Thursday, August 29, 2019

THE NEW THRILLER "DON'T LET GO" TWISTS ITS MYSTERY INTO A MOBIUS STRIP


Writer/director Jacob Estes should be commended for making an earnest attempt to turn the mystery genre on its ear. For starters, he grounds his new film DON'T LET GO in the middle-class black community of Los Angeles, a setting that is rarely showcased in mainstream cinema. Next, his story touches on complex topics ranging from bipolar disorder to police corruption. Finally, he attempts to rework the all-too-tried-and-true clich├ęs of the genre into a heady mix of noir, parallel planes, and spiritualism. It’s a tall order, albeit one that ultimately strains under the weight of such ambitions. Still, it’s a noble effort that manages to earn points just for making more out of a mystery.

The story concerns a devoted LAPD detective named Jack Radcliff (David Oyelowo) and his relationship with his sly niece Ashley (Storm Reid). They’ve always been close, but he’s become a stand-in father figure to her due to the problems his brother Garrett (Brian Tyree Henry) has with parenting. He’s a loving husband to Ashley, as well as his patient wife Susan (Shanelle Azoroh), but his history of problems with drugs and the law has rendered him unreliable.

One night, Ashley’s dad forgets to pick her up after a night out with friends at the movies. The stranded Ashley calls her “Uncle Jack” to come to get her, and he not only is there in a jiff, but he takes her to dinner at their favorite diner too. They bond over doodles and straight talk about her dad’s shortcomings. Ashley is wise beyond her years, and Jack confides in her almost like she’s an adult.

A few days later, Ashley calls Jack, and it’s a distress call. The feed breaks up, and their cell connection ends abruptly. Jack heads over to her house and to his horror finds out that Ashley, her parents, and even the family dog, have all been shot-gunned to death. Jack is devastated and can barely utter any words to Bobby (Mykelti Williamson), a fellow detective and family friend. The force recommends that Jack take some time off, but he spends a lot of time driving by the home and that restaurant, mourning the loss of his loved ones.

So far, so good. The characters are interesting. The carnage is devastating. And we want to know what happened to Ashley and her kin because she's a fun kid. (Not to mention that Storm Reid is such a likable talent.) Then, the film takes the first of its many twists and becomes much more than a moving story about family. It becomes supernatural when Jack gets repeated calls from Ashley on his cell. It’s definitely her calling, forcing the intrepid detective to dismiss any idea that someone is pranking him. Is this her ghost, an angel, what? 

Indeed, this highly rational and cool cucumber believes whole cloth that his niece is alive somehow, especially when he asks her to paint a red X on the garage where she lived, and then one shows up there almost by osmosis. Suddenly, we’re wondering if Jack is off his rocker, or if this is all an elaborate dream or fantasy. Estes keeps escalating the thrills and chills, and in Oyelowo and Reid, he has two terrific actors wholly committed to keeping all the fantastical happenings as grounded and believable as possible. 

But as the film enters its second hour, Estes starts to complicate the mystery with too many twists, too many red herrings, and too many unanswered questions. It seems that there are dual planes at work here, or some sort of Mobius strip of a timeline, where things that Jack does in his world affect events in Ashley’s and vice versa. That’s all compelling, keeping us on the edge of our seat, wondering what it all means, but excess elements start to build up and overwhelm the story. 

A late-breaking B story concerning police corruption that may involve Jack’s boss (Alfred Molina, always terrific) starts to take center stage. A couple of shoot-outs happen with a significant character who unbelievably still manages to run around even after getting severely wounded. Ashley is involved in some breathless chases, insisting on riding her kiddie bike when running away would be faster and allow her to hide with greater ease. Even a third plane of existence seems to be tossed into the mix and it renders the narrative all the more difficult to track.

Making a film that has multiple storylines that shift and move and turn around on itself is tricky business. Applying such twists to the all-too-predictable world of procedurals was an inspired idea, but Estes starts to lose control of his material in the last act. DON'T LET GO strives to usurp narrative convention in ways similar to David Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE and Michel Gondry’s ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, but there was more method to the madness in those films. Estes doesn’t need to explain why Ashley still exists on some plane of the universe, but it would be helpful if there was more order in such an existence. 

Ultimately, Estes has made an earnest, compelling, and well-acted film that may be too ambitious for its own good. There is much to applaud here, but also far too much that will make you scratch your head as well.  

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

“BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON” IS A CHARACTER-DRIVEN COMEDY THAT'S A SURE-FOOTED DELIGHT

Original caricature by Jeff York of Jillian Bell in the title role of BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON. (copyright 2019)

Some movie comedies play as minor miracles. Those are the ones whose scripts zig when you think they’re going to zag. Their characterizations earn the laughs, rather than rat-a-tat punchlines. And they go to the darker places that you usually only find in dramas. Such films are a rare breed, but BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON is one. Its humor never feels jokey or hokey. The central character is much pessimistic than most leads. And despite the title, that namesake race isn’t the film's big finish. Throughout, this is a summer movie that consistently surprises and delights, never losing its footing throughout its running time. 

Brittany (Jillian Bell) is a drifting woman, cresting into her 30’s with no career, no ambition, and nary a friend. When she visits her doctor, feeling sluggish after too much fast food and partying, he informs her of a dangerous Body Mass Index and potential heart problems. Brit’s doc advises her to drop 55 pounds, which she dryly quips is like pulling a Siberian Huskie out of her. Brittany is resistant to the change, defaulting to smart-ass quips to avoid responsibility. Still, she doesn’t want to have a stroke or heart attack, so she starts an exercise regime. 

With that as the premise, there are so many predictable ways that this comedy could have gone. Fortunately, at almost every turn, writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo chooses the atypical. It starts with his approach to the main character. Instead of casting a cute-as-a-button ingenue and dressing her down, and then ensuring that she turns into a swan by story’s end, he goes with a far more exciting choice. Jillian Bell is a very talented and attractive actress, but she’s not a star (yet), and she has an ‘everywoman’ quality to her that both grounds and amplifies the material. With Bell in the title role, the film succeeds as a laugh-out-loud comedy, as well as a more in-depth and moving, character study.

Colaizzo usurps convention too by surrounding Brittany with a more unique supporting cast as well. Usually, a character like her glamorous roomie Gretchen (Alice Lee) would emerge as a key player, providing able support and comic zingers. Instead, Brittany recognizes social media butterfly Gretchen's selfishness early in the game and forges ahead to find a better support system. Indeed, part of Brittany’s journey of self-discovery is not only determining what she can do as an individual but in eliminating those who are already obstacles as well. 

Brittany makes new friends out of two fellow participants from the running group she’s joined. Catherine (a superbly underplaying Michaela Watkins) is a successful artist with a troubled past who lives in Brittany's building, and Seth (Micah Stock), a gay man who shares Brittany’s love/hate relationship with exercise. She also bonds with Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), an acerbic house-sitter she meets. All of these characters could have been stock ones, but Colaizzo writes them with more depth and surprising character attributes and flaws. Like Brittany, they’re three-dimensional people, not always likable, but still relatable.

And while Brittany sets up finishing the New York City Marathon as her ultimate goal, the movie isn’t as interested in it as the title would suggest. It’s all the other parts of Brittany’s momentum that become the focus of the story, a tale of incremental progress. She finds a decent job, but not a great one. She learns to open up with people, but not entirely. Brittany also loses weight but doesn’t transform into the belle of the ball. 

Even more realistically, she hangs onto a lot of her self-loathing and sarcasm, occasionally taking two steps back for each move she makes that propels her forward. People can change, the film tells us, but not in the wholly transformative ways that movies about underdogs so often suggest. 

At times, Colaizzo over-emphasizes various plot points in both words and direction, but they’re not serious stumbles. And Bell always keeps us rooting for Brittany, even when her awful side is in full tantrum. All in all, the film is a funny, frank, and earnest presentation of a woman who discovers that being an active and passionate participant is the purest form of victory, whether it's in a marathon or everyday life.  

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

THE EARNEST ACTION OF “ANGEL HAS FALLEN” FALTERS IN THE THIRD ACT


Time was, straight-up, modest actioners like ANGEL HAS FALLEN were quite common. They thrived in the '80s and '90s especially and turned Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Jean-Claude Van Damme into superstars. Now, such films are usually 100 million-dollar tentpoles, filled with extravagant CGI, and almost cartoonish action. (Ahem, the FAST & FURIOUS films.) So, it’s rather pleasing to find a franchise like this one still plugging along with a more earnest approach. Gerard Butler isn’t quite the macho presence as those above four, but he grounds such fare with his acting skills, and his authoritative manner even lends gravitas to all the shenanigans. ANGEL HAS FALLEN is not a great film, but it dots its I’s and crosses its T’s pretty well for the better part of its two-hour running time.

In the world of Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Butler), someone is always trying to take out a president or a world leader or two. Here, another secret cabal is plotting the demise of the American President, only this time it’s Morgan Freeman, reprising his role as Allan Trumbull. (Trumbull's gone from Speaker of the House to Veep to POTUS over the trajectory of the three films in the franchise.) Good thing Banning is still in the field, pulling duty right next to Trumbull. 

Trumbull likes Banning so much, he wants to promote him to top dog at the Secret Service, but the crusty vet is resistant. He’s a doer, not a desk job kind of guy, plus Banning doesn’t entirely trust anyone around the POTUS, not after all he’s seen. And he's there to provide the only cover he wholly believes in - his own. 

Interestingly, this film also finds Banning fighting age, his beaten-down body, and the imploring to spend more time with his baby daughter by his wife Leah (Piper Perabo, replacing Radha Mitchell who played the part in OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN and LONDON HAS FALLEN). Butler plays the inner turmoil well, using his stoicism to advantage as he chews over such issues.

And, whether by choice or by nature, Butler does look considerably older than his actual 49 years in this film, and doesn't try to hide his wrinkles and middle-agedness. This B story lends the proceedings and the character of Banning a new air of vulnerability this time out. Not that the A story isn't enough already to overcome. Here, Banning's troubles begin when the president is attacked during a fishing retreat by a multitude of high-powered drones. They take out the entire Secret Service detail, except for Banning and the POTUS whom he saves by diving with him into the drink.

Later, in a DC hospital, the president is in a coma and Banning finds himself handcuffed to a hospital bed. The FBI wonders why Banning is the only survivor and the top Fed, played by a no-nonsense Jada Pinkett Smith, suspects him of being part of a conspiracy. You’d think the Bureau would be smart enough to realize that all the evidence they find pointing the finger at Banning is planted,  but then we wouldn’t have a movie, would we?

Before you know it, Banning escapes and the movie really gets going. The middle section of the film is the best part of the action as things take on the flavor of that Harrison Ford classic THE FUGITIVE from 1993. Banning runs, jumps, and drives all kinds of vehicles to stay a few steps ahead of the hordes of cops after him, and truly lives up to his code name “Angel.” Even though he’s almost over the hill, he can still take flight, evading his captors, and earning cheers from the rapt audience in the Cineplex.

The best 10 minutes of the film showcases Banning outsmarting two yokels trying to make a citizens arrest at a gas station, followed by a well-shot and tense pursuit along various roads involving a semi-truck. Meanwhile, back in DC, his wife frets, the FBI fumes, and the POTUS still sleeps. Banning is a man against the world.

The big twist in the film that comes next doesn’t involve the villain ex-pat Jennings, slyly underplayed by perennial bad guy Danny Huston. Nor does it occur when the FBI's detective work leads to them realizing that Banning is innocent. No, the gobsmacking surprise comes when Banning shows up on his survivalist father’s doorstep in the deep woods, and the film takes a distinct turn towards comedy. His dad is played by Nick Nolte, and his interactions with his estranged son turn what was a taut piece of action into a film bordering on silliness.

Granted, there is a certain ludicrousness to these types of films anyway, but the third act here often becomes an eye-rolling farce. Do the booby-traps set by Nolte's dad that kill all of Banning's enemies in the woods have to be so bombastically cartoonish? Does one of the final fights in the movie need to have two macho men throwing down their weapons to "solve" things mano a mano through fisticuffs? And does the ever-serious Banning have to fall into "Odd Couple" interplay with his cranky old man? 

Perhaps director Ric Roman Waugh, and his co-screenwriters Robert Mark Kamen and Matt Cook, plus story contributors Katrin Benedikt and Creighton Rothenberger, felt the need to goose things this third time out. It mars the tone though and throws good will away. They can't even resist a cornball post-credit sequence that seems like an outtake from GRUMPY OLD MEN. Let’s hope that if Angel retakes wing, the next film treats the story and its audience a bit more seriously. I’d hate to think that this franchise will have fallen into outright parody.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

THE NEW HORROR FILM “READY OR NOT” IS A SUBLIME COMEDY OF TERRORS


Comedically inclined horror movies are rare on the big screen, so when one as fun and accomplished as READY OR NOT comes along, it’s cause for celebration. This new “comedy of terrors” from Fox Searchlight starts with a hilariously nasty premise – to fully marry into a wealthy family, the new bride must survive a midnight game of Hide & Seek with her in-laws. Many movies have a sharp pitch, but they peter out by the 20-minute mark. This one doesn’t, remaining hilarious, frightening, twisting, and turning all the way to the final shot. It’s mean, outrageous, incredibly violent - and I laughed the whole way through.

Grace (a phenomenal Samara Weaving) is a slightly naughty bride sneaking a smoke with her husband-to-be Alex (Mark O’Brien) in his family’s mansion before they take their wedding vows. It’s not mentioned that seeing the bride before the ceremony is considered bad luck, but it’s the first clue that this ingenue is in for a rude awakening. (Her fiance's slightly chilly demeanor also foreshadows marital discourse.) Then, as she chats with the other members of the La Domas family before the nuptials, Grace gets even more indications that wedded bliss likely isn’t to be in the cards.

Patriarch Tony (Henry Czerny) doesn’t hide his dislike for her pluck and confidence. Mom Becky (Andie MacDowell) feels the opposite, expressing warmth towards her future daughter-in-law, but there’s a tinge of melancholy in every word she utters in their conversation. The rest of the brood seems to be a typically shallow and spoiled family, showing Grace indifference at best.

Two members do stand out, one hopeful, the other horrid The prune-faced Aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni) is as severe in her horrid utterances as she is in her looks. She hasn't a kind word to say about anything, and when she glares at Grace, it's with an evil eye. Alex’s older brother Daniel (Adam Brody), on the other hand, wishes the best for his new sister-in-law, though he can barely mask the contempt he has for his family or himself.

Grace soon finds out why Danny boy is so down on the family. Right before bedtime, Alex insists his new wife engages in a midnight game with the relatives so that she may gain "official" entry into the family. As Grace makes her way down to the official game room, she imagines a quick game of checkers before consummating her marriage, but soon learns that the La Domas family takes gaming very seriously. For starters, their family fortune was built on parlor games, and then there's that mysterious history of theirs involving a mysterious benefactor. The La Domas clan made a bargain with the man who made them rich, but they need to honor him each time a new person enters the fold with a game. A deadly game as Grace soon finds out when she draws the Hide or Seek card, and her in-laws start hunting her down in life or death bloodsport. 

Keeping with tradition, the La Domas' go after her with musty muskets and crossbows from the walls of the game room, and in turn, the film becomes a riot as all of them struggle to find a savvy bride and work their archaic weapons. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know it gives away a lot of some of the better kills that occur in the story. Seeing them play out in the narrative is still rewarding, but even better is all the crazy story that hasn't been revealed. The family turns out to be a collection of kooks, the tense action moves to all different kinds of nooks and crannies of the compound, and Grace turns out to be a more intrepid player than anyone imagined. 

To give away more of the shocks and surprises would be to commit the same sins as the trailer, but suffice it to say, the film never lags, the actors are having a ball, and it’s a hoot and a half to see the usually stoic Czerny bite into a role that lets him go bat-shit crazy. The whole cast rises to the occasion too, with special mention going to Melanie Scrofano who steals every scene she has as the coke-snorting cousin with an itchy trigger finger. 

Screenwriters Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy realize throughout that they have to keep a step or two ahead of the modern moviegoer all too familiar with tropes of the genre, and they manage to stay at least three steps in front throughout the whole shebang. Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett keep the pace crisp and ensure that the bloodletting is way over-the-top, so it remains engrossing, not gross. The editing, camera work, and production values are all top-notch. You wouldn’t always get such riches in the horror genre, but you do in virtually every Fox Searchlight production. They are the creme de la creme of the major studios and have delivered one of the savviest surprises of the summer – a deft and deranged black comedy that's up to its eyeballs in blood, guts, and side-splitting laughs. 

Thursday, August 15, 2019

“GWEN” IS THE BEST HORROR FILM OF THE YEAR


In the new horror movie GWEN, an evil entity is laying waste to a 19thcentury South Wales town where people are dying, crops are rotting, and animals are being slaughtered. What’s causing such turmoil? Is it a plague, a beast, perhaps some sort of demonic force? Gwen, the title character of this unsettling new horror film, is a curious teen girl who will slowly but surely start to investigate all the strange occurrences. The more she discovers, the more terrified she will become. The same goes for the audience. 

It’s rare that a film can build a sense of dread from the first seconds to the last without any real respite along the way, but that’s precisely what writer-director William McGregor has done in his auspicious film debut. From the very get-go, he creates an unsettling mood that transports us into a particular world and a hellish one at that. The town where all the chicanery occurs is perennially overcast as if God can only mourn such a place. The rocks jut out of the land, threatening to cut any passerby. The palate of the townsfolk is just as ashen as the sky, and nary a sound is welcoming. What kind of place is this to raise a family?

And yet that’s what single mother Elen (Maxine Peale) is doing, trying to make a go of the family farm after her husband has mysteriously abandoned his brood. Teen Gwen and her younger sister Mari (Jodi Innes) are still not tainted by the cold, cruel world, but the machinations around them, from the landscape to the town elders to their mercurial mother, will challenge every fiber of their being.   

Gwen is barely in her teens, and yet her mother expects her to handle more responsibility than any reasonable 13-year-old could manage. She not only must do the majority of the chores, everything from farming to selling their vegetables at the market to watching over her sister, but she must also keep her mother on an even keel. Mom is still reeling from her husband’s absence, and to add insult to injury, she often has fits that mystify her eldest.

Is mom going insane? Is it a disease like epilepsy that no one knew of then? Or is it something far, far worse? Does she have the devil in her? Maybe that would explain her hair-trigger temper, her lack of sympathy towards injured animals, and her tendency to watch her daughter sleep at night from shadows in the corner of her room.

McGregor does sly work, creating in her a monster that may be the more likely culprit in town over any ghost or hobgoblin. And even with all of her duties to fulfill each day, Gwen can’t help but be driven to find out what’s wrong with her mother, as well as why so many tragedies are befalling the town. As the young woman starts to investigate the death of a local family that died overnight in their home, it appears to not be from the cover story of Cholera, but from a force far more sinister. McGregor turns her into a sleuth who puts everything together, even if she may be powerless to stop it. Such revelations are equally devastating and give this horror tale weight that few ever have. 

For a first feature, McGregor shows remarkable assuredness at every level. His direction, along with the cinematography by Adam Etherington, the dramatic score by James Edward Barker, and the production design by Laura Ellis Cricks should all figure in awards season in a few months. So should Worthington-Cox and Peake who give incredible performances. Peake goes over-the-top, and we feel her character’s building mania at every turn. In a storied career, this is her best work, and she will hopefully be a contender for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. 

Worthington-Cox’s performance goes in the exact opposite direction. She must be mostly reactive to everything around her. She keeps us invested in her and all of her pain throughout every reaction to her mother’s chaos, as well as the ills that show up at their doorstep, including hearts nailed to their front door. The actress may have only been born in 2001, but Worthington-Cox acts like a stage veteran with decades of work under her belt. 

In many ways, this film isn’t what we mostly think of as horror. It’s more psychological, and in many ways, it’s best described as a terrifying period piece about a disconcerting time in the world’s history. Still, this one feels like a horror film in much the same way that THERE WILL BE BLOOD felt like one in 2007. The characters and events at the center of will chill the bone better than any Jason, Freddy or Pinhead. And poor Gwen, she has to battle all comers bringing their evil. 

McGregor sympathizes significantly with her, as well as her family, and that elevates the genre as well. Still, he is brilliant and wringing every last ounce of fright out of every moment. Even when Gwen experiments with makeup, McGregor has her add rouge to her face by drawing blood from her cheek with a sharp instrument. Even beauty in this world bursts forth frighteningly.

This amazing filmmaker knows too that in some of the best horror tales, man equals, if not eclipses, the beast. The title character in Mary Shelley’s horror classic refers to the doctor - Victor Frankenstein – and not the creature he generates out of corpses. The monstrosity of man is evidenced throughout the best literature and films intended to scare the bejesus out of us. It’s there in MOBY DICK, ROSEMARY’S BABY, GET OUT, and here too. Such fears linger because they’re all too recognizable. GWEN may have a sweet-sounding name, but it’s a film that will disturb long after the credits roll. In fact, it’s not only the best horror movie this year, but it’s also one of 2019’s very best films. 

Monday, August 12, 2019

THE “EUPHORIA” FINALE WAS HIGH ON MORALITY

Original caricature by Jeff York of Zendaya as Rue in HBO's EUPHORIA. (copyright 2019)
The freshman finale of HBO’s EUPHORIA ended over a week ago, and I’m still thinking about it. Not only did creator and showrunner Sam Levinson leave several story threads dangling to tease directions for the second season, but he also satisfactorily concluded various cliffhangers to let his audience breathe a sigh of relief over what was concluded. No one died, including main character Rue (Zendaya), whom many believed to be narrating the story from the grave, and many of the show’s troubled characters were shown grace, even if they didn’t deserve it. Most importantly, the show went out the way it came in – big, bold, and spectacularly entertaining, yet slyly showing the path of righteousness the whole time. Despite its story of drug addiction and troubled teens, the series has a morality at its core that is breathtaking.

From the opening moments of the series, Levinson strapped us in for a series that was sure to be a wild ride. Not only was the story centered around an unrepentant drug addict, but the actress playing Rue used to be one of the biggest stars on the Disney Channel. The show wore its audacity on its sleeve at every instance too. Why, the very first images in the pilot episode followed baby Rue being pushed out of her mother’s cervix, followed immediately by a shot of the second plane crashing into the Twin Towers on 9-11. Rue, as she tells us in the voiceover narration, was born just three days after that earth-shattering event, and her feeling is that it doomed her from the start. 

As Rue’s narration continued, her words are blunt and chilling. She overdosed at 16, went into rehab, bluffed her way through it, and was now returning home no wiser for the wear. The fact that Levinson had Zendaya read all of her voiceovers in a world-weary monotone as well, finding no silver linings, and telling only ugly truths, made things feel all the more brazen. Her teenage character and the world she described is jaundiced, unable to wash away the taint of a generation already lost to terrorism, eco-disasters, and political ineptitude.  

Original caricature by Jeff York of Hunter Schafer as Jules in HBO's EUPHORIA. (copyright 2019)
Yet despite that cynicism, and Rue’s zombie-esque descriptions of the banality in her existence, Levinson ensured that we didn’t buy whole-hog into the doom and gloom. Instead, his show belies cynicism at almost every instance. EUPHORIA believes that life is worth living, worth fighting for and that even the beleaguered can triumph. It’s not a “Rah Rah” Hallmark Channel type of show, but it’s surprising how much it wears its heart on its sleeve. 

Levinson ensures that that comes through continually in two very distinct ways. First, he does so in how the series is produced, and second, in how deeply the characters are written. From those beginning images, Levinson utilized production design and all its details with a skill on par with Scorsese and Spielberg. His camera moves and zooms and tracks, never resting, always infusing each frame with a sense of verve and energy. Sure, his storytelling may involve horribly negative things such as drug overdoses, violence, and blackmail, but everything around those plot points crackle with energy. 

Kinetic production values belie all the despair, and nowhere was this more apparent than the series fourth episode which took place primarily at a carnival. There, on the fairgrounds, the inhabitants of the city were dealing with several awful, horrible things. Rue discovered that her younger sister Gia (Storm Reid) was doing drugs. Her best friend, the trans teen Jules (Hunter Schafer) was threatened with exposure by BMOC Nate Jacobs who had in his possession underage sexual images of her. College athlete McKay (Algee Smith) betrayed his girlfriend Cassie (Sydney Sweeney). The sexually liberated Kat (Barbie Ferreira) trysted with a carnie just a few feet away from the public on the midway. And worst of all, Rue and Jules discovered that her Grindr hookup was Cal Jacobs (Eric Dane), the biggest wheel in town, not to mention Nate’s dad.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Jacob Elordi as Nate and Alexa Demie as Maddy in HBO's EUPHORIA.
(copyright 2019)
Yet, despite all of the angst, the show snapped, crackled and popped the entire hour. The camera rocked and rolled all over the fairgrounds. The editing connected all the different story threads with precision and vigor. Best of all, the wondrous orchestral underscore added a cheeky sense of humor to the proceedings, cueing us into the show’s sly sense of self-awareness. It knows it was melodramatic, and the bombastic brass underlined that fact. 

Again, Levinson made sure that energy pulsated through it all, and it, in turn, seemed to help drive the characters towards trying to manage their angst, or at least not let it destroy them. Rue pulls her stoned sis away from her toking friends without it becoming violent. Kat walks away from her impromptu sex act with more self-esteem as she made her partner climax while keeping hers for worthier lovers. 

Most impressively, Jules’ cool head prevented bodily harm when both Cal and Nate confront her. The potential for violence was there in both scenes, and yet Jules rules as she takes control of the conversation and escapes with her life and dignity. It’s one of the reasons that Jules has become such a breakout character. She refuses to be a victim. She's smart, kind, funny, and lovely. And Schafer’s incredible screen debut is Emmy-worthy. (So is Zendaya.)

Original caricature by Jeff York of Barbie Ferreira as Kat in HBO's EUPHORIA. (copyright 2019)
Here, is where Levinson works further miracles with his characters by usurping stereotypes. Yes, the show is about addiction, and Rue isn’t clean, but she is trying. And the young woman is trying to keep her sister from following the same road to hell. Jules lives dangerously by fornicating with one-night -stands in cheap motel rooms, but she isn’t self-loathing and betters everyone who knows her. Even Cal has his moments. He’s living a lie, but he still tries to keep his dangerous son from wreaking too much havoc. 

Levinson strives to find humanity amongst all the carnage. Despite characters being heavily flawed, both the adults and the teens, no one is black or white. Nate’s girl Maddy (Alexa Demie) is a conniving, spoiled brat, but she just wants to be loved and has a lot of it to give the right person. Kat may be camming to pervs to make coin and feel vindication for schoolyard taunts about her weight, but she’s smart enough to bond with good guy Ethan (Austin Abrams) at the homecoming dance. Cassie may let boys use her too often, but her bond with her sensible sister Lexi (Maude Apatow) ensures that there will always be solid love in her life. And even when Rue snorts drugs in the show's penultimate scene, she sings of her regret as Levinson showcases her dancing amongst a chorus of addicts all dressed like her. 

Original caricature by Jeff York of Sydney Sweeney as Cassie and Maude Apatow as Lexi in HBO's EUPHORIA. (copyright 2019)
That ending was as outrageous as most anything in the first season, but it showcases a Rue that is less cynical than we first meet. She’s found some inner morality and is starting to make better choices left and right, even if she’s still stumbling in her struggle with addiction. Ultimately, EUPHORIA has faith in its misfits, fuck-up’s, and lawbreakers. And it believes that we will see them for all that they are. The HBO show may have started as a cynical examination of Gen Z'ers struggling to matter in a world that is fraught with chaos, but by the finale, we see that an indomitable pluck resides in most of them. It will be fascinating to see how these lost souls find their way back in season two and beyond.