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

Storytelling

(USA 2001)

 

“I just thought Marcus would be different. I mean, he’s got C.P.”

—Vi

I get why Todd Solondz doesn’t appeal to everyone: his outlook isn’t warm and fuzzy, his characters aren’t heroic or even admirable, and his blunt, unflattering and brutal honesty is easy to misinterpret as cruel or tasteless. To all that, I shrug; his films don’t put the viewer at ease, and that’s exactly what draws me to him. A master of the uncomfortable, he shines a light on subjects that are hard to discuss in mixed company if not off limits altogether. And he’s not moralistic about it—he leaves it to the viewer to arrive at his or her own conclusions. His moral ambiguity is perhaps the strongest characteristic of his work, and I suspect it more than anything makes people cringe because, well, it’s confusing. They don’t know what to think.

So be it. Barring one scene in Happiness that scarred me forever, Solondz’s fourth film, Storytelling, is probably his most uncomfortable—it opens with Vi (Selma Blair) riding Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick, who played Telly in Kids), a classmate crippled from cerebral palsy. Comprised of two unconnected storylines, “Fiction” and “Non Fiction,” Solondz pulls out a broad range of societal taboos—American ones, anyway. I won’t go through them here like a grocery list, but they all involve sex and/or abuse of power.

Side note: Censorship is an unintended subject—a big red block obscures one scene in the U.S. release. It wasn’t planned that way, but rather came about by contract (http://www.indiewire.com/2002/01/interview-the-sad-comedy-solondz-discusses-storytelling-80562/ ) (https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/t/toddsolond355306.html). My DVD doesn’t have the red block—the scene is graphic, but not pornographic. Concealing it wasn’t worth the effort or the P.R.

The first and shorter story, “Fiction,” is about the aforementioned Vi, a wannabe writer who probably doesn’t belong in the writing class she’s taking. The class is taught by Pulitzer Prize winning Gary Scott (Robert Wisdom), an imposing egomaniac author who’s also a black man. His critiques of his students’ work is harsh—except when it comes to Catherine (Aleksa Palladino), a bookish pseudointellectual who looks like she’s into S&M. Guess what happens when Vi finds herself in a bar with Scott, and an opportunity to go home with him presents itself? You’ll have to read the book—or in this case the writing assignment, as Vi does what any writer would: she writes about the experience.

The second—and longer—story, “Non Fiction,” is about unsuccessful schlub Toby Oxman (Paul Giamati), a floundering self-proclaimed documentary filmmaker, as he sets out to make an exposé on the everyday American teenager. The problem is, he can’t find a subject. Enter slackerish pothead Scooby Livingston (Steven Weber) and his dysfunctional family led by father Marty (John Goodman). A series of unplanned mishaps threatens to derail the whole project, until one morbid event turns the whole thing around. Belle and Sebastian proves a nice choice for the music.

Storytelling is not quite as intriguing as Welcome to the Dollhouse or Happiness, but it’s still quintessential Solondz. The lines here are quotable gold—particularly the exchanges between Scooby’s youngest brother, Mikey (Jonathan Osser), and the Livingstons’ housekeeper, Consuela (Lupe Ontiveros), which are nothing short of awesome. I love that Solondz calls out his critics—it’s the film equivalent of Madonna’s “Human Nature.” “Fiction” is definitely the more impactful of the two segments, but that’s because “Non Fiction” is just too long and meandering for its own good; it peters out around two-thirds of the way through. Storytelling doesn’t immediately come to mind when Solondz’s name comes up, but parts of it will definitely haunt you. Unlike his other films, I’m not sure what to make of this one.

A third scene, “Autobiography,” was shot but left out of the final product (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Storytelling_(film) ) (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0250081/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv ). It starred James Van Der Beek as a closeted high school football player and featured a gay sex scene with Steve Rosen. I don’t know about the sex scene, but I think a third story would have added impact.

With Maria Thayer, Steve Rosen, Julie Hagerty, Noah Fleiss, Conan O’Brien

Production: Good Machine, Killer Films, New Line Cinema

Distribution: Fine Line Features

87 minutes
Rated R

(DVD purchase) B

http://www.toddsolondz.com

Wiener-Dog

(USA 2016)

For someone whose best-known films have words like “welcome” and “happiness” in their titles, Todd Solondz doesn’t come across as a particularly cheery guy. His stories are never sentimental or uplifting. His characters are a motley crew of hopeless geeks, unattractive lurps, and outright assholes. He exposes the worst of humanity—pettiness, cruelty, disappointment, indifference—and makes a deranged joke out of it. To some (like me), his bleak, misanthropic perspective is wildly amusing, refreshing, and compelling. Those who dig his twisted brand of cynicism should relish Wiener-Dog, his first film in five years.

Wiener-Dog follows the life of a dachshund as she passes through a succession of masters in four vignettes: Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a child cancer survivor; Dawn (Greta Gerwig), a flummoxed vet assistant who runs into a former classmate, Brandon (Kieran Culkin), at a convenience store; Schmertz (Danny DeVito), a film writing professor on the verge of a meltdown over a screenplay he can’t get his agent to read; and a dying old sourpuss (Ellen Burstyn) whose cracky granddaughter, Zoe (Zosia Mamet), pays her an unexpected visit.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

Side note: the aforementioned Dawn is Dawn Wiener—whose classmates’ mean nickname for her provides the title here—from Welcome to the Dollhouse. I was apprehensive about the idea of resurrecting her and Brandon, but it works on its own without coming off as a desperate attempt at piggybacking a successful past project or playing on nostalgia.

Wiener-Dog is all Solondz, and he’s focused on mortality: sickness and death color each sketch. He starts at childhood and moves through adulthood, getting progressively glum as he leads us to a grave of sorts. Even Weiner-Dog’s name, which changes with each master, hints at where this is all going: Wiener-Dog, Doodie (as in poop), and Cancer—if DeVito’s character named her, I missed it. With just a few exceptions, everyone is terrible. This film is loaded with wonderfully sad, absurd dialogue. Remi’s father (Tracy Lett) explains the importance of breaking a dog’s will, ending the discussion on a bizarre contradictory note. In a hilarious philosophical colloquy, Remi’s mother (Julia Delphy) explains why Wiener-Dog needs to be spayed, inadvertently bringing him to the conclusion that “death is a good thing.” Brandon tells his brother (Connor Long), who has Down’s Syndrome, that their father just died from drinking, even though he said he quit a long time ago. An admissions committee interviews an applicant (Devin Druid) about why he wants to go to film school, and he can’t answer a single question. A school administrator (Sharon Washington) confronts DeVito about his negativity. Zoe explains how rare the ostrich egg she just gave her grandmother is while her grandmother’s unimpressed nurse, Yvette (Marcella Lowery), takes it away to dispose of it. In a dream sequence, Ellen Burstyn’s character has a weird conversation with multiple alternate versions of herself (Melo Ludwig) that chose to be nicer during life.

And then there’s the ending—abrupt and jarring, I literally jumped in my seat and sat there frozen for a few moments. True to form, Solondz makes it clear that no one is important in life’s grand scheme.

Solondz called Wiener-Dog one of his “sunnier” films, and it actually is. To expect a schlocky tale highlighting the joy a pet brings is stupid considering the man behind it. Nonetheless, Solondz gets as sweet as I’ve ever seen him, especially with Dawn and Brandon. The scene where Zoe confides to her grandmother that she suspects her boyfriend, Fantasy (Michael Shaw), is running around behind her back is also touching. The “intermission” is dumb but cute, and the songs are fun. Wiener-Dog has a good life unlike those around her—she isn’t mistreated, and she achieves something none of the other characters do: immortality.

Screening followed by a live Q and A with Todd Solondz.

93 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B+

http://www.wienerdogmovie.com