I’m proud of Ellen Page for her Time to Thrive Speech, in which she came out as lesbian and thanked the Human Rights Campaign for inspiring her. I don’t normally watch these kind of things, but Ellen’s speech was moving, actually one of the best speeches I’ve heard in a long time. Its wide impact is cause for rejoice.
This is a good time for me to update my earlier tribute, by adding the work Ellen has done in the past few years. Here are her films (and even a videogame), followed by the characters she plays in each, both ranked from best to worst. Regenesis is my starting point, though of course Ellen’s been acting since she was 10.
1. Regenesis (2004). 5 stars. This TV show is so exceptional that it plays like an extended feature film. Most Americans haven’t heard of it (it’s Canadian), so for the underprivileged Regenesis is a gritty thriller about a group of scientists who work against bio-terrorism, environmental dangers, and bizarre diseases. Unlike most sci-fic dramas, it’s not so much about saving the day as learning to live with irreversible damage. As a Canadian production it’s refreshingly unsanitized, meaning that people behave like real people, drop the f-bomb with abandon, appear nude, and exude an organic reality seldom seen on the American network. The acting is top-notch. The first season is the one to watch; it has brilliant story arcs over 13 episodes. Ellen is featured in episodes 1-8 as the daughter of the lead scientist, and she befriends a sick boy who thinks he’s a clone.
2. Hard Candy (2006). 5 stars. This film is so many things: a dialogue drama, revenge thriller, enacted domination fantasy, and morality puzzle. I see a different film every time I watch it, and in the sum of those viewing experiences certain faults become strengths. The first time it was a Lolita set-up which turned into castration revenge. On second viewing I knew what was coming, and since Hayley was faking the castration her torture seemed a cop-out, and Jeff’s suicide silly and unbelievable. But on third and later viewings I saw an enacted domination fantasy: a man’s guilt-ridden wet-dream of being tormented by a 14-year old fantasy figure, and ending in his “noble” agreement to kill himself. Hard Candy works brilliantly for me on these meshed levels of reality and fantasy.
3. Juno (2007). 5 stars. I normally hate comedies, but Juno is so arresting and honest in its simplicity, and its characters so endearing, that it works just right. It’s also genius for fooling the pro-life crowd into thinking it endorses their agenda. Even if you know nothing about scriptwriter Diablo Cody (a pro-choice feminist) and of course Ellen herself (also a pro-choice liberal who participates in films she believes in), the film clearly establishes a girl’s choice to have her baby without glorifying teen pregnancy, and that she would be supported by her friends and family regardless of her choice. It takes choice for granted, assumes hard-won rights, and doesn’t need to preach. I’ve watched this many, many times.
4. Beyond: Two Souls (2013). 4 ½ stars. If you want to be Ellen, this videogame is your golden opportunity. She plays a character connected to the spiritual realm by the ghost of her dead brother, and is on the run from the U.S. government. Her brother is a pain in the ass, but a convenient power she taps in order to rain hell on the spooks. The story can end 24 different ways, and it’s an emotional ride whichever paths you take. Ellen makes us care for Jodie and sets a new standard in the use of professional actors in games. As an old-school D&D player, I’m surprised to like it, because compared to other videogames it restricts your freedom to move about and explore. You’re basically railroaded along a story, and the choices you can make alter the experience but don’t really shape it. But it’s the kind of story that works well the railroading way. Or at least it did for me — thanks to Ellen’s incredible performance. I was choking up by the end.
5. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). 4 ½ stars. Of the seven X-Men films to date, Ellen has been in two of them: the very best (this one) and the second-worst (The Last Stand, see below). Here we finally get the all-out war between mutants and humanity, requiring time travel to save the day but without cheap resets — so we get to have our cake and eat it as X-Men die but live again. The time warping also bridges the cast of the first three films with their younger versions from the First Class prequel. Things are so dire that Magneto teams up with Xavier, but as in the second film it’s a fragile alliance. Ellen reprises her role as Kitty Pryde, and this time she’s actually an important character: it’s her powers that make the time travel mission possible.
6. Whip It! (2009). 4 stars. I cringed when I first heard about this one, but my fears turned out to be groundless. It may have all the cliches and usual outcomes expected in an underdog sports film, but minus the melodrama, and it even plays like an indie film though I’m not sure why. It could be the edgy nature of roller derby, or just the way the characters are handled in the story. Or maybe it’s Ellen’s natural “indie persona”, which she seems to exude without trying. In any case, the story is about a girl whose mother forces her to compete in ghastly beauty pageants until she stumbles across roller derby and falls in love with knocking other girls down on the skating rink. Whip It! is basically what all those cheesy ’80s underdog sports films could have been like if done well.
7. Inception (2010). 4 stars. Here Ellen plays a college student who has amazing architectural gifts, and gets recruited into building mazes, labyrinths, and landscapes to be used in dream-invasions. The mission of the Inception team is grand: to implant an idea deep in the subconscious of a corporate executive so subtly that he will believe its his own idea, and choose not to follow in his fathers footsteps, thereby leaving business to others and allowing a rival competitor to dominate. Planting this idea requires such intricacy that it must be done on a third-level dream — a dream within a dream within a dream — where minutes in the higher-level dreams expand into months and years, and the danger of never waking up and falling into limbo escalate exponentially.
8. Mouth to Mouth (2005). 4 stars. Right before Hard Candy came this overlooked gem, about a revolutionary teen who leaves her mother and joins a gang living on the streets of Europe. This gang is armed with “radical knowledge”, a neo-communist philosophy that condemns personal property and promotes group interests over the self. Based on the director’s actual experience with gangs, it focuses on the manipulative leader who seduces but ultimately alienates Sherry, yet who incredibly succeeds in brainwashing her mother when she comes to rescue her. It’s still a hard film to come by in the states; the trailer is very good and represents it well.
9. Super (2011). 4 stars. Everything Kick Ass should have been, upending superhero conventions through brutal satire, making us laugh as our heores take pipe wrenches to people who cut in line at the movies and key other peoples’ cars. Their mission is to fight crime, but Ellen Page’s character doesn’t seem to care much about that, as long as she can beat the living be-Jesus out of someone. James Gunn is the flip side to Christopher Nolan, who also redeemed the superhero genre but it a serious way: by destroying our optimism and suggesting heroes as hopeless liberators who escalate terror as they try fighting it. Gunn destroys our seriousness by suggesting heroes as hopeless losers who likewise are barely better than those they go against.
10. The East (2013). 3 ½ stars. This is from the same director of Sound of My Voice (2011), which was about a pair of documentary filmmakers who joined a cult in order to expose its charismatic leader. Similar group dynamics are on display here, as an investigator for a corporate form joins an eco-terrorist group to spy on its members. Ellen plays Izzy, an uncompromising anarchist who is the daughter of a petrochemical CEO; she forces him to bathe in the waterway he’s been using as a toxic dumping site. It’s obviously the perfect role for Ellen, who thrives on such radical causes in real life (though without harming others). Meanwhile, Brit Marling plays the investigator, in an amusing reversal from her role as the cult leader in The Sound of My Voice. The eco-terrorists get in some nasty payback, and it’s huge fun, but it’s the director’s understanding of fringe-group dynamics that make the film what it is.
11. An American Crime (2007). 3 ½ stars. Based on the true story of Sylvia Likens, who was tortured and killed by a disturbed woman caring for her in her parents’ absence. Sylvia was tied up in a basement for weeks — beaten, burned, cut, branded, and forced to eat filth, while, amazingly, kids in the neighborhood dropped by daily to participate in the “fun”. Ellen is as convincing in the role of a savagely abused innocent as she is in that of a tormenting sadist (Hard Candy), and most people won’t want to see this more than once (if that). The final act — Sylvia’s dream of reuniting with her parents as she lies unconscious and dying — is heartbreaking. There are really no pleasant scenes to watch, but I am moved by this haunting montage.
12. Peacock (2010). 3 stars. This went straight to DVD, perhaps not surprisingly given what most people expect from psychological thrillers. But cheap thrills aren’t to be found here, only character-driven introspection that Hitchcock would have been proud of. Cillian Murphy plays a Norman Bates character, a shy gentleman who works at a bank during the day, and then at home transforms into his “mother” to do household chores and prepare meals. When Ellen Page’s character, Maggie, shows up at his door asking for money, the mother-half kicks into overdrive and things get unpleasant. Maggie has his child, for his (real) mother had forced him on Maggie in unspeakably obscene ways. The film is a showcase for Murphy as a tormented psychotic, Ellen his collateral. At the same time, it feels a bit less than the sum of its parts.
13. The Tracey Fragments (2007). 3 stars. About a messed up girl looking for her lost younger brother. She searches for him riding a bus at night, naked under a shower curtain. Sound bizarre? This might have placed higher on my list if not for the gimmick of so many split frames playing on the screen at once. I realize what the director was trying to do (hence the title) in portraying a delusional girl whose mind is everywhere: we’re supposed to be impressed less by what happens to Tracey and more by the record of her perceptions; her jagged emotional viewfinder is critical. But it’s asking much of us to digest up to eight frames at a time. Still, once you get used to it, there’s no denying the film’s daring originality. It’s indie, weird, raw… perfect for Ellen Page.
14. The Stone Angel (2007). 2 ½ stars. I went into this with high expectations since both of my favorite Ellens are in it (I revere Ellen Burstyn), and so was let down by the mediocrity. It’s one of those films where so much talent goes to waste, and so little is happening around what is trying to seem profound. Burstyn stars as a bitter old matriarch who fears she will lose her independence and be placed in a nursing home by her son and daughter-in-law. Page gets a small role as the girlfriend of another one of Burstyn’s sons, who both get killed by a train in a dare. It’s about family pride being a destructive force across generations, but somehow feels less than the sum of its parts.
15. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). 2 stars. The second to worst film in the X-Men franchise. Bryan Singer could have worked wonders over this lame story about two factions of mutants kicking each others’ asses over the politically-loaded question of a cure for mutations. The attempt to analogize mutation with (homo)sexual orientation is conceptually nifty, but the film amounts to little more than an empty dazzle of special effects and explosions, and in many ways like the third Batman film of the ’90s: hollow as its two predecessors were good. The dialogue is appalling. Ellen plays the shadowcat Kitty Pryde who can pass through walls, but she gets only minutes of screen time, which is perhaps just as well.
16. To Rome with Love (2012). 2 stars. Telling four stories at once, only Ellen’s is any good, and even that one not great. The plot: a young American guy (Jack) living in Rome gets the hots for Ellen’s neurotic character (Monica), who is the friend of his own girlfriend. Jack is advised throughout this melodrama by an amusingly caustic Alec Baldwin character who may or may not be real. I’ve never been a fan of Woody Allen, and To Rome with Love seems a flimsy excuse for him to revisit obsessions about sex and death in his typically Woody Allen way. Even the best storyline is marred by the fact that Ellen was miscast in her role. She’s talented and versatile, but this just wasn’t for her.
17. Touchy Feely (2013). 2 stars. I’m not averse to chick flicks; in fact I admire many romantic character-driven films. But Touchy Feely is just like the name sounds and a monster bore. It tries to be metaphorically clever: a masseuse develops a sudden aversion to the feel of clients’ skin; her dentist brother acquires a sudden ability to cure pain by an uncontrolled Reiki-like energy. The idea seems to be that their hands are touching and feeling in the wrong ways, but the theme never clicks on any profound level. There are frustrated romances in the background, but dreadfully uninspired. Ellen plays the dentist’s daughter, working as his assistant and living at home, going nowhere in life, devoid of self-confidence. She (and all the actors) play their parts fine in a film as dead as the masseuse’s feeling.
18. Smart People (2008). 1 star. Banal, boring, and blisteringly cheerless, this is Ellen’s throw-away film. The story focuses on a conceited college professor who has no time for anyone (least of all his students and two kids), and is writing a book essentially about how stupid people are. Ellen plays his snarky and socially inept high-school daughter, who alternates between patronizing him and mouthing off, while trying to seduce her own uncle in between. (The uncle takes refuge by fleeing the house and sleeping on the dorm floor of his nephew, who can’t stand his sister anyway.) But not even she can save this misbegotten “comedy” which failed to elicit a single smile from me.
1. Lilith Sandstrom. 5 stars. Lilith is the best character Ellen ever played. She has attitude, but real heart and goes to the wall for her friends. As when she leaves home to take Mick on a whale watch before his time is up. The whale appears moments too late, but at least Lilith is there for him when he dies. My favorite scene is in the next episode, when David proves he’s not such a bastard in helping her come to terms with Mick’s death. The show was never the same after she left.
2. Hayley Stark. 5 stars. I love this psychotic little bitch, as I love Hannibal Lecter and Max Cady. She’s perverse, demented, but also very funny, as long as you’re not on the receiving end of her ire. Her formula: luring ephebophiles into a den of torture in their own homes, and mind-fucking them until they kill themselves. Those are her good traits. I don’t think she has any bad ones.
3. Sylvia Likens. 5 stars. I want to hug this doll whenever I watch An American Crime. Shy, innocent, and with a heart of gold, Sylvia is the last person who deserved the treatment she received from Gertrude Baniszewski. I don’t really believe in hell, but if there is such a place I might hope for Gertie to roast there for nine times the time it took for her to torture and kill Sylvia.
4. Jodie Holmes. 5 stars. I’m in awe of Jodie. She’s someone you get to play, not just watch, and follow through sixteeen years of her life (ages 7-23). I don’t know what inspired David Cage to use professional actors for a videogame, but it was a stroke of genius. Jodie is connected to the spirit world by the ghost of her dead brother, and she taps into him with serious ass-kicking results. You even get to take showers as Jodie. Seriously, watch them here.
5. Libby (Boltie). 5 stars. In some ways I like Libby even more than Hayley because she’s twice as demented, not picky at all about who she kills, and has no righteous pretensions. She says she wants to kill criminals, but that she’s ready to crush the skull of an innocent gives lie to that claim. On top of that, and opposite Hayley, she’s a rapist (and I wouldn’t mind being raped by her). But ultimately I think Hayley’s more charming, especially factoring in her youth.
6. Bliss Cavendar. 4 ½ stars. How can you not love Babe Ruthless? An adorable girl with no pretensions other than wanting to break out of her life prison and have some fun. Apparently her character is just as likable in the novel on which the film is based. For some reason I always associated roller derby with white trash, but I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to sports. No trash here.
7. Izzy. 4 ½ stars. Izzy’s a child of wealth, and of course there’s no revolutionary like an elitist convert. Her father is a corporate executive who poisons rivers, to which Izzy exacts a Dantean contrapasso-revenge by forcing him to strip down and immerse himself in his own toxic mess. Izzy is basically another Hayley Stark, holding to extreme forms of justice in a world of systematic evil.
8. Sherry Green. 4 ½ stars. You have to admire a kid who runs away from home to join a grass-roots movement — that’s putting your money where your mouth is (or complete lack of it) — even if disillusionment is the inevitable outcome. You also have to respect the way she takes undeserved beatings with grace, like when she’s punished by the gang leader, three times her size, for “making him” have sex with her. Honestly.
9. Maggie Bailey. 4 stars. Maggie is much a victim of circumstance who prostitutes herself to pay the trailer rent. She loves her kid to no end — the product of an unspeakable union — and takes the way of least resistance to provide for him. She has little control over her destiny, but for such a nondescript character she’s oddly affecting, and makes you want to jump into the screen to save her from the clutches of Emma.
10. Tracey Berkowitz. 3 ½ stars. I have a hard time getting closure on Tracey. She’s a wonderfully messed up kid, bullied by classmates and shit on by her parents, but so emotionally jagged that it shatters my empathy when I least expect it. She has bipolar mood swings, is vulgar, full of self-loathing and hatred, but also capable of tender mercies.
11. Juno MacGuff. 3 ½ stars. Juno is cool and mostly endearing, though heapingly sarcastic. I think if I had a daughter with this much lip and she got pregnant, I’d force her to have the abortion just to take her down a peg. Well, not really, but… Or if I were the adoptive father of her unborn and she were spending so much damn time with me, I’d divorce my prissy wife and kidnap Juno for an elopement. Or maybe not, but then again…
12. Ariadne. 3 stars. We don’t get much depth to her, but she’s cool, shrewd, and looking out for the welfare of the Inception team, and studiously cognizant of keeping Cobb (Leo DiCaprio’s character) from damaging himself with his subconscious baggage.
13. Kitty Pryde. 2 stars. As with Ariadne, we don’t get much depth here, though we’re not supposed to. Kitty is a great character with great powers that are used poorly in one film (Last Stand) and greatly in another (Days of Future Past).
14. Jenny. 2 ½ stars. Jenny needs a smacking for the opposite reason of Juno: she’s completely lifeless. She’s “trapped” in a go-nowhere life, but not really trapped; she just needs to get off the pot. This makes her unlike the other vulnerable characters on this list (like Sylvia Likens and Maggie Bailey).
15. Arlene Drieser. 2 stars. Young, naive, and broke, she just wants to marry a guy and have loads of kids. With not much screen time we don’t get to know Arlene well, so she falls near the bottom of the list by default. She’s devoted enough to get in a truck with her boyfriend on a suicide dare, and I suppose that says something for her, though perhaps not in a good way.
16. Monica. 2 stars. I didn’t quite know where to rank Monica. The problem is that she’s not a believable character. Ellen was miscast in the role; she just comes across as Ellen Page trying to impersonate a sultry vixen moving in on her friend’s boyfriend. Ellen can play a variety of roles, but not “highly sexualized seductress” (unless it’s over-the-top crass like Boltie).
17. Vanessa Wetherhold. 1 star. What’s there to say about Vanessa? She’s frigid, disdains all things democratic, and flirts with her uncle who looks like a toad. Before moving in on her uncle, however, he takes an amusing swipe at her for being a social misfit with no life. In addition to being the low point of Ellen’s acting career, Vanessa is by far her worst character.
Speaking about the Sylvia Likens case, have you read (or watched) The Girl Next Door Jack Ketchum's horror novel loosely based on the case and recently made into a film ?
Andrew, I just looked this up. I realize now that I'd seen it once at a video store and almost rented it. But I never knew it was based on the Likens case. Thanks for the tip.