Step (2017)

I suppose this kind of milieu, the inner-city school, isn’t particularly uncommon, nor even focusing on athletic achievements in that venue (The Fits, although a fiction drama, isn’t so removed from this). And indeed there’s a whole (and great, in my opinion) franchise of films dedicated to this dance style, Step Up. Still, it’s nice to see the dance form tied to a story that’s grounded in a sociopolitical context, and though it’s always worth being attentive to the means of production (the film crew appear to be largely white), I think the resulting film avoids exploitation and is empathetic towards its subjects.


See, I get the reviews calling this film uplifting or inspirational, because that vibe definitely exists here, at least in part. But it’s set in a Black girls’ school in Baltimore, and the context — as we’ve seen only too often, and recently as well — is tough for them. That much the documentary makes clear at the outset. Still, this is about three young women who each approach their goal of getting into college via different means, but all of whom are into step dance. Those sequences could be better filmed (choppy editing and close-ups are all too common in dance films and really don’t help viewers appreciate it), but the pathos is all there, and by the end I think the film really allows for some empathy with its stars. Well, I shed a few tears.

Step film posterCREDITS
Director Amanda Lipitz; Cinematographer Casey Regan; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 13 August 2017.

The Fits (2015)

This isn’t a new film (and it took a couple of years to make it to London), but I wanted to fit it into my week of American films directed by women, as I really liked it. You can rent it on BFI Player or YouTube, and it’s well worthwhile, a really strong atmosphere piece.


At a superficial level there are similarities with the previous year’s The Falling, but this film is very much its own thing, and a striking debut at that. It deals with young women, part of their high school’s dance team, having fits, but actually that’s only one element, sort of an allegorical rendering of what we already see in lead character Toni’s story (played by the incredibly named Royalty Hightower). It’s really a film about fitting in, though initially I had yet another reading of the title, as I assumed it was about people who were just particularly into fitness (the pre-credits sequence is Toni doing sit-ups, and there’s a lot of repetition of exercise throughout). Indeed I’d say that one of the strong threads in the film is the idea that you can become good at something through repetitive practice (Toni starts out as not very good at dancing), and if sport and dance are the only things we see these kids doing at school, there’s an implication there too about their life options perhaps. What hooks me most though, the acting aside, is the filmmaking vision. The framing is very precise and there’s a minimum of shot-reverse shot sequences (several scenes have characters showing Toni something while the camera just look at her watching). I think this director has great promise, but most of all this is a compelling film about school, in an already crowded field.

The Fits film posterCREDITS
Director Anna Rose Holmer; Writers Holmer, Saela Davis and Lisa Kjerulff; Cinematographer Paul Yee; Starring Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 24 February 2017.

The Half of It (2020)

We used to talk about films sneaking out under the radar on streaming services (or on home video back in the day), but right now online is the only game in town, so the difference is whether you’re seeing it on subscription services like Netflix, or pay-to-play VOD, and Netflix can be a bigger platform than some cinemas (though as they never release their viewership, it’s difficult to be sure, aside from the vagaries of cultural impact). This is the case for the release of the new film from Alice Wu, or should I say the second film she’s been able to make in over 15 years, disappointing given how fundamentally solid her writing is. Anyway, it’s worth checking out.


This is a rather sweet film, and it’s a shame that it’s been 16 years since the last (and first) film by the same director, Saving Face (which I also very much enjoyed) — though I daren’t assume that the market for Asian-American-focused gay love stories has become any more viable in the intervening years. This one rather soft pedals the gay love story, focusing more on the relationship that develops between the jock, Paul (an appropriately lunkish Daniel Diemer), and the bookish Chinese-American girl, Ellie (Leah Lewis), who helps him write a love letter to his (far smarter) enamorata, Aster (Alexxis Lemire), the daughter of a Spanish pastor. Like a lot of high school-set quirky comedy-drama coming-of-age stories, it gets a magical/cutesy at times, pushing its characters at times beyond credulity, but it’s in the service of what is essentially a character-led film about three people trying to find their way in a deeply conformist little corner of America (a fictional town in, I think, New York state?). The three leads are all winning and likeable in their own ways, and the film never really gets dark, beyond a bit of love-based humiliation, when Paul wants to open up about his love (also an awkward scene in a church near the end). It’s an easy watch that may capitalise on the success of To All the Boys, but definitely goes in its own specific direction.

The Half of It film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Wu 伍思薇; Cinematographer Greta Zozula; Starring Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexxis Lemire; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 6 May 2020.

Selah and the Spades (2019)

The milieu this film sets itself in — a fairly well-heeled boarding school — is hardly new to cinema, but the telling of this tale is distinctive enough that I think there’s a lot of promise in this director (and of course, the cast, most of whom are fairly new faces, though Jharrel Jerome was seen in Moonlight).


Certainly a distinctive debut in the crowded marketplace of high school-set films, though something about the tone feels a little older than that, since it eschews the usual bright poppiness of that milieu for something darker and more reflective. The tone throughout is rather elliptical and with lots of little flashes of details, slightly off-centre close-ups of little tics and expressions, small touches that create an impressionistic sense of this time of life as somehow heightened and laden with feelings that go beyond just what is happening at a plot level. Entire sequences feel rather abstract in some ways, and plot becomes very much a minor part of the film at times, which pushes it into interesting territory that maybe isn’t always fully successful in its realisation but makes it preferable to something boring and safe (which is, to be fair, where most of this genre is pitched). The minor characters too feel a little underdeveloped, with Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) the standout — some of her dialogue felt contrived, but at other times, when she was just quietly observing, she seemed like the most interesting person on-screen. I’ll look forward to the director’s future work.

Selah and the Spades film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tayarisha Poe; Cinematographer Jomo Fray; Starring Lovie Simone, Celeste O’Connor, Jharrel Jerome, Ana Mulvoy-Ten, Gina Torres; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 18 April 2020.

Booksmart (2019)

Look, I tried to put it off, but after weeks dedicated to Netflix, Mubi and the BFI Player, I turn now to Amazon direct video and Amazon Prime. Whatever you think of Amazon — and I do earnestly encourage you to think bad things about them — they have been involved for a number years in producing their own original content, and have plenty of films (both new and old) available to watch. We’ve been paid-up members on and off (but mostly off) over the years for various reasons, usually because of deals or offers, and I cannot in all good faith tell you to give any more money to Amazon (their owner is offensively wealthy and its warehouse workers are grossly exploited). However, if you also happen to have Amazon Prime, you may be looking for things to watch, hence this week’s theme.


Some of the best American comedies are set in high school, and Booksmart is surely up amongst them. It has a kind of Clueless or 10 Things I Hate About You vibe (every bit as broad and brightly-coloured in a constructed way, but with less self-consciously based-on-a-literary-classic inspiration), and doubles-down on the female friendship angle, as two best friends (played by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) increasingly desperately try to find a graduation party. Yes these characters are all insanely privileged but I see that as part of that particular lineage of teen genre films. Indeed, Beanie Feldstein’s opening ensemble is assuredly a reference to Alicia Silverstone as Cher in Clueless (the film is filled with little vignettes that hark back to that film, both in the costuming and several of the scenes, like them being stuck in a remote location with no phone signal). In a very lowkey way it makes the valuable points that it’s possible to have fun at school and still do academically well, and although it does the obligatory high school cliques opening, it refuses to pit them against one another (unlike the rather darker Mean Girls). It has some nice bittersweet moments, but unlike the recent Eighth Grade, this film is not really trying to find the heartbreak (and truth, such as it is, is more in the feelings than in creating a realistic high school environment); rather it is just raucously fun. There are plenty of memorable small roles popping up (such as party girl Gigi, played by Billie Lourd) and strong, likeable, relatable turns from Feldstein and Dever in the lead roles.

Booksmart film posterCREDITS
Director Olivia Wilde; Writers Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman; Cinematographer Jason McCormick; Starring Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Billie Lourd, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, 25 May 2019 (and most recently on Amazon streaming at home, London, Friday 3 April 2020).

愛のむきだし Ai no Mukidashi (Love Exposure, 2008)

Showing up in a few of the BFI Player’s collections, most notably the Controversial Classics collection, is this lengthy Japanese modern classic, although perhaps not fully to my taste. Still, it certainly has style thanks to prolifically subversive filmmaker Sion Sono.


I’m prepared to accept there’s greatness at work here — there’s certainly an intense weight of issues around the influence of the Catholic church being worked out, and that’s often shorthand for artistic profundity in Western society. It somehow also feels relevant that I never managed to connect with the novel The Master and Margarita either, because stylistically it feels of a piece — there’s a freewheeling carnivalesque cavalcade of satirical black comedy going on at an unremitting clip. Some of it is very funny, even dealing with some fairly loathsome behaviour. And then there’s the group of girls who go round beating up men, which is great too. It’s just that four hours of discursive mayhem is wearying (for me), stylish and prettily acted as it so frequently is.

Love Exposure film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sion Sono 園子温; Cinematographer Sohei Tanikawa 谷川創平; Starring Takahiro Nishijima 西島隆弘, Hikari Mitsushima 満島ひかり, Sakura Ando 安藤サクラ; Length 237 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 17 May 2017.

Jinn (2018)

Stories about the conflicts and difficulties of growing up within faith-based communities haven’t really been covered very strongly within American cinema, I don’t think — or at least not outside of engagement with Christianity. This West Coast-based film deals with a Black Muslim-American family and their daughter, who is struggling to reconcile this new identity with her life and her school-age peers. It didn’t entirely work for me, but there’s plenty to commend it all the same.


This film, although set in Los Angeles, is based on the writer-director’s experiences growing up as a young Muslim girl in Oakland (the setting for a number of recent excellent films touching on the Black experience in the United States). The performances from its actors are all uniformly excellent, not least Zoe Renee as the lead character, aspiring dance student Summer, whose mother Jade (Simone Missick) has converted to Islam. Summer finds herself drawn into her mother’s life and faith as a result, which provides the dramatic tensions for the rest of the film. It’s undermined a little by the at times didactic script, which creates a conflict between her and her mother, and has a lot of very pointed dramatic exchanges about being Black and Muslim in American society, about the nature of faith, and the struggles of the characters to find their way within the teachings of Islam (though as someone who has myself started participating in a religious community fairly late in life, I definitely felt some resonances). There’s a lot of judgmental behaviour, though the script ensures everyone gets their learning moment. Although I saw it at the London Film Festival with the producer and stars present to speak to the film afterwards, I think this film would work strongly on a streaming service (and given it never received a British cinematic release, I suppose that’s how most people will see it): it has likeable, interesting characters and develops its drama in a pleasing way, and I look forward to more stories from the director.

Jinn film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nijla Mu’min; Cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole; Starring Zoe Renee, Simone Missick; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Tottenham Court Road, London, Friday 12 October 2018.

Eighth Grade (2018)

Released last year in the States, and garnering most of its awards attention at that time, this teen film was released earlier this year in the UK. It at times has the feel of a film about the kids made by a sympathetic older brother figure, but the key is that it is sympathetic and not too judgmental about what is, after all, a very emotionally turbulent time.


I don’t know anything about being an 8th grader (which is I believe age 13/14) in the United States, and I’m too old to really understand the kids now, but this film captures some what we might nowadays call “emotional truths” of being at that age, just before reaching high school, the awkwardness and the desperation, which feel very real and understandable. In a sense, it’s the base of just about every American coming of age high school movie, about the cliques and the fitting in, and the dealing with your parents, but this is done not so much as a boldly-coloured satirical comedy, but as something a little deeper and more complex. It has a lot of laughs (although some of them are laughs of anxiety in the face of potential humiliation), but it’s also pretty gruelling at times. When I think about it, nothing particularly awful really happens, but the way it’s framed, it’s all turmoil and heartbreak and so every detail feels a lot more life-threatening than any individual one might be, and that’s where I think the strength of the film is. Also, there are lots of canny shots and nicely-realised scenes that make it seem as if the director has a great sense of how to set up these moments.

Eighth Grade film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Bo Burnham; Cinematographer Andrew Wehde; Starring Elsie Fisher, Emily Robinson, Josh Hamilton; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 21 April 2019.

Passe ton bac d’abord (aka Graduate First, 1978)

Not all my favourite films of the year are new films, and I’m always discovering films from the past to love. The BFI ran a small season dedicated to French post-New Wave director Maurice Pialat, and this 1978 piece — a follow-up of sorts to his L’enfance nue of 10 years earlier — was one that I managed to catch on the big screen, though all his films that I’ve seen have had much to commend them.


The title suggests the (sadly rather well-worn) genre of ‘old man director wags his finger at the teens for not applying themselves’ and I suppose there would be something to that. After all, it’s about a bunch of late-teenage kids studying for their university entrance exams, who seem largely less than interested in such high-minded educational application and — as teens are in movies everywhere — more interested in making out with one another, or smoking, or just hanging out. Some of them have jobs (not great jobs), some of them have dreams and plans, some just settle down because there’s little else to do and very few options in their small French town. I’d say what elevates it above run-of-the-mill coming-of-age exploitation is the sensitivity with which these situations are played out, and (title aside) the general lack of judgement that seems to be passed here. Everyone is played naturalistically and there’s no forced narrative that pushes everyone into particular places. Indeed it feels like it evolves in an almost documentary manner, in a way that’s both true to the characters and ultimately satisfying, though without tying everything up neatly.

Passe ton bac d'abord film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Maurice Pialat; Cinematographers Pierre-William Glenn and Jean-Paul Janssen; Starring Sabine Haudepin, Philippe Marlaud; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 10 November 2019.

Three Recent Asian-American Romcoms: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018), Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and Always Be My Maybe (2019)

Of all the recent success stories in Asian-American cinema, focusing on Asian diaspora characters (usually Chinese-American, but there are people of Singaporean, Korean, Malaysian, Hong Kong and Vietnamese extraction, amongst others, mixed in here), none has been more notable than the romantic comedy. Of course there are cinematic precedents, like Alice Wu’s touching and likeable Saving Face (2004). However, following Kumail Nanjiani’s well-received The Big Sick the year before, last year’s high-profile cinematic success of Crazy Rich Asians has been matched on the small-screen by the Netflix films To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and this year’s Always Be My Maybe. I expect we’ll be seeing plenty more, and that can only be a good thing.

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