Jules of Light and Dark (2018)

Robert Longstreet isn’t an especially flashy actor, neither in celebrity nor in performance. He has the appearance & demeanor of a kindhearted, broken-down Russell Crowe, playing most of his roles as a lovable but emotionally volatile galoot. As quietly sad & reflective as his screen presence can be, I find myself getting excited whenever I see his name among a project’s credits. Between Mohawk, Septien, Take Shelter, The Haunting of Hill House, Sorry to Bother You, and I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, Longstreet has demonstrated that his choice in projects is at the very least consistently interesting; he may not always steal the show, but the show itself will never be a bore. I’m used to seeing him as a minor (even if often eccentric) character in these works, so it was a wonderful surprise to watch him co-lead an indie drama in Jules of Light and Dark. A dual trauma & recovery narrative, Jules of Light and Dark splits its POV between two unlikely protagonists: a listless partygoing college student (Snowy Bing Bongs’s Tallie Medel) & a hopeless-drunk oil field worker played by Longstreet. It’s a small-scale drama that could easily sink into indie film fest tedium, but Longstreet’s presence effectively vouches for the young cast around him, as well as for first-time director Daniel Laabs.

The college student drama of Jules of Light and Dark follows a young lesbian at the center of a romantic triangle, as her longtime girlfriend Jules pushes her to reluctantly experiment with bringing a third, masculine partner (a sweet, but clueless DJ) into the bedroom. The local rave scene they’re involved in—staged in empty, isolated Texan fields—clouds their ability to negotiate this sexual discomfort soberly (in multiple meanings of the word), and the movie is densely packed with college-age sexual mishaps. The oil worker drama half is also clouded by substance abuse and sexual discomfort, as Longstreet’s co-protagonist struggles to out himself as queer and instead hides his true colors beneath untold gallons of alcohol. These dual coming of age stories— one for a smart kid in their early 20s and one for an overgrown man-child in their early 50s— are allowed to remain largely separate throughout Jules of Light and Dark, but they converge early when a car accident after “the last rave of the year” leaves several characters in need of intensive post-trauma physical therapy. Estranged from their families because of their sexuality, our two disparate protagonists find unlikely kinship & emotional support in each other; their parallel tales of recovery are both quietly transformative, although never grand nor overachieving.

Laabs strikes an interesting balance here, both searching for small moments of intimate drama between his well-defined characters and chasing the aesthetic pleasures of rural rave culture – especially in the way glitter & nightclub lighting clash with the campfire-warmed barnyard setting of a horse ranch. Medel holds her own as a wide-eyed, wholesome queer punk in the middle of a college-age identity crisis she was reluctantly pushed into by a restless girlfriend. Her character’s attempts to hold onto failed or fading relationships at any cost are wonderfully paralleled by the oil worker’s own desperation to re-forge meaningful connections he already drank into oblivion long before the movie started. It was Longstreet’s performance as that drunken, broken down galoot that really won me over. For all the film’s glitter & molly excess and frustrated moments of sexual exploration, the best sequence throughout simply follows Longstreet as he decides whether to adopt a kitten or a puppy from the local animal shelter in his desperate, misguided attempts to establish emotional connections with another living being. Watching that sappy drunk play with a kitten from the opposite end of a kennel makes him pitiful enough to fall in love with, which only makes him more dangerous. Longstreet nails that quietly, lovably pathetic tone perfectly, as he already has many times before, largely unnoticed.

-Brandon Ledet

Skate Kitchen (2018)

Most filmmakers’ impulse when setting narrative films in a skateboarding community is to treat skateboarding itself as the subject of the story. Whether it’s as a historically-minded hagiography (Lords of Dogtown) or a quick cash-in on the sub-culture’s marketability (Thrashin’) skateboarding cinema often treats its setting as a narrow-minded novelty, a highly specific range of imagery that’s interesting enough on its own to require no substance under its surface pleasures. Skate Kitchen grinds a thin rail between indulging in that for-its-own-sake novelty imagery and telling an emotionally resonant coming of age story that uses skateboarding as a placeholder for any kind of youthful awakening in confidence, independence, and self-identity. The movie’s most transcendent, memorable sequences are fully submerged in the simple pleasure of skateboard performers filmed with professional skill, but it could have been just as powerful if it were set in the world of tennis, fencing, or competitive foosball. It’s a great movie first and a great skateboarding movie second, a rarity.

Suburban doldrums & parental overbearance weigh on a young teen protagonist who cares far more intensely about watching clips of an all-femme skating crew on Instagram then she does about the immediate world around her. Against her mother’s orders, she sneaks away with her board to NYC by train, meeting up with the Skate Kitchen crew she idolizes, quickly being assimilated into their ranks. There isn’t much plot beyond this initial set-up; the film instead carefully contrasts the intense emotional bonding & betrayals of teenage life with the serene beauty of young women skateboarding around NYC. Although the technology & terminology may be different, Skate Kitchen feels at home with similar Big City coming of age stories like Girlhood & KIDS, except with a much more mannered, less volatile emotional palette. The transition from suburban boredom to boarding around NYC is like Dorothy stepping into the Technicolor landscape of Oz, which is more than drastic enough for the film to get by without resorting to the more sensationalist dramatic details of either Girlhood or KIDS, even if it’s trafficking in similar terrain.

Director Crystal Moselle is entering the world of narrative filmmaking with Skate Kitchen, her second feature after the cinephiliac documentary The Wolfpack. Her debut was often criticized for presenting a fuzzy version of the truth (I even personally called it “just beyond the reach of believability”). It’s wonderful to see her lean into that documentation grey area in its follow-up, which features and is named after a real-life skateboarding crew. The Skate Kitchen have been individually assigned fictional character names in the film, but as a collective they’re essentially playing themselves: an all-femme crew of skateboarders pallin’ around NYC in pursuit of video clips worthy of broadcasting their talents to the world through social media. Rachel Vinberg (as the protagonist Camille) and Nina Moran (as comic relief/consummate shit-stirrer Kurt) are particular standouts, outshining even professional actors Elizabeth Rodriguez & Jaden Smith. That’s partly a result of their natural charisma & exhibitionism, but also due to Moselle’s talent for crafting emotionally resonant, authentic-feeling stories out of real-life Characters. In both The Wolfpack & Skate Kitchen, Moselle has found highly specific, naturally fascinating collaborators and turned their lives into emotionally engaging art just askew from the center of true-life. At this pace, she’s shaping up to have an incredible body of work in just a handful of pictures.

A lot has changed in skateboarding culture since the 80s cash-in of Thrashin’. The fashion, the gender divides, and the terminology of skateboarding are almost unrecognizable between that film & this more artful update (which would have been titled Valid if it were made with that 80s mindset). Both films, matter how authentic, serve as a snapshot of their times, saying just as much about the 1980s & the 2010s as they do about skateboarding. Skate Kitchen doesn’t offer much that you wouldn’t expect from a small budget coming of age drama packed with “non-professional” actors, but the specificities of those personalities & the 2010s NYC skateboarding culture they traffic in allows for frequent moments of beauty & emotional resonance. Old-line skateboarding movies treat the culture as a marketable novelty, whereas Skate Kitchen treats it as a community worth documenting & making familiar though emotional storytelling. Honestly, both tactics are worthwhile in their own way because, on a basic level, skateboarding just looks incredibly cool on camera. Still, it’s a pleasure to see the skateboarding movie emotionally mature at least a little, while still holding onto its prankish spirit of teenage rebellion.

-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

Blue My Mind (2018)

How much innovation do you need from a genre movie for it to feel worthwhile? Your answer to that question is likely to determine your relationship with the Swiss coming of age body horror Blue My Mind. The embarrassment & horror of the changing body during teen pubescence being interpreted through the metaphor of creature feature transformations has been a genre trope going at least as far back as 1957’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf. In more recent years, it’s become an especially common conceit for femme coming of age horror movies, with titles like Raw, Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, Teeth, and too many others to name establishing a clear narrative pattern for how these stories are told. A young teen girl experiencing her earliest encounters with menstruation & sexual desire finds her appetites extending beyond sex to bloodlust and her body’s changes extending beyond normal pubescent growth to a supernatural horror she finds increasingly difficult to hide or contain. Outside maybe taking the metaphor more deadly-serious than most titles listed above, Blue My Mind is fairly well-behaved in its adherence to the rigid genre structure established by its predecessors, following the exact narrative pattern you’ve been trained to expect. The only variable is discovering which type of beast, exactly, the protagonist is transforming into and how many teenage transgressions she’ll manage to commit along the way. Where it distinguishes itself, then, is in the details of its visual craft & character work, which is often the case with strict genre pictures. Luckily for me, I very much enjoy the femme coming of age transformation horror genre Blue My Mind dutifully participates in and didn’t need many novel details to fall in love with its familiar rhythms & grooves. Your own mileage may vary based on your relationship with the same tropes.

Mia is a 15-year-old wannabe badass who immediately seeks asylum with the rebellious reprobates of her new high school. Her new friends drink, smoke, cut class, shoplift, watch pornography, and flirt with the idea of shedding their virginity. Mia fakes being tough & experienced with these teenage transgressions, barely hiding her anxiety as an undeveloped outsider. This barely concealed social shame is coupled with the shame of her changing body & increasingly monstrous appetites. Coinciding with her first period, the entire lower half of her body launches into open rebellion. At the same time, she finds herself compelled to eat raw, still-live fish directly out of her family’s fish tank (or wherever she can get it). Blue My Mind might not be innovative in the metaphor of its central transformation, but it is ambitious in its comprehensive collection of femme teenage crises. Self-harm, drug experimentation, bulimia, dangerous flirtation with older men, flashes of same sex attraction, and indulgences in petty crime sprees detail the boundary-testing exploits of a teen in crisis of both mind & body. This being primarily a body horror, it’s the crisis of the body that eventually overtakes much of the film’s energy as Mia spins completely out of control, but the movie does take plenty of time to establish conflicts in her personal relationships—particularly with her mother and her best friend—before it focuses on the consequences of her transformation. There are some gruesome moments of self-surgery & festering injury that provide shocking pangs of outright horror, but the transformation at the film’s center is mostly concerned with the grief & helplessness of a rebelling body and unruly hormones forcing physiological changes that cannot be reverted or suppressed.

Following Good Manners, Blue My Mind is the second title I caught at this year’s Overlook Film Fest where revealing the exact nature of its central creature feature transformation might constitute a spoiler, since it’s patiently doled out late into the runtime. Much like how the narrative’s adherence to genre tropes telegraphs exactly where the story is going, it’s clear to the audience exactly what Mia is transforming into long before her body gets here. Again, appreciating the movie as a genre exercise requires an attention to its aesthetic & character-specific details, rather than an examination of where it falls within the larger pubescent body horror picture. The washes of cold aquatic blues, the strained relationships with parents & friends, the freewheeling dance parties set to repetitive synthpop, and the grief of letting go of the body’s original shape against your will all hit with serious emotional impact even if the genre tropes they service are overly familiar. If you’re always a sucker for the femme coming of age transformation horror like I am, Blue My Mind is thoughtful & well-crafted enough to earn its place in the pantheon. If you need to see something innovative or novel in your genre narratives for them to feel at all remarkable, you’re going to have to look much closer to find those flashes in its minute details.

-Brandon Ledet

Call Me by Your Name (2017)

Luca Guadagnino’s latest film, Call Me by Your Name (based on the André Aciman novel of the same name), has earned loads of critical acclaim since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last January and subsequent Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture. After watching the film for the first time last night, I can truly say that it lives up to the hype. Here I am, an entire day later, still thinking about all the beautiful scenes shot on 35mm film. In addition to the movie’s vibrant beauty, its ability to pull the audience in emotionally is incredible. The entire theater was silent (minus a few sniffles for those heartbreaking moments) as everyone was wide-eyed and open-mouthed.  It felt like we were part of a virtual reality experiment.

The film is set in northern Italy during the summer of 1983. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and his parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) are spending time at their Italian villa. Elio’s father is a professor of archaeology and invites a handsome young research assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer), to stay with them during the summer. Elio is a seventeen year old with wit and talent beyond his age, and Oliver, while extremely intelligent, falls a little into the frat boy stereotype. At first, the two develop a friendship that involves intellectual conversation, daily swims in gorgeous Italian waters, and going out to local night clubs. Slowly, Elio begins to develop more of a sexual interest in Oliver. Without stating that he is homosexual or bisexual, he approaches Oliver and makes his desires known. Oliver, while hesitant at first, indulges in these desires as he feels the same for Elio. The two then engage in a very brief, yet passionate affair over the summer.

What I love the most about Call Me by Your Name is the film’s pace. It doesn’t move too fast or too slow; it’s just the right speed. There’s a gradual build-up before Elio and Oliver consummate their relationship, but the film doesn’t come to an abrupt end after this occurs. Instead, the audience is able to watch their relationship blossom into something beautiful. This kind of intimacy was responsible for getting me so emotionally invested in the film. Understanding Elio’s feelings before he approached Oliver and watching the passion between them grow more and more each time they were together was absolutely magical.

This is the first Guadagnino film I’ve seen, and I am immensely impressed by his ability to create an atmosphere that is so appealing to all the senses. I could taste the fresh apricot juice as it was flowing down Oliver’s throat. I could feel the warmth of the sun as it was beaming down on Elio’s face. Even the use of music in the film was phenomenal. From the memorable sequence of Oliver dancing in his high socks and Converse shoes to The Psychedelic Furs hit, “Love My Way” to Sufjan Stevens’ “Mystery of Love” (nominated for Best Original Song) during Elio’s heartfelt moment of self-reflection, all of the film’s musical components add emphasis to these little moments.

While the performances from Chalamet and Hammer were above par, the most pivotal exchange in the film is Stuhlbarg’s monologue during a father/son discussion that goes beyond a father telling his son that he’s supportive of his sexuality. Chalamet showed up and showed out during this scene, and it had everyone in the theater in tears. In film, these conversations usually occur between mother and son because the father is usually too “macho” to understand anything about homosexuality. I was thrilled that this memorable moment was shared between Elio and his dad rather than Elio and his mom.

Call Me by Your Name is a coming of age love story that has left me with nothing but fond memories. I’m looking forward to watching this one a few more times once it’s released on DVD.

-Britnee Lombas

Princess Cyd (2017)

There’s almost an entire subgenre of thrillers & acidic dramas specifically about intense female relationships that become dangerously strained in constrictive environments. Titles like Persona, Queen of Earth, and Always Shine lock their female leads alone in a house and draw increasing tension & even supernatural dread out of the various ways they clash under the pressure. Whether or not intentionally, the recent coming of age indie drama Princess Cyd completely subverts the typical trajectory of these pictures. At the start of the film, two female leads, unsure what to make of each other, bristle at perceived slights that make their summer spent alone in a house together unnecessarily tense & contentious. Instead of that tension ramping up to a violent, chaotic blowup, however, Princess Cyd slips further into empathy, love, and mutual understanding as that relationship develops. Its earliest moments are its most on-edge, with the relationship at its center thawing in the summertime sunshine.

The titular Cyd is a survivor of childhood tragedy, desperate to spend her last summer before college away from her eternally depressed father. This leads to her spending a few weeks with her estranged aunt, a hippie dippy novelist who writes mostly about Spiritualist self-discovery. Their early conversations start cordial, with the camera positioned at a great distance, slowly moving closer & tightening the frame as passive aggressive slights add unexpected tension to their getting-to-know-you chit chat. The aunt desperately wants the teen to think she’s cool, despite ample evidence to the contrary (mostly, the fragility of her self-confidence). As with all teens, Cyd has no idea what she wants, but carries enough enthusiastic curiosity in her attitude to drive herself towards figuring it out ASAP, even if she hurts feelings along the way. The clashes between aunt & niece are mostly over personal questions of Spirituality (the teen’s reference to Spiritualism as “fantasy” is taken as a direct insult) & sexuality (one is discovering a previously undetected capacity for bisexual desire; the other hasn’t considered having sex in years). These personal barriers eventually break down, though, and the heart of the film is in watching them mutually warm to one another.

Besides the unexpectedly sweet trajectory of its internal conflicts, Princess Cyd also finds ways to impress as a visual object. A dedication to sunlit, natural lighting affords the film an idyllic Garden of Eden glow that matches the warm, simple beauty of the story it tells. Often, its form & content work wonderfully in tandem, like in a shot where Cyd & her same-sex love interest approach the camera on a long stroll while getting acquainted, physically getting closer to the audience while they get socially get closer to one other. That kind of simple beauty in gradually blooming intimacy is a large part of what makes the film feel special & worthwhile. Princess Cyd tells a simple story of two estranged women becoming close over a couple isolated weeks spent together, but its lingering effect grows on you so gradually you don’t even realize how much you get out of the experience until well after it’s over. The coming of age, self-destructive aspect of the film as a narrative is pretty typical of that kind of effect (Lady Bird works a very similar magic on its audience, if nothing else). It’s much more foreign to the way tense, confined space female relationships typically develop (and eventually explode) onscreen, though, which makes it all the more uniquely rewarding as an isolated picture.

-Brandon Ledet

Wallay (2017)

A somewhat common narrative from recent European indies has been detailing the lives of the massive immigrant communities that live in the large housing block projects at the fringes of cities like London & Paris. Titles like Girlhood, Swagger, and Attack the Block have found an unfathomably wide range of stories to tell within that context, but remain confined to those insular communities in a kind of stationary, immersive experience. The recent French indie Wallay offers a take on the housing block immigrant experience I haven’t seen before by transporting its subjects to a drastically external, literally foreign setting. Wallay is worthy in its own right as an endearing coming of age story about a second-generation French immigrant learning small scale lessons about responsibility, romance, and identity, but those are familiar story beats we’ve seen many times before. It feels much more unique & revelatory in the way it details the cultural limbo immigrants occupy between the European cities that keep them at arm’s length & the African villages they left for economic opportunity by thoughtfully profiling both ends of that divide.

A second-generation, teenage French immigrant butts heads with his exasperated father who cannot control his behavior. A little badass in a bucket hat, the teenage delinquent commits minor acts of small scale rebellion in his Parisian housing block for payoffs as glorious as black market tennis shoes & appearing in YouTube-upload rap videos. He runs into trouble when he’s caught committing one of his more egregious schemes, siphoning off funds from the money orders his father sends back home to their extended family in West Africa. As punishment, he’s sent to the African village where his father was raised to live with the family he stole from, where he is tasked with paying back the money through months of manual labor. As a spoiled brat, he of course initially refuses to participate in this lesson in humility, scoffing in horror at his new “home’s” infrequent power supply & lack of indoor plumbing, His struggle to adjust to & learn from his mistakes is especially apparent in his relationship with his new caretaker & would-be employer, a harsh authority figure of an uncle. The language & cultural barriers between the mismatched pair eventually break down in the exact ways you’d expect them to, but Wallay finds plenty of delicate moments of humility, romance, familial love, and personal growth in the struggle, with many of them being solidly, endearingly comedic.

Berni Goldblat’s directorial debut saw its American premiere at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival. Outside a few scenes of its bratty teen protagonist struggling to trek through African wilderness or listening to hip-hop in headphones inside a mosquito tent, Wallay is only about a visually striking as you’d expect from a mini-budget indie with those means of distribution. The film finds its own tonal groove elsewhere, though, especially in its minimalist, plucked cello score & its circumcision-obsessed cultural humor, which can be much cruder than you’d expect from this kind of story. Teen actor Makan Nathan Diarra also elevates Wallay with genuine character moments as the lead grows into a better, more empathetic person. Mostly, though, the film feels significant in the way it adds a new wrinkle to the European housing block narrative by giving that community an external perspective. These kids really are caught halfway between two identities and I haven’t seen that cultural limbo represented onscreen quite like this before.

-Brandon Ledet

20th Century Women (2016)

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“How do you be a good man? What does that even mean nowadays?”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a finer example of why critical Best of the Year lists are absolute bullshit (due to the arbitrary wackiness of release dates) than 20th Century Women. From an official standpoint, Mike Mills’s latest (and greatest) has a December 28, 2016 release date thanks to its limited release screenings in major cities like New York & Los Angeles. It took nearly a month for the film to expand its distribution wide enough to reach cities like New Orleans, though. These Oscar-minded, slow trickle releases usually mean that modest little pleb film bloggers like myself, who don’t have the luxury of festival circuit browsing & For Your Consideration advance screeners, miss a lot of major Best of the Year contenders until weeks after their year-end roundups are published & etched into digital stone. So let me announce right here & now that my personal Top Films of 2016 list is a total sham, a shameful fraud. No disrespect meant to my beloved The Neon Demon, but its crown is made of the flimsiest fool’s gold. The best film of 2016 is, in fact, 20th Century Women.

Just about the last thing I expected when I bought a ticket to this immaculate, miraculous picture was a reach-for-the-fences ambition in narrative structure & visual craft. The advertising leading up to its release did an exceptional job of highlighting its function as an actors’ showcase for its holy trio of talented women: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning. The movie certainly does not disappoint there and I guess on some level it does function as the kind of insular Awards Season drama about alternative family structures & eternally hurt feelings you might expect based on the trailers. That’s only a fraction of the territory writer-director Mike Mills covers here, though. Although 20th Century Women is constructed on the foundation of small, intimate performances, it commands an all-encompassing scope that pulls back to cover topics as wide as punk culture solidarity, what it means to be a “good” man in modern times, the shifts in status of the American woman in the decades since the Great Depression, the 1980s as a tipping point for consumer culture, the history of life on the planet Earth, and our insignificance as a species in the face of the immensity of the Universe. For me, this film was the transcendent, transformative cinematic experience people found in titles like Tree of Life & Boyhood that I never “got.” Although it does succeed as an intimate, character-driven drama & an actors’ showcase, it means so much more than that to me on a downright spiritual level.

It would be incredibly easy to reduce the plot of this semi-autobiographical work down to a sentence or two. Annette Bening stars as a dream mom, an incredibly intelligent & self-confident woman who had her only child at the age of 40. Concerned that she’s not fully equipped to alone raise her son to be a “good” man, she enlists the tenants of her home (played by Billy Crudup & Greta Gerwig) and the boy’s best friend/biggest crush (Elle Fanning) to raise him as a village, the way a commune would, a plan cited to be inspired by her own communal upbringing during the Great Depression. This coming of age narrative could feel painfully over-familiar, even within the hyper-specific context of its late 70s West Coast punk scene setting, especially since the assumed POV of the narrative would center on the 15 year old boy everyone’s helping “raise.” Mills’s narrative structure is far too non-linear for the story to play as Oscar season convention, though (a fact backed up by the film only earning a single nomination, one for Best Original Screenplay). 20th Century Women engages in an internal tug of war between over-explaining & withholding information. It will introduce a character’s persona by telling their entire life’s story from birth to death in the length of a paragraph, only to double back to fill in the details & color between those lines. It will continually threaten to slip into time-spanning montage, only for the in-the-moment immediacy of a specific image to crash to the surface. It will threaten heartbreaking moments of devastating melodrama only to reveal that life is more often defined by smaller, less obviously significant events & conversations. The film almost plays like a feature-length trailer, but without the lack of depth that descriptor implies. It’s cliché to say so, but 20th Century Women is pure cinema, the art of the moving image; and it confidently, abstractly allows its medium to dictate its narrative in a way that a simple, reductive plot synopsis cannot convey. It’s in so many ways more than a sum of its parts.

A large portion of my rapturous appreciation of this film is undeniably hinged on the way it plays directly into my personal pop culture obsessions. The very first needle drop sound cue (a literal needle drop thanks to Greta Gerwig’s young punk tenant character) is my favorite early-career Talking Heads song, “Don’t Worry About the Government.” From there it takes the time to explore punk culture as a philosophy and an ethos, not just name-dropping niche artists like The Raincoats for cool points, but verbalizing what makes their DIY aesthetic life-affirming & interesting to the ear. It explains how the scene can be paradoxically empowering through a sense of community among outsiders and alienating in its bitter, insular rivalries that arise from things as petty as who’s slept with whom and what bands people associate with as a personal philosophy. The movie also indulges in the beauty of its own imagery the way only cinema can, often functioning as an Instagram or Tumblr account in motion. From its opening shots of calm ocean waves & symmetrically framed car fires to its slideshow photographs of punk scene portraits, outer space imagery, and common objects like cigarette packs & birth control pills isolated in an art studio void, 20th Century Women never shies away from the simple pleasure of a well-constructed image, but always finds a way to make each indulgence thematically significant. Its structure is explained in-film through easy metaphors like a mixtape or a self-portrait series made through photographs of possessions (which is described as “beautiful, but a little sad”), but I think those reference points sell short its command of “movie magic.” Each stylistic choice is a natural extension of its 1979 setting, but feels as if it were speaking to me directly on a much deeper level than pure aesthetic.

It’s a shame I didn’t see 20th Century Women in time to properly cite it as my favorite 2016 release. It’s also a shame that Annette Bening didn’t earn any Academy Awards attention for her deeply endearing role as the film’s matriarch. At the very least, her lines like, “Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to bring depressed,” and “Don’t kiss a woman unless you know what you mean by it,” would’ve made great fodder for an awards show highlight reel. No matter. Long after these end of the year roundups are long forgotten, this film will still be its wonderful, perfect self. Mike Mills has delivered a timeless, masterfully beautiful triumph of humanist filmmaking and no arbitrary release dates or Oscars snubs can delegitimize that accomplishment.

-Brandon Ledet