ND/NF FEATURE: Long Shorts Come of Age, "Five Feet," "Cusp" and "Jacaranda" Garner Well-Deserved Wider Audience
by Andrea Meyer
(indieWIRE/3.28.2000) -- What exactly does it mean to come of age? The great literary tradition that pushed Huck Finn out into the world has spawned cinematic darlings as diverse as "The Cider House Rules," "Puberty Blues," and "Babe." One by one, young heroes and heroines' naive and bright eyes are opened to life's joys and iniquities, on a journey that often involves imperfect role models, misguided advice, pain, humiliation, and more often than not, an introduction to sex.
"Most of the films about coming of age are about coming into sexuality," says Ruth Sergel, director of "Cusp," one of the impressive trio of long-form shorts about kids flirting with adulthood that make up the program called Close Encounters at this year's New Directors/New Films series (screening this weekend). "And I think that's only one aspect of the difficulty."
While the protagonists of both Peter Sollett's "Five Feet High and Rising" and Francisco Valàsquez's "Jacaranda" are teenage boys, Sergel's film depicts the peculiar hell that is a girl's sixth grade year. "Cusp"'s feisty lead, Alice (Sophie Mascatello), tries to assert herself while facing the familiar twelve-year old trauma of losing her best friend to someone mysteriously deemed cooler. Sergel says, "For girls, coming of age is different than for boys, in that it has not so much to do with sexuality as being able to retain your own voice in the face of the onslaught of mass culture. That's a very different battle."
"Part of what's so confusing," says Sergel, "is up until that point, you're getting more freedom every year. And it's something of a paradox that to show that you're getting older means that the world is getting more dangerous to you. For example, it means that you're going to get sexual attention that can be frightening. And that can shut down your world to a certain degree, instead of continuing to expand it, as it does for boys."
In Peter Sollett's "Five Feet High and Rising" (winner, Best Short, Sundance), Victor, a timid yet cocky fourteen-year old would-be Romeo, develops his first crush. His sweet, clumsy directness is completely fetching as played by young heartthrob Victor Rasuk. "The brilliant thing about being that age is you sort of know what you want without knowing what it is," Sollett says. "I know that makes no sense, but that's exactly what it feels like. When it comes to girls, you know you want something there, but you don't know how to get to it and you don't even really know what it is."
Sollett and his star have expertly captured the awkwardness and magic of an age in which the willful desire to impress the opposite sex clashes with a world they know nothing about. "It's like feeling around in a dark room," explains Sollett, "and all you really have to latch onto are the people around you. It's a time of totally heightened consciousness and excitement."
Close Encounters' third film "Jacaranda," about a teenager's first love affair, with a beautiful older woman, also documents the hazy adolescent period, when childhood dreams collide brutally with what real life and love often offers. All three filmmakers have managed to reproduce the events of this period with its distinctive rhythms and language intact. Sollett wrote a story about kids growing up on New York's lower east side and let his young actors improvise their own dialogue. His producer and casting director, Eva Vives, describes the three-month process of working with the young actors: "We never showed them the script. They came in with their own way of saying things, as opposed to learning lines."
Sergel also did a workshop with a group of pre-adolescent girls before actually writing. She incorporated their improvisations, discussions and dialogue into the script she finally shot. "They were brutally honest," she says. In one scene that illustrates the particular brand of cruelty unique to young girls, Alice and her friends slam the bathroom door in the face of another girl who isn't cool enough to associate with. "I had written that they just slammed the door in her face," Sergel says, "but when I showed the girls, they were like, "We would never just do that. We would say first, 'We were trying to have a private conversation here, and then we would slam the door in her face.'"
Peter Sollett calls the window into the world of these kids his primary goal in making this film. "There's so much energy there that's untapped," he says. "Eva and I want to make a feature that is an outgrowth of our short film. We want to stick with the same style and develop the story but stick within the community."
Sergel, on the other hand, will be leaving "Cusp" behind for a feature about a couple whose child dies. "It's the anti-'Cusp,'" she says. "We kill off the kids pretty immediately." She is extremely proud, however, of her short. "I could have made a feature and shot it in 16, or a short and shot it on 35," she says. "And in some ways I was insane doing it the way that I did, shooting it in 35 with non-professional actors, who are kids, but you at some point have to go on your own path as opposed to what other people think your career development should be."
Part of what motivated this decision was her desire to make a visually beautiful film, which for Sergel, a union camera assistant who's been in the business for twelve years, meant shooting on 35mm. "I feel strongly about how certain types of subject matter gets ghettoized by bad technical skills, like these wonderful films, but the sound is bad or the image is hard to see, because they basically had to do it by whatever means necessary," she says. "I feel very strongly about honoring the material with a high technical level of expertise."
Clearly these three shorts deserve a larger audience than most short films attract, which may partially explain the inspired programming on the part of New Directors/New Films. When "Five Feet High and Rising" screened at a short film festival in France, Vives says that they met quite a few filmmakers who have made a career out of making short films. "Europe has a much longer history of people who do shorts, because that's how they express themselves cinematically. Here in the States, you make a short because you can't make a feature."
She and Sollett sound like they would be perfectly content to keep pushing the form, if it weren't for the feature-length "Five Feet High" that is beckoning. "The reason we want to make a feature now really has to do with those kids and what we learned from them," Vives says. "I don't know what we would have done afterwards if it hadn't been that these kids were so amazing."
[Andrea Meyer is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to indieWIRE.]