on July 10, 1998 by Bridget Byrne
   Refreshingly tough-minded, Susan Skoog's "Whatever" is a warts-and-all portrait of American youth that manages to skirt the cliches of sentimental nostalgia and heavy-handed simplicity which usually mar such ventures.
   Set in the early l980s when sex was hard core, music harsh and drugs ugly--yet it still seemed possible to survive unending nihilism--the movie zones in on the coming of age of a New Jersey girl, peer-pressured by the wild side of high school life.
   As Anna, who doubts her own appeal and talents, Liza Weil gives a performance that seeks no sympathy yet manages ultimately to reveal the worthwhile person beneath the angry and foolish exterior. Although the script assigns obvious blame to bad parenting and includes the kindly teacher who provides the needed inspiration at the apt moment, confident direction and assured acting elevate the adult roles above the expected and allow Anna to ultimately find herself without too much phony dialogue or fake action pointing the way.
   Like several excellent movies which have shown youth failing to deal with modern life--"Trainspotting" being the most obvious recent example--the movie doesn't shy away from what is literally a gob-spitting look at the impact of alcohol and drugs. It also handles the reality of sex with a much more dead-on eye than slick mainstream movies, laying bare the sadness of a culture where the desire for romance remains but its practice is outmoded.
   Chad Morgan gives a spirited performance as Anna's prettier friend, who's careless with a beauty destined to be short-lived. Frederic Forrest is perhaps a little too quirky in bringing essential oddity to Anna's art teacher, who tries to help a pupil he believes shows promise.
   But central and straight on, it is Weil who holds the camera most arrestingly with a complexity that never resorts to the overwrought or falsely winning, turning what might have been just a clumsy lesson into an insightful experience with appeal beyond its time and place. Starring Liza Weil, Chad Morgan, Kathryn Rossetter and Frederic Forrest. Written and directed by Susan Skoog. Produced by Susan Skoog, Ellin Baumel, Michelle Yahn and Kevin Segalla. A Sony Pictures Classic release. Drama. Rated R for pervasive teen drug and alcohol use, language including sexual dialogue, sexuality and some violence. Running time: 112 min
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