It holds nothing back, and for that Summer of 84 needs to be celebrated, rather than merely consigned to the increasingly-large pile of the 2010s' 1980s movies that aren't as good as the 1980s' 1980s movies.
Directed by Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell
Written by Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith
Written by Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith
With Graham Verchere (Davey Armstrong), Caleb Emery (Dale "Woody" Woodworth), Judah Lewis (Tommy "Eats" Eaton), Corey Gruter-Andrew (Curtis Farraday), Terry Skovbye (Nikki Kaszuba), and Rich Sommer (Wayne Mackey)
There's cause to wonder if Summer of 84 is actually as good as it seems, or if it just tricks you into thinking it is, by ending so unexpectedly well that it colors your opinion of the whole damn thing. To an extent, that might even be true. It simply doesn't matter: in a very real way, the ending is the whole thing. It may have taken 38 years, but the 1980s finally produced a kid's adventure film with a wholly satisfying third act. And that would be precious already, even if Summer of 84 were not also in the business of using that third act to make wise and melancholy comment upon the two acts that came before it, by extension commenting upon the entire corpus of 80s kid's adventures, and therefore commenting generally upon that whole hard-to-define mood of a genre which we have no name for but adventure.
Most kid's adventures are coming-of-age tales by other means, introducing fantastic elements that represent the encroachment of adult responsibilities and dangers upon the last days of childhood; but when few (approaching none) embrace the grimmer possibilities of this, it's important when one of them does. If you think that I'm implying that it goes dark, let me say that explicitly—it goes massively, upsettingly dark—despite by having said so, I bring us to the cusp of truly severe spoilers. I don't have much of a choice; it's the film's most extraordinary quality as a work of art, not to mention its biggest selling point.
It's also where I get mad at a critical reception that (with exceptions) has been largely content to describe it as a bandwagoner, if not a knockoff, of the likes of Stranger Things and It, as if its period setting were the only thing interesting about it, when in fact 84 and those other 1980s-set forerunners don't even really feature much of the same subject matter, let alone the same sophistication of story, and when Stranger Things' biggest bids for gravity involve little more than its shrug-inducing willingness to kill off the sidekicks of secondary characters—whereas It makes no bid for gravity at all once poor Georgie's out of the picture—I can't for the life of me see how anybody can look at those two works, then look at Summer of 84, and say, "This here, this is the inferior imitation." (Hell, this would still be true even if Stranger Things' second season weren't actively terrible and massively redundant, whereas the only thing that might make it untrue is if Stranger Things' first, good season did much of anything other than spend six full hours doing more-or-less the same shit that any kid's adventure of the actual 1980s could and would have accomplished in 100 minutes.)
Of course, it's not only possible that 84 owes its existence to those successes, it's outright probable, but that's simply because people don't usually invest their money without expecting money back in return (even at the kind of budgetary level that involves an official release on BD-R, apparently unable to afford a pressed blu-ray). But insinuating anything beyond a shared set of influences, that's damned near libel, given how obvious it is that 84 is nothing less than a labor of love, brought to fruition by some of the finest and most committed practitioners of this neo-80s movement we've presently found ourselves in. This is the Canadian collective RKSS (Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell), and Summer of 84 marks their second feature film. You could call it a follow-up, of sorts, to the splendidly-stupid, similarly-80s-inflected frivolity of Turbo Kid; but it's a follow-up that represents one enormous leap forward in maturity as well as craft.
At the most reductive level—though one of 84's strokes of genius is letting it play at its most reductive level for so long—what we have here is Rear Window with a gang of suburban teens, led by the lad with big dreams who would like to be our hero, a fifteen year-old Ipswich, Oregon resident named Davey Armstrong. Davey's been spending this summer of 1984 much as he has all his summers before, in the company of his stereotyped pals, Eats (the smart-mouthed punk), Farraday (the bespectacled nerd), and Woody (the sensitive fat one). In other words, Explorers, aged up a few years, and now there's a fat one.
Another stroke of genius is casting actors the actual age of their characters. (So, as long as we're slagging on Netflix shows at truly inappropriate length, let us consider 13 Reasons Why, certainly the most successful after-school special I've ever seen, albeit one that nevertheless features more tattoos per square inch of its "teenaged" bodies than all but the most alternative of porn.)
By tradition, Davey is nominally the "normal" one, though (as with Ethan Hawke before him) this isn't quite accurate, as Davey is a conspiracy nut, and his inner obsessive is triggered when he hears tell of a wave of child disappearances, attributed to the "Cape May Slayer," a serial killer with a taste for boys just his age. Like the Hardy Boys he reads and the Weekly World News articles that hang on his crazy-kid wall, he starts to conceive of a pattern in the odd behavior of his next door neighbor, Ipswich policeman Wayne Mackey, and in no time at all he's excitedly convinced himself that Mackey must be the killer—and persuaded his friends that, at the very least, it ought to be fun to stalk the poor bastard for a while. In between "operations," the boy detectives spy on girls (especially Davey's former babysitter and current crush, Nikki Kaszuba), and drink their first shots of whiskey, and steal each others' nudie mags; but mostly they commit to finding out the truth about Mackey.
And then things get just about as bad as they possibly could.
Yet that's deep into the runtime of a movie that, until then, plays very much like what you'd think kid's Hitchcock with 80s flavor would play like, not even necessarily at a higher level of implementation than you'd expect, though it's tremendous fun, and even on a second time through—one interestingly dissonant experience—you can't shake the feeling of good-natured shenanigans, that fake movie sense of danger that just about every real 80s kid's adventure flick lived and breathed, where you agree to pretend these kids might be in trouble because it's more enjoyable to do so than to not. This isn't to say it can't be taut: when it comes to being a thriller (it is not ever, despite some people's category-error complaints, a "mystery"), it's got the goods. In fact, it's rather immaculately constructed, escalating slowly, starting from a montage of the boys following Mackey around that is played pretty expressly for comedy, but making their plans just a little bit more likely to catastrophically backfire each time; and, true to the era of its inspiration, Summer of 84 is sure as hell not above false jump scares.
But it embodies something of the attention span of a 15 year old, too, and so it knows when to let the thriller fall slack, whereupon it becomes at least as much of a hang-out movie as a nerve-jangling shocker. This isn't done without the occasional clumsiness: above all, the moment that Nikki just wanders over to Davey's house (apparently complimented that he's been Body Doubling her from across the way) is so out-of-nowhere and rooted in adolescent male fantasy that, even on a rewatch, I was still half-convinced it had to be a dream sequence. Their relationship (she turning to her former ward because the attractive, personable 17 year old has "no one to talk to"...) is, I guess, sweetly-rendered, at least on the level of slightly-sleazy 80s-ness it wants you to meet it at. But it never feels like anything less than a distraction—until, in the end, you understand that whatever it did not add to the plot, as such, it nonetheless did add something to the story.
Other, littler things could nag at you, if you let them: screenwriters Matt Leslie and Stephen Smith have a better-than-decent ear for 80s teen dialogue, or at least 80s teen movie dialogue (perhaps not demonstrated in Davey's "state the purpose of the film" voiceover monologue, and yet this too is something that gets redeemed in the end, simply by having the courage to actually do what it says), but occasional nuggets of anachronism get washed up along with the period-accurate r-words and "that's not what your mom said last night" gags, notably a deployment of the term "hooked up" that predates the romantic usage by, oh, about a solid twenty years.
In the big, broad things, though, 84's really edging toward a kind of unadorned perfection. It is uniformly well-acted, well-characterized, and well-cast, to the point it's at least a little hard to pick a best out of any of the kids: Graham Verchere brings a thoughtfulness to Davey's eyes that nails him as the leader despite what appears to be a history of ridiculous fancy, and every time he concocts a new scheme, he wears a joyous little smirk that reads as smugness, even barely contained arrogance; meanwhile, Caleb Emery allows Woody the kind of measured self-loathing you don't usually see in the Fat One, and wears his good heart on his sleeve; Judah Lewis is probably my favorite, for the choices he makes when Eats wants to say something cruel, but uncharacteristically swallows it instead, plus when they dump over Mackey's garbage, his line read of "If we find a used condom in there... I'm going to be really jealous," makes it the best joke in a film that often detours into crass comedy; and, as Farraday, Corey Gruter-Andrew has a really ideal skull for wearing nerdy glasses. Of course, there's also Rich Sommer, offering a terrifyingly well-modulated darkness to Mackey, especially in an expert little long-take zoom RKSS pulls off as the officer watches neighborhood children play and the friendly smile melts into obscene, envious hatred, or when he tells Davey, in his very first scene, "Fifteen, the perfect age. I wish I could just freeze you there."
It is not a mystery.
Which does bring up the aesthetic quantum leap RKSS has made, and while I appreciate Turbo Kid's joie de vivre, it does not achieve what Summer of 84 does in its vastly more down-to-earth register, above all the sensation of watching a movie that maybe-kinda could've actually been made in the 1980s. 84 is presented by the directors, editor Austin Andrews, and cinematographer Jean-Philippe Bernier (the latter, somewhat to my surprise, returning from Turbo Kid) with a compulsively-watchable quiet clarity. It is not unstylish—those zooms, for one thing, and a knack for angles that emphasize, at turns, both the genuine uneasiness of the scenario and the presumption of "fun danger" which three decades of toothless kid's movies have trained us to feel—but it's an unassuming sense of style that 84 offers, right up until the very climax, whereupon it lunges directly into borderline-Expressionistic real horror, a red-lit hell of a too-close two-shot that is, hands down, the scariest thing 2018 will give us.
The same can be said about the insistent, even-omnipresent score from Le Matos, likewise returning from Turbo Kid: it plays with mood, and with its influences (Tangerine Dream gets a lot of homage, though they're not even the biggest influence), until, at the last, the bottom drops out, and it embraces its essential inspiration, to the point where you could call it John Carpenter plagiarism as much as you could a John Carpenter riff. It doesn't bother me in the least: besides hewing to the sage maxim of stealing from the best, 84 is, without much doubt in my mind, the most successful attempt to do a Carpenter movie since Carpenter was still doing Carpenter movies, the only thing really missing being the plunging blacks and pristine lighting of a Dean Cundey, though Bernier certainly manages an immensely handsome film, relying on natural color, the focal plane, and the 'Scope frame in very much the same way.
And so does Summer of 84 become its best self, the Halloween it's been toying with being all along, if, owing to its plot, a Halloween that is vastly more personal in its conflict and stakes. And it's crazy, but it's true: the presumptive best horror film of 2018 generates its power by pretending not to be a horror film, right up until the end. It's fitting that it was released more-or-less contemporaneously with the elegiac new album from retrowave masters The Midnight, Kids (the title track of which provides, in its refrain, the title of this review). Each is 80s kitsch that self-consciously interrogates that kitsch, and in the process, the nature of nostalgia. There's a lot under 84's surface on that count: the notion that there is villainy and suffering everywhere, successfully concealed behind shields of privacy and authority; a recognition (perhaps alone amongst these neo-80s movies) that the 1980s were in part defined by their own pining for a vanished Golden Age, the conservative core of American nostalgia, the 1950s; the associated reminder that things have always been very bad; the sight of a child, collapsing into himself and weeping, innocence absolutely lost; the traumas that never, ever go away; the fantasies of power and control proven, at the last, only juvenile delusions. Of all the neo-80s works, there's not been one that has more clearly demanded its period setting; it's not just bikes and kids not being properly supervised, though of course it does have plenty of both, if that's your thing (and it is totally my thing). It's a superb movie, a subversion of a form that clearly has nothing but love for that form, and just wanted, for once, to take it somewhere new.