Todd Solondz made his debut with the affecting teen angst drama “Welcome to the Dollhouse”, but he really made an impression with 1998’s “Happiness”, a wonderfully cynical look at some not so happy individuals. I personally loved it (it was #3 on my year-end Top Ten), but many people criticised Solondz for making fun of these poor souls in a mean-spirited way, for trying too much to “shock” us with ugly people doing ugly things. Mmm. Maybe there’s some truth in that, but I loved the guy’s movie nonetheless. Some didn’t get it, too bad for them. Solondz, though, doesn’t seem to have swallowed it so easily. Maybe it didn’t help that the following year, Dreamworks released a comedy/drama about not so happy suburbanites of its own, “American Beauty” which, like a lighter, more mainstream “Happiness” knockoff, went on to gather near unanimous praise and win a bunch of Oscars. I guess I can understand Solondz feeling a little cheated.

Now he’s back with “Storytelling”, which is sort of his “fuck you too” to his detractors. In a very self-aware way, he deconstructs storytelling in general in general and his own in particular. The film is divided in two parts, “Fiction” and “Non-fiction”, and in which authors aim for truth but still end up with half-lies. As the teacher says in the first act, even if something did happen, “as soon as you start writing about it, it’s fiction.” This is Mr. Scott talking (Robert Wisdom), an African American Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who also teaches in a university.

Superficially, this is kind of like “Wonder Boys”, but unlike that movie’s Grady Tripp, a sympathetic if offbeat professor, Mr. Scott is absolutely ruthless with his students. “Your story’s a piece of shit,” he’ll tell students choking back tears. Young Vi (Selma Blair) finds him overly confrontational, but at the same time she respects his honesty, his refusal to sugar coat what he thinks. And when her handicapped boyfriend (Leo Fitzpatrick) dumps her and she finds herself in a self-destructive mood, she ends up at her teacher’s place for some utterly romantic sex…

This leads to the scene most people cite when discussing the film, in which the older black man screws the young white woman and asks her to yell “Nigger fuck me hard!”, which she does. It’s a raw, powerful scene… And you’re probably not gonna be able to see it. In the U.S., at least, the MPAA wouldn’t approve it, and instead of changing it, Solondz just stuck a big red rectangle over the naughty bits. Fortunately, up here in Montréal, we’re deemed mature enough to handle extended thrusting action, so I was able to see the scene as the filmmaker intended it. As I said, it’s not an easy scene, it’s really balls-to-the-wall, but in context it serves its purpose, and it’s not THAT graphic. It’s not much more disturbing than, say, the anal sex scene in “Pulp Fiction”. Even if it does disturb you, that’s the point. And the rest of that story is about how Vi copes with it by, you might have guessed, writing about it. The interesting question then, is of who was really exploiting whom.

I have mixed feelings about “Non-Fiction”, though. In a way, I really liked the second part of the film: it certainly made me laugh my ass off on numerous times. Then again, I generally wished I shouldn’t be laughing! This is closer to “Happiness”, I suppose, with its pedophile, its murderer… Here, there’s nothing that bad, just people who are very pathetic, followed by a pseudo documentary filmmaker, Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti in Solondz-style thick-rimmed glasses, hint hint), who’s probably worse. “Non-Fiction” opens with a long, embarrassing scene in which he’s trying to catch up with an old high school girlfriend who obviously has no time for a desperate loser like him, and we have to watch as he just talks himself further down into ridicule.

Toby is trying to make a documentary on college, well, teenagers, well, suburban families… He’s not quite sure! Yet he does find subjects in the Livingstons, a dysfunctional suburban family if there ever was one! Here, it’s as if Solondz, who played on some of the same ground in his first movies and then watched as “American Beauty” one-upped him, wants to get back on top. And gosh darn it, he almost pulls it off. Watching the old man (a hilarious John Goodman) going gung ho on his crazy family, with his wife (Julie Hagerty) even more shallow and phoney than Annette Benning in “Beauty” and their three sons, football jock Brady (Noah Fleiss), unbearable goody two shoes Mikey (Jonathan Osser) and the ever dopey Scooby (Mark Webber). The latter is the focus of the documentary, if focus there is, as he ponders what to do after high school. He’s not a bad kid, but he’s clearly naïve and not too smart and inarticulate, yet he wants to get Conan O’Brien‘s job (which leads to a funny cameo)!

The ambiguous thing here, for Toby and for us in the audience, is whether to allow ourselves to laugh at Scooby and his family. Scooby is endearing, actually, as we’ve all felt aimless when it came time to choose a college and a future, at an age where you’re almost still a kid. Maybe Toby just wants to show things as they are, but as “Non-Fiction” illustrates, a documentary is always exploitative in some way. Through this, Solondz also keeps addressing the response his own (fictional) films have been getting, as he’s been accused of sneering at his characters himself. But even though he’s conscious of it, the question is still valid: what’s he going for, really? Does he want us to feel for these people, or to mock them?

“Fiction” works pretty well as a short story, but “Non-Fiction” is all over the place. I liked how it showed the unfair nature of the class system, as spoiled brat -and definite future Republican- Mikey harasses the Salvadorian house maid (Lupe Ontiveros). I also loved the direct pot-shots at “American Beauty”, notably Toby’s terrible attempts at video poetry (“A straw wrapper, floating in the wind…) And, obviously, the nearly all Belle & Sebastian soundtrack is a delight. But then you’ve got all those half developed ideas, especially the last few twists which don’t really work, not to mention that cheap shot of an ending. There’s enough clever flashes in “Storytelling” to make it worth checking out but, quite ironically, it doesn’t have the narrative drive to get beyond its shortcomings.