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)

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fourhalfstar

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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

Disturbing Behavior (1998)

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threehalfstar

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As I watched Disturbing Behavior for the very first time yesterday evening, something about it seemed strangely familiar. It didn’t take long for me to realize that it was quite similar to The Faculty, which was also released in 1998. In The Faculty, high school students are turned into aliens by their extraterrestrial faculty members and in Disturbing Behavior, high school students are turned into robots by their human faculty members. And, of course, each film has “the new kid in town” main character (typical for 90s teen flicks). After reading a couple of articles about the film, many compare it to The Stepford Wives (1975). I’m guessing this is due to the human to robot transformations, but that’s really the only connection I noticed. Despite all of the similarities it has to other films, Disturbing Behavior does a good job of standing out on its own. It’s campy sci-fi horror with a dash of high school drama, and I really enjoyed the film.

Steve Clark (James Marsden) and his family move to the small town of Cradle Bay after the tragic suicide of his older brother. Like all new kids, he immediately connects with a couple of outcasts at his new high school, Rachel Wagner (Katie Holmes) and Gavin Strick (Nick Stahl). As the film progresses, some “disturbing behavior” begins to occur in the group known as the Blue Ribbons, a clique of popular kids decked out in letterman jackets. With the help of a wacky janitor, Steve and Rachel find out the horrific secret behind the Blue Ribbons and attempt to stop their reign of terror.

It’s always great to see Holmes in a “bad girl” role since she’s best known for being the girl next door in Dawson’s Creek. I really enjoyed her in this film because she is great at pulling off the “misunderstood teen” look and attitude, and the chemistry between her and Marsden is pretty damn hot. She starred in the music video for The Flys’ hit single, “Got You (Where I Want You),” and I always assumed she was selected to be in the video because she was a pretty big teen idol during the time it was released. It turns out that the song made its debut on the Disturbing Behavior soundtrack (it plays in the opening scene and during the credits), so that’s probably the reason she was in the video. Mystery solved!

Viewing Disturbing Behavior through a critical lens makes it a horrible viewing experience, and that’s because it’s not a film that should be taken seriously. It’s loads of mindless fun and totally worth a watch or two.

-Britnee Lombas