Smile Politely

A place to exist

“Just stand by me and acknowledge me!” —Scary Normal

All anyone is looking for in a friend, a partner, a boss, is a little recognition. It’s what we require after a job well done, a song well sung. It’s what we crave when unrequited love rears its ugly head and makes us feel like shit. We’re not asking for the moon; we’re asking to exist in another person’s eyes. That’s what this film is about.  

Scary Normal is a local, independent film about your average, garden variety weird people. Jennifer Bechtel has written and directed a lovely story about a young girl, her family, and the emotional and sexual complications that make the adolescent journey a little more agonizing. Chelsea, played with charming naturalism by Laura Welle, has a creative family. They make horror movies (with great relish) and raise their kids to embrace the fun in life. Alex, the boy next door, has a girlfriend, and Chelsea has spent every waking minute thinking of ways to appear casual yet interesting to this hot young stud. Everything changes when Alex is dumped by his girlfriend for (gasp) another girl and he asks Chelsea to The Big Dance. (I would have warned you about spoilers, but this movie isn’t really about twists. The first act, which is quite long, is all about establishing relationships and attitudes between characters.) When Chelsea and the Mysterious Lesbian Date meet, things get fun and complicated.

One of my least favorite plotlines is the Embarrassing Family Story Line. You’ve seen it a million times: Our hero, the young man/woman, is trying to win over a boss/lover/friend, but his/her wacky family is making it impossible for him/her to make a good impression! Uh oh! (The only time I’ve loved this type of scenario is in The Bird Cage, starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. If you’ve never seen it, do.) The thing that bothers me most about this type of story line (besides the fact that it’s overdone) is that I cannot relate. I didn’t act like that as a teenager; my friends didn’t act like that as teenagers; and my kids better not think about acting that way as teenagers. Beyond the personal issues I have with that device, it seems the person in the film who is being wooed does not seem to mind the wacky family at all. He/she is charmed. He/she keeps insisting that this is not that weird; the food is fine; and the conversation about the mating habits of three-toed sloths is fascinating, not gross. But no matter what the new boss/lover/friend says, our hero keeps rolling his/her eyes and apologizing for the crazy antics of his/her ridiculous family.

That said, this film is charming. I gritted my teeth through Chelsea’s teeth gritting and found that Bechtel has created quite an honest and caring look at teenage romance, friendship, and sexuality. It’s a confusing and irritating world to navigate, and she does it with humor and acceptance.

Instead of giving a simple book report that lists the plot points and characters, I’d like to highlight a few of my favorite things about this film.

The parents, played by Chris Taber and Mike Trippiedi, love their kids. They encourage them and listen to them. They let their children have the freedom to learn and make mistakes while they set clear boundaries. It’s refreshing to see that kind of parent-child dynamic, and these actors do it perfectly. In an especially touching scene between step-father and step-daughter, Trippiedi delivers a bit of wisdom that has been rolling around in my head since I first heard it: “Most people are so afraid to screw up that they never do anything good. I think you shouldn’t piss away your talent because it’s scary.”

When the dreamy boy-next-door (played, as it turns out, by an old high school chum, Brian Atchley) kisses Chelsea at the dance to make his ex jealous, our young heroine does something that warms my heart: She ditches him. It would be so easy to melt into that kiss she’s been waiting for with shallow breath, but she doesn’t. Chelsea knows she’s being used and she responds with strength. In a world filled with fake feminism via Disney Princesses, this kind of self-respect is hard to come by in ladies on screen. I love it.

When Danielle, the rebellious-yet-fragile lesbian, and Chelsea talk about sexuality, it’s as awkward as any adolescent conversation, but the discomfort has not much to do with the subject. When describing gay and lesbian couples that Chelsea has grown up with, she describes them as “really weird. It’s just that being gay has so little to do with their weirdness.” Moments like this make Chelsea a likeable  character. She has a problem with her strange family because she’s probably required by Pubescent Law to be mortified by them. Her family’s unusual friends are unusual simply because of their attachment to her parents and nothing more.

Two quick things to look for that made me laugh aloud:

  1. A t-shirt a la “Keep Calm and Carry On” that says “NOW PANIC AND FREAK OUT”
  2. “Did you eat stupid for dinner?”

If you like local haunts like Parkland College and Indi Go Lounge, local artists like Thom Schnarre, Ben Stone, and Lindsey Gates-Markel, and touching stories about friendship and family, please do yourself a favor and see Scary Normal. You can catch this heart-warmer tonight at The Art Theater Co-op in downtown Champaign as a part of the UP Center’s Reel It Up Film Festival.

photos from Scary Normal’s facebook page.

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