Sunday, January 07, 2007

Supporting Actress Blog-a-Thon, Served Up with a Smile

One especially frustrating confluence of being away from the internet and having my blog infested by a code-devouring succubus was that I missed out on celebrating the 1975 Supporting Actress Smackdown alongside my comrades in arms. This Smackdown was exceptional for all sorts of reasons: a clipreel from Nathaniel that was even sassier and more illustrative of the nommed performances than usual; a new and very welcome participant in all the smacking; two exquisite nominees from the same legendary film; better-than-expected work from the two nominees I hadn't seen before, even though their films were horrendous; and the announcement of a hiatus in Supporting Actress Sundays for a few months while our fearless leader StinkyLulu recharges his batteries and considers some tweaks to the format.

But Stinky's just a little tired, y'all; he's not neurasthenic. Besides, the committed actressexual doesn't just plunge into celibacy at a moment's notice, so today's Supporting Actress Blog-a-Thon is more than adequate recompense for the January Smackdown that isn't to be. It's a glorious smorgasbord in and of itself, with movie bloggers all over the web stumping for one supporting actress performance from 2006 that they'd like to include in our collective, glittering time capsule. I haven't had time to read the other entries yet, but I'm already excited to hear praise for some overlooked gems, such as ModFab's ode to the very fine Kerry Washington in The Last King of Scotland, Nathaniel's gorgeous enthusiasm for the delicious Meryl Streep in A Prairie Home Companion (her best perf in 2006!), or Radio Allegro's praise for the superb Mia Kirshner in The Black Dahlia. I'm also ready to be convinced by some arguments for performances that I didn't quite love: for example, here's our resplendent host's commentary on Lindsay Beamish, the dyspeptic dominatrix in Shortbus.

For my own part, not just to avoid more consensus choices but because I think she's every bit their equal, I'd like to sing the praises of Ashley Johnson, a 23-year-old actress previously unknown to me, who contributed such an exemplary, unfussy, and wondrously humane performance as Amber in Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation. I am still recovering from my astonishment at the public and even the critical indifference to Fast Food Nation, which has yet to eke out even $1 million after seven weeks of release, a sharp and witty trailer, an interesting and generally favorable reception at Cannes, and two years of hype about the resurgence of liberal politics in Hollywood cinema, often in films much inferior to this one—an admittedly flawed and occasionally clumsy but smart, eloquent, detailed, and vividly acted panorama. Yes, in some passages, Eric Schlosser's nonfiction investigation has not translated sublimely into mellifluous dialogue or satisfying dramatic structures, but increasingly, the film manages the clever and principled trick of eliciting deep emotion and educated ire without compromising on its subdued, almost creepily mundane tone, sound, and look.

Johnson's performance is fundamental to the film's grand success in this regard. Cast as a fetching, agreeable, and breathtakingly self-assured teenager—a type we rarely see in movies, who makes even Rory Gilmore seem mush-mouthed and unappealing—Johnson already achieves quite a bit by communicating decency, intelligence, and lively affection for her single mom (Patricia Arquette), her gadabout uncle (Ethan Hawke), her friends, her dreams of college, her co-workers, even her alienating job at Mickey's, where she's surrounded by plastic furniture, felonious uniforms, chemical smells, and dead air, to say nothing of the shit-stained burgers and carbonated sugar-water. Amber persists, because Johnson does, in being game without being a dupe, responsible without being officious, jovial without being silly, equally at ease with adults and peers, and quite obviously liked even by her disaffected, criminally tempted cohorts at Mickey's, especially the character played by Paul Dano. Essential goodness, as the Smackdowners agreed in the comparable case of Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies, is a deceptively difficult thing to conjure on screen, especially within the mandates of narrative film to complicate or "dramatize" that goodness through unexpected actions, accelerated evolutions, or contrived scenarios.

Kudos, then, to Linklater's direction and to his and Schlosser's script for clearing some space and defying some clichés so that Johnson can assemble the credible, layered, and intriguingly optimistic person that she does. Which isn't to say that Amber doesn't evolve over the course of the film. After involving herself with a student-activist group at a nearby college, Amber carries herself to the brink of a massive and dismaying realization, not just about her job at Mickey's but about the enormous social and political structures in which it participates. Amber soon finds herself engaging in anti-corporate guerrilla efforts that seriously jeopardize the ubiquitous approval and promised upward mobility that have surrounded her through the film. It's a tribute to Johnson that she has evoked Amber's potential and her soundness of character so strongly and uncloyingly that we shudder for Amber in these moments, even if we are politically sympathetic to her new intents; it's a further tribute that she doesn't jettison Amber's earlier personality in the throes of this epiphany, but expresses Amber's reluctance, panic, and mystification even as she sticks to her cadre's dangerous plan of action after several of her older, more experienced comrades have already fled the scene. The connecting thread is Amber's solid but complicated idealism: the very trait that once may have conditioned her blindness now forces her toward precarious action.

Amber teeters on a precipice between innocence and experience, helplessness and enlightenment, optimism and agitation at the end of Fast Food Nation, in a way that makes her both an audience surrogate and a gleaming projection of how we may wish to see ourselves. Few people in Fast Food Nation's audience are as legitimately green as Amber, even if we, like her, are allowing ourselves our very first frank look at the social and political enormities innate to corporatized food and abattoir economics. Johnson's performance poses germane and important questions: will political awareness require the tarnishing of Amber's happiness, even her goodness? By the same token, are her confidence and maturity fundamentally premised on naïveté and unknowing complicity? Where is the balance between communal responsibility and shallow self-interest within Amber's political enlightenment? We can see that her activism rewards, at least in part, her high-school dreams of sharper, more enriching friends, better invitations, more promising crushes on more interesting boys. She even suggests a nervous but powerful attraction for her uncle, or at least for his life of travel and thought and tale-spinning, so the connections between domestic influences and public conduct remain lucid and compelling in Johnson's delineation of Amber.

To ask more acting-specific questions, who besides Johnson could draw out the warmth and spontaneity in Patricia Arquette, who hasn't looked this comfortable or relaxed on screen since Flirting with Disaster? Who, short of Julie Delpy, has not only indulged Ethan Hawke in his freewheeling, coffee-shop improvisations but has actually sustained and improved them with her own bright-eyed, attentive, exquisitely pitched responses? How many actresses this young, and this new to cinema, can hold the screen so compellingly in shots of active listening, fond onlooking, genial small-talk, and the nearer and nearer tremors of a shifting inner life? Johnson is a terrific, fresh screen partner and a shrewd, disciplined actress, and she manages all of this with the ease of prime Kirsten Dunst, but without the aloofness or the heavy lids. She acts terrifically without ever seeming like she's auditioning for other roles, or straining to demonstrate her gravitas. In other words, she proves her superiority to most actors her age (at least when she's cast in the right part) without signalling that this, in fact, is her primary objective—a lesson from which the talented but sternly self-conscious Natalie Portman might take some notes.

Johnson's is the smile with which Fast Food Nation serves up its terrible news. The movie wouldn't work if the smile weren't so sparkling, and so real, or if the gathering storm of fear and knowledge weren't palpable beneath that smile.

(Images © 2006 Participant Productions/20th Century Fox)

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Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

wow. this really makes me want to see this movie. as was surely your intent ;)

12:34 PM, January 07, 2007  
Blogger Craig Hickman said...

I definitely want to see this film.

Thanks for the write up.

2:32 PM, January 07, 2007  
Blogger Catherine Cantieri, Sorted said...

Add me to the list of folks who want to see it -- even if there are slaughterhouse scenes.

6:26 PM, January 07, 2007  
Blogger Glenn Dunks said...

Thank christ, Nick! I thought I was alone. I've noticed your B+ grade before and now I have some words to go with it. I gave it a B personally, but couldn't agree more on Ashley Johnson. In a cast that included Greg Kinnear, Ethan Hawke, Bruce Willis, Patricia Arquette, Catalina Sandino Moreno and many others it was Johnson who I liked the most. I felt like I was connecting with her. THAT SMILE!! Oh Jesus, that smile. She's so adorable.

The only thing I could remember her from was a few episodes of Roswell and she looks a bit different now.

If there was any justice this perfectly normal-looking and acting girl would be the new "it" girl. She's got charm everywhere.

1:35 AM, January 08, 2007  
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9:23 PM, January 08, 2007  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Nat, Craig, and Catherine: Let me know what you think if you catch up with FFN!

@KC: So nice to have such a trusty ally in my fondness for this performance. I'll be eager to see if Hollywood noticed her.

@BenP: Doesn't look like I need to make a pitch, since you've already made such a lengthy one. Good luck with your site.

11:25 PM, January 08, 2007  
Blogger Glenn Dunks said...

Fact, I recently added her on MySpace and told her how great she was.

It felt weird.

5:21 AM, January 10, 2007  
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