‘Bodies Bodies Bodies’ Will Have You Laughing, But Not for Long, Because Things Get Stressful Quick, But in an Edifying Way

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Bodies Bodies Bodies (CREDIT: Eric Chakeen/A24)

Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakalova, Myha’la Herrold, Rachel Sennott, Chase Sui Wonders, Pete Davidson, Lee Pace

Director: Halina Reijn

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: R for Generally Raucous Vibes That Make Everyone Ill-Prepared for the Bloodbath

Release Date: August 5, 2022 (Limited)/August 12, 2022 (Expands Wide)

What’s It About?: What’s the best thing to do during a hurricane? Hunker down for a house party, maybe? Eh, even if the building is sturdy enough to prevent any permanent damage, things could get messy. Which is to say, the characters of Bodies Bodies Bodies are putting themselves at risk. Emotional, physical, potentially lethal risk. The group of seven hanging out at the mansion are a mix of longtime friends and new lovers, as well as plenty of uninvited secrets and passive-aggressiveness. When the storm forces them inside for the night, they decide to play the titular party game, in which one person is assigned to play the “killer” who must be sussed out by the other players. But when one of them actually winds up dead, an impromptu murder investigation begins. And instead of banding together, they all find ways to be suspicious of each other.

What Made an Impression?: Like other great killer mystery thrillers, Bodies Bodies Bodies does a fine job of convincing us that everyone is a legitimate suspect. Just when I thought I’d identified the most secretive and cruel individual, somebody else does something equally thoughtless. Based on what we see, these are not very good friends. I was most reminded of 2015’s Unfriended, in which a Skype session turns deadly as each of the callers reveal just how profoundly awful they are. But the Bodies Bodies Bodies crew aren’t quite that terrible. Instead, they’re insecure young adults trying to figure out what to do with their lives, and they’re not finding any useful support from the other insecure people around them. If you add buckets of windy rain and a dead body to that powder keg, it’s not going to be a fun night.

It all resolves in a gut-punch of an ending that will have you going, “It’s just a movie. I should really just relax.” Because if you don’t, you’ll be stressed out for days, or potentially months even. These people shouldn’t be partying, they should be in therapy. (Well, maybe they can rage every once in a while if they maintain a healthy therapy schedule.) What if the sequel were a visit to a psychiatrist during a hurricane? I would definitely check that out. Anyway, if nothing else, Bodies Bodies Bodies is very much a warning that we should all come up with a plan ASAP for what to do if any of our friends suddenly winds up inexplicably dead.

Bodies Bodies Bodies is Recommended If You Like: Unfriended, Scream, Ready or Not

Grade: 4 out of 5 Machetes

‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Made Me Feel a Lot of Very Different Emotions, and I Can Think of Worse Ways to Spend an Evening

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Dear Evan Hansen (CREDIT: Erika Doss/Universal Pictures)

Starring: Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Danny Pino, Colton Ryan

Director: Stephen Chbosky

Running Time: 137 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Material Involving Suicide and Mental Health Struggles

Release Date: September 24, 2021 (Theaters)

My brain is so frazzled by Dear Evan Hansen, and I just don’t know what to say. Part of that is due to the movie itself, which offers an occasionally offbeat and fairly frightening mix of tones. And it’s also certainly a matter of the mocking buzz I encountered in the buildup to the film’s release. Sure, the trailer can be seen as too-earnest-for-its-own-good inspirational fluff. And yes, the hairstyling makes 27-year-old Ben Platt look ten years older instead of ten years younger. But I wanted to wait it out to discover what I actually thought about it myself. Maybe I would be won over by the earnestness! Or maybe I would find it just as ridiculous as it loudest naysayers. Or perhaps I could enjoy that ridiculousness in a campy fashion. So now that I’ve actually seen the movie itself … it hasn’t really cleared things up.

It does have a premise designed to keep plenty of audiences on edge, after all. Based on the 2015 stage musical of the same name, it’s about the anxiety-stricken teenage title character (Platt) who is given the therapy assignment of writing a letter to himself, which then gets mistaken as the suicide note of Connor (Colton Ryan), a classmate he barely knows. From there, the lie just keeps snowballing as Evan lets everyone believe that Connor was his best friend, and their story becomes a viral sensation that anyone who’s ever had mental health struggles can take solace in. I’m most impressed by DEH when it leans into its inherent discomfort. A waking nightmare threatens to envelop us all as Evan tries to explain the truth but Connor’s mom (Amy Adams) practically begs him to stick with the version of the story she so desperately wants to believe. This movie could have made us feel just as anxious as Evan does all the time if it had wanted to. Instead, it only does that occasionally, while also making us bawl up and heartily chuckle and just let everyone know that they’re not alone.

There were definitely parts of this flick that fully worked on me. The rendition of the signature song, “You Will Be Found,” had me unabashedly bawling. And Nik Dodani, who plays Evan’s “family friend” Jared, is making quite a name for himself as a mischievous little scamp. But I would’ve liked it if we had seen a bigger fallout from the truth finally coming out. And when it comes to movies about a lie regarding someone’s death spinning out of control, I must say that I much prefer the bracing dark comedy of the Robin Williams-starring World’s Greatest Dad. Anyway, my friend who I saw DEH with was won over completely, so it’s definitely for somebody. And in truth, parts of it are for parts of me.

So let’s get to the One Million Dollar Question: would I want Evan Hansen to write a “Dear Evan Hansen” letter to me? I think that would be fun! But only if we could tell the truth (the whole truth!) from the get-go. Anything else would be too stressful.

Dear Evan Hansen is Recommended If: You Think You’re Going to Love It, But Also If You Think You’re Going to Hate It, Because Our Opinions Will Be Found

Grade: 3 out of 5 Letters

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Hate U Give’ Confronts Racism and Police Brutality via High School Cinema

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CREDIT: Erika Doss/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, KJ Apa, Algee Smith, Lamar Johnson, Issa Rae, Sabrina Carpenter, Common, Anthony Mackie

Director: George Tillman Jr.

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Uneasy Race Relations and the Dangers of Living in a Volatile Neighborhood

Release Date: October 5, 2018 (Limited)/Expands October 12, 2018/Expands Nationwide October 19, 2018

About two-thirds of the way through The Hate U Give, Starr Carter’s father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) lines his children up on their front yard and has them recite a creed he has instilled in them since birth: “Reasons to live give reasons to die.” If you have ever worried, or experienced, how living up to your ideals can put you or your loved ones in danger, this moment is essential viewing. If you can be upstanding and strong-willed enough to avoid being taken down by scandal or shame, then you do not have to worry about too many vulnerabilities. But you can still be devastated if you have a lot of love. Maverick defiantly insists that his children make peace with that for the sake of their family, and his example is a wonderful expression of what parents should demand of their children, or indeed what everybody should demand of their fellow human beings.

This is the inflection point that brings into focus the dilemma that Starr (Amandla Stenberg) is struggling with throughout The Hate U Give. She is the only witness to her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith), an unarmed black teenager, being fatally gunned down by a white police officer during a routine traffic stop. She is thus Khalil’s best potential advocate for justice, but she must weigh going public with her account against the potential consequences. She risks alienation from her classmates at the predominantly white high school she attends, as well as much worse from the local drug dealer (Anthony Mackie) who would seek retribution for the wrong secrets getting out. Not to mention the moral and emotional responsibility of possibly becoming a symbol for an entire movement.

The power of The Hate U Give is in the well-realized vision of its lived-in community. Starr and her siblings are growing up in a classically American code-switching existence: living in a low-income, predominantly black community while getting educated at an upper-class, majority white school. The Carters have the means to move out of their home, but their familial and cultural connections make that decision a little complicated. Theirs is a family that has close blood relations with both police officers and career criminals in a manner that makes perfect sense.

The portrait of Starr’s high school, though, does not quite have as much depth. While the casual racism that her classmates display is believable, the white characters are not always fully fleshed out, occasionally sounding like little more than stereotypes. One partial exception is Starr’s boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa), who may say some clueless or insensitive things, but when confronted with a real crisis, he asks Starr genuinely, “How can I help?” This is absolutely no white savior narrative, but it is a story that recognizes the importance of communion and reconciliation.

The film’s title is inspired by the lyrics of 2Pac, who philosophized that communities of color were oppressed by outside institutions influencing them towards fulfilling their worst stereotypes. Ultimately, Starr realizes however that communities must heal themselves, as they are kept down not just by the hate they receive but also the hate that they self-inflect. The truest explanation is that it is really a combination of both, and while The Hate U Give attempts to end on a somewhat overly simplistic note, it does otherwise present a scenario that sincerely conveys that complication. There is hate out there, whether or not you give it or only receive it, but ultimately it is up to every individual to choose to live for love.

The Hate U Give is Recommended If You Like: John Hughes Films, Social Justice

Grade: 4 out of 5 Reasons to Live

This Is a Movie Review: Stuck in a Teenage Girl’s Bedroom, ‘Everything, Everything’ Has a Teenage Heart and Soul

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This review was originally published on News Cult in May 2017.

Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson, Anika Noni Rose, Ana de la Reguera, Morgan Saylor

Director: Stella Meghie

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Artfully Shot Sickness and Tastefully Shot Teen Sensuality

Release Date: May 19, 2017

Everything, Everything is a teen romance fantasy in a vacuum. The good and bad thing about vacuums is that they keep everything out – in this case, both the distractions that can get in the way of a genuine connection but also the context and experiences that deepen that connection.

18-year-old Maddy Whittier (Amandla Stenberg) has been housebound nearly her entire life, due to her Severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a disorder that leaves her deathly vulnerable to all the infections of the outside world. She has managed to carve out a decently satisfying routine in her domestic prison: writing mini reviews of all the books she reads, assembling dioramas of the places she cannot visit, and having game/movie nights with her mom (phonetic Scrabble and Moonstruck are a couple of favorites). But when prototypically cute boy with a hardscrabble home life Olly (Nick Robinson) moves in next door, her desire to break free can no longer be so easily contained.

This is the type of movie in which a character 100% earnestly says, “I loved you before I knew you” (to which the response in real life should always be, “That is not how love works”). But when it comes to the outsize emotions of adolescence, such a sentiment is understandable and can often make for thrilling stories about first love. Everything, Everything wants to be that type of story, and the physical entrapment in its premise is a potent formula for a big tension release, but the trouble is, the chemistry between Stenberg and Robinson is supposed to be self-evident, but in fact it never really clicks.

The lack of passion is a shame, because the design around the lovers is striking. Their conversations are mostly through text or online messaging, but they are sometimes presented as taking place in life-size versions of Maddy’s dioramas – a lovingly designed diner or library occupied just by them, but in which they dance around each other’s orbit, never really in the same spot, representing both the effort to protect Maddy and their emotional distance. When the two are finally allowed to meet in person, their dialogue is accompanied by subtitles representing their inner thoughts (a la Annie Hall), which is insightful enough to make up for the lack of chemistry, but alas that technique lasts only that one scene.

Eventually Maddy decides that she simply must take the risk of leaving home, which ultimately leads to an alarming twist that re-contextualizes the entire film. Suddenly, Everything, Everything is filled with so much more depth than it has been letting on, but there is not enough running time left to fully grapple with all of the implications of this reveal. What at first appears to be (and in fact largely is) a shamelessly mushy love story transforms into an examination of grief and the lengths that people go to protect themselves. These are two sides of a coin that could very well complement each other, but it is hard to be satisfying when one is so much more heavily weighted than the other.

Everything, Everything is Recommended If You Like: The Space Between Us, The music of Ludwig Göransson

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Astronauts