Disarmingly and impressively empathetic, writer/director Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is brimming with heart and authenticity in every frame. It’s a simple story of Kayla (the wonderful Elsie Fisher) who is weeks away from completing her middle school years and entering the summer before high school. She’s terribly introverted and awkward, only able to find her voice when recording her YouTube pep talk videos. Because of the protagonist’s shy nature, Burnham smartly uses the YouTube videos often as voice over to offer better insight into the kind of person Kayla would like to present herself, sometimes contrasting with the real-life version struggling to find her place and sense of self. This is an observant film that rings with authenticity with the trials and tribulations of modern teenagers in the information age, where small screens are an escape, a crutch, but also a gateway to self-discovery. Fisher is a terrific lead, perfectly capturing the understated sense of a real average teenager (acne included). Because of the introverted and ordinary nature of her, it does take a while to fully embrace her as a character. This is the one real aspect that holds back Burnham’s film. You’ll feel for Kayla, oh you’ll feel a lot of things, but it isn’t until later that you’ll engage with her. Like its heroine, this is a powerfully awkward movie with several cringe-inducing moments both comic and scary. It’s hard to watch at times but it feels completely relatable even with the new-fangled gadgets of the kids these days. I’m just glad I didn’t grow up in the age of ever-present recording devices. It’s a generous movie without an excess of quirk. In fact the movie is pretty restrained with its vision of teenage uncertainty. I did enjoy the synth wave leitmotif that would pound whenever Kayla caught sight of the boy she was crushing on, communicating the beating of her heart in a cool, modern style. The climax involves a heart-to-heart with Kayla’s dad (Josh Hamilton), a man struggling to navigate the changes in his daughter and respect her privacy and curiosity. It brought tears to my eyes and, in my opinion, wipes the floor with the much-ballyhooed paternal advice from Call Me By Your Name. Burnham acquits himself nicely as a director. His choices are determined by his story, and he draws out completely natural performances from his troupe of talented actors. I never would have thought this would be the kind of story a comic drenched in irony would tackle. Eighth Grade is a sincere, deeply heartfelt, and awkward movie about an awkward time most of us would like to skip. Don’t skip Eighth Grade.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Coming-of-age movies typically coast on a combination of mood, sense of place, and character, and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird excels in all areas and supplies a straight shot of happiness to the senses. Gerwig serves as solo writer and director and tells a semi-autobiographical story of “Lady Bird,” a quirky, determined, feisty, self-involved, and vulnerable teenager (Saoirse Ronan) trying to leave the lower-middle-class confines of her Sacramento life for bigger pastures. Ronan (Brooklyn) is spectacular in the title role and displays a heretofore-unseen sparkling sense for comedy, punctuating Gerwig’s many witty lines with the exact right touch. This can be a very funny movie and it has a deep ensemble of players. Ronan’s character is a magnetic force of nature that commands your attention and finds ways to surprise. The film follows her high school senior year’s ups and downs, potential new friends, bad boyfriends, social orders, family struggles, jobs, and most importantly her dream of getting into an East Coast college and leaving the trap she sees is her hometown. Her parents (Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts) are stressed and exasperated with their demanding daughter. Metcalf (TV’s Roseanne) is outstandingly affecting as the beleaguered matriarch. Much of the movie’s ongoing conflict, and later triumphs, revolve around the fraught mother/daughter relationship, and Ronan and Metcalf are never better than when squaring off. This is a movie rich in authentic lived-in details and observations. It can stray into overly quirky territory but Gerwig as director has a remarkable feel for when to hold back. There’s a genuine and poignant family drama at its heart that doesn’t get lost amid the whimsical additions that cater to Lady Bird’s vibrant personality. By the end of a coming-of-age movie, the characters should feel a little wiser, having learned through heartache, bad choices, and changes in perspective. This isn’t a movie about big moments but about the ebb and flow of life and the formation of one’s sense of self. We should enjoy having spent time with these characters on their journeys. With Lady Bird, I couldn’t stop smiling like an idiot.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Director Sean Baker has become one of indie cinema’s most probing, humanist voices for the outliers of our society. His previous films looked at aspiring adult film industry performers, transsexual prostitutes, and now with The Florida Project, an assortment of low-income and homeless families. The film has been buzzed about by critics for months and has started to pick up some serious awards traction. The film does an admirable job of illuminating a childhood on the fringes of society. I just wish it had done more.
Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) is a young child living in a rundown motel miles from Disney World. Her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), relies chiefly upon hustling Disney tourists to make money. Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is the manager of the motel. He’s sympathetic to the families turning their stays into homeless residency, but he also needs rules to be abided and rent money paid. He’s concerned about Halley’s choices and how they are impacting, and will impact, the life of her daughter. Over the course of a few weeks during the hot summer, Moonee’s life will never be the same.
The Florida Project is a slice-of-life drama from the perspective of a young child, and to that end it’s quite immersive and empathetic. Little Moonee and her group of friends feel extensively real, so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if director/co-writer Baker just turned on his camera and simply said, “Go,” and sat back. Much of the movie, and perhaps even half, is watching Moonee and friends play, explore, and interact with a larger world that they don’t fully understand. There are heavier realities kept at the peripheral. Moonee doesn’t know that she and her friends are living in poverty. She doesn’t know that her fun mom is actually an irresponsible parent. She doesn’t know that the weird guy watching them play that Bobby forcefully removes is very likely a pedophile. She doesn’t know the illegal activities of her mother to make ends meet. This limited perspective is also the same given to the audience. A mother/daughter photo session that seems innocuous and a little sweet is later revealed to have seedier ulterior motives. We follow Moonee on her jaunts to investigate the rundown neighborhood, and somehow in that missing time Halley has gained money for rent. It’s not quite a whimsical, romanticized version of life in poverty like the misguided yet critically beloved Beasts of the Southern Wild. Instead, it’s more a selective perspective that focuses on the innocence and imagination of children but without romanticizing the reality of poverty. It’s like a different coming-of-age film where future versions of characters would look back and think about all the things they didn’t know when they were just kids.
Baker and his production do an excellent job of making you feel the day-to-day reality of modern poverty and the struggles of people to simply exist and without condemnation. Halley would be charitably described as a bad mom, and yet she finds ways to provide for her child even if they jeopardize her custody. Halley is far too immature to be responsible for another human being, but not all of the other women are that way. Other women in the purple motel find legal means to provide and they take a concerted interest in the well being of their children. Halley’s adult friend is able to hold down a stable waitress job. Halley is too unruly, immature, and careless to do the same. Halley’s last job was working as a stripper, though she never tries getting a job at what I have to assume are a plethora of competing strip clubs adjacent to the commercial Disney tourist empire. This is very much a visual document of systemic poverty that illuminates the hardscrabble lives of people on the fringes of society trying to stay afloat. It’s rich in details like the knowing swapping of residents between local motels for one day a month to skip past residency declaration laws. It’s an interesting hidden world that feels rarely given this kind of caring close-up.
Baker has a great talent at finding non-actors who have great acting potential to essentially play versions of themselves. From Starlet, Tangerine, and now Florida Project, Baker has a tremendous gift for discovering people. There is an absence of mannered performance tics; the characters feel real because the actors are acting very naturally. These unsupervised kids are behaving like bratty kids. Brooklyn Prince is phenomenal as Moonee and a born performer. She has an innate charm that left me laughing often. Her improvisation is terrific although some of her lines definitely out themselves as being the written ones (“I can always tell when adults are about to cry”). Vinaite (Harmony Korine’s upcoming Beach Bum) is aggravating and yet you still wish that at some point she would turn it around or come to some latent epiphany. Halley feels, infuriatingly, very authentic in every one of her moments. She is dooming her child to a comparable trapped life of limited appeal and escape, but she can’t help herself and only focuses on the immediacy of life when life is so transitory and pessimistic. Dafoe (Murder on the Orient Express) is the moral center of the film and you feel his genuine unease in every pained glance. He has to hold his authority but he’s still very sympathetic for the motel’s collection of people that modern society has easily forgotten about.
With that being said, I understood what Baker and The Florida Project was going for and I found it to be underwhelming because there wasn’t much more than an established world. This is a movie with a very loose definition of plotting. After a while, without a better sense of plot momentum, it all starts to blend together into redundancy. It doesn’t help when many of the scenes can be less than ten seconds long. Here’s Moonee and her pal eating ice cream. Here’s Moonee and her friend running in the rain. Here’s Moonee and her friend hugging. Here’s Moonee in the bathtub. It becomes a lower class triptych of establishing its world and mood, but a little goes a long way. All of that could have been established and sustained in the first act, and then the story could have launched into a greater sense of change. I may lose some hipster critic cred points but as it continued I was partly wishing that the movie had been more conventional. Perhaps Bobby becomes more involved in the life of Moonee, taking custody of her while her mother was missing or going through social services review. He’s already a quasi-surrogate father figure so why not better explore that dynamic? The characters lack a depth to them, partially because we’re following children just being children, partially because we have characters drifting through life. It’s still lacking.
This was another example of an indie film sacrificing character and story to the altar of realism. I wrote a similar complaint in my 2012 pan of Beasts: “But all of these setting details do not take the place of an involving story and characters we should care about. I felt sorry for the various residents and their lot in life, but I never felt attached to any of them. That’s because they’re bland and simplistically drawn, but also because Beasts doesn’t bother to do anything else other than create its rich, tragic, harsh world. It’s authentic all right, but what does all that authenticity have to add to genuine character work? Artistic authenticity is not always synonymous with telling a good story.”
Immersive and genuine, The Florida Project is awash in details for a way of life rarely given this much attention and empathy. The acting is very natural and the young children especially behave recognizably like young children. Keeping the perspective of the film attached to the child is an interesting gamut as it keeps some of the harsher aspects of this world and the people from the same kind of direct exposure. It allows the film to have a degree of innocence without romanticizing poverty as some kind of fairy tale. It was a perfectly fine movie that I just happened to want more from, in particular a non-redundant story with more significant plot events and characters that felt multi-dimensional and developed over the engagement. I kept waiting for more and was simply left waiting. Even the symbolism of being on the outskirts of Disney World, the materialistic “happiest place on Earth,” felt barely toyed with. The Florida Project is a good start to a good movie but it needed continued refinement and attention to be something more than an inquisitive magazine article brought to careful cinematic life.
Nate’s Grade: B-
One way to stand out in a crowded marketplace is to differentiate your movie by making it weird and whimsical. Just being different can grab your attention, and Brigsby Bear and Dave Made a Maze are definitely different. Both of these indie films attracted attention for their unusual concepts and lo-fi designs, banking on a sense of nostalgia for a homemade style of art that’s a little rough around the edges. These might be two of the strangest films that will be released in 2017.
James (Saturday Night Live’s Kyle Mooney) is living underground with his parents, April (Jane Adams) and Ted (Mark Hamil). He does his homework, listens to his parents about never going outside, and anxiously waits every new episode of Brigsby Bear, a children’s fantasy TV show starring a Teddy Ruxbin-looking bear that teaches life lessons. Eventually we discover that April and Ted are not, in fact, James’ parents. They abducted him when he was a baby. The FBI raids their compound and returns James to his biological family, the Popes (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins as mom and dad, Ryan Simpkins as younger sis). James just wants to know when the next episode of Brigsby will come out. Unfortunately for James, Brigsby isn’t real. Ted produced the show on a nearby sound stage. He’d even occasionally hire other actors. James is the world’s most knowledgeable fan of a TV show no other person knows one iota about. He’s determined to give it a proper ending and recruits family, friends, and neighbors to make the ultimate Brigsby movie.
I was pleasantly surprised at how effectively Brigsby Bear was at being cheery and sincere. I was expecting, given the premise, an ironic riff on nerd culture or obsessive fandom, and Mooney and company instead decided to play things very seriously. They take a fantastic premise that seems begging for derisive commentary and choose to find a human story within the absurd. That’s much more commendable and harder to achieve. As I’m aging, I’m becoming more and more appreciative of sincerity over irony (part of this is also that our modern age is inundated with irony). I was reminded of last year’s Swiss Army Man, an alarmingly strange movie with Harry Potter’s farting corpse and went for sincerity without any whiff of detached irony. Brigsby Bear isn’t at the same level of artistic accomplishment and lasting power as Swiss Army Man, but it’s an unconventional and touching movie that earns its quirky-yet-feel-good emotions.
It’s easy to see where this story could have exclusively dwelt in psychological darkness. James was abducted as a child and raised in a strange environment that makes him emotionally stunted and grossly ill prepared for the real world outside his reclusive safe space. The movie could have understandably dealt with James’ crippling sense of loneliness, betrayal, and inability to assimilate since his sense of self were cultivated by a fake children’s TV show. He could have easily been the creepy oddball who makes people uncomfortable. Instead, they made him the goofy oddball who makes people smile. His childlike sense of wonder is in tact and frees him from self-doubt. James is remarkably cheery for having his world turned upside down, and the movie follows his lead. This movie could have been another perplexing Dogtooth and instead it’s more accurately reminiscent of those old Mickey Rooney “we’re putting on a show” pictures. I was waiting for a moment of artificial conflict, a darker plot turn late into the film where perhaps it’s revealed that Ted was a molester. There’s 700 episodes of Brigsby Bear so I figured a few of them would reveal disturbing clues about something even worse. The film never does take that darker turn and instead stays upbeat to the very end.
As he adjusts to his new home, the movie serves as both a delayed coming-of-age movie and a love letter to the power of creativity and how it can build community. With James transported into the outside world, much is made over his awkwardness with human interactions and his complete lack of guile. He gets his first kiss with a girl, and shortly after his first handjob, and wonders if that means they have to get married. It’s a sweetly naïve reflection. We watch the growing pains of James as he starts to make friends and become more confident in himself, which is a surefire way to win over an audience. James isn’t held up for ridicule. People want to be part of his project. He’s overcoming adversity and triumphing through the transformative power of art. There’s a joy in watching characters find themselves anew, and James serves as the catalyst. This person knows how to do special effects. This person used to act when they were in college. In his heartfelt attempt to provide closure to the Brigsby series, and possibly a chapter in his life, James’ project takes on a life of its own that brings people together. It shows how the community of art can be an empowering venture that can freely inspire the best in others.
The movie doesn’t become overly reliant upon nostalgia either. I figured it would be an ode to 80s television and culture but it really just uses that as backdrop. The world building of the show of Brigsby is bizarre and entertaining every time it’s included, especially when you comprehend the propaganda messages that Ted is sneaking in like, “Curiosity is an unnatural emotion.” The sense of wonder and whimsy doesn’t overwhelm the movie and its poignancy. Director Dave McCary (Saturday Night Live) makes the most of the retro pastiches while still serving the story. James could just have easily been obsessed with any show or ongoing work of art. The content of the show is unimportant. It’s about facilitating his growth into a person comfortable and confident with whom they are. By the end of the film, I was fighting back tears as the full assembly of characters watches the finished product of their labor. You watch them smile, laugh, take a sense of pride in their communal efforts, and they can see the world as James does. It’s a whole-heartedly pleasurable movie with surprising currents of emotional uplift.
With Dave Made a Maze, the titular Dave (a beardless Nick Thune) is lost in a maze that he built in the apartment he shares with his beleaguered girlfriend, Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani). This maze consists of a cluster of cardboard boxes taped together. In time, a group of their friends and even strangers have assembled to admire the maze. Dave warns them not to enter but they do so anyway, and once inside they realize that the maze is considerably bigger and byzantine, and everyone expectedly gets lost. Annie and a documentary crew travel (lead by James Urbaniak) deep into the maze to rescue Dave. They all must confront booby traps, a Minotaur, thirty-something existential ennui, and the unsettling realization that the maze is expanding all on its own.
The real star of Dave Made a Maze is the fantastical environment inside the maze. The resourcefulness, imagination, and implementation of such a bizarre vision on such a limited budget is incredible. Each new room offers a new opportunity for the surreal. The characters stumble from room to room in mixtures of awe and bemusement, and the audience will feel the exact same way. Production designers Trisha Gum and John Sunner, and Art Director Jeff White, come from a world of animation, and they’re meticulous attention to detail pays off to an astonishing degree. In a just world, they would be nominated for an Oscar. There’s a DIY inventiveness that carries an irresistible charm with it, re-purposing everyday items to create a unique and whimsical world. Even when people are being gored to death and dismembered it adheres to the whimsical tone. The blood is replaced by red yarn, confetti, and silly string. The movie smartly underplays the lack of consistent logic within the world of the maze, and so weird things can just happen at a moment’s notice, like the main characters turning into puppet versions of themselves made out of paper lunch bags. There’s even a half-finished maze within the maze, which draws derision from the tired and frustrated people just seeking a way out. Some of the weirdness feels too half-formed and self-conscious, but the movie has an Eternal Sunshine quality where each new location provides another enjoyable opportunity for potential discovery.
Where Dave Made a Maze runs into problems is when you realize there isn’t anything beyond that sense of invention. There isn’t a larger thematic core to this movie and the characters remain, at best, background players elevated to starting status. Most of these characters are jokes but they don’t even supply much in the way of jokes. The closet to a substantive theme is simply an arrested development fable where the man-child is struggling to finish a laboring artistic accomplishment, he feels humbled and humiliated, and his strained relationship with his accommodating girlfriend will always come together in the clincher. Dave lashes out that he didn’t feel like an adult at 30, so maybe he retreated to the halcyon days of childhood, or maybe it was a nostalgic retreat. Whatever the case may be, the movie suffers from an inevitable lull once the giddy novelty of its DIY fantasy starts to wear off. There’s one sequence where Dave and Annie have a circular conversation that just keeps going, and I’m sure if the filmmakers weren’t so desperate for material that it would have been trimmed down significantly.
Even at 76 minutes before credits, this is a movie that feels stretched beyond the limit because it’s lacking greater consideration to story. There are jokes that feel like they should be funnier too, like a latecomer to the maze who sets off the traps that Dave warns about earlier. This should be a fun structural payoff, allowing us to see both sides of the rooms. It doesn’t really work out that way, and the bumbling latecomer becomes another relatively unmemorable and undeveloped body on screen taking up space. The documentary crew conveys some mild satire as the crew leader keeps prodding others into saying what he needs for his movie, but even this inclusion feels more like a transparent device to get the characters to talk through plot points. Another misfire is the curious lack of stakes. The movie has a light-hearted charm but then doesn’t ever quite make up its mind on the danger being confronted. Real friends die for real. By the end of the movie, they do not come back even after the maze is kaput. They are really dead. Yet the film plays the stakes at a low simmer and the survivors just sort of shrug and move on. The film gives me little reason to be attached to any of these people, alive or dead.
Whimsy is a fleeting feeling that’s hard to conceive and harder to hold onto. Both movies take whimsical premises that cater to the peculiar but only one delivers something of lasting substance. Brigsby Bear is a charming, heartfelt, and exceedingly sincere movie about an oddball finding his place in the world through the power of the creative process. He is transformed through his love of art and how that serves as the foundation for community. Whereas Dave Made a Maze is a lo-fi curio that I can admire more than enjoy. It’s missing crucial elements that make its journey worth the effort, beside its imaginative and scrappy production design. Both movies are charged by the power of the imagination to transport the ordinary into the extraordinary. Brigsby remembers to use its flights of imagination and whimsy to tell an engaging and ultimately touching story. Dave Made a Maze has cool sets and some infectious silliness. If you see one story of a man-child escaping into a world of nostalgic imagination and inviting friends to tag along, make it Brigsby, a film that uses whimsy to still tell compelling human stories.
Brigsby Bear: A-
Dave Made a Maze: C+
Stephen King movies have had a spotty track record at best. For every Shawshank Redemption or The Shining, there’s an overwhelming multitude of disappointments and dreck, including this summer’s long gestating and prophetically disappointing Dark Tower adaptation. The two-part It mini-series came out in 1990 and is best known for Tim Curry’s unnerving performance. Otherwise, it wasn’t that great itself but, grading upon a steep King curve, it comes out as perfectly tolerable. Hollywood has been trying to get a new It movie in development for years, and I mostly just shrugged at the idea. Did we really need another version? After seeing the 135-minute finished film, I can say that the answer to that is a definitive and enthusiastic yes. It is a fiendishly fun horror movie with rapturously composed visuals, an affecting emotional core, and impressive craftsmanship. It’s easily already in the top echelon of King adaptations.
Back in 1989, children have been mysteriously disappearing from the small town of Derry, Maine. Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is still recovering from his younger brother who went missing one fateful rainy day. Bill holds onto the hope that somehow his brother is still alive, washed away through Derry’s series of sewers. He and his group of friends, affectionately nick-named The Losers, are being hunted and haunted by a strange clown who calls himself Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). This evil clown feasts on the children’s fears and has been frightening Derry every 27 years, snatching children to consume, including Bill’s lost little brother. The Losers band together to stop this clown menace.
Director Andy Muschietti (Mama) brilliantly brings to life a dynamic funhouse of scares, suspense, and big screen delights that will leave you howling for more. Much like James Wan’s Conjuring films, Muschietti doesn’t present anything radically new into the world of horror, but he takes older, sustained horror techniques and executes them to near perfection. The greatness of horror is when you simmer in that delicious sense of tension nervously awaiting what’s to come next. For this effect to have any punch, a filmmaker needs to lay a deliberate foundation to then twist and manipulate. Muschietti is amazing at heightening the atmosphere of dread and drawing it out. There are scares in It that are textbook in their masterful orchestration. Take for instance a scene with Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) in the basement of a library. He looks over his shoulder to see an ashen child’s body standing on the stairs. Given the lowered camera angle, the top of the ceiling cuts off the ashen kid’s head. Then as he stumbles down the stairs it’s revealed… he has no head. It’s a startling reveal and it carries on from there. Pennywise coming through a haunted slideshow of Derry was another creepy highlight. The red balloon of Pennywise transforms into an alarming totem for the audience, a signal to begin your nervous anticipation. The movie keeps finding new ways to creep you out until the very end. It’s movies like It that can remind you what tremendous fun horror movies can achieve.
Let’s get straight to the clown, the star of so many nightmares. Curry is the reason why anyone remembers the 1990 TV mini-series. Fortunately, Skarsgard (Atomic Blonde) goes in his own direction for his own personal interpretation of the character. There are similar tics, in particular the lisp, but Skarsgard makes it his own and he is wonderful. His command over his body is incredible and it magnifies the creepiness of every appearance. He holds his cheeks together in a rictus grin that looks downright painful, and he’ll lock into expressions and just let dribbles of saliva drip off his chin. Even while playing this big, broad, malicious character with a penchant for theatricality, Skarsgard can find little touches to create an even more unsettling impression. I’ve never been impressed by Skarsgard’s performances before, mostly amounting to my unchecked hatred of his awful Netflix TV series, Hemlock Grove. He impressed the hell out of me in It. This is a Pennywise that has such loose, alarming contortion over his body. When he pulls his face back revealing row after row of sharp teeth, it’s almost a relief from the more horrifying human version of Skarsgard’s outsized antics. Tim Curry owned his character’s sense of campiness. In contrast, Skarsgard feels deliberately more unhinged and also a creature in complete revelry of being so deranged. If you have a fear of clowns, I would advise that you simply never watch this movie in your entire life.
While I was expecting the big top entertainment from Pennywise, I was surprised at how involving and relatable the teenage drama can be. The screenwriters have done an admirable job at taking time to establish the characters and their relationships to one another. The town of Derry is a world of criminally neglectful adults. Everyone in this town seems to be an asshole; even the librarian chides Ben for the indecency of looking at books in a library during the summer (do your job, lady!). It’s a world where grownups disappoint and where adulthood is just a miserly existence of abuses. Beverly’s father lecherously takes ownership over his daughter’s body. Eddie’s (Jack Dylan Grazer) hypochondriac mother tries to lock her son away from the larger world, not out of protection but out of her own selfish comfort. These are the kind of people that look the other way while the local town bullies are literally carving initials into a child’s flesh. With all of this awfulness, the coming together of the Losers and their unified friendship provides a lifeline of support. They’re relatable, realistic, and heart-warming in their affection for one another. They talk and act like authentic kids, which also means they make dumb decisions out of curiosity. The movie stops to share little coming-of-age moments that ring true, like Beverly’s (Sophia Lillis) awkwardness at shopping for her first tampons or the boys trying to act cool in front of a girl. As he did with Mama, Muschietti is super-humanly adept at directing child actors. Seriously, he might have to direct all child performances from here on. The young actors do fine work at building out their characters, though some are expectedly underwritten. Special notice should go to Lieberher (Midnight Special) as the stuttering Bill still trying to grasp his brother’s death.
Given the childish nature of the fears and the theatricality of its villain, the movie is inevitably going to skid into goofy territory, but instead of rejecting this It swerves into the skid and becomes even better. When you deal with a killer shape-shifting clown who hides in the sewers and lives upon the fear of children, things can get silly and pretending otherwise is a waste of time and energy. Muschietti and company acknowledge the otherworldly with proud panache, making the goofiness part of the fun and ultimately part of the terror. Skarsgard is tremendous at turning on a dime, having his lisping, big grinned clown go from broad and ridiculous to terrifying, and he can do it with just a look. It happens even in his earliest big screen appearance. This is a Pennywise who feels like an alien’s idea of a party clown; the original elements are there but connect wrong or are amped up. There are a couple instances where Pennywise dances, and I absolutely adored each. His malevolent gesticulations felt like an exaggerated cartoon given unholy life, which seemed more than fitting. You may laugh at points and then gasp the next, and I’m fully convinced that’s the intended response. The childhood fears are much improved from the classic Universal monsters from the original novel (I’m sorry, nobody is afraid of mothballed versions of Dracula or Frankenstein in this day and age). Seeing them manifested as misaligned phantoms is far worse, even if the effect might not be as jarring without the accompanying music and sound design.
The only structural problem I would cite is that It has a little too much fun with its scary set pieces and starts to feel redundant in the middle. It becomes a figurative funhouse (before the literal haunted house) of set pieces with each one of the Losers being tormented by our clownish friend multiple times. There are seven of them after all. We could have probably done with one or two fewer of these encounters. You’re having so much fun waiting with anticipation for each encounter that I can’t complain too hard. It’s difficult to push yourself away from the funhouse and get back on track to a narrative conclusion meant to cleave a 1000-page book into a workable satisfying endpoint. I thought the bully character featured considerably throughout the story was going to become an increasingly significant antagonist into Act Three. That didn’t quite happen. The ending scene bonding the children together also seems to exist in such an earnest tone, and yet the amount of blood onscreen for their bloody hand-holding ritual is comically excessive, which caused me to giggle. I choose to believe it was Muschietti undercutting the feel-good triumphant moments with some darkly macabre touches, to remind the viewer that while our characters have survived they are still forever distorted.
Let’s also discuss the most controversial aspect of the original novel that so many people seem to have conveniently forgotten and for good reason. Spoilers follow, though they do not pertain to this adaptation, because nobody in their right mind would ever include this. At the end of the childhood section, as the kids defeat Pennywise, they’re all coming down from facing the living embodiment of their fears. So what do you do next? Well if your answer is “have a child orgy,” then you’re correct, and also likely sick in the head. The kids all start having group sex, in the dank sewers mind you, with Beverly, the only girl, being the recipient of much of it. It’s an out-of-nowhere plot development that serves no justifiable artistic purpose and feels so wrong-headed that it’s hard to believe. But it’s real, folks. King won’t admit what seems the most obvious culprit (he was on a lot of drugs in the 1980s), and instead has offered some strange rationale saying the act was a connection between childhood and adulthood and… I don’t know. This narrative choice also grossly mistreats Beverly. It seems like an obvious and baffling misstep to have a pre-teen girl suffer viciously demeaning sexual rumors, the very real sexual abuse from her father, and then decide her ultimate gift to the group of boys that accepted her is to let them all have their way with her (excuse me while I vomit). Stephen King, just admit you were on drugs and this was a weird, lamentable mistake. It’s that easy, man.
The newest incarnation of It is a glorious chiller with top-notch acting, directing, cinematography, production design, sound design, and just about all the elements that suffered from the lackluster 1990 TV mini-series. The 2017 movie is top-notch nightmarish mayhem treated as a marquee thrill ride. You strap yourself in and wait for the carefully calibrated scares and suspense and payoffs. However, the human element is not lost amidst the ride, and the children and their bond forms an emotional anchor. Muschietti demonstrates a consistent mastery of classic horror techniques. He allows scenes to build, to surprise, to startle in uncomfortable ways. Having such a talent at the helm, I was pinned to my seat and lapping up every moment of wonderful unease. The It mini-series was split into two stores, one focusing on the characters as children and another as middle-aged adults (the childhood stuff was, without question, superior material). The movie ends with the title “Chapter One” and the promise that, if the box office gods deliver, there will be a second chapter transporting us to the present. I was indifferent before but not longer. Muschietti has made me a believer. Give me more of It.
Nate’s Grade: A-
The Only Living Boy in New York may have made me hate New York. I was rolling my eyes at about every moment of this movie, not just because it wads cliché, not just because it confused the cliché with transcendent and relatable commentary, not just because the characters were aggressively loathsome and inauthentic, and not because it appears to be someone’s idea of Graduate Lite (though, yes, these are all contributing factors). It’s because the movie takes the easy way out at every route and wants to be congratulated for its artistic integrity.
Thomas (Callum Turner) is a twenty-something who feels that New York City has lost what made it special. He’s drifting through life, thinking about becoming a writer, and also trying to romance his best friend Mimi (Kiersey Clemons). His mother (Cynthia Nixon) self-medicates via dinner parties. His father (Pierce Brosnan) has a different approach, namely sleeping with another woman, Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). Thomas follows Johanna and makes his presence known to her. He convinces himself he’s falling in love with her and impulsively chases her as a romantic option as well.
I think the movie wants me to be charmed by its male lead, the young protagonist that looks like a lanky Richard Gere. This twerp made me so angry and he pretty much embodied a creepy blend of entitlement. He’s tired of being in the friend zone with Mimi, but he keeps pushing, sneaking unauthorized kisses, and trying to wear down her defenses after she’s told him no. She’s annoyed that her friendship is by itself not good enough for him, and even though they had one “magic night,” that he won’t accept her repeated stances about not wanting to be together romantically. But what’s a woman’s ability to choose matter to Thomas, who we’re constantly told from every other character in this stupid movie, is clever, bright, good, virtuous, and a prized talent in the making. The movie never shows you these things, never provides evidence of his talents or even his virtues, and so it becomes another series of empty gestures. He’s just so captivating that all the women of New York can’t help themselves around him. This wouldn’t feel so tone deaf and backwards if the film did a better job of making Thomas feel like a living, breathing human being rather than some misguided, coming-of-age hipster creep.
The premise here has promise, a wayward son who ends up having an affair with his father’s mistress. That could work and devise plenty of palpable dramatic tension. Except because we never get to know Thomas beyond a superficial level, the affair only feels like another conquest of entitlement. Even a more interesting subtext, punishing his father for putting their family dynamic at risk, is only kept at a distance. What does Thomas learn about himself, his father, Johanna, or the world through his affair? If you cannot come up with a good answer then that means your plot point is lacking substance. Perhaps they just like the danger or the attention of one another, and yes Beckinsale (pick an Underworld movie) is an attractive woman so that’s a plus for a horny young lad. Most frustratingly, nothing seems to be pressed by this affair. It pushes some eventual third act confrontations but Thomas and Johanna’s tryst, for lack of a better term, just kind of lies there. It doesn’t do much, which is strange considering what it involves. It feels like its real purpose is to engineer jealousy from Mimi, which is gross. Johanna is never more than another trophy for the most blithe boy in New York.
The drama is pitched to a level that feels like it dances into self-parody, except it plays everything so unrelentingly serious. The narration begins by calling out life moments pulled from movie watching, but then it presents these very moments without any ounce of satire. We open with a New York dinner party where the attendees lament how the city has lost its soul (“The only soul left is Soul Cycle,” someone says like the worst 1980s stand-up comedian). Oh no, CBGB’s closed down. Oh no, there are Starbucks on multiple corners. Oh no, a city of ten million plus people is now only a commercialized hell, worry the rich elites from their ivory towers and their faulty memories of New York City being more pure when it was older. Not one character feels like an actual human being in this screenplay by Allan Loeb (Collateral Beauty). This is the kind of elitist, out-of-touch, artificial, self-involved characterization of New Yorkers that hacky conservative writers like to cling to when criticizing their big city targets.
The actors do relatively fine work with what they’re given, though special mention to Brosnan who tries his hardest to imbue notes of complexity in a character that, for 90 percent of the movie, is set up as a snide and disapproving patriarch. I don’t want to give up on Turner (Assassin’s Creed) as an actor because the part did him no favors. Mostly I just felt sorry for them. Cynthia Nixon deserves better. The charming Kiersey Clemons (Dope) deserves better. Jeff Bridges is an executive producer, so he deserves what he gets as an alcoholic author/mentor with an out-of-nowhere ending that feels pulled from a soap opera. These characters are powerfully boring, shallow, and unappealing.
At only 88 minutes long, The Only Living Boy in New York still feels punishing in length, protracted, and not worth the overall effort. Even the title makes me irritable. It’s a reference to the Simon & Garfunkel song that you better believe will get played, one more desperate attempt to glom onto the legacy of The Graduate. The title refers to Thomas, our entitled hipster of a lead, but does that mean that he’s the only one who really feels things, man, because the rest of us are just dead to the world, living our lives, and this hip young man just sees through all the nonsense of the day-to-day and, man, if only we could give him the platform he so rightly deserves then we’d all be better off. I wanted the cameraman to abandon the film and run a few corners and join a new set (it’s New York City, so by the law of averages, there has to be another film shoot a few blocks away). The Only Living Boy in New York is insufferable, haughty, pretentious, privileged navel-gazing masquerading as deep thought; it is smug New York hipster twaddle.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Justine (Garance Marilliier, looking like a Gallic Rooney Mara) comes from a family of vegetarians and veterinarians. She’s entering a famed veterinary college as a legacy and her big sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), is already established among the school hierarchy. The incoming students are mercilessly hazed and Justine is forced to eat meat against her will. This moment unlocks a secret craving within her that consumes her. She starts looking at her fellow students less as dinner dates and more as dinner.
For the first half of Raw I thought I was watching a French nouveau version of Carrie. The first half of the movie is dominated by the pressures, and in particular, the cruel hazing from the upperclassmen at the college. The hazing is extreme, rampant, and omnipresent, with every older classmate throwing around his or her sense of privilege and bullying the freshmen candidates. It’s the kind of harassment and abuse we’ve seen in other stories relating to fraternities and sororities where institutions of power abuse others because they were abused and so on and so on, normalizing the cruelty. However, those are organizations that are elective and enclaves among a larger campus. With Raw, it appears that every upperclassman is part of this system of hazing, meaning there is no escape if the young candidates want to continue their education. The professors seem complicit in their negligence, and Justine even has one professor who hilariously criticizes her for doing too well in class. He says her good scores are depressing the other students, possibly making them become worse doctors. The overall impression of this scholarly environment is one of sickness and exploitation. There’s even a culminating “class picture” where they are bathed in buckets of (pig?) blood. With this sort of build-up, I was anticipating that when Justine got her crazy cravings that the movie was going to set up some tasty just desserts for these sadistic upperclassmen. I was looking forward to these mean people getting killed and eaten to service Justine. Perhaps that’s the American version of what this movie would become, or my own preferred version with the established first half, but that’s not the movie Raw ends up becoming.
Stuck somewhere between body horror and weird compulsion, Raw falters trying to stake its own territory. It’s definitely structured like a coming-of-age/sexual awakening story except said awakening is connected with cannibalism. That’s an excellent starting point for some cringe horror but Raw gets too lost in its dreamlike atmospherics. We explore rave-like revelries, hedonistic escapades, and the allure of the unknown. The best part of the film is the deterioration of Justine’s inhibitions as she gives in to her inner carnivore. There’s an obvious carnality metaphor here (college is a time for experimentation) and there’s a clear entertainment factor in watching a meek character assert herself. Her character gets lost in the oblique mystery that leaves a lot of unanswered questions and unclear motivations. One minute our heroine is rejecting the pressure of her peers and the next she’s nibbling on a severed finger. Her downward spiral doesn’t feel adequately developed as she’s immediately caught in the swirl of campus hazing. The progression feels phony. Outrageous things happen without a tonal grounding, and so it feels more like David Lynch dream logic. I could better accept this drifting quality if the movie had more plot to offer. At the halfway mark, once big sis makes her major personal reveal, the movie generally stalls. The plot doesn’t advance, the characters don’t really deepen, and we’re getting variations on the same things from before. The body horror elements don’t fully feel integrated as well. Justine has breakouts of hives and rashes, presumably from eating meat, though this comes and goes. She doesn’t ever seem too fraught over what she may be becoming, but maybe that’s just being French.
Writer/director Julia Ducournau certainly has talent and a natural way of handling her actors, but her film debut is just trying too hard. The constant crimson color scheme is heavy-handed to convey the protagonist’s frayed state of mind. The symbolism is also just as obvious. The suppression of darker, more animalistic desires is an intriguing concept, except several of the jumps in character development, or debasement, happen while Justine is unconscious. This provides a “what did we do last night?” air of mystery but it also hinders the character growth on screen. It’s like the movie is trying to have Justine sleep through her character development. It’s too bad because there are fascinating pieces and ideas that emerge like flotsam in the wake of Ducournau’s tale. The second half has the potential to become a bizarre sisterly bonding story. How far is each sister willing to go to help the other and to cover up for her actions? Will there be a rivalry when they target the same man? These kinds of questions could have further explored their relationship, but alas it was not to be. You’ll never know how the sisters are supposed to feel for one another throughout the movie. The characters are pretty thin to begin with and then Ducournau introduces a new element to provide added dimension and then lets it slip away. Back to shock value and obvious metaphors.
Here’s an example how Raw gets too caught up in the sensations of the moment, the allure of its images, which admittedly are a key part to horror. There’s a scene where Justine is dancing in front of a mirror. She’s wearing her sister’s clubbing dress, an article of clothing she had earlier been disdainful over. Now she sways to the beats of a rap song and applies lipstick to her pert lips. She then gazes lustfully at her reflection and leans into the mirror, kissing it and herself. And then she does this for another minute, going in for like four more kisses, as if one wasn’t sufficient. We get the idea pretty early, about Justine’s emerging new self, her carnal cravings, and yet Ducournau keeps going, convinced that redundancy is required to satisfactorily convey obsession.
Raw is also somewhat notorious on the festival circuit for its shock value. Reportedly people were fainting or leaving in droves from the content of the movie. I think this hyperbolic response is overblown. There is a fair bit of gore in the movie but it’s almost all animal related. If you’re an animal lover, watching corpse after corpse might be too much. I certainly averted my eyes more than once during a dog carcass autopsy. The human gore is surprisingly minimal though bloody. By far the most squirm-inducing part of Raw didn’t involve cannibalism at all but a homemade Brazilian wax that gets a little too close for comfort for all involved. At least I now know what my tolerance level will be like for the eventual European coming-of-age horror film set at a waxing station.
While watching Raw with my friend Ben Bailey, we would occasionally turn to each other after a shocking or gratuitously exploitative scene and say, “It is a French movie.” When characters strip for casual nudity, or start chowing down on human remains, or frolic in blood-soaked clothing, we’d say, “It is a French movie.” This turned into a game, ultimately with us imagining a climax involving a cannibalistic ménage à trios. “That,” we remarked, “would be the ultimate French movie.” Raw is a seductive and intriguing movie that has enough surface-level pleasures for devoted horror hounds. Unfortunately, it feels like the least interesting version of this story and premise. There are interesting pieces here to be certain. I just wish someone else had assembled them.
Nate’s Grade: C+
What Moonlight achieves is both something different and familiar and amounts to nothing less than watching the birth of human identity on screen. The film chronicles three formative experiences at three different times of a man’s life, each serving as its own one-act play examining our protagonist and his tortured sense of self. The results are breathtaking and deeply immersive, allowing the formation of a human being to take place before your eyes in such magnificent artistic strokes. This is a sensitive, sincere, beautiful movie that serves as an indie coming-of-age tale sliced into three significant parts. I was completely under its sway within ten minutes, finding its perceptive perspective and nuances to be convincingly naturalistic. I felt like I was watching a documentary of a young black man’s life told with ferocious realism, or at least a loosely fictionalized version of a life informed by fully authentic personal experiences. It’s a somewhat ineffable quality for slice-of-life movies but they live or die on whether the film carries an unforced sense of realism, telling larger truths with small details, each piece coming together to make the world and the character feel fully formed. Moonlight pulls you immediately into its orbit thanks to its authentic drama and observations.
The three segments compliment one another as they build toward a young black man’s understanding of his homosexuality. We’ve seen movies before where characters undergo sexual awakenings and from gay perspectives; it’s practically a cottage industry unto itself in independent film. However, rarely have we seen this story from people of color. The expectations of accepted masculinity are entrenched at a young age, where “Little” (Alex Hibbert) is chided by, among others, his own mother Paula (Naomie Harris) for the “swishy” way he walks. It goes without saying that being gay is not exactly widely accepted in the Miami projects of the 1980s. This conflict of what makes a man is wonderfully symbolized with Juan (Mahershala Ali), an unexpected father figure that takes “Little” under his wing along with his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae). The kid wants to know how he can know if he’s gay because it’s certainly something he doesn’t want. Juan doesn’t pressure the boy or make big speeches about what it means to be a young black man in America. Instead, he tries teaching him to accept himself and provides an alternative home that serves as a refuge during his mother’s long absences and crack-withdrawal tirades. There’s a lovely moment where Juan teaches “Little” how to swim, and it’s touching in how recognizably father/son the activity is, how much trust is involved and vulnerability, and how the film doesn’t need to oversell the subtext. Juan definitely becomes the father figure that Chiron lives up to for the rest of his life. This first segment is dominated by their relationship but also Juan’s sense of responsibility. He’s making a living through selling drugs, including to “Little”’s own mother. In a very memorable and heated moment, Paula angrily calls out Juan for thinking he would make a better parent given the moral culpability of his own actions to her habit.
The second segment zooms ahead to when Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is a teenager in high school and subjected to hostile bullying. The schoolyard taunts from his youth have morphed into something more ferocious and toxic, as a collection of bullies torments Chiron and looks to rob him of his personal connections to others. The central focus on the middle segment is about the growing relationship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), the childhood friend who Chrion crushes on. Their closeness takes a leap one fateful night that Chrion will always remember. It’s an awakening and a confirmation of self, and it’s only after having this fulfilling outlet cruelly taken from him that Chiron finally lashes out, with lifelong repercussions. It’s an explosion we can see coming and one that feels fully set up. The second segment feels more familiar because of the age range and it’s the one with the dawning of sexual realization, a story situation we’ve seen before. What elevates it is that it’s a fairly direct carryover from the beginning segment, which means the personal issues have magnified for Chiron. His relationship with his mother has become even more frayed as he’s grown, and what once was name-calling and questions over his maturation has become confirmed. Her addiction has become even stronger and she’s harassing her own son for whatever meager money he’s given from Teresa, his surrogate mother figure. Chiron is struggling to make sense of his feelings in an upbringing lacking support and clarity. You could examine the conclusion of this segment as an empathetic cautionary tale, as we see the years of abuse and measured choices that lead to that confrontation.
The final segment is where Moonlight transforms into a late blooming unrequited romance that should steal your heart if it’s still functioning. “Black” (Trevanta Rhodes) is a fully-grown adult that has seemingly followed in the footsteps of Juan in a life of low-level crime. He’s hardened both emotionally and physically. The muscles will provide an intimidation factor missing during his youth if anyone questions his sexual leanings. He’s burrowed into himself and the role he feels he must accept, but all of that changes the instant he gets an apologetic and searching phone call from Kevin (Andre Holland). Now working as a chef at a diner, Kevin reaches out to his old friend though even he can’t fully explain why. This reawakens “Black”’s longing and he works up the courage to travel back to Miami to surprise the friend who meant so much to him. Their reunion is treated like the culmination of a romance that you may not have realized had you completely. After two segments of setup and years apart, you may find yourself projecting your thoughts to the screen, trying to compel these two men together. It’s an extended sequence that moves at a gradual pace, a fitting tempo for a character racked by insecurities and suppression. By going forward he’s taking a big risk, putting himself out there, and we desperately hope “Black” finds a sense of support. It’s the segment where “Black” finds resolution with the major conflicts that have defined his life, and the climax of the movie is a deeply tender moment where an emotionally reserved man reaches out to another and lets his firmly fixed guard down in the process.
I don’t usually go into such a detailed plot synopsis with my reviews because I like to hit the basics and let the readers experience the story for themselves, but the pleasures and artistic triumphs of Moonlight are in how fully immersed and felt the movie becomes. By telling the story in three noteworthy sections, Moonlight provides an impressionistic statement about the formation of personal identity, specifically a young man growing up black and gay in a hostile environment to both. The movie also blows apart the argument made for 2014’s Boyhood about how truly necessary it was to watch one young actor play the same part for 14 years. Here we have six different actors playing two different characters at three different points in time and the impact is no less great. Here is a movie that doesn’t need a gimmick to have a larger emotional impact on its audience.
Director/co-writer Barry Jenkins has a marvelously fluid and natural feel for his camera, swinging around the parameters of a scene to make the world feel more charged with energy. Jenkins is a born filmmaker and knows how to squeeze the most out of his scenes with gorgeous cinematography and an eclectic musical score that feels traditional with classical orchestration like churning strings layered and rearranged into something arrestingly new and yet still personal. There aren’t many overly stylized choices, rather Jenkins tells his story with uncommon poise and treats one man’s life like an opera, like the greatest story never told on film, like a life of complexity worth the deep dive. There’s a classical lyricism to the presentation that reminded me of the works of Todd Haynes (Carol). There’s one scene where Paula is strung out on crack and finds her son in the middle of a joyous high. Her face fills the frame, absorbing all of Chiron’s world, and her euphoria is inter-spliced with jarring speed ramps in editing, meant to convey the mania and peace that pumps through her veins in this fleeting moment. It’s a stylistic device that isn’t overplayed and has genuine purpose. Jenkins is restrained from self-indulgences and keeps every aspect focused on reflecting the inner life of his lead.
The very talented company of performers makes the movie even more powerful. Ali (Hidden Figures, Luke Cage) is creating serious awards buzz and it’s deserving, though every actor in this movie is deserving of notoriety. Ali plays a man trying to do right by his own sense and he lets you see the troubles that wash over him. Should he insert himself into this young boy’s life? Is he in a position to set an example? Ali has such paternal strength and tenderness while still displaying doubts and regret, hardly deifying this found father figure. Harris (Spectre) is wonderfully horrifying and heartbreaking in her role and has some big moments that convey her given completely into desperation. She’s offended that others would deign replace her but does little to reclaim her title of mother and provider. Holland (Selma) has a world-weary smooth sense of wisdom to him, and his unassuming charisma helps unlock his friend’s true feelings. The three actors who portray “Little”/Chiron/”Black” are each exceptional, giving different performances and interpretations, further supporting Jenkins’ artistic thesis.
Moonlight is a beautiful film told with such delicate care and a resounding sense of authenticity and personal detail. It swallows you whole and leaves you with the impression of a human life observed with tenderness, intimacy, empathy, and grace. It’s about the people and experiences that help guide us onto the paths we take, and while there’s a sense of heartache as we think of what might have been, there’s also the serenity of accepting what has been and what can still be. Jenkins proves himself a superb talent who doesn’t lose sight of his artistic goals with extraneous artifice. There’s a lilting, lovely lyricism to the movie that elevates Chiron’s life into feeling like poetry. This is a life we so rarely get to see given such an artistic and honest examination without condemnation or judgment. It’s the story of a man embracing his identity and overcoming isolation and suppression. This disadvantaged young man is worth your emotions, your sympathies, and your attention. Moonlight is an alluring and heartrending film that manages to be deeply personal and universal at the same time. It’s sublime.
Nate’s Grade: A
In 1976 San Francisco, Minnie (Bel Powley) is trying to navigate the world of boys and her teenage feelings. She’s 15 years old and wants to be an artist. She lives with her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), and her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), and her little sister. Minnie has always exhibited a desire to be touched, and the accidental touches of Monroe are exciting her mind. One night, their sense of play crosses a line and the two kiss, and from there Minnie and Monroe carry on a secret tryst.
Refreshingly, The Diary of a Teenage Girl may be one of the few coming-of-age films about a teen woman discovering her sense of sexuality without extolling an overpowering sense of moral judgment. The movie is frank and honest and allows its characters to make mistakes but also learn from them, and the kind of activities others might deem as mistakes or pitfalls might not be deemed as such by our characters, at least at their current point in time. Minnie is such a starkly interesting character, cheerfully independent and naively romantic. Her very first words in the film are, “I just had sex today.” Minnie is a character that enjoys sex and the movie does not punish her for her hormonal impulses. It’s encouraging to see a portrait of a woman who takes agency over her own sexuality. Once she’s discovered sex, it’s like a new world for Minnie. She feels like she’s discovered the secret handshake to being an adult. The world looks different to her. There’s a funny scene where she’s in a record shop and eyeing some of the varying male patrons, imagining what their respective penises might look like, which are depicted with colorful onscreen animation. It’s a nice change of pace to have a movie adopt a female point of view and the Female Gaze, if you will. We see the world as Minnie does, bursting with possibility, pleasure, and excitement. And yet, at the corners, we can sense the contours of doubt, the life lessons that will eventually present themselves to our restless heroine (the audio diary of her sexual escapades with Monroe is a time bomb waiting to happen). These lessons are not one of punishment but one of experience and understanding reminiscent of 2009’s An Education.
Its bracing sense of honesty and its finely attuned perspective also help elevate the film. Minnie’s voice is all over this movie, and not simply because she provides narration. She’s not over precocious or hyper literate; she speaks like an average teenager bursting with feelings and ideas that she has trouble putting into words. There is a sprightly sense of humor that runs throughout, a sense of comedy that get can get naughty while still feeling wonderfully immature. Minnie’s point of view and the way she processes the world, aided with often-animated fantasy and dream sequences, provides plenty of entertainment. Some of the humor is derived from her naiveté and how brashly straightforward she can be about her wishes, but even these moments are free of judgment. Minnie is allowed to be the funny, flawed, and complex creature she is.
Teenage Girl is also a remarkable spotlight for two artists, Powley and debut director Marielle Heller (wife to Lonely Island Boy Jorma Taccone). Powley is a terrific lead and gives Minnie an appealing mixture of curiosity, angst, attitude, and humor. She’s thrown into a different world and trying to adjust as she goes, which leads to plenty of vulnerability and honest reflection. She’s looking for more than sex but doesn’t quite know how to find the companion she desires yet in a culture that values her most as a figure of desire. Powley, it should also be noted, is British (though you’d never know) and 22 at the time of filming. There are several sex scenes and nude sequences for Minnie that can be uncomfortable to watch given the age of the character. I never felt the movie was being exploitative with its lead actress and character. There’s a moment when Minnie stands naked before a mirror, touching her body, and openly hoping for someone who will love her as a whole. These moments are meant to be awkward and raw and they achieve that power without feeling exploitative. Powley’s performance is such a natural and cutting teenage performance with touches of Maggie Gyllenhaal in her voice. This is the kind of character that a young actress desperately hopes for and luckily Powley was gifted the right director.
Heller, who also adapted the script based upon the semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, has a definite feel for the material and keeps the tone controlled. It would be very easy for this story to veer into tawdry with its sensationalist elements, and yet it feels far more grounded in the reality of a teenage girl discovering how to interact with men and the power she has within her. There are some cringe-worthy moments between Minnie and Monroe but the movie doesn’t tell us how to feel and instead challenges the audience. Monroe isn’t presented as some leering and lascivious pederast. He is presented as yet another flawed individual who is wrestling with conflicted feelings; he knows what he’s doing with Minnie is wrong but he can’t quite quit her. There’s a level of sympathy toward his character that doesn’t excuse his actions and weaknesses. Charlotte, in contrast, is a character that speaks the language of the 1970s enlightened feminist but has shackled her subconsciously, setting up reoccurring failures for herself because she has difficulty taking responsibility for herself. When she gets a big check from her concerned ex-boyfriend (Christopher Meloni), she frivolously spends it on drugs. By the end of the movie, Minnie acknowledges that her mother will always think she needs a man, a provider, to simply get by in this life. Heller’s feel for these characters is sharp and the ambiguity she affixes is appreciated.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a coming-of-age drama that sits unique amongst the burgeoning subgenre of teen angst and broken hearts mostly because it is female-focused and free of judgment or moral castigation. Our heroine learns about the world, learns the power and pitfalls of sex and the potential enjoyment, and yet she still gets to be herself, free of long-term scarring punishment usually befit a Lifetime original movie on the sordid subject. Even better, Minnie is an intensely interesting and entertaining character that freely shares her frank perspective. The film adopts her perspective and Teenage Girl comes across and far more honest about its characters and about growing up. Powely is a standout and destined for further great things, and the supporting cast all perform ably. There isn’t a bad or misplaced actor in a beautiful looking film. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (man do my fingers really confuse this title with the name of that cheesy ABC Family TV show starring a young Shailene Woodley) is a smart, funny, provocative yet mature and welcomed slice-of-life story that feels painfully honest and praiseworthy. It’s a story that doesn’t excuse or condemn the actions of any of its characters. It’s a film that takes chances and reaps rewards from its risk-taking. It can feel like watching a slow-moving car slide into a ditch, but you’ll be glued to the screen throughout.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Last year, Starz aired a reality TV series called The Chair. Produced by actor Zachary Quinto and Project Greenlight breakout Chris Moore, the aim was to give two different directors the same script, the same budget, the same shooting city, and the same access to resources to see what kind of movies they would create. The public would vote on a winner and the winning filmmaker would earn a $250,000 prize. Film is a director’s medium, and both of the chosen participants, Shane Dawson and Anna Martemucci, were allowed to rewrite the script, likely to the dismay of screenwriter Dan Schoffer. Dawson has built a following of millions making comedy shorts on his YouTube channel. Martemucci has written one other film and has professional ties to Quinto. Over the course of one winter in Pittsburgh, both Dawson and Martmeucci shot their films under the extra scrutiny of the reality show cameras. Whatever their TV portraits may have been, the work stands on its own. Dawson made the sex comedy Not Cool and Martemucci made the coming-of-age drama, Hollidaysburg. They are two quite different films, but are they any good and should The Chair be considered a success?
Scott (Dawson) is home for Thanksgiving break from his first year at college. In high school he was prom king and a big deal. Life since hasn’t been that easy. His girlfriend, Heather (Jorie Kosel), dumps him after a spontaneous hookup in a public bathroom. His father is closing the family’s record store. His sister, Janie (Michelle Veintimilla), might not graduate on time from high school. And then Tori (Cherami Leigh) accidentally hits him with her car. The two have history: Scott was responsible for Tori’s cruel nickname, “Tori the Whore-y.” Not having any of it, she lays in to him and unleashes years of anger, and then the two of them have sex. They try and pass it off as a one-time deal but they both can’t stop thinking of the other person. Tori’s pal Joel (Drew Monson) is determined to have sex with his high school crush, Janie. He agrees to help her with her schoolwork for a prime opportunity to make her fall in love with him. As Joel and Scott chase after their resistant love interests, they have to decide how far to go.
I was completely unfamiliar with Dawson and his YouTube fame before seeing his film, and after watching Not Cool I wish I had remained in blissful ignorance. To call Not Cool unfunny is too kind. It is aggressively unfunny, going above and beyond to shock and appall. By no means am I a prude when it comes to crass comedy, but you have to put effort into it just like any other style of telling and developing jokes. You don’t just blurt out something vulgar repeatedly and confuse that for comedy construction. I knew I was in trouble when the movie resorted to projectile vomit within two minutes. Dawson’s direction consists of telling his actors to go as broad as possible; they feel like over-the-top cartoons engaging in shouting matches. A Thanksgiving dinner with Scott’s family feels like an insane asylum was evacuated. It’s fine that Not Cool doesn’t approach a relatable reality, but it needs to have some internal grounding that makes sense. It also needs to be funny. Much, much funnier. After ten minutes I had to stop the movie and gather pen and paper to start noting the unfunny and off-putting misogynist jokes on display. Let me make this clear: characters can be unlikeable and have non-P.C. POVs, but when the film itself seems to be adopting a tone and perspective that allies with ignorance and intolerance, that’s when a movie can become increasingly uncomfortable. Dawson’s interpretation of the script is rife with jokes that are homophobic, xenophobic, slut shaming and in general anti-women, and, I repeat, they just aren’t funny:
In response to dad’s new girlfriend (who is never mentioned again) being named Anastasia: “With that name she’s either a Disney princess or a stripper.” Fresh.
Janie relates how her sexist teacher is flunking her, which Joel responds with, “I’m surprised he didn’t give you an ‘A’ for those tit-ays.” Ugh. Just ugh.
“Tori the Whore-y? You look kinda good now. You know that nick-name might not be ironic anymore.” Because Scott is the arbitrator of what is acceptable attraction, therefore Tori should now have a sense of self-worth because he has deigned to find her of interest. This is later reiterated when Scott tells her, “You’re beautiful. You always were.” Thanks, now that you said it Scott it must actually be true.
Joel: “The only thing hotter than Leonardo DiCaprio is a retarded Leonardo DiCaprio in a sexy diaper.” What? I don’t think he ever wore a diaper in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?. And Janie’s response is equally baffling: “That shit makes me so wet.” Huh? Watching an actor play a mentally handicapped child makes you sexually aroused?
To quickly wrap up this detour, let me highlight the most egregious stab at humor in the entire movie. During the film’s climax, his horny ex-girlfriend sexually assaults Scott. Tori sees this and, oh no, miscommunication. Scott explains he was raped and it was not consensual. The party’s host quietly walks over to a dry erase marker board that says, “Rapes at this Party.” He erases the zero and writes a “one” on the board, then goes back to partying. Let that sink in. The board was prepared for some sense of inevitable rape, and yet once it happens, the host carries on. That’s offensive on a number of issues.
These scenes and lines are merely par for the course in what is ultimately a coarse and misguided comedy that is stocked with vile characters. Scott is served up as a figure that needs to get past his hubris, but the movie treats him more of a hero who the other characters just can’t help but love. It’s hard not to feel like the film is made to flatter Dawson as an actor. Within minutes of meeting Scott again, Tori says, “Would I have sex with you? Probably.” No one can resist his appeal, certainly not Tori’s family. Tori’s mother is practically begging to jump on top of him. When the character’s defining moment of humility and growth is cutting his Justin Beiber-like hair, it’s a failure. Tori is written in such an inconsistent fashion. She’s supposed to be all about negativity and hates everything in the world, but then she transforms into a Manic Pixie Dream Girl for Scott’s cutesy scavenger hunt. Leigh does a credible job with the character but she’s a half-formed assortment of quirks and messages meant to push Scott along. Dawson errs considerably by casting himself as the romantic lead. It further exacerbates Scott’s flattering portrayal, but really Dawson is just not a good enough actor to carry a film. But a lead role wasn’t enough, and Dawson appears as several female supporting characters in drag. The appearances stop the movie dead in its tracks. The characters are also just lame mouthpieces to blurt lazy inappropriate comments, especially a popular girl who just keeps calling people names at the top of her lungs. It is deeply unpleasant.
The worst character in the entire film is Joel. This guy is obsessed with having sex with his high school crush, who is still in high school while he’s in college, by the way. She has clearly and consistently stated that she does not have feelings for him, but what’s a woman stating her decisions going to matter to this guy? Joel’s pursuit of Janie is just insanely creepy. He mimes preforming cunnilingus on her. He stalks her online profiles to mine useful personal information. He enlargers and decreases a picture of her face on his phone and narrates the experience like she is giving him oral sex. At every point he treats her as a sex object. Even after a night out, where she wears a dress he picked out for her after trying it on himself and fondling himself in expectation (!), she tells him she doesn’t feel the same way, and he still forces the situation. It’s gross and at no point is Joel and his behavior held up to criticism. He’s rewarded for his “virtue” by having Janie pimp out all her promiscuous friends onto him. What makes the character even more repulsive is just how annoying Monson’s performance comes across; he’s going for faux bluster but it’s more like misplaced entitlement. If this storyline had ended with Joel murdering her while weeping and slow dancing with her corpse, you wouldn’t be that surprised.
As the previous two paragraphs should indicate, there is certainly a point of view that emerges from the movie, one that trumps the heterosexual white male at the top and looks with derision on anybody that falls outside that definition. It feels like every joke is at someone’s expense. In the opening minute, an overweight woman tweets a picture of herself as a skinny model. I suppose it’s funny because she’s misrepresenting herself but it feels like the joke amounts to, “Ha, she’s ugly and fat.” But those who are conventionally attractive still don’t get off easy. Tori is slut shamed as a whore in high school, lead by Scott, and this is merely excused as the behavior of a loveable scamp. Janie’s friends are treated like idiotic sluts. Tori’s gay friend is defined by his flamboyance and obsession with sex. Disabled people are apparently hilarious just because they’re disabled and different. Tori’s older sister is blind and it’s funny because she accomplishes things… but she’s blind. I suppose the joke is that she shouldn’t have a successful life. There’s a woman at a party in a wheelchair (confession: I know this actress) and the joke is she’s doing normal activity. There’s one black character in the movie that is a homeless man who devours his own feces. At one point, his genitals are also used as a laugh. There’s also the characters’ flagrant and casual use of the word “retarded” to describe anything repulsive. The hoary stereotypes and unfunny portraits blend together, creating a mosaic of intolerance masked as comedy. Dawson’s sense of comedy is fairly puerile but it’s also offputtingly mean-spirited and denigrating.
Dawson makes too many fatal mistakes as a director for Not Cool to survive. Casting himself in the lead was a mistake. Appearing as female supporting characters was also a mistake. Excusing the bad behavior of his male characters, and rewarding them, was a mistake. Catering the humor to make fun of anyone that doesn’t classify as a heterosexual white male was a mistake. Relying solely on gross-out gags without better comic development was a mistake. Trying to earn a heart late into the film was also a mistake. After watching jerks behave like creeps with their inflated sense of entitlement, I don’t care if they maybe have feelings. Directing his actors to be heightened caricatures was a mistake. In short, Not Cool is a comedy graveyard of mistakes and bad decisions. I’m sure there will be people that find something to enjoy here, who laugh at the easy juvenile humor. I even laughed a couple times. There was a visual gag with a smuggled watermelon that was simply inspired. I think Dawson didn’t want to stray too far from his YouTube persona and the tone of his videos, lest he upset his fan base of millions, but what works as a three-minute YouTube short doesn’t translate to a feature film. Not Cool is proof enough that an overabundance of energy and cheap vulgarity does not compensate for a deficit in storytelling and execution. Not Cool is just not good.
Going far in the other direction is Hollidaysburg, a modest coming-of-age drama that patterns itself after the mumblecore movement of indie cinema. Director Anna Martemucci definitely takes a more restrained approach to her interpretation of Dan Schoffer’s screenplay. She has some problems of her own but on a whole Hollidaysburg is the more promising and well-executed movie. It’s more sophisticated, better articulated, heartfelt, and comes far closer to achieving something worthwhile.
Right away you can tell a difference. We begin once more with Scott (Tobin Mitnick) and his girlfriend, Heather (Claire Chapelli), breaking up in the middle of sex, but they keep at it. It’s not exaggerated for extra laughs; the situation itself naturally draws them. The character isn’t made the butt of the joke either. It’s a much more encouraging opening than projectile vomit. Scott is also dumbstruck when he discovers his family home is days away from being emptied and sold. He reconnects with high school acquaintance Tori (Rachel Keller) and the two sleep together impulsively. As they’re trying to make sense of possible feelings, Heather is seeking out some company, anybody, and settles on her pot dealer, Petroff (Tristan Erwin), who happens to be buds with Scott. He’s wary of stepping over some kind of friend code, but in his efforts to get Heather out of her funk, Petroff starts to form a romantic interest he can’t help.
The focus is on our foursome of young, curious, and emotionally free-falling characters stumbling for some sense of personal identity. The theme of the film is about stasis versus change. Heather reasons that their long-distance relationship is not meant to be, and that it’s better to check out early. She’s also disillusioned by college, an experience that she had hoped would be remarkable at pointing her life in the right direction. Scott is quite literally saying goodbye to his childhood and his prior sense of who he was. His task for the holiday weekend is to pack the last of his childhood things in his old room so they can be sent to Florida. He won’t be returning to Pennsylvania likely, which is what Tori is also wrestling with. How far does she let herself get attached to something that could never happen? The two of them dance around their attraction and unconventional courtship. There’s real uncertainty about their possibility as a couple that’s palpable. Then there’s Heather’s sense of ennui that might just be a symptom of depression. She feels like she’s in a fog and that college is not the gateway others perceive it to be. Petroff is trying to juggle his role as friend and potential more-than-friend, and even though he has no real obligation to Scott on this one, he is trying to be deferential and sensitive. Before the breakup, he didn’t even consider Heather a friend. Now they’re getting to know one another on a much more personal level. The foursome is likeable, complicated, flawed, and pleasant to be around, enough to excuse some of the movie’s genial pacing.
There are assorting supporting characters, notably siblings to Scott and Tori, but they are complimentary and better inform the story. Scott’s older brother spends the entire film trying to recreate his father’s recipe for pumpkin pie. It’s just the sort of concept that is slight enough to be fun but also lead into a dramatic character payoff. The dialogue feels attuned to the natural speech rhythms of human beings while still being entertaining. Scott and Tori’s initial reunion revolves around her keeping watch to make sure he doesn’t have a concussion after she hit him with her car. It’s a cute scenario that’s played with the right flirty tone that nicely sells the emergence of their romance. The humor isn’t as loud and underlined as Not Cool, and that’s to its benefit.
Your enjoyment of Hollidaysburg (named after a city in Pennsylvania) will depend mightily on your personal tolerance for the observational, delicate human comedies of the mumblecore genre. Sometimes derided as affluent navel-gazing, the often-DIY subgenre can have its own hardscrabble charm and touch upon relatable themes and conflicts that transcend their often self-indulgent characters. There’s also a stronger sense of realism in how fleshed out these worlds feel, and so I have enjoyed mumblecore primarily because of the combination of well-developed characters, emotional truths, and sincerity. I acknowledge a movie about a bunch of teenagers sitting around, mingling, smoking pot, and making life decisions is a harder sell than, say, sex comedy shenanigans. The difference is that you feel the care put in by Martemucci. She cares about these people and makes you start to care as well, or at least be interested. But if you’re not on the same wavelengths, one person’s observational is another person’s doddering.
While technically better on just about every level, Hollidaysburg has its own issues. The character arcs for Scott and Tori are rather nebulous. I’ll credit Dawson with this, in Not Cool the characters’ arcs were front and center and there was a progression. With Hollidaysburg, Scott is vaguely defined by his past but he doesn’t go into many details, failing to indicate how he’s undergoing some sort of high school hangover as he adjusts to a bigger pond. He’s uncomfortable with the discovery of how close Heather and Petroff have gotten, but this character turn doesn’t get developed enough to matter, instead coming across as a somewhat manufactured conflict break. Likewise Tori is looking to redefine herself in college but finding it harder than she anticipated. By the end of the film, her closing voice over quotes John Updike about being reborn every day, and how reassuring she finds this reflection. You could make the argument that through her romantic tryst with Scott, she’s better accepted the notion that she will define herself as she pleases, but I don’t even know if that approaches the conclusion. The two characters with the more clearly defined arcs are Heather and Petroff, and they’re on a relatively straightforward path where their biggest obstacle is hiding their emerging feelings from their mutual friend who would be hurt.
I don’t necessarily know if I’d call The Chair a success. The fascinating premise has given birth to very different movies, but in the end one of them is an aggressively unfunny comedy and the other is an acceptable coming-of-age mumblecore entry. It’s hard to call either a rousing success. Not Cool is an abysmal comedy that is overly reliant on witless shock humor to substitute for storytelling basics. Dawson makes a slew of bad decisions, mostly playing to ego or his built-in audience, but I’ll say at least he goes for it. Martemucci certainly comes across as the more promising filmmaker; her film is better on a technical level and her handling of actors is far defter. At the same time, her aim is lower with her goals and her character arcs less defined. I suppose you could argue the hazy arcs tap into the characters trying to better find themselves but I won’t. Hollidaysburg is clearly the better film but Dawson’s legions of fans came to his service, and in the fall of 2014, Dawson was declared the victor by a majority of public voting. I purposely wanted to watch the finished movies before delving into the TV show so my feelings toward the filmmakers would not influence my reviews. Usually Project Greenlight was at its best when things were falling apart for its fledgling filmmakers, and I imagine the same level of entertainment will be had with The Chair. My foreknowledge will create a delicious dose of dramatic irony, as I know what all these efforts will lead toward. In my head I’ll likely be thinking, “Not worth it.”
I’ll add to this double-review after watching the series for any additional thoughts on Dawson and Martemucci as filmmakers and human beings.
Update: After having watched all ten episodes of The Chair, I can say neither director comes off terribly well. Martemucci is indecisive, poor with time management, and loses the big picture, but she’s far more open to collaboration and criticism. Dawson knows what he wants, is decisive, but is also quite thin-skinned and defensive and hard-headed to criticism. He seems incapable of thinking outside the bubble of his fanbase. He also has a far higher opinion of many elements of his film that I found awful, but that isn’t surprising. What’s surprising to me is that established producers could read Dawson’s script and watch the final movie and say, “Yeah, this is good.” Not everyone did though, as I discovered Quinto and another producer were so appalled by Not Cool that they elected to take their names off of it. they did not want to be associated with that material, which Dawson has trouble seeing as more ugly than standard “raunchy teen sex comedy” stuff (it is uglier, Shane). The funniest part for me was a tattoo parlor owner who discovers Dawson’s YouTube resume after she agreed to let him film in her parlor. She doesn’t want her shop’s name visible and associated with what she feels is racist, sexist unfunny jokes. She even chastises Chris Moore about it. It’s like this one tattoo shop owner spoke as the prophet of me and all other home viewers and those who endured the awfulness of Not Cool. Congratulations for telling it like it is, Pittsburgh small business owner.
Not Cool: D