112 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, July 24, 1998
Written & directed by Susan Skoog
Starring Liza Weil, Chad Morgan, Kathryn Rossetter & Frederic Forrest
Link to: Interview w/ director Susan Skoog
"Whatever" a complex, introspective '80s teen picture
"Whatever" is a soundtrack-driven teen angst and frustration movie that visits some of the same territory as John Hughes' bubble gum pictures did in the 1980s, but from a earnest, complex and introspective point of view.
Where the kids in Hughes' guilty pleasure Brat Pack flicks ("Sixteen Candles," "Pretty in Pink") faced candy-coated problems like whether the rich guy with the sports car would ask Molly Ringwald to the prom, writer-director Susan Skoog's "Whatever" has a depth and reality so potent I could almost smell the ganja in the party scenes.
Set in post-disco, pre-AIDS scare, 1981 New Jersey, this highly personal, female-skewed coming-of-age story turns a frank and often funny spotlight on such lingering issues as virginity, rejection, fear of the future and the psychological effects of sexual abuse through the lives Anna (Liza Weil), an unsure, curious girl with art school ambitions, and her best friend Brenda (Chad Morgan), a promiscuous, hard-partying rebel with a lot of family secrets she masks with booze and easy sex.
With graduation on the horizon, Anna, a promising painter, has her self-esteem riding on acceptance to a free art college in New York, since her family can't afford anything better.
An attractive but slightly dowdy girl who hangs on the social fringe of her high school, doodling on her jeans and daydreaming, she is at once jaded and naive, and naturally, a little aimless.
Her party-hardy friendship with the more experienced Brenda is a catalyst for small adventures (a trip to New York to scout the school) and several mistakes, including her somewhat clumsy and unpleasant experimentation with sex. Anna is in a bit over her head with this very troubled friend.
Actress Chad Morgan nails Brenda's spirit so perfectly that she is almost instantly recognizable as a girl with a history of sexual abuse. By way of defying the emotional train wreck that is always bearing down on her, Brenda is constantly dragging Anna into risky behavior. Late in the movie, they break in to her abusive step-father's office, get caught, and subsequently flee down the eastern seaboard with a pair of palooka parolees -- the kind of leather-clad losers in their late 20s who still hang around high school girls and reminisce about cool stuff they did when they were 14.
Skoog's unadorned production style and extraordinarily natural tone have the slice-of-life flavor of a Mike Leigh film (like "Secrets and Lies"), especially in the way the characters communicate.
Weil impulsively uses teenage mantras like "I guess," "I don't know" and "Whatever," not as a gimmick, but to say exactly what they mean coming from a 17-year-old: "I'm acknowledging you spoke to me, but I don’t really care what you said."
The film is peppered with these kind of seemingly unconscious details that exponentially enhance the authenticity, the best example of which is the fact that Anna, still learning to cope with her generous breasts, tends to tug at her top when getting dressed, trying to de-emphasize them.
Another smart, subtle touch: After Anna loses her virginity, she gets on her bike to ride home, then feeling a little sore, thinks the better of it and walks instead.
The only big problem with "Whatever" is that any depth allowed the adult characters comes very late -- they are mostly flat geeks until the script calls on them to have meaningful conversations with Anna.
Nevertheless, this is a most vivid, flashback-inducing teen catharsis picture. It may not draw the "Clueless" crowd, but I can't think of any movie that comes closer to accurately portraying what it felt like to be 17.