EIGHTH GRADE (2018, Bo Burnham)
Hits its target cleanly, but this isn’t some 200-yard bullseye in high winds. It’s a softball aiming at a mattress. At some point it needs to stop seeming profound when it’s pointed out to us that teenagers struggle with their identities and with peer pressure and friends and school, and that the world feels overwhelming to their complicated developing emotions. Yes, that’s true. But revealing that kids actually have acne isn’t some historical wisdom unearthed from the writings of Lao Tze or anything. We get it, we’ve all been there.
It’s nice when a movie subverts the even worse tropes of clichéd one-dimensional teen props, and recognizes the nuances of their lives. But is that our standard now? Just being better than the worst aspects of bad movies? Burnham’s feature debut never rises too far above that goal, even though it nicely explores how phony teens are when they present to social media the personalities they wish they had. In so many other respects it’s just like many other EDGE-OF-SEVENTEEN-type coming-of-age indies, maturely reckoning with uncomfortable subject matter and being overly proud of its young cast.
Josh Hamilton (who annoyingly seems to have barely aged in the 25 years since I first saw him in ALIVE) shines as Kayla’s dad, and he gets that emotional father-daughter fireside chat scene to elevate the movie, even though I couldn’t help but wish it was part of a stronger film. He and Fisher do a good job. (Hamilton has a line reading to her, which is nothing but the word “Yes,” that’s so funny it deserves an Oscar on its own). But the cinematography is barely functional, often flattened out and poorly composed. It magnifies the worst aspects of its digital cameras. Burnham’s brilliant stage act highlights clever writing and stinging meta-humor. This script, while funny in its own right, doesn’t play to his strengths. He may one day be a very good director, but this heralded start doesn’t play as much more than an easy mediocrity.
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018, Boots Riley)
Pulses with the energy of a first-time filmmaker, but also with the experience of someone who’s been making political art for a lifetime. Movies like this often reek of a hurried attempt to desperately shout all the writer’s rebellious thoughts at once, resulting in a preachy, unentertaining screed. But SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is very much a movie, not a PSA, and somehow manages to wrangle its protagonist’s Kafkaesque nightmare, existential crisis, and activist journey into one fluid narrative that ends in a very different place than it began, yet it’s consistently witty, surprising, and sharp.
I could have done without David Cross and Patton Oswalt dubbing the “white voices,” even though the observation that blacks need to sublimate their culture and voices to the whites who simultaneously loathe and appropriate it is keenly disturbing. It just felt beneath a movie whose heart is in a true anti-capitalist message that — agree with it or not — works logically within the fantastical elements of its plot. The third-act horror show is a natural extension of the themes, somehow calling to mind great black-directed social statements like WATERMELON MAN, BAMBOOZLED, and GET OUT. Like Van Peebles’s satire, it shows there’s no going back. Like Lee’s minstrel show, the self-defeating dehumanization is a choice made by its victims. And like Peele’s thriller, it sows the seeds of violent revolt.
Riley edits this like a hazy fever dream, displacing Cassius Green (a name whose pun tells the audience right away how allegorical and theatrical this experience will be) throughout his life, fracturing his psyche the more he gives in to the system. And as Green, Lakeith Stanfield lives up to all the promise he’s shown in everything from ATLANTA and GET OUT to DEATH NOTE. Tessa Thompson is also a highlight, playing Detroit as a sex-positive performance artist eager for human connection (notice how physical her movements towards others are at all times) because of its importance to her community ideals. And Armie Hammer is in full-on SOCIAL NETWORK mode, laying waste to the stiffness and somberness he went for in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME — with this he’s having a ball and commands attention.