Camp? Satire? Incredibly fun thriller sprinkled with a supernatural element and set to the biggest radio hits from my high school and undergrad years? If you are Showtime’s newest hit series Yellowjackets, the answer to all of those question is yes, please and thank you.
Set in two timelines, 1996 and 2021, Yellowjackets tells the tale of well, the Yellowjackets; a ladies New Jersey high school soccer squad whose private plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness en route to a national tournament. The crash kills all of the adults except assistant Ben Scott (Steven Krueger) but largely leaves the players physically unscathed. The real mystery, excluding the four adult leads, is what will happen in the 19 months between crash and rescue and who else will make it out alive.
I have to be honest, I was interested when I found out Christina Ricci was attached – and later hooked when I watched her character do bat shit crazy things against the musical backdrop of trip-hop trailblazers Portishead. What can I say? I am a simple man with simple pleasures, and this simple pleasure checks a lot of boxes.
*Slight Spoiler Ahead
Another appealing aspect of Yellowjackets is the ambiguity that belies the season. Was crash survivor Travis’ death a suicide or murder? Do the woods that the Yellowjackets crashed into have supernatural powers? Have these powers (curse?) followed the ladies into adulthood and into an even spookier locale – New Jersey? Did the girls truly resort to cannibalism? Why did Portishead only release two albums in the 90s?
One aspect that is not up for debate is the fact that the survivors were all emotionally damaged by their shared 19-month sojourn into the Canadian wilderness. As adults, suburban mother and housewife Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) is emotionally unavailable, rebel with a VERY SIGNIFICANT cause Natalie (Juliette Lewis) has addiction issues, and New Jersey politician Taissa (Tawny Cypress) is cutthroat in her career ambitions to the point of endangering the lives her wife and son.
As for series star Christina Ricci, she is perfectly cast as psychotic and obsessive team manager Misty, who even pre-crash was danger to herself and everyone around her.
Yellowjackets should also be lauded for the casting choices of the adolescents who play the four leads. These young women also did a tremendous job with their characters and if they didn’t, Yellowjackets would have been dead on arrival. Well done.
I had to throw in a few cannibal puns. When will I get that chance again? Oh yeah…season two, which can’t come soon enough.
My people, people who are scheduling their first prostate exams and mammograms, and whose teenage years were defined by mall culture (what a time to be alive) should absolutely love Yellowjackets and not just because of the nostalgia and soundtrack. And speaking of my generation, the greatest compliment I can give Yellowjackets would be that if it was released in the 90s, you would absolutely set your VCR to record every week. I miss VCRs.
Admittedly, I am a Paul Thomas Anderson fan boy (or at least, a middle-aged fan man), and he is one of few directors (Wes Anderson, Danny Boyle, Christopher Nolan) that will send me to the theatre simply based on their body of work. In fact, two Anderson films Magnolia and Boogie Nights are on my short list of all-time favorites, so if you want some objectivity, tune into NPR. Right now you’re tuned into WNF&G.
Please don’t turn the dial.
Like Magnolia and Boogie Nights, Anderson returns to the home of his youth, the San Fernando Valley. Set in 1973, Licorice Pizza tells the tale of high school student Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a part time actor and full time hustler, whose primary interest is the older and mysterious Alana Kane (Alana Haim). Licorice Pizza appears to be partly a biopic, or at least who Anderson pictured himself to be.
Valentine and Kane have a rollercoaster adventure while trying to discover who they are to themselves and each other. In the process, they find themselves in the middle of wrong identity arrest, a water bed selling scheme, a motor cycle stunt gone wrong, a political campaign, and the opening of a pinball arcade.
Licorice Pizza thrives because of the chemistry between Hoffman and Haim, which is all the more impressive as it marks the film debut for both. And although Hoffman, son of late actor and Anderson collaborator Phillip Seymour Hoffman, makes acting look easy, musician turned actress Haim is a STAR. In fact, to quote Anderson character Dirk Diggler, she is “a star, a big bright shining star.”
The supporting cast keeps the film moving and almost manages to steal the scenes they’re in. Almost.
Let’s start with Jon Peters, Barbara Streisand’s real-life boyfriend who evidently is also an insane, womanizing hairdresser turned Hollywood producer. Played by Bradley Cooper, Peters appears terrifying, charming and hilarious, all at the same time. The pinnacle of suspense in Licorice Pizza comes from a water bed instillation plot gone awry at Streisand’s house. These seemingly silly scene prove Anderson has not lost his touch and can still film a stressful vignette with the best of them.
Of course, having Radiohead guitarist and Oscar winning composer Jonny Greenwood score this scene (and obviously movie) doesn’t hurt.
Did I mention TOM FRICKIN WAITS? If not, he plays Rex Blau, a drunk and eccentric director, who becomes reacquainted with actor and friend Jack Holden (Sean Penn) over a dinner with Kane. Frankly, Waits has never been more charming, and Penn has never been smarmier, which is saying a lot because their performances reminds us all just how damn good they both can be.
Although I have never been to the San Fernando Valley, I feel like I know it well given the attention to details, music and stories Anderson has put together in Licorice Pizza, Magnolia and Boogie Nights, making them, at least to me, an unofficial trilogy. Licorice Pizza is by far the most light-hearted and fun of all three, and if you are a fan of cinema, you should view this work ASAP. If nothing else just so you can say you remember Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim from way back when.