Studio: Gunpowder and Sky
Director: Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell
Writer: Matt Leslie, Stephen J. Smith
Producer: Shawn Williamson, Jameson Parker, Matt Leslie, Van Toffler, Cody Zwieg
Stars: Graham Verchere, Judah Lewis, Caleb Emery, Cory Gruter-Andrew, Jason Gray-Stanford, Shauna Johannesen, Tiera Skovbye, Rich Sommer
In a small town gripped by a string of child slayings, four friends secretly track a police officer neighbor suspected of being the serial killer.
15-year-old paperboy Davey Armstrong centers “Summer of 84.” Lining his bedroom walls with Weekly World News clippings clamoring about Nazi temples on the moon and secret societies of cannibals, Davey loves a good conspiracy theory, and his latest fascination with fabulism involves a delectable doozy.
‘The Cape May Slayer’ has been slashing teenage boys around Ipswich, Oregon while evading law enforcement for years. Davey thinks he knows exactly who the serial killer is. Thanks to some specious circumstantial evidence including a padlocked basement door, an abnormal amount of gardening dirt, and a milk carton kid he thinks he saw in the man’s house, Davey becomes convinced his nearby neighbor and friendly police officer Wayne Mackey has a side hobby of homicide.
Davey’s three best pals Farraday, Woody, and Eats would rather spend June, July, and August thumbing through porno magazines, playing nighttime games of hide-and-seek, and using binoculars to ogle Nikki, the longtime object of Davey’s affection. Davey has a more elaborate idea for adventure in mind. By hook or by crook, he’s going to uncover Mackey’s supposed secret, and it’s going to take all four friends to unravel the mystery.
A lot of chatter out there, from people who’ve seen the film as well as from some who’ve only watched a trailer, repeatedly likens “Summer of 84” to “Stranger Things,” “Stand by Me,” “It” (review here), or any other coming-of-age terror tale planted inside a period piece. Really though, that’s partly a copout comparison made mainly because those properties share misfit friends as protagonists while heavily peppering in nods to a bygone decade. Anyone anticipating a straight echo of Stephen King or The Duffer Brothers based solely on the surface appearance of bike-riding boys in the 1980s might find “Summer of 84” catching presumptive expectations off guard.
“Summer of 84” does predictably hit expected beats for a summertime-set story tethered tightly to its titular year. The four boys hide out in a treehouse clubhouse, bike to a bowling alley during a montage scored with Bananarama, read comic books by flashlight in bed, and so on. People who have problems with how thick “Stranger Things” lays on its retro references will roll their eyes at dithering dialogue incorporating copious callbacks to “Gremlins” and “Return of the Jedi,” as well as a depiction of cul-de-sac suburbia built from a visual vocabulary of 1980s pop culture.
Nostalgia is not the quiet thriller’s dependant bread and butter however. Slowly smoked intrigue is.
You won’t spend much time wondering whether or not Mackey is capable of being the bad guy Davey thinks he might be. But Rich Sommer of “Mad Men” and “GLOW” smacks a home run to centerfield between next-door nice guy and secretive slickster to make an excellent “is he or isn’t he?” foil for Davey’s intrepid inquisitions. Sommer’s satisfyingly sly performance renders the iffy effectiveness of Mackey’s mystery mostly moot.
Ably anchored by Graham Verchere as Davey, the key quartet pulls their weight with equal force. Externally, the foursome wears the usual archetypes of noodle-armed nerd, chubby schlub, smart-mouthed troublemaker, and average teen encountering difficulty transitioning to adulthood. In practice, the four boys exhibit interchangeable personalities and purposes, even though the young actors make them endearing enough to maintain invested engagement in their escalating endangerment.
The movie undermines the cast’s collective charisma by cheating them out of appropriate development. Woody gets a single scene to tend to his distraught, alcoholic mother. Eats also only receives one sequence to cry over his physically fighting parents, and at a time when suddenly inserting fractured family melodrama without a real resolution anyway is too little too late. “Summer of 84” seemingly only includes intrapersonal moments out of a sense of obligation rather than narrative necessity.
Mischaracterization cuts further into the boys’ entertainment value. Forget excessive 1980s-ness. Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith’s screenplay leans deep overboard on crassness, making multiple masturbation and mom jokes, and lustily drooling over women both on a stapled page and in reality. I was a boy in 1984 and yeah, joking about AIDS or calling a buddy “retarded” were dumb things said to get a rise out of someone. But the movie doesn’t temper that reality with a fun factor that would push the four friends all the way over their often unfortunate obnoxiousness.
Unbalanced writing lessens “Summer of 84’s” punch while redirecting where that fist lands. After a slow yet strong start reels in attention spans with a throwback thriller tone, believability starts rattling on the rails once the last cat comes out of the bag. An improbably plotted final 15 minutes leaves off on a depressingly bleak note betraying a majority of the movie’s mood. You definitely won’t leave the film feeling upbeat.
Uncoupled from criticisms, “Summer of 84” still shines as a solid sophomore feature from “Turbo Kid” (review here) teammates Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell. It’s not as universally appealing as their previous effort. But the shifting tonal direction shows the RKSS trio wading in deeper waters, which may be more exciting as a promise for their filmmaking future than this movie is in the present. Imperfectly conceived via a stuttering screenplay, “Summer of 84” nevertheless maintains enough mystique to warrant a worthwhile watch.
Review Score: 65