"Whatever," if nothing else, expertly and imaginatively captures the rhythms and nuances of the social milieu inhabited by its central character, a New Jersey high-school senior pushing toward the great unknown of adulthood, circa the early '80s.
Anna (Liza Weill), the sensitive, sexually inexperienced counterpart to her reckless, more emotionally hardened friend Brenda (Chad Morgan), bides time until graduation by nurturing ambitions of becoming a painter, neurotically checking her mailbox every day for a letter of acceptance to Cooper Union in New York City.
Teen-age and tortured is a condition for the ages, and debut director-writer Susan Skoog gracefully portrays the emotional upheaval of Anna, who -- like her real-life and screen parallels in decades before and since -- retreats to her bedroom when the world weighs heavy. There, she surreptitiously lights up menthol cigarettes and gazes into space as the camera pans around four walls crammed with artists' materials, pop-star posters and Big Apple souvenirs, and the Pretenders and the Ramones blare from the soundtrack.
Her room additionally proves a respite from a home life that's less than idyllic. She does daily battle with her bratty kid brother and her divorced mom (Kathryn Rosseter), a worn-down sales clerk who borrows clothes from the shop for the evenings she's wined and dined by an older, married, overweight sugardaddy. The single mother too often leaves her kids alone to fend for themselves.
High school, with the exception of a self-consciously hip art teacher overplayed by Frederic Forrest, is even more of a minefield. A patronizing English teacher gleefully threatens to give Anna a failing grade, and she's slapped with in-school detention after a brief episode of smoking in the girls room.
The sweet, somewhat troubled Anna also pines for the attentions of cool fellow artist Martin (Mark Riffon), a slightly older guy who has just returned from a freewheeling trip out West in his hippie van. For a while, he's Anna's own personal magic man, first attracting her with a mysterious aura and then romancing her with the kind of line sure to impress the vulnerable. "Art's about experiencing life, about having great passion," he explains. And, later, the three words most dreaded in certain circumstances: "I'll call you."
Several of the film's big moments, including a violent run-in with Brenda's abusive stepfather and a hallucinatory sequence in a motel room, ring less true than transitional scenes. One party, for instance, has Skoog follow the two friends around a house full of teen-agers, variously gulping alcohol, smoking pot, making out and carrying on a stoned-out, earnest conversation about the conflict between free will and fate.
Later, after a major academic disappointment, and following an unsettling road trip with Brenda and reform-school tough guys Zak (Dan Montano) and Woods (John G.Connolly), Anna seeks and finds limited consolation from her mother. "Don't expect so much," mom advises. "It's easier that way." Skoog, throughout, poignantly examines just how trying and difficult it is being 17 and desperately trying to escape those ties that bind.