By: Jolie Featherstone
Imbued with dry wit and heaps of quirk, Keith Bearden’s high school-outsider dramedy Antarctica leans into absurdist humour to highlight the pressures and barriers teenage girls are facing today.
Janet (Kimie Muroya) and Kat (Chloë Levine) are life-long friends who confidently claim their outsider status at their suburban, conservative high school. Subjected to sexual harassment, brutal cyber bullying, politically conservative diatribes from their history teacher, and strained relationships with parents and teachers who don’t listen to them, Antarctica sweeps us up into the turbulent world of the two best friends.
As they enter their senior year of high school, a rift develops between the two friends. Kat is getting invited to parties and, unfortunately, cat-called by sketchy guys. Witnessing these new developments and, more importantly, Kat’s tentative embracing of these activities the two previously looked down upon, Janet starts to feel frustrated and worried about their friendship. The situation escalates severely after a party that results in Kat getting sent away. Janet is put on medication under the urging of her less-than-attentive principal. What starts off as a classic bestie-outsiders-in-high-school movie quickly becomes a trippy, absurdist comedy that forces us to reckon with how much pressure we put on girls and young women – and how little we truly listen to them.
For those who, like me, are skeptical when they see a film about young women and girls written and directed by a man, I can say that the film is striking in how starkly it presents the struggles faced by the average North American girl. The film also allows Kat and Janet to be imperfect. They’re flawed. They’re scared. They’re human. And yet they’re constantly punished by the world around them for their actions – and for the actions of others. The film is fearless in its depiction of some of the crueller moments in these girls’ lives (including a gut-wrenching look at abortion that demonstrates how the harassment doesn’t just stop at the front doors of the clinic). Bearden employs absurdist comedy, which keeps the audience from getting fatigued by the onslaught of problems poured onto these girls, while also calling attention to how seamlessly everyone else in their world simply continues with the status quo – especially the adults meant to guide them. The film wanders in tone and certain elements feel not fully explored (such as Janet’s medication use and burgeoning relationship with a sweet boy who may or may not be real). However, we remain invested throughout the journey thanks in large part to Muroya’s magnetic performance.
Antarctica evokes Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, a generation-defining film for many Gen X and millennial women, and Richard Ayoade’s Submarine with a slight dash of Wes Anderson visual whimsy. In different hands, this film could have gone down a gritty or heavy-handed path. Instead, Keith Bearden uses comedy to beckon us into this social critique.
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Jolie Featherstone: @TOFilmFiles