Friday, July 20, 2018

Eighth Grade

Stand-up comedian Bo Burnham broke out as a YouTube star in 2006, two years after Facebook was founded. He's considered a viral pioneer, with people mimicking his style of skits and songs later on to oblivion. Nobody considered he'd turn to filmmaking, but here he is, remarkably getting into the mind of a 13-year-old girl in his feature film, Eighth Grade. Ironically enough, the star of his film, Elsie Fisher, who plays Kayla, was born in 2003, and I would assume had no prior knowledge of who Bo was. 

Eighth Grade is probably the most relatable film to tackle teenage adolescence in years. Burnham wanted to keep it personal to himself but put the focus on a younger character - a teenage girl. Kayla is overly shy and anxious, maneuvering her way through her final year in middle school, struggling to fit in and be noticed. She comes home after school and makes inspirational YouTube videos to a virtually empty audience, making them seem more self-therapeutic than anything else. Her dad, played by Josh Hamilton, is the most endearing father figure you'll ever watch, and if you're past the age of 24, you find your heart going out to him and the trials and tribulations he goes through with his daughter on regular basis. 

You may wonder how a male director, one who's never written a movie before, could relate so well to a 13-year-old girl. Burnham did research online, finding teens on YouTube who weren't getting the same level of viral success he was years prior. He told Rolling Stone,  “I remember just watching these [clips] and thinking: If this was a performance, this would be incredible,” he says. “What got me was that image of a kid looking into a camera, addressing an audience who she knows is probably not there. Yet we’re there, watching the movie.” 

Mean Girls garnered a cult status for the comedic value Tina Fey brought to the screenplay and the superb acting of rising stars that were later catapulted into success. Larry Clark's Kids, on the other hand, was bold and gritty, with Harmony Korine contributing to a brazen script that shocked an entire generation in the '90s. A wake-up call to the world, Kids was uncomfortable to the point of worry - was this really what teenagers were doing? Eighth Grade, on the other hand, is simply real. It's not over-the-top like Mean Girls, nor does it take place in a brash urban setting like Kids. It's about everyday, suburban youth and growing up - with the everyday pummelling of social media taking center stage and commandeering the narrative. 

I haven't personally related to a movie like this in years. The sentences uttered are almost identical to what I put my own parents through growing up. All too familiar, I found myself squirming and cringing, remembering exactly what it was like during these turbulent years. Being in my mid-20s and growing up with Facebook, the subject matter of social media being all-too-consuming was familiar, but not to the level it affects teenagers today. With Instagram and Snapchat at an all-time high, the pressure to maintain a perfectly curated life is more dangerous to mental health than ever. 

 If you want to re-live all your middle school and high school traumas - and trust me, it's fun - be sure to check out Eighth Grade, hitting Vancouver and Toronto theatres on July 20th and the rest of Canada August 3rd.

Huge thank you to Taro PR and Elevation Pictures for the fantastic opportunity to view this screening. 


Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot

There's nothing I love more than watching a film with a group that doesn't feel the same way about it. It forces me to think, to really rationalize why I enjoyed it. If I come up with points as to why I thought it was worthwhile, I understand that my feelings weren't superficial and that I do in fact have some substance to back myself up.

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, is a heart-wrenching tale of grim, yet uncomfortably humorous cartoonist and quadriplegic, John Callahan. Played by always-spectacular Joaquin Phoenix, Don't Worry is a story of his battling alcohol addiction and rise as an artist. The title itself comes from one of his cartoons, spoken by a cowboy leading a troupe who come upon an overturned wheelchair in the desert. 

The story unfolds with a retelling of an incident that altered John's life in 1972 - allowing a fellow alcoholic, Dexter, to take the wheel of his car after a night out and subsequently crash it, leaving John a quadriplegic at 21 while Dexter walked away unscathed. 

Getting up and leaving the theatre, I heard whispers of, "I don't think it was relatable", and, "it dragged on too long." I understood these statements but decided to formulate why I disagreed. I thought the story of a quadriplegic alcoholic WAS relatable. Sure, Callahan ended up in a wheelchair, but the cards life dealt him and the way he began drinking were both exceptionally relatable. His mother abandoned him when he was very young, leaving him to grow up in a home he felt he didn't necessarily fit in with. A man's struggle with alcoholism for very human reasons envokes feelings of sympathy and raw emotion - at the end of the day, he's just a human that craves a sense of home and belonging, just like the rest of us.

The rest of the story follows John through his path towards sobriety via his 120-step AA meetings,  led by Donnie (played by superb Jonah Hill), his AA sponsor who also happens to be a perfectly zen and wealthy gay man, clad in robes and '70s athletic shorts. The whole cast is phenomenal, joined by Jack Black as Dexter, and Rooney Mara as Callahan's Swedish love interest. Phoenix and Hill, however, stand out the most in two absolutely captivating roles. 

Director Gus Van Sant does a fabulous job at humanizing Callahan, portraying him as a problematic antihero, and one you certainly shouldn't be feeling for. Your heart reaches out to him, with scenes such as him struggling to open a bottle of alcohol and get to another one high up on a shelf after his accident, utterly poignant. John grows as a character, and eventually goes around and visits old friends and family, gaining closure for all his wrongs over the years. The scene where he finally meets up with Dexter is superb, with a focus on two very broken characters and the different stages of their lives, their reunion tragic and shattering.

It is to be noted that the film can seem long at times and there may be some scenes that could be cut. What saves this film from falling into such territory is its superb acting that carries the story so perfectly. The film teeters dangerously on the line of cheesy but never crosses it. It does tease you and draws out your emotions, however, and I found myself a blubbering mess about 3 times, with my heart yearning for Callahan to succeed. 

The end credits acknowledge Robin Williams, who originally brought Callahan's story to Van Sant 20 years ago. Williams was supposed to produce and play the lead, while Van Sant worked very unsuccessfully on various drafts with writers. The project came to a halt, and only resumed after the deaths of both Callahan and Williams. Van Sant then decided to comandeer the script and finish it on his own, and it's perhaps his own raw emotion that really comes forward and leads this film to a polished finish. 

The film hits theatres June 20th and Callahan's story is really worth viewing. It's his wit and macabre sense of humour that carries the tale, one that's genuinely outstanding to experience. This movie is sure to divide audiences, but those who appreciate a gentle story of a troubled artist will seek to find out more, as soon as the credits stop rolling.

Huge thank you to Taro PR and Elevation Pictures for the fantastic opportunity to view this screening. 
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