SUN­DANCE FILM FES­TI­VAL RE­VIEWS

Eighth Grade | Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. | Mind­ing the Gap | Skate Kitchen | Sorry to Bother You | Tyrel

Exclaim! - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - By Josiah Hughes

Eighth Grade

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)

Skate Kitchen

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)

Tyrel

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)

SKATE KITCHEN

MIND­ING THE GAP

EIGHTH GRADE

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU

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