A vivid NYC coming-of-age indie with Molly Ringwald, Jemima Kirke and Harley Quinn Smith on the edges.
At some point, you grow up. The moment of this movement never particularly happens, you never wake up and are suddenly somebody else, your room probably stays the same and most people don’t even change towns. Yet, indelibly, there is a difference and things that looked one way now look another. Articulating the space between these two poles has been a cultural preoccupation for some time, forming a particular genre of movie fare that erects metaphor after metaphor in hopes of bottling that moment inside a feature film’s 90 minutes. Melissa Miller Costanzo’s debut feature All These Small Moments is one of these but is less contained by the limits and tropes that make so many of these movies feel the same. Instead, Miller Costanzo uses the space to pursue a style and a tone and her commitment and possession of it elevates her debut above many recent offerings.
A movie like this is obligated to ask why the genre continues, to what end do we return back to the high school and the backpack and growing up all over again. Why do entire careers feel spent, like John Hughes, perpetually penning off-kilter anecdotes where the sound of a bad new wave can escort gangs of children into adulthood over and over again. It is a question that Miller Costanzo seems to perfectly pitched to answer, as one of these familiar faces greets us again, red hair and bright-red lipstick as if no time has passed at all. But time does pass, and when we see Molly Ringwald again, she is in that role of the parent, sketched only in the fringes of the Hughes dramas she became known for.
This movie’s gang of youths is led by Howie (Brendan Meyer, The OA), marching through their sort-of-ordinary life in a sort-of-ordinary New York. He hops on public transit every day with his younger brother (Sam McCarthy), skips gym with an injury that’s long gone, and spends afternoons watching TV in someone else’s room, watching forgettable TV. The beat of the movie is so particular that each moment feels like it has happened a hundred times, yet nobody betrays the common anguished, pantomimed frustration of having to experience life over and over again.
Slowly, with the style of chords building up to a crescendo, events seem to emerge. Howie’s parents, Carla and Tom (Ringwald and Brian d’Arcy James of Hamilton fame) appear to be preparing for a divorce and Howie’s attention is drawn to a woman named Odessa (Jemima Kirke), also divorcing, who shares his bus route. Elsewhere, among those waiting out their gym hours in the library, is Lindsay (Harley Quinn Smith), who suffers both from being Howie’s own age and from being attracted to him.
For a moment, the movie appears to be filling in the rough outlines of a different coming-of-age tale, Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale. In Baumbach’s most mainstream movie (it earned him the only Oscar nominations of his career), parental separation and misplaced attraction become larger-than-life inciting incidents for its characters to decide to grow up. Baumbach’s movie is fine but always felt false to me, as if the events of your life were so enormous that people would stop the flow of their own lives to talk about them with you. Miller Costanzo is less interested in this kind of retroactive, personal essay-style, dilation. Ringwald is a generation’s spokesperson for contemplative restraint, and she retains that interiority outside what is supposed to be the movie’s main plot. Her feelings—toward her children and toward her unfaithful husband—are allowed the space to feel conflicting and strange. At a restaurant dinner, she joins her children in mocking his absence. But she’s unable to not see herself as partially at fault, and there’s a reason why, in Pretty In Pink, her character can go with either romantic contender to that movie’s prom.
While ostensibly centered on the complications of male desire, what Miller Costanzo really does is set up a multigenerational saga of three women who never each other but signify ideas of what adulthood means. Howie is attracted to Odessa because she represents the seriousness of carrying your own life on your shoulders. In this, Kirke is perfectly cast, assuming the role of someone with a life that feels lived but never over. He brainstorms talking to her about modern art and ends up watching her for days as she works at a farmer’s market: the ultimate sort of job in the model-train-set imagination of a high schooler. However, Lindsay is who he “should” be with, and she pleads for his affection because she is old enough to know this and would like it to be over with so she, too, can move on. In her first role outside of the Kevin Smith universe, Smith vividly articulates the Molly Ringwald of our imagination, self-possessed and frustrated by the world’s refusal to play fair.
Which returns us, in a Freudian gesture, back to Ringwald, back toward the home that is left for the hero to return. Howie and Tom seem to return to it almost simultaneously. The movie’s commanding, anecdotal tone lends a seriousness to the smallest shot—rooftops that glow in the sun, the repentant father hiding in evening shadows, the empty kitchen table. The smallness of these events feels vigorously real, and All These Small Moments is abundant with the possibilities of what that kind of realism can accomplish.
Post-Juno, these movies have constantly found themselves looping around momentous events as a way of discovering their own seriousness, most often characters vigorously losing their virginity in an attempt to defy the ultimate sexlessness of the Hughes’s oeuvre. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was an earnest attempt to return the every day into teenage life but was ultimately stifled by Ellar Coltrane happening to grow into a very boring actor. Lady Bird was better, and All These Small Moments more so. Miller Costanzo is a former set designer, and the design of every scene feels crisp enough to retain our attention without hurrying our attention in one direction or another. There is no stretch to find figurative meaning in events that are as ordinary as her title properly if undramatically, indicates. All These Small Moments feels somewhat like a therapy session, the real kind, where you lay the incidents of your life off your shoulders and leave feeling lighter.