School daze

There are disconnected sequences in Whatever, the film debut of writer-director Susan Skoog, that evoke a unique and harrowing experience: the high school party that won't end. Skoog obviously understands there are two kinds of students--those who can mess around with drugs, alcohol, and sex yet still observe boundaries, and those who debauch and dismantle their futures at the same time. The process of natural selection emerges when basically grounded kids discover that their best friends are endangering them, when a night that starts out with shots, a few hits off a joint, and a few smooches with a cute stranger becomes a drunken flight from a siren-wailing police car on a Saturday night. The recent high-school-seniors-party-down comedy, Can't Hardly Wait, has a dark, unspoken subtitle of 'Til This Bad Trip Ends that essentially becomes the theme of Whatever.

The film takes place in 1981 during the senior year of two sexually adventurous New Jersey girls, and it's a potentially powerful time, especially set within a female context. But while Skoog proves herself a proficient creator of mood, she is a screenwriter bereft of the tiny conversational details that crystallize a relationship. Whatever lurches on a lazy cinematic coming-of-age premise that never justifies the ambitions of our troubled, "creative" heroine or her friendship with a reckless classmate, a young woman who is wont to pass out from vodka and give her anesthetized body to a handful of boys at a time. Skoog gives us characters that are more like guidance counselor profiles of how to spot a self-destructive teenager. Like those judgmental counselors, she favors one screw-up by spotting her talent for painting that, similar to the photography asides in the equally female-driven High Art, is too vaguely explored here to be a convincing, redemptive passion. That's because it's more useful to the audience than to the filmmaker, who can neglect her characters' motivations so she can focus on verite sex and substance abuse.

From the moment Chrissie Hynde's vibrato on the Pretenders' "Mystery Achievement" laces itself around the opening credits, you know Skoog and her producer Ellin Baumel want to nail audiences with nostalgia. Playing a series of memorable songs by David Bowie, Blondie, Bryan Ferry, and Patti Smith is a cheap grope for audience identification from a couple of different musical generations. Many people will be suckered in by the tunes that introduced the extended vignettes of nightlife, but they'll soon find themselves cast adrift like shy guests through the various parties Skoog stages. Oddly enough, the soundtrack's comforting songs undercut the shock value of some very explicit drugged, horny shenanigans.

Whatever follows the diverging paths of Anna (Liza Weil), a hostile, restless painter who spends most of the movie waiting to hear if she's accepted into a prestigious New York art school, and Brenda (Chad Morgan), the model-thin, lip-gloss-shellacked buddy who drags Anna along from one all-nighter to another. Anna usually winds up on the living room couch of some overcrowded teenage bacchanal, just sober enough to pull Brenda out of some dangerous, humiliating situations. Morgan as Brenda has "the Pat Benatar look," to quote Phoebe Cates from Fast Times at Ridgemont High--headbands, shoulder-padded short sleeved blouses, shimmery tights, high boots. Although the script doesn't elaborate on this good-time girl anymore than it does Liza Weil's alienated friend, Chad Morgan is a fearless enough actress to parade Brenda's emotional availability with the poignant vampiness that sad girls who become wild so often have.

Liza Weil as Anna shows promise too, but she must carry the burden of redemption without ever getting a convincing baptism from the writer-director. Again, it's that handy plot paste-on--the driving but never quite defined artistic ambition--she loves to paint, but we almost never see her do it, let alone get any sense of what it means to her. She's given lots of pep talks about talent and the promise of New York art school from The Wisecracking Mentor Who Can See This Kid Has Something Special (Frederic Forrest, a usually gifted character actor who distorts this avuncular advisor into an annoying hipster clown).

Anna chafes inside a cluttered home, run by The Single Mom Who's Doing The Best She Can (Kathryn Rossiter, in the film's most heartfelt performance), a woman who advises her daughter, "Don't expect so much, it hurts less," and who chases any man she can, hoping for marriage and an easier life. Soon, Anna herself pursues a neighborhood guy who also paints (Mark Riffon). From the first weaselly smile he unleashes on Anna, we know he'll turn out to be The Asshole She Wished She'd Never Slept With.

Susan Skoog crams Whatever full of period detail in costume, conversation, and soundtrack, but because her characterizations never hold, all the early-'80s effluvia leaks out around your feet and clouds your earnest search for some insight into why the two leads have come to this crisis in their lives. Many filmmakers have taken the tack that their teenage characters are screwed up because, well, all teenagers are screwed up. But the best films about adolescence (Tex, Dazed and Confused) relay with gentle precision that although teenage emotional turmoil may be universal, there is usually at least one particular anger-obsession-terror that lands a young person in the shoes of a troublemaker. Skoog's movie is all peripheral detail and no delivery; she doesn't seem to understand that the atmosphere must serve the impact, not double for it.

Midway through the film, it occurs to you that the aforementioned Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which was shot in 1981, is a more succinctly confessional vision of high school decadence and the pain it can cause. That film was a teen sex comedy with an unexpectedly frank, sophisticated sexual edge, and it has aged with surprising grace. Maybe the authentic feathered hair and spandex is what helps give the impression that Whatever is a fictionalized account of the perilous high jinks in Fast Times. But Amy Heckerling's film leaves only a small space for nostalgia, because its emotional showcase can be applauded by teenagers who weren't even born when that flick was released. By the middle of Susan Skoog's debut, on the other hand, a certain smugness begins to clog the gears of her camera. In her effort to show us what a rude, reverent-to-the-moment filmmaker she can be, she elbows our emotions right out of the picture.


Written and directed by Susan Skoog. Starring Liza Weil, Chad Morgan, and Frederic Forrest. Opens Friday.


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