Issue #22: Growing Pains 🌱
The Paper + Chemical Hearts
Well y'all it happened: It's fall, it's spooky season, it's still 100 degrees in Los Angeles for some reason, but now it's October. Months into the longest pandemic of our lives (knock on wood!) and this Halloween season is going to be different than we expected—but hey, such are the cards we're dealt.
This week we're driving that energy into two different films that made us both feel a real way about the world. We've got Zosha on The Paper and its workaholics, and then Cate on the teenage passions of Chemical Hearts. Though these movies capture snapshots of very different life milestones, they both tell us something about going through ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. 'Tis the season folks!
Zosha on The Paper
Written by: Ron Howard
Directed by: David Koepp and Stephen Koepp
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
The thing about “one crazy day!” stories is that they’re actually a deceptively hard balancing act: Like all plots, they have to make a compelling case for why it feels vital that this was the day, the morning, the moment we’re dropped into these people’s lives. Over the course of the film, their whole world will change, and that change has to be both seismic enough that it feels important to us, but not so big that we can’t see a way forward for them. Lives will change, but in a manageable way.
Which is what makes something like The Paper a real tightrope of a movie—because it actually manages to do that, and be fairly competent-to-great throughout.
For starters, the film is aware of the duality of being a journalist. The job is notoriously tough to capture on film (particularly of the print variety) in a way that both honors its excitement and its often slow, methodical pace; not all scoops are Frost vs Nixon. What The Paper understands on an intuitive level is that this work sucks, it’s hard, it’s not on a deadline, and it frequently consumes your focus—it also kicks ass and makes you return again and again. That’s why the staff of The Sun is there, day-in and day-out.
The movie is more visually smart than it has any right to be, and we see that again and again with how the titular paper itself manifests itself: It is discussed in the abstract, talked about ad nauseum, hotly debated and shaped with every choice that every character makes in during the day. But by the end, it doesn’t seem a stretch at all that we cut between the correct front page printing and a baby being delivered. The message is clear: These are actual life and death stakes getting put in place every single day.
That idea is, again, hammered home by the film, as journalists talk and bandy about the story of the day—in this case, two Black men arrested for what appears to be a racially motivated killing of two out-of-towner white businessmen. That duality of journalism I was talking about? It’s personified with Michael Keaton’s Henry Hackett, who spends the day pushing for the paper to cover the real story, that no one actually thinks these boys did it, but the arrest looks good on paper. His motivations evolve and stretch as he learns more of the truth, but on some level, it’s often in the abstract for him. At first, he steals a tip to undercut another paper that insults his, then he wants the truth—but on some level, it never stops almost seeming like a game to him.
It’s here that the structure of the film comes to play: What The Paper manages to get across to its audience is that the stakes for his day might not matter. Over and over we’re told how today is just the latest in a long string of days just like this; Hackett comes home late, Alicia Clark (Glenn Close) harangues the newsiness of the paper so they can sell enough to stay afloat, and McDougal (Randy Quaid) is on some crazy shit. If they get this story wrong—well, they only have to be right for 24 hours, as they like to remind each other. They’ll just get it right the next day.
But the kids in this story, the ones that the powers-that-be would like to run a perp walk photo of? The ones the cops themselves don’t believe did it, and aren’t excited to see walked-back as a story in six months (if these kids are lucky)? This is life and death for them, it’s their whole future. The Paper is, to a large degree, their story, and it’s honestly brilliant that the film never forgets that.
That this movie does all that while being a relic of 1994 is a feat unto itself. When else can so many tensions be laid bare on film: A racially-charged crime story being discussed as openly racist, and yet the primary cast of players at the newsroom are all white. Women characters largely being seen as shrews even as the men continue to undermine them without really offering up any compromises for their actions. An editor-in-chief receiving a cancer diagnosis before heading back to the office to smoke his cigarettes in his actual office.
This moment in time represents one of the last gasps of a certain type of newspaper industry, one in which your deadline was every evening rather than every passing minute. The crew at The Sun’s oath to make sure they’re getting it right as well as they can is valiant to be sure, and easy to hold against the scare tactics they watch on the 8 o’clock news. But in many ways, the broadcast side of things was already in the throes of change, while print held on to just a few more crazy days.
Like so many newspaper stories before it, The Paper is all motor-mouthed crews and witty zingers. Like so many stories of a wild day-in-the-life, it also sets up all its dominoes so it can start knocking them down on its way to a conclusion. But while the lessons that they set out to teach are simple and pat, they’re not without complications. The Sun (set up to be an analogue to something like the New York Post) isn’t setting out to just get this story right just this once, but instead to honor the bar they’ve always held for themselves: to get it right no matter what it costs. Maybe they can’t do big, capital-J journalism every day, but today they can and they know how.
I can’t think of a film that feels more in line with what it actually means to be a journalist at so many institutions in 2020, when your highest call to action is to feed the beast something. Theirs is a frazzled, maligned corner of the hallowed fourth estate, but they do with it what they can and they do well.
When the day is over—well, everyone learned a neat lesson; their day can “change in 24 hours,” just as promised by the opening radio voiceover. There’s a new baby in the world, shifted commitments, missed chances, and Alice Clark encouraging her nurse to buy her own newspaper. (For all we like to say that the internet made people expect their news for free, The Paper makes a case for that always being something of an expectation!) But the real momentous shift—or, at least, so we hope—is for the story of the day, the two men whose faces are the cover of that morning’s Sun, under the auspicious, exclusive headline: “They didn’t do it.”
We know that is a headline that has earned through blood, sweat, and tears. And yet, for the people that actually wrote it, well, it’s mostly just another day in the life. This was on some level all a game to them, and all about their market share. But they did it right, and they changed some lives. That’s a well-earned crazy day.
Cate on Chemical Hearts
Written and Directed by: Richard Tanne
Distributed by: Amazon Studios
When I was in high school I kept fairly meticulous journals. I wrote ten volumes, and I called them “The Chronicles of Cate.” I wrote down every nonsense dalliance that happened between my friends and me and I kept every bit of sentimental fluff taped within their pages. Those were rough years, and it took a lot of time to get out of the funk that they created. But what I remember most about that period of my life was the deep, earnest yearning. Everything felt like the end of world, and my body reacted as if it were. I was devastated constantly, and I often felt that it would be easier for the world to end than for me to endure. Chemical Hearts—the new Amazon film starring Lili Reinhart— walks directly into that idea and confronts it head-on in a way that felt novel to me, even as I’m long past my teenaged years.
Grace Town (Lili Reinhart) is a new student at Henry Page’s (Austin Abrams) school. She walks with a cane, is resistant to small talk with her peers and refuses to write for the student paper, after being appointed its co-editor alongside Henry. Henry meanwhile, is an aspiring writer, and a romantic, and he’s intrigued by the girl who so so glibly rejects the things he’s pursuing.
Naturally, he falls for Grace nearly immediately. Henry is curious and kind. He comforts his older sister—a nurse who’s recently moved back home after discovering her husband’s infidelity. He practices kintsukuroi as a hobby—breaking vases and stitching them back together again with golden seams. He presses at the edges of Grace’s social resistance until she lets him in, sharing a secret place in an abandoned warehouse where she goes to be alone with her thoughts. Eventually—briefly—they are together, and they enjoy a few weeks of teenaged bliss.
But sprinkled in between small disclosures and a little social media—and in-person— stalking, Henry discovers the source of Grace’s pain. In another life, she was a track star dating the football hero. When their car crashed, he died on impact and she was left with a shattered knee and survivor’s guilt. Now, she’s wrapped herself up in his life as a means of defense. She lives with his parents. She sleeps in his bedroom. She wears his clothing. It’s more than Henry can take, but it’s all that Grace can give.
For the school paper’s final issue of the year, Grace suggests a theme: Teenage Limbo. There is a reason, she says, why all the greats, when writing about teenagers, end their stories with suicidal themes. To be a teen is to be bursting with the potential for adult experience without any of the biological means to process or survive it. To be a teenager is simply too much to endure.
“Adults are just scarred kids who are lucky enough to make it out of limbo alive.”
It sounds like a melodramatic sentiment, and in a lot of ways it is. But it’s also one of those things that feels true because it isn’t untrue. Being a teenager is hell, and a large chunk of getting older is undoing and unlearning all of the pathologies you hardwire into yourself when you’re at your most impressionable. Working through trauma is hard. Coming out on the other side of life-changing events that happen before you even decide what your life should look like is nearly inconceivable.
Grace’s trauma and grief overwhelm her, but she wants to move past them. She loves the boy she’d hoped to marry but she also knows that he isn’t here anymore and never will be again. Half steps are still steps, but the journey goes much faster when you dedicate yourself to getting where you want to go. You can’t wish away internal, chemical reactions to external pain. And Henry struggles to understand that he cannot fix Grace with his love, no matter how passionately he might feel it. But by the film’s end they’ve both found a way through to the new phases of their life. Henry is heading to college. Grace is staying to work through her issues in therapy. They will be apart, but they will be better for having known each other.
As an adult who loves YA fiction, I often chuckle about the silly choices that teenagers routinely make onscreen. Their whole worlds are shifting and changing but their brains haven’t caught up to their bodies. They don’t yet understand how to rationally gauge the stakes of a given situation or how to estimate risk. But my goodness if those little fuckers don’t always go full tilt in the direction of their wildest dreams.
Part of what makes the teens years so fertile for storytelling is that they’re a natural site of evolution. Teenagers are literally changing while the narratives around them metaphorically follow suit. Teens learn how to be, and then repeat those cycles again and again as they get older, each time emerging with newer versions of themselves. It’s a long, painful process that never gets any easier. And then you’re an adult, and you realize that pain only begins again.
But pain isn’t the end of the world—your body just doesn’t know that yet.
¡Viva la Revolución!
Like many people, our lives are very tangled up and concerned with the upcoming election. Instead of sinking into despair, might we suggest volunteering your time? Here are some major races where you could textbank (or donate funds!):
MJ Hegar is running in Texas against Senator John Cornyn
Sara Gideon has a very good chance of ousting a very vulnerable Republican Senator, Susan Collins of Maine
Jaime Harrison is going after Lindsey Graham’s Senate seat in South Carolina
Assorted Internet Detritus
Zosha: Been working my way through this deep dive on the future of the "No tipping" movement post-pandemic, and how various restaurants are reacting to it. If you have a boyfriend who said "did you hear the news about the Avatar sequel?" in the past week and it turns out you have not, enjoy this timeline of the bonkers production cycle of Avatar 2 (and 3, 4, & 5?) Also loved this completely scientific study on the sexlessness of leading internet boyfriends. And I'm still reading about the horrors of the world, like the QAnon Human Trafficking conspiracy, and how the post office became a political football.
Cate: I have never been more tired than I am at this precise moment in time. the last few weeks have been incredibly draining in that very specific way that is also somehow paralyzing. Thankfully, I'm frozen with my phone glued to my palm, so here's what I've been reading. First, this delightfully deranged story about the cottage industry for fake luxury sets for influencers to pose in. There's also this fascinating dissection of the power of the digital BTS fandom. Then there's this 100% scientific breakdown of the relative onscreen sexiness of your favourite leading men, and this oh-so-necessary essay on why you should give yourself permission to stop working towards your goals for a little while. Finally, this breakdown of the current Q*non-generated human trafficking moral panic is essential reading.
Once again, we're at the end of another issue. For Issue #23 — well, that's actually gonna be a second. We're both going through some ~life changes~ so we're going to take a few weeks off to recharge, get our houses in order and be back to you soon. We promise we have lots planned for our return and we hope you'll send us love notes while we're on hiatus. Special requests and suggestions are welcome. Watch your inboxes and films, and we'll see you soon!
Getting older too, but still yelling about movies,
Zosha + Cate <3