Earlier this week, I reviewed Mandy, the steller new film by Panos Cosmatos, and used it to talk about what kind of genre tributes (and spoofs, even) succeed in filmmaking and what kinds don’t.
We all love a good genre synthesis, the kind that takes old ideas, themes and tones and transforms them into something that feels familiar and new. There’s sort of a sliding scale about how elegantly you can do that; at the mountaintop is something like Star Wars, as I mentioned before, where nostalgia and old media is wholly transformative and innovate, and lying somewhere in the middle is something like Stranger Things, which can occasionally get a little blinded by its nostalgia but remains entertaining for a number of reasons. At the absolute bottom of the mountain, stranded between smoldering ruins and heaps of shit, lies something like Summer of ‘84 — the new film from the nostalgia peddlers behind the cute and moderately satisfying Turbo Kid — which screened at Sundance this year and pissed me off so bad that I had to leave the entire festival.
Kidding, of course (I had the flu), but it was the last movie I saw at the Festival and man, did it leave a poor taste in my mouth. Summer of ‘84 is everything wrong with genre nostalgia, from its tired reinforcement of the worst tropes of ’80s filmmaking, to its over-reliance on cultural ephemera as a way to ground the audience in the era, to its horribly thought-out and mean attempts at subverting the material its so desperately in love with.
Summer of ‘84 opens with narration that tells us that “all the really fucked up stuff happens in the suburbs,” in case you’ve missed some 40 or 50 years of horror films and acerbic satires that might have clued you in on this point of view. Our narrator is also our main character, Davey (Graham Verchere), a teenage boy who seems to be the exception to the rule he’s established, bored as fuck in the summer with his three friends, each of whom check off a different cliche on the list of ’80s stock characters for children. There’s a rebel (Judah Lewis) who is from a pretty bad home with a Reagan/Bush sign in the yard, a nerd (Cory Gruter-Andrew) who really likes the library, and a chubby kid (Caleb Emery) who actually might be a pretty decent person after all. They’re all on the sliding scale of sexual aggression here from stealing Penthouse issues to wanting to fuck people’s moms, but only Davey has the cahones to spy on his older next door neighbor, Nikki (Tiera Skovbye), while she’s undressing. This being a throwback, that means she’s gonna fall in love with the kid, even though she babysat him when he was a literal child and not just an emotional one.
Oh, and kids are getting murked!
Yeah, somebody’s prowling around and murdering teenagers, and Davey’s a paranoid (with faux-World Weekly News covers wallpapered across his room), so he begins to suspect his next door neighbor, Mr. Mackey (Mad Men’s Rich Sommer) for killin’ all them kids, mmkay. Mackey’s a hero cop who lives alone, and there’s a number of weird things about him that draws the kid’s eye: He likes to garden (a lot), his basement is blacked out for his darkroom, and he keeps odd hours, as he likes to go off and jog later in the night. Let’s get this out of the way early on: Sommer is so much better than this movie deserves, and he’s such an interesting screen presence, especially compared to his work on that television show (personally, I think his voice-over work in the game Firewatch is fucking incredible, and I highly recommend you play that instead of watching this). You’ll be surprised to learn that all of this builds up to an incredible anti-climax and an impossibly satisfying ending, so yeah! It’s as if somebody lobotomized Super Dark Times, a movie I didn’t even care for all that much, and tried to sell it to Netflix as some awful counterprogramming to Stranger Things.
As far as the script is concerned, Summer of ’84 deals with the same sort of white boy wish fulfillment fantasy that so many ’80s throwbacks try to provide to their real audience: The 40-somethings in the audience, who wish they were cool motherfuckers back in the day. I wish I could give you more specifics, but they’re tied up in the third act revelations of the film, aside from the weird love interest that I mentioned to you above, which grows more and more fucked up the more that I think about (there’s literally a scene where she tells the group of friends how much of a man Davey is compared to the rest of the group and they all fall down and worship him). Their attempts at using their setting to provide color and fun fall flat on their face — I thought it was fucking illegal to do a Return of the Jedi argument in modern cinema after Clerks sort of ensured that if you did it, you’d be ripping Kevin Smith off (and now why would you want to do that?).
Also, I don’t think I was prepared for just how ugly the damn film is, either- I really liked the aesthetics of Turbo Kid, and was hoping they’d at least be as bright and as interesting as that film was. The whole thing is too dark, and it’s murky enough that it looks like there was some sort of cloudy film across the lens for the whole shoot, making it difficult to watch for any audience member below the middle row of the theater. Sure, there’s a pretty decent synth-filled score, but one can only hear a hundred takes on the Halloween theme before we just want some other motif to take over.
I’m really sad to say that Summer of ‘84 was the worst film I saw at Sundance this year, and honestly, I did my best to try and appreciate it on its own terms, instead of keeping it in constant competition with other films that are never not going to be out of its league. There’s a kernel of a good idea in here, in that a decent subversion of Spielbergian tropes in ’80s cinema could be potentially crafted into a film well worth the effort, but this is not that film. It’s far to content to take the easy way out, and as such, it’s an infuriating and insulting bore.
Nick Johnston ran amok at Sundance before he became ill, though his ailment had nothing to do with the film he just reviewed. Follow him @onlysaysficus. Featured ‘Summer of ’84’ image via Gunpowder and Sky.