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Book Review: ADAM by Ariel Schrag

ADAM by Ariel Schrag

I’ve recently been taking a look at some work by artist/writer Ariel Schrag. I’m becoming more familiar with her comics and I decided to read her prose novel, Adam. While reading it, I also became aware of the controversy surrounding this novel which will debut in 2019 at Sundance. I’d just gotten a quarter of the way into the novel and wondered just where these snarky kids were heading. The book depicted the author’s take on callow youth and gay culture and so I pressed on. I do understand why some people will find the book problematic. Still, it’s useful to stick with it to the end to study one writer’s process.

I’ll cut to the chase and say that Ms. Schrag’s book aims to be in the tradition of provocative novels. The characters do and say a number of nasty and questionable things and then there are also moments when Schrag dials down the snark. Here is an example, a scene that finds the main characters at a predominantly transgender gathering:

“Clarification on gender was indeed necessary. Looking around at the group, it was as if a hatful of pronouns written on scraps of paper had been thrown into the air, each group, sometimes two, landing randomly on a person, regardless of what he or she looked like. Adam had gotten used to boyish girls turning out to be trans, the general rule that masculine = he and feminine = she, but here at Camp Trans it was a free-for-all. You couldn’t be sure of anything, except that you were most likely wrong.”

So, yeah, the book has a cocky snarky vibe, an attempt to channel the great Holden Caulfield tradition of snark. It’s when an ambitious young writer feels compelled to be provocative that things will heat up for sure. The big controversy revolves around the premise of the main character, Adam, a 17-year-old straight man becoming involved with Gillian, a 22-year-old gay woman, by both lying about his age and, far more significantly, lying that he’s a female-to-male trans person. That premise is rubbing a lot of people the wrong way. You have people in the trans community saying the book is exploitive. You have the author saying the book is meant to open up a discussion. Ms. Schrag has gained notoriety over the years for her memoir comics. She is an openly gay woman who has focused on young adult themes. She has written for television, including writing for Showtime’s The L Word.

The big point of contention against this novel comes down to the idea that the main character, Adam, is essentially getting away with rape as he’s in a sexual relationship through deception. For most of the novel, Adam isn’t getting away with much as he’s depicted as being fairly creepy. Towards the end that changes when Schrag drives her novel over a cliff with an abrupt shift. Adam begins his journey as a stand-in for just an average guy, yet another typical banal young person, while Schrag steadily turns up the heat. He easily falls into fantasy. He’s so selfish that, despite all the warning signs, he continues to deceive his lover in the hopes that his fantasy will come true and she will ultimately overlook his gross betrayal.

Looking at this from a creative point of view, it is very interesting to see a cartoonist like Schrag developing into a full-on prose writer. Any number of cartoonists find themselves juggling/struggling with two distinct disciplines (writing and drawing) that are supposed to meld into one (comics). Well, the comics-making process is a whole world onto itself with many potential variations, detours and pitfalls. It’s a delicate balancing act. And, if a creator favors writing a little more than drawing, that can tip the balance. For Ms. Schrag, it seems that more often than not, when she puts pen to paper, it is only words she seeks. Deep into making a novel all out of words, those words can take on a life of their own a little more easily than within the framework of a well planned out graphic novel with storyboards and various anchors. You choose your words that much more carefully when you create a graphic novel in comparison to commanding a ship of words in a novel. You set sail for vast ports unknown. You can lose yourself in your discourse and take your mighty vessel way off course.

You get away with less in comics. You can be instantly held accountable. Stuff can get buried in a prose novel. All those words! Ms. Schrag can engage in some anti-Semitic rhetoric and no one will call her on it since the focus is on her depiction of the trans community. Around the middle of the novel, Schrag builds up to what she deems a joke involving her inept and money-grubbing Jewish landlords. Analyzed as a joke, the mechanics and execution fall flat. It’s inappropriate and serves no purpose other than to underscore the fact that the characters are prone to being intolerant and hurtful and that has already been well established. It’s a joke that would make the legendary cartoonist provocateur Robert Crumb blush mostly because it’s so not funny. You just can’t get away with stuff like that in comics. In contrast to this novel, Ms. Schrag’s recent collection of comics, Part of It, indicates a more restrained, and even polite, approach.

Ms. Schrag has said about all the controversy attached to this novel: “People are really angry specifically about appropriating an oppressed identity. I just think that’s fascinating to think about because what is so terrible about appropriating an oppressed identity?” That’s a gutsy remark with consequences attached to it. Writers can choose to provoke but then it’s fair game to listen carefully to the response. Just because you belong to a group doesn’t mean you need to shake it to its core. But for those writers who can’t resist shaking things up, they will need to be open to criticism. In this case, there’s a movie version coming out and that will undoubtedly provide another opportunity for more discussion and more controversy.

Adam is a 320-page novel, originally published in 2014 by Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Filed under Ariel Schrag, Book Reviews, Books, Comics, LGBTQ, Novels, writers, writing

Charles Forsman’s ‘I Am Not Okay With This’ Picked Up by Netflix

‘I Am Not Okay With This’ by Charles Forsman

Charles Forsman is a wonderful independent cartoonist. I have had the privilege to review his work. Mr. Forsman creates work that is usually intended for a relatively small audience. That is the nature of comics, especially niche comics. But things can get turned on their heads. Just imagine, a highly obscure copy of an underground comic is sitting in a trash bin when it’s picked up by a movie director and he’s so thrilled by it that he’s compelled to move heaven and earth to turn it into a hit television series. That’s what happened with Forsman’s The End of the F***king World, now available on Netflix. And it’s happened again. This time without any trash bin. The news it out that Forsman’s I Am Not Okay With This is coming to Netflix.

‘I Am Not Okay With This’ by Charles Forsman

There’s something about the fresh and quirky goodness of independent alt-comics that can catapult them from obscurity to crazy full-on stardom. It won’t happen to most of the self-published comix out there but it happens. So, don’t try this at home unless this is a labor of love first and foremost. Otherwise, it won’t work. Painfully honest stories have a greater than average chance of getting attention. That’s part of it. The rest is just the right mix of hard work and a bit of good luck. While you wait to enjoy I Am Not Okay With This, check out The End of the F***king World now on Netflix:

I Am Not Okay With This follows the misadventures of Sydney, an unassuming 15-year-old freshman with telekinetic powers. Be sure to visit Charles Forsman right here. I Am Not Okay With This is a 160-page graphic novel published by Fantagraphics Books.

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Filed under Charles Forsman, Comics, Fantagraphics Books, graphic novels, Netflix, Television, Young Adult

Stan Lee (1922-2018)

Cover art by Ed Piskor

Stan Lee (1922-2018). News today that comics legend Stan Lee has passed away. There will only ever be one Stan Lee in the comics industry. You will hear that today and in the days and years to come. As a kid in the ’70s, I have fond memories of the iconic figure of Stan Lee. He was the guy leading the Marvel Comics Bullpen. He was the guy who was always yelling out, “Excelsior!” He was part salesman and part creative genius. This, in no way, takes away from the collaborative work he did with such greats as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. At the end of the day, Stan Lee was Stan Lee, a force of nature and an integral part of Marvel Comics and comics in general. May he rest in peace.

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SPX Spotlight: MY FRIEND DAHMER

A troubled person who grows up to become a monster. That could be the pitch for another superhero movie but this movie is dead serious. My Friend Dahmer is the story of Jeffrey Dahmer, one of the most infamous of serial killers. When other boys are out exploring and playing, young Jeffrey is out collecting dead bodies. Not yet human bodies. That will come later. In the same spirit as the graphic novel it is based on, the viewer is asked to observe an awkward teen growing up who, bit by bit, loses his humanity.

Cartoonist John Beckderf, aka Derf, will be at Small Press Expo to participate in a Q&A following a screening of the 2017 movie.

DERF PRESENTS MY FRIEND DAHMER SCREENING AND Q&A
White Oak Room September 15, 2018 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm

Join creator Derf in a showing of the critically acclaimed film made from his international best-selling graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer. Derf will talk about the process of getting the graphic novel made into a film, as well as take questions after the screening. The graphic novel has been translated into over a dozen languages and won the prestigious Angouléme Prize in 2014. Comics historian and SPX Executive Director Warren Bernard will host Derf and the screening.

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Comics Review: THE BEATLES YELLOW SUBMARINE

“Beatles: Yellow Submarine,” an official illustrated adaptation published by Titan Comics

An announcement about a graphic novel based on The Beatles Yellow Submarine was one of the most popular posts on Comics Grinder. Well, here is a full-on review (with video) that delves right into the book! This is the official illustrated adaptation, published by Titan Comics.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Beatles Yellow Submarine comes this fully authorized graphic novel adaptation! We all know the story:

When the music-hating Blue Meanies invade the underwater paradise of Pepperland, the Captain of the Yellow Submarine sails away to find help… and stumbles upon The Beatles! Can the Fab Four free Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, return music to Pepperland, and overthrow the evil Blue Meanies through the power of love?

This book beautifully and faithfully adapts all the antics and charm of the original animated feature. It’s genius to create such a work. Who doesn’t love The Beatles? And who can resist a book that transports you to Pepperland and beyond? Here is a perfect gift for any Beatles fan. And it can make for a dazzling bedtime story too!

THE BEATLES YELLOW SUBMARINE

The layout to this work is quite impressive. The pacing is spot on as it captures the wacky and irreverent humor. An adaptation of this scope and significance requires a master and that is exactly what we get from writer/artist Bill Morrison, co-founder of Bongo Comics, artist on classic Disney posters, and editor of Mad Magazine. Usually, it works the other way around but Mr. Morrison has managed to take a legendary work in animation and find a viable graphic novel counterpart. He has done a wonderful job of sequencing a narrative from something that is both iconic and rather loopy and might seem impossible to properly transfer from one medium to another.

There is plenty to love here. All you need is love, right?

The Beatles Yellow Submarine is a 112-page hardcover, in full color, published by Titan Comics.

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Filed under Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Music, pop culture, The Beatles, Titan Comics

Book Review: ‘In the Shadow of King Saul: Essays on Silence and Song’ by Jerome Charyn

‘In the Shadow of King Saul: Essays on Silence and Song’ by Jerome Charyn

Editor’s Note: For those equally attracted to prose and to comics, Jerome Charyn has quite a significant connection with the comics medium. He has collaborated with some of the best artists in Europe. For instance, you’ll want to check out titles written by Jerome Charyn and illustrated by Francois Boucq. A new title is in the works too. For additional posts, including those featuring comics, go right here.

Saul was the first king in the Bible but, as writer Jerome Charyn points out, he took a backseat to the celebrated David. It was David who gained all the glory and Saul who was left in the shadow. That’s not to say Saul wasn’t worthy. He simply wasn’t favored by God. It’s a tough place to be and a lot of people can relate to that. In his distinctive and vivid way, Charyn collects in his new book some of his best work on the theme of the underdog, the one deserving yet less embraced. In the new book, Charyn also provides a look back at a writer’s influences. In the Shadow of King Saul is a 272-page paperback, available as of August 28th, published by Bellevue Literary Press.

It matters little if you’re famous or unknown when it comes to being an underdog. New York mayor Ed Koch, for instance, shares a similar spot with Saul too. In one piece, Ellis: An Autobiography, the reader follows Charyn down the mean streets of the Bronx in the ’40s to an unfolding immigrant’s tale. The featured guest in this narrative is the famously accessible yet often maligned Ed Koch. In the process, it seems that everything is revealed all at once in a kaleidoscope of rich detailed observations. New York City, a city of ups and downs, had reached the brink in 1975 and was nearly bankrupt. Enter Ed Koch. He turned the Big Apple into a boomtown again. But the featured guest ultimately takes a backseat to his city since it’s New York City that’s the real star.

No one person, after all, is so much a star as part of something bigger. As Charyn makes clear in his enchanting writing, the glory is in the details. In another piece, Faces on the Wall, Charyn reflects on the power of film–and Hollywood in particular. MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer ran a tight ship but, in the end, the flickering screen held its own sway:

“The simplest screen was much bigger (and darker) than any of the movie moguls. The studios could tyrannize the content of a film, declare a land of happy endings, but they weren’t sitting with you in the dark. They could control Joan Crawford, but not the hysteria hidden behind those big eyes, or the ruby mouth that could almost suck you into the screen.”

Charyn takes pleasure in sharing the lesser known achievements. His admiration for such literary greats as Saul Bellow and Isaac Babel is infectious. But, with the same gusto, he champions less known writers like Samuel Ornitz and Anzia Yezierska. It is in doing so that he honors his offbeat choice for a hero, the much maligned and misunderstood King Saul.

In the Shadow of King Saul is a 272-page paperback, available as of August 28th, published by Bellevue Literary Press.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Essays, Jerome Charyn, New York City, Nonfiction, writers, writing

Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman

Adam Driver (left) and John David Washington in ‘BlacKkKlansman’

Do you find yourself flooded by Trumpworld only to wish you could zone it all out? That frenzied state of distraction is exactly what the Donald is aiming for. Spike Lee’s new film, BlacKkKlansman, aims to give us clarity and put things in perspective.

Topher Grace in BlacKkKlansman

Anyone familiar with Spike Lee’s work appreciates its integrity. 1989’s Do The Right Thing deftly confronts American race relations. That is a powerful movie. Lee brings that same energy and intelligence to 2018’s BlacKkKlansman. As a cartoonist, I often wonder about how the comics medium, in all its varied forms, can best address the current Trump crisis. I think Jim Carrey’s cartoony paintings, with their raw quality, have a much greater impact than perhaps most professional editorial cartoons. As for anything remotely falling under the “graphic novel” category, I’d have to give a lot of credit to John Oliver’s parody of Mike Pence’s Bunny Book. That said, whatever the art form, it is the measured response that ultimately wins the heart and soul of the viewer.

White nationalists clashing with counterdemonstrators in Charlottesville, Va., last year. With an anniversary rally planned in Washington on Sunday (8/12/2018), the authorities have planned for weeks to avoid a repeat of last year’s clashes.CreditJoshua Roberts/Reuters

Spike Lee has certainly given careful consideration. Based upon a true story, Lee’s main character is a young and idealistic African American man conflicted by serving his local police force and serving his community at an activist level. The narrative masterfully weaves in the 400-year-old American racial experience: past, present (1972), and future (2018). There are those moments when everything comes to such fine point, especially after the newly-minted undercover detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) has gotten settled into his job. One fellow officer talks with him about how white supremacists are steadily going mainstream and it will eventually lead to the White House. Ron shakes his head in great disbelief.

BlacKkKlansman

It is Ron’s job, which he carved out for himself, to infiltrate the local chapter of the Colorado Springs Ku Klux Klan. He is obviously in need of help since his phone conversations quickly lead to an invitation to meet in person. That’s where a second Ron Stallworth (Adam Driver), in the flesh and Jewish no less, comes in. And the KKK connection just keeps getting complicated, not to mention dangerous. Soon, the original Ron Stallworth is on the phone establishing quite a friendly relationship with the young KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace). Lee continues to thoughtfully and gracefully connect the dots, as painful as they are–without a heavy hand. And it is that cumulative effect that adds up to the most powerful film I’ve seen this year. The final moments bring us to our present with a fiery defiance and a remembrance of Heather Heyer, may she “Rest in Power.”

Spike Lee delivers a good dose of reality that can stir the soul. We don’t do this much anymore (maybe for Star Wars and superhero movies) but this film will have you in the mood to clap at the end. This movie got me good and I was clapping. I even yelled out that folks can applaud. I did it in that communal spirit that many of us in Seattle respond to. Well, not only in Seattle. And, like a chain reaction, people did applaud. It didn’t last very long since, as I say, we really don’t applaud movies anymore. But it did happen all the same, even if momentarily. We Americans need to respond to the current American crisis every chance we get. BlacKkKlansman responds to that very real need. It’s a start and it will, no doubt, inspire others to do much more, like voting.

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Filed under African American, Charlottesville, Donald Trump, Spike Lee, Trump

Movie Review: CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

Winnie-the-Pooh and an all grown up Christopher Robin.

Imagination has its own reality. Imagination is strongest in childhood. It takes a certain sensibility to carry you back into that world once you’re an adult. In the new movie, Christopher Robin, we see the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s vulnerable stuff. It’s made up of dream-like creatures like Winnie-the-Pooh, Eeyore, and Piglet. In this movie, we see A. A. Milne’s celebrated characters from Hundred Acre Wood depicted as the very creatures of childhood we remember them as in our mind’s eye.

Winnie-the-Pooh and an all grown up Christopher Robin. This clever idea is refined into something much more. These two seemed to be like two peas in pod: dreamers in pursuit of nothing, happily stumbling upon something because sometimes something comes from nothing. And then the boy had to leave for boarding school and the greater world beyond and bid farewell to his childhood friends who had to stay behind. It is the grown-up Christopher Robin, played by Ewan McGregor, who must reconcile his youthful dreams with his adult reality.

Winnie-the-Pooh and Friends.

A movie about an adult coming to terms with his childhood may sound a bit heavy but it fits right in with the Disney cornerstone of embracing childhood. Any family understands the delicate balancing act between honoring the needs of adults and children. Conflicts are never too far behind. Christopher Robin, the man, is up to his eyeballs in conflict as he juggles family life with corporate life. It is on the weekend that Christopher must work overtime on budget cuts, and most likely layoff workers, that Winnie-the-Pooh stumbles back into his life.

The beauty of this movie is in its understatement, alternating between a foggy and hectic post-war London to a foggy and mellow Hundred Acre Wood. And, at the heart of this low-key approach, is Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends. These characters do not light up the screen with manic frenzy like in the Toy Story franchise. Even Tigger gives off a more ambiguous vibe. These characters are not supposed to be so much larger-than-life as part of the stuff of life. You have to experience the movie for yourself to truly appreciate it. Essentially, the characters have been brought down to a childhood scale: sort of rumpled up as if left out in the rain once or twice. They look and feel as if lived-in, as if personifying childhood: milk and cookies, warm pajamas, and bedhead. What could be more wonderful?

Whimsy and Quirk Butt Heads with Harsh Reality.

Ah, the conflict between adult reality and childhood dreams. Thankfully, Ewan McGregor is up to the task of playing a Peter Pan in reverse. He is definitely all grown up and now must struggle to rediscover his inner child. McGregor, a naturally athletic and playful actor, is certainly up to the task. Also compelling is Hayley Atwell as Evelyn Robin. And, as the heir to the Pooh childhood, Bronte Carmichael is enchanting as Madeline Robin. All in all, you have just the right level of whimsy and ethereal quirk. I should mention here that The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers, written by Richard and Robert Sherman, gets it due as Tigger is easily triggered into singing it in any scene he’s in.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

For late summer entertainment, Christopher Robin is just right. Think of it as the other side of a coin that includes Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. While the Cruise flick is relentlessly action-packed, the McGregor flick is relentlessly contemplative, even a bit melancholic, but in a very good way. Come to think of it, even the Cruise movie has its share of wistful moments! Both star men who somehow manage to defy age. Both can be Peter Pan if they care to be. And both can certainly entertain.

Visit the official Christopher Robin site right here.

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Filed under Childhood, Disney, Family, Movie Reviews, movies, Winnie-the-Pooh

2018 ACE Comic Con in Seattle: June 22-24

2018 ACE Comic Con in Seattle

ACE Comic Con is coming to the Pacific Northwest! From June 22 – 24, you can see Tom Holland (Spider-Man), Elizabeth Olsen (Scarlet Witch), Paul Bettany (Vision), and Hayley Atwell (Agent Peggy Carter – “Captain America”) of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe will join previously announced talent Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Tom Hiddleston (Loki) at the WaMu Theater & CenturyLink Field Event Center, Seattle.

UPDATE: Unfortunately, Chris Hemsworth has cancelled. Hemsworth tweeted his apologies citing last-minute scheduling conflicts that would prevent him from attending the first-ever ACE Comic Con at the WaMu Theater and CenturyLink Field Event Center in Seattle. ACE said that two Marvel Avengers have been assembled to take Hemsworth’s place: Sebastian Stan (Winter Soldier) and Anthony Mackie (The Falcon).

Other confirmed guests include Grant Gustin (Barry Allen/The Flash) of CW’s “The Flash,” cast member Camila Mendes (Veronica Lodge) of CW’s “Riverdale,” and WWE Superstars Shinsuke Nakamura, Carmella and Becky Lynch.

ACE Comic Con

A sneak peek sample of special programming for the weekend includes:

A solo panel with Spider-Man’s Tom Holland
Vision & Scarlet Witch panel with Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen
Thor panel with Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston
A solo panel with “Riverdale” star Camila Mendes
WWE Superstars discussing their journeys in and out of the ring

If you are in Seattle this weekend, be sure to visit ACE Comic Con.

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SIFF Review: EIGHTH GRADE

Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade

An honest portrayal of youth can make for a revelatory and refreshing movie, which is exactly what Eighth Grade is. Written and directed by Bo Burnham, it follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher) during her last five days in middle school. It is easily the highlight to this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.

You have to let kids be kids, and then maybe some magic can happen. That is the approach Burnham takes while still being able to craft a finely-structured script beforehand. At the start, there is this jittery and spontaneous vibe as we see raw and pixelated footage of Kayla talking about herself and kids in general on her YouTube channel. She stammers, she seems to just speak in circles. But it’s all actually in the script, word for word–and wonderfully performed by Elsie Fisher. And then, as it was later revealed to the audience at SIFF, it was Fisher’s idea to add in her own trademark sign-off. She makes an O-kay sign and says, “Gucci.” 27-year-old Burnham claimed to not know the popular meme reference prior to 15-year-old Fischer offering it up.

To tap into vulnerable and awkward youth is one of those mighty artistic quests. As a celebrated multi-talent in his own right, Burnham is certainly up to that ambitious goal. For filmmakers and writers, it is a right of passage to answer the call to addressing the whole issue of coming of age. That has resulted in everything from George Lucas’s American Graffiti to Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Of course, the list goes on. Too often, such a teen flick is cast with older characters. You raise the bar higher when you have actors that are also actual teenagers, like in John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club.

Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton in Eighth Grade

You feel like you want to protect Kayla as she ventures out, looking for love, friends, and a purpose in life. At first, I was sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop and we find that Kayla is going to be setup and hurt along the lines of Stephen King and Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Well, for one thing, this movie definitely does not fall within the horror genre. Still, there’s that fear for Kayla along the lines of Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West, with a wickedly unstable Ingrid played by Aubrey Plaza. What will help Kayla stay safe? Part of the answer is her father, Mark, played by Josh Hamilton. He ends up getting a healthy amount of screen time which is greatly deserved. By providing this warm and sensitive parent as a counterbalance, there are clear signs of hope beyond the rabbit hole of social media.

EIGHTH GRADE

After that first flickering image of young and desperate Kayla attempting to engage with the internet, there are various scenes that drive home the point that Kayla’s life is severely isolated. This begs the question of whether Kayla is closer to being an at-risk misfit or being a typical teen. What we come to find is that Kayla is indeed far more closer to what we are all like than we may care to admit. Kayla struggles to fit in with the “cool kids,” battles her painful shyness, and is mortified time and again on her journey of self-discovery. The coming-of-age theme is not the great Moby Dick prize for ambitious talent to harpoon for nothing. It IS the prize that can blind lesser aspirants. Burnham does well to let his young cast help him keep his clarity while he’s at the helm. In the end, we can all enjoy an authentic experience and give it an O-Kay sign and say, “Gucci.”

Eighth Grade goes into wide release in the U.S. on July 13, 2018.

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Filed under Movie Reviews, movies, Seattle International Film Festival, SIFF, Social Media