A few of my year-end enthusiasms

People, places and culture — little consolations — that are turning me on (saving me?) in the waning days of a sometimes unbearably tumultuous year …

  • Courtney Barnett — Guitar rock lives. Or so we can dream, a reverie persuasively advanced by grungy guitar-slinger Barnett, a pop-punk pixie who’s making some of the crunchiest, catchiest, folky-fuzzy rock around, music that sounds improbably lasting. A devout DIYer with a Grammy nod and fervent following, Barnett traces the raw, minimalist contours of Nirvana and the Pixies, with squalling distortion and a voice so uninflected that her Australian accent claws right through. That voice echoes the talk-singing and slightly nasal tones of Liz Phair, Patti Smith and The Hold Steady. Wincingly intimate, her jagged, jangly songs are shot through with personal drama and cutting irony. Often they’re downright hilarious. Choice cuts: “Pedestrian at Best,” “Debbie Downer,” “Avant Gardener,” “City Looks Pretty.” Watch her in concert HERE. And visit her squiggly world HERE.

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  • “Night Train”: New and Selected Stories by Thom Jones I didn’t even know Jones died two years ago. He’s one of my favorite short fiction writers and I kept wondering where in the hell he went, when he would publish again. I was alerted to his fate by this posthumous assemblage, plucked from Jones’ classic ’90s collections “The Pugilist at Rest,” “Cold Snap” and “Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine,” each worth owning, and cherishing. But with this chubby tome, featuring seven new stories, including the typically mordant title tale and spanning the biting, semi-autobiographical Vietnam War epic “The Pugilist at Rest” to the absurdist vermin mayhem of “Mouses,” Jones’ spare, sinewy, mean and bust-up funny realism comes into exhilarating focus. Fueled by grit, violence and the tough tenets of his hero Arthur Schopenhauer, this is essential contemporary fiction.

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  • Gin and tonic at Angel’s Share  Last month I drank a gin and tonic with a Japanese gin I criminally did not get the name of at Angel’s Share, the dark, elbow-jabbing speakeasy in New York’s East Village. It was the smoothest, lightest, tastiest G&T I’ve ever sipped, spritzed with a gorgeously un-cloying tonic that was gently fizzy, not nose-tickingly fizzy. The drink was a perfect alchemical mingling of alcohol and mixer, a frosty masterpiece. (If only I could afford the $17 elixir more than once a year.) 

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  • “I Am Dynamite!” by Sue Prideaux — Penetrating and punchy, with an attractively light touch for the weighty subject, Prideaux’s new biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, one of my dearest great dead thinkers — atheism! nihilism! iconoclasm! self-invention! and more furrowed-brow brilliance — is like literary windshield wipers, a slashing text of clarification and demystification. Despite the luxuriously daunting walrus mustache and monumental scowl worthy of a grumpus Mount Rushmore, the German polymath — yes: a prickly, willful malcontent — wasn’t the poisonous philosophical force we’ve been warned of. (For one, he abhorred antisemitism.) Reason reigned, until it crumbled amidst the famous crack-up that would kill him at age 56. Dead: first God, then him. 

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  • Istanbul — First come the post-vacation blues: the immediate despondency felt when you return home from a great trip. Crap, it’s over. And then there’s the afterglow: the crazy satisfaction and rapture you feel when the depression burns off. Damn, that was the best trip ever! I got back from Turkey last month and I’m basking in the afterglow. I was mostly in Istanbul, one of few cities that can hurl me into a dream state that’s as wondrous as it is ineffable, an otherworldly stupor of sights, sounds and flavors, pocked by the lovable multitude of stray dogs and cats and the unfailingly caring and splendid people. I still savor my Istanbul lodgings, the über-charming boutique Hotel Ibrahim Pasha and, in Cappadocia in Central Turkey, the Pumpkin Göreme Restaurant and Art Gallery, where the cheap and divine fixed menu delivers the allure of Turkey on many plates. If I sound a little intoxicated by it all, I am. 
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Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
  • “Skate Kitchen” — The young women of this scruffy 2018 skateboard drama are hell on wheels — or is that Chanel on wheels? No way. The tribe of shredding female street teens are all about the clacking and scraping of boards on New York concrete, smoking spliffs and coupling with the opposite (or same) sex. The star here is bespectacled Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a taciturn 18-year-old from Long Island who defies her mother for the skate parks and subways of Manhattan, where she’s promptly absorbed into a rowdy posse of all-girl skaters. The film is predictably sincere about teen rebellion equating to freedom and addressing, softly, teen politics and gender politics. Yet it works; it has kick. Crystal Moselle (2015’s hit documentary “The Wolfpack”) shoots with a meandering vérité camera, the city captured with gritty love and bloodied-knee realism, and music to match. The movie is on DVD and streaming. The trailer’s HERE.

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  • Cubby the Wonder Dog — The perennially pampered pup, huge heart, small bladder, gives as good as he gets — hugs and snuggles, mutual adoration, tricks and treats, ribald chit-chat over Scotch and cigars. We love the mutt with our lives, no matter if he begs, bedevils the cats or poops and pees on occasion and off the Wee-Wee Pad. Spiritual creatures, dogs are fuzzy founts of friendship, besting humans, I’m afraid. I’m rotten when I wake up, until I see that damn dog wagging his curled tail and things fall into place. Mused author Thom Jones (see above): “Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, filling an emptiness we don’t even know we have.”
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5 best movies of the year (so far)

  1. “Eighth Grade” — Her chin and forehead dappled with islands of acne, 13-year-old Kayla is stuck in the excruciating pangs of adolescent metamorphoses. A smidge pudgy with ruffled blonde hair, she is awkwardly pretty, a butterfly half-jammed in her chrysalis, squirming to soar. Her two front teeth, jumbly and slightly bucky, will break your heart. Played by a preternaturally perfect Elsie Fisher, Kayla is the can’t-keep-your-eyes-off lead in Bo Burnham’s indie wonder. She’s a compendium of teen neuroses, a raw nerve that keeps getting pinged. But as some have noted, the movie is not about geezers and their times bridging, torturously, eighth-grade and high school. It’s about today’s kids, glued to their phones, glazed in technology. It’s about forging one’s individuality amidst willful clones who gussy up their insecurities in narcotizing conformity. Kayla, a hero for our times, lives by her words, the dictums she professes on the videos she so bravely records on her phone. It doesn’t always work out, but watch her grow stronger after each posting. This rumpled, dimpled film is a marvel to behold, and one from which to learn.

2. “The Rider” — Chloé Zhao’s lo-fi drama moves at a painstaking pace, the clip of everyday life in action. But little is everyday here: Twenty-something Brady (newcomer Brady Jandreau) is a local rock star of rodeo bronc riding whose skull, we see in the opening shots, is stapled shut and oozing blood. An accident in the ring has left him slightly brain damaged. He’s forced to give up the rodeo, the only life he knows, outside of breaking colts, which he does with a calm, tough-love Jedi mastery. The film is a fine-grained portrait of the pains of getting back on your feet after life-altering disappointment, about rebuilding your spirit after it’s been body-slammed and shattered. Easily the most moving film of the year, “The Rider” is pure distilled emotion, beautifully shot on the Dakota prairie by cinematographer Joshua James Richards. It won Best Feature at the prestigious Gotham Awards this week.

3. “A Star is Born” — Call me a sap but I fell hard for this high-sheen remake of a remake of a remake (of, yup, a remake) about a pair of star-crossed musicians working on love amid the ruthless, sometimes lethal brambles of showbiz. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga unswervingly possess their crooning characters, Jack and Ally, with explosive energy and heart-searing nuance. It’s a simple tale about mutual respect, and its flip-side jealousy, and how drugs can neuter talent and well-oiled ambition can nurture it. Cooper, whose steely direction wrests high drama from the grunge and glamor, sings and gives one of his finest performances. Lady Gaga is a blazing revelation. The picture boasts genuinely solid songs, including the hit “Shallow,” a soaring paean to the thrill, and fragility, of love.

4. First Reformed” — The underrated Ethan Hawke, in his most hoarse, laser-beam performance, plays Rev. Ernst Toller, a clinically depressed man of enforced solitude who is too enmeshed in overwhelming epistemological questions for all that mainstream life stuff. He lives on the margins. He lives for God. He lives to save others, if not himself. Veteran writer-director Paul Schrader taps into his unshakable lodestar — Bergman and Bresson’s transcendental cinema of existential turmoil, spiritual struggle and personal despair — and fashions a dire universe for Toller, one consumed by crises of faith, guilt and penitence. Austere and bruised, this is not an easy picture. But it feels like a necessary one. (Hawke won Best Actor at the Gotham Awards.)

5. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — Mister Rogers was a badass. Twinkly TV host, child advocate, public broadcasting pioneer, musician, writer, Presbyterian minister, seat-of-the-pants puppeteer, colorful cardigan fetishist and all-around super fella, Fred McFeely Rogers (McFeely!) held a special passport into fledgling hearts and minds to become a noble pied-piper of cheering children across the land. He worked his educational magic with a voice of honey and silk, a lilting instrument so soothing it could place you in a spontaneous coma, and a dapper dependability that made him seem like the safest person in the world. He was made of gumdrops and hugs and soaring imagination. Not a scintilla of that hagiographic image is tarred in this illuminating, touching documentary that follows the self-styled teacher of tots as he crafts his TV programs, mainly the paste-and-plastic “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” It’s an adoring snapshot, a trippy bit of time-travel effusive with nostalgia and bolted together by Rogers’ nearly A.I. perfection. His virtuosity almost cloys: he was a wonderful husband and father (no! Not gay!), and his Midas touch with preschoolers was no fool’s gold. In the sphere of pedagogy, his sainthood is locked. (Gotham Audience Award winner.)

Of course there’s a slew of buzzed-about movies I haven’t seen yet that might still make the list: “Roma, “The Sisters Brothers, “Mission: Impossible — Fallout, “The Favourite,” “Widows,” “Blaze,” “I Am Not a Witch, “The House That Jack Built” and more.

Then there are the acclaimed movies that left me limp: “Black Panther,” “Leave No Trace,” “Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Isle of Dogs,” “Mandy,” “Shirkers,” “Miseducation of Cameron Post,” “You Were Never Really Here,” “Hereditary,” “Private Life.

And there are films I enjoyed perfectly well, like Julian Schnabel’s heady portrait of van Gogh “At Eternity’s Gate, the funny-sad triplets doc “Three Identical Strangers, the melancholy horse saga “Lean on Pete,”  the anthropomorphic, Wes Andersonian antics of “Paddington 2” and the asphyxiating thriller “A Quiet Place.

“A Quiet Place”

A transcendent dogumentary

They scramble and scrabble, bark and bound, nap and nuzzle, making an indelible imprint on their human pack leaders whose love for canines is crazily uncontainable.

Photos: Netflix

“Dogs,” a terrific six-part anthology series on Netflix, lushly shot by a squad of bravura documentarians (Glen Zipper, Oscar-nominated Amy Berg, et al.) , is a frank and unadorned look at the relationship between man and mutt. Heartrending and heartwarming, little is forced or pushily sentimental. Episodes provide spectacularly detailed snapshots of person, place and pup, and you strangely come away with a broader comprehension of life itself. Which makes the series certified art. 

Emotions organically erupt from an array of situations, be it a Labradoodle service dog that detects seizures in its epileptic owner with whooping barks; an imperiled Syrian war refugee that happens to be a yowling Siberian Husky; an aging golden Lab in a quaint Italian fishing village that dutifully follows his master onto Lake Como where they drift together; the fabulously groomed pooches of Japan and the uncharted culture of competitive grooming; a sanctuary in Costa Rica that’s home to 1,200 free-range strays; or New York City’s exploding rescue-dog phenomenon.

Each textured 50-minute portrait is framed within the big picture of the humans’ lives, from political to familial, together with the dogs’ often precarious realities. Funny, galvanizing, sad, uplifting and even spiritual, “Dogs” shows how beautifully symbiotic the two entities, hound and human, truly are.

Watch the “Dogs” trailer HERE.

Idle thoughts about our human duality

Eric Idle, one of the great Monty Pythonians, spoke in yesterday’s newspaper to say this: “I think I am an optimist by day and a pessimist by nighttime.” 

I take this to mean that life’s workaday gunk, from headaches to the headlines, and the daily news cycle, that cataract of informational sewage, from Trump to pathologically unfit Supreme Court nominees, poisons him in a most unpleasant manner. 

That he undergoes a sort of icky Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde binary: By day he’s merry old Eric Idle (Jekyll), getting along hunky-dory, and by night, fangs sprout, thick hair unfurls on his hands and face, and his disposition waxes decidedly splenetic (Hyde).

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Mr. Hyde, left, and Dr. Jekyll — same fella, different moods

For all that, Idle is evidently not a morning person. He says: “I can’t stand talking to people before lunch. I don’t think anybody civilized does.” (Hear, hear!)

I relate, to an extent. I am not a morning person. It takes a couple of hours, and at least one caffeinated elixir, for the early-hour crust to peel away, the nocturnal fog to burn off, my voice to clear from hoarsey to honeyed, my mood to shift from monosyllabic zombie to socially functional, with a possible grin if you’re really nice.  

It’s like the transformation of the Wolf Man back to a regular bloke, while we’re trading in Universal Horror metaphors.

But Idle and I differ in that I am a pessimist by day and an optimist by night — polar opposites. I arise and experience the day as Hyde — hairy, harried — and then I cool off, wind down and digest the day’s doldrums and distress during the dark. I relax, anxiety dissipates, I operate in a less pressurized space, though I must say I miss Hyde’s chimpanzee orthodontics and senatorial eyebrows. 

I rise in a murky mood. And, though it improves quite quickly, pessimism hovers over me during the daytime, an existential pall, a storm cloud poised to spit angsty, acid raindrops. I’m a little tense and the day’s news buffets me and only mixes me up more, stirs the pessimistic pot, which is really more like a cauldron, black and bubbly.

And then! The sun ducks, darkness falls like a stage curtain on the woozy light, and I slowly unwind. I once asked a therapist why this was — why my mood and my whole being gets, well, better at night. He had an answer that I cannot recall. It was some time ago. Bummer. I think it’s something about letting things go. Work is over. The night is yours. A splash of vino is poured. Fists unball.

I googled this phenomenon with imperfect results. All sorts of reportage about morning people vs. night owls popped up, but none of it addressed mood and state of mind, optimism vis-à-vis pessimism, focussing more on sleep habits, insomnia, and other folderol. There’s much about how some at night get droopy and others get galvanized, staying up later than the snoring household.

That’s not what I’m on about. It is noontime as I type this, warm, partly cloudy, just like me — warm and partly cloudy. Darkish thoughts percolate, I’m a little clenched, my forehead is a map of (mostly innocuous) worry. I am Mr. Hyde to Eric Idle’s enviable Dr. Jekyll.

But our roles will switch as the day progresses. Idle is slowly being filleted by life’s slings and arrows, so that by nighttime he will curdle with negativity. I’m already a wreck, lucky me. I’m Dracula (another Universal Horror allusion, you’re welcome), miserable in the sunlight, a goddam barrel of monkeys by night. We do what we can.

Istanbul’s citywide kitty corner

Goddamm cats. 

All over Istanbul, they ramble and climb, pounce and shinny. These homeless street beasts tackle each other in play; hiss and strike in combat; scrounge and scavenge for the next meal. They barge into shops and curl up in chairs and beg for food at sidewalk cafes with various degrees of rough-hewn etiquette (claws, paws and purrs).

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From the film “Kedi”

Most importantly, they insinuate themselves into the homes and hearts of many of this huge city’s denizens, soft souls who often regard the felines with an almost spiritual gravity, spurring the occasional display of soggy sagacity: 

“Dogs think people are God, but cats don’t,” a cat-lover says in “Kedi,” a documentary about the thousands of stray cats of Istanbul. “Cats know that people act as middlemen to God’s will.” 

I’m pretty sure I have no idea what that means.

“Kedi” (cat in Turkish, though it sounds a lot like kitty) is a well-received film from last year that lavishes the love — there’s not one hater in the whole picture, no one shooing away a cat with a broom — on Istanbul’s famed felines. It feels like a short film stretched taffy-like into a 79-minute feature that’s at once indulgent and superficial, while pleasant and lightly informative in an ingratiating PBS sort of way.   

Someone in the movie declares the homeless kitties are the city’s soul, but on my few visits to Istanbul I saw far more stray dogs than cats. Like this winsome fella, who became my pal for nearly a month:

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Istanbul, 2008

Still, I certainly saw many cats, such as this leery pair of scrappy, well-fed survivors:

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Istanbul, 2008

In “Kedi” cats inhabit rooftops, cardboard boxes, markets, cemeteries, trees and awnings, and the film paints artful visions of the kitty stars, from Bergmanesque close-ups to whisker-level Steadicam action of running, jumping and chasing (mice beware).

The cats comprise a motley array, and I expect to see the kitty cavalcade when I return to Istanbul next month — toms, calicos, tortoiseshells, mamas nursing their babes, cats with patterns like a painter’s palette, or, one of the stars of “Kedi,” a female hellion dubbed “the neighborhood psychopath.”

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From the film “Kedi”

Inevitably, kitty characters and personalities emerge, inescapably anthropomorphized. “It’s so fascinating,” says a simpatico fishmonger of the cats who not so mysteriously follow him around. “They’re just like people.”

We have two cats. They’re just like people: indifferent, solitary, narcissistic, wise, wily, incessantly hungry, jerks.

Yet in “Kedi” the humans are like grandparents who spoil their charges. A shopkeeper compares a kitty comrade to one of his children as he brushes her fur while she looks off into heavenly ecstasy. Another man compares the company of cats to the soul-soothing power of prayer beads.

Our cats provide the soul-soothing power of pooping, crotch-licking gremlins.

Taking care of these furry street urchins is, they say, their duty. They are cat custodians, and for many of them the animals supply a divine connection that is healing, curative and therapeutic.

How is this possible? one may ask. Cats purr and meow, but are otherwise as mute and inscrutable as the Sphinx. They scamper off a lot for no damn reason.

“I imagine having a relationship with cats must be a lot like being friends with aliens,” muses a dreadlocked woman in the film. “You make contact with a very different life form, open a line of communication with one another, and start a dialogue.”

As someone who talks to the animals, from cats to rats, I love that.

(“Kedi” stuff, including trailers, can be seen here.)

Five irritants that shouldn’t irritate. But do.

1.  The copout final shot in the Chloë Grace Moretz LGBTQ drama “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.” Without resolving anything dramatically, director-writer Desiree Akhavan avoids the hard work of crafting an actual ending, letting her and her characters off the hook by sticking them in the back of a pick-up truck to literally drive off into the sunset, then: fade to black. Such open-ended fade-outs — what will happen to our beloved heroes? — are not only lazy but a rancid cliché of undercooked indie filmdom. (Wait. Was I supposed to say: Spoiler alert!)

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2.  The local wallpaper-tattooed hippie-hipster barista who, when asked how he’s doing, invariably replies, “Livin’ the dream!” (Spoken in a groovy Jeff Spicoli cadence.)

3.  Pro sports. I have no stomach for fans’ foaming-at-the-mouth, chest-thumping, near-nationalistic posturing, the players’ obscene paydays, the blanket machismo and braggadocio, the snarling, whooping competitiveness. It’s a gross, alien world that, save the occasional semi-civilized soccer match, I find revolting. Any artistry is sheer brute. I’m a bit like author Roxane Gay: “As a child, I was awkward, unathletic and uninterested in becoming athletic. I was not a team player. I was a dreamer, something of an oddball loner. I wanted to spend all my time with books.” Then there’s the waspish H.L. Mencken who injects venom: “I hate all sports as rabidly as a person who likes sports hates common sense.” Oh goodie: Football season is upon us.

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4.  If you don’t read the weekly book reviews by Dwight Garner in The New York Times, you are missing some of the freshest, funniest, metaphor-drunk reviews in mainstream newspapers. You are, alas, culturally bereft. But I have a pet peeve (even the best aren’t immune): his unfailing penchant to quote other writers in 99-percent of his essays. Not writers he’s reviewing — that’s expected and apropos — but other writers, as if he can’t think up his own ideas. (“As Hunter S. Thompson said about firearms …,” or “To quote Bob Dylan on heartache …”) It’s a crutch he can’t relinquish. I devour his stuff, but his quotation-happy habit stops me cold. (Yes, I use quotes, too, but I’m not writing for the rarefied Times.)

5.  Middling to bad stand-up comedy specials flooding Netflix. Such jollity as the new “Demetri Martin: The Overthinker,” a depressingly anemic stand-up hour showcasing a once-hilarious comic in full sputter. Also schticking up the streaming service: Patton Oswald, who, on stage, is a peg above pedestrian; Judah Friedlander, a wan, wannabe Mitch Hedberg; the meh Noah Trevor; the slick Iliza Shlesinger, all harpy cutes; the shrill, aggressively pregnant Ali Wong (watch how she practically weaponizes that big old baby bump); and floundering fat-joker Gabriel Iglesias.

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Ali Wong: irritating

But let’s cool down and depart with a smiley-face emoji, tongue out, winking. Netflix tucks sparkling gems into the mix, like Fred Armisen’s joyfully sui generis “Standup for Drummers,” John Mulaney’s knock-dead “Kid Gorgeous at Radio City,” Aussie comedian Hannah Gadsby’s devastating “Nanette” (caveat: she may change your life), and the beyond-words brilliant “‘Oh, Hello’ on Broadway,” starring John Mulaney and Nick Kroll, whose marksman satire is so inspired and athletically sustained, you’ll be craving the most overstuffed tuna sandwich you’ve ever seen. (Watch the show. Then you’ll know.)

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Not irritating: “‘Oh, Hello’ on Broadway,” with Nick Kroll and John Mulaney

School sucks. ‘Eighth Grade’ doesn’t.

Her chin and forehead dappled with continents of acne — I thought I spotted an inflamed Australia — 13-year-old Kayla is stuck in the excruciating pangs of adolescent metamorphoses. A smidge pudgy with rumpled long blonde hair, she is awkwardly pretty, a butterfly half-jammed in her chrysalis, squirming to soar. Her two front teeth, jumbly-crooked and slightly bucky, will break your heart.

Kayla, played by a preternaturally perfect Elsie Fisher, is the can’t-keep-your-eyes-off lead in Bo Burnham’s indie hit “Eighth Grade,” and she’s a compendium of teen neuroses, a raw nerve that keeps getting pinged. 

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I kept wincing, re-feeling those awful transitional days, the insecurities, the free-floating dread, the fluttering anxiety — and the irrepressible excitement of the new.

But that’s not the movie’s point. “Eighth Grade” isn’t about me and my cohorts’ feathered hair, terrycloth polos, flared corduroy Levi’s and those giant combs hanging out our back pockets. Or the flubbed first kisses and mortifying social fumbles. 

As Owen Gleiberman puts it in Variety: “The beauty of ‘Eighth Grade’ is that it’s highly specific and generational. It’s the first movie to capture, in a major way, the teenage experience of those who have only existed on this planet during the digital era.”

In other words, it’s not about us geezers and our times bridging, torturously, eighth-grade and high school. It’s about today’s kids, like my niece, who’s exactly in Kayla’s fashionably beat-up sneakers. She’s 13. She’s glued to her phone. I wish her good luck.  

It’s about forging one’s individuality amidst willful clones who gussy up their insecurities in narcotizing conformity. Kayla, a hero for our times, I truly believe, lives by her words, the dictums she professes on the videos she so bravely records on her phone. It doesn’t always work out, but watch her grow stronger after each posting. 

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For all the bracing, spot-on scenes in Burnham’s dynamic debut — the movie is really a 90-minute reel of the smashingly real — I picked out my favorite midway through. Kayla is alone in bed at night and she’s surfing a kaleidoscopic stream of videos, social media, Instagram and whatever kids sift at no attention-span speeds. The music, playing loudly on the soundtrack, is sublime.

It’s the most affecting use of Enya’s 1988 harp-heavy hit “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” I’ve ever heard. The scene actually redeems the woozy, New Agey song. Lush, lyrical and frenetically up-to-the-minute, the sequence is a masterpiece of visual-aural agreement. It weirdly moved me, and it encapsulates the undeniable artistry, the tender emotional truth of this excellent film. For a brief moment, Kayla soars. 

See the trailer for “Eighth Grade” HERE.