The Paperboy (1999)

It has occurred to me as I’m writing this review that I have now covered ten feature films by no-budget backyard auteur Matt Farley – most of them more than once. Considering how excited I am for the completion of Farley’s next D.I.Y. horror comedy, Metal Detector Maniac (due later this year), I don’t see that enthusiasm for the Motern Media canon tempering any time soon. Part of this bottomless enthusiasm is due to Motern’s way of becoming exponentially more charming & addictive the further you sink into the catalog. The jokes become funnier, the characters become more intimately familiar, and the lopsided plot structures become more satisfying the longer you’re immersed in Farley’s off-kilter, hyperlocal POV. More importantly, though, Motern movies are fun to write about because they’re genuinely inspiring to me, as someone with their own experience in self-publishing & go-nowhere art projects. Matt Farley, his filmmaking collaborator Charles Roxburgh, and their long-recurring cast of family & friends have been consistently making movies for decades to little acclaim or notoriety outside their New England social circle (and the few weirdos who stumble onto their wavelength over the internet). Even if the movies weren’t especially great, their persistence over decades of self-publishing into the void would still be a remarkable achievement. The fact that the films are all uniquely hilarious & memorably bizarre on top of that consistency is truly incredible, an over-achievement in D.I.Y. artistry.

In that respect, there are few Matt Farley movies more inspiring than the 1999 college-campus comedy The Paperboy. While most of us wasted our college-age energy on bong rips & Simpsons re-runs, Farley was already a fully operational media factory. He actually followed through on the “Wouldn’t it be cool one day?” aspirations of aimless twentysomethings who fantasize about making movies but never get around to it, completing a no-budget feature film with only a few friends and some dorm room ephemera at his disposal. It’s funny too! Against all odds, The Paperboy is just as comedically successful as later Motern-defining triumphs like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! & Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas. It’s missing a few of the familiar faces who would later become Motern legends (with a baby-faced Roxburgh stepping out from behind the camera to take up more of that screentime himself), but otherwise this unassuming campus comedy is business as usual for Farley & crew. It’s both increasingly hilarious the longer you stew in its absurdly low-stakes, deadpan humor and increasingly inspiring the more you realize just how few resources Farley had at his disposal (especially once you consider what you were doing with your own downtime at that age).

Matt Farley stars as the titular paperboy, a college campus entrepreneur who sells essays to lazy (or overworked) students who’d rather spend money than do their homework. He guarantees at least an A- on every purchase and his slogan is “Never the same paper twice!” It would be impossible to fully convey how the execution of that premise is funny here, since the humor is entirely dependent on Farley’s deadpan commitment to the bit. The only over-the-top details that distinguish his paper-selling operation as a comic exaggeration are the network of spies he employs to keep the operation discreet and the disguise that obscures his identity while delivering the goods: a tighty-whities “mask,” a customer-blinding headlamp, and a superhero cape. Otherwise, we merely watch the paperboy make his daily rounds and struggle to keep his true identity under wraps while also courting a potential love interest. It’s all executed in the exact way you’d expect a late-90s college student with a camcorder would film a feature-length comedy sketch, complete with taste-signaling touches like a Rushmore soundtrack CD & a Boogie Nights poster proudly featured in the dorm room background. Farley even indulges in some surprisingly crude, college-age humor here that you won’t find elsewhere in the Motern catalog, staging the first paper sale as if it were an act of prostitution and assigning one of his employees the walkie-talkie codename “Firebush.” As always, though, the thing that sets this Motern relic apart from its no-budget college campus peers is that it’s way funnier from gag to gag than you’d reasonably expect. The movie is essentially just a few late-90s Providence College nerds enjoying a goof with their camcorder, but it’s genuinely funny from start to end.

The one gag that really distinguishes The Paperboy as something special is its overly long non-sequitur in which the paperboy becomes fixated on the operation hours of the campus café. He takes precious time off his paper-selling obligations to campaign to school administration & students that the café should be open 24/7 (mostly so he can munch on complimentary popcorn while writing papers at odd hours). To achieve this goal, the paperboy & his most trusted employee (Roxburgh) team up to film a deranged PSA about the campus café’s necessity to be open around the clock, which only further confuses his target audience and derails his mission. This movie-within-a-movie tangent is pure Matt Farley, proving that the young auteur was already fully formed as an artist even when he was living in a college dorm. Practically every Matt Farley movie features an increasingly absurd political cause that only Farley’s character fully believes in, confounding everyone around him. It’s a recurring, self-aware joke on the Motern mission itself: a decades-spanning marathon of overlapping art projects that seemingly only Matt Farley cares about. Watching a bewildered audience scratch their heads at the nonsensical café PSA—not at all getting what Farley & Roxburgh are trying to communicate—is some incredibly sharp, aware meta-commentary for a couple of college kids who had no idea how long into the future they’d be suffering that same embarrassment. It’s also just an incredibly funny gag in the moment, one that elevates the film from surprisingly solid to truly great.

I’d recommend immersing yourself in some of Farley & Roxburgh’s more recent comedies before time-travelling back to The Paperboy. At the very least, the Motern mission statement Local Legends is a must-watch primer for fully understanding what they’re up to with their extensive catalog of low-stakes absurdities. Once you’ve gotten a handle on the Motern sensibility, however, The Paperboy is just as funny and just as inspiring as Farley’s best work to date. It’s also conveniently available on YouTube for anyone who’s curious, which is a nice consolation to indulge in as the world impatiently waits for the next Motern masterpiece to be released.

-Brandon Ledet

Pledge (2019)

I typically despise torture porn as a genre, as I’m sure most people do by now. You’d think that even the “torture porn” label itself would inherently be read as an insult, but there is certainly still an audience out there somewhere for the early-aughts onslaught of grimy, macho sadism with poorly aged nu-metal soundtracks, fluorescent lighting, and pitch-black emotional cruelty. The major thing that always kept me from joining those heartless gore hounds in their appreciation for the genre myself (besides its usual sickly-green color correction) is the way it treats its characters before they’re tortured. Most torture porn premises involve watching archetypes you’re goaded to hate as soon as they’re introduced get their comeuppance at the hands of a cruel sadist with a vaguely defined moral code the victims have supposedly violated. This dynamic is especially grotesque when the victims are scantily clad women with beautiful supermodel physiques (as they often are), adding a bonus layer of misogyny to what was already a grotesque affair. The recent Kickstarter-funded horror cheapie Pledge is a shockingly successful subversion of all these glaring faults in the traditional torture porn dynamic. Not only does the film sidestep the genre’s usual misogynist tendencies by making its basic themes about toxic masculinity; it also takes the time to make its central torture porn victims relatable, pitiable nerds you actually have an affection for before turning around to torture them for a solid hour of gore-splattered mayhem. As a result, its prolonged, grisly deaths are genuinely unnerving, if not outright heartbreaking. On a more superficial level, Pledge also arrives as a welcome subversion of the torture porn genre by ditching the sickly green fluorescent aesthetic of the early aughts in favor of a more muted, realistic color palette. The result is much easier to look at & ingest than the genre’s typical fare, which only makes the cruelty on display more lingeringly effective.

Conceptually, there’s nothing especially fresh or novel about Pledge’s college campus rush-week-from-Hell premise. If anything, the film feels a few years late to the table, as the fraternity-rush torture porn gimmick was already tapped in higher profile arthouse projects like GOAT & Burning Sands. What makes the film exceptional is the extremity & specificity of its execution, not so much its themes or setting. Three hopeless, virginal nerds fail to gain acceptance into any of their college’s fraternities, as the gatekeeping bros therein instantly clock them as weirdo outsiders. Admittedly, the boys are sexually overeager & immature in a way that’s off-putting, even if true to life. They’re still not your typical torture porn victims, though, as (besides not being horned-up, half-naked women) they’re actually kind of charming in their ineffectual nerdiness. That’s why it’s tough to observe them being lured by women & liquor to apply as rushes to a creepy, isolated frat house with severe Society undertones. Once the pretense of the fraternity being legitimate is dropped, the film loses a lot of its more distinct character development touches in favor of increasingly cruel gore gags. By the time it slips into that full-blown torture marathon, however, we’re already attached to the poor little worms. It’s genuinely heartbreaking to see them still express reluctance to quit pledging to the “frat” after they’re forcibly branded, fed rancid roadkill, whipped, and disfigured by rats, as if it’s all worthwhile for their only shot at a healthy social life. The movie makes broad gestures to characterize their tormenters as part of a larger, cultish conspiracy network of the well-connected elite, but what’s more important is those villains’ basic features as handsome, all-American bros. With quaffed bangs and names like Maxwell Peterson III, the villains of Pledge are wealthy trust fund brats with a sadistic streak and an infinitely wide safety net backing up their brutish behavior. The purpose of their cruelty isn’t nearly as important as the perversely gleeful ways they express it and how easily they get away with it.

Last year, the killer clown slasher Terrifier was a frustrating reminder of just how flawed yet interesting the torture porn template can be. That film represented the pros & cons of the genre in irreconcilable extremes: fantastic practical effects gore artistry & pointlessly cruel misogynist violence. Pledge fixed my problems with that film, keeping the impressive low-budget gore effects but finding a purposeful use for the violence with far less icky gender politics. Pledge isn’t perfect, of course. Its opening sequence unnecessarily hints at the upcoming violence in a way that lessens the surprise of its extremity; the back half gradually drops the fraternity hazing gimmick to become more of a generic slasher; the conspiracy network paranoia feels disappointingly undercooked; etc. For a crowdfunded horror cheapie in a genre I usually have no energy for, however, it’s a shockingly successful, impressively upsetting watch. I can’t say that it will change your mind on the torture porn genre if you’ve always found the prospect of it entirely meritless, but I do think it’s an exceptional example of its ilk – a nasty little picture that overcame my own genre biases to wrench out my admiration & disgust in equal measure.

-Brandon Ledet

Life of the Party (2018)

In official terms, there hasn’t been an SNL Movie since MacGruber (perhaps the artistic height of the medium) tragically died in the theaters in 2010. Long gone are the days where recurring, one-note Saturday Night Live characters like Stuart Smalley & Mary Katherine Gallagher were allowed to carry a feature-length comedy on their own. The modern SNL movie is a low-key affair, manifesting in pictures like Popstar, Sisters, and Ghostbusters (2016), where the cast is stacked with chummy SNL vets, but the premise was born outside the show. Melissa McCarthy movies are an even more rarified breed within that modern tradition, as McCarthy herself was never quite an official member of the Saturday Night Live cast. She may have hosted & cameoed so many times on the show that she seems like a natural extension of the staff and she may have started her comedy career in The Groundlings with professional besties Kristen Wiig & Maya Rudolph, but McCarthy is an SNL guest player at best (like Steve Martin in the 1970s). What’s curious about that is the way her own comedy features (especially the ones she’s collaborated on with husband/fellow Groundlings-vet Ben Falcone) feel like the lowkey, unofficial SNL comedies that most closely recall the brand’s 1990s “Every recurring character gets a movie!” heyday. Reinforced by the presence of SNL vets Chris Parnell, Maya Rudolph, and (current cast member) Heidi Gardner, the latest McCarthy-Falcone joint feels exactly like the 1990s model for the SNL Movie, only with the absurdity turned slightly down to make room for saccharine sentimentality (something McCarthy can’t help but bring to the screen between her violent bursts of slapstick). That comedic aesthetic is a kind of risk, as the classic SNL Movie is only beloved by a hopelessly dorky few, but I personally find it to be an endearing comfort, a return to the sweetly dumb movies I was raised on out of brand loyalty to SNL as an institution.

Playing a Midwestern 90s Mom character I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she’s been whipping out since The Groundlings, McCarthy stars as a middle-aged divorcee who enrolls back in college to finish a degree she abandoned for the sake of her family. As she crashes the frat & sorority party scene also inhabited by her college-senior daughter, the movie doesn’t shy away from its unavoidable similarities to the Roger Dangerfield classic Back to School. The relentless barrage of party sequences & studying montages almost make Life of the Party feel like another McCarthy-helmed, gender-flipped remake. That bawdy Dangerfield irreverence & fish-out-of-water social humor is also contrasted against a striking amount of sentimentality, however, as the movie focuses more on McCarthy’s inner journey as a woman who’s tired of being an emotional doormat than it does on her daughter’s initial horror at her presence (not to mention her sex drive). For the most part, she fits right in with the younger students, even being inducted into their sorority house as an honorary sister and finding herself a young boy-toy to wear out in the bedroom. Life of the Party is overlong, burdened by an inspo-pop soundtrack, and generally suffers from an improvisational looseness that should have spent a little more time simmering in the editing room, but I think most audiences’ biggest hurdle will be reconciling that overly earnest tone with expectations of gag-a-minute slapstick. This is a much more labored, sentimental piece than either Tammy or The Boss, the previous two McCarthy-Falcone collabs, but its sweetness isn’t necessarily a mood-killer if you’re willing to accept it as an essential part of the movie’s fabric. I still think the hedonistic, low-class excess of Tammy is the couple’s greatest collaboration to date, but Life of the Party’s warm blanket of Midwestern Mom energy has a charm of its own.

If you can withstand the crushing weight of its Hallmark sentimentality, Life of the Party also offers the simple joy of women being afforded space to be funny. In addition to the always-reliable McCarthy & Maya Rudolph, who bring a middle-aged severity to out-of-nowhere slapstick gags of explosions & crotch-shots, the movie also allows plenty of screentime for promising lesser-knowns. Heidi Gardner recalls the same nu-metal & mall goth battiness she often brings to her SNL sketches as McCarthy’s shut-in roommate. Gillian Jacobs (who should be starring in her own wide-release features by now) often runs away with the movie as coma survivor & sorority sister who drifts through life in an anarchic haze. There are many tonally sloppy reaction shots in Life of the Party that director Falcone should have paid much more attention to in the editing room, but Jacobs manages to turn her own into an art form, acting as an element of dazed chaos even when idling in the background. Her Love costar Jessie Ennis also shows promise as a relative newcomer, operating with a wide-eyed derangement as a sorority sister who wants to fit in at any cost. The way these women rally around McCarthy’s new-lease-on-life mom is so sweet it borders on surreality, affording Life of the Party a sustained, low-key joy even when specific jokes don’t land or a labored party sequence drags on into a tequila-drenched eternity. The joys of Life of the Party’s slapstick & absurdism require a patience with its saccharine earnestness & editing room looseness, especially in a year where we’ve seen that sweet/raunchy balance achieved so expertly in Blockers. I’m more than willing to put in the effort for this endearing of talent (especially from too-rarely-seen performers like Gardner & Jacobs), something I’m long familiar with as someone who was comedically raised on the SNL Movie in its heyday. I haven’t quite fallen for a McCarthy-Falcone joint with full enthusiasm since Tammy, but as long as they keep making them I’ll likely keep enjoying them. I’ve got to get my SNL Movie fix somewhere and I just don’t see a Laura Parsons or Chris Kirkpatrick movie arriving anytime soon, no matter how badly I want them.

-Brandon Ledet

Burning Sands (2017)

Burning Sands is one of those Netflix-distributed indies that premiered at Sundance in January and then promptly resurfaced on streaming after a brief couple months’ gap. I’m sometimes frustrated with this relatively new distribution path. In the case of I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore in particular, it felt a little defeating to watch one of the best films of the year (so far) never even earn the chance to build up word of mouth momentum in a theatrical run before getting lost in the Netflix deluge. In the case of dirt cheap indies like Dig Two Graves and Burning Sands, however, Netflix distribution can be a kind of saving grace. Without being able to stream these kinds of moderate festival circuit pleasers at home, it’s likely audiences would never have direct access to them and they’d slip away into oblivion. The only problem now that they’re readily accessible, though, is getting them to stand out enough so that they’re not lost in the constant flood of digital content.

Burning Sands distinguishes itself from the overcrowded market of digital era indies in the intensity & specificity of its setting. Following the violent vetting process for fraternity pledges at a Historically Black College at the height of the trials & torments of Hell Week, Burning Sands is both a solemn reflection on the toxicity of traditional masculinity and a loose philosophical exploration of how the horrific vestiges of slavery have carried over into modern black identity in America. Set on a college campus named after Frederick Douglass, the movie frequently looks to his academic writing on the horrors of slavery as a window into black fraternity tradition, often with interesting, but vaguely defined results. It’s not a film that consistently wows or provokes contemplation, but when it does choose to crank its intensity in either its physical violence or philosophical prodding, it leaves a long trail of moments & images that stick around long after the credits roll.

Scenes of romantic, familial, and academic struggle threaten to drag Burning Sands down into forgettable melodrama tedium. The movie authentically captures the feel of a college campus, right down to the red cup parties that break out in the most depressingly bare apartment living rooms (complete with an accurate snapshot of the modern rap radio zeitgeist, Future included). Most of the drama staged in that setting can feel a little flat, though. There is a near unbearable amount of tension built in Burning Sands‘s hazing scenes that feels tonally at odds with its freshman year anxieties over grades & girlfriends, to the point where one half of that divide feels inevitably inferior. Still, each kick to the ribs, drunken experiment with branding, and regimented pressure into sexuality hits with full impact and the power of its strength in imagery & tension ultimately outweighs any of its moments of underwhelming melodrama. Burning Sands feels much more interested in the horrors of hazing than it is in fretting over freshman year anxieties and it’s all too easy to see why.

Burning Sands is far from the Hell Week exploitation of last year’s GOAT, but it’s difficult to pinpoint an overarching theme or message it’s trying to convey in its dramatic narrative. At times, it feels like a love letter to the bonds humans make in crisis. At others, it feels like an alarmist picture exposing the methods that manufacture that crisis on college campuses. Themes of slavery, militarism, police harassment, and even flashes of homoeroticism rattle around in its loosely defined moments of dramatic tension without ever landing with a solid thud. It’s possible that a more solidly defined thesis would have earned the film more attention once it hit streaming on Netflix. Honestly, I’d think that the presence of Trevante Rhodes (who was excellent as adult Chiron in last year’s Oscar-winning Moonlight) as one of the fraternity brothers who torment the pledges to test their loyalty would’ve been its best chance for widespread recognition, but the film has seemingly been allowed to slip into immediate VOD obscurity anyway. The extreme specificity in setting & subject and the brutal moments of violent tension lead me to believe that Burning Sands will eventually find its audience, though, maybe even with people who can better make out the function of its central message & dramatic conflict than I have been able to. Even if it never does, it at least floated enough fascinating images & ideas to remain distinctively memorable, which is a modern indie’s first hurdle to clear.

-Brandon Ledet

Sorority House Massacre (1986)

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By the time the dirt cheap slasher flick Sorority House Massacre made the journey to DVD it was being marketed as a companion  piece to the similarly-titled Slumber Party Massacre franchise. The two properties aren’t entirely dissimilar. At the very least they’re both female-directed slashers (in this case the sole credit of someone named Carol Frank), which somewhat of a rarity in a genre that relies so heavily on the male gaze to generate its terror. Sorority House Massacre has a much more easily recognizable point of reference with connections that run a little deeper than that titular similarity, though. The film is largely a cheap knockoff of the seminal John Carpenter slasher Halloween, and not only because Halloween pioneered the art form. Sorority House Massacre‘s escaped mental patient killer shares Michael exact backstory, right down tot the sister who escaped the bloody end of his knife. The difference is, of course, that this time his potential meat-bag victim of a sibling is a sorority pledge college student instead of a high school teenybopper.

Yet, there’s a really strange undertone to Sorority House Massacre that elevates it above the lowly dregs of solely functioning as a blatant Halloween ripoff. The film’s title card, which spells “Sorority House” in Greek letters & “Massacre” in corny-even-for-its-time bloodsplatter, promises the same kind of shameless gore fest that opens De Palma’s Blow Out. Indeed, its very limited theater fun positions the film essentially as a straight-to-VHS horror, but I honestly believe it pulls off something much more interesting than what’s typically associated with that pedigree. Sorority House Massacre sets itself apart from its dirt cheap home video peers by playing with the loopy surreality of dream logic & memory, allowing the simple concept of deja vu to tamper with & complicate its visual narrative. The film is bargain basement trash, to be clear, but in the moments where it allows fragments of the past to interrupt its strict genre film present, it somehow manages to approach an art house effect.

If you haven’t guessed yet, the film’s plot follows a young college student who moves into a sorority house that just happens to be the exact childhood home where her estranged brother murdered every member of their family in cold blood. It’s a trauma she doesn’t remember, since she was a young child at the time & her brother has been institutionalized ever since. The film keeps the exact details of this setup clouded as long as it possibly can, but as soon as you can piece together the Halloween mimicry, that obfuscation is a wasted effort. As I said, the most interesting aspect of the film is not the plot itself, but the unnerving way its visual narrative is affected by memory & dream logic. The film opens with the deja vu-inspired back & forth imagery of the sorority house & the mental institution co-mingling. Then the childhood memories creep in: little girls playing on the lawn, a creepy dining room tableau of mannequins at a pristinely set dinner table, blood dripping from the ceiling. Things get even weirder from there as our Prime Victim starts having visions of her brother, a total stranger, attempting to stab her from the other side of a mirror. If this weirdness were entirely isolated to nightmare sequences it’d be one thing, but the way past & memory mixes with the two locations in the waking life present is a much more fascinating push & pull than that.

Of course, that’s not to say that Sorority House Massacre is some lost gem from a short-lived auteur. Carol Frank, whoever she is, constructs a visually interesting slasher here, but it’s still a trashy slasher film nonetheless. As a camp fest, the film delivers on the cheap dream imagery, terrible acting, and cheesy dialogue. Sometimes this aspect cheapens the artier visual experimentation, like in a classroom montage that directly references deja vu, foreshadowing, pop psychology, and mortality or in lines like “The knife is a phallic symbol!” & “Maybe we’re the haunted sorority house after all!” Any hopes of the film being taken seriously are already dashed by the time a cheap John Carpenter knockoff synth score & a first person cam from the killer’s POV confirm the its Halloween ripoff pedigree, though. It also doesn’t help that the film’s stabbing deaths are never brutal or creative enough to be particularly memorable. And that’s not even to mention the scene where the girls are watching TV during a power outage or the one where a boom mic makes a guest appearance on their walk to class.

I think what does make Sorority House Massacre feel special in the context of its genre is its uniquely feminine energy. The title promises the salaciousness of a softcore porno, but the nude breasts that are on display, although copious, are somehow treated less exploitatively than they would normally be in the genre. For instance, the first nude scene features not one, but three topless co-eds, but it’s a hilariously cheesy dress-up montage featuring enough saxophone riffs & rapid outfit changes to make even the  most dedicated Blossom or Teen Witch fans roll their eyes. Just as the booby-leering is oddly diffused, the film also softens the inherently misogynistic nature of the slasher genre’s woman-hunting by culling most of its terror from weird images like bleeding mirrors & photographs instead of the more traditional lady-stabbing horror, which plays here almost like an afterthought.

Given this slightly feminized energy and the strange back & forth of the dream & deja vu imagery, I’m more than willing to forgive Sorority House Massacre‘s glaring similarities to the Halloween franchise. In the long run, what is it that makes a film like this a “ripoff” & films like It Follows or The Final Girls an “homage” except the thirty years that separate their release dates? Sorority House Massacre is not a mindblowing, exceptional forgotten gem of the slasher genre by any means, but it is a lot more visually striking & weirdly energetic than I expected. If nothing else, when I discovered that a Sorority House Massacre II was released in 1990, I found myself surprisingly game,which might be the best possible litmus test for a straight-to-VHS slasher of this caliber.

-Brandon Ledet

Dear White People (2014)

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Even in its title the recent campus comedy Dear White People promises to be a sort of intellectual provocation, one that conjures up conversations about contemporary black culture, the ways systemic racism is masked in modern social exchanges, and the current state of identity politics in three simple words. By addressing white people as a social group in a playfully aggressive tone from a black perspective, the movie elicits an intentionally uncomfortable, satiric hyperbole. This is backed up as soon as the “Prologue” segment promises a full-on “race riot” at their film’s conclusion and continues through the disembodied, Warriors-style radio voice of actress Tessa Thompson making blanket statements like “Dear white people, dating a black person to piss off your parents is still an act of racism,” and “Dear white people, stop dancing.” The film even smartly, preemptively responds to the question “How would you feel if I made a Dear Black People?” directly, because it was more than apparent that someone was going to be dumb enough to ask it.

Still, Dear White People subverts what you’d expect from a satiric comedy about modern racial identity & culture clash. It never settles for knee-slapping, go-for-the-jugular jokes at characters’ expenses, but instead strives to achieve a surprising amount of empathy across a wide range of diverse featured personalities, each stretched so thin by social & academic pressure that they seem to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Adopting the format of a university campus comedy (one that improbably splits the aesthetic difference between Spike Lee & Wes Anderson), the film allows itself a lot of breathing room for representing an extensive collection of young characters struggling with questions of self-identity. Personal crises of finding a social group where they “belong”, desperately searching for online celebrity, navigating expressions of sexuality, suffering the tightrope of insecurities in code-switching, and sometimes generally provoking chaos due to a youthful, anarchic spirit all weigh heavily on the minds of the film’s collection of stressed out college students. In a lot of ways it’s these acts of soul-searching are more memorable than any of the film’s provocative, laugh out loud humor.

Due to its nature as a provocation, Dear White People really does paint an uncomfortable picture of modern race relations, one that ranges from representations of more subtle transgressions as touching strangers’ hair without consent & comedy writers hiding racist/sexist sentiments under the guise of satire to the more outright horrifying example of blackface being used as a theme for campus parties. And just in case you’re skeptical that things really are as bad as that last example, the film includes several actual, real-life headlines about those parties in its end credits. Provocative or not, Dear White People is playful & nuanced in its humor in a way that I’m sure must’ve inspired some great post-screening lobby talk during its theater run. Still, I suspect what will stick with me most about the movie is the emotional stress of its overachieving college student protagonists straining to find their place in the world & peace within themselves.

Side Note: Snuck in there among other members of the excellent cast is a small-scale Veronica Mars reunion in Tessa Thompson (who played Jackie Cook) & Kyle Gallner (who played Cassidy “Beaver” Cassablancas). Probably far from the most important thing about this movie, but it caught my attention at least.

-Brandon Ledet