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the visitor

Review: The Visitor and American Teen

By Cinema, Reviews

While the Bond 22 jug­ger­naut threatens to crush everything in it’s path, a couple of plucky little indies try and offer a whole­some altern­at­ive (and stay out of harm’s way in the pro­cess). Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor occu­pies sim­il­ar them­at­ic ground to his debut The Station Agent in 2004, but unfurls in alto­geth­er less whim­sic­al fashion.

Richard Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a depressed eco­nom­ics pro­fess­or, fum­bling around for some remain­ing con­nec­tion to his recently deceased wife (he’s learn­ing to play her piano which is a strik­ingly futile pur­suit for a man in his 50s). Against his wishes he is sent to New York to present a paper he hasn’t writ­ten to a con­fer­ence he has no interest in and he reluct­antly has to return to the old apart­ment he and his wife used to share. Only now it’s occu­pied by a young illeg­al immig­rant couple who are as sur­prised to see him as he is to see them – they’ve been conned into think­ing it was vacant.

With much apo­logy they pack up and leave but when Vale real­ises they have nowhere else to go he calls them back to let them stay. And so begins a lovely rela­tion­ship and a hugely reward­ing film, a film that nev­er settles for cliché when (with just a little bit of extra dig­ging) it can find some truth. When laid back drum­mer Tarek (win­ningly played by Haaz Sleiman) is arres­ted and slapped in deten­tion pending deport­a­tion, The Visitor effort­lessly changes tone and Vale finds someone to care for (and about) once again. One of the films of the year.

American Teen is nom­in­ally a doc­u­ment­ary but could just as eas­ily be filed in the hor­ror sec­tion. An insin­cere little film about a cross-section of mid-Western American youth in the town of Warsaw, Indiana (a town which appears to have a value sys­tem as shal­low as the gene pool that’s pro­duced its next gen­er­a­tion) American Teen ini­tially pro­vokes noth­ing so much as des­pair but even­tu­ally wrestles you into submission.

The five cent­ral char­ac­ters are arche­types (the Geek, the Prom Queen, the Jock, the Heartthrob and the Rebel) that slowly emerge as real people des­pite endur­ing some tack­ily manip­u­lat­ive storytelling (not to men­tion some colossally bad parenting).

Of course, the pres­sures on these kids are all real – the pres­sure to be pop­u­lar or suc­cess­ful, rather than simply be happy – but life wouldn’t have been nearly so com­plic­ated if they weren’t all wan­der­ing around with radio mics shar­ing every whispered secret with the world. Someone should have had a word with these kids about boundaries.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 3 December, 2008.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: American Teen was screened at the Paramount, in the big aud­it­or­i­um, and was pin sharp at the cor­rect aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It looks like the Paramount’s prob­lems with focus and bright­ness relate to ‘scope only (and pos­sibly only one of the two projectors).