18 to Party 4.5 out of 5 stars

{Movie Review} 18 to Party

Adolescence is not fun.  Our children find themselves caught in the liminal space between childhood and adulthood.  It is full of emotion, angst, stress and most of all its full of waiting. From about twelve on we tell our kids to wait their turn. To be patient. To just hold on until the next big life marker. No film captures the purgatory of adolescence better than 18 to Party which gets its premiere today at the Woodstock Film Festival.

Writer/Director Jeff Roda so perfectly captures the tension of this time period I found myself having middle school flashbacks. It’s not pretty folks.

18 to Party bills itself as a genre movie.  If it is, then it paints with the lightest science fiction brush imaginable.  The story starts as a pretty formulaic coming of age tale. It’s 1984 and outside a small-town nightclub, a group of 8th graders gather, grappling with a spate of recent suicides, UFO sightings, their absentee parents, and each other. The movie spans a single evening in the lives of these kids but manages to transport us fully to a time when waiting for something to happen felt just as significant as the thing itself. Our band of not so merry 8th graders just wants to get into a club full of high school kids.  They just want to be seen. Seen by their peers as cool, seen by their teachers as individuals, and seen by the parents….at all.

The movie makes you wait.  Its a movie about that period of anticipation and Roda uses that tension elegantly to make us feel like we are just another one of the characters trying to grow into what we want to become.  The entire movie is steeped in a refreshing eighties nostalgia. I say refreshing because the movie doesn’t pretend that everything from that era is worth celebrating. In fact 18 TO PARTY is pretty open and frank about how much that period of time sucked for some people.  As we meet this junior high breakfast club the general mood is downright dower. But that’s what makes the movie so perfect. To middle school kids, EVERYTHING SUCKS. I mean not really but it’s so gauche to be excited about anything the only safe emotional place to reside in is to hate everything.  Kira’s (played SO well by Ivy Miller) misanthropy and negativity feels so genuine yet so hilarious the audience immediately engages with her. So when the film perfectly punctures her cool disdain, we feel even worse for her. It’s like a collective gut punch. Even when they are difficult to like we feel bad for the ensemble.  All of the actors in this film deserve equal time and praise. Roda’s understanding that our kids are complex human beings trying to figure the world and themselves out made me want to tell all of the characters that life will make more sense someday (or maybe it won’t which is an even bleaker viewing of this film…FUCKING REAGAN).

If there is a lead in the ensemble cast it has to be slightly dorky Shel.  Clad in the light blue jean shirt that was so much the rage in 1984 Shel is both excited to be waiting for something but has no clue what it is he is waiting for.  Is it a date, a friendship with an older student, or just to discover what he wants to be excited about (maybe its everything). If it is uncool to be excited about anything in junior high then Shel maybe the least cool person in the parking lot.  Tanner Flood brings such joy to the role of Shel you can’t help but root for him and ultimately his friends as an extension. He is the reason we love to teach kids and watch them grow up. I must admit part of the reason Shel spoke so clearly to me is that I was that dork in middle school, in high school, and probably still. I never developed that tragically hip veneer that seemed to regard all things with a cool distance. I was really into stuff.  When I was really into it I celebrated it with an energy that my own child would call borderline “cringy”. Life and being an adult beats a little of that energy out of you but for this moment in time, Shel captures the endless possibilities that open up as we become teenagers. At one point my wife turned to me “that kid is totally you”. Yea man that kid was totally me. It was good to see him again, I kind of missed him.

The movie leans into the science fiction at the end.  It’s not much but helps drive the youthful optimism of the film. One of the themes of 18 to Party is that sometimes answers are difficult to find when you are growing up.  Why are our children killing themselves? Why are mom and dad such assholes? Will things get worse before they get better? The movie is not so much worried about answering those questions correctly as assuring the audience and the kids in the movie that there are answers to those questions if we are all just patient enough to wait for them.

When: Check out 18 to Party this weekend at The Woodstock Film Festival

Have your say