Jude Okwudiafor Johnson
Jude Okwudiafor Johnson, Toby Osborne
"One minute everything was good, and then…" This movie might be presented within the framework of a family-style Drama, but this is some tough subject matter when it comes right down to it. My wife and I were talking about much of what "Senior Year" deals with just the other day, more or less – we basically think most people that think they're in love are absolutely crazy. Admittedly, we've got a completely warped perception after nearly twenty years spent together - without so much as the kind of argument most couples experience on any given Friday night. We know that we're an anomaly, but it still makes it extremely hard to understand why people out there wouldn't be looking for the same. We preach love, respect, and friendship as the foundations for our long-term success, which gives us a skewed point of view when we're looking at young love trying to find its way, arguing all the time, or trying to find a way to make things work when they don't seem to.
Before you're even a half-hour into "Senior Year," your main characters, Marcella and CJ, are trying to move forward with their relationship into marriage while also considering couples counseling. Don't get me wrong, ultimately, I ain't here to judge, but it does seem like those two things shouldn't go together from the perspective of a guy like me that is closing in on being with his wife for half his life. I'm also not recommending anyone doesn't try to find love, or whatever happiness they can, wherever they can find it – life is way too short, so get all that good stuff in at every opportunity. "Senior Year" also factors in heavy aspects of religion and what it's like to raise a kid as young parents - still trying to find their own way, education, juggling the future, and examines the many obstacles that stand in between living the life you want - versus trying to navigate the many barriers that tend to intrude.
The main characters, CJ and Marcella, are solid, and so is their young child, Faith – they're all well-developed and well-written. Marcella is a strong lead, tough as nails in so many ways, yet still so inexperienced in how relationships need to function. CJ is even more of a tadpole; his father is a pastor, which complicates things even more, but he lacks the strength to commit to what he knows is right. I'd be the first to tell ya that Marcella is complex, complicated and that she'd be hard to love – but there's also no doubt that CJ is still a kid when it comes right down to it, and far from the man that she needs him to be. Regarding the supporting cast, we might have a few cracks exposed and a few significant wins too. I loved Marcella's whole family, from her mom to her estranged father, and especially her over-protective brother Hector – all great characters and important to the story. That's an example of what really worked well - there were other characters that didn't, like the counselor. I experienced counseling as a young kid & even in that instance, way back then, there was a modicum of professionalism that was crucial to the integrity of the job. I was honestly shocked at how the counselor in "Senior Year" was written – the acting is fine – but yeah…is this what religiously-based counseling is like? Don't get me wrong; I'm not even saying it's an inaccurate portrayal – it might be – I'm just saying it was a real shock to the system to see a counselor be so entirely judgmental. "I thought she was supposed to fix relationships, not break them," as Marcella says in frustration – amen, sister, amen. Early on, it feels like writer/director Jude Okwudiafor Johnson is going to take us into a film where religion purports to have all the answers, yet it's causing all kinds of issues.
When the plotline shifts around the thirty-seven-minute mark, you can't help but notice. Words can be extremely dangerous things, and once certain things get said, they can be really tough to ever take back. "Senior Year" takes a dramatic turn with its storyline and takes significant time to address the problems it creates in the plot with a lot of scenes that probably aren't necessary - like the extended basketball game, for example. Entertaining, yes, crucial to the story? Not really. When you do get to the heart of the matter, you could cite a lot of things as to what create the main issue…is it friendship? Not standing up for what's right at the moment it's called upon? Is it the evils of alcohol? Is it trying to say that infidelity creates an impasse in relationships that's too difficult to recover from? Is it the fault of youth? What about the lack of understanding of what really makes a father and how there are factors that are much more important than blood? Is it trying to say that broken families are cyclical and beyond our control to change? To be fair, much of this does eventually get addressed, but it does take a while to present its point of view; Jude's film raises a ton of questions while taking as much time to answer 'em as best it can.
I suppose the real question becomes, with "Senior Year" being a sequel to a movie called "Freshman Year" that I didn't actually see – does this movie stand alone on its own in an instance like that? I'd say that it does. It's cohesive & comprehensive, well-shot, and looks clean & clear in how Johnson presents this whole story. In terms of how to put a movie together onscreen, the direction is strong and confident – it's the writing that could benefit in narrowing down what is really a very widespread theme and concept - that is extremely tough to tackle in any length of time. It's shown to us in a relevant way, though – I felt like a lot of people would have no problem digging into this film for its substance, even if they haven't watched "Freshman Year" beforehand. If anything, I feel like I'd be interested in going back to watch that first film now, if only to see what the characters were like before they became who they are in this film. As it stands, I felt like "Senior Year" probably tries to tackle a bit too much overall & misses a few opportunities to really strengthen the main points it's trying to make, even dangerously introducing more plotline elements about two-thirds in. Even when it does reinforce the storyline with additional information, it's hard to say whether or not people will identify with the way that "Senior Year" seems to wrap up its many details or if they've fully addressed the conflicting points of view that it presents along the way.
It's interesting, for sure. "Senior Year" has a lot of great things going for it, while also seeming like it creates its own obstacles to stumble over at times, too – but that's life, ain't it? Do CJ and Marcella belong together? Is this what a family is supposed to be? Do they have a future? Is "Senior Year" a film designed to advocate on behalf of counseling? I think it actually proves that human connection and communication are stronger arrows in our quiver. I don't know if we get answers to all the questions we come up with watching "Senior Year," but it was engaging, thought-provoking, and entertaining too. It's a solid three stars out of five for the positives it presents and the sentiment it has.