Tito (2020)

It’s difficult to describe Tito without overselling what it can deliver.  Seeking a middle ground between sensory-assaultive arthouse horror and broad stoner comedy, it’s often more of a genre experiment than a proper narrative film.  I almost want to describe it as the unlikely overlap between Josephine Decker and Cheech & Chong but, again, that’s probably overselling it.  If a no-budget genre mash-up that reeks of bong water & brimstone is the kind of thing you’d usually seek out (think Buzzard, Woodshock, Mangoshake, Ladyworld, etc.), then you’re just as much of a doomed soul as I am and will find plenty seeds & stems to catch buzz off of here.  However, anyone expecting the typical payoffs of either a typical arthouse horror or stoner buddy comedy will have their patience tested early & often.  Tito is a lot more interested in mood & process than it is in delivering the goods.

First-time director Grace Glowicki casts herself as an impossibly timid geek (the titular Tito) who’s drawn out of his cowardly seclusion by an idiot stoner who barges into his life uninvited (credited only as The Friendly Neighbor).  Meanwhile, vaguely menacing demons attempt to invade the frame but never arrive, sending Tito into constant panic attacks over a danger that no one else perceives.  That central performance is consistently entertaining, grotesque, and frustrating throughout, like babysitting Crispin Glover while he suffers a traumatically bad acid trip.  The genderfuckery of the casting does little to inform the text; Glowicki merely allows herself the space to improv the character quirks of a pathetic worm of a man.  It’s nearly the most off-putting performance I’ve seen all year, bested only by the grotesque child-creature in Vivarium.  The stoner neighbor is no more endearing, stomping through Tito’s hermetic home space as an overgrown, hedonistic toddler.  Their relationship is the sour, curdled leftovers of a typical stoner-buddy comedy dynamic: two mismatched losers who only become more obnoxious & mutually destructive the more joints they torch.  The demons don’t do much to break up that nauseating dynamic.  They don’t do much of anything at all.  They’re just around, unseen & in-wait.

If I’m being hard on the character traits of Tito in particular, it’s because I see too much of my own worst tendencies in his grotesque cowardice.  Watching the hunched over, perpetually petrified loser jump at every sudden noise and flinch at every microscopic sign of aggression from other men is too familiar to this socially anxious Indoor Kid, although absurdly exaggerated.  By the time Tito was cowering behind the one person he knows at a crowded bar, afraid to make eye contact with any of the strangers (or potential demons) that surrounds him, I found myself laughing just as much at my own social awkwardness as the off-putting quirks that are particular to the performance onscreen.  If Glowicki taps into anything solidly recognizable here, it’s the way that exaggerated social anxiety is reflected in both her performance and in the sensory overload of her editing-room tinkering.  Every one of Tito’s paranoid-stoner mood swings is married to a violent swerve in the soundtrack, so that the audience is equally tormented & unnerved even though nothing especially horrific is happening to him (besides being pressured to hang out with the world’s most annoying neighbor).  The music is Tito’s mood ring, distinguishing his content, idle cowering from his terrified, pants-shitting cowering, which would look pretty similar without that aural assist.

Beyond the film’s grotesque reflection of my own social awkwardness & cowardly response to macho aggression, I most appreciated Tito for its weird-for-weird’s sake pranks on the audience.  Watching Glowkicki puke up a flood of breakfast cereal, fall under the hypnosis of CGI porn simulators, and furiously blow a bright red whistle while her character’s stoner-bro foil shouts punishingly repetitive variations of “Dude!”, “Man!”, and “Brother!” was more than enough to justify the 70min time investment, even if just barely.  I can’t promise that most people will walk away from the experience feeling that same satisfied curiosity (or even promise that most people will make it to the end credits).  Again, I really am trying my best to not oversell it.

-Brandon Ledet

Eighth Grade (2018)

One of my pet favorite subjects in modern cinema is The Evils of the Internet, especially as represented in gimmicky cyber-horrors like Unfriended, Truth or Dare, #horror, and Nerve. For years, I’ve been praising these shameless, gimmick-dependent genre films for documenting the mundane details of what modern life looks like online in a way that more prestigious, artsy-fartsy productions wouldn’t dare. That’s started to change with more recent releases like last year’s Ingrid Goes West & the upcoming film Searching, which sober up the Evil Internet Thriller a little with more grounded, adult tones. Even the recent sequel to Unfriended, Dark Web, lessened the absurdity of its predecessor’s premise by literally exorcising its ghosts and abandoning its supernatural bells & whistles for a much less ludicrous (and, in my opinion, less interesting) plot. And so, the coming-of-age teen drama Eighth Grade completes this transition of the Evil Internet Horror formula from high-concept gimmickry to awards-worthy art house fare. With a piercingly astute eye for the way social media has reshaped & mutated adolescent anxiety into an entirely new beast, Eighth Grade excels both as a snapshot of what life online looks like in the 2010s and as a distinct, character-driven drama even when removed from its of-the-moment focus on social media. Movie-wise, the Internet Age as finally arrived.

Eighth Grade is, reductively speaking, an anxiety Litmus test. As the circumstances of its plot are a relatively low-stakes depiction of a teen girl’s final week of middle school, it might be tempting to group the picture in with other modern revisions of the classic coming of age formula – Lady Bird, The Edge of Seventeen, Princess Cyd, etc. For a constantly anxious person who feels immense internal anguish even in the most “low stakes” social interactions imaginable, the film is a non-stop horror show. As Elsie Fisher’s young teen protagonist attempts to assert herself in crowds, approach the early stirrings of sexuality, establish meaningful bonds with anyone who’s not her father, and develop Confidence as her personal brand, the overwhelming weight of the world around her (especially in moments when all eyes are on her) chokes the air with a non-stop panic attack. Even in my 30s I still approach every minor social interaction in public with an unhealthy overdose of dread; I remember that anxiety only being magnified a thousand-fold in the eighth grade, possibly the most awkward, unsure time in my life I can recall. As Fisher puzzles her way through a world that no longer seems conquerable & a changing self-identity she has little control over, you’ll either find her awkwardness adorable or horrifyingly relatable. I was personally watching it through my fingers like a jump scare-heavy slasher.

The unconventional tension of Eighth Grade feels similar to the tactics of anxiety-inducing dramas like Krisha & The Fits, but the movie manages to carve out its own distinct tonal space in its explorations of The Internet as a visual & emotional landscape. This can be oddly beautiful & seductive, as with a sequence where the protagonist is put into a daze by overlaid social media posts set to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow.” It can be numbing & cruel in scenes where other kids use the distraction of their smart phones as a means to avoiding direct interaction with someone they deem unworthy of attention. Most significantly, it can be heartbreaking, as with the protagonist’s YouTube tutorials on how to be a confident, well-rounded person – two things she’s anything but. As someone who broadcasts unearned, inauthentic confidence to a near-nonexistent audience on a podcasting & blogging platform on a subject I have no authority to speak on whatsoever (why are you even reading this?), I recognized so much of my own mechanized compulsion to participate in social media content production in those tutorials. She makes them with no prompt nor reward, then broadcasts them to no one in an online void, like atheistic prayers to Nothing. Her social isolation is only compounded by the one tool that’s supposed to relieve it, which is a horror shared across all age groups & anxiety levels in modern culture.

Being alive and in public is a never-ending embarrassment. With the internet, the public sphere has been extended even further into our private spaces so that there is nowhere left to hide. In Eighth Grade, first-time writer director Bo Burnham (who got his own start growing up in the public sphere on YouTube) captures a heartachingly authentic character learning to navigate & push through that embarrassment at the exact moment when anxiety is at its most potent. If that’s a struggle you’ve never fully moved past and you frequently feel the need to punctuate each social interaction with self-humbling repetitions of “Sorry, sorry, sorry” as if you’re apologizing for the audacity of your own existence, this film will likely weigh on you as an incredibly tense experience. Anyone who isn’t burdened by anxiety or the eeriness of the internet is likely to find something much more easily manageable here, maybe even something “cute.” Even the film’s warped electronic soundtrack, provided by Anna Meredith, can either be heard as a playful adoption of modern pop beat production or a horrifying perversion of those sounds into something nightmarishly sinister. Either way, the film is worth seeing as an empathetic character study & a thoughtful modernization of the coming-of-age formula, but it’s difficult to imagine someone who sees the film as a light, low-stakes drama getting as much of a rich, rewarding reaction out of it as I viewed the film: an intensely relatable Evil Internet horror about anxiety in the social media age.

-Brandon Ledet