1. The Tale
Jennifer, a globetrotting journalist, and professor, lives an enviable life with her boyfriend in New York City. That is until her mother finds a story Jennifer wrote at age 13 depicting a “special” relationship with two adult coaches. Reading the yellowed pages of “The Tale,” Jennifer discovers the coded details she composed 40 years earlier are quite unlike her recollection. Deeply shaken yet determined to square her version of events with the truth, Jennifer sets out to find her two coaches. Returning to the Carolina horse farm where so much transpired, Jennifer’s gangly yet tenacious seventh-grade self-reawakens, and the loving stories she told herself for decades begin to unravel.
Seamlessly toggling between past and present, writer/director Jennifer Fox forges a fresh and uncompromising cinematic language to penetrate the heightened internal worlds of her character at two pivotal stages. Shocking, emotionally raw, and destabilizing, this investigative thriller punctures the insidious workings of unchecked power and lays bare the mechanisms of memory—refashioned over time by a growing girl in order to not only survive but to prevail.
2. Eighth Grade
Eighth-grader Kayla Day always has her phone in hand, hoping to find connections online that might make up for those she’s unable to forge in everyday life. She makes YouTube videos aimed at other adolescents dealing with similar issues—feelings of isolation, anxiety, and invisibility—but after so easily summoning this wisdom and confidence when addressing her (barely existent) audience, Kayla finds it paralyzingly difficult to apply in real situations. In the final week of a thus-far-disastrous school year—and with high school looming on the horizon—Kayla struggles to bridge the gap between how she perceives herself and who she believes she should be.
Writer/director Bo Burnham, making his feature film debut, delivers a keenly observed and achingly funny portrait of the insecurities and absurdities of being 13 in a world where one’s private experience is lived publicly online. While Eighth Grade depicts the seeming impossibility of making it through middle school alive, it also celebrates the debut of its star, Elsie Fisher, who anchors the film with a dynamic portrayal that feels both incredibly specific and heartbreakingly universal.
3. Sorry to Bother You
Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a 30-something black telemarketer with self-esteem issues, discovers a magical selling power living inside of him. Suddenly he’s rising up the ranks to the elite team of his company, which sells heinous products and services. The upswing in Cassius’s career raises serious red flags with his brilliant girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a sign-twirling gallery artist who is secretly a part of a Banksy-style collective called Left Eye. But the unimaginable hits the fan when Cassius meets the company’s cocaine-snorting, orgy-hosting, obnoxious, and relentlessly optimistic CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).
Bursting with wit and originality, writer/director Boots Riley pulls no punches in this immensely intelligent comedy about overcoming your perception of your own powers of persuasion. With pitch-perfect performances by a stellar cast, a super funky soundtrack (which Riley contributes to), plus a score by Tune-Yards, Sorry to Bother You is a sparkling debut feature that surfs a macabre universe with a disturbing likeness to our own.
4. The Kindergarten Teacher
Stuck in Staten Island, married to a kind but oblivious husband, and living with kids that mostly ignore her, 40-year-old Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) plods through her days teaching kindergarten with growing numbness. Her one source of joy is an evening poetry class across the bay in Lower Manhattan. But one day everything changes—Lisa discovers that a five-year-old boy in her class may be the poet she can only dream of being. She becomes fascinated. Could this child be a prodigy? A Mozart? Fascination turns to obsession as Lisa pushes boundaries to protect the boy from a banal life she knows too well. In a harrowing climax, Lisa risks her career, her family, and her freedom to nurture his genius and possibly tap into her own.
Gyllenhaal propels every moment of this mysterious film with a beguiling performance that proves once again she’s one of the most interesting actors working today. Based on an acclaimed Israeli film, The Kindergarten Teacher is the superb sophomore feature from writer/director Sara Colangelo (Little Accidents, 2014 Sundance Film Festival).
The Graham family starts to unravel following the death of their reclusive grandmother. Even after she’s gone, the matriarch still casts a dark shadow over the family, especially her loner teenage granddaughter, Charlie, whom she always had an unusual fascination with. As an overwhelming terror takes over their household, their peaceful existence is ripped apart, forcing their mother to explore a darker realm in order to escape the unfortunate fate they’ve inherited.
The feature-film debut of writer/director Ari Aster captivates the audience with a delicate and deliberate take on domestic turmoil, and it’s filled with haunting manifestations. Aster’s script ratchets up a feeling of delirious dread as the family members isolate themselves, only furthering their descent into madness. While consistently surprising in its twists and turns, this is a horror story firmly grounded within the desperate emotions of its compelling lead performances. Among a talented cast including Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, and Ann Dowd, the real standout is the menacing performance from young Broadway actress Milly Shapiro.