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Slums Of Beverley Hills  

Here is a film which deals often quite frankly about the experience of one particular teenager. Slums of Beverly Hills contains material which may appear to be offensive, maybe even controversial, at least to conservative minds, but, overall, the depiction of the characters in the story are fairly accurate, and the presentation of the material is more matter-of-fact than exploitive. The movie is pretty ribald, but I`d hesitate to call it gross or vile. Eccentric may be the proper term. For example, the main character, a teenage girl, suddenly experiences a blossoming of her body, enough so that she is far past the stage of needing a training bra. There are many references to what she sees as her misfortune, which are certainly not always tasteful or in seriousness, but these are certainly not beyond reality. I don`t doubt that certain reactions and jibes like the ones coming from her older brother have been said by other like-minded individuals. There is a rather odd scene or two involving a vibrator, but that isn`t beyond reality either. And there is a tendency for Marisa Tomei to lose her clothing, which ends up becoming a running gag of sorts. This is rather silly, but nudity is not gross.

The film`s title is in reference to the sort of lifestyle in which the teenage girl`s family experiences. They live a nomadic life, moving from crappy apartment to crappy apartment in the areas surrounding 1970`s era Beverly Hills, while always dreaming of a life of luxury. In the process of relocating, the children speak knowledgeably of the wonderful mansions of famous stars as they pass by. This sort of lifestyle is not a great one, but the father, played by Alan Arkin, does not want to give the children the impression of ill-luck; rather, he emphasises the positive. They live in Beverly Hills, after all, and are close to a fine public school system. Everything else is just a minor mishap, like, for example, the apartment they move into where the previous owners had left their cat in the oven. You just got to roll with the punches.

A few surprises are in store for this family, however. Arkin`s niece, played by Marisa Tomei, shows up one day. She is not a reliable person, is always stoned on a drug of some sort, and is not above flashing herself in order to get a ride from someone. When Arkin encounters her, he rightfully tells her that she is making a mess of her life. One could easily say the same about Arkin, who is not exactly a success either, but no matter, soon he is able to convince her father (Carl Reiner) that she will finally make something out of her life, by going to nursing school. The father, Arkin`s brother and a fairly wealthy individual, agrees that Tomei will stay with Arkin and the family, and also pay for living expenses, provided that Tomei stick with nursing school.

All this is seen through the eyes of the main character, the daughter, who is going through a personal crisis of her own. She has basically become stacked almost overnight, and feels very awkward about her own body, and everyone`s focus on it. She is also entering the area of relationships and sex, especially as a slightly older neighbour, who sells pot for a living, becomes interested in her. The girl is not some flighty sort, however, but is someone who has to survive in a tough world. She has survived the constant moving around and lack of residential and economic stability. But her next test is to survive her adolescence, and to accept herself, which proves to be difficult.

Alan Arkin, as the father, is rather interesting for me, as I have him in my memory as the creep killer chasing Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark. His performance was cold-blooded, but in this movie, he is the father who gives the appearance of a down-on-his-luck sort of man who tries to give his children the best life he can, even as they constantly move out of run-down apartments, and have little money. Marisa Tomei.... I don`t know what to say. She plays a character who is often stoned, who is not very bright, and who, overall, is not a very impressive person. She does not seem like the sort who can quickly get her life straightened out, and one can pretty much guess that she will not last long at nursing school.

Natasha Lyonne is very good as the focal point of the drama. Her voice is tough, exuding a defiance and a bitterness at this unstable world. On the issue of her body, she sees her large breasts as a sign of deformity, not sexiness. She sees the negative aspects of blossoming sexuality, such as the stares from people, including her brothers, as well as the advances of guys, such as her new neighbour, and you can`t help but to sympathise with her. The changes in her body disturb her, just as the changes all around her do as well. She tells her neighbour that they cannot get serious in their relationship, as it is only "a building thing", a statement which applies to all areas of her life, which consist of a constant uprooting of belongings and residences. Nothing is stable in her life; at least, this is what she believes. The suddenly placement in a nicer apartment, paid for by Arkin`s brother, and the prospect of Tomei actually doing something good for herself are glimmers of hope and stability. But even this is extremely fragile.

Overall, this is an interesting movie. It is far more mannered and realistic than teen movies usually are, and what teenagers may see as the film`s selling points - the ribald humour - is actually a lot less gratuitous and more insightful at times. As well, Lyonne is a great newcomer, and it is nice to see such veterans as Alan Arkin and Carl Reiner together as well.

David Macdonald

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