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Somebody Up There Likes Me Charms Like Early Wes Anderson

At first blush, Bob Byington’s Somebody Up There Likes Me goes down like early Wes Anderson: tableaux that pass for scenes, a delicate pointillism in the soundtrack, and a shot at redemption among characters suffering from the unbearable rudderlessness of twee. The plot is fairly Andersonian, too, following the tragically impassive Max (Keith Poulson) as he lapses from one picturesque and well-scored marriage to another over the course of 25 years. The only fixture in Max’s life is Sal (Nick Offerman, of Parks & Recreation immortality), a bearded would-be sage who serves alongside Max as a waiter at a steak house. Intermittent animations that recall Richard Linklater’s Waking Life demarcate the five-year increments by which Byington works his time-lapse magic. A magical-realist prop plays a passing role in the film—it’s a powder-blue suitcase that Max inherits from his father, and which emits an ethereal and mysterious cloud of light each time Max opens it. That nourishing glow may explain why Byington doesn’t make any effort to age his characters (with two notable exceptions). The whole thing comes off as a fairy tale bordering on hallucination, perhaps the vision of life that passes before the eyes at death. Byington’s is a very 21st-century aesthetic, derived alternatively from mumblecore and from the fixed-camera rhythm of the short-form webisode. It bears saying: Everyone here does horrible things. But each character’s terribleness is like a footnote, accessory, or abstraction, and the film itself is so charming that you almost forget to ask whether these people truly deserve our empathy. And hey—so was Rushmore.

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Electrick Children: A Curious Celebration of Faith

Could there be music that stirs us so powerfully it might impregnate? This mad question drives Electrick Children, the debut feature from writer/director Rebecca Thomas that impresses not least with its delicate blendings: a bildungs-romp that obeys all the Dazed & Confused unities, a religious thriller, an Arthur Miller-style indictment of communal extremism, and a curious celebration of faith. Rachel (Julia Garner, a marvel here) is a devout but sparkly 15-year-old living on a Mormon compound in Nowheresville, Utah. One night, she creeps into the basement and discovers a bright blue cassette tape: a single by the Nerves. In this rock-epiphany moment, she feels something stir within—and once her parents discover the pregnancy, Rachel screeches off in the family truck to avoid an arranged marriage. (“Marriage to Elijah Brooksby?! I don’t even have to ask God to know that’s not right,” Rachel says in a voiceover.) Rachel’s quest to find the “father” of her child—that mysterious voice on the tape—leads her to Vegas, where she falls in with a throng of well-meaning burnouts, including Clyde (Rory Culkin), and Rachel’s luminous purity keeps her strong through various skateboard hijinks and omnipresent ganja. (She eventually tracks down that generative voice, and it’s not quite who she expects.) Thomas never plays Mormonism for cheap jokes (only for the occasional good one), perhaps because she was raised Mormon herself. Electrick Children juggles heavy things, with humor and sobriety in their proper, Book of Ecclesiastes turn. Best of all, Thomas has an aversion to the easy resolution—she knows precisely which mysteries to keep dangling

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Girls Against Boys

Girls Against Boys is intensely laconic, with so little dialogue it could almost all fit the 140-character Twitter max. This reticence is due, perhaps, to the film’s own confused relationship with itself. Is it a high-camp female revenge fantasy, in the vein of the far superior Teeth? Is it a psychosexual thriller preoccupied with homo-social behavior among women, in the vein of Black Swan? Or, most likely, is it a derivative distillation of various horror motifs that fails to cohere, or even to gross out? Writer/director Austin Chick intersperses college-lecture scenes (“post-feminist critiques” of Japanese animation is a rib-bruising set piece) with the rudderless revenge-mongering of Shae (Danielle Panabaker)—an ingénue-cipher with an uncanny resemblance to Judy Garland—and Lu (Nicole LaLiberte), Shae’s bad angel who looks like Emma Stone’s collagened evil twin. The obligatory lesbian kiss is checked off like a box on a clipboard, but the B-horror standbys that might rescue the film from self-serious tedium are nowhere to be found. Where are the chain saw castrations? The taut moments of imminent gore? The closest we get is a scene in which a rape enabler gets shot with a pistol through the anus—a symmetrical retribution for sexual assault and, sadly, the movie’s cleverest moment. Should we congratulate Chick (XX/XY) for the Thelma & Louise rewrite? He seems to think so.