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Ask Me Anything

D: Allison Burnett / 99m

Cast: Britt Robertson, Christian Slater, Molly Hagan, Justin Long, Robert Patrick, Martin Sheen, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Andy Buckley, Max Carver, Zuleikha Robinson, Sharon Omi, Gina Mantegna, Max Hoffman

When Katie Kampenfelt (Robertson) decides to take a gap year before attending college, her high school careers advisor (Omi) suggests she starts to keep a diary or a blog. Katie chooses to write a blog detailing her life and sexual experiences, but more importantly, to tell the truth (though in order to do this she changes her name and the names and places of everyone and everywhere else that she describes). In it she talks about her life, and in particular her relationship with an older man, Dan Gallo (Long). She sees Dan as often as she can but no one knows about him, not her mother, Caroline (Hagan), stepfather Mark (Buckley), or her father Doug (Patrick), and especially not her boyfriend Rory (Carver) (or Dan’s girlfriend, Martine).

But when Dan moves nearer to his work it makes it more difficult for them to see each other, and their relationship begins to unravel. Katie finds a job in a bookstore run by Glen Warburg (Sheen) and continues to try and contact Dan, but to no avail. She spends time with her best friend, Jade (Mantegna), and finds her blog is developing a loyal following. But just as things seem to be going well – Dan’s reticence aside – Mark reveals that Glen has an unsavoury past, and Katie is forced to quit her job. A week or so later, though, she receives a call from Paul Spooner (Slater), a local hedge fund manager looking for a nanny for his newborn son. Katie meets his wife, Maggie (Williams-Paisley), and is hired on the spot.

Soon after, Katie manages to contact Dan and persuades him to see her. She meets him at his new home, but her happiness at seeing him again is ruined by her realising that their in Martine’s home, and Dan has moved in with her; he also tells her that he and Martine are engaged. Furious, she leaves. When she gets home, Rory is there wanting to know where she’s been. He’s angry with her and challenges her assertion she was at the cinema, and when she tells him she was with Dan, Rory assaults her before being thrown out. With Rory out of the picture, she begins to develop an attraction for Paul, and they end up having sex. But like Dan he has no intention of making their affair more permanent, and Katie begins to face the probability that she will always be let down by the men she’s attracted to. And then she finds out she’s pregnant…

Ask Me Anything - scene

On the surface, Ask Me Anything is yet another coming-of-age teen drama that sees its central character encounter all sorts of emotional and social obstacles on the way to becoming a more grounded (and rounded) individual. It’s a scenario we’ve seen countless times before, and while this movie steers close to many of the genre’s staple ingredients, there’s a subtler, more mysterious thread running beneath Katie’s exploits that creates a completely different vibe than is present in other, similar movies.

In adapting his novel Undiscovered Gyrl, Burnett has fashioned an unexpectedly compelling tale that begins as brightly and humorously as you’d expect, but as the narrative progresses, it takes on a darker hue, and cracks begin to appear, and not just in Katie’s various romantic relationships, but in her story as well. Central to this is her relationship with her father, and the way in which she chooses older men for sexual partners as a way of pleasing an idea of him that she’s had since childhood. Once a sports writer but now an angry alcoholic – he refers to Caroline as “the witch” – Doug reminds Katie at one point that he was her hero when she was younger. Tellingly, Katie doesn’t remember this, and can’t work out why. Astute viewers at this point will be thinking that Katie was abused by her father (she has flashbacks to her childhood, but only when she’s on the point of orgasm), but Burnett is canny enough to sow seeds of doubt, and the viewer is never quite sure until late on what really happened.

Katie has only one positive relationship with a male in the movie, and it’s with manic depressive Joel Seidler (Hoffman), who she knew in school and who contacts her out of the blue. Joel becomes her confidant, but because he’s near to her own age, she feels safe with him, and while he offers her good advice throughout, Katie continues to continue down the self-destructive path she’s chosen for herself. As her problems increase and she finds herself struggling to cope, Burnett has Katie floundering so much that the viewer can see just how easy it’s been for her to end up like this, but at the same time he restricts the amount of sympathy the audience can feel for her: like many teens who think they have a handle on the world, Katie’s problems are a result of Katie’s ill-informed choices and decisions.

With so much that’s hidden from plain view, the audience is taken on a journey where what they learn about Katie and her life increasingly comes to be tainted by a sense that all is not what it seems. It’s a very clever trick by Burnett, and the movie’s coda serves as a beautiful payoff of what’s gone before (there’s a big clue near the beginning, but you’ll need to be sharp to spot it). And it’s here that the movie’s true message comes through, with an indelible flourish that is as audacious as it is sincere.

Burnett is blessed with a cast that ably skewers the conventions of the genre while maintaining them at the same time. Robertson confirms the promise shown in The Family Tree (2011) and in TV’s Under the Dome, and provides a confident performance that easily encompasses Katie’s contradictions and insecurities. As the men in Katie’s sex life, Long and Carver are given interesting character arcs, but Slater is hamstrung by Paul’s being a stereotypical middle-aged seducer. Hagan and Patrick are solid in support, while Sheen is the kindly grandfather figure who’s straight out of wish fulfilment central.

Rating: 8/10 – deceptive and quietly affecting, Ask Me Anything steals up on its unsuspecting audience and delivers one hell of a sucker punch at the end, but it’s one that will have you saying “Bravo!” rather than “What the hell?”; clever, intelligent, and rewarding, Burnett’s movie is an underrated gem that deserves a wider audience.