3 from Hell

Posted October 20, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: cult, horror, sequel

3fromhellSo it turns out that Sid Haig’s Captain Spaulding was the corroded soul of Rob Zombie’s “Firefly” films. Haig, who went to the great grindhouse theater in the sky this past September 21, was front and center, a leering psychotic ball of greasepaint and rage, in Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and The Devil’s Rejects (2005). In the new, much-belated third film, 3 from Hell, Haig has one vehemently defiant scene early on, and then ol’ Captain Spaulding gets the death penalty. (Haig was supposed to have a much bigger role, of course, but his health forbade it.) Although the striking Richard Brake takes over what would have been Spaulding’s grisly activity and is perfectly fine at it, Haig is dearly missed.

Given the choice of having Haig for a matter of minutes or not doing the film at all, I don’t know which I would have chosen (nor do I know if Zombie had the option to pull the movie’s plug). I do wonder, though, why 3 from Hell was made, because the rotgut masterwork Devil’s Rejects was a perfect, hard, diamond-like finish to the story of the Firefly family, rounded out by Spaulding’s daughter Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), who makes Mallory Knox look like Mallory Keaton, and her hellbilly adopted brother Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley). At the end of Devil’s Rejects, it certainly seemed as though Zombie had given them a Viking funeral and Peckinpah send-off all in one, but they survived the police onslaught (“twenty bullets in each body,” we’re told here), and Baby and Otis spend ten years in prison.

Cut to 1988. Baby is up for parole (hilariously) and Otis is sprung from a road crew by his half-brother Foxy (Brake). Soon enough, the three are on the lam, menacing enemies and strangers alike, and we get the depressing feeling we’ve seen this before. Baby does her drifty, swaying-cobra routine that snaps into lethal focus, and Otis drops pompously demonic pronouncements like a dinner-theater Manson. The usual gnarly sadism, vintage needle-drops, language that would make a Marine blush, and rather offensively offhanded nudity follow. (I am not as convinced as Rob Zombie apparently was that a Firefly victim, courageously played by Sylvia Jefferies, needed to be stripped naked and then be knifed to death in that state on someone’s front lawn in pitiless daylight. The death, and her suffering, would have had equal impact if she’d been allowed to stay clothed.)

I’ve only seen the unrated cut of 3 from Hell, so I’m not sure what bits of grue (a gory woman blubbering while her flensed face hangs on a tree; intestines out where we can see them; the results of arrows, machetes, and bullets versus flesh) made it into the R-rated version — but who, given the choice, is going to opt for watered-down Rob Zombie, anyway? The thing is, Zombie has already freaked us out with most of this violence before; even the bit with the disembodied face is a variation on a much stronger scene in Devil’s Rejects. Zombie probably wanted to get the old gang back together for one last bloody ride, and that’s understandable (as long as it is a last ride and we don’t see another of these goddamn things in 2025). Zombie has gifts; he really does. And I’d rather see him using them with fresh material than repeating himself, which is what he did to some extent in 2016’s 31 and also here.

Zombie, 54, will probably never change. If he lives to be 80 and he’s still able, he’ll still be making second-generation grindhouse fare in his jittery greasy-grimy-gopher-guts aesthetic — I don’t expect to see Zombie’s Ikiru or Fanny and Alexander. But B-movie integrity can be as much of a trap as insincere Hollywood romps; past a certain point, both approaches start to feel inorganic. The Devil’s Rejects felt like a story Zombie just had to tell, and a story that nobody else could tell so sharply. 3 from Hell doesn’t. Again, it seems to have no urgent reason to exist, except perhaps to give us a last glimpse of Captain Spaulding (if not Sid Haig, who will still appear posthumously in two more films by other directors). So, hooray for Captain Spaulding. The rest of these motherfuckers, not so much.

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Midsommar

Posted October 13, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: cult, horror, one of the year's best

midsommar Whether it was curiosity or masochism that led me to Midsommar, the second feature by Ari Aster, I’m grateful to whichever it was. I more or less hated Aster’s debut, the high-pitched horror Hereditary, but this one’s the real deal — it sets a brittle but menacing tone early on and sustains it for well north of two hours. Midsommar feels like a hard shot from the source of terror — an allusive work of art, admittedly built out of earlier art. It will be (already has been) debated and discussed in perpetuity, and it’s the sort of film as comfortable on the front cover of Fangoria magazine as it will be as an eventual spine number in the Criterion Collection. When you hear Martin Scorsese or someone else going on about cinema, Midsommar is what they mean. It doesn’t just shock or spook. It unsettles.

The set-up is almost comically thorough and bleak. The leads, Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), are in a relationship that looks to be circling the drain. Something traumatic happens that makes sure they stay together (thinking back on it now, I wonder who or what is ultimately responsible for the tragedy), and they find themselves accompanying a friend back to his home turf in Sweden, specifically a remote commune where dwell an ancient band of pagans called the Hårga. The Hårga are awfully sunny and polite and friendly, and if we’ve seen more than one movie before we mistrust them on sight. But as directors as disparate as Robin Hardy (The Wicker Man) and Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust) knew, the horror doesn’t only lie in the “foreigners” our onscreen avatars find themselves among; it’s also in how “we” change, or don’t, in relation to them or in response to them.

It is true that Midsommar gets a couple of mean creepy moments out of a disfigured boy, the result of inbreeding in the Hårga clan, but he doesn’t do anything bad — he’s elevated as an oracle in the society. Besides, Aster has louder and wetter disturbances in store. I should probably say that the reported level of violence and perversity in Midsommar — likely from viewers who don’t see many horror movies — has been overstated. When it comes, though, it’s a sharp jab in the chops, all the more ghastly for unfolding in broad, shadowless daylight. At certain points some of the characters take psychedelic drugs, which in the world of the Hårga is really gilding the lily. Pugh and Reynor add a prickly, precarious vibe to the festivities; they’re neither good nor bad but realistically flawed, and they don’t always act nobly or wisely.

If we “liked” any of the protagonists in a simplistic manner, it’d be harder to see what Aster is truly going for. At many points, we have a god’s-eye vantage point on the action; the script keeps us in the dark about the Hårga and their motives, while the filmmaking (cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski deserves awards) is all blue skies and open air. The camera eye is neutral, showing us the primal, alien rituals without editorializing. Even the Dani’s-eye, psilocybin-soaked visions are like, hmm, that’s odd. (There’s actually a character named Odd.) At one point the outsiders loudly berate the Hårga for “just watching” as gore makes rainbows in the sunny air. We agree, yet we’re also just watching, and this is what we came to watch, whether or not we knew it.

Midsommar is an immersive and illogical experience. There’s a director’s cut, for now available exclusively from Apple, that runs 171 minutes and fleshes out more of the relationship between Dani and Christian. It’s not necessary, though, for us to see ourselves in them or vice versa. We identify with the outsiders only sporadically (especially not the idiot who accidentally micturates on a sacred dead tree), and the minds of the Hårga are as obscure to us as the mind of a spider. Ari Aster has a distinct voice — he seems to take for granted that people are invariably going to be difficult and self-defeating — though maybe not the most steady control of his effects yet. There are still, as in Hereditary, a few too many moments wherein we’re not sure if we should laugh, or whether Aster means us to laugh. Consistency may never be his strong suit. But he has delivered, in this cult epic, a powerfully paranoid mood piece. Time will tell whether Aster can function without hellish covens and nightmarish attempts to re-assert gender primitivism, but I’m certainly ready to tag along with him and find out.

Wallflower

Posted October 6, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, underrated

wallflower1-jumbo This past weekend, a film opened. You may have heard about it. Controversial in some quarters, it tries to enter the head of a man headed for a breakdown. His life is miserable; he wants to connect with women but doesn’t know how. He tries to fit into a community that will accept him, but it doesn’t work. Eventually his implosive anguish — we may as well say his toxic masculinity — expresses itself in explosive violence. Some commentators have said the movie sides too much with this man; others see it differently, as a depiction not glorification of anomic savagery.

Joker? No, Wallflower, a much smaller independent film based on a real-life tragedy. In 2006, a 28-year-old loner named Kyle Aaron Huff spent some of an evening at a rave in Seattle, then at an after-party. The next morning, he returned to the site of the after-party with a shotgun and a handgun; by the time he was done, seven people were dead, including Huff, by his own hand. Five years in the making, and funded on Kickstarter, Wallflower was cowritten and directed by Jagger Gravning, who’d known two of the victims and who wanted to divine meaning in the entrails of the massacre. Who was Kyle Aaron Huff (unnamed in the film, and played by David Call), and what drove him to his actions? Gravning offers some clues, and shows a few revelers trying to reach out to the killer, but sometimes fellowship isn’t enough. What would have been?

The glowering loner has his small arsenal in his truck, and at one point he acts as though he means to take his guns into the party at its peak, when the sun is still down. But he seems to think better of it — temporarily. Maybe he wants someone to change his mind, to touch something in his soul; maybe he wants to fall in love. He knows he won’t, but he’s willing to entertain the possibility. Meanwhile, we meet various players at the after-party: Link (Connor Marx), an affable anarch whose house it is; Strobe Rainbow (Atsuko Okatsuka), a lesbian cartoonist going through an acrimonious breakup. Strobe and the killer actually have a couple of things in common, but they may be too alike in the wrong ways. She seems to sense his bad vibes, and seeks to repel him from her group.

In this way do former outcasts ostracize current ones. It’s not Strobe’s fault, of course, nor does the movie come close to suggesting it is. But these are all people who — the film implies — escaped a small-town life where they were considered strange, and found a community of the likeminded strange in the rave scene of Seattle. The killer himself is originally from Whitefish, Montana, where he has a history of small dust-ups, including shooting up a moose statue. He came to Seattle, he says, because it was “close by.” He wanted to run away from home, but not too far. (The actual Huff moved there with his identical twin brother; the movie doesn’t mention a brother.) David Call does quietly pained work as the killer seems to pass an internal point of no return. Symbolically castrated and ejected from the group, he walks sadly to his truck.

Gravning has some definite chops as a director. Whether out of financial necessity or out of respect for the dead, he doesn’t show much of the carnage as it’s happening; we get a few aftermath glimpses. The style of the filmmaking is subdued and mildly doomy even during the bouncy rave sequences, when the killer is never far from the camera’s gaze, leaning against a wall staring in morose incomprehension at the ravers. A couple of the stoned conversations are as dreary as they are in real life, but mostly Wallflower walks a fine, unsteady line between keeping the narrative engaging and somehow making the story “entertaining” (exploitative). The narrative itself is splintered, nonlinear, reflecting the killer’s own cluttered headspace. By the end, attention is also paid to the continuing PTSD and coping of the survivors, and I found myself indifferent to how true to the letter of the real story the movie was. It feels true enough. Many, many fewer people will see Wallflower than saw Joker in its opening weekend, alas.

Crawl

Posted September 29, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, overrated, thriller

crawl Acting in the roving-alligator thriller Crawl could not have been remotely fun. The poor leads — Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper as a daughter/father pair trapped in a flooded house along with several king-size gators — spend most of their screen time in a filthy, rusty, submerged crawlspace, and the atmosphere looks like a petri dish for tetanus, triple-E, you name it. Crawl is mercifully short at an hour and 27 minutes, but the cast and crew spent weeks in these conditions. Aside from the usual bugaboos about being devoured or drowning, the movie works our fears of the disgusting basement, where things are spawning and living without our knowledge and certainly without our consent. At least your basement doesn’t host gator hatchlings — unless, like the folks here, you live in Florida.

A Category 5 hurricane is screaming towards land, and our heroes — Scodelario as a driven varsity swimmer and Pepper as her tough but loving dad — reunite, along with the family dog, in a house soon battered by winds and menaced by rising water. (The levees are gonna break, too.) Aside from a couple of cops and a trio of dumb looters — all gator fodder — Crawl is a two-handed exercise, much like director Alexandre Aja’s international calling-card slasher film Haute Tension (High Tension). There’s surprisingly little art here, though, just pulpy jolts arriving on schedule. And we don’t feel nearly as much for the daughter or the father, however compellingly enacted, as we’re clearly meant to. This is Low Tension. We simply aren’t convinced that meaningful lives (other than the obvious snacks tossed to the gators to pass the time) are at stake, not even the dog’s.

That said, Crawl does pass muster as a minimalist B-movie with money and resources unavailable to its ancestors of the drive-in (Eaten Alive, Alligator, etc.). The alligators are just alligators — they don’t stand for anything, and they may as well be sharks or lions or zombies or werewolves. Aja uses close quarters and an external apocalypse to distill the story down to two people against — well, the elements, death, inner demons. The father is still nursing wounds from when his marriage fell apart after the two daughters grew up and moved away; the daughter puts eternal pressure on herself, straining to live up to Dad’s meant-to-be-inspiring assessment of her as an “apex predator” (like an alligator, natch). There’s a mother around somewhere, remarried, absent from view. A sister is glimpsed briefly via phone. The daughter has been made a swimmer so that she can swim fast and hold her breath, so as to outpace the gators and endure long periods underwater (if she were a couch potato and heavy smoker the movie would be even shorter). It’s all narratively a little convenient (the script is courtesy of brothers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, who perpetrated John Carpenter’s nadir The Ward).

But if you stop expecting Crawl to transcend its low goals as a beer-and-pizza Saturday-night rental, it’s a decent crappy time, if a little slick and soulless. The characters’ flaws add nothing to the stew; they’re just plot points. Aja falls into a repetitive dread-and-release pattern, but he’s awfully good at it. Crawl is empty but undeniably well-wrought. What it’s missing, for me, is the sticky-floor grindhouse vibe it could have had, given its Florida setting. (It was shot mostly on a massive soundstage in Serbia, and it feels like it.) Perhaps that vibe is gone forever; legitimately attained in the 20th century, it can only be imitated and paid tribute now. In years past this would’ve been a regional Z-budgeter filmed on Earl Owensby’s acres in North Carolina with Vic Morrow as the dad and Claudia Jennings as the daughter. Might’ve been more disreputable fun then, too. Crawl is fun once or twice removed.

Riot Girls

Posted September 22, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, romance, science fiction

riot-girls-scratch-gun-1092x667 Jovanka Vuckovic’s lively feature debut Riot Girls is set in 1995 and seems to be a war between the ‘90s aesthetic and the ‘80s ethos. The heroes dress like the grunge army and listen to bands like L7; the villains wear varsity jackets and blare a hair-metal anthem called “Danger in the Air.” The mohawks versus the mullets. The Southside Serpents against Cobra Kai. Riot Girls is also post-apocalyptic, which makes this an alternate-history dystopia. A strange illness has eliminated all the adults, and only the teens are left. (We’re not briefed on whether the teens will expire at a certain age.) This effectively clears the board of baby boomers and many Gen-Xers — I was 25 in ’95 and leaves the world in the hands of late-Gen-X and early millennials.

Really, though, all this just builds a world in which teens are in charge. It’s a premise, not the plot. Riot Girls focuses on two heroes: Nat (Madison Iseman) and Scratch (Paloma Kwiatkowski), girlfriends who live on the East Side of their emptied-out town of Potter’s Bluff (the evil jocks reign over the West Side). Nat’s cocky brother Jack (Alexandre Bourgeois) has a habit of disabling West Side vehicles and raiding them for whatever supplies he can find; during one such foray, he’s captured, and Nat and Scratch ride off to the rescue. The grrl-power vibe of the piece has already been so firmly established that the script-flipping of the girls saving the boy doesn’t feel gimmicky — it feels like a necessary rejoinder. Jack goes off by himself impetuously, not listening to any of the girls around him, and the girls have to put things right.

The resemblance of Riot Girls to Riverdale in terms of emphasis and style (for instance, Celiana Cárdenas’ colorful cinematography) is most likely accidental; Vuckovic, previously the editor of the Canadian horror-film magazine Rue Morgue, seems to look to genre favorites like Massacre at Central High and Return of the Living Dead (whose signature song, “Partytime” by 45 Grave, underscores one scene). The script, by Katherine Collins, kind of proceeds from one situation to the next — the pile-up of familiar complications feels perfunctory. But Iseman’s soulful vulnerability and Kwiatkowski’s tough-girl Joan Jett deadpan (under which, of course, a soft gooshy heart beats) compel our interest and affection. Ultimately, the movie emerges as a girl-girl romantic adventure, with realistic gore that perhaps only a Rue Morgue veteran would insist upon. (The dark blood drips and spatters maybe a shade too convincingly for this teen fantasia.)

I’ve seen Riot Girls dismissed as disappointing and slight, which shows the weight of anticipation that can bog down the reception of any female-centered work. My guess is that the movie is offered as the kind of low-budget mid-‘90s Blockbuster rental that would’ve swum in the same waters as Hole’s Live Through This, Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, Rafal Zielinski’s Fun, Rachel Talalay’s Tank Girl, and Alex Sichel’s All Over Me. This movie would have fit in perfectly then, and may be at the spear’s tip of the inevitable ‘90s nostalgia (when the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Friends takes over the media for a solid week, as it did recently, something is happening).

So Riot Girls is both retrograde and progressive, which fits this polarized time. Vuckovic’s direction is assured, steady and earthy; the images and sound have a pleasing solidity. We may question, after the fact, the sociological details of the milieu (has every town and city split into factions like Potter’s Bluff?), but in the moment we just accept it as the reality. The story only seems political insofar as it sees the same flaws (and strengths) continuing into the next generation. There’s a whiff of Lord of the Flies about it, as well as a passing fragrance of The Chocolate War. In brief, Riot Girls, if novelized, might turn up on school summer-reading lists (and promptly be protested by the usual bluenoses) — if not now, then certainly in 1995.

The Dead Don’t Die

Posted September 15, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: cult, murray christmas, one of the year's best, underrated

Brody-DeadDontDie “The dead just don’t wanna die today,” growls Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, of course) near the end of Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan zombie doodle The Dead Don’t Die. The movie may seem like lightweight, lesser Jarmusch, but I have a feeling it’ll grow in stature in memory. Like George A. Romero before him, Jarmusch uses zombies as a Trojan horse for whatever ideas he has about society. His film feels like a riff on Romero’s work — a film-nerd character even wears a Night of the Living Dead pin. Well, Jarmusch and Edgar Wright know that if you’re working in the genre Romero invented, you show him due respect. The Dead Don’t Die has its wiseass downtown moments, but there’s also something morosely creepy about it, and Jarmusch isn’t larking around at Romero’s expense. Whatever Jarmusch is saying here, he’s as serious about it as Romero was.

Hermit Bob lurks in the woods of Centerville, a rural nowheresville impacted, like the rest of the world, by weird phenomena apparently caused by our planet going off its axis due to excess fracking. We meet a handful of townspeople, who all tuck little idiosyncrasies in their shirt pockets. Well, “little” except for Zelda Winston, a mortician who practices tirelessly with a samurai sword and who seems to hail from far away — like, way far away. Obviously, Zelda is played by Tilda Swinton, and her character name is one of several in the movie that function as scrambled variations on, or slight deviations from, either an actor’s name or the name of a past character he or she has played. So we have a news anchor named Posie Juarez played by Rosie Perez, and Adam Driver, who starred in Jarmusch’s previous film Paterson, plays a cop named Peterson.

The movie is a little long on meta fancies like this and a couple of fourth-wall-breaking scenes between Peterson and his older cop partner Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray). But generally Jarmusch holds to a melancholic realism (albeit a Jarmusch realism). Out in the woods, Hermit Bob happens across a paperback of Moby Dick, and twice he offers a partial quote of “For every one knows that this earthly air, whether ashore or afloat, is terribly infected with the nameless miseries of the numberless mortals who have died exhaling it.” Jarmusch possibly might have preferred The Nameless Miseries of the Numberless Mortals as a title, but I imagine it would’ve been a challenge for Sturgill Simpson to write the theme song around that. (In this universe, everyone has heard Simpson and has an opinion about his music; this is a reality where Sturgill Simpson exists, but other real-life musicians like Iggy Pop, Selena Gomez, and RZA  — driving a “Wu-PS” truck, ha-ha — appear playing characters.)

Anyway, that Melville quote seems to suggest we are sickened by breathing air filled with psychic toxins (sounds like Marianne Williamson after a dank bowl). This notion of a plague spreading like a mood across a community — peopled by drones who come back from the dead croaking the one word that defines them as consumers — is more poetic than the usual zombie epidemic, and perhaps shares more DNA with the excellent unconventional zombie flick Pontypool than with Romero. Driver and Murray put on their best deadpans, though not everyone is so affectless; consider the angry Trumpster farmer (Steve Buscemi) or the aghast cop (Chloë Sevigny) or the abashed geek (Caleb Landry Jones) or the gloomy mechanic (Danny Glover). The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t seem like a reverie on mortality like Jarmusch’s Dead Man; it has more to do with bad vibes, bad feelings, that threaten to splinter human connection.

Again like Romero, Jarmusch creates a circumstance in which the dead return — a miraculous event, or a perversion of Lazarus — only to be locked into their one favorite thing, like phones or coffee or Chardonnay. The dead become automatons, and the living, reduced to retreat and defense, become little better. Both groups are single-minded to the point of blindness to their surroundings. Thus “zombie comedy” doesn’t fit very well on The Dead Don’t Die; neither does “horror film.” Sometimes its sense of creeping global wrongness evokes Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World; sometimes it seems like Jarmusch’s typically elliptical response to current events. It does manage to be funny here and there, but I don’t think that’s the effect Jarmusch is after, or not the only effect. It’s beautiful almost in spite of itself; cinematographer Frederick Elmes finds the lushness in gas stations and diners and cemetery trees backlit by the moon.

Booksmart

Posted September 8, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, one of the year's best

booksmart The good-hearted, often hilarious coming-of-age comedy Booksmart deserves to be to Gen-Z girls what Clueless was and is to millennials. It’s the night before high-school graduation, and best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) have had a revelation. Since they can remember, they’ve hit the books and steered towards ivy-league colleges, after which, they’re sure, come fabulous, empowering careers. Their ambition has come at the expense of having any stupid kid fun, and the girls learn to their horror that many of their classmates, notorious party animals, are also getting into good schools. So Molly and Amy determine to find the biggest, coolest party and have at least one disreputable night to remember.

Booksmart feels solidly of-the-moment, very “Nevertheless, she persisted.” I don’t know that it would have felt so vital, felt so much like something one reaches towards gratefully, a few years ago. In the current moment it feels like an oasis and (forgive me) a hug. The movie was written, directed, and (with one exception) produced by women, and it pokes a little gentle fun at the performative wokeness of its era while never denying its necessity. There are holes here and there that I imagine are accounted for by deleted scenes — we meet Amy’s parents but not Molly’s, and one character makes such a belated comeback in the story I had a hard time remembering who she was and why she’s antagonistic to Amy. But mostly the narrative is loose and anecdotal, like so many other fond comedies about what goofy but lovable kids we were. (If “we” were well-to-do California kids, of course.)

The exuberant Feldstein and the wary Dever anchor the comedy in their characters’ respective insecurities, and director Olivia Wilde stacks the supporting cast largely with bright newcomers. One ringer, Billie Lourd, plays the school’s rich wild girl and turns in an eccentric but generous-hearted performance that does her mom, Carrie Fisher, proud. Some of the goings-on reminded me of the affectionately-seen hijinks of the kids in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. There are (with a brief exception) no villains here, just kids and — occasionally — grown-ups just trying to get by and have fun. Even the apparently mean kids have nooks and crannies of kindness. If they talk trash about you in the restroom it’s just because they don’t really know you.

Wilde is generally in gentle but firm control of the movie’s tone and moods, and when things get dramatic in the third act, we feel the potential loss sharply. It feels a little too much like a screenwriting trope, though, to have Molly and Amy fight and fall away from each other, and we don’t want to see them hurt (and we also know they’ll make up). We develop warm feelings for just about everyone — the rich dork who rents a yacht to throw a competing party; the drifty, smiling girl on whom Amy has a crush, but who might not actually be worthy of it; the teacher (Jessica Williams) who finds herself drawn into the party; and most of all for Molly and Amy. I always wanted more of everyone here; I would sit for a ten-episode Netflix Booksmart prequel series, as long as they could get the whole cast back.

I keep using words like “gentle,” but I don’t want to leave you with the impression that Booksmart isn’t also funny. The scenes are clipped to open up a line or a gag for maximum punch. There’s a bad-sex scene of titanic awkwardness that’s played for uneasy chuckles but mostly for cringing compassion; in general, we don’t have to wonder if it’s cruel to laugh at anything here. Even that well-worn stereotype the flamingly gay black guy is intended to be funny on his own terms. The movie is casual with gayness and is incisive on the inner lives of smart girls. For those reasons it often feels like a waft of cool fresh air piping into the humid, fart-filled elevator we’re all now stuck in. Some of the air is not so fresh; that’s what happens when you have four credited (albeit female) screenwriters. Every so often a line or situation lands with the heavy thunk of predictability or familiarity. But not too often. I’m glad films like Booksmart can still be made. I hope to see many more like it — or, not like it, but in the same spirit, with the same embracing soul. Its kindness makes it seem radical resistance.