REVIEW: ‘Eighth Grade’ is Anxiety-Ridden, Hilarious and True

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A24 and writer-director Bo Burnham’s ‘Eighth Grade’ throws aside the expected tropes of most indie coming-of-age films and manages to not only be one of the most honest portrayals of youth, but it may be the first true film of the internet age.

Burnham started his career as a teenager on YouTube and by the time he was twenty years old, he had an immaculately produced stand-up comedy special. It does however feel woefully inadequate to call Bo Burnham’s work ‘stand-up comedy.’ His performances are a mix of original songs, dancing, sleight of hand, fourth-wall breaking and an autobiographical one-man show. Burnham is a wunderkind with a seemingly bottomless well of creativity so it was likely he would eventually try his hand at filmmaking, perhaps some magical realism musical comedy. ‘Eighth Grade’ is not at all what I expected him to choose for his first project. Not only because of subject matter, but its delivery is so much more grounded than his previous work. Bo Burnham has proven with this film that he can deliver more than witty and profane bombast. He is capable of deep empathy and wondrous restraint.

‘Eighth Grade’ is told entirely from the perspective of Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), a refreshingly average young woman. Kayla’s unremarkable nature is one of the major ways that Burnham manages to make this film stand out from others. Youthful coming of age stories are nothing new in independent cinema. That descriptor alone conjures such a cascade of clichés that we are able to put together the film in our minds. Hyper-intelligent, misunderstood women and immature boys, precocious conversations with clueless fathers, quiet hunks who see a unique spark in our heroine, all of it set to gentle music. Maybe a ukulele. Almost certainly some Belle & Sebastian. These films, even when well put-together still suffer a curse of familiarity.

Kayla is not a genius writer/artist/musician nor is she a rebellious punk with a violent streak and wise beyond her years. She is not a cautionary tale or idealized version of how a writer saw her youth. Kayla is good-hearted and sharp. She is voted ‘most quiet’ by her classmates due to her almost-crippling anxiety. As we get to know Kayla we see that her anxiety is well-earned. She attempts to be outgoing but is usually met with contemptuous cruelty by those around her. On display here is one of the most pointed explorations of the true cruelty of social hierarchy: the vicious cycle. For whatever reason, Kayla is not accepted by her classmates. She is treated as an outsider which makes her retreat more and more into herself. When she attempts to “put herself out there” as her well-intentioned father (Josh Hamilton) says, she is met with awkward and scornful looks. This is the cycle. People don’t like the quiet person, but they also don’t want the quiet person to say anything either. The truth is: some people just aren’t liked. This isn’t fair or right, but it’s true. And moreover, Kayla is painfully aware of her place in the unspoken playground classism.

This is made clear when popular girl Kennedy’s mom (Missy Yager) invites Kayla to Kennedy’s birthday party, to the dismay of both Kennedy and Kayla. To Kennedy (Catherine Olivere), the idea of having the weird, quiet girl at her party is repulsive, and Kayla is (like most children) fully aware that she is being invited out of pity (and also because the mom may have designs on her father.) ‘Eighth Grade’ is not simply about the uncomfortable moments of youth, but specifically about what it’s like to be a good-hearted and perceptive outsider. This is a far more relatable position that the popular mean girl and in that relatability is much of the magic in this experience. Bo Burnham has never been an 8th grade girl. He certainly has never been an 8th grade girl in today’s world. But he knows what it’s like to be anxiety-ridden and shunned into silence and in that honest connection, he manages to connect to many of us.

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It is Elsie Fisher who sells all of this. Burnham has said in interviews that it was irresponsible to have greenlit this film before casting Fisher. Truly she so embodies the role of Kayla that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. Fisher plays Elsie with such heartbreaking fragility that it forces a palpable empathy from the audience. Kayla makes YouTube videos where she tries to offer help to other people who may struggling in life. One of the first lines of the film, she says that her videos are not getting as many views as she would like and asks her audience to share the videos with friends. It is only later that we look at her YouTube channel and see that most of her videos have 0 or 1 view. This is a crushing moment as we realize that she has been speaking to an audience that is not there. Kayla is not able to find acceptance online just as in real life.

‘Eighth Grade’ does not get lost in seriousness. It’s also extremely funny. I laughed out loud for much of the runtime. In particular one moment when Kayla is practice-kissing the back of her hand while looking at photos of her crush that made me crack up for minutes after. Burnham’s comedy background is never leaned on too-heavily although you will be charmed by the impossibly over the top Gabe (Jake Ryan.) You’ll know him when you meet him.

Beyond the perpetually acute observations of youth, one of the most poignant ways in which ‘Eighth Grade’ succeeds is the way it explores the way that the Internet and social media pervade every aspect of today’s society. Here we have a generation who never knew a world without Facebook (although as mean girl Kennedy says “who uses Facebook any more?”) For Kayla, social media is an extension of herself. She uses Snapchat filters to take selfies and uses Instagram to spy on the world of the cool kids who don’t accept her. There is a particularly stunning sequence which shows her lost in an internet rabbit-hole. Frenetic close-up images fade into one another set to Enya’s ‘Orinoco Flow.’ And here is the true irony: Enya sings ‘sail away, sail away, sail away’ as if indicating a sense of escape however Kayla is not escaping at all. She is trapped on the other side of a computer screen as she spies on the lives of her classmates. She hands out likes in a vain attempt at being noticed. As Kayla makes her videos that no one watches, she presents an aspirational version of herself and when she speaks honestly about herself she often creates a made-up friend and speaks of her shortcomings. None of us know how the internet will affect us in the long term and ‘Eighth Grade’ does not seek to answer that question, but it’s one of the first films to start asking questions.

‘Eighth Grade’ is a terrifically confident film and this is embodied so clearly in the score by electronic artist Anna Meredith. You might expect this film to be scored by twee folk singers or breathless women and acoustic guitars. Instead we get a hard-hitting synth score which plays out like Phillip Glass took LSD at Burning Man and wrote an opus while sleepwalking. This soundscape provides an emotional nitro-boost to the senses as we see the world through Kayla’s eyes. This does not communicate the feeling of a filmmaker who is viewing their past through the lens of nostalgia. This has the immediacy of now. You are not safe from the torture of Kayla’s anxiety. You are right there with her.

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Thankfully we are granted occasional and appreciated reprieves from Kayla’s carousel of discomfort albeit never in a too-saccharine way. Much of this comes from Kayla’s father. Mark Day is a single dad and deserves every doing-his-best award possible. He loves and accepts Kayla. But he is also fully-aware that he does not understand her world. He attempts to give her advice which is woefully useless to her. He feels her pain. He worries that she is broken because of the lack of a mother in her life. This struggle is difficult to watch and Josh Hamilton plays him with the just right amount of goofy cluelessness mixed with good-natured effort.

Of course, things get a little better for Kayla. She goes to high school to shadow an older student and is paired with the effervescent Olivia (Emily Robinson.) She becomes an immediate and desperately needed older-sister figure in her life. Olivia introduces her to a taste of coolness and also to a potential danger: teenage boys. Through these experiences, Kayla finds a bit of self-confidence and her YouTube videos delivered often as voice-over narration start to take on a different meaning.

In a well-worn genre, ‘Eighth Grade’ is a truly special film and I hope it can find an audience. Unfortunately it earned an R rating which feels like an injustice. Sure, this is not a movie which files down its edges. There is an f-bomb. The terms ‘how to give a blowjob’ ‘how to give a good blowjob’ are Googled by a 8th grade girl. I can see how this might be scandalous, but it’s silly to think that the mild spiciness here is anything compared to what pre-teens are exposed to on the Internet on a daily basis. And especially with the violence accepted in PG-13… Oh well. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. This is a film which should be able to be viewed by teenagers today without having to bring their parents. This is not a movie which uses youth as exploitation. This is not ‘Kids’ or ‘Thirteen.’ This is not screaming in your face look how messed up the children are!

‘Eighth Grade’ feels like a primer for understanding a secret language. Bo Burnham has crafted a hyper-empathetic experience that breaks down the impassable wall of a teenage girl’s mind. In doing so, he has illuminated something universally elemental in all of us.

‘EIGHTH GRADE’ IS IN SELECT CITIES ON JULY 20, 2018

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Unfriended: Dark Web Review (2018)

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Unfriended: Dark Web

Directed by Stephen Susco

OTL Releasing/Blumhouse Tilt

www.unfriended-darkweb.com

Technology has become the new face of terror in the modern age and in the stand alone sequel “Unfriended: Dark Web” a group of friends find themselves ensared at the mercy of a murderous cabal.

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Removing the supernatural scares of the 2015 original, “Dark Web” instead options for fear in real time with flesh & bone beings engaged in monstrous acts that appear otherworldly but merely manipulate an interconnected Earth for inhumane efforts. Named after the actual seedy underbelly of the Internet, filled with hardcore sex, soft crush and vile acts too numerous to name, the focus here harkens back to the “torture porn” heyday of the mid 00s combined with that time periods other obsession, Asian horror obsessed with the evils inhabiting creature comforts.

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Mathias (Colin Woodell) is in desperate need for such an item when he swipes a laptop left for weeks in the lost & found of his coffee shop to complete an app that will help him better communicate with his hearing-impaired girlfriend. As he balances between trying to mend their relationship issues and his closest friends engaged in a weekly “game night” (the films working subtitle, though fitting was changed for obvious reasons) it quickly becomes apparent that the owner of the Macbook wants it back and is not above delving into the very depths of humanity to retrieve it. In fact, as the group discovers is his exact purpose as snuff videos take up the bulk of the hard drive space and an entire network of evil congregants eager for more (complete with some killer MS-DOS style graphics!)

For fans of the first film expecting ghastly spirits and jump scares galore (or even the smattering of social commentary) are going to be disappointed. While it starts off strong, it becomes almost immediately apparent that is going to play out as a thriller and not a genuine horror film. There’s nothing wrong with changing up the form (another Blumhouse sequel, “The Purge: Anarchy” is the most successful example in this subgenre) but this doesn’t feel like an all out siege; it’s more of a cat & mouse game without enough meat to warrant the chase with any ferocity. Its premise had potential but gets bogged down far too easily by its own bloated overreach. Even if one can suspend disbelief, with such minimal sets, basic imagery and intermittent action, the cast needs to sell it and unfortunately, fall short.

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Colin Woodell (“Unsane”) is the only remotely convincing character and while he is largely a generic, stock composite, he still manages to bring a genuine sense of urgency, anger and power to the role. Towards the end of the film (and prominently featured on the promotional materials) are his strained, bloodshot, tear filled eyes that had such intensity been maintained once the noose started swinging might have saved this one from the cinematic gallows.

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Conspiracy theorist AJ (Conner Del Rio) is excellent as the comedic relief but other characters are forgettable and the most glaring instance is Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse) whose simply not convincing when things take a sharp downturn and her outbursts of anger & anguish are almost laughable while her other half Nari (the incredible Betty Gabriel, my personal favorite performer in “Get Out”) deserves better than a throwaway role like this.

“Hostel” is a pronounced influence here (I practically expected the Elite Hunting Club tattoo to make an appearance in blurry, brutal snuff video) but the deaths are not nearly as fun or gory as the initial offering, which is surprising seeing as this is rated R and comes across like a hard PG-13 at best.

Not going to say you’ll want to block this one immediately from your summer screening schedule (and with two different endings being released to theaters, there’s finally a horror film taking advantage of MCU type stinger appeal) it’s worth checking out for found footage fans and Blumhouse devotees but make sure that if you’re going to get caught in the dark web, it’s at matinee prices.

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Skyscraper (2018) Review

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Skyscraper

Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber

While unfortunately not a remake of the 1996 Anna Nicole Smith straight to video vehicle, “Skyscraper” is a fast paced, fun popcorn flick that while not offering anything new accomplishes its mission with ease but little major advancements.

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As with most trailers today and the tried and true format of the genre, “Skyscraper” is a simple plot: physically and mentally scared veteran builds a new life with his family as a security officer with his biggest assignment yet; ensuring the safety of the world’s tallest building that soon falls prey to mercenaries with his loved ones trapped in the towering inferno. It plays out as one would expect with plenty of death defying stunts, one liners galore and ample acrophobia but the heavy prologue and the ferocious takeover of the building had an unexpected intensity that was refreshing.

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Dwayne Johnson continues an incredible year of box office with the nearly billion-dollar juggernaut “Jumanji” and the less successful but international hit “Rampage” have made him the highest paid actor and a cinematic sentinel. While he’s played against type a few forays in his career, this is purely standard fare with Johnson blending his playful humor and physical heft and it’s a winning formula. There are more than a few heavy moments in this film as mentioned earlier but due to its precision running time might have offered he (and select members of the cast) a real opportunity that may have dulled the action but heightened the atmosphere and intensity (no pun intended.)

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Neve Campbell makes a quality return (who apart from the third and fourth entries of the Scream series has not had a major blockbuster or indie standout in nearly 20 years) and she delivers another enjoyable performance here and honestly feels like it could have turned in two decades ago.

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The Hong Kong location and prominent Asian cast shows the increasing importance of crossover potential with Singapore superstar Chin Han in a starring role as well as hometown hero Tzi Ma who both give great performances and are sure to boost the box office receipts overseas. Both have already had lengthy careers in American cinema and hopefully we’ll see both on Western screens more in the near future while Rolland Moller does an admirable impersonation as Hans Gruber standin, Kores Botha.

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Robert Elwist’s cinematography is exhilarating with Steve Jablonsky’s score providing subtle and stunning contrasts; director Rawson Marshall Thurber doesn’t astound but gets the job done. There are the obvious influences of “Die Hard,” “The Towering Inferno,” and “Speed” while due to the phobia inducing heights, the primary comparison that can be made is definitely “Cliffhanger.” Thurber is mostly known for his comedies like “Dodgeball” and “We’re The Millers” but the script is a love letter to the action empire of the 80s and 90s and “Skyscraper” probably would have been heralded as a high point has it been released. In 2018, it likely won’t become a monumental entry but for those who love non- stop action with a lot of laughs and all the important tropes present are sure to find a high here.

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Review: Ant-Man & The Wasp (2018) The Fun, Lighthearted, Live-Action Superhero Movie You’ve Been Looking For All Year.

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Peyton Reed returns to helm the sequel to 2015’s Ant-Man, a family driven superhero film in the vein of The Incredibles that is incredibly satisfying to watch and smart about keeping its stakes relatable.

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Review: The First Purge (2018) Taps Into Current Socio-Political Climate To Give Us the ‘Black Mirror’ Version of the U.S.

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The fourth installment in James Demonaco’s Purge universe gives us a sci-fi alternate version of the U.S. that rings a little too close to home.

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