2003 TIFF Update #3: "Feeling Bad About Feeling Good"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Saturday, September 6, 2003

There's no debating that the majority of the films available at any film festival are "serious" efforts. Over the years, I have seen such powerful, wrenching pictures as The War Zone, Requiem for a Dream, and Lilya 4-Ever in Toronto. So, every once in a while, it's nice to see something that offers the promise of a pick-me-up - a couple of hours to relax and feel good before once again taking a dive into a pool of human degradation. Two of this year's festival's most prominent "inspirational" efforts are expected to be two of the fall's higher profile releases (one in multiplexes, the other in art houses). Sadly, neither lives up to its advance billing. One, in fact, is so uneven that I wished I had skipped it altogether. The other is disappointing, but, all things considered, its short running length made it endurable.

The better of the two is Valentin, which has been called the "Amelie of 2003." Distributor Miramax Films likes that description, but it is a gross exaggeration of Valentin's appeal. The movie has things to recommend it, but anyone expecting the wit and charm of the 2001 crowd-pleaser will be sorely disappointed.

If 8-year old Valentin (Rodrigo Noya) was any less optimistic and proactive, he might become one of life's casualties. Abandoned by his father (who is living in another city and too busy with his mistresses to have time for a son) and mother (who fled to get away from her husband), Valentin is being raised by his widowed grandmother (Carmen Maura). Without friends of his own age, Valentin seeks the company of adults, essentially looking for a surrogate family. He finds a father-figure in Rufo (Mex Urtizberea), a sad-sack music teacher, and a mother-figure in Leticia (Julieta Cardinali), one of his father's girlfriends.

Valentin doesn't have much of a story arc. Writer/director Alejandro Agresti is content to show slices of life from the point-of-view of the precocious 8-year old. The voice of the narrator belongs to the title character, although from the perspective of an undisclosed time in the future. The film concentrates on Valentin's relationships with his grandmother, his father (director Agresti), Rufo, and Leticia. Valentin is a clever and energetic child, and, rather than bemoaning his circumstances, he sets out to fix them. As in the aforementioned Amelie, here's a case in which the protagonist is forever meddling. In this case, however, Valentin does not become so enmeshed in solving the problems of others that he forgets his own.

Valentin doesn't have much to say, and, when the final end credits begin rolling, it has seemingly come to a conclusion without a real ending. During the final 15 to 20 minutes, the movie appears to be building to an emotional climax that never occurs. Instead, we get a final, cheerful act in which Valentin plays matchmaker, then, in a perfunctory voiceover, we are told that Valentin grows up to become a writer and lives happily ever after.

The unquestionable star of the film is young Rodrigo Noya, who is on screen for the majority of the short 85-minute running length. This is Noya's second role, and it is likely to bring him a fair amount of international attention. He is one of those rare child actors who can capture our sympathy without being too cute or too irritating. (Most thespians in the under-10 category inevitably fall into one category or another.) His performance is natural; there's no hint of the awkwardness that sometimes occurs when children have memorized lines or are taking direction.

As a whole, Valentin is a moderately entertaining motion picture, but the lack of a satisfying sense of closure dims its appeal. The film may possess a gentle disposition, but that doesn't automatically make it superior. And at least the average Hollywood filmmaker understands how to end a movie... a statement that is unquestionably true when it comes to Richard Linklater and his latest, The School of Rock. Unfortunately, the ending is just about the only thing right about The School of Rock, which is being presented as one of the festival's centerpiece Galas. Polite as always, audiences applauded this movie, but it's as forgettable as anything I have seen over the years unspooling in the Roy Thompson Hall.

I don't want to call Richard Linklater a "sellout," since that's probably as unfair as it is unkind. But The School of Rock is clearly Linklater's attempt to develop some box office clout - something he has not achieved with critically acclaimed, sparsely attended features like Before Sunrise, Waking Life, and Tape. So, like Gus Van Sant with Good Will Hunting, Linklater has ventured into the mainstream. The key to the film's watchability lies in your opinion of lead actor Jack Black, who (depending on your view of him) either carries The School of Rock on his back or buries it under his impressive weight. In general, I like Black as a supporting character. The School of Rock has too much of the amped-up actor. After a while, his high-voltage, scenery-chewing approach becomes wearisome. But there's no denying that he adds some pizzazz to the movie - a quality that is not supplied by the screenplay or Linklater's direction.

Dewey Finn (Black) lives for rock 'n roll - not the kind of lame stuff that populates the radio airwaves these days, but the classic material. He's a walking encyclopedia of groups, singers, and songs. However, although Dewey loves the music, he's not the most adept artist, and his on-stage antics often make him more of a liability than an asset. So, when his bandmates fire him and his house-mate, Ned (Mike White), threatens to throw him out if he can't come up with his share of the rent, Dewey knows some changes have to be made. He starts by impersonating Ned to get a long-term substitute teacher's job. At first, Dewey doesn't know what to do with a classroom full of elementary school kids, but, when he discovers that several of them show signs of musical aptitude, he gets an idea - transform his pupils into a group and enter them into a "best band" contest. Of course, all of this has to be kept secret from the other kids, the parents, and especially Principal Mullins (Joan Cusack).

It's Sister Act meets Dangerous Minds, with the most galling qualities of both in bas-relief. The School of Rock doesn't have anything interesting to say or do. It's pure saccharine inspiration with occasional bursts of failed comic relief and a few exceptionally choreographed and executed rock numbers. The key to a feel-good movie like this succeeding has very little to do with the overall plot, which must follow certain time-honored formulas. Instead, it has to do with the likeability and believability of the characters, and that's where The School of Rock stumbles most obviously. It's a lot easier to swallow the kinds of mammoth plot contrivances this movie spews out if there are a few well-developed individuals hanging around. Unfortunately, the kids (as cute as some of them may be) are all stereotypes. The adult supporting characters are equally poorly developed (the strait-laced principal, the timid house-mate, the shrewish girlfriend). And Dewey is just Jack Black with a jones for anything to do with rock.

The presence of Black and Cusack in a story about music may evoke thoughts of High Fidelity, but that association only makes The School of Rock seem less palatable. There are elements that keep this movie from being a complete waste of time - the musical numbers are highlights, some of the kids (many of whom are non-professional actors) are cute, and there are isolated moments when the dialogue grows barbs. Nevertheless, my overall impression was not a positive one, and it's not just because I expect so much more from a filmmaker of Linklater's ability. And one has to question why the programmers at the Toronto Film Festival would place such a mediocre and underachieving motion picture in such a prime time slot. Or why they even programmed it at all.

© 2003 James Berardinelli

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