Summer of '84
After suspecting that their police officer neighbor is a serial killer, a group of teenage friends spend their summer spying on him and gathering evidence, but as they get closer to discovering the truth, things get dangerous.
August 10th, 2018
Stephen J. Smith
Summer of ‘84 is a horror/mystery indie (from the team behind 2015’s Turbo Kid), full of the expected nostalgia from that age of parachute pants, big hair and acid-washed jeans.
The thing is, it’s clearly cinema’s latest answer to the craze which includes Netflix juggernaut Stranger Things, last year’s box office sensation IT and the ’80s wrestling wackiness of the series Glow.
But what the film more heavily borrows from is the Shia LaBeouf thriller Disturbia (which itself was a blatant rip-off of Hitchcock’s Rear Window).
Add in a dash of Stand By Me, and you’ve got the basics of Summer of ‘84. In other words, there’s really nothing original to be had here.
15-year old Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere) is a typical ‘80s nerd. He’s obsessed with the headlines you’ll find on the cover of National Enquirer – Sasquatch, UFO’s and other wacky things which would eventually help to form The X-Files’ Fox Mulder. He and his gang of three male buddies, play games, go bowling, ogle the hot blonde girl next door and endlessly give one another grief about fantasy sexual exploits and the fact that none of them have actually “done” it. When clues start to mount that their neighborhood police officer, Mr. Mackey (Mad Men’s Rich Sommer) could be a local serial killer, the group will begin a summer-long quest to prove his guilt and save their fellow kids from becoming potential victims.
There are some serious pacing problems in the film. It takes far too long to get things moving. The filmmakers really take their time to establish the characters. Now normally, I would approve of such a move, but these kids are such basic stereotypes from the get-go, that their positions within the story are clear right away. You’ve got the lead smart kid, the glasses-wearing nerd, the overweight kid, the “goth” kid – so additional exposition feels unnecessary. There’s also the sense that the filmmakers linger far too long on setting up the era. I get that it must have been a challenge to really get into the nitty-gritty of the cars, décor and clothing of that decade – and overall, they did quite well – but this begins to feel like the film’s major focus, thus messing with the film’s pace.
The synth-y score is lifted directly from Stranger Things. It works on the nostalgia factor, but really hits you in the face with (like the sets/costumes do) its “we are in the ‘80s, and don’t you dare forget it”.
Bottom line, it feels like the film tries too hard to set the scene.
And this may sound nit-picky, but when you’re doing a period piece, the period details need to be taken seriously and must be knocked out of the park. Davey’s a paperboy and with all of the newspapers (as well as his “National Enquirer” magazines) there has to be a concerted effort to seal the deal as far as transporting the audience. Certainly not everyone will be paying such close attention to the inauthenticities (is that a word?) of newspapers – but if it’s plainly obvious that they’re not real – it’s a distraction. The “willing suspension of disbelief” any picture requires – should never be questioned because of such minor details. Filmmakers and prop-makers – take heed.
Performances run the gamut from quite bad (I didn’t at all understand the over-the-top acting choices from Jason Gray-Stanford as Davey’s father), to serviceable (most of the child actors) to quite good.
In the latter category, the standouts are Tiera Skovbye (Riverdale) as Davey’s once-babysitter and now object of his attraction, neighbor Nikki. And as Officer Mackey, Rich Sommer is appropriately kind, but always mysterious.
Skovbye has an Elisabeth Shue in The Karate Kid quality. She perfectly captures the ‘80s vibe (with help from the costumes, hair and makeup). And as Shue did so many years ago, she’ll make you fall in love with the character and it becomes easy to understand why all of the boys like her. Skovbye has that innate “it” quality when she takes the screen, and you will (like me) wish the film used her more. There’s a moment in the film which actually found me saying, “That’s nice” out loud. Nikki’s just confirmed to Davey’s mates that she and Davey are something of an item, and then exits. But she covertly stays behind to listen to the boys’ kudos to Davey, upon this revelation. And her reaction of “I really do like this boy, and I’ve just made his day/life”… it’s so sweet and some might see it as a throwaway. But in fact, it’s an incredibly telling character moment and a brilliant example of Skovbye’s effortless acting work.
As Mr. Mackey, Sommer is the film’s secret weapon. As the clues mount (but continue to be only circumstantial), Sommer brings a lovely “nice single guy next door” vibe, while giving the audience clues into potential darkness. And without spoiling, his final moments on-screen are perfect. His performance here sells the entire film – assisted by this very original, unexpected (and frankly chilling) moment during the film’s climax. Sommer’s good throughout, but he’s amazing during his last on-screen bits.
And speaking of the film’s climax, one of these last events illustrates that yes, indeed – you’ve come to love these kids (despite not perfect performances). And even though the film takes too long to get to the good stuff, it does offer up enough time to appreciate the kids. Although, some of their backstories (difficult home-lives) flirt with cliché.
I wasn’t a fan of all of the dialogue. It all works best when Mr. Mackey is on-screen (that underlying menace – like something out of Smooth Talk). But when the kids are left to their own devices, it takes the tried-n-true route of sex talk, the overused movie trivia arguments and everything else you’d expect to find in a film of this ilk. Again, Summer of ‘84 isn’t particularly original.
Summer of ‘84 takes too long to get there. The performances are not solid from everyone. And it borrows from practically every “kid in peril” and “group of outcast kids bonding” films of the past 30 years (basically since the film’s story took place).
That being said, I can still recommend it, with the many reservations outlined above. Despite some problems, it still brings the audience to a striking conclusion. So wade through the slow stuff – knowing that indeed, “It gets better”.
The film premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.
Summer of ‘84 is scheduled for a limited theatrical release on August 10th, 2018.