GROW UP, TONY PHILLIPS Review: Forever Young
As kids, we are encouraged at Halloween to dress in costume and go trick-or-treating. As adults, we are encouraged to dress in costume and go partying. But between young and old – somewhere in the 16-21 range – dressing up is mostly unacceptable for sweets and not yet appropriate for swill. This is symbolic of life – the 16-21 range is a time when most are expected to jettison the folly of youth, but still prohibited from accepting some of life’s greater responsibilities. Grow Up, Tony Phillips, from writer/director Emily Hagins, attempts to capture the frustration of that time.
Tony Phillips (Tony Vespe) is a high school senior so obsessed with Halloween – and more specifically, his costume – he ignores his studies, disregards his college prep work, and even misses signs of a possible romance. His mother (Janet Travis), his cousin Pete (AJ Bowen), and his friends Elle and Craig (Katie Folger and Devin Bonnée), are worried that Tony is clinging too tightly to a childish ideal. If fact, each chides him for it in their own way and his relationships with each become strained.
Tony remains undaunted, saving his babysitting money for, and dedicating almost all of his free time to, preparations for the big day. When Tony’s quest becomes so singularly focused that he neglects a critical responsibility, only then does he begin to see a few of the other things going on around him.
If Grow Up, Tony Phillips had been released in the ’80s, I would have rented the hell out of that tape. The film’s core themes – clinging to the simpler joys of youth; remaining true to yourself despite the misfit you are (and suffering somewhat from doing so); being misunderstood by parents/adults – all harken back to the teen comedies and dramadies made by John Hughes and others some 30-ish years ago. These are the films of my youth, and this film strikes that chord.
But what writer/director Hagins does better than her predecessors is create a lead character not from the ’80s, but from the ’40s. There is an earnestness to Tony, and how Vespe plays him, that is reminiscent of characters (and actors) found in the films of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Tony is as sincere as they come and watching Vespe play him, and carry this film, is a joy.
The rest of the film’s characters suffer from a lack of attention, though. Elle, despite how well Volger plays her, is ultimately The Best Friend/ Love Hopeful; Pete is The Black Sheep; Mom is The Mom; and so on, until everyone else is whoever they are. Hagins’ excellence with Tony comes with a price. The other characters are that price.
Hagins also struggles to develop a fluid tale. For as good as the themes are, the writer in Hagins is almost flustered by details. The natural arc of characters and the traditional development of conflict are frequently replaced by the injection of random events and tumult into the story. Some of what Hagins develops is quite organic and works rather nicely. Tony’s relationship with the kid he babysits, Mike (Caleb Barwick), is warm and sincere, and an incident creates natural conflict between Tony and Mike’s dad. Other instances, though, defy understanding – particularly an entire subplot involving Pete being in debt to some loan sharks. That particular thread like the means to an end that simply wasn’t worth dedicating valuable script space to.
From a technical perspective, this film has some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in an independent production. Gray Haddock – IN HIS FIRST EFFORT AS A DoP – captures some remarkable images. His interiors are solid, but his daytime exteriors are sublime, capturing autumn in its best light. (And does that man know how to lens Folger.)
Chris Thomas‘ score and Santiago Dietche‘s original music complement each other – and the film – very well.
To call Grow Up, Tony Phillips a “Halloween film” is unfair. It’s a film that takes place at Halloween, sure, but it’s more complex than that. It leverages elements of Hughes-ian teen dramedies and inserts them into a story that takes place during a holiday that is a metaphor for something greater in life. The story is more more about coming to terms than it is coming of age, really, and while it tries too hard to hit every possible note, it sends well the message that life is no more easier when you cling to the past than it is when you reach for the future.