Usually, main characters in movies are good guys, people we can cheer for and get behind. Other times they can be bad guys, like in Nightcrawler and Taxi Driver. These villains are so deranged that watching them is like watching a car wreck in slo-mo. Amadeus has the villain Salieri as its main character and narrator, while Wall Street’s Bud Fox isn’t a villain at first, but throughout the story we watch this young, impressionable narrator become seduced by Gordon Gecko with the idea that “greed is good.” By the movie’s end, he has rejected the ethical lessons of his father taught him, engaged in insider trading, and become a criminal.
But with 2015’s Tangerine and 2011’s Young Adult, we get protagonists who aren’t heroes, but they’re not villains either. They’re just deeply flawed people who are written and portrayed in such a non-judgemental, yet entertaining way that they come across as fascinating.
Young Adult is directed by Jason Reitman, the son of Hollywood director Ivan Reitman, known for blockbuster comedies like Ghostbusters, Stripes, and Kindergarten Cop. Reitman has created several interesting and exciting films, like his early efforts, Thank You for Smoking and Juno. Although they start out as non-traditional stories, both of these end with the traditional morality we see in the theaters (i.e., lobbying for smoking is bad, and love conquers all). But with Young Adult, and 2018’s Tully, we see two movies that are less conventional dramas with difficult, yet familiar characters and almost no moral resolution at all. Clearly, Jason is not following in his father’s creative footsteps.
Tangerine, directed by Sean Baker, along with his follow-up, 2017’s The Florida Project, both center on characters few of us have probably had any dealings with, transgendered prostitutes in the first and a group of hidden homeless in the second. Again, neither film ends with any moral resolution despite the fact that its characters employ unorthodox, some might say less than honorable, choices.
With the New Hollywood movement of the late 60s through the 70s some films, like The Graduate, gave us nonheroic characters who wind up ending the story by making poor to middling, albeit realistic choices. But for the most part, those characters either progressed or suffered for their choices. With Baker's two films along with Reitman's Young Adult and his most recent entry, Tully, we're seeing protagonists engage in a story where any lessons they've learned either aren't sustained by them or simply can't be.
Take Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) from Young Adult. She receives word that her high school boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) have just had a baby in Mercury, the small Minnesota town where they all grew up. Convinced that Buddy is the key to her happiness and she to his, Mavis hits the road, leaving Minneapolis for a trip in which she’s convinced she can rescue Buddy from his family and take him away with her.
Now, Mavis is an utterly selfish person who’s narcissistic nature is so strong she can’t be involved in any situation without making it about herself. In fact, if anyone of us were to meet her we’d probably run quickly in the opposite direction. If we are kind, and a little bit voyeuristic, we might, like Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), decide to befriend her in the hopes that she’s changed, but if not, at least we’ll watch an interesting show. And like Matt, we can only tilt our head and watch in utter amazement as she tries one trick after another to no avail.
Mavis is the ghost writer for a series of teen books (think Sweet Valley High) that’s coming to a close. And as we watch her, we see that she bases much of her shallow teen drama on her own character’s desires and adventures.
As Mavis crashes and burns, again and again, Matt, and by extension, the audience, hopes that she’ll realize not only that her plan is doomed to fail because Buddy loves his wife and baby, but that it’s just plain mean. However, to Mavis, meanness is just a cost of doing business.
“Sometimes in order to heal a few people have to get hurt,” she says.
After totally embarrassing herself at the baby’s naming ceremony …
Mavis: You can come to the city with me like we always planned.
Buddy: Mavis, I'm a married man.
Mavis: I know, we can beat this thing together.
… she does have a come-to-Jesus moment with Matt. He comforts her and they spend the night together utterly sad, yet in bed together. She thinks that maybe she was just a fool to think she could or even should try to break up Buddy’s family to fulfill her own fantasy of being with him. She wakes up in the morning a changed woman … and then she goes into the kitchen and sees Matt’s sister, Sandra (Collette Wolfe), who idolized her when they were younger and still does. Mavis confides that she has a lot of problems and really needs to change herself. She needs to grow up, she says, and stop thinking everything is about her fulfilling her own desires and recognize there are other people in the world who can be happy without all of the trappings that she pursues.
Mavis: Yeah. But, most people here seem so happy with so little. It’s like they don’t even seem to care what happens to them.
Sandra: That’s because it doesn’t matter what happens to them. They’re nothing. Might as well die. Fuck Mercury.
Mavis: Thank you. Whoa. I needed that. You’re right. This place blows. I need to get back to Minneapolis.
Sandra: Take me with you.
Mavis: Excuse me?
Sandra: Take me with you. To the Mini Apple.
Mavis: You're good here, Sandra.
Just like that, Mavis, who just yesterday learned the hard way, has throned herself once again as queen of the shallow life by believing that because one person envies her, that she must have been doing something right. Nevermind the scores of people who exhibited their disapproval and pitied her the day before. Sandra’s envy proves to Mavis that she was right all along.
The drama in writer Diablo Cody's and director Reitman’s story reads more like a French New Wave film than a domestic comedic drama. In the traditional Hollywood morality tale, the characters learn from their mistakes by the end and become poised for a happier, more successful life. But in Young Adult, Mavis rejects the moral she learned, even after first accepting it, all because someone shows her that she’s still worshipped, even if it is someone who was so unimportant that she couldn’t even remember knowing her. In the last scene, we watch Mavis gazing at the wreck she made of her car then driving away, no better than she was at the start.
Theron infuses Mavis with self-confidence masking deep insecurity so well that she sometimes comes across as cocky and pitiful in the same sentence. Not only do her expressions sometimes reveal that the words she’s saying are often just a ruse, her reactions to other characters, like Matt and Buddy, when they tell her things she doesn’t like, can move from denial to realization to vehement rejection all in the space of a few seconds.
Theron’s exquisite performance combined with Cody’s insightful script and Reitman’s direction that allows his performers space and the time to breathe make Young Adult a fascinating and fun film.
Writer/director Baker’s Tangerine also presents us with characters who are noteworthy, namely because, although the majority of them engage in shady shenanigans and exhibit bizarre moral codes, they are adept at gaining our sympathy.
We begin by meeting transgendered prostitutes Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) after Sin-Dee gets released from prison. When she tells her about how she has to meet up with her boyfriend and pimp, Chester, Alexandra lets it spill that Chester (James Ransone) is not just cheating on her, but he’s cheating on her with a woman. Sin-Dee rushes off, as Alexandra follows, to find and kidnap the woman to bring her to Chester so she can test the truth of Alexandra’s assertions.
Meanwhile, we meet Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a taxi driver, who at first seems fairly harmless, until we see that although he has a wife and infant daughter at home, he has a predilection for transgendered prostitutes. In one scene we watch as he picks one up then reacts in disgust and anger when he discovers that she’s actually a woman. He then goes home to have Christmas dinner with his family and mother-in-law, only to prematurely excuse himself saying he has to work when in reality he’s going to watch Alexandra’s singing debut at an open-mic night.
Sin-Dee kidnaps Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), dragging her on the bus to see Alexandra’s show before meeting up with Chester at an all-night donut shop. Razmik arrives at the restaurant, closely followed by his mother-in-law who’s got his wife and daughter in tow so she can prove to them that he’s no good. A real shit show ensues with Sin-Dee confronting Chester, Dinah confronting Sin-Dee, Chester denying it all and then begging forgiveness, Razmik denying it all and trying to get his family out of there all the while the shop owner, who just wants a peaceful store with no drama repeatedly threatens to call the police.
At no point do Sin-Dee, Alexandra, Dinah or Chester ever reconsider their life of prostitution or drug-taking and dealing. At no point does Razmik ever repent, or even admit to cheating. In addition, his wife seems more bothered by her mother-in-law’s brazen actions than by the revelation of her husband’s preference for transgendered women over her. Sin-Dee goes home with Chester and Razmik goes home with his wife. So despite there being ample time and reason for this to turn into a morality tale, it never questions the choices its characters make, preferring a slice-of-life style for this situation and these characters.
As a result, it's a much richer story than it would have had it had Sin-Dee walked away after telling Chester off, or if Razmik's wife had announced plans for divorce instead of telling her mother to butt out. While Mavis' come-to-Jesus moment could have lasted and she could have ended up a better, happier person, but it isn't that such a scenario isn't likely. It isn't even that interesting. These two stories show us that a more realistic ending where the characters don't learn a damn thing, don't get their comeuppance, and don't really suffer for their poor choices (or at least don't acknowledge their suffering) can be more engaging and provocative than the alternatives.
While much has been said of Baker’s production shooting on iPhones, and somewhat less has been made of how he used real transgendered prostitutes of color as his main actors and characters, not much has been said about the unconventional morality of his films.
All three of these attributes bode well for the future of cinema, but it’s the last one that I’ll bet we’ll be seeing used by these two filmmakers and several more in the years to come.