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

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Gael blown: how cultural appropriation went hand-in-hand with the Highland clearances

Madeleine Bunting’s account of her travels in the Hebrides reveals an often-overlooked history.

In the opening pages of this excellent book, Madeleine Bunting tries to provide a justification and rationale both for her Hebridean journey and then her wish to write about the most complex of Britain’s archipelagos. As she points out, the Hebrides comprise no fewer than 270 islands and islets, 51 of which are permanently inhabited, and the Hebridean coastline, at 2,500 kilometres, is almost three-quarters that of England’s.

It transpires that Bunting’s connection to the nation’s north-western extremities really began when her parents went for holidays to a fragment of what she rather archly refers to as the Gàidhealtachd, the cultural territory of Scotland’s Gaelic-speaking, predominantly croft-working population.

Yet the Buntings’ “Promised Land”, as she calls their summer retreat, was nowhere near the Hebrides. It was in a hamlet called Amat at the heart of the salmon-rich Strathcarron, in Sutherland, near Scotland’s north-eastern coast. These visits were intermittent and happened only in her childhood, since when the author, Yorkshire born and bred, has migrated to London and become a committed metropolitan as well as a senior journalist with the Guardian. What right, one wonders, does she have to des­cribe her travels along Scotland’s Atlantic shoreline as in any way a “search for home”?

The answer is time and commitment. It has taken Bunting eight years to write this book and she made one excursion after the other in order to assemble her thoughts of these beautiful, storm-battered islands. That depth of engagement gives authen­ticity to the writing and substance to her arguments. In truth, she never really claims the Outer Isles as her own but she does ­inquire deeply into the Hebridean people’s own passionate devotion to place. She also illuminates how these islands, but more especially Celtic culture and identity, were instrumental in shaping all of Britain’s, and especially England’s, sense of self.

A critical moment for this came in 1765 with the publication by James Macpherson of The Works of Ossian. These were translations of Gaelic poetry and folk tales that went down a storm in literary Europe and alerted many to the overlooked oral culture of northern Scotland. The Works of Ossian are not without controversy – Samuel Johnson infamously dismissed them as fake and sneered at Gaelic as the “rude speech of a barbarous people” – but the book had a huge impact on Romanticism.

Imbued with Rousseau’s notions of the noble savage and antipathetic to the effects of industrialisation, writers such as Keats and artists such as Turner were suddenly alive to the savage beauties and the more authentic life-ways of the Scottish west coast. Bunting shows that behind this Romantic engagement with Hebridean life was a kind of cultural imperialism that developed through a series of opposites. If Celts were depicted as imaginative, idealistic and wild, then, almost by definition, the Anglos were utilitarian, pragmatic and civilised. If the Gael was backward-looking and melancholic, the Saxon must be optimistic and forward-thinking. Above all, the English were utterly dominant.

The author demonstrates how such cultural appropriation was intimately connected to territorial dispossession. Bunting takes us on a brief tour of the Clearances; the retelling still has the power to enrage, and she shows how the treatment of Hebridean crofters was identical to British imperialism in Africa or Asia. As she puts it tellingly, this is a “history which will not go quietly into the past”. Yet she also demonstrates that it was not Hanoverian England alone which suppressed the Gàidhealtachd. Much of the dirtiest work was done by former clan chiefs who had simply reinvented themselves as London-based grandees.

Bunting further points out that this colonial exploitation has hardly ceased. The recent plans to build a vast windfarm on Lewis, involving 234 turbines with sails the size of jumbo jets, and the 1990s quarry scheme to dismantle whole mountains on Harris to build English roads, are further demonstrations of how the centre plunders resources from its Atlantic periphery.

If I have a small disappointment in Love of Country, it is that Bunting makes too little of the Hebridean natural environment, which involves the most harmonious transaction between human beings and wildlife now found anywhere in Britain. The shell-based coastal lawns known as machair are among Europe’s richest habitats, still smothered in orchids and resounding to the sounds of lapwing display and curlew song.

At times one feels that Bunting thinks much harder than she looks. Occasionally she betrays her metropolitan roots. She describes rivers as being “the colour of manuka honey”, and of a chorus of birds like nothing she had heard before, she writes that “the air vibrated . . . setting all my senses alert”. The prose, however, is always most elevated when she engages the formidable clarity of her intellect. It is the almost perfect marriage of physical travelogue to the inner landscape of political ideas and cultural reflections that makes this such a super read. I cannot think of a more intellectually challenging or rewarding travel book in recent years, except perhaps Jay Griffiths’s Wild.

Love of Country is in every way a richer, more mature work than Bunting’s award-winning 2009 memoir, The Plot. I expect it to bring her prizes and fame.

Mark Cocker’s books include “Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet” (Vintage)

Love of Country: a Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting is published by Granta Books (368pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood