Yes, teenagers can be terrifying. Anyone who’s ever crossed the street to avoid whatever angst they might hurl at you out of boredom or unfounded antipathy knows this. Some can be like doughy bread, waiting until all the neurons coalesce, while others can be a ticking time bomb. In Memoria, written and directed by Nina Ljeti and Vladimir de Fontenay (based on three short stories by James Franco), the kids are a little bit of both.
There is no lack of movies exploring the psychopathy and isolation of our youth. Larry Clark’s Kids (1995) seems to have set the tone for indie teen dramas to follow — both more open about how teenagers really act and more sexual. As we tag along with Memoria’s protagonist, Ivan Cohen (Sam Dillon), who ages from the single digits to 17 throughout the course of the film, we do see an honest portrayal of teen life but don’t see sex, though we’re certainly threatened by it.
Most of the action is tied to Ivan’s 17-year-old self and his friends — played by Thomas Mann, Bo Mitchell, and Keith Stanfield — who are scary-believable as cool skater kids with a penchant for destroying one another’s self-esteem with casual insults. Their dialogue is a nearly incoherent string of poetry about how many pussies each of them can fuck or whose mom is a stripper someone banged. In their closed system, their currency is feminizing insults, their value determined by how much terror they can inflict. I felt a little ill from the carpet bomb of misogyny, but the behavior here is as banal as it is maniacal, a way of life instead of a deviation from the norm. It soon becomes a burden to bear, no longer a shock.
We see this life through the eyes of Ivan, kinder than the rest and also an unreliable narrator. He isolates himself, pining for a father who left when he was five, never quite accepting his new stepdad (Matt McCoy) or his mother (Julia Emelin) as substitutes. He’d rather cling to an old jacket his dad left and crawl deeper and deeper into fantasy until he can’t remember which memories are real and which are false. Some of these memories come in the form of clunky voice-over pulled directly from the source material, which is unfortunate. A good story doesn’t always mean good writing, and drawing attention to the words takes us momentarily out of the picture.
Still, we empathize with Ivan, but he’s a difficult character to like. He’s not extraordinary, is probably even a little boring, and he won’t accept help when it’s offered. He’s painfully realistic, so while we want him to do something good and grand, he’s just going to sit around and watch things happen, which is upsetting. What sets him apart from his friends, however, is that he abhors the act of killing — as evidenced when one boy’s inability to remain sober for a single night results in deer carnage on a darkened road. Ivan gives his friends a hard glare and takes the wheel in sullen silence after picking out a bloody bone from the car’s grill, and the only thing his “friends” can find it within themselves to say is that he’s acting “weird.” It’s safe to say “empathy” is not a word that exists in their vocabulary.
The girls, meanwhile, buy into the same morally corrupt patriarchal system, referring to themselves as objects, flirting by subjugating themselves. The standout here is Nina, played by Ruby Modine, her deep smoker’s voice sharpening her jabs at Ivan about the shame of his virginity to an uncomfortable degree — she’s gonna tip him over the edge. We’re so deep in Ivan’s brain, we almost feel for him — until he lashes out.
Playing into this myopia is the very form of the film, which was either shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio or cropped to it, a format usually reserved for video or TV of the past (or Kelly Reichardt’s suffocatingly brilliant Meek’s Cutoff). The effect of squishing the picture into a smaller frame is a sense of being trapped, because the actors literally have to stand closer together to make it into the frame.
In Memoria, you’ll see a few examples of expert blocking, teenagers situated at varying levels of depth in the same frame — good staging, borrowed from theater, should really be more common onscreen. The 4:3 technique also tends to work best with brighter colors against those black sidebars, to juxtapose color with the lack of it, so you can really see that your field of vision is limited. But the directors have opted for a muted, saturated look to mimic something of a vérité home video shot on film stock. It’s a missed opportunity, because some of the scenes have such low light that I didn’t even realize the film was 4:3 at first.
Memoria is a small film with a lasting impact, whether you like it or not — I’m still unnerved by the teenagers’ dialogue. It’s not necessarily a movie to be enjoyed, but a movie to understand how and why we’re getting these disconnected kids who do terrible things, like a magnifying glass on the fried connections of a human brain on too many hormones. Go home and hug your kids, please.