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NYFF 2014: ‘Misunderstood’ Is a Cackling, Confident Tale of Troubled Youth

By  · Published on September 29th, 2014

Film Society of Lincoln Center

Misunderstood is a magnificently angry film. One can glean as much from the title, a potential evocation of everything from the Beats and Rebel Without a Cause to the sexually furious teens of Fat Girl and the New French Extremity. Asia Argento’s third feature as director may not reference all of these different artistic moments, but it certainly fits into the larger cultural history of disaffected youth. Its adults are incompetent, acrimonious clowns whose negligence is only matched by their stupidity. Its children take after them, engaging in petty squabbles because they’ve likely never seen anyone behave any better. It is a film that sees right into the empty core of materialism and its discontents.

All of this might be hard to take if it were not anchored by a defiant, cackling sense of humor and one of the most effective child protagonists of the last few years. Aria (Giulia Salerno) is a preteen trapped in the fluorescent excess of the 1980s and wedged between two sides of an incredibly unhealthy marriage. Her mother is a French expat pianist, played with a strung-out glamor by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Her father is a preening, absurdly superstitious actor struggling to be taken seriously, perfectly inhabited by Italian TV star Gabriel Garko. She also has two older half-sisters, one from each parent. No one seems to like her very much, and as the parents begin their shrieking, violent separation she is tossed back and forth like an unwanted pet.

The father’s contribution to the comedy is his endless series of hangups, black cats and birds flying into the house and any other conceivably negative omen. The mother, meanwhile, supplies the film with a string of increasingly parodic boyfriends. There’s a sleazy rich business type, a tattooed musician who destroys the wallpaper, and a convenient source of South American drugs. Through the style of these grotesque adults, as well as Aria’s horrible classmates at school, Argento seems to be making the case that the excess of the 1980s emptied out the cultural value of both the mainstream and the reaction to it, pop and punk alike.

It is certainly tempting to see this as autobiographical, the daughter of artists making a film about the daughter of artists. Aria’s name is, after all, only one letter away from the name of her creator. Argento insists that it isn’t taken from her own life, of course, and she should be believed to a certain extent. Yet, born in 1975, she is unavoidably drawing from her own experiences to paint the Aria’s world. Moreover, in spite of the wider brutality on display here, Misunderstood is also devoted to the warmest moments of growing up. Aria sees love for the first time, finds hope in the company of strangers, and falls head over heels for music and color and adventure. Bitterness and joy are not mutually exclusive emotions.

Argento’s greatest strength is her willingness to take Aria and her life seriously. Misunderstood is resolutely grounded in the style of the 1980s, but it also inherits a great deal from classic Italian movies about children. Neorealist masterpieces like Shoeshine and Germany, Year Zero refuse to protect their young protagonists from the harsh reality of the real world. No audience-pleasing happy ending is inevitable, no typically American need for resolution and “coming of age” set to optimistic music and a wide shot of the future.

Misunderstood is more of a prequel to Rossellini’s brilliantly challenging Europa ’51 than it is a female companion to a film like Boyhood. Such an approach may not endear Argento to a general audience, but it does not matter. Hers is an immensely refreshing contribution to the cinema of youth on its own terms. Its infectious soundtrack, bright color palette and fortissimo performances make it a thrilling and brutally charming experience in spite of its dark perspective.

The Upside: With its performances, perfectly chosen soundtrack and commitment to all of the colors of its narrative, Argento’s third feature is a brutally funny and challenging portrait of youth in the 1980s.

The Downside: Occasionally Argento and her cinematographer, Nicola Pecorini, seem to be chasing after the performances rather than precisely framing them.

On the Side: Aria’s sister Donatina is played by Anna Lou Castoldi, Argento’s real-life daughter.

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