On paper, 18 to Party is as low concept as movies come. Taking place in a single location over the course of a single evening, the film tells the story of a bunch of kids waiting around. Like the famous Beckett play, Waiting for Godot, we never actually get to see what everyone is waiting for, and there is very little action –or even activity – to speak of. Yet in its simplicity of concept, the story manages to say a great deal about the timeless experience of adolescence. Set in the 1980s, 18 to Party recalls such classics from the decade as Stand By Me or The Breakfast Club, films which center around a bonding experience between young people that ultimately becomes more important than the thing that actually brought them together in the first place. Though 18 to Party gets a lot darker and more profane than those predecessors, the genuinely authentic dialogue delivers a nostalgic sense of realism as the kids reveal more and more of their true selves to each other.
The thing that brings the kids together on this particular night in 1984 is a dingy nightclub called Polo’s, the sort of small town hole-in-the-wall that becomes the local hot spot for young people by dint of being the only place to hang out if you’re old enough, and temptingly just out of reach if you’re not. While the older kids drink and get high in their cars before lining up, a group of eighth graders hang around out back, waiting to see if the room will be empty enough and the bouncer will be generous enough to allow them entry. While the kids all know each other from school, they are not all friends. Dean (Nolan Lyons), Peter (Sam McCarthy), and Missy (Taylor Richardson) make up a small clique of loser. Kira (Ivy Miller) and James (Erich Schuett) are a pair of too-cool-for-school weirdos who pretend to be above it all to mask the fact that they are anything but. Shel (Tanner Flood) and Amy (Alivia Clark) are an adorable set of theater geeks engaged in an awkward mating dance where no one makes the first move. Brad (Oliver Gifford), the boy who seems a little too old to be stuck at the back of the line with everyone else, mostly broods angrily alone on the sidelines, while Lanky (James Freedson-Jackson) is the troubled, institutionalized stoner who everyone else discusses with nervous awe until he shows up to wait with everyone else.
Which is exactly what they do: wait. They wait, and to pass the time, they talk. Much of their conversation is fittingly banal, ranging from schoolyard topics – like whether the new girl is hot, pretty, or just new – to the hot local gossip – like whether the recent UFO sighting is real. While this kind of dialogue does a fantastic job of capturing the authentic sound of inane middle school chatter, it is even more compelling when they try to wrap their heads around more adult subject matters. Changing the subject to politics, their opinions are deeply impassioned, if barely half-formed. Regan’s entire political ethos is summed up as “really, really…bad.” Their insights on sex and relationships, while perhaps more immediately pressing to a group of middle schoolers, are even less cogent. When Shel presses Brad on whether he’d fool around with Amy, he responds with typical teenage articulateness, “if I thought about it and decided I wanted to fool around with her, I would.” The kids’ commentary may not offer much in the way of insight, but it does prove to be an entertaining and endearing look at the natural rhythms of people who are trying to grow up a little too fast.
The film is all about rites of passage. There are the literal ones, like getting into the club with the older kids or sneaking off to the construction yard in hopes of sharing your first kiss, but it’s mostly about the painfully slow passage into adulthood, that awkward stage where you feel ready to be an adult, but don’t really know what that means yet. Nowhere is that more evident than in the constantly recurring theme of death. The kids tackle the big topics of the day, like nuclear war and the infamous 1984 McDonald’s shooting, but more interesting is their struggle to grapple with the deaths that hit closer to home. We learn that 2.8% of the high school kids died the previous year, including Lanky’s older brother, whose suicide left lasting scars on his friends and family. Like sex and politics, none of the kids quite know how to wrap their heads around any of it, but their obsessive attempts to start taking on the loftiest questions results in an honest snapshot of life at a difficult and confusing age.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 Stars
18 to Party may be a simple film, but it is also a thoughtful one. Thanks to performances from its teen stars that are often excellent and always at least okay – by itself no mean feat for a cast made up almost entirely of unknown adolescents – the banality of the story is always imbued with fun, uncertainty, and disappointment. While some may be turned off by endless amount of sitting and talking, anyone who looks at these kids and sees a little part of their former selves will appreciate the pitch-perfect recreation of a phase that no one remembers fondly, but remains integral to the people we become.