Tag Archives: B-

FITTING IN

Producer: Jennifer Weiss   Director: Molly McGlynn   Screenplay: Molly McGlynn   Cast: Maddie Ziegler, Emily Hampshire, Djouliet Amara, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Ki Griffin, Dale Whibley, Michael Therriault, Christian Rose and Dennis Andres   Distributor: Blue Fox Entertainment

Grade: B-

One of the best decisions Canadian writer-director Molly McGlynn made with regard to her second feature, a semi-autobiographical high-school dramedy, came in post-production.  When it premiered at South by Southwest last year, the movie was titled “Bloody Hell,” which certainly would have led viewers to expect something quite different.  Its replacement has a double meaning that’s really too clever to be entirely satisfactory, but it’s a definite improvement.

The first aspect of “Fitting In” that applies to sixteen-year old Lindy (Maddie Ziegler) is the desire to be part of the regular crowd on campus.  Along with her long-time best friend Vivian (Djouliet Amara), she’s a star on the track team, chosen by their coach (Dennis Andres) for an important slot on the squad.  And she has a handsome boyfriend in Adam (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), with whom she’s planning to have her first sexual experience—apart from those of a solitary sort.  Her relationship with her mother Rita (Emily Hampshire) has an occasional rough spot, of course, but that’s hardly atypical.

A decision to seek birth control in preparation for a night with Adam takes her to a gynecologist (Michael Therriault) for a consultation, since she’s not yet had her first period.  His examination reveals something startling: Lindy has a rare condition, MRKH Syndrome, a congenital abnormality resulting in a missing uterus and cervix and a partial vaginal canal.  Not only will she never be able to have children, but she will be able to have sex only through stretching exercises with vaginal dilators or surgical intervention.

The news is devastating to the girl, who feels unable to share the truth about her condition with her friends.  That alters her easygoing relationship with Vivian and her more serious one with Adam; neither can understand her change of attitude, which they can only take to read as a decision to distance herself from them.  It also affects her bond with Rita, who has troubles of her own—professionally, in her job as a therapist, and personally, as she still bears feelings of loss from a mastectomy, as well as the pain caused by her husband’s abandonment when Lindy was just a toddler.  Lindy is increasingly estranged from all those who have been closest to her.

She tries to work with the dilators (the other allusion to fitting in, of course), which offer no satisfaction, and considers the surgical option, though that’s expensive.  She tries to test matters for herself, inducing Chad (Dale Whibley), a naïve classmate who works at a fast-food joint, to experiment with her to ascertain how pleasurable the limited action she can offer might be for a partner.  She also briefly attends a meeting of the few students who identify as LGBTQ, where she meets Jax (Ki Griffin), unabashedly intersex, who reveals the experiences she went through in her younger years.

Lindy develops a friendship with Jax, leading to a kiss at a party where she rather cruelly rejects Chad and drunkenly reveals her secret to an equally wasted classmate (Christian Rose).  He in turn unthinkingly spreads the news to everybody on campus, while leads to the inevitable “This is who I am!” public declaration to the school that brings Lindy a sense of triumphant closure. 

None of this sounds particularly funny, and in fact it’s not; but McGlynn manages to add humorous notes to what is essentially serious material along the way, so that it’s not merely melodramatic either.  And the characters are presented in likable terms; the young ones may occasionally act in insensitive ways, but it’s not out of malice—even the kid who lets Lindy’s secret out of the bag does so thoughtlessly.  (Indeed, it’s the obtuse gynecologist who comes off worst; he should really know better how to deliver a pretty traumatic diagnosis.)   The actors who play them—Amara, Woon-A-Tai, Griffin, Whibley—are all likable, too.  And Ziegler delivers a powerhouse lead turn.  Lindy, frankly, is not always the most sympathetic of people; in her anger over her condition and fear it might get out, she can be borderline cruel, as with poor Chad (who doesn’t really get the apology he deserves).  But Ziegler makes you feel for her even when she’s being mean.

That includes her often unfeeling treatment of Rita, whom Hampshire embodies with a maternal desperation to help that’s almost palpable.  Some of the verbal battles between mother and daughter tend to be a mite overextended, but Hampshire is strong enough to pull them off.

The film, shot by Nina Djacic in Sudbury, Ontario, and edited by Maureen Grant, will win no awards for visual beauty or perfect pacing, but it looks and moves well enough, and the score by Casey Manierka-Quaile avoids genre cliché, though some of the pop music needle drops are pretty obvious.

In all, “Fitting In” is a teen tale that embeds a familiar message about self-acceptance in an unusual narrative about physical identity that has a potent topical thrust.  The fact that it can also make you laugh is an added bonus.               

THE IRON CLAW

Producers: Tessa Ross, Juliette Howell, Sean Durkin, Angus Lamont, Derrin Schlesinger   Director: Sean Durkin Screenplay: Sean Durkin Cast: Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, Maura Tierney, Holt McCallany, Lily James, Stanley Simons, Aaron Dean Eisenberg, Maxwell Jacob Friedman, Brady Pierce, Kevin Anton, Cazzey Louis Cereghino, Chavo Guerrero Jr., Ryan Nemeth, Grady Wilson, Valentine Newcomer, Michael Harney and Scott Innes    Distributor: A24

Grade: B-

Most everything but the emotions—and the running-time—seems curiously small in Sean Durkin’s domestic soap opera about the so-called Von Erich Curse; even the wrestling ring that serves as the backdrop central to the family dynamic feels less than full-sized, perhaps in an attempt to make the trio of lead actors look more physically imposing when they’re in it.  (Though all are dramatically strong and have clearly bulked up for their roles, they’re hardly the actual size of the grappling brothers they’re portraying, and their foes have been cast accordingly.)

“The Iron Claw” is also odd in that as a narrative it feels both solemn and rushed, telling the story at a very deliberate pace but omitting much of the detail that could have given it greater heft.  One’s left with the nagging suspicion that it really cries out for mini-series treatment.

Still, with all its fundamental flaws, Durkin’s film remains pretty absorbing.

The title refers to a devastating submission hold that 1960s wrestling villain Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany) employs—a grip to the face of opponents that inevitably sends them screaming to the mat.  But it also points to the unyielding control that he wields over his family, wife Doris (Maura Tierney) and sons Kevin (Zac Efron), David (Harris Dickinson), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) and Mike (Stanley Simons). 

The film begins in the sixties, when Fritz (his ring name—he was born Jack Adkisson) announces his ambition to his wife, not only to excel as a wrestler but to become a promoter as well.  It then shifts quickly to the 1970s, when he’s brought Kevin and David into his stable of wrestlers in Texas; he’ll later add Kerry after the boy’s hope for Olympic glory in the discus throw is dashed with Jimmy Carter’s withdrawal of the American team from competition in the 1980 games in Russia.  The siblings, all using their father’s signature hold, become superstars in the Dallas territory and elsewhere via television syndication.

But the family suffers tragedy after tragedy.  Fritz’s oldest son Jack Jr. had been killed in an accident when he was six, and now David dies while wrestling in Japan in 1984 at twenty-five; Fritz brings a reluctant Mike into the business to replace him, but he suffers an injury in the ring that leads to a life-threatening condition and his suicide in 1987 at age twenty-three.  Meanwhile Kerry is involved in a motorcycle accident that leads to the amputation of his right foot; he continues to wrestle but with a prosthesis, though he hides the fact from the world until, brought down by grief and legal problems, he too commits suicide in 1993 at thirty-three.  (This is not the end of the family’s losses: Chris, another of Fritz’s sons, killed himself in 1991 after a short, unsuccessful wrestling career; he was only twenty-one.  He is not mentioned in the film.)  Fritz himself died of cancer in 1997, having suffered the loss of four of his five boys.

Durkin shows no interest in depicting the horror of this series of deaths explicitly; they occur offscreen and are discreetly reported afterward, with elaborate funerals following.   Instead he structures his account of this series of tragedies around the reaction of the sole surviving von Erich son, Kevin, who’s portrayed by Efron as the de facto oldest brother but not necessarily his father’s favorite at any given moment.  (Fritz, we’re told, had a habit of ranking the boys on the basis of their abilities—in the ring and in terms of fan popularity; and Kevin’s relative shyness and inability to do proper trash talk for the camera hobbled him.)  A good deal of time is devoted to his romance with, and marriage to, Pam (Lily James), who introduces herself after a match and effectively asks for a date.  Becoming a father himself—the couple eventually have four children, two boys and two girls, all of whom he insists on being registered on birth certificates as Adkisson to avoid the possible effect of any curse—creates inevitable stress because of his sad responsibilities to his parents and brothers (and the family business); the emotional impact is shown in his manic use of the claw in a match against flamboyant reigning champ Ric Flair (Aaron Dean Eisenberg).  But he emerges as a survivor.

And Efron is quite stunning in the part, not just in terms of his bulked-up physique and his ring action (choreographed by wrestler Chavo Guerrero Jr., himself a member of a famous wrestling clan, and supplemented by some stunt work) but in the performance’s emotional range.  Yes, at times he can get a bit treacly—this is, after all, basically a macho weepie in which, among other things, one recently deceased brother travels by boat to an afterlife where those who have predeceased him are waiting to greet him on the dock—but it’s still a wrenchingly affecting turn. 

There’s another great performance, however—by McCallany as the single-minded, literally iron-fisted patriarch so determined to realize his dream that he puts his sons in harm’s way to do so (his treatment of Mike, played by Simons as a gentle, sensitive soul who only wants to play music and is not a natural athlete like his brothers, is very like a case of child abuse).  One can imagine a different version of this story, in which he rather than Kevin would take center stage as a modern King Lear, oblivious to the damage he’s doing.  As it is, one gets a limited sense of that here, thanks to the bulldog strength McCallany brings to the role.  As his long-suffering spouse Tierney is also outstanding, though her screen time is more limited.

That’s not to neglect the excellence of Dickinson and especially White as David and Kerry.  Dickinson brings out the former’s brashness with vigor and White the latter’s descent into excess and despair with poignancy.  James expertly conveys Pam’s vivacity as Kevin’s girlfriend and her concern as his wife.  It’s the family members that dominate here, and apart from Eisenberg’s Flair, the other wrestlers are glimpsed only fleetingly and to little effect.

“The Iron Claw” isn’t a big-budget movie, and sometimes the limitations show; but the work of production designer James Price and costume designer Jennifer Starzyk achieve a good feel of place and time, and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély captures it with a sense of gritty realism, while Matthew Hannam’s editing emphasizes the emotional ups and downs effectively.  Richard Reed Perry’s score is nicely spare, not overstating the dramatic beats. 

There are documentaries about the von Erich family that offer greater detail, though obviously in flatter, less dramatic terms.  But Durkin has pared down the sad story and shaped it effectively, with obvious devotion.  The result is a sporadically moving, if sprawling account of a father’s obsessive determination to achieve his dream vicariously through his sons, with disastrous results.