Monday, August 8, 2011

Film Review - "Show Me Love"

Spoilers for the wonderful "Show Me Love" after the jump. If you've never seen it, stop reading and watch it now (it's on Netflix streaming). You'll thank me later.

"Show Me Love" is quite simply the best teen-centered movie I have ever seen. In a way, it's the exact opposite of a film like last year's "Easy A". One of my issues with that movie (which I reviewed here) was its tendency towards overly cute dialogue, and another was the fact that none of the characters really rang true as people.     

This film is the exact opposite. While it's billed as a coming-of-age romance, what "Show Me Love" is really about is the shared disaffection of its two main characters and how it unexpectedly brings them together. It's an optimistic film, certainly. But the fact that its optimism is borne out of very realistic senses of boredom and depression makes the concluding emotional payoff all the sweeter.

Our two main characters are Agnes (Rebecca Liljeberg) and Elin (Alexandra Dahlström), a pair of teenage girls. Agnes is a depressed loner who doesn't have any real friends (and harbors a secret crush on Elin), while Elin is fairly popular but feels trapped living in a small town. During Agnes's sixteenth birthday party (a party almost no one attends), Elin shows up and kisses Agnes on a dare before running out. Later Elin feels guilty about the cruel joke and goes back to apologize: inviting Agnes to join her at a different party and interrupting her suicide attempt at the same time.

Yes, these two will fall in love. As a romance, the movie without question succeeds: portraying their relationship believably and tenderly. But what makes "Show Me Love" one of the more brilliant movies I've seen recently is the fact that it feels real in a way few teen movies do. It accomplishes this through both strong writing and acting as well as some beautiful documentary-style camerawork. Nothing calls attention to itself, but everything just works.

The dialogue in this film is as good as any I've had the pleasure of witnessing: and that includes films such as "Sideways" and "Before Sunset". It's clever, funny, and (most importantly) true. Take the scene where Agnes's father attempts to console her by telling her that he too was basically ignored during high school, but twenty-five years later he's more successful than most of the more well-known kids. Agnes's response is of course what anyone else would say in that situation: that she doesn't want to wait that long for things to get better. She wants to be happy now. Meaningful exchanges like that are commonplace throughout the movie, in addition to the great one-liners.

"Show Me Love" also benefits from the way it subverts just about every single teen movie cliche. There are no cliques, and no over-the-top displays of bullying towards the less popular kids. The characters in this movie hang out with their friends, and those (like Agnes) that are friendless are just left behind. Through good timing by Elin, Agnes is saved from a terrible fate. But it could just as easily have gone the other way: something that the film makes clear even if it doesn't say it outright.

This subtle refusal to conform to tired film conventions is also seen in the way supporting characters are treated: in particular Agnes's parents. Too often parents in these kinds of movies are either uncaring or clueless, but this film (along with "Juno" a few years ago) proves that concerned and caring parents can add far more to a story than the alternative. In the case of Agnes, they continually try to help her in different ways. None are successful: something I'm sure most parents can probably relate to. But the fact that they're a sympathetic presence serves to heighten the film's realism and depth.

The same can be said of Johan, a boy who likes Elin. The movie is careful not to portray him as merely an obstacle between Elin and Agnes, but as a likable, believable human being. "Show Me Love's" characterizations are nothing short of brilliant: it doesn't go for easy archetypes and is careful to portray every character (no matter how minor) with sensitivity and grace.

Scenes that might seem predictable in a lesser film's hands are either handled with so much brilliance that they seem fresh and new, or else altered in small but meaningful ways. When Elin goes to see Agnes after realizing how she feels, we expect some sort of variation on the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet". Instead, the rock she throws breaks a window and she runs away. It's at this point that I started to realize just how special this movie is. And of course, this realization was accompanied by an fervent prayer to the cinema gods that the film wouldn't blow it in the final few minutes.

It doesn't. The climactic scene is a fairly predictable one in many aspects: Elin and Ages are trapped in a bathroom by their fellow students, who are eager to learn the identity of Elin's new "boyfriend" (they don't know Agnes is in there as well). But once again, the way "Show Me Love" goes about it is just different enough so as to make it truly memorable. And the final few lines of dialogue are perfect in the way they deftly reaffirm one of the film's major themes: which is that we must find contentment in everyday life.

A confession: I wasn't ever planning on watching this movie. I knew about it: having seen it on the British Film Insitute's list of movies you should see before the age of fourteen*. But it just didn't look like a film I had any desire to see. Then it showed up on my Netflix streaming recommendations, and one day I had a little spare time and decided to put it on. I was expecting a lighthearted, insubstantial romance, and I would have been fine with that.

Instead, I was treated to one of the most genuinely captivating and transcendent films I've ever had the pleasure of watching. "Show Me Love" is uplifting but not manipulative, smart but not obvious about it, and far more profound than its deceptively simple premise would indicate. Every scene is meant to be savored, and there's not a single false note to be found. I said it in the pre-jump spoiler warning, but I'll say it again in case you weren't listening: see this movie.

Grade: A

* I'm not really sure about that. Without question, everyone should see this movie. But most kids younger than fourteen probably won't get much out of it. I probably would have, but I was the kind of kid who'd rather watch "The Seventh Seal" than the latest CGI-loaded blockbuster. I was... atypical (some would say "weird").

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