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Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus, Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene

“MARY MAGDALENE” My rating: B (Now on demand)

120 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Less iconoclastic than earnest, “Mary Magdalene” is an art-film Bible movie that more resembles Pasolini’s pared-down “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” than your typical Hollywood sword-and-sandal epic.

It is, in fact, far better than one would expect upon learning that the title character is played by Rooney Mara and that Jesus Christ is portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix.

The screenplay (by Helen Edmunson and Philippa Goslett)) and direction (by Garth Davis of “Lion” fame)  observes Jesus’ ministry through the experiences of Mary Magdalene, who is depicted not as a prostitute (that whole scenario was the invention of a sixth-century pope) but as an ahead-of-her-time woman  as important to the Christian faith as any of the male disciples.

Early on we find Mary serving as a midwife to the women of her village. She’s no shrinking violet; she rejects the attempts of her father (Tcheky Karyo) to find her a husband and outrages the menfolk by praying in the synagogue whenever she feels the need. At one point her family attempts an exorcism to rid her of proto-feminist demons.

So when Jesus and his disciples pass through, Mary is ready to drop everything and follow. Jesus so trusts Mary that  he sends her and Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) on a mission to spread the Gospel to Sumeria.

A lot of the usual trappings and incidents of a typical Jesus movie are ignored in this rendition.  There’s no Sermon on the Mount or miracle of the bread and fishes, no trial before Pontius Pilate or the Sanhedrin, no Herod. We experience only what Mary experiences.

This makes for a less flashy, more intimate retelling of the Gospels. “Mary Magdalene” is about relationships. One of the more interesting characters is Tahar Rahim’s Judas, played not as a skulking villain but as an baby-faced enthusiast who betrays Jesus not for money but to force him to show his true powers.

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Haley Lu Richardson, Elizabeth McGovern

“THE CHAPERONE” My rating: C+ (Opens April 19 at the Glenwood Arts)

103 minutes | No MPAA rating

A pall of old-fashioned made-for-TV mediocrity hangs over much of “The Chaperone,” a Masterpiece Theatre production based on a highly-regarded novel by Lawrence resident Laura Moriarty, adapted by Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey,” “Gosford Park”) and featuring a more-than-solid cast.

Blame veteran TV director Michael Engler and a stingy budget for fumbling the ball here.

At first glance one might assume that this is the story of the young Louise Brooks, who in the 1920s went from Wichita to a starring role with a top New York dance troupe and then on to international stardom as the ultimate flapper and sex symbol of silent film.

Not really.  Brooks (played here by Haley Lu Richardson) certainly has a role in this yarn, but its real focus is a middle-aged Kansas  housewife and mother  (Elizabeth McGovern) who agrees to chaperone the young hellion during her Big Apple sojourn. In  the process the older woman finds her own world exploding and expanding.

Norma (McGovern) first lays eyes on 15-year-old Louise at a Wichita dance recital where she is mightily impressed by girl’s flamboyant Isadora Duncan-ish flouncing. Norma is a stolid Midwestern matron, stuck in a sexless marriage (that’ll be explained later) to a lawyer (Campbell Scott); they have twin college-bound sons.

When she learns that Louise has won a coveted spot with the famous Denishawn modern dance company in NYC, and that the girl’s parents are looking for an appropriate chaperone to accompany their daughter to the big city, she volunteers. Heck, she needs some adventure.

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“PETERLOO” My rating: (Opens April 19 at the Rio)

154 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Mike Leigh’s “Peterloo” is less a film drama than it is an illustrated history lesson.

That’s a problem.

Leigh, who always has had a thing for life’s underdogs, here turns his attention to a notorious bit of British history. The 1819 massacre at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, England, found His Majesty’s sword-waving cavalry riding into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators protesting for political reform.

The violence doesn’t rear its ugly head until late in this 2-hour, 33-minute effort.  Most of Leigh’s screenplay is devoted to eavesdropping on  a dozen or so characters who represent various attitudes and political viewpoints in the months before the bloody incident.

Thus we follow a shellshocked trumpeter from the Battle of Waterloo (David Moorst) who returns home to Manchester to find jobs are scare and respect for a former soldier nonexistent. We sit in on long, talky meetings in which various agitators rail against miserable working conditions, low pay, and  a political/economic system designed to grind the country’s have-nots into the ground while enriching the altready-haves.

(Karl Marx was only a year old at the time, but he undoubtedly grew up aware of the the Manchester massacre.)

We witness a mother and wife haggling over the price of a few eggs with which to feed her family. We observe men slaving in a steam-driven textile factory where one misstep can mean a crushed limb. And  journalists debating how to convey to the common reader what the government’s suspension of habeas corpus means to the individual.

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Finn Little and friend

“STORM BOY” My rating : C+ (Now playing at the Town  Center 20)

98 minutes | MPAA ratingL

Some children’s films — “The Black Stallion,” say, or “Fly Away Home” — are too good for children.  They entertain the small fry, sure, but they appeal to adults on an even deeper, more resonant level.

And then there are films like “The Storm Boy,” an Australian effort that should keeps the youngsters diverted but which felt too contrived and deliberately constructed to keep this mature viewer enthralled.

This is the second film adaptation of Australian novelist Colin Thiele’s 1963 best seller about a boy and his pet pelican, and for modern audiences screenwriter/star Jai Courtney has provided a rather unwieldy framing story that finds the child hero of the original now an older man looking back on his past as he faces a big decision.

In the present retired businessman Mike Kingley (Geoffrey Rush) is called back for a family powwow about what to do with a strip of beach that was Mike’s boyhood home. The real estate is now hugely valuable and  Mike’s son-in-law, the current head of the business, has plans that, well, aren’t particularly environmentally friendly.

Mike must wrestle with his conscience over how he’ll vote in a board-of-directors showdown; part of that process is relating to his sullen granddaughter (Morgana Davies) — who doesn’t share the rest of her family’s rape-the-earth attitude — the story of how he grew up on that scenic bit of coastline.

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“THE MUSTANG”  My rating: B+ 

96 minutes | MPAA rating: R

A violent, alienated man and an equally angry horse form an unexpected bond in “The Mustang,” an understated effort that often plays like documentary but carries the emotional weight of a classic drama.

Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s film opens with a roundup of wild mustangs in a vast Western landscape. The animals are herded by  helicopters into stock pens. From there they are loaded onto trucks.

Cut to a Nevada prison where Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) has just joined the general population after  months in solitary confinement.  We never learn what he did to merit that treatment; all he’ll say is that he’s not good with people.

The prison psychologist (Connie Britton) struggles to get a word out of the sullen, withdrawn inmate. She’s trying to find a prison job or activity that will interest him. Finally she settles on the horse-training program, which takes recently captured wild mustangs and turns them into well-behaved riding horses that can be sold at auction.

Not that Roman overnight becomes a cowboy.  His main job involves shoveling shit. But he’s intrigued by the violent horse that occupies a metal shed on the prison grounds. The animal inside spends all day banging on the walls and shrieking its defiance. It’s a kindred spirit.

The old hand who runs the program (Bruce Dern) believes the horse is too mean to be domesticated, but gives Roman — who has absolutely no background with these animals — a chance to train the beast. If it doesn’t kill him first.

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Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgard

“THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT” My rating: C+ 
110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“The Hummingbird Project” could be described as a race-against-time movie.

Two cousins risk everything to build a high-speed internet “highway” between Kansas and the East Coast, all to shave a few microseconds off the time required to send the latest stock market updates halfway across the continent.

Why bother? Because a microsecond head start on the competition — the time it takes for a hummingbird to flap its wings just once — could mean millions in profits.

Kim Nguyen’s drama is acceptable if unremarkable in most respects. It  features a vintage Jesse Eisenberg performance (i.e., arrogant nerd) and an atypical one from Salma Hayek (here toning down the sexuality to play a Wall Street shark).

Where “Hummingbird…” really shines, though, is in the work of Alexander Skarsgard, an actor who mostly has been seen as a hunky type (a charismatic vampire in “True Blood,” a predatory stepdad in “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” an abusive husband in “Big Little Lies,” a muscled tree swinger in “The Legend of Tarzan”).

Here Skarsgard plays an antisocial dweeb, a bald, soft-bellied algorithm cruncher more comfortable with his computer screen than other human beings. It’s such a startling transformation that initially he’s unrecognizable. It’s a classic case of an actor getting lost in his role.

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Lupita Nyong’o

“US” My rating: B+

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Humor and horror are strange bedfellows. Usually one negates the other.

But in “Us,” writer/director Jordan Peele’s followup to the spectacular “Get Out,” finds just the right balance between the goofy and the ghastly. The result is a horror movie quite unlike anything we’ve seen, one that mixes a family survival tale with supernatural elements and wraps it all up in a mind-boggling apocalypse.

All while leaving you chuckling.

The story begins in the mid-80’s when little Adelaide (Madison Curry) wanders away from her parents at a beachside amusement park in Santa Cruz. She finds her way to a creepy mirrored funhouse where she encounters her own doppleganger…a little girl who looks exactly like her.

Jump to the present, where the adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is vacationing with her family — husband Gabe (Winston Duke), teen Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and little Jason (Evan Alex) — at her late grandmother’s semi-remote house in the forest outside Santa Cruz.

After the creepiness of the prologue Peele plunges into a family comedy.  Dad is a big friendly doofus, the sort of guy who is always humiliating his adolescent daughter, who rarely looks up from her smart phone. Little Jason is a weird kid who goes through life wearing what looks like a snarling gorilla mask.

As for mother Adelaide…well, she does the usual mom stuff. But being so close to the scene of her childhood trauma — after which she didn’t speak for months — has her cringing.  A trip to the beach finds her suppressing hysteria despite the presence of old friends Kitty and Josh (Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker) and their twin teen daughters.

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Julianne Moore, John Turturro

“GLORIA BELL” My rating: B-

102 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Julianne Moore elevates every film she’s in, and she’s pretty much the reason to see “Gloria Bell,” an American remake by Sebastian Lelio of his 2013 Chilean drama “Gloria.”

As the title character — a middle-aged divorcee whose main pleasure is hanging around L.A.’s retro disco dance clubs with other folk her age   — Moore hides behind outsized glasses and a semi-mousey makeup job…neither of which begin to hide her star quality.

Gloria’s fixation on ’80s dance music — she’s in constant singalong mode whenever cruising with the car radio — softens the hard edges of her life.

She’s been single for a dozen years. Her son (Michael Cera) is currently a solo dad (his wife apparently has abandoned the family);  her daughter (Caren Pistorius) is in a long-distance romance with an extreme surfer from Sweden.  Neither offspring seems particularly warm toward her.

She works at an insurance company where her specialty is coddling customers shaken by auto accidents.

The script by Lelio and Alice Johnson Boher is a love story…sorta.  Alice meets newly divorced Arnold (John Tuturro) at a dance club where he stares at her from afar and defuses her sullen mood by asking if she’s always so happy.

He woos Alice with  paintball (he owns a paintball preserve; she turns out to be a dead shot) and their shared love of boogying down on the dance floor. And he reads funny/romantic poetry to her.

But there’s a problem. Arnold cannot break away from his needy ex and their even more needy daughters.  He’s at their mercy day and night, and it doesn’t take Alice long to figure out she’s always going to be a runner up in the race for his affections.

“Grow a pair,” she tells him.

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Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski

“TRANSIT” My rating: C+

101 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Transit” is a great idea that runs itself into the ground.

The opening moments of Christian Petzold’s film (he adapted it from Anna Seghers’ novel) take place in Paris under the German occupation.

Except that the setting isn’t the 1940s…it’s today.

The cars, the clothing, even the flat-screen TVs scream 21st century. But things are missing. Like computers and cel phones.

Our hero, Georg (Franz Rogowski), is part of an underground movement and desperate to get out of the country.  The police are making sweeps of blocks, sending undesirables off to hastily-erected camps.

The film never really lays out its geopolitical roots. Is this a new fascist movement that has swept the country? Was there a physical invasion of France? Is the year 2018 or are we supposed to imagine that somehow it’s still the ’40s?  (Hitler is never mentioned, nor is National Socialism. No German helmets or swastikas.)

Anyway, Georg manages to hide in a boxcar on a train heading to Marseilles. Once in the port city he joins the ranks of thousands of others lining up at the U.S. and Mexican consulates hoping to get transit papers that will allow them to board a ship for freedom (apparently there are no airlines in this alternative reality).

Georg is better off than most. He’s managed to assume the identity of a semi-famous writer, Weisel,  who has committed suicide; his newly-assumed standing as a man of letters moves him to the front of the immigration line.

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“THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD” My rating: B+

99 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Time travel may be just a theory, but something like it is at work at theaters where Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old”  is playing.

Jackson, the director of the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” franchises, has taken hundreds of  hours of World War I movie footage owned by Britain’s National War Museum and from it fashioned a feature film that practically jumps off the screen and into our laps (and that’s even if you pass on the 3-D version).

The story he tells is that of common English men — boys, really — who signed up to go to defend their country and found themselves in the ghastly trench war of the Western Front in France.  The film relies on snippets of audio interviews the BBC conducted with veterans of the Great War back in the ’60s and ’70s;  now long gone, these men reveal their experiences and innermost feelings about what they went through.

But what makes “They Shall Not Grow Old” absolutely mind-churning is the way Jackson and hundreds of technicians restored the old footage, cleaning up the dust motes and cracked emulsion, colorizing the images and providing an immersive stereo soundtrack.

The film’s first 30 minutes are basically the story of recruitment and training in  black-and-white; then, with the troops’ arrival in France, the screen blossoms with color as we are, in effect, dropped into the meat grinder.

The transition from black-and-white to Technicolor is as poetically jarring as it was in “The Wizard of Oz.”

There’s stuff here that even hard-core World War I junkies haven’t seen. Like what a trench latrine looked like (a thick pole stretched across a pool of muck; we see four bare bottoms simultaneously making use of the facilities). Like a bad case of trenchfoot, a ghastly condition born of wearing wet boots and socks for days on end (in effect, it’s gangrene).

There are piles of dead rats, the result of a housecleaning in one trench. There are bodies hanging on the barbed wire; some stayed so long their living neighbors could watch the slow process of decomposition over weeks. (One old gent describes war as “a fantastic exhibition of anatomy.”)

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Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz

“THE FAVOURITE”  My rating: B

119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Deliciously nasty and morally ambiguous, “The Favourite” is a female-centric slice of history featuring three superb actresses duking it out on screen.

In addition, it may be remembered as Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ most accessible film. Which is not to say that it’s breezy moviegoing.

As was so obvious with his most recent English-language features — “The Lobster” and “The Killing of the Sacred Deer” — Lanthimos marches to his own weird drummer. The difference this time around is that instead of working from his own script he’s tackling a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, and their reasonably conventional approach grounds this yarn in more or less familiar territory.

This feast of power-playing shenanigans is set in the 18th-century court of England’s Queen Anne, a monarch equal parts sadness and silliness.  As played by the great Olivia Colman (for my money this year’s best supporting actress), this ruler is fat, frumpy and flighty.

Small wonder that her childhood friend and now closest confidant, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), treats the monarch as a sort of overgrown baby with big appetites and a short attention span. Because of their long friendship Sarah can tell Her Highness the brutal truth — for example, that her new cosmetic do-over makes the Queen look like a large badger.  (Sarah actually seems to take pleasure in dissing her hapless royal gal pal.)

In return Anne showers gifts (like castles) on her companion and makes sure that Sarah’s husband Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss) spends most of his time away  fighting those nasty Frenchies.

Enter Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s penniless country cousin come to court in the hopes of employment.  She’s put to work in the kitchen, but little by little insinuates herself into the Queen’s household…among other things she whips up an herbal poultice to treat Her Majesty’s gouty feet.

What ensues is a sort of powdered-wig “All About Eve,” with the young interloper cannily inserting herself between the old friends. Abigail  discovers that Anne and Sarah are lovers and decides to use that information for her own advancement. Scheming, backbiting and even a bit of poison are employed.

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Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali

“GREEN BOOK”  My rating: B 

130 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Most of us will go into “Green Book” knowing — thanks to the ads — what the film is about. We can predict with some certainty what notes it’s going to hit, what emotional buttons it’ll be pushing.

None of this detracts from the movie’s immense pleasures.

The latest from director Peter Farrelly (yes, of the raunch-humor Farrelly Brothers) is a fact-based buddy film that dabbles in race and ethnicity, the universal appeal of music, and the glory of Detroit engineering at a time when bigger was definitely better.

It’s 1962 in NYC where Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is bouncing drunks at the Copacabana nightclub. He’s Brooklyn Italian down to his toenails…which he can barely see thanks to his pasta-packed middle-aged spread.

Looking for a temporary gig while the club is undergoing a facelift, Tony signs up for a job driving a musician on  a tour of the Deep South.  And not just any musician.

Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a Phd. pianist who studied music in the Soviet Union, writes and performs classical scores (although on this tour he’s offering a popular jazz sound) and also has doctorates in psychology and liturgical arts. (The real-life Shirley also was fluent in six languages.)

Oh, yeah. He’s black, too.

But the money is good and Tony swallows his ethnic prejudices. He kisses the Missus (Linda Cardelli) goodbye and gets behind the wheel of a big aquamarine land shark for an eight-week tour leading up to Christmas.  Continue Reading »

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury

“BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY”  My rating: B

134 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Remi Malek is a most unconventional star.  His biggest break to date has been as the lead of cable’s “Mr. Robot,” where he plays an emotionally-challenged computer genius, a role that perfectly meshes his acting chops with his unusual physiognomy.

He’s a weird-looking dude.

Nevertheless, in Bryan Singer’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” Malek becomes a bona fide movie star, sinking so completely into the role of flamboyant Queen vocalist Freddie Mercury that he immediately joins the frontrunners for the year’s best actor Oscar, turning a rather humdrum musical biopic into something scintillating.

Ramen is charismatic, sexy, funny and ultimately heartbreaking as Mercury, whose baroque (or is it rococo?) sensibilities made Queen one of the most unlikely rock bands of the 1970s and ’80s.

Like the new “A Star is Born,” another film that cannily mines the backstage world of pop/rock, “…Rhapsody” follows a predictable arc, being the story of a rock star’s rise to fame and descent into ego, arrogance and, eventually, death (Mercury died of AIDS in 1991).

But that familiar  — almost cliched — tale provides a solid platform for Malek’s performance —  in addition to offering a musical soundtrack that’ll have you humming days and weeks later.

Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan’s screenplay begins with Farrokh Bulsara (Malek) hustling baggage at London’s Heathrow Airport.

Wherever he goes, the shy Farrokh is a fish out of water.  His fellow workers dismiss him as a “Paki” (Pakistani); his Farsi parents, who fled religious persecution in their native Zanzibar, don’t know what to make of his dramatically long hair and disco fashion sense.

Moreover, the kid has an amazing set of choppers…reportedly Farrokh had four extra incisors (Malek wears a lip-stretching set of fake teeth).

Early on Farrokh takes up with a struggling rock band —  guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), baby-faced drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) — and amazes with his songwriting, theatrical presence and balls-to-the-walls vocals (reportedly a combination of Malek’s voice and that of Mercury impersonator Marc Matel).

Oh, yeah. He also changes his name to Freddy Mercury, a break with his heritage that alienates his traditionalist parents.

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Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir

“WOMAN AT WAR” My rating: B

101 minutes | No MPAA rating

A middle-aged choir director maintains a double life as an eco-terrorist in “Woman at War,” an Icelandic film that despite its heavyweight themes maintains a surprisingly airy tone.

At 49 Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) lives what appears to be an unremarkable life in Reykjavik.  On her weekends, though, she loads up a backpack and heads deep into the country’s rugged, treeless interior where she wreaks havoc on the electrical grid.

Halla’s motives and how she came by them are never fully explained in the screenplay by director Benedikt Erlingsson and Olafur Emilsson.

Apparently she opposes an Icelandic/Chinese consortium dedicated to beefing up heavy industry, which Hanna believes will destroy the environment. She employs technology as basic as a bow and arrow and as sophisticated as military-grade explosives to bring down high-tension transmission towers, cutting off the juice to a large foundry she regards as a particularly odious polluter.

She’s a one-woman wrecking crew and the authorities employ everything from satellites to heat sensors, drones and flying squads of military commandos in an effort to put an end to Hanna’s activities.  She is surprisingly good at avoiding detection, though it’s pretty clear her days are numbered.

Now a yarn like this could be played for polemic drama, but director Erlingsson instead opts for whimsy.

There is, for instance, the musical score, performed by six musicians (pianist/accordianist, drummer, tuba player, and three women singers) not just on the soundtrack but in the film itself.  Thus as Hanna treks across a volcanic landscape she passes the musicians, who have set up their instruments in the wide open spaces. Occasionally the players — invisible to everyone save the audience — will react (wordlessly) to the scenes being played out in front of them.

Then there’s a semi-comic subplot about a bicycle-riding South American tourist (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada) who is always at the wrong place at the wrong time and is arrested repeatedly on suspicion of being the terrorist. Worst vacation ever.

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Rachelle Vinberg

“SKATE KITCHEN” My rating: B

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Some of us are  lucky enough to experience one adolescent summer of near  total freedom.  No job, no school, no responsibilities.

Just hanging out with your friends and trying — without too much angst — to figure out who you are.

That’s the situation offered in “Skate Kitchen,” Crystal Moselle’s docudrama-ish  study of female teen skateboarders whiling away the hot months on the streets of NYC.

The film is practically unplotted, drifting from one episode to another, this encounter to the next, without a whole lot of rhyme or reason. But as an immersive experience, one that puts you into the sneakers of its young protagonists, the film has few equals. It feels utterly, totally alive.

Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) is not looking forward to a summer cooped up in the Queens apartment she shares with her hospital worker single mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez). The pair are almost always at odds over Camille’s love of skateboarding, which Mom views as dangerous; Camille has come up with all sorts of ingenious ploys to cover up how she’s actually spending her days.

Left to her own devices, Camille goes exploring, taking the train across the East River (clutching her skateboard the whole time) and probing the byways of Manhattan. She soon finds skateboard parks where others her age are doing their acrobatic stunts; little by little she is accepted by a group of girls who are as unfettered by convention as she is.

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