As film distributors in 2018 clearly haven’t learned their lesson, both of the ones I saw this past week had the following three things in common:
- They were universally acclaimed
- They were promoted extensively in trailers I got in front of other films
- They got a limited release.
Unlike most instances where that ends up being the case, these ones happened to be in theaters close to where I live. With the quality of works becoming more difficult to separate from the critical hype surrounding them and an opportunity to see them before a fair chunk of my readers, I thought a reconnaissance mission was in order.
Three Identical Strangers by Tim Wardle (2018)
In the fall of 1980, Robert “Bobby” Shafran arrived at a small community college in upstate New York. To his bewilderment, students kept asking him how his summer had been. To make matters stranger, complete strangers insisted on patting him on the back, sharing gossip with him, and even affectionately kissing him – all on his first day on campus. The first piece of the puzzle was when one of the students called him “Eddy”. Though Bobby informed the student of his name, the latter insisted he looked exactly like a young man who had attended the college the previous year. To Bobby’s surprise, the student then asked if he was adopted and if his birthday was July 12, 1961. The answer to both of these questions was yes. Bobby ended up calling Eddy Galland, and when they met, they realized they had a long-lost twin brother. The reunion became a sensation when it was run in several local newspapers. This story had an additional, unbelievable twist when it ultimately came to the attention of friends of one David Kellman. They were convinced that David was in the photograph, and not to long thereafter, they learned they were identical triplets.
Between Gimme Shelter and Whitney, I’ve been seeing quite a few documentaries lately. When the trailer for Three Identical Strangers debuted at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, the response was overwhelmingly positive with nearly every quote used hyping it like crazy (evident in the above poster). One of the quotes used was simply “Oh my god”, which I’m sure sounded like a glowing recommendation to those making the trailer, but I would posit that most people would react in such a fashion if they were made to watch something like Battlefield Earth or Knowing.
Luckily, this isn’t a case in which critics were massively overhyping things, for this is indeed a fascinating documentary. The three brothers are initially elated to discover each other and they enjoy their many appearances in the media, including a collective cameo appearance in Desperately Seeking Susan, the film that helped propel Madonna into superstardom. What particularly captured the media’s attention is how they have very similar interests and likes/dislikes despite growing up in radically different households. They even take advantage of this when one brother, who lacked medical insurance, was afflicted with appendicitis. He pretended to be the affluent (and, more importantly, insured) Bobby so he could have his appendix removed. The trio even founded a restaurant in New York named, appropriately enough, Triplets that ended up being quite popular.
However, despite being something out of a fairy tale, a cloud of darkness surrounds this story. While the brothers were happy to have found one another, the parents were outraged. How could the adoption agency neglect to inform them that their kids had two identical brothers? Several years later, it’s reveled that they, and many other identical twins were separated at the behest of an influential psychiatrist named Peter B. Neubauer. A former colleague of Anna Freud, his goal in doing this was to provide a definitive answer to the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture. I remember thinking it a little suspicious that the brothers were placed in homes in wildly different classes, and with the revelation, it all made sense; they were subjects of a scientific study. The story takes a tragic turn in 1995 when Eddy takes his own life after having voluntarily committed himself a few times. As it turns out, certain other twins who were part of the experiment suffered from strange anxiety they couldn’t explain, driving some of them to kill themselves too.
Naturally, this film dives into the ethics of these scientific pursuits, and it does offer a lot of excellent talking points. One of the biggest points is that the findings were never formally published, which in turn touches on the subject of those experimented on having the right to know that information. On the other hand, such a startling revelation could prove overwhelming to other twins involved in the experiment. Although I think the critics may have oversold it a little, I think this documentary is worth checking out.
Eighth Grade by Bo Burnham (2018)
Kayla Day is an eighth-grader a mere week away from moving onto high school. She posts motivational videos on YouTube about confidence and self-image. This choice is quite ironic because the videos get almost no views and she struggles to make friends at school. She is invited to a party hosted by a more popular classmate when the latter’s mother forces her to. It is at this party that Kayla realizes her perfect chance to open up.
A24 has had a very strange track record as of late. On one hand, their films tend to garner a lot of critical acclaim on top of being beloved by cinephiles, but it’s often at the expense of alienating what’s often derisively called by those same groups the “mall crowd”. At least one article I read says a lot of A24’s problems come from attempting to have their cake and eat it by trying to appeal to the general public while also selling premises only the most dedicated moviegoer is going to appreciate. There’s nothing wrong with a challenging premise, but earlier this year, A24’s Hereditary met a major backlash likely because the company (or whoever they hired to make the trailers) did just that. Nonetheless, I was going into Eighth Grade with a mostly positive attitude because I feel A24 is at their best whenever they tell mundane stories with Moonlight being one of the best films from 2016.
The numbers would indicate that Eighth Grade is one of the best films of the decade, even managing to exceed 90% on Metacritic – a feat even classic films such as Scarface failed to accomplish. So did Bo Burnham manage to redeem the studio after the decidedly middle-of-the-road Hereditary? My answer is: sort of. I do think these relatively unknown actors capture exactly what the director was going for on paper. The lead is an awkward teenage girl and her father is well-meaning if fitting in with what is generally considered a “dork”. I also like how much the film plays around with the tropes from these kinds of films. The boy Kayla has a crush on is a stereotypical “bad boy”, yet the other students recognize him as such, and discourage her from hanging around him. As it turns out, he broke up with his girlfriend because she refused to send him nude photos. Furthermore, Kayla doesn’t have much of a social circle to speak of, and the other students, often as caught up in their phones as she is, don’t really actively bully her, but rather passively shun her.
Unfortunately, I’d say this a case in which the film’s greatest strength is also its Achilles’ heel. The leads don’t have much in the way of charisma, which I appreciate is the point, but I still felt it didn’t exactly make for a compelling conflict. During the video sequences, I was so distracted by the sheer number of times Kayla says “like” that I tended to forget the point she was trying to make. There’s a reason fictional dialogue tends to be unrealistically eloquent. Don’t get me wrong, the leads aren’t unlikable, but as a slice-of-life story, the film took a long time to get anywhere, and when Kayla makes a friend, it was with a boy who only made one or two other brief appearances beforehand. I had to read a synopsis to make sure it was even the same person. This means we don’t really get to see the relationship develop; all we see are the two endpoints of that arc. I can accept it’s not the point, but it still felt underwhelming and rushed.
I find it appropriate that A24 was also behind Lady Bird because I have pretty much the exact same opinion on both films: they’re decent, but not to the extent that they deserve to be placed on such high pedestals. One of the problems I had with Lady Bird was that the main character’s mother was far less sympathetic than the writers thought she was. While Eighth Grade doesn’t have as glaring of a flaw, I still feel that, like Lady Bird, it’s a little too safe for its own good. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is good – just not “98% on Rotten Tomatoes”, “8.1/10 on IMBb”, or “91% on Metacritic” good. If you’re looking for a teen period piece from this era, I would recommend looking into Edge of Seventeen instead. The director encouraged young teens to see Eighth Grade without their parents’ permission (despite being a rather soft “R” rating). Personally, I don’t think it would be worth the risk.