Eighth Grade

(USA 2018)

“The topic of today’s video is being yourself.”

“Growing up can be a little bit scary and weird.”

— Kayla Day

Eighth grade was the worst year of my life — I hated everything about it: my shitty peers, my changing body, the high school application process. I never looked back once I got out.

It’s probably no big shock then that my favorite movie taking on the horrors and inequities of middle school is Todd Solondz’s darkly hilarious and biting — yet somehow sympathetic — Welcome to the Dollhouse. Dawn Wiener is a hero of sorts to me (really). With Eighth Grade, writer / director Bo Burnham traverses the same treacherous terrain — he even starts down a similar, cynical path as Solondz. He swiftly takes it somewhere else, though, allowing Eighth Grade to tell its own story.

Young teenager Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), who’s finishing her final week of eighth grade, leads a double life. She posts self-recorded inspirational videos on YouTube, encouraging viewers to do things like be themselves, choose confidence, and put themselves out there to improve their lot in life.

Sadly, she’s nothing like her YouTube persona at school. Kayla is struggling to fit in, discouraged by the classmates she cyberstalks, some of whom she even approaches in person. She has no friends. No one notices her. She wins a “superlative” award — one of those dubious “most whatever” designations voted by peers — for being the quietest girl student. Aiden (Luke Prael), the guy she’s crushing on, wins “best eyes;” her low mumbled “Nice job” doesn’t even register when he walks past her desk to collect his prize (although she eventually gets his attention when she lies about having nude pics on her phone and giving good blowjobs, but that’s another point).

Fair or not, Kayla takes out her anxiety and frustration on her hapless single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton). He doesn’t quite know how to deal with it.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

After she manages to recover from an anxiety attack at a disastrous pool party, Kayla is paired with Olivia (Emily Robinson), a big sisterly high school senior, to shadow for a day. They hit it off, which Kayla didn’t see coming — nor did I. Olivia invites Kayla out with her friends. Kayla’s sixth grade self emerges to push her toward a light she suddenly sees at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

There’s a lot to like about Eighth Grade, which easily could’ve been another teen movie — comedy or drama — that dredges up everything awful about being a teenager just for the sake of revisiting how awful it can be. Burnham nails the multiple forms that adolescent cruelty takes, but he doesn’t stop there. Instead, he takes his film to a positive place. His tone is never condescending. He doesn’t make light of Kayla’s dilemmas — clearly, they’re matters of life or death to her. He makes them important to us.

It’s a joy watching Kayla figure out that things really do get better — even in the face of a jarringly confusing incident involving one of Olivia’s friends (Daniel Zolghadri). Fisher is perfect in her role, zits and all. She shines especially with the little details — her expressions, her awkward movements, and all her likes, ums, and you-knows. She recalls Dawn Wiener without all the cartoonish flourishes.

It sounds hokey, but you really do want to applaud when Kayla finally gets it, like when she tears into two classmates, mean girls Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) and Steph (Nora Mullins), in one totally brilliant scene. Or when she accepts an invitation to hang out with dorky Gabe (Jake Ryan, who amusingly happens to have the same name as Molly Ringwald’s crush in Sixteen Candles) after he strikes up a conversation with her in the pool — and actually follows up with her.

To a degree, Eighth Grade echoes Welcome to the Dollhouse, intentionally or not. One big thing that sets it apart is its rosy ending — it’s hopeful. That’s a very good thing. Gucci!

With Jake Ryan, Fred Hechinger, Imani Lewis, Gerald W. Jones, Missy Yager, Shacha Temirov, Greg Crowe, Thomas J O’Reilly, Frank Deal, J. Tucker Smith, Tiffany Grossfeld, David Shih, Trinity Goscinsky-Lynch, Natalie Carter, Kevin R. Free, Deborah Unger, Marguerite Stimpson

Production: A24

Distribution: A24

93 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B

http://eighthgrade.movie

My Friend Dahmer

(USA 2017)

“You don’t have to suffer to be a poet,” said writer John Ciardi. “Adolescence is enough suffering for anyone.” Even the most notorious evildoer was once just a kid, and infamous cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is no exception. My Friend Dahmer portrays him as a gawky teenage reject struggling to find a place where he fits.

Bath, Ohio, in the mid-1970s: young Jeff (Ross Lynch) is a high school freshman who lives with his parents, chemist Lionel (Dallas Roberts) and Joyce (Anne Heche), and his little brother, Dave (Liam Koeth). It’s a normal middle class nuclear existence, except for his mother’s mental illness, his parents’ bickering, and his odd pastime of collecting roadkill and dissolving the carcasses in a vat of acid his father gave him. There’s also his obsession with a rather bearish jogger (Vincent Kartheiser) Jeff frequently sees running past his house.

Jeff’s not making it at school, where his classmates look past him, probably because he’s so fucking weird. Out of apparent fearful concern for his loner son, Lionel demands that Jeff make some friends after he discovers a collection of bones stashed away in Jeff’s hideout in the woods.

Jeff fakes an epileptic seizure in the cafeteria at school and attracts the attention of Derf Backderf (Alex Wolff) and his friends, Neil (Tommy Nelson) and Mike (Harrison Holzer), who get a kick out of him and his antics. They start hanging out with Jeff and form “The Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club,” a front for pulling pranks because they can get Jeff to do anything — even finagling a meeting with Vice President Walter Mondale (Tom Luce) on a class trip to Washington, D.C.

Jeff seems to be connecting to others for the first time, but his disintegrating home life throws off his progress.

Adapted from Cleveland artist Derf Backderf’s graphic novel, screenwriter and director Marc Meyers eschews gore and focuses on psychology, examining what may have happened to send Dahmer where he ended up. His approach is surprisingly empathetic and understanding without making excuses. Backderf offers unique insight that Meyers uses wisely. The acting, particularly that of Lynch and Wolff, lends a sensitivity that initially might seem unwarranted if not unworthy of the subject. The story here is sad, really: no gore, no murders, just a weird kid whose home life is falling apart.

My Friend Dahmer is a mix of teen comedy and tragedy that ends immediately before his first murder. It’s much better than I anticipated.

With Adam Kroloff, Brady M.K. Dunn, Michael Ryan Boehm, Cameron McKendry, Jake Ingrassia, Ben Zgorecki, Kris Smith, Jack DeVillers, Gabriela Novogratz, Miles Robbins, Joey Vee, Susan Bennett, Maryanne Nagel, Andrew Gorell, Katie Stottlemire, Carmen Gangale, Sydney Jane Meyer, Dave Sorboro, Denny Sanders

Production: Ibid Filmworks, Aperture Entertainment, Attic Light Films

Distribution: FilmRise, Altitude Film Entertainment

107 minutes
Rated R

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B

http://www.myfrienddahmerthemovie.com/#1

Lady Bird

(USA 2017)

“You should just go to City College. You know, with your work ethic, just go to City College and then to jail and then back to City College. And then maybe you’d learn to pull yourself up and not expect everybody to do everything.”

— Marion McPherson

“Lady Bird always says that she lives in on the wrong side of the tracks, but I always thought that that was like a metaphor, but there are actual train tracks.”

— Danny

“You’re going to have so much unspecial sex in your life.”

— Kyle

Lady Bird is not Greta Gerwig’s first time directing; she codirected an earlier film, Nights and Weekends, in 2008. I never heard of that one. However, Lady Bird is her first solo gig, as well as her first hit. I wanted to catch it at the Chicago International Film Festival, but it was impossible to get tickets.

I’ve now seen it in its commercial release. Saoirse Ronan is Christine McPherson, an angsty, unpopular, and rather nerdy but self-assured Catholic high school senior who’s christened herself “Lady Bird.” She lives in a modest home literally “on the wrong side of the tracks” with her parents, her underachiever older brother (Jordan Rodrigues) who graduated from a “good” university but still works as a cashier in a grocery store, and his wife (Marielle Scott).

Christine wants a bigger life than the one she has in Sacramento, and she plans to get it by going away to college. Her perpetually crabby mother (Laurie Metcalf) is not exactly supportive, and her disposition gets worse when her father (Tracy Letts) loses his job.

Set in 2002, Lady Bird is a string of funny and touching episodes about growing up in a lower middle class Catholic home: sex, fitting in, rebellion, and of course Catholicism. I laughed out loud, and did so a lot. Gerwig wrote and directed it, and it’s a solid film even it rings a little familiar. She’s more observant of her characters’ behavior than creating some big dramatic experience. Lady Bird is structured like a lot of teen comedies I’ve seen before, but the acting is good enough to elevate it to a higher level and make it a bit more interesting. More adult, too.

As some friends have pointed out, the main character — Christine — is a refreshing break from the Hollywood archetype of a teenage girl we’ve all seen for more than 30 years now: she’s not a mean girl, a witch, or a slut. This is true, and a big plus here. Still, as much as I enjoyed Lady Bird, I don’t get the awards buzz over it.

With Danny O’Neill, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Odeya Rush, John Karna, Jake McDorman, Bayne Gibby, Laura Marano, Fr. Paul Keller, Myra Turley, Bob Stephenson, Joan Patricia O’Neill, Carla Valentine, Roman Arabia

Production: Scott Rudin Productions, Entertainment 360, IAC Films

Distribution: A24 (USA), Elevation Pictures (Canada), United International Pictures (UIP) (international), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (international)

94 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B

http://ladybird.movie

Call Me by Your Name

(Italy / USA / France / Brazil 2017)

“Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine.”

— Oliver

Very seldom does a film leaves me speechless, but that’s just what Call Me by Your Name did. For me, it’s one of this year’s most unexpected cinematic pleasures.

Set during the summer of 1983, precocious and solitary 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is spending another summer with his parents at their Italian villa. It looks like business as usual — reading, writing, and playing piano — until ruggedly handsome and tan American graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer) shows up. Oliver, with his penchant for being overly casual (particularly with his use of “later” to bid farewell) and his love of the Psychedelic Furs, will be staying in Elio’s room for the summer while working as an intern for Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor who’s finishing up a book.

Wow. Director Luca Guadagnino hits the nail right on the head on so many things he gets at here: the perversity of male adolescence, the confusion of sexual awakening and lost innocence, the single-mindedness of desire, the thrill and frustration of seduction, and the agony of loss, all of it before a gorgeous and sunny Italian backdrop. He’s sensitive to the subject matter, which centers on sexuality, but he doesn’t cheapen the story or its characters. It’s a tricky feat.

The pace may be frustrating at times. However, being an act of seduction itself, Call Me by Your Name is nonetheless erotic, intimate, honest, and ultimately heartbreaking. That’s an awful lot to fit into one film, but Guadagnino does it, and he does it exceptionally well. It helps that he recruits excellent actors, particularly Chalamet, who brings a credible vulnerability to his character. The final scene is beautifully simple, effective, and hard to watch even while the credits roll.

I had a remarkably similar experience as Elio when I was barely 18 years old. Call Me by Your Name is more romantic, but seeing it play out reminded me of someone from my own past. I never go back and read a book after seeing its film adaptation, but I’m compelled to read André Aciman’s novel now.

With Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois, Vanda Capriolo, Antonio Rimoldi, Elena Bucci, Marco Sgrosso, André Aciman, Peter Spears

Production: Frenesy Film Company, La Cinéfacture, RT Features, Water’s End Productions

Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics

132 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) A-

http://sonyclassics.com/callmebyyourname/mobile/

The Last American Virgin

(USA 1982)

“Are you here to interview me or to fuck me?”

— Ruby

It was decades ago — probably the ‘80s — the last time I saw low budget ’80s cable classic The Last American Virgin. I recently noticed it in the “free movies” queue on…where else, cable. I had to know whether it was as good as I remembered.

An odd mix of other teen movies from its day — think of Porky’s and Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Losin’ It and Valley Girl all rolled into one — it isn’t something I imagine being made today, not even as a remake. The Last American Virgin starts out all fun and games — centered on sex, of course — but abruptly takes a dark turn about halfway through. Subject matter aside, it ends on a brutally cynical note that leaves one pondering: what exactly is writer and director Boaz Davidson saying here?

None of this is a gripe; on the contrary, it’s an asset that puts The Last American Virgin in a class of its own. Kudos for that.

Gary (Lawrence Monoson) is a Los Angeles high school student. When he’s not delivering pizzas in a ridiculous pink Grand Prix (or similar late ‘70s car), he and his hornball friends Rick (Steve Antin), the cute one, and David (Joe Rubbo), the fat one, are constantly trying to get laid.

Their antics are pretty funny. They pick up three duds at a hamburger joint and snort Sweet ‘N’ Low with them when a party they promise doesn’t happen and the girls want drugs. They wind up together in the apartment of a horny Mexican woman of a certain age (Louisa Moritz) whose sailor boyfriend (Roberto Rodriquez) is away, and she wants all three of them. Later, they get crabs from a bossy Hollywood hooker (Nancy Brock). A dick measuring contest in the school locker room is, well, uncomfortably hot. Somehow, sex happens easily for Rick and David. Not Gary, though: he’s either too nice or too scared.

At school, Gary meets a new girl, Karen (Diane Franklin). He crushes on her, hard. Too bad she’s into Rick, which causes friction: a bizarre love triangle develops, and it doesn’t end well. In fact, it reaches a boiling point by winter break.

I never knew The Last American Virgin is a remake of Davidson’s 1978 Israeli film Eskimo Limon. He fucking nails it with his depiction of jealousy — better than most films do. It’s hard to watch Gary’s hatred for Rick grow stronger while they’re running around getting into trouble together. Monoson’s acting is good, and so is Franklin’s. Their scenes together are the best this movie has to offer. I would be remiss to mention that for such a minor role, Kimmy Robertson really shines as Karen’s wacky friend Rose, who seems like Katy Perry’s secret inspiration.

The Last American Virgin has its unimpressive moments, but it’s hardly a write-off. Overall, it’s held up well. Sure, it falls into nostalgia, but beyond its soundtrack it’s more memorable for its characters, its plot, and its unexpected turn. It certainly isn’t what it appears to be.

With Brian Peck, Tessa Richarde, Winifred Freedman, Gerri Idol, Sandy Sprung, Paul Keith, Harry Bugin, Phil Rubenstein, Julianna McCarthy, Mel Welles

Production: Golan-Globus Productions

Distribution: Cannon Film Distributors (USA), Citadel Films (Canada)

92 minutes
Rated R

(Impact) B

Four Letter Words

(USA 2000)

With The Florida Project (https://moviebloke.com/2017/10/03/the-florida-project/), Sean Baker sparked my curiosity in his work. Big time. Sure, I heard of him and caught an earlier film, Tangerine (https://moviebloke.com/2015/07/28/tangerine/), before that. Now, though, I’m practically obsessed with seeing what else he’s done, more than any other director in recent memory. For my latest foray into Baker, I went back to Four Letter Words, his first feature film.

Truly a show about nothing, Four Letter Words takes place at the end of a house party in suburban Los Angeles. It’s 3:30 a.m. Art (Fred Berman), who’s in his second or third year of college —  and on his third or fourth major — is home from school and threw a get-together at his parents’ house, inviting his BFFs from high school. It’s clear that it’s time for everyone to go but he doesn’t want to be alone.

Baker’s style is very much ‘90s DIY. Four Letter Words feels a lot like early Richard Linklater or Kevin Smith, loaded with naturalistic dialogue and rants mostly about sex, slacker characters, dumb antics, and mundane events that transpire over the course of an hour or so.

Baker explores the outlook of suburban men in their 20s. Four Letter Words isn’t revolutionary or terribly insightful. It’s neither a major work nor required viewing, but it’s mildly interesting because it shows what draws him in.

With David Ari, Henry Beylin, Darcy Bledsoe, Edward Coyne, Matthew Dawson, Thomas Donnarumma, Loren Ecker, Karren Karagulian, Robyn Parsons, David Prete, Matthew Maher, Vincent Radwinsky, Susan Stanley, Jay Thames, Artyom Trubnikov, Paul Weissman

Production: Vanguard

Distribution: littlefilms

82 minutes
Not rated

(DVD purchase) C-

http://www.littlefilms.com/home.htm

Mon Mon Mon Monsters [Bào Gào Lǎo Shī! Guài Guài Guài Guài Wù!]

(Taiwan 2017)

In his latest film, peer pressure horror comedy Mon Mon Mon Monsters [報告老師! 怪怪怪怪物!] [Bào Gào Lǎo Shī! Guài Guài Guài Guài Wù!], writer/director Giddens Ko takes us on a wild ride that leaves us pondering who the real mosters are. He subtly gives us his answer in the title.

High school student Lin Shu-wei (Deng Yu-kai) is a neo maxi zoom dweebie with a masochistic edge. Why else would he tolerate the constant flying bits of paper, chairs pulled out from under him, and general teenage tomfoolery directed at him?

Lin becomes the target of Bully Ren-hao (Kent Tsai), a closet psychopath who relentlessly dreams up new ways to torment him. Ren-hao has two flunkies, Liao Kuo-feng (James Lai) and Yeh Wei-chu (Tao Meng) who do his bidding. Ren-hao’s girlfriend, Wu Si-hua (Bonnie Liang), contributes to the hell — never removing her star-studded headset as she snaps photos with her iPhone.

A pacificst teacher (Carolyn Chen) has an idea to get the boys on common ground: she assigns the four of them to community service feeding senile elderlies at a decrepit old age home that looks like something straight out of Blade Runner. Lin has a bad feeling about it, and he’s right: in the process of robbing an old man, the boys corner and capture a flesh-eating female beast (Lin Pei-hsin) they find roaming around.

They take her to an abandoned recreation center, where they chain her up and torture her with light, fire, and starvation. Lin reluctantly goes along with it, but he reaches a point where he either has to put up or shut up. Meanwhile, the beast’s protective and pissed off older sister (Eugenie Liu) is looking for her. This is where Lin is put to the test: does he have any character, and can he stay true to it?

Despite inconsistent pacing, Mon Mon Mon Monsters is overall engaging. Ko has something to say about the moral fabric of today’s youth, but he says it in a mostly lighthearted way. The acting is solid all around, which is pretty amazing for a slasher flick. The “monsters” are sweet in their own way. It’s smart to show them right off the bat rather than let us wonder what they look like; they come off as more human than the teenagers in this movie.

The special effects are pretty good, and the way Ko plays with light and color is downright spectacular. Quite a few scenes here are magnificent even if they’re cheesy and gory (that scene on the bus is fabulous, as are the scene where the teacher ignites in the gym and pretty much any of the scenes in the recreation center). Underneath all the blood and hate is a truth about the social ladder.

With Kai Ko, Vivian Sung, Emerson Tsai, Phil Hou, Bruce Hung 

Production: Star Ritz International Entertainment

Distribution: Vie Vision Pictures

113 Minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) B-

Chicago International Film Festival

They

(USA / Qatar 2017)

“You’ll never be a girl. You’re not a boy. So you’re probably nothing.”

— J

Writer/director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s debut feature film They delicately tells the story of J (Rhys Fehrenbacher), a quiet suburban Chicago teen transitioning from male to female. Along with therapy sessions and physician consultations for “puberty blocking” drugs and “bone density” test results, J is processing the social and psychological implications of their change. We know it’s happening, but we see it in action when J puts on a dress and goes outside, or when he explains to others how to make an introduction to a stranger and which pronoun to use (“they,” hence the title).

The process is awkward, particularly when older sister, Lauren (Nicole Coffineau), brings her fiancé, Araz (Koohyar Hosseini), home to meet the family. With mom (Norma Moruzzi) away caring for an aunt who has early onset dimentia, J is left to deal alone. Meeting Araz’s Iranian family in the suburbs seems to be a reckoning for J.

If nothing else, They is visually arresting, artfully shot with georgeous pans and closeups of buildings, walls, plants, and flowers. Ghazvinizadeh plays with reflections on glass and uses a muted color pallet that nicely underscores J’s fluid state of mind. It sets just the right tone: hazy and dreamy.

That said, both the narrative and the character development in They fall short. I’m not sure Lauren and Azaz are necessary, and I certainly don’t have more than a passing sense of who they are or why they’re here. The dinner at Araz’s family is dropped in clumsily, throwing off the trajectory of the story. The focus gradually and inexplicably shifts away from J, which I found strange.

Watching They feels voyeuristic, which isn’t a bad thing in itself. However, it feels like an obstacle — a transparent partition — keeps me from getting too close to the characters. That’s a shame because this is a film that demands an amount of intimacy that simply isn’t accommodated. On top of that, the actors’ naturalistic performances meander quite a bit, which made me zone out at times.

Overall, They could have been a much more powerful statement. Still, it’s a decent effort even with its shortcomings and a few dull parts.

With Diana Torres, Evan Gray, Drew Sheil, Leyla Mofleh, Mohammad Aghebati, Alma Sinai, Arian Naghshineh, Ava Naghshineh, Aerik Jahangiri, Farid Kossari, Kaveh Ehsani, Robert Garofalo, Eric Fehrenbacher, Vicki Sheil

Production: Mass Ornament Films

Distribution: N/A

Screening introduced by Anahita Ghazvinizadeh and followed by a live Q and A with Ghazvinizadeh, Rhys Fehrenbacher, and Rob Garofalo

80 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) C-

Chicago International Film Festival

https://www.massornament.com/they

Funeral Parade of Roses [Bara no Sōretsu]

(Japan 1969)

Funeral Parade of Roses [薔薇の葬列] is an intriguing film for a few reasons. Clearly influenced by the French New Wave, writer and director Toshio Matsumoto comes up with something simultaneously ordinary yet avant-garde, very much a product of its time yet years ahead. It’s extraordinarily cool.

Structured as a movie within a movie, Funeral Parade of Roses follows Tokyo “gay boy” Eddie (Pîtâ a.k.a. Peter) through his many exploits as a young transvestite immersed in the underground club scene. He might even be a hooker. Meanwhile, he’s carrying on a secret affair with Jimi (Yoshimi Jô), the boyfriend of club elder statesperson and fellow gay boy Leda (Osamu Ogasawara). Leda is onto them. Oh, the drama it creates!

While all this is going on, a camera crew records Eddie as though this were The Real World or Truth or Dare.

As Eddie ponders who he is — and looks to alcohol, group sex, drugs, and lots of attention from others for answers — Matsumoto explores “queer identity” through him. He intersperses interviews, flashbacks, episodes with Eddie’s mother (Emiko Azuma), and even a musical diversion or two to offer clues. A crazy subplot develops, and it references Oedipus in a tacky and sad but clever way.

Clumsy in its exploration of “gay life” and downright disturbing at points, Funeral Parade of Roses is nonetheless fun to watch. Shot in gorgeous black and white, it has an otherworldly feel. When it’s not nihilistic, it’s kitschy and entertaining — almost in a nascent John Waters way, just not quite as rough. The clothes are mod. The music is heavy on classical. The ending, sudden and bloody, is really messed up.

I’m not sure what exactly Matsumoto is saying here — a lot is open to interpretation — or that I agree with him. Either way, I enjoyed the journey.

With Yoshio Tsuchiya, Toyosaburo Uchiyama, Don Madrid, Koichi Nakamura, Chieko Kobayashi, Shōtarō Akiyama, Kiyoshi Awazu, Flamenco Umeji, Saako Oota, Tarô Manji, Mikio Shibayama, Wataru Hikonagi, Fuchisumi Gomi, Yô Satô, Keiichi Takenaga, Hôsei Komatsu

Production: Art Theatre Guild, Matsumoto Production Company

Distribution: Art Theatre Guild, Image Forum (Japan), Cinelicious Pics (USA)

105 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B+

Drugstore Cowboy

(USA 1989)

“You won’t fuck me and I always have to drive.”

— Dianne Hughes

“If I ever see a hat on a bed in this house, man, like you’ll never see me again. I’m gone.”

“Show time!”

“Well, to begin with, nobody, and I mean nobody, can talk a junkie out of using. You can talk to ’em for years but sooner or later they’re gonna get ahold of something. Maybe it’s not dope. Maybe it’s booze, maybe it’s glue, maybe it’s gasoline. Maybe it’s a gunshot to the head. But something. Something to relieve the pressures of their everyday life, like having to tie their shoes.”

— Bob Hughes

“Narcotics have been systematically scapegoated and demonized. The idea that anyone can use drugs and escape a horrible fate is anathema to these idiots. I predict in the near future right-wingers will use drug hysteria as a pretext to set up an international police apparatus.”

— Fr. Murphy

I love everything about Drugstore Cowboy, the first film I ever saw by director Gus Van Sant. It’s the one that I view as his gold standard even after nearly 30 years. Funny, touching, and insightful in ways that have to be seen, it speaks to me. It probably always will. It’s a rare film that has it all: flawlessly executed from start to finish, it’s totally absorbing and entertaining yet still makes its points in a way that hits hard even after seeing it dozens of times.

Bad Bobby Hughes (Matt Dillon) — or just “Bob” — is the first one to tell you he’s a junkie. He and his wife, Dianne (Kelly Lynch), lead a small nomadic “crew” that consists of Rick (James LeGros) and his young girlfriend, Nadine (Heather Graham). The four of them spend their days getting high and devising elaborate — and amusing — schemes to rob drugs from pharmacies and hospitals. Then they go out and execute their mission.

Once they’ve made a score, they do the drugs they like, sell the ones they don’t, hang out doing little more than watching TV, and move onto another neighborhood somewhere else in Portland, Oregon, when they’ve either run out or overstayed their welcome, whichever comes first.

They’ve repeated the cycle so many times that cocky Detective Gentry (James Remar) and his men are on their trail. Bob manages to stay a step ahead, but it’s getting tougher. He sees that his luck is running out — and it’s not just because of the hex that Nadine inadvertently put on them by mentioning a dog (one thing about Bob: he’s a bit superstitious).

To outrun one such hex — and more realistically, because Bob runs out of ideas and doesn’t know what to do next — they hit the road, stuffing their drug stash in suitcases, shipping them on Greyhound buses, and following them by car. A string of bad luck and bad outcomes presents Bob with an epiphany — and a choice.

With both humor and compassion, Van Sant — and for his part, Dillon — tells a moving and curiously relatable story about people who aren’t necessarily bad, but they’ve allowed their lives to drift away from them. Here, it’s for drugs. They don’t always do the right thing, and often the members of this little family of outcasts are each other’s worst enemies. But they’re realistic. Dillon makes Bob so likable that I find myself rooting for him even when he’s making bad choices; despite his flaws, I like him enough that I can see myself having fun with him.

Drugstore Cowboy easily could’ve been a very different movie. It works because it’s not preachy or judgmental or hyperbolic. Based on a novel by real-life criminal and addict James Fogle (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Fogle), Van Sant and Daniel Yost’s screenplay eschews melodrama for a decidedly objective and almost clinical approach, showing the joys of drugs in some visually well constructed sequences as well as the cost of addiction. The film does an excellent job showing how much work it is to maintain a habit. Throughout the movie, Dillon’s narration keeps the story grounded. Van Sant never sells out his characters’ humanity.

It doesn’t hurt that this film is loaded with spectacular performances all around, including those of Grace Zabriskie as Bob’s battleworn mother and William S. Burroughs as disgraced priest and fellow addict Fr. Tom Murphy. Robert Yeoman’s cinematography gives Drugstore Cowboy a drab, threadbare look that works well with Elliot Goldenthal’s moody score. Every element comes together to make this a truly remarkable film, definitely one of my favorites.

With Max Perlich, George Catalano, Janet Baumhover, Stephen Rutledge, Beah Richards, Robert Lee Pitchlynn, Ray Monge, Woody

Production: Avenue Pictures

Distribution: Avenue Pictures Productions (USA), Astral Films (Canada), Forum Distribution (France), Sandrew Film & Teater (Sweden), GAGA Communications (Japan)

102 minutes
Rated R

(MoviePlex) A+