Movie Review: Nerds Realize That Good Grades and Partying Aren’t Mutually Exclusive in the Goofy and Sweet ‘Booksmart’

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CREDIT: Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures

Starring: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Noah Galvin, Billie Lourd, Skyler Gisondo, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Mike O’Brien, Diana Silvers, Molly Gordon, Mason Gooding, Victoria Ruesga, Austin Crute, Eduardo Franco, Nico Haraga, Stephanie Styles

Director: Olivia Wilde

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for Halting and Manic Attempts at Sex and Drug Use

Release Date: May 24, 2019

Here’s what I’ve learned from Booksmart and other recent high school-set movies and TV shows: all teenagers are smart these days. Maybe there are still some lazy slackers out there, but the conventional wisdom is that they’re the exceptions, and the new normal is that it’s cool to be a good student. This comes as a bit of a shock to Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) on the eve of their graduation, who have spent four years buckling down, nose to textbook, only to look up and discover that their partying classmates also have decent enough transcripts to get into prestigious schools, including one who will be attending Yale alongside Molly. Now, I can buy that partying kids are smart, but two kids from the same high school both going to the same Ivy League institution? That might be a bridge too far. Although, the elite college admissions process can feel so random that just saying “[insert Ivy League school here]” works as shorthand to get the point across for Molly’s worldview to suddenly come tumbling down.

So with that setup, Molly and Amy decide that they’ve got to make up for all the fun they’ve unnecessarily been missing out the past four years by fitting in as much partying as possible the night before their graduation ceremony. It’s a somewhat novel setup for a fairly typical plot, as much of the night is spent getting to the party instead of actually being at the party (Molly and Amy, naturally enough, don’t know their classmate’s address). As is usually the case, the plot shenanigans are quite shaggy, which is sometimes amusing and sometimes a little too random (one drug-fueled animated sequence really comes out of nowhere). The differences come in the perspectives, with a decidedly female (and nerdy) perspective in front of and behind the camera (it’s Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut). But the typical emotional climax is still what you would expect (and be satisfied by). These movies so often steadily build to codependent friends screaming at each other, and we’ve got a doozy of a blowout here. It’s effective, but it also makes me want to see that rare high school party movie about teenage friends with a perfectly healthy relationship.

Booksmart is Recommended If You Like: Superbad, Blockers, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 2000s SNL alumni

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Caps and Gowns

This Is a Movie Review: The Front Runner

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CREDIT: Frank Masi/Sony Pictures

The Front Runner raises a lot of valid points about the propriety, or lack thereof, of prying into politicians’ personal lives, but it is liable to leave you more confused than ever, even if you have strong opinions about all the issues it raises. As the narrative goes, the coverage of Gary Hart’s supposed indiscretions during the 1988 Democratic primary completely derailed his campaign and led to the overall coarsening of the political media landscape that we have today. That may be an accurate narrative, but is it a bad thing that we know more about the personal lives of those who govern us? The fact that it all remained secret for so long is one reason why powerful people have gotten away with terrible behavior.

But as for how it affected Gary Hart specifically, did he deserve what happened to him? The way the movie presents it, it seems like he had been unfaithful in his marriage, but not necessarily in this case. And the Miami Herald, which originally reported on the story, did not appear to do their duest diligence to verify their implications. At least I can unequivocally say it is a good thing that Donna Rice, Hart’s alleged mistress, gets to have her side of the story presented. But otherwise, The Front Runner is a bit of a mess. Although, it could be a portrait of a mess.

I give The Front Runner 2.5 (Million) Accusations out of 5 (Possible) Indiscretions.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Beautiful Boy’ Captures the Wrenching Agony and Anxiety of Addiction

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CREDIT: Francois Duhamel/Amazon Studios

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

Starring: Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Kaitlyn Dever, Andre Royo, Timothy Hutton, Jack Dylan Grazer

Director: Felix Van Groeningen

Running Time: 112 Minutes

Rating: R for Unflinching Drug Injection

Release Date: October 12, 2018 (Limited)

Since becoming the sort of moviegoer who sees as many new releases as possible, I have noticed more and more a certain breed of film that portrays anxiety so unflinchingly that I would never recommend watching it to anyone suffering through their own bouts of anxiety. Perhaps this type of film has been around for decades, and the reason I hadn’t taken notice before was because I would have rarely voluntarily watched them while just hanging out at home, trying to have a good time. But I suspect that it is also true that as a culture we have become more comfortable with portraying mental struggles on screen. Whatever the explanation for this trend, it is time to recognize and codify the Overwhelming Anxiety subgenre for the sake of all moviegoers.

Beautiful Boy might just be the apotheosis of the Overwhelming Anxiety film. It is certainly the most painful example that I can remember. It even features a scene with a doctor examining an MRI scan of an addict’s brain, explaining that the anxiety receptors are essentially screaming out in agony. The addict in question is Nic Sheff, whose mere existence became a constant struggle for his family when he started using methamphetamine as a teenager. Timothée Chalamet plays Nic in a constant state of agony; even in the quieter moments when he seems to be getting by okay, he subtly conveys the black hole in his soul that is impossible to fill except with years of hope and patience. Beautiful Boy is primarily about the destruction that addiction levels against the addict’s loved ones, and bearing the brunt of that is Nic’s father David (Steve Carell). Father and son are like two halves of a whole that cannot possibly disconnect, even when a break seems like it must be the healthiest choice. Carell and Chalamet give performances that are wonders to behold, but just make sure you give your brain a quick health check before you attempt to behold them.

Beautiful Boy is Recommended If You Like: Hoping against hope, Great acting about difficult subject matter

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Addiction

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Detroit’ is a Nauseatingly Intense Portrait of Abuse of Power

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Annapurna Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2017.

Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie, Jason Mitchell, Jacob Latimore, Jack Reynor, Ben O’Toole, Hannah Murray, Kaitlyn Dever, John Krasinski

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Running Time: 143 Minutes

Rating: R for a Real-Life Waking Nightmare

Release Date: July 28, 2017 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide August 4, 2017

To sum up my feelings on Detroit, I feel compelled to borrow from Trevor Noah’s take on the footage of the Philando Castile shooting: I can’t really recommend that anyone watch it, even though I think everyone needs to see it. Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s dramatization of the 1967 Algiers Motel incident is often sickening and rarely allows for any catharsis, even in its slower moments. Even the epilogue title cards, which typically let some light shine through and or at least offer some hope, are just as depressing. The ending left me on edge, about to break down and cry. The point of Detroit is not depression porn, or value posturing, but capturing a moment of a social ill that is not just a moment but a lingering epidemic. Its message needs to be heard, and it is presented in a manner in which it cannot be ignored.

Going into Detroit, I knew little about the specifics of this incident beyond its racial overtones. But soon enough the truth became depressingly obvious. As the film descends into the pit of its most harrowing moments, it becomes clearer and clearer what sort of terrible ending it is headed towards. We have seen this absence of redemption and justice again and again. The smallest of comforts can be drawn from the fact that this is not a new tragedy, but that only leads to the realization that we may be suffering through a never-ending cycle of violence.

Some of the details of the real-life July 1967 event remain in dispute, and the film makes sure to acknowledge that. What is clear, though, is that three black men died that night and that nine other motel residents – seven more black men and two white women – were badly beaten. Without the ubiquitous recording technology of today, it is impossible to know exactly what happened, but it is not hard to accept Detroit’s version of events.

The narrative unfolds in three portions. The opening is a survey of the racial tension of the country in general and Detroit specifically, with an animated prologue explaining how the end of Civil War and its resulting migratory patterns led to this crisis. The conclusion is a pointedly abrupt courtroom drama. But the significant majority is the middle, which reenacts the night at a seemingly real-time pace. It plays like a horror film, with the Detroit police as the home invaders. The Michigan State Police and National Guard offer some chances to escape the terror, but only in a way that protects themselves and provides no long-term relief.

Detroit features a notably large cast for such a painfully intimate setting, and each individual is given their moment to illustrate the major themes. As a security guard attempting to aid both the police and the victims, John Boyega is the personification of internal conflict. As a brazenly, sadistically racist officer, Will Poulter makes it difficult to hold on to the belief that no person is intrinsically evil. A certain well-known actor shows up late and plays strikingly against type as the officers’ lawyer. And Algee Smith has a star turn as one of the victims. He plays Cleveland Larry Reed, a singer attempting to break through with up-and-coming R&B group The Dramatics. You can see his soul withering away at every turn, but just enough brightness shines through on his face to suggest that maybe, just maybe, a happy future could be in store.

Detroit is Recommended If You Like: Fruitvale Station, Home Invasion Horror, Getting Righteously Angry

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Death “Games”