Sunday, July 31, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love and the Perfect Imperfect Teenager

I can’t be the only one who, in his younger years, suffered from a mental illness that made me see nearly anyone slightly older than me as cool. I couldn’t explain why, especially now that my first reaction upon meeting most people — older or younger — is that they are quite likely enormous douchebags who will want to invade my quiet existence with Top 40 music, complicated handshakes and other badness. But as a kid, most teenagers seemed (a) as tall as giants, (b) effortlessly well-dressed and (c) likely the most popular student at whatever school they attended. Looking back on these older kid crushes, I realize the people I once idolized were probably huge dorks whose high school lives were no more glamorous or privileged than my own eventually was. Some, clearly, were massively unpopular, and that’s why they had the open schedule to converse with someone my age. An urgent message to my younger self: Their board games and fantasy novels do not, in fact, signify coolness.

These thoughts currently rattle around my head thanks to Crazy, Stupid, Love, which I saw this weekend and enjoyed a lot more than I thought I would and probably more than any other film that could be called a romance. And while there’s a lot to like about it, I want to write today specifically on one character: Jessica the babysitter, played by Analeigh Tipton, whose awkwardness and lack of high school social status are invisible to the thirteen-year-old who’s in love with her. Most screenwriters wouldn’t have bothered to round her character out as much as Dan Fogelman did. I’m glad he cared enough to make give her real depth, because she may be one of the best cinematic representations I’ve ever seen of a multifaceted teenager.

Granted, I was in the tank for this character from the get-go, as Tipton is a Top Model alumna and I have a fairly thorough awareness of this reality show because I, as the result of a different mental illness, still watch it. It’s weirdly rewarding to see Top Model’s also-rans land role in major movies, like Yaya Dacosta appearing in The Kids Are All Right or even Naima being the doomed teacher in the second season of Veronica Mars. And while Tipton’s performance proves that she can act — that is, she isn’t just a model who stumbled, baby giraffe-like, into a movie role — she clearly draws on her modeling past in playing Jessica. It’s remarkable how she transforms from a poised young woman on the cusp of owning her beauty (when she’s talking to the thirteen-year-old who thinks she is his soulmate) to a painfully shy girl who’s all big lips that can’t talk and big eyes that don’t know where to look (when she’s talking to Steve Carell’s character, whom she is in desperate teenaged love with). And at one point in the film, Tipton even models when her character poses in her bedroom, naked, in front of a camera in an attempt to be that kind of grown-up sexy she thinks she needs to be. Remembering this girl’s photos from her earlier life as a reality show contestant, I’m all the more impressed that she makes herself look so unprofessional and so hopelessly immature in this scene.

The contrasts in this character aren’t limited to her interactions with people older or younger than she is, however. In what is probably the one the scene that best gets at the heart of who she is — studious, Stanford-bound, and without an apparent social outlet that’s not babysitting-related — Jessica asks the school slut for advice on landing an older man. These scene could have played out so predictably, with the school slut being an unreasonable bitch who’s inexplicably popular, but it doesn’t. The slutty girl, who doesn’t seem popular so much as just so over high school stuff, is refreshingly candid as she advises the nervous and likely virginal Jessica. She’s even surprised and impressed that Jessica has the guts to admit that she feels something sexual for anyone, much less someone who’s, “like, parent-age.” It may well be that this is the only exchange the two have ever shared, and that’s even further telling about who Jessica is.

As I said, I enjoyed a lot about Crazy, Stupid, Love but I liked these scenes in particular because they proved true that theory about teenaged life: Until you head out on your own, you’re not an integrated person. Instead, you just react to the people around you and consequently become countless different versions of yourself, Zelig-style, depending on who you’re talking to. As you get older, the personalities that work collapse into an actual personality, while the ill-fitting ones get discarded. That’s what I think Jessica’s narrative is about in this movie.

And now I wonder if was this process I was participating in when I idolized those teenaged giants. It wasn’t that I was so off-the-mark in what kind of people they were back then; it was that this was the only version of them I was capable of seeing.

(See previous “a funny story” posts, which are essentially the little of my life that I permit to squeak through onto this blog.)

1 comment:

  1. Now I want to see this movie..! Good review and you are on target about how awkward it was to be in between as a teen... seen as cool by the youngsters but barely visible to older, cooler teens and adults.

    One of the things that I remember most and occasionally talk about in my journal is how I was confident that my status as a teen was temporary and that things would be different in adulthood. Seems like the Tipton's character is not sure about things being 'different' or is so anxious she can't wait, feeling this emotion, which feels more like a 'thing', for this older man.

    Anywho, you have sold one ticket for this movie today!!