The theme for this month – Girls on Fire

Theatrical Releases

Leave No Trace (2018)

Directed by Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone, Stray Dog (2014))
Written by Granik and Anne Rosselini (Winter’s Bone)
Starring: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey, Dana Millican, Alyssa Lynn, Ryan Joiner and Ayanna Berkshire.

“Leave No Trace paints a heartbreaking portrait of a father-daughter duo who live off the grid in an urban Portland forest. The father, Will (Foster), suffers from PTSD and a fundamental lack of trust in civil society; he has raised his daughter, Thom (McKenzie) to feel the same. Their woodland routine is idyllic: they forage for mushrooms, gather water in a tarp, and play chess under the eaves of canvas. But when a moment’s mistake brings them into contact with the real world—a world of church obligations, social workers, and mandatory schooling—the pair struggle to stay together as their identities begin to diverge.” Victoria Albert, Bust

“It is a strange answer, and yet she nods quietly, eschewing material things in a way that is atypical of a teenager. Only when the film gets into its central conflict—whether Will has their best interests at heart—does Tom become an independent thinker, and yet it is not a stretch when she quietly, patiently makes her case.

“With its Pacific Northwest setting, Granik evokes the same feeling and aesthetic as Kelly Reichardt. In films like Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt presents the region as a place where life is tough and the people persist in a quiet, gentle way.” Alan Zilberman, Washington City Paper

“Winter’s Bone featured Jennifer Lawrence in a breakout performance as the oldest of three siblings attempting to track down her drug-dealing father in the backwoods of Missouri. Granik’s most recent film was the 2014 documentary Stray Dog, also too-little-seen, about a burly, gregarious Vietnam veteran and biker, Ronnie ‘Stray Dog’ Hall, who regularly congregates with other vets, many of them with PTSD, and has a fondness for small pooches.

“In its probingness and choice of subject, Leave No Trace comes across like a compendium of Granik’s work to date. It’s very difficult to present scripted material as if it were caught on the fly, documentary-style, and her success here is a tribute to her uncoercive honesty as a filmmaker. It’s clear from watching Leave No Trace that these are people, and this is a story, that Granik cares deeply about. It’s rarer than you think to watch a movie in which this is the case.

“Much of the movie, especially in the early, woodsy section, is essentially wordless.” Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor

Eighth Grade (2018)

Directed by Bo Burnham (Bo Burnham: Make Happy)
Written by Burnham.
Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Daniel Zolghadri, Frank Deal, Greg Crowe, Emily Robinson and Phoebe Amirault.

“Grownup audiences are flocking to movies with sweetness in them this summer, and you won’t find a sweeter, more adorable heroine than Kayla, the archetypal middle schooler in Eighth Grade. She’s played by Fisher (who voiced unicorn-obsessed little Agnes in Despicable Me), just out of eighth grade herself. She’s not as deep as Meryl Streep, but just as precise, rendering each halting, self-doubting yet stubbornly, awkwardly self-actualizing syllable Kayla utters (or mutters) with such authenticity that it seems like a kid’s real life unfolding moment to moment.

“Kayla is an aspiring YouTube star whose weekly videos give helpful ‘Life Tips for People Like Me.'” Tim Appelo, AARP

“Kayla goes to a pool party hosted by the class’s coolest girl, Kennedy. She shadows a high school student named Olivia (Robinson) through an entire school day and panics over what to wear when she’s invited to go to the mall with Olivia’s friends. She thirsts mightily after her class’s heartthrob, Aiden (Prael). And she tries, with all her might, to feel like the thing she’s always wanted to be: the ‘coolest girl in the world.’

“All these things seem trivial from an adult perspective, but when you’re 13 they matter so, so very much. Eighth Grade gets that. It’s a very funny movie, but the audience laughs are more laughs of painful recognition than derision. Of course it’s funny that Aiden is, in reality, a scrawny and not particularly interesting kid, but who doesn’t look back at their teenaged crush with a raised eyebrow? Yes, watching Kayla step reluctantly onto the pool deck in her one-piece bathing suit, surrounded by a sea of girls in bikinis, is cringe-inducing, but it’s also bound to provoke a chuckle from anyone who remembers what it felt like to feel that different from everyone else.” Alissa Wilkinson, Vox

“Burnham avoids most of the Mean Girls-style tropes in favor of a more gently humorous and nuanced approach.” Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor

“Eighth Grade offers no sense of the world that Kayla lives in, observes, or imagines. She may not have any close friends, but she has, at least, acquaintances, classmates. What does she talk quietly about with her non-friends? Or, for that matter, with her father? Mark, whose wife, Kayla’s mother, he says, left the family, seemingly has no social life. What does Kayla know, or think, about her father, about her parents’ lives?” Richard Brody, New Yorker

Archival film

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Directed by Carl Th. Dreyer (Ordet, Day of Wrath)
Shot by Rudolph Mate (To Be or Not To Be, Vampyr)
Starring: Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, André Berley, Maurice Schutz, Antonin Artaud, Michel Simon and Jean d’Yd.

“The Passion of Joan of Arc, directed by Dreyer, is often cited as one of the greatest films of the silent era. Featuring stage actress Falconetti in the title role, Dreyer’s film is particularly notable for her performance and for the film’s cinematography and production: it is constructed largely of close-ups and was filmed on a single concrete set representing the prison where Joan of Arc was imprisoned before her execution.” Sarah Boslaugh, Playback StL

Screenings*:

Leave No Trace is at The Grand Cinema.
Eighth Grade will start at The Grand Cinema on Friday, August 3.
The Passion of Joan of Arc will screen at 7:15 p.m. on Friday, August 10 in the Center for Spiritual Living (206 N. J St).

The TFC Discussion Night for these three films is Wednesday, August 15 in the CSL.

*We are watching two films at the Grand this month. It is hot inside the CSL.

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One thought on “Producers’ Film Picks for August 2018

  1. Girls on Film. It’s not just a questionable Duran Duran song. This month TFC chose to look at three powerful portrayals of young girls, yes, on film. As luck would have it, just in time for the hot summer months, two of the most stirring portraits of girls in recent memory passed through the Grand’s orbit – “Leave No Trace” and “Eighth Grade.” Those same two films were also featured at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), and I was lucky enough to see both of them paired with key figures in their development, most notably for Eighth Grade both the writer/director Bo Burnham and the unbelievable Elsie Fisher. Below are a few thoughts as an appetizer for this month’s discussion, mainly on these films but also in relation to “The Passion of Joan of Arc” which I was able to catch on my iPhone in the original French (note: I don’t speak French) on the plane ride east this weekend.

    Girls on Fire. Persecution – the obvious tie between all three films. Most explicitly with Joan d’Arc, but clearly the other two movies delve deep into varying flavors of societal victimization. Perhaps more systemic in “Leave No Trace” and more personal as the evils of middle school descend upon Kayla in “Eighth Grade.” Nonetheless, all three movies provide a rare opportunity to see critical aspects of society through the gaze of a young girl. Unfortunately, as the folks recommending movies to pair up this month discovered, there are far too few films that take this challenge to heart. Hopefully these two theatrical releases will be the start of a new wave of young girl-centric films that the club can feature again at some point, along the lines of our pairing last summer with the Beguiled, Mustang, and the Witch.

    Four rounds of standing ovations greeted Elsie Fisher after the SIFF opening of Eighth Grade, along with a similar level of enthusiasm for Bo Burnham. As you likely know, Eighth Grade would go on to win the best film award at SIFF. Although heavily marketed as a coming of age film, I disagree. That term bring so many stereotypes. It’a a movie about an age and, as in real life, she grows some, but also deals with injurious situations that the movie leaves vague as to whether she in fact recovers from in a positive way. It’s also a snapshot of her life, just one week, and the writer (as explained at SIFF) intentionally provides little backstory so that the focus remains on her. Not her family, or even other societal pressures. Just those key stressors so closely associated with Middle School, and of that time in all of our lives. For me, the film is all the more powerful for that reason, especially since in doing so it increases our focus on Elsie Fisher’s performance even more.

    The inclusion of a father as the only real adult character of substance is also intentional, in part to recognize the fact that the film is written by, well, a dude. Bo Burnham explained that he recognized the inherent limitations he would have in scripting the film if he were to try and capture an entire universe of family dynamics and so chose to, again, keep it spare with just the father figure. Again, for me, that works so well because there are so few great father-daughter movies and the perhaps too simplified adult character provides a great foil to the complexities of Kayla. I could go on, but there have been many interviews with Bo Burnham at this point, so I would encourage folks to seek those out to understand the movie better. However, one story that did get relayed, and may not be widely repeated. is that shortly before (if I remember correctly) the filming of this movie Elsie Fisher tried out for a play at her school and got rejected by the drama teacher. As Elsie Fisher was telling this story to the audience at SIFF Bo Burnham grabbed a mike and let loose a profanity-filled tirade against the drama teacher. Half joking or not, it brought house down, although I think the actual eight graders in the audience were in a bit of shock.

    “Leave No Trace” is a stunning achievement on many levels, and certainly it could have fit thematically into a wide range of other movie bundles. Not surprisingly, when I saw it at SIFF the immediate audience reaction focused in large part on the issues around veteran care that it brought up. That is, of course, a crucial debate but for me it is once again the phenomenal character study that is Tom that really came to the fore. It’s already been talked about to death, but since this is the same team that did “Winter’s Bone” with Jennifer Lawrence it was inevitable that comparisons to that career-defining role would come up. Like that film, it is just a remarkable portrait of a young girl, already strong and again, not so much coming of age but coming to terms with difficult life choice that all of us may have to make – regardless of age. The movie in so may ways speaks for itself I don’t feel that I need to say much about it, but for me the decision that Ben Foster makes to say almost nothing in the film amplifies Tom’s role even more and amplifies the uniqueness of the film as a character study of a young girl. Taken together, the performances by Thomasin McKenzie and Elsie Fisher should be long remembered as two of the great young female performances in ages, and my hope is that those performances will be recognized come Oscar time in some form.

    Finally, on “Passion of Joan of Arc” I don’t have much to add that hasn’t already been said over the ninety years that the film has now been around (well, not so much since it disappeared for many years). However, pairing it with these two brand new films provides a great lens through which to both appreciate how great Joan of Arc was (and is) but also to compare and contrast some of the stylistic choices with both “Eighth Grade” and “Leave No Trace.” Specifically, the vibrant close ups of “Eighth Grade” and the myriad of interesting angles that Bo Burnham chose in telling that modern story reminded me of the (obviously superior) Joan of Arc, and a reminder of how much of a story can be relayed just through some well placed shots. With “Leave No Trace”, and the essentially wordless nature of so much of film, one can’t help but look at the wonderful story that Joan of Arc conveys and also wonder if more films also did what Ben Foster chose to do, and cut out more dialogue, if they might be the better for it. Obviously, it would vary movie to movie, but both movies prove a great reminder that sometimes less is more when it comes to moving the movie through dialogue.

    Just a few thoughts from me on this month’s selections. Apologies that I won’t be able to join you in discussion this month, but I hope you enjoy the feast of ideas that these movies provide!

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