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

Sixteen Candles

(USA 1984)

“I can’t believe this. They fucking forgot my birthday!”

—Samantha

It’s not a good day for Samantha (Molly Ringwald). Her entire family, including both sets of grandparents, totally forget her birthday—her “sweet sixteen,” no less. Everyone is focused on her older sister, Ginny (Blanche Baker), who is getting married to oily bohunk Rudy (John Kapelos) tomorrow. A sex questionnaire she fills out and thinks she passes to her friend Randy (Liane Curtis) during class is missing—and she admitted in it that she’d gladly lose her v-card to dreamboat senior Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling). Jake doesn’t know she exists—or so she believes. A freshman geek who calls himself “Farmer Ted” (Anthony Michael Hall) puts the moves on her while taking the bus home. Her grandfather Fred (Max Showalter) calls her boobs tiny while her grandmother Helen (Carole Cook) grabs them because “they’re so perky.” She’s coerced into taking a Chinese exchange student, Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), to a dance that evening—where she runs into Jake and Farmer Ted, the latter of whom ends up with her underpants. To top it off, she has to sleep on the couch because her grandparents are using her bedroom.

I’m a sucker for teen movies, maybe because deep inside I’m still a teen or wish I still was. Either way, I love John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles for all its goofiness, crude humor, and heart. Ringwald owns Samantha, a different and very Gen X kind of heroine: she’s angsty, gutsy, and fun. Plus, she has substance. Samantha liberally uses the F word, yet she wants all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas. She’s totally relatable—in fact, she reminds me of a dear friend (I’m talking to you, Michelle) in this film. I want the Bow Wow Wow and Culture Club posters on her bedroom walls. Likewise, Hall owns Farmer Ted, a different and very Gen X kind of dork: he’s got personality, and he dreams big. Things works out for him in the end, I guess.

One of the best scenes is an exchange between Samantha and Farmer Ted in a parked car inside a shop classroom. In typical Hughes fashion, the two talk and discover that they’re not so alien. I love what’s pretty much Jami Gertz’s only lines, indignantly and drunkenly slurred at a party to a guy off camera while she catches on a banister a string of pearls around her neck: “I’m sorry, I don’t do that!” When her drunk friend next to her mumbles that she does, Gertz snickers, “I know!” Seeing a baby John Cusack as a nerd (this was only his second appearance in a film) is special. The wedding is awesome, but the final scene in which Samantha finally gets Jake still sends chills up my spine—“If You Were Here” by Thompson Twins plays while car after car drives away, ultimately revealing him standing there across the street from the church. It’s downright magical.

Sixteen Candles has its dubious elements—Long Duk Dong smacks of racism, the word “faggot” is a bit too casually pervasive, and the appearance of Farmer Ted taking advantage of Caroline (Haviland Morris) when she’s passed out is creepy despite portraying it in a relatively innocent and humorous light. I can’t help but wonder whether these flaws detract from the film when viewing it through the lens of the present. I hope not—Sixteen Candles is a classic fairy tale that never gets old for me.

93 minutes
Rated PG

(Home via iTunes) B+

Pretty in Pink

(USA 1986)

Being a full-fledged child of the Eighties—I entered the decade at 9 years old and came out of it at 19—John Hughes spoke to me. Naturally, his teen movies (before he started aiming for Millennials with drivel like Home Alone and Curly Sue) hold a special place in my heart. It seems strange then that even though I played the soundtrack so many times I had to replace it twice, I never saw Pretty in Pink from start to finish. So, when a theater near me screened it to commemorate the 30th anniversary, I thought, “fuckin’ A, why not?”

Andie Walsh (Molly Ringwald) is a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Her mother abandoned her and her father (Harry Dean Stanton), who’s lost in sorrow because of it. Andie attends an apparently elite high school mainly for “richies”—poor girl slang for “rich kids.” Prom is looming, and no one has asked Andie, something she laments to her boss (Annie Potts) at the record store where she works. One of the aforementioned “richies”—Blane (Andrew McCarthy)—suddenly takes an interest in Andie, sparking jealousy and resistance from Duckie (John Cryer), Andie’s buddy since childhood, and Steff (James Spader), Blane’s best friend. Things get ugly when Blane asks Andie to be his date to the prom—uglier than that homemade dress she wears to it.

Hughes went for something a little more dramatic and maybe mature than what he had done up to this point. Nice try, but no cigar: Pretty in Pink doesn’t totally suck, but it’s not one of his better movies. The acting is good, particularly the scenes with Ringwald and Potts. However, the plot—poor girl meets rich boy—was a cliché even at the time. Hughes himself explored the idea of class and social hierarchy many times before in more interesting and thoughtful ways. The writing lacks the punch of, say, Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club. The characters, even Duckie, are colorful but hollow compared to other Hughes films. I found it hard to relate to any of them. Even the alternate ending—Andie ends up with Duckie—is no improvement.

Perhaps its worst flaw is that Pretty in Pink is not one bit fun—it lacks the wit that marks a John Hughes films from this period. The subject matter is heavy, and there’s too much going on that weighs down the story—the business, for example, with Andie’s missing mother and having to coach her father back into reality coupled with the hate she and Blane face from their respective friends give Pretty in Pink a dour vibe. There’s a palpable cynicism that doesn’t work because it comes off as bitter. On top of that, there’s far less comic relief from the sidelines—Potts does her job here, but Cryer is more annoying than funny. Sure, there are some nice moments and a few good lines, but that’s it. Hughes hadn’t lost his touch—Ferris Bueller’s Day Off came out later the same year—but Pretty in Pink is a drag.

All that said, no movie from the Eighties is complete without a soundtrack—and Pretty in Pink was a great one. When my music vocabulary was culled from pop radio and MTV, it introduced me to stuff I otherwise would have missed. I still listen to it today; in fact, I’m going to put it on now.

(AMC River East) C-