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Kids These Days: “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and “Pariah”

January 16, 2012
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I recently caught up with Arnold Wayne Jones, my former college roommate and fellow film critic at The University Journal and now an arts editor and writer for the Dallas Voice. Back in our U.Va. days, we’d see movies and debate their merits (or demerits) for hours on end. This weekend, we saw two dark-horse Oscar contenders, We Need to Talk About Kevin and Pariah, and what follows is an edited excerpt of our typically discursive discussion:

Bruce: We need to talk about We Need to Talk about Kevin

AJ: I wish we didn’t.

Bruce: …and Pariah, both arty indie movies directed by women about maladjusted teenagers.

AJ: Well, maladjusted families. Let’s not just blame the teenagers.

Bruce: One of them was good…

AJ: I would say very good.

Bruce: And one of them was We Need to Talk About Kevin. So let’s start with the bad. You saw the trailer for it and said you’d nominate Tilda Swinton for an Oscar…

AJ: If only for the trailer. I will now remove the word if. One of my problems with the movie is it’s called We Need to Talk About Kevin, but the one thing nobody ever does is actually talk about Kevin.

Bruce: Early on, we find out Kevin has become a high-school shooter, and the movie is very disjointed and keeps flashing forward to the aftermath of the killings, when his mother, played by Swinton, has become a Pariah, if you will.

AJ: Without being a lesbian, like the character Alike is in Pariah.

Bruce: They could’ve called this movie Pariah and the other movie We Need To Talk About Alike. Kevin keeps cutting back to the boy’s birth and childhood and it quickly becomes clear to everyone except the people on the screen that this kid is a psycho.

AJ: With the exception of Swinton, who gives birth to him as if he’s Rosemary’s Baby. She seems to be afraid of the child while it’s nursing on her teat. In her defense, no child since Damien forced his nanny to commit suicide at his birthday has given more clear evidence of being a psychopath.

Bruce: My biggest problem with the movie was how incredibly heavy-handed it was. The director, Lynne Ramsay, goes out of her way to pound you over the head with images of blood, whether it’s tomato soup or jelly or red paint.

AJ: It’s not just this palette she’s clinging to, it’s this childish, sophomoric conception of imagery. Tilda’s covered in blood through the entire movie. It’s as if she’s having her period every 15 seconds.

Bruce: The phrase relentlessly unpleasant springs to mind. There are all these discordant sounds during the movie, including a recurring sprinkler that you hear. I think it would be more entertaining to watch a sprinkler than this movie.

AJ: It would be more entertaining to watch an actual serial killer than to sit through this movie again.

Bruce: And the acting is not that good! I don’t understand all the praise for Swinton. She’s pretty much one-note.

AJ: Well, she carries the movie.

Bruce: But she’s basically a zombie—there’s no real range to the character. John C. Reilly, as her husband, schlubs his way through the role like he does in every movie.

AJ: He’s the galumph of choice in movies these days. He doesn’t have anything to do except look unpleasant.

Bruce: The idea that these two goons had sex and created Ezra Miller strains credulity.

AJ: The kid who plays Kevin as a younger child is strikingly interesting-looking, as is Tilda Swinton, for reasons that are the exact opposite of this child. She has high cheekbones and pale skin and he’s dark and has this wide, moonish face.

Bruce: And John C. Reilly looks like Shrek.

AJ: I believe his mother was, in fact, a Gorgon. He’s not allowed to look in the mirror while he’s putting on his makeup or he will turn himself to stone.

Bruce: I think we’ve talked enough about Kevin…

AJ: I don’t think we quite have. I’m not sure how we can impress on people how resistant it is to subtlety and innuendo.

Bruce: It’s just brutally stupid. American Horror Story handles the story of a school shooter and the effect on a family more realistically, and that’s a show about ghosts.

AJ: OK, now I’ve cleaned my palate about Kevin, and I hope to be hypnotized into forgetting I ever saw it.

Bruce: On to Pariah—it’s about a black teenage lesbian who’s beginning to dress as a boy, and this is tearing her family apart. Her judgmental religious mother, played by Kim Wayans, is appalled by this, and her father, who’s a cop, is trying to ignore it. I liked it, but I didn’t have a lot of context because it’s so removed from my experience as a non-black, non-teenage, non-lesbian. I admired it much more than Kevin because it was artfully done and disorienting in a good way. It took me into a world I didn’t know and dropped me in the middle of it. It felt realistic, authentic and organic in a way that was the exact opposite of Kevin.

AJ: It’s an exceptionally well-made film, especially of its genre. It’s a low-budget indie, so it would be easy to overlook its shortcomings and forgive them. You do not have to forgive anything about Pariah. It could have cost $60 million or $60,000. It had the look and style that the filmmaker, Dee Rees, wanted. And nothing about it is as heavy-handed as Kevin.

Bruce: And this character writes autobiographical poetry, which could have been…

AJ: Horribly mawkish.

Bruce: But is actually quite moving.

AJ: One of the things I found interesting about the movie as a gay person myself is there’s this tendency when you’re coming out to say, “Well, I need to be what I’m expected to be, and not just to my parents. If I want to be gay, that must mean that I want to cross-dress or do drag or swish when I walk, and I just want to play sports and drink beer.” Her mother’s trying to force girly-girl clothes on her, and she wears them to school, but then immediately goes to school and changes into a wife beater and a hat and she’s basically putting on what she thinks is black lesbian drag. And she comes to a point where she realizes that’s the same as resisting the t-shirts that say princess on them. Neither one is who she is—she just wants to be herself.  But she’s being forced into these roles.

Bruce: There’s a lot of nuance to the movie.

AJ: Alike has a friend named Laura, who’s in love with her but she doesn’t realize it.

Bruce: But it doesn’t hit you over the head with that. You come to realize that over the course of the movie. It’s not like you know it from the first scene and sit there going, “Why doesn’t she realize it?” The characters aren’t idiots.

AJ: The characters in Pariah are legitimately real and human. And it has an interesting message about what you should do as a parent, which is to allow children to be who they are. When you’re a gay kid, parents don’t realize it but they’re always subtly prodding you into assumed roles. I grew up in a room covered in soldiers, and it only made me like men in uniform more.

Bruce: It’s certainly a subtler portrayal of parenting than Kevin. Alike’s mother could’ve been a very stereotypical overly religious character, but through the course of the film, you see her struggling with it. None of the characters are one-dimensional. And the cast is great. Adepero Oduye, who got a nice shout-out from Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes, is terrific.

AJ: It’s extremely well-acted. And the camerawork, even though it’s hand-held, is polished, like NYPD Blue, as opposed to “This was a low-budget movie so we had to take any footage we could get.” The editing style of Kevin was so much more intentionally artsy and so less helpful to the narrative.

Bruce: The cinematography in Kevin is so pretentious and calling attention to itself that you’re distracted from the story, whereas the cinematography in Pariah is beautiful but doesn’t detract.

AJ: The most heavy-handed thing about Pariah is the name of the movie. Because she’s not really a pariah. Lepers are pariahs, not kids whose mothers don’t want to talk to them.

Bruce: So ironically, we’re embracing Pariah.

AJ: Yes, Pariah is welcome at our place. Whereas we need to talk about getting rid of Kevin.

Have you seen Pariah or We Need to Talk About Kevin? Let’s talk about it—post a comment!

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