One suffers through countless screenings of drivel in the faint hope that the magic lantern still has the power to surprise and delight. Opening this week is the unexpected pleasure of one such moment, a bare-bones production from a duo of newcomers, the Sichel sisters, Alex and Sylvia.
The thrill of surprise is in no small part due to the film's allegiance to one of the more strident pop aesthetics of the day, that nebulous vibe called riot grrrl. Happily, the Sichels offer a more mindful and less annoying strain as they chart the travails of Claude (Alison Folland) and Ellen (Tara Subkoff), two teenage girls trying to make a go of their friendship in the wilds of New York's Hell's Kitchen.
School's out for summer and there's not much to do but hang out at Claude's mother's apartment. In between talk about body image and boys, the girls dream of forming a band. But when Ellen takes up with Mark (Cole Hauser), a thuggish piece of white trash who's listened to far too much gangsta rap, Claude is forced to deal with feelings of jealousy that test the boundaries of platonic love. She also strikes up a friendship with new neighbor Luke (Pat Briggs). Luke is a bit older and quite a bit wiser, a sassy fop given to rocker affectations like black nail polish and unwashed bangs, but nonetheless comfortable in his skin.
The genie's out of the bottle for Claude. Not only is she intent on forging her sexual identity, she's ready to drop her moral anchor right down through the shifting sands of low self-esteem and childish indecision to take hold in maturity's mud: If Ellen wants to become a junkie slave girl to a caveman felon, all the best. Claude's moving on -- right into the arms of Lucy (Leisha Hailey), a beguiling pixie rockette anxious to tutor her in the ways of lady love.
Though there's not a weak performance in the lot, it's Alison Folland, a chunky blend of a younger Brooke Shields and Mariel Hemingway, who is revelatory as Claude, our flower coming into bloom. Folland shows that it's all up in the air for this girl and she's learning to juggle pretty well. Circumstances have forced her into a stilted precociousness. Her mother's a borderline alcoholic with a lecherous boyfriend. The streets on which she teeters along on her roller skates are as mean as they are ugly.
Director Alex Sichel is not exactly a master of her medium. The film has a lazy cinéma vérité look that is far less self-conscious than, say, Larry Clark's Kids. The story has its own rhythm and, slowly but surely, you synch into it. But Sichel allows the pace to lag on a number of occasions.
Sister Sylvia's dialogue uses to great advantage the clichés of the various pop posturings that the characters embrace. The kids haven't got much to work with as they try to cobble an identity out of the rather shabby pantheon of rock stars and advertising idols foisted upon them in lieu of stable parents and adult mentors. Only Claude, basking in Lucy's sun, finds her voice by the end of the film.
Thanks to its honesty and sensitivity, All Over Me gets all under your skin. Not to be missed.
Timothy Dugdale writes about books and visual culture for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].