Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed,” in which Ethan Hawke brilliantly plays an alcoholic Protestant minister undergoing a profound spiritual and psychological crisis, is a stunning, enrapturing film, a crowning work by one of the American cinema’s most essential artists.
Yet in the moment I deliver that unstinting endorsement, I feel compelled to add that this is a very special film for a certain, inevitably rather limited audience. In line with other Schrader movies, but perhaps more so than any, it defines itself against many of the central assumptions and conventions of most mainstream moviemaking.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” presents the history of Fred McFeely Rogers, Presbyterian minister, children’s advocate and the most beloved Republican since Abe Lincoln. Like Honest Abe, Mr. Rogers was known for wearing a specific article of clothing and his ability to sweet talk a Congressman or two. From 1968 to 2001, Mr. Rogers kept millions of little ones out of their parents’ hair by offering a half hour program designed to counter the cartoon violence and frenetic pacing of practically every other kids’ show on the air. On PBS, he sang, offered advice and worked a cat puppet whose feline vocal tic drove my mother absolutely insane. 15 years after his death, the heroic endeavors of Fred Rogers are finally being celebrated on the big screen.
13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) hosts a Youtube series called "Kayla's Korner" where she gives advice to an imagined audience of her peers. She picks topics like "Being Yourself" and "Putting Yourself Out There" and stumbles her way through a pep-talk peppered with "like" and glances at her notes. A glimpse of the subscriber count shows that Kayla's Korner hasn't exactly taken off. "Eighth Grade," the extraordinarily assured feature film debut by writer-director and standup comedian Bo Burnham, starts out with one of these videos and it is so touchingly real, so embarrassingly true to life, you might swear it was improvised, or found footage. But it's not. This is Elsie Fisher, a 13-year-old actress herself, amazingly in touch with what it's like to be in the stage of life she's actually in. Kayla airbrushes out her acne, and swoops on heavy eyeliner. When you see what her life is actually like the Kayla's Korner videos take on an almost tragic significance. But it's strangely hopeful too. This is a young girl trying to understand what she is going through, and she does so by positioning herself as an expert and a helper to others.
Debra Granik's 2010 "Winter's Bone" was a bleak, powerful film, introducing Jennifer Lawrence to a wide audience in her self-assured performance as a 17-year-old girl trying to keep her family together in the economically devastated Ozarks. Granik's follow-up was the documentary "Stray Dog," showing the psychological struggles of Vietnam vet and activist Ron Hall. Granik's work contains a real social and political critique, even more so since she focuses in on individuals. Her new film, "Leave No Trace," adapted from the 2009 novel, My Abandonment by Peter Rock, combines elements of "Winter's Bone" and "Stray Dog," the young girl off the grid, the troubled veteran living with PTSD. "Leave No Trace" is, at times, heartbreaking, but it's also filled with glimpses of almost casual human kindness, throwaway moments of good will and inclusion piercing through what could be the bleakest of tales. Granik shows great insight into the struggles of those who choose to "opt out," those who just want to be left alone, those who literally can't "fit in" to the larger world. At its very best, it is an immensely moving portrait of a father and daughter who love each other, and who can't bear to be apart.
I have a vague personal recollection of this story when it first hit the New York, and then the national media, in the early 1980s. I was living in New Jersey, not far from where it was unfolding, and was just a couple of years older than its subjects. Three identical twins who, through being mistaken for each other on nearby college campuses where they were just starting out (the full story is a little more complicated, but bear with me, and in any event the movie tells it in detail), discovered each other and began the fraternal relationship they’d been without for almost two decades.