‘Summer of ‘84’ Review: Imagine the Worst Possible Version of ‘Stranger Things’ | Sundance 2018
Summer of ’84 is like a kid playing with his dad’s gun, and he gets to be so irritating and cocky that you eventually wish he’ll just shoot himself in the foot and get it over with. Without a shred of originality, Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell’s film leans heavily into every cliché it can find, and then wants to walk away with a sense of smug satisfaction at the end for “going there” when everyone could see what was going to happen from a mile away. It’s a movie with no regard to the gravity of its subject, eager to ape an 80s tone without any sense of why, and misses a far more interesting subtext as it drowns in a predictable, clumsy narrative.
Teenagers Davey (the normal one), Woody (the fat one), Eaton (the horny one), and Farraday (the smart one) are having fun over the summer of 1984 in Ipswich, Oregon, but Davey believes that his longtime neighbor Mr. Mackey (Rich Sommer) might be a serial killer. Davey, who’s obsessed with conspiracy theories and eager to find adventure, convinces his pals that Mackey must be the Cape May Killer, and so it’s up to find the evidence to support this conclusion. When not gawking at his hot neighbor Nikki (who apparently has no friends or options beyond hanging out with a teenage boy who’s four years younger than her), Davey believes he must keep finding clues about Mackey even as everyone starts growing tired of the teenager’s paranoia.
The movie kicks off with Davey telling us that the craziest things happen in the suburbs, which is ridiculous, but whatever. The opening salvo is that a serial killer could live next door to anyone because serial killers always live next door to someone. A smarter, sharper movie would run not in the direction of “Is Mackey a Serial Killer?” but rather showing the four boys searching out adventure because they don’t like their home lives. Woody’s mom has a drinking problem. Eaton’s parents hate each other. The “nightmare” next door is that everyone has their own baggage, and if Summer of ’84 had an ounce of humanity, it would embrace that kind of detail.
Instead, the movie is enamored of its own style, and because it refuses to let go of its 80s nostalgia and heavy synth score, it refuses to go any place honest, doubling down again and again on “Is Mackey a serial killer?” which is the least interesting question possible. By hammering this question, the movie backs itself into a corner. Either Mackey is a serial killer, in which case Davey was right to be paranoid and the outsized style has an outsized narrative to match, or the movie chooses to be anticlimactic. Since the movie leans so heavily on stock characters and empty nostalgia, you can tell it’s not smart enough or brave enough to be anticlimactic, so it’s just a lot of wheel spinning until the reveal that a serial killer lives in the suburb.
And then somehow the movie gets even worse. Without spoiling anything, I’ll simply say that the last 15 minutes practically scream insecurity as if the filmmakers were terrified their movie wouldn’t leave an impact so they somehow have to go even darker. Never mind that carrying the story in this direction makes it somehow even less believable and somehow even more hackneyed; the filmmakers are hell-bent on making an impression in the same way that someone who farts in a crowded elevator makes an impression on his fellow occupants.
The most infuriating thing about Summer of ’84 is that instead of coming off like the worst version of Stranger Things, it could have actually surpassed the Netflix hit by just being honest. When the guys are busy ogling porn and swearing at each other, you get the sense of something more honest and realistic due to the rough edges. It isn’t until you realize that is a crutch in place of real characters that the appeal wears off and that the filmmakers have gone for something far lazier and poorly considered. Maybe Simard, Whissell, and Whissell will make a movie one day where they’re not afraid of human emotions, but with Summer of ’84, they prove they’re willing to take short cuts to a terrible picture.
For more of our Sundance 2018 coverage, click here or on the links below for our reviews from the festival:
- American Animals
- The Catcher Was a Spy
- Come Sunday
- Crime + Punishment
- Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
- Eighth Grade
- The Guilty
- I Think We’re Alone Now
- Leave No Trace
- Our New President
- Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind
- Sorry to Bother You
- The Tale
- Three Identical Strangers
- Won’t You Be My Neighbor?