Friday, April 26, 2013

Brazzaville Teen-ager is a triumph.

I just watched Michael Cera's new short film, Brazzaville Teen-ager, and I found it resonant and powerful. Here is a link to the film: This to me is a film about exploring the bargaining stage of grief. It's a bargaining fantasy. Gunther comes to some intuitive understanding that if he makes some self-sacrifice, that he will be rewarded with the continued existence of his aloof father, played in a nice, understated way by Charles Grodin. The idea of bargaining a self sacrifice as a stage of grief is all too common--the deal with God. "I'll be a better person and more like you want me to be if I get to keep my pop." But the bargain is usually a noble self sacrifice. Here Gunther imagines that his self sacrifice must be ignoble. It must be debasing and humiliating. It has to involve the breaking of unwritten rules of social living. It involves crossing a generational barrier--the one separating him from his father. It involves not only his own humiliation and discomfort, but also a humiliating request that a member of that older generation must cross that same generational barrier and enter into a scenario that is as much a fish-out-of-water scene as the one he must endure just to make the request. So the film opens with scenes of the hospital where Gunther's dad is dying, but the sound track is of a conversation Gunther is having with someone of his own generation. Gunther is open and honest about his feelings. He is scared of being alone. He wants answers from his dad before his dad moves on. And hidden in these questions is his own fear of inadequacy. He seeks to define himself and measure himself against his pop. He wants to know philosophy. He wants to know about his father's sexuality and finances--the stuff that is often off limits in cross-generational relationships. He wants to know about his father's fear. "Are you scared?" "Is Death a breeze?" As the film switches to Gunther and his dad in the room together, his questions are answered with less than overt comparisons between his son and the doctors that are treating him. He tells his son that they are good guys that don't think twice about treating a guy so much older. Gunther is told that they laugh, that they get the humor. Gunther does not. He also wants his dad to "drop his life-long cool." Gunther feels small and weak, and this is compounded by the threat of losing his dad. The bargaining fantasy comes to him. He must get over his crippling fear of crossing that generational barrier. He sees his boss humiliate a guy so badly that the co-worker seems physically ill. When Gunther is called into the office, he asks the boss to come with him to where a R&B recording session is going to be happening and sing back-up on some song. He is soundly rejected. The viewer is made to believe that this was not enough. He has to debase and humiliate himself even further. He has to go to the man's house. He has to interrupt his sophisticated, grownup party and insist. When the boss's wife comes to his aid and makes this happen, Gunther weeps. Gunther takes this man to a setting that is as uncomfortable for him as the party was for Gunther. And after it is over, the boss is humiliated and shown that in this world where he is the outsider and the underdog, he is inadequate. He is not good enough. The once dominant boss looks small and weak. On the ride back, they seem to have connected. Miraculously, Gunther's dad is healed. And when they are reunited, the audience expects that things will be different. They are not. With a lilting musical backing track, we see scenes of awkwardness between father and son. Their body language clearly suggests that they are as estranged as ever. Gunther screams his rage at his dad--his impotent rage at the top of his lungs by himself at the bottom of an elevator shaft, still unable to make a connection to his dad. It is as if it is not about the fact that he is unafraid to put himself out there. It is just that his dad is a dick. It is dreamlike and nonsensical and yet really resonant. I love this film. Although a couple of the bit parts--the friend at the bar and the guests at the grownup party seem to deliver their lines in ways that are not quite right, the rest of the film really works. The sound is especially effective as is the pacing. The lingering shots of catatonic thinking really work. The silent resolution is also very nice.