What's Age Got To Do With It?


I admit it. I'm a fool for romantic movies; the schmaltzier, the better. When Julia says to Hugh, "I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy," this hard heart melts.

Which made Chaperone, the new film from director Zoë Eisenberg, an unexpected surprise. The marketing frames it as a drama, a tragedy even, offering images of moody, alienated youth and hard choices. They come eventually—actions have consequences—but there’s lots of joy in the first hour or so of this movie. In fact, its May/December (well, late August, maybe) premise starts out positively buoyant. The suspense comes from wondering when the truth will be told.

Misha (played by Mitzi Akaha) is 29 years old, has no goals, and has not lived up to any potential she had in high school. She's flighty and perfectly content working the box office of a boutique cinema. "I like my life," she says, much to the chagrin of her employer, who mocks her life philosophy: "Oh, oh, I just don't want to die." Misha is a slacker by circumstance: she inherited money and a house upon her grandmother's death and can afford to coast on her lovely little Hawai'ian island.

Then Jake (Laird Akeo) appears on the ticket line. He's tall and tan and personable, with a winning smile. He flirts with Misha, then flirts with her more when they again "meet cute" in the grocery store where he stocks shelves. Misha wants nothing of it: "I'm a bachelor!" she declares, but Jake is persistent, and Misha finally comes around.

One problem: Jake is still in high school, a decade younger than Misha. But she likes him, and as their passion heats up, she doesn't tell him how old she is. After all, both of them are over the age of consent. It's just a fling, right? So, what could it hurt?

Director/Writer Zoë Eisenberg has a unique portfolio. She hails from Hawai'i and is the co-founder of Aerial Arts Hawai'i, a popular circus act. Her debut novel, Significant Others, will be published in February. Chaperone is Ms. Eisenberg's first full-length feature, and she keeps it simple. She establishes her milieu confidently and efficiently.

Ms. Eisenberg uses characters well, and she gets a lot from her entirely AANHPI (Asian American Native Hawai'ian and Pacific Islanders) cast. The suspense of disclosure is heightened by Misha's exchanges with her exasperated and inquisitive boss Kenzie (Jessica Jade Andres) and her easygoing older brother Vik (Kanoa Goo), who runs a struggling coffee shop and apparently has not shared in grandma's generosity. Jake's single mother, Georgia (Krista Alvarez), comes on with authority (all the actors have festival film credits, though Ms. Alvarez might be more recognizable from TV's Hawaii Five-O). She welcomes Misha but steps lightly, wanting her son to be happy but not compromise his college chances. The scenario is not overpopulated, and it's to Ms. Eisenberg's credit that we look forward to each of these characters when they appear.

Chaperone has some first-film clunkiness. Its courtship montages are pretty clichéd, all that frolicking and jumping around (isn’t that the Beatles’ This Boy playing in the background?), but the actors pull it off in their earnest, natural way in front of the camera. The score by Taimane and sound design of editor Kali Kasashima are inventive for the first half, then lapse into the obvious when things heat up.

You may agree or not that Mitzi Akaha's Misha could pass for a high schooler; she has the fine-boned features and exuberance that can pass for youth. Laird Akeo plays Jake with a loose grace and hunky charm. They make a convincing couple. That's Chaperone's hook: you want it to work out for these kids even as you know that by society's standards it can't.

You may also agree that the resolution is a tad evasive and that the ending is too ambiguous. But while Ms. Eisenberg's script appears offhand, it's actually tightly constructed. She has a keen eye for everyday disasters. The seeds of eventual reckoning are planted early, and justice hits like a thunderclap.

Chaperone (an odd title, no? Shouldn't it be Where the Hell is the Chaperone?) will inevitably be compared to May/December, but the chronology and intent are different. Todd Haynes' award-bait film is about aftermath; Chaperone basks in what might be. That’s why a downbeat marketing plan is so ill-advised.

One hopes the producers adjust the marketing as it stands and better identify the movie's appeal. It should reach the audience (of which I am one) it deserves. For most of its runtime, Chaperone believes in love.

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