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21 August 2015

Teenage Kicks and Joy Division

This week I saw two coming-of-age movies, both set in San Francisco, and although completely different in genre, mood and scope, they do share certain thematic similarities. They both get thumbs-up from me too.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller's directorial début, based on Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel of the same name, opens boldly with a dear-dictaphone-diary entry from our 15-year-old heroine Minnie (Bel Powley): "I had sex today. Holy shit!" It is the 1970s and Minnie is just starting to understand who she is and who she wants to be — and the power that she is starting to exert over the opposite sex. Desperate to lose her virginity, she pursues a relationship with her mother's (Kristen Wiig) mustached, layabout boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), who is some 20 years her senior and who, intentionally or otherwise, has shown signs of interest. "I didn't want to pass up the chance because I may not get another," she confides.

Minnie wants to be an artist and spends her free time drawing often rather graphic pictures in Indian ink and hanging out with her best friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters). Her mother, Charlotte, is image obsessed and not entirely helpful as a role model, hosting drunken parties where the adults get high and lewd. Perhaps this is why Minnie never seems very guilty about her affair with Monroe; instead, she is determined to maximise her own enjoyment of the relationship, which is an empowering sentiment, even if Monroe is a sometimes sweet but ultimately weak and unworthy recipient of her affections.

Not much else really happens in the film, but Powley's excellent portrayal of a talented and sensitive teenage girl's efforts to find love — and herself — elevate what could have been a mawkish and hackneyed story into something more interesting. The adult characters were a little more two-dimensional, although Wiig does manage to convey some degree of personal growth in Charlotte, and Skarsgård's Monroe has a necessary ambiguity. The Diary of a Teenage Film is a thoughtful film that is, by turns, sassy and sweet, and I would definitely recommend it.

Like Minnie, the heroine of the latest Pixar movie, Inside Out, is also having something of a crisis. Eleven-year-old Riley's (Kaitlyn Dias) parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) have just uprooted her from Minnesota to San Francisco and the once joyful girl turns promptly into a sullen, tearful tween. But although Riley is the protagonist, the film's real stars are Riley's emotions: principally, Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), but also Disgust, Fear and Anger, whom we see running the show in terms of how Riley acts and reacts from 'control centre'.

Memory snapshot in the film are portrayed as balls that change colour depending on which emotion has dominated the moment, and at the end of the day, while Riley sleeps, they may play a part in that night's dreams or be sent down to 'long-term storage'. Joy is usually Riley's dominant emotion and she runs a tight ship, but after the San Francisco move, Sadness starts to intrude, touching joyful memories and tarnishing them with sadness. Even Riley's 'islands of personality', which are activated whenever an activity triggers something fundamentally Riley-like about our heroine — family, friendship, zaniness and hockey, for instance — start to malfunction. Then, disaster strikes when Joy and Sadness are transported out of control centre to other parts of Riley's mind/brain, leaving the other three emotions to try — unsuccessfully — to keep things in hand.  Much of the rest of the film is spent watching Joy and Sadness try to make their way back to save 'their girl' from herself, but will Riley ever be the same again?

I work in science communication and neuroscience can be complicated to explain at a level appropriate for non-scientists and especially children, but I thought directors Pete Doctor and Ronaldo Del Carmen did a great job at simplifying concepts from memory and dreams, to emotions and even earworms. A colleague of mine wrote a great review of some of the neuroscience and psychology that underlie the film. Inside Out is joyful to watch, although, of course, with moments of sadness if not, for me at least, disgust, anger or fear. To be honest, I could watch 'Amy Poehler reacting to stuff' for at least 90 minutes without much of a plot, but Inside Out is clever, touching and downright hilarious. Fun and science for all the family!

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