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Film Review: ‘Ariel & Olivia’

Variety logo Variety 12/27/2016 Maggie Lee
© Provided by Variety

Made in the spirit of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales,” “Ariel and Olivia” is a romantic comedy in praise of Ah Lians, the Singaporean working class version of Valley Girls. Capturing the awkward dynamics of two high school girls and their clique on vacation in Malaysia, Singaporean writer-director Kan Lume pokes fun at teenage self-absorption but also empathizes with their trepidation as they transition to adulthood. Observing how a longtime puppy love runs its own course, the film leaves one feeling a sweet sadness, like seeing leftover candy floss melt on the floor. Even if this subtly disarming film may be overlooked by festivals or commercial audiences, Lume’s artful treatment of female characters and situation comedy suggests potential to connect in China, where his skills are in high demand.

Besties Ariel (Koh Jiaying) and Olivia (Mae Chu) want to go on holiday with each other before the college semester begins. Since they have little money, they choose Johor, a Malaysian town bordering Singapore. To the girls’ exasperation, Olivia’s boyfriend Jiawei (Sean Lee) insists on tagging along. Although Olivia has mulled over dumping him for some time, she doesn’t put up much resistance, a sign of her passive-aggressive nature and other covert issues that pop up later in the trip.

Lume peppers the film with footage his characters shot on their smartphones, shrinking the frame in the process. These interludes are pretty telling, as the girls are conscious they have each other as audiences, whereas Jiawei’s videos feel like egocentric soliloquies. The millennials’ preoccupation with social media is typified by the selfie stick they carry around like a crutch and the way they pose with perfect smiles for Instagram no matter how miserable or grumpy they really feel.

Ariel borrows a car from her aunt (the film’s editor Megan Wonowidjoyo) to go sightseeing. There’s just one catch: They must take her 13-year-old cousin Bob (Lume and Wonowidjoyo’s son Judah) with them wherever they go. Stuck with two third wheels, Ariel becomes so fed up with Jiawei she ditches him a day before their big day out to Legoland.

The hokey theme park serves as a surreal backdrop to play out the protagonists’ awkward exchanges — a scenario that recalls the garrulous and loaded conversations in Rohmer’s films. Bob ends up as a bewildered confidant for the ex-couple, his comments sounding unintentionally acerbic yet unexpectedly insightful, such as his habit of asking, “Did somebody die?” during pregnant pauses.

As sure and unsentimental as Ariel is about her decision, Jiawei is every bit as strongly in denial and desperate to protest his love. Like a walking parody of male chauvinism, Jiawei is the butt of most jokes, as when he barges into the girls’ room begging Ariel for a quickie, or when he flirts with Olivia to provoke his ex. The girls’ utter indifference to his antics not only cuts him down to size, but proves the strength of their friendship.

Still, for all of Jiawei’s moronic behavior, Lume doesn’t patronize him, instead using his attitudes to say something about class and life choices. Although he neither has the grades nor the financial means to go to university, he’s proud that he can make money and support his family. Sadly, for all his blustering talk of how many millionaires are self-made, the harsh reality is that Ariel already is keenly aware of their diverging interests and futures.

While Ariel looks forward to the stimulation of academic learning and her career prospects, Olivia has doubts about her major and why she’s even going to college. The discovery of Bob’s hidden talent, followed by a pep talk with her aunt, opens a new vista for Olivia. Such coming-of-age dilemmas may be timeworn, but they cut to the heart of Singapore’s competitive, credentials-obsessed society, given extra depth by the intelligence and authenticity with which the female protagonists express themselves. Though none of the cast is professional, each feels candid and unfazed before the camera.

Responsible for a final running time of just 70 minutes, Wonowidjoyo’s editing keeps things moving at a lighthearted pace. Lume, who did most of the lensing, keeps the drama personal with fairly tight shots throughout, but provides some wide shots that paint Kuala Lumpur in an atmospheric light. The score by Zeke Khaseli and Yudhi Arfani is as playful as a nursery rhyme.

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