By Richard Ades
It’s impossible to watch 18 to Party without thinking of The Breakfast Club. That’s because it, like John Hughes’s 1985 classic, is about a group of troubled teens alternately connecting and sparring with each other.
However, the new film by writer/director Jeff Roda is darker, both literally and otherwise. Gathering outside on an evening in 1984, its youths often target each other with verbal potshots (that threaten to turn into actual potshots after one of them produces a pellet gun). The hostility stems partly from the fact that they’re eighth-graders, which puts them in an age group that’s awkward for boys and perhaps even more so for girls.
That, in fact, is the theme of the film. More than children but not yet old enough to enjoy the perks they expect to gain in high school, they exist in a kind of restless limbo. Their not-yet-arrived status is particularly obvious on this particular night, when they’re forced to wait outside a small-town nightclub that won’t let them in unless space remains after their elders have been admitted.
While they look forward to high school, on the other hand, their view of the future is not entirely optimistic. The community has experienced a series of student deaths, including a pair of suicides that hit close to home. These, along with reports of UFO sightings and a far-off mass shooting, suggest that their future is far from safe or secure.
And then there’s Lanky (James Freedson-Jackson), younger brother of one of the recent suicide victims. After being away in an apparent mental institution because he committed an act that’s never spelled out, he’s returned for a visit, at least. His mercurial presence threatens to disrupt an evening that already feels dangerously unsettled.
One more similarity with The Breakfast Club is that all of the characters are played by actors who turn them into distinctive individuals. Besides Lanky, several stand out.
At the center of much of the intrigue is Shel (Tanner Flood), a shy kid whose home life has suffered following the arrival of a strict new stepfather. His best friend and mentor is Brad (Oliver Gifford), an alpha male who’s prone to flashes of anger due to unacknowledged challenges in his own life.
Among the girls, the popularity-seeking Missy (Taylor Richardson) and the fiercely unconventional Kira (Ivy Miller) attack each other with malice that’s probably fed by their own insecurities. Meanwhile, Amy (Alivia Clark) pops by occasionally to talk to Shel, who is obviously and bemusedly the target of her affection.
With help from music by the Alarm, Velvet Underground and other bands, the kids’ individual traumas are depicted so expertly that it’s too bad Roda chose to close the proceedings with what seems like a tacked-on ending. Otherwise, this is a satisfyingly atmospheric portrait of young teens facing the future with a combination of hope, angst and dread.
Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)
18 to Party (no MPAA rating) is available from VOD outlets beginning Dec. 1.