Where the Kids Aren't At
Thanks to a herculean effort, this week I can offer insight, reflection, and instinctive gut-reactions to not one but two new movies from the world's best known streaming service with estranged members of the British royal family on the payroll. Both of these are, theoretically at least, aimed at the same constituency, that part of society known as the Yahs (if memory serves). At least I think this is case. Both projects claim to be Yah movies, but there seem to be some pretty fundamental disagreements over what the Yah audience needs and is looking for.
Roman White's A Week Away concerns the travails of an orphaned teenage tearaway named Will (Sean Quinn), who at the top of the movie is nicked for stealing a police patrol car. As we have all seen from our media outlets of choice, the American police are a laid-back bunch who always exercise the utmost moderation when responding to crimes, even ones of which they are the target, and Will is politely escorted to his social worker who offers him a choice: Juvenile Hall, or a week's stay at a church youth camp. He decides to risk it and picks the latter.
Well, there's a girl, isn't there (played by Bailee Madison), but the problem is that Will has already decided to keep quiet about his history of delinquency, which is bound to come back to bite him when the object of his affections finds out about it. Before this particular plot button is pushed, just in time for the climax, there is a subplot about another couple who are too shy to get it together, some paintballing, fun and games at the camp, a biggish comedy turn from David Koechner (probably the most famous person involved with the movie, which may tell you something) and a lot of up-tempo singing about the grace of God, accompanied by some functionally energetic dancing (it does a good job of filling the screen with movement even if the choreography is far from being up to Gene Kelly standards).
Yes indeed, folks, we have wandered into the realm of the faith-based movie, a genre which is routinely torpedoed by the fact that making a good movie is seldom the top priority for the people who feel moved to produce these things. This is far from the worst example of the form that I have come across: the musical numbers are decent and the whole thing is fairly innocuous and not terribly played. But there is virtually no sense of tension, drama, or anything being at stake. Even worse, it fiercely recoils from addressing or even acknowledging the existence of serious issues, temporal or theological: this is a religious conversion story with virtually no religion in it beyond a few pop songs about how awesome God is. Like most faith-based movies, it has the feel about it of a commercial advertising a product which the audience already owns.
Possibly the most interesting thing about it is the fact that it's been funded by Netflix, not known for its particularly spiritual inclinations – but the faith-based audience is a large and juicy one, I suppose, and the makers of this movie in particular seem to have been happy to do a deal with Mammon in order to get their message out there, even if what that message is (beyond 'Christianity is good') is a bit unclear.
Amy Poehler's Moxie is also aimed primarily at Yahs, but in virtually every other respect it's the polar opposite of A Week Away. This is a movie set in a world which is to some extent defined by the problems that afflict it, and the only way to deal with them is to get angry and fight. There is no singing or dancing here, but moments of genuine darkness and pain (and, something utterly unthinkable in A Week Away, the prospect of pre-marital sex).
Hadley Robinson plays Vivian, just starting her junior year at a fairly ordinary high school. Everything seems much as it's always been, until a new girl named Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena) dares to challenge the choice of The Great Gatsby as a reading text (it's all about privileged white guys) and in doing so makes an enemy of privileged white guy and football team captain Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger). Mitchell's harassment and persecution of Lucy is dismissed by the principal as just one of those things, which only serves to open Vivian's eyes to the injustice and misogyny of so many school traditions and institutions, from the dress code to the way the jocks rate all the girls according to various demeaning criteria. She discovers her own mother (Poehler) was a one-time riot grrrl and is inspired to start her own feminist zine, with a view to bringing about some changes…
Let's be clear: this is not another one of those movies with a feminist subtext. This is a movie with a feminist text, and a very sizeable axe to grind. Regardless of the justness of the cause involved, I tend to run a mile from message movies (that old quote about Western Union leaps to mind), but re-visiting Parks and Rec has been one of things keeping me sane recently so I figured I would give Amy Poehler a chance.
There's never any doubt about what this film's position is, and in places it does come perilously close to seeming over-simplistic and contrived to the point of melodrama – some of the characters are almost cartoonish, and there's some very glib plotting considering the subject matter is a sexual assault. But for the most part, Moxie manages to treat the story and characters with subtlety and nuance, rooting it in the personalities involved and generally suggesting that, no matter how brazen an injustice may seem, it doesn't necessarily follow that it's easy or straightforward to find a solution to it.
Nicely played by the young cast; even young Schwarzenegger turns in a decent performance (no idea who he takes after) which is particularly notable considering he's playing the panto villain straight white guy (surely a problematic trope in the making). Entertaining cameos from Poehler, Clark Gregg, and various other more seasoned performers too.
The film walks a razor's edge between being agitprop and accessible entertainment, mostly successfully; I would certainly recommend it over A Week Away, which by comparison feels like something made for very undemanding pre-teens. And yet I find myself wondering if Netflix's commitment to smashing the patriarchy is any deeper-rooted than its interest in evangelising the good news of the Gospel. I sort of doubt it: these two horses don't really seem to be going in the same direction. It's very likely the corporation is just covering its bets, and that both films owe their existence to the same calculated and cynical approach to financing movies. Profit before art or principle: it may be rewarding in the short term, but what both of these films do agree on is the need to eventually decide what you really believe in. Unless the answer is simply 'making money', it seems like a decision Netflix has yet to make.