Chloe Grace Moretz and Keira Knightley in action.
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Introducing the Woman-Child: the continuing death of adulthood in American culture

The cinema of amusing male arrested development has been a familiar subgenre for some time, but recent releases demonstrate that there’s gold to be found in femme floundering.

Early in the equal-opportunity arrested-development comedy Laggies [released in the UK as Say When], three women in their late twenties gather in suburban Seattle for the bridal shower of a fourth. Framed photos convey that the quartet have been friends since childhood. One of them, however, makes it clear that she is not like the others: while the rest of the gang – one of them grandly pregnant – gush and fawn over chaste bridal sex jokes as if Ms. Magazine never changed the world and the winds of feminism had yet to ruffle the Pacific Northwest, Megan Burch (Keira Knightley) wallows in gawky asexuality. Her jokes are as dorky as those of a 13-year-old boy. Knightley slouches in hoodies and an American accent like a skateboard kid, all limbs and scrunchy faces, counting on audiences to forget that the very English, 29-year-old actress now models for posh Chanel perfume ads.

Megan is the laggy under review, a girl who won’t grow up. (The plural, “laggies”, packs more comedy punch, but the title is grammatically incorrect: there is only one exotic late bloomer on display, not the kind of clubhouse full of guy goofballs that characterises so many comedies of male emotional retardation.) And possibly because Laggies is a comedy of female emotional retardation (and girls traditionally mature more quickly than boys, and yada yada), Megan is – on paper at least – further along life’s circuit than an equivalent male dawdler. She has, for example, a graduate degree in psychology. But apparently she hated doing psychology work, or something. So now she does idiotic, only-in-the-movies work as a human billboard advertising the services of her father’s accounting firm.

Megan does have a longtime boyfriend (Mark Webber), a perfectly pleasant, decent fellow with whom she presumably has an adult sexual relationship. But she feels icky about marrying the man, or something. So when he proposes – at the wedding of the aforementioned friend – she panics. She flees. And, dressed in wedding-party wear outside a liquor store, she meets Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz, always sharp), a 16-year-old high school girl hanging out in a local gaggle of kids while trying to score some booze.

Megan is not quite a cliché runaway bride (Julia Roberts got there first), but she is certainly, tediously cliché adjacent as she hikes up her fancy dress to demonstrate her rusty skateboard skills to the admiring mallrats. Something about Annika’s teen behavior, her amalgam of swagger and insecurity, snark and vulnerability, feels like relief and a return to innocence for Megan. The twentysomething gloms onto the teensomething.

I want to unfriend the lot of them.

***

The cinema of amusing male arrested development has been a familiar subgenre (as well as a topic of ardent cultural think pieces) for some time now. The Farrelly brothers torque the humour one way, Adam Sandler another, and Judd Apatow – the current reigning mogul of man-boy buffoonery – yet another. The cinema of funny femme floundering, though, is more unstable creative ground. Lena Dunham is certainly doing a great job of excavation with Girls; screenwriter Diablo Cody together with director Jason Reitman did a brilliant study of the condition in the extraordinary dramatic comedy Young Adult; and the creative genius (as well as box-office success) of Bridesmaids, which also came out in 2011, demonstrated that there’s gold to be found in femme floundering.

But the low-grade witlessness of so many current mainstream romantic comedies – a mediocrity persistent enough these days to have audiences as well as critics complaining – suggests that a good woman-girl is harder to find. (Rom-com queens Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Aniston, and Katherine Heigl have the scars of social-media lashings to prove it.) And in such a semi-arid landscape, with the fertile serio-comic possibilities of female developmental lag still under development, interest is all the livelier in any project that advertises a fresh way of looking (and laughing) at Women Troubles. And if the movie is made by women? All the better.

Laggies should be one of these projects. It is, for starters, directed by Lynn Shelton, the sharp indie filmmaker with a great talent for dramatising ambivalence, her deft touch on display in such sex-perceptive movies as Hump Day, Touchy Feely, and the marvellous, acutely tuned relationship study Your Sister’s Sister. But the script, by Andrea Seigel, is both the screenwriter’s first produced project, and Shelton’s first time directing a movie she did not write herself. And whatever the reason for the misfire, the movie staggers from preposterous middle to dumb end, cancelling any possibility of extracting insight, emotional worth, or earned pleasure along the way.

The opening premise – doltish and grating in its faintly insulting binary of frivolous bridal-shower enthusiasts versus marriage-averse outlier – is nevertheless within range of the identifiable: behold a 28-year-old woman who doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life, personally or professionally. Plenty of such Millennials exist – even some, I’ll take your word for it, with parents as spinelessly indulgent as Megan’s father (Jeff Garlin), who is as happy to support his daughter, financially and emotionally, as she is happy to evade fiscal and emotional responsibility. (Mom, in her few brief moments on screen, is less tolerant of the situation, but does nothing to interrupt the father-daughter enabling. Presumably Dad also paid for the graduate degree his princess no longer feels like using.)

But then the movie barrels into territory both preposterous and lazy. And the decline is all the more exasperating for presenting itself as an indie antidote to Hollywood inauthenticity. As Knightley telegraphs Megan’s psychological crisis through a collection of lip bites and gawky-girl physical mannerisms, Laggies sags into a forced, movie-shaped procession of arbitrary behavioral decisions made by characters who – if they had any resemblance to life on planet earth – would know better. Or should be slapped.

There is this, for instance: flustered by her boyfriend’s proposal of marriage (why? she has been with the guy for years), Megan says no, then she says yes, then she skedaddles again, this time hiding out for a week in Annika’s house while attempting to wind back the clock to a simpler age. That’s where she meets Annika’s fortysomething father, Craig (Sam Rockwell), an attorney, raising his daughter alone. (Why? Because Annika’s mother bailed on the family years ago. Why? Because women can’t be trusted to stick around, even for their little daughters.) Craig is amiably sceptical about the strange adult woman sleeping on the floor of his teen daughter’s bedroom. What does she want with Annika? Then he decides, Whatever. Rockwell is one of the finest character actors working today, and he does what he can to make an approximate believable human out of the material he has been handed, but not much can be done. Craig accepts Annika’s creepily overage playmate as a houseguest; Megan licks a peanut butter spoon (the universal symbol of regressive behavior). And at some point, too, Megan sneaks out to do some seriously adult drinking and flirting and snogging with the father while the daughter is sleeping. (Why? Because any red-blooded, attractive man in midlife would be wowed by a woman some two decades younger, wearing his daughter’s T-shirt.)

In one more mark of what I hope is inadvertent glibness, the filmmakers embed casual meanness in the narrative, especially about the reliability of parents. I give this detail away because it is so gratuitous and, in the end, spoils nothing: at the same wedding where she shrinks in horror from commitment, Megan catches sight of her otherwise menschy father liplocked with a woman who is not his wife. Why? Because adulthood equals treachery? Because if a girl can’t even rely on her daddy, how can she possibly believe in marriage? Because everybody needs to learn a lesson by the time the credits roll?

Annika would call such a plot development, minor and ultimately superfluous as it is, lame. So would I. Laggies elbows its way into the lively Millennial conversation about growing up, then flubs the opportunity by having very little smart or funny or honest to say. The disappointment is enough to reduce this grown woman to girlish tears. 

Lisa Schwarzbaum, a former critic at Entertainment Weekly, is a freelance journalist

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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