SUMMER OF '84 is a movie that wears its influences on its sleeve. A love letter to Steven Spielberg and the Hardy Boys, with a dash of REAR WINDOW and PORKY'S thrown in, SUMMER OF ’84 does manage to capture that certain mood of teenage 80’s innocence that’s on the verge of being lost. Like when you get your first job in high school, and you have to go drop something off at your boss's house, but when you get to his place, it looks like some kind of weird 70’s swinger pad with mirrored walls and shag carpeting, and a waterbed, so you just drop off whatever it was by the door and back away slowly, cause you aren’t sure you really want to go inside or find out anything else about this guy or what goes on there. Maybe that was just me. But anyway, you get the idea. 80’s coming of age, with a creepy underbelly.
The movie follows a group of suburban teenage boys at the pivotal age of 15, as they navigate familiar adolescent territory: girls, sexuality, parents, disillusionment, and the feeling that something horrible is happening in the house next door. The best part about this movie is the guileless performances of the boys: Davey (Graham Verchere), Woody (Caleb Emery), Eats (Judah Lewis) and Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew) don’t look like they’d even sit next to each other at lunch, frankly, but they do bring a lot of heart to their male friendships. Tiera Skovbye (Polly Cooper from Riverdale) doesn’t fare nearly as well as the girlfriend/babysitter/girl with boobs across the street – mostly because her scripted part is completely one-dimensional. Wayne Mackey, who everyone remembers as Rich Sommer in MAD MEN, continues his career trajectory towards being in the next David Fincher project by walking that fine, creepy line between “is he a nice guy next door or a secret serial killer” with aplomb.
The main problem with SUMMER OF '84 is that “love letter to Steven Spielberg” is a pretty crowded field these days. The same ground is very effectively trodden elsewhere, and if you don’t have the spooky atmospherics of a STRANGER THINGS, or the big budget and masterful suspense of a SUPER 8, you’re only left with one thing: heart. Well, heart and nostalgia. There is a lot of 80’s nostalgia here: endless masturbation jokes, pop culture references, and clueless parents saying things like “It seems like this Cold War will never end!” (wink wink). But it feels like the filmmakers didn’t know what they were going for in terms of tone – so they just went for EVERYTHING.
I was a big fan of RKSS Collective’s first feature, TURBO KID, so I was really rooting for this one. TURBO KID was also full of heart and married its pop culture tropes in a fresh and clever way. But without the backdrop of a well-designed post-apocalyptic wasteland, the wide-eyed, on-the-nose, love-will-save-the-day story just can’t carry this movie on its own. The ending does subvert the tropes in some interesting ways that I won’t spoil, but after loping along through a curiously suspense-less ‘is he or isn’t he a serial killer” storyline for 60 or 70 minutes, I’m not sure anyone will still be paying attention. Instead of feeling inevitable or earned, the ending just feels like a welcome relief from the saccharine conventions that came before.
If you have a burning nostalgia for 80’s movies, the era before internet porn, or you’ve just run out of STRANGER THINGS to watch and have this in your Netflix cue, SUMMER OF 84 could be an effective “Netflix and Chill” movie that you don’t have to pay much attention to. It also would make a great “Love Letter to Spielberg” drinking game (kids on bikes! Flashlights! Walkie Talkies! DRINK!)
SUMMER OF '84 will be released in theaters on August 10, 2018, and available on VOD and Digital HD on August 24, 2018.