacher. Now's the time to mention that her professor is black. Solondz exposes her loyalty as a sort of Mandingo fetish, which causes an outrage in Marcus when he discovers that she and other white girls on campus seem to be under the same spell. Meanwhile, we see their classroom atmosphere develop as Professor Scott ruins his classroom's general hope of becoming writers. From there, we follow Vi as she pursues her professor and receives the lesson of a lifetime that is nothing short of brutal.
This segment is shorter than the one that follows, but it is perhaps the more powerful between the two. It doesn't resonate as comedy as well, and therefore what little comic breaks you do get come off as genius. Pulling off such ugly and confused characters must have been extremely difficult, and yet Blair and especially Fitzpatrick, did an amazing job. Robert Wisdom's role as the heartless and powerful professor was also something to marvel at. As cynical and dark as it may be, it is a series of truths that have been given a dose of comedy and turned into fiction. In all honesty, as a young college student when I first saw the film, it helped me understand what fiction really is. You take real events, things about life that you've realized, and interpret them in a way that's not personal—allowing others to experience your creation and come away with their own understanding. It's simple, but the way Solondz pulls it together was fresh and not to be missed.
NON-FICTION: Snoopy Livingston (Mark Webber) is a high school senior who doesn't know what do with his life and is facing pressure from his family and school in terms of taking his SATs and going to college. His mother (Julie Hagerty) organizes mass donations and banquets for her Jewish organization while his father (John Goodman) keeps everything together and everyone in line. His little brother is a wonderkid with an attitude, and his other brother is a popular football player. His daily fights with his family are about his music and being a vegetarian. When not fighting with his parents he's getting high and daydreaming about being Conan O'Brien's sidekick on TV.
Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti) is a man of middle age who's as much of a loser in life now as he was in high school. He's an aspiring documentary filmmaker and wants to direct a film about the high school experience, specifically the pressures of graduation and SATs. After pitching the idea to the principal of Snoopy's high school and being turned down, he spots the teen smoking pot in the bathroom and thinks he's hit gold. He convinces him to star in his documentary. The parents are hesitant at first but like the idea of making their child feel special, so they agree. Oxman films their daily routines and follows Snoopy, invading even their private moments. When tragedy strikes within the family, his documentary exposes their dysfunctional dynamics and greedy motivations to the point of being life-shattering.
I cannot praise this film enough, but there are some very special qualities that make it a gem. First is the level of originality. Like his other works, Solondz both wrote the script and directed the picture, and the dialogue and sequence of events are full of wit and confidence. Another thing to note is the editing and the music, both of which pair up to the images perfectly. Lastly is the awesome cast, which is full of so many great actors at the beginning or peak of their careers that they can't all be listed. The best of these is Lupe Ontiveros (Selena, Real Women Have Curves), who plays Consuelo, the maid in the non-fiction segment. Without giving anything away, just know that she plays a character who is bleeped-on by the rich family she works for and goes over the edge in a twisted and unforgettable way. There's also a cameo by Conan O'Brien and just a good/bad time to be had by all. Highly recommended.