The most intriguing thing about Girl on Film, a comic-book memoir by someone who never set out to create comics, is that it isn't a tragedy. Told one way, it could have been a story of a would-be artist stubbornly pursuing their dream for years, only to finally give up in despair. Cecil Castellucci chronicles her decade-plus quest to become a filmmaker from the birth of her obsession, when she first saw Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark in junior high school, all the way through trying and failing to cut together her first feature in her early 20s.
All the while, though, we know Castellucci's not going to become the next Spielberg. That's because we know Castellucci not as a filmmaker, but as the bestselling author of such wonderful comics as Shade the Changing Girl, The Plain Janes and Year of the Beasts. Castellucci's also written Star Wars and Batgirl comics and all sorts of other works — from young-adult novels to opera librettos — as well as making music, creating performance pieces and, yes, directing a film (2005's Happy Is Not Hard to Be, which she also wrote and appeared in). She's still not Spielberg, though.
But if you think that matters, you miss the point of Castellucci's book. More than a life story, it's an account of how to live an artist's life even when it looks like your artistic ambitions are grandiose and impractical. In fact, Castellucci shows, your artistic ambitions are pretty much guaranteed to be grandiose and impractical. That doesn't matter. What matters is how you live with your big dreams, what you give up for them, what you hang onto and what you let go.
For Castellucci, the dream of being a filmmaker kept her on track through her teenage years, motivating her to lay the groundwork for a multifaceted creative life. Her first big existential crisis comes in eighth grade, when she applies to two renowned Manhattan high schools, the High School of Performing Arts (the one from the 1980 movie Fame) and the Bronx High School of Science. She's accepted to both, forcing her to admit to her parents — both scientists — that she wants to be an artist. They're fine with that, but it's still a turning point for young Cecil. She's owned her ambition out loud for the first time.
Cecil goes to Performing Arts, and the next several years are a whirlwind of aesthetic education and adolescent pains. She recalls how she learned from various mentors and crossed paths with various celebs (her best story is of being gifted a Warhol painting by her friend Chaz Bono, only to have Cher call up the next day and tell her she couldn't have it after all). Most of all, though, she shows how sheer enthusiasm is the crucial quality in a young person trying to build an artistic life. Cecil tries her hand at everything, learns all she can from everyone she meets and shrugs off every slight. Things get harder when she starts film school at NYU, only to find she can't afford it. The next few years are chaotic: She heads briefly to Europe, continues film school in Montreal, joins a band and begins to realize filmmaking may not be her path after all. With a turn of the page she's in Los Angeles, recording music and writing a novel.
Castellucci packs these twists and turns into the end of the book. She's so committed to maintaining a sense of positivity, she breezes past the story's only real crisis in a couple of pages. Fortunately, this doesn't weaken her main project — fulfilled so winningly everywhere else — of showing what the life of a "baby artist" can look like. This book isn't flagged as a young-adult title, but it cries out to be given to a creative teen.
Castellucci has divided the work of illustration among four different artists. It's an unorthodox approach that could have stumbled, but Vicky Leta, Melissa Duffy, V. Gagnon and Jon Berg complement each other well. Most use fairly heavy lines, which harmonizes their pages. Duffy's a standout with her brusque, energetic linework. Leta's fragile lines are the most distinctive, so Castellucci reserves her for interludes where the adult Cecil contemplates the vicissitudes of memory. These sections aren't particularly successful, actually; they're a distraction from the bubbly momentum of young Cecil's journey. Said journey may not have wound up where Castellucci thought it would when she was 12, but it's still a fascinating one to follow. Most importantly, it's far from over.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.
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