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All Over Me

     Wiggle over, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. There's a today's teen almost as sensitive, as feeling, who, in a humble way on screen, suffers almost as sublimely and seems practically as sage-like. Only she's a girl. I'm talking of our own Alison Foland, 18, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, high school senior, who stole the show as the chubby student in Gus Van Sandt's To Die For. She's even more brilliant to watch in All over Me, whether rollerblading down the sidewalk in an inimitably chunky fashion or breaking down in tragic tears while dancing fiercely to a doomed Patty Smith song.

     And slide over, the brothers Coen. All over Me is a thrilling first film from the talented Sichel sisters, director Alex and screenwriter Sylvia. As with Joel and Ethan, these New York siblings are super-close and work collaboratively on the set. But departing from the genre-driven Coens (and keying a difference of male and female filmmakers?), the Sichels' initial film is deeply personal and somewhat autobiographical.

     As explained recently in Boston: Alex, a graduate of Columbia University film school, had a pain-provoking friendship with her best girl pal. "And if you're a self-destructive teenage girl, which I was," said Sylvia, now a successful playwright, "you go for the bad boy. That seemed empowering."
The Sichels' wounded adolescences are refracted in their fictional friendship of intense New York high school girls, Foland's Claude and her skinny mini-Jean Harlow schoomate, Ellen (Tara Subkoff), threatened when Ellen falls giddy in love with Mark (a frightening Cole Hauser), the thick-necked, gay-bashing,neighborhood bully.

     The Sichels are maestros at documenting what girls do behind shut doors. In All of Me's opening, Claude and Ellen lie around lazily for hours after school, sometimes strumming (badly) their unplugged guitars, dreaming vaguely of having a band. Claude's the more pensive one, Ellen the more wired, but the affection between them is palpable, and also the sensual charge: Ellen showing off her hot red bra, them dry humping as boy-girl before a carnival-like mirror.

     Claude's bedroom becomes their sanctuary, where Ellen, estranged from her family (they're never sbown in the film), spends weeks at a time sleeping over. Ellen's eternal visitation is OK with Claude's distracted, well-meaning mother, who is too obsessed keeping her new boyfriend to notice what's going on. Mom's man-crazy--and just at the moment that a new boy-crazy, thrill-crazy Ellen starts to emerge.

     To Claude's chagrin, Ellen babbles on about Mark, liquifies when she talks with Mark on the phone. Ellen races into the street for a chance to slip her scraggy little body (she wobbles on her high heels like a newly-born colt) beneath Mark's muscular arm.
Sylvia Sichel explained: "We get a vibe from teenage straight white boys like Mark that they are entitled to their space."

     Alex Sichel said: "Mark grew up to say, 'I'm the man, and this is my surf.' There are a lot of movies about Mark. I think we reframed the story a bit, Instead of focussing on that guy, we looked at the women affected by him."

     Ellen loses her fragile confidence, and spends the second half of All Over Me reeling off-balance from drugs and alcohol(this gets a bit too much!), spewing out her poisoned insides. Claude saves her, defends her, mothers her, but ultimately it's all useless. Yes, Claude is in love with Ellen, but she's savvy enough to realize she's losing Ellen forever.

     Claude suffers.

     There are times when the Sichel sisters' filmic inexperience shows, in some indulgent physical scenes, in failures to establish locales so we're not sure whose apartment we're in, and at moments in which the editing clips the action and screws up the rhythm. But these failures are forgiven, for a movie which articulation of the pains and pangs of adolescence recalls 1955's clasic, Rebel Without a Cause.

     In fact, All Over Me is a Rebel Without a Cause for the 1990s--with its 24 hour day-and-night of angst, the requisite ineffectual parents, questions of peer loyalty vs.involving the police. There's a tender homoerotic verbal relationship between a Gen-X young man new on the block and a worshipful teenage boy (My So-Called Life's Wilson Cruz) which brings Rebel's James Dean/Sal Mineo gay subtext to the surface.

     But what's radically fresh from the Sichels is the girl-girl intensity at the center. As Claude gives up one female, she discovers another less self-destructive, a blue-haired nice girl (Leisha Hailey) in a rock band (led by Helium's wonderful Mary Timony). It's subtle, emotive stuff as they get together, a righteous romance set up by the Sichels for every one to applaud.

(April, 1997)


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