By Nathaniel Rogers
Exuberantly committed fans of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World had a rough weekend when the film version of the beloved comic opened to a mere $10 million or so at the box office, despite a whirlwind of hype. But here’s the continually forgotten truth about cult movies: by definition, they aren’t blockbusters. Their charms are only super sized to specialized audiences.
The movie is based on a clever series of graphic novels about a lazy 23-year-old in Toronto named Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera). He plays bass in the band Sex Bob-omb. He falls hard for Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) but in order to win her heart, he has to defeat her seven evil exes in battle. These battles are staged like video games, complete with point scoring and extra lives. The hyper pacing and gamer aesthetics may be most digestible for young viewers, but there are cross-generational pleasures, too: wit and good acting know no age limitations.
One of the joys of uniformly strong ensembles is that each viewer will have a different favorite character. Kieran Culkin (Igby Goes Down) as Scott’s gay roommate Wallace, Alison Pill (Milk) as his jilted band mate Kim, and Brandon Routh (Superman Returns) as a rival bass player all maximize their comic moments. None of these characters exactly have three dimensions, but good actors can add real life and color to just one.
The big discovery of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World has to be Ellen Wong as Knives Chau. It is, after all, her motion picture debut. She’s our hero’s age-inappropriate high school girlfriend when the movie begins. Films are almost never shot in sequence, so her character arc, the most elaborate in the film, is all the more impressive. At first you’re reacting to her solely through Scott’s own perceptions: she’s sweet, but she grows wearying. As the movie expands, so does the portrait of Knives. She becomes an obnoxious and moon-eyed chatterbox as she gets more comfortable in her doomed relationship. She turns hilariously fannish, complete with screaming and fainting, during her boyfriend’s live gigs.
And once Scott has dumped Knives for Ramona, Wong has other tricks to perform. Knives is now a girlwoman scorned. She’s grasping at new identities (including Ramona’s) to win his attention… or anyone’s, really. Wong is often very funny when she’s playing these uninhibited teen hormonal swings, but the best part is that she keeps you off balance. She’s the youngest character and therefore the most in flux. Unlike Ramona, her changes are more than cosmetic. She’s trying on new identities, as every high schooler does, until she finds the right fit. By the end, she’s a fighting and fierce baby diva.
Knives loses the man early on, but she still walks off with the movie. That’s a better prize. More than any other character, you can imagine her transformation continuing. You can see her leaping from the flat comic book page and silver screen into a more 3-D life. Maybe she ran right past you out of the theater during the end credit scroll?
“Game Over” is a sad but inevitable statement, familiar to anyone who has ever played a video game. But here’s the joyful real-life rebuttal: Movies don’t vanish after disappointing opening weekends. They reemerge on cable and arrive on DVD and Blu-Ray in no time. They get plentiful chances to win new fans. However legion the Scott Pilgrim cult may or may not become, it has to start small as all cults do.
The same is also true of successful acting careers. One movie will always be an actor’s first. If they’re lucky, they’ll get more chances to make good on that initial promise. Ellen Wong is totally game. Her adventure has just begun.
Want more Best in Show? Check out TribecaFilm.com.
THE spot for your favorite fan theories and the best movie recs. Learn more