Revisiting the territory of numerous Stateside coming-of-age/high-school movies, Susan Skoog’s well-executed “Whatever” has the novelty of telling the story from a distinctly female point of view, centering on one girl (beautifully acted by Liza Weil) as she’s about to cross the inevitably painful threshold from adolescence to adulthood. Pic lacks both gritty realism and subtlety, but its overtly melodramatic format, universal concerns, strong production values and bouncy period music should broaden its appeal among female viewers still in high school.
Pic’s paradigm derives from youth mellers of the 1950s, specifically “Rebel Without a Cause,” but instead of focusing on a version of the James Dean character, the story revolves around a modern reincarnation of Natalie Wood’s female lead. Writer-director Skoog shrewdly sets the story in a New Jersey suburb of the early 1980s, so that she can explore the subculture of sex-drugs-music without dealing with the lethal effects of AIDS.
“Whatever” enjoys a coherent p.o.v., viewing all the events through the eyes and emerging awareness of Anna (Weil). In the first, expertly staged act, Skoog shows a sex scene in the woods, with the camera zeroing in on the reaction of its female participant, Brenda (Chad Morgan), Anna’s best friend.
With the kind of truthful approach that marks the entire film, Skoog doesn’t shy away from showing “unglamorous” details, such as the one-sidedness, physical pain and lack of enjoyment that’s often involved in the sexual act, Brenda’s need for support afterward, and so on.
The merit of “Whatever” lies not so much in the kind of story it tells, but in the manner in which it is told. Indeed, most of the characters and events are familiar, beginning with Anna’s domestic situation, which has her living with her single mom (Kathryn Rossetter), a lonely and bitter divorcee, and her sadistic kid brother. Alienated and misunderstood by her family, Anna is torn between her passion for art, cultivated by her teacher, Mr. Chaminsky (Frederic Forrest), a failed artist himself, and her curiosity and desire to fully “experience” a life of booze, courtship and partying.
Anna’s sacred ambition is to attend Cooper Union, the prestigious New York art school, but a rebellious streak keeps undermining her plans. Like many kids her age, she has a smart-aleck attitude, and her socializing with Brenda, a vivacious party animal, results in an endless chain of missed deadlines, poor grades, detentions at school and at home. Anna also experiences serious doubts about her talent: How good is she as an artist and, more importantly, how much is she willing to sacrifice to attain her goal?
Despite the formulaic situations and tensions, Skoog brings a sensitive, uniquely female slant to every interaction in the film. She handles well the scene in which Anna loses her virginity to the “wrong guy,” a slightly older would-be artist with whom she’s been smitten since childhood. Rather admirably, helmer refuses to condemn or to judge Anna’s mom, who, out of despair, is dating a pathetically old wealthy man, hoping he’ll rescue the family from poverty. There’s a touching reconciliation scene between mother and daughter, when the former is dumped by her beau.
But pic piles up too many problems and crises for its own good, including the revelation that Brenda is a sexually abused daughter, an issue that unnecessarily pushes the film into the realm of the TV movie.
Weil and Morgan, the central female couple, are utterly convincing, finding the right balance between projecting the typical adolescent facade of toughness and inner vulnerability. Their scenes together, which are the film’s emotional highlights, demonstrate the rewards of an intimate friendship, but also the price of unequivocal commitment. Anna’s more positive and ambitious orientation spells a tragic end to her bond with Brenda, who’s basically doomed.
Lensers Michael Barrow and Michael Mayers give the film a vibrantly crisp look, specifically in the nocturnal episodes, which are exquisitely shot. Sandi Guthrie’s dynamic tempo is considerably helped by popular tunes of the era by the Pretenders, the Ramones, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Blondie and Patti Smith.