Tag Archives: coming of age

Eighth Grade

What was eighth grade like for you? Sweaty palms and horrible class photos and nerve-racking social encounters? A bad haircut, perhaps? An unrequited crush? Does anyone ever feel cool in the eighth grade? Is that even possible?

Kayla does not. She’s wading miserably through her last week of the eighth grade, friendless and sort of petrified, living a double life. At home she creates Youtube content teaching others to be confident like she is – although at school, of course, she is not. She knows classmates would describe her as quiet if they describe her at all, but that’s not how she feels inside, even if she can never quite communicate this gregarious alter ego to anyone, ever.

Kayla is portrayed by Elsie Fisher, who is so good and so talented she’ll take you right back to your eighth grade shoes. And boy are they awkward shoes. But it takes great MV5BZDYxZWY4NjQtYzM2Ni00YmE0LTlmZDItNTZlZGMwYWVkZWI0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_SX1500_AL_wells of courage in an actor to be as vulnerable as she is up on that screen, so raw and real that we are instantly transported to our own childhoods. And Fisher is indeed a very young woman herself, (otherwise best known as the voice of Agnes from Despicable Me, for which she improvised that delightful little tune about unicorns) which makes it even more impressive that straight out of the box, she’s amazing and transcendent.

Eighth Grade is about that tender age, around 13, when kids are transitioning to young adults. To when everything feels big and important and all-consuming. When a spot of unhappiness feels like it might last forever. But in reality, things are changing so fast, and life is lobbing surprise after surprise, and it’s really only in the looking back that we can pinpoint all these little episodes that helped make us who we are. The Eighth Grade itself probably felt like it went on for decades, but it’s something we all have in common, and it’s the reason like someone like Bo Burnham, who as you might have guessed is a man, can still relate so well that he’s made a pretty accurate account of that time in a young person’s life. And even if Elsie has slightly different trappings: iPhones and Instagram and FMO, her base desires and fears and neuroses are universal.

Elsie is a brilliant character. Despite her social failures, she is sweet and smart and resilient. We see ourselves in her, but we also want to befriend her, mother her. She is the sun and we orbit around her, experiencing her different angles until all are exhausted and all we want is to hug her, to tell her it gets better.

We didn’t all have the same voyeuristic roommate at University, we didn’t all have the same embezzling first boss, we don’t all have dads who are dentists/truck enthusiasts, but we were all knobs in the 8th grade. Bo Burnham has captured this gracefully in this feature; Eighth Grade is a movie for all of us. Except, of course, for eighth graders themselves, who can only watch a movie about themselves when they are old enough to take it. Yeah, let’s just sit with that one for a minute. This movie is rated R, for language, for some teen drug and alcohol use, and some sexual material. All things the typical 8th grader will encounter in their every day lives but cannot be trusted to witness in movies. Which is kind of fucked up. So if nothing else, this movie reminds us all how hard it is to be that age, to be in tricky situations that we aren’t really prepared for, to have the burden of expectation without the benefit of experience. If you know an eighth grader, this movie will have you wanting to cut them just a little extra slack. Life is hard. Kindness costs nothing. Set a good example.

Summer of 84

All year long I wear the badge of wimp proudly. It’s made out of bubble wrap and bandaids, and is attached with safety velcro in order to never risk the prick. I DO NOT WATCH HORROR MOVIES. I do not. In fact: I cannot. I even turned my cowardly back on Hereditary despite its starring one of my all-time-favourite actresses, and I stalk her from beneath her floorboards 4 days a week. I don’t watch em. I can’t do it. They don’t just make me scared, they make me mad. And not just husband sleeps with your best friend on your birthday mad. Oh no. I’m talking REALLY mad. Mad that I have ALLOWED myself to feel this bad. So I sit there seething. Self-loathing. And so scared I might pee – and that’s not an expression, it’s an alarmingly real possibility.

But.

But in July, I make an exception, an exception called The Fantasia Film Festival. It shows an incredible lineup of genre films, which takes me out of my comfort zone and challenges me as a movie lover, watcher, and reviewer. It’s got odes to action, horror, sci-fi, and loads besides – the most frontier-pushing stuff from Japan, South Korea, and more, and stuff to inspire fresh nightmares for a year. Truly something for every sicko out there, and I love it.

And this isn’t the first time I’ve let myself be pee-strength scared. As a kid I remember that a simple game of hide-and-go-seek would strain my 7 year old heart into cardiac arrest territory. Relocate that game to the woods, and set it at night, and I was a cowering, quivering mess. Did anyone else put themselves through these MV5BNWNjOTNkNTAtOTQwNi00MzM0LWE0OTktY2VmYzE2NDdiY2Q2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTU4ODA4MTg@._V1_neighbourhood games of hell? Obviously someone must derive pleasure from being on the brink of abject horror, and at the beginning of Summer of 84, we meet 4 such young fellows. Davey and his friends are 15 in the summer of 84, mere shadows of mustaches playing on their upper lips, and haven’t yet outgrown their midnight game of “manhunt.” I think it’s creepy even before the big news is revealed: the Cape May slayer is on the loose in their community. With 13 confirmed kills and a preference for teenage boys, Davey and his buddies should rationally be concerned about this serial killer but they’re kids, hornily hovering about the precipice between childhood and growing up, and instead they think it’s kind of cool.

Kind of cool until Davey (Graham Verchere), an amateur conspiracy theorist, convinces Eats (Judah Lewis), Woody (Caleb Emery), and Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew) that his next-door neighbour Mackey (Rich Sommer) fits the serial killer’s profile, and that Mackey’s job as a cop is nothing more than the perfect cover. So even though there’s a beautiful girl next door, a couple years older and rocking a side pony, Davey is single-minded in his surveillance and suspicion of Mackey. Which makes me hyperventilate on at least two fronts: 1. If Mackey IS the killer, Davey et. al are drawing an awful lot of attention to themselves, and 2. If he is not the killer, then the killer is on loose, and the boys are very distracted, which makes them easy targets. 

This is the most recent offering from directors RKSS (Roadkill Superstar), a trio of talented young Canadians otherwise known as Anouk Whissell, François Simard, and Yoann-Karl Whissell. Summer of 84 is inevitably being compared to Stranger Things, but that comparison isn’t really fair, just a lazy nod to the 1980s nostalgia they both evoke. Summer of 84 more like The Goonies, a childhood adventure movie, but with higher stakes. RKSS is not afraid to let some kids meet with some pretty real-world consequences.

As you can imagine, this movie is brimming with barely-awakened testosterone, and enough tension to blow the roofs off several treehouses. 105 minutes is a long time to be barely containing the urge to scream “Get out of there!!!!” in a theatre full of heavy-breathing moviegoers. My notebook reveals that I survived the ordeal by sketching people’s shoes. But I also survived by being pleasantly surprised by the production value in this movie. RKSS know and love their gore, but they’ve also crafted a movie that looks terrific. It certainly looks levels above what their budget must have dictated, and it’s rooted in an 80s realism you’ll identify as “grandparent’s rec room chic” rather than the too-slick, glossy, neon, facile and over-stylized way many other directors are dazzled by. Of course, it’s rather ironic since the film makers were not likely even born yet in the summer of 84, but who’s counting?

The four young actors are all quite good; Verchere has an honest and earnest face that’s hard not to root for, and Emery’s face is probably already familiar to you. There’s an easy and genuine camaraderie between the boys, which makes it easy to care for them even if their characters aren’t exactly well-developed. And getting us to care for the lambs being left to slaughter isn’t something you can take for granted in a horror movie. Blood comes cheap, but RKSS pays full price.

 

 

Laggies

Megan panics when her boyfriend of 10 years proposes to her at a friend’s wedding, but really it’s what she’s been waiting for – not so much for the ring, but for someone to just decide for her. With her post-graduate studies complete, she’s still without a job, still waffling on her daddy’s couch when convenient. She’s lost. Which doesn’t excuse the following: when she flees her brand new fiance and her dear friend’s wedding reception to “get some air” she winds up at a grocery store, buying beer for some teenagers.

And then she ends up following one of them home. Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz) is pretty interesting for a 16 year old, but the home she shares with her single father Craig (Sam Rockwell) is appealingly simple and cozy to Megan (Keira Knightley) and her quarter life crisis. Of course, the addition of Megan instantly complicates things for everyone and life is never simple. Megan should bloody well know that.

This film is apparently known as Say When in some countries, and I sort of think it MV5BNDhhM2FiMWUtYTBhNi00M2Q5LWI3ZTMtNWVmODcwMGU3ZTAwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTI3MDk3MzQ@._V1_should be in mine as well. Laggies? An expression I was unfamiliar with, but could kind of understand with context. Urban Dictionary, bless its lack of soul, provides several helpful definitions, including 1. dragging along (which I believe Megan is doing) 2. someone who is stalkerish (which Megan borderline is) 3. a combination of both large + saggy, referring to boobs, as in “she’s got a nice rack, but she’s laggy” (which Megan most assuredly is NOT) 4. “the laggies” is a disease (well, a pretend one) caused by chronic masturbation (I’ll let you watch the movie to find out which characters may suffer from it).

Keira Knightly is not entirely convincing in her part or in her accent, but director Lynn Shelton is working really hard to throw a little sympathy her way, which is hard to do when an overeducated, overprivileged white girl is whining about her own indecision. Chloe Grace Moretz and Sam Rockwell, though, are pretty fantastic additions to the cast. They bookend Megan’s 20-something ennui, and give it some perspective. I also appreciated pop-ups from Ellie Kemper and Jeff Garlin; Shelton has a knack for comedy that I can only wish was more present in the script by Andrea Seigel. This film puts a little too much faith in Knightley’s charm. She tries her best to be our plucky heroine but she’s not half as enchanting as she thinks she is, and she’s easily upstaged by her teenage counterpart. Possibly Megan should have locked that shit down while she still could. Instead she’s stuck in that crack between childhood and adulthood, and the only enticement of this film is the viewer’s desire to be the one to give her shove she needs to get the fuck out.

Landline

This movie is deliciously familiar.

Manhattan, 1995: a time when people still smoked inside, while sitting on their plush, wall-to-wall carpeting. Personal phone calls were made on the street corner, on a dirty pay phone, and it cost a quarter. And in the Jacobs home, a forgotten floppy disk leads teenager Ali to discover her father’s affair (and embarrassing erotic poetry). Ali (Abby Quinn) recruits older sister Dana (Jenny Slate) into her investigation. The pair are bonding for the first time, perhaps even bonding over the secrets and lies, while also coming to terms with their own sex and love lives.

It’s really fun to watch Quinn and Slate together on screen. It’s obvious the sisters have some history but ultimately they care about each other, and about their parents, who are seeming more and more human all the time. Do you remember the first time you saw your parents as fallible, flawed people? This is their discover. Their father (John landline-5931Turturro) may be stepping out on their mom, but he’s also the geeky guy who still takes them to Benihana for special occasions even though they’re far too old. Their mother (Edie Falco) has never struck them as a sexual being before, but it turns out that she too has wants and needs, and that maybe not all her tears and concerns are for them. This is a really great script that unfolds over just a couple of days, but pivotal days that will completely reconstruct the family.

Director Gillian Robespierre clearly has some love for the 90s and at times coasts on those references, which are admittedly a bit indulgent, but fun to savour. Landline doesn’t exactly break new ground in terms of theme or content but it’s a commentary on cheating by cheaters, and the implosion of a nuclear family just as it was about to expire anyway. There’s some nostalgia here, not just for the time period, but for that period of time before the kids grow wiser than the parents. The family’s shifting dynamics exhibit growing pains that are universal. And the great work by a talented ensemble means this family is fun to watch even as their ship is going down.

 

 

Torrey Pines

So here’s a movie for all you people who like to take some risks with your cartoon watching!

Torrey Pines is stop-motion animated, but there’s no clay in sight, it’s all paper cut outs, which I kind of loved. I mean, I’m a sucker for stop-motion any day of the week, but this one looks like something your or I could do, if only we had tonnes of time and talent and patience and a kick-ass story to tell. Clyde Petersen has all of those things, and this is (sort of) his story.

It’s about Clyde when Clyde was still a 12 year old girl dealing with gender identity and the struggle of finding his way. The film is filled with wild hallucinations and MV5BMjEzNjMwMTc0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjk4NDg4MDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1763,1000_AL_psychological projections, so even though the movie is without dialogue, we still feel what Clyde is feeling. When in the car with his mother, we don’t hear them argue, but when a speech bubble features a bear biting off the head of a rabbit, we get the gist. Clyde’s mother is schizophrenic, and what she sees as a fun-filled family road trip from San Diego up to New York, the rest of the world views more as kidnapping. It’s a trip that will change Clyde and his family forever.

My love for stop-motion exists because there’s just no better way to visually represent the love and attention that goes into making a film. Stop-motion will often show us how something works close up, and we see beauty in this new perspective. Torrey Pines doesn’t disappoint; I particularly loved seeing the jointed fingers at work. But it’s also not traditionally beautiful animation. It reminded me of being in high school – my friend Kelly one day said to me that my shoes were so ugly they were cool. Up until that exact moment I’d only seen the cool in them, and forever afterward couldn’t stop seeing the ugly (she was right). The look of Torrey Pines is also ugly-cool (although legitimately both), and perhaps there is no better aesthetic to explore a coming of age story in the 1990s.

I mentioned earlier that there’s no dialogue to this movie, and that definitely proved challenging for Sean. Maybe it’s not for everyone but I liked that this film was a rule-breaker. Music and score play a much larger role in the film because of the lack of speaking roles, and it really moves us along through the stages of the film. There’s a lot to see and think about in this movie, heavy stuff, but really relatable and authentic  with a flavour all its own.

Growing Up Smith

Smith Bhatnagar is a little Indian boy who moves to America with his family and falls in love with it immediately. It doesn’t necessarily fall in love with him back. It’s small town America circa 1979 and the neighbours aren’t super welcoming. The ones right across the street though are a real source of curiosity for him: Amy, the literal girl-next-door, is crush-worthy…too bad his family already has a wife lined up for him back home. Amy’s father (Jason Lee), quintessentially American, is also endlessly fascinating to him.

MV5BMjA2NzYzMDc1MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTA0MzgyNzE@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,754_AL_Smith is so named because it was the most American name his father could bestow. But as much as he and his teenage sister embrace their new lifestyle, their parents are more tepid. They’re chasing the American Dream but wish to protect their Indian culture as well. Furthermore, even as hard as they may try, they’re never getting things quite right. This is a real moment in time from an immigrant’s perspective, written by someone who knows the process, Anjul Nigam, Indian-born, who also plays Smith’s father.

Growing Up Smith is crowd-pleasing and wholesome. Roni Akurati is full of energy and zeal as the titular character. He’s immediately full of charm, with an irresistible smile and oodles of pluck. Good thing too: though the film doesn’t exactly get dark, Smith does face hardships as he pursues an authentic American childhood. There’s plenty of zany, fish out of water adventures, but some heart-felt moments of truth as well. It plays it safe though, sticking to rather obvious culture clash stuff. This is not a piercing, gritty look at the immigrant experience, rather something that’s been spit-shined with 70s nostalgia.

 

TIFF: Lady Bird

ladybird_01In making a coming of age film about a high school student, Greta Gerwig has come into her own – as a writer, as a director, as a woman with a voice.

Lady Bird is the name that Christine (Saoirse Ronan) has given herself. It’s her senior year of high school and all she wants is out. Out of Sacramento, out of her parents’ house, out of her own skin which doesn’t quite seem to fit anymore. Like most teenagers, Lady Bird is kind of a d-bag. She thinks she knows more than any adult she’s ever met. She’s self-centered and blind to the needs of others, but in the sympathetic hands of Ronan, we don’t hate her and we certainly never tire of her. Her flaws should push us away but instead they endear us – maybe even remind us of ourselves at that age.

Her relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is relatable as heck and among the best I’ve ever seen written or performed on the big screen. Their relationship is a series of clashes between pragmatism and whimsy. Lady Bird doggedly indulges one artistic pursuit after another while her mother does the precarious high-wire act of balancing the needs of an entire family. Ronan and Metcalf are incredible together, the chemistry is electric and complicated and feels so real you’ll intermittently want to send your mother a fruit bouquet of thanks, and a nasty hate letter condemning her every decision. Or was that just me?

But the real kicker is that Lady Bird is not just a mother-daughter movie. Lady Bird’s life is full of characters and it’s amazing how fully realized they all are. We spend time with her father, her brother, her best friend, and several love interests, and Gerwig’s fabulous writing doesn’t lose sight of a single one of them. And her cast – her cast! Have I said yet that Saoirse Ronan is a vision and she brings so much to the role and this is truly the best I’ve ever seen her? Fun fact: she and Greta first met at TIFF two years ago, and Gerwig couldn’t imagine the role going to anyone else. And even though the writing is so, so good, and the character is absolute perfection on the page, Ronan just makes it even better. Even wonderfuller.

And Metcalf. This is such a great role and she really makes it her own: loving, frustrated, conflicted, supportive, scathing. Goddamn. She plays opposite Tracy Letts, who plays her husband and Lady Bird’s dad. He’s the good cop parent but not without his own challenges – believe me, the script does not neglect him. Lois Smith, Timothee Chalamet, and Lucas Hedges all help bring Lady Bird’s world into bold, bright, living colour while also contributing a little of their own. I’m telling you, this has got to be a contender for best script. The layers are many and I have never wanted to peel anything faster in my life! For my money, though, the lovely, luminous Beanie Feldstein has got to be the breakout star here. She plays Lady Bird’s BFF Julie. Don’t mistake her for a second banana. She may have shades of wallflower but she never gives you a second to discount her.

Lady Bird is absolutely one to watch, so do.

Invisible

Director Pablo Giorgelli has it in for us. His protagonist, Ely, is a marginalized teenaged girl who finds herself pregnant by  the adult, married son of her after-school employer. She’s brilliantly played  by Mora Arenillas, no small accomplishment because much of what is conveyed is done in total silence. Arenillas must constantly reach into her bag of tricks in order to portray the insight and the mental toughness, and the resilence shown by her character.

For his part, Giorgelli sets his gaze upon the social margins of Argentina with a sparse aesthetic that will test your limits. He likes agonizingly long, silent shots in which we contemplate our heroine as she stares out the window of a moving bus [which, by the 35482-invisible__2_way, why do movies always make this seem so peaceful? If you’ve ever rested your forehead on a bus window in real life, you’ll know it feels more like going through the wash with a bunch of rocks, but whatever, don’t mind my grumbling, that’s neither here nor there]. The point is: looooooooong shots with little to no action, little to no dialogue, little to no plot. The whole movie can be summed up as: She’s pregnant. Oh jeez. How to get an abortion in a country where abortion is illegal? It’s only 87 minutes long but it feels more like 87 hours. Case in point: Sean fell dead asleep.

Invisible is a love letter to spartan film making. Although Ely dominates the screen in almost every shot, the things that remain unseen are as significant. We don’t know much about her home life, and glimpses are enigmatic. Her living situation and long commute suggest poverty but Giorgelli doesn’t rub our noses in it. His lens is sympathetic but we get a sense of her loneliness as she faces the biggest decision of her life.

There’s no pointed political criticism to the film but Ely’s exploration of the underground abortion scene is chilling. She is so matter of fact, so responsible, it’s easy to forget that Ely is still a young student. The actress is formidable as she bravely, stoically faces down an impossible situation. But as interesting as I found the topic, I couldn’t forgive the long, boring stretches of just watching her mute in her daily routine. It felt stagnant, bled of life, like a carnival ride that pelts you with boredom.

 

 

 

 

The Honor Farm

I hadn’t seen my friend Josh in months and was eager to tell him all about the exciting new movie I saw at the Fantasia Film Festival. “I just saw The Honor Farm and I’m still trying to figure it out,” I told him while seated at a nearby Mexican restaurant.

I hadn’t seen the baby boomer somehow Honor farmstanding right over me until he chose this moment to cut me off. “I just saw that,” he complained. “It was terrible“.

I didn’t really want to get into it with this guy nor was I even confident that I had understood the film well enough to defend it so I just smiled politely as he told me that it wasn’t even scary. I bashfully admitted that I was the guy who jumped and cried out during the final act.

honor farm 2

The Honor Farm is exactly that kind of movie. It’s the kind of movie that you need to let sink in while you ignore those who will immediately and loudly dismiss it. Lucy (Olivia Grace Applegate) seems to feels like she’s just going through the motions as she prepares for her prom. After her drunk date embarasses her and tries to force himself on her, she reluctantly agrees to accompany her best friend Anne (Katie Folger) and a classmate she barely knows into the woods to take shrooms in an abandoned prison farm.

Other than that, the less you know about The Honor Farm the better. Although you should probably be warned that horror fans like the one described above may be disappointed. Because the set up seems bloody perfect. Eight teenagers, most of them seeming to fit a typical scary movie stereotype, entering a creepy prison on prom night might make you start placing bets on who will be first to die but this isn’t your typical scary movie. What follows is truly surreal and genre-bending and few of these character arcs play out like you’d expect.

I may have been a little lost during the closing credits but The Honor Farm keeps getting better the more I think about it. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

The Edge of Seventeen

Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, an awkward teenager. Scratch that. Make it a super awkward teenager. So awkward that I kept ducking behind my coat (the only thing available to be in the theatre), blushing, needing a buffer between myself and all the squirm-inducing goodness on screen.

Was I ever 17? I doubt it. I bet Nadine feels like she’ll be 17 forever though. The the-edge-of-seventeenawkwardness just goes on and on. To make matters worse, her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) has it easy: perfect skin, perfect grades, the perfect apple of his mother’s eye, and a perfectly terrible person to be compared to for the rest of your life. To make matters EVEN worse, Darian starts dating Nadine’s best friend (read: only friend), which means he’s getting all the comfort that used to be hers, and she’s forced to be at war with them both while still, you know, blundering her way through life and high school, with only an irascible teacher (Woody Harrelson) in her corner – and believe me, that’s a bit iffy.

Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig seems awfully comfortable behind the camera for a first-timer, but it’s the writing you’ll admire most. Nadine is largely unsentimental, and unsentimentally portrayed. You love her despite the fact that she’s a dumpster fire. She makes all the wrong decisions, usually in the most flamboyant way possible, and yet it’s impossible not to care. Maybe it’s that we can all find some small part of ourselves and our experience in Nadine, in her struggle just to survive a pretty delicate (read: embarrassing) edge_of_seventeentime in one’s life.

All of the performances are exemplary – even the adults have secrets and dimension. The ensemble works together in a very dynamic, authentic way that would be depressing if it wasn’t so funny. Craig’s writing is snappy and smart, and she manages to keep her protagonist’s unlikeability an asset to the film. It’s an observant film, and universal enough to exceed the confines of a teen movie and appeal to the awkward teenager in all of us.