Of the sudden spate of mother-daughter movies only one contains any real surprises
Friday September 12, 2003
In the wave of enthusiastic reviews that greeted Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen in the US, critics applauded this first-time director's harsh vision of teenage meltdown as the anti-Disney teen fantasy. In the opening scene, two girls slap each other till they bleed, laughing and squealing and crying in a paroxysm of roiling adolescent emotions. Valley Girl turns vampire in this story of love-hate bonding between two middle-school opposites: pale, blonde, undefiled geeky innocent Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) and her corrupter, sultry Evie (Nikki Reed). Reed knew Hardwicke, a former set designer, and together they wrote the screenplay based on Reed's own "troubled" teen years, exaggerating (by her own admission) the kids' experiments with drugs and mutilation into a lurid stewpot of pathologies.
With its jagged structure and rough camera work, hectic adrenaline rhythms and insistent glimpses of billboards and fashion ads whipping teenagers into frenzy buying, Thirteen certainly speaks to the current almost feverish anxiety about a society where adolescents act and dress like 28-year-old hookers and mothers in mini-skirts are still "finding themselves". This, plus Reed's autobiographical contribution, is supposed to give it the badge of authenticity, but is Thirteen really more authentic, more honest than other, less unsavoury images of young people - and adults - in transition?
Two other films that ponder the increasingly porous borderline between childhood and maturity but in a less toxic, more lighthearted form - and with different degrees of success - are Freaky Friday, in which a mother (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her daughter (Lindsay Lohan) change bodies for a day and discover empathy; and Uptown Girls, in which Brittany Murphy, as a hapless twentysomething orphaned by the death of her rock-star father and mother, becomes nanny to a precociously fastidious eight-year-old. On paper, these are precisely the kinds of films that carry with them an adult advisory - Avoid At All Cost. Both are Disney, or Disneyesque, tales of enlightenment, screwball Learning Experiences in which two opposing forces meet, overlap, have uplifting epiphanies and changes of heart. But the beauty, as always, is not in the generic plot but in the details, in the physical grace and charms of the stars; in expertly choreographed slapstick.
Of the two, Freaky Friday is the glorious surprise. Despite arresting performances by a dissolute-looking Murphy and a scarily smart Dakota Fanning (from I Am Sam), Uptown Girls never quite transcends its formulaic roots - hypochondriacal little girl (the faux adult) will loosen up and find the child within, while layabed party girl Molly will acquire a sense of responsibility. But Freaky Friday, working delicious variations on the body-switching theme, is pure enchantment, thanks to a fine script, brilliant physical acting and sight gags topped by an amazingly audacious per-formance by Jamie Lee Curtis. This talented actress, with her slyly androgynous allure, finally gets a chance to stretch her comic muscles as a buttoned-down psychiatrist driving her daughter crazy for all the usual reasons plus her plan to remarry.
This superior remake of the 1976 movie, which subjected Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster to endless slapstick antics involving washing machines and runaway cars, adds a wrinkle to the original by having the mother widowed and the daughter violently disapproving of the prospective stepfather (Mark Harmon) so that when the outer Curtis (inhabited by Lohan) both shrinks and sidles up to her intended, or develops a charged rapport with her daughter's cute biker boyfriend, sexual double entendres ripple without ever degenerating into discomfort.
In their favour, both Thirteen and Freaky Friday include parents as living, breathing beings, subjects in their own right rather than projections of teenage fears and resentments. In Thirteen, single mums take a hit but are treated sympathetically: Holly Hunter as a home beautician and ex-alcoholic sleeping with a drug-addict loser, who loves her baby (Wood) but hasn't a clue how to deal with her; and Deborah Kara Unger as Evie's drink-addled barfly mom, who makes Hunter look like mother of the year. Distributors of Thirteen are trying to drum up business by pushing it as a tool for mother-daughter therapy, though anyone as far gone in rage and dysfunction as the film's characters is unlikely to even go to such a movie together, much less profit by a spectacle stronger on sensation than illumination.
For those who don't want their paranoia ratcheted up a notch, or resist Thirteen's exploitation (fetchingly nubile girls for the Humberts in the audience), Freaky Friday offers both schism and healing, a genuine safety zone for mother-daughter "acting out". Of course, its ordered, middle-class environment is a far cry from the chaotic and hand-to-mouth household of Thirteen. Thanks partly to that stability, there are always clear demarcation lines between Freaky Friday's mother and daughter. It's those very boundaries that make the switch both possible and funny.
Lindsay Lohan, who even as 15-year-old Annabel has a certain gravitas, does a beautiful impersonation of her shrink mother, righteous and uptight yet loving, but Curtis's high-schooler is sheer genius. In one riotous scene, she's on a television talk show promoting "her" book without having any idea what it's about (or what "senescence" means) and so vamps and squirms, teenage style, suddenly seducing the audience with an outpouring of sheer over-the-top "energy". In another scene, Annabel, the garage-band rocker, is paralysed on stage with a guitar she doesn't know how to play, whereupon Curtis appears in the wings, strumming, banging and rocking to the rescue.
What makes the whole thing work on a deeper level is that Curtis not only acts her age but shows it. Bravely and unselfconsciously, this generous actress looks middle-aged, yet with that gangly tomboyish essence that allows her to play young without resorting to cosmetic artifice or girly-girl coyness. That kind of emotional security can't be bought or feigned, and it radiates through Freaky Friday, anchoring the movie in an aura of grown-up acceptance. It's what enables mother and daughter to shed their egos without fear of dissolution, and finally come to a rapprochement that seems as richly deserved as the emotions we feel.
¡¤ Thirteen is released in the UK on December 5, Freaky Friday on December 19, Uptown Girls on January 9.
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