It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The early reviews of "Misunderstood," the third directorial effort from live-wire Renaissance woman Asia Argento, have described it as being an autobiographical tale. That is correct to a certain point—there are any number of parallels between what is known about her life and what she has put up on the screen. However, instead of simply creating the big-screen equivalent of a diary, which is what it might have become in lesser hands, she has transformed her experiences into a narrative that can be understood and appreciated by audiences who come into the film without any great working knowledge of her personal story. The result is an occasionally strange, occasionally brutal and occasionally lovely work that goes up on the shelf with "The Ocean of Helena Lee" and "Girlhood" as one of the more impressive coming-of-age tales of recent times.
Set in 1984, the film focuses on Aria (Giulia Salerno), a nine-year-old Italian girl who is the daughter of a famous movie star (Gabriel Garko) and a celebrated concert pianist (Charlotte Gainsbourg). From a glance, it sounds like the perfect life but things are far from that for Aria. At school, she is whip-smart but the other kids and teachers, perhaps resentful of her parentage, treat her like a freak and her only friend is classmate Angelica (Alice Pea), with whom she sneaks the occasional cigarette and indulges in Barbie doll play that goes way beyond the suggested age limit on the box. As for her home life, we get an early idea of how that goes at a supremely tense family dinner involving her, her parents and her stepsisters—Dad's monstrous daughter Lucrezia (Carolina Poccioni) and Mom's somewhat nicer daughter Donatina (Anna Lou Castoldi)—which quickly devolves into a brutal fight in which her parents viciously tear into each other while the stepsisters side with their respective parents and leave Aria caught in the middle.
Not surprisingly, Aria's father walks out soon after this, taking Lucrezia with her, but life does not get noticeably better for Aria. Her mother makes vague promises that they will be going on a Caribbean cruise soon but when the time comes, she actually goes with one of the many sleazy boyfriends that she acquires and Aria is shipped off to her dad's place, where Lucrezia lives like a queen and she is essentially sequestered to the room where all the other unwanted junk accumulates. Along the way, Aria acquires a black cat named Dac and they eventually become inseparable. Dad is not quite as thrilled with this development as he is hyper-superstitious and eventually sends her packing back to her mother, hurling plenty of invective for the trip back.
This begins a pattern in which she is shuttled between the two homes, where she is looked upon mostly as an inconvenience by two raging egomaniacs and briefly tolerated until one sends her packing on a whim whenever she gets in their way. At one point, both of them give her the boot at the same time and she winds up spending the night on the street in what is paradoxically one of her happiest moments. Things are equally uneasy at school when Angelica begins hanging out with one of the popular mean girls and the dreamy guy she is crushing on refuses to give her the time of day, making for plot threads that come together brutally during a scene where Aria throws a party at her dad's vacant home that quickly goes awry.