Mangoshake (2018)

For the first half-hour of Mangoshake, I was convinced it was a potential cult classic, the kind of unfairly overlooked no-budget gem that falls through the cracks of festival circuit & self-publishing distribution when it should be making laps at midnight movie slots in every major city. I was sad to lose that excitement as the film continued. Mangoshake is a textbook case of “This should have been a short,” since it has no interest in changing up its methods or sense of purpose after its characters & setting are established in the first act. There comes a point in a lot of movies (especially comedies) where the excitement of entering a new world starts to dull and the story & dialogue need to actually earn every minute of the runtime that follows. Capping your film off at under 40 minutes is an easy way around that necessity, but the problem is that nobody really goes out of their way to watch shorts (unless they’re included as a pre-feature primer at a festival or your friend is the director and begs for clicks on their Vimeo). In that way, I’m glad Mangoshake pushes on to feature length long after it has anything meaningful left to do or say, because I likely never would have given it a chance otherwise and it really is an endearing vision of youthful chaos in its opening stretch.

To the film’s credit, its lack of purpose or narrative momentum registers as being intentional. It functions as a middle finger to the clichéd film fest circuit coming-of-age comedy as a genre, dedicated to “every person who watches a coming of age movie and feels worse after.” The premise is written-on-a-bar-napkin simple: a group of late-teens losers waste a summer hanging around a mango smoothie stand. That’s it. Some romantic jealousies and petty rivalries arise around this low-stakes set-up, but the movie is actively disinterested in pursuing them. In fact, it’s prideful to not explore any one thread that could complicate its central scenario with emotion or meaning, instead fully dedicating itself to evoking the sunbaked boredom of post-high school summers. When a love triangle threatens to form, the mango smoothie stand’s operator interrupts on a bullhorn to chide “This is not Degrassi!”, immediately cutting the tension. When the stand’s cofounder breaks off the friendship that inspired the mango smoothie business in the first place, he only goes as far to open a rival chow mein stand mere feet away from his ex-bestie, so that they’re practically still hanging out. It’s an aggressively purposeless, inert film, which is amusing until it isn’t.

Mangoshake almost gets away with its directionless slackerdom the way a lot of films do: it’s funny. Every character reads their mundane, petty dialogue about go-nowhere romances and subpar mango smoothies with explosively nervous energy, as if the crew’s acting coach was the Chester puppet from The Sifl and Ollie Show. There’s also a distinct Jackass-flavored pranksterism that occasionally cuts through their anxious mumbling, often with an eardrum-destroying spike in volume. It’s as if the film is actively making fun of its own existence, like it resents having to go through the motions of the coming-of-age comedy template just so it can tell some inside jokes. The charm of that bratty insolence can only carry it so far, though. I still laugh every time I watch Paul Rudd throw a sassy temper tantrum about having to clear his cafeteria tray in Wet Hot American Summer, but I doubt I’d ever revisit the film if that were the central gag in every scene. Mangoshake made me laugh quite a bit before my enthusiasm waned. After that point, I was just waiting for it to be over, like a sweaty summer where nothing interesting’s happening and all my friends are on their worst behavior.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about Mangoshake as an overlooked gem. It’s the exact kind of no-budget D.I.Y. filmmaking I strive to champion. It’s a film that seemingly doesn’t want to be loved (or to even exist), though, and I have to respect that self-loathing thorniness for what it is. It likely could be edited down into a tidy little summertime prank comedy at half its length, but then it would no longer be its misanthropic, Indie Film-spoofing self and might lose some of its charm in the process. It’s probably best that it’s imperfect and overlong, then, even if that quality keeps the audience at an arm’s distance.

-Brandon Ledet

Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy. (2013)

One of my favorite filmmaking trends over the past decade has been how the visual gimmickry of found-footage horror has kept up with the evolving user interface of social media platforms & personal tech. The way Unfriended documents late nights on Skype, how Sickhouse reimagines The Blair Witch Project as a series of Snapchat posts, or how Cam turns an OnlyFans camgirl session into a surrealist nightmare have all been uniquely fascinating to me, among other examples. The one major social media platform I’ve never seen a horror film tackle through this evolving gimmick is Twitter. This immediately makes sense, as the mostly text-based platform isn’t especially suited to the visual medium of cinema the way, say, CandyCrush or Instagram or a Facebook timeline are. Still, you’d think some gimmicky schlock horror would have tried to make a spooky Twitter feed movie by now (even if I’d be the only opening weekend audience they could pull).

I did happen to find a movie that adapts the feel of scrolling through a Twitter feed into its in-the-moment narrative; it just happened to be in an entirely different genre. Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy. is a Thai coming-of-age drama about a listless teenage girl’s uneventful senior year of high school. Its narrative and dialogue were directly adapted from 410 consecutive tweets on an anonymous teen girl’s Twitter account, credited to @marylony. It’s an experimental work in some ways, allowing the jarring tonal shifts of reading a Twitter feed from bottom to top to dictate its moment-to-moment whims, but it somehow never spirals out into total mayhem. For the most part, the film plays like any other high school indie drama about teen-girl boredom & ennui. It just frequently interrupts that familiar tone & setting with the out-of-left field topics of its Twitter account source material, establishing a kind of minimalist absurdism that feels very reminiscent of early-era Twitter, when the site was mostly a platform for users to publish passing thoughts, no matter how inane (as opposed to now, where it’s more of a tool for self-promotion & political mobilization).

The referenced tweets from the @marylony account appear onscreen as if they were Silent Era title cards, punctuated by the clacking sounds of a desktop keyboard. Many of these dispatches from a teen girl’s mind are motivational platitudes like “Stand your ground”, “Practice leads to improvement”, and “Everything takes time” – lofty sentiments that help the titular Mary get through the boredom of a typical school day, but don’t mean much to the audience that trails behind her. Others have a more literal, immediate effect on the plot. When Mary muses out of boredom “I want a jellyfish” in a tweet, a FedEx package instantly arrives on her doorstep. When she writes “So lucky” she stumbles upon a duffle bag full of cash. When she mysteriously tweets “Today in France” she’s suddenly moping about Paris instead of her Thai boarding school, no questions asked. The film mostly sticks to a low-key, low-energy mode of absurdism, though, not taking the bait when tweets like “I’m living in multiple realms” or “Is my heart large enough for the world?” invite a Michel Gondry-scale twee fantasy tangent that the film’s budget and high school drama boundaries can’t afford.

I love that writer-director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit experimented with how to adapt the look & feel of a Twitter feed into cinematic language, even if he did so outside my beloved Evil Tech horror subgenre. Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy. has no real overriding conflicts or excitement to it outside that central experiment. We mostly watch a sweet, average high school senior navigate low-stakes romantic crushes, yearbook committee deadlines, and authoritarian school administrators in an effort to fill her days. It’s the exact kind of nothing-going-on adolescent boredom that would inspire someone to spend all day on Twitter, broadcasting every errant thought out into the void in hopes that a resulting notification would spark some much-needed dopamine. The only fault with the film, really, is that it’s over two hours long, which is pushing how much listless teenage melancholy anyone can pay full attention to in one sitting. I enjoyed the movie a great deal as a lighthearted narrative experiment, but if it were closer to the 70-80min range I might be totally swooning over it as an Online Cinema masterpiece.

-Brandon Ledet

Ma vie en rose (My Life in Pink, 1997)

When we recently reviewed all of Céline Sciamma’s back catalog for the podcast, the only film in the director’s portfolio that I couldn’t fully get on board with was Tomboy. The 2011 coming-of-age drama is a quiet, bare-bones portrait of children at play that illustrates in the simplest, most direct terms possible how limiting & cruel societal enforcement of gender traits is, which is especially apparent in how young kids are taught to socialize. I enjoyed Tomboy well enough, but it was clearly the slightest effort in Sciamma’s mighty catalog – adhering to a slice-of-life docudrama style that mostly avoids the transcendent catharsis of Sciamma’s superior works (with the exception of one indulgence in care-free bedroom dancing). Weeks later, I stumbled upon a fascinating counterpoint to Tomboy in Ma vie en rose (My Life in Pink), a Belgian film that had arrived more than a decade before Sciamma’s. Narratively, Tomboy and My Life in Pink are nearly identical. Both films follow a young child’s misadventures in a new school & neighborhood when they decide to introduce themselves to their peers as a different gender than what they were assigned at birth (and what their parents enforce at home). The difference between them is that My Life in Pink is the extreme opposite of a muted docudrama; it’s prone to frequent indulgences in hyper-stylized escapist fantasy, to the point where it’s practically a fairy tale. It gave me the small taste of transcendent catharsis I was searching for in Tomboy in overwhelming heaps, to the point where I was nearly choking on it. Given that the muted docudrama style of Tomboy is likely the more Intellectual approach to their shared subject, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I gobbled it up.

Ludovic is a seven-year-old child in suburban Belgium (which suspiciously looks like Tim Burton’s dreamlike vision of suburban America) who declares that she wants to live her life as a girl going forward, despite her parents’, school’s, and classmates’ insistence that she be treated and express herself as a boy. The social fallout from this self-declaration of trans identity plays out much the way you’d expect if you’ve ever seen a queer coming-of-age story before. My Life in Pink distinguishes itself less in the actions & trajectory of its characters than it does in the specificity of its style & setting. The nuclear-family suburban backdrop is perfectly illustrative of how gender is societally expressed, reinforced, and policed (even among young children, who are essentially genderless). The film opens with a rapid succession of Business Men husbands in the same suburban cul-de-sac zipping up their wives’ dresses, each in an individualistic way that perfectly illustrates their relationships with sexuality & marital tradition. Meanwhile, Ludovic is playing dress-up with his mother’s & older sister’s clothes & makeup in the family attic, a private moment of delicate self-fulfilling bliss that’s only shattered when she premieres her look-du-jour to the world and receives nastier feedback than anticipated. As an audience, we can predict everything that will happen to Ludovic & her family as her newly forming gender identity steps outside of what’s properly Allowed. Watching this particular kid navigate that painful process is still an enlightening experience, though, especially as we sink deeper into the private fantasy world she keeps hidden away from the cruel adults who’d prefer to lock her in a gender box that obviously doesn’t fit her shape.

The escapist fantasies Ludovic uses to dissociate from her cruel social conditions are the movie’s real selling point. They mostly revolve around a generic Barbie Doll-type character Ludovic is obsessed with, to the point where she frequently mentally projects herself inside the doll’s house & playset. This internal fantasyscape allows the film to indulge in bright, overly saturated colors & plastic dollhouse aesthetics as often as it pleases – blowing up a child’s inner world while playing dress-up to a worldwide playground outside their mind. It’s an aesthetic that also spills over to the stylized, ludicrously Artificial suburbia where Ludovic actually lives, given how the sunflowers are as huge as hubcaps and the neighborhood husbands all back out of their driveways perfectly in sync to start their collective morning commute. That’s not to say that My Life in Pink doesn’t take the day-to-day drama of its protagonist’s unfairly policed childhood gender identity as seriously as Tomboy does with its own. It just approaches that same subject from a more expressionistic, dreamlike lens. It very much feels like a product of its New Queer Cinema era, with a particular debt to how Todd Haynes explored real-world gay crises through a stylized fantasy lens (particularly recalling the segment of Poison about the boy who flew out the window). I don’t believe that approach is any more valuable or insightful than how Sciamma chose to frame the remarkably similar narrative of Tomboy; nor do I believe the opposite is true. Both the docudrama approach of Tomboy & the internal fantasy realm of My Life in Pink have their separate merits (and make for interesting contrast-and-compare companion viewing). I’m just such a sucker for the dollhouse fairy tale aesthetics of the earlier film that I can’t help but choose it as a personal favorite over its more stylistically muted counterpart.

-Brandon Ledet

Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1997)

The self-anointed “Queen of the Underground Film,” Sarah Jacobson almost exclusively worked in the most underground film medium of all: the short. Most significantly, her landmark short film I Was a Teenage Serial Killer proved to be an iconic riot grrrl time capsule from the dingiest days of 90s punk’s feminist uprising, persisting as her most recognizable work. Jacobson did manage to pull together resources for one feature film in her (tragically short) lifetime, though: a sex-positive teen punk melodrama titled Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore. Her one feature-length film is a no-budget coming-of-age cautionary tale that subverts the Conservative 1950s road-to-ruin teen pic by transforming it into genuinely healthy sex education for 90s punx. On its surface, it doesn’t commit as wholeheartedly to the cut-and-paste feminist zine culture aesthetic of I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, but thematically it really digs into the unchecked misogyny of teen counterculture movements in a way that few movies do. Beyond that accomplishment, Mary Jane works wonderfully just as an adorably low-rent hangout film; it’s one of the very best slice-of-life dispatches from the go-nowhere Slacker era.

Jacobson wastes no time explaining why teen punks need a proper sex education in the first place. The movie opens with a parody of the old-fashioned romantic Hollywood depiction of what Losing It is supposed to look like, then cuts harshly to our teen protagonist, Jane (Lisa Gerstein), suffering a much more realistic and horrific version of the act in a harshly lit cemetery. From his terminally cheesy pick-up line “Let me show you how special sex can be” to his laughably boneheaded question “Did you cum yet?” while they’re having the most uncomfortable looking sex imaginable, it’s immediately clear that Jane’s idiotic date isn’t just an insensitive brute; he also has no clue what he’s doing and is too arrogant to pretend otherwise. After this atrocious initiation to the world of casual sex, Jane has to learn on her own that sex actually can be pleasurable & fun with the right partner (especially herself), a trial & error education she navigates mostly for the audience’s benefit. Jacobson walks us through this distinctly teenage ritual by aping & parodying the road-to-ruin teen pictures of the 1950s that tackled this same topic from a moralistic, sex-shaming POV (mostly as an excuse to indulge in the exact prurient imagery they were supposedly condemning). It’s a fun storytelling device, but also a purposeful one.

Given the wide range of social topics that Jacobson tackles here—masturbation, bisexuality, teenage pregnancy, drunk driving, divorce, etc.—it would be easy for Mary Jane to slip into a didactic After School Special tone, but it sidesteps that pitfall entirely. Some of that avoidance is a result of its direct acknowledgement of the moralistic road-to-ruin teen genre it’s subverting, but mostly the movie is just enjoyable as a snapshot of a specific time in youth counterculture aesthetics. Jane is a suburban girl with a job at an inner-city movie theater, where she works alongside obnoxious-drunk punks specifically archetypal of their era. 90s teenage regalia like unironic fedoras, white-kid dreadlocks, camo cargo shorts, and studded leather jackets are just as much a fabric of the setting as the era’s punk ideologies like straight-edge, riot grrrl, and zine culture. As the teenage delinquents party in the dingy cinema lobby, occasionally taking tickets & scooping popcorn for impatient customers, films like Hardcore & Last Tango in Paris spew unhealthy sex lessons from the other room, poisoning their minds in real time. Jacobson is visibly proactive in undoing the awful sexual misconceptions that have permeated these kids’ misogynist punk community, but she also clearly loves the little dolts as recognizable personalities from an evergreen social scene – the teenage dirtbags that they are.

It probably does require a certain fondness & familiarity with punk culture to fully appreciate this film’s D.I.Y. charms, where a boom mic shadow or broad pantomime performance of teenage drunkenness are always threatening to creep in from the edge of the frame. That’s a totally acceptable price of admission, though, since Jacobson was directly appealing to that specific subculture (which she appears to have been a member of herself) in order to mend the harm their grotesque sexual misbehavior was causing. It’s frustrating how often the politics of youth counterculture movements like hippies, punks, and—most recently—”The Dirtbag Left” don’t interrogate the active harm of the sex & gender politics they perpetuate from the Patriarchal institutions they’re supposedly rebelling against. It sucks that Sarah Jacobson wasn’t able to pull together enough resources to deliver more feature films in her lifetime, but it’s rad af that the one time she was able to do so, she used the opportunity to sexually re-educate the punks of her era. They clearly needed that course-correction, even if they could be charming in other ways.

-Brandon Ledet

Good Boys (2019)

I laughed at least once for every minute of Good Boys, which I don’t know that I can say about any other mainstream comedy in recent memory. Even other coming-of-age sex comedies like Blockers, Booksmart, and The To Do List can’t compete with this film’s joke-to-laugh ratio, despite being objectively Better films on the whole. Of course, humor is subjective, especially considering the specificity of this film’s POV in its suburban teen boy sexuality, so I can’t claim that every filmgoer will have the same high success rate with Good Boys‘s many, many gags as I did. I do feel confident in saying that the film is far more endearing & well-written than its initial “Superbad except with cussing tweens” reputation prepared me for, though. This is not a one-joke movie about how funny it is to watch children do a cuss; it’s got a lot on its mind about innocence, the pain of outgrowing relationships, and what distinguishes the earnest generation of radically wholesome kids growing up beneath us from our own meaner, amoral tween-years follies. These are very good boys.

A major aspect of this film’s success is that it acknowledges its own limitations from the outset. Its story of young tween boys’ friendships struggling to survive the social perils of sixth grade is about as low-stakes as any narrative that’s ever reached the big screen. A couple larger comedic set pieces within the film (including drug trafficking, an interstate pile-up, and a frat house brawl) distract from the plot’s total lack of meaningful consequences, but for the most part the film keeps its conflicts intimate & small. The pint-sized trio at its center want to attend their first “kissing party” at the coolest kid in sixth grade’s house. In order to achieve that modest goal, they have to avoid getting grounded, dodge teen girl bullies, try their first sips of (room temperature) beer, and maintain their solidarity as a unit even though they’re clearly outgrowing the friendship that binds them. The details of the obstacles that stand in their way can be outrageously broad, leaning into the tweens-confronted-with-sex-drugs-and-violence humor promised in the ads. Their goals & circumstances remain aggressively minor, however, and much of the humor reflects how the least meaningful bullshit imaginable means everything to you at that age, because the world you occupy is so small & inconsequential.

There’s an intelligently mapped-out relationship dynamic maintained between the three titular boys as their meaningless, go-nowhere adventure shakes their friendship to its core. Jacob Tremblay stars as the loverboy heartthrob of the group, the only one who has an active interest in reaching the kissing party destination. Keith L. Williams & Brady Noon co-star as the angel & devil on his shoulders, respectively, staging a constant moral-compass tug-of-war that steers his focus away from his girl-kissing objective with distractions like Doing the Right Thing and Searching for Beer. Of course, even the most wicked of the trio isn’t all that maliciously evil in the grand scheme of human morality. Not only are these children too young to get into too much trouble; they’re also from a nicer, more considerate generation that’s being raised with a less toxic model of a masculine norm. If we’re comparing this film to Superbad, it’s impossible to not notice how much sweeter, more vulnerable, and more aware of the value of Enthusiastic Consent these children are compared to the generations who preceded them. Superbad is often praised for its final emotional grace notes shared between teen-boy friends who’ve struggled to maintain a tough masculine exterior throughout their entire gettin’-laid adventures, to the detriment of their relationship. Here, the earnest vulnerability & emotional grace notes are constant & genuine from frame one, providing some much-needed hope for the men of the future.

If you’re looking to Good Boys for broad jokes about children doing cusses and failing to differentiate what is and what is not a sex toy, the movie is more than happy to supply them. And those jokes are funny too! They’re just not all that’s going on. I won’t say this film is better constructed or more emotionally satisfying than its fellow 2019 Superbad revision Booksmart (with which it shares a Run the Jewels needle drop and a goofball-dad performance from Will Forte), but I do think it equally clarifies what makes the earnest generation of youngsters growing up right now so unique & promising while also garnering more guffaws-per-minute on a joke efficiency scale. As a pair, the two films work well in signaling that the kids are alright, a refreshing sentiment in a mainstream comedy landscape that likes to stigmatize Gen-Z as #triggered #snowflakes (while also often miscategorizing them as Millennials for some reason). It also proves that you can participate in that open-hearted earnestness without sacrificing the horned-up raunch and deliberately offensive edginess everyone pretends is disappearing from mainstream comedy in these supposed “safe space” times. You’re just no longer tolerated for being an inhumane dickhole while doing so. Be better. Be a good boy.

-Brandon Ledet

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