“Eighth Grade”: Mean people suck, lost girl breaks our hearts (FILM REVIEW)

EIGHTH GRADE: Stars Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton; written and directed by Bo Burnham; 93 minutes; R. Critic’s rating: A-.

As singer Edie Brickell once asked, not terribly long ago, “What I am is what I am. Are you what you are or what?” Silly wordplay in a too-catchy pop tune, maybe. But certainly the type of question that a young teen, experiencing what once was called an identity crisis, might ask her reflection when looking into the mirror, obsessing over perceived imperfections and social-media traumas: “What you see is what you get. But who am I, really?”

Personal identity, as might be recalled about those days of acne wars, puppy love, and self confidence that waxed and waned with the bell schedule, could be entirely wrapped up in what others saw in you. Or what you imagined they saw in you.

So for the sake of emotional self-defense, you locked yourself into your bedroom and used a journal – paper? on a laptop? on an audio device? — to create the façade of a more confident you. And it all vanished, of course, the moment you walked into the birthday party of the nominally best looking and most popular kid in school.

So it goes in “Eighth Grade” with Kayla, the middle-schooler brought to life via Elsie Fisher‘s remarkably lived-in performance. All imperfect skin, blue fingernail polish, introversion, moods that are sometimes silly and sometimes pouty, and unpolished social skills, she’s forever wrapped in a digital cocoon. Her earbuds are plugged into an iPhone blaring teenypop, and she’s forever scrolling through Instagram and firing up snapchat.

Kayla’s always making YouTube-bound videos of confessional-style inspirational talks, spiked with plenty of “likes” and shot in not always flattering close-ups, that belie her own insecurities. “The topic of today’s video is being yourself,” she says during the movie’s opening sequence, staring straight into the lens as the camera gradually pulls back to reveal her butterfly-decorated shirt, dark sweater, and makeshift bedroom TV studio. Later, she titles another clip “How To Be Confident.”

At home, Kayla suffers through life with loving single dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) who, you know, just doesn’t understand, asks too many annoying questions, and further bugs his daughter by encouraging her to “put yourself out there.” It’s a message that she later co-opts for one of her video chats.

In one of the film’s most affecting sequences, set in the backyard of the family’s modest home, Mark quietly offers his own glowing assessment of Kayla’s personality and talents. It’s just the right antidote, at the right time, to her frequently misguided if overwhelming feelings of worthlessness. And, as directed and written by remarkably assured 27-year-old filmmaker Bo Burnham, these scenes are not overly saccharine or drenched in sentimentality.

At school, Kayla suffers the indignities of sitting through a your-body-is-changing video featuring an instructor who says things like “it’s gonna be lit.” She’s also stuck taking on cymbal-crashing duties in the meagerly talented school band, navigating mean girls in the hallways, and melting in the presence of Aiden (Luke Prael), a handsome, trim boy with smoky eyes and, as it turns out, a dullard’s personality.

Outside of school, there are bright spots, including the attentions of a nerdy but attentive nice kid (Jake Ryan) and a friendly high-school girl (Emily Robinson). And, in a harrowing if sensitively shot sequence, there’s an older guy who attempts to take advantage of Kayla, and, when rejected, tacks on some gaslighting for extra measure.

Burnham, who sparked his own career as an actor and filmmaker via a series of comic YouTube videos, takes an approach to his young characters that’s neither dumbed down nor overhyped. It’s a bit reminiscent of the young heroines of last year’s “Lady Bird” or 1995’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”

Unlike the blemish-free kids in Nickelodeon and Disney fare, and most network sitcoms and family dramas, these teens come with imperfections and believable challenges, and conflicts that are never resolved. That  authentic vibe is heightened by an indie production style that’s clean, direct and unshowy, and the antithesis of high-gloss Hollywood.

No, “Eighth Grade” is not remotely a documentary. But Burnham’s coming-of-age comic drama sometimes points in that direction, particularly via the videos within the movie — scout around, and you’ll see some that look and feel exactly like those in “Eighth Grade.”

It all strikes closer to middle school reality, or ordinary, middle-class, middle-America anything, than practically any other recent film or TV production. It’s a fresh and funny surprise gift, driven by Fisher’s revelatory performance. We won’t soon forget Kayla, her typical teen trials and tribulations, her evolving sense of self, or her supportive dad.

Opens Friday, Aug. 3 at Tampa Theatre, Cobb Grove 16 & Cinebistro Wesley Chapel, Goodrich Riverview 14 GDX Gibsonton, and GTC Beacon Theatres 12 Brooksville.

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“Dunkirk” Takes Top Honors in 2017 FFCC Awards; “The Florida Project” Wins Golden Orange

“Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan‘s dazzling and cinematically daring account of the WWII evacuation of Dunkirk beaches by Allied forces, was named best picture of the year, and Nolan best director, by the Florida Film Critics Circle. I voted.

The cast and crew of Sean Baker‘s “The Florida Project,” a low-budget, documentary-style study of life among the very poor, told largely from the point of view of children living in the shadow of the Mouse House, was honored with the FFCC’s annual Golden Orange award. The honor is generally awarded to a Florida-based movie, event, organization, or person making a significant impact on the film community, statewide or beyond. The film’s subject matter and unique vision and narrative style have drawn critical kudos and attention from around the world.

The critics group — 25 writers based in the Sunshine State — gave multiple honors to several different films and artists:

  • Jordan Peele, one-half of the Key and Peele comedy duo, won best original screenplay and best first film for controversial, widely acclaimed comic/horror/social-commentary shocker “Get Out!”
  • “Blade Runner 2049,” Ridley Scott‘s belated sequel to his 1982 sci-fi classic, won in four categories, for best cinematography, art direction/production, visual effects, and score.
  • “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy about murder and revenge, won for best ensemble, and the film’s Sam Rockwell, as a racially wounded and wounding small-town cop, for best supporting actor
  • “I, Tonya”: Margot Robbie, best actress, as troubled skating star Tonya Harding; and Allison Janey, best supporting actress, as Tonya’s mother from hell.
  • “Call Me By Your Name”: Timothee Chalamet, best actor and breakout award; and James Ivory, best adapted screenplay

(Guillermo del Toro‘s exquisitely photographed, beautifully acted, emotionally resonant and often technically dazzling “The Shape of Water,” an odd but compelling sci-fi/horror/fantasy cross between “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” and “Beauty and the Beast,” was my favorite film of the year. It received 10 FFCC nominations but, strangely, got skunked in every category. But that’s a subject for another post, one with my own Top 10+ list).

The complete list, with runners-up, and, in red, my own pick in each category:

BEST PICTURE

Dunkirk (WINNER)

Lady Bird

Call Me By Your Name

Get Out

The Shape Of Water — PHILIP’s PICK

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BEST DIRECTOR

Christopher Nolan – Dunkirk (WINNER)

Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird 

Guillermo del Toro – The Shape of Water — PHILIP’s PICK

Jordan Peele – Get Out

Martin McDonagh – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BEST ACTOR

Timothée Chalamet – Call Me By Your Name (WINNER)

Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour 

Daniel Kaluuya – Get Out — PHILIP’s PICK

James Franco – The Disaster Artist

Robert Pattinson – Good Time

BEST ACTRESS

Margot Robbie – I, Tonya (WINNER)

Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — Philip’s Pick

Cynthia Nixon – A Quiet Passion

Sally Hawkins – The Shape of Water

Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (WINNER) — Philip’s Pick

Willem Dafoe – The Florida Project 

Armie Hammer – Call Me By Your Name

Barry Keoghan – The Killing of A Sacred Deer

Michael Stuhlbarg – Call Me By Your Name

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Allison Janney – I, Tonya (WINNER)

Laurie Metcalf – Lady Bird 

Holly Hunter – The Big Sick — Philip’s Pick

Hong Chau – Downsizing

Mary J. Blige – Mudbound

BEST ENSEMBLE

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (WINNER)

Dunkirk

Get Out

I, Tonya

Lady Bird

The Big Sick — Philip’s Pick

The Shape Of Water

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Get Out (WINNER)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 

Lady Bird

The Big Sick — Philip’s Pick

The Shape Of Water

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Call Me By Your Name (WINNER)

The Disaster Artist — Philip’s Pick

Marjorie Prime

Molly’s Game

The Lost City of Z

Wonderstruck

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Blade Runner 2049 (WINNER)

Dunkirk 

Personal Shopper

The Post

The Shape of Water — Philip’s Pick

Wonderstruck

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Blade Runner 2049 (WINNER)

War for the Planet of the Apes 

Dunkirk

Guardians of the Galaxy 2

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

The Shape of Water — Philip’s Pick

BEST ART DIRECTION/PRODUCTION DESIGN

Blade Runner 2049 (WINNER)

Dunkirk 

Phantom Thread

The Shape of Water — Philip’s Pick

Wonderstruck

BEST SCORE

Blade Runner 2049 (WINNER)

Dunkirk 

Phantom Thread

The Shape of Water

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — Philip’s Pick

BEST DOCUMENTARY

Jane (WINNER) — Philip’s Pick

Ex Libris: New York Public Library

Dawson City: Frozen Time

Faces Places

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

Kedi

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

BPM (WINNER)

The Square 

First They Killed My Father — Philip’s Pick

Loveless

The Ornithologist

BEST ANIMATED FILM

Coco (WINNER)

Loving Vincent — Philip’s Pick

The Boss Baby

The Breadwinner

The LEGO Batman Movie

BEST FIRST FILM

Get Out (WINNER) — Philip’s Pick

God’s Own Country (Runners-Up)

Ingrid Goes West

Molly’s Game

PAULINE KAEL BREAKOUT AWARD

Timothée Chalamet (WINNER)

Jordan Peele

Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk & The Killing of a Sacred Deer) — Philip’s Pick

Greta Gerwig

Millicent Simmonds

GOLDEN ORANGE

The cast and crew of The Florida Project — Philip’s Pick