We are introduced to Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz) as a teen in a Christian school in a secret relationship with her classmate Coley (Quinn Shephard, who has shown great promise as an actress and director with her film Blame). When the two are caught making out in the back of a car on prom night, Cameron is taken to God's Promise, a gay conversion center, hidden in the woods. In these opening scenes, director Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior) establishes her film as tender and rueful. John Gallagher Jr. (of the similarly toned Short Term 12) as the mustached, "successfully converted" Reverend Rick, Cameron's mistfit cohorts--sharp-humored ex-commune teen Jane Fonda (American Honey's Sasha Lane) and deadpan Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck)--and the rest of the teen group, are all sharply defined, harboring a purveying sense of loneliness in their physically close quarters. But once I saw Jennifer Ehle enter the picture as "Dr." Lydia Marsh, the master of God's Promise, I felt the electricity of the set-up. Lydia could have been another savagely strict, monstrous Doubt / Cuckoo's Nest-archetype but the skilled Ehle plays her without exaggeration and with deep control. Once in a while, there is something searching in her eyes, as if she is regretting the pain she's inflicting upon her "disciples." Like most zealots, Lydia is a character who seems aware of the character she's playing, who grips icily to her power within her sham existence. It makes her manipulation all the more acidic. Set in 1993, the movie has a nostalgic softness for cassette tape thievery and letter writing. The film is adapted from a sliver within the epic YA tome by Emily Danforth and has a real sense of the teendom of the times, with a humorously wry edge. I felt the movie dissapate a bit in the latter half with a heavily weighted tragedy. More subtedly would have made a searing impact. But it's a quibble in such a well-wrought, moving tale, strongly directed and well-acted by its likable cast. ***1/2
A generational shift is palpable in Writer / Director Bo Burnham's burning comic drama Eighth Grade. The movie could have been a run-of-the-mill coming-of-age teen flick, but since it's so delicately layered by Burnham, his crew, and the enigmatic cast, Eighth Grade becomes an artistic testimony of the friction between hoping for things to get better with time and the apprehension of how time can change ourselves, our society and the way we communicate with one another.
Anxious thirteen year-old Kayla (an extraordinary Elsie Fisher) opens the picture with one of her YouTube tutorials. The meagerly viewed videos are her attempt to talk to the world at large and also to herself--it's a key to her survival. Burnham's conceit of blended recorded imagery (through phones and laptops---the outmoded TV only figures in a pool party karaoke scene and a sexual health class), effectively continues throughout as we are besieged by Kayla's visual universe: a mix of bland, darkly-lit middle school suburbia and shiny internet ephemera (distinctively captured by cinematographer Andrew Wehde). Vivid close-ups and jagged dialogue are defining elements of Eighth Grade. It's a film that blesses awkwardness but I couldn't find any missteps in it as a film itself. Its intimacy and realism paired with a joyful, brassy electronic soundtrack (an excellent score by Anna Meredith and an unnervingly apt use of Enya's "Orinoco Flow") are a compelling mix.
I was taken aback in particular by Josh Hamilton's performance of the father. Throughout, we see and know little of his character, as much as Kayla wishes to see and know of him. I braced myself for an ultimate scene of exorcising the past. It seemed like the film was riskily heading toward a "big moment" that could have sunk it. But a final monologue is brought on with such deft control and quietness by Hamilton that it left me reeling. Fisher's beautiful characterizations, built throughout the picture, added to the emotional gut-punch as well. Luckily the moment is paired with a hilariously-played coda which, like many of the juxtapositions in the film, jump off one another brilliantly and movingly. ****