By MARK BENEDICT
These are, to state the obvious, eerie times. Masked strangers are a regular sight. Almost everyone, even your grubbiest friends, has gleaming, thoroughly scrubbed hands. Meanings have flipped. A crowded beach or park, normally a happy sight, now has shivery implications. Weirdest summer ever? Maybe. And now students are headed back to school, which, regardless of what form it takes, online or in-person, is bound to be weird as well.
Movies help us cope. Some people need a break from the pandemic, choosing to watch films that have nothing to do with it, while others lean in hard, bingeing all the Coronavirus-evoking movies they can find. If you’re in the latter group, and you’ve already watched 28 Days Later and Contagion and all the other explicitly pandemic-focused films, consider checking out the movies below. Each speaks, in vivid though implicit ways, to the current global situation. And in honor of the new academic year, the selected films all depict students in extreme circumstances and are arranged by scholastic level. Happy fall?
GRADE SCHOOL: NEVER LET ME GO (2010)
Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, three seemingly normal children, are students at what appears to be a normal British boarding school. Wrong! One day in class, a kindly teacher (a pre-Shape of Water Sally Hawkins) breaks protocol and gives them the straight dope: every student at the school is a clone, doomed to an adulthood of having their organs harvested. (Not a spoiler—it’s in the trailer.) As teens, the three friends live on a farm and try to sort out who loves who, while chasing a rumor that there’s a way to escape their cruel fate. Although director Mark Romanek’s chilly sci-fi drama isn’t as essential as the Kazuo Ishiguru source novel, it’s still a weird and worthwhile view. The cast is stacked. Charlotte Rampling appears as the school headmistress, while Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield play the three friends after childhood. A timely look at kids having the rug of security yanked out from under them.
MIDDLE SCHOOL: THE BIRDS (1963)
Veronica Cartwright, everyone’s favorite shrieker in Alien, appears here in an early supporting role as traumatized school girl Cathy. The cause of the trauma? Birds are viciously and inexplicably attacking her island community. Yikes! Cathy’s bizarrely older brother Mitch (Rod Taylor, almost twenty years older than Cartwright) and his new gal pal Melanie (Tippi Hedren), the film’s leads, endeavor to keep everyone safe. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic shocker, loosely based on a Daphne du Maurier novella, pulls zero punches. The director is as ruthless as the birds. Hitchcock, you sense, has no particular rooting interest in this war between man and beast; he’s just gleefully watching the fight go down. The key scenes—for instance, the huge flock gradually clustering on a playground jungle gym—are as sinister as ever. And it’s a kick to see Cartwright as a half-endearing, half-annoying tween.
HIGH SCHOOL: SUPER DARK TIMES (2017)
Two high school best buddies are involved in the fatal accident of a classmate. In an impulsive decision, the two friends, Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan), try to cover it up. The guilty secret threatens their friendship and their psyches. When Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), their shared crush, shows interest in Zach, he’s so angst-ridden he can’t even kiss her. Still, he’s a model of emotional health compared to Josh, who starts hatching secret plans that might be harmless but probably aren’t. Although there’s no impending apocalypse, the vibe suggests otherwise. Dread is practically a character. And when this ‘90s-set thriller, the debut film of director Kevin Phillips, crosses over into full-blown horror territory, it’s devastating. A hidden gem on Netflix, the movie’s not for everyone, but that’s just another way of saying it’s blazingly original. And it evokes the scary, untethered feeling of being a high schooler in pandemic times.
COLLEGE: BLUE VELVET (1986)
In this boldly deranged mystery, undergrad Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlin) is summoned home to care for his sick father and fill in at the family hardware store. Soon, however, he starts investigating his small town’s seedy underbelly. Suffice it to say, family obligations quickly take a backseat. Jeffrey, who’s in way, way, way over his head, gets romantically involved with both high schooler Sandy (Laura Dern) and night club singer Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), while doing his level best not to get killed by town psycho Frank (Dennis Hopper, naturally). It’s writer-director David Lynch’s best film, and the only movie to feature a severed human ear as the MacGuffin. A gloriously lurid, and newly relevant, portrait of a young man forced to grow up way too fast.
POST-GRAD: MIDSOMMAR (2019)
American grad students visit a sun-drenched Swedish commune to study its strange culture, with predictably sinister results. Psychology student Dani (Florence Pugh), grieving a horrific recent loss, is tagging along with her callous anthropologist boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his equally callous colleagues. For all its technical skill and insight into trauma, the film is often implausible and misjudged. Would these frat-boy types really be drawn to anthropology? Are we really supposed to be surprised, or to give a crap, when harm comes to them? Still, the wintery prologue is an all-time classic opener, and there’s no denying the power of Florence Pugh’s majestic lead performance. Indeed, writer-director Ari Aster’s folk horror film, currently available for free on Amazon Prime, will be studied, discussed, and argued about for decades to come. Here we are one short year later, and its disorienting, death-ridden vibe already feels more on point.