Despite its overarching alien/CIA plot line, Stranger Things‘ considerable success likely has had a lot to do with a kind of short-range nostalgia. To be sure, it plays perfectly to a certain sort of yearning for the earnest cynicism of a budding Gen X America, before the internet and social media rendered innocence impossible and youthful skepticism, well, quaint.
Into its aftermath comes this startlingly meditative new film, deceptively titled 18 to Party, by first time director Jeff Roda. The entire narrative takes place over the course of a single evening in 1984, outside (then inside) a ratty-cool post-punk nightclub in small town America. The camera is turned on a group of nerdy/hip, insightful and culturally aware teens, as they pontificate on and earnestly grapple with the “issues” of the day – something like The Breakfast Club meets Waiting For Godot. So a discussion, for instance, on the number classmate deaths over the preceding year comes off at once anxious and also curiously detached, the latter a hallmark of the Gen X modus operandi: let yourself feel…but then act like it was a lapse in judgment.
No surprise then, the perfectly reasonable entreaty, “What are the chances that two kids die on the same day?,” is sneeringly met with, “In this town, pretty fucking good.”
Parents, UFOs, drugs – angel dust, how antiquated – all get a philosophical airing, and the references are spot on (“You can’t hug your kids with nuclear arms.”) A fellow student’s suicide pact is even acknowledged by the gathered as being influenced by a scene in a film, a very modern world observation. In fact, it’s all so knowing, that the soundtrack includes not just a bunch of tired Pretty in Pink rehashes, but something as hip as Orange Juice’s “Blue Boy,” surely a paradigm sonic and emotional encapsulation of its time.
The film also nods to that very-new-at-the-time 1980s phenomenon, whereby media/entertainment had morphed into self critique. To wit, an argument about how much U2 sucks, because they “stole their sound from The Alarm,” concludes with the hilarious statement, “In five years, let’s see who’s still around.” And when one kid snarks, “Who the fuck watches 60 Minutes?,” you can’t help but think that today it would be, “Who the fuck still has an iPhone 4?”
And indeed, if this plot line were transposed to 2019, the characters would likely all be alone in their bedrooms, staring at their phones and face-timing with their not nearly as close friends. Sure, the kids in 18 to Party are sort of self-therapying – but they’re doing it together in a kind of ritualistic manner; they feel distinctly alienated by their times, but they deal with it as a tribe.
It’s in a way about the fading of innocence that comes with the coming of age. But it is surely also a letter of longing for a time when young people turned to other young people for emotional assurance and consolation – a responsibility that has now terrifyingly been handed over to soulless little metal devices.
(N.B. 18 to Party will premiere at the Woodstock Film Festival on October 4.)