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The first time the audience catches sight of Odessa, Jemima Kirke’s character in “All These Small Moments,” which hits theaters Thursday, it’s through the eyes of a teenage boy.
She’s sitting on the bus, looking out the window, and the early-morning sunlight is casting her blonde hair in a sort of glow. A heavy gold locket rests on her collarbone; her hands, adorned with tattoos, are folded in her lap. Then, the woman turns her head, meets the boy’s gaze, and smiles a knowing, immeasurable smile.
The scene suggests that “All These Small Moments” is a story about a boy. Howie, played by Brendan Meyer, is a high school student struggling with the usual grievances: low self-esteem, his parents’ deteriorating marriage, friends who sit around dingy basements eating Utz potato chips and joking about girls. He also happens to be desperately in love with the 30-year-old woman he sees on the bus every day.
Coming-of-age films have often portrayed what it means for boys to grow up — to feel the pangs of first love, to wrestle with the realities of adulthood. But what sets this one apart is that it was written and directed by a woman. “People have said, ‘[This movie] does feel so authentically teenage boy, how did you do that?’” first-time director Melissa B. Miller Costanzo says over the phone. “And then at the same time they’ve said, ‘but with a female gaze.’ Like, he’s a sensitive kid.” Take that opening bus scene: It was an inversion of a real-life experience Miller Costanzo had herself.
So Miller Costanzo allowed the script to grow from that question. She didn’t outline the plot; she didn’t know how all the moments would resolve when she started it. And maybe that’s why the film becomes about so much more than just its lead character — and so much, it turns out, about the women in his world.
For Kirke, who shot to fame after starring as Jessa in the HBO series“Girls,” playing the center of someone’s universe was “a little bit embarrassing.” “It’s clear that you’re being chosen because of an essence that you have or the way that you look, something that’s really not in my control,” she says.
The film also delves into the story of Howie’s classmate, Lindsay, played by newcomer Harley Quinn Smith, who befriends him in the library.
These women’s stories ultimately drive some of the film’s weightiest moments: a marital crisis, a monologue about sexual assault, a taboo kiss.
“The movie is about these moments in your life, and they’re all a part of who you are. I think in some amalgamation, Carla, Odessa and Lindsay all could’ve been the same woman,” Miller Costanzo says. “I think we could all have that woman inside of us.”
The Lily spoke with Miller Costanzo, Ringwald, Kirke and Smith about their characters’ big moments — and about what it means to redefine the coming-of-age film in 2019.
These interviews contain spoilers for “All These Small Moments.”
As the romance between Howie and Odessa slowly builds, the marriage between his parents, Carla and Tom, is crumbling. They’ve been out of sync for years. Tom, we learn, is having an affair. And while the despair is written all over Carla’s face throughout the film, one scene is particularly emblematic of her pain.
It’s Carla’s birthday. She’s sitting at the dinner table alone; her husband and teenage boys are nowhere in sight. There’s a Hallmark card and a birthday cake, big enough for a family, sitting on the table. Carla flicks the card away, then proceeds to dig her hands into the cake, letting the frosting squeeze through her white-knuckled fingers.
Ringwald says that part of the scene wasn’t even written into the script. She decided to stick her hands into the cake after Miller Costanzo told her they already had the shot. “It was so satisfying,” Ringwald laughs. “It was one of those things you always want to do.”
The act, while spontaneous, becomes an apt metaphor for the “breaking point” Carla has come to. It’s a narrative many women in their 40s and 50s can probably identify with, Ringwald says, but one that isn’t often explored in movies.
“I feel like Carla is somebody who got together with her husband pretty young, and always in some way defers to him,” Ringwald explains. “You know, was very approval-seeking. And then at a certain point, they sort of grew apart, and now she’s in crisis.”
Ringwald remembers watching her own mother go through a similar “sort of crisis of identity” when she and her siblings were growing up. When Ringwald left the house, she imagined her mom wondering: “I was expected to be a mother, and that’s it, and now what?”
Periods of strife in marriage and motherhood “just happen sometimes,” Ringwald says. “It’s happened to me. And I think there’s something really comforting to see that portrayed on film.”
If Carla represents a generation of mothers, then Lindsay, one of Howie’s classmates, represents a generation of daughters. Howie meets Lindsay in the library, but keeps his distance because, his friends say, she once gave an older boy a flesh-eating disease.
Lindsay can tell that Howie is wary of her; so, one day, she approaches him in the library to confront the rumor head on. “I never slept with Bruce Stagno,” she tells him.
Bruce and her brother had been friends, Lindsay explains. When Bruce would come over, he’d flirt with her in the kitchen. Bruce was popular. The attention was nice. But one afternoon, Bruce started giving her a massage in the basement. “He, um, he tried to go further. I pushed him off, but he kept trying,” Lindsay tells Howie, her voice breaking. “I guess I was yelling or something, because my brother basically came down and threw him off of me and beat the shit out of him.”
Like the cake scene, Miller Costanzo didn’t necessarily mean for the writing to go where it did. She says she hoped the scene would hint at something, but that it was Smith who brought real weight to it. “She made it more important than I had made it,” Miller Costanzo says.
For Smith, taking the monologue to a raw, emotional place felt natural.
“I did really take it seriously, because that was me — I was in the same position as Lindsay,” Smith, who’s now 19 years old, says. “I was a student. I was dealing with — not sexual assault, but I knew people who had been assaulted. I was bullied, I knew people who had been bullied. That was just kind of the world I was living in.”
For all the singular moments in the film, Miller Costanzo says the final one between Howie and Odessa is her favorite.
After various innocent-enough flirtations — chats on the bus, Howie’s visits to Odessa’s stand at the farmers’ market — Odessa asks Howie if he wants to help her pack up at the end of a day. He says yes, and Odessa drives him to the rooftop garden where she grows her vegetables. It’s the middle of winter, but Odessa and Howie sit outside in the blistering cold, the Manhattan skyline peeking out over their heads.
There, she kisses him.
But Odessa soon pulls away, frantically explaining that she’s going through a really hard time, that she’s in the middle of a divorce. “What’s wrong with me?” she asks.
The look on Howie’s face as Odessa pulls away “just kills” Miller Costanzo.
For Kirke, the scene’s power came from the script: “Scenes like that sort of write themselves,” she says. “I just had to make it believable.”
Kirke recognizes that the relationship — one between a boy and a woman — might make people angry. But Miller Costanzo does a good job of “gently presenting” it, she says.
“We need to be able to tell stories and a variety of them,” Kirke explains. “Not just the ones that are idealist, what we hope the world to be. We have to also tell what’s actually happening.”
Over the phone, Ringwald says that she thinks #MeToo and #TimesUp have made spaces for new voices, like Miller Costanzo’s, to step into the void. She says she might be “overly optimistic,” but she does “think it’s a much better time for women.”
For her part, Miller Costanzo hopes that audiences can see a part of themselves in every character in “All These Small Moments.” “They’re all a part of me in some way and some emotion I felt I needed to explore,” she says.
There’s a reason, Kirke says, archetypal coming-of-age stories keep getting retold: “If they’re good enough writers or directors, they’ll tell them in a way that’s profound.”