Girl Picture (2022)

One danger of watching too many movies is that you can become a spoiled little brat.  It’s easy to become jaded about what makes an individual picture special when you’ve seen dozens of equally great movies just like it, to the point where you overvalue novelty & surprise instead of emotional resonance & dramatic truth.  Girl Picture is a thoroughly lovely teen-girls-at-the-edge-of-adulthood drama, chronicling the messy lives & loves of three Finnish high schoolers who are figuring themselves out before they get locked into the braindead rituals of adult responsibilities.  It’s thorny, sweet, well observed, and swooningly romantic in all the exact ways you’d want a coming-of-age drama to be.  And yet, I found myself comparing it against a long line of already-established modern classics that have delivered exactly what it offers, titles like Water Lilies, Girlhood, Princess Cyd, Babyteeth; etc. That’s great company to be in, no matter where Girl Picture ultimately fits in that hierarchy, but I also can’t help but search for the few dramatic details & stylistic nuances that help it stand out in that crowded field.  The easiest solution would’ve been to, you know, just watch fewer movies to begin with.

I can really only think of two aspects of Girl Picture that distinguish it from the rest of its high-style, coming-of-age sorority.  The most obvious distinguishing factor is its setting, with trades in the genre’s typical American summer backdrop for a harsh Finnish winter.  The less obvious, less easily definable distinction is the film’s matter-of-fact approach to sex.  I’m not used to watching teens order drinks at a sweaty dance club, then doing vigorous Hand Stuff as a nightcap.  Girl Picture is very nonchalant about sex, centering its two main BFF’s paths to sexual self-discovery – one learning how to advocate for her pleasure with boys in bed, the other learning how to let girls into her heart instead of just into her sheets.  There isn’t much drama to the story beyond to those two bedroom crises, and its sexual frankness also sometimes plays as deliberately rattling, at one point harshly cutting from a cliche shot of a teen’s hand soaring through the wind outside a car window to that same hand doing something much more vulgar between a fellow teen’s legs.  It’s not at all played for shock value, though.  If anything, these youngsters are extremely polite fuckers; they always ask for verbal consent before indulging their bodies, which at least feels unique to this generation of kids even if it’s not unique to this specific picture.

Ultimately, novelty doesn’t make or break a movie like this.  These dramas are hinged on the personalities of the girls they profile, and Rönkkö, Mimmi, and (Mimmi’s love interest) Emma are all lovely to spend 100 minutes with.  It’s a relatively low-stakes winter, with only so many mistakes that can be made between house parties, gym class, and afterschool jobs at the mall.  When one girl swoons as if she’s met the love of her life, it cuts to the other playing laser tag with strangers in the woods.  It’s all sweetly innocent, even when it’s raunchy or heart-soaringly romantic.  Director Alli Haapasalo finds plenty room to flex her sense of visual style in this feature debut, too, even if it’s all decorated in the same neon crosslighting, strobelit dance parties, and pastel bedroom decor that’s typical to the genre.  No matter how familiar Girl Picture can feel frame by frame, it’s always a pleasure, and it’s headlined by a lovely group of kids who deserve the absolute best.  Rooting for these girls to get their acts together before life throws real consequences at them is more than enough to make this a satisfying teen-years drama.  Just try your best to forget that you’ve seen it all done before many times over.

-Brandon Ledet

Hellbender (2022)

What should be the ideal goal of no-budget backyard filmmaking?  Is it enough to just document an insular community’s collaboration on a fun, collective art project?  Should it also approximate the production values of a “legitimate”, professional production as much as its resources allow?  Or should backyard filmmakers reject the aesthetics of professionalism entirely and instead distinguish themselves as outsider artists?

Your response to those big-picture questions will likely determine your enthusiasm for the low-budget folk horror Hellbender, which recently premiered on Shudder after a buzzy festival run in 2021.  I was charmed by the film’s backstory as a fun art project shared between a real-life family of outsider filmmakers, named—no joke—The Adams Family.  Where I’m skeptical of the film’s enthusiastic reception among horror nerds, though, is that it feels like it’s specifically being praised for the near-professional quality of its production values.  The camera is shockingly active in Hellbender, while most backyard movies rely on static shots due to limited gear & crew.  It’s got enough drone shots, CG effects, and psychedelic flashes of double-exposure horror imagery to pass itself off as a “real” movie – or at least a standard-issue, straight-to-Shudder horror streamer.  I can’t help but question the value of that achievement, though, as impressive as it is.  Backyard movies are best when they’re a little scuzzy & chaotic, touching on volatile images & personalities you won’t find in a professional Hollywood picture.  By that metric, Hellbender is almost competent to a fault: a little too slick to be especially valuable as a backyard movie but not expensive enough to feel fully legit.

The most satisfying aspect of Hellbender is the way its peculiar off-camera production circumstances are echoed in its onscreen drama.  The real-life mother-daughter duo Toby Poser & Zelda Adams play the fictional mother-daughter duo “Mother” & Izzy in the film. Together, they write playful, Jucifer-style metal songs in the fictional band H6LLB6ND6R – a mirror reflection of their real-life familial collaborations as outsider filmmakers (along with additional family members John & Lulu Adams, who also appear on-camera in minor roles).  As adorable as it is that a family can work closely enough to make intergenerational art together, there is something insular & cult-like about their isolation from the outside world, which the Adams are smart to make an explicit part of the text.  The mother strictly quarantines her daughter in a remote woodland cabin as a safety measure, raising her to believe she is too sick to be around outsiders.  It turns out what she means is the daughter is sick as fuck.  They both descend from a bloodline of witches, sharing an inherited power that can be dangerously addictive & destructive when paired with a teenager’s erratic behavior.  The resulting chaos of the daughter-witch inevitably being unleashed into the world unsocialized (a familiar chaos for any overly sheltered child who finally breaks free of parental control) is often cute, often gnarly, and sometimes even genuinely magical.  It just also feels like a cheaper version of superior teen-girl-puberty horrors like Jennifer’s Body, Ginger Snaps, and Teeth, when its outsider-art status means it had the freedom to become something much wilder & less familiar.

If I’m underselling the achievement of these resourceful, self-taught filmmakers shooting a near-professional movie in the woods, it’s probably because I’m undersold on The Adams Family myself.  I’m assuming that a lot of the ecstatic praise from horror nerds is a result of that niche audience having already been familiar with the Adams’ work, watching their craft evolve over the past decade of increasingly competent movies.  Hell, if you’ve been following the family’s career, you’ve practically watched their kids grow up onscreen, which must come with its own inherent emotional investment in their lives & art.  As someone who’s happily over a dozen films deep into the Matt Farley catalog of no-budget horror comedies, I can attest to these long-term collaborations among insular communities improving the longer you spend with the weirdos involved.  I enjoyed Hellbender enough to want to look back to older Adams Family titles like The Deeper You Dig & Halfway to Zen, especially since I’m apparently craving something a little rougher around the edges from them.  I’m questioning the merit of working so hard to make a backyard movie feel professional instead of feeling dangerously unrestrained, but I also wasn’t around for the family’s journey to this milestone.  Luckily, it doesn’t matter if there are a few mild naysayers in the audience like myself anyway, since the film was pre-emptively canonized in the recent folk horror documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched before it even hit wide release, so it’s already guaranteed to be cited as a significant work in that subgenre for decades to come regardless of its priorities or ideals as low-budget outsider art.

-Brandon Ledet

Beast Beast (2021)

Much to everyone’s shock, Tubi has proven to be of the most surprisingly substantial players in the online streaming game over the past year or so. What used to be a low-rent platform for disposable horror schlock that falls just outside the public domain is now a staggering online library of great works on the level of a Criterion Channel or an HBO Max. To solidify its legitimacy as a formidable streaming giant, Tubi is now apparently getting into the business of premiering artsy indie films from the festival circuit, a far cry from its origins as a last resort destination to watch Wishmaster 3, or whatever.

Tubi’s bold foray into prestigious festival acquisitions is Beast Beast, a very Sundancey teen drama about gun violence.  Think of it as a Gen-Z update of Elephant.  The lives of three average suburban teens interweave in the weeks leading up to a fatal shooting, which shockingly does not take place on a high school campus.  The movie does nothing to hide the identity of the eventual shooter, making it obvious who’s going to do the killing even if their targets are obscured.  You know exactly where the movie’s going until it gets there . . . and then there’s fifteen extra minutes of unexpected, pulpy denouement.  This movie is the ultimate example of the dictum “It’s not what happens but how it happens,” as the hyperkinetic, youthful style entirely overpowers its afternoon-special PSA plotting.

The three youths profiled here are all distinct in their public & private personae, but like most kids born in The Internet Age, they all share a compulsion to produce online #content, building their personal brands on platforms like YouTube & Instagram.  As their disparate hobbies of drumming, skateboarding, amateur filmmaking, and firing assault weapons in the woods collide in frantic montage, it’s clear that we’re living in a post-context world.  One of those afterschool activities is way more sinister than the others, and it’s shocking to see it presented so casually in a teen melodrama with an inevitable tragic ending.  What’s exciting about Beast Beast is how aware the kids are of their online presence’s effect on the world, allowing them to weaponize Public Perception while avenging that tragedy once it occurs.  Its a film both horrified by and in reverent awe of the Internet as a creative & destructive tool, depending on who’s wielding it.

Beast Beast is the exact kind of low-budget filmmaking that earns a lot of unfair eyerolls, but it really worked for me.  Its multimedia approach to photography and its exponentially intense sound design genuinely rattled me in a way few dramas have managed to in the past year, thanks to the general emotional numbness of the pandemic.  Unfortunately, that’s the exact reason it’s such a poor fit for Tubi as a streaming platform.  Instead of being able to fully immerse myself in that tension for that full 85 runtime, I was frequently iced down by Tubi’s randomly interjected commercial breaks, the platform’s Achilles heel.  If Tubi’s going to be getting into smaller arthouse films, I’m not sure the commercial breaks are entirely worth it.  Beast Beast is one of the best new releases I’ve seen so far this year, but I’d likely be even more over the moon for it if it weren’t interrupted by Verizon shills & Charmin bears.

-Brandon Ledet

Rocks (2021)

The small-scale British drama Rocks appears to be standard coming-of-age docufiction at first glance. A naturalistic, mildly fictionalized portrait of kids’ lives alone in The Big City, the film invites skepticism of what could possibly set it apart from similar, contemporary works like Girlhood, Skate Kitchen, Nobody Knows, or The Florida Project. The answer is somewhat obvious: the kids themselves. Rocks mostly excels in its minor character details, platforming young performers who are authentically adorable, hilarious, and heartbreaking at every turn in their seemingly Real stories. As with a hagiographic documentary or a shamelessly formulaic mainstream comedy, the form of this kitchen-sink drama doesn’t matter nearly as much as the personalities it highlights. If anything, the movie better serves its characters & performers by stylistically staying out of their way.

The titular Rocks is a high school student in Hackney, London, and the daughter of a Nigerian immigrant. She’s a typical teenager at the start of the film, at least judging by her young Londoner peers. She’s mostly interested in dance, hip-hop, and Instagram make-up tutorials, and she pretends to be more annoyed with her absurdly adorable kid brother than she actually is. Her typical-teen life is disrupted early in the film when her mother abandons the kids in their cramped apartment with only a small stack of cash to keep them afloat until she returns (if she returns at all). Rocks quickly goes from bartering for candy in the schoolyard to being the head of her small family, lugging her brother and his pet frog all over the city in a daily struggle to survive life without income or a safety net. It’s unclear at first whether she’s just too proud to ask her circle of friends for help or if she’s fearful of what might happen if word gets out that she & her brother are going it alone. The movie is fascinated by where she belongs within Hackney as a larger community, though, and it feels most vibrant & alive when she’s figuring that question out among kids her own age.

If there’s anything especially striking about director Sarah Gavron’s filmmaking here, it’s in her attention to the artifice of social media while chasing down the grimmer details of Real Life. The movie is incredibly smart about allowing the kids’ preferred mode of communication—Instagram—to propel its visual language & drama. It shifts to a vertical smartphone aspect ratio so frequently that I have to wonder why the kids weren’t given their own “Cinematography By” credits. They check in with & lash out at each other through Instagram posts, and use the app’s Stories function as an edited-in-the-moment travelogue in the transitions between locales. The film is not as confrontationally in-your-face about that stylistic choice as genre films like Sickhouse, Assassination Nation, or Ingrid Goes West, but it is just as honest about how much of its teen subjects’ daily lives are recorded, filtered, and preserved through that very specific lens.

Speaking personally, my ideal version of this film might be one pieced together entirely through staged Instagram posts, like the tear-jerker drama equivalent of a found footage horror film. It would be dismissed as a gimmicky, attention-grabbing choice by most audiences, but to me it feels as authentic to the Kids Today™ as the cinema verité style was to the docufiction subjects of the 1960s & 70s. As is, these kids still feel authentically Real in every beat of the story, even when it’s at its most melodramatic. The movie is obviously more interested in highlighting those performers (who were credited for contributing to writing the dialogue) than it is in flaunting its own heightened sense of style or drama. That’s certainly a worthwhile goal, and the payoffs suggest it was the right way to go with this material (even if it somewhat flattens what distinguishes the film from similar works).

-Brandon Ledet

Spontaneous (2020)

It’s very difficult for the post-Heathers high school black comedy to match the exact glorious highs of Daniel Waters’s 1989 classic. In the late 1990s, titles like Drop Dead Gorgeous, Jawbreaker, and Sugar & Spice leaned a little too hard into the flippant cruelty of the Heathers template, while more recent works like Mean Girls, The DUFF, and The Edge of Seventeen aren’t quite cruel enough. That’s why it’s a little frustrating that Spontaneous is so dead-on in its post-Heathers teen comedy cruelty in its first half, only to abandon that black comedy tone entirely as it reaches for a more earnest, less humorous conclusion. Of all the Heathers descendants I’ve enjoyed over the years, this one starts off with the most promise to share its icy, sardonic throne as the queen of the genre; then it abruptly decides it’s interested in pursuing something much more muted & emotionally grounded. I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment for that tonal shift as a result, even if the movie still holds up as a cute, enjoyable experience on its own terms.

Spontaneous is a shockingly well-timed horror-comedy-turned-teenage-melodrama. It’s about a spontaneous combustion pandemic that spreads throughout the senior class of one specific high school, forcing the student body into strict quarantine as their friends & classmates explode one by one in spectacular displays of gore. All the isolation & unprocessed grief that’s been hanging over high school & college kids since the coronavirus pandemic derailed all semblance of normalcy in March of 2020 is reflected here in a way the filmmakers could not have anticipated. Regardless of last year’s hyper-specific health pandemic context, though, the spontaneous combustion phenomenon works well enough as a generalized representation of the social pressures & gloom that hang over the heads of all kids who’re trying to remain optimistic about their futures as our planet continues to fall apart. It’s difficult to plan for the future when climate change, nuclear war, or your entire senior class exploding into piles of mush all threaten to end the world as we know it, so you might as well live in the moment – spontaneously.

There’s a lot to be disappointed by here if you’re looking to complain. It starts very strong when having morbid fun with its premise, but gradually loses steam as the heaviness of the material outweighs what its teen-drama earnestness can manage. I personally would’ve loved to see a version of this same film built around the lead’s friendship with her bestie rather than her brief senior-year romance with the new boy in town, since it’s a relationship that’s much better established & more worthy of exploring. I also obviously have a major mental block in assessing it as its own isolated accomplishment without constantly comparing it to my beloved Heathers, which it only echoes in its first hour. Ultimately, these are probably smart choices on the film’s part in reaching out to a teenage audience instead of my dusty thirtysomething sensibilities. The big emotions of the doomed romance, the dwelling on communal grief, and the Spencer Krug & Sufjan Stevens soundtrack cues are all perfectly pitched to hyperbolic teenage Feelings in a way I’m not sure I’ve seen matched since Your Name. Hopefully that teen audience will find this small, off-kilter gem while its context of graduating high school mid-pandemic is still a fresh, relatable wound.

If there’s any irony in me nitpicking Spontaneous‘s comedy-to-melodrama tonal shift, it’s the way that trajectory matches my very favorite aspect of the film. It perfectly captures the way that high school kids will impulsively say something mean to people who don’t deserve it in an attempt to be funny, then immediately regret that decision. The movie itself has flippant fun with its exploding-teens premise until the blood dries, and it has to clean up the emotional hurt that’s left behind – which is the same natural tendency the lead has to fight in herself as she treats everything around her as a meaningless joke. There’s something distinctly Veronica Sawyer about that character trait, as well as something universal to anyone who’s ever been a moody teenager. This is a fun, cute movie about a fucked-up tragedy, until the fun & cute evaporates and all that’s left is the fucked-up part.

-Brandon Ledet

I Want to Eat Your Pancreas (2019)

Although it’s at best a cult favorite in America, the animated supernatural teen romance Your Name. was a massive success in its native Japan. Likely fueled by repeat viewings from droves of lovelorn teens, the film broke all kinds of box office records – spawning official merchandize jewelry, planned live action remakes and, unavoidably, knockoffs. The teen anime romance is nothing new as a genre (if nothing else, Your Name. director Makoto Shinkai also made a film titled 5 Centimeters Per Second in a very similar vein as his smash hit an entire decade earlier), but there are some basic elements of Your Name. that have been echoed & rearranged enough times in the couple years since its massive success to establish an entire subgenre of knockoffs. Lightly proggy emo soundtracks, heart-swelling fireworks displays, supernatural shenanigans, and overreaching romantic narration have become almost standard in the post-Your Name. teen anime, as if films were attempting to reverse-engineer its success using the exact same building blocks. Last year’s goofily haphazard Fireworks is a clear example of how the cynical Your Name. riff can fall flat on its face – the butt of some cosmic, absurdist joke. Although it’s more humorously titled, this year’s I Want to Eat Your Pancreas swings in the exact opposite direction – suggesting that the sub-Your Name. genre is worthy of being continued & explored, that there’s plenty of room to keep the formula flesh & emotionally effective.

Part of I Want to Eat Your Pancreas’s saving grace as a deliberate Your Name. riff (besides its attention-grabbing title) is that it’s adapted from well-established source material entirely separate from its newfound anime subgenre. A YA teen romance novel that has already been adapted into a manga series and a live-action film titled Let Me Eat Your Pancreas, this is a property that’s already popular & familiar enough to Japanese audiences to stand on its own legs as an individual work. It even comes from a different angle than Your Name. in that its premise isn’t at all supernatural, but instead is a romantic terminal illness teen weepie along the lines of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Fault in Our Stars, and the upcoming Cole Sprouse vehicle Five Feet Apart. A high school student who’s eternally cheerful despite slowly dying of “a pancreatic disease” becomes unlikely friends with (and the unlikely love interest of) a stubbornly antisocial boy who’s defiantly boring & needs help breaking out of his shell, but reluctantly gets roped into helping the dying girl complete her bucket list anyway. The quiet, conversational drama that unfolds from that premise doesn’t sound at all similar to the raucous body-swapping, physics-defying romance of Your Name., which helps the film distinguish itself from that apparently seminal work. However, as the checkboxes of the purple narration, power pop soundtrack, and CG fireworks display are each ticked off the entire exercise starts to feel strikingly familiar. Then, it all ends in a climactic supernatural fantasy that transcends reality in a sequence inspired by The Little Prince on a planet populated by cherry blossom trees – far away from the grounded, conversational tone of its source material – solidifying it as a fully committed Your Name. disciple.

To be honest, distinguishing itself from Your Name. was far from I Want to Eat Your Pancreas’s greatest hurdle to clear. There’s a reason that formula has been echoed in so many recent teen anime titles: it works. If anything, it’s the terminal illness weepie premise of its source material that threatens to sink its enjoyability, especially in regard to its choice of POV. This is the story of a chipper, terminally ill child who seemingly lives without fear; she misshelves library books, kicks bullies in the nuts, runs from cops, experiments with alcohol & sex, gorges on rich foods, and does basically everything else a rebellious suburban teen wishes they could get away with. So why, then, do we instead see the world through the POV of her polar opposite, a killjoy boy who literally feels sorry for himself because he’s boring? It initially seems as if this choice were a textbook repetition of the Manic Pixie Dying Girl trope, where a tragic girl with a rambunctious spirit exists only to improve the life & disposition of a milquetoast male protagonist with a much less interesting POV. If you afford I Want to Eat Your Pancreas a little patience, that dynamic is beautifully subverted in its emotionally cathartic climax, which saves the entire film in one paradigm-shifting information dump. In reading the Manic Pixie Dying Girl’s private diary (morbidly titled Living with Dying), we’re suddenly flooded with her perspective & story of personal growth, something that had been missing for the entire film before it. Not only is there a huge emotional payoff in that reveal, it’s also where the film justifies its animation format by reaching for some Little Prince by way of Sailor Moon surrealism to match the soaring emotional stakes of that catharsis. The trick is trusting the film long enough to get there.

The flashier, attention-grabbing details of I Want to Eat Your Pancreas are likely to draw in most of the audience, but also promise a much wilder, louder movie than what’s ultimately delivered. Once you look past its weirdly cannibalistic title, its Your Name.-riffing aesthetic, and the severity of tis terminal illness romance premise, however, you will find an intimate, minor teen drama that (outside the visualization of its climax) makes total sense as a work that was previously translated into live action. There are slideshow sequences & CG animation shortcuts that call into question the film’s need to be animated at all, outside the opportunity to ride the wave of Your Name.’s success, but it’s a decision that’s eventually justified, even if at the last minute. More importantly, I Want to Eat Your Pancreas eventually finds distinct, emotionally satisfying things to say about how teens establish their sense of identity & self-worth that feel entirely separate from its value as a post-Your Name. anime or a post-John Green teen weepie. It takes a lot of work for the film to stand on its own beyond those comparison points and the novelty it its title, but it does get there with time & patience.

-Brandon Ledet

#horror (2015)




Imagine if The Bling Ring were a cheap slasher film directed by Tim & Eric and you might have a decent idea of how jarring #horror is as a feature film experience. An explosion of emojis, group texts, cyber-bullying and, oddly enough, fine art, #horror is an entirely idiosyncratic film, a sort of modern take on the giallo style-over-substance horror/mystery formula, with its stylization firmly in line with the vibrant vapidity of life online in the 2010s. It’s such a strange, difficult to stomach experience that it somehow makes total sense that the film premiered as The Museum of Modern Art in NYC before promptly going straight to VOD with little to no critical fanfare. That’s exactly what #horror is in a nutshell. Simultaneously functioning as a cheap horror flick & a precious fine art piece, it’s the exact kind of compromise between high art & low trash that always wins me over, even when its deeply flawed . . . especially when it’s deeply flawed.

Centered on a slumber party between a group of wealthy, spoiled, precocious brats, #horror aims for the same kind of cyberbullying-as-horror aesthetic achieved in last summer’s Unfriended, except that instead of adopting the look of a live group chat it works more in the realm of viral videos & cheap social network games. This particular crew of 12 year old girls are even more vicious than the usual Mean Girls stereotype. While taking selfies, playing dress-up, and experimenting with the vice of vodka cranberries, they constantly insult & tear each other down, submitting each verbal jab online for posterity. Their attacks on each others’ character & looks are rewarded with “points” & “likes” on the fictional social media video game they’re hopelessly addicted to. They push this cruelty as far as they possibly can, twisting the knife with statements like “I’d cry too if I were you. Actually, I’d just kill myself,” and making fun of each other for everything from overeating to grieving for their mother’s death. This is horrifying enough on its own, but it’s made even more disturbing by a mysterious slasher’s killing spree that disposes of the girls one victim at a time.

Although the film occasionally deals with such hefty subjects as cutting & bulimia, it also caters to an overwhelming sense of satirical parody. Mimicking the distracted, scatterbrained mania of social media obsession, #horror is a feat in hyperactive editing. The kaleidoscopic emoji color palette of its central video game gimmick combines with indie pop songstress EMA’s intense soundtrack work to make for a truly eccentric, singular experience I can’t say I’ve ever seen on film before. The thing #horror gets exactly right are the way it turns 12 year old’s concerns into tangible horrors. Older men are horrifying threats. Your online reputation means everything. The idea of putting your phone away for an hour is beyond reason, etc. Because of the compromised art-trash tone, though, this aspect sometimes devolves in to full-blown camp, like in a scene where a girl runs frightened in the woods while mean tweets & hashtags pop up on the screen as if they were chasing her. #horror is a bizarre work of mixed tones, as strange of a mashup of style & presentation as seeing a Lisa Frank depiction of a gruesome murder framed & hanging in a stuffy art gallery. I think I loved it? It’s near impossible to tell. What I can say for sure is that it was fascinating.

-Brandon Ledet

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)



It’s been interesting to see lately how teen movies are shifting away from the raunchy, American Pie type of sex comedies that have been prevalent since the late 90s towards a more serious, “grown-up” sensibility that hasn’t been very popular since the 80s era of films like Say Anything . . . & The Breakfast Club (or anything by John Hughes, really). Newer films like Dope, White Bird in a Blizzard, and an endless list of John Green adaptations have all reached for a more emotionally resonant, less detached brand of teen media, all with varying degrees of success. The recent Sundance-favorite Me & Earl & the Dying Girl is painfully aware of this trend and attempts to both play along with & subvert serious teen movie earnestness. It fails on both counts. By pretending to be above the emotional vulnerability of John Green adaptations while dabbling in the very same overreaching narcissism & sentimentality, Me & Earl & The Dying Girl creates an all new kind of inflammatory teen movie monster, one with both unique & clichéd reasons to be derided.

If Me & Earl & The Dying Girl is trying to interact with its earnest teen cinema pedigree in any deliberate way, it’s at the very least echoing elements of the John Green cancer-romance drama The Fault in Our Stars. As opposed to the John Green aesthetic where Everything Means Everything & teens struggle with the overwhelming significance of everyday existence, Me & Earl & The Dying Girl  shrugs off the emotional weight of a teen dying of leukemia and proposes that nothing means anything at all. It’s not endearing. The film’s protagonist, the titular Me, drifts through life without any concern for anything outside himself. An all-star navel gazer, Me (often referred to as “Greg” for some reason) finds zero significance in any of life’s little ups or downs and tries to keep it all very casual, unless of course the subject at hand is himself, in which case it’s of the upmost importance. This could be an interesting character trait if the movie surrounding him didn’t have the exact same fascination with Me, despite the wide range of infinitely more fascinating characters surrounding him.

The level of self-absorption in Me & Earl & The Dying Girl (alternately titled Me, Me, Me & Me) is so out of control that the central conflict is not whether or not The Dying Girl survives leukemia, but whether or not Me gets to go to college. The least interesting character in this film gets the first, middle, and last word, steamrolling any possible character development outside himself with his overbearingly bland omnipresence. There’s a scene late in the film where Me discovers that his Dying Girl friend has an artistic side she neglected to express to him directly. According to Me’s (& the movie’s) logic this is because Dying Girl was intentionally keeping her artistry private. The truth is, of course, that Me never shut up about himself for two consecutive minutes, so Dying Girl never had a chance to get a word in edgewise. Along with Me’s depressed stoner dad, Dying Girl’s white wine enthusiast mother, the titties & Criterion Collection obsessed Earl of the title, and a selfless former bad boy history teacher, Dying Girl is just one of many fascinating characters that are shamefully allowed to fade into the background while Me blathers on about Me, Me, Me & Me. The best scene in the film (& one of Dying Girl’s most prized memories) is a glorious, but all too brief stretch where Me finally shuts up because he is high & eating a popsicle.

This Is The Part Where I Explain That The Movie Is Not Only Narratively Bankrupt, But Also Stylistically Horrendous. Me, Me, Me & Me is broken up by annoying chapter titles similar to the first sentence of this paragraph and that’s far from the only instance of its stylistic overreaching. The film mostly borrows from familiar visual sources like Wes Anderson & Michel Gondry, often deviating into stop motion animation & Be Kind Rewind-style “Sweded” versions of Criterion Collection films. One of the worst mistakes Me, Me, Me, & Me makes is constantly reminding you of better media you could be filling your time with: The 400 Blows, The Red Shoes, Modest Mouse, etc. The movie does find its own visual language & metaphorical exploration in objects like scissors, pillows, and hand-drawn, Criterion-themed DVD covers, but their significance amounts to little more than inside jokes. Most of what the film accomplishes visually has been done before, better & many times over.

Like when I saw b I of course got the nagging feeling that no matter how much enjoyment I could pull from this movie, there was going to be a very specific target audience who connected to it even more. The difference is that Dope was at the very least entertaining to an outsider, while this film will only be entertaining to Me and all the Me’s in the audience, whoever they are. All I can say at this point is that I didn’t particularly care whether or not Me got into college, which seemed to be the main point of the film, so I guess it was a failure overall & I very much look forward to never spending any more time or energy on Me in the future. Hats off to the other characters & members of the audience who have more patience for Me’s incessant pondering on the nature of Me. I just didn’t have it in me.

-Brandon Ledet

If You Enjoyed Dope (2015) You Should Double Back & Watch The Wood (1999)

Although the recent coming-of-age teen comedy Dope felt like the emphatic debut of a just-out-of-film school youngster (in terms of energy, not competence) it was actually the work of a director who’s been lurking in Hollywood for more than 15 years. In that time, Rick Famuyiwa has only been able to get four feature films off the ground, which, judging by the two I’ve seen, is a total shame. Famuyima has a smart, authentic, straightforward lens through which he examines youth & nostalgia, both in his most recent effort Dope & in his actual debut, a small-scale charmer made for MTV Films 15 years ago called The Wood.

The Wood & Dope have a lot in common besides the name in the director’s credit. While Dope is set in the present it looks back to 90s music & fashion for inspiration. The Wood splits its time between (the then present) 1999 & flashbacks to the 1980s, equally conscious of reconstructing the styles & sounds of a bygone era as Dope. The flashback chapters of The Wood are introduced through spinning vinyl records, Jheri curls are hilariously abundant, and the high school age protagonists wear clothes so dated that they’ve already had their vintage cool heyday and have gone back to tacky again. Both Dope & The Wood feature protagonists speaking directly to the audience, follow young teens getting into heaps of trouble trying to shed their virginity, happen to include a disgusting puke gag, and discuss the small changes of course that can turn a young nerd into a perceived-violent criminal in the particularly hazardous social minefield of Inglewood, California, where both movies are set. As if that weren’t enough of a solid connection, both films also feature a character named Stacey played by actor De’aundre Bondsl, who are ostensibly the same person (although Dope doesn’t make that connection explicit).

Of course, Dope & The Wood aren’t exact copies of each other and if I had to choose a favorite of the two, I’m inclined to lean towards the more energetic cartoonishness of Dope. The Wood does stand up quite well on its own, though, and helps to reveal a director with a keen eye for nostalgia & growing pains instead of the out-of-nowhere youngin’ with something to prove that I assumed directed Dope when I first saw the trailers. With these two films Famuyiwa establishes a genuine, confident voice that allows him to both tackle the intricacies of gang violence & the inconvenience of public boners. If you enjoyed Dope, I highly recommend giving The Wood a look for context. If you’ve already seen & enjoyed both, maybe just keep an eye out for Famuyiwa’s other films, both past & future. That’s what I plan on doing, anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

The DUFF (2015)


Every time a teen clique comedy is released it suffers by comparison to the towering examples that came before it. By now it’s pretty much been accepted that Heathers was the genre’s prime example of the 1980s, Clueless ruled the 90s, and Mean Girls stole the heart of the 2000s. But what of the current decade? What’s the 2010’s link in that evolutionary chain? Who will step up & take the teen clique torch? Although it’s received little love since its release I was pretty enamored with the 2013 sex comedy The To Do List. It was smart, crass, and above all hilarious, but that doesn’t seem like the exact logical choice. Set in the summer after high school (in the 90s), The To Do List was more concerned with the sexual self-discovery of one character instead of the hierarchal structure of an entire student body. If anything The To Do List was a descendent of the raunchy teen sex comedy, following films like Porky’s & American Pie, and probably the best example of that genre yet. So what of the teen clique flick?

Enter The DUFF. Much like with Heathers, Clueless, and Mean Girls, The DUFF’s main concern is how petty & mean-spirited high school hierarchies can be and just how easily they can be broken down. The only problem with its secession in that chain of teen clique media is that it is very conscious of updating the genre for the 2010s, instead of letting the connection happen naturally. Using cultural markers like YouTube, Instagram, and Tumblr, The DUFF is seemingly dating itself in its own time period on purpose. It also intentionally looks back & borrows so many tropes from high school teen comedies of the past that I’m tempted to say it’s doing it for a laugh. Not only is the protagonist tutoring The Hot Guy in exchange for a makeover that will reveal that their really is a beautiful girl under all the geekery, but there’s also a Big Dance at the end, the Hot Guy totally falls for her, AND she’s writing a big expose about the entire experience for the school paper. Instead of aping just one teen comedy trope, The DUFF goes all in and tries to capture every single one it can.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t funny or original in its own right. With a little help from the always-dependable Allison Janney & the frequently funny Ken Jeong, The DUFF star Mae Whitman has found herself a breakout role here. She is just so damn funny in this movie. After years of watching Whitman kill it in small background roles, (literally fading into the background in the case of Arrested Development), it’s refreshing to see her get so much screen time here. And she owns it. Even with all of the high school movie clichés determining a rigid structure for the film, Whitman finds a way to make it work. A lot of people will be understandably turned off by the idea of the wonderfully talented Whitman starring in a film with a title that translates to “The Designated Ugly Fat Friend”, but the term is treated as an ugly thing within the film and Whitman does not take that shit lying down. When it’s revealed that she is the DUFF of her social circle, less because she is “fat” or “ugly” (she’s not and the movie doesn’t try to make her out to be) and more because she’s a B-Movie dork who’s obsessed with folks like Vincent Price & Bela Lugosi, she strikes back. She breaks off from her group & attempts to find herself with the help of her dumb, hot jock neighbor & eventual love interest.

The meanness of the film’s title matches the meanness of high school in a lot of ways & the script has a smart way of making light of it. Whitman isn’t the only DUFF in the film. There are also goth DUFFs, car DUFFs, and all kinds of DUFFs really. Once the protagonist discovers what she’s believes herself to be seen as, she starts to see other DUFFs everywhere. Her path to self-discovery may be a mere collection of throwback genre clichés, but it’s a tried & true formula that mostly serves as a platform for an onslaught of hilarious jokes. Sure, Whitman gets a makeover she didn’t need (including a straight-faced trying-on-clothes-at-the-mall montage), but she also threatens to murder & castrate anyone who tries to block her path to getting the life & the boy she wants. She’s bullied online, threatened by peers, and told to accept her place, but none of it kills her spirit. In the long run it’s hard to tell if The DUFF will be remembered as a decedent of the Heathers & Mean Girls pedigree (it certainly didn’t make a huge splash at the box office) or of admirable, but lesser teen clique fare like She’s All That & Ten Things I Hate About You, but it’s an easy pick for the best candidate at least since 2010’s Easy A.

-Brandon Ledet