07 November, 2013

Angus Retro Review - An Atypical Teen Movie for the Quiet Normal Teen

Angus couldn’t be made as a wide release today, and it might have slipped away without the fanfare that it receives in this post. But that’s its true strength. Angus is something special in every sense of the word. While it’s a small story, the tale being told touches on universal concerns and strikes a powerful note for all that are traveling on its wavelength. The film is a small story about a minor triumph for a minor character. It’s quiet and shy, not a film that jumps out at you at your local Redbox, and that's the point of what makes it great. 

Its hero isn’t a superpowered, angsty teen who must fight through literal villains and demons, but rather a hirsute and average kid with above-average intelligence who struggles with the biggest problem for many children and adults – self-confidence. The story is small, the characters suffer from a sense of overwhelming normalcy, and there’s little to no production value to be found in the film. Movies like this don’t open wide in theaters anymore; rather, they are shuffled onto Netflix or VOD and then lost amidst the many other films that populate the huge independent film scene these days.

Angus focuses on its title character, a strong teenage boy living in Minnesota who is talented on the football field and in the science classroom. Angus Bethune (played by a little-seen Charlie Talbot) is a high school freshman who is entering the real world with some problems. Angus has been regularly harassed by handsome Rick Sanford (a devious villain courtesy of James Van Der Beek, who should definitely get some more work as the anti-Dawson) since kindergarten for not being "normal." Angus is overweight and is, in their view, "named after a cow". His only real friend is Troy Wedberg (The Mist’s Chris Owen – SHERMANATOR!), another social outcast. Angus also longs for Melissa Lefevre (Jurassic Park’s Ariana Richards), but since she’s very pretty and popular – as well as dating Rick – he never expresses it, hiding his longing behind a shy aloofness.

I also come to bury and praise comically horrific Nineties posters. Wow...

Eventually, tired of the abuse from Rick and his cronies, Angus applies for a magnet school where he hopes to be free of the constant humiliation. However, well aware of Angus's feelings for Melissa, Rick rigs an election so that Angus and Melissa will dance together in the upcoming freshman Winter Ball as King and Queen, respectively. While confronting Rick about the stunt, Angus is ordered by the principal not to lay a hand on Rick or he would be expelled.

To get ready for the dance, Angus gets help from not only Troy, but also his mother Meg (Kathy Bates), and his narcoleptic Grampa (George C. Scott), which leads to plenty of embarrassing moments that naturally comes with an overbearing but well-meaning family. The movie also scores points for how it uses older Hollywood actors for respectability. This isn’t another boffo teenage flick with a young cast, but rather a succinct examination of a transitory period within an everyman’s life.
It’s a believable family dynamic, not a flashy Hollywood creation, and the understated nature of this relationship offers a brilliant combination of relatable humor with touching drama. By not playing so broad, Angus actually hits its target.

For a movie so small, Angus also decides to avoid the obvious scenes that would have made uncaring filmgoers more likely to attend screenings. The film has several examples of typical teenage antics and pratfalls, but almost all of them are rooted in a very recognizable sense of humiliating empathy, much like Freaks and Geeks. Perhaps the most memorable one in the film involves a flag pole and Angus’s stolen boxers. When Angus and Troy see that Rick hoisted his boxers up the flagpole for the school to see, which then fly squarely onto passerby Melissa's face. This is a horrifying situation for any teenager to find themselves, and the film plays up the emotion by increasing the size of the boxers to the hyperbolic point of being bigger than an actual flag. While this is done for comic effect, the emotional timbre of the scene rings true because this replicates what it feels like for the victim of such a prank.

The most impressive thing about the movie is its whole balancing act, and how there really is something for everybody. It manages stupid teenage humor because Angus and Troy not only realize that they’re nerds, but they manage to emblematize that nerdiness through perfect approximations of the things lonely people say to each other. Sure they take their drubbings from school, but they’ve got such a joie de vivre together that they can overcome all the trials that comes their way. You can easily see how people can be broken within the confines of this world, but these aren’t overly extreme, typical Hollywood approximations of high school hell. Rather, they’re little battles that anybody who’s ever been different will face in their lives. No matter how stupid it is or how dumb the friend is for saying it, I will laugh any time somebody says to me “That's what you call a piece of the ol' dick pie.” They know that they’re forever going to be outside of this high school caste, and yet this knowledge of being outsiders also empowers them.

In fact, the greatest strength of this movie is its self-confidence, both in its delivery and in its characters’ growth. For many teenagers, the greatest superpower is self-confidence, and I colloquially believe that many students spend years chasing after self-worth by increasing their value in the eyes of their peers. This is largely because they honestly don’t know how to make themselves feel better, and who can blame them? This is why Angus is so important. Yes, it’s a small movie about a minor subject and a seemingly small period in a person’s life, but that period is so important in defining us because of how we go through the ridiculous social and cultural gauntlet of high school. The confidence and insecurities we have as adults can easily be traced to experiences gained through this.

Angus knows this, which is why the battle of self-definition makes up the brunt of the movie. Sure it’s wrapped around a story of whether Angus gets Melissa, but that story is really superfluous to whether Angus feels he is worthy to be around her. And this is where the film’s third act is nothing short of brilliant. It’s not about whether Angus gets to be the king of the dance with Melissa as his queen, but rather about how we accept who we really are and make our own identity. It’s not about rising up and being extraordinary in the eyes of the whole world, but about accepting yourself as an ordinary and empathetic human being who feels comfortable in their own skin. This is one of the biggest challenges any person faces. Angus does this better than any series run of In Treatment, and for this reason it feels more honest and real than any number of typical teenybopper fare.

The inimitable General Patton at work...

The Superman speech that George C. Scott’s grandfather character gives to his grandson on his wedding day is one of the first times that I remember choking up, especially because they got the absolute truth about his powers not making him super, but not a hero. The fact that this isn’t printed on motivational posters across high schools in this country is a shame that needs to be remedied immediately.

Grandpa: Superman isn't brave.
Angus: Did you take your pills this morning?
Grandpa: [chuckles] You don't understand. He's smart, handsome, even decent. But he's not brave. No, listen to me. Superman is indestructible, and you can't be brave if you're indestructible. It's people like you and your mother. People who are different, and can be crushed and know it. Yet they keep on going out there every time.

Angus is also a hero because he doesn’t resort to using his fists for beating up Rick. While it’s true that he breaks Rick’s nose several times when he’s younger and obviously more powerful, he doesn’t use this as a platform to better himself. Instead, we see him run away from his strength because he’s a sweet kid that just wants to be accepted, but can’t be due to his admittedly large size. At the end, when he has every reason for beating up Rick at the dance since he is the cause of his neverending humiliation, Angus gets up, wipes the blood off his nose, and screams “I’m still here, asshole! I’ll always be here!”  Triumphant, he then stands over his opponent, who is beaten not physically, but in an emotional way that he could never hope to fathom. 

I won’t lie, I’m pretty easily manipulated by movies, but it takes a special something to get me up and cheering for a film, particularly one where the hero wears the worst pageboy haircut ever seen in cinema (yes, even worse than Javier Bardem’s in No Country for Old Men). This scene has me cheering even when I watch it on YouTube in horribly granular quality. That last third of the movie is so filled with pathos…well, let’s just say that all the emotion can barely fit within an oversized purple tuxedo. I’m sorry, I meant plum.

And the music…oh man, the music. I know this is supposed to be a more academic blog, but pardon me while I gush a bit. Like any great teen movie worth its salt, the movie has a pretty stellar soundtrack. The use of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” during the slow dance between Melissa and Angus is great. She begins to restore his confidence right after he restores hers, which is an actually workable sight. Plus, I think we’ve all wanted to spaz out on the dance floor to Weezer’s “You Gave Your Love to Me Softly” while our best friend uses his broken arm to punch Rick Sanford in the face (for the record, Rick Sanford’s repeated motif of a broken nose is excellent). Other notable songs include Green Day tracks (in an unsubtle reference, Troy tries to win Green Day concert tickets, only to be defeated by a faceless Rick calling into the radio station from a payphone and getting his quarter back to boot).

The one that really stood out to me was the Goo Goo Dolls track “Ain’t That Unusual,” which has that timeless quality of the best Replacements songs (one day I will write about Can’t Hardly Wait, a solid teen movie named after Paul Westerberg’s classics, which just shows how Westerberg perfectly encapsulated yearning). “Ain’t That Unusual” wins points for its line “Are you too young to care, or too dumb to be scared?/Now what’s that supposed to mean?” Yeah, it’s too 90’s for its own good (listen to the Muffs’ “Funny Face,” which paved the way for their classless cover of “Kids in America” for the Clueless soundtrack), but that soundtrack just works for the time.

Director Patrick Read Johnson was definitely onto something when he made this movie. However, he also directed Baby’s Day Out, which is possibly the least subtle movie of all time and a huge black mark on the career of himself and the late, great John Hughes. But here, Johnson could create something that, while certainly not Hemingway, manages to express this material in a manner that seems like it portrays real people instead of stereotypes and overwrought caricatures that we are now accustomed to seeing.

If there is a glaring problem with this movie, it’s that all the female characters are not fully realized. Angus’s mom is very reactive, wanting her son to be as sweet as possible while not teaching him that sometimes you have to hit back at a world that swings at you. April, the younger woman that Angus’s grandfather is going to marry, is scatterbrained both with her future husband and when grief overcomes her later, literally running away from her pain. Finally, Melissa is never really given the chance to become a person in the film until the very end, when we are more focused on Angus’s journey, and then she becomes more of a plot device. All these women play these characters well, particularly Kathy Bates in an awesome confrontation scene with George C. Scott (Man, if only this movie could be at least fifteen minutes longer with more dialogue between those two). However, it must be said that these woman should be given greater tasks to perform throughout this film.

This is a film that should be more popular than it is. It deserves to be played on TNT or USA every weekend throughout the summer and fall months, and maybe that should have been its destination rather than the theater. Angus gets lost amidst all the blockbusters and the shiny objects we’re distracted by on a regular basis, but it’s such a great little gem that it’s easy to return to it. Anybody that’s a fan of more left-of-center teen movies should enjoy this, as well as fans of films that openly and honestly depict ordinary lives like Adventureland.

Angus is a triumph, not in terms of economic successes, but rather as a film that knows what it is and perfectly delivers its message and story. It’s not as pretty as the winners, but it’s warm and comfortable with its own skin. Funny how art imitates life sometimes. 

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