Have high school stereotypes evolved at all since The Breakfast Club? Apparently not, at least in Nanette Burstein's documentary American Teen. Here they are in all their glory: the nerd, the jock, the princess and the basket case (although the criminal is curiously absent). But rather than confine them to the school library to hash out their differences, Burstein follows them through their senior year at Warsaw Community High School in Indiana, editing out all the boring parts (like classes and homework) and instead concentrates on the drama. There's plenty of drama in Warsaw, most of it predictable: bad breakups, heinous revenge, and the eternal quests for college scholarships and true love. The kids lie in bed and brood a lot — Burstein illustrates their inner turmoil with some ridiculous animation — but when they speak, they are invariably articulate. If you've ever seen a John Hughes movie, you know how it will all turn out. Which is sad. Aren't we supposed to expect a bit more realism from a documentary? Whose life's ever that neatly scripted? And yet...it's all strangely absorbing. American Teen isn't a classic, but if you need a quick high school fix and your DVD player is busted, it'll do.
— Aimee Levitt
Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go
The Mulberry Bush School is a boarding facility for children with severe emotional trauma. How severe? The school has 108 adults tending to just 40 children, and whenever one of those kids throws a tantrum — a whirlwind of kicking, spitting and swearing — you can't help but wonder if 108 adults are enough. Kim Longinotto's raw documentary follows five boys from fall into spring. We see them in class, visiting their families and, often, being restrained by one or more adults. The film might have offered more context for the general purpose of Mulberry Bush School, but Longinotto does a marvelous job capturing moments, usually in the middle of an inarticulate tantrum, when the boys suddenly have clear, hard-edged insights into the root of their problems. Still, the tantrums (and the film dwells on several) are difficult to watch. And that makes the work of the Mulberry Bush School's faculty even more remarkable. These patient men and women, enduring physical and verbal abuse, are the film's heroes.
— Ian Froeb
The story of Manchester, England, post-punks Joy Division (and its lead singer, Ian Curtis) has been mythologized in many different mediums, most recently by Anton Corbijn in the movie Control. But in this new documentary, director Grant Gee goes above and beyond to paint a complete picture of Curtis' life — and tragic 1980 death by suicide at the age of 23. Scenes comparing Manchester musical landmarks then and now, interviews with surviving bandmates, and other key players — including the late Tony Wilson of Factory Records, Psychic TV's Genesis P-Orridge and Curtis' mistress, Annik Honoré — give fascinating insights into Joy Division's formation and brief career. Gee most succeeds in humanizing Curtis by letting him take the stage. Archival tape of Curtis' speaking voice as he's doing regression therapy with a bandmate are simply chilling; copious amounts of rare live footage of the melancholic band are simply mesmerizing. In contrast with Joy Division's grayscale proto-electro — the type of music that cried out for stillness and quiet — the gangly Curtis looks possessed, dancing as if he couldn't stop, his limbs flailing like an awkward windmill. These images of a very much alive Curtis linger long after the movie ends — which is a fitting tribute to both the man and his music.
— Annie Zaleski
My Mother's Garden
Eugenia Lester is the crazy lady pushing the overflowing purple shopping cart throughout the neighborhood, foraging her meals from Dumpsters. Only, she isn't: She's not homeless, and in her mind, she's saving the planet from the dangerous repercussions that result from living in a disposable society. But Eugenia's efforts are eclipsed by the mountains of garbage that she compulsively collects and has never gotten around to selling or giving away. Filmed in large part by her daughter, Cynthia, My Mother's Garden follows the journey of Eugenia, a Polish immigrant who suffers from hoarding disorder, and Cynthia's siblings who are trying to rescue her from beneath it. Eugenia's neighbors in her San Fernando Valley subdivision feel "terrorized" by the 60-year-old whose front and back yards are heaped years worth of junk; the residents have petitioned to have her evicted. Her home is a landfill: She's forced to enter and exit it through a window. She sleeps outside, which she says she prefers because in the beauty of "God's house" she never feels lonely. This insightful film personalizes one family's mission to pull their mother out from the wreckage of this psychological disorder that's said to affect some 2 million people worldwide.
— Kristie McClanahan
Very Young Girls
One need only Google the term "very young girls" to discover the breadth and scale of the global sex trade. From Boston to Bangkok the Internet is teeming with "horny" high schoolers willing to do anything for a price. But what compels these teens and preteens to exploit their bodies? That's the question this riveting documentary sets out to answer. Set in New York City, Very Young Girls follows the lives of a half-dozen girls — ages 13 to 18 — who all share the same job title: prostitute. Most come from broken families. Several are runaways. On the streets they're discovered by an older male who takes them in as his girlfriend. What follows might be termed "Pimping 101." The man informs the girl that she needs to start earning for the "family" and forces her — often violently — into turning tricks. In GEMS, a nonprofit that provides housing and support to sexually exploited girls, the young women find support and a way out of the prostitution racket. Some make it. Others remain addicted to the empty promises and parasitic lure of their pimp. "There's not detox for this," notes a GEMS counselor after watching a 16-year-old girl return to the streets. "There's no methadone."
— Chad Garrison
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