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In my travels to the best film festivals in…
On Saturday, June 14, 2014 I attended the gala World Premiere of The Young Kieslowski at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The sold-out screening was held at the Regal Cinemas L.A. LIVE. The film was a selection in the Narrative Competition section.
Haley Lu Richardson is a true delight as Leslie Mallard, a late blooming college student discovering first love with the earnest Brian Kieslowski, impeccably played by Ryan Malgarini. Barely out of childhood, the charming young couple is faced with some very adult decisions that will test their feelings for each other as well as their sanity, while their families and friends are reluctantly strapped down to the runaway rollercoaster their hormonal impetuousness has created. As a non-spoiler reviewer, any further discussion of the plot presents a challenge. The Young Kieslowski is one of those "it's better to discover it for yourselves" movies about which little can be said without giving too much away -- for a synopsis one can consult the festival's official page.
This is only writer/director Kerem Sanga's second feature, and what an auspicious sophomore effort it is. The core strength of Sanga's economical script is in his crafting of real conversations, not artificially contrived constructs to fit the boundaries of the plot and satisfy string-pulling executives. Rest assured, Sanga's is a talent to be reckoned with in years to come. He's ably aided by an equally passionate creative team and a budget allowing for topnotch production values.
Only 30, Cinematographer Ricardo Diaz has worked on over 50 movies and 30 television episodes in various capacities behind the camera -- this is his fifth feature as DP. Set and shot at Caltech (a rare feat in itself), Diaz takes full advantage of the bona fide collegiate setting to immerse the audience into the students' claustrophobic academic environment. A brightly lit, fresh primary color palette belies the challenges and pitfalls faced by this school's notorious overachievers even without the weight of the additional dilemmas faced by Leslie and Brian. This is Editor Ryan Brown's fifth feature, as well. His Paper Heart won accolades at Sundance in 2009 and was one of my favorites from that year's Los Angeles Film Festival. Composer John Swihart is credited with scoring over 500 television episodes and 60 motion pictures, including the multi-award-winning Napoleon Dynamite. He's written the music for many of my festival favorites and coming of age films going back to 2006, including Bickford Shmecklers Cool Ideas, The Education of Charlie Banks, LAFF 2008 hit HottieBoombaLottie, Youth in Revolt, and For a Good Time, Call..., one of my Top 10 from Sundance 2012. The talented team also includes Susannah Lowber, who's quickly becoming one of the industry's go-to Production Designers.
In front of the camera, the cast is bolstered by the presence of veterans Melora Walters and Joshua Malina as the parent Kieslowskis, James Le Gros as Leslie's ex-Marine dad, and Osric Chau as Brian's roommate Cho, along with Jessica Lu and John Redlinger. But the lion's share of the credit for the emotional impact and powerful authenticity of The Young Kieslowski has to go to the movie's two charismatic young leads. Haley Lu Richardson (18 at the time) has a wealth of experience on the small screen (she played Tess Hamilton in five episodes of ABC Family's Ravenswood) but only one other feature to date (The Well, which also made my 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Top 5). Malgarini, 21 at the time of shooting, has been acting for over a decade in television as well as movies. He played Tom in the Emmy-nominated CBS series Gary Unmarried and has five features to his credit, including Freaky Friday (2003) and How to Eat Fried Worms (2006). Those two titles together brought in $174 million worldwide at the box office. I'd love to have been a fly on the wall during the Kieslowski casting decision -- "This guy's eyes say more than most of his lines could ever say. Hire him." Malgarini conducts a master class on how to express thoughts with a look. HIs storyline is told through his multitude of facial expressions.
And how pleasantly surprising to see actors playing their ages. The Young Kieslowski's level of honesty is grounded by that fact alone, furthered by Sanga's shockingly real dialogue. It's not that it feels unscripted -- it really doesn't (and that's okay) -- it's that the characters say, well, what one would expect people to say in extraordinary situations in the non-movie world. I found myself thinking, "Wow, did they really said that?" in moments where I (mistakenly, as it turned out) heard a "movie line" coming from a mile away. I was proven wrong time and time again, and boy, did it feel refreshing.
The past several years have seen a wealth of memorable coming of age movies, from some of my recent film festival favorites The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Mud, The Kings of Summer, The Spectacular Now, Joe, and The Way Way Back, to the current The Fault in Our Stars and Boyhood. They're inescapable at festivals as so many selections are by first-time writers and/or directors and, since they say, "write what you know," this produces an abundance of such films. It's often the first story a writer/director has inside and the first to make it to the screen.
Given that abundance, comparisons with others of the genre are unavoidable. I couldn't help thinking about John Avildsen's underrated For Keeps, one of Molly Ringwald's late 80s flicks that was not a John Hughes picture (although it could have been). It raises some similar issues, and moved me so much at the time that it remains one of my favorites of that era. It's one of those films that, like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, induces tears even more on successive viewings despite the lack of reveals. Perhaps knowing what's coming triggers a different level of emotion simply because of the anticipation, once the surprise is no longer a factor. The Young Kieslowski has the potential to be one of those films.
There is a tried (read: tired) and true formula that helps define the coming of age genre -- the smarmy opening voiceover, the shot of a babyfaced college freshman driving up to his/her school with the ivy covered walls reflected in the window, a geeky high school kid being shoved into a locker. When used properly (i.e., it's necessary) the results can be effective. More often, though, they're little but clichés that reflect laziness on the part of the filmmakers -- or a lack of faith on the part of the deep-pocketed producers. Defying those rules is bold and risky, but a movie has the potential to break through the glut of similar titles when the familiar tropes are tossed aside. Kerem Sanga's work achieves that goal. The Young Kieslowski turns convention on its head and takes the viewer to delightfully unexpected places.
NOTE: See my photos of the World Premiere Q&A. I selected The Young Kieslowski as one of my Top 5 Picks from the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival. The film went on to win the prestigious Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature. The Young Kieslowski was produced by Seth Caplan, Danny Leiner, Dave Hunter, and Ross Putman, along with Executive Producers Ben Ross and Chris Colbert, Co-Executive Producer Ross Christiansen, and Associate Producer Monique Yamaguchi for PSH Collective and The Facility.
The official trailer is below.
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In my travels to the best film festivals in…