I never had a TV set in my room when I was growing up, so I’d have to sneak past my parents’ bedroom door, creep down the thickly carpeted stairs, and quietly settle into the ugly plaid couch in the family room (in New Jersey) or the basement (in Nebraska) when I had trouble sleeping. There was something hypnotic about sitting there and surfing through the 70 or so channels I had at my disposal, and late-night television offerings of the early to mid ’90s felt a bit like the Wild West: You could watch movies with unedited F-bombs(!!!), catch your weirdo neighbor’s insane public access TV show, get sucked into infomercials for products you’d never need (and would forget about before you woke up anyway), and glimpse fragments of strange TV shows as you flipped past channels you never really watched, growing sleepier and sleepier…
That feeling of being half awake at 3 a.m. in a dark room lit only by the dim glow of the ol’ boob tube is precisely the feeling director Jack Henry Robbins and his co-writers, Nate Gold and Nunzio Randazzo, seek to evoke in their lo-fi fever dream of a feature, VHYes.
The film’s structure — in which the main character, 12-year-old Ralph (Mason McNulty), gets a video camera for Christmas and promptly begins taping clips from his favorite TV shows directly over his parents’ wedding video — takes viewers back into their own childhoods, aping the way human memory (and film editing!) works. There are things that catch our interest and stick in our brains (consciously or subconsciously) that we can easily recall years later in vivid detail, while there are other things we either choose to forget or don’t notice or lose interest in. You notice this as you watch Ralph’s recording: Between glimpses of his parents’ gloriously ’80s wedding day, you see the late-night programs Ralph saw fit to save for later, as well as video he takes of himself and of his best friend, Sam (Rahm Braslaw), in the film’s present-day. (Remember, there was once a time we couldn’t access old photos on our phones or pull up clips off YouTube.)
VHYes has a lot going for it — chiefly the fact that the fictional shows housed within it are all extremely funny in their own right. Which makes sense: Robbins says the project began with a few comedic shorts that screened at Sundance in 2017; reverse-engineering them into a narrative feels like it was probably a much more organic process than it would have been the other way around. Also, if you watch VHYes and think that each sequence genuinely feels like it was part of its own real program, you’re right: The filmmakers have also said that future home-video releases will likely include some of the segments in their entirety, like the intergalactic porn titled Hot Winter, crazy Joan’s Bob Ross–wannabe painting program, and the punk rock music show Charlyne Yi’s character hosts out of her parents’ living room.
As the VHS recording goes on, things get increasingly stranger and more surreal. Ralph and Sam’s genuinely unsettling Blair Witch–style footage inside an abandoned sorority house leads into a transcendent musical moment (think Weyes Blood as Julee Cruise), which leads into what feels like a whole other dimension where real life begins to converge with all of the TV programming. It don’t want to spoil the Charlie Kaufman–esque crescendo, but let’s just say I didn’t expect a film that derives so much humor from combative QVC presenters and Skinemax-style erotica to leave me so teary-eyed (and so thankful to have found a working VCR a few months back).
(Screened at Fantastic Fest)