It’s a miracle that anyone survives adolescence. As the years speed along and the gap between childhood and adulthood grows depressingly large, it’s easy to forget what it was like to be a kid. Sundance 2018 offers two reminders, Summer of ’84 and Eighth Grade, that hell truly is for children.
Summer of ’84 takes place back in the days when kids were actually allowed to escape adult supervision. It was a glorious time of riding your bike down busy streets, playing ball until the sun goes down, and trying to prove that your next door neighbor is a serial killer. Okay, that last thing might be exclusive to the kids from Summer of ’84.
Davey (Graham Verchere), Eats (Judah Lewis), Woody (Caleb Emery), and Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew) are restless 15-year-olds looking for grand adventure over summer vacation. Their ring leader is Davey, a bright kid with an active imagination for conspiracies. His bedroom wall is plastered with news clippings about murdered children near his hometown of Ipswich, Oregon. ‘The Cape May Slayer’ is on the loose and Davey’s pretty certain it’s his policeman neighbor, Mr. Mackey (Rich Sommer).
Co-directors François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell understand nerd teen culture like Donald Trump understands Aqua Net. This exhilarating follow-up to their 2015 cult hit, Turbo Kid, feels like the demented love child of Stranger Things and Rear Window. Davey and his gang, armed only with wisecracks and crappy walkie-talkies, must find some incriminating evidence in Mr. Mackey’s basement before the clueless adults thwart their investigation and ground them until their 50.
Summer of ’84 works because of the natural camaraderie between the young actors. Whereas the kids from 2017’s It seem like miniature adults, these kids are the genuine article. They tease one another mercilessly, but you can feel the emotional currency built up over their years of sparring. Some of the film’s most effective scenes involve the kids comforting one another in the face of parental upheaval. Divorce was still something of an unusual occurrence back in 1984, with kids left to endure not only the emotional scars, but the social stigma, as well.
The mood and tone throughout the film’s first half remain relatively light. Clues are accumulated, close calls are had, and the kids are free to spout Scooby Doo clichés like, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this!” A synth-heavy score sounds like Tangerine Dream’s B-side for Risky Business. Davey even has time for a dalliance with his former babysitter Nikki (Tiera Skovbye); the inaccessible 18-year-old girl who serves as the fantasy bridge between magazine models and real girls.
Once it reaches the midpoint, however, Summer of ’84 speeds headlong into horror territory. Sure, the directors occasionally lean on lazy jump scares, but they also show a deft hand at building tension. Caring what actually happens to the heroes helps immensely; a lesson more horror filmmakers need to learn.
When the end arrives, you’ll probably think you’ve got things all figured out. You aren’t even close. It’s the type of outrageous ending that divides audiences and builds cult followings. Summer of ’84 is a trashy classic that will absolutely rock midnight movie houses.
Summer of ’84 Rating: 8
Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade (2018) (Sundance 2018)
If Summer of ’84 tries to scare you silly, Eighth Grade tries to smother you in awkwardness. Writer-director Bo Burnham’s painfully realistic examination of pre-adolescent angst delivers cringes by the dozen.
It’s the last week of 8th Grade and Kayla (Elsie Fisher) can’t wait for Middle School to be over and for High School to begin. She’s one of those invisible girls that the popular girls can’t even bother to stuff inside a locker. At night she uploads long, rambling soliloquies onto YouTube about subjects she is completely unqualified to discuss. “How to be confident” is a particularly egregious stretch beyond her knowledge base.
Your heart absolutely aches for Kayla, who is an adorable bundle of mumbles and stutters around her peers. As an adult observer, you know that Kayla will be okay, but those days seem fantastically improbable from her vantage point. When Kayla unpacks her 6th Grade time capsule project, packed full of treasured mementos, you can see the visible disappointment with how little her personal tastes have changed over two years.
Burnham, a young actor making his writing and directing debut, has a nice feel for the details. He understands teenage cruelty; the selective shunning and muted giggles of your perceived betters. He also knows that girls like Kayla often make bad decisions and grow up too fast. It’s clear his days as an actor served him well, as he coaxes an amazing performance out of Fisher. She’s so vulnerable and real that there’s never a moment you don’t buy her as Kayla.
Unfortunately, when it comes to movies, realism does not guarantee entertainment value. Eighth Grade is a much easier film to appreciate than it is to like. There’s not much of a plot to propel things forward but if you don’t have children, your memories of being an adolescent will help you relate.
The supporting cast, too, is the standard, uninteresting fare for this type of indie teen drama. You have the good looking ruffian (Luke Prael) who looks straight out of central casting for The 400 Blows, the nerdy boy (Jake Ryan) who loves the heroine but is destined for heartache, and the clueless single dad who means well but is more interested in being a friend than a parent. The only standout is Ryan, who injects a level of energy that refreshingly offsets Kayla’s mopiness.
What makes Eighth Grade appealing, and what ultimately earns a recommendation, is the care and precision of Burnham’s vision, along with Fisher’s performance. Parents, too, will find much to appreciate in Kayla’s exterior surliness and interior squishiness. Consider this film a little reminder that teenagers are insufferable for a good reason: growing up is hell.