June 2, 2017 (originally published on Film Inquiry)
by Sasha Kohan
Marisa Silver wrote and directed Old Enough (1984) while still a student at Harvard University and was only 23 when the film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Knowing that she was hardly old enough to call herself an adult when she made this movie (and that she made it with the help of her older sister, producer Dina Silver) brings an especially unusual perspective to this somehow little-known film. Old Enough follows two girls living worlds apart on the same street in New York’s lower east side, with only cultural barriers and class divides to differentiate their mutual spirit – how had I never heard of this movie before?
The premise sounds fairly simple: 11-year-old Lonnie (Sarah Boyd) comes from an upper-class background and lives in an enormous, elegant apartment building with just her parents and younger sister (Alyssa Milano, in her first film role), while street-smart and colorful teenager Karen (Rainbow Harvest) comes from a modest, religious, working class family. Naturally, they discover each other and become infatuated with the exoticism of the other’s lifestyle. Though it begins and ends as you’d most likely expect, the entire middle brings up a huge number of weighty themes – perhaps too many for such a short film – that reach far beyond the simple coming-of-age tropes one would predict walking into it.
Above all, Old Enough is an affectionately accurate depiction of how it feels to grow into an age when the approval of your peers becomes more important than the approval of your parents. You start to choose your own friends based not just on shared interest or parent-planned playdates, but on the kind of image you imagine emulating, and who you’d most like to see reflected in yourself.
A young woman’s approach to writing young women
I never fully appreciate the differences in how female characters are portrayed when directed by men versus women until I see something like Old Enough. It’s a wonderful thing, to see women and girls in film playing with and up against each other in ways that are neither annoying to us nor antagonistic to each other, neither silly nor self-serious – they just are.
The major difference in seeing female characters under the eye of a female director is that the audience is rarely manipulated into taking sides. This was the most significant part of Old Enough, to me. Lonnie and Karen are our protagonists, for sure, but the entire cast of characters and family members are all somewhat, impressively (even in the much smaller roles) well-rounded and not totally predictable – which isn’t always easy in these seemingly classic summer stories of child protagonists and their semi-dysfunctional families.
Silver’s treatment of the parents was particularly realistic and restrained. Although characterization of Karen’s father (Danny Aiello, Sal of Do the Right Thing) could be accused of leaning on some stereotypes, even he isn’t a one-note figure. It seems like he’s being set up as a hard-ass when Karen’s brother Johnny (Neil Barry) shows up late to help him work, but the tense family moment quickly dissolves into laughter and a teasing dance – a mood change I was relieved to be surprised by.
Likewise, Lonnie’s mother (Fran Brill) seems like she’s set to be an all-too-classic distant nag in the beginning, discussing mundane upper-class scheduling details at the breakfast table and giving Lonnie a hard time for not wearing the headband she’s told she looks so cute in (she prefers experimenting with a long scarf tied around her forehead). To my pleasant surprise, however, Lonnie’s mother gets a number of other scenes to show the other sides of her maternal personality – she is surprised, but certainly far from angry, when she catches Lonnie trying on her jewelry and makeup: “I just…didn’t know you were into that kind of thing.”
I also love the scene where Lonnie is desperate to ask her mother about sex without saying so many words: “You don’t tell me everything, you know,” Lonnie cautiously begins. “There’s lots you don’t tell me.” Their relationship is one of the most truthful aspects of Old Enough, capturing every role mothers must take on for their daughters without exaggerating any of them.
The adolescent gaze
Silver’s depiction of girlhood, womanhood, and femininity is complicated immensely with the arrival of Carla (Roxanne Hart), the slender, trendy 32-year-old who moves into the previously empty apartment above Karen’s family home. Karen has seen Carla on the street before and immediately admires her aura and style. There’s a great moment when the kids—Lonnie, Karen, and Johnny—are all watching Carla, with her long legs and short shorts, moving her furniture into the building. All three of them are seen imposing their own gaze onto her, and we see them all noticing something different: Johnny sees a new object of desire, Karen sees a new role model, and Lonnie (having developed a bit of a crush on Johnny after a somewhat bizarre and definitely inappropriate encounter with him) sees a threat to her relationship with both of them.
So much of Old Enough is about looking and seeing, making observations and reacting to them by way of imitation; when Carla comes up to Karen to compliment her gold belt, we also notice Karen’s gold nail polish, which she had previously noted to Lonnie in awe after seeing it on Carla (“Did you catch that nail polish? Gold.”). Karen lifts her fingers to her mouth as she watches Carla walk away, and we see Lonnie mimic Karen by putting her fingers to her mouth – and repeat. The significance of creating and crafting one’s appearance, especially as a young girl who only begins to find herself by imitating someone else, comes up all over the place.
The first time we see either of our protagonists they are in front of a mirror, experimenting, practicing, perfecting some new look before introducing their new selves to the world. The fact that Milano’s character is still playing house with her baby dolls just shows she’s still at the age of imitating her parents, but we watch her watching Lonnie often enough to know that she’ll be taking cues from her sister before too long – just as she has from Karen, and Karen from Carla.
A(n appropriately) naïve take on race
While the film is undeniably an impressive debut, especially knowing it came from the writing and direction of a 23-year-old, there are certainly areas where Silver’s own youth and naivety almost come into focus. Regarding race, for instance, I wasn’t sure what to make of Lonnie’s solo adventure into Carla’s working neighborhood, where she is quickly frightened by a large group of Spanish-speaking older men who send a few intimidating comments and sexual gestures her way before she runs away to hide in a grocery store. Karen is clearly uncomfortable once they reach the outskirts of their own neighborhood and tries, in her older, inarticulate way, to articulate to Lonnie why they should leave. “We don’t belong here, get it?” she says pointedly.
On the other hand, I can see Silver trying to recreate the feeling of simultaneous fear and independence any child must have the first time they realize they are alone among a majority of others who are different in some way, and stumbling into a primarily non-English-speaking neighborhood in the case of two young white girls certainly gets the job done. If there were anything to take away from this scene, I would say it’s something about the mixed maturity and ignorance on the part of both Lonnie and Karen – Karen is old enough to recognize cultural barriers and doesn’t want to cross lines she feels she shouldn’t (in addition to acting on her own pure discomfort), and Lonnie thinks herself brave for daring to venture where her heroine won’t.
When she triumphantly returns to Karen with a banana purchased during her hideout in the grocery store, Lonnie thinks she has proved something to her idol about her own immaturity. “You could’ve gotten killed!” Karen scolds, all parent-like. “Yeah, but I didn’t,” Lonnie responds with pride. The wisdom of age and ignorance of youth bring equal and opposite strengths and weaknesses to each situation the two girls find themselves in, and the film often feels like a depiction of generational misunderstanding as a result, despite the fact that the two are likely just three or four years apart.
Looking up and talking down
The generational divide could easily be a projection of my own frustrated view of the split between baby boomers and millennials, wherein my generation – even as we’ve become adults – still often feels like a child punctuating every answer the grown-ups give them with a “But why?” or “How come?” (and I don’t think this is a fault, by any means). To zero-in more specifically on the perspective Karen and Lonnie offer each other, Old Enough takes a great, complex look at the dynamic between siblings and, more broadly, our heroes and heroines and what we teach and learn from them, inadvertently or otherwise.
Though the younger of our two leading females, Lonnie is the older sister in her family; she bears the responsibility – though she may not know it yet – of being a role model, and though little Milano doesn’t offer much to the plot, her role as observer, admirer, and secret student of her elder sibling is a wonderful mirrored perspective of Lonnie’s role in relation to Karen.
Similarly, Karen is the younger sibling in her family, with just an older brother to goof around and sometimes disagree with. She has no one to pass her own learned wisdom onto, and may not have realized the thrill of playing teacher until she discovered someone who had a lot to learn and, more importantly, was more than willing to take lessons.
My generational comparison stems primarily from the fact that although Karen is equally intrigued by Lonnie’s upper-class life, she is far more reluctant to learn and engage with it, and it is much more difficult for her to admit when she is in the wrong. The differences even in the girls’ everyday vernacular are comical, if not slightly over the top, as illustrated in their imaginary dinner scene.
While touring the empty apartment in Karen’s building (after she proudly steals the key from her father), the two entertain themselves with a delightful exchange of ideas, showing to a point of caricature just how far apart their daily lives are. Lonnie creates an imaginary butler, “Charles,” who serves them their imaginary dinner, and we immediately see the difference between them based on their opposing ideas of an ideal menu. The game of pretend is one moment showing Karen truly letting herself play with this girl who is both not much younger than herself, yet also, so much younger than herself. The irony of the 11-year-old imagining duck, white wine, and vichyssoise while the teenager demands steak and a chocolate shake is obvious, but one of only a few moments in the film which pushes its attraction-of-opposites theme to a point of being a little too on the nose.
The primary flaw with Old Enough is that it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what that flaw is—there is a lot going on in this 90-minute movie, thematically and on a scene-by-scene basis, and it might be just a bit too much for a story centered on such young protagonists. I can see what Silver was going for and I admire the premise of depicting young (white) womanhood in the same overwhelming and overcomplicated approach that seems to simply be the way of life during the vulnerable stages Lonnie and Karen are both in the midst of.
Individuality, sexuality, morality and other big picture issues are beginning to make unique sense to these girls, and though I sympathize with the weight of feeling pressure to tackle all of them at once, it’s an awful lot for what seems at first like a simple coming-of-age, summer-buddy, pseudo-romantic comedy. Even so, considering the era in which the film was made and the phenomenal visual and audio aesthetic which brings early 1980s New York to life, the fact that Old Enough isn’t at least a film school cult classic by now is nothing short of a neon-colored, new wave synth-pop tragedy.
What other cult classics were you pleasantly surprised to discover later in life? Let us know in the comments!
Old Enough is now streaming on Filmstruck and YouTube.
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.
Tags from the story
1980s, 1984, Alyssa Milano, coming-of-age, drama, female protagonist, feminism, friendship, generational, Marisa Silver, Sarah Boyd, United States, women directors
May 18, 2017 (originally published on Film Inquiry)
by Sasha Kohan
In the short and often experimental documentary Dream City, director Emma Piper-Burket brings viewers a 50-minute chapter in the life of Diana Jaf, a young woman and aspiring actress in Iraq. “Diana told me she wanted to be an actress, so I suggested we make a film,” audiences are informed in the opening titles.
What I love about this seemingly small movie, though, is how quickly it becomes apparent that it is as much motivated by Diana wanting to be an actress as it is by Piper-Burket wanting to be a director, and the two of them making this movie together. It is as much about our vast maps of memory and personal history as it is about how we choose to construct them, and who we trust to be their cartographers and architects.
An intimate sense of distance
The relationship between the filmmaker and her subject is palpably intimate, and we are made quickly aware of Piper-Burket herself as one of the main characters. When we first meet Diana, she is living on her own in Erbil, the capitol city of Iraqi Kurdistan, training to become a flight attendant and perfecting the heavy aesthetic required for the job. We hold the eye of her friend, and she looks at us as such as we observe her morning makeup rituals and phone calls in Arabic or Kurdish—we aren’t sure.
The lack of subtitles is noticeable, and at times I wished I at least had the option to turn them on, if only to more clearly understand Diana’s performative narration of her daily action, but I acknowledge and appreciate the value of their absence, too. We hear only what the director hears, and we feel how she feels, and despite the closeness between the two women, this often leaves us feeling like an outsider. We are in Diana’s world, but ever reminded that we are not part of it.
The simultaneous intimacy and distance which hold Dream City together come to the surface most remarkably in scenes where the fact that a movie is being made is not only obvious, but openly discussed. On numerous occasions, Piper-Burket’s direction is included as part of the movie’s main action, as seen early on when Diana’s mother is being filmed slicing tomatoes by the sink; with the camera still focused on the mother, we hear Piper-Burket ask Diana if she can shoot her bringing an onion into the kitchen. “Please?” Despite an apparent protest, we then witness the filming process itself, as the camera swings back in time to catch Diana walking out of the kitchen, then back in again with the onion, dutifully ignoring the eye of the lens as a good actress should.
I love those moments, and there are so many—catching Diana taking a nap in the middle of the afternoon, asking us why we’re bothering to watch her sleep (“I don’t know, what else do I have to do?”), or in the middle of a more solemn conversation about Diana’s worst fears when her phone rings; they both know who is calling and they argue, laughing, over who is going to answer.
Diana, the person
It feels somewhat familiar, like talking to a good friend alone at night, yet totally alien to see the production in process, like the movie we’re watching is a behind-the-scenes look at the movie we’re watching. One of the most fascinating of these scenes comes when the women and some friends—among them, a photographer—explore the hills outside the Sulaymaniyah mountains, and we see (through Piper-Burket’s camera) Diana posing and following direction for some pictures.
For one photo, she’s asked to throw and catch her wide-brimmed hat from the mountain air, and it’s impossible not to think of Mary Tyler Moore in her groundbreaking show’s opening credits and theme song (which declares, depending on which season, either “You might just make it, after all!” or “You’re gunna make it, after all!”). We watch Diana being photographed while also being filmed, just minutes after a close conversation about why acting is her dream. “I like the attention from the camera,” she admits, posing a much bigger question when she continues, “In acting I can be anything I want…everything. So, who doesn’t love acting?”
In the low-lit scenes of quiet conversation just between Diana and her friend, the filmmaker; those are the moments that make me wish for a short documentary like this to be made about every single person on Earth, just to prove how interesting, tragic, and heroic every ordinary person really is. “What’s the worst thing you can imagine?” “What do you think is going to happen next?” “What do you think you’re really like?” In my personal dream city, I’d like to record myself asking these questions and others like them to those closest to me, in their own bedrooms, in the dark, just to see how they react and capture their instincts on film.
It’s beautiful and fascinating to experience Piper-Burket’s artful gaze and experimental interpretation of her friend, the actress, as they both see each other seeing themselves as the person they’d most like to be. Neon lens flares and grainy film stock help to bring the aimless, open-ended narrative to its most dream-like vision, casting the gritty, romantic veil under which we’re inclined to view our closest friends.
The political Iraq
At some point towards the end of Dream City, the personal is pushed ever so slightly away and the political comes more into focus—not much, but enough to realize and appreciate how far from the story’s center it had been all along. When the pair go to film a refugee camp nearby, it doesn’t take long for Diana to ask if they’re done there. “Are you done?” The director is as surprised as we are, until it is revealed that Diana and her family had been there not so long ago. “It is too close…the memories,” she explains. “It feels bad, it makes me uncomfortable.” Even when surrounded by bouncing children, smiling and eager to get their chance in the camera’s eye, Diana is fixated on their bare feet: “Why they no wear shoes?”
Back at home later on, she remains troubled by the children’s appearances: “Why they were dirty? They have water there.” When Piper-Burket comments that she’s in a bad mood, Diana says it’s because she hasn’t showered yet. Although one of Dream City’s strengths is how easily it floats from moment to moment, never dwelling on any one in particular, Diana’s reaction to the refugee camp is one viewers might find themselves dwelling on, wondering how closely related it is to her efforts to be a flight attendant or an actress.
Despite the lack of a cohesive structure, if there were a scene to call the climax, the peak of personal, political, dreamlike and reality, it would be in the wonderfully abstract yet undeniably grounded sequence in the Slemani Museum (or Sulaymaniyah Museum). This is Piper-Burket in her element, as she overlays grainy film shots of the starkly arranged museum displays with Diana’s voice-over, talking about the perception of Islam abroad and at home.
What I didn’t know until after seeing Dream City is that museums of Iraq were raided and looted just two days after American troops took control of Baghdad in 2003, and this was a crushing, devastating loss for Iraqi culture. Museum officials and curators had pleaded with the Americans to guard the contents with more than mere manpower, asking for a tank or at least constant surveillance to protect invaluable evidence of civilization’s earliest achievements, only to have their requests denied, allowing thousands of thieves to ransack the galleries over a period of nearly two days, leaving nothing of real value, with only one U.S. intervention lasting about half an hour.
I never knew this; nobody told me. Nobody taught me that we were responsible for the careless loss of thousands of years of culture and history—not just for one nation, but for all of human history. Knowing now that the museums have successfully bought back a fair portion of their stolen artifacts from looters since the awful raids makes reading about them no less awful; I am hardly comforted by the fact that a previously unknown verse of The Epic of Gilgamesh is now safely back behind glass, having once been smuggled away while under American supervision.
Knowing this now, though, the museum sequence in Dream City is even more astonishing. It is stunning how much history is embedded in Diana’s every day—the weight of civilized humanity sits in her hometown, in a land that should be known as regal and proud, not scary and war-torn. Although the opening titles reveal that footage spans over 2014 and 2015, including the time in-between when war returns to Iraq with the invasion of ISIS, politics are a marginal part of Diana’s everyday life, and thus, a marginal part of Dream City.
Conclusion and impact
This, in itself, was possibly the main draw of Dream City to me, for when I hear mention of Iraq—or even see the word—the first images that come to mind are desert beige, army green, camouflage-patterned colors of war. Tanks and helmets and prisons and Baghdad, the associations developed over a short lifetime of consuming such connections from newspapers and television, starting from that day in second grade when my mother told me in the car that something very bad had happened, and words like Iraq and Iran and Islam and Arab began to blend together in that ambiguous, army-colored image.
Now that I know to try and pick them apart, I don’t believe I ever thought of that place I saw on TV as home to ordinary people, or as the cradle of civilization, even though that’s what it is. I don’t remember ever making the connection in elementary or middle school that the country we were at war with had once been Mesopotamia, where so many crucial developments in human history began—the invention of the wheel, discursive script, agriculture, astronomy, mathematics, among others. How can that be?
The heavy history and colors of Iraq—which are, indeed, perhaps heavier and more colorful than those of any other modern nation—are revealed in the small and ordinary details of Diana’s world, and it is the effortless poetry of how the two are woven together which makes Dream City so worth seeing.
What are some other cinematic experiences which affected your political sense of self? Let us know in the comments!
Watch the trailer here.
Dream City is now streaming on Fandor.
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.
Tags from the story
2010s, 2016, acting, Czech Republic, Diana Jaf, documentary, Emma Piper-Burket, experimental, Iraq, short film