'Summer of '84': Fantasia Review

A little late to this particular party.

The makers of 'Turbo Kid' return with a darker '80s-themed teen adventure.

Having charmed many genre fans with 2015's BMX-meets-Road Warrior mashup Turbo Kid, the three-person Montreal team called RKSS (Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell) returns with another trip to the Atari Age, Summer of '84. Much more familiar than its willfully  bonkers predecessor, this one finds a group of teens stumbling into a grisly mystery and getting no help from the adults around them. Similarities to Stranger Things, It, et al aren't the only hurdles this effort will need to overcome, but the picture's earnest approach to its inspirations will endear it to many '80s nostalgists on the fanboy circuit.

Speaking in voiceover while he bikes along his paperboy circuit, Graham Verchere's Davey Armstrong sounds like somebody let him read an advance script of 1986's Blue Velvet: Despite his innocence in worldly matters, he's convinced that suburbia is home to America's greatest sickness; that drawn curtains conceal horrors. He's a conspiracy nut, with a bedroom covered in the front pages of a Weekly World News-type rag, but this week, a real horror has come to his corner of Oregon: Police have just announced that a "Cape May Strangler" has killed over a dozen boys in neighboring towns. And Davey is just sure he knows who the villain is.

Working with some very dubious evidence, Davey tries to convince his three buddies (the usual crew of stereotypes: chubby kid, supernerd and self-proclaimed ladies' man) that the killer is his across-the-street neighbor — bachelor cop Officer Mackey (Rich Sommer), a friendly but lonely-seeming man who has known Davey's family for years. The boys begin stalking the man, trailing him around town and digging through his trash, looking for clues. While they come up mostly empty-handed, the film offers plenty of musical and directorial hints (often played for comic relief) that they may be on to something.

Davey spends a lot of time peering through his bedroom blinds with binoculars, leading one IMDb commenter who may never have seen a Hitchcock film to observe, "This is the same premise of the movie Disturbia." Well, no. Both Rear Window and Disturbia generate suspense by keeping their heroes house-bound, unable to intervene in action they observe from afar. Here, the filmmakers graft those stories' paranoia onto the kids-on-a-mission template revived so delightfully by Stranger Things. But working in a much more familiar idiom than they did in the nearly self-invented Turbo Kid, they struggle to keep the action fresh.

Mystery-wise, the film teases viewers pretty effectively, with plenty of jolts that suggest the boys are on the right track balanced by other signs they're making something out of nothing. (Whatever the merits of their investigation, though, we already know something very ugly is happening around these parts, and the film is due for a third-act dive into that darkness.) But with a couple of small exceptions, attempts to flesh out the teen characters don't work very well; that's most disappointing in a clumsy subplot involving Davey and the pretty, older girl next door (Tiera Skovbye's Nikki). More than once, such sequences stop abruptly, making awkward transitions back to the murder mystery.

Production companies: Gunpowder & Sky, Brightlight Pictures
Distributor: Gunpowder & Sky
Cast: Graham Verchere, Judah Lewis, Caleb Emery, Cory Gruter-Andrew, Tiera Skovbye, Rich Sommer, Jason Gray-Stanford, Shauna Johannesen
Directors: Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell
Screenwriters: Matt Leslie, Stephen J. Smith
Producers: Matt Leslie, Jameson Parker, Van Toffler, Shawn Williamson, Cody Zwieg
Executive producer: Floris Bauer
Director of photography: Jean-Philippe Bernier
Production designer: Justin Ludwig
Costume designer: Florence Barrett
Editor: Austin Andrews
Composer: Le Matos
Casting directors: Colleen Bolton, Maureen Webb
Venue: Fantasia Film Festival

105 minutes