‘Liza, Liza, Skies Are Grey’: Film Review
Two L.A. teens hit the road on a motorcycle in a coming-of-age romance written and directed by documentarian Terry Sanders.
California beaches and the Pacific Coast Highway are central characters in Terry Sanders’ nostalgic feature, but even so there’s no there there. Liza, Liza, Skies Are Grey — taking its title from a 1929 Gershwin song and set in the summer of 1966 — is a meandering journey, too tepid to stir up the feelings of yearning and rebellion that it aims to evoke.
Sanders, who produced the Oscar-winning Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (directed by his wife, Freida Lee Mock) and served as second unit director on The Night of the Hunter, brushed off a screenplay he wrote 45 years ago to make the low-budget drama. There are glimmers of tender sincerity in his story of first love, yet what might have been an affectingly bittersweet glance back at the charged 1960s by an octogenarian instead comes off as tone-deaf or merely flat.
However appealing the movie’s young stars, their characters remain two-dimensional, functioning more as representatives of the idea of adolescence than intriguing individuals. Mikey Madison, who plays Pamela Adlon’s oldest daughter on Better Things, has an offbeat delicacy as 16-year-old Liza, a high school student in one of the tonier enclaves of Los Angeles County’s Westside. She and her friends, who include an ignored showbiz progeny with a flower-power station wagon (Kwame Boateng), have no money worries, but parental affection is in short supply.
Liza does her best to avoid her mother (Kristin Minter), a walking personality disorder, both withholding and needy in their stiff interactions. Tellingly, after Mom’s lecherous boyfriend (John-Paul Lavoisier) puts the moves on Liza, she confides in their housekeeper (Valarie Rae Miller), certain that her mother wouldn’t believe her.
As for Liza’s new boyfriend, Brett (Sean H. Scully), he's just learned that he’ll be moving back to the East Coast at the end of the summer, reclaimed by his father after being unloaded on an aunt. Liza determines to be his “first girl,” and so they get on his bike and head north toward Carmel and their mutual deflowering: two virgins who are also bland ciphers, notwithstanding his skinny cigars and studly Triumph or her forthright sexual curiosity.
Their trip up the Central Coast includes a picturesque but uninspired stop at La Purisima Mission and a night gone wrong with New Age revelers in Big Sur. To his credit, Sanders is interested in the dark side of paradise as well as its beauty. The teen couple’s progress up the dazzling shoreline is interrupted by encounters with a roving band of violent rednecks and a leering creep of a motel manager (Robert John Brewer) — encounters that are, unfortunately, almost comical, the sense of danger as unconvincing as most of the proceedings.
Sanders frames the story with generational markers, like the Vietnam War and the duck-and-cover shelter drills in nuclear-era schools, that do more to conjure the time period than the wan dialogue, self-consciously peppered with “groovy” and “babe.”
In its clunky way, though, the movie suggests the sense of possibility and the dilemmas facing girls growing up when second-wave feminism and largely male-defined sexual liberation were both gaining steam. Liza’s convo with her twentysomething cello teacher (Marina Michelson) gives voice to a “liberated woman,” however obviously. And the writer-director reminds us that Virginia Slims were being hawked as a feminist breakthrough. It’s a moment that briefly revs up this stalled journey into the past.
Production company: Liza, Liza, LLC
Distributor: Ocean Releasing
Cast: Mikey Madison, Sean H. Scully, Kristin Minter, Kwame Boateng, John-Paul Lavoisier, Valarie Rae Miller, Marina Michelson, Sonya Eddy, Robert John Brewer, Madison Iseman
Director-screenwriter: Terry Sanders
Producers: Terry Sanders, Steven Chao, Ann Dickinson, Richard Purington, Patricia L. Seely
Executive producer: Suzanne Deal Booth
Director of photography: Erik Daarstad
Art director: Jennifer Seely
Costume designer: Kate DeBlasio
Editor: Terry Sanders
Composer: Charles Bernstein
Casting directors: Sunday Boling, Meg Morman