***1/2 (out of four)
The origin story of a literary superhero, “Kill Your Darlings” reminds those who saw the overwritten “The Counselor” that precisely chosen words can sing on screen, rather than stack up until the entire film topples over. “Darlings” emits the music of poetry and the poetry of music, with each line a reflection of the mouth from which it emerges. It’s an electric and passionate harkening to a day when people memorized and fawned over beloved couplets, not Katy Perry lyrics.
Based on a true, probably little-known story, the film traces the early ‘40s collegiate self-actualization of future poet legend Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), whose freshman year at Columbia takes off due to the charismatic tornado created by his manipulative new pal Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan of “Metallica Through the Never”). With William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), the group today looks like a team of verbal all-stars, but at the time they’re a band of drug-induced pranksters living in the shadow of Lucien’s possessive friend, David (Michael C. Hall).
The entire cast (including Elizabeth Olsen as Jack’s fiancé) is excellent, and the film rises above James Franco’s solid turn as Ginsberg in “Howl.” Love and language explode from “Kill Your Darlings,” which gently addresses societal homophobia and anti-Semitism. First-time feature co-writers Austin Bunn and John Krokidas (who also directed) not only refrain from overdoing the linguistic exploration but match the material with unfettered filmmaking. The characters seem to freeze time, literally from intoxicants but figuratively from the new world they create together. TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me” accompanies a library raid, the anachronistic song fitting the students’ mission. You can only feature a character like Lucien claiming, “Life is only interesting if life is wide” if you can depict that pursuit, and Krokidas and Bunn make it happen.
Less effective is the undercurrent of war and the efforts toward actual liberation that parallel Allen’s personal discoveries. The family drama of Allen’s poet father (David Cross) and mentally unwell mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) feels underdeveloped. Both do contribute, however, to a vision of youth and writing as self-styled revolution, free from the tyranny of all that comes before. That’s more than a coming-of-age story; that’s a story about coming alive.
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