Movies Reviews

As Timeless as It Is Timely, ‘Eighth Grade’ Gives a Visceral Account of Adolescent Despair

Eighth Grade
Rated: R
Runtime: 1 hour 33 minutes
Director: Bo Burnham
Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, and Daniel Zolghadri

Independent film studio A24 continues to prove themselves the most consistent curators of “mainstream” indie films. With the immense critical successes of First Reformed (2018) and Hereditary (2018) already on record for this year, A24 is enjoying a stellar 2018 streak; and so it should come to no surprise that the increasingly prolific art-house studio’s third major theatrical release this year, Eighth Grade is yet another genre-masterpiece that will undoubtedly end being one of the best films of the year when all is said and done.

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) actively forces herself to overcome her social anxieties in new social interactions

Eighth Grade is written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham, who takes a more serious turn from his usual understated, yet wacky fare to tell the story of Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she struggles to navigate the socially perilous final days of eighth grade before becoming a high schooler. Like most coming-of-age films, Eighth Grade adopts a more Slice-of-Life narrative, so what the film ends up consisting of is a series of social situations in which Kayla tries her best to overcome the crippling social anxiety that she is so desperately trying to shed before the end of the school year. Kayla dabbles as an aspiring motivational YouTuber and so the film is structured by brief, intercut segments of Kayla’s uploads where she exposits, or affirms the personality traits she wished she had.

A good friend of me introduced me to Bo Burnham in our first year of high school with one of his early stand-ups, and even then I could pick up on the genuine sincerity behind his ironically sardonic on-stage personality. Here in his directorial debut, Burnham abandons the overtly comedic antics in favor of his foundational sense of empathy; so it’s not too surprising that his first feature film would touch on the psychological torment of growing up in a world that is always looking for every possible way to short-cut said empathy. Burnham does an excellent job of capturing the naturalisms of being in eighth grade and recalling what it felt like to be at that age at that time in our lives, which to me is the key dimensional aspect of the film that manifests in its end thesis. Kayla spends the duration effectively torturing herself to fit into the dream socialite mold we’re taught to strive for: confident, charismatic, materialistic, happy. Her motivational YouTube videos, despite her conscious intentions, serve not so much to entertain random viewers, for whom she has garnered virtually none, but to help her strive towards what she believes is the perfect person, despite that ideal being in direct conflict with makes her, her. Elsie Fisher does a fantastic job internalizing that anxious despair many of us experience(d) in middle school/high school, and so when we watch her attend a pool party with no friends and she makes that half-fulfilled attempt to open up against her strongest urges, we can feel that anxiety along with her because we’ve been there before too in our own ways.

Elsie Fisher expertly balances the naturalisms of an authentic modern teen with being a mostly charming and entertaining lead

There’s a devastating scene in the later half of the film involving Kayla and a male high-schooler that illustrates a reality that too often times goes unrecognized at a critical cost: the reality of our cult of domination and its casualties. Trying to grow into yourself in an increasingly volatile world is hard enough as is, but when in that same world the social hierarchies that innately foster domination and cruelty inform every interpersonal interaction in your life, that burden can become too much to bare, and when you’re least expecting it. Today, people cope with that reality by consuming self-help media in its various forms because it’s easier to change yourself than it is to change the world, which is true. But through that course there arises the new issue of how to change yourself to cope with the realities of an inconsiderate world, of what character models we should strive towards. That question, or more significantly its attempted answer, effectively establishes a new ideological hierarchy that only buttresses that initial domination dynamic for those whom the recommendation does not prove effective. Kayla’s YouTube channel in the film simply echoes a now-commodified-with-the-rise-of-social-media character ideal that, no matter how hard she tries, no matter how much she tortures herself, she never attains it because it is not compatible with what makes her, her, and so she is never satisfied with her existence.

By the end of the film, Burnham doesn’t presume to know the answer to social anxiety, but what he does instead I believe is even more valuable – he insists that you aren’t blamed, that you don’t need to hate yourself to makes changes in your life. Your life experience is unique to you and you alone, and so, only you can find a healthy means of enjoying life. This review is coming a bit after-the fact in terms of the film’s wide theatrical run, but it’s still playing in theaters here and there. So if you happen to live nearby a showing, please make it a priority to see it.


Movies Reviews

Tom Cruise Proves Once Again That “Real” Spectacle is King

Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 2 hours 27 minutes
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, and Rebecca Ferguson

The Mission: Impossible franchise has been making waves in the realm of action tentpoles since its fourth film, Ghost Protocol, hit theaters back in 2011. Ever since the now-iconic Burj Khalifa, Dubai building stunt in the 2011 sequel, each successive Mission: Impossible film has essentially been an implicit showcase of Tom Cruise’s real-life, death-defying stunts. This year’s Mission: Impossible sequel (Fallout) keeps the tradition going with an incredibly well-executed crowd-pleaser filled with insane action set-pieces and discernible stakes, but while it may put its contemporaries to shame in the action department, the new film isn’t quite bold enough to usurp the title of franchise-best, or even the year’s best.

henry cavill
August Walker (Cavill) is the latest newcomer to the ‘Mission: Impossible” family

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the sixth film in the series and is the first direct-sequel (to 2016’s Rogue Nation) in the franchise’s history. The film opens with a mission tasking Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) with retrieving three weapon-ready plutonium cores from an arms dealer before the Apostles, a remnant faction of the evil spy organization the Syndicate that was thwarted in the previous film, can obtain the cores and carry out nuclear attacks around the world. When things don’t go as planned and Ethan is forced to choose between his team’s survival and securing the objective, Ethan decides to save his friends and the nuclear material is lost to the bad guys. With active nukes now out in the world, Ethan must race against the clock to avert an impending attack. But with his initial failure looming, the CIA inserts an operative of their own, August Walker (Henry Cavill), into Ethan’s team to ensure that when the opportunity arises again, the plutonium will not escape their grasp again.

There’s been a lot of hoopla surrounding Mission: Impossible newcomer Henry Cavill, or more precisely, his facial hair. The Justice League saboteur – Cavill’s modestly burly stache – makes his highly-anticipated debut in Fallout as agent Augustus Walker, the wild card element and rival-to-Ethan Hunt in the film. Cavill brings a certain angry gravitas to his spy character, serving as a literal foil to Cruise’s character, who in this film is under a microscope as the story explores his character’s moral code in the context of the violence he’s often times threatened to commit in the name of preserving life. Cavill’s Walker exists in that ethical struggle, with his character being aptly introduced as the “hammer” to Hunt’s “scalpel.” Or at least this is what the film initially lets on to. While Mission: Impossible – Fallout is an amazing film, we can’t forget that it is still a Hollywood blockbuster; and while the recent behemoth Avengers: Infinity War was a bonafide blockbuster with the guts to subvert its own wheel-house in very bold ways, most blockbusters refuse to divert too far from the standard genre plot, something Fallout unfortunately suffers from.

As most viewers accustomed to the action/spy genre could probably predict, Cavill’s August Walker is not who he seems to be, and he ends up being who you likely predicted he would end up being. Usually when the typical action movie pulls this twist, the movie itself isn’t that great to begin with so it’s a lot easier to accept such a cliche narrative crutch. In a movie like Fallout however, such a twist does nothing but undermine the confidence of the underlying work as a whole. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) is another recent example of what I mean. In that film, Colin Farrell’s intriguing villain character turns out to be Johnny Depp using a face-morphing potion to conceal his true identity, cuing millions of eye rolls and disappointing sighs, because the character being played straight was interesting enough as he was. Henry Cavill as a righteous antagonist foil to Tom Cruise as he tries to thwart a nuclear attack is infinitely more interesting than what Fallout insists by the time the final act comes around. Once the film shows its hand and settles into a familiar mold, the only thing left to look forward to is the final act’s practically-done set piece, which is worth the price of admission alone.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is undeniably a tonal and technical master class in Western-action cinema, with the likes of The Dark Knight (2008) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), but a few too many frustratingly unnecessary narrative gimmicks ultimately diminish the film’s potential as a true modern masterpiece. Ghost Protocol is still the best Mission: Impossible, but Fallout is definitely must-see summer fare.