The cover of July’s Vanity Fair provocatively displays "tween" stars all clad in pink skin-tight duds. Maybe it’s because I grew up with a young Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet as my heroine, but the magazine’s emphasis on these teens’ status as commodity spin-offs rather than their (few shreds of) talent startled me.
Fifteen-year-old Hilary Duff (Lizzie McGuire) peddles everything from bunny slippers to hairdryers. It seems that, no matter what, young Amanda Bynes gets "What a Girl Wants", and more. Singer Britney serves as her own brand, though certainly not because she can act (take a gander at 2002’s Crossroads ). And the identical Olsen twins, who most recently can be seen in cameos in the new Charlie’s Angels, idolize Martha Stewart "because of, like, everything she’s created within her brand." The girls also market a billion-dollar line that includes teenybopper books, videos, and even lip gloss. At 16, these twins are already worth $300 million.
But can these girls act, and does that even matter to anyone anymore?
Happily, it turns out that, at least outside of America, some teens can deliver performances with great depth and compassion— and sometimes those performances even make it to our multiplexes. Witness New Zealand’s Whale Rider, which even won this year’s Sundance’s World Cinema Award; Scotland’s Sweet Sixteen ; and Sweden’s Lilya 4-Ever , all released this year.
In Whale Rider , previously unknown 11-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes portrays a twin whose brother and mother died at her birth, leaving no male leader for their tribe. Based on the legendary Paikea , this character lovingly defies her grandfather, and learns the male rituals and chants to become a leader herself. When a crisis befalls this unspoiled Maori coastal village, Pai knows she is the one who must take the risk to save her people.
How an 11-year-old conveys such inner strength and naturalness in front of a hovering movie crew is the real miracle of this gorgeously filmed contemporary legend. Of special interest are the all Maori actors (mostly villagers) and the shimmering digital whales, created by Tim Sanders, who worked for five years with Peter Jackson on Lord of the Rings .
Sweet Sixteen is set on the Clyde, outside of Glasgow: The entire movie is even subtitled. Its director, the English Ken Loach, is known for his sympathetic working class films such as Raining Stones. He often fixes his camera at a distance, revealing to his actors only a bit of the script at a time to ensure they react with a raw spontaneity.
Loach achieves this kind of spontaneity in the brother-sister fight scene provoked by Liam, as played by 17-year-old Brando-like talent Martin Compston, who didn’t even want to audition along with the hundreds of others, but whose father made him go. Liam, a high-school kid who plays good football in real life, plays a 15-year-old whose mum, imprisoned on a drug rap, is due to get out on her son’s l6th birthday. To please his mother and to find them both a home separate from her thuggy, druggy boyfriend, he wants to buy her a caravan with a beautiful view of the Clyde. He actually starts making down payments on a place, using money he gets by intercepting drug shipments to the boyfriend. Because the top boss likes his nerve, a semi-Faustian deal is struck: You work for me and you’ll get your caravan money.
At the film’s end, nothing turns out the way Liam has dreamed, and Loach reveals no solutions for him except for his persisting will to survive, no matter how betrayed and how alone. In Sweet Sixteen, Martin Compston as Liam conveys both the street smarts and cocky humor of a gamester, and a heart-breaking yearning for his mother, recalling Brando’s cry of "Stella, Stella!" It is not a surprise that this film took several prizes at Cannes.
Lilya 4-Ever’s director, the Swede Lukas Moodysson, made last year’s Together and has published several volumes of poetry. Much of his latest film is set in the Soviet hinterlands project housing and stars a 16-year-old Russian girl, Oksana Akinshina, selected from a 1,000-teen search.
As the film opens, Lilya is running and running, and we wonder if we’ve slipped into Run Lola Run. We discover that she’s trying to escape something, and flashback to a year before: Lilya running after the car of her mother, about to abandon her for America. Weeping, slipping in the mud in her flowered nightgown, Lilya pleads, "Momma, don’t go. I won’t make it!" But for a while she does survive more or less intact, announcing to all that she shares a birthday with Britney Spears.
Soon, however, she is reduced to turning tricks like many of her Russian girlfriends. Luckily, Lilya is attractive and generous, and buys with her new money, food, and a basketball for her younger pal, an abused boy (Artiom Bogucharski) whose father immediately punctures the basketball and kicks him out. He and Lilya hover together in a rancid hole of an apartment, and she is eventually gang-raped.
All along, Lilya has prayed to a picture of an angel that she rescued from her home, and even after she has been duped by "a nice man" into sex slavery in Sweden, her angel stays with her. Her will to live appears as indomitable as Liam’s, but it’s unclear whether she, along with the thousands of other girls forced into this degradation, can ever escape. Moodysson, though a grim political realist, suggests through his spunky actress that a kind of redemption is possible—a kind completely unconnected to someone like Britney.
Recently, America has also sounded a few hopeful teen notes. Blue Car showcases how Agnes Bruckner, an unhappy 17-year-old whose father has driven away in a blue car and whose mother is too frantic to attend to her daughters, falls prey to an affair with her older, seemingly sympathetic English teacher. Although the movie, directed by Karen Moncrieff, conveys a virtual morass of clichés, it also offers us a new actress of sensitivity and quiet strength.
And this summer’s Spellbound, an unexpectedly exciting documentary by Jeff Blitz, follows eight young teens participating in the 1999 National Spelling Bee. Nine million kids enter; 249 attend the finals in Washington, D.C.; one wins. The kids’ (and some of their parents’) intense dedication staggers: Some study 4,000 words each day after completing their normal homework.
These youths' energy, generosity, and stoicism restore and rejuvenate their audiences, taking us on a thrilling edge-of-the-seat ride into the astonishing field of real teen power.
GALEN WILLIAMS ran the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street YM-YWHA in the 1960s.