Smells Like Teen Spirit By Marcelo Janot

in 48th San Francisco International Film Festival

by Marcelo Janot

Although an eleven-film selection of first and second features doesn’t allow you to expect much in common, apart, of course, from it’s freshness, at the 48 th San Francisco International Film Festival it was possible to pick one particular aspect for reflection in three of the most intriguing films shown at the Fipresci section : the way rebel female teenagers are portrayed in different eras and environments.

Let’s take, at first, Mouth To Mouth, directed by British choreographer Alison Murray and based upon her own life experience. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she moved to England at the age of fifteen. While squatting in buildings around London in her late teens, during the 80’s, she joined a cult. Much of what she has been through and seen inspired the story of Sherry (Ellen Page), a teenager who joins a homeless youth group called SPARKS (Street People Armed With Radical Knowledge) after receiving a flyer from a handsome guy in the streets of London. Sherry is trying to add more excitement and adventure to her empty life, which is nothing more than a reflection of her single mother – a survivor from the Woodstock times who seems to have no idea of how to express her affection and understand her daughter’s necessity to live out her own utopias, like she did herself not many years earlier.

The film becomes much more interesting when Sherry’s mom, desperate to get her back, decides to join the group, a bunch of activists that travels around Europe in a van trying to prove that they can change the society by recruiting drugged and weak young people in the streets and leading them to a life ruled by dogmas (which include getting drunk and enjoying themselves at music festivals). Sherry soon realizes that it’s very hard to behave like a rebel when you are more mature than your own mother. Director-screenwriter Alison Murray’s fault is portraying the leader of the SPARKS as a very bad guy, which leads to cliché situations where the good (Sherry) and evil (the SPARKS leader) have to fight one against the other. This group of outsiders reminds me of Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf, but Mouth to Mouth misses a lot of the subtly and tension provided by Haneke.

The Brazilian Up Against Them All (Contra Todos) , directed by Roberto Moreira, also has a rebel teenager, Soninha (Silvia Lourenco), as the main character, but the background is totally different from the peaceful London of the 80’s. We’re talking about the violent lower class neighborhood of Sao Paulo, where a girl is raised by her widowed and brutal father, hates her stepmother (who also sleeps with the butcher’s employee), dates a drug dealer and seduces her dad’s best friend. Which kind of life perspectives might this girl have? She seems really happy when her stepmother leaves the house, but soon is back to real world again when his father announces that he’s “found another woman to marry” (actually his mistress) and is going to send Soninha to live in the countryside with her grandmother. Her angry reaction shows not only her affection for her daddy but also how teenagers who are raised in such a wild environment are trapped and seduced by all the violence they get used to. The nervous and shaking camera, combined with a clever editing, give Roberto Moreira’s film a documentary strength that is very well put into a fiction situation.

Finally we come to the Fipresci winner, Private, a very promising debut by 30 year old Italian director Saverio Costanzo. This remarkable film is based on the true story of a middle class and well educated Palestinian family that has their comfortable house occupied by the Israeli army but refuses to leave the place, living in permanent tension among enemy soldiers that might kill them for not following their rules. The father of the family wants his teenage daughter to leave that hell and go to school in Germany, but she just can’t understand the occupation or accept it. At first, she goes against her father’s advice and yells at the soldiers, increasing the tension. Then she climbs the stairs to the floor occupied by the Israelis, hiding herself in a closet staring at a rifle, probably waiting for the chance to get it and shoot them. Later on she realizes that there’s no use in behaving like that in a situation so close to the edge.

And we, as spectators, realize how hard – and quick – the transition from teenage rebellion to maturity in present times can be.