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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

22 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ve liked more Spider-Man movies than I’ve disliked them. I like Sam Raimi’s 2002 smash-hit “Spider-Man.” I thought “Spider-Man 2” was even better (and I gave it four stars because hey Roger Ebert did so that was OK…eh, if I’m being honest, I’d still give it four stars if I re-reviewed it). And I really liked “Spider-Man: Homecoming” last year, after “Captain America: Civil War” brought the web-slinging hero into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Oh, and there’s also Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” to which I immediately gave four stars after seeing it twice in theaters in the summer of 2012…maybe I was hoping it would go in a better direction than it ended up into to justify the rating. (THAT Spider-Man movie, I’ll write a Revised Review about.) And the less said about “Spider-Man 3” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” the better…

Oh, whatever, let’s talk about “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which is hands-down the best Spider-Man movie yet! (And I will NOT hesitate in giving it four stars, because I also think it’s one of the best films of the year. It’s definitely one of my favorites of the year.)

This Spider-Man movie has it all. The pathos. The humor. The fun. The excitement. Everything that most Spider-Man fans look for in a Spider-Man movie, it’s here. Nothing more, nothing less, and God bless America!

Sorry, sorry, let me collect myself before continuing…

OK, I’m back. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a wonderful comic-book film. It’s strange and unusual, which adds to the highly effective dramatic elements that help elevate the story material and the necessary comedic aspects, while also paying homage to previous versions of the Marvel-Comics superhero so that it can move on with a different story. Some parts parody the formula, other parts are adding to it, and overall, it’s an affectionate respect to the hero we know and love.

And did I mention it’s also animated? As in, they take advantage of every clever visual touch that could be added to a great Spider-Man story, right down to the exclamation word bubbles lifted from a comic book to pop onto the screen? Do I need to mention that it’s visually pleasing as a result? Do I need to? It’s just the icing on top of the cake.

Our hero is Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore, the talented young actor from 2015’s “Dope”). He’s a bright but awkward teenaged boy who’s just been transferred to a private school that his stern policeman father (Bryan Tyree Henry) is forcing him to attend. He doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, and this stuffy school isn’t helping anything. His life changes, however, when he’s bitten by a radioactive spider one night. This of course gives him super spidey-sense and web-slinging abilities that make for one awkward situation after another until he comes across the costumed hero himself, Spider-Man (Chris Pine). Unfortunately, the humongous, psychotic Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) comes along and kills Spider-Man/Peter Parker, but not before Spidey’s final words to Miles are to stop Kingpin from destroying the world with his dimension-jumping device that could doom the city. Sound weird? It gets even weirder as Miles comes across…Spider-Man. Huh?

Actually, this is an alternate version of Spider-Man/Peter Parker (voiced by Jake Johnson). He’s heavier built, his origin story is slightly different, and he’s cynical and heartbroken after being Spider-Man was too much for him. He’s been brought here due to a malfunction in the dimension machine, which seems to have brought out other versions of Spider-Man, such as Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), anime heroine Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), and even Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). Together, they team up to stop Kingpin’s insane plan and also help Miles control his powers so that he can take up the slack of this dimension’s new Spider-Man and keep New York City safe.

Admittedly, the story contains so much material, and yet it doesn’t feel overstuffed. There is a lot to absorb, and the right amount of time is taken to let the audience take in what they are seeing right in front of them. The things that are important are given the most focus, and everything else thankfully doesn’t feel like filler—they’re here to further aid the film’s delightfully witty and fun tone. And the best part is while a hardcore comic-book fan can admire the directions “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” takes, a casual fan can still watch it, admire it, and enjoy the ride.

The movie is a total blast, and the comedy, action, and drama all blend beautifully to make for one hell of an entertaining experience. And I think because it’s animated, it’s allowed to take more chances than it could have if it were live-action. Or maybe it would’ve worked fine if it were live-action. Either way, I’m perfectly content with what I got, because “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a ton of fun that I can’t wait to return to in the near future.

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Three Identical Strangers (2018)

9 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction. Just read this next paragraph and decide for yourself if you think it’s a true story or something Hollywood would have rejected on the spot:

A community-college freshman is recognized by strangers on campus, even though he has no idea who they think he is. Someone asks him questions, and it turns out he shares the same birthday, the same adoption agency, and of course the same physical features (such as meaty hands) as his friend, to whom he takes to visit. It turns out these two are identical twin brothers who meet each other for the first time at age 19. When the story reaches the news, who should happen upon it but ANOTHER BROTHER?? Yep—it turns out there were triplets who were separated at birth. (There were actually quadruplets, but the fourth brother died at birth.) After having finally discovered one another by chance, they become close friends. But that’s not all. It turns out the triplets’ separation was part of an experiment brought on the adoption agency to try on a “nature-versus-nurture” study, by placing the three infants with families at different economic levels—one wealthy, one middle-class, one blue-collar…

It’s a story so unbelievable it HAS to be true. And upon watching the first few minutes of Tim Wardle’s “Three Identical Strangers,” a gripping, unbelievably riveting documentary that tells the triplets’ story, I was blown away by the fact that this wasn’t written for the screen. As the film continued, I was even more impressed to learn more about where they came from and why all of this was done to/for them.

I should just stop the review right here, because the less you know about “Three Identical Strangers” going in, the better. And while I don’t want to give away much of what we learn from this wonderful documentary, I will say what I took away from it in the end: the importance of loving, sensitive parenting, no matter what economic class these people were raised in.

“Three Identical Strangers” captures that meaning brilliantly. At times, it’s very funny the way many of these things worked out. Other times, it’s infuriating when you think about the people who tried to play God with these infants. And the rest of the time, it’s bitterly tragic, especially in the case of the depression all three of the triplets go through, particularly one named Eddy, and the direction that takes. But it also makes you think about what would have happened to you if you had been raised differently or if your own siblings had been raised differently. All that matters in the end is nature and the kind of parenting that’s important in everyone’s life.

I loved “Three Identical Strangers” so much. It’s wonderfully made, has numerous twists and turns that kept me invested, contained memorable characters in real-life people, and also might have provoked more discussion than any other film I’ve seen all year. (And yes, that includes “The Tale” and “Leave No Trace.”) It’s a compelling, fascinating documentary that will definitely be ranked high on my best-films-of-2018 list.

The Tale (2018)

8 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The story you are about to see is true…as far as I know.”

That’s the narrating line of dialogue that opens writer-director Jennifer Fox’s “The Tale,” and it reminds us of the infamous quote, “Truth is in the eye of the beholder.” “The Tale” is Fox’s account of an incident that happened to her when she was very young (in her early teenage years, even), how she came to terms with it, and how she tried to find answers from other people who were involved. The answers are not clear from the others, but she knows what happened to herself.

“The Tale” is documentarian Fox’s fictional telling based on a story she wrote at age 13…that was based on her experiences as a victim of sexual abuse. It’s a film that is as powerful as it is uncomfortable. And it’s undoubtedly one of the most important films in recent memory for that very reason.

Laura Dern stars in a truly excellent performance standing in for Fox, playing a documentary filmmaker named Jennifer. She seems to be doing well for herself, enjoying a nice Manhattan apartment with her long-time fiancé (Common), working hard on doc projects, and teaching non-fiction film at a local university. But even before her overprotective mother (Ellen Burstyn) demands an explanation after discovering an essay she wrote at age 13, we begin to suspect some uneasiness within her, as she seems somewhat closed-off and self-loathing and is more interested in her documentary subjects. (Commentary!)

What is this essay her mother found from decades ago? Well, it’s about a “relationship” that developed between 13-year-old “Jenny” (Isabelle Nelisse) and her “older” boyfriend. Upon rereading the essay, Jennifer remembers just how “old” this man was. He was her professional coach from an intensive horse training camp she attended: Bill Allens (played in flashbacks by Jason Ritter and in present-day by John Heard), who was in his 40s when he began sexually grooming Jenny before he would “make love” with her.

As Jennifer starts to read more and more into her past, she realizes the true terror of what came upon her by a man she had come to trust and admire at such a young age. Being an investigative documentarian, she uses her skills to look further into what happened that fateful summer over 30 years ago. “The Tale” is able to move from present-day events to flashbacks, as she’s learning more about what truly happened and what MAY have happened, without a hint of clumsiness. There’s one bit I loved in which we’re first taken back to that summer when Jennifer was 15, when she’s corrected that she was 13 and thus we’re returned to the same scenes (only played by a different actress than who we started with)—that lets us know right away that truth and memory, especially in a case like this, don’t always go hand in hand. The more Jennifer realizes the harsh difference between what she thought was happening in the moment and what actually happened in hindsight, the more she can’t deny of the hauntings of her past and how it affected her even at age 48.

What happened with 13-year-old Jenny, 40something Bill, and the tall, beautiful and exotic horseback-riding coach Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki), with whom Bill was having an affair, is not as “beautiful” as Jenny would like to believe, though we can understand how she would have felt that way. In her mind, she was a girl who felt older than she was, being taken seriously by two mature, classy adults who gave her attention and let her in on their secrets. (To show even more of how different 13-year-old Jenny was from 48-year-old Jennifer, we even see the two interact with each other, as Jennifer shares a “conversation” with her past self and tries to recollect and understand what really happened with Jenny.) It’s fascinating to see Jennifer reconnect with people from her past, such as Mrs. G (played in present-day by Frances Conroy) and other women who attended the camp as girls, and yet it’s also incredibly disturbing when certain points of truth rise to the surface…

In making the film, Jennifer Fox makes the brave choice by not merely hinting at the physical abuse she encountered at a young age—she instead takes special care in showing us the horrific seduction from an adult man to a young girl and the eventual physical action, using adult body doubles for the rape scenes. She wants us to know what she felt, both then and now. And we’re with her fictional counterpart, played brilliantly by Laura Dern, every step of the way, right down to the moment in which she confronts present-day Bill head-on. It’s painful and uncompromising and equally brilliant and powerful.

What we have in “The Tale” is a “tale” of people who believe in what they feel in an attempt to shield themselves from the true harshness that they’re committed to. Jenny believed she was experiencing love for the first time, Bill believed in his own sick and creepy methods, Mrs. G believed in her reasons for having her own extramarital matters, and so on. Jennifer begins to believe that the faults of her haunted subconscious were caused by her own doing, when in actuality, it was the people who used her and took advantage of her that were responsible. The journey she embarks on will determine who she was as Jenny, who she is as Jennifer, and how she got from there to here. “The Tale” is one of the best films of 2018; one I will definitely not forget anytime soon.

Searching (2018)

28 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are people who will compare “Searching” to “Unfriended,” because they share the same gimmick of setting a movie entirely within the confines of a mobile device. Well…almost. “Unfriended” (and another similar film, “The Den”) kept the focus coming from one computer screen and mostly in real time. “Searching” tells its story through various forms of media—laptop screens, cellphone screens, public news footage, YouTube videos, hidden-camera surveillance footage, even GPS. If nothing in the story for “Searching” can be recorded in any way, shape or form, then it didn’t happen. “Searching” utilizes just about every modern convenience imaginable to tell its story, and thankfully, it doesn’t feel forced.

Directed and co-written by Aneesh Chaganty, “Searching” is a tense, suspenseful, very effective mystery-thriller that had me on-edge, kept me guessing, and delighted me in doing both.

John Cho stars in a great, understated performance as David Kim, a widower raising his 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La). After the death of Pamela (Sara Sohn), David’s wife and Margot’s mother, the two barely communicate, save for text messaging and FaceTime. Margot disappears one day (and David doesn’t realize she’s missing until well into the next day), and it’s every parent’s worst dream come true—David’s daughter is missing, she’s not returning his calls, he gets more frantic by the passing minute, and now we have a gripping mystery…

As he believes something is very wrong here, David receives the help of police detective Vick (Debra Messing) and also does his own investigative work by looking through Margot’s laptop she left behind before her disappearance. In addition to contacting her online friends to see if they have any answers, David also combs through her Facebook, her Tumblr, and other sites she’s been sharing pieces of her life with. While he’s doing this, he learns the sad truth that the girl he comes to know through the online clutter is not the daughter he thought he knew, as he discovers new things about Margot that he didn’t know before. Add that to the question of what could have possibly happened with Margot, and David’s world is shattered uncomfortably.

The mystery surrounding this girl’s disappearance is very effective in how pieces of this complicated puzzle keep coming into place. But “Searching” takes it a step further by having a deep emotional center. Through a powerfully poignant opening sequence, we see David and Pamela raise their daughter up until Pamela’s tragic death. (This is told to us using various videos—one great little touch is the progression of the technology with the passage of time.) It’s a simple technique, but we immediately understand the toll this woman’s death has taken on her husband and child, and it’s very well-done. According to a making-of special (which appears on the DVD extras), writers Chagantry and Sev Ohanian first came up with the opening scene to make the story more character-driven and were able to develop the rest of the story through the characterization. I don’t doubt it, because the rest of the film works mainly because you feel you know David and are heartbroken when he realizes Margot hasn’t been the same since Pamela’s death, and neither has his relationship with Margot.

It’s all played with a great deal of credibility. The way Chagantry tells this story, with various forms of media at the assistance, it feels real. And the storytelling at hand here is very fresh, very tense, and very rewarding because not all the answers are easy to guess by the end of the film. It’s an intriguing mystery with a great deal of heart. It can generate emotion as well as it can raise suspense.

What also plays a big part in the film’s credibility is the lead performance by John Cho, who is utterly brilliant in the role of a troubled father desperate to find his missing daughter if for no other reason than to somehow reconnect with her. It’s impossible not to feel sorry for him, even when he does something like track down and humiliate one of Margot’s peers who cracks a joke about her “missing” status. It’s easy to understand his mindset throughout the film.

I’m not sure “Searching” would have worked nearly as well if it was shot and edited more like a traditional film instead of the electronic-media approach. I feel like it had to be presented in this format, not merely because it turns the viewers into voyeurs of these characters’ personal lives or simply that it’s a neat, effective way of telling this story, but because it can also show how our modern conveniences at hand can come in handy in desperate times. (Though, I get the feeling it may also teach overprotective parents to control their kids’ mobile devices.) But overall, I admire the unconventional manner than Chagantry chose to tell this deeply effective story. If that didn’t work, I probably wouldn’t love “Searching” as much as I do. I saw it twice in theaters, and I look forward to more viewings at home.

Boy Erased (2018)

22 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are still “Conversion Therapy” programs being practiced in a select few of the United States. As this piece of information was dropped on me and the audience before the closing credits of the new film “Boy Erased” sent us farewell, I felt a bigger lump in my throat than I did during the scene in which our main character undergoes mental abuse at one of these “Conversion Therapy” programs. That this is still happening in quite a few areas makes me feel for those suffering at the hands of people who probably mean well but for the most part resort to bullying tactics in their attempts at “helping” and “curing” homosexuals.

“Boy Erased” is based on a memoir of the same name written by Garrard Conley, who underwent one of these programs himself and wrote articles that exposed the truth about the harmful aspects of the process. The idea is to “convert” someone who is gay or bisexual and make them heterosexuals, and “Boy Erased” tells the compelling story of one man who challenged the idea by becoming stronger and more well-balanced, both in terms of his sexuality and his individuality.

Jared (Conley’s counterpart, played by Lucas Hedges) has a great life in a middle-class Arkansas community. He has loving parents (Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman), he’s artistic, and people seem to really like him. But things change when he tells his parents that he often thinks about men and might be gay. His mother, Nancy, is heartbroken, while his father, Marshall, a devoted Baptist pastor, feels like his entire universe has been shattered. Marshall gently informs his son that he cannot be gay and live under his same roof. So, Jared agrees to have his parents direct him to a Christian “conversion camp” in Memphis, TN called “Love in Action,” which is dedicated to reprogram men and women who are gay…or who think they’re gay, as the program leader and staff believe it’s a choice to be gay.

Jared isn’t sure of what the program is all about, nor does the shadiness of the day clinic seem to faze him (or his mother, who should be more concerned that nobody will let her inside the premises) upon first arriving—no cellphones are allowed, his journal entries are to be monitored, and no one is to mention anything about what happens within the program. He does it because he wants his father’s love and respect, and, like most Christians who struggle with their sexual orientation, doesn’t want to be seen as an “abomination” in the eyes of God. At first, everything seems fine. The man who runs it, Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed this film), seems nice and willing to help him and his fellow “converters.” But over time, he becomes disturbed by Sykes’ methods being forced upon everyone to ensure the conversion is effective. Physical and mental bullying is at hand in the name of helping these people, and it doesn’t take too long for enough to be enough.

I get that many of these “Conversion Therapy” programs do get positive results from people who go through with it. But there are clients who take so much abuse from the people in charge of it before they become even more confused or enraged or both—some of them even kill themselves as a result… This is an aggressive practice that can’t be taken lightly; that Southern White Baptists feel the need to “change” people’s sexual orientation because of their strong beliefs that homosexuality strays people further away from God. (It’s this kind of homophobia that have made fundamentalist religions more fearful of the consequences of being gay…and also the same kind of homophobia that makes gay Christians fearful of coming out to their loved ones and being true to themselves.) While it’s not as active as it was in the last three decades, it’s still unfortunately operational. “Boy Erased” shines a light on not just the idea but also the attitude in general—and it’s very effective in doing so.

One of the reasons for its effectiveness is that the characters aren’t portrayed as black-and-white good guys & bad guys. That’s especially true of Marshall and Sykes. These two could have been written and portrayed as one-dimensional caricatures; instead, they’re portrayed as real people who don’t know the answers, think they’re doing the right thing, and want to find ways to help. You get the sense that Sykes has been through this sort of thing before and is now determined (which is a nice way of saying he’s “fanatical”) to help others. His methods are undoubtedly questionable, as he runs the place as some would run a drug rehab clinic or a boot camp, but that’s what makes his story (while not the key focus) all the more heartbreaking. He’s not a monster; he just doesn’t know how to reach certain people (to say the absolute least).

(Side-note: Please stay and study the texts that reveal updates on how the real-life story played out. What we learn about Sykes makes this character even more interesting.)

At the heart of the film is the relationship between Jared and Marshall, as Jared reveals something to his father that throws his world out of alignment and Marshall has to accept it or lose the son he still loves. He’s a thoughtful, old-fashioned religious man who of course doesn’t understand what his son is going through. But that doesn’t mean he has lost his love for his son. (This is another strength of the film: showing us how Jared’s coming-out not only affects Jared but Jared’s loved ones as well.)

As hard-hitting and gripping as the material is (and it’s VERY hard-hitting and gripping), what makes it all even stronger is the acting that carries it through. Lucas Hedges, one of today’s best young actors (following great work in a role somewhat similar to this one in “Lady Bird” last year), makes it hard for audiences not to feel anything for this kid when he’s happy or sad or upset or angry (all four important emotions to capture for a role like this one). Nicole Kidman delivers some of her finest work as Jared’s mother, who loves her son and knows when he’s sad or hurt that it’s time to step in and help him. Joel Edgerton wrote and directed the film and also knows not to make his character of Sykes into anything less than a bully with an agenda. But the film’s absolute best performance comes from Russell Crowe as Marshall. This is a man whose world is rocked by an important revelation and is forced to confront what he sees as a nearly impossible choice. You can practically feel his heart breaking in certain scenes, particularly in the final act of the film, and Crowe delivers some of his best work as an actor.

When adapting Conley’s book, Edgerton knew not to go for over-the-top melodrama and give us simple answers for these people who are all going through something internally and externally. It simply illustrates a series of injustices and ultimately shows that where there is courage and hopefulness, there is also tolerance and acceptance. As understated as “Boy Erased” may be, I doubt its impact will leave me anytime soon. This is one of the best films of the year.

Leave No Trace (2018)

19 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Filmmaker Debra Granik must have a real talent for discovering actresses. Think about it—in 2004, she directed then-unknown Vera Farmiga in “Down to the Bone”; in 2010, she made “Winter’s Bone,” the film that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career. I sincerely hope that this streak continues with Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, a New Zealand actress who delivers one of the best performances I’ve seen all year and has the makings of a star on the rise. In Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” one of the most moving films of 2018, she delivers a nomination-worthy performance as a teenage girl who is devoted to her mentally struggling father…but tries to find it within herself to drive away from him.

“Leave No Trace” is a harsh and brutal yet heartwarming and terrific drama about a child breaking away from a parent. It begins with Will (Ben Foster), a widower and PTSD-stricken war veteran, and his 13-year-old daughter Tom (McKenzie) illegally living on a nature preserve just outside Portland, Oregon. They’ve made the woods their home, they’ve managed to survive together, and he teaches her how to get through certain scenarios such as the possibility of getting caught and having to run off. She doesn’t know what modern society is like, and he won’t give in to society’s rules anymore to let it happen to his daughter.

One day, they get found out by park rangers and are brought to the authorities. Instead of separating the two (as would happen in a lesser film…and maybe reality, but whatever), Social Services asks the right questions and get the answers that require them to stay together under their terms. (At one point, Tom is offended by the question of whether or not Will abused her in any way. Thankfully, SS is smart enough to realize he hasn’t.)

That’s the first act. The second act continues with Will and Tom living in a house to themselves, meeting community members, getting employment, making friends, etc. Will can’t adjust and won’t allow himself to make much of an effort, whereas Tom makes a very good attempt to belong to this new world she’s now found herself in.

But then, “Leave No Trace” gets even more fascinating when it almost seems it’s getting too predictable. The third act shows Will taking Tom with him to start anew somewhere else, and we see how difficult it is for Will to find comfort and how troubled Tom is when she realizes her father is dragging her down with him.

What makes “Leave No Trace” so special, apart from the excellent performances from both McKenzie and Foster, is that a lot of it plays with minimal dialogue. The acting and the filmmaking are strong enough that we can understand what the characters are going through when they don’t have to project their plight onto each other using a lot of dialogue. I don’t need to be explained why Will feels the need to isolate himself or why Tom would rather try something new than resort to the same thing over and over again, and so on. (Apparently, when Ben Foster signed onto the film, according to IMDb Trivia, he and Granik removed 40% of the dialogue from the script—a brilliant choice.)

The questions of what it means to be a parent, the values of adapting to society, and what it means to care for yourself and for your loved ones are all raised in “Leave No Trace.” And the few answers that we get lead to harsh truths.

Ben Foster is more calm and relaxed than usual, making for an effective performance. But the performance I’m walking away with each time I see “Leave No Trace” is the one by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. I can’t say enough good things about her—she’s just perfect in this role. And I sincerely hope she gets even more work after this.

As with “Lean on Pete,” another film from 2018, “Leave No Trace” isn’t afraid to be harsh and moving one moment and then beautiful and heartbreaking the next. Any film that successfully takes on that bold move is welcome in my theater.

Eighth Grade (2018)

19 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I did not want to see this film. A film about the hardships and awkwardness of experiencing eighth grade (even if it’s just from one eighth grader’s perspective) did not sound like my cup of tea. (I didn’t care if critics were praising it across the nation—critics also praised the well-crafted yet utterly miserable “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” a film about a shy 7th grade outcast.) My reason for this—I don’t have many fond memories of eighth grade, especially after a terrible seventh grade year. (Though, that’s not to say there weren’t bright spots here or there.) Any film that effectively captures what it’s like to be an outcast in junior high school is not going to appeal to me.

But…there is a first time for everything. I did catch Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” on DVD just recently…and I want to see it again as soon as I finish this review.

Many of us remember what it was like to be 13-14 years old. Even if we were popular in school, we still faced many a challenge within ourselves and within our social circles, such as going through puberty, finding our sexual identities, maintaining particular images for people, and other awkward, confusing aspects that come with the age. We went through hard enough times when we were alone—add school to it, and it makes things even more uncomfortable!

We know this. We went through it. And even though things are far different now than they were when we were in eighth grade (thanks to social media), that doesn’t matter because today’s eighth-graders still go through it. Do I have to bring it up? Yes, for this reason—“Eighth Grade” is a sweet, intelligent, sometimes-funny, sometimes-unsettling, always-accurate slice of life that I think today’s eighth-graders will gain a lot of insight from in order to feel better about themselves. (Forget the “R” rating—this film was made for the teens who need it!)

“Eighth Grade” is told from the perspective of shy 13-year-old Kayla (brilliantly portrayed by a natural Elsie Fisher). She has a collection of YouTube videos in which she sits in front of the camera and delivers advice to her peers. In these videos, she seems smart, outgoing, nice, and energetic…outside the videos, she’s mostly quiet, has no friends to hang with in the school hallways, and is practically invisible to all except her loving father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), who’s been looking after her ever since her mother walked out on the family years ago. The film centers on Kayla going through her last week of eighth grade—she goes to a popular girl’s party, she tries making other friends, she shadows a high-schooler, she goes from one awkward situation after another in just a few days… I would turn the DVD off, and yet I kept watching. Even though there are many moments in which I was cringing for Kayla (particularly when the popular girl, Kennedy, has a puzzled reaction to her birthday present), I was impressed with each scenario played out. She goes through embarrassing moments and feels just as (if not more) shy and self-conscious as she usually does. But she keeps going anyway. It’s like she wants to follow her own advice—she knows what she has to do (for the most part—who knows the right answers at age 13?), and she just has to find the courage within herself to do it. (And it may be due to Fisher’s performance or Burnham’s writing/directing or a combination of both, but it’s impossible not to root for Kayla during all of this.)

Social media plays a big part in the film. It’s no secret that today’s teens are obsessed with it, and it’s summed up in a brilliant montage of Instagram and BuzzFeed images (set to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow”). It’s not seen as a criticism or a harsh judgment about how teens need to relate (sometimes, it’s used to help them relate by arranging to meet people in person)—it’s just seen as how today’s teens view the world. (And boy, don’t I feel old—apparently, according to an interview, actress Elsie Fisher argued to writer/director Bo Burnham, who’s 27, that teens don’t use Facebook…a social media outlet I use heavily.) And Kayla uses her YouTube videos to help express herself, because she can’t do it any other way. A biting piece of social commentary if ever I saw one is that teens contain two different personas—one for social media, the other for the real world. (Speaking of Kayla’s videos, there’s a brilliant piece of editing that incorporates them to help set up certain scenarios in the film.)

At first, I was ready to criticize Josh Hamilton’s portrayal of Kayla’s supportive father, who seems too nice and perfect and always ready to be there for his daughter in her time of need. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it actually makes sense—this man represents the parents that try to reach out to help their children in these times, even though they don’t want their help (or don’t want to admit it, at least), just as Kayla wants to ignore his parental advice until she feels like she’s at her lowest point. If he’s a little “perfect,” let it be—we don’t know what he’s going through in trying to connect with her anyway, so he may actually be hiding something we don’t get to see. Why criticize that?

“Eighth Grade” is a simple, effective indie film about how the little things feel even bigger, especially for a young teen. There’s no flowing narrative and no “big” moments for our protagonist. It’s just a modern-day slice-of-life about an eighth-grade girl going through the last week of school. That’s all it needed to be. What was the point of it all? It’s summed up in an unforgettable closing monologue in one of Kayla’s videos about how if we can survive this particular part of our lives, we can probably survive other particular points in the future as well. “Eighth Grade” doesn’t have a conclusion in which everything is woven together like a neatly-sewn quilt—it simply stops at a point in which we feel nothing but the best for this shy girl we’ve gotten to know for a solid hour-and-a-half, because hardly anyone else would.

And to think I didn’t want to…