Jennifer Lawrence, the Hollywood sweetheart of this decade, is stumbling. Not in her performances, let’s be clear—Ms. Jennifer has proven herself time and time again to be a formidable actress—yet her choice in movies has led her down a path of box office disappointments and critical flops. To put the star’s recent struggles in perspective, let’s consider one of her films that’s so bad, and was so quickly buried, barely anyone has seen it. Before there was Red Sparrow, mother! and Passengers, there was Serena.
The little-known 2014 film—which stars Lawrence alongside permanent love interest Bradley Cooper—barely made it to distribution, pulling box office earnings of under half a million dollars worldwide. How could a movie starring two A-listers, one at the peak of their it-girl moment, go so wrong?
In all fairness, Serena starts off just fine. As one might expect of a Depression-era period piece about the North Carolina timber industry—if ever there were such a genre—the film begins with the camera lovingly gliding over wooded, misty mountains. The landscape is beautiful, even breathtakingly so, and has an eeriness and personality to it that gestures towards drama to come. How exciting! Perhaps the opening credits seem like could have been produced on iMovie, but that’s part of the charm, right?
Telling the story of a childhood marked by poverty and trauma is an incredibly delicate task. Focus too intently on the grim and gritty nature of a child’s everyday struggle, you risk creating and exploiting a one-dimensional subject of pity; gloss over the hardships in favor of what makes the kid just like any other, and you succumb to sickly-sweet platitudes and dangerous misrepresentation. ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ (Vuelven in Spanish), the latest project from Mexican writer-director Issa López, joins the ranks of recent films that handle this seemingly impossible task with care and attention. Not unlike ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ or ‘The Florida Project,’ ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ blends stark realism and immediate political commentary with a sense of childlike wonder, bringing hope to the darkest of places. At times, it can be easy to see the film’s gears turning as it jumps between tones and genres, but the final product works enough magic to make you forget what you saw behind the curtain.
‘Tigers’ follows Estrella (Paola Lara), a ten-year-old Mexican girl whose town is plagued by drug violence. The daily background of murders and disappearances breaks into the forefront when Estrella’s school is besieged by crossfire from the Huascas, cartel leaders. Her teacher doesn’t seem surprised or even scared, but weary. How many times has this happened before? How many times will it happen again? In an effort to calm her students, she continues her lesson on fairy tales and hands Estrella three pieces of chalk, which she deems her “three wishes.” So is born the princess of the film’s dark fairy tale.
Five years ago today, a young little production company called A24 released Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers onto American audiences. It was the height of spring break season in the States, but as a broke and bookish high school junior, my only escapist thrills came from heading to my town’s multiplex with a friend, buying two tickets to whatever PG-13 schlock was playing, and sneaking into the sex-and-drug-filled art movie with James Franco doing a Riff Raff impression and Selena Gomez in a pink bikini.
Critically, Spring Breakers did okay — five-star ratings from the New York Times and The Village Voice were tempered by absolute pans by The Washington Post and Time. Claudia Puig of USA Today called it “mind-numbingly dull and off-putting,” and general audiences, who came in expecting “Girls Gone Wild” with their Disney favorites, reacted similarly. Moralizing moms and bummed bros aside, the central argument amounted to, “Is this trashy genius or self-absorbed nonsense?”
The phrase “Satanic feminist art film” will get you laughed out most rooms that aren’t a liberal arts classroom or the Hot Topic in your hometown mall, so it should come as no surprise that A24 struggled to brand The Witch for audiences upon its wide release in 2016. Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Robert Eggers, The Witch is a horror movie by almost any standard, riddled with the genre’s usual tropes of supernatural possession, exorcism and things that go bump in the night, but it has little regard for audience expectations. By relying on period-appropriate language (“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”) and opting for meditation in place of jump scares, The Witch left hardcore horror fans wanting and others asking, “What did I just watch?”