Movie Review ~ They/Them

The Facts:

Synopsis: When a group of queer campers is welcomed to a gay conversion camp, they are promised a week of programming meant to “help them find a new sense of freedom.” As Whistler Camp’s methods become increasingly more psychologically unsettling, the campers must work together to protect themselves.
Stars: Kevin Bacon, Anna Chlumsky, Carrie Preston, Theo Germaine, Quei Tann, Austin Crute, Monique Kim, Anna Lore, Cooper Koch,  Darwin Del Fabro
Director: John Logan
Rated: NR
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: I’m nothing if not a creature of habit, and if there’s one genre I just can’t quit, it’s Summer Camp Slash ’Em Up. Almost as shameless as my addiction to hopping in the water with any ‘ole shark movie that swims my way, I will gleefully ride the bus through the woods to a shabby group of cabins for s’mores and s’more scares. I may have seen them all at this point, including some of the deep cuts that rarely see the light of day. We’ve gone so far that I’m starting to circle back and watch them again. I’m always on the lookout for something new to add to the mix, and hearing Blumhouse was partnering up with Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan for They/Them, I grabbed my sleeping bag for a fun party in the woods.

Debuting in early August on streaming service Peacock, They/Them attracted attention when the project was announced in a teaser trailer when details emerged about its plot concerning the location of where Logan had set it. The campers for this modern horror film would be attending a week of gay conversion camp, so it was natural the knee-jerk reaction for many was one of recoil. In a genre known to target the marginalized (often first), was there an actual need to further the horror by having the potential victims already placed in a frightening and vulnerable situation? I must admit that I was intrigued not just by the premise but by the participation of LGBTQIA+ friendly actors such as executive producer and star Kevin Bacon, Anna Chlumsky, Carrie Preston, and Theo Germaine. (Confirming a senior consultant with GLAAD was involved from the start, giving input on the script and on set for the production was also comforting.)

In operation for years, Camp Whistler presents itself as a welcome and safe space for its attendees to “find themselves” away from the noise of daily life. Not rooted in Christianity as many traditional conversion camps are, owner Owen (Bacon, Tremors) and his wife Cora (Preston, Bag of Hammers) prefer to let the teens make their way alone through their time at Whistler. Instead, there would only be a few group sessions and individual meetings with Cora to discuss their emotions. New Nurse Molly (Chlumsky, The End of the Tour) is on hand for any medical needs, and a pair of former campers, now married, preside over the “Boys Cabin” and the “Girls Cabin.” 

Jordan (Germaine, Night’s End) hasn’t decided where they fit yet. A trans, non-binary person that has come to Whistler, like many of their fellow campers, to appease their parents, Jordan is initially suspicious of Owen’s laid-back approach but eventually lets their guard down based on the positive intent of their initial meeting. Alexandra (Quei Tann), Toby (Austin Crute), Gabriel (Darwin Del Fabro), and Stu (Cooper Kock) join Jordan in sharing their stories of coming to terms with their sexuality, with most at different stages of their journeys. 

They/Them is an admirable, if perhaps too tiny, exploration of the emotional toll attending a place like Whistler Camp would have on an individual being sent to “change.” The bad news is that writer/director Logan often forgets that a slasher movie is supposedly being made. You’d also be forgiven if you didn’t remember either, due to the long stretches between brief appearances of the masked, cloaked figure that likes to watch instead of participating. Despite a spooky opening that promises a fun night ahead, Logan and his crew never manage to get back to that same level of tension, even though the film is well made overall.

The performances are the brightest spot in the film by far. Bacon is well cast as a benign (yeah, right) leader in charge of teens cast out by their parents and society and letting them call the shots for a change. True, the goal might be skewed in a specific direction (spoiler: it is), but there’s autonomy on the surface that catches all off guard. I loved Preston’s skill in demonstrating how a frozen smile can be scarier than any bloody butcher knife. All the campers have nice moments, and Germaine is a star on the rise, having a significant opportunity gifted to them. Here’s to many more to come.

It’s disappointing that the filmmakers couldn’t strike a balance in They/Them. The story being told here is valid and vital, but maybe in action, everyone started to realize that this was two disparate films unsuccessfully being mashed into one. At times, Logan (an Oscar nominee for writing the screenplays for Hugo, The Aviator, and Gladiator, not to mention penning Skyfall) gets things to fit together. Then an awkward misalignment becomes evident, and you’ve found yourself stuck in a weird place again. Any genre fan can spot the maniac instantly, so there’s not even a good mystery to solve while we wait. As a curious entry in the genre, They/Them is often more interested in spending time with the living than chasing down the doomed. The performances and above-average production make it worth the look but keep your expectations at a decent level.

Movie Review ~ Booksmart


The Facts
:

Synopsis: On the eve of their high school graduation, two academic superstars and best friends realize they should have worked less and played more. Determined not to fall short of their peers, the girls try to cram four years of fun into one night

Stars: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Jessica Williams, Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Mike O’Brien, Molly Gordon, Billie Lourd, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Victoria Ruesga, Austin Crute, Eduardo Franco, Nico Hiraga

Director: Olivia Wilde

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: We’re right at the crest of the wave where the end of the school year is about to crash into full blown summer and there couldn’t be a better time for a movie like Booksmart to arrive in theaters.  True, being released in the midst of a bevy of bombastic blockbusters might make its chances of doing big business opening weekend a tad slim but this has sleeper hit/future cult classic/definite midnight screening written all over it.  It’s a movie meant to be discovered and then shared, not one you necessarily make an appointment to see.

I’d heard about the film for a while after it received a positive reception at March’s South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, TX and deliberately avoided watching the trailer or reading anything more about it until I saw it. This is one I wanted to come to on my own without any ideas on what it should be, or pre-conceived notions on what to expect.  The way we are inundated with information on content it’s hard to go in blind to something but thankfully, I was able to come to Booksmart with a blank slate.

So now, after all that talk of going into the movie with little knowledge, of course I’m going to ask you to read a review of what I think about it – makes total sense, right? Really, I won’t be offended if you stop now and come back after you’ve seen the movie.  Seriously – it’s AOK.  But come back!  Promise?

You’re back? Great!  Wasn’t it good?  I know, right?

It’s the last day of school and Molly (Beanie Feldstein, Lady Bird) is ending the school year on top.  She’s class president and set to go to an Ivy League school in the fall.  By keeping her nose to the grindstone and focusing on her studies she has achieved all of the goals she’s set and has her future planned out not only for her but for her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever, Beautiful Boy).  We all either knew a Molly in high school or were a Molly so it isn’t hard to completely get this character – and the way she looks down on those that didn’t put the same effort forward in school, or at least the effort she’s deemed worthy.

When Molly finds out that several key people she originally had written off as destined to be losers for life are also moving on to luxe post-high school careers, she realizes she could have had fun all four years of high school and still made it big. Thus begins a quest for Molly and Amy to get their party on by any means necessary, leading them through a seemingly endless night of encounters with oddball characters and a journey of self-discovery before their graduation ceremony the next morning.

Much of Booksmart follows a typical trajectory of high school comedy that feels safe and familiar but the movie is as unpredictable as they come.  You have your stock characters that flow through (jock, tramp, brain, etc) but all are given a neat little bounce by screenwriters Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Katie Silberman (Isn’t it Romantic), and Susanna Fogel.  No one is quite who you expect them to be…and no one ends the film in quite the same way they start out.  Actress Olivia Wilde (The Lazarus Effect) makes her feature directing debut and shows a real knack for establishing a tone and a rhythm for Molly, Amy, and the strange people they find themselves hanging out with over the course of the evening.

Aside from introducing us to a host of interesting characters (and fresh-faced actors), the film is routinely laugh-out-loud funny as the girls find themselves in increasingly bizarre situations. These moments spring forth naturally and the comedy never feels forced, while there is a lot of physical humor there’s quite a bit of verbal banter that elicits laughs.  Audiences are used to being shown what’s funny but it’s rare for a movie to ask them to listen – you’d almost need to see it twice to get all the humor that is thrown in, though I don’t think it would be a hard sell to get people to screen this one a second time.

The movie wouldn’t work at all if the two leads hadn’t had the kind of chemistry they do. As much as romantic chemistry plays a part in convincing viewers that people are in love, chemistry between friends is almost harder to generate because it requires an intimacy that isn’t always physically shown but more emotionally present.  You buy that Feldstein and Dever would be friends in the movie and in real life and while Molly is the more alpha of the two, Amy is no shrinking violet at the end of the day.  We know from the start that Amy is a lesbian and the film wisely starts with the whole “coming out” story long since told – now she’s just finding her way and I appreciated that she was treated like everyone else in the movie looking for love and just as confused as the rest of them.

With so many memorable performances in the movie, from Billie Lourd’s (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) scene-stealing party girl to Skyler Gisondo (Vacation) as a try-hard looking to impress Molly, it seems wrong to single out just one actor but Feldstein is the true breakout star of Booksmart.  Ably holding her own against Bette Midler on the Broadway stage in Hello, Dolly! two years ago and proving a good foil for Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird (a role quite similar to Molly) in 2017, Feldstein finally steps fully into the spotlight and earns her place in the sun.  As much as Molly deserves to be taken down a notch or suffer through an embarrassing situation…if it weren’t for Feldstein’s irrepressible charm you’d be ready to push her off a cliff but instead you completely get where she’s coming from.

If we must talk negatives, I can drudge up a few. Personally, I wasn’t a fan of the soundtrack to this (sorry/not sorry) or an unnecessary subplot involving a teacher-student relationship and that’s what ultimately keeps the movie from being in the true upper echelon of high school comedies. Even that being said, Booksmart almost instantly earns a right to walk the hallowed halls of high school fame.  It’s fun, it’s riotously funny, and I enjoyed having absolutely no clue how it would end — that’s saying a lot for a genre comedy that’s been done many times before.