FULL DISCLOSURE: I've known Emily Hagins since she was a little girl, when Harry invited her to Butt-Numb-A-Thon in 2003. She was blown away by that line-up and decided then and there that was what she wanted to do with her life. Since then she's pursued that goal with an unwavering purpose, enlisting all sorts of Austinites and friends around the country to help. I know the producers, many of the actors, and behind-the-scenes people involved quite well. Tony Vespe is Eric "Quint" Vespe's brother. I feel I can give an honest review to her film, but if as a reader you feel that this review is inappropriate, feel free to skip it.
GROW UP, TONY PHILLIPS is a coming-of-age story, which is fascinating since Emily Hagins, the writer and director, is only 20. Most coming-of-age stories are told with the distance of time and all the emotions nostalgia can bring, but since Hagins has only recently graduated high school, she has a fresher perspective. Her last film, MY SUCKY TEEN ROMANCE, had a punchy editing style, but suffered a bit with some performances that strained against the material. But Hagins' voice was true, and came from a place of warmth and joy.
Her latest film is leaps and bounds better than MY SUCKY TEEN ROMANCE. It's full of honest emotion, threaded with rich subtext. This feels like a very personal story from Hagins, and as she deals with moving into the perils and tribulations of adulthood, so does Tony Phillips (Tony Vespe), who looks forward to Halloween with the childlike fervor that is not matched by his friends Craig (Devin Bonnee) and his girlfriend Elle (Katie Folger). But Tony is determined to make this Halloween count, and wants to make the best costume he possibly can. Tony knows that there will be college applications, and all the difficulties and worries that come with being an adult. He knows that, but this is his thing, and if people don't like it, well, they can go screw. Unfortunately for his friends, this puts Craig and Elle in an awkward position, as they can't decide to back Tony's play or just disavow themselves of Tony entirely.
Things change a bit, though, when Tony's cousin Pete (AJ Bowen) comes to stay with Tony and his mom. Pete's got some issues of his own but he has fond memories of hanging with Tony in his childhood days, and he sees a lot of himself in Tony. As Halloween approaches, though, so does the problems Tony has - his friends are embarrassed by him, and Elle knows that Tony loves his life and just doesn't understand why people won't let him be. Tony tries to find that path to walk that allows him to still love Halloween, the costumes, and trick or treating, but life isn't making it so easy.
Tony Vespe finds the heart of Tony Phillips - he's quite good in MY SUCKY TEEN ROMANCE and has a very natural likeability to him that the audience can't help but root for him a little bit. AJ Bowen's Pete has a few regrets of his own with how he left Tony when he was younger, and his struggles with his own life reflect on Tony - he wants to make sure Tony doesn't repeat his mistakes, but he also doesn't want to take away those things that Tony loves - Halloween, dressing up, and having fun making costumes and creating. Bowen and Vespe have a very terrific chemistry together, and much of the films humor comes from their interaction. GROW UP TONY PHILLIPS is often funny but never mean except when it has to be - the humor comes from character work and how these people try to navigate their lives.
I also really liked how Emily set up Tony's relationships with his friends. Sometimes people just grow apart, have different interests, and GROW UP TONY PHILLIPS says that that's completely okay. It happens. It's not the end of the world, and it's part of finding your place in this world. Sometimes some people just aren't along for the ride. Hagins may be young, but she is acutely aware of all the politics in teen relationships, and how during the moment things seem to last forever, even when we know they won't.
GROW UP TONY PHILLIPS may come from a young filmmaker but there is a maturity to what she has to say, and teenagers of all backgrounds can relate. Devin Bonnee and Katie Bolger are quite good in GROW UP TONY PHILLIPS as they try to ground him. They don't want to be embarrassed by Tony - but they are navigating tricky waters of being a teen and having this weird kid who still goes trick or treating is making them uncomfortable. Elle, especially, cares for Tony, but Craig is ready to move on, and feels like Tony is holding him back.
GROW UP TONY PHILLIPS is a huge step forward for Emily Hagins. I'd love to see her make a movie outside her comfort zone - perhaps a flat-out horror film, or maybe a film that showcases her talents and skills with a different subject matter. I think she can handle it, though. Her work comes from a love of cinema, but even more importantly, a love of character and just plain good writing. Well done.