Regardless of how anyone truly feels about it, in 2018, it’s hard to argue against the notion that nostalgia sells. Everything from books to video games to television and yes, even movies, are getting into the act. So it should come as no surprise that the indie movie marketplace is overrun with a multitude of films wanting to capitalize on the trend. Call it too much of a good thing, or just a very crowded pool, but Summer of 84 is a victim of right place, wrong time. It doesn’t help their case that the movie reeks of “been there, done that”. Sometimes toeing the line isn’t the best practice.
Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere) is your typical 15-year-old in the 80’s. He has a tight nit group of friends, a paper route and a wooden sanctuary of a club house. In the evening he plays a never ending game of “manhunt” with other teenagers. The thing that sets him apart is he’s a conspiracy theorist, much to his friend’s chagrin. After noticing that a rash of boys around his age have gone disappearing over the last year, he becomes convinced it’s the work of a serial killer. His number one suspect? The cop who lives next door, Mr. Mackey (Rich Sommer). Wanting to be good friends, they all spring into action, helping Davey bring justice to their little hamlet, if they’re capable. A number of twists and turns complicate matters, until a fiendish conclusion sets everything on its ear.
As is the case with most films, a tale is only as good as those fleshing out the tale and in the case of Summer of 84, things end up a mixed bag. If you want to place a focus on a motley band of teenagers, they should be the most compelling thing on the screen. Not so the case here. Instead of fully fleshed out beings, the boys end up being nothing but stock character tropes. There’s the sex rebel (Judah Lewis), the nerd (Cory Grurter-Andrew) and the bigger friend (Caleb Emery). They fill their role with basic charm, but make no identifiable impression. Even the love interest (Tiera Skovby) is basic, with feelings emerging because she’s about to move. The person who is best served by the film is Sommer, who imbues Mackey with a shifting nature that matches how Davey feels about him, at a moments notice.
Though it may be unfair, the best points of comparison to hold it to, are Freaks & Geeks and, of course, Stranger Things. Those properties understood the necessity to juggle references with heart and originality. Even the recent and equally mixed Super Dark Times took the avenue of creating diverse and personality driven characters. If that word seems like it’s being tossed out a bunch, that should let you know how big of a problem it is for the film.
Canadian trio, KRSS (Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell) had success with their first film, Turbo Kid, because it was made by plucky upstarts wanting to make something fun, logic be damned. Where as Summer of 84 feels as if it’s made by someone pulling from an adjacent well, hoping to be just as fruitful. Without the devil-may-care attitude though, there’s only so far aping an aesthetic can get you. As is the case here, thing are merely fine. Which isn’t enough for it to shout aloud the myriad of other properties wanting to do the same thing. Were the gang of junior detectives filled with unique personalities, rather than stereotypes, it would have gone a long way.
That may be the biggest road block in Summer of 84‘s way, its misguided good intentions. By simply going through the motions it becomes an approximation, rather than homage. What sinks it is the over reliance on kitsch, rather than personality. It’s so quick to cite or include a litany of references to 80’s culture. Not necessarily because it loves it, but because that feels that’s the entry point for the audience. Or the perceived idea of what they have an affinity for. Which is kind of like shooting yourself in the foot twice, without meaning to.
The best sequence of Summer of 84 comes at the very end of the film. Where the “coming of age” story shifts over to “death of innocence”. It’s a bold and almost foolhardy decision, which contextualizes a fair share of what came before. That’s a compliment. Those simple and formative days, which can seem so boring on the surface, are all people have to hold onto, sometimes. It doesn’t excuse the meandering pace throughout, but does show that the RKSS team are intelligent filmmakers. Here’s hoping whatever they work on next, moves further away from what’s been done before and focuses on something truly original. At the very least, it couldn’t hurt them.