[Paleopsych] NYT: Films Take a More Sophisticated Look at Teenage Sex

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Films Take a More Sophisticated Look at Teenage Sex
New York Times, 5.7.6


    In Miranda July's shrewdly observed [4]"Me and You and Everyone We
    Know," a 14-year-old boy and his 7-year-old brother sit in front of a
    computer screen engaging in an increasingly common form of sex
    education: an online chat with an anonymous woman. Although the
    14-year-old is savvy enough to guess that they could be talking, say,
    to a grossly overweight man instead of some hot babe, his little
    brother suggests, "Ask if she likes baloney," then innocently offers a
    nonsensical, physically impossible act that reminds us he is not so
    far from his potty training days. The online response is, "You are
    crazy, and you are making me very hot."

    Precocious sexual knowledge - far beyond what children and teenage
    characters can absorb, and often with devastating consequences - has
    become a staple of current independent films. In the French film
    [5]"Lila Says," the title character is a 16-year-old whose wealth of
    sexual knowledge and free-wheeling behavior leads the town to think
    she may actually be a whore. In [6]Gregg Araki's unexpectedly eloquent
    [7]"Mysterious Skin," two boys who are molested by their Little League
    coach grow up to be a teenage hustler and a guy who believes he was
    abducted by aliens. (All three films are playing in New York and a
    handful of other cities, and will expand to more cities through the
    next month or so.) And movies with similar themes will arrive in the
    next month, including [8]Don Roos's comic romance [9]"Happy Endings"
    and the satiric [10]"Pretty Persuasion."

    But while these filmmakers are highly aware of the dangers such early
    knowledge can pose - from Internet predators to unwanted pregnancy -
    their films do not display the knee-jerk judgments you might expect,
    and that shaped the 2003 film [11]"Thirteen." Where "Thirteen" was
    praised for its audacity in depicting 13-year-olds having sex and
    doing drugs, it was really a traditional cautionary tale. The current
    films are more complex. They often blame the big, wide media world and
    other social influences that cause children to grow up too fast. But
    they also accept this early loss of innocence as the new way of the
    world and move on from there. In their bewildered acceptance of this
    new reality, the films reflect the current social moment, in all its
    fraught confusion, more astutely than any alarmist work could.

    It's not surprising that all these films are smaller, independent
    works; they can afford to address the riskier themes that big-budget
    movies avoid. The current films also share sophisticated narratives
    and graceful styles that make their unsettling themes palatable. "Me
    and You" is directly about the romance of a lonely artist (played by
    Ms. July) and a recently separated shoe salesman (John Hawkes) whom
    she willy-nilly decides is her soul mate. But the difficulty of
    forging a connection is reflected in the next generation - the young
    brothers are the salesman's sons - in which children and teenagers
    confront a disorienting sexual world.

    The family's neighbors include two slightly older teenage girls who
    use the 14-year-old brother as a practice object for oral sex, asking
    him to judge which of them does it better. When the father's seemingly
    respectable co-worker makes lewd suggestions to the girls, they
    teasingly kiss in front of him. But when they finally dare to ring his
    doorbell, he cowers and hides.

    Ms. July's sense of a dangerous world encroaching is deflected by such
    last-minute twists. Yet it is still chilling when the 7-year-old
    arranges a real-life date with the mysterious online lover. And it may
    be even more chilling that the father is not callous or neglectful,
    just hapless and not very smart, an ordinary guy. Ms. July
    acknowledges the risks of precocious, half-baked sexual knowledge, but
    in keeping with the endearing tone of her film, willfully evades those

    There is no such evasion in "Lila Says." Set in a poor Marseille
    neighborhood, Ziad Doueiri's gripping film seems headed for tragedy
    from the start. The beautiful blond Lila is not just another sexually
    active 16-year-old, no longer a rarity. She is so bluntly, openly
    sexual that she enters the film by offering to expose herself to a
    stranger, Chimo, the 19-year-old who falls in love with her yet is
    intimidated by her experience. Chimo's friends regard Lila as a slut;
    yet if the brutal finale they set in motion is all too predictable,
    one crucial element is not. Chimo discovers Lila's scrapbook, in which
    she has pasted magazine articles about subjects like amateur porn on
    the Internet, clippings that suggest how much of her sexual knowledge
    was shaped by a world she was not ready to understand.

    "Lila Says" is so delicately balanced that it manages to have things
    both ways. It is erotic, notably in a sexual encounter between Lila
    and Chimo on a motorbike, yet also conveys a sad sense of lost
    innocence. Despite the film's melodrama, that balance creates a
    hauntingly realistic aura.

    Its least convincing element comes when Lila's aunt and guardian makes
    a pleading sexual advance toward her. The theme is never picked up
    again, so the abuse seems like a forced, convenient explanation for
    Lila's behavior.

    The idea of childhood abuse is used more intelligently in "Mysterious
    Skin." The molestation scenes are not graphic, but they are so clear
    and depicted with such immediacy that at first it seems the film has
    crossed a line into a completely nonjudgmental realm. But "Mysterious
    Skin" adheres to the boys' points of view so rigorously that the abuse
    reflects their own confusion, just as the film's lyricism suggests
    their emotional escape strategies. By the end, when the anguish
    inflicted on the boys becomes apparent, we see that the film realizes
    the abuse was monstrous. Mr. Araki has always been a provocative
    filmmaker, not an ingratiating one, and while "Mysterious Skin" is
    lucid about the horrible violation of the boys, it refuses to preach
    at us, and much of its power comes from that unflinching approach.

    While all these films matter-of-factly assume that sexual knowledge
    arrives earlier and earlier, "Happy Endings" is essentially a cheerful
    movie, even though its plot is set off when a teenage stepbrother and
    stepsister have sex that results in a pregnancy. "Pretty Persuasion"
    is caustic, as several 15-year-old girls maliciously and falsely
    accuse a teacher of abuse, setting off a media circus. That such
    varied tones can be spun from a common idea says that precocious
    sexuality is considered a pervasive part of our world, even if the
    filmmakers have no better idea of what to do with that knowledge than
    the 7-year-old knows what to do on his date.



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