1998, R, 112 min. Directed by Susan Skoog. Starring Liza Weil, Chad Morgan, Frederic Forrest, Kathryn Rossiter, Marc Riffon, Dan Montano, John G. Connolly.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 7, 1998
Troubled suburban teenhood - it's rich narrative subject matter at least as old as the movies. It's hard to add much that's new to the film genre that has bred such timeless classics as Rebel Without a Cause, Over the Edge, and most recently, Welcome to the Dollhouse. Yet writer-director Susan Skoog has found a large measure of success in her first narrative feature outing, Whatever. Set in the early 1980s, Whatever captures a strong sense of realism as it focuses on two female best friends caught between the end of high school and the rest of their lives. With almost frightening clarity, Skoog's film spotlights that precipice of time in which teens become so acutely aware that the actions they take in the present will have consequences that affect the rest of their lives. Also, her film departs from the standard coming-of-age pack in its particular focus on 17-year-old girls and its vivid re-creation of their specific concerns. Anna (Weil) is a high-school senior in an anonymous Jersey town, who desperately wants to grow up and grow out of her situation. She shows promising artistic talent but her passive-aggressive attitude keeps getting her in trouble at school, be it for smoking or incomplete homework assignments. She also has to grapple with the how and when of losing her virginity (of course, with the wrong boy), and she has her hands full at home with a pesky little brother and a single mom who dates a horrid troll out of desperation. Her best friend Brenda (Morgan), on the other hand, would need a slide rule to rediscover her virginity, lost so long ago in a serial daze of uninspiring encounters. The movie is best when it sticks to the observational, as in the startling opening sequence which shows the unsatisfying and unromantic sex act as experienced by Brenda. (In this, the film echoes the jarring opening of Sarah Jacobson' s female-centric Mary Jane' s Not a Virgin Anymore.) Unfortunately, Whatever also wanders along episodically and piles on more dramatic baggage than it can withstand. Brenda, too, comes from a desperate home situation that adds a completely unnecessary subplot to the film. And Anna's attempt to win a scholarship to Cooper Union -- New York City's prestigious art college -- is aided by an over-the-top Frederic Forrest as a hip-daddio high-school art teacher. Although the central performances of Weil and Morgan are subtle and compelling, most everyone else around them comes across as strained and disruptively unconvincing. The no-nonsense visual style keeps things anchored and despite its dramatic lapses, Whatever comes across as a potent dose of reality. It's as good a look as we've ever seen onscreen of that bleak, reactionary “whatever” passivity that derails so many teens.