This bleak coming-of-age movie – set in the mid-90s – has little of the nostalgia of Stand By Me, and trades instead in a kind of numbed, frozen, adolescent angst which evokes River’s Edge or Over the Top – fine films which, in turn, almost nobody is nostalgic about in the way more disposable artefacts like The Goonies or ET have been elevated lately to sacred text. The era may well have been chosen less for its pop culture associations (someone talks about renting True Lies on videotape) than for the fact that it’s just before the internet, mobile phones and social media transformed the teenage (and general) landscape in ways that lead to bright, brittle satires on callousness from Scream (a 1990s film) to Tragedy Girls. This is about kids who see or do terrible things, but unfashionably trades in depth of feeling rather than the posture of teflon sociopathy in, say, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane or Better Watch Out. Credit to writers Ben Collins and Luke Pietrowski (SiREN) and debuting director Kevin Phillips for taking this measured, sensitive approach – but I wouldn’t expect the film to win popularity contests, despite the single greatest almost-kiss scene ever staged.
It’s somewhere in the run-up to Christmas but school hasn’t broken up yet – though a deer has jumped through a window and has to be put out of its misery by a cop’s boot, an incident which disturbs but fascinates teen Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino) and resonates in the lives of a couple of long-time best friends who have a crush on her, sensitive Zach (Owen Campbell) and slightly awkward Josh (Charlie Tahan). Not obvious outsiders – though Josh does get his head trodden on like the deer’s by an older thug – the boys are on the point of realising that other people (especially girls) are real. Fantasising about the faces in the yearbook is fun, but gets disturbing when Josh expresses impersonal lust for Allison, who Zach hangs out with sometimes and sees as a friend. In an oddly credible way, Zach and Josh hang out one weekend with Daryl (Max Talisman), a gross and slightly dim-witted kid, and his quiet, calculating cousin Charlie (Sawyer Barth), who aren’t their usual friends – and fooling around with weed, tough talk and a samurai sword left around by Josh’s gone-into-the-Marines brother leads to Daryl’s death. A game taken too seriously and real resentments mean that this is on the cusp of an accident and manslaughter – or even murder – and the culpable kids just opt to cover the body in leaves and ditch the blade, then pretend nothing happened. But they can’t go through with it … Zach vacillates about doing something and Josh holes up in his room, and Zach gets closer to Allison but can’t get past the secret he can’t share, while Josh has mood-personality swings and maybe experiments with becoming a darker creature (among Tahan’s other gigs is playing the young Scarecrow on Gotham).
After the deaths of the deer and Daryl, the film elides its violent acts – and the climax might even be a little too ambiguous as to what happens after the most chilling line (‘my turn’), but the point of it all is in the characters and the performances. All the kids here ring true, even when Josh (a fan of the Punisher) obsesses over his own capacity for violence, and there’s a palpable intimacy to Zach’s scenes with his near-girlfriend (Allison isn’t underwritten the way teen crushes are in most young guy movies), his loving single mom (Amy Hargreaves) and his longtime best friend/incipient nemesis. Talisman is vivid in a small role, and might well be up for the sorts of parts Daniel Roebuck played in the ‘80s – the three leads all have solid TV credentials (Campbell in The Americans, Tahan in Wayward Pines, Cappuccino as flashback Jessica Jones) and would do well to avoid being the leads in the inevitable next reboot of Fantastic Four.