A Tribute to Ellen Page
On this day seven years ago, October 24, 2004, the premiere of the bio-tech thriller Regenesis aired on Canadian TV, with Ellen Page playing the mouthy but lovable Lilith Sandstrom. She'd been acting long before (since she was 10), but with this role things started kicking off for her. She would soon leave the show to star in edgy indies like Mouth to Mouth and Hard Candy, even darker films like The Tracey Fragments and An American Crime, and of course the smash comedy Juno. Currently 24, and looking five years younger as always, she shows every sign of being around for a long time. She's currently on board for an eco-terrorism film called The East, and has plans to write and produce a comedy for HBO.
I'm quite a fan of Ellen, and this tribute will survey the work she's done since Regenesis and rate it three ways. First we'll look at the films themselves; then Ellen's acting in each; and finally the characters she plays. I'm putting this post on the sidebar and will continually update as her new films hit the theaters. Enjoy!
1. Regenesis (2004). 5 stars. I'm cheating a bit by including a TV show, but it's so exceptional it plays like a feature film and actually tops my list. For the underprivileged who haven't been exposed, Regenesis is a gritty thriller about a group of scientists who work against bio-terrorism, environmental dangers, and bizarre diseases, and unlike most sci-fic dramas, it's not so much about saving the day as learning to live with irreversible damage. As a Canadian production it's refreshingly unsanitized, meaning that people behave like real people, drop the f-bomb with abandon, and even appear nude on occasion. The first season is the one to watch -- brilliant story arcs over 13 episodes. Ellen is featured in episodes 1-8 as the daughter of the lead scientist, and she befriends a sick boy who thinks he's a clone.
2. Juno (2007). 5 stars. Critically hailed as Ellen's best film, in which she plays a teen who contemplates abortion but decides to have the baby and give it to a wealthy couple. I've seen this movie many times, and I'm surprised how it never gets old; there's none of the cheesy sentimentality that mars most comedies. I'm also fond of the way it subverts liberal expectations, but without glorifying teen pregnancy or serving an anti-abortionist agenda (even if it's been incredibly mistaken for doing so). Scriptwriter Diablo Cody is as liberal and feminist as they come, but she's not interested in partisan preaching. Roger Ebert was right about it being the being the best film of 2007 -- it's flawless.
3. Hard Candy (2006). 4 ½ stars. This would have easily claimed the top slot, except the last 25 minutes haven't aged well (bringing it down half a star), and I explain why here. It pretty much undoes what it set out to do, even copping out, and gets too self-righteous. But it's still an awesome film and the one responsible for Ellen's initial fame. Call it an indie revenge-thriller about sexual justice -- or injustice, depending on how you look at it -- about a 14-year old girl named Hayley who decides to castrate a guy in his own home. This charming dude stalks teens on the internet and is a closet pedophile to boot, perhaps even a killer. He and Hayley first hook up in a coffee shop after weeks of online chat: the well-known chocolate cake scene. I suppose I'd be tempted to hook up with a girl like this too... oh, did I just say that?
4. Inception (2010). 4 ½ stars. In a rare blockbuster for Ellen, she plays a college student who has amazing architectural gifts, and gets recruited into building mazes, labyrinths, and landscapes to be used in dream-invasions. The mission of the Inception team is grand: to implant an idea deep in the subconscious of a corporate executive so subtly that he will believe its his own idea, and choose not to follow in his fathers footsteps, thereby leaving business to others and allowing a rival competitor to dominate. Planting this idea requires such intricacy that it must be done on a third-level dream -- a dream within a dream within a dream -- where minutes in the higher-level dreams expand into months and years, and the danger of never waking up and falling into limbo escalate exponentially. Convoluted, action-packed, but with an emotional side-story too, it's a film only Chris Nolan could have made.
5. Mouth to Mouth (2005). 4 stars. Right before Hard Candy came this overlooked gem, about a revolutionary teen who leaves her mother and joins a gang living on the streets of Europe. This gang is armed with "radical knowledge", a neo-communist philosophy that condemns personal property and promotes group interests over the self. Based on the director's actual experience with gangs, it focuses on the manipulative leader who seduces but ultimately alienates Sherry, yet who incredibly succeeds in brainwashing her mother when she comes to rescue her. It's still a hard film to come by in the states; the trailer is very good and represents it well.
6. Super (2011). 4 stars. Everything Kick Ass should have been, upending superhero conventions through brutal satire, making us laugh as our heores take pipe wrenches to people who cut in line at the movies and key other peoples' cars. Their mission is to fight crime, but Ellen Page's character doesn't seem to care much about that, as long as she can beat the living be-Jesus out of someone. James Gunn is the flip side to Christopher Nolan, who also redeemed the superhero genre but it a serious way: by destroying our optimism and suggesting heroes as hopeless liberators who escalate terror as they try fighting it. Gunn destroys our seriousness by suggesting heroes as hopeless losers who likewise are barely better than those they go against.
7. Whip It! (2009). 3 ½ stars. When I first heard about this one, I thought Ellen was selling out and going mainstream. My fears turned out to be groundless. It may have all the cliches and usual outcomes expected in an underdog sports film, but minus the melodrama, and it even plays like an indie film though I'm not sure why. It could be the edgy nature of roller derby, or just the way the characters are handled in the story. Or maybe it's Ellen's natural "indie persona", which she seems to exude without trying. In any case, the story is about a girl whose mother forces her to compete in ghastly beauty pageants until she stumbles across roller derby and falls in love with knocking other girls down on the skating rink. Whip it good!
8. The Tracey Fragments (2007). 3 ½ stars. About a messed up girl looking for her lost younger brother. She searches for him riding a bus at night, naked under a shower curtain. Sound bizarre? This might have placed higher on my list if not for the gimick of so many split frames playing on the screen at once. I realize what the director was trying to do (hence the title) in portraying a delusional girl whose mind is everywhere: we're supposed to be impressed less by what happens to Tracey and more by the record of her perceptions; her jagged emotional viewfinder is critical. But it's asking much of us to digest up to eight frames at a time. Still, once you get used to it, there's no denying the film's daring originality. It's indie, weird, raw... perfect for Ellen Page.
9. An American Crime (2007). 3 ½ stars. Based on the true story of Sylvia Likens, who was tortured and killed by a disturbed woman caring for her in her parents' absence. Sylvia was tied up in a basement for weeks -- beaten, burned, cut, branded, and forced to eat filth, while, amazingly, kids in the neighborhood dropped by daily to participate in the "fun". Ellen is as convincing in the role of a savagely abused innocent as she is in that of a tormenting sadist (Hard Candy), and most people won't want to see this more than once (if that). The final act -- Sylvia's dream of reuniting with her parents as she lies unconscious and dying -- is heartbreaking. There are really no pleasant scenes to watch, but I am moved by this haunting montage.
10. Peacock (2010). 3 stars. This went straight to DVD, perhaps not surprisingly given what most people expect from psychological thrillers. But cheap thrills aren't to be found here, only character-driven introspection that Hitchcock would have been proud of. Cillian Murphy plays a Norman Bates character, a shy gentleman who works at a bank during the day, and then at home transforms into his "mother" to do household chores and prepare meals. When Ellen Page's character, Maggie, shows up at his door asking for money, the mother-half kicks into overdrive and things get unpleasant. Maggie has his child, for his (real) mother had forced him on Maggie in unspeakably obscene ways. The film is a showcase for Murphy as a tormented psychotic, Ellen his collateral. At the same time, it feels a bit less than the sum of its parts.
11. The Stone Angel (2007). 2 ½ stars. I went into this with high expectations since both of my favorite Ellens are in it (I revere Ellen Burstyn), and so was let down by the mediocrity. It's one of those films where so much talent goes to waste, and so little is happening around what is trying to seem profound. Burstyn stars as a bitter old matriarch who fears she will lose her independence and be placed in a nursing home by her son and daughter-in-law. Page gets a small role as the girlfriend of another one of Burstyn's sons, who both get killed by a train in a dare. It's about family pride being a destructive force across generations, but somehow feels less than the sum of its parts.
12. X-Men 3: The Last Stand (2006). 2 stars. I usually hate superhero films, and this one's no exception, though I admit the mutants are a cool concept. A director like Christopher Nolan could have worked wonders over this lame story about two factions of mutants kicking each others' asses over the politically-loaded question of a cure for mutations. The blatant attempt to analogize mutation with (homo)sexual orientation is cheap, and we even get to hear Ian McKellan, who of course is openly gay, say through the lips of his character (Magneto), "Nobody is going to cure us -- we are the cure!" As a bisexual I appreciate the sentiment, but it's too preachy. As for Ellen, she plays a cute shadowcat who can pass through walls, but she gets only minutes of screen time -- which is perhaps just as well.
13. Smart People (2008). 1 star. Banal, boring, and blisteringly cheerless, this is Ellen's throw-away film -- and one that I wanted to throw away instead of returning to the video store. The story focuses on a conceited college professor who has no time for anyone (least of all his students and two kids), and is writing a book essentially about how stupid people are. Ellen plays his snarky and socially inept high-school daughter, who alternates between patronizing him and mouthing off, while trying to seduce her own uncle in between. (The uncle takes refuge by fleeing the house and sleeping on the dorm floor of his nephew, who can't stand his sister anyway.) But not even she can save this misbegotten "comedy" which failed to elicit a single smile from me.
The Acting Performances
1. Hayley Stark. 5 stars. The sadist of Hard Candy is Ellen's ass-kicking performance, her finest, and certainly her most unforgettable. She deserved an Oscar nomination for this role as much as for Juno MacGuff, if not more so, but alas, such awards aren't dished out to overnight successes. Hayley has to be the best teen psychopath of all time, and it's impossible not to thrill to her when she's performing her surgery on Patrick Wilson, sweating like a pig, bantering ridiculous witticisms.
2. Juno MacGuff. 5 stars. Ellen was made for this role and owned it completely. I imagine she's like Juno in real life -- snarky and fluent with punchy one-liners -- her interviews at least suggest some commonalities. The trick is making a character like this attractive (you don't win hearts on sarcasm alone), but she nailed the formula with perfect measures of sass, inner turmoil, and wit. I hope she's as successful in her private life.
3. Tracey Berkowitz. 4 ½ stars. A wide range of talent was required to play up to Tracey's mood swings and bipolar-like sensibilities, and Ellen was more than capable. It's astonishing, really, how she managed to mold a feral but sensitive girl whom audiences can relate to (though we'd relate even better with less of the editorial split-screen technique), vulgar as hell, full of self-loathing and hatred for everyone, but also capable of tender mercies.
4. Sylvia Likens. 4 ½ stars. Ellen's most searing performance to date, and difficult to watch. I understand she was the only actor considered for Sylvia Likens, which isn't surprising. Few young talents are up to the demands of a role like this. For those who think Ellen is only at home in snarky or psychotic roles, An American Crime will dispel all doubt. Sylvia is as shy and vulnerable as they come. The scene where she's branded is stunning -- and very upsetting.
5. Libby (Boltie). 4 ½ stars. Ellen's most psychotic role, even more than Hayley Stark who at least reserved her torture for murderers and pedophiles. Libby's scope is wider: she even tries killing those who key other peoples' cars. Ellen completely steals the show from Rainn Wilson, if truth be told. The scene where she plows into someone with a car, gets out in her underwear, and jumps up and down laughing hysterically is just priceless. And she plays the role of a rapist splendidly, and that's rather opposite of both Hayley and Sylvia at the same time.
6. Lilith Sandstrom. 4 ½ stars. She didn't have the biggest role in Regenesis, but what she got she milked for all its worth. It's impressive to watch her play off Peter Outerbridge (David Sandstrom, her brilliant but asshole father) and of course Mark Rendall, whose character (Mick) she falls in love with, knowing his days are numbered. She never overacts throughout the show, and that's a rarity among teens. The scene with her and Mick in a motel room is touching.
7. Bliss Cavendar. 4 ½ stars. Playing a non-waspy version of Juno, Ellen makes this character vulnerable and sympathetic, whose rebellion against her mother is understandable. (How would you act as a 17-year old if your mother shoved '50s values down your throat and made you compete in horrendous beauty pageants?) Bliss' roller-derby voyage is one of self-discovery, a hard role to tame without waxing maudlin and cliche, but done almost perfectly as it turns out.
8. Maggie Bailey. 4 stars. Ellen gives an understated performance here (in her first real adult role), balancing Cillian Murphy's aggressive transgendered act that steals the show. But there's fierce intensity under the surface, a lot of damage to cope with, demanding plenty of acting resources even if it doesn't seem so.
9. Ariadne. 4 stars. Another role showing Ellen breaking out of the indie teen mold, and now into blockbuster territory -- and again with Cilian Murphy, but more involved on screen with Leo DiCaprio. There's not much back story to Ariadne, but Ellen is well suited to the role of an intellectual architect of labyrinths and landscapes for people's dreams.
10. Sherry Green. 4 stars. Like Bliss (#6), this girl has a suffocating mother, but her solution is more radical: leave home and join a street gang. Sherry captures the essence of impressionable youth, and learns the hard way how manipulative and dangerous charismatic leaders are. It's a gritty role for a 16-year old, and Ellen goes to some dark places in Mouth to Mouth. The scene with Sherry and her mother on the side of road shows the playful affection they have for each other alongside the tension that causes their estrangement.
11. Arlene Drieser. 3 stars. She gets a pitifully small role in The Stone Angel, almost a cameo, as a local wild girl who falls in love with a son of the lead matriarch (Ellen Burstyn) who disapproves of their relationship. Not much going on here, and her talent is wasted as much as the other Ellen's. But she does a fine job with what she's given -- when does she not?
12. Kitty Pryde. 3 stars. Another miniscule role, which is just as well since the X-Men are pretty lame. I guess it's fun to see Ellen run through walls. My understanding is that Kitty is supposed to be Jewish and her grandfather was held in a Nazi concentration camp, but none of that is explored in the film. Again, she did a decent job with the material handed to her, but it's not even half a page in the book of her career.
13. Vanessa Wetherhold. 2 stars. It's interesting how this girl is a spitting image of Juno personality-wise. A hardcore Republican and social misfit, to be sure, but the snarky persona and barbed quips are almost exactly the same. Does that mean it's a great performance? No, because context is everything, and in a dull flop like Smart People, Vanessa is just a dull smart ass. She's definitely the low point of Ellen's career -- in my opinion, the only performance she's ever given that leaves much to be desired.
1. Lilith Sandstrom. 5 stars. Lilith is awesome, the best character Ellen ever played. She has attitude, but real heart and goes to the wall for her friends. As when she leaves home to take Mick on a whale watch before his time is up. The whale appears moments too late, but at least Lilith is there for him when he dies. My favorite scene is in the next episode, when David proves he's not such a bastard in helping her come to terms with Mick's death. The show was never the same after she left.
2. Hayley Stark. 5 stars. Sweet Hayley. I love this psychotic little bitch as much as Hannibal Lecter and Max Cady. She's perverse, demented, but also very funny -- as long as you're not on the receiving end of her ire. Her formula: luring ephebophiles into a den of torture in their own homes, and mind-fucking them until they kill themselves. Those are her good traits. I don't think she has any bad ones.
3. Libby (Boltie). 5 stars. In a way I like Libby even more than Hayley because she's twice as demented, not picky at all about who she kills, and has no righteous pretensions. She says she wants to kill criminals, but that she's ready to crush the skull of an innocent gives lie to that claim. On top of that, and opposite Hayley, she's a rapist (and I wouldn't mind being raped by her). But ultimately I think Hayley's more charming, especially factoring in her youth.
4. Bliss Cavendar. 4 stars. How can you not love Babe Ruthless? An adorable girl with no pretensions other than wanting to break out of her life prison and have some fun. Apparently her character is just as likable in the novel on which the film is based. For some reason I always associated roller derby with white trash, but I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to sports. No trash here.
5. Sylvia Likens. 4 stars. I just want to hug this doll whenever I watch An American Crime. Shy, innocent, and with a heart of gold, Sylvia is the last person who deserved the treatment she received from Gertrude Baniszewski. I don't believe in hell, but if there is such a place I might hope for Gertie to roast there for a few months (about the time it took for her to torture and kill Sylvia). Where do sickos come from anyway?
6. Sherry Green. 4 stars. You have to admire a kid who runs away from home to join a grass-roots movement -- that's putting your money where your mouth is (or complete lack of it, as the case may be) -- even if disillusionment is the inevitable outcome. You also have to respect the way she takes undeserved beatings with grace, like when she's punished by the gang leader, three times her size, for "making him" have sex with her. Honestly. Sherry's great.
7. Juno MacGuff. 3 stars. Juno is cool if not overly endearing. There are times you want to hug her, times you want to gag her, and times you want to smack her silly. I think if I had a daughter with this much lip and she got pregnant, I'd force her to have the abortion just to take her down a peg. Well no, not really, but... Or if I were the adoptive father of her unborn and she were spending so much damn time with me, I'd divorce my prissy wife and kidnap Juno for an elopement. Or maybe not, but then again...
8. Maggie Bailey. 3 stars. Maggie is much a victim of circumstance who prostitutes herself to pay the trailer rent. She loves her kid to no end -- the product of an unspeakable union -- and takes the way of least resistance to provide for him. She has little control over her destiny, but for such a nondescript character she's oddly affecting, and makes you want to jump into the screen to save her from the clutches of Emma.
9. Ariadne. 3 stars. We don't get to know much about her, but she's cool, shrewd, and looking out for the welfare of the Inception team, and studiously cognizant of keeping Cobb (Leo DiCaprio's character) from damaging himself with his subconscious baggage.
10. Tracey Berkowitz. 3 stars. As with Juno, a great performance doesn't necessarily a great character make. I should be clear that I do like Tracey quite a bit. She's a wonderfully messed up kid, bullied by classmates and shit on by her parents, but so emotionally jagged that it shatters my empathy when I least expect it. This is a character I have a hard time getting closure on. I guess I need to watch the film again.
11. Arlene Drieser. 2 stars. Young, naive, and broke, she just wants to marry a guy and have loads of kids. With not much screen time we don't get to know Arlene well, so she falls near the bottom of the list by default. She's devoted enough to get in a truck with her boyfriend on a suicide dare, and I suppose that says something for her, though perhaps not in a good way. Oh well.
12. Kitty Pryde. 2 stars. A cute kitty with cute powers, but that's about it. As with Arlene, she gets too little screen time. She was also played by different actors in the first two X-Men films (though even more briefly, if you can imagine that), so the character isn't even entirely Ellen's.
13. Vanessa Wetherhold. 1 star. What's there to say about Vanessa? She's frigid, disdains all things democratic, and flirts with her uncle who looks like a toad. Before moving in on her uncle, however, he takes an amusing swipe at her for being a social misfit with no life. In addition to being the low point of Ellen's acting career (the only performance from her I've found wanting), Vanessa is by far her worst character.
UPDATE: This post has been reproduced on Ellen Page Online.