Tag Archives: Coming Of Age

Labyrinth (1986)

Labyrinth DVD

Beware, 80’s kids- I am here to pick apart your childhood classic. There is so much wrong with this movie, I don’t even know where to begin. Mind, there are moments of creative genius at play too, and the puppetry aspect of the film is, well… quite cool, even for a cynic like me. But it’s pretty sad when puppets outshine Jennifer Connelly’s Godawful acting and David Bowie’s mannered affectations as Jareth, the codpiece-donning goblin king (what the Hell people? This is a kid’s movie, is there really room for a villain with his pants stuffed so as to  make his dick look big?)

Sarah (Connelly,) a bratty adolescent deep in the throes of puberty-induced teen angst, calls on the goblin horde from her favorite book to take her perpetually crying baby brother Toby (Toby Froud) away when she is forced to babysit him one stormy night. Much to her chagrin, the goblins, who are- unbeknownst to her- very real- take Toby away to the Goblin King (David Bowie)’s castle. Spurred on by regret and concern for her brother’s well-being (and for the allowance cut she will most certainly receive if her father (Christopher Malcolm) and step-mother (Shelley Thompson,) like, totally come home to find their son gone,) Sarah is taken to a magical land where she much brave the labyrinth- and Jareth’s cunning charms- in order to save her brother.

This seems like mostly a vehicle for musician David Bowie (Bowie sports lip gloss and awful hair, and, for no particular reason at all, bursts into song in several instances,) and I’ve heard rumors that Bowie regrets the project to some extent. I can see why. Allegedly the movie is a fantastical portrayal of the labyrinthine trials of puberty, and the connections are all too obvious. Connelly (who was better off going ass to ass in “Requiem for a Dream,”) can’t act to save her life poor dear.

She hems, haws, and blinks vacuously, but to be fair, the damage isn’t entirely her fault- the scriptwriter gives ‘Sarah’ the most inane lines imaginable. Moreover, unlike fantasy stories like “Harry Potter,” the ‘great evil’ (I.e. Jareth) that Sarah fights doesn’t seem that sinister at all. Weird and gay, yes. Sinister, no. Sure, Jareth wants to turn Sarah’s baby brother into a goblin and the sexual tension between him and Sarah seems Borderline pedo, but he fails as a truly malevolent or interesting presence. When Sarah meets up with him for the big confrontation, he spends half of the time singing (!) and the other half being humbled in the presence of her womanly power.

It’s bad when the most threatening presence in a film that strives to be epic fantasy is a stench-emitting, farting bog. That said, the puppets are wonderful. My personal favorite, Didymous the mace-wielding Chihuahua, was a steady mix of cute and cool. It was just so easy. Pit Sarah against any legit fantasy villain- Voldemort, Sauron, the baddies from Gaiman’s “Neverwhere”- and she would crumble like the inconsequential schoolgirl she is. Jareth’s main powers consist of looking fabulous and talking you to death, with an extra helping of ‘blah.’

“Labyrinth” leaves me conflicted in that I want the movie studios to bring puppetry back and use it on a better movie, My review is unfair in that the film didn’t have a part in my childhood, and fair for the exact same reason. Sentimentality can muddle your perception of the way things are. And “Labyrinth,” my friends, is no classic. You are free to leave comments championing your nondescript piece of whimsy. if you wish. It’s all the same to me. The puppets, the sets, some of the creative elements were awesome, sod all the rest.

laberynth

North Sea, Texas (2011)

Back in the 50’s and 60’s, any movie that dealt with gay themes was radical and ahead of its time. A GLBT film didn’t have to be insightful or even particularly good — the filmmaker was risking his credibility and his career just putting himself (or herself) out there.

Now, however, things have changed, with entire gay film companies making movies available at the click of a button. Directors of these movies must not merely be willing to make movies — they must be the best they can be, and no less. Movies about the gay experience are in high demand, and makers and distributors of these films don’t need to be afraid anymore.

There have been some extraordinary films made about gay issues the last few years- “Weekend,” “Tomboy,” “Pariah,” and “Gun Hill Road,” to name of few … and  Belgian filmmaker Bavo Defurne’s “North Sea Texas” has garnered some acclaim. Unfortunately, “North Sea Texas” is a disappointment, marred by uninteresting characters and a rushed pace.

Pim (Jelle Florizoone), a pixyish, and disturbingly, often meagerly clothed teenage boy, is first seen played by Ben Van den Heuvel as a child, putting on a sash and a tiara for his own enjoyment. The son of a irresponsible mother (Eva van der Gucht) and a father who has long been out of the picture, Pim longs to escape is dull life. Mom is a frequent visitor of the Texas tavern, where she and her boyfriend get liquored up.

As a fifteen-year-old, Pim hates his mother’s loutish boyfriend but loves Gino (Mathias Vergels), his boy neighbor and best friend. Unfortunately, Gino’s sister Sabrina (Nina Marie Kortekaas) is in love with Pim, and can’t understand why Pim shows more interest in her motorcycle-riding brother.

When Gino breaks Pim’s heart and leaves, a love triangle develops between Pim, his mom, and handsome Gypsy Zoltan (Thomas Coumans). But Pim’s trials are not over, and his painful experiences lead to a eventual reconciliation.

I never really cared about Pim or any of the other characters — I guess that was one of the main problems with this film. Pim was nothing special — just your average soft, sensitive gay boy with a affinity for walking around unclothed. His apparent youth made his sexualization at the hands of the filmmaker seem somewhat skeevy.

Gino was a unsatisfying romantic interest who was willing to betray Pim just to go “Yeah, I’m straight” to the rest of the world. I didn’t like him either. Sabrina was okay, but she was a bit of a whiny busybody brat. I mean, who just goes into a person’s and starts browsing through papers?

The only things I liked about “North Sea Texas” were the decision to cast a fat person as Pim’s mother, Pim’s performance, and the scene at the end where Pim and Sabrina come to a silent truce. Otherwise, the movie was startlingly mediocre, and I hope you’ll take a pass on this one in order to watch a more worthy likewise-themed movie.

We Are the Best (2013)

werthebest

One does not need to be a punk aficionado to appreciate the warmth and heart behind “We Are the Best!,” a charming Swedish film directed by Lukas Moodyson, based on his wife Coco’s graphic novel. The characters and dialogue seem somehow very engaging and natural, and the three girl actors (playing a trio of adolescents who start a punk rock group) give  candid, believable performances.

Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) are two girls in their very early teens who are overlooked by their respective families and get no support at school. Perhaps as a result, the kids fancy themselves punk rocker rebels whose day-to-day frustration is only matched by their attempts to ‘stick it to the man.’ They both sport unconventional hairstyles (a Mohawk and a boy’s haircut,) perhaps willfully trying to break away from typically feminine ‘little girl’ labels.

The two girls decide one day that they want to perform a punk song about hating gym, but neither of them have any musical talent. Klara decides to enlist shy and pious Hedvig (Liv Lemoyne) to teach them how to play an instrument, hoping to possibly influence Hedvig with their punk basasserie away from God in the process.

Whether they make an atheist out of Hedvig is highly doubtful, but they do help her to loosen up and enjoy herself a bit more, and she aids them in improving their musical skills. Trouble arises when Klara begins to put on make-up and fetches the attention of a punk teen and Bobo starts to feel unattractive and alienated. It’s typical teenaged angst, applied with the  gentle touch of an artist who knows what it’s like to be a kid with raging hormones and best friend troubles.

I found Klara to be somewhat irritating with her attempts to alienate Hedvig for having any kind of faith, but it does lead to an amusing and insightful discussion of religion and the challenge of believing in something you can neither see nor touch. Bobo was a cutie. I really liked her. My heart also went out to Hedvig and it was inspiring to see her start to enjoy herself a little more (although Hedvig’s tightly-wound mother was none too happy to see that Bobo and Klara had cut her straight-laced darling’s hair punk-style.)

I was genuinely worried for the girls when they go to meet some teenaged punk artists to mingle and flirt, and was relieved they came back in one piece. The parents, especially Bobo’s irresponsible, childish mom, were infinitely aggravating . Still, nothing was exaggerated or overwritten. It isn’t cruelty the girls have to contend with (from their parents, their classmates are another story) or even blatant uncaring as much as ignorance and distractedness.

*SPOILER* I also loved how the performance the girls gave at the end was a total failure and the opposing band and the ignoramus adults in charge of the whole thing barely gave them a chance to play but the trio couldn’t haven given less of a fuck. The climactic  scene is not like a lot of others of its kind in many ways- the girls aren’t appreciated or even particularly good, but they get a kick out of doing it so that’s what they do. *END OF SPOILER*

“We Are the Best!” is a delightful experience because it’s so human and accessible, and draws compelling performances from its three young actresses. Anyone whose ever felt like a misfit, especially girls who have been discomforted and bewildered by the Barbie-doll standards of femininity will empathize with “We  Are the Best!”‘s winsome trio.

We-Are-the-Best-Movie

The Way, Way Back (2013)

the way way back

After a rocky, strident beginning, “The Way, Way Back” straightens itself into a pretty darn lovable movie, which also has the honor of giving a decidedly dark and against-type role to funnyman Steve Carell. Carell plays Trent, the verbally abusive, passive-aggressive boyfriend of needy Pam (Toni Collette.) The abuse perpetrated by Trent is not directed towards Pam but towards her self-conscious 14-year-old son, Duncan (Liam James.)

Duncan is in that awkward stage of youth where just about every phrase uttered by him is monosyllabic and he’s at a loss to talk to anyone, especially girls. Trent is frequently hostile and bullying but plays nice in front of Pam, who doesn’t seem to notice the behavior. Trent takes Pam, Duncan, and Duncan’s bitchy daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin) (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I suppose) to vacation home for the summer.

Surrounded by unbearable adults, including an alcohol-guzzling floozy (Allison Janney) and Trent’s insufferable friends (Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry,) angst-ridden Duncan loiters at the theme park Water Whizz, and is befriended by the park’s wise-cracking manager Owen (Sam Rockwell.) Owen recognizes a kid in need of support in Duncan and offers him a job. The summer proves to be empowering and life-changing for Duncan, who even falls in love for the first, with the floozy neighbor’s attractive and similarly disaffected daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb.)

The beginning scenes are a little bit on the overcooked side, as we are introduced to an assortment of dingy grown-up’s, each with the apparent identical goal of making Duncan’s life as awkward as possible. It’s hard to believe anyone could be this stupid, or at least with such a lack of subtlety, even Kip and Joan, who we are led to believe are incessantly high.

There is a definite improvement in storytelling and substance about thirty minutes in, when Duncan breaks away from Trent’s asinine friends and neighbors and starts spending a numerable amount of afternoons with Owen. Owen might be a bit childish and hedonistic, but he’s exactly what Duncan needs to develop a sense of self-worth and confidence.

Owen also knows that strictly verbal abuse can be as harmful as physical blows, and he tries to help Duncan move past Trent’s taunts. Duncan’s conversations with Susanna are cute not because of what he says but because of what he doesn’t say, which is basically anything of discernible value. So paralyzed by shyness is Duncan that he is reduced to mumbling “I guess” and “I dunno” and babbling about the weather. We’ve all been there, but what makes  the duo so charming is that the incredibly patient Susanna still likes Duncan, still LIKE likes him, not I-want-to-go-to-the-movies-as-friends likes him. For a kid who barely even likes himself, that’s a small miracle.

“The Way, Way Back” might have a little bit of the “Juno” syndrome, where witticisms are a bit too pithy to be natural (nevertheless, haters, I still love “Juno”) and the script might have some sitcom-y moments, but it is still a charming coming-of-age story for those whose movie tastes run toward the quirky and the droll.. There should certainly be more Owens in the word, who can see the  good and the worthy in the most gawky adolescent. If that were the case, my teen years might have been a Hell of a lot less miserable.

waywaybck

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

0-545-05474-5

“Marcelo in the Real World” is a novel that, like it’s sweet but often bewilderingly naive protagonist, took time to grow on me. It gets points for offering a unique perspective on Autism Spectrum Disorders and a fair and balanced portrayal of Christianity. Marcelo Sandoval, a quiet and innocent Mexican-American 18-year-old, seems to have an Asperger’s Syndrome like condition which, on top of typical AS symptoms, causes him to hear ‘mental music’ that no one else can. Doctors can’t figure out why this happens. and Marcelo is an enigma to friends and family.

All Marcelo wants to do is stay at Patterson, his school for kids with special needs, and take care of the Hafflinger ponies that reside there. His plan for a sheltered and uneventful summer takes a detour, however, when his father, Arturo insists he work at his law firm over vacation. Marcelo complies only after pressure and is send to Sandoval & Holmes legal firm, where he begins to come face to face with some very unpleasant realities for the first time. These include manipulative and hedonistic Wendell Holmes and his bullying father Stephen, Arturo’s partner in crime. But what rattles him most is a picture of a severely disfigured teen that leads him to bitter realities about his father, the firm, and the ‘real world’ his dad wants so desperately for him to join.

Consistent with most AS patients, Marcelo has a special interest- in this case, religion. He also has an annoying habit of referring to himself in the third person, i.e. ‘Marcelo is scared’ or ‘Marcelo is hungry,’ which got some getting used to. A lot of the book focuses on Marcelo’s relationship with his attractive and sturdy co-worker Jasmine. As his sweet genuineness and her strength brings them closer together, Marcelo wonders if he is capable of passionate, sensual love. The other parts of the book are a mix of coming-of-age, theology, and a little bit of legal thriller.

At first, I had trouble of conceiving of a creature like Marcelo existing. In today’s voyeuristic, media obsessed, sex-crazed world, Marcelo is a soft-spoken, childlike, pure, all-around good guy. Wendell, on the other hand, is not someone who you’d like to be on the receiving end of when he wants his way. I felt protective of Marcelo (why can’t he take care of the ponies over the summer anyway?) but was simultaneously annoyed by him. He really did not have a clue about human err. He grows a lot as a character throughout the book, however. Over the course of that crazy summer, he becomes a man.

I found a little bit of the dialogue distractingly over-the-top, particularly at the beginning. In fact, at many ways Marcelo seems like the least self-centered, blunt, ‘autistic’ person in the firm. Everyone says exactly what they want to say, everyone gripes and gossips. Maybe this is really how the world works, but it seemed wrong to me. Jasmine is a character who I liked a bit better over the course of the novel too. Wendell was the only lead character who stayed the same throughout the book. Frankly, he needed to be slapped.

Marcelo’s voice is well-researched and genuine. He doesn’t seem like an Autistic Spectrum stereotype or a “Rain Man”-type character at all. Author Francisco X. Stork doesn’t make Autism define Marcelo and doesn’t make him a number-droning zombie, incapable of human feeling. Marcelo is only mildly on the spectrum, but honestly, you fear for him a little while reading this book. He’s so easily beguiled and taken advantage of that I myself wouldn’t want him walking the streets of Boston, Massachusetts by himself. It’s not that he’s stupid or defective, but his seemingly boundless naivete makes him such an easy target.

This is young adult fiction but it’s written in a such a way that anyone can enjoy it, and it’s not bogged down with a lot of psychobabble about Asperger’s (“House Rules” by Jodi Picoult comes to mind in the psychobabble department.) “Mindblind” by Jennifer Roy (a book about a brilliant fourteen-year-old Aspergian) would make a good companion read with this. It is a touching coming-of-age story in the same league as books such as “The Perks of Being A Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

the-perks-of-being-a-wallflower-e28094-book-cover3

Witty and intelligent, ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is a must-read for anyone who has ever felt trapped by their own isolation. It also has one of the most genuine teen voices I’ve ever seen. The protagonist. Charlie, is a good student but is never really noticed by his peers, and he lives inside of his head most of the time. Until the epic year that he meets Patrick and Sam, two free-spirited freshmen who encourage him put himself out there. Charlie promptly falls head-over-heels in love with Sam (a girl,) though she initially rebuffs him. The story is told from the point of view of a bunch of letters Charlie sends to a teenager he has never met. Charlie struggles with his psychological difficulties, dates. and comes to terms with a traumatic memory from his childhood he has repressed.

If that sounds boring to you and you would rather read a book with James Bond-style spy gear and car chases, maybe this isn’t the book for you. This is a book about life, teens, dating (but not that superficial teen stuff a lot of young adult books are about.) Charlie is a sensitive vulnerable kid, and doesn’t don the usual jaded teen voice that YA literature is rife with. He really wears his heart on his sleeve, and he is easy to love, although his naivete and immaturity can be troubling at times. The gay subplot between Patrick and a popular football player who won’t acknowledge him in school is sensitive and well-written.

I actually thought Patrick was a more vibrant character in the movie. I guess without Ezra Miller to play him, he falls a little flat. Also, some aspects were a little more fleshed out in the film. But there’s a on of great scenes and side-plots that weren’t in the movie. And actually, I liked and got to know Charlie a lot better in this. This book makes me a little melancholy (not in a bad way) because all the things Charlie is doing- getting out there, taking risks- are things I was told but never really did as a teen. I would have loved to have friends like Patrick and Sam. I would’ve loved to have one of those ‘infinite’ moments in a pick-up truck with the radio playing just the right song.

But overall. Charlie is not a character to envy. He’s just as messed up, confused, conflicted, etc. as any 15-year-old. He’s extremely bright and insightful, but sometimes those two things can be just as much a hindrance as a help, and he spends way too much time in his head. He is a very relatable character for me. Some people might not like the writing style, but I find that the somewhat juvenile way of telling the story helps it remain plausible. You really believe it could be being told by a 15-year-old.

‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is one of the better young adult books I’ve come across the last few years. Maybe this sounds corny, but it really restores my faith in the genre. Also, I added a wonderful sketch by a deviantart user. I’m going to add a link to the picture so you can visit her page.  I recommend both the book and the movie version to book and movie fans everywhere.

Up High in the Trees by Kiara Brinkman

Image

Told through the eyes of a highly unusual eight-year-old boy coping with grief and the disintegration of his remaining family members, Up High in the Trees is a poetic first effort by Kiara Brinkman. Sebby has a highly sophisticated, personal, and unique voice unusual for his age group, and the story is told an undetermined amount of time after his mother is struck dead by a car in the night. Sebby, like any young boy bereaved of his mother, struggles with his loss, and his dad takes him to the summer house to recuperate, only to fall into a deep depression in which he is unable to take care of himself, let alone his bright, inquisitive son.

Many people have speculated that Sebby is on the Autism Spectrum, probably high-functioning Asperger’s, and many passages (including his sensitivities to light, color, and sound) seem to hint at this. He is never diagnosed, which is just as well, but even for a precocious boy with Asperger’s, Sebby’s voice seems highly unlikely at times. Often he seems like a psychology graduate channeling their inner child rather than a true eight-year-old. However, if you get past the initial humps (Sebby seems too sophisticated for a little kid, the other characters are a bit too thinly defined) Up High in the Trees is a compelling read.

The chapters are short and often abstract, like a fragment of a passing thought or dream. That makes it very readable, since you can read a chapter or two on a bus ride and finish them in no time at all. Sebby often fails to engage with others, living in a gauzy world where he retraces his mothers steps and treads among her memories. He and his mother shared a private world together, and now his siblings and dad are flummoxed by his failure to grieve in a normal way. What is the ‘normal’ way to grieve, anyway? Hankies and tears? Hugs and sentiments? Sebby is removed from planet Earth as most know it, preferring to chase memories of his mother than other kids.

He finds solace in an old camera, which he uses to take pictures of life as it is- without Mother. I really rooted for the reconciliation of Sebastian and Katya, a slightly older Russian immigrant. I couldn’t figure out why he was so mad at her. She was was protective and kind and even forgave him when he bit her on the shoulder! Instead, Sebby pursues friendship with Jackson and Shelly, two under-supervised ragamuffin kids who seem to engage in a lot of risk-taking activities.

I would like to read anything further that Kiara Brinkman writes. In this flawed but well-done novel, she explores being wired different in a neurotypical world, bereavement, and the meaning of family. Sebby’s brood fray and very nearly fall apart, and I guess that not all was well before his mother’s death, either.  But almost unraveling is what eventually puts them together and makes them stronger as a family. I hope you can derive inspiration from this brief but effective read.

L.I.E. (2001)

Image

Despite a rocky start, L.I.E. proves to be a powerful movie in the long run, with great performances from Brian Cox and a young Paul Dano. Dano plays a Howie Blitzer, a fifteen-year-old juvenile delinquent whose dad is an inattentive swindler, and whose friends are leading him down the wrong path quick. The school guidance counselor senses that Howie is different, but Howie thinks that it is too late to be saved, and spirals deeper and deeper into disaffected adolescent crime.

One day Howie and his friends break into the house of Big John Harrigan (Brian Cox,) Irish-American Vietnam veteran and pedophile and steal two valuable guns from him. Harrigan finds Howie and tricks him into thinking he’s a friend of Howie’s late mother’s, and he grooms and attempts to seduce the boy, using threat of legal action for the missing guns to his advantage. Thus begins a icky, and very odd turn of events where the kid realizes that a monster is his only lifeline.

   L.I.E. was originally rated NC-17, and probably crosses the line with child actors as much as it can be crossed in an American movie. Even more disturbing than the pedophilic content and the sweaty, horny, hazed portrayal of out-of-control teen behavior, is the ambiguity concerning the relationship between an adult and a child. It is easy to portray a child molester as a teeth-gnashing sex fiend. It is hard to portray them as human. Don’t get me wrong, I think pedophiles are evil and will get their karma in the afterlife. But many of them were made that way, not born bad. They have human attributes and psychological reasons for doing what they do- to portray them as solely mustache-twirling villains is to deny the complexity of life.

The first ten minutes or so of this movie disappointed me- it seemed like they were trying way too hard to be shocking and edgy. It’s Harmony Korine syndrome- let’s show just how disgusting people can be! The scene where the boy is talking about screwing his sister didn’t ring true to me, nor did the scene with the boys being blown behind street signs. You have to get a little farther in to get to the good part. Brian Cox is chilling. He vacillates between being charming and repugnant. The fact that you begin to like him- just a little- shows the brilliance of the character dynamics.

L.I.E.‘s terrifying. It’s more terrifying than The Conjuring or the Human Centipede movies because it can happen, and is happening… outside our doors, in our neighborhoods, and maybe, just maybe, in our houses. Because Big John is only as scary as the society he inhabits, which neglects our children, raises a generation of ‘latchkey kid,’ and grows them up to be disaffected and attention-starved. It allows these things to happen. An abrupt ending makes you question what it all really meant. Not easy or kid-friendly, but relevant.

Image

Herpes Boy (2009)

Though not as bad as it’s unfortunate title suggests, “Herpes Boy” derives humor on grotesque caricatures of it’s secondary players. I’ve never seen so many shameless stereotypes masquerading as characters in one movie.

The only character with any depth is the birthmarked, self-proclaimed misanthrope protaganist, but we can only get a kick out of his angsty ‘I hate people’ routine for so long, and lead actor Byron Lane is short on charisma as well as talent.

Teen outcast Rudolph (Byron Lane)’s angst and ennui is understandable- between his clueless family and his lifelong bullying at the hands of just about everybody, who wouldn’t be P.O.-ed? But his self-absorbed outlook on his jock father’s fatal heart attack and his actual consideration of dissing his dad in the eulogy makes him often a less than sympathetic character.

Rudolph makes videos of himself and posts them online, where he talks mostly about his lame family, his birthmark, and how much he hates humanity. Apparently his self-absorbed rants touch a lot of people, and connect him with some of the human beings he proclaims his hate for.

When Rudolph’s ditzy cousin (Kristeee with three ‘e”s- cute) shows up for the funeral and sabotages Rudolph’s videos,) Rudolph must stand up for outcasts, weirdoes, and misanthropes everywhere. His ambivalent feelings for his dead father make an appearance too, although they don’t take center stage over his all-important online video-making.

There are a plethora of stereotypes on display here- the dumb bitchy blonde, the soft homosexual, the sassy, larger-than-life black gal, the token emo girl, the bubble-headed jocks, and so on, blah, blah, blah. If it makes you feel better, V.D. is nowhere to be found in this story (Rudolph is cruelly dubbed ‘Herpes Boy’  because of his birthmark,) and the movie has a few funny moments (mostly at the beginning.)

The actors are fairly average/fairly weak,except for the ones who play the parents and the gay uncle, who are decent in undemanding roles. Overall, “Herpes Boy” is forgettable now and will be outdated in twenty years, when the Facebook/Myspace blah-blah-blah craze is obsolete. Underwhelming in every way.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

Image

10-year-old Caitlyn Smith has always coped better with her older brother Devon by her side. For a girl with Asperger’s Syndrome, support from friends and family is crucial, and Devon teaches her how to fit in in her small Virginia town. But now Devon is gone, his life taken senselessly by a school shooter, and Caitlyn must navigate the confusing and sometimes hostile world without Devon’s guiding hand. Like many people with Asperger’s, Caitlyn is a literal and black-and-white thinker, and as she struggles to understand her loss and grapples with making friends and learning empathy, she decides that ‘closure’ is something she and her father would very much like.

“Mockingbird” is lyrical and sweet, however brief. Caitlyn isn’t like a stereotypical Aspie with a robotic narration solving math problems in her head. Her voice is unique, faraway but strong and present, and she is a gifted artist. Tentatively at her counselor Mrs. Brooks’ urging she befriends a six-year-old boy whose mother was killed in the shooting, and learns to cope.

The author was inspired to write this book after the 2007 Virginia Tech Massacre. The crime was terrible, of course, but these things seem to be becoming so common that they all just sort of blur together for me. I remember Sandy Hook particularly shook me up because the victims were little kids and it was unimaginable that a grown man would want to go in there and do that to a bunch of Kindergartners.

There’s a considerable lack of depth in the secondary players (and a little bit more development of Josh, the second most interesting character, might of been in order) but this may reflect Caitlyn’s lack of understanding of her family and peers. I found myself oddly unmoved by the emotional element, although the prose is well structured. I didn’t cry or even really get sad reading it. Instead, I appreciated it, but it failed to make me experience big feelings.

Kathryn Erskine has written a sensitive book, and she has created an Aut-Lit (Autism Spectrum literature) narrative that is well-done and original. If she had written a bit more or gone deeper into the psychological/social/family aspects, it might have gotten a 4 Star Rating from me. “Mockingbird” is short and sweet, but lacks the bite or depth to make it a classic.

Image