Actor Matthew Lillard appeared at the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles on September 12, 2012 where Cinefamily presented a sneak preview of his directorial debut, “Fat Kid Rules the World.” Based on the award-winning book of the same name by K.L. Going, it has already won the Narrative Feature Spotlight Audience Award at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival, and the audience at the Silent Movie Theater sounded just as enthusiastic as those festival-goers did over what Lillard brought to the silver screen.
One audience member asked Lillard what the budget was on “Fat Kid Rules the World,” and to hear him answer the question gives you an idea of how tight everything has become in the realm of independent film.
Matthew Lillard: We are well under a million dollars. We are a $750,000 dollar movie. We raised $158,000 dollars on Kickstarter (the audience applauded this), and we shot in 23 days in Seattle, Washington.
After winning the audience award at the SXSW Film Festival, Lillard thought “Fat Kid Rules the World” had it made because people loved it, and the reviews were really great. But then came the time to try and sell it to Hollywood studios.
Matthew Lillard: When the offers came in, they were all pretty terrible. I mean, they were all VOD (Video on Demand), and it gave us very little opportunity for our low budget movie to make its money back.
Granted, making an independent film has never been easy, but the way they are made these days show how much this industry has changed so much since the 1990’s. Eventually, Lillard decided he and his backers should bypass the typical route filmmakers take to sell their movies and create a new opportunity for themselves.
Matthew Lillard: With the $158,000 dollars (from Kickstarter), we put the movie on the Vans Warped tour all summer long. We made a deal with Tugg (a website for movies) so any kid anywhere in America can set up a screening of our film in their local cinema. If a kid lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, he can go to tuggthefatkid.com and request a screening of our film in his local cinema. They will set a threshold and the theater will say they’ll do it for forty people, and if forty people pre-buy a $10 dollar ticket then they will set it up at that time at that date in your theater.
Lillard went on to say that the highest requested movie before “Fat Kid Rules the World” got 330 requests, and his has already gotten over 1,000.
And when it comes to the life of this movie, Lillard made it abundantly clear how it is in the hands of the people who end up seeing it. It’s always great to hear stories like this as there are many different avenues available to filmmakers today, and we are not always sure of what they are.
Lillard then finished the evening by explaining to the audience why he made “Fat Kid Rules the World.”
Matthew Lillard: We made this movie for kids that are lost in the world. It’s an underdog story about an obese kid who finds punk rock music. For me, I wanted to make the movie because I found acting in my life when I was thirteen and it changed my life, and I think that there are kids out there that need this fucking movie. I did a movie called “SLC Punk,” and kids needed that movie. If I walk down the street in Austin, Texas people will come out to me and say, “Dude, SLC Punk changed my life!” And my goal, as lame as it is, is to help a kid out there who needs the movie finds the movie and it speaks to him and it changes his life or he finds himself. And that’s our goal, and you can help us do that.
“Fat Kid Rules the World” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.
High school. Like you, I do not miss those years, and you couldn’t pay me enough to go back through all that nonsense, and I see this even though I have credit card debt to pay off. The peer pressure, the rejection, the heartache, the unfulfilled longings and all the pressure which is unloaded on us by our parents when it comes to getting into a good college; I am stunned I survived any and all of it.
Still, I wonder what it is like for kids today. They have all these new advances in technology I never got to play with back then, but has the way we deal with each other in high school changed? Are people nicer now after horrible school shootings like Columbine or Parkland, or have things gotten worse? After you see “American Teen,” I think you will agree life as a teenager and in high school are neither better nor worse. In fact, everything remains the same. There are the cliques and the pressure to get into a prestigious college, and there are those who fit in and those who feel endlessly rejected. It has been more than 20 years since I graduated from high school, and kids still go through the same crap.
“American Teen” is a documentary by Nanette Burstein who previously directed “The Kid Stays in The Picture” and “On the Ropes.” Here, she gives us “The Breakfast Club” as if it were a documentary as she follows the lives of various teenagers as they go through their senior year at a small-town Indiana high school. There is nothing too edgy about this film, and it doesn’t deal much with drugs, sex, or school violence. What she is more interested in is taking the stereotypes of the jock, the nerd, the rebel, and the beautiful to where turns them upside down as she looks closely at the individuals inhabiting those stereotypes.
Burstein has gone on record and said that she considers herself a part of the “John Hughes generation,” and it’s very interesting how she takes the tropes of Hughes’ films and melds them into a movie filled with real people.
Unlike reality shows such as “The Hills” or “The Real World,” I think “American Teen” has a lot more to offer in terms of how teens deal with real problems, and I think it is also good viewing for those who are in high school right now as many of them likely think they are the only ones going through what they are going through. It’s important for them to know they are not alone, and we also need to listen to what they have to say.
Of all the subjects here, the most appealing one is Hannah Bailey, the liberal rebel of the highly conservative town of Warsaw, Indiana where this documentary takes place. She starts off as a free spirit and, deep down, she is the person many of us wanted to be like: free spirited and unconcerned of how others think of her. However, she is forever shattered when her boyfriend whom she was madly in love with, ends up breaking up with her after they have made out. Her emotional devastation is hard to watch as we have all dealt with the harsh pangs of young love. Hannah ends up getting so depressed to where she cannot bring herself to go to school out of shame and embarrassment. With her breakup comes a feeling of worthlessness which can easily engulf a young person and change who they are. From the start to the very end, Hannah is the one you root for the most.
We also have Jake Tusing, the nerd with a face ravaged with acne which cries out endlessly for the nearest dermatologist. Jake is a guy you at times feel sorry for, but you later find yourself cringing when he opens his mouth. A painfully shy kid who still suffers from the emotional scars he suffered in junior high, we see him being very uncomfortable around large groups of people. When a new girl moves into town, he sees this as his opportunity to get a girlfriend, something he hopes to acquire before he graduates. But soon, his defenses go up and he begins to push people away before they have the chance to do the same to him. In retrospect, Jake almost comes across as a real-life Dawn “Wiener-Dog” Wiener from “Welcome to The Dollhouse” as he goes from being likable to unlikable throughout the documentary.
Then there is Colin Clemens (no relation to Roger Clemens), the star of the high school basketball team in a town the sport is like a sacred religion. We see his dad constantly pressuring him to make those shots in the game when he is not doing his Elvis impersonation act for the local senior citizens in town (and who refuse to believe Elvis is dead). This intense pressure comes from the fact Colin’s family does not have enough money to send him to college, and his best hope is to impress the college recruiters so he can get a basketball scholarship. Colin comes across as a good kid whose parental influence leads him to make some crucial and painful mistakes, but he becomes a better person and teammate by this documentary’s end.
Finally, we have the most popular person at the school, and she proves to be a bitch beyond repair when you cross her. She is Megan Krizmanich, the daughter of a prominent local surgeon, the student council vice president and the homecoming queen. She is what many of us would call “little miss perfect” even though she is far from it. Like Regina George from “Mean Girls” in that she is one of the most popular people in high school as well as the one most loathed by the audience. She is under enormous pressure to get accepted into Notre Dame as all her family members have been accepted there. I won’t spoil it if she gets in or not, but when she gets the letter from the school, her expression isn’t so much happiness or sadness as it is sheer relief that the waiting is over.
One of this documentary’s taglines is “which one were you?” Taking that into account, you should be able to see yourself in all of these individuals regardless of what high school stereotype you ended up being trapped in. The pressures, the heartaches, the isolation; we have experienced it all. After watching “American Teen,” you may have felt like you lived through your high school years all over again. The high school pecking order on the social ladder has not changed one iota, and it remains an emotional boiling pot in the life of an adolescent.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
I wanted to know everything there was to know about these kids as “American Teen” went on, and I wanted them to succeed in what they wanted to do and to be happy. Happiness can be in such short supply when you are in high school at times. This documentary is filled with animated interludes which serve to illustrate the inner lives of its main characters. With Jake, we see him as the hero of those “Legend of Zelda” games he loves to play, rescuing the princess he longs to have as a girlfriend. With Colin, we see his dream of playing on an NCAA team after graduating from college. Hannah’s animation interlude illustrates her painful post-break up existence as she feels so differently about herself, and of her deep-seated fear of ending up like her manic-depressive mother. Then you have Megan’s moment which you can’t help but laugh at as she sees Notre Dame as this heavenly place where she can meet a diverse crowd of people who are nothing like those she picks on at school.
This is a great documentary to watch with an audience because everyone is bound to have a strong emotional reaction to what is going on throughout. We share in Hannah’s heartbreak and her triumphs as she proves to be the real hero here. We cringe and laugh at the socially awkward Jake as he stumbles through conversations with potential girlfriends. When he talks, you can’t help but put your hands in your face and shake your head in disbelief. With Megan, you feel a hatred and resentment which dissipates when you get to know her better. All the same, she reminds me of the one blonde cheerleader in my Shakespeare class who interrupted the teacher by saying, “THERE IS A RUN IN MY NYLONS!”
All that said, “American Teen” is by no means a perfect documentary. It does feel a bit staged, and it probably was in some cases. Also, part of me wished Burstein went a little deeper with other subjects. We see Hannah’s best friend is a homosexual who is always there for her when her self-esteem plummets, but we never really get to know who he is or of how he deals with living in a very conservative town. I also wanted to see more of the adults and of how they went about raising these young adults. We complain about the way kids act, but a lot of it has to do with the way their parents spoil them rotten. Trust me, this was a big problem in the town I grew up in.
Granted, Burstein wanted things to be shown from as much of the teenagers’ lives as possible, but the adults factor into this more than what we are shown. While “American Teen” does show the relationship Colin has with his Elvis impersonating dad, we don’t get as much with the other kids. Megan ends up committing a slanderous act of vandalism which she gets busted for, but her dad isn’t so much mad at her for doing it as he is with her not being able to keep from being caught. You have to wonder what kind of values these parents are instilling in their children as some are not the least bit healthy.
We also Hannah determined to move to San Francisco, California so she can pursue a career in television and film. She is so determined to get out of Indiana and lead a life which is anything but mundane, and we want to see her accomplish this regardless of how the odds are against her. But her mother ends up telling her she is “not special, and this is one of “American Teen’s” most wounding moments. I think any parent who tells their child this should be slapped. The world is tough enough without our parents breaking us down like that.
There is also a good deal of profanity bleeped out here. “American Teen” is rated PG-13 despite the f-word being mentioned only a couple of times. If the MPAA thinks they are trying to protect the kids old enough to see this movie from the bad words contained in it, they have failed. You wouldn’t believe the amount of bad language I heard on the playgrounds of the elementary and junior high schools I attended. It reminds me of Roger Ebert’s arguing how “The Breakfast Club” should have been PG-13 instead of R because he felt it was more than appropriate for teenagers. I couldn’t agree more, and the beeping out of “bad” language is ridiculous and only draws more attention to what the MPAA is trying to suppress.
Whatever you may think about “American Teen,” you have to give these kids credits for bravery because what they did here will forever be captured on celluloid and burned into our memories forever. It will be interesting to see a follow up to this documentary on where these kids are today. I’m not talking so much about the effect of the movie itself, but of the effect their years in high school have on their lives today. After graduation, they have nowhere to go but up, but life still has its pitfalls. How will their past inform their present?
WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place back in July of 2011.
It is very scary to realize “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is now at its 30-year anniversary. Although dated stylistically, what the students went through in this movie still feels very relevant to what today’s generation goes through on a regular basis. Based on the book by Cameron Crowe, who also wrote the screenplay, it follows a group of students during one year at a San Diego high school. Its director, Amy Heckerling, dropped by the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to talk about the behind the scenes stories, and she was greeted by a sold-out audience.
“Fast Times at Ridgemont” is notable for its frank depiction of teenage sexuality and in dealing with highly sensitive topics like abortion. Heckerling said the movie was shot at a time when things were rapidly changing. The sexual revolution was ending and the era of Ronald Reagan was on the rise along with conservatism. Most teenage comedies deal with situations from the male point of view, but Heckerling was adamant about the audience seeing things from the woman’s perspective. The MPAA, however, forced her to cut scenes like when a girl talks to her mother about blow jobs in order to avoid an X-rating. After all these years, the hypocrisy of the MPAA never ceases to amaze me.
These days, the movie is known for having three future Oscar winners in its cast: Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker and Nicolas Cage, who is credited here as Nicolas Coppola. This is not to mention all the other cast members like Jennifer Jason Leigh and Phoebe Cates, both of whom went on to other successful efforts after this movie’s release.
Heckerling recalled coming into this movie at what she called an “awesome” time. Casting young kids in a movie proved to be tricky, but she loved how there was so much great talent to choose from. When asked if she thought all great actors could do comedy, Heckerling replied some have it in their makeup while others do not. In working with Penn, she said he is wonderful in everything he does, and his smile always lights up whatever room he is in.
In talking about the soundtrack, Heckerling wanted to fill it with 1980’s music and songs by Oingo Boingo and the Go-Go’s. While she got to include the songs she wanted in the movie, she was also forced to add in a lot of 1970’s rock music from bands like The Eagles. This was in large part due to one of the movie’s producers, Irving Azroff, being the personal manager of The Eagles at the time.
One audience member asked Heckerling if the studio proposed any sequels or prequels to “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” She said when the movie was screened in Westwood, one studio executive suggested, “How about ‘Spicoli Goes to College?'”
There was a television spinoff but, like many of its kind, it proved to be short lived. There was also something of a follow up to “Fast Times” called “The Wild Life,” which was also written by Cameron Crowe and directed by Art Linson, but Heckerling said it was not strictly a sequel.
As unbelievable as it is that we are now at the 30th anniversary of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” it only goes to show this particular movie’s staying power. It remains as raunchy and funny as when it first came out, and it is also one of the great time capsules of the 1980’s. This is the kind of movie which really does not need a sequel or a prequel at this point to justify its success or longevity.
I recently had the pleasure of checking in with Keon Maghsoudi (a.k.a. Keon Kobra), a most excellent friend of mine from high school. We joined up to do an online commentary on the horror movie “Night of the Demons.” Released in 1988, the same year we got “Child Play’s,” “Maniac Cop,” “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street IV: The Dream Master,” “Phantasm II” and the completely unnecessary “Poltergeist III,” it was made for $1.2 million and shot over four weeks in South Central Los Angeles. Despite negative reviews from critics, it went on to gross over $3 million after its debut in Detroit. Since then, it has become a cult classic and was followed by two sequels and an obligatory remake.
Before Keon and I started, I admitted I had not previously seen “Night of the Demons.” I was aware of it, having seen its posters in newspapers and a trailer on television. But back then, I was only slowly getting into horror movies as they were the kind of cinematic experiences I was fascinated by but quick to avoid. These days, I look forward to them as I have long since become deeply fascinated by the dark side of humanity.
“Night of the Demons” tells the twisted tale of a group of high school seniors who decide to celebrate Halloween at Hull House, an isolated funeral parlor which (surprise surprise) is said to be haunted by evil spirits. Despite this, one of the seniors gets the group to participate in a séance which, as you can expect, leads to all hell breaking loose. This demon, which kind of looks like the anglerfish from “Finding Nemo,” rises up and begins to possess these foolish teens, and it is clear from the get go many of them will not survive the night.
This is one of those movies best watched with a group of friends as watching it by yourself serves as a reminder of how a party of one is not much fun. Director Kevin S. Tenney and screenwriter Joe Augustyn employ a large number of horror movie clichés to where we feel like we have a good idea of which characters will live and die. It’s almost like a guessing game as I was tempting to place bets as to which one would bite the dust first. I kept thinking it would be Stooge (played by Hal Havins). Was it? Watch the movie.
Dread Central, in its review of the cult classic, described it as being “fun. Lively. A masterpiece, it’s not.” I think this perfectly sums up “Night of the Demons” as it was made not to ascend to the cinematic heights of “Lawrence of Arabia,” but instead to satisfy its core audience which was into blood, gore and hair/glam metal bands which the 1980’s was famous for producing. I want to thank Keon for inviting me to be part of this commentary as watching the movie with him proved to be a lot of fun.
As we watched the movie, I had its Wikipedia and IMDB pages up on my computer, and I found out the following:
Cathy Podewell, who plays the virginal Judy Cassidy, lived in Walnut Creek, California, a city not far from where Keon and I grew up.
Judy’s boyfriend, Jay, who is portrayed by Lance Fenton, played Kurt Kelly in one of the greatest teen movies ever made, “Heathers.”
Linnea Quigley, who plays teenager Suzanne, was 30 years old when she was cast. Quigley initially turned down the opportunity to audition as she felt much too old to play a teenager. Nevertheless, she was cast.
Quigley is best known for playing teenage punk Trash in “The Return of the Living Dead,” another in a long line of movies I still need to see.
This movie was recorded in Ultra Stereo. Remember Ultra Stereo? That seems to have gone the way of VHS tapes.
I have included the entire video of our commentary down below. I hope you enjoy it.
I remember eighth grade very well. It started with me running cross country and being elected Treasurer to the student council. I stole a line from Chevy Chase as I told my fellow students, “Hi, I am Ben, and you’re not.” They laughed hysterically and cheered me loudly, and I lived for this kind of reaction back then. I felt like I was on top of the world, but then things changed to where I felt completely out of place and unsure of how to talk or act around people my age. I became socially awkward and felt very isolated from everyone around me, and the year ended on what seemed like a disastrous note as I became the center of attention in a negative way, something I hoped and prayed would never happen.
Those memories were brought right back to the surface as I watched “Eighth Grade” which stars Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day, a teenage girl on the verge of graduating from junior high school. When we first meet her, she is making her latest YouTube video in which she is telling her audience about the importance of being yourself, and she comes off looking very confident. But then we see her in the real world and discover she is a deeply introverted young woman who is socially awkward and introverted. Her class ends up voting her “Most Quiet,” and the look on her face when she is told this says so much as even she cannot deny this being true.
Granted, Kayla is growing in a time where social media is everywhere, and she is addicted to her cell phone as much as the next person. But while I did not grow up in a time of cell phone addiction, social media oversaturation, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter among other things, the feelings she experiences as she navigates the cruel realm of middle school feel very real, and I relate to them more than I ever could have expected to after all these years.
“Eighth Grade” has many moments which speaks volumes. The scene where the mother of Kennedy, the most popular girl at school, invites Kayla to her daughter’s birthday party is one of the most emotionally piercing. As the mother speaks, the camera has her face out of focus and instead offers a closeup on Kennedy who refuses to even look at Kayla, her face full of disgust to where she looks like she wants to say to her mom “do we have to invite her?” Being on the receiving end of a face like this when you were a teenager always felt really brutal, as our emotions at that age always felt epic to where dejection felt more common than happiness.
This is followed up by the movie’s most horrifying scene: a pool party. Just seeing Kayla stare out a window at the kids laughing and having fun in the pool as if she were a prisoner behind bars proves to be as unsettling as watching Dawn Weiner look for place to sit in the school cafeteria in “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” Kayla suffers a panic attack as she puts on her swimsuit, and when she does go into the pool, I kept waiting for her to have a Dustin Hoffman “Graduate” moment when she finds solace underwater. Kayla, however, can only stay underwater for so long as the noise in her head proves to be louder than everything going on outside of her.
Kayla does get a reprieve when she attends a high school shadow program and meets a really nice young woman named Olivia (Emily Robinson) who is very eager to introduce Kayla to the new school she will soon attend. Watching Kayla interact with Olivia reminded me of how I got along better with kids older than me than I did with those my own age. Her newfound friendship, however, hits a major snag when one of Olivia’s friends invites Kayla to play a game of truth or dare. I kept praying Kayla would not say the word “dare,” and when she does…
While watching “Eighth Grade,” I was reminded of the following exchange of dialogue from Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides:”
“What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”
“Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.”
Writer and director Bo Burnham, one of the first performers to become a star on YouTube, has brilliantly captured all the angst, horror and awkwardness of these crazy years we would rather put behind us. Clearly, he was never a teenage girl himself, but this quickly becomes irrelevant as anyone who has ever felt left out or at the bottom of the social ladder can easily relate to what Kayla experiences from start to finish. His screenplay feels very true to life, and not once does this movie feel like an average episode of “Saved by the Bell” or “Beverly Hills 90210.”
As Kayla, Elsie Fisher has such a winning presence to where you root for her right from the start. Her face, which has evidence of pimples, is not the kind we see in Clearasil commercials, and I applaud her for not trying to cover this up. In moments where she has no dialogue, Fisher shows us exactly what is going through Kayla’s mind as she is unable to hide the confusion and uncertainty of how to act around others. It’s a wonderful performance which feels true to life, and Fisher makes her final moments in “Eighth Grade” count for so much as she prepares to start the next stage of her life with newfound confidence.
The other performance I loved was from Josh Hamilton who plays Kayla’s father, Mark Day. At first, it looked like he is portraying a hapless dad who is simply here for comedic effect, but Hamilton gives this character dimensions which truly surprised me. Mark could have been like any other father we often in see in movies, but Hamilton digs deep to find the bruised heart of one who is just trying to do the best he can. It all leads to a wonderfully acted scene where Mark tells Kayla how she can never make him sad, and it is one of the more original moments I have seen between a parent and their child in recent years, and I am certain I will never forget it.
It gives me great pleasure to add “Eighth Grade” to my list of the best and most realistic motion pictures ever made about teenagers. Movies like “Pump Up the Volume” proved to be a godsend for me as they dealt with real teenagers going through problems I could actually relate to, and kids today need these movies as a healthy alternative to the more flaccid and shallow portrayals of their age set which do not reflect their reality. While much of what I saw was unnerving to where I was instantly reminded of far too many embarrassing moments from my junior high school days, it is always refreshing to get a movie from a filmmaker who takes the time to listen to teenagers instead of talking down to them. John Hughes may be gone, but there are other filmmakers more than willing to carry his torch for another generation.
Regardless of its R rating, I hope those who are in the eighth grade or have just graduated from junior high school get to check this movie out as I believe they will benefit greatly from watching it. I also have to say if adults are intent on saying the word “lit” in videos aimed at teenagers, they need to understand how kids use this word. Trust me, kids see through your façade, and your attempts to look cool to them will make you appear far too desperate for their approval.
Of all the movies I have seen about being a teenager, “Pump Up the Volume” is still far and away my favorite. It is also the one which hit me the hardest emotionally as, after seeing all these movies about nerds and jocks fighting each other on school grounds, this one had characters I could actually relate to. I grew up during the years of “Beverly Hills 90210” which infected us with a fantasy version of the high school experience where you could have your troubles as a teenager but would still come out of it with a smile, a cute boyfriend or girlfriend and some fancy, fancy clothes which made you look oh so incredibly cool. This movie does not exist in that fantasy world, thank goodness, and I would love to see Hollywood produce more movies like it.
Allow me to give you some background information about myself as it will inform how strongly I feel about this movie. My family had moved around quite a bit when I was a kid, but it actually didn’t bother me much until we moved from Southern California to Northern California. I lived in Thousand Oaks for five years, and at that point it was the longest I had ever lived in one place. For once I felt settled, and then my dad quit his job and got a new one up north in the Bay Area, and my whole life went into major upheaval as I had no choice but to move with my parents and away from a place which truly felt like home.
I had to start all over again making new friends, and even after all these years it still feels so unfair to have been put through this moving thing one time too many. I became very antisocial and withdrawn as I was so frustrated and depressed at this situation I was thrown into. For a while, it felt like I could not talk to anybody as I didn’t know what to say. In retrospect, the fact I got through adolescence in one piece seems like a miracle.
“Pump Up the Volume” features a character who went through something very similar. Christian Slater gives one of his all-time best performances as Mark Humphreys, a high school senior who has just moved with his family from New York to a suburb in Arizona which appears to be located in the middle of nowhere. He is a shy and withdrawn kid, clearly not happy about his situation. He can’t talk to anybody, not even to his parents who he feels completely alienated from. But by night he is Happy Hard On, a pirate radio DJ who operates an underground station in the basement of his parents’ new home. While Mark is very quiet in the classroom, he comes to life on the radio and rants about his new neighborhood and the world he is growing up in with complete abandon.
As time goes on, his radio program starts drawing in more and more listeners who relate to what he is going through. Chaos begins to reign at his high school and the adults work to control the situation, having no idea of what the kids are really going through. This scares Mark to the point where he wants to stop doing his show, but since this is one of his biggest outlets for the frustration and aggression he constantly feels, he can’t bring himself to stop. It’s through his venting that he suddenly becomes the voice everyone needs to hear, especially the kids.
“Pump Up the Volume” covers a lot of ground that other teenage movies don’t bother to, and it’s much more down to earth than others in the genre which, for myself, was a huge relief. I got so used to seeing movies about the classroom dork winning the girl of his dreams or beating out the jocks that made him believe he was so uncool. Watching movies like those when I was a teenager just made me feel more ostracized than I already did, so “Pump Up the Volume” was a godsend in how it had a main character I could actually relate to. Adolescents need movies like this to make them realize they are not the only ones going through rough times, and to make them see how being a teenager is not always what we expect it to be.
In one scene, Mark takes a call from a kid who admits he likes guys and ends up describing a truly humiliating situation he got trapped in. In another, he takes a call from a listener who has written him a letter saying he wants to kill himself, and when Harry asks him why, the listener says with tears coming out of his eyes, “I’m all alone.” But as Mark quickly admits, maybe it is okay to be alone sometimes, and that in the end we are all alone. It sucks, but there seems to be no real escaping this fact. Then again, I have no problem with anyone proving me wrong there. I can’t think of another teen movie before this one that dealt with such down-to-earth characters.
A lot of people have complained the adult characters are largely one-dimensional. While I can definitely see some validity in this argument, I also remember seeing these seem people at my high school. Believe me, these people do exist. Annie Ross plays Loretta Creswood, the principal of Hubert Humphrey High, and she is a true bitch in every sense. Loretta lives to see her students get the highest SAT scores in the state, and she has no time for troublemakers whom she sees as having no interest in education. I have friends of mine who are teachers, and they do not hesitate in telling me just how much they hate the principals they work with. The way they are described to me, they are just as bad as the one Ross plays in this movie.
Then you have Mark’s dad, Brian (played by Scott Paulin), who at first seems oblivious about how to deal with his son’s problems, but then he turns out to be the students’ savior when upon realizing they need to be heard, not talked down to. At the same time, Loretta doesn’t show the least bit of regret in expelling those students she feels are undeserving of an education. Paulin is terrific in making Brian seem like much more than the average parent, and he makes the character a heroic educator as we how much he values the fact everyone has the right to an education.
Another great performance comes from Samantha Mathis who plays Nora Diniro, a total rebel and a free spirit who never apologizes for who she is. Nora ends up befriending the terribly shy Mark, and she later comes to discover his secret identity. Nora eventually becomes Mark’s conscience as she makes him realize the powerful effect he has on the kids in the town and on her as well. When he wants to back out when things get too dangerous for him, she angrily reminds him he has a responsibility to the people who believe in him.
There’s a great scene where the two of them are outside in Mark’s backyard when he desperately wants to communicate to Nora, and she tries to make him as comfortable as possible. Nora even ends up taking off her sweater and stands in front of Mark with her breasts bared; forcing Mark to look into her eyes as they quickly make a connection not easily broken. Both Slater and Mathis have fantastic chemistry together, and Mathis creates the kind of free spirited character we all would have loved to have been like in high school.
“Pump Up the Volume” climaxes with the walls closing in on Mark as the adults try to figure out his real identity and shut him down for good. The fact he continues to be defiant even as the authorities get closer and closer to catching him was really inspiring to me. You want to see him, in the words of Jack Black from “School of Rock,” stick it to the man. Then Slater delivers this piece of dialogue which still stays with me:
“High school is the bottom. Being a teenager sucks, but that’s the point! Surviving it is the whole point! Quitting is not going to make you strong, living will. So just hang on and hang in there.”
“Pump Up the Volume” still resonates very deeply for me all these years later. It came out in the summer of 1990 which was, ironically the summer before I started high school. This movie became one of the things which kept me going through adolescence even when I got very, very depressed. Unfortunately, it was a box office flop on its initial release, but it has since gained a strong following on home video and DVD. It’s a following I hope will continue to grow, and maybe if we’re lucky, there will eventually be a special edition DVD and Blu-ray containing documentaries, trailers, audio commentaries and even music videos. Hey, Criterion Collection, are you listening?
“Pump Up the Volume” also contains one of my all-time favorite soundtracks. My only problem with it is it doesn’t have Leonard Cohen’s version of “Everybody Knows” which serves as the perfect song to open the movie with. Instead, we have the version by Concrete Blonde which comes on towards the end when Mark makes his last stand against the powers that be. I certainly don’t want to take away from their cover of the song as they did a great job on it, but Cohen’s version is perfect fit for Mark’s state of mind. It also would have been cool to get some of Cliff Martinez’s film score on the soundtrack as well as I really loved how it sounded. Still the soundtrack does have a lot terrific tracks from The Pixies, Soundgarden, Cowboy Junkies and Sonic Youth.
For me, “Pump Up the Volume” was a godsend. It gave me a character who was dealing with the same problems I dealt with when I was a teenager, and there were few, if any other, movies which contained individuals like him. Most teen movies back then just left me with a never-ending feeling of utter resentment as they featured kids who got to experience things I never did and felt robbed of. All the misfits, social rejects and those who felt dejected and rejected need and deserve a movie like “Pump Up the Volume.” After all these years, it remains very close to my heart, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone.
When it comes to teen movies, I live for those which take the adolescence seriously. Those years can be rough and tumble ones, filled of strong emotions which can overwhelm our small little worlds to an unbearable degree, and this is reflected in “The Breakfast Club,” “Pump Up the Volume” and “The Spectacular Now.” However, most teen movies deal with those years in a shallow manner to where they do nothing more than magnify the fears we have, or had, of being seen as unpopular or horribly isolated from our peers. Going into “Love, Simon,” which is based on the book “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” by Becky Albertalli, I figured it would be one of the shallower motion pictures involving teen life as its poster features the cast in all their clear-skinned glory. Surely some of these stars had to deal with acne, right?
“Love, Simon” ends up falling into the middle space of realistic and shallow teen movies. Some parts of it feel forced to where they belong more in a network sitcom, but others strike at the truth of growing up in a way few other movies have recently. In fact, this may be the first movie in which we eagerly await to see two guys kiss. Many were revolted by such a sight in the past, but these days we accept it because love is far more an attractive thing than hate. Realizing this, it makes me believe we have evolved as a society even more than we already have.
Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is your average teenager who comes from a good home with loving parents and a sister who looks to become a world class chef in record time. He also has a great group of friends he can confide in any time, and this made me very envious of his life as it didn’t feel like I always had that when I was his age. But Simon does have a big secret, and he doesn’t need to spell it out for us. He is gay and has yet to tell his family and friends, and the only way he can discuss his sexual orientation dilemma is with his email pen pal who is also contemplating how he can come out to his own family and friends.
Right from the start, I realized “Love, Simon” is a groundbreaking movie as the filmmakers were not about to paint the majority of the characters in such broad or obvious strokes. I was constantly reminded of the scene from “Clueless” in which Murray tells Cher that the boy she wants to have sex with is in fact a “disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde-reading, Streisand ticket-holding friend of Dorothy.” While homosexuals might, and I strongly stress the word might, have been easier to spot in the past, such stereotypes we are now largely irrelevant as we have no business judging anyone as what we say about others speaks far more about who we are.
“Love, Simon” also takes place in a time where our lives have long since become dominated by social media and cell phones. In the past, we could leave our school lives behind once we went home, but kids today cannot do the same as their friends and enemies continue to exert a strong hold over them via the internet, and nobody these days can live without it let alone a cell phone.
Simon is able to keep his sexual orientation a secret even as he reaches out online to another young man who is considering coming out to his parents. Things, however, become complicated when the annoying class nerd, Martin Addison (Logan Miller), discovers Simon’s secret and threatens to blackmail him unless he can set him up with one of his very pretty friends, Abby (Alexandra Shipp). From there, Simon’s life heads into a spiral of sorts as he is forced to lie to his closest friends and comprise their relationships, all in an effort to keep his secret even more secret than ever before.
One of the key elements of “Love, Simon” is how our main protagonist is always trying to find out the true identity of his email pen-pal, Blue. The filmmakers tantalize us with the possibilities of it being this or that person, Director Greg Berlanti teases us with what could be obvious answers, but he instead invites us to see past what we thought we saw and see the bigger picture we have no business denying ourselves. Movies in the past have played on what we think homosexuals look, how they act and dress like, but this one makes how nothing is ever clear cut as it seems.
The only character who you could say exhibits such stereotypes is Ethan, an out-and-proud teenager played by Clark Moore. Ethan doesn’t try to hide who he really is from anyone, nor should he, but he does have a key scene with Simon where he explains how his coming out was not as easy as it seemed. In retrospect, I wished the filmmakers had dug a little deeper into Ethan’s character, but to their credit, they do give him some of the movie’s best one-liners (the “gangbanged by TJ Maxx” line is classic).
I also really enjoyed the camaraderie Simon has with his best friends played by Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Miles Heizer, and Katherine Langford, whose character fares much better here than the one she played on “13 Reasons Why.” Seeing these friends have a great time with one another reminded me of the friendships I had during my high school years. It’s those friendships who help us get through the worst of times, and being a teenager can really suck more often than not. When Simon’s friendships become threatened, it’s painful to watch because losing a friend can seem so infinitely painful to where the heartache seems impossible to cure.
As for the character of Martin, he reminds of the kind of guy I never wanted to be seen as in high school. You know, the guy completely unaware of how annoying he is to others and who thinks so highly of himself that he cannot see the truth of what’s going on around him. The scene where he professes his affection to Abby at a football game is one of those horrifically cringe-inducing moments we all hope and pray never to get caught in, and Miller sells the moment for all the humiliation it is worth.
Simon’s parents are played wonderfully by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel, and they present the typical loving couple and parents we always hope to see in movies like these. Garner in particular has a wonderful scene with Robinson as she professes how proud she is of him for coming out. Duhamel, however, has a scene with Robinson where he accepts his son for who he is, and it feels like laughable for reasons I’m sure the filmmakers didn’t intend. Still, it’s fun to see Duhamel come to see how the music he loved in the past is no longer cool.
“Love, Simon” also features a pair of sublime supporting performances from Tony Hale and Natasha Rothwell, both who look like they are having the time of their lives. Hale plays Mr. Worth, the high school’s vice-principal who tries much too hard to fit in with a youthful demographic who will never see him as cool, especially when he is so busy taking away their cell phones at any given opportunity.
As for Rothwell, she plays Ms. Albright, the school’s drama teacher who is directing a production of the musical “Cabaret.” Her reactions to her students’ talent, or lack thereof, are priceless as she wonders how she went from doing “The Lion King” on Broadway to ending up here. Just watch Rothwell as she reprimands a pair of immature students who make fun of others for being different. The way she handles them could have been cliched, but it leads to one of the biggest laughs “Love, Simon” has in store for its audience.
In some ways I wish “Love, Simon” had dug even deeper into its subject manner. Many scenes ring true in the ways teenager act and live their lives, but it only gives so far beneath the surface of things to where this comes close to seeming like a missed opportunity. All the same, to have a movie like this one which the life of an adolescent seriously is always a wonderful gift, and this one definitely qualifies.
In the past, gay-themed or LGBT movies were treated with latex gloves as studios feared general audiences would not be quick to accept homosexuals in love. But with movies like “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Kids Are All Right,” we were not given gay love stories, but love stories as passionate as any we had ever watched before. The audience I saw “Love, Simon” with cheered loudly at the sight of two boys kissing each other, and I like to think this shows how far we have come in accepting things which never should have been quicker to accept in the past. Besides, we should agree seeing two boys kiss is a far more pleasing sight than seeing teenagers gunned down by a madman with an assault weapon, wouldn’t you say?
With “White Bird in a Blizzard,” Gregg Araki deals with the life of an adolescent once again. Based on the book of the same name by Laura Kasischke, it takes place in the 1980’s and stars Shailene Woodley as Kat Connor, a young woman whose mother ends up disappearing from her life. This happens at the same time she is discovering her sexuality with the next-door neighbor, Phil (Shiloh Fernandez), and she doesn’t seem too phased by her mother’s sudden absence. Her father, Brock (Christopher Meloni), has long since become a complete wimp, and his emotional repression prevents him from dealing with this situation in a rational manner. We follow Kat as she goes from high school to college, and eventually, she comes to see just how deeply affected she was by her mother’s disappearance and becomes determined to find out what happened to her.
Many of Araki’s films deal with the lives of teenagers, and he deals with them in a way which feels both honest and emotionally raw. “White Bird in a Blizzard” is the latest example of this, but while it deals with similar themes, it also feels somewhat unique to what Araki has given us before. He appeared at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the movie’s press conference, and I asked him if his view of adolescence has evolved much from one movie to the next. Araki replied it definitely has.
Gregg Araki: Back in the 90’s I did a series of three films (“Totally Fucked Up,” “The Doom Generation” and “Nowhere”) that I have become sort of famous or infamous for that were kind of a trilogy about being a teenager. It was called the “Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy” and they were very unhinged in a way and a little bit chaotic. I made those films 20 years ago and I definitely feel like in that time I’ve become older for sure and I think more mature and I’m more developed. I don’t really think I had a film like “White Bird” in me then. The analogy I make is that in this film I did called “The Doom Generation” which is also about young people, those kids have no parents. They have no house and they have no family; it’s just these kids doing crazy stuff. And in this movie Shailene does play somebody who is 18 and Shiloh (Fernandez’s) character is 18, and so they have their teenage moments and they meet in a Goth club and dance and they have that sort of carefree youth about them. But at the same time, this film is so much more about the family. Kat’s relationship with her mother or father, her parents’ marriage and just that whole world that, to me, like “American Beauty” or “The Ice Storm,” is about the world of the American dream and what is underneath the surface of it all. To me, that’s much more this film than my earlier movies about young people.
It’s always great to see a movie which takes adolescence seriously, and “White Bird in a Blizzard” does qualify as one. It also allows Woodley the opportunity to give another great and honest portrayal of a teenager just like she did in “The Descendants” and “The Spectacular Now,” and it shows how Araki, even at the age of 54, still truly understands what teenagers go through. But moreover, it shows how far Araki has come as a filmmaker, and it will be interesting to see where his career goes from here.
“White Bird in a Blizzard” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.
Here is a video interview I did with Araki, Woodley and Chris Meloni which I did for the website We Got This Covered.
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, follows 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley, in a star-making performance) as she goes on a journey for love and acceptance, and as the movie begins she has already started to experience her sexual awakening. She becomes embroiled in an affair with Monroe Rutherford (Alexander Skarsgard) who also happens to be her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend. What results is an honest version of what it’s like to be a teenage girl, and the movie isn’t so much about sex as it is about finding your own self-worth which is very important for young people making their way through this crazy world we all inhabit.
This movie marks the directorial debut of actress and writer Marielle Heller, and I got to talk with her and Bel Powley while they were at The London Hotel in West Hollywood, California. One of the things I remarked about it was how beautiful the movie looked and of how it really transported the audience back to the 70’s. Granted, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” does take place in San Francisco, California which, after all these years, hasn’t changed much since the 70’s, but director of photography Brandon Trost still did terrific work in bringing us back to a time period which is gone but not forgotten.
Marielle Heller: I love telling people that the same person who shot this movie also shot movies like “The Interview” and “Neighbors” because they couldn’t be more different in terms of content. But he is a real artist and I think he just did the most incredible job. He was so dedicated to making this film look and feel exactly how we envisioned it which was in some ways like an old Polaroid picture, but not with a hipster grossness on it. We wanted it to be really authentic to the story and to the characters.
Those who know Heller best know that she has been in love with Gloeckner’s graphic novel ever since her sister gave her a copy of it 8 years ago. She spent a long time trying to get the rights to adapt the book into a stage play, and she performed the role of Minnie Goetze herself in an acclaimed off-Broadway production. From there, Heller went on to develop “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” into a screenplay at the Sundance Labs, and the film eventually debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
Having spent so many years with Gloeckner’s graphic novel, I asked Heller how her view of it has evolved from when she first read the book to when she began turning it into a movie.
Marielle Heller: The film version of the book had to take on its own new life and really shift and change because the narrative structure of a film has to have a different build than a novel can. You read a book and you put it down and you pick it up and you put it down and it can have a really episodic feel, and a movie has to have a really specific kind of emotional build. I had such reverence for Phoebe’s book. I loved it more than anything I had ever read before, which is sort of a problematic place to start an adaption from. It was too much love, too much reverence, and at some point I had to sort of give myself permission to destroy parts of what I loved too and let go of it and let the reverence go away. Things changed, storylines changed, so that was a big process and luckily Phoebe really understood that because she’s such an artist herself.
Heller also remarked about a conversation she had with Gloeckner during the making of the film:
Marielle Heller: She was like, “You have to do what you have to do for this process. I took my real diaries and I wanted to make them into a piece of art. I didn’t want to write a memoir. I wanted to change them and let them become something new and let them become a book, and so I put them through this big grinder and it came out the other side hopefully with some truth intact. But it was something new, and then you took it and you put it through another kind of meat grinder and out the other end came this other project and it’s something new and hopefully that kernel of truth is still the same.” So it’s been a long process and in some ways I internalized the whole book. I got to know it inside and out and then stopped looking at it and wouldn’t let myself look at it and let the movie just grow into something totally new.
Watching “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” reminded me of my favorite movies which dealt with adolescence and being a teenager like “Pump up the Volume,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” I love movies which take adolescence seriously as so many others treat it like life won’t get any better than when you’re young. I asked Heller and Powley what their favorite teen movies which they felt treated being a teenager honestly were, and their answer pointed out how those movies are missing a particular point of view.
Marielle Heller: I think there are a lot of movies that deal with adolescence in an honest way for boys. I hadn’t really come across ones that really dealt with girls in an honest way which is why I think we wanted to make this movie. I know I really related to movies like “Stand by Me” or “Harold and Maude;” movies that felt like they were, like you said, really respecting the characters and giving adolescents a voice in it. And John Hughes’ movies too like “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles.” Movies like that really did give voice to the teenager in a real way. And I guess actually that John Hughes did make movies about girls. “Sixteen Candles” was about being a girl, but we’re a long time from “Sixteen Candles.” We’re due for another one.
Bel Powley: I was a teenager six years ago (laughs), and I don’t think I related to anything. I found it really hard, and I think it honestly made me feel like really isolated and really alone. I think young female characters are presented in such flat, two dimensional ways especially when it came to sex. Like if you did have sex then you were this high school slut, or if you didn’t then you’re either frigid or you’re like this virgin waiting for your Prince Charming. I remember being so excited when “Juno” was coming out, and then it came out and it was like, well no one speaks like that. And also, she’s made to be kind of asexual. It was just so confusing to me, and I honestly didn’t relate to anything until “Girls” (the HBO series), and that was when I was like 19.
Hearing Heller and Powley say that makes you realize how important “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is in today’s cinematic landscape. For once we have a movie that deals with the life of a teenage girl honestly, and that makes it all the more important for audiences to seek it out in the midst of another overcrowded summer movie season. It is truly one of the best adolescent movies made in recent memory, and it deserves your attention far more than many others in this genre.
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.
In Benson Lee’s “Seoul Searching,” Justin Chon plays Sid Park, a rebellious teenager and a punk rocker whose truancy and defiance of adult authority knows no bounds. Sid is one of many teenagers forced to spend the summer of 1986 in Seoul at a camp for “gyopo” or foreign born teenagers where they can learn more about their homeland, Korea. It’s no surprise that he doesn’t want to be there and he tries numerous ways to get kicked out, but eventually his tough guy persona is broken through by a teacher who sees that Sid yearns for the acceptance of his father. What results is the most important summer Sid will ever have in his young life.
Chon is one of the most prolific Asian-American actors working in movies today, and he is best known for playing Eric Yorkie in the “Twilight” series. His career started in 2005 when he appeared in such television shows as “Jack & Bobby” and “Taki & Luci,” and he became known to audiences worldwide when he played Peter Wu in the Disney Channel film “Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior.” Chon also starred as Sonny, an immigrant who becomes a notorious gangster, in “Revenge of the Green Dragons” which was executive produced by Martin Scorsese. In addition, he has also directed several digital shorts that are featured on his YouTube page.
I spoke with Chon recently while he was in Los Angeles to promote “Seoul Searching.” While he was a student at USC, he spent time abroad in South Korea and explained how he was able to draw on that experience for his role. He also talked about the 80’s song he wished the movie’s director, Benson Lee, had included on its soundtrack, and he makes it clear why “Seoul Searching” deserves to be seen as more than just an Asian-American movie.