Issue #3: Lol, Millennials Are Fucked 🎓
Eighth Grade + Booksmart
Happy May 15! Or as Cate and I had it bookmarked on our calendars (and the alternate title for this week's issue): our Graduation Day! Today was supposed to be a big, loud, long, celebratory affair where we graduated from USC with master's in Specialized Journalism (the Arts) degrees and went out into the world all triumphant and (hopefully) gainfully employed.
Of course, circumstances being what they are, grad and post-grad life is shaping up to be a different beast entirely. Looking at the silver linings though, we have this newsletter to process some graduation movies and our feelings. The drill is the same as always: two complete film reviews written in 30 minutes or less. Let's go baby!
Zosha on Eighth Grade
Written and Directed by: Bo Burnham
Distributed by: A24
When I interviewed Bo Burnham (flex!) I asked him when he knew he was making a horror movie for a reason. There is an immediate, visceral transportation back to awkward middle school years the second you start Eighth Grade. There is, also, blessedly, relief.
One of the things that I think is so beautiful about Eighth Grade is how it captures the things that Kayla doesn’t see about herself. We know her to be (sometimes painfully) shy, to the point of making almost any situation an instant fish out of water scenario. Her series of advice videos are posed as diametrically opposed to what we see of her actions, her own sort of Greek chorus—which, let’s face it, what more apt Greek chorus is there in school than your own internal expectations?
But we also do see her be tremendously brave, it’s just a kind of courage she doesn’t think about. I, for instance, would never in my life have gone to the pool party that I knew I was only invited to by a non-friend’s mom, let alone make and post videos to the web of myself giving advice! Every time her voice-over hit I thought back to a single seventh grade presentation I did and immediately felt dizzy all over again.
Bo Burnham (Bo Burnham of all people) manages to capture every layer of character she doesn’t, can’t appreciate yet. Instead of sending her on crazy escapades he lets the emotionality of simply graduating—and all the inherent, unintentional self-check-ins that come with it—drive the action.
Again, while there’s a lot of humor in Eighth Grade (bless that teacher’s half-hearted dab), it’s not necessarily fun to watch her go through these final stages and be transported back there yourself. But the film feels so remarkable because it manages to capture the ineffable, the sweetness of that time that we don’t notice when we’re in it. And the movie doesn’t do that with a Stephen King “when we were boys” wrap up, or these grand moments that are all a montage of swirling sunbathed shots.
I think there is no better way to think about the sweetness of Eighth Grade than by putting it in perspective to other graduation movies: There’s the before and the after. The before is usually a wild and crazy night—your Booksmarts, your Superbads, your Can’t Hardly Waits—that all capture how strange it is to be living through the end of a major chapter; you know your life will be different, your relationships will change, your feelings will shift, and you have no way to contextualize how so you fight to preserve them in some way. Then there’s the after: You’ve closed the chapter! You’re done! But you’re never done learning, just ask Brandy (The To Do List), or James (Adventureland), or Ryden (Post Grad, I’m guessing; I haven’t seen it). Often these are all about disgruntlement around your circumstances, and learning the harder lessons in life.
In their own way, both these angles make up part of the graduation experience, where it’s all lead up, lead up, lead up, and then...the great unknown. And that unknown is, ultimately, never quite as mysterious as you expect it to be. (Possibly even in a pandemic! Who knows, I’m writing this with a little lead time.)
With Kayla, Eighth Grade manages to capture both sides of this—we see her grow, and we see her understand that life won’t always ever be set. By the end of the film she is carried through graduation and the juiced rush of emotions that come with it. She’s flowed into a new existence, where she talks to her Dad, and she has a friend named Gabe, and she is learning to be kinder and more compassionate with herself. At no point watching Eighth Grade do you feel like this is the end of Kayla’s life—in fact, you feel like more than ever this is just the start of a great new chapter for her.
Perhaps that’s why this feels like such a comforting graduation movie to watch at the moment that I am supposed to graduate, even if the events of this week and this year prove I couldn’t be further from the Kayla-Zosha middle school version of myself. In the before/after movies, the graduation is a save point that whether you start or stop from serves to mostly sever the narrative from the rest of the rest of your life. Right now, I’m resonating with the idea that Eighth Grade puts forth: I’m ready to be swept into the next phase. One way or another, I’m sure it’s going to be sweet.
Cate on Booksmart
Written by: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman
Directed by: Olivia Wilde
Distributed by: United Artists Releasing
It's fitting that as I write this I am wine drunk and extremely tipsy. When this issue lands in your inbox I will be (inexplicably!) answering a question posed by Norman Lear to the USC class of 2020 and lamenting that I couldn't be celebrating in person with my friends like I planned. What can I say? COVID-19 has derailed a lot of the plans I had for the next couple months.
I chose this movie because when I first saw it a year ago it made me very, very sad. Not because it's a sad movie, but because it has been a very long time since I'd felt like I had a friendship as close and intimate as Amy and Molly's. Part of the reason for that is that I watch far too much television, so my entire perception of the world is warped by pat narrative flourishes that don't exist in the real world. But the rest is because I spent a very long time—years—felling distant and alienated from my best friend. I won't name her because she's reading this and deserves her privacy, (hi my love!) but it was only a few weeks ago that we finally had the talk we'd been putting off for ages. It was healing for me personally, and it also reminded me why I love her and why I'd been struggling so much with how disconnected we'd become. She's my best friend. I have known her for longer than I have known myself and I love her so much it hurt to imagine my life without her. Not being on the same page felt like a fundamental part of myself was missing.
I think Booksmart captured that feeling immaculately. I'm tearing up just thinking about Molly and Amy's fight at that party. Not because it was particularly harsh (even though it was!) but because I have never even had the guts to risk a falling out that monumental. Booksmart is a movie about friendship, but it's also about how friendships grow and change as the people within them do as well. It's a theme that Broad City's final season also tackled—and predictably that also made me cry. As Insecure is demonstrating this season, friend breakups are BRUTAL and are much more impactful than anything a lover can inflict. Your friends are where your home is. When you lose them, you lose yourself.
Being in LA for the last year has been an illuminating journey of personal growth, but mostly it showed me how much I value close relationships with other women, and how miserable I am when I feel I do not have them. Amy and Molly were young and naive and in need of direction and correction and independence, but I've long past that stage in my life. And yet, I envy them because they knew what I didn't at their age—friends matter. They matter so much. They shape you and they change you and they help determine the person you become.
But back to the movie.
Booksmart succeeds because it captures the essence of that far too fleeting moment of our lives. Graduation is a discrete boundary; an ending and beginning wrapped up into one. There is wonderful possibility for the future, but also nostalgia about what is being left behind. I loved that Booksmart found a way to teach Amy and Molly that they are not superior to their peers because they chose a different, more regimented path. The character arc of Annabelle, nicknamed Triple A, might be the smartest, most sex positive thing I've ever seen in a teen movie. Sure she likes oral sex and takes pride in being good at it, but she's also an excellent student! Who's going to Yale! Because sexuality isn't mutually exclusive from intelligence! I still remember being scandalized that a girl in my college orientation session admitted that she wasn't a virgin. Catholic school will FUCK. YOU. UP.
Of course, I lost my virginity by the following November to a man who is now running for Congress. Shit happens!
Olivia Wilde did an excellent job with her debut feature. As with everything, there are issues of course. Literally everything with Jessica Williams' character could and should have been nixed. But if I decide to take the movie as it is—white people doing white people things—then it's a perfection encapsulation of the fleeting nature of the relationships and experiences that shape us.
Molly is a bossy busybody just like me. And Amy is her loyal lieutenant longing for an individual identity. They are both struggling with issues of romance and sexuality like I was, but they're so much more sure of what they want. Booksmart takes pains to work through how friends can be meaningful and codependent and necessary and limiting. Molly and Amy love each other but they are also becoming their own people. They need space. They need room to grow.
I'm so lucky that USC has introduced me to some incredible women I'm proud to call my friends (*makes obnoxious kissy faces in Zosha's direction*) but I also know that I'm quite literally pushing 30 and what I want more than anything is to understand the person that I have become. I love Booksmart because its protagonists are young women who are so much farther along in their journey of self-discovery than I was at their age, and it gives me hope that I still have a little time to figure it out before I'm doomed.
I want to be—no, I am—the bossy plus-sized girl figuring out how to navigate male attention. But I'm also a self-determined middle aged woman with recurring back pain who dates women now. Booksmart is the movie I wish I had as a teen. Even at my big age, it gave me a script for being a woman in the world, and I'm so incredibly grateful for that.
Assorted Internet Detritus
Zosha: If you want to be wigged about the *waves hand* everything, I recommend this (slightly dated?) article by David Wallace-Wells which is summed up pretty aptly by its title: "We still don't know how the coronavirus is killing us." If you don't (understandable!), might I suggest Pauline Kael's practically-a-novella original review on Bonnie and Clyde? Yes it's long enough to leave as a tab open on your computer for weeks — speaking from experience here — but it's just so fun to read someone going long and thoughtful on a movie like that.
Cate: Have you seen the iconic ballet film Center Stage? Of course you have! And now you can read the full, unedited oral history of the making of the movie, courtesy of Vulture, because what else do you have to do? But if you're still itching for corona content, this Jezebel essay about the way fashionable face masks have become a class symbol should satisfy you. Finally, this moving essay by our colleague Chace Beech about caring for her father over at Healthyish for Bon Appetit should be enough to convince you to stay home and flatten the curve!
And with that we're done for the week. In issue #4: a turbo-charged hint, and an enthusiastic fist pump.
A little bummed we're not already incredibly drunk, but still yelling about movies.
Zosha + Cate <3