HATCHING (2022)

One of my favorite activities to attend when the world first re-opened in the summer of 2021 was Joe Swanberg’s Secret Screenings at Chicago’s Davis Theater. If you aren’t familiar with Swanberg, he’s perhaps best known for being a mumblecore pioneer — the low-rent indie film genre that emphasized language and small-scale human drama — but he’s also a prolific actor and producer and he loves Chicago, specifically his neighborhood of Lincoln Square, where the Davis is housed.

His secret screenings are exactly what they sound like: you buy a ticket solely knowing you’ll get to watch a film wouldn’t be possible to see otherwise. (I’ve previously written about a few of his prior screenings, including DETENTION). If you can attend, he has one more secret screening at the Davis on April 9th, and the writer/director will be present for a post-film Q&A. (Swanberg knows how to moderate these things, so it’ll be a quality Q&A!)

His first secret screening of 2022 was of Sundance darling HATCHING, a Finnish coming-of-age horror film from director Hanna Bergholm and writer Ilja Rautsi about Tinja (Siiri Solalinna), a gymnast teen with a monstrous social media-obsessed mother (a wicked Sophia Heikkilä), one who would rather break the neck of a raven that literally shatters the trappings of the family home as opposed to letting it free. Tinja later finds the crippled creature, puts it out of its misery, then sees a sole egg from the raven’s nest and decides to tend to it. Matters escalate in a brilliant way that explores puberty and terrible mothers.

Trust me, the less you know about the rest is best, but it’s a thrilling, wild, disgusting, intense ride. It’s a film that would make a great late-night double-feature with GINGER SNAPS.

I’d like to digress a bit from the film though, solely to discuss horror and bodies, as HATCHING — more than any other film I’ve seen in some time — scrutinizes physicality. Horror, perhaps more than any other genre than action, relies on people’s bodies being thrown around, either self-imposed or done by others. As someone who was infatuated with tumbling, bar work, and gymnastics in general as a youth, you’re repeatedly told to trust yourself, to get over your fears, to think of your appendages as tools; you specifically toss yourself around like an object for the amusement — or bemusement — of others. I look back and am shocked at the acts I put my body through, for no goddamn good reason apart from the fact that it felt good and it was expected.

I was not a gifted gymnast and, similarly, HATCHING’s Tinja is not a gifted gymnast, but unlike her, I was never pressured by a desperate mother to pursue it. It was just an extracurricular I latched onto.

I can’t imagine putting myself through those routines now as I’m too old and creaky, but I do miss it. That feeling is much what horror films capture and encapsulate: the thrill of youthfully putting yourself in perilous situations, of exploiting the belief of immortality of the young which is, at least in most horror films, often then cut short; victims of hubris, of launching themselves too high towards the sky and failing to stick the landing.

(As usual, including a trailer, but probably best to stay away if you have any interest in the film.)

SPONTANEOUS (2020)

(epix/Hulu/Paramount+/VOD) Yep, this is a repeat recommendation! (Here’s the original recommendation.) I often read the source material of a film afterwards, but that’s usually concerning dusty films from the 40s; rarely do I seek out source material for a modern film because many modern literary-to-film adaptations simply aren’t that interesting. (The last great book/film pair I can recall is probably GONE GIRL which was checks notes seven years ago?!)

However, I just finished reading the source material — Aaron Starmer’s novel of the same name — and I -love- both versions. To summarize both real quick, just in case: the senior year students in a traditional American high school start spontaneously combusting, BLEAK HOUSE-style. (Sorry, spoilers for a 150-year-old novel.)

The novel is denser and woolier than the film, but the film has a cavalier, high-energy attitude that the book lacks, and it doesn’t get so bogged down with the details. The film feels like a very concise reinterpretation of the novel — vast sections of the last third of the book are dropped or merely given lip-service in the film — the focus here is more on Mara and her end-of-youth relationship with Dylan — who is has far less back-story in the film — but that’s okay because the film is about Mara’s agency and her graduating to adulthood. Yes, writer/director Brian Duffield (writer of the previously recommended UNDERWATER) bumps up Mara’s quirkiness, but in a way that feels organic for Katherine Langford (KNIVES OUT), while still preserving her fuck-up demeanor (although it does significantly ramp down her drug use for some reason).

Sadly, Mara’s best friend Tess (RIVERDALE’s Hayley Law) is significantly dumbed down in the film, which is perhaps the only misstep the film makes, but otherwise it’s an extremely smart, visually inventive and refreshing take on a coming-of-age tale. I’m hoping it’ll find an audience post-COVID, because it has all of the hallmarks of a great cult film. And, if you like the film, pick up a copy of the book.*

  • I’d like to note that I picked up a used copy of the book, and the previous owner of the book took the effort to use typewriter whiteout tape — not actual whiteout — to obscure not only every swear in the novel (Mara swears approximately every other page, and it’s a 355 page novel) but also any physical sexual moment, including full paragraphs about self-stimulation. I can’t wrap my head around it — Mara’s utterances and the sex is the least disturbing part of the novel — but at least the presumed kid that asked to read the book got to read it?

SMOOTH TALK (1985)

(Criterion/DVD/BR) Unfortunately it’s currently not available to stream, but Criterion recently released a newly restored edition of SMOOTH TALK, a very dark coming-of-age tale from documentarian/director Joyce Chopra based on Joyce Carol Oates’ short story WHERE ARE YOU GOING, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? It’s vintage 80s, very sun-kissed, featuring Laura Dern in one of first roles, plenty of mall shopping, bangles, and teen girl sexuality.

It’s also worth noting that the new Criterion release also contains a copy of Oates’ short, well-worth reading after watching the film, if you haven’t read it already. (Or you can read it here.) I simply love it when Criterion does this sort of thing. For instance, my Criterion copy of PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK has a bundled copy of the source material.

SELAH AND THE SPADES (2020)

(Prime) Tayarisha Poe’s debut SELAH AND THE SPADES can be described as DEAR WHITE PEOPLE meets BRICK and, while I can’t argue with that — it’s full of teens scheming in a neo-noir underworld of their very own making — it’s more than a mashup of those two, partially because it focuses predominantly on girls and power. Also, while it’s Jomo Fray’s first feature as a cinematographer, his experience with short films is wisely executed, providing a strikingly visual film while still keeping a steady hand on SELAH’s framing.

FREAKS & GEEKS (1999)

(Hulu/Paramount+/VOD) FREAKS & GEEKS is finally available to stream! If you haven’t already purchased the DVD, or have enough grey hair to have watched it when it first aired, Hulu managed to clear all of the music rights and — after a bit of a stumble out of the gait — have the eps properly ordered.

If you’re a product of the 80s — especially if you were a nerd in the 80s — it’ll be a trip down memory lane. If not, given how absurdly recognizable all of the actors and creatives are, it’ll be another sort of nostalgia for you, as it introduced the world to: Judd Apatow, Linda Cardellini, Paul Feig, James Franco, Busy Philipps, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Mike White. A laundry list of modern heavy hitters, all of whom cut their teeth on this show.

GET DUKED! (2019)

(Prime) A light comedy/horror movie about four city boys (three hellion misfits, another a straight-up nerd) who have mostly unwillingly signed up to participate in The Duke of Edinbergh’s Award, an ‘outdoor adventure challenge in the Highlands’ set up in 1956 by the Duke of Edinbergh to help inspire young teens to ‘attain standards of achievement and endeavour in a wide variety of active interests’. (The film opens with a clearly faux-dated training video that — partially due to its use of fonts — feels like parody, but it is not, the Award is a very real thing: https://www.royal.uk/60-years-duke-edinburghs-award .)

Left without adult supervision, and only the barest of instructions, the boys dick around, smoke up (using part of the map they were given), and act generally obnoxious (except for the nerd, who is disheartened he’s not receiving the bonding adventure he’d hoped for). For the first third of the film, sitting through the scenes of infantile behavior is tedious, but the gears shift upon the introduction of a older stranger determined to kill youths, and he has his sights trained on them.

From there the adventure really begins, as the boys try to find ways to survive despite their incompetence and their willingness to leap first and look later. There’s a particularly rousing break about midway through that serves as a self-indulgent music video — this is the first feature effort from writer/director Ninian Doff, who has previously directed videos for acts like Run The Jewels and the Chemical Brothers — but the song and visuals ratchet up the fun, before culminating in a final act that tries to draw out a bit of political satire before immediately turning on its heel as if to tell the audience ‘fuck that, have a few more laughs.’

It helps that those playing the boys are able to come across as goofs instead of maniacs, and DUKED is fleshed out with great supporting talent like Eddie Izzard, Kate Dickie (THE VVITCH, PROMETHEUS, PREVENGE), Alice Lowe (SIGHTSEERS, PREVENGE), and Jonathan Aris (loads of British TV like HUMANS, SHERLOCK, etc.) Yes, it’s a slight film but, by the end, it had earned a bit of love.

BANANA SPLIT (2020)

(hoopla/kanopy/Netflix/VOD) A delightfully filthy ‘last summer before college’ tale co-written by and starring Hannah Marks (DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY, the previously mentioned I USED TO GO HERE). Marks plays April (coincidentally, also the name of her character in I USED TO GO HERE) who, after a whirlwind senior year relationship with Nick (Dylan Sprouse, as in the Sprouse that -isn’t- in RIVERDALE) — swiftly conveyed through a montage set to X-RAY SPEX’s -Obsessed With You- — the two break up. Nick rebounds with new-to-town Clara (Liana Liberato, THE BEACH HOUSE (2020)) who, much to April’s surprise, isn’t a terrible person. In fact, the two hit it off and become fast friends, despite their shared history with Nick.

It’s a winsome look at the intensity of both young love and teen friendships, earnest and honest but never too serious, and features in-jokes that are earned as opposed to a litany of pop culture riffs. First-time director Benjamin Kasulke (hard-working indie cinematographer who has shot everything from Guy Maddin’s BRAND UPON THE BRAIN to BETWEEN TWO FERNS: THE MOVIE) keeps the pace lively, embellishing bits here to wring the most from a scene, but often gets out of the way and lets Marks lead the way.

“We are going to have -one dinner- that doesn’t end in kissing fat asses or sucking dicks!”

BUNHEADS (2012-2013)

(fubo/Hulu/tubi/VOD) Yes, everyone’s celebrating Amy Sherman-Palladino and THE MARVELOUS MRS MAISEL now, but everyone outside of my wife and maybe a few friends, had largely forgotten her once GILMORE GIRLS went off the air in 2006.

Enter 2012: I vividly remember walking with some folks through a mall to catch a Bollywood film in the Chicago suburbs, and there was a BUNHEADS poster front-and-center between us and the theater, and one dude I was attending the screening with lambasted the poster; ridiculed it. I was a coward, half-heartedly chuckling at his jokes, but inwardly very angry.

It hadn’t aired yet and yes, GILMORE GIRLS has -a lot- of issues, I won’t deny that (especially the Netflix mini — yikes) but Amy Sherman-Palladino has done far more good than harm. And this dude was mocking a poster because it dared to promote a TV show about girls & dance, -while- we were heading to see a frickin’ Bollywood film.

Setting that aside: BUNHEADS is the story of failed ballerina/current Vegas showgirl Michelle Simms (Broadway star Sutton Foster who you may know her better as the lead in YOUNGER, and I really had hoped I’d be watching her on-stage with Hugh Jackman in THE MUSIC MAN right now, but so it goes) who drunkenly latches onto Alan Ruck one night, marries him, moves to a sleepy California town, and then Ruck dies. Simms then falls into teaching at Ruck’s mother-in-law’s (played by GILMORE GIRLS’ Kelly Bishop) dance studio.

While Michelle has a fair amount of drama, the show is far more concerned with the stakes regarding the girls she’s mentoring, and really, it’s about their stories and experiences, and how Michelle helps to guide them through life, despite being a bit of a fuck-up.

It’s quintessential Sherman-Palladino work: sweet, smart, overly verbose, and extremely well-produced (albeit, yes, extremely white). The following numbers below should sell you on the show alone. Why yes, I’ll take a musical dance number inspired by Tom Waits’ Mule Variations!

If you’re a sound nerd, I love how they mic the floors (see Dance Routines Part 2, ~1:30), so you hear every landing, every hit, every slap. I’m hard-pressed to think of a show that was as aurally tactile as this.

If you’re a cinematography nerd, goddamn, the cheats they employed to ensure that the mirrors were always seen, but never the cameras? Blows my mind. And the China Balls!

BUNHEADS had a little something for everyone, and it’s a crime how ABC Family buried it. I’m hoping Amy Sherman-Palladino will revisit it in the future although, granted they did film a farewell dance as a way to give closure, I’d still love to see a reunion special.

JAWBREAKER (1999)

(Pluto/VOD) I saw this a few years after it was released and enjoyed it but, upon a recent rewatch, I finally fully appreciate it: a dark, whipsmart teen comedy, styled like a Barry Sonnefeld film and penned in the vein of HEATHERS, but still manages to be its own thing. On top of that, it features an astounding supporting cast — Pam Grier! Carol Kane! Judy Greer! — and an even better soundtrack. Hell, THE DONNAS even play at their prom!

1999 really was a banner year for smart teen comedies. 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU! DICK! BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER! DROP DEAD GORGEOUS! IDLE HANDS! Too bad we didn’t quite appreciate what was right in the front of our faces.