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Generation X faces its teenage ideals head-on in 20 Years of Madness, a clear-eyed and poignant documentary that explores whether you can go home again. Jeremy Royce’s first feature-length directing effort finds messy but hopeful answers as it tracks the reunion of a group of Michigan thirtysomethings two decades after their freewheeling sketch show aired on public access cable. Winner of the Jury Honorable Mention for Documentary Feature at Slamdance, the film tackles questions about purpose, friendship and creativity that could resonate with a broad range of audiences.
Seen in fast-flying snippets, 30 Minutes of Madness was an anarchic, irreverent and ambitious show that united a ragtag bunch of high school outsiders — skaters, goths, punks — in mid-’90s Detroit and gave them their first significant opportunity for artistic expression. One observer calls the result a “video mixtape,” another “Tom Green before Tom Green.”
At their school’s 20-year reunion, the show’s co-creator and ringleader (and one of the film’s producers), Jerry White Jr., seizes the chance to add to the 14-episode VHS archives with a new installment. Having just graduated from a film production program at USC, White hasn’t yet fulfilled his youthful expectations of becoming a successful filmmaker (“I don’t see anything that’s going to stop me,” his teenage self declares in a clip).
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Speaking wistfully of the sheer playfulness that he and his 30 Minutes collaborators shared, White says he hasn’t experienced anything like it since. His determination to recapture the magic is an undertaking seemingly bound to disappoint, but he believes it can only be a positive experience for everyone involved. As Royce observes White’s direction of the new episode and the responses of the cast, the doc unfolds as a bittersweet composite portrait, bracing in its acknowledgment of middle-aged disappointment.
And there are hints of a dark undertow to the 1990s project; series co-creator Joe Hornacek matter-of-factly attributes the group’s implosion to White, who’s in full-throttle domineering mode on a number of old clips. Royce layers in references to personality clashes before revealing how they continue to play out. As the six-foot-seven “California guy” among locals who apparently never left Detroit (a few are living with their parents), White is a lightning rod on several levels. The intimate camerawork of Royce and his fellow DP, Will Jobe, shows White controlling his temper, if not his disappointment, as tensions flare over scripts, resentments fester in the heat of performance and castmembers don’t accord the project the priority he feels it deserves. “Beach time, dude,” one would-be actor offers as explanation for why he won’t be at the next day’s shoot.
The group portrait divides into those who became artists, whether successful or still striving, and those who have left such pursuits behind or, in one way or another, been left behind themselves. Only two or three troupers seem content and fulfilled. Several, including Hornacek, struggle with mental health problems. Some have been homeless, jailed or addicted to heroin at various points in their adulthood.
Speaking individually to Royce’s camera and in conversations amongst themselves, the 30 Minutes cast and crew confront thorny problems with a Midwestern straightforwardness. The results of their middle-aged skit-making efforts, seen in excerpts, have an unexpected emotional power, as does their gratitude for what one participant calls “a chance to rebel a little bit.”
What might have been a feeble attempt at resurrection proves anything but, and Royce discovers surprising levels of inspiration just as his subjects do. Moving expertly between then and now, his well-constructed doc is an affecting look at the unstoppable energy of youth. Or, as White’s mother says, offering her reaction upon first seeing the show that her teenage son and his friends wrote and produced: “How did all those kids get into my house?”
Featuring: Jerry White Jr., Joe Hornacek, John Ryan, Jesus Rivera, Matt Zaleski, Susan Pipper, Andy Menko
Director: Jeremy Royce
Producers: Jeremy Royce, Jerry White Jr., Kaveh Taherian
Executive producers: Matthew J. Suhr, Jay Jones and Fern Royce, Cindy and Jerry White Sr.
Directors of photography: Will Jobe, Jeremy Royce
Editor: Jeremy Royce
Composers: Alexis Marsh, Samuel Jones
No rating, 90 minutes
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