BOOKSMART

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

God damn it, people! You need to go see Booksmart! It’s no surprise that this Memorial Day Weekend box office was dominated by Aladdin, which also opened this weekend; the same goes for the top four being rounded out by smash hits John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum (in its second weekend), Avengers: Endgame (still on track to be the biggest box office success in history — in unadjusted dollars), and Pokémon Detective Pikachu (the first-ever live-action movie based on the most profitable franchise ever). Still, Detective Pikachu is in its third week, and honestly, Booksmart deserves to be at least competitive as a top-3 placeholder.

Ten years ago, it very well might have been. Now, it barely squeaks into sixth place, taking in a paltry $8.7 million. Less than a million tickets have been sold to see this movie, and it’s getting lamented in headlines as being crushed by the competition. And why? Because we live in a world now where going out to the movie theatre is reserved, by most, for spectacle. Aladdin is all spectacle. So are those other movies mentioned. Booksmart, by contrast, is about laughs, and fun, and character, and heart. Just without special effects. Who wants that!

Well, I do. And you should too! Scrolling through Twitter, excuses can be found regarding how going to the movies is just too expensive anymore. You know what? Barely more than twenty bucks for an AMC monthly subscription that allows for seeing up to three movies a week is not that expensive. Okay, yeah, a movie outing for a family of four gets pricey. This is an R rated comedy that is not intended for those audiences.

But, the argument goes, the audience this movie does have is far more prone to watch this movie later on a streaming service, at a fraction of the cost, in the comfort of their own home. It’s entirely possible I’m just being a grouchy old geezer about this. I love the movie-going experience. Even if I don’t know anyone else in the theatre, I love the communal aspect of it, getting a sense of how much everyone else is enjoying it compared to me. And I can tell you this much: Booksmart gets a lot of laughs.

It’s never cheap laughs, either, never low-hanging fruit. This is smart comedy, from a uniquely joyous script that offers a truly diverse array of characters who are to a person well-rounded, a rare case of a movie about teenagers that highlights the best of them as they exist in 2019, rather than the worst of them. These are kids who can make a mess of things — sure, they make mistakes. But in this movie, their peers are generally kind, and quick to forgive, or at least move on and offer second chances.

Now, to be fair, the gags and punchlines aren’t completely consistent in how well they land. I kind of wanted the sequence in which Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlin Dever) get high and hallucinate themselves as Barbie dolls to be funnier than it really was. But, two key things make up for such semi-lulls in the narrative. Firstly, the laughs otherwise come far more steadily than they do in 90% of the other comedies that get released in theatres. This is a comedy that will make you laugh out loud. Second, Molly and Amy are supremely endearing as these over-achieving super dorks, who suddenly realize the night before graduation that they wasted time focusing only on school work and never having any real fun.

And so, Booksmart is the story of their pursuit of such fun, spending about half the movie in search of one particular kid’s party, and making pit stops at two other poor excuses for parties along the way. Once they get to the destination party, it becomes about how they figure out how to have a good time there. Unlike in other movies, where the antagonists would be other kids who are bullies, the conflict in the end becomes how they antagonize each other — and, of course (spoiler alert!), reconcile.

This movie has a lot in common with last year’s 🐓 Blockers, the key difference being that this one relies less on gross-out humor, and also somehow that one made $20 million its opening weekend. So, it’s not like anyone can blame this one’s underperformance on the fact that it’s got female leads. Also, in semi-contrast to 🐓 Blockers’s lesbian supporting character, in this movie one of the two leads is gay, and that fact is completely incidental — her pursuit of a love (or lust) interest played no differently than it would be if this were about two guy high school seniors who were best friends. I would argue that Booksmart handles these themes even better.

There is just so much I like about this movie, not least of which is that the story is about friendship, between one girl who is straight and one who is gay, and there is no sexual tension between them; their relationship is entirely platonic. I can’t think of any other movie I’ve seen, at least not in recent years, that was about such a relationship. Instead of playing up any other kind of “other-ness,” director Olivia Wilde plays up their lovable dorkiness. I even hesitate to say “quirkiness.” Amy and Molly are dorks.

And the supporting cast is wonderful too, from the spacey girl (played by Billie Lourd) whose running gag is that she keeps popping up inexplicably every place Amy and Molly find themselves; to the melodramatic gay guys (Austin Crute and Noah Galvin, both of them crushing it) whose party is all drama performance; to the eccentric but lovable rich kid (Santa Clarita Diet’s Skyler Gisondo), among plenty of others. There are even some comfortably familiar faces among the adults in the cast, including Lisa Kudrow and a nearly unrecognizable Will Forte as Amy’s parents; and Jason Sudeikis as Principal Brown.

In any case, the journey of Booksmart is very much its own thing, very much of its time, and it’s mostly a blast, as well as occasionally touching. It’s a journey worth taking, and not enough people are hopping on its train. Maybe it’s a victim of its release date, who knows? Sometimes a smaller movie just gets eaten alive by too much razzle-dazzle in its competition. My hope is that this movie proves resilient, and finds its way to wider audiences one way or another. It’s just as worthy as pretty much anything playing out there right now.

We’re going to have a good time if it takes us all night! Or at least 102 minutes.

We’re going to have a good time if it takes us all night! Or at least 102 minutes.

Overall: B+

SIFF Advance: TRIXIE MATTEL: MOVING PARTS

Directing: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

I seem to have a thing for seeing movies with a connection to a world I’m not a part of. Ironically, maybe, the world of fandom to which I belong is that of film itself, which becomes my one portal into other interests I have little to no time for. As in, I have literally seen exactly one episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. It was at a viewing party in a gay bar in New Orleans during the week of Mardi Gras in 2014. The show was five years old at the time, and as many years have passed since then.

I have since gained only a cursory knowledge of who Trixie Mattel even is, let alone Brian Firkus, who created the Trixie persona. That cursory knowledge comes pretty much exclusively from gifs and clips shared by queer people I follow on Twitter. This documentary, though, Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts, has certainly piqued my interest. I might even buy her two folk albums, Two Bids and One Stone, many songs from which we see performed in the film.

The many existent fans of Trixie will already have knowledge of what is presented in the film, most notably her friendship, professional partnership, estrangement and ultimate reconciliation with fellow drag queen Katya Zamolodchikova. This is a very compelling part of Trixie’s story, and the reconciliation element could have used a little more fanfare in the film’s narrative. As presented here, it’s somewhat disappointingly anticlimactic, as though Katya being back in Trixie’s life is just an afterthought in the sequence of vignettes representing the past couple of years in Trixie’s life.

Aside from the Katya stuff, though, Trixie is perfectly compelling in her own right — Brian Firkus every bit as much so. In a noteworthy scene, Brian, not in drag, ponders the impact Trixie has had on her fans, many of whom tell her they relate to her as people who have battled depression. Brian notes that he jokes about being sad, but he’s neither depressed nor a sad person, per se. That, I could relate to. It made Brian very endearing to me.

There’s also something refreshingly average about Brian, when he’s out of drag. He’s far from ugly, but arguably just as far from the chiseled muscle boys gay culture fetishizes. It underscores the skill and talent that goes into the extraordinary transformation into Trixie Mattel, every single thing about her elevated and exaggerated.

I did find myself thinking about what might ultimately set Trixie Mattel apart from any other perfectly good drag queen. Surely, a documentary every bit as compelling could have been made about, say, any other contestant from RuPaul’s Drag Race. Details could be singled out about their backgrounds just as moving, or heartbreaking, as Trixie’s. For example, when Brian is doing a radio interview by phone, and confirms that the name “Trixie” comes from the malicious nickname given to Brian as a child by an abusive stepfather.

There is one pretty key thing, it turns out. Trixie Mattel isn’t just a personification of Dolly Parton on acid. She’s a bona fide, accomplished musician — something rare among drag queens, who traditionally lip sync to other people’s prerecorded music. Brian Firkus is actually a songwriter, and a pretty good one. He’s not half bad as a singer, either.

Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts tracks Trixie’s rise to midlevel fame, both as a losing contestant and then a winning contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and then as a touring comedian-musician performing in venues all over the country. I found both Trixie and Brian so endearing, essentially being introduced to both through this film, that I might actually buy a ticket if Trixie ever comes back to Seattle.

The self-proclaimed “best folk singing drag queen” . . . is not wrong.

The self-proclaimed “best folk singing drag queen” . . . is not wrong.

Overall: B+

SIFF Advance: GOOD KISSER

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

Sometimes you go to a movie festival screening not knowing quite what to expect, you’re compelled by the premise, but it could really go either way — and then it turns out to be surprisingly delightful. Good Kisser is one such movie. It is well written, well acted, well shot, and a Seattle production to boot: last night was its world premiere screening, at the Seattle International Film Festival.

Given that it’s about a lesbian couple, Jenna and Kate (Kari Alison Hodge and Rachel Paulson, respectively — the latter being, incidentally, the younger sister of Sarah Paulson), engaging in a first-time hookup with a third woman, Mia (Julia Eringer), it makes all the difference that it was written and directed by a woman, Wendy Jo Carlton. Presumably there are some few men out there who could have made a decent movie about this, being open to enough input from female cast and crew, but none could pull it off with Carlton’s specific brand of delicate sensitivity.

To be sure, that premise alone doesn’t necessarily hold much promise: “three women with varying degrees of nervousness attempt to get it on.” It sounds like a clichéd porn premise intended for the straight male gaze. Good Kisser could not be further away from that, although it certainly works for all audiences open to the story it’s trying to tell. And it is a story, an absorbing one at that, hooking you into the specific motivations of each separate character.

Indeed, much of the story unfolds like a one-act play, once Jenna and Kate arrive at the home of Mia, all set for, as Jenna noted earlier to a ride share driver, “a date with another woman.” The dialogue is written so well that it would indeed work as a stage play without really having to change anything, at least not the majority of the film set inside the house, where the three woman cautiously make small talk, work their way through wine and tequila, play a couple of ice breaker games I actually thought would be fun to play myself, and yes, eventually wind up in bed.

There are, soon enough, minor twists and turns as we learn more about these characters, extrapolated from what is clear from the beginning: Mia is free spirited and down to go with the flow no matter what happens; it is clear almost immediately that Kate is more into Mia than a one-night fling might suggest and has ulterior motives; Jenna is by far the most tentative and prone to anxiety and panic attacks.

Maybe 80% of the run time, which runs at a brisk 80 minutes that feels totally appropriate for a straightforward story with such a small cast. Otherwise there are only two other cast members: the ride share driver (Courtney McCullough), and Clark, the writer who lives in the grandmother apartment out back (Carter Rodriquez). Both characters serve a specific purpose, although honestly Yuka the driver does so in a slightly more natural way. Carter keeps hanging out in the backyard with his dog, often chatting with Jenna when she goes out for fresh air, and although he makes it clear he knows exactly what’s going down, everyone is very chill about it. I liked the way Yuka fit into the story a lot better.

Still, it was no more than ten or fifteen minutes into Good Kisser that I found myself thinking about how impressively written the dialogue was, not to mention the production values, particularly how well shot and beautifully lit the three women consistently were. This production design is solid by any standard, but by independent, local production standards, it’s kind of off the charts. Nobody working on this film was an amateur. It’s rare that pretty much every aspect of a movie’s production has the same level of competence, no matter who is making it, considering what a collaborative effort filmmaking is. Still, that consistency is probably more credit to the director than anyone.

And yes, it does get to a point of some amount of sex scenes, which are also very well shot, sensual rather than titillating, although I can imagine plenty of lesbians in particular will find it very hot. The sex stuff in particular is shot, and edited, in a measured, almost half-dreamy manner, gentle clips of limbs caressing and removing articles of clothing, or close-ups of wet skin, a neck or a wrist, where ice has been swiped.

Virtually any story must have some kind of conflict that must be overcome or accepted, and Good Kisser takes so much of its time getting there, I began to wonder if it would even happen. It does, but it’s gentle and subtle in the telling of it. You’ll find no bona fide drama here, and it works. Good Kisser might be the most “chill” movie I see all year. It’s basically “Netflix and Chill” without any Netflix. The characters still express feeling and emotions; they just do it in more relaxed and controlled ways than typically found at the movies. Even Jenna’s occasional anxiety is presented with a dignified respect. I guess you could call this a meditation on open relationships, with an emphasis on the meditation part. I left the theatre both impressed and relaxed.

More games are being played here than just what’s at the surface.

More games are being played here than just what’s at the surface.

Overall: B+

GIANT LITTLE ONES

Directing: A-
Acting: A-
Writing: A
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

The more I think about Giant Little Ones, the more I decide I loved it. It’s the kind of movie that takes a minute to sink in, how pitch-perfect it was. It doesn’t exactly crackle with urgent energy onscreen; its sensibility is much more subtle than that. Its many nuances are what make it work so well.

I kind of wonder what the thought process was behind that title: Giant Little Ones — it tells you literally nothing. This is an incredibly fine-tuned story about confused responses to an innocent sexual act by adolescents, and some heavy consequences to those responses. All the kids are sixteen years old, by definition neither giant nor little. They’re young, sure; but hardly “little ones,” although the emotions they are dealing with are, certainly, giant to them.

The sexual act in question is pretty minor, and occurs between Franky and Ballas, who have been best friends since they were little. The scene is perfectly tasteful, showing nothing explicit whatsoever: for a few brief moments, after the boys have gone to bed together in a drunken stupor, quiet gasps and moans are heard from beneath a blanket, the top of which is all that’s seen onscreen. But this is a deliberate part of writer-director Keith Behrman’s narrative choices: when Ballas suddenly leaves Franky’s bedroom in a panic and Franky tries to convince him to stay, we have no idea what precisely happened. And in fact, word gets out about the incident, only it’s converted into a rumor that is ultimately untrue, and the truth of the matter effectively becomes a minor plot twist.

But it’s an effective one. There are also other characters that complicate matters, most of them other kids in Franky and Ballas’s lives. First there is Franky’s girlfriend Jess (Hailey Kittle), who serves an admittedly somewhat pointless plot distraction early on, as she complains about whether Franky is actually interested in her. But then, even after the incident between Franky and Ballas, Franky forges a connection, at least partly sexual, with Ballas’s sister Tash, who is in a fragile state as she still recovers a specific trauma all her own. All of this is not even to mention Franky’s divorced parents, played by a lovely Maria Bello as his mom and Twin Peaks’s Kyle McLachlan as his semi-estranged, gay dad.

All these details make Giant Little Ones sound inevitably over-complicated and heavy-handed, but with Behrman’s steady hand, all such pitfalls are seamlessly avoided, and the story unfolds organically, all of the characters coming across as authentically multi-dimensional characters. A huge amount of the credit there should be afforded the wonderfully expressive Josh Wiggins as the lead character of Franky — but a great deal also to Darren Mann as the tortured Ballas, and Taylor Hickson as his sister.

The greatness of Giant Little Ones is in its concurrent uniqueness and absolute relatability to contemporary audiences. This movie contains no cliché moments, no emotional “coming out” scenes; in fact, it’s relatively pointed in its refusal to define any character’s sexuality. Within the dialogue comes this great pearl of wisdom: “It sounds like you had a sexual experience with someone you really loved. It may be as simple as that.”

Furthermore, the as both Franky and Tash understand a specific truth Ballas is terrified to come to grips with, even though it would make things easier for themselves, they endure certain hardships just because they clearly understand that this truth is still not theirs to tell. It’s rare to see a depiction of teenagers, with all their inherent messiness, with such inherent integrity. There’s no question that at least some such kids exist, and it’s wonderful to see them get their due.

None of this is made explicit in the film, mind you — these are simply the conclusions I came to. Perhaps someone else would settle on a different point of view. That, really, is the beauty of such delicately executed nuance.

A close friendship complicated by ultimately normal adolescence.

A close friendship complicated by ultimately normal adolescence.

Overall: A-

BOY, ERASED

Directing: B-
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

Why does it happen so often that two movies about basically the same thing get released within a year of each other? I guess Hollywood really is so barren of original ideas that on the rare occasion that one happens, someone else within earshot has to try snatching it. Who knows which person, or studio, had the idea first? All we know is which one got an earlier release date.

And our fun topic in 2018 is . . . gay conversion therapy for minors! What a blast that sounds like! First one out of the gate this time was The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which is also an objectively better film than Boy, Erased. There’s some irony there, because that other film, released in August, was based on an Emily M. Danforth novel of the same name, published in 2012. Boy, Erased is based on a Garrard Conley memoir of the same name, published in 2016.

So Boy, Erased is the true story — or based on one, anyway: it’s also a little overwrought. Clearly some artistic license was taken by director Joel Edgerton, who also adapted the screenplay, and to be blunt, maybe should have ceded at least one of those jobs to someone else. Unlike many adaptations, the characters’ names are changed here. The main character, Garrard, gets the more simplified name of Jared.

Anyway, this is a movie with as much melodrama as star power: Jared is played by the very talented Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird), his conservative preacher-and-wife parents by Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman. Kidman, in an honestly kind of ridiculous looking wig, figures far more prominently in the story, but Crowe’s part is no less important.

And I certainly don’t mean to trivialize anything about gay “conversion therapy,” which is a very real problem. The end of this film notes that it has affected “more than 700,000 Americans” — I saw that, and it hit me: I am part of that number. I never dealt with anything as severe as Jared (or, presumably, Garrard), but I did undergo a form of it as a teenager. The experience makes me uniquely qualified to become furious at the very continued existence of these so-called “programs.”

A movie is still a movie though; Boy, Erased is not a documentary, after all — and it could be argued it would have been more effective as one. Then again, it would not be as watched. Not that I expect Boy, Erased to be some hit at the box office. One thing The Miseducation of Cameron Post understood far more than Boy Erased was the value of levity: even people in oppressive circumstances are capable of moments of joy and humor. There is one such moment in Boy, Erased, but it’s so isolated that I laughed perhaps more than it deserved, just because it was a relief.

I have no idea how close Boy, Erased is to the truth because I never read the memoir. For all I know, the insane things Jared witnesses and experiences all really happened. They all run together in this film with just enough contrivance, however, to keep it from quite ringing true. There is an odd detachment to the proceedings, as though Joel Edgerton is more concerned with manipulating emotions than with being authentic.

Much of Jared’s story prior to the conversion therapy program is shown in flashback. His first sexual encounter is traumatic and horrible, and I have mixed feelings about how it is presented here, largely as a plot point. It deserves more nuanced examination than it gets, which is an observation easily spread across this film as a whole. This is what happens when greater importance is placed on sending a message than on telling a story. And the thing is, it was only months ago that a very similar movie came out which had far greater success at maintaining that balance.

There’s no denying that these issues are important, and command attention. As affecting as the lead performances in Boy, Erased genuinely are, they get largely neutralized by distractions, like the casting of young gay musician Troye Sivan in a supporting part, who proves to be a mediocre actor; he’s a far better singer. The unfortunate thing about Boy, Erased is that it’s an okay movie that should have been far better. At least we already got another movie this year that filled that role.

Nicole Kidman needs a gay son to give her some hair styling tips.

Nicole Kidman needs a gay son to give her some hair styling tips.

Overall: B-

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

Directing: A-
Acting: A
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

It’s difficult even to pretend to be objective when it comes to the film Will You Ever Forgive Me? It’s very meaningful to me personally, as a gay man, observing the drastic change in attitudes over the course of my own life.

The irony — and it’s one of many when it comes to this movie — is that this movie places no particularly great focus on the sexuality of its characters. But the incidental nature of Lee Israel (a stellar Melissa McCarthy) being a lesbian and of Jack Hock (an excellent Richard E. Grant) being a gay man is precisely the point. Years ago, I said many times this was exactly what I wanted: a movie whose main characters just happened to be gay, but that had nothing particularly to do with the story being told.

And here I am putting arguably undue emphasis on it. Well, I can promise you this: the more movies like this get made, the less compelled I will be to call attention to it. But right now, particularly in the current cultural climate, it’s heartening. It feels like progress.

Of course, there is the easy counter to such statements: that these parts should be played by actors who are themselves gay. And there are certainly compelling arguments for that. But I would argue, that does not take away from the performances here, both the leads of which are worthy of Academy Award nominations. It doesn’t hurt to see Jane Curtain appear in a smaller supporting role either, as Israel’s publisher. She’s barely recognizable, but also great.

In fact, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the kind of movie whose greatness increasingly reveals itself the more you contemplate the execution of its nuances of detail. Every single minute, every frame of this movie has an air of authenticity to it, the feeling like these are people and places that exist in the real world, the world we actually live in. That is a rare feat for any motion picture.

The story itself is certainly unique. Lee Isreal, a by now a largely forgotten writer once on the best-seller list with biographies, is far behind on her bills until she turns things around by forging personal letters by famous writers. Book stores and collectors paid hundreds, sometimes thousands for such letters. And this actually happened. It occurred to me to wonder: how much might an original Lee Israel forged-letter go for today? I would consider paying for one myself. And what delicious irony is that!

Israel managed to make money off those letters herself, even after making money off of them illegitimately: she wrote a memoir about the experience, with the same title as this film, which is based on it. She passed away at the age of 75 in 2014, and this is how her legacy lives on.

Melissa McCarthy more than does her justice. McCarthy tends to be great in everything she’s in, even the many rather bad movies she’s done, and Can You Ever Forgive Me? is plainly the best of her films, and the best performance she has ever given. Never before has she ever so completely disappeared into a character.

She easily holds her own opposite Richard E. Grant, with whom McCarthy has a great, if somewhat surprising, chemistry. Even their friendship rings true onscreen, a rare reflection of the highs and lows of true, yet flawed, close friendship. There comes a moment of tragic betrayal, but it still doesn’t nullify what was seen before — the kind of things that made me think, That is a good friend.

The depiction of Israel’s relationships all around — with her friend, with her ex-partner, a woman she dates, even her publisher and the book store owners she sells to — gives her a meticulous sense of dimension. This is not much of a surprise coming from director Marielle Heller, who previously directed the excellent Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015). This is a woman with a deep understanding not just of entertainment, but of effective storytelling. She’s given us films that stay with you well after you leave the theatre, for very specific, unique reasons.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? presents its audience with characters who range from abrasive to literally criminal, yet are unavoidably compelling, even fun. It shows them doing terrible things and refuses to pass judgment — it leaves that up to the viewer. The script has wit to match that of Lee Israel herself, and is given depth by on-location shoots in places such as the real-life Manhattan bar Israel actually spent a lot of time at in the early nineties, or the many New York book stores she visits. It’s a role unusually low-key for Melissa McCarthy, but she is perfectly cast. (That’s not to say she’s never offered effectively dramatic performances before: she was also great in 2014’s St. Vincent.)

Nearly everything about Can You Ever Forgive Me? seems better in retrospect, upon further inspection. Its like how well-constructed and executed it is sneaks up on you after the fact. There is nothing splashy about it, and it’s easy to see how it could mean more to a cinephile like myself than to perhaps some other people. But anyone who bothers to give it their attention will not be disappointed.

This could be the start of a criminal friendship.

This could be the start of a criminal friendship.

Overall: A-

COLETTE

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

Apparently Colette was the Madonna of early 20th-century France. Courting controversy, offering massively popular salacious entertainment, flirting with bisexuality and playing against gender norms. The sad irony is that Colette’s literary output in the first decade of the 1900s was still far more tolerated in France than it would have been in America fifty years later.

We really need more movies like Colette, detailing women around the world who were way ahead of their time, and moved along the evolution of their cultures. Even by today’s standards, it’s rare to see a period costume drama so feminist in nature — time and again, we’ve seen historical films that either ignored the women in favor of the men in control, or dwell on how shitty women had it.

Colette isn’t quite that kind of movie. Keira Knightley plays the title role as a woman in a truly progressive relationship by just about most standards, a husband, Willy (Dominic West), who admits it would be hypocritical to forbid his wife her own romantic flings when he himself sleeps around. But, as one of several women Colette becomes involved with notes, “He keeps you on a long leash — but it’s still a leash.”

In essence, Colette is still the story of a woman breaking free of the constraints of the man in her life. She is also the real-life French writer, the most celebrated female novelist of that country, whose first four novels were actually published under her husband’s name. Willy is already an established writer who has people ghost writing for him, and once he marries Colette, in his mind it seems natural that she should contribute. In at least one instance he literally locks her in a room until she produces some pages.

Willy isn’t exactly depicted as malicious here. He’s just increasingly clueless, a guy who fancies himself forward-thinking by virtue of the permissions he grants his wife, but who still says Colette publishing under her own name is a ridiculous idea because women writers don’t sell.

It takes a while for Colette’s story to coalesce. Having no knowledge of the historical, real-life writer, I spent some of the first 20 minutes or so of this movie wondering exactly where this story was going. But, these scenes do provide some vital information about Colette’s background, particularly her childhood home in the country with an amputee veteran father (Robert Pugh) and stern but tender mother (Fiona Shaw).

And then, a little while after starting their married life, Colette begins writing for Willy. This ultimately proves a precarious scenario, with Willy occasionally paranoid about word getting out about her being the actual author of these wildly popular novels written under his name. In the meantime, Colette’s romantic exploits allow for some luminous actors in supporting roles: Eleanor Tomlinson as Georgie, who plays Colette and Willy against each other; Denise Gough as the wonderfully androgynous Missy, who proves to be Colette’s most enduring relationship.

Colette must go through a series of subtle outside influences — including that of her own mother — before it dawns on her what kind of hold her husband really has over her. It gets back to that “long leash” still being a leash: he holds her back, and this is the story of how a woman in the 1900s found her way on her own terms. It seems we’ve gotten an unusually wide variety of stories of such women this year, and honestly there can never be too many. We’ve had decades — hell, millennia — of the heroic man in our stories. Women getting their turn is long overdue, and Colette sits quite comfortably among them.

Behind every two-faced man is a straightforward woman: Colette.

Behind every two-faced man is a straightforward woman: Colette.

Overall: B+

LIZZIE

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

It’s quite an experience seeing Assassination Nation and Lizzie over the course of only two days. I called the former an ultra-violent feminist revenge fantasy, and the same could just as easily be said of the latter. The difference is that Lizzie is a speculative look at real-life character Lizzie Borden and her motivations, a period drama easing into palpable horror offered up for the #MeToo era.

After several depictions of the Borden murders over the years — including one in 2014 for Lifetime starring Christina Ricci — this one puts a lesbian spin on the story, with Lizzie (Chlöe Sevigny) developing feelings for their live-in Irish maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart). Bridget is being molested at night by Lizzie’s father, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), while Lizzie and her sister Emma (Kim Dickens) have a brother of their late mother conspiring to get the Borden will changed so he will be guardian of the daughters’ inheritance.

All of these are the names of real people involved in this 1892 murder in Fall River, Massachusetts, and it was suspect, to say the least, that the Borden daughters stood to inherit the sizable estate. Director Craig William MacNeill and writer Bryce Kass infuse the story with the suggestion of understandable motives — both that of Andrew as a sexual predator, and a semi-pointed reflection of men’s control over women’s fortunes, in every sense of the word.

I found myself compelled by the older sister, Emma, perhaps more than the filmmakers intended. Kim Dickens, perhaps most recognizable as Joanie Stubbs in the HBO series Deadwood, is a lovely actor, and she is given curiously little screen time, as we are guided to focus on Lizzie and Bridget’s budding mutual attraction. I wished there were more of her.

That’s not to say Chlöe Sevigny isn’t plenty compelling as Lizzie herself. She is depicted here as defiant from the start, baldly going out to the theatre unescorted under her father’s objections. She is afflicted with occasional seizures of some sort, a character trait never fully fleshed out, and which curiously disappears without comment later in the story. There is talk of her being sent away, both for her ailment and after Andrew catches Lizzie in the throes of passion with Bridget in the barn. In an act of retaliation for her defiance, Andrew chops off the heads of her beloved pet pigeons and has them cooked and served for family dinner, a particularly horrible moment.

We are clearly meant to see Andrew as the unambiguous villain, Lizzie and Borden as women who are ending their own victimization, if not as outright feminist heroes. This is where Lizzie gets a little muddled. The notorious murders of Lizzie’s stepmother (Fiona Shaw), who shows no sympathy for Lizzie, and her father, are depicted in graphic, arguably belabored detail. It’s not gory, exactly, but falls just short of that — and boy, do we see a lot of swings of that hatchet. The odd thing is, with events playing out in this manner, if anyone has any motive, it’s Bridget. She and Lizzie conspire together, but given the enduring nature of the legend, Lizzie wouldn’t quite work if Bridget were claimed to be the murderer.

In a way, the Lizzie Borden trial that followed was a sort of O.J. Simpson trial of the late 19th century. The woman was acquitted, because no one could believe a woman of such social standing could possibly be capable of such heinous crimes — that’s how it’s put in the title cards just prior to the end credits. The supposedly feminist angle is to view Lizzie as an oppressed woman smashing the patriarchy, a woman who sacrificed everything — but to what end? She lived the rest of her life abandoned by both Bridget and the rest of her family, ostracized by her community. The idea of this woman in particular as a feminist hero is something I don’t quite buy.

As a story on its own merits, though, Lizzie is both unique and effective. Much of its run time is social commentary in the guise of costume drama, and a well-acted one. Then Lizzie demonstrates what she is capable of, not a woman who snapped but who was capable of methodical premeditation, and it moves into the genuinely disturbing. It may not quite achieve thematic coherence, but it sure offers up plenty to contemplate.

Wait, was that forty whacks? Or was it forty-one?

Wait, was that forty whacks? Or was it forty-one?

Overall: B

WE THE ANIMALS

Directing: A-
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A
Editing: A

It makes me sad knowing how few people will see We the Animals -- and how many fewer still will see it in a movie theatre. This is a rare thing, where it's not a big blockbuster or a huge Oscar-baiting prestige picture, but an independent release that still begs viewing on the big screen.

I try to imagine someone getting absorbed into this movie on a small screen, in someone's home, where a litany of distractions will pull the viewer out of its impeccably constructed world. First and foremost I must mention cinematographer Zak Mulligan, making unusually justified use of handheld cameras, and co-editors Keiko Deguchi and Brian A. Kates, together constructing a story that doesn't quite gel into a unified whole until a singular, heartbreaking moment near the end. But, I guess director and co-writer Jeremiah Zagar (adapting from the novel by Justin Torres) is still the boss of them all. This is his movie, and it is a singular vision.

I must admit, We the Animals hits unusually close to home for me. My upbringing was really nothing like this, but I did have an accidental revelation of my sexuality far sooner than I was ready for, very similar in nature to what happens to the youngest of the three brothers who are the focus of this story. I only wish I could have had a fraction of the defiance this kid ultimately has in the face of it.

Then again, this is fiction -- and increasingly stylized as the story unfolds. This is not a straightforward depiction of reality. This is art. And it is by turns charming, sad, and beautiful. Sometimes shocking. I did find myself wondering what could possibly become of ten-year-old Jonah (Evan Rosado), given his choices in the end. It left me feeling unsure of how to feel about his potential fate.

The same could be said of his brothers, all very close in age, although Manny is the youngest: there's also Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Manny (Isaiah Kristian). They are such a tight-nit group of brothers that, to be honest, it's quite a ways into the movie before any particularly distinguishing characteristics come to light. They even all look alike, with identical haircuts. I'm not sure Joel and Jonah ever quite become more than interchangeable.

It seems for a very long time as though this is their story, a long succession of visual vignettes of their childhood, growing up poor with two parents who both work nights, a white woman (Sheila Vand) and a Puerto Rican man (Raúl Castillo). Nearly every scene is inside their home, or in the surrounding woods and streets. There's never even any indication that these kids go to school. When marital disturbance results in Dad leaving for some time, Mom descends into a depression for days, and the kids are left to fend for themselves.

Jonah has a sketch book he keeps hidden under the bed he shares with his brothers. He gets up every night after they have fallen asleep, and creates wonderful scribbled humanoid and insect-like images, which are consistently animated with an affecting melancholy throughout We the Animals. There's more than initially indicated inside this sketch book, something which draws a line in more ways than one. It is the catalyst for Jonah's relationship with everyone in his family being forever changed.

A whole lot of We the Animals unfolds in a semi-dreamlike state, fractured snippets of scenes like those recalled in inevitably fractured memories. The way it all gets tied together is its greatest achievement. It seems, for a long while, to be simply a portrait of a brief period of time in three people's childhoods. But there is a clear story arc through it all, no frame of it wasted on the way there, just waiting to be revealed.

That is why it works best in a movie theatre, an environment designed to get lost in the world being constructed and presented. It's a unique experience that can't be replicated anywhere else.

Subtle implications of fatherhood role modeling come and go in  We the Animals.

Subtle implications of fatherhood role modeling come and go in We the Animals.

Overall: A-

THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST

Directing: B+
Acting: A-
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

There is just no way for me to respond to this film objectively. I usually feel like I have a sense of how other people will respond, but this one is just too personal. How presumably open-minded straight people will react to The Miseducation of Cameron Post is one thing. In my case it's more specific: Cameron Post and I have something in common, in that I was sent to a "Christian counselor" as a teenager to "fix" my sexuality. (The word "fix" was never used, of course, lest the guy come across as too judgmental. This all comes from love, right?)

I was never sent to an actual camp, at least -- I just had weekly sessions with a counselor when I was fifteen -- but it was the same basic concept. And here's a compelling idea that Cameron Post brings up: the people who run this place, telling all these actually perfectly normal kids that they are being consumed by sinful temptations -- they're all just doing the best they can with what they think is right. Director and co-writer Desiree Akhavan (based on a novel of the same name by Emily M. Danforth) presents them as well-rounded people willing to admit at times when they don't know what the right answer is. For me it begs the question: where was that guy who had been my "counselor" coming from, anyway? What were his struggles, his paths that led him to such a position in his life? It's 25 years later and I never thought to consider that.

And just to clarify, this is not a defense of people in those positions, truly fucking up kids on an emotional level. Teenagers are far more impressionable than they believe themselves to be, and Chloë Graze Moretz, who plays the title character, conveys this beautifully. She's dropped off at "God's Promise" in a state of confusion, and she spends some time actually attempting to tow the line, work the "process" away from her supposed temptation.

Watching all this was very difficult at times, wavering at regular intervals between feeling deep sadness for these kids and palpable fury at the adults purporting to care for them. And it should be stressed that, for the most part -- at least, with one notable exception -- this is not in response to particular melodrama or histrionics. Cameron Post and the friends she makes (particularly Sasha Lane's Jane and Forrest Goodluck's Adam) are all pretty mellow, all things considered. When an inevitable tragedy occurs, it is met with shocked confusion rather than hysterics, which is both unusual in film and a tad more realistic.

There is one scene, in which a fellow "disciple" as they gratingly get called, has a bit of a meltdown in a group therapy meeting. The young actor Owen Campbell does great with the material he's given, but the scene itself, in which he collapses in tears after reading a passage of scripture he says was favored by his deeply homophobic father, is a bit much.

That said, the performances all around are great. There's something vaguely insidious in air of serenity put on my Lydia March (Jennifer Ehle), who runs the camp with her "changed" brother, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr). Rick, for his part, only barely looks like he's convinced himself he's comfortable with himself.

For some of us, a line like Cameron saying "I'm tired of feeling disgusted with myself" really hits home -- a vivid memory of teen life. Only an adult can see the value of what Jane says back to that, though: "Maybe teenagers are just supposed to be disgusted with themselves."

It must be said that there is real delicacy in the presentation of this story. It's all the better for being directed by a woman, as the several scenes depicting sex are devoid of a male gaze. It's an impressive feat when the sex in a movie is never graphic but still manages to be frank. And when Cameron's boyfriend is shown catching her in the act of going at it with a female friend, it made me so uncomfortable I wanted to crawl inside my seat.

Ultimately, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a coming of age story. It's one with unusual specificity, though, and one in which that coming of age process is gradual and organic. The script occasionally presses at the seams of credibility, but for the most part, as someone who went through something similar, I can tell you the emotional stakes ring true. The key difference is that these are kids who realized at a much earlier age than some of us that adults don't necessarily have any idea what they're doing. One can only hope that results in this movie being illuminating to people.

Headed for a different brand of education.

Headed for a different brand of education.

Overall: B+