In the summer of 2003, Jamie is 16, and her grandmother is dying. Don’t feel too bad about it, Grandma (June Squibb) is a bit of a bitch. On her deathbed, she confesses to Jamie that she had her secretly baptized as a child (Jamie’s mother is Jewish). She also imparts a very important last piece of advice: learn how to give a good blow job.
How surprised would you be to learn that Jamie learned a way to combine those two tidbits? More on that in a minute. First: Grandma had some bombs to drop for other family members as well, so everyone’s reeling. Big time. Total shit show. And yet Jamie’s evil-Jew mom is still in charge of planning the funeral. So much fun for her! First you live under your mother in law’s tyranny and disapproval for years, then she confirms her hatred for you and disrespect for your culture and religion…and then she dies and you get to clean up the mess. Families are the best. And sixteen year olds are so well-equipped to deal with the drama!
Yeah so anyway, Jamie (Joey King) decides to check out this whole being a secret half-Christian thing, and she goes to church where she actually ends up checking out the hot, young, priest-in training, Luke (Jack Kilmer). He’s about as many days away from being ordained and super duper officially off the market as Grandma is from being buried, and yet Jamie thinks it’s a good idea to use Grandma’s second piece of advice on him. And he’s so committed to God he goes along with it. Haha, “goes along with it” like he’s not a guy with a condom in his pocket like any other – eager to stick it in, not so eager to reciprocate. Romantic.
Writer-director Becca Gleason is offering up her story, alarmingly “based on true events.” Jamie is believably self-centered and short-sighted, but Becca should have the powers of hindsight, and in fact, 15 years worth of precious insight, so it’s a little disappointing that her main character still feels a little flimsy. Anger, grief, and a teenaged identity crisis. So it never quite jumps the tracks from your typical teenage film. It’s an odd enough story you might want to tune in anyway.
Carolyn Harper makes out with a football player but when she pushes away his roaming hands, he leaves her alone in the woods and she’s never seen alive again. Her disappearance disrupts her high school and the entire community, as the disappearances of beautiful young white women often do.
In the aftermath of her disappearance, we watch things unravel for her friends, her fellow bandmates and classmates, her mother, and the well-intentioned but inexperienced local sheriff. More than that, though, we experience the way that grief accelerates the coming of age for a group of teenagers, which makes it rather obvious that their parents’ haven’t exactly completed the growing up process either.
Writer-director Jennifer Reeder creates a very atmospheric teen noir that pulls from a lot of sources but manages to be its very own thing. The closest thing I can compare it to is Twin Peaks for its eerie tone but believe me when I say Knives And Skin is its own gothic soup – a horror broth steeped with many surprising flavours. Reeder brings in familiar tropes and mixes them with haunting song and feminist references and the result is hard to categorize but fascinating to watch, even if it is uneven, a little long, and prone to meandering. If it occasionally feels a little piecey, it also feels dreamy, surreal. The story is less concerned about finding Carolyn than it is about exploring the various ways people feel trapped, and subtle reminders that escape is possible. Although it starts off with a dead girl in the woods, it subverts the expectations of that genre over and over with its confident female leads and the weaponization of sex. It’s like a parody, but self-aware and dead serious.
Reeder may value style over narrative, but Knives And Skin interesting, beautiful, and unforgettable.
Sasha Tran is a famous chef opening a new restaurant in her hometown, San Francisco. Her fiance has just fled to India for 6 months, during which time they’re going to “see other people.” Those other people may or may not include Marcus, Sasha’s childhood best friend, with whom she lost touch after an ill-conceived grief-fuck in the backseat of his car. I mean definitely not. Their brief coupling was so awkward, and then she went off and did big things and he stayed behind to work in the family business after his mom died. It’ll never work. Never.
Sasha (Ali Wong) and Marcus (Randall Park) have a lot of love between them, but love is not enough. Their lives have diverged more than just geographically. Plus, it’s hard to take a dip in the hot springs of love when you’ve been lollygagging in the fallow fields of friendship all these years. Can they possibly overcome?
I mean, yes. Of course they can. This is a goddamned rom-com people. It’s not rocket science. There’s no will they or won’t they, there’s just how much longer until they do. And with this movie, you kinda hope it’ll be a while because you’re just enjoying the ride so much. Or at least I was, and improbably, I believe Sean was too. So that’s two people who hate romcoms (Sean because he literally has no emotions and myself because I’ve literally had eyeball surgery after bursting a network of vessels when I rolled them too much) who have made an exception for this one.
Always Be My Maybe is funny, and not just because the title is a pessimistic twist on a 1990s Mariah Carey song. Ali Wong is of course a comedy genius, and she plays very well against Randall Park, who I’ve always thought of as more of a dry comedian, but he’s got a bigger bag of tricks than I ever knew, including a musical side AND a violent side – and while I love them both, by god, I loved them even more when combined (stay through the credits).
This movie has absolutely nothing new to add in the romance department but you’ll be so busy being taken by surprise by random lines funny enough to stay with you for weeks you won’t even care. The cast is charmingly quirky and features a cameo (in fact, a meaty little part) that will pretty much make your year. Always Be My Maybe is streaming on Netflix right now, and it’s not a maybe, it’s a full-on yes.
It’s the last day of school, and best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are ready to bid high school goodbye. They’ve been serious students, buttoned down and focused, and their hard work has paid off: they’re off to Yale and Columbia respectively. But their pride is tamped down a little when they learn that that many of their classmates are also headed for the Ivies – this despite the fact that they rarely seemed studious, and made lots of time for parties and fun. “I’m incredible at hand-jobs but I also got a 1560 on the SATs,” says one.
Molly is particularly devastated; sure she’s the valedictorian, but did she sacrifice fun for nothing? She doesn’t want to show up at college in the fall a party virgin. Her whole worldview is sliding down a crap chute, and her instinct is to dive in after it. Luckily, they have one last night before graduation, and Amy’s departure for a summer of volunteering in Botswana. One night to make up for 4 years of skipping parties and feeling left out of the in-crowd. They set their sights on Nick’s party – the most effortlessly popular kid in school (played by Mason Gooding, son of Cuba Gooding Jr).
The ladies do not get from point A to point B without boatloads (and sometimes they are literal boatloads) of shenanigans. This is Superbad, only because it’s girls, it’s much smarter. And it seems like this one night of trying to party teaches them more about themselves than the previous four years of high school. That sounds about right, doesn’t it?
The movie gets so much right even as we learn how much the girls have gotten wrong. Molly always assumed she was purposely excluded, but it turns out these kids are all too happy to greet her socially; her exile was self-imposed. How maddening, isn’t it, to discover that too late – and a good reminder for us all to check in with ourselves. How often do we impose our own limitations? Amy tackles her fears while Molly checks her ego, and her assumptions. The two women in the lead have amazing chemistry and it’s a lot of fun to witness the particular dynamic of their friendship. You and I know that college will test the bonds of their friendship, and inevitably change it if not crush it outright. They’re starting to have inklings that this might be so. So this last night out has some tangible pressure to it. Beanie Feldstein is a cinematic lantern, lighting up every screen she’s on, and lighting the way for others. Kaitlyn Dever is an excelling pairing for her, able to play off her energy in a more conservative and subdued way, while still holding her own.
Olivia Wilde tries out the director’s chair and seems to find it a pretty comfortable fit. She’s got an eye for letting actors do their thing; so much of the best bits feel spontaneous and are the best kind of weird. She’s also got an amazing feel for music – she introduces characters and themes with pop songs, and it really took me back. I bet most of us can come up with a soundtrack of our own high school experience. Music is such an important part of that time in our lives. I still surround myself by music constantly, but I will never again spend the day on my bedroom floor inhaling lyric booklets, or spend hours recording stuff off MTV like I did then. I know which songs I kissed to, slow-danced to, had sex to. Which ones we played on repeat as we drove recklessly and restlessly around parking lots doing donuts, which ones played at the diner as we split an order of fries, which ones we cried to when boys were mean to us, which ones accompanies us down the aisle at our own graduations and commencements. Wilde seems to have an intuitive sense of that, and I caught it.
There’s a theme in Booksmart that is hinted at but never spoken of: class. As in economic and social class. Molly points out the school’s 1% (Billie Lourd and Skyler Gisondo, whom Sean finds uproariously funny), but it’s clear that the Los Angeles high school as affluent as heck. Everyone, it seems, except for Molly. Not a single thing is ever said about it, but we see that she lives in an apartment building while everyone else has a McMansion, and her parents are absent from the film. So when Molly discovers that all her other classmates also got into good schools, she berates herself for having skipped the fun when she didn’t have to. But you and I know that she probably did: that kids like Molly have to earn their way in, but kids from rich families do not. They have legacy status, they know alumni who can pull strings. Their families donate money to schools. And, as we’ve seen in the news recently, they pay money to fake their way in on a little-used athletic scholarship or some other fraudulent means. College admissions are not the meritocracy we want to believe they are. There are very valid reasons why Molly worked so hard and others did not, even if the film never states them. So maybe Molly’s takeaway was to loosen up a bit, and experience life, which are not bad lessons. But for us, it’s a little bit more than that.
Even with these subtle layers, Booksmart never stops being fun. The cast is lively and diverse, the tropes are thankfully on the unexpected side, and the movie has a great pace. Plus it has an exception friendship at its centre. Just when you think we’ve said all there is to say about high school, Boomsmart is a charming, genuine and clever addition to the field.
Kate Bradley (Tiya Sircar) is a TV reporter who takes too many risks getting exclusive footage of fires and daring rescue attempts. Dedicated to the bummer beat, her boss can’t get her to stop, so he gives her a different kind of story, soft news that insults her, but the story turns out to be quite the gold nugget.
An anonymous donor has left a literal bag of cash on someone’s door step. She’s thrilled to have $100 000 but has no idea who could be so generous. That first recipient wants to call it a miracle, but Kate’s story doesn’t stop there. There are other door steps, other bags of money, and pretty soon the whole city’s abuzz with the good news.
Kate, who started off reluctant to report on something so negligible, now has quite a story on her hands. And it’s not just that it’s something positive making the news for once. It’s the mystery of the thing. Who is this guy, who becomes known in the media as Good Sam, short for good samaritan, and why is he changing lives without taking credit? Kate is obsessed with but skeptical of the notion that someone might be doing good without expecting anything in return – is this naiveté, or wishful thinking, or a new kind of philanthropy set to inspire a whole city?
Good Sam is a feel-good story, and perhaps a bit of a fantasy. In the day and age of Trump, it’s hard to imagine such a positive news cycle dominating the headlines. The plot’s a little flimsy and the characters aren’t shadowed by motivation or even much personality, but Tiya Sircar leads the cast with such good cheer, she’s hard to resist. Which is a good thing, because though Good Sam reaches for themes on the top shelf (journalism’s role in public perception, generosity without expectation), it all too often scrapes along the very bottom (mired in Kate’s relationship status). But with tempered expectations, Good Sam is not a bad way to spend time thinking about how ratings drive a news cycle, and heck, it’s easily accessible on Netflix right now.
Rose is a single mother who has a son who’s just a little weird. A complete genius according to grandpa Joe, but his school doesn’t want him back. So Rose (Amy Adams) needs to make some serious cash in a hurry, to pay tuition fees at a private school where weird kids can thrive, and cleaning houses just doesn’t cut it.
So she assembles a crack team consisting of herself and her flaky sister Norah (Emily Blunt) and together they start cleaning crime scenes. Blood and guts equal serious hazard pay. Of course, there are also serious hazards. And I’m not just talking decomposition smells and bodily fluid leaks and brains on the ceiling. I’m talking about emotional hazards, like bereft widows who don’t know how to deal with husbands of 50 years being reduced to a blood stain in the living room. Not to mention the fact that Rose and Norah’s mother committed suicide when they were young girls. So, you know, this is potentially triggering work, and Rose and Norah aren’t hardened enough yet to have strict professional boundaries.
As the title suggests, director Christine Jeffs puts a sunny spin on a macabre subject. Well, sunny-ish. Overcast anyway, which is pretty amazing considering the long shadows cast by tragedy. Sunshine Cleaning is a low-key movie. It’s intimate, with a light touch. Amy Adams is the sun at the centre of its universe. Everyone orbits around her, basking in her glow. Although I’m sure her character would not describe herself thusly, Rose is a fighter, a quiet fighter maybe, but she doesn’t give up. She persists. She’s seen hardship but you rarely see the cracks, which she deftly caulks with hard work and optimism. She’s the kind of character you root for even though she doesn’t ask for your sympathy – still, you feel she’s earned a break or two, and you hope to see her get them. Is that how life works? Not really. But it’s nice to dream.
In 2018, there was a big grassroots push to get some fresh blood into the U.S. Congress, where old, rich, white men have ruled things for far too long. That’s not a partisan problem, that’s across the board.
Knock Down The House is about the non-career-politicans who were brave enough to go up against the old guard – women, and people of colour. These are working class people, daughters of coal miners, waitresses, descendants of immigrants and slaves. True Americans who want to see true change. And perhaps most importantly, they are not taking money from lobby groups. They are ordinary people who want to represent ordinary people. But without funds, or name recognition, that’s not just an uphill battle, that’s practically an Everest-sized challenge.
What’s easy to admire about this documentary is that it challenges not a particular party, but the status quo. It confronts voter apathy and cynicism and is a literal breath of fresh air.
In the spotlight: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearengin, Amy Vilela. Not everyone can win, but the truth is, we all win just because they tried. Because hundreds will have to try for a couple to get through. Because even if it doesn’t topple over the kingpins, it makes them scared, and just a little more accountable.