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KAHLIL GIBRAN’S THE PROPHET

The fact that labors of love, while admirable, might not turn out as well as their makers intend is amply demonstrated by this animated take on eight of the spiritually-inclined poetic sermons that Lebanese mystic Kahlil Gibran put into the mouth of a wise teacher in his best-selling 1923 book “The Prophet,” which has retained a place in popular culture for nine decades. The film is a long-time dream of actress Salma Hayek, who voices a main character as well as serving as one of the producers (as Salma Hayek-Pinault). While high-minded and well-intentioned, however, the result is a bit of a bore, despite some striking images; most adults will find the greeting-card banalities posing as profundities heavy-handed to say the least, while any children they might bring along will probably either doze off or grow increasingly fidgety.

The saving grace of the film lies in the animation of the eight chapters extracted from Gibran’s book—“On Freedom,” “On Children,” “On Marriage,” “On Work,” “On Eating and Drinking,” “On Love,” “On Good and Evil” and “On Death.” The verbal content is of the sappily inspirational variety, but the passages are read in fulsome tones by Liam Neeson, giving them more heft than perhaps they merit, and the animation that serves to illustrate each has been done by real artists of the form—respectively Michal Socha, Nina Paley, Johan Sfar, Joan Gratz, Bill Plympton, Tomm Moore, Mohammed Saeed Harib and Paul and Gaetan Brizzi. Each brings a distinctive look to his or her contribution, and though tastes will differ about their relative effectiveness, all show moments of real visual inspiration.

The same cannot be said, unfortunately, of the narrative that’s been devised by Roger Allers (“The Lion King”) to tie the various episodes together. It’s the story of a poet and painter named Mustafa (Neeson), who’s been kept under house arrest for seven years by a repressive government for espousing views that, officials contend, promote dissent and rebellion. He befriends Almitra (Quvenzhane Wallis), the daughter of his housekeeper (Hayek-Pinault), a rambunctious little girl who hasn’t spoken since the death of her father but warms to the gentle, understanding prisoner. Mustafa also serves as an unobtrusive matchmaker between the girl’s mother and his klutzy, likable guard. His homiletics to the girl and the two adults begin the series of little illustrated life-lessons taken from Gibran’s books.

When it’s announced that Mustafa is going to be shipped off to his homeland, the news requires a walk through the town to the port where a ship awaits. Almitra follows along as a fat, officious sergeant tries to push through crowds of well-wishers demanding that Mustafa stop for a meal and regale them with one of his uplifting soliloquies. Naturally the storyline reaches a concluding roadblock when a nasty general announces a last-minute condition to Mustafa’s release—an act that occasions some public turbulence as well as some final ruminations from the poet/philosopher—but in the end his soothing message proves beneficial in confronting what seem to be the harsh realities of life.

This framing device might have worked if it had been skillfully crafted, but despite Allers’ resume, it’s not. Visually the journey sequences can’t hold a candle to the work of Moore, Gratz or Plympton, to mention only three of the mini-directors; the computer animation, which has been designed to mimic old-fashioned hand-drawn work, comes across as sketchy and bland, and renders the characters in a stilted, lifeless way. But the writing is equally poor, and even a sterling voice cast can’t give it much oomph. Neeson is fine, but Mustafa is turned into a soft-spoken popular hero, which makes the picture a hagiographical portrait of Gibran, for whom he’s standing in; one half-expects the animated figure to boast a halo on his head. Almitra is meant to be lovable, but too often is portrayed as a reckless, thieving kid whose mother treats her with such permissiveness that she seems more an enabler than a concerned parent. And the goofy interplay between the chubby sergeant and his thin, charmingly goofy underling is just a faux Laurel-and-Hardy routine reminiscent of the similarly limp shenanigans that Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon attempted in Disney’s 1961 remake of “Babes in Toyland.”

So those who continue to be moved by Gibran’s words may find “The Prophet” moving and instructive. But one suspects that most viewers will consider it a tedious business. Children will be bored stiff by it, and many of their parents won’t be much more enraptured.

THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL

In terms of narrative there’s an afterschool special quality to “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” which might be described as a cautionary tale about how an impressionable fifteen-year old can enjoy indulging in sex with a much older man when a societal atmosphere of permissiveness and her dysfunctional family life offer her no guidance or support. What’s unusual about Marielle Heller’s adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographical graphic novel is that it doesn’t mute the rawness of the tale, or paint the characters in bland, simplistic colors. The film remains a cautionary tale, but an edgy, compelling one that’s often hard to watch and even harder to forget.

Bel Powley gives a career-making performance as Minnie Goetz, a precocious, articulate, artistically-inclined teen in 1970s San Francisco. Her mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), is very much a child of the time and place, engaging in a freewheeling lifestyle featuring drugs and boozing that leaves little time for bringing up Minnie and her disapproving younger sister Gretel (Abigail Wait). The girls get somewhat sterner—though ineffectual—treatment from their stepfather Pascal (Christopher Meloni), who’s separated from Charlotte but still has occasional meetings with them. But a more regular presence is Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), Charlotte’s current boyfriend, a handsome, laid-back fellow whose bemused mellowness often seems an oasis of stability in the fraught household.

Minnie may not be the most beautiful kid, but she and her buddy Kimmie (Madeleine Waters) are eager to experiment in the sexual revolution of the era. Giggling conspiratorially, they dress up to look older than they are and go off to parties and clubs where they hope to find love—or at least somebody interested in taking them to bed, whether it be a likable guy or a world-wise young lesbian, Tabatha (Margarita Levieva). And Minnie is rather forward at school as well, looking for action with Ricky (Austin Lyon), a well-to-do classmate, and Chuck (Quinn Nagle), a genial skateboarder, so forcefully that she scares them off.

Minnie’s intensity extends to Monroe, who’s sometimes lolling about in the Goetz apartment watching TV and snacking. At first he’s nonplussed by her advances, but it doesn’t take him long to consider the opportunity one that’s too inviting to resist, and soon they’re spending considerable time at his place. Minnie is so ecstatic over the loss of her virginity that she uses a borrowed cassette tape recorder to keep a diary of her amorous adventure. That, of course, will prove a major mistake.

Heller and her production team—designer Jonah Markowitz, art director Emily K. Rolph, set decorator Susan Alegria and costumer Carmen Grande—do a fine job of establishing a period atmosphere without unduly calling attention to their work, and cinematographer Brandon Trost gives the visuals a gritty, washed-out look that’s appropriate to the atmosphere of heady but skuzzy hedonism. But what sets “Diary” apart is its sense of emotional balance, which manages to present its tricky scenario in gritty, realistic terms without sensationalizing it. The intimate sequences between Minnie and Monroe are telling but treated with sensitivity, and the use of animation—in a semi-psychedelic style derived from Minnie’s own artistic efforts (as well as “H.R. Pufnstuf,” an excerpt from which is shown flickering on a TV screen at one point)—serves as an effective counterpoint to what’s happening in the girl’s real life experiences. The picture also manages an undercurrent of humor, though obviously it’s of the dark variety.

The picture’s major success, however, lies in the complexity it brings to the main characters, none of whom is turned into a simple cliché. Powley brings a compelling combination of drive and vulnerability to Minnie, showing her as no passive victim but in many respects the instigator of her ill-fated relationship with Monroe—a youngster so hungry for love that she confuses it with lust and allows her delusion of romance to take over. Rarely has the turbulent inner life of a teenage girl been depicted on screen with such directness and honesty. But equally subtle is the portrait Heller and Skarsgard draw of Monroe as a wayward man-child who takes advantage of a situation that he might not initiate but certainly embraces when the opportunity arises. While one can’t forget what he’s doing, Monroe isn’t depicted as a conniving predator but a man as lost in the ethos of his time and place as Charlotte, the neglectful mother sharply drawn by Wiig, is. It’s one of the most insightful portrayals of a dangerous but conflicted individual caught up in such a potentially explosive situation since Brian Cox’s brilliant turn in the sadly underappreciated “L.I.E.”

And so, thanks to Heller’s obvious commitment and the efforts of a superlative cast, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” emerges as a cautionary tale with bite, an afterschool special that transcends its paint-by-the-numbers roots to emerge as a provocative, realistic portrayal of teen sexuality.