As good as the top movies of 2018 have been, so far, it’s also been a year that’s felt particularly iterative. All of my favourite movies of the year so far have in some way, even tangentially in some cases, been slight improvements over similar films from the last couple of years. For example, A Quiet Place and Sorry To Bother You are in one way or another, could be considered this year’s Get Out, in the former’s case a low-budget indie darling that rode critical hype to obscene box office success, or in the case of the latter, a subversive, transformative take on the modern black experience. In a more linear fashion, Black Panther is the superhero film that did for black audiences what Wonder Woman did for female audiences,while Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2 iterated on the superhero sequel in more traditional ways, Mission: Impossible – Fallout pushed the boundaries of what should legally be allowed on the set of an action movie, and so on, and so forth. I’m not sure if this is exactly a take down of a year that desperately needs something a little more original, or an indication that things are going well since it’s arguably been a better year for film so far, but it’s an interesting phenomenon, and it continued for me following my experience with Bo Burnham’s coming-of-age dramedy Eighth Grade this past weekend, a film I enjoyed tremendously but had trouble separating from my experience with last year’s coming-of-age stories about young girls, Lady Bird and The Florida Project.
First things first; Burnham’s directorial debut, Eighth Grade is the story of Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an introverted young girl in her final week of middle school as she struggles with what she perceives to be her own shortcomings in a world dominated by the persistent connectivity and pressure that comes with social media. It’s a fantastic film that sheds any and every possible kind of pretense for the sake of a realistic portrayal of what life at that age must currently be like. Burnham’s writing and directing seem unconcerned with his own filter, his own interpretation, as the film almost never deviates from telling Kayla’s story as you’d imagine she’d want to tell it. It’s an impressive feat considering that any relatively accurate, realism-bound representations of teenage life in a given time frame don’t usually come until that generation is old enough to make their own movies. Eighth Grade manages to be relatable because no matter how the times change, no matter which social media platform (if any) you had in middle school, the basic tenets of growing up, of struggling with the horrors of school and popularity and the opposite sex and your own insecurities tend to stay mostly the same. Eighth Grade manages to leave its audience empathetic to Kayla’s struggles, no matter how contextually different they may be to our own, or how frivolous or inconsequential they may seem to an adult with a mortgage or dependents of their own, yet it’s also relatable enough to apply to each and every one of our own struggles and haunting nightmares of our developmental years. It’s uber realistic, charming, and relentlessly cringy at every possible turn, a rousing success for Burnham as he begins his directorial career.
It’s a great, original film that I will recommend to everyone and that has a very strong chance of making my top 10 this year, but looking at some early Oscar predictions, it’s unlikely to break through the way it probably should, outside of maybe a Best Original Screenplay nomination. And that got me thinking about those two aforementioned coming-of-age films from 2017, both of which share commonalities with Eighth Grade, especially thematically, but took two very different paths following their release. One, namely The Florida Project, was similarly raw, original and important, and at the end of the line it failed to break through come awards season in any meaningful way. The other broke Rotten Tomatoes records, topped everyone’s best of lists and breezed to five Oscar nominations. And while it wasn’t a bad movie, I felt like I was taking crazy pills watching Lady Bird accomplish all of this despite what I perceived to be some very apparent flaws. And at the risk of angering some of you reading, I’m going to use those flaws (and the ignored strengths of The Florida Project) to show the inherent unfairness of what’s about to happen to Eighth Grade.
In case you need a refresher course, The Florida Project is the story of a young girl living in poverty with her struggling, rebellious mother that place over a summer in the shadow of Disneyworld. Young Moonee is living life like any six-year-old would, oblivious to the hardships and realities of the world around her before it very abruptly tries and slap her in the face. The movie, from innovative indie filmmaker Sean Baker, is unabashedly raw. From how it’s filmed, to the cast of first-time actors it employs (anchored by a phenomenal Oscar-nominated performance from Willem Dafoe), The Florida Project never stops reminding you that what’s happening in the movie is reflective of actual, real-life, current-day society. More than a coming-of-age film, it’s a take down of vicious circle status quo of capitalism, the all-too-real story of a teen mom that’s already been failed by the system and is only further punished by it simply because she wants to try and make ends meet and do right by her daughter.
Despite all of that, The Florida Project wasn’t able to translate its sheer originality and bleeding raw message into anything more than that aforementioned nomination for Willem Dafoe. The Oscars are tragically broken, so I’m not here to reiterate any of that (although you can see me discuss that at length in my post about the new popular film category from last week), but it’s an easy benchmark to point to when it comes to films that are so obviously deserving of more attention and love, but fair to get it because they aren’t as flashy and accessible as their alternatives. Like The Florida Project, Eighth Grade is similarly low budget, raw, uber-realistic and ultra-relevant, and lacking the flash that usually draws people’s attention.
That’s where Lady Bird comes in. Greta Gerwig’s film is competently made, charming and easily accessible, but it managed to ride the coattails of two phenomenal performances and subtle nostalgia to five Oscar nominations and endless fawning from anyone with a top ten list. Posing as semi-autobiographical and taking place around the turn of the century, Lady Bird tells the story of its titular character, a young woman played by Saoirse Ronan as she struggles with her identity, with boys, and with authority figures (including her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf) in her final year of high school, with dreams of moving out of the suburbs and out to the big, far away city.
A lot of that log line sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? At the end of the day, you can boil movies like this, and Eighth Grade, and countless others down to a similar sentence. Where they deviate, and I feel as if Eighth Grade veers closer to what The Florida Project does, is in how it uses that pretty generic elevator pitch to send a message through its subtext. The Florida Project has something to say about the way the system puts people in poverty at a disadvantage. It makes you question the very nature of that system. To be fair, I don’t think the level of subtext runs that deep with Eighth Grade, but Burnham definitely has something pertinent to say about how we perceive the younger generation and how their constant connectivity may or may not be something worth discussing (he specifically treats it as a benign constant, actually). In comparison, Lady Bird reflects on a fictional relationship between mother and daughter that’s likely more extreme than anything Gerwig every experienced (by her own admission, as a matter of fact), and while that’s entertaining and familiar and, in a way, heartwarming, and certainly deserves a place in any conversation of last year’s best films (even though it didn’t make mine), it doesn’t really feel as if it has anything important to say through that story, other than possibly a reminder to call your mom once in a while. I just wonder if a message tantamount to what you can get out of a Hallmark card is worthy of the praise it received, particularly, it seems, at the expense of something like The Florida Project. While it and now Eighth Grade attempt to humanize their contemporary, misunderstood subjects in an effort to make them relatable to the audience, and while they do it in genuinely impressive ways with a small budget and unrecognizable casts, Lady Bird merely peddles in the theatrics of its top performances and the familiarity of an era that hasn’t yet been mined for nostalgia.
This all finally made me realize why I didn’t get on the Lady Bird hype train. While it’s a good movie, while its performances are excellent and its message relatable, it feels manufactured in kind of a sneaky way, a transmutation of what used to be the typical form of Oscar bait into something more modish and palpable to audiences that have long-since learned how to recognize when they’re being pandered to. I don’t want to say that Gerwig isn’t passionate about what she made, but there’s a reason why she hired two recognizable, decorated actresses (ones you’ve certainly seen in half a dozen shows and movies despite the fact that they’re not usually in any blockbusters) to be her leads and not rather with unknowns that would leave more room for the material. There’s a reason it’s set in the past, peddling in nostalgia that distracts from the film’s shortcomings with efficacy, a nostalgia for the under-served median age of influential voices (as well as the ever-growing younger class of Academy voters).
This isn’t meant to serve as some sort of grand conspiracy theory, just a reflection of the fact that even indie movies are made with profit and marketability in mind, and that those aspects are keenly obvious in a movie like Lady Bird. Those things are present in one form or another with Eighth Grade and The Florida Project as well (all three were distributed by A24 and both Eighth Grade and Lady Bird were produced by Scott Rudin). In fact, their realistic, raw nature is probably just as designed to sucker in someone like me. The Florida Project employed Guerilla tactics to film a scene at Disneyworld, and that’s an easy, marketable point. Eighth Grade is a contemporary movie about 13-year-olds starring 13-year-olds, and that’s part of the pitch. It even shares some of those tactics with Lady Bird, taking place in a monotonous suburban town with a Burger King in its mall food court that could serve as the setting to each and every one of our stories. It has a quirky father figure either meant to remind us of our dad or, if we’re old enough, the father we either hope to be or dread that we’ve become. It puts its main character through the ringer of awkward teenage situations we’ve all experienced, be it the pity party invite, the too-cool-for-school popular kid they try to befriend, the fleeting crush that, in retrospect, was a dodged bullet, or whatever else. A lot of these things are certainly common between Lady Bird and Eighth Grade, some even with the somewhat different Florida Project. They just feel more authentic in one over the other, the tactics less obvious, more honest to the voice of the auteur, more indicative of where trends in indie filmmaking need to go.
I tend to get a little riled up, and this all probably feels like too harsh of a takedown for a film that I honestly liked. Greta Gerwig is a competent filmmaker and with Lady Bird she manages to to reign in two powerhouse performances that would have otherwise dominated the film beyond recognition. Her subtle use of nostalgia, the way she kept her characters within the parameters of their archetypes and the tactics she employed to make her film stand out yet remain relatable are commendable and worthy of praise and, hey, probably even those Oscar nominations. But the best way I can describe what I mean here, and hopefully without sounding to harsh, is that Lady Bird feels like the offspring of someone who has seen a bunch of John Hughes movies and made that kind of film in her own image, just better than the dozens of other filmmakers doing the same thing. In contrast, Eighth Grade feels like the product of what could very well be the next John Hughes, that is to say, a talented, emergent young filmmaker capable of tuning in to the frequency of the current generation and making movies for them. Of course, Bo Burnham’s directed but one movie and done some standup we’ve all seen on Youtube, so who knows if that comparison is worthy, but Eighth Grade truly is that good and worthy of that kind of praise.
Thing is, circling back, in a year that’s been remarkably iterative so far on the last couple of years of cinema, it’s hard to see something like this breaking out of the pack when it doesn’t have that flash, that gimmick, that thing for people to latch on to. Eighth Grade is special in that it’s a really good movie and its reflective of the way indie films of this nature will hopefully evolve in the coming years, but its unique properties simply don’t stand out the way they need to to make an immediate impact, making it likely to disappear in the shuffle of this year’s awards frenzy. That being said, it’s easily one of my favourite movies of the year so far (9.5 out of 10), and I will do my part to keep it part of the conversation.