Blank characters. Dreary songs. Worst ending in cinema history.
Basically I liked this film in theory, but much less in its realisation.
What's that? You want details? Well so did lead teenager Hannah, and look where those questions got her:
Hannah: "My parents aren't really my parents. And my real parents tried to abort me. And I have a brother, well, I had a brother. He died shortly after the - I'm angry at my parents for not telling me sooner and making me think that I was just like everybody else. I'm angry at my real mom for not wanting me. Why didn't she want me, what's so wrong with me? I found her. And she still doesn't want me. 'N I feel guilty. Part of me feels like he should be alive, and I shouldn't. I wonder if he would've been a better person than me, what he would have been like? I just - ang - I should hate myself for feeling this way."
As you can see, Hannah pretty well has the full set of possible issues when it comes to discovering that someone tried to stop you as a fetus, and in so doing blunderingly caused the opposite by bringing your birthday forward. Well there aren't many films about that journey of self-discovery, so of course the writers of this one are going to cram in as many related developments as they can.
Not listed above are Hannah's lifelong medical problems, including epilepsy, multiple hip surgery and acute asthma, which cause the film to open with her collapsing on stage in the middle of a play she's in.
Her biggest problem though would have to be her hopeless adopted father, who despite his years of life experience appears to have never before come across these things called teenagers.
When he thinks his daughter is going to do one thing but then she does another, he's completely taken by surprise. He reads her diary, and then secretly emails it to her doctor, before being dumbfounded at her outraged reaction to this. Has this guy ever met his daughter before? Has he ever met another human being before? For that matter has her doctor? I would describe him as your definitive out-of-touch movie dad, except that he's written as too shallow even for that.
Not that I should be singling him out here. This movie is packed to bursting with bland characters, none of whom offer us any hook whatsoever for being interested in them or their lives. Even the cops turn out to be so nice that they let our heroes off, twice! Thin characterisation can work well in some types of comedy (eg. the 1960s TV series The Monkees), but I can't think of a comparative successful example of drama. There are a couple of comic relief students who occasionally get to say something almost worth smiling at, but after the first half even they get dropped, presumably for threatening to bring a bit of sparkle to all the grey.
Bmac: "This is literally the worst hotel I've ever seen."
Truman "It looked better on the internet."
Bmac: "Where - at normanbateshotel.com?"
Bmac: "I'm sleepin' in the car."
The story, though groaning with heavy issues, is a simple one, and that's one of its strengths. Look at the details, and you can't help but notice Hannah's best friend Jason claiming that he doesn't have the money for a second motel room and so he just has to share with her, before in a later scene revealing that he actually had enough spare emergency cash for his own room all along. Aye-aye.
But ignore this movie's shortcomings, because where this film does positively excel is in its moments of drama.
The cast with the serious roles do a sterling job of taking what little their dialogue offers them and transforming it into something compelling. They're helped along enormously by a director and editor who are prepared to really invest the necessary time into these key scenes. The story's simplicity is probably one of the reasons why there is the luxury to invest so much time in telling it. Despite starting out as a road movie, there's no sense at all of this film being in a hurry to get anywhere.
When Jasmine Guy shows up as a nurse who assisted at Hannah's attempted abortion, her performance is solid gold. Thanks to how outstandingly well the film's dialogue has been recorded and mixed (if not the foley), I found I could really sit back and absorb this, without any idea how long the conversation would last, like in a real one.
I'm afraid I can't really say the same about all the dreary Monday morning music that keeps rearing its half-asleep head throughout. Now I admit that when it comes to using a song on a movie's soundtrack, I'm automatically prejudiced against it, because I find it to be a form of narration. However this film tries to get away with squeezing an entire album into the transitions between scenes. The net result is a movie which keeps stopping to explain to you what it's been trying to say in each scene, which is hardly the mark of a film that's succeeding at this.
The worst post-modern moment though is saved for the closing credits. Having spent nearly two hours suspending our disbelief, while the credits roll they gobsmackingly interview some of the cast and crew about how they felt making it. While I respect the content in isolation, the decision to include this within the actual film itself is suicidal. Suddenly these characters aren't real, and neither are any of the events we've just witnessed. Know how many viewers this leaves still connecting with the story? None!
In summary, a film with such a refreshingly life-affirming message ought to itself contain some life too.
(available, throughout the year, here)