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Skateland: 80's Coming-of-Age Drama
Skateland takes a universal story and sets it in a specific era, in this case small-town Texas in the early 80s. The local skating rink, Skateland is closing down. Its manager, 19-year-old Ritchie (Fernandez) has to figure out what he intends to do with his life, by either finding a new job or going to college to hone his writing talent. Either way, he has to start getting his life back on track so he doesn’t end up like his friend Brent (Freeman), the oldest guy at the high school parties.
Skateland’s immediate enjoyment is more in its mise-en-scène than in its narrative. The clothes, the sets, the feathered hair and the soundtrack, even the red and blue palette evoke the 80s perfectly. The film is just beautiful to look at and the soundtrack goes perfectly with the visuals. We’re introduced to the three main characters to the sound of Def Leppard’s ‘Rock of Ages’ and we find out that Ritchie’s mum is having an affair while Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ plays. It’s the perfect late 70s/early 80s mix tape. Even the characters’ jobs are reminiscent of the era; Ritchie works at a roller skating rink while his friend, music nerd Michelle (Greene) works at a record shop.
Unfortunately, the same attention paid to the production values was not given to the story or acting. The plot is your run-of-the-mill tale of teen transitions to adulthood full of existential angst. However, Fernandez’s Ritchie doesn’t really seem to care about his future and doesn’t want to bother with thinking about it despite having Brent, the eternal man-child, as an example of what he could end up becoming. Brent’s life isn’t going anywhere and he’s reduced to boozing with high school kids while people his age have steady jobs and families.
When Ritchie goes on about not being able to make a decision because he doesn’t know what he wants, you don’t believe that he’s given the matter any thought in the first place. He comes across as lazy, not lost, and you never really understand why both his sister and Michelle nag him so much about his future; for some reason they care more than he does! And while his sister’s attitude may be understandable (they’re related and she seems like a Stepford wife-in-training), Michelle is the exact opposite of Ritchie. She’s motivated, knows what she wants and will do what it takes to get there. Naturally, she gets fed up with Ritchie, but never really gives up on him.
Skateland is a charming, beautiful film buoyed by an incredible soundtrack but held back by lacklustre performances of a potentially very likeable cast. Watch it for the visuals and the music.
Harrelson has a starry supporting cast backing him up made up of the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Ice Cube, Ben Foster and Robin Wright Penn. Brie Larson plays Dave’s daughter Helen, and after him, she’s the best thing about the film. The relationship between the two runs on hate and scorn mixed with a twisted kind of love. It brings to mind the saying about how blood is thicker than water. How you can hate a family member so much and see them for the worthless scum that they are, yet still allow their opinions and words to affect you. It’s a toxic relationship, one of many in the film, yet it packs a punch that the others don’t.
The story is occasionally difficult to keep track of as it jumps abruptly from one topic to another, but Dave’s internal conflict is more compelling than anything the story throws at you. Dave and Helen’s scenes together are far more powerful and infinitely more interesting than any of the scenes in which he brandishes a gun or kicks a guy to a bloody pulp. The film has some fine camera work; it forgoes flashiness just for the sake of it and instead focuses on bringing the viewer in closer to the actors. It works with the actors to set the scenes’ mood instead of just framing them.
Titled from a popular term which describes the early transfer of a young offender from a juvenile detention facility to an adult penitentiary, Starred Up is by no means an easy watch. However, as much as it is difficult to digest at times, there is a certain poetic beauty behind its seemingly violent and destructive quality that makes it difficult to look away from.
Shot within the walls of an abandoned Belfast prison, the film opens with troubled nineteen-year-old Eric Love (O’Connell) undergoing an embarrassing admittance process, involving a complete body strip down, as he’s transferred into an adult reformatory.
Immediately marked as a “single cell, high risk” type detainee, it doesn’t take long for Eric – whose frequent and violent outbursts got him relocated there in the first place – to stir up trouble and make enemies both with fellow inmates and security guards.
After a mistaken attack on another inmate lands the young delinquent into the disciplinary hands of the law, Eric is soon approached – and rescued – by the in-house therapist, Oliver Braumer (Friend), who believes that he can help the young man rehabilitate.
Unfortunately, getting to the root of Eric’s problems - and getting him to open up - is no easy task and Oliver - together with the other rehabilitating convicts - often find themselves the targets of both verbal and physical abuse. To top it off, Eric has to find a way to learn to share the walls of his new confinements with his estranged father, Nev (Mendelsohn), who is currently serving a life-sentence in the same prison.
Penned by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Asser – a former prison psychotherapist whose own experience with the British penal-system adds a hefty dose of authenticity and realism to the film – Starred Up, told through a series of wordless and violent expositions, is fuelled with gripping intensity which is hard to shake off. Relying on action, rather than words, the uniqueness – and the heart - of the story lies with the father-son narrative, whose bonding difficulties are depicted through the oppressiveness of life in prison.
Contributing to the movie’s relentless and uncompromising approach to despair and violence, O’Connell – mostly known for his role in the British TV-series Skins and recently seen as the lead in Angelina Jolie’s war-drama Unbroken – is an absolute standout; feral and unpredictable, his performance carries the film, while Mendelsohn is equally superb as a man whose persona and motives are seemingly hard to read.
Powerful, emotional but never too sentimental, Starred Up is a true British-prison drama classic whose quietly yielding power and passion for storytelling will leave you feeling captivated and moved.