Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story [2003)

Happy Birthday to Thora Birch, my favorite actress of all time!

Yes, I know…I know.

A film critic whose favorite actress is a young 35-year-old whipper snapper???

Yes.

That’s alright.

Laugh at me.

If the question was, “Who was your favorite classic Hollywood actress?,” then I would answer, “Lauren Bacall”.

But I said favorite actress of all time.

You can search my “Thora” category here on my site for why exactly this actress is my favorite.

Because otherwise, we’re going to be here all day.

And I have a movie to review!

One of my favorites:  Homeless to Harvard.

It is, indeed …The Liz Murray Story, but I will be using the shortened title hereafter for brevity’s sake.

It is my contention (and I have made the point elsewhere…probably on this very site of mine) that Thora Birch produced a trilogy of acting performances which are more-or-less analogous to Bob Dylan’s classic trilogy.

Let’s start with Dylan.

The three (at unity from a similarity of intense expression):

Bringing It All Back Home

Highway 61 Revisited 

and

Blonde on Blonde

And now the Thora films which correspond in my mind:

American Beauty

Ghost World

and

Homeless to Harvard

Sure…Birch didn’t direct these films.

But her acting is so strong, she might as well have.

By this point she was no longer a prodigy.

She was a mature actress.  A master of her craft.

And the story here is one to really sink teeth in.

[In which.]

We recently touched on homelessness here in the review of Alicia Vikander’s stellar turn as Katarina from Till det som är vackert.

Pure.

But the esthetics of Homeless to Harvard are different.

This isn’t European arthouse.  It’s a Lifetime made-for-TV film.

But don’t go running anywhere!!!

This is as gritty as any Lou Reed tale.

And it’s all real.

Too pure.

Heroin addict parents.

Mother schizophrenic.

Blindness.

Genetic.

Mother with HIV.

Father with AIDS.

Vice versa ice Ursa.

Father in homeless shelter.

Mother wielding knife.  Vomiting.

Alcoholism.

Really appealing, eh?

But you gotta stick with it.

This isn’t Darren Aronofsky mise-en-scène.

It’t not, “Let’s win an award at Sundance.”  Or, “Let’s sweep at Cannes.”

It’s more like one of Aesop’s fables.

It’s the message, man!

And so first, let’s honor the director.

Peter Levin.

Who knew a television film could be so artful?

Well, when you combine the history of Histoire(s) du cinéma with the precedent of Twin Peaks, you should know by now that television can produce good stuff.

Hell…

Your TV can even WATCH YOU! (as per WikiLeaks Vault7).

But I digress…

The weeper (no masonry) sob story…had me crying in my Junior Mints…we must attribute to the excellent writing of Ronni Kern.

Who the hell is Ronni Kern?!?

Male?  Female?

I’ve had less trouble finding the gender of completely unknown foreign movie people.

But Kern is pretty invisible on the Internet.

And maybe there’s a point here.

  1.  It doesn’t fucking matter.
  2. You should judge someone on their work, not their gender.

Hopefully Ms. Birch will appreciate this flash of liberalism should she read this review.

[I’m not holding my breath]

But we have just celebrated International Women’s Day.

And the fact that Birch’s character here is a “feminist” is a running pseudo-joke.

Which brings us to the performances.

Michael Riley is stellar, stellar (I know…) as Liz’s father Peter.

Kudos to the styling department.

That beard.  And that hair!

Crazy, man, crazy!!

But Riley’s performance is really special.

It touched my heart.

Long ago.

When I first saw this film.

And dare I say, this movie made me appreciate my own family.

It made me miss my folks.

And so I salute Peter Riley and Lifetime and all involved for that effect on my heart.

Jennifer Pisana is really fabulous as the young Liz Murray here.

It’s an unenviable task.

To precede Thora Birch’s entrance.

But Pisana is indispensable to this little masterpiece.

Those sweaters.

And the full pronunciations…”Mommy”…”Daddy”…

Ms. Pisana affects the necessary naïveté to be juxtaposed against the sad schizophrenia of Kelly Lynch (who plays Liz’s mom).

And Lynch is great.

Think Cries and Whispers.

[cris et chuchotements…(( (( ((…et chuchotements]

Robert Bockstael does a fine job as Liz’s teacher David.

Very convincing.  Excellent craftsmanship.

Makyla Smith is piquant in her depiction of Liz’s best friend Chris.

[God…the Magic Marker…and the pine box…fuuuuuuck]

Yes, friends…this is Lifetime Television.

So the brisure (bonjour, monsieur Derrida) is “crap”.

“Crap happens.”

Whoa…watch thy mouth, Kelly Lynch!

So again…Peter Levin does a fantastic job shoehorning a true X-file into PG territory.

We see a syringe here and there.  A tourniquet.

Riley cleaning a spoon.

But the real heartbreak is Wheat Chex with tap water.

Yeah…

Hello Gummo.

Ellen Page has a small role here.

And she’s good.

Fine actress.

But we’ve been waiting to roll out the big gun.

Thora Birch.

On this, her birthday, I am only just now getting towards a handful of reviews honoring her unique thespian gift.

What to say?

That every look is magic?

That every glance is gold?

That she has crafted her microexpressions in solitude…and wielded them like an Arthurian sword for the duration of this flick?

Yes, yes, and yes.

[and an Oxford comma]

Because kids take it for granted.

Rich kids.

Harvard.

Penn.

Princeton.

Maybe…

But even more so the lesser ivied walls.

I won’t name names.

But the spoiled kids.

Not turning in homework.

Bragging about shortcuts.

Those, ultimately, will be life’s losers.

But Liz Murray worked her butt off to get into Harvard.

From sleeping on the B Train.

Four years of high school in two.

And Thora Birch has worked her butt off too.

She hasn’t gotten the roles her talent deserves.

But the roles she has gotten, she has largely smashed out of the park.

Like the Babe Ruth of leading ladies.

And so there are other actresses I admire.

But Thora Birch was the first.

The first to give me that magical feeling which only Neil Young has adequately described:

“I fell in love with the actress/She was playin’ a part that I could understand”.

Happy Birthday, Thora Birch!

And may all your days and films be filled with the joy which you have put into the world through your cinematic brilliance.

-PD

Petunia [2012)

A lesser film critic would rip this movie to shreds.  You have to wait for it.  Poor Charlie Petunia…  It’s just like in life:  we choose to accept or reject someone’s mannerisms and way of speaking very early on into our first meeting with them.  In the cinema, sometimes it takes us a bit to adjust to a particular film’s tone.  We must adjust to the budget, the philosophical slant, etc….or we walk out.  If we are at home, we simply say, “You know what?  Fuck this.  I’m not watching this.”

To be brutally honest, the first 15 minutes of this flick don’t seem to bode well for what must follow, but what does follow is a pretty damn good film.  However, it is scary.

The End.

It’s like Week-end: one senses a double meaning in the final pronouncement.  End of Cinema.  Thus spake Godard.  His was a bold manifestation of ego (and a humble diagnosis of what was already known by the intelligentsia of France).

Why scary?  Because this is the last we have heard of the inimitable Thora Birch.  Her Wikipedia says she “is”…  Every time I click on Jean-Luc Godard’s Wikipedia page to find that he still “is”…my world is a better place.

Why review Petunia three years after its release?  To put it out in the cosmos…even if Miss Birch never reads this…to render the appreciation of which she is deserving.

Thora and her dad Jack are credited as producers.  I’m not going to rake muck and give you the Kenneth-Anger-Hollywood-Babylon version of a back story.  Suffice it to say that Thora’s parents are some interesting characters.  I know that her dad acted as her manager.  For how long, I’m not sure.  People can carp about Mr. Birch’s manner of going about things, but that really defeats the purpose here.  The focus should be on the artists and the work of art.  This film is a masterpiece against all odds.  Funny enough, the focus is not really on Thora that much (though she is in most of the film).  [I believe I spotted her brother Bolt in a scene as well.  He was quite good though he had only a few lines.  Wikipedia mentions a brother named Kian?]

And now there is a cat meowing outside my window.

That really sums up this film.  Once again, Thora’s recently starred in a film for which the director (Ash Christian) has a dead link on Wikipedia.  I say dead link, but I mean stub.  This is actually a step up from Winter of Frozen Dreams (for which the director had no hypertext love whatsoever).  For a moment I thought this might be a pseudonym for Birch herself, but I see that Mr. Christian (why couldn’t it be sister Christian???) is an actual director from Paris, TX.  Wow.  That’s rich.

Well, Mr. Christian has done a formidable job with this picture.

Let’s talk characters, shall we?

Tobias Segal.  His is a performance which grows from tentative beginnings to a quiet crescendo of understated brilliance.

Christine Lahti.  Pretty darn fabulous turn…especially at the botox (?) joint and the bong scene.  [Real…tomato ketchup, Eddie?]

Brittany Snow.  This actress really steals the show.  I was thoroughly impressed with how she turned a somewhat small part into an emotional punch in the gut.

Michael Urie.  His character grew on me, but this Yaley is pretty hard to like.

David Rasche.  Excellent performance.  Almost like an extension of Norman-at-the-bus-stop in Ghost World, it’s as much what he doesn’t say as what he says.

Eddie Kaye Thomas.  Some pretty dry acting on the front end is made up for by a nice sprint down the homestretch.

Jimmy Heck.  Meh.

But you know:  there’s a bit of “meh” in Thora’s performance too.  As if her heart wasn’t really in this one.  She still looks as beautiful as ever and her acting chops are all there.  God damn it!  Someone give her a great role already!!!

But you know what?  The main thing is that these people are creating.  They are putting it out there.  Thora, Jimmy Heck, all of them.  Even when Thora is less than inspired, she still puts to shame the work of most every thespian working.

-PD

Ghost World [2001)

“I have to admit…things are really looking up for me since my life turned to shit.”  If only.  The consolation?  This is a perfect film.  There’s no use in denying that any longer.

Back in the watershed year of 2001, this film hit me like a bolt out of the blue.  Just how I ended up in that movie theater in Austin, Texas I’m not entirely sure.  The important thing is that this film stood my world on its head.  There was a new tilt to the cosmos after seeing Thora Birch personify everything I was looking for in a girl…everything which I couldn’t articulate.

Brice Parain puts it so simply in Vivre sa vie:  thought cannot be separated from language.  And if we say “goodbye” to language?  That still involves a word.  Perhaps we can simply gesture?

“Waving goodbye…I’m not saying hello.”  Just three years earlier an album had put my world on edge.  I was studying music composition as an undergrad when a rock and roll record called into question everything for which I was striving.  That record was Deserter’s Songs by Mercury Rev.  As I slipped the virgin vinyl onto the turntable in my vacated music lit classroom, I was astounded to hear a noise rock band coming back through the speakers as an autumnal, symphonic opus.  Opus 40…

And so three years later at that little arthouse cinema in north Austin I clamored into an open seat with a couple of friends…  Friends…  It seems so long ago since I had friends.  Some statements are infinitely sad, but others are like old faded pictures.  I don’t really recognize myself anymore.  I’m too young to be old, but…

Ghost World.  It is the world I live in.  Terry Zwigoff made a perfect film.  He learned the nuances from R. Crumb…and then applied the secrets to Daniel Clowes.  The secret is in the power lines…the sprawl…the daydream nation which American Beauty tried to capture but failed in comparison to Ghost World.  If the Palme d’Or was fair, Terry Zwigoff would have one sitting on his mantle.  So would Jean-Luc Godard.  So would Thora Birch.

It’s kinda like the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Where’s Joyce?  Where’s Pynchon?

Enid Coleslaw.  There’s no I in end.  End.  I…is someone else.  So says Nana Kleinfrankenheim.  Thora Birch.  Anna Karina.  The Louise Brooks wig.  Brigitte Bardot.  Initials B.B.  Bertolt Brecht.  B.B. King.  Devil got my woman…

“…since my life turned to shit.”  I’d rather be the devil.  Me and the devil.  Nick Tosches.  Emmett Miller.  Henry “Ragtime” Thomas.

Skip James.  Gossamer-perfect.  Thora stands in a daze…perhaps after a long day of shooting.  We get The Buzzcocks, but then we get D-A-D-F-A-D…that deep, hollow sound from 1931.  Like the high, lonesome Hank Williams.  Somebody’s in a world of hurt.  “Nothin’ but thee devil/change my baby’s mind.”

She is the girl we can’t have.  And you can’t have me either, world.  Not for free.  Few artists got this.  Alex Chilton got it.  Affonso Beato captured its fleeting presence at twilight in his cinematography.  A bus.  Bus stop.  Joshua Logan.  No, Thora Birch.  Yes.  That route was cancelled in 1956.  Cancelled in 1962.  Mensan I.Q.  Cancelled in 1967.  And still, Thora boards the bus and does the impossible in a magic realism which takes her back over the Mississippi at Baton Rouge…back to Appleton, WI…back to Los Angeles.  The nighttime bores the daylights out of me.  We’re in exile with the Radio Shack and the Allstate and the Chevron and the Shell…  R.I.P. Brad Renfro.

-PD

Winter of Frozen Dreams [2009)

What a beautiful title…like Bashō, Li Po, or even François Villon.  In this age of over-medication, we hear of new disorders every day (accompanied by ridiculous commercials we have to endure with relatives at Christmastime).  Of special note in these cold days is seasonal affective disorder.  It’s legend as something independent of general depression lives on as most people do not have the DSM-IV or DSM-5 by their bedside.

And so, “with seasonal pattern” there are many of us who struggle especially in the wintery days of the year…especially if we feel our dreams have been suspended.  Ah, suspended animation…it can be beautiful…like insects caught in amber (that Greek touchstone which lends our word “electricity” an etymology).  Static electricity and ēlektron (the classical name for amber)…  Such irony that flies and gnats would meet their demise drowned in the same substance…and countless days later we wonder at the beauty of their death.  It is one of the few times death can be generally agreed on as beautiful.  In the spider frozen in amber, we marvel at the beauty of the creature.  Their life is preserved.  While they have ceased to exist as a living creature, their form lives on through the sepia light which attests to them having existed.  Grammar becomes difficult in such a state of was/is/will be.

But alas, as they say, this film is not really a poetic tour de force.  It is, however, a time capsule which presents a haunting portrait of the northern U.S. in the late-’70s.  One wonders whether the props department of Boogie Nights was lifted whole-cloth (!) as the action unfolds during this strange movie.  Indeed, it is more strange than haunting.  It is not frightening or repulsive like a Silence of the Lambs, but rather disjunct like a lesser cousin of Mulholland Dr.

I do not want to disparage this film because it is actually quite good, but I must admit that my sole reason for watching was to see Thora Birch act.  Thora was the first actress I ever fell in love with.  We all have our celebrity crushes.  She was/is mine.  Her trio of films American Beauty, Ghost World, and Homeless to Harvard (a Lifetime “joint”) was really an acting triumph which I can only compare to Bob Dylan’s trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde.  I know it sounds ridiculous to say so, but Birch directed those three films as much as did their auteurs/metteurs en scène.  Call it la politique…in reverse…unlike King Midas…

This film presents a problem in its representation on Wikipedia.  After viewing a film, I like to recall what I’ve just seen.  Wikipedia is good for that, but not in this case.  It’s as if this film was a Falconetti one-reeler from 1916 and not an American feature from 2009.  In this dearth of information, one begins to suspect that Thora’s claims of having been forgotten and overlooked after Ghost World might just be right on the money.  That’s where film critics step in.  Though it be five years late and $991,679 short, I can (with my little voice) once again assert that Thora is an acting genius.

Poor Eric Mandelbaum…his name isn’t even a hypertext link on Wiki, but he did a fine job here painting a snow-drift picture of the not-so-old, weird America.  Dan Moran at least has a dead link (empty page).  The trouble with Harry, that!

All jokes aside, Brandon Sexton III is very convincing as the bearded, lonely Jerry.  His stoic visage becomes as much a motif as Birch’s radiant beauty over the film’s course.  Poor Jerry gets duped into some accessory to murder business…we think.  None of it is very clear.  Based on the true story of Barbara Hoffman, this tale plays with time and the facts like Lynch directing Pynchon.  I can’t help but wonder if PTA’s Inherent Vice might converge with this film in some way…no doubt at a locale with an angry cropduster.

Keith Carradine is good here (resembling Burt Lancaster in Field of Dreams).  Also good is Colleen Camp in the small role as Jerry’s mother.  There are scenes of unspeakable sadness and ennui at the dinner table and near the end as she takes the phone call.  We sense a connection to Ellen Burstyn’s performance in Requiem for a Dream (with the mise-en-scène of a Harmony Korine).

One thing is certain: my little piece of shit website shall always sing the praises of one Miss Thora Birch.

-PD