By Travis Merchant.
At some point, films focused on teenage characters started growing stale with repeating motifs, themes, and story arcs. It may have been set in stone with the films by John Hughes, such as Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Pretty in Pink (1986). By the 21st century, these types of films became something that audience members may be wary of, simply because the themes and plots had been explored infinitely. However, a film that seems at first to fit the mold breaks through and stands out as something worth visiting. Recently, films that explore teenage life have even flooded awards ceremonies—The Edge of Seventeen (2016), Lady Bird (2017), and Eighth Grade (2018) are just a few examples. All These Small Moments (2019) can easily fit into this last pantheon of films by approaching the seemingly mundane plot and delivery with a focus on the characters, the acting, and an emphasis on a complex structure that prefers focusing on small moments.
Melissa Miller Costanzo’s directorial debut highlights an important theme: a desire to be at a different age and time. Howie and Simon (Brendan Meyer and Sam McCarthy) are teenagers that are struggling to become older; this is most evident in Howie, who pines for a woman much older than he is, Odessa (Jemima Kirke). However, on the opposite end of age, the brothers’ parents, Carla and Tom (Molly Ringwald and Brian d’Arcy James) wish they could go back to how things were when they were young. They’ve grown out of love the older they have gotten. This struggle between the two age groups creates a tension throughout the film that wants to heighten the importance of living in the present, which a majority of the characters all struggle with. Even a side character, Lindsay (Harley Quinn Smith), wants to become friends with Howie and live in the present, but she is unable to shake the past and terrible rumors that were started about her. This focus on time seems to be the true antagonist of the film—it’s an unstoppable force that both threatens the characters and comforts them by the time the credits roll by.
The acting in These Small Moments is the film’s true strength. Molly Ringwald, a star of the films mentioned earlier, shines as Carla Sheffield. Incredibly, Ringwald is still just as natural in her performance as she was nearly thirty years ago. Against her partner, Brain d’Arcy James as Tom, their chemistry on screen is visibly strained and shows the natural performances of both actors with stunning precision. Akin to the recent teenage films mentioned, the actors in high school actually look and act the ages they are supposed to be portraying. These natural approaches sell this film as a powerhouse of acting, and it gives the film a realistic take on the story.
Most films have a three-act structure complete with dramatic turns, full story arcs, and characters evolving based on the film’s structure. However, All These Small Moments focuses on a more realistic approach to the storytelling; as the title suggests, the film focuses on the small moments of everyone’s lives and heightens those to extraordinary levels. When the audience first meets Howie, he has a cast on his wrist from an injury that happened before the introductory portion. However, when he gets that cast off, it’s not a signal of a turn in his character. The film’s display of these events follows something more akin to everyday life: Howie goes to the doctor with his mom, Carla; gets the brace off; and then they get ice cream afterward. Though it was a point of contention in the doctor’s office, the moment with the ice cream plays methodically, bracing the characters to come to terms with the present. This moment isn’t near the end of the film either; the struggle with the passage of time and wishing to be a different age is forgotten about for a second, and the characters are allowed to breathe for just a moment. This structure may come across as unfulfilling in comparison to other films with a three-act structure, especially with its handling of closing Odessa’s story. The last time the audience sees this character, she is at a low-point and is unsure of where her future will go. Instead of following a typical path, this exit of Odessa fuels the emphasis on the small moments in Howie’s life. It doesn’t end with a nice bow on top—life continues to punish those who refuse to accept the passage of time.
In my interview with Brendan Meyer and Sam McCarthy, the two brothers in the film, they discuss the experience working on a film with veterans of past teenage films, the way life can be a struggle at times, and how they approached their roles.
Travis Merchant (TM): When approaching your characters, what were some experiences that helped inform your performance?
Sam McCarthy (SM): I really like to focus on what’s in the script as well as draw on some personal experiences to play a given scene. I find the better I relate to a character, the less I need to pull from my own experiences, which for me, is always a goal.
Brendan Meyer (BM): Well, I think the thing that I always drew on and kind of remembered from being 16-17 was that you have this desire to be seen as more mature. I’ve never had a serious infatuation with someone in their 30s, but I think even when you’re 15, someone that is 18 or 19 could seem way older. I could kind of relate to maybe being interested in a girl who’s older and the underlying thing that happens there when you’re trying to show that you are more interesting than they think you are based on your age. I think that it just goes into what happens a lot with people in their teens, which is this desire to be seen as more complex than we think. But then there’s always this interesting arc to be able to look back on it and think about how much you may have not actually known when you were young. It’s interesting to think back on those moments when you are older.
TM: The film seems to explore that dichotomy of wishing you were another age: younger people wanting to be older and older people wanting to be younger.
BM: I think there’s things about being young and older. It’s interesting—the older you get, the more you look back. Younger people seem so young—not less mature, complex, or interesting—but they are younger. You just don’t think of yourself that way. You don’t realize that people only see you like that at that age. It’s not something that teenagers can grasp at their age.
TM: What were some of the preparations you made for this film? What inspirations did you have?
SM: To be honest I didn’t feel the need to over prepare of this role. I found I had aspects of my own character that were quite similar to Simon, so sliding into the role did not take much effort.
BM: I don’t know if there were specific films, but Melissa (the director) had sent me a few things in preparation, and I watched Wonder Boys with Michael Douglas (2000). That was a film she recommended, which had an interesting, natural charm. It had very intelligent characters. I’m a big movie guy, so I always go back to things like that. There was a lot in the script with this one, so I kind of felt great about it. I had a chance to Skype with Melissa before I was even cast, so I had a lot of time to think about the character. I think a lot of prep ahead of time was focusing on the character and how he would behave with different people. What was great about the character was that he had a specific relationship with each person and different dynamics each time.
TM: All These Small Moments seems to be a new approach to teenage films that Molly Ringwald, your costar, starred in when she was younger. When making the film, were you aware of other films in the genre and how did those affect your performance?
SM: My dad worked in movies from the 80’s, some of which were with Molly. [Sam’s father is Andrew McCarthy, who starred in Pretty In Pink alongside Molly Ringwald.] So yes, I was aware of those.
BM: I mean sure, I was certainly aware of a lot of Molly’s work, so I was aware of this coming of age relations. In relation to Pretty in Pink, it had this really interesting relationship between child and parent. It’s an interesting thing. I did see it as a kind of journey for a character because so much of those John Hughes films and movies with Molly are about a young person learning to navigate relationships with different people—people of their own age and older. It wasn’t lost on me, that connection, and it was cool to have Molly there in this different way. What’s great about Molly’s role is that it’s not just about my character. There’s a lot of interesting, complex emotions that Molly goes through with the film that are even separate even from my character.
TM: Instead of having a strict three-act structure, it seems like the film focuses on small moments over a period of time. How do you feel about this structure? Does it make it more realistic?
SM: I find the structure of this movie quite unique and interesting. Watching it was a refreshing break from the normal 3 act structure.
BM: I think that’s what so interesting about the movie is that it will allow some breathing room. It allows scenes that just sort of set up the character and the mood, as opposed to everything to being a part of a clear structure—all things lead to each other, leads to a climax, and then ends with a nice bow on top. Those films are all great and have great structures. But, I think what is great about All These Small Moments is that we have these films that already talk about that with clear developments. Here, it allows the plots to weave into one another. Sometimes, what’s going on with Howie clashes with what’s going on with his parents, and sometimes it sits in the background. I think that what makes it work and what gives it the natural feel is the emphasis on small moments that build atmosphere and character. It allows room to breathe in between all the plot developments.
TM: Did this film cause you to think about your life as you are growing up? What about this film affects you personally?
SM: I do reflect on my own life when thinking of this movie. I feel that the goal of any coming of age movie is to have something for adolescents to relate to.
BM: Well, I think it’s interesting. I was home schooled, so I never went to a high school. What people think is that people who were home-schooled don’t interact with others as much, but that’s not true. I had a lot of friends growing up who were also home schooled, and I had a younger brother. It’s about a similar age gap to Simon and Howie in the film. I could really relate to that relationship because of my brother. I couldn’t relate to the parental drama because my parents had a strong relationship. However, what I took from the film was this focus on the smaller moments that you maybe miss, and I think a lot of the characters are looking forward or backward. Like you were talking about, people wishing they were in the past or future. There is a beauty in the small moments in between that maybe you don’t think about, like having an ice cream cone with your mom. There’s so many little moments we take for granted, and you might not remember them so far ahead. In that moment of time, they are actually very meaningful and enjoyable, and it would be a shame to not focus on them.
All These Small Moments comes out in theaters on January 17, 2019 and On Demand/Digital HD on January 18, 2019.
Travis Merchant is the Image Editor for Film International, an adjunct instructor at Wake Technical Community College, and a teaching assistant at NC State. Some of his writings have been published in Film Matters, and he presented at the sixth and seventh annual Visions Film Festival and Conference. He graduated from UNCW in 2016 with degrees in film studies and English, and he achieved honours with his film degree. Some of his interests in film and media studies are on phenomenology, sound design and music, and intertextuality between works.