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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Running with Scissors - sharply dangerously funny confessions of a dramatic teen queen

Running with Scissors is the musical travelogue of young Augusten Burroughs's life from 1972 to 1979 - ranging from the age of 7 to 15 - the movie is a harrowing yet sharply funny look at his coming of age. An unbalanced mother played to the brink by Annette Bening as Deirdre Burroughs who is surely up for consideration again for the Academy Awards, and father Norman [ Alec Baldwin in another great character role not unlike in Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown ] driven to drink by his wife Deirdre defines Augusten's early life. She is a driven poet who has self-published her first book of childhood reminiscences, chasing her dream of dressing in black and reciting at Carnegie Hall someday. Wonderfully caring and funny one moment, she finds herself challenged and trapped and angry at Norman the next moment. She uses her anger to fuel her feminist drive but her stability is divided. In order to save their marriage, they both go to a highly opinionated and judgemental psychiatrist Dr Finch who in their first session is quick to analyze - who fosters her dreams of becoming a published poet and judges Norman dangerous. Dr Finch played by Brian Cox [ and why do the very trained British always find an excuse to play better American accents than most Americans themselves and it's never quite the same the other way around ] is more of a charlatan psycho psychiatrist than a curer - nonetheless he is licensed and very controlling, dishing out the pills at a whim. And as further proof of his eccentricity his house he practices out of is pink and the picture of chaos and disorder. His wife Agnes played by the shocking Jill Clayburg tries to raise her children as best as she can in the conditions: the Christmas tree has been up for two years and the shambles of the kitchen reflects the mess of the lives of the family which includes their two daughters Hope, a humourless catatonic religious freak who uses the Bible to answer questions such as what's for dinner? and adopted daughter Natalie who Augusten meets on his first day at the house. Natalie introduces herself as the other daughter - as portrayed as as a tease by Evan Rachel Wood dressed in the halters and platform shoes of the time the two of them get to playing *Doctor* with her administering the electro shock therapy machine to Augusten. natalie is the foil to Hope who is daddy's favourite played by Gwyneth Paltrow in another of her small but essential roles of the moment but played just as brilliantly as her part in The Royal Tenenbaums.

Of course, the whole movie is predicated by the memoirs of Augusten portrayed by the up and coming Joseph Cross [ also seen in the current Flags of our Fathers ]. His Dear Journal is the voiceover to the film, mirroring his thoughts and crises; the funny moments are poignant and funny without diving into deliberate comedy, knocking out the roof of the kitchen with Natalie because he like his mother needs high ceilings with the music of AWB Pick up the Pieces in the background typifies the emotional power of music recall. Dr Finch approves noting the skylight adds humour to the kitchen then he finds the jar of Viennese sausages in the pantry. There is depth to Natalie - even though she dresses and acts like a rebellious strumpet she despairs that her dreams of getting into college and Vassar are ruined by the reputation of the crazy Finches. Imagine the background check.

During the course of his mother's sessions, Augusten still loyal to his mother throughout her descent into madness finds that he has been given up for adoption by her to the extended Finch household. Shocked, he tries to call his father collect who hangs up on him! He seems to put up with it all with an amazing grace and humour - and he has Natalie as a shoulder. And we did not mention yet the Lina Wertmuller movies and his coming-out of age to the schizophrenic and gay 35 year old Neil Bookman [ Joseph Fiennes from Shakespeare in Love ! ] who lives in the backyard of the Finch household. That he is gay, Natatlie knew all along. So Augusten pursues and practices his own dream of becoming a "cosmetologist", a fancy world word for hairdresser on the family.

In a near Proustian moment [echoed in Little Miss Sunshine] Dr Finch says to Augusten what would life be without childhood hardships ? The question remains at the end as he prepares to go to New York to get away from his mother and away from the craziness of it all: what will happen next?

Running with Scissors recalls the very best moments of American Beauty, with those little touches of Donnie Darko, Wes Anderson movies such as The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore with the melancholy of Ghost World at the end. The movie does meander at times but life is never a straight line.

That this movie is indeed based upon Running With Scissors: the memoirs of Augusten Burroughs - who is still alive and kicking to this day as seen at the end of the film, that he survived being given up for adoption, that he took after his mother despite so, that he came out to a schizophrenic gay no less, is a character testament to his faith in himself, his humour and never giving up hope.