Tag Archive | Coming of Age

Movie Review: Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade

Eight Grade Movie Poster
Photo By Gail

Let’s play a game: would you rather be poked incessantly with sharp objects, or be forced to relive the eighth grade? You might need a minute to think it over. No one wants to be tortured, but eighth grade is a special kind of hell. It only lasts for one year; but what a socially awkward, puberty-riddled, emotionally agonizing year it is. Eighth grade blows, but now you can vicariously cringe your way through the gauntlet that is the last week of middle school for an earnest, 13-year old wallflower in director / writer Bo Burnham’s fantastic debut feature, Eighth Grade. He went back to eight grade, so you don’t have to.

Best known for his hilarious Netflix stand-up comedy specials, Bo Burnham has admitted to this much: that he retired from doing stand-up due to incapacitating stage fright, and that he’s often been referred to as “the comedian for 13 year old girls.” So it’s not so mysterious that this 27-year old man could write a film that completely nails a coming-of-age scenario of an adolescent girl. Because of course he did. Eighth Grade’s sympathetic protagonist is Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher in a career-launching role), who suffers from a merciless case of acne and a crippling shyness that she attempts to combat with a fake-it-til-you-make-it approach to social media-assisted survival. While she has no siblings, and doesn’t appear to have a close circle of friends, Kayla is absolutely dedicated to the “fans” of her YouTube channel, on which she posts frenetic self-help videos, giving advice on how to “just be yourself” and “put yourself out there.” Obviously, she is her own target audience.

There is no huge dramatic arc in Eighth Grade, but rather the film is peppered with many significant moments of the ‘real life drama’ that is puberty, as Kayla and her classmates struggle to define themselves as soon-to-be-high-schoolers when there is so much they feel totally clueless about. This theme of transition and initiation reminded me very much of another film that is set during the final day of school, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), which is one of the best movies about authentic teenage behavior ever put to film. If that sounds like high praise, it is.

Eighth Grade Kayla and Dad
Kayla (Elsie Fisher) and her Dad (Josh Hamilton) in a Scene from Eighth Grade

Kayla is being raised by her single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton in a thoroughly charming performance) who loves her unconditionally enough to disregard her constantly rebuffing his every attempt at meaningful father-daughter conversation, giving her the space and encouragement she needs to figure stuff out on her own. Mark is hilarious as he tries to not ’embarrass’ Kayla merely by existing. It’s easy to imagine that he was once in her shoes: the geeky kid who grew up to be a pretty cool dad. It takes a while for Kayla to figure this out, letting their relationship unfold with great sweetness, and one excruciatingly comedic moment when he walks in on her practicing fellatio on a banana, a fruit he knows she absolutely hates.

Eighth Grade Kayla Pool

The scenes in which Fisher’s performance inarguably earns the label ‘brave’ are those that take place during a coed swim party hosted by the most popular girl in Kayla’s class, Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) – a one-dimensional “mean girl” caricature who has no issue telling Kayla to her face that she’s only being invited because Kennedy’s mother insisted. I had to watch through my fingers as I recognized the horrifying self-consciousness of being seen by peers in a bathing suit. Kayla wastes no time plunging herself to the bottom of the swimming pool, where she can most easily disappear. When she panics and retreats into the house to play games on her phone, she is interrupted by Aiden (Luke Prael) the cute, popular boy she’s desperately crushing on, who has come to retrieve his own charging phone. Kayla becomes so flustered at being in unexpected close proximity to her dream beau, the most impressive thing she can manage to nervously stammer is, “Sometimes, I charge my phone, too.” Oh my god, I am Kayla.

Over the course of the film, Kayla cracks her shell a bit, building the confidence to take the mic at a Karaoke party, make friends with a cool high school student, tell off the mean girl, and go on a hilarious first date with an adoring nerd-boy classmate Gabe (Jake Ryan) who first flirted with her at the pool party by challenging her to see who could hold their breath the longest underwater. Clearly, they are perfect for each other. Through a brilliant combination of sensitive direction, spot on casting, and authentically awkward dialogue that resonates so deeply, you’ll swear you’re watching a documentary, Eighth Grade is ridiculously successful and a remarkable achievement, especially for a first-time director. The parts that make us the most uncomfortable are also the most hilarious, because we all lived through it. And life is funny.

Except for one tense scene in the back seat of a car — which you will see coming a mile away — Eight Grade never goes Welcome to the Dollhouse-level dark. This film has more in common thematically with sleeper hits like Little Miss Sunshine (2006), and Napoleon Dynamite (2004), in that the protagonist is encouraged to embrace and celebrate her inner geek. Kayla is already the “Coolest Girl in the World.” She just had to figure that out for herself.

Eighth Grade opens in Los Angeles and New York (where it’s playing at the Angelika Film Center on Houston and Mercer) on July 13th, 2018, with Nationwide distribution to follow.

Grade: A

Watch the Trailer Below!

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Top Ten Reasons Why 20th Century Women is My Favorite Film of 2016

20th-century-women-cast
Billy Crudup, Elle Fanning, Annette Benning, Greta Gerwig and Lucas Jade Zumann Star in 20th Century Women

The Coming-of-Age Story can fall into one of two categories: Sublime when done well, but Worse than Anything when done poorly. 20th Century Women, a new film directed by Mike Mills (Beginners) flips this genre sideways by looking at a pivotal year in the life of a fifteen year old boy through his relationships with three strong and finely nuanced women. Set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979, 20th Century Women follows Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a dedicated single mom in her mid-50s, who is raising her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) during a time filled with cultural change and rebellion. Without a father figure in Jamie’s life, Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women to help her bring-up Jamie  to be a good man. Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is a free-spirited, 20-something punk artist and cancer survivor who is a boarder in their home, while 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning) is a troubled, promiscuous neighbor, who is also Jamie’s best friend. Billy Crudup also stars as William, a charming but aimless Handyman who also rents a room with the Fields home.

For anyone who lived through an important time of his or her life during 1979 (it was the year I graduated from high school, lost my virginity, and started college) 20th Century Women will feels like a unique, cliché-free set of life experiences that creates a pitch-perfect time capsule, dictated by a very specific time in pop culture history. Here are my Top Ten reasons why I love this film so much.

1. Even when she is horrible-piece-of-shit films like Greenburg, Greta Gerwig is the best thing in any movie she makes.  I love everything about her character, Abbie, who reminded me of my former Punk Rock self, only way cooler.

2. The cinematography and art direction make each frame of the film look like a William Eggleston photograph.

3. Its depiction of the California Punk Rock scene in 1979 (which I was deeply immersed in) also manages to includes songs from the NYC’s No Wave scene and of course British First Wave Punk. The soundtrack reflects the film’s time period with music from artists who helped define the era: Devo, Suicide, The Germs, The Raincoats, Siouxsie and the Banshees, David Bowie, Buzzcocks and Black Flag. Holy Cow! I felt like someone stole my vinyl collection from this era and put it in the film.

4. The soundtrack also features and original score by Roger Neill, which is utterly transportive.

5. I wouldn’t really call myself a fan of the Talking Heads’ music, but three of their songs – “Don’t Worry about the Government,” “Artists Only” and “The Big Country” — are far superior to any their popular hits, and arguably better than most other songs on the planet. Two of these three songs are included on the soundtrack. You will have to see the movie to find out which ones. BTW I predict that this film will provoke a surge in downloads of the Talking Heads’ catalog.

6. There’s a 3D acid flashback visual effect that the filmmakers use to elucidate the feeling of traveling in a fast car as being comparable to moving across time. I’ve never seen anything like that before and it is so trippy and profoundly emotionally effective.

7. 20th Century Women reminded me so much of three of my favorite films, ever: Dazed and Confused, Almost Famous,  and American Beauty. If you dig those films, then you will just love this one.

8. An old high school friend of mine makes a cameo appearance in the film, sort of by accident. Tony Reflex from the seminal Orange County punk band, Adolescents, can be seen in a photograph used in a montage that depicts the rise of the punk rock movement in the late 1970s. That was fun.

9. No meaningless violence or senseless tragedy. I hope that isn’t a spoiler for anyone.

10. It is just the best movie, and you should go see it!

Grade: A+

20th Century Women — which was just nominated for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy for this year’s Golden Globes, opens in New York and Los Angeles on Christmas Day, and Nationwide on January 20th, 2017. Music From The Motion Picture: 20th Century Women will be released digitally on December 16th, while a CD version will be released on January 13th 2017, followed by an LP version on February 10th, 2017.

various artists 20th century women music from the motion picture

Recommended Viewing: Naz & Maalik

Naz and Maalik Movie Poster
Curtiss Cook Jr. and Kerwin Johnson Jr. Star in Naz & Maalik (All Images Courtesy of Wolfe Video)

One day in the life of a pair of Brooklyn teenagers moves beyond their typical routine to mark an emotional turning point in the lives of the two best friends in Naz & Maalik; an engaging new film from screenwriter/director Jay Dockendorf. The film’s dynamic script is based on a first-person account from one of Dockendorf’s former neighbors; a gay Muslim man who revealed his own experience as a teenager living in Brooklyn, at a time when the NYPD and FBI were spying on Muslims across the country. In Bed-Stuy (Bedford Stuyvesant, a heavily African American neighborhood of Brooklyn) in particular, COPs would infiltrate mosques with undercover agents, coerce civilians arrested for petty crimes into becoming informants and conduct door-to-door interviews with Muslim citizens in front of their homes. The overbearing presence of the police created a charged environment, and a similar atmosphere of consistent tension infiltrates this bittersweet coming-of-age story that is expertly directed and acted.

Naz and Maalik Screen Shot

Portrayed by Curtiss Cook Jr. (Maalik) and Kerwin Johnson Jr. (Naz), two young actors both making their feature film debut in these roles, Naz and Maalik spend their days together, earning cash by selling Lotto tickets, Saint cards, candy and scented oils on the streets of their neighborhood, as well as while riding the subway lines. Their faith is also made evident, as they make a stop at a local mosque during their day to pray with the faithful. Their bond of friendship is fast and tight, and, as we learn early on, their relationship has only just taken a romantic turn — something that Naz is way more comfortable with than Maalik. As devout Muslims, their love is forbidden, and it doesn’t help that Maalik’s bratty younger sister has already threatened to “out” the couple to their parents. As if being a teenager wasn’t hard enough.

And then there’s the matter of that FBI agents that starts following the boys’ every move…

Naz and Maalik In Park2

As their story unfolds naturally, Naz & Maalik takes on many hot-button issues — racial profiling, religion, sexuality — as the streets and subway trains of Brooklyn advance the backstory of just who these kids are without a need for superfluous narrative dialogue. In fact, to suggest that Brooklyn is also a main character in the film is not out of line.

Naz and Maalik Park

Naz & Maalik isn’t so much a film about easy resolution as it is about tackling life’s curve balls and trying to stay true to yourself and your beliefs while also embracing the uncertainty of new love. Naz and Maalik are extremely likable characters and their story is both straightforward and nuanced, and highly engaging overall. The film’s original score, also written by Dockendorf is also fantastic. I can’t say enough good things about this film.

Grade: A

After Debuting at NYC’s Cinema Village, Naz & Maalik is currently available via Wolfe on DVD and Video On Demand.

Naz and Maalik on Street

Film Review: Asia Argento’s Misunderstood

Misunderstood Poster English

People don’t normally equate childhood with a kind of battlefield, where the very process of growing up is an act of unqualified heroism, but then again not everyone has seen the Asia Argento film Misunderstood, where the lone soldier/hero is a nine-year-old girl named Aria. Set in Rome in the mid-1980s, Misunderstood is an exceptionally well-crafted (though not always easy to watch) film which focuses on a pivotal year in the life of Aria (played by Giulia Salerno), who has the misfortune to be the child of self-centered parents who are just on the verge of divorcing when our story begins. Aria lives with her parents (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Gabriel Garko), a famous concert pianist, and a Screen-Idol actor respectively, and two half sisters; the oldest being the spoiled child of her father’s previous marriage, and the middle daughter belonging to her mother from a former relationship. What is evident from the beginning is that Aria, a beautiful, bright and talented little girl, is part of a family where she has virtually no one is on her side. Fortunately, she does have a tight and affectionate relationship with her best friend, Angelica (Alice Pea) and a beloved pet cat, Dac, which she dotes on throughout the film.

At school, Aria excels in composition, and is more of a wallflower than a victim of bullying. Aria and Angelica have a sweet and fiercely close friendship, and the two call each other by the same pet name, and get into quite a bit of harmless mischief together. As the story progresses, however, Aria’s relationship to her peers spirals downward and draws parallels to the plight of the character Dawn Wiener from Todd Solondz‘ merciless black comedy, Welcome to The Dollhouse (1995). Eventually, the cumulative affects of casual abandonment, neglect, and betrayal seemingly squash Aria’s indomitable spirit, and she takes unexpected actions in the face of her bleak circumstances.

Misunderstood is being billed as a comedy, but most of the comedic moments stem from feelings of absurd discomfort, in which her bickering and oftentimes cruel mother and father treat their shared child as if she were a bargaining chip or a mere inconvenience to be pushed off on the other as a form of revenge. We’ve seen this parental cruelty and indifference in films like What Maisie Knew (2013), and Fish Tank (2009), and it is never easy to watch, especially since Aria is such a charming and gentle child, who only wants what she deserves; her parent’s unconditional love and acceptance.

Misunderstood Madre and Aria
Charlotte Gainsbourg (Madre) and Giulia Salerno (Aria). Image Courtesy of Angelo Turetta.

The acting in Misunderstood is excellent all around, featuring possibly one of the best performances I’ve seen from Gainsbourg (who is no stranger to playing unsympathetic characters) and a fantastic, finely nuanced performance from Giulia Salerno, (whose resume already includes half a dozen films). Gabriel Garko (best known for roles on Italian television) is also well-cast as Aria’s almost cartoonish and completely clueless, egomaniacal father. The film also features an exceptional soundtrack that mixes period appropriate, deep-cut pop songs with classical pieces and original compositions, all of which were obviously chosen with a great deal of insight and care.

A few write ups on the film reveal that Misunderstood is highly autobiographical, based on the director’s early life as the daughter of actress Daria Nicolodi and Gialo/horror film director Dario Argento – and it’s easy enough to find out that Argento’s given name at birth was Aria – but the filmmaker claims this is not the case. I don’t think it really matters if Asia Argento suffered through a childhood similar to Aria’s or not, all that matters is that she’s managed to tell a story that successfully touches the viewer emotionally, and feels very real, even when at its most surreal.

In Italian, English and French, with English subtitles, this film is unrated and has a runt ime of 103 minutes. Misunderstood is released to theaters and On-Demand September 25th, 2015. In Manhattan, you can see it at the IFC Center, located at 323 Sixth Avenue at West Third Street. Click Here for Showtimes

The Worley Gig Gives Misundertood Five out of Five Stars.

Watch the Trailer Below: