In the rock-’em-sock-’em environment of Sundance, films that eschew an excess of violence or sentimentality are often overlooked. A delicate balance of head and heart, Lisanne Skyler’s Getting to Know You proved too subtle for jury members and distributors alike. But here in New York, where there’s still room for brainy oddballs, it registers as a pitch-perfect portrait of adolescence, a film so fragile and uncompromising that you want to throw your arms around it and protect it from the jerks who won’t know how special it is.
Adapted from three Joyce Carol Oates stories, Getting to Know You weaves the memories and desires of three teenagers who’ve been forced too soon to fend for themselves. The main location is a bus depot in one of those economically stagnant upstate New York towns that make news only in an election year. Waiting for buses to take them in different directions are a sister and brother, Judith (Heather Matarazzo) and Wesley (Zach Braff). Wesley is bound for college; Judith is returning to the group home where she’s lived since their mother was committed to a psychiatric institute and their father decided that his family was not his responsibility.
Also at the station is Jimmy (Michael Weston), a teller of tales, some tall, some true. While Wesley takes refuge in his math books, Jimmy strikes up a conversation with Judith. The stories he invents about their fellow transients reflect on her painful, guilt-ridden relationship with her mother and father, wannabe performers whose careers were cut short by the economic burdens of parenthood. Making up stories is Jimmy’s way to avoid dealing with his own feelings of guilt. In the course of six hours, the two forge an emotional bond that gives them the courage to venture into adulthood.
Getting to Know You moves fluidly among worlds: the here and now of the bus station, the romances Jimmy invents, and Judith’s recollections of familial happiness turned to grief and horror. As her memories pile up, we realize that this is a film about the cathartic effect of storytelling and that, as such, it succeeds by example. Every disclosure opens a door onto a greater mystery until a liberating level of truth can be reached.
Written by the director and her sister, Tristine, the script is exceptionally subtle, and, despite the way it leaps about in time, almost classic in its three-act structure. Jim Denault’s cinematography strikingly limits its palette to the basic expressive difference between blues and reds. (The film might have been titled Tangled Up in Blue.) But in the end, Getting to Know You is driven by its ensemble cast, in particular Matarazzo and Weston.
Matarazzo still has the deer-caught-in-the-headlights quality that made her so discomfiting to watch in Welcome to the Dollhouse, but her emotional range has widened. She lets Judith wear her heart on her sleeve even when she retreats inside herself. Judith’s desire to be loved by her beautiful, distant, and self-destructive mother (Bebe Neuwirth) won’t be fulfilled; Matarazzo lets us understand Judith’s pain without allowing the character to fall into self-pity. Weston has soft, slightly feline features, a live-wire energy, and eyes that lead you to wonder what he’s going to do next. That he’s a babe is a given; that he makes us believe Jimmy is a babe with brains and the soul of a romantic suggests he has a shot at becoming a star.
What could have possessed USA Films to release Boricua’s Bond at all, let alone a week after the Puerto Rican Day Parade incident? Made by Val Lik, a 21-year-old Russian immigrant, the film suggests that moon ‘n’ maul is the standard sexual approach of Latino men to any and every woman. (Lik has a weird way of paying tribute to the Puerto Rican community in which he grew up.) Boricua’s Bond begins with some not unpromising scenes of guys hanging out (connected by flashy zip pans and propelled by a wall-to-wall rap track), but even those made me nervous about what would happen when the plot finally kicked in. And kick in it does. Despite its incoherence and inaudible dialogue, this slice-of-life film manages to be simultaneously thuggish and platitudinous. Since Lik shows a glimmer of talent, the best thing that could happen is for Boricua’s Bond to disappear before too many people take notice.