Monday, September 21, 2015

Asia Argento’s Misunderstood

This horror show of family is brought to you by the daughter of a legend of horror cinema. Asia Argento’s father Dario is probably the best known master of the Giallo genre. Young Aria (Asia Argento’s legally registered name at the time of her birth) is the daughter of a romantic leading man actor and a musician, but it is hard not to draw parallels. Both even have famous composer grandfathers. However, one can only hope Aria’s life is entirely fictional, because it is the sort of chaotic mess that could generate a lifetime’s worth of baggage. Growing up is darned near impossible for the protagonist Argento’s Misunderstood (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Aria is the one common child shared her recently divorced parents, but she has a step-sister with each of the exes. Her relationships with all four are rather complicated, because it is clear she is the favorite of neither parent. Aria primarily lives with her mother and the rather dreary Donatina, until the temperamental Swiss pianist loses patience with her daughter and packs her off unannounced to her father. According to the regular pattern, the shallow, self-absorbed actor will let her stay with him and the noxiously manipulative Lucrezia for a few days, before sending her back.

For days at a time, Aria will ping pong back and forth. Some nights she will even sleep on the street. However, these might be the happiest interludes in the film, because she falls in with a free-spirited group of Bohemians colonizing the local park. She probably should have stayed with them, but like everyone else in the film, Aria is keenly aware of social standing. Her parents might be a train wreck, but they give her serious cred at school. Yet, it is never enough to turn the head of the thuggish kid she crushes on.

If Argento had cranked up the family’s horribleness just a fraction further, Misunderstood could have veered into campy horror. Instead, she keeps the tone grounded and the lunacy relatively restrained. As a result, Aria’s life is just plain emotionally harrowing. She is the ultimate poor little rich kid, whose dysfunctional parents are total monsters precisely because they are so human. They really could exist.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Italian television star Gabriel Garko are so pitch-perfect as the narcissistic parents, it is truly frightening. Yet, the true revelation is Giulia Salerno as Aria. She covers an unusually wide range as the smart but impetuous nine year-old, dealing with just about every form of family angst under the sun. Yet, she always keeps it grounded and real, even when everyone else around her is going bat-scat crazy. She is remarkable, as is Alice Pea as Angelica, her inevitably estranged best friend forever.

Misunderstood is an absolutely exhausting film, but it is not without dark humor. However, most of the laughs come from a recognition of how Argento keeps relentlessly one-upping the outrageous behavior, without ever taking things over the top. It might just feature the best performance from a young screen thesp since Josie Xu’s star-making turn in Starry, Starry Night. Recommended for those who appreciate extreme family dramas, Misunderstood opens this Friday (9/25) in New York, at the IFC Center.