SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL REVIEWS
Eighth Grade | Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. | Minding the Gap | Skate Kitchen | Sorry to Bother You | Tyrel
Directed by Bo Burnham
There’s a reason Degrassi Junior High
has stood the test of time for hyperrealistic cringe-watching — by using teen actors, the show captures an incredibly real version of the adolescent experience. It’s a concept comedian Bo Burnham understands well; his first full-length feature is populated with actual 13-year-olds. The film revolves around Kayla (Elsie Fisher, who shot the project between grade eight and nine), an impossibly awkward teen who tries to overcome her lack of selfconfidence by broadcasting YouTube self-help videos to a viewership of approximately no one. Aside from her dad (an exceedingly warm Josh Hamilton), her main social interactions come from double-tapping on Instagram and participating in an endless stream of Buzzfeed quizzes. Despite her confidence on the vlogs, she’s voted most quiet in her school’s superlatives. Fed up with her social awkwardness, Kayla’s father forces her to attend a poolside birthday party for one of her school’s hot popular girls. Because of Fisher’s brave, entirely real performance, the awkwardness of the pool party reaches stomach-churning depths.
Eventually, Kayla tries to take her own advice and put herself out there, trying to muster up charisma with very little success. Eventually, her misadventures — including some brushes with dangerous, toxic masculinity — culminate in a satisfying and heartfelt discovery of self-esteem. Bo Burnham painstakingly wrote the screenplay for Eighth Grade before bringing it to the screen, with each natural-sounding “like” peppering the students’ sentences. Occasionally, the unflinching gaze of pimple-covered preteens begins to feel like a horror film. It’d make the film cringe-worthy if it weren’t so damn charming. (A24)
Matangi / Maya / M. I. A.
Directed by Stephen Loveridge
One shouldn’t eulogize someone too early, and there’s nothing more awkward than attempting to tell someone’s life story while they’re still living it. At the second-ever public screening of Matanga / Maya / M.I. A., Stephen Loveridge’s dense and ambitious documentary about Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, the artist herself told a Sundance audience that she didn’t really like the film. Then again, how could she? Since she first broke through as a global pop star in the mid-’00s, M.I. A. has been a lightning rod for global conversation, media controversy and a seemingly endless supply of border-blurring pop music. As Matangi clearly demonstrates, she’s also been unfairly infantilized in the media. Using a hodgepodge of formats, the film compiles decades of Maya’s private videotapes, following everything from her early student films and an abandoned documentary she made about Sri Lanka’s civil rights crisis, through her perpetual rises and falls in pop culture. Of course, this includes her numerous hits, her music videos and public controversies like the time she was ridiculed in a dismissive New York Times Magazine cover story, or the time she flipped off the entire Super Bowl.
It’s a film that effectively balances Arulpragasam’s rise to pop culture superstardom with her desire to spread truth about global injustices. Wisely, Loveridge glosses over tabloid fodder like M.I. A.’s admittedly notable relationships, and he does manage to demonstrate the turmoil of balancing Beverly Hills fame with a desire to spread truth about human rights atrocities. It’s a documentary that’s at once lionizing and humanizing, offering a well-rounded glimpse into the performer’s motives and message. Onstage, beside a nervously twitching Loveridge, M.I. A. told the Sundance audience that she has about 300 edits she still wants on the film, adding that it was too much about her and not enough about Sri Lanka. That the film is this excellent and still not good enough for its subject speaks volumes about the electric, unflinching idealism of M.I. A. — and despite her protests, that revolutionary spirit comes through crystal clear onscreen. (Cinereach)
Minding the Gap
Directed by Bing Liu
Perhaps it’s their ability to dodge and weave while operating expensive camera equipment, but skate cinematographers have a magic ability to capture gritty, real and raw footage. When he was a teen, Bing Liu probably thought he was filming his friends for an amateur skate vid, but his project has evolved into this stunning debut — an arrestingly intimate documentary about the lifelong scars of domestic abuse. Minding the Gap centres on Zack, Keire and Bing himself, a group of skate brats in Rockford, IL, who use their hobby as an escape from the hellish broken homes that await them. Their city is a socioeconomic warzone, full of boarded-up buildings and increasing poverty. As Minding the Gap unfolds, we see the harsh realities of domestic abuse as each subject slowly peels back the layers of their own horrible upbringing.
Keire, a seemingly unshakeably positive kid, opens up about running away from home as a teen after his father beat him. He’s now forced to reckon with their fractured relationship in the aftermath of his father’s death. Zack was close with his father as a child, when the two bonded over skateboarding. Eventually his father adopted more conservative beliefs, and he ran away from home only to get his girlfriend pregnant a few years later. Now they’re raising a baby together, though his own tendencies toward alcoholism and physical abuse soon rear their head. Then there’s Bing, whose painful upbringing is explored through bone-chilling revelations as he walks through his family home and confronts his mother.
Skateboarding serves as the glue keeping these three young men together, though this is hardly what the film is about. Instead, Liu has crafted a bafflingly gritty film about domestic violence, race, poverty and general American brokenness that will leave you with a weight in your gut and a lump in your throat. It’s a truly impressive feat — the cinematography is astounding, and Liu proves his merit as a modern documentarian with creative choices like using real Rockford billboards as topical title cards for each painfully intimate section. But Minding the Gap is also a sobering dose of social realism that should be approached carefully. (Kartemquin Films)
Directed by Crystal Moselle Crystal Moselle seems like she’s perpetually crossing paths with colourful characters and making movies about them. Following her exquisite 2015 documentary, The Wolfpack, Moselle has happened upon another fascinating group of New Yorkers. This time, Moselle has made a feature film with a girl gang of skateboarding teens she met
on the subway. Rather than create a documentary, however, she opted to write a narrative feature in collaboration with them. First-time actor and unstoppable shredder Rachelle Vinberg stars as Camille, a teenage tomboy who’s struggling to get along with her single mother in Long Island. Camille escapes the torment of her home life, falling in with a wily gang of mostly female skateboarders on the Lower East Side. The group of teens bond over skate tricks, parties and general mischief-making, forming a seemingly unbreakable sisterhood. Their friendship is threatened, however, when Camille starts spending a little too much time with a skater from a rival gang (Jaden Smith).
Everything about Skate Kitchen is decidedly contemporary, from its outfits to its sexual politics to its dialogue. That said, whether it’s a symptom of the times or the cyclical nature of skate trends, the film also feels decidedly ’90s. In fact, multiple shots from Skate Kitchen are cribbed directly from Larry Clark’s Kids, as hip teens in oversized Supreme shirts crowd around TVs to watch skate videos and teen girls have candid discussions about their sexuality in bedroom chats. While Kids was aesthetically influential, however, it centred on the corrosive and damaging nature of the male psyche; Skate Kitchen feels like a much-needed revision. It looks similar, but it replaces Kids’ potentially toxic social message with a joyful and ultimately uplifting look at the transformative power of friendship. (Bow + Arrow)
Sorry to Bother You
Directed by Boots Riley
Longtime hip-hop musician and activist Boots Riley has never had trouble making a splash — look no further than the Coup’s original cover art for Party Music, which portrayed Riley and his bandmate Tahir blowing up the World Trade Centre in New York City. Entering the film world with Sorry to Bother You, Riley has put another firm foot forward, offering an absurdist work of art that will polarize audiences and instantly solidify a cultish fan base. The film is a pitchblack dystopian comedy filled with cartoonish sight gags and razor-sharp social commentary. Planting himself firmly on the line between anti-capitalist activism and the need to survive, Riley has managed to make a film that’s at once ridiculous and poignant. Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius Green, an aimless young adult trying to achieve significance the way his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) has in the art world. He’s employed as a telemarketer, a dead-end job that becomes all the more satisfying as he unlocks his “white voice” — an exaggerated and nasal dork cadence that’s dubbed in by David Cross. Outside of the office, increasing political unrest exists via a group of activists known as Left Eye. Their goal is to take down WorryFree, a prison labour organization that disguises itself as a, well, worry-free retirement organization. Their leader is a seemingly benevolent billionaire (played with perfectly sinister cynicism by Armie Hammer) whose end game is bafflingly evil. Plot-wise, the less you know about Sorry to Bother You the better, but the film is an incisive and insightful look at race, late capitalism and the seemingly hopeless nature of activism.
With his subject matter and story, Riley has created something profoundly compelling with Sorry to Bother You. As if that weren’t enough, the film is packed with transgressive humour and audaciously colourful aesthetics. Those points even converge with a lengthy stop-motion section credited to a phallic nom de plume — Michel Dongry. Sorry to Bother You belongs to a rich tradition of satires, falling in line with everything from Putney Swope to Pootie Tang to Idiocracy to UHF. (Cinereach)
Directed by Sebastián Silva
Chilean director Sebastián Silva has amassed an impressive body of work that explores the intricacies of human interaction. With Tyrel, he’s created something of a horror movie, though all of the thrills take place in micro-interactions between his stars. Jason Mitchell ( Straight Outta Compton) plays the almost-titular Tyler, a young black man who agrees to go away for the weekend with his friend Johnny (Christopher Abbott) and a group of strangers when a family emergency results in his apartment being overcrowded with relatives. Tyler is introduced to the crew when he and Johnny run out of gas in upstate New York. They come to the rescue, and Tyler is faced with casual racism from the get-go, particularly from Pete (Caleb Landry Jones). As the weekend unfolds with binge-drinking, ramped up testosterone and plenty of questionable racial comments, one begins to wonder what disaster lurks beneath the surface.
In a Q&A after its Sundance premiere, Silva explained that he wrote the film in collaboration with the cast, who are his close friends. The cast reads like a hip Hollywood “It” list, rounded out by Michael Cera and Michael Zegen. On paper, what happens in Tyrel is relatively straightforward. By capturing the insecurities and aggressions that lurk within the hearts of men, however, it becomes a deeply layered deconstruction of toxic masculinity. (Hidden Content)
MINDING THE GAP
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU