HIGH LIFE

“…succeeds in dismantling its own carefully nurtured air of suspense and sense of remote hopelessness thanks to the director’s own rather self-indulgent feminist fantasies.” – Wayward Wolf.

Ridley Scott’s hit and miss interplanetary epic, The Martian, was an object lesson in how to create half a film full of wonderful atmosphere and a haunting sense of isolation, and then systematically ruin it by way of a toe-curlingly naff, badly-scripted complete sell-out of a second half.

Which given the quality of the film’s first half was a huge shame.

Claire Denis’ space oddity, High Life, on the other hand, is an intriguing affair, yet succeeds in dismantling its own carefully nurtured air of suspense and sense of remote hopelessness thanks to the director’s own rather self-indulgent feminist fantasies.

Indeed, feminist ideology courses through the veins of Denis’ film with its prominent themes of female empowerment, control and sexual liberation never better exemplified than with Juliette Binoche’s man-free indulgence in a machine-enabled act of sexual abandon inside an Orgasmatron-esque type cubicle that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Woody Allen’s excellent Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask.

But it would be inaccurate to consider Denis’ film as being in any way comedic, fixating as it does upon the more sobering facets of the human experience.

One harrowing scene in which the spacecraft’s resident male sex pest attempts to rape one of the girls on board as she sleeps, restrained in her quarters – a scenario which embellished with a display of overtly physical violence is understandably treated as the sinister act that it undoubtedly is – is played out to an ominous soundtrack and rounded off with a display of brutal and just retribution against the aforementioned offender.

Compare this if you will with Juliette Binoche’s character’s ‘seduction’ of a semi-comatose – also physically restrained – Robert Pattinson as he sleeps, in an attempt to satisfy her obsessional sperm-harvesting habit.

Here, however, absent is any sense of perceived menace. Instead, Binoche’s actions are painted as being some sort of beguiling, mystical and enchanting act, accompanied by an atmospheric almost ethereal soundtrack. An act of pleasure one could only surmise. And let’s be honest, I’m sure it would have been. But at the risk of going all Alan Partridge on you, facts are facts, and sex without consent, as we are so frequently reminded by all and sundry, is rape.

Double standards (unsurprisingly?) at play.

For all of Denis’ film’s blatant ideology, inconsistencies and shameless self-indulgence, whether it be the sometimes kitschy sets, the fun yet almost certainly dubious science, or simply the sheer unlikeliness of the entire scenario at hand, there is still ‘something’ about High Life that nevertheless hits the mark.

Whilst we might choose to characterise High Life loosely as science fiction, more accurately it is a study of human relations and connections and arguably could have been set anywhere in any sort of confined location.

With strong performances across the board and a narrative which more or less engages throughout, High Life is a film that on balance just about wins me over, though I can more than appreciate how this artistic cosmic melodrama has split its cinema-going audiences right down the middle.

EIGHTH GRADE


“It’s really not over stating things to mention Eighth Grade in the same breath as the likes of John Hughes’ splendid, Pretty In Pink, and other classics of the coming-of-age genre.” – Wayward Wolf.

As young Kayla stumbles her way through an opening video monologue, unable to string more than five words together without resorting to the word ‘like’ – the curse of a generation – my toes curl, my shoulders tense up and I feel the life force draining from my soul.

I offer a world weary sigh…

If ever a film was on the brink of losing my attention in next to no time, this has to be it.

But as we are so often told, patience is indeed a virtue. Sure enough, any annoyances encountered quickly dissipate as this tale of growing-pains and teenage angst quietly finds its stride and begins to work its very subtle magic.

Helped along by Anna Meredith’s wonderfully quirky analogue synth-based punchy soundtrack – invoking a sort of retro bubblegum Nintendo / Sega jolliness of yesteryear – Bo Burnham’s film is a lesson to us all in eking out strands of originality from an apparently old and clichéd theme.

Shunned by most of her class mates. Voted ‘quietest in class’. Embarrassed by the well-intentioned ponderings of her dorky father, it’s fair to suggest that Kayla is not having the best of times in eighth grade.

High School simply can’t come soon enough. Everything will be just fine then. At least that’s what Kayla tells herself.

Whether she’s trying too hard to be liked, or plucking up the courage to attend a popular girl’s pool party, Kayla continually puts herself through the emotional wringer in her attempts to come to terms with her mis-firing teenage existence.

And in turn, we can’t help but feel every bump in the road and metaphorical bruise to her fragile teenage ego as she plods on regardless, such is our engagement with Kayla’s journey.

Yet, despite Kayla’s apparent ‘failings’ in life, she is also a girl possessing wisdom and understanding that bely her tender years.

By way of her own social media video channel, she relays her musings on life and the myriad struggles it presents to us all. Call it her own personal therapy or simply an act of sweet consideration for others, one cannot deny that Kayla has a big heart. She’d just like the chance to share it with others.

Given what I, certainly, perceive to be a wholly soulless landscape of cell phone dependency and mind numbing superficiality through which ‘the youth of today’ – yeah, yeah, shut up Grandad – must make their merry way, it’s testament to Bo Burnham that he brings great heart and most importantly hope to his narrative without us having to reach for the sick bag or indeed the magical toe-uncurling machine.

Elsie Fisher is quite lovely as Kayla, Josh Hamilton is the embodiment of fatherly concern and sincerity as Kayla’s well-meaning Dad, Mark. And a special mention to Jake Ryan for his marvellous cameo as the uber-nerdy, Gabe, whose apparent blissful unawareness of his perceived rank in the social pecking order serves as a lesson to us all, as we bend, flex and swerve our way through life in an attempt to never be the one nail that stands out above the rest.

It’s really not over stating things to mention Eighth Grade in the same breath as the likes of John Hughes’ splendid, Pretty In Pink, and any number of other classics of the coming-of-age genre. Indeed the influences here are plentiful and at times shamelessly obvious.

Regardless, Burnham’s film still succeeds in feeling fresh and innovative, and is, dare I say, something of a modern landmark piece in which a whole new generation of socially-isolated young misfits may emotionally invest as they make their own journeys through life’s perilous teenage years.