Jeff Roda, the writer and director of 18 to Party, has got to be in love with Aaron Sorkin.
Even though this coming-of-age dramedy is populated by kids who usually aren’t old enough to properly have conversations, the dialogue comes in a fast, furious and, often, repetitive manner — much like anything written by the Emmy/Oscar-winning wordsmith. Not since Rian Johnson’s Brick (2005) have I seen a movie where the young characters speak in such a stylized, hyper-aware, wise-beyond-their-years manner.
Truth be told, Party is basically a stage play that cut out the stage part altogether and found its way onto the big screen. Nearly all of the action takes place in one location: behind a nightclub before a big show. And the cast chews through the sort of monologues that would normally rivet a live audience. This movie lifts unabashedly from such playwrights as Sorkin, Samuel Beckett (it’s like Roda wondered what if Freaks and Geeks did a bottle episode that was basically a Waiting for Godot takeoff), Anton Chekhov (yes, a gun makes a couple of tense appearances) and Thornton Wilder. (And, just in case you don’t get the connection, a theater kid literally pops up and quotes from Our Town.)
Set in 1984 in the fictional New England town of Brighton, the movie focuses on a group of eighth-graders trying to get into the club, but they have to wait before the high-schoolers get in first. Just like the teen movies of that era, it’s a gallery of pinchable palefaces. First up, we’ve got white shoe-wearing overachiever Shel (Tanner Flood) and his slightly older-looking pal Brad (Oliver Gifford). (It took me a hot minute to realize they weren’t brothers.) Also in the back are bickering buds Dean (Nolan Lyons) and Peter (Sam McCarthy). Missy (Taylor Richardson) is also back there, listening to U2 on her Walkman, while Kira (Ivy Miller) antagonizes everyone and her fellow partner-in-weirdness James (Erich Schuett) sketches portraits of recently deceased teens in the area.
Yeah, these kids aren’t exactly living their best lives. They spend the duration of the film bitching, complaining and getting on each other’s nerves. They’re mostly reminded of their crappy existence whenever the uncoiled Lanky (James Freedson-Jackson) shows up. He’s fresh out the institution ever since his brother — and his brother’s girlfriend — committed suicide. It seems like getting into this club is the closest these kids will get to achieving some sort of momentary happiness.
Party seems like a PG-13-rated version of Larry Clark’s Kids (1995). Instead of following a bunch of underaged, unsupervised folk doing the most debauched, jaw-dropping shit, we catch these generally upstanding youngsters in a bored, adolescent malaise. They seem to be quietly wondering that if these are, in fact, the best years of their lives, why don’t they feel any better? Their classmates are either miserable or dead. Their unseen parents are more concerned with UFOs (lest we forget, UFO sightings were happening all over the East Coast back then) or other sundry matters than their own offspring. The whole world around them seems just as messed-up and confused. (Kira reminds the gang of this by grabbing an old newspaper she found in the trash and reading such items as the San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre.)
Roda (whose previous screen credits include producing the Philip Seymour Hoffman film Love Liza and writing The Unauthorized Beverly Hills, 90210 Story) aims to goes back to the Reagan years and show how teenage life back then wasn’t as high-spirited, soapy and/or unpredictable as John Hughes made it out to be. As the pre-teens feel figuratively and literally stuck, their older counterparts are just aimlessly wandering around outside the club, practically in dirtbag denial. (Roda captures these moments in montages scored with tunes by such forgotten ‘80s bands as The Alarm and Big Audio Dynamite.)
As much as Roda presents Party with the sort of polished, this-is-my-moment confidence you usually see from a first-time director, the blatantly unsubtle story itself feels like something he workshopped with a kids’ theater group somewhere. He makes these willing-and-able actors unload pages of dialogue, seemingly in an effort to prove that no matter how hard things are for the youth of today, it’s a cakewalk compared to what kids had to go through during the era of New Coke.
“18 to Party” opens in virtual Cinemas on November 6 in Los Angeles (Laemmle) and New York and Major Cities (Alamo On Demand), with a VOD Release to follow on all major platforms on December 1.