Two Contemporary Biographies

One an Anxious Tweener and the Other a Reformed Reprobate

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Eighth Grade
Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is 13 and in her last week of eighth grade and looking forward—with trepidation—to high school in her benign suburb. The year has been hard on the naturally shy kid (who doesn’t have a mom in her life) as she struggles to find herself. Generally addicted, like many of her peers, to her electronic devices, she tries to salve her ego with her own webcast, stumbling to express mini-profundities—like “being yourself”–in a delivery littered with “ya knows” and “likes” to a fictive audience (The film, now in theaters, is rated “R” and runs 94 minutes).

Kayla so desperately wants to be cool but can’t, like, seem to achieve it. She’s embarrassed at a pool party, though a nerdy boy, Gabe (Jake Ryan), pays some attention to her. Connecting with others is essential to her, but she has little knack for it. She tries to play up to more worldly girls and, a bit desperately, researches sex acts in an attempt to interest vapid boys. At the year-end assembly, her mortification is complete by being named “Most Quiet” student in the school.

Her semi-clueless single dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) loves her and tries to buck Kayla up, but it’s hard when he can’t enter her well of isolation and reach her through the fog of social media. She has a small breakthrough when a high school shadow program matches her with the lively Olivia (Emily Robinson), who becomes a mentor to her, but another encounter on a drive with an older boy (Daniel Zolghadri) turns ugly when he suggests a sordid “truth or dare” exchange. Kayla’s review of her earlier sixth-grade time capsule causes her to reject her past and try to look forward with some measure of confidence.

“Eighth Grade” stands or falls on the performance of 15-year-old Elsie Fisher (an actor since she was five). Well, in her case, she stands tall–at probably 5’ 3.” Maybe she is just playing herself, a prototype American teenager, but she makes the character of Kayla her own, appearing in virtually every scene. Her round face of acceptance, lightly sprinkled with adolescent zits, and her moony eyes seem just right for this puzzled, poignant young girl, as is her placid, hesitant voice searching for affirmation from everyone. She is moody and muddled but still emits small bursts of courage in trying to grow up enough for the next stage of her life.

Writer/director Bo Burnham makes his feature film debut with “Eighth Grade” and reveals tremendous promise with this achievement. Burnham, though now all of 27, appears to have total recall of middle school and its multifarious humiliations. He had success early as a YouTube entertainer in his teens, writing and performing satirical gigs in his house, then moving on to stand-up comedy. His penetrating dive into the mind of an anxious but endearing young woman makes “Eighth Grade” a template for today’s teens and a wonder for filmgoers.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as John Callahan on “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.” Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
Director Gus Van Sant has crafted an immense variety of films in the last 30 years, from small indies to major studio properties. In his latest, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” he is back in mainstream Hollywood with a gutsy biopic based on the life of cartoonist John Callahan, an unrepentant drunk and ne’er-do-well whose life turned around at 21 when he became a paraplegic after a vicious car crash (now in theaters, the film is rated “R” and runs 113 minutes).

Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix), a drinker since he was 13, is a bum and a slob when he hitches up with the loudmouth Dexter (Jack Black) on a colossal bender in his hometown of Portland. He ends up in the hospital after a car accident that leaves him barely alive and without feeling in his lower body. Upon his release, he only reluctantly enters treatment, but with encouragement from girlfriend Annu (Rooney Mara), whom he met in the hospital, he begins attending AA-sponsored group therapy at the home of Donnie (Jonah Hill), a group leader who becomes his sponsor. Ornery and eccentric, John defies treatment by continuing to drink and to live riskily—as when he speeds in his wheelchair—and to offend his fellow group members.

Uncertain how to adapt to his disability, Callahan stumbles upon a gift for drawing nervy, impudent cartoons that get ready laughs, and he gets published locally. He thus achieves a discipline he has never known and finds romance with Annu, gains a bevy of new friends, and is even able to track down and forgive the obnoxious Dexter, who was responsible for his crash. His work gains a national following and a richer life.

Callahan’s story is made-to-order for Joaquin Phoenix. The much in-demand actor, though rarely sympathetic on screen, has shone great range in the last 25 years, playing both clueless types (as in “To Die For,” his first work with Van Sant) as well as nasty swine (“The Gladiator” and “The Immigrant”). Yet he has been perhaps most commonly cast as a very flawed, if semi-aware, wastrel, one given to rough living and raw emotions (e.g., the recent “Irrational Man” and “Inherent Vice”). In “Don’t Worry,” Phoenix finds a persona that suits these traits, a profligate whose life is completely upended and yet ends up making comic use out of his own crushing disability. Phoenix is both convincing as an inveterate drunk as well as the artist redeemed by his snarky sensibility. The only dissident note is a misbegotten orange wig.

He is nicely seconded in “Don’t Worry” by Jonah Hill as Donnie, a soft-spoken and enigmatic rich boy who mixes his Liberace ways with some surprising spine to keep his charges on the right track, a track he himself, as an alcoholic, must maintain. His Donnie is hard to read, a bit mysterious, but an intriguing contrast to the crass Callahan.

 

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found at www.mikesflix.com.