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Summer of '84
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by Jay Seaver

"Better than usual 80s throwback thriller."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Give the Roadkill Superstar team their due: This is the second time in a row where I've gone into one of their video-store-inspired movies skeptical but had them win me over. The initially clumsy nostalgia and self-seriousness builds to a genuinely suspenseful back half, making the movie a bit better than the stylish but empty throwback it could have been.

It opens rough, with foreboding narration by Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere) about how there's a heart of darkness in suburbia. Soon, though, he's delivering newspapers to his Oregon neighborhood in the morning, hanging out with his the other neighborhood kids - Dale "Woody Woodworth" (Caleb Emery), his portly best friend, abrasive Tommy "Eats" Eaton (Judah Lewis), and slightly-nerdier-than-the-rest Curtis Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew) - during the day, and playing hide-and-seek with the younger kids at night. Davey's bedroom is well-placed, directly across the street from that of Nikki Kaszuba (Tiera Skovbye), so the boys spend a fair amount of time there. It's not entirely idyllic, though - the TV station where Davey's father (Jason Gray-Stanford) works is starting to use the phrase "serial killer" when talking about the number of kids who have gone missing from neighboring towns, and Davey has got the idea that it might be his neighbor, Wayne Mackey (Rich Sommer). The thing is, Mr. Mackey is also a policeman, so Davey's going to have to convince his friends to investigate themselves.

Kids like Davey grow up to write movies - he likes to borrow his father's camcorder, among his other hobbies - and that very much seems to be what happened here. Maybe not, but there certainly seems to be a bit of wish-fulfillment in not just how Davey seems to be the leader of this group despite being, by all evidence, kind of a nut (even if he didn't suspect Mr. Mackey specifically, what sort of weirdo gets excited about there being a serial killer in town?), but how the cute girl across the way basically decides to drop herself into his life despite his being, as mentioned, a nut, and one who clearly spends a fair amount of time at his window with binoculars. The film strains a bit at how Davey can drag his friends into his weird obsession, but tends to land on just this side of credible. Graham Verchere is, necessarily morbidity aside, able to make Davey earnest as heck, so completely convinced of his theory that the other guys might follow along so far as it looks like they might just get grounded rather than face real danger, and he's able to manage that half of the character while also finding the sweet spot where Davey is excited about Nikki's attention but not coming off as either any sort of saint or nice guy with a purpose.

It's a good group of kids in general, although it's soon clear that there's not going to be as much for Tommy and Curtis to do. Despite that, those two are just as good as the rest of the cast at slipping easily into their characters, and the extra screen time that Woody and Nikki get is used well - both Caleb Emery and Tiera Skovbye are deceptively good at not giving the impression of acting (adults can get away with a bit of artifice because they're presumably more aware of themselves than kids), managing the seemingly carefree nature people want to imagine children have but doing a great job of showing the inner confused anxiety when given a little time to open up. The adults are just as good, even if they are doing the opposite, all trying to be friendly even though, ultimately, they don't truly respect the kids - they are adults, after all, and whether you're talking about Jason Gray-Stanford and Shauna Johannesen as Davey's parents or RIch Sommer as Mackey, they play their characters so that even the grown-ups in the audience see them as adolescents do, looking down on them a bit. This knowing one is a bit above someone else is something that makes the final reveal and last act a bit of a shift, but there's something to it, an exaggerated sense of evil and disdain.

As is often the case with this sort of coming-of-age thriller, the suspenseful parts sneak in, adding dread to a breezy, often-funny first act which plays on nostalgia not so much for specific pop-cultural touchstones but when "free-range kids" wasn't something that had to be specified. The writing team of Matt Leslie & Stephen J. Smith and directing team of François Simard, Anouk Whissell & Yoann-Karl Whissell darken the film in waves, making the idea that the kids are onto something more credible but also maintaining doubt in stages that are as clear even as they may often seem small. While it may not be intentional, there's something deliciously clever about how so many bits of the movie are built around walkie-talkies when thrillers will often be set in 1984 or thereabouts in order to avoid everybody having a mobile phone in their pockets, and they seldom go for the big set-piece but do a great job of turning the screws in familiar locations. They may go a bit far at the end - there's a sadistic bit or two after the film has reached its natural conclusion

I think what impressed me the most, though, is the way that the filmmakers peek at the fragile environments where the kids live around the whole serial-killer plot. The moments where these kids seem to have much more universal concerns are little gems amid their attempt to root out a serial killer in their neighborhood, contributing to its idea that pretty suburban tranquility may hide something less perfect with sadness as much as fear. There's good stuff around there, too, making for a thriller that's got some depth on top of being clever.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=31954&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/10/18 23:35:59
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2018 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/26/18 Langano Decent little glick 3 stars
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