Category: Independent Cinema

Eighth Grade

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In Director Bo Burnham I feel like I’m witnessing another Jordan Peele rise. Again, this is a filmmaker with a background in sketch comedy who, with his debut feature Eighth Grade, seems to have already made a significant contribution to film culture. Indeed, Barak Obama has named Eighth Grade one of his favourites of 2018, and I can see why.

Eighth Grade avoids many of the usual coming-of-age tropes. The film is imbued with a remarkable authenticity. This isn’t comedy on the scale of Mean Girls with surreal cut scenes and popularity wars, instead the focus is on Kayla Day’s last week in middle school and the battle to discover herself. Burnham takes joy from small triumphs against a tidal wave of “cool” conformity. He has created an excellent character in Kayla Day who isn’t insecure enough to abandon her lamer interests. Whilst watching I certainly started to remember what life was like at that age and the process of building my personality. I was also somewhat surprised to find myself relating to a 13 year old girl.

Part of this authenticity comes from Elsie Fisher’s mesmerising turn as Kayla. There was a groundedness to her performance that was refreshing to see from an actress her age. She was adept at realistically conveying the awkward interactions which provided dry humour throughout. Many of these interactions revolved around her dad, Mark Day played by Josh Hamilton. This was a character I had sympathy for, a dad that dealt with his daughter with goofy good humour despite her efforts to push him away. He provided something of a moral anchor too, and was instrumental in Kayla’s closing revelations.

Burnham initially gained a following through comedy videos on Youtube. I’m not surprised then, that the film also provides insightful commentary into social media lives. After she was voted ‘quietest in school’ Kayla’s Youtube video tips on topics such as “being yourself” or “putting yourself out there”  are a reminder of the contrast between appearance and reality. Social media certainly highlights the anxiety of school but it also allows Kayla to discover who she is. It almost feels like the audience isn’t important in these videos, what’s more important is her freedom of self-expression. This is no more evident than in the final scene when she leaves a heartfelt video message to her eighteen year old self, ‘if you don’t have a boyfriend, that’s ok’, ‘if high school was bad for you, that’s ok too’.

Just like in Us, the score here is particularly good, with loud, brash techno music amplifying the horrendous nerves Kayla feels when she sets eyes on her crush in school. There are also some hugely engaging montages of Instagram surfing, working well with tracks like Enya’s “Orinoco Flow”. I can’t wait to see what Burnham does next. This could be one of the first of the Youtube generation to master cinema.

 

 

 

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Us

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During the spring of 2017 I couldn’t help being aware of the impact Get Out had upon cinema audiences. Working at Rich Mix gave me an insight into its huge popular and critical appeal. Jordan Peele successfully magnified the covert racism of liberal America in a skilful and entertaining masterpiece which I only managed to catch recently on Netflix. Indeed, the breath of Peele’s work has hitherto been unknown to me. I was particularly pleased to discover his sketch acting on Youtube, which includes viral classics such as the hilarious ‘substitute teacher’. It’s been a great couple of years for Peele, who went on to play a part in producing Spike Lee’s well deserved first Oscar win Blackkklansman, as well as winning an Oscar himself for Get Out.

Something like Get Out and Us could only have been made by a cinephile. In a recent MTV interview Peele himself admits that he had a face-hugger from Alien dangled over his bed as a child. Certainly there are echoes of Ripley in Lupita Nyong’o’s character Adelaide, but the references in Us go beyond that. Peele has been compared to Kubrick in his fastidiousness and attention to detail, indeed Kubrick is drawn upon several times. The opening scene of a family driving towards their doom through the American landscape is reminiscent of the opening scene in The Shining. The Vulture Blog points out both Us and A Clockwork Orange feature a sequence in which a crisp, clean, upper-class dwelling is invaded by attackers to incongruent music (“Singin’ in the Rain” in A Clockwork Orange, “Good Vibrations,” and “Fuck Tha Police” in Us).

Peele is also a fan of Lewis Carol it seems, declaring “There are thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the continental US” in the films opening statement, before cutting to a horrifying close up of a rabbit which pans out to reveal more rabbits in cages stacked on top of eachother. It’s the music at this point that’s terrifying, with gothic style chanting overlaying the ominous image. We are through the looking glass and down the tunnel. As well as the gothic chanting, more biblical references abound throughout the film, particularly Jeremiah 11:11 which crops up on clocks and in the hands of street-preachers, it also happens to be the number of rabbit cages stacked by width and length in the aforementioned opening scene. The biblical idea of a dual ‘soul’ and ‘body’ is also central to the narrative, and the symmetrical symbol 11:11 feeds into the theme of ‘mirror’ images, reflecting the “tethered” and their surface counterparts.  Jordan Peele has been quoted as saying, “one thing you can be sure of in this film, everything is deliberate”.

The home-invaders theme and cold atmosphere instantly felt like Micheal Haneke’s Funny Games. Indeed, Funny Games also opens with a family drive and The Vulture Blog also points out that Zora takes out several of the “tethered” versions of the Tyler family with the chief weapon of the Funny Games villains: a golf club. Just like Haneke, Peele seems to pay close attention to the score which is a remarkable achievement for Michael Abels’ second feature as a composer. I particularly enjoyed the slowed-down version of Luniz’s ‘I Got 5 On It’, working very well as a horrific and foreboding piece – in contrast to the original.

Both of Peele’s films thus far have taken place in fairly unconventional horror settings, Get Out in an idyllic, middle class, liberal home and Us on a beach resort. He talks about daylight often being scarier than the more predictable dusty, dark basements and attics. I agree, daylight forces us to acknowledge everything is on display. In Us the build-up of tension works very well when there are several foreboding moments early on, particularly when Adelaide’s son Jason goes missing. This keeps the audience guessing as to when the real scares are going to come.

Early on in the film the characters of the family are also well-established, building up our emotional investment in them. Winston Duke as Gabe Wilson does a superb job of running with the comedy baton we first saw with Lil Rel Howery’s TSA agent in Get Out. Cast in her first leading role, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o is fantastic as Adelaide and Red, showing a fierce commitment and intensity.

Finally I want to talk about the films’ themes. Mark Kermode points out that Us locates our anxieties about outsiders in a guilty fear of ourselves. This ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ psychology is interesting because it’s very ambiguous as to who ‘Them’ could be metaphorically. In Ancient Greek myths monsters such as the Typhon or Centaurs are said to represent uncontrollable nature. Perhaps ‘The Tethered” in Jordan Peele’s film are repressed aspects of our consciousness, our dark natural instincts coming into focus. However, there are also modern political interpretations we can draw. When asked ‘who are you people?’ early on the “tethered” version of Adelaide responds ‘we are Americans’. Perhaps this could be a manifestation of US guilt for the native American genocide, perhaps Peele envisions a world where they once again take control. One of the good things about Peele’s film is it does not provide any straightforward hints at who ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ might be in the real world, it is very much down to your interpretation and perspective. Certainly the horror tradition established by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, playing on our worst fears in the disruption of the ‘nuclear family’ is at work here.