The Diary of Teenage Girl and 6 Other Directorial Debuts From The Past Year You Need To See

Some directorial debuts serve as calling cards for multi-million dollar franchises. Others disappear into obscurity, better best forgotten. To make an impact with your first attempt is a rare feat, but to sustain that success is even rarer…

To celebrate The Diary of a Teenage Girl winning Best First Feature at the 30th Independent Spirit Awards, I’ve scoured IMDb for shining examples of a directorial debut in the past year.

Marielle Heller worked on adapting the project for 8 years before shooting the film in San Francisco.

THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL

DTGAn audacious, provocative depiction of teenage sexuality, The Diary of a Teenage Girl has made quite a splash.

From newcomer Bel Powley’s astounding performance, to the support of seasoned producer Anne Carey, Marielle Heller’s dazzling debut is a testament to the talent of women both above and below the line. Despite its 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and critical acclaim across the board, this is the kind of success story we hear all too infrequently.

In an interview for Vogue, Heller highlighted the disparity of opportunities for male and female directors. “There’s this feeding frenzy when a man makes a good first feature. Like, let’s scoop him up! We have to give him some giant franchise. And there’s this sense with women that you have to prove yourself so many times over before that same feeling happens”.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl – with its whimsical aesthetic and candid outlook – represents exactly the kind of unique voice that women can offer cinema…

Watch the film plus behind-the-scenes extras here.

APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOUR

ABPremiering at Sundance in 2014, Appropriate Behaviour is the bold, brash and downright hilarious debut that has everyone wondering what writer, director and star Desiree Akhavan (as seen in Girls season 4) is going to do next.

Part biopic, part homage to Annie Hall, Appropriate Behaviour sees Iranian-American Shirin navigating bisexuality, break-ups and familial tradition with varying success. Akhavan’s keen eye for observational comedy and willingness to push every boundary offers up a film as poignant as it is pertinent.

Watch the film plus behind-the-scenes extras here.

 

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James White might be his first feature, but director Josh Mond cut his teeth producing projects such as Indie Spirit Award nominee Martha Marcy May Marlene.

It’s the kind of practice run – if you will – that no doubt spawned this spiky and spectacularly intimate drama. Christopher Abbott (of Girls fame), is the sole caregiver to his dying mother (Cynthia Nixon, transformed). He’s also a slacker. A liar. A reckless thug. And a lost soul.

Every scene crackles with volatile energy, an atmosphere harnessed by Mond’s rugged, handheld filmmaking. But the malevolence is also punctuated by moments of profound tenderness. It’s unlikely you’ll see a more touching mother-son relationship depicted onscreen this year.

 

THE WOLFPACK

Walking down First Avenue in the East Village, Crystal Moselle encountered the subjects for her first documentary feature. 5 years, and 500 hours of footage later, she had an extraordinary debut film.

By getting to know the Angulo brothers and the unbelievable circumstances of their upbringing, what could’ve been exploitative or sensationalist in lesser hands, emerges as an affectionate – if no less bizarre – portrait of manhood, brotherhood and adulthood.

As the six brothers adjust to life in the outside world, Moselle shows a gift for allowing their eccentricities and expressions to float to the surface. Her film, perhaps, begs more questions than it answers and its scope is indeed narrow. But its sincerity won’t fail to charm you.

Prior to The Wolfpack, Crystal Moselle had worked on short documentaries and commercials.
Watch the film plus behind-the-scenes extras here.

EX-MACHINA

ex machinaAlex Garland knows how to handle the sinister undercurrents of the sci-fi genre. He’s the mind behind 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go, after all. With Ex-Machina he continues to prove his expertise in telling intelligent stories with a spine-tingling edge, confirming that his eye for detail is as razor-sharp as his imagination.

Domnhall Gleeson’s Caleb finds himself trapped down a murky rabbit hole of robotics and ethics. What begins as ‘The Making of a Robot’, soon escalates into a menacing power-play between egotistical engineer Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and steely AI Ava (newly Oscar-winning Alicia Vikander), both of whom have agendas of their own.

Scooping an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, Ex-Machina is Fincher-esque in its meticulousness. Whether soaring through remote Alaskan vistas, or navigating Nathan’s claustrophobic laboratories, Garland is quite the engineer. Guiding his audience through a maze-like set and a complex story to pulse-quickening effect, Ex-Machina is one of the most exquisitely-designed and electrically performed debuts since Duncan Jones’ Moon.

mustang-toh-exclusive-posterMUSTANG

Like The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Mustang is a story of burgeoning female sexuality and empowerment wherein voyeurism is avoided by firmly locating the narrative’s perspective as female.

Groomed for arranged marriages and conventional futures, a group of sisters growing up in a Turkish village find their freedoms increasingly curtailed. Filmed with a hazy sensuality that has drawn comparisons to The Virgin Suicides, you could be forgiven for not expecting the furious sense of resistance that bubbles beneath it’s quaint surface. Not dissimilar to Diary, the film serves as a call-to-action to allow – and encourage – the free-spiritedness of teenage girls, in whatever form that may take.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s brilliant, and bracingly-perceptive debut deservedly picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

THE SURVIVALIST

Akin to Marielle Heller whom penned upwards of 80 drafts of The Diary of a Teenage Girl prior to shooting, The Survivalist’s director Stephen Fingleton has long been preparing for his feature debut.

In my interview with the Irish filmmaker, he conceded that he treated his shorts films (two of which can be viewed here) as precursors to the main event and a way to smooth out any kinks in the process.

It’s a process he’s honed to near-perfection, and which saw his nomination at this year’s BAFTAs for Outstanding British Debut. With The Survivalist, Fingleton serves up Ray Mears by way of The Hunger Games in this sparse and unsparingly gritty apocalyptic thriller, that see loyalties tested and a primitive ménage à trois go awry. It’s a lean and assured debut that will leave your hands clammy from tension.

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Irish filmmaker Stephen Fingleton earned a BAFTA nomination for his work

Watch the film plus behind-the-scenes extras here.

Review: The Danish Girl

Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, is a sensual and occasionally moving film, but one that altogether lacks gumption or dynamism.

Telling the story of Lili Elbe, an artist who became one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery, Hooper employs a sedate and sumptuous approach that may have suited his Oscar-winning biopic The King’s Speech, but feels somewhat inappropriate here.

We first meet Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) as the picture of marital bliss. Flirtatious, loving and both artistically-inclined, theirs is a relationship of complete affinity, so much so that Gerda describes her first kiss with Einar as though it was like ‘kissing myself’.

It is in these quiet moments of realisation that The Danish Girl is at it’s most hypnotic. Sadly, it’s a tone that Hooper fails to sustain.

The couple are bohemian royalty, with Einar enjoying relative fame and success as a landscape painter and Gerda – though slighted by her own lack of recognition as a portraitist – content to frolic at society parties and lavish amid the dreamy surroundings of Copenhagen circa 1926.

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However that happiness is no sooner established than quickly punctured by Einar’s apparent fetish for femininity and all that comes with it. Asked to sit in for their ballet dancer friend (a playful Amber Heard), whom Gerda is painting, Einar – feigning reluctance, though visibly animated – dons stockings, shoes and a dress and adopts an elegant pose. The picture is all too funny for Gerda, but for Einar it stirs a feeling of deep-seated dissatisfaction with his masculine identity. Touching the silk fabrics, there are already glimmers that he might feel more complete, more himself, were he to embrace a different persona altogether.

It is in these quiet moments of realisation that The Danish Girl is at it’s most hypnotic. Sadly, it’s a tone that Hooper fails to sustain.

Gerda, still caught up in the heady hilarity of her husband’s pantomime, encourages Einar to attend a party with her dressed as a woman. Together they conjure up Lili, a bashful cousin of Einar’s, whom bears a striking resemblance to him. As Lili gradually begins to manifest full time, the film become more parodic.

Redmayne does a marvellous job of conveying Einar’s inner turmoil, and certainly as he gazes at himself in the mirror, distorting his own body to adopt a womanly form, one can’t fail to be convinced of the transformative talents of the very actor that became Stephen Hawking for last year’s The Theory Of Everything. But here the very casting a cisgender man lends falseness to the entire film, for Redmayne cannot very well become a woman. Despite his earnest attempts at delicacy and elegance, he is ultimately playing dress-up and his performance often consists more of certain poses, movements or facial expressions than it does of an underlying sense of womanhood. Redmayne captures the subtleties of body language, but all too often it feels affected and superficial.

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As Einar begins to consider the possibility of becoming Lili full-time, and consulting doctors that could grant his wish, Gerda’s career begins to soar. Her portraits of Lili find an audience in Paris and as she becomes increasingly visible to society, her husband slowly disappears.

Alicia Vikander, the young Swedish actress who’s on the precipice of going stratospheric, is the beating heart of this film. Where Redmayne is all poise and grace, hers is a performance that feels spontaneous and raw, every emotion possible flickering across her face as Gerda grapples with Einar’s new identity. The scene where Gerda begs Lili to give her her husband back is perhaps the most gut wrenching.

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It’s hard to fault the filmmaking. Hooper is a director obsessed with perfection and wherever you look there is more exquisite scenery and furniture and fabric to absorb. The protagonist’s lives might be falling apart, but dammit their sofas can be flawlessly upholstered. It’s this tendency to prettify that becomes the film’s and ironically, Lili’s, undoing.

Alicia Vikander, the young Swedish actress who’s on the precipice of going stratospheric, is the beating heart of this film.

The precise, calculated style feels too measured and not messy enough for the subject matter at hand. The painterly aesthetic might reflect its protagonist’s craft, however it doesn’t do justice to the challenge and trauma of Lili’s transition. Even when threat looms in the form of prejudiced assailants or dangerously conventional doctors, it feels tentative and performative rather than real and frightening.

Hooper and co-wreddie-redmayne-alicia-vikander-the-danish-girl.jpgiter Lucinda Coxon have not only neatened Lili’s story and presumably made it more palatable for mainstream cinema-going audiences (and no doubt Oscar voters), but rather worse cut it short. Lili died at the age of 49 from a fatal womb transplant after enduring a series of operations, and therefore it seems unlikely she had a moment of epiphanic self-acceptance before conceding to death in Gerda’s arms, shortly followed by an overwhelmingly saccharine scene – that practically yells SYMBOLISM – where Lili’s scarf drifts across the Danish landscapes she hitherto committed to canvas.

Indeed Gerda’s own life took a sour turn. She did not get swept off her feet by the dashing Matthias Schoenaarts (as Hooper would have you believe), but married an Italian officer who drained her of all her financial resources. (Read more about the true story here).

The Danish Girl, for all its good intentions, is a contrived vanity project that sadly diminishes the struggle of Lili’s transformation. I walked away from the cinema thinking it was all very lovely, which I fear, was hardly the point.