The one, and only, problem I've ever had with art-house cinema is that when it comes to endorsing any particular film, you can't make a blanket statement about it without also providing an asterisk. Take Asia Argento's Misunderstood for instance. I liked this Italian childhood drama. A lot, in fact. But I don't think I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a pleasant diversion from their daily lives. Argento's latest is not a reminder of how awesome childhood was or could be. If you took some of the sadder, bittersweet moments from a film like Stand By Me — of which there were quite a few — you'd only be skimming the surface of the adolescent misery in Misunderstood.
For most mainstream American audiences, the name Asia Argento means very little. Those that know of her probably do for her role as Yelena, the prerequisite damsel-in-distress in the Vin Deisel action pic xXx. However, she's well known among the art-house crowd and horror cineastes; she is the crazy daughter of the Italian filmmaker Dario Argento after all.
One of those rare souls whose professional and private personas are seemingly one and the same, Asia Argento has been the fodder of the overseas tabloids for years. She's a woman who has qualms about being seductive and repulsive within the same given moment. Life is art. Art is life. Every moment of beauty is only as great as the bewildering ugliness that preceded it. And this thought process permeates all of Argento's directorial efforts.
Her debut, Scarlet Diva, is a semi-autobiographical film about a tempestuous actress, played by Argento, who lives her life wading through the murky waters of excess while attempting to direct a movie about a tempestuous actress high on excess. Her second film, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, based on a controversial novel by the same name, recounts the rocky relationship between a 10-year-old boy and his addict mother (Argento again). Both films are exhausting and grim, but good fare. A frog hair more upbeat, Misunderstood covers similar territory. While this may be cathartic for the director, it's usually distressing for the audience.
After a pleasant but intentionally disjointed credit sequence filled with snippets of diary entries and mid-'80s collages that ends with the affirmation "Aria is Strong" scrawled out on one page, we are dropped into the middle of one of those unpleasant family dinners where the sound of yelling parents competes with the sound of clanking silverware while the children sit silently at the table. It's 1984, and our heroine, Aria (Giulia Salerno), is the middle child of the family in the middle of her family's painful dissolution.
In the next scene, Aria, sits outside the family circle while her mom (Charlotte Gainsbourg) teaches other daughter Donatina (Anna Lou Castoldi) piano lessons while the father (Gabriel Garko) and his other daughter (Carolina Poccioni) are reading. The scene ends with Aria getting viciously slapped for not pocketing, then ultimately throwing away, a meatball seconds after her father threatened Aria with the prospect of hell. Her mom wipes her daughter's bloodied lip and says, "Come on, don't play the victim. Don't you see that if you don't eat you'll die?"
Before too long, Mom, a struggling piano player, and Dad, a successful actor, are splitting up. With her older sister in hand, her father leaves the others to take refuge in the house. For a millisecond, Aria is high on the exuberance of this new life thanks to her mother's empty promise that her father's absence will make for a happier household. Through all this, she traverses the sadness with the help of her best friend Angelica, but it doesn't take long for Aria's high to take a nosedive as she plunges headfirst into a series of misfortunes as the film begins an exploration of victimhood.
Misunderstood has moments of sheer eccentricity, and it's overflowing with passion and a love for cinema's artistic possibilities. The cinematography is colorful and alive. The actors, particularly Giulia Salerno's performance as the beleaguered Aria, are about as on-point as it gets. The soundtrack's mix of rock, Mozart, and a few of Argento's own compositions give the film life. These elements alone make the film engaging in its own right. By the time our protagonist utters her final words on screen, Argento has reminded us once again that growing up is never easy, no matter who you are.