Summer of 84 (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
There is a great film somewhere in “Summer of 84,” and it can be found during the final fifteen minutes. But the journey to the uninspired finale is lackluster, deathly slow, and relying on nostalgia—like parading around toy and clothing brands that used to be popular in the mid-eighties. For a mystery-thriller to be effective, it must build and build until the pressure is no longer sustainable. Here, the tension intensifies and dies down like clockwork. In between would-be curious discoveries regarding a neighbor (Rich Sommer) suspected of being a serial killer, who just so happens to be a cop, are moments of bonding among four fifteen-year-olds with superficial and bland personalities.
As a group, Davey (Graham Verchere), Woody (Caleb Emery), Eats (Judah Lewis), and Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew) have the archetypal look of teenage friends growing up in the ‘80s. However, just because they have the look does not mean it is enough for the viewers to want to invest in them. They hang out a lot, but it does not feel as though we are hanging out with them. The viewer cannot be blamed for wondering why they are even friends in the first place.
These are not well-written characters, just cardboard cutouts of the figures we had come across before in better films. For instance, unlike the characters in “The Goonies,” “Stand by Me,” and “Explorers,” the boys’ interactions come across as superficial. They banter, but there does not seem to be a strong chemistry among them. It might have helped if the screenplay by Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith had given each character a twist or perhaps making them smarter, sharper, more knowing than their eighties counterparts.
Even the manner in which this mystery-thriller is shot is uninspired. Look at how terrible and off-putting it looks as the camera goes for a close-up. The closer it gets to a face, shadows overwhelm the performers’ faces. These scenes needed to be reshot because more than a handful of them are not only ugly, they are downright distracting. Notice how dark the picture looks as characters break into houses and go down basements. Yes, it is supposed to be dark… But it is supposed to be a movie first and foremost. The viewers must have an appreciation of the surroundings like the creepy pictures on walls or suspicious objects scattered about. At one point, I wondered whether the filmmakers had the budget for enough lights.
There is an unnecessary and cutesy romantic subplot between the leader of the boys, Davey, and the girl who lives across the street, Nikki (Tiera Skovbye). Like the boys, there is barely any substance to Nikki. In fact, she is objectified so often to the point of distraction. And when she isn’t, the writers try so hard to force her to be a part of the amateur sleuthing. Meanwhile, we listen to her talking about her parents on the verge of divorce. How can we care when we do not even see her home or even her parents? It is most unconvincing and a waste of time because Nikki is made to look sad only when the plot requires it.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the lack of fun in “Summer of 84.” Memorable mystery-thrillers are entertaining; it takes the viewers on a rollercoaster ride of suspicions and false alarms. Here, notice how there is a palpable flatness to every goings-on. The directors of this picture—François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell—have failed to translate the energy of ‘80s teen flicks into something modern and urgent. Although it proves to have bite during its final act, I felt as though nearly everything that comes before it is a cheap act of playing dead.
Babysitter, The (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Babysitter,” directed by McG and based on the screenplay by Brian Duffield, is particularly difficult for me to review because I acknowledge that it offers a few laughs, the two leading performances are highly watchable, and the premise involving a preteen’s discovery that his babysitter is actually a part of a Satanic cult is so wild, I was excited how the story is going to take shape. But without a shadow of doubt, the film belongs under the category of children-in-danger movies, and it is most unfortunate that it keeps the protagonist under constant torment—so constant that right from the opening scene this boy is already being terrorized at school.
Children-in-peril pictures can work given a sharp, intelligent writing that functions as commentary. For example, it can tackle the subject of young people being so sheltered that modern parenting is essentially training future adults to constantly demand being in a safe space. In my opinion, children-in-peril movies rarely work as a straightforward horror-thriller, or even as a horror-comedy, because there is a tendency toward fetishizing not only the violence or gore but also our expectation that a child must not be harmed or mutilated in any way. In other words, films that generate thrills solely through the guise of the audience not wanting to a child being hurt can be considered as lowest hanging fruit.
And so throughout the film, I constantly had to ask myself what the material is saying behind the superficial entertainment. I found none. I suppose one can claim that the story is about a twelve-year-old, who is pretty much afraid of everything, being forced to to find courage in himself to stand up against bullies. But that is a stretch because the villains in the film, members of the Satanic cult (Robbie Amell, Hana Mae Lee, Bella Thorne, Andrew Bachelor), are purposefully written as walking stereotypes.
In real life, bullies are more than archetypes and in order for the film to have meaning beyond the images on screen, the writing must command depth and subtlety. Those who dare to compare this film, for example, to Joss Whedon’s writing (“The Cabin in the Woods,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel”) clearly have little to no understanding about why Whedon’s works possess cultural relevance. They aren’t just post-modern, have quirky premises, or tapping into zeitgeist. They are genuinely saying something beyond what we see and experience on screen. These works care about teenagers and young adults.
It is too bad because I really enjoyed the central performances here. Samara Weaving as Bee the babysitter reminded me at times of Margot Robbie’s ability to go from warmly intrigued to sexually electric, while Judah Lewis as Cole the fearful adolescent brought back flashes of Corey Haim in the underrated 1986 coming-of-age picture “Lucas.” A standout scene in the picture is a dramatic moment when Cole reveals to Bee that he feels such a weirdo at times that, essentially, he feels helpless in his own skin. This is such a moving scene that I wished the movie had been about the bond between the sitter and the preteen, completely throwing out the wacky chases, over-the-top gore, and absurd resolution.
The horror-comedy will certainly entertain some, but those looking for a more substantial story and character development with smart decisions throughout are best advised to stay away. And because of the title, it must be stated outright that “The Babysitter” is not at all a successful throwback to late-‘70s and ’80s slashers. There is no suspense to be had here.