Reviewed by: George Williamson

"Why doesn't Ricky like me?" "Because Ricky only likes sluts." "I'm a slut!" "You couldn't be a slut if you tried."

The course of true love did never run smooth. That's certainly the case for Gretchen Finkle; smitten with the highschool badboy Ricky and desperate to command his affections, she'll stop at nothing to get him. Unfortunately for her Ricky prefers, ahem, loose women and she's somewhat of a dweeb, and as Marla - the competition in this amorous arms race - has stated, she couldn't be a slut if she tried...

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Gretchen Finkle is the kid in class who has a fixation on pastel hued cableknit sweaters and t-shirts with fluffy kitties on them; the one with "walk all over me" practically tatooed across her forehead; from her cute little pigtails tied with pink baubles to the innocently vapid look on her face. But these times are drawing to a close; living alone with her mother has revealed that love is the only thing that matters in life and Getchen decides to find it. Unfortunately her heart becomes fixed on Richard Marichino - a chain-smoking, drug-sniffing, motorbike-riding, greasy-haired underachiever - who's dating another girl. After seeing them groping around the back of the 7-11, a red mist decends over sweet little Gretchen and before long she's carted off to the Shady Acres centre for emotional development...

Anyone who's seen Napoleon Dynamite will recognise the visual style - a mishmash of '80s and '90s TV imagery, as though we're stuck in some kind of kitsch Americana timewarp - Steve Collins' first feature screams the words "I wanna be a cult classic" as soon as you start watching.

The tongue-in-cheek humour, the cringeworthy steps into youthful romance, the geeked out lead, and the fact that the actors in central roles are all clearly about ten years older than their characters continually remind you that this is a deeply ironic take on the hell of life as a suburban teen as seen by those who've lived through it. However, like its titular lead, Gretchen is a little confused. At some point in the proceedings it slides from satirical - although not particularly original - comedy to trying to make quasi-serious statements about family and - yawn - coming of age; which could have been fine if it hadn't spent so long trying to show its hardcore irony.

There's also a marked change in the film's visual style, which shifts to be more ponderous and artistic - there are some very nice close up sequences - but it doesn't marry smoothly with the film's tone and slows the pace considerably. It's a shame, as the performances are excellent - especially Courtney Davis (Gretchen) and John Merriman (Ricky) - and the characters are wonderfully observed.

While Gretchen is definitely an accomplished and entertaining movie it's not really better than the movies which it's aping: Welcome To The Dollhouse is similar, but Todd Solondz's cruel realism is sustained throughout, making it feel more genuine; Napoleon Dynamite tried the same visual style and in a similar setting, but is more fun, and But I'm A Cheerleader has already satirised the creepiness of hypocritical self-help culture. Moments like the hilarious candy raver scenes and Stephen Root's cameo as Gretchen's burger-slave father are great, but are too few to pull the film away from its peers (and occasionally a wee bit too cheesy).

Even though it definitely loses out in terms of originality, Gretchen is very entertaining; and even if there are better films out there, it's well worth seeing if you like the genre.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2006
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An awkward teenager seeks revenge for a broken heart.

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Scott Macdonald **

Director: Steve Collins

Writer: Steve Collins

Starring: Courtney Davis, John Merriman, Becky Ann Baker, Stephen Root, Macon Blair, Yasmin Kittles

Year: 2006

Runtime: 99 minutes

Country: US


EIFF 2006

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Napoleon Dynamite